In Times Long Past…

In the afterword to Nicola Griffith’s new novella, Spear, she runs down the lists of source material and permutations around the Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Or, more precisely, those around Percival, who in many tellings is the more important figure. The king is all very fine, of course, but it was Percival who found the Grail. In some versions, it is Percival who returns Excalibur to the Lake. In still others…

The point being that such stories, myths and legends, are all repurposed tales that meet multiple needs and adapt to the times in which they are (re)told. Tracing them to a single point of origin is not only virtually impossible, but is irrelevant. The purpose of myth is reification.

Among others. But on that point, reification is always tied to the present. Which lends myth its ever-ancient timelessness and relevance.

Which is always one of the fascinating things about it, that timeless-timely utility.

It’s also what makes a good retelling immediately exciting and accessible.

Most (if not all) myths begin in some version of “A hero will be born.” The story then is “from where” “to whom” and “then what?” Perseus is emblematic, and possibly the most visible in significance. The Greeks may not have begun the genre, but they certainly perfected it, and for a long time pretty much owned it. All the Great Heroes of the Aegean and Adriatic region have remarkable beginnings. Often a cave is involved. Some education in the wilderness. Then the confrontation that defines their purpose. They are, essentially, Of Nature, since everything about them is from Outside, “inside” being more or less whatever passed for civilization. (For our purposes, the primal exemplar of this outsider could be Enkidu from the Gilgamesh story.)

The utility of myth cycles is in their adaptability. Repurposing a story to reveal, reify, revise, or otherwise reestablish the scope of meaning is what gives them power across time. The nature of the actors can change, roles might be swapped around, identities modified or even completely recast.

And in some instances, the central hero is changed. Focus moves from one to another, giving us a shift in perspective, a realignment. Something new, something not considered before. And yet, the story remains essentially the same, at least in regards to the events and the goals.

The Arthurian cycle is endlessly adaptable this way. Who is the hero? Arthur? Merlin? Lancelot? Guinevere?

Percival?

All of them, depending on which example you look at, fit the role of Outsider. But the one that is most ideally crafted for that part is Percival.

In Spear, Nicola Griffith gives us a Percival who is perfectly outside. In this iteration, she is Peretur, of “mixed” parentage, raised in the essential cave, schooled by a wise adept, nurtured to become the hero the world needs.

She comes of age, chooses a path, and sets forth from the hidden place of her childhood to journey to Arturus’s court at Caer Leon to join the circle of Companions to the king. She decides, chooses, does battle, grows confident…

This is a hero to cheer for. Her first victory is in learning her true name. Her next is establishing for herself what she is. And then making a place for herself in the world. A place of her choosing.

Quest is also a major element of most myths. Going, struggling to find, fulfilling vows, remaking the world along the way. In this new retelling of this story, there is a quest, though it is not what most of the participants believe it to be. In this way, Griffith shows how the defining character of the goal is not a specific thing but a fulfillment of purpose, and grail at the end is self-knowledge.

Spear is marvelous reworking of the Arthurian tale. The components are given different origins, different explanations, the settings are deftly placed in what we know of the “real” world, and the nature of what may have been the place and people from which the cycle emerged are treated with the kind of demythologizing care of the historian. There is a texture to this, a fabric of authenticity that gives entree to the world. In the end, such reassessments only add to the power and charm of the story. In so doing, Griffith offers us a variation that reifies overlooked or hidden aspects of what makes the legend important. For us.

Along the way, she gives us a damn good adventure.

In the afterword, there is a tantalizing discussion of sources, variations, and a brief history of the cycles over time. It establishes the long practice of repurposing of which Spear is only the newest example. Which is all well and good, but the best thing about this one is that is opens the possibilities of the story to offer meaning to a wider audience. It is not a tale aimed at Just These People, but for many more not usually considered. Griffith discusses that as well.

Spear is a successful recasting. Even the nature of the Quest at the heart of centuries of Grail stories is given a new raison detre, bringing is from the cosmic to the personal in a touching reveal utterly consistent with Griffith’s purposes and the traditions of the story cycle.

All this aside, it is first and foremost a thoroughly delightful and satisfying work.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the Pursuit of Taxonomy

There are some discussions about literary forms which are of use primarily to the academic, the author, and the dedicated taxonimist obsessed with lists and categories and the minutiae that separate one column from another. For the average reader—including deep readers, serious in their immersions into literature—most of this is beside the point, sometimes just a distraction, and occasionally a serious annoyance. Most simply do not care “what” something is—where it slots in on any spreadsheet of literary types—as long as the book at hand works and provides the pleasures they seek.

For the former group, though, these things can matter quite a lot. Tracing the lineage of a form or where a given writer drew inspiration or the cross-referencing of varied texts is a species of archaeology that can enrich understandings of the evolution of literature. Movements, iconoclasts, even the politics of certain writers and groups of writers, the impact specific works have had on whole fields…all this is both real and fascinating for a particular area of study. It should be there for those inclined to ask the kinds of questions addressed. For the writer, such distinctions are relevant for a variety of reasons, starting with the kind of work to be done and how to do it and going on to considerations of market and further to the sorts of broad conversations engaged across published texts. Knowing the deep roots of what one writes can solve problems, make the work itself richer, and give direction to later work.

As for the taxonomist…this kind of thing is part and parcel of bibliographic study. As our archives grow, this becomes more important, lest things are lost. Or misunderstood.

But as I say, for the general reader, all that matters is that the book provides what it has promised. In the main, the obligation of the writer is to provide entertainment, an experience that satisfies whatever requirements the reader may seek to fulfill. As far as the reader is concerned, as long as what is found on the page serves that goal, what goes into creating that page is irrelevant. And like a good magic act, it should not intrude. Granted, there are some readers who enjoy deciphering texts to see how they work, those who feel good about being able to perceive the scaffolding, trace the connections, and catch all the well-incorporated quotes, references, sources, and links. (And too many lit classes based on the assumption that this is the important part of reading.)

Achieving that seemingly effortless immersion, though, is far from simple and work well done requires a knowledge of those behind-the-scenes apparatuses. The architect has to know the skeleton of the building that supports the surface that everyone then sees and uses.

There is interest for the lay reader as well. Not all readers are disinterested. The how of things has an appeal. But for the most part, understanding how something works and what it is intended to accomplish and the way it achieves its goals is primarily in service to the ongoing endeavor to continue to create works that do certain things.

So let me state up front that distinctions between forms and what makes them distinct will make no difference in the case of a given work if people enjoy it. Regarding this current essay, what makes science fiction science fiction will matter little to readers who are loving what they are reading. The ride is all. The play of ideas, the novelty of landscape, the exoticism of the distortions within the story that produce a pleasurable experience are all that count. If you have no interest in how the centipede walks, this is perhaps not worth your time.

As well, most of us have been tortured by lit classes in which the examination, over-directed and flensed of the joy a given text is intended to supply, becomes a kind of reductio ad absurdum in the hands of amateur taxonomists who seem to think the only value to be found in a story is its derivation from and relationship to deep-rooted myths and symbolic board-gaming. “What do you think the author intended/meant by this?” Such questions are certainly valid. I do not suggest they have no place in the creation and reception of a story, only that they are questions that form anchors between the actual creation of the work and, at the other end, the analysis of such creations by those fascinated in all the inner structures that make it a culturally-relevant artifact. For those between the anchors, the resonance of an insider’s familiarity can add a special frisson to the experience, but if the work is done well it is the least important quality.

To be done well, though, would seem to require at least a passing familiarity with those structures. When watching a magician work, the point is to be fascinated and entertained by the effect. Knowing how a trick is done may add an extra layer, but the fact remains that for the purposes of the performance, only the magician needs to know. For it to work well, the magician needs to not only know but fully understand what all that backstage apparatus does. The degree of such understanding can determine the quality of the performance.

So we come to this question of, essentially, genre distinctions. Few other forms seem to have such spill-over for the audience as does science fiction and fantasy. (In music, I can think of debates over distinctions, or at least points of departure—is rock’n’roll blues or was there a split at some point allowing them to be distinct modes? Broadway musicals and opera share certain commonalities, but they are not the same things. Is Ragtime jazz? Valid questions, all of which can be dismissed in the face of “I don’t care, I like it.” But for the creators, such distinctions are much more relevant.)

My own sentiment is that science fiction and fantasy are distinct. There’s overlap of form, motif, and occasionally aesthetic effect, but functionally they are concerned with different things. That it took a good part of the 20th Century to sort this all out, with a great deal of hybrid work being produced that tended to confuse the two (science fantasy? Really? I know what it’s supposed to me, but personally the concept, if not specific works, offends me) but by now, with the actual manifestation of the worlds being proposed in so much of that literature providing ample real world bases by which to assess the function of the two forms, it should be clear that the science fiction discourse has followed a different path than fantasy. At the end of the day, they are not different versions of the same thing.

This is often obscured by examples of the actual work.

My working assumption of science fiction (hereafter simply SF) is that, first and foremost, it is what I call epistemological fiction. This is what grounds it in science. The accuracy of the science in a given story, while certainly desirable, is not critical. Rather, it is the philosophical framework that science comes out of that matters.

The philosophy of science, according to the Oxford Guide to Philosophy, “can be divided into two broad areas: the epistemology of science and the metaphysics of science. The epistemology of science discusses the justifications and objectivity of scientific knowledge. The metaphysics of science discusses philosophically puzzling aspects of the reality uncovered by science.” SF has, generally speaking, indulged the metaphysical aspect for effect, but structurally, as essentially problem-solving fiction, it is the epistemology that has provided the framework. It is the struggle of character to come to terms with a reality understood or amendable to understanding by the tools and criteria of science that underlies the SF endeavor. Characters seeking justifications—explanations—for the problems set for them by the world they move through drive the thematic and plot concerns of SF. The assumption that the world, in such instances, is in fact knowable, manipulable, and therefore “real” in the sense understood by science gives SF the unique effect readers seek.

The broadest distinction that can be made, therefore, from fantasy is simple: fantasy is not at all concerned with such understanding.

No one cares how Gandalf taps into whatever powers he may wield. No one cares how the rings of power work or how Sauron survived death. No one, frankly, cares why that tree blossomed just because a particular man allowed himself to be crowned king. (This is straight out of Arthurian myth, that the health of the country is dependent on the health of the king. Again, no one cares how that mechanism functions.) No one cares about the material justifications of the fantasy milieu because that is not the concern of such stories. Fantasy has other interests.

It is legitimate to ask why such understanding is even important, important enough to draw such broad distinctions between the two genres.

One of the principle benefits of fiction is its utility in permitting the empathetic connection with other lives through vicarious immersion—in character, in landscape, in intellectual and emotional play through alternate scenarios. The mental and emotional scope of the fictive experience allows for a kind of acclimation to situations and intimate experiences with people we will never otherwise encounter.

Until, sometimes, we do.

This is, of course, a byproduct of the primary utility of fiction, which is to entertain. The degree to which one is entertained, however, depends on an ability to empathize and subsume our self into the fictive experience, and this ability increases with exposure. And with that increase, the byproduct becomes more and more central—not by displacing the primary function but by merging with it, so that such increase becomes one with our apprehension of “entertainment.” (Which is why we become bored, over time, with work that once fascinated and delighted when we grow out of it.) At some point we enter a realm of discernment in which the critical understanding of those underlying structures may become important to our pleasure in a given text. At such points certain forms may fade in interest while others become more important, providing the sought-after effects. Distinctions come into play in new and significant ways.

Realizing this may prompt one to ask why.

For the purposes of this essay, the question clarified for me over repeated encounters with the proposition that SF and Fantasy are the same thing. Except in the most superficial ways, they are not, and their differences have to do with the nature of the aforementioned concerns over epistemology. That both forms may utilize the same archetypes from time to time does not alter the fact that those archetypes are used differently because they are based on different assumptions regarding their place in their primary milieus. (Correlation is not Causation.) For one example, the Scientist (as archetype) is not the same as the Wizard (as another archetype). While they are often apprehended as variations of the same thing, their grounding in very different philosophical assumptions could not be more foreign to each other. The world that finds the Scientist plausible, useful, and affective is not the same world in which the Wizard is an essential icon. The Scientist is the lens through which the world may be brought into focus; the Wizard is the conduit of raw power by which the world is maintained. The Scientist is representative of potential change, progress, and understanding; the Wizard is representative of stasis and the infantilization of entire civilizations that are not permitted to evolve beyond him. The Scientist represents expanding knowledge and the capacity to live with it because she understands that knowledge is infinite and nonexclusive; the Wizard perceives knowledge as a finite resource that must be preserved, tended, and kept out of the hands of those not fated to understand it (as he is). The Scientist is a liberator (knowledge wants to be free); the Wizard is a custodian (there are some things man is not meant to know).

We could go on. Both deal with arcana, but the Scientist sees it as part of her work to demystify, while the Wizard seeks a “worthy” apprentice who can be trusted to guard the secret wisdom. I simplify, of course, because both archetypes, to be useful in fiction, must still be human, and humans are polymorphous. My point, though, is that our starting assumptions determine deployment.

(The Wizard generally has no place in our world other than as a point of chaos which must be dealt with. Interestingly, one could put a Scientist in the Wizard’s world to completely different effect, but in both instances, the Wizard would lose relevance.)

Inasmuch as some critics argue that SF is Fantasy (or, less frequently, that Fantasy is SF), it seems the point of departure concerns myths and those aforementioned archetypes.

The archetype in SF is primarily the Scientist, a form nascent throughout history but not truly realized until the 18th Century, and certainly not much featured in our major stories even then. Certainly there is Daedalus and in very rough outline Odysseus is a kind of scientist. A handful scattered here and there, but usually cast in warnings to Not Go There. Faust is the last of the great warnings against science, or at least the “dabbling in things best left alone” motif of science. The difficulty is that for a good deal of that time science was conflated with magic by way of alchemy and as such confined to the secret society mode wherein knowledge was not to be shared and used only at great peril. This aspect attached to the first genuine scientist to be depicted in a major work of fiction, Frankenstein, even as most other elements involved in the story are recognizably material science. It took the rest of the 19th Century for the Scientist to emerge unfettered as a positive archetype and with the 20th Century took his/her place as one of the dominant archetypes of our evolving cultural mythos.

However, with the spread of science and its apprehension as a communal endeavor, one which benefited from greater and greater general participation, the whole embodied mythos began to split off from what had been the dominant form of cultural mythic reservoirs. Science, at base, is democratic.

When I claim that the Scientist is the central archetype in SF, I do not mean that a Ph.D. lab-coated grandee working in a study on arcane problems is the model. I am saying the Scientist as a very human mode of a particular kind of exploration and understanding of the world. A three-year-old playing with blocks is being a scientist. In SF, any character that progresses through a story with the basic assumption that the universe can be understood through the power of intellectual examination is being a scientist, be that character a soldier, a merchant, a pilot, or any of the myriad other forms present in SF (and in most other literature).

Of course other archetypes are present in SF, but more and more they must conform to the presence of the Scientist.

What gave birth to this, as in much else in the modern world, was the Enlightenment. In essence, the Enlightenment declared tradition a quaint holdover from eras wherein most people lived as if nothing would ever change. The components of transformational progress had been assembling for a long time. With the Enlightenment they had reached sufficient complexity, valence, and momentum to dispel the general assumptions of the past and send civilization forward on the wavefront of fundamental discovery that proved far more than mere novelty.

Which gives us the cultural assumption on which SF is based—change is the only constant.

But with change comes a multitude of problematic consequences which have resulted in a world in continual churn in ways it had never experienced before. In both scale and sentiment, what followed the Enlightenment was unprecedented. While change had always attended the ruling precincts throughout history, rarely had it affected the general population in so fundamental a way. (If there is an American story that records this sense of displacement among the general population perfectly, it would be Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, one of the first stories of note to exemplify cognitive dissonance, which would become another primary ingredient of SF.)

The reaction to the Enlightenment—the Romantic Movement—gave credibility to the subsequent disdain for the kind of materialist focus which informed science. One can see it as the social oyster bed of modern Fantasy. It privileged the raw, unstructured encounter of the soul with nature, rebelling against intellectualism that demanded analysis and understanding of underlying principles in favor of a kind of naked immersion in reifying sensation. Wagner would eventually epitomize the primary focus of such sentiments, with the heavy reliance on myth and the idealized past, which would by mid-20th Century become the core aesthetic motif of Fantasy. (Even a work like C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy shows the continuum from SF to Fantasy book by book. While Out of the Silent Planet is largely if not wholly SF, by the time we arrive at That Hideous Strength we are wholly in the Fantasy mode, complete with a modern resurrection of Camelot in the form of Ransom-as-Arthur.)

Lewis’s work provides an example of one of the chief distinctions separating SF from Fantasy, one seldom remarked. In the final volume of his Space Trilogy, it becomes clear that this is a work thoroughly anti-bureaucratic. Not anti-bureaucratic in the specific, as in a critique and comparison of bureaucratic examples, but as an ideology opposed to bureaucracy in total.

(Certainly there are SF stories in which bureaucracy is cast as a Bad Thing, an enemy, and the hero’s quest is to block or destroy it, but for the most part even the hero in an SF story cannot function without benefit of the bureaucratic support structure that would have provided all the tools necessary for the hero to know how to fight a bureaucracy, and in the end a different bureaucracy arises, one which presumably works better.)

I have noted in the past that another, though dubious, distinction between Fantasy and SF is in the fact that when asked to name a primary text that more or less encompasses the genre, no such text seems to exist for SF, but there is one for Fantasy. I stipulate that other, older examples may serve as well if not better, but I suggest that The Lord of the Rings serves as a primary exemplar for Fantasy. In its epic sweep it gathered together and subsumed so much previous work and cast a shadow that reaches even to the present. Works are written either accepting this as the principle mode or in opposition to it, but this would appear to be the hallmark. No such work can be found in SF because it is not and has never been reducible to such a mode.

But the purposes of comparison, let us take as an example of SF Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I use that one for the expedient reason that both these works were on the same nomination ballet for Best Series in 1966, the only time till recently a Hugo Award was given for series. We can assume that at the time the nominations were made, an attempt to put forward broadly encompassing examples of what was considered best in SF was being made and Asimov’s was the work chosen. It won that award.

Firstly, the two works are nothing alike, which is to be expected. But the distinguishing features of the two are instructive. Starting with the aforementioned observation that Fantasy is anti-bureaucratic, consider that in LotR, it is the bureaucracies that are at the center of every calamity. Never mind the principle antagonists, take for example the Steward of Gondor, who is about as hide-bound a bureaucrat as one could want, and of course he has made a mess of things and has to go. Aragorn must take over, but in truth, what kind of preparation has he had for running things? He has spent most of the past several decades avoiding any kind of responsibility of an administrative nature and lived as a Ranger. This is an implicit virtue for him. Gandalf’s “order” is nowhere to be seen other than in the form of Saruman, who turns out to be basically an arms merchant. The elves, who might take some kind of lead in the struggle, have given it all up as a bad idea and are leaving, so whatever management skills they might have are about to be absent. The actual heroes of the tale are from the one place in Middle Earth that apparently has no government at all. This, in the great prose and sweep of the book, is put forward to be enough for everything to work fine in the aftermath of the war against Sauron, who is clearly a rather masterful politician (the rings he talked everyone into accepting, the alliances presumably built, etc) and administrator. Granted, he is loosely modeled on Hitler and his aggression reflective of Nazi Germany, which was seen then as the chief example of bureaucratic and technological overreach. At the end, there is only Aragorn, with no hint of an administrative machine. Quite intentionally, as the suggestion running throughout is the ability of peoples to manage themselves without such things.

Move to the Foundation stories and there is no instance in which bureaucracy is not only present but essential, and no one is arguing otherwise. The conflicts are over how things are to be administered, not whether or not they should be. The Empire, the Foundation, and the Second Foundation are each other variations on bureaucratic systems shown throughout the stories to be necessary to civilization. The crisis at the heart of the cycle is the collapse of the Empire, which leaves chaos in its wake. The solution is the expansion of the Foundation, which asserts new and more appropriate forms of administration. And the hidden Second Foundation, a collective of mathematicians, is concerned with the overall administration of the collapse-recovery. The one character that might be construed as anti-bureaucratic is the Mule, who has a singular gift and is shown ultimately as a incapable—a monarch against a collective.

Other significant features distinguishing the forms: The Scientist and the Wizard are completely on display for comparison—Hari Seldon and Gandalf. Seldon works with knowledge that, while difficult, requires no special powers to use, and which is open to all. Gandalf is a member of an arcane order of specially empowered custodians of knowledge kept secret. Gandalf recruits others to work with him, but does not (cannot) share his power, while Seldon recruits otherwise ordinary people to use what he freely offers. Seldon works within a system, Gandalf is above systems (or outside, which functionally within the story is the same thing). The universes depicted are quite different, based on distinct assumptions. There is no one achievement that solves the problems in the Foundation, but a series of adroit adaptations and situational responses collectively leading to less chaos, while in Middle Earth everything depends on Aragorn accepting his place as king (the flowering of the tree symbolizes exactly this) and the destruction of an artifact the purpose of which is to empower the ultimate in evil bureaucracy.

As noted, however, Foundation, while displaying the conditions and requirements of a science fiction work, is not in any way The Exemplary Text, but is only one example of myriad. This is because SF is not concerned with the kind of mythic reification which informs most Fantasy. SF has little use for myth, seeing it usually as a set of prejudices which require examination and, frankly, constraint. SF, as one aspect of the “science” intrinsic to the form, is constructed for the purpose of analyzing and understanding the world, rather than imposing preconceptions designed to validate illusions of destiny. Middle Earth only “works” when all the destiny-driven elements are in their proper place. If they fall out of harmony, things enter an entropic slide. In SF, there is no such condition of harmony.

I take it as stipulated that there are exceptions on both sides of the divide, but they are usually curiously clunky things the chief effect of which is a kind of off-balanced drunkard’s walk that is often accidentally appealing. I mentioned cognitive dissonance in relation to Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, which I regard as a prototypical Fantasy of the kind that recognizes the divide. In the story, Rip, harried by his wife, picks up his rifle to go hunting, encounters what are clearly elves (fairies, leprechauns, “little people”) who invite him to a game of Nine Pins. He is drawn into their party, he drinks too much, and falls asleep, to awaken 20 years later and find the world has changed. The place where he had slept is a kind of bubble attached to the “real” world wherein the rules of time are different. This is a Fantasy realm. As depicted, though, it is apart from and not of “this” world. It is not, in the story, somewhere Rip can return. Fast forward to the novel Little, Big by John Crowley and we see the same idea of an adjunct universe wherein the fading world of Faerie can be found, a bubble universe that keeps shrinking as the modern world encroaches. (Crowley has addressed the transition from the Old World of magic and alchemy to the New World of science and technology often, most especially in his excellent Aegypt Cycle.) The overlap between the two realms is inconsistent, fading, and clearly definitive. In a sense, such stories are a recognition of the changes that followed in the wake of the Enlightenment, and as such are profoundly nostalgic. (Nostalgia imbues subtext in much Fantasy; what else are the Gray Havens but a dream of nostalgia?)

I have taken time to delineate the differences between SF and Fantasy in response to what have become cyclic attempts to define them as somehow the Same Thing. On the surface, and by the most facile of definitional characteristics, they seem to share a great deal and therefore may appear essentially the same. But essentially, in their constructions and presumptions and primary concerns, they are not. They operate differently because their assumptions about the world are apposite—the world as a material realm as well as the structures humans build to operate in the world.

What distinguishes SF from other forms is the way in which the conceits of the setting—the world, if you will—necessitate an examination in order to fully enter into the fictive experience. The differences in that world set it apart from our own in specific ways, ways which permit a distinct reading experience. The way in which this is done sets up an expectation that everything encountered is accessible with the proper tools. In some cases, it is the world we believe we are moving into from the present. In other cases it is a world we might have inhabited given certain alternate choices in our past. But in either case it is a world comprehensible as a habitable place possible by virtue of the mechanisms derived from the philosophical stance called Science. Science itself does not have to be visible on the page, nor does it necessarily have to be science as we presently know it. It only has to be framed in such a way as to validate our present understanding of the universe available to us derived from the practice called Science.

Which brings us back to my initial criteria: SF is epistemological fiction. The narrative power is in the character’s encounter with that new world.

And what about myth? Fantasy is derived from our conception of myth as ur-story, a fundamental narrative that runs through everything. It takes as given that myth is wired into existence as experienced by sapient beings—us—and represents a reservoir of validation and reification that, properly encountered, gives us our identity. While the narrative frames of myth are powerful and SF can certainly utilize them for effect, myth in SF is simply another part of the world that is to be examined and understood. SF, like science, is not concerned with repeating the dictates of a distant shaping force—that is where notions of Destiny and Fate come from—but in putting them on the workbench and taking them apart to see how (and if) they work. (The first step in freeing ourselves from the expectations of unquestioned tradition.) The universe in which such forces are accepted as real outside social structures is not the universe of science or SF. In that way, SF is not about finding new myths for a modern age, but about constantly reevaluating the age and aggressively keeping our options open.

Which is why there is not and probably cannot be a primary SF text. Reassessment like that does not permit things to “settle” into the kind of stasis where one set of meanings above all others can emerge. SF, therefore, is an assertively destabilizing practice. Unlike Fantasy which constantly seeks equilibrium and, ideally, stasis. (Whether this is achieved is unimportant, only that this is the goal.)

Therefore, Science Fiction and Fantasy are distinct practices which overlap in certain aesthetic effects but in the end seek different literary goals and offer, for the careful reader, distinct pleasures.

Out of the Mists

The common assumption put forward by several decades of anthropology and associated fields concerning that vast fog known as Prehistory runs as follows: humans, after emerging from the crapshoot of evolution, roved the savannah in small bands, gathering and hunting and painfully inching their way toward a point where they began to make tools (other than spear points and such). Then came a long period of migration, scattered attempts at settlement, until, a critical population mass achieved, agriculture was developed, and very quickly came the abandonment of hunter-gatherer society, leading to regular towns, art, and gradually more impressive engineering feats to serve the expanding agro-economy. At some further point, all this became the foundation of nascent states, after which the whole thing rolled into the “historic” era (marked by the advent of record-keeping) and kings and empires and slavery, and so forth.

This is more or less the way it was presented to me back in school, and, I suspect, still pretty much the popular conception of prehistory.

The problem with this is that we are talking about roughly 200,000 years of that undifferentiated, featureless, unchanging landscape. Taken at face value, it says that human beings conducted themselves as essentially immutably “innocent” creatures, either incapable or uninterested in doing anything more with themselves or their environment until they learned to plow a field and write things down. If, as the evidence suggests, modern homo sapiens had been roaming around the planet for two hundred millennia, with all that “modern” implies, this begs the question of what “we” were doing all that time and why, all of a sudden, about 10,000 years ago, we started living entirely differently.

Put that way, there is no reasonable answer. It is on its face an absurd assumption.

One that is not supported by any of the evidence we actually have.

So why cling to the narrative?

In The Dawn Of Everything: A New History Of Humanity, authors David Graeber and David Wengrow explore exactly that question and in so doing turn over multiple apple carts, debunk many myths, and shake up the common assumptions about that vast and murky period. They begin with a look at Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the question of equality.

When we first embarked on this book, our intention was to seek new answers to questions about the origins of social inequality. It didn’t take long before we realized this simply wasn’t a very good approach. Framing human history in this way—which necessarily means assuming humanity once existed in an idyllic state, and that a specific point can be identified at which everything started to go wrong—made it almost impossible to ask any of the questions we felt were were genuinely interesting.

They proceed then to reexamine as many assumptions as possible with the space of reasonably-sized book to show that Rousseau’s apparent point in his Discourse On The Origins Of Inequality is a bit of a cheat—unless Rousseau was being absurd to a purpose. For instance, Graeber and Wengrow remind us (assuming we ever knew) that the so-called “indigenous critique” of European civilization that informed much of Enlightenment thinking was not an invention of the philosophes but a genuine critique delivered by Native Americans after they had witnessed firsthand European civilization (often as captives/slaves, sometimes a diplomats). The sources were credited by the philosophes themselves as being from Native Americans, but later historians chose to ignore this to the point where it was forgotten and the natives were relegated to that pool of prehistoric humanity too “simple” to understand complex culture and socio-political structures.

From that point on, Graeber and Wengrow take nothing at face value and conduct a thorough reevaluation. If human beings have been phsyiologically “modern” for 200,000 years, it is ridiculous to assume they did not conduct themselves with as much sophistication and complexity as we do. Often, as it turns out, with strikingly different results.

The scope of the book is global. Between them, they cover archaeological finds from Central America to Turkey to Japan and points in between and carefully examine what is thee to be seen and what it means in relation to our understanding of how communities function. It is an eye-opening tour.

Much here is speculative. What makes prehistory difficult is the lack of, well, history. Written history. All we have are the remnants. But with a clear eye, those remnants are quite expressive. One thing that emerges consistently is that our previous assumptions are wrong.

From the end of the last ice age till now, we have enough to trace humanity’s presence and draw conclusions about its progress. But for the most part we still cling to the simplistic story of “primitive” societies living subsistence existences until the point where it become possible to form what subsequently became great states—Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Indus Cultures. The implication being that once we reached that level we never looked back and marched forward into the present building roughly the same kinds of civilizations. And that at some point we collectively began to realize that we had become in thrall to despotisms and began what we know as the battle for equality. We seldom question the progression.

But, Graeber and Wengrow ask, why don’t we question it? Because even within historic times, it just isn’t the case, at least not universally.

If anything is clear by now it’s this. Where we once assumed ‘civilization’ and ‘state’ to be conjoined entities that came down to us as a historical package (take it or leave it forever), what history now demonstrates is that these terms actually refer to complex amalgams of elements which have entirely different origins and which are currently in the process of drifting apart. Seen this way, to rethink the basic premises of social evolution is to rethink the very idea of politics itself.

What is revealed by their analysis is that the smooth trajectory of assumed historical progress is an oversimplified, biased gloss from too few perspectives. The reality—that which can be demonstrated with evidence and that which can then be surmised by constructive deduction—is far more complicated, complex, and frankly compelling. Part of the telos of those simplistic constructions is that all that has gone before inevitably led to now—to us. We are as we must be by decree of historic processes which are inevitable.

The truth is, what we are now is only one possibility of what we might have become.

And this is the meat and bone of Graeber and Wengrow’s argument—that to justify ourselves as we are it is better to paint the ancient past as a homogenous, almost featureless whole. Had people twenty, thirty, or fifty thousand years ago not been the pastoral simpletons we’ve presented them to be, then where are the great kingdoms and empires, the technologies, the earthworks, the cities that would mark them as complex thinkers? While to a certain extent that is a not unimportant question, it overlooks examples that have left traces, even up to the present period, that fail to fit the expectations engendered by such a view. The decay of time certainly has something to do with the paucity of physical evidence, but what we do have is not so insignificant that the standard narrative has any claim to remain unchallenged.

While a good portion of The Dawn Of Everything is speculative, enough evidence and solid analysis is presented to more than justify such speculations, at the very least insofar as a challenge to our assumptions and a reconsideration of modern expectations. Quite a bit of non-Western critique was suppressed or ignored to help in building a picture of the past that supported the hegemony of the West’s self-importance. (Quite a lot of what became the political revolution of United States came from indigenous sources, accepted wholesale by the philosophes and then subsequently forgotten. The thinking was sophisticated, philosophically trenchant, and necessary to challenge what had become a standard view of the West’s view of itself.)

David Graeber passed away in 2020, at the age of 59. More volumes were to follow this one, according to his collaborator David Wengrow. One assumes many of the critiques that will inevitably emerge regarding this first book would be addressed in those books that follow—for instance, this—because clearly there was insufficient room in one volume to cover all the material avbailable. We may see more, but what they produced here is one of those books designed to upset apple carts. There is no inevitability in history, tempting though such narratives are. In order to free ourselves of the chains of a presumed inevitable present, we must go back and reexamine the past and find those “missing” parts that demonstrate the possibilities and the promises of other roads. This is what we have in this book.

Seeking Meaning In Sand

I have not yet seen the new film version of Dune. I may write about it after I do, although it is not the entire story. What I am interested in here is the ongoing obsession with the novel. This will be the third cinematic iteration. Famously, there are two uncompleted versions, one by Jodowrosky and another by Ridley Scott. We know how far the former came because there is a fascinating documentary about it, but as for Scott’s version there are mainly rumors and statements that he wanted to do one. Personally, I would have been interested to see that one—I very much like Ridley Scott’s palette: even those of his films that don’t quite work for other reasons I find wonderful to look at—and in some ways he has perhaps played around the edges of it through his Alien franchise. (The first film starts on a world that might have been Arakkis, the second is evocative of Gede Prime, the others keep returning to desert worlds, in theme if not setting. And Ripley becomes a kind of ghola as she is resurrected again and again.)

What is it about the original novel that compels the ongoing obsession, not only of filmmakers, but of fans? (There would be no funding for the films if the audience were not so large and committed. That speaks to the book.)

The history of the novel is something of a publishing legend, like other groundbreaking books. Multiple rejections, ultimate publication, often in a limited way, and a growing audience over years. Dune was famously rejected something like 27 times before finally being taken up by a publisher better known for automobile manuals.

It was, however, serialized in one of the top science fiction magazines, Analog, so dedicated SF readers were the first to encounter it, and doubtless formed the primary audience. I remember reading the ACE paperback from the late Sixties. Its impact on me was almost too large to detail.

I was used to science fiction novels being under 200 pages—average then was 160. From the Golden Age forward you rarely found one more than 250 pages. Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein was an outlier at 408 in its first hardcover incarnation. So here I find this massive book more like the so called classics I’d been reading—Dickens, Dumas, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—crammed into the cover of a mass market paperback which included a glossary and indexes, explanatory material (every bit as fictional as the main narrative). It felt important. I was 14, it was dense, I struggled through it. (It led to a profound teaching moment in how to read which I’ve written about elsewhere.) I could feel my horizons expand, even though at the basic level of story it was no more or less fascinating than most other good science fiction novels I had read. But it opened possibilities for narrative depth.

A handful of other novels came out around that time that exploded the confines of the thriller-format SF had been kept to—John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up; Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand Of Darkness; and the coming rage for trilogies (many of which were single narratives published economically in three volumes). By the mid-Seventies publishing had changed to accommodate a new idea of what an SF novel could be, including expanded length to include what has become known as World Building (a technique which in some instances supplanted more important aspects of fiction). Not all by itself, but certainly as a point of history, Dune helped make this possible by creating a market for fuller expositions and more detailed construction. This alone might make it significant.

But that alone would not have made it a perennial seller, almost constantly in print ever since. If Frank Herbert had written nothing else, Dune would have made his career.

It was followed up by two more—Dune Messiah and Children of Dune—completing a cycle. That first trilogy stands as a unified work. The second two books are plot-driven indulgences, but not superfluous. The second trilogy…publishing had discovered by then that science fiction could be best-selling fiction and a frenzy of large advances and high-profile publications mark the late Seventies and early Eighties. Herbert’s publisher enabled him to indulge himself with a second trilogy that often leaves people puzzled. But it kept the spotlight on the primary work.

David Lynch’s movie enlarged the audience again. That film, by a director with a certain reputation for examining the macabre oddnesses of humanity, is a spectacular curiosity. It is a mixed bag of brilliance and weird choices.

Then came a modestly-budgeted miniseries on the SyFy Channel, which went on to include the second two novels. It did a much better job of telling Herbert’s story. The chief complaints seem to be the results of that budget (and that Sting did not reprise the role of Feyd Rautha). It gets dismissed too readily, as if the world were waiting for the “real” cinema treatment.

Which we now, by all accounts, have.

As I say, I have not seen it yet. I want to address the book and its seeming tenacity.

One of the things Herbert did was lace his tale with wise-sounding profundities in the form of aphorisms and epigrams. Each chapter starts with a quote from some serious work by the presumed chronicler of the hero’s life. They sound like quotes from works like the I Ching or SunTzu’s Art of War. This was not a new trick when Herbert did it, but he was particularly adept at it in this book. It is a far future in which, presumably, philosophy has transformed along with everything else. The quasi-feudal politics and economics are given a veneer of newness this way, as if to signal that while it looks like something one would find in the 12th Century, it is not quite the same thing, but you have to take the author’s word for it, because it is the future. The quotes set an aesthetic tone that, among other things, allows us to assume something else is going on instead of just the same old historical thing. In science fiction, veneers matter—they work like orchestrations in a symphony, selecting the right instrument for the right phrase, coloring it. (Veneers should never be mistaken for the story or the theme, which is something unobservant critics do all the time.)

Seriousness established, every significant decision becomes inhabited by purpose, meaning, resonance, and a justification that raises the level of what we read almost to that of destiny, certainly of mythmaking. With this, the writing itself need not be spectacular, just functional.

There are passages in Dune that are breathtaking in what they describe. The ecological aspects of the novel, while in some ways absurd in terms of actual science, take on the same immanence as anything the actors possess. In a way, Dune is one of the first terraforming novels, embracing the idea that human action can transform an entire world. (A couple of years later, we see much more of this, often more pointedly, as in works like Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest—again, the novel opens up a field of possibilities, or at least prepares an audience for more of the same.)

But the characters are hard to relate to—this is a story about archetypes and aristocrats in conflict with emperors and churches. The ordinary people get lost amid the giant legs of the SF manifestations of Greek Heroes. We read this novel for the plot and world and the political revelations. We become engaged because this is in important ways a Lawrence of Arabia story—one toxically mixed with Faust. We read it because we are aware that gods and deserts change the world.

We read it because, as well, we are enamored of the idea of Enlightenment in a Pill.

Herbert was always working in the fields of mind-altering drugs—possibly his best and most relatable novel in this vein is The Santarroga Barrier—and with Melange, the Spice, he created the ultimate in mind-expanding temptations. Its use gives humanity (and others) the universe. Time and space can be brought to heel with it. Visions, prophecies, and clarity are on offer. But it is the ultimate Faustian bargain, for its loss will destroy everything.

It is aptly named. Melange, a mixture of often incongruous elements. A mess, if you will, but messes can evoke wonder, even seem beautiful.

At the heart of this Faustian conundrum are the Fremen, patterned after the Bedu of the Middle East. They are trapped on a world with profoundly limited resources and must be kept that way for the benefit of the rest of the universe. Not quite slaves, but certainly not masters of their own world. Freeing them courts disaster—because part of that freedom entails remaking their world, making it wet. Water, though, is poison to the giant worms that produce the Spice.

Trap after trap after trap populates the novel. Disaster looms. The plot compels.

And of course the relevance to our reality could not be plainer. The teetering sets of balances, all of them with ethical pitfalls, allow Dune to remain trenchant, relevant, challenging. Added to this is the clear connection to the Greek tragedians (especially in the second trilogy—I suggest boning up on Aeschylus and Euripedes before trying them) which gives the book its ongoing frustration of clear, ethical resolution. (And cleverly he took the possibility of building machines that might aid people in their problem-solving off the table, by outlawing thinking machines. It’s all on us and what we bring to the game.)

A final thread woven through the book that seems to make it constantly popular is that it is a coming-of-age story that contains a biting critique of privilege. Whatever Paul might want to be for himself, he is born into a web of expectations that impose their demands from all sides, making any choice he might make impossible outside of a constructed destiny. The adolescent struggling to make sense of the world and find a way to live in it, thinking if only he were god and could command everything to be rational or at least amenable. Paul’s tragedy is that he in fact can become god—and then discovering that this is no solution, either.

How well this new movie deals with all this, I look forward to seeing. For the moment I simply wanted to examine some of the reasons this novel continues to find audiences and why so many filmmakers are drawn to it. The elements it contains transcend the limitations from which it suffers. But whatever the case, this is a novel that allows readers to find meaning—whether that meaning is in the novel or not.

Insane Ants

Roadside Picnic is a classic of science fiction. Published in 1972, it is one of the few Russian SF novels to receive exposure in the United States in teh aftermath of a chaotic period in the Cold War, published in translation in 1977. The Strugatsky Brothers, Boris and Arkady, were quite popular in Russia, but for most readers here, Roadside Picnic was pretty much the only familiar title.

Deservedly so. Well-crafted, unexpected, richly characterized, it holds up well, and in most respects avoids the often fatal “dating” that can occur with older science fiction.

In some ways, it feels like a precursor to Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. There has been a Visit. Aliens arrived, apparently in many places around the Earth. And then left, leaving behind Zones in which mysterious objects, peculiar bubbles in which physics seem not to work as expected, and traps. Time moves inconsistently within them in certain spots. While there are no physical barriers to the Zones, it becomes clear where the boundaries are, and the response of most governments is to build research institutes, establish police cordons, try to contain what emerges from them. The response of the various societies is likewise expected—scavengers, black and gray markets, and mythologies spring up.

Most of the novel centers on Redrick “Red” Schuhart, a Stalker, one of the freelance scavengers who enter the local Zone to retrieve some of what has been left behind. It’s a dangerous job and the list of those who died, often horribly, grows as the ranks of Stalkers diminish. It’s illegal what he does, but Red has been hired by the Institute and places his expertise at the service of the scientists trying to make sense of the Zones. He never completely goes legitimate, though, maintaining his ties to the black marketeers.

The swag retrieved is often inexplicable. So-called “empties,” containers that sometimes are found filled with fluid or some other matter, but usually hold nothing; rings of various sizes; small needles that have some kind of piezoelectric properties. Researchers have managed to learn a few things from them, but mostly the market scoops them up as much for the novelty as anything they might do.

Redrick goes back and forth through the story, from legitimate to pirate. He has an ethical center, but it’s difficult to know how it applies in a situation that amounts to a one-way conversation. Because the aliens never come back. They might, one day. And some believe they’ve left coded clues behind to tell people where they went and how to follow. The mythology around the Zones and the Visit grows more complex, the need to find explanations where no feedback ever occurs fueling the imaginations of those wanting to know.

In the end, Redrick succumbs to the various psychic pitfalls of the Zone. Unable to leave, unwilling to surrender himself completely to it, never quite achieving the presumed degree of “success” that would allow him to pursue a different path, and finally bound by a legacy over which he has little say and no control, his life becomes a negotiation, with himself, with the authorities, with the unknown and apparently unknowable beings who put all this stuff here.

The question running through the novel is: why? Why did They show up, leave, and what is all this stuff they left behind?

An explanation is offered by one of the scientists in an offhand conversation in a bar. He imagines a picnic, just off the road, where a number of people spend the day and then leave. Their trash remains behind. They may never come back. And are completely unaware of the animals and insects who then come out to examine their discards.

This is not offered as the explanation, only a possibility. In the absence of any kind of substantive evidence or contact or anything, it is simply one idea among many. There is a void around the advent of the Zones and people cannot abide a void. The need to have some explanation creates one. Many.

But it also sets up a situation in which obsessing over that apparently unanswerable question causes a slow-motion psychic trauma. One thing human beings seem unable to tolerate, at least so-called civilized people, is being ignored. The notion that we, on our own planet, are insignificant contains the germ of psychosis. The Strugatsky’s masterfully reveal this. The wavefront of our own sense of self crashing against the shores of a land that will not recognize us can become an obsession only leading to a kind of insanity.

It may be that in this relatively slim, in many ways modest, science fiction novel, we see examined one of the central problems of cultural identity. We enter the Zone to fetch the baubles at the risk of losing our balance, our confidence, our sense of place…eventually, our sanity. Because human beings seem to be able to tolerate many things, even abuse. But we cannot stand being ignored.

 

Cinema Versus ‘Theme Parks’

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema.  Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Martin Scorcese said that in an interview about Marvel superhero movies. The observation has sparked some controversy. A lot of people heard him trashing their favorite form of movie, others—including Francis Ford Coppola—found resonance with his statements.

The part of his statement I disagree with is the part that I hear every time someone from the literary world suggests science fiction is not “real” literature—because it doesn’t deal with humans experiencing authentic emotions in a meaningful context. In its own way, Mr. Scorcese has recast the classic dismissal of science fiction and fantasy in regards to film.

To which I would say, “Care to justify that in terms of cinema as a whole?” It can be argued, I think, that the gangster film on which Scorcese made his reputation is not a milieu about ordinary people having emotional experiences in common with their audience, but about a distinct subset of humanity that distorts itself into an extreme condition to pit itself against the world. Their experience are by definition, at least in cinema, going to be over-the-top, magnified, and at odds with the common. The backgrounds are likewise going to be exaggerated and often surreal, set-pieces to support encounters of violence and passions pared down by adrenaline to caricatures of ordinary daily experience. They “entertain” for precisely those factors that for two hours remove us from our mundane lives and give us entreé into lives we will (hopefully) never take part in. The point of them is to allow a vicarious experience completely out of the ordinary.

They are anchored to us by asking “How would we react in the same circumstances?” and honestly following the thread of answers to what connects these people to us.

But the characters themselves, while often despicable, are extraordinary.

As are the characters of the gunslinger, the private detective, the cop, the soldier, the knight, the barbarian, etc.

It is their extraordinariness that attracts us, holds our attention, and carries us along through unlikely adventures to, one hopes, a satisfying and cathartic conclusion.

How is that any different than what we see in Captain America? Iron Man? Thor?

Oh, they come from the worlds of science and fantasy and wield unusual abilities.

So, once again, because they appear to us in the context of science fictional settings and offer challenges outside historical experience, they are not legitimate cinema…

To an extent, Scorcese has a point. They do offer “theme park” rides. It takes a rather extraordinary film like Winter Soldier or, stepping to a different franchise, Wonder Woman to see the genuine human story beneath the glossy, glitzy, hyper-realized settings, but it’s there. And for those films that fail to deliver that human element, well, it’s not that they aren’t cinema, they’re just bad cinema.

But “cinema” has always indulged the exotic, the novel, the visually unique to achieve what may be argued to be its primary advantage as a medium. The full embrace of the exotic cannot be used to reclassify certain films as “not cinema” because they utilize exactly that potential.

No, this is another version of reaction to a genre distinction because you don’t get it.  It’s the reason several excellent SF films failed to find notice with the Academy for years because they were that “spacey kid stuff.” Now good SF is finally being recognized by the Academy, leaving the position of poorly-regarded declassé genre in need of a new resident, and in this instance Mssrs Scorcese and Coppola elect the big superhero franchises.

Let’s face it—there have always been superhero films. Dirty Harry is a species of superhero, as is Jason Bourne and James Bond. Chuck Norris and Steven Segal have made their share of superhero films. And when you think about it, just about any Western where the hero faces impossible odds and wins is a superhero film. One could go down the list and find just cause to name any number of historical or quasi-historical epics as members of that club. Robin Hood is a superhero. The Lone Gunman story is a species of superhero film. And these all draw from various mythologies that are readily accessible as superhero stories. Hercules, Cuchulain, Gilgamesh, Samson…

Of course these films are cinema. Just as science fiction is literature.

You just have to speak the language.

Of Stars and Stories

Late in Record of a Spaceborn Few, Isabel, an Archivist on one of the ships of the Exodus Fleet, is trying to impress something of importance on a young, puzzled, possibly frightened boy who doesn’t know what to do—about anything.  “Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once.”

We talk these days about narratives. Political narratives, social narratives, religious narratives. Sometimes it seems we forget something real is behind a narrative and mistake the narrative for the reality. Often, this leads to awkward disconnects and sometimes tragedy. Another young man in the novel follows the stories and ends up the focus of a story he never anticipated, with unfortunate consequences.

Which only highlights the accuracy of Isabel’s statement. We operate by stories.

Throughout the three novels Becky Chambers has thus far published, stories form the connections, the bridges, supply the purposes and meanings, and lead to recognitions and revelations that are ultimately remarkable for their deeply exposed humanness. She has created spaces that are lived in by a number of civilizations, all trying to find common ground (collectively known as the Galactic Commons) and jostling to maintain, evolve, and explore the multiple and multiplying stories arising from the intersections.

Record of a Spaceborn Few feels, on one level, like the main switchboard that makes the first two novels—A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit—make sense, but that would suggest the first two novels lack something. No, rather they are, like this one, fully-realized narratives of sentient beings trying to understand what they’re doing and where they’re doing it while reaching for survival and joy. Record of a Spaceborn Few answers questions of origins: how did all these beings get where they are? But like the skilled artist she clearly is, Chambers never lectures us about history (unless it comes as part of a conversation about immediate issues for the people on stage in a given scene) but embeds us in the fractal substance of lived experience that only feels “real” if that history underlies the narrative.

There is a certain Dickensian sensibility at play in this novel. Overlapping, interconnecting lives which, taken singly, may appear mundane or uninteresting (they are anything but), but as the resonances, one to another, build, create a holistic impression of meaning and substance and produce a world we feel we could step into. Small details reiterate, compile, characters suffer, laugh, struggle. Outside, vast interstellar amalgams move with ponderous purpose, but breakfast needs to be put on the table, shopping done, and jobs completed. The larger questions of why and how remain a constant but fade often into a background that, by so often going unremarked, takes on more and more reality. Layers form, paths become overgrown, sometimes lost, connections, the ever-so-vital connections, threaten to break.

At first glance, there is an ordinariness to it all that runs counter to the usual expectations one might bring to a science fiction novel. Attention is rewarded, though. There is little that is ordinary in these lives, in this place.

Earth long since has been abandoned by the thirty-two ships of the Exodan Fleet, which ventured out to find new homes. While there are still people on Earth, and Mars is a going, vital world, and humanity still knows its origins, these people, descendants of those who pushed off into deep space, have found themselves in the midst of an almost crowded universe of alien civilizations. Instead of war, there is process. Help is offered because there is value to be found in the differences. But individuals still chafe to stand on their own and find a place in the larger collective.

With a quiet, almost stealthy approach, Chambers gives us people with stories to tell seeking stories to give meaning to their own lives. And in return, offer us insights and the recognition in the new and unexpected. These books require attention. The effect is cumulative. This is how a future lived like this may be, but even if all the larger details are fanciful and exotic, it is the way these people embrace what they find that connects us to them.

Shifting Ground, Changing Paths, Constructed Worlds

We talk a great deal about World Building in science fiction and fantasy, but more often than not I suspect it refers to the equivalent of interior design and decoration. If the motifs of costume and manners conforms to a general tableaux of architecture, climate, and the suggestion of a history a bit more than two months old, with none of the corners out of place, it is hailed as an example of world building. In fact, it may well be nothing more than sticking antlers on the dog, painting the castle mauve, and handing out swords to characters who would be otherwise right at home in any particular middle period Court one cared to name, and reviving institutions we are well rid of and renaming them or layering them with mystical significance or “bloodline” gravitas.

World building worthy of the description requires more, and some understanding of how a holism evolves. (I find it noteworthy that when discussing this, one rarely hears it applied to something like Star Trek, which, for all its flaws, it one of the most successfully sustained examples of world building ever put forth. Perhaps because the path to it seems obvious and it’s really just the end result of a suite of logical assumptions instead of a complete substitution of what we recognize as “our” world? Hm.) Which is why Dune, for all its ecological problems, is a viable example of the art. All its parts are necessary to create the political, social, economic, environmental, and historical verisimilitude of a complete world that is not, for all the suggestive borrowings from it, our own. Or, for another example, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (or his later Book of the Long Sun); or for a more sustained example, C. J. Cherryh’s magisterial Union-Alliance novels, which cover centuries of history, hundreds of light years of territory, and dozens of cultures, each recognizably its own…

N. K. Jemisin has given us world building at the highest level in her Broken Earth trilogy.

The Earth of The Fifth Season is similar to but quite unlike our own. It could very easily be in a distance past, but more likely an equally distance future, one in which the ever-shifting plates on which the continents ride have brought all these landmasses back together in a new supercontinent. She suggests that such compaction has created a situation in which geologic forces are concentrated and history has been subsequently sorted out by Seasons, noted for periods of extreme geological convulsion. It’s not like we have nothing like this now—we speak of Ice Ages, warm periods, and have broken down the pre-human periods into large parenthetical Ages distinguished by flora, fauna, and, yes, continental configuration (though that is a relatively recent inclusion), but we don’t talk about them as part of our daily cultural vocabulary. In this world (let’s say the far future) tectonics dominates the mythology.

Like any time in human history, people are sharply divided into groups as well, only in this case the attributes dividing them are a bit less arbitrary. There are classes of people born with extraordinary abilities. Frightening abilities. The Orogenes possess the capacity to channel the energy of local geology. They are dangerous. When working this ability, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is in full play and consequences manifest unless their efforts are very carefully controlled. Of course, such control requires discipline and learning. Which requires a social system.

Which requires a civilization.

And so we have Yumenes, capital of the empire that more or less manages the continent—which is ironically called the Stillness. Yumenes, among other things, maintains the roads. This fact denotes an attention to detail and how the small things, the things too often taken for granted, matter sometimes far more than the grand histories we tell about ourselves or past Selves.

Not only the roads we see, though, but all roads, especially the roads that connect people. As we read we feel the history underlying all of this, and sense of the cohesion. It is that cohesion that makes this place real. What is more, it makes it real and alien, because this history is not ours. We recognize its validity in the consequences of that history.

This is the story of Essun. And Syenite. And Damaya. And how they—she—become a pivot point along a fault line that changes the world.

Syenite belongs to an elite order of Orogenes, protected and wielded by Yumenes to maintain the integrity of the empire. Literally. And while she enjoys certain privileges and a position of some power, she is still, at the end of it, a slave. She has no real choice but to serve in this order. The alternative is one of a variety of deaths.

What she expected to be an ordinary life along traditional lines within the order changes when she is paired with a man of immensely more ability than she exhibits and she travels with him on what should have been a simple mission to clear a harbor of coral. What she learns, what she sees, what she begins to become alters her path and puts her on the road to a revolution.

Jemisin has built in layers, carefully accruing history and myth and the physical realities in which these people move in such a way as to give us the full experience of another world. From the configuration of the government and the ruling classes down to the street slang hurled at the unwanted and frightening to the intricate network of relationships between communities and individuals, the Stillness—anything but still!—is a walkable, breathable world with stories to tell about people just like us—only different.

It is not the tectonics of the land that matter, but the drift among the people, the shifts in history, the maddening subduction of memory—and how finally they are all the same thing when combined.

Strange Inversions

Jeff Vandermeer has been mining the hills of what for a time was called New Weird for years. His Veniss Underground stories are exemplars of the power of the oblique, the odd, the displaced, the exotic in service to demonstrating one of the principle delights of science fiction, namely that setting is character. His newest novel is another example of how landscape transforms imagination and redirects the focus of our self-reflection.

The City—unnamed, unlocated, but somehow American for all its desolate ambiguity—has been reduced to the condition of decimated near-abandonment. We are told the entire world has undergone a series of collapses and that this city is representative of most of it. Those remaining pick over what is left, and there would seem to be plenty.  But there is a constant danger, the looming presence of Mord, a giant bear that can fly. It tortures the landscape and the survivors, eats indiscriminately, slams about remaking the skyline according to no discernible plan. Mord is just a great big bear with no table manners.  And that uncanny ability to fly.

Rachel is a seasoned scavenger who finds it useful to shadow Mord. One never knows what good salvage one might find in his wake. The risks have been worth it in the past. As the novel opens, though, she has made a find that will reshape everything she thought she understood about the world she inhabits.  It is an odd bit of biotech, a blob attached to Mord’s hide, just large enough to find and still fit inside her pocket. It is, in its indefinable way, attractive.  She describes it sometimes as a vase that occasionally has wings. She calls it Borne and brings it back to her domicile, the Balcony Cliffs, where she lives a not altogether unpleasant life with her lover, Wick, who is some kind of biotech engineer. Wick immediately dislikes Borne, wants to take it to dismantle to see how it works, but Rachel refuses. This creates the first real conflict between them, which grows worse as Wick begins to see Borne as a threat.

Because Borne is changing.  Growing, certainly, but also acquiring new traits. Rachel discovers one day that it can talk. She hides this fact from Wick. As Borne continues to grow and change, she continues to try to hide its capacities from Wick, but Wick is not fooled.

Into this comes new threats. There are factions in the City, vying for power, control, advantage, in a game that feels purposeful but ultimately has little point. There is Mord, of course, raw power, incontestable, frightening.  There is also the Magician, another human who may or may not have been a colleague of Wick’s back when he worked for the Company, whose facility still stands, still functions, and had much to do with the destruction that befell the city. There is the Company itself, which continues to exert an influence albeit of an almost subterranean kind.  Once it had been the power in the city, but since the general collapse, both locally and globally, it persists because at least it seems to possess structure.

And Wick, after a fashion, because he is a node of stability in the chaos.  He makes things people will trade for, that people need, although his ability to do so is diminishing because the resources he needs, which Rachel is so adept at finding, are dwindling. As they do and his production shrinks, their danger increases.

Borne is a fey factor, an unknown in all this, and Rachel finds her attachment to it both comforting and unnerving. Her attachment to Wick is of a different kind and, for all the stress on it, more secure than she comprehends.

It is a curiously compelling story.  It reveals, offers insight, confers meaning, even when it is unclear what underlies all the struggle. Rachel’s inability to give Borne up resonates, as does Wick’s well-reasoned suspicions of it. The disturbing changes in Borne unsettle in a perversely familiar way. And Mord just scares us with his unpredictable rages and the offshoots of his savage personality which appear to do murder to what remains of order and humanity in this landscape, which as we continue on, feels ever more like somewhere we’ve been before, if only we could remember…

Borne as creation bothers us and intrigues us and somehow we understand that it—he—is not really our enemy.  This is confirmed in the novel, but that confirmation is not what brings this to the forefront of our myth-responsive memory.  Borne takes in everything—literally eats reality—and excretes nothing. Just grows. But he should, because we sense what Borne is. Borne is incomplete.  Borne requires…

Comparisons are never one to one, rough at best, but then originality is not served by direct corollaries.  Something that is “just like” something else may have novelty but it does little to feed the desire of new truths and fresh perspectives. Nevertheless, they are potent when done well, and this is done well.

Wick—in this instance, an obscure form of Wizard—is in some sense the creator of all that Rachel moves through.  He worked for the Company until he was expelled, and when we learn finally all that he may have created his place becomes clear in Rachel’s universe.  He protects her more than she knows because he is responsible for so much, in a way a master narrator. He cannot ultimately protect her from herself, and that is where the elements of this marvelous piece of clock-work aligning and arranging come together.

As borrowings go, Alice Through the Looking Glass will suffice. There’s even a mirror. But that landscape—collapsing, reforming, surprising, terrible and amazing—is what we find when our illusions are outgrown as we persist in living within the precincts of an imagination that will not yield to new possibilities and the stronger forms of mature dreams.  The child must be reborn into a bolder reality, and if in that reality bears cannot actually fly, well, there are other wonders to sustain us.

Future Infernal

Samuel R. Delany Jr. has been publishing science fiction since 1962, with the novel The Jewels of Aptor, which can be read as either post-apocalyptic SF or as a quest fantasy. The complexity and range of his work consistently expanded until it reached an apparent apotheosis in the 1974 novel Dhalgren, a massive work that supports comparisons to Joyce, Pynchon, and Gaddis.

The novel immediately following Dhalgren, while strikingly different, is a similarly impressive advance over previous examples of a given format and exhibits no retreat from the ambitious expansion of possibility which has characterized each entry of Delany’s œuvre.

In an essay, Delany writes:  “I feel the science-fictional enterprise is richer than the enterprise of mundane fiction.  It is richer through its extended repertoire of sentences, its consequent greater range of possible incident, and through its more varied field of rhetorical and syntagmatic organization.”  from the Triton Journal.

In the recently released volume one of his journals, we find this series of observations:

“Mainstream fiction today is onanistic and defeatist.  SF is the literature that posits man is changing.  Mainstream is the literature that posits he cannot change.   Science fiction is the only heroic fiction left today; it’s the only fiction today that admits there is a solution to its problems.   Mainstream fiction is like looking in a mirror; SF is like looking through a door.  SF has liberated the content of fiction the way Proust and Joyce liberated language.”

This last was written in the early Sixties and reflects the state of the art at that time.  And yet, when observing contemporary fiction, clearly something of a reaction to the state of the art at that time has manifested in the growing use of science fiction in what we call mainstream literature—indeed, how much outright SF is now being published as mainstream.

When considering the advent of a novel like Trouble On Triton (published originally as simply Triton as one of Frederik Pohl’s selections at Bantam Books) when it came out in 1976, the above observations cast a revealing light on what Delany was doing and gives us an idea of how radical it was to both mainstream readers and science fiction readers.Because the novel is an exercise is parried expectations.

triton_front

What I mean by that is, upon first encountering the novel it would appear to be a story about a future war waged between Earth and the outer settlements of the solar system, specifically artificial habitats both free in space or in enclosed environments on th many moons of the gas giants. We are in a future that has seen widespread expansion of human presence throughout the solar system.  Tensions are mounting and diplomacy is failing.  War would appear to be inevitable.

What we find instead is a story told from inside the head of Bron Helstrom, an inhabitant of a sprawling city on Triton, the moon of Neptune, who is from the start almost wholly absorbed in his own status as “a reasonably happy man” trying to find his way in the vibrantly polymorphous society in which he has chosen to live.  The narrative is carried by the minutiae of Bron’s problems, ambitions, insecurities, and attempts at codification that are at turns compellingly familiar, frustrating, thoroughly alien, and ultimately revealing of the problems of boundaries in a milieu that seems to offer almost none to any behavior. By the time we realize that it is Bron’s perceptions and what amounts to his petty concerns that comprise the main focus of the narrative, we’re caught within the web of a new social structure based on technological and cultural assumptions continually in a state of flux.  It is that state of flux—the continual calling-into-question of assumptions based on common experience—that is the principle æsthetic aim of the novel.  It is, in essence, about finding our way in one of the possible futures toward which we may be heading.

Which is nothing new in science fiction.  Utopias abound.  In fact, the subtitle of Delany’s novel addresses exactly that body of work:  An Ambiguous Heterotopia.

Delany was in dialogue with another novel, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, An Ambiguous Utopia  In that work, the limits of the presumptive utopian enterprise are examined with reference to the impact on the individual who may not fit well with programmatic solutions.  Delany turned this inside out by giving us an examination of the impact on an individual of an almost complete absence of such solutions who may well need them in order to have any reliable sense of self.

“Heterotopia” is a term from Foucault, meaning essentially  “Other Place” or “Place Of Differences”—as opposed to Utopia, which basically means No Place.  The society in which Bron bounces from one thing to another in search of a state of being is very much a place of differences.  In many ways, it is a libertarian paradise.  “What should I do?” is at every turn answered with “What do you want to do?”

Which is a problem for Bron, who, as the novel develops, needs the structure of expectations, boundaries, an accepted standard imposed.  From the first two sentences the potential problem is revealed.  “He had been living at the men’s co-op (Serpent’s House) six months now.  This one had been working out well.”

Delany has written critically of how the nature of a science fictional sentence is distinct in its intent and impact from a “normal” sentence.  For instance, he uses the sentence from Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon—“The door dilated”—as an example of how such sentences pry apart expectations and illuminate far more than the action described.  That in those three words the implications of what the entire world beyond that door may be like.  The more you examine it the more you realize you are not in literary Kansas anymore.  Similarly, his opening image in Trouble On Triton serves multiple purposes., some of them very science-fictional.  Men’s co-op suggests a social structure at odds with our present set of givens. The follow-up sentence tell us there are others like it because he had been living in this one for six months and it was “working out well,” which says he’s been in others and they didn’t.  “Serpent’s House” flags the unreliability of the situation—serpents are traditionally linked with deception—but also with the possible mythic foundations of what may follow.  But on a personal level, it signals at once that Bron is looking for something that, in fact, “works well” and he has moved—possibly many times—in order to find it.  As events unfold, we learn how very true these initial surmises are.

And yet the two sentences seem otherwise innocuous.  Introductory furniture.

We learn that Bron is an immigrant.  He was born on Mars and lived there into adulthood.  He was employed as a male prostitute, a career he has exchanged for the more esoteric one of metalogician.  Metalogic is a discipline of solution-finding, problem-solving, anticipatory management.  Bron’s coworkers think he is very good at it, which becomes an interesting point along the way because he personally would seem unsuited to such a disciplined “seat of the pants” approach to life.

It would be a simpler reading to see Bron as a mediocre man trying to find satisfaction in a society of high-achieving, multi-expressive near-geniuses, but in truth Bron is in many ways not medicore.  But he constantly compares himself to others and not in a healthy competitive way.  His obsession with people as “types” and the ongoing discourse throughout the book about how people fall into them shows a desperate need to know where he stands in a society that seems thoroughly uninterested in that kind of question.

Bron is walled off in a continual diagnostic loop that never resolves.  He moves from place to place, changes externalities all the time, and always comes back to the same ground state of dissatisfaction. Which actually makes him ideal for his chosen profession even though he is incapable of internalizing its benefits.

He meets The Spike, a writer/actor who produces microtheater, seeming spontaneous (though highly choreographed) mini-events.  Bron is drawn into one, becomes enthralled by her, and pursues her for the length of the novel as if she is somehow a solution to his personal dilemmas.

During this, war does break out with Earth.  There is a battle which catches everyone on Triton by surprise—the artificial gravity is cut for a fraction of a second—and in the chaos following Bron briefly emerges from his cocoon.  He joins, more or less as a tourist, a diplomatic mission to Earth.  While there he is arrested and tortured and, when the authorities realize that he doesn’t actually know anything, is tossed back to his group, a few of whom have died under similar circumstances.  On returning to Triton, the war ramps up and—

Earth loses.

Bron becomes even more obsessed with “solving” himself.

What makes this novel fascinating as science fiction is the play of environment and psychology that depicts a potentially unique approach to self-analysis and the problem of personal acculturation. Bron applies techniques of analyses that are certainly based in neurotic self-sabotage, but he is also attempting to recast himself constantly in a new image.  He is not trapped within the limits of his society but trapped by its apparent limitlessness.  There are no walls against which he is beating to escape.  It is that there are, in essence, no walls and he wants there to be.  But he doesn’t seem to have even the language in this future place to define what it is he seeks.

We have here what so many critics of SF have long argued that the form cannot support—a deeply nuanced character study of the psychology of alienation in a society wherein the standards for belonging are so loosely defined that the nature of such alienation itself constitutes a pathological conundrum.

Along the way, Delany gives as a master class on malleability, which is one of the chief pleasures of science fiction.

The world, the politics, the analyses of economics and the scientific bases of the technologies, all are laid in with a masterful skill.  This is a Different Place.  That, too, is one of the chief pleasures of the form.

Bron is a prismatic character. It might seem odd and perverse to pick such a flawed and emotionally dysfunctional lens through which to examine this world, but what better way to truly look at something than by way of someone who is out of harmony with it all and even lacks sympathy with its putative benefits.

Trouble On Triton (and I believe is was shortened to Triton on original publication to avoid confusion with the earlier novel by Alan E.Nourse, Trouble On Titan—SF was a much smaller world then) is both strikingly different than its predecessor, Dhalgren, but within its scope is every bit as challenging.  The Wesleyen Press edition includes an essay by Kathy Acker who makes the case for this novel being another in Delany’s riffs on the myth of Orpheus.  I have a different read on that.  If there is a mythic character underlying this, I believe it is Hephaestus.  He was often an outsider, his own group threw him out a time or two, and he was a metalurgist, someone all about the malleability of form.

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