The Myopeia of the Lit Club

“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”

I read that with perplexed bemusement. It was said in an interview by one Ian McEwan, who has published a novel about artificial intelligence and somehow feels he is the first to discover that this thing has serious implications for people to be expressed through literature. Thus he now joins a long line of literary snobs who have “borrowed” the trappings of science fiction even as they take a dump on the genre. I would say they misunderstand it, but that presumes they have read any. What seems more likely is they’ve seen some movies, talked to some people, maybe listened to a lecture or two about the genre, and then decided “Well, if these unwashed hacks can do this, I can do it ten times better and make it actual, you know, art.”

We’ve been subjected to this kind of elitism for decades. It has now become laughable. The only reason it irks now is when someone like McEwan doubles down and makes assertions about a field he clearly doesn’t know the first thing about. Not even Margaret Atwood, back when she was loudly asserting she did not write “scifi”, was so dismissive.

The literati have been abusing science fiction for as long as it has been an identifiable thing. Even before, really, if you count the drubbing Henry James gave H.G. Wells about how he was wasting his talents on irrelevancies. And to be perfectly fair, a great deal of what has been published under that label has been less than great.  But then, per Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is less than great.

(Theodore Sturgeon, Mr. McEwan—a science fiction writer you ought to check out. He wrote about love in more ways than one might believe possible. Possibly one of the best writers of the 20th Century, but he wrote in a genre that received the casual disregard of those who thought they knew what it was without having learned what it was.)

McEwan believes he has stumbled on something unique in his new book, Machines Like Us, namely the effects of true artificial intelligence on human beings and civilization. One of the earliest incarnations, however, that talk about the problem in something like modern terms is a story called A Logic Named Joe, published by Murray Leinster in 1946.

1946. Many notable examples of A.I./human interaction followed, one quite famous example being Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, published in 1968 by Philip K. Dick.  (If those of you in the Lit Club with Mr. McEwan don’t recognize that title, maybe you saw the movie somewhat based on it, Blade Runner.)  Many. Hal-9000 in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey; Mike the lunar computer in Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; all the machine intelligences populating Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels; D.F. Jones’ Colossus, published in 1966.

One could go on. So, nothing new. And to then suggest that none of these examples dealt with how such constructs might affect people and the world is to profess either an unwillingness to read them or an inability to understand what “affect” might mean in this case, or both. McEwan’s dismissive remarks suggest he thinks no science fiction writer has ever worked with the ethical and emotional ramifications.

I am annoyed by this for a number of reasons, not least of which is the assumption of wisdom and the myopic view represented.

I have always thought that people who are dismissive toward SF have a problem imagining the world as someday being fundamentally different. By that I mean, things will so change that they, if they were instantly transported into that future, will be unable to function. Things will be radically different, not only technologically but culturally and therefore even the givens of human interaction will seem alien.

That is the meat, bone, and gristle of science fiction and I would like someone to tell me how that it not “dealing with the effects of technology on human problems.”

Like others in this vein, McEwan fixes on some of the tropes—spaceships and so forth—without bothering about how this, too, might have an effect on the people involved.

Recently, the Guardian published an  article  that revealed many readers assuming science fiction is not “serious” when certain words appear. They dismiss it a priori with the inclusion of words like “airlock” or “trajectory” or “warp drive” or suchlike, because they automatically assume it’s for kids. Which explains why SF is so poorly regarded, but it does not explain what may be going on in the minds of these people.

Mention has been made of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. who very aggressively disavowed his relationship with science fiction. His interest was almost entirely financial. At the time he was publishing, having SF on the spine of a book almost guaranteed fewer sales, and he didn’t want critics telling people he wrote science fiction lest he lose market-share. (Personally, I think he wrote rather sloppily. I know it’s supposed to be satire and I don’t care. He did not write particularly good science fiction, probably because he was worried all the time that people might think it was.)  Margaret Atwood tried to distance herself from it at first, probably for the same reason, but then realized that we had entered a period where SF did not mean anything sales-wise. So she owned it. Emily St. John Mandel wrote a quite good post-apocalyptic novel, did due diligence with ramifications, and produced a laudable science fiction novel—only she doesn’t believe it is. Well, her privilege, but sorry, it is.

This last may be from the kind of ignorance foisted upon MFA students by so-called “masters” like McEwan. They live in the world dreamed-of by science fiction writers, the motifs surrounding them emerge from SF, the things they look forward to doing in the next 20, 30, 40 years will be more and more the stuff of Golden Age dreams found in fragments in yellowing issues of Astounding SF, Amazing, Galaxy, and Fantasy & Science Fiction, offered up by writers like Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Van Vogt, and yet believe when they write about that future they are among the first and that what they write is not exactly like what they have not read.

Not read because some people they admire have also not read it and having not read it presume to dismiss it.

The impact of changing technologies on human beings has been the driver of science fiction since the beginning. To not recognize that in such a way that one assumes one will be first to do it is purest ignorance. It means either you do not know what has gone before or what has gone before is work you do not understand.

Because that change you’re trying to talk about manifests in the best of that work as real and it is not change you know how to comprehend. It frightens in the worst way possible, that of being inconceivable. (“My poor Krel…they could hardly know what was killing them.”)

I am unlikely to read McEwan’s new novel, even though I was initially interested. Having read his ill-informed opinion of science fiction, I have a hard time imagining he will have done anything better than what was done decades ago. He will have reinvented certain wheels without realizing that the car to which they’ve long been attached has in fact left the garage and is in the process of acquiring an antigravity drive.

And if you don’t think that will have a very profound effect on people that will be thoroughly addressed by many writers you still probably won’t read…

 

Reaching For Stars

Let me get straight to the point:  Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, The Calculating Stars, is one of the best alternate histories I have read since…

It is 1952. Dewey is president. Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, are on vacation in the Poconos. They both work for the newly-formed National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Nathaniel is the chief engineer and has a reputation for putting up America’s first satellites. Elma is a mathematician, a superb one. She is also a former WASP pilot, which fact figures prominently in all that follows.

In the midst of their idyllic vacation, a meteor slams into the Atlantic just off the east coast. It destroys Washington D.C. and wreaks havoc up and down the seaboard. Elma and Nathaniel manage to get out and to her plane and west until a fighter squardon challenges them, learns who they are, and escorts them to Wright-Patterson Air Base, the only fully operational military base within range. There they learn the extent of the immediate losses.

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Quickly, the government scrambles to get up and running. The only surviving member of the Cabinet is the Secretary of Agriculture, who becomes Acting President until an election can be held. This, too, is very important.

While the pieces are being picked up and some kind of order restored, Elma is asked to calculate the size of the meteor so her husband can go into the meetings with the paranoid military and convince them this was nothing to do with the Soviets. She crunches the numbers and discovers to her shock and dismay that this was an extinction-level event. In 50 or 60 years, the Earth will be too hot for survival.

Kowal lays all this out meticulously. The science has the resonance of reality.  So do the politics, the culture, the economics. In fact, this is a very well thought-out scenario. For Elma, Nathaniel, the Acting President it means one thing:  humanity has got to get off the planet.

Which kicks the space program into high gear in the early 1950s.

The novel is soaked in telling details. And while it offers plenty of science and rocket-geek delight, it is also a story of challenging culture and social norms and overcoming personal difficulties in the face of all that the 1950s—our 1950s—was about to be. Kowal brings the culture into play with a seamless grace that produces a “well, of course that had to change” which occasionally leaves a residue of embarrassment.  Embarrassment at how we know things were and even how they still are.

We talk about Wake Up Calls when faced with growing or entrenched social problems, matters of injustice, the unexamined givens of the world. Kowal delivers the ultimate Wake Up Call.

And then shows us just how resistant people can be to making absolutely necessary changes if they challenge how we believe the world ought to be.  She puts ought to be on trial in a compelling narrative that seems to be all about building the future writers like Heinlein and Clarke expected. They neglected a few of the underlying pitfalls of trying to do so.

As well, we are treated to a protagonist completely human, flawed and excellent in her abilities and craft and sensibilities. Elma York is composed of the stuff we want to cheer and she carries us along with a convincing humanity that includes a heart as large and full one could wish for.  Her relationship with Nathaniel is wonderfully portrayed.

But it is Elma’s constant checking of privilege as she works to bring women into the astronaut corps and has to face the fact that she had often been blind to things sometimes right in front of her. Living up to her own values becomes a process well worth following.

This the first book in a new series. If it continues with the same verve and attention to detail and sheer passion, we may be looking at a landmark work.