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.

Why Read

In light of the last few years, the question bites. Indulge me in a venting plea.

In my experience, limited though it is, I have found that the better read a person is, the more likely they will be to cope with reality, to defend against the twisting delights of both conspiracy theory and pseudoscience, and to be less vulnerable to charlatanry.

Not always. Some deceptions come wrapped in marvelous packages that can appeal to the puzzle-solver in us all and present as aesthetically compelling. In my own life I have followed white rabbits in tweed down a number of holes, some part of me convinced that truth lay in some hidden recess along the way.

I have been relegated to many sidelines since childhood because of reading, sidelines which at the time seemed harsh and unfair, but in retrospect were actually relatively safe places. Time and space are necessary for a mind to develop. Exposure to stimulating material does not work its magic immediately, sometimes not even soon, but eventually all those books and stories and articles result in a set of pathways and memories and organizing concepts that allow for the skills to deal with what may otherwise be just confusion.

No, let me be more definite—“may” has little to do with it. People who read, in my experience, are generally more present, more conscious, more adaptable than people who only watch and subsequently go through life skimming a surface which too often becomes a mirror and allows them to ignore what is beneath. In fact, those surface presentations often depend on not knowing what underlies them, may actively resist analysis, and with few exceptions deceive by suggesting there is nothing more.

Not all. But it is also true that those not intended to deceive largely depend on an audience that reads to reveal their full meaning.

There are many studies about the physiological and cognitive benefits of reading, especially fiction. Here’s one. There is an increases in synaptic structure associated with regular reading. Memory improves. Your brain responds by providing better tools.

Then, of course, you have to apply the tools. For me, this makes fiction and, in a similar way, history indispensable. Reading other kinds of books, while important in many ways, can leave you unaware of irony, of conflict, or paradox, all of which are fundamental to the so-called Human Condition. We read novels to grapple with the contradictions of being human. We read fiction because in doing so we learn the value of Other Minds attempting to do this thing we all own as a birthright—-living.

Occasionally we see a nod to this in popular entertainment. In the tv series Castle, Detective Becket is presented as an exceptional and gifted detective. In the first episode we hear from one of her colleagues that he likes “a simple Jack killed Jill over Bill” rather than the “freaky” ones. Becket responds, “Oh, but the freaky ones require more.” And then she challenges them: “Don’t you guys read?” As the series progresses we can see that she just brings more to the game and in that first episode the difference is made explicit.

We undervalue reading, often while making a big deal about it. Writers become celebrities, usually once one or more of their books is made into a film. And their fans may well read everything they publish, but that’s not beneficial reading. Like anything else, if you do not expand your horizons, complicate your diet, move out of your comfort zone, you end up trapped in a self-referential, reaffirming loop that grows nothing.

We must read so our apprehension of the world is less frightening, amenable to recognition, and manageable. So that people are not so alien and culture not so forbidding. Certainly someone can read a great deal and still be unable to decipher the world, but I believe such people to be a minority, and most of us benefit from the increased clarity that comes from an ongoing encounter with Other Minds.

The greatest benefit comes from a catholic indulgence: read widely, daily—fiction, science, history, philosophy, memoir—because at some point you will find it all reinforcing, that insights gained in one place can be enriched and enlivened by another source. And somewhere along the way, we may find that we are no longer easily fooled.

The most valuable ability of late would seem to be this, the awareness to not be fooled.

I make no prediction that a sudden upsurge of deep reading would solve our problems. Humans can be contradictory, perverse creatures. But it seems obvious that an illiterate populace is an easily-tricked, easily swayed populace. Given that those who are invested in people watching their shallow offerings rather than go off somewhere to read are generally those who would sell us shiny bits that delight and fail, it would be a good strategy to take up books and stop being led like myopic sheep.

But I have a rather more personal reason for urging people to set aside whatever prejudices they acquired in primary and secondary schools that turned them against reading-for-pleasure. When I set a book aside, as one must, and go out into the world, I would like to have meaningful contact with other people, and ignorance is a depressing barrier to that.

Why read? To be more. To hopefully be yourself. And possibly to be free.

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.

Strange New Worlds

Fifty-five years ago a television show appeared that changed everything.

it didn’t seem like it at the time. It was clumsy, but for the time it was a marvel of production values. The scripts were occasionally tortured constructs, the characters stiff, the plots absurd. It lasted three seasons, got canceled, and drifted into the twilight zone of fondly-remembered might-have-beens.

Then fandom took over, kept it alive, and eventually it was revived. Not in the way of retreads, as those we see today—reboots that quite often, though with better production values, are not exactly new—but in a resumption. We’ve gotten used to some of this today, what with franchise switching from one network to another, evading cancellation. We’ve even gotten used to quality reboots.

But Star Trek was the first to do all this successfully, in several incarnations.

I recently finished viewing the third season of Star Trek: Discovery and then began a rewatch of the original series. It has become the thing to do to make fun—usually mild fun—of the original, especially Shatner’s over-acting, but also the inconsistency of the universe, the poor special effects, all the flaws that pretty much any television show back then suffered from. And yes, compared to now, the show lacks. But there is a remarkable familial consistency between them. In 1966 Gene Roddenberry helmed a work of fiction that came to exist well outside the confines of the screen. Most of the fare of the day only ever existed during its broadcast window and inside the square of the picture tube. The Federation, in other words, was real.

We’re used to this in written fiction—novels and short stories. World-building that offers the heft and texture of a real place is expected. Television was not like that. The ephemeral nature of the product may have contributed to the attitude that only so much work need be done to make what ended up on the screen serve for a half-hour or hour of viewing. Cancellation was right around the corner. Even those shows with unusual longevity usually relied on the viewers to fill in whatever extended aspects were needed. The Old West was a mythical place most people already believed in. Crime shows only needed the daily news to lend that kind of weight to the stories.

In science fiction is was unprecedented on television. Star Trek offered the kind of substantive world that readers of science fiction had encountered for decades. Despite the awkwardness of some of the episodes, that was the thing that drew many of us. Almost from the first episode, we tuned in to a place different from our world that felt almost as real.

It was a remarkable achievement, one that made possible the best of SF tv that came after. The lesson was hard-learned and it took a few decades, but it was the important element.

As to the rest…Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, the Enterprise, Starfleet—none that would have made any lasting impact without that world.

And about them. They reflected other trios of characters in other shows, most notably (to me, at least, others may have different examples) the principals in Gunsmoke. Matt Dillon, Festus, and Doc. And when you watch, really watch, the acting was superb. It had to be. They were required to convey “belonging” in a world quite alien to ours. Their actions had to seem natural for that context. They had to speak dialogue that would make no sense anywhere else. When McCoy waxes empathetic about the past barbarities of medicine, it conveys several things at once, about the future of medicine, about the sentiment attached to his profession, about the history that has elapsed within the show’s reference between then and now, hence providing actual historical context, not to mention McCoy’s heart and his attitude.

Even Shatner’s performances are less bombastic than the jokes would seem to suggest. The byplay between Kirk and Spock is rather remarkable.

And Nimoy…

One felt it possible to step through the screen and live there, because there would be a There to live in.

Once the franchise was revived, first in the films and then in a new series (Next Generation), the extent of that creation began to manifest more clearly. For 55 years now we have been exploring the Strange New Worlds of that universe. That each new series manages to be as impressive as they are, it becomes even clearer that Star Trek has become a dialogue generator. I mean in the philosophical sense. It puts questions to us that need answers—not for then, not for the 23rd or 24th Centuries, but for Now. The philosophical challenges of the franchise have brought about a massively useful conversation. At the center of it is, perhaps, a simple question that may seem minor: what does it mean to be human? Yes, this is a core question in most if not all drama, but in the case of science fiction it takes on added weight because we find actual representations of different possibilities of Human. And in Star Trek we have a popular forum for that question, asked in that way, in a medium that reaches a much larger audience.

What we learn is that Human has no single, concrete definition—but whatever it is, it seems to be realer than anything else.

Exploring that question…well, that’s the real Five Year Mission, isn’t it? Therein we find the strange new worlds.

Clearly, it has not been, nor cannot be, limited to just five years.

2020 and Reading for Purpose

In a year that felt more like some surreal historical melodrama that ought to be safely turned into a documentary rather than something to cling to the future like a belly-full of bad booze, what we read may have been one of the most important choices we were able to make. Our lives constrained by a pandemic, we may have lived more vicariously than ever before, but we also dealt with the world as a landscape of impending doom in ways that perhaps our parents and grandparents may have in different ways, but was unique in the manner of it collision with reality and ignorance.

I think it fair to say that never before has so much information, understanding, and intellectual resource been so available to so many and yet rejected in turn to such a degree as to challenge one’s sanity. It seemed like the more we knew, the more concrete things we could say about so many things, the more too many people flat-out denied those very things that might have made the world a better place. Watching and listening to the news day to day was an agony of frustration.

So we—some of us—turned to reading for answers as well as escape. Answers to try to make sense of things, escape to give us the spiritual resources to cope with what we learned and what we saw.

I read, cover to cover, 63 books in 2020.

What science fiction I read was related mainly to the reading group I host. I read a lot of history, political philosophy, mysteries. I did not quite finish a rather excellent biography of John Maynard Keynes, which has proven to be a timely work that throws light on the history that brought us to where we are now. Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace should, I suggest, be read with Binyamin Appelbaum’s The Economists’ Hour. Between them they illuminate the 20th century struggle with finding our way through the morass of slogans, competing theories, political opportunists, and national identities that seem to rely on the 19th Century concepts of poverty, property, and progress to justify a kind of fearful reluctance to simply adapt.

Along with these, Shawn Otto’s The War On Science is history of the anti-intellectualism in America that has dogged us since the beginning and has resulted now in a precarious moment in which the knowledge we derive from sound scientific practice has never been more necessary to our survival while living in a time when more people refuse to acknowledge anything outside their own concepts and prejudices. Along with this, a somewhat more theoretical but complimentary work is Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oseskes.

It would seem that our greatest enemy remains ignorance. Demagogues and con artists have become far more adept at manipulating and defrauding us in greater numbers than ever before and the only defense is our ability to reason, to sort through and measure and recognize nonsense, especially when it seems enriching, empowering, and edifying. Everything has taken on an urgency that strips us of time and room to judge, to assess, to think through. Decisions must be made now, while the offer lasts, don’t be late, get yours now.

In this struggle, the only thing that we can personally do is equip ourselves with the wide gaze of grounded perspective. History, economics, philosophy. They can appear daunting. But you only have to pick a book and start. It accrues. In time, something seemingly so removed from our present experience as Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, about King Phillip’s War, which set the pattern for the European conquest of America, takes on currency in the here and now. Speaking of Jill Lepore, her newest, If Then, about the forgotten Simulmatics Incorporated and its effect on American (and global) politics is an eye-opening expose of how we managed to corrupt our political systems with introduction of demographic analysis, ad-agency thinking, and datamining.

Economics, history…what about philosophy?

Outside specialized texts, I believe one cannot do better than good science fiction. Mary Robinette Kowal’s latest in her Lady Astronaut series, Relentless Moon, offers some surprising relevancy to the present as well as a terrific yarn set in an alternate history. Annalee Newitz’s Future of Another Timeline is a rumination on choice as well as a good time-travel story. Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller examines near-future global changes and the consequences of corporate capitalism disguised cleverly as a quest/revenge/rescue narrative.

I’ve been reading aloud to my partner for a while now. We did John Scalzi’s most recent trilogy, starting with The Collapsing Empire. His approach is in some ways perhaps “irreverent” but once you get past that surface facility, it’s a first-class trilogy.

Possibly the most beautiful writing I encountered this year was Robert MacFarlane’s Underland. He’s a naturalist/explorer whose previous work has been concerned with climbing mountains and related landscapes. In this he went down. In a magnificent rumination on ecologies and the underground, both natural and artificial, he has written beautifully about a world we ignore to our peril.

Alex Ross, music critic for the New York Times, whose previous book The Rest Is Noise, about music and 20th Century history, is wonderful, has published his intricate study of Wager and the impact he had on, well, everything. Wagnerism in some senses is an expression of the often-unacknowledged influence of art on politics and identity. Ross examines how Wagner became the focal point for movements and countermovements up till the present with his outsized presence in film scores. An aspect of history that deserves a bit more attention.

I have my to-be-read pile already building for 2021. It includes several books that I hope will help me ride the unpredictable currents of our ongoing struggle with the world. But never more strongly do I feel that the encounter with other minds through the agency of the written word is one of our best tools for managing and emerging from darkness. We have such a wealth of resource. I look around at the world and cannot help but feel that if more people simply read more and more widely, things would begin to resolve. Never before have we had it thrown in our faces with such force the costs of ignorance.

Here is wishing you all a safe and aspirational year. Read on, read well.

The Relevance of Science Fiction

Kingsley Amis, in his book on science fiction, named Frederik Pohl as possibly the best practitioner of the craft. For some inside the field, it was a curious choice, but over time it has become difficult to deny. Pohl had one of the longest careers in SF, working at one time or another in just about every aspect of the genre—writer, agent, editor, certainly promoter. His novel Gateway is still one of the most memorable and poignant reads ever produced in the field and his work as editor of Galaxy and If brought many superb writers in.

He was also one of the great collaborators. He worked with Jack Williamson, Thomas T. Thomas, Isaac Asimov, Lester Del Rey. But perhaps his best collaborations were with Cyril Kornbluth.

Especially The Space Merchants.

Much has been written about the so-called “predictive” qualities of science fiction. Those familiar with the field weary of this. The whole point of science fiction is speculation based on what we currently know. The anticipation of technologies is not meant to be specific, even though the first magazine dedicated to it (Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing and Wonder Stories) quite explicitly intended to showcase gadgetry. By the time SF had grown into what we see today, this notion was viewed with chagrin and some impatience. Yes, spaceships are cool. Yes, mile-high buildings would be amazing. Yes, aliens and that they imply.

But the point is to set up a different arrangement of conditions based on the idea of social, technological, and material change and then see how this affects people.

So we open a novel like The Space Merchants and almost at once, from our perspective, find the gimickry of the setting amusing and/or embarrassing, because it was written in the 1950s and it shows. This is supposed to be about the 21st Century, after all. And what we find is something made up of parts of The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, Brave New World, a touch of Captains Courageous, and The Manchurian Candidate. Advertising agencies run the world. It is an overpopulated planet, highly stratified, resources uncomfortably limited, with a propaganda machine run on brainwashing, narcotics, and a gleeful refusal to see anything wrong with any of it.

I will not here describe the plot, which is pretty much spy thriller-esque and moves the story along nicely. What matters here is the prediction. Not of the specifics of the scenario—that is exaggerated, pushed to an almost absurd extreme in service to the theme of the book, which is among those perhaps best characterized as in the “If This Goes On” variety.

Coming out of World War II, one of the underlying motivations informing politics and economics was a desire to make sure it never happened again. The world had beaten itself to a pulp. The political and social components of that disaster were much debated and quite naturally there was concern that it could happen again.

A number of things coincided to provide an apparent way through. First, the emergence of behavioral science, which sought to explain why people do what they do. Secondly, the joining of Madison Avenue advertising culture with politics (Eisenhower’s campaign was run by ad agencies while his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, rejected them out of hand). Thirdly, the apparent victory of capitalism as the solution to all material problems (thrown into stark contrast by a similar attempt at dominance by the soviet blocs). America came out of the war not only whole but in the de facto role of world savior.

To some extent, The Space Merchants is commentary on the embrace of capitalism as a kind of religion. That runs through the novel as a nerve-jangling given. The world built by ad agencies depends on the blind allegiance of consumers, which expresses itself in categorical denials of any other possible solution to what have, in the novel, become patently unmanageable global problems.

But not quite catastrophically unmanageable. It still seems to those in the upper layers to be fixable. Just push things a little more—for instance, by opening the planet Venus for colonization.

Reading it today creates a buzz of recognition. If one ignores the trappings of the scenario—the pedal-driven cabs, the “contract” marriages, the cheesy ad campaigns—one can see the lineaments of a future we have ourselves come to inhabit. The details are different but the essential gestalt is very much as Pohl and Kornbluth suggested it might be. Blind devotion to a capitalism that is more religion than tool, the easy acceptance of a class system that relegates people to poverty, the fervent belief that looming disasters are nothing of the kind and we don’t have to actually do anything about them.

Jill Lepore’s latest book, If Then, chronicles the rise in the Fifties of the factors which can easily be discerned in the background assumptions of The Space Merchants. The way in which, out of a desire to control the future and avoid ever having to deal with the kind of things that resulted in WWII, we have placed our hopes and energies in systems that have, frustratingly, become the stuff of 1950s cautionary tales. Looking out our collective windows, we see essentially the country, if not the world, run by Ad Men.

I do not wish to be too dire here. The resonances are far from one-to-one. But the work done in The Space Merchants suggests where the whole idea of predictive SF may come from. As always, it has little to do with the “stuff” and everything to do with people.

Recurrence and Renewal

William Gibson’s new novel, Agency, is a sequel to his superb The Peripheral, which is arguably one of the best of three or four time travel novels ever written.  Here he continues with several of the same characters, still exploring the peculiarities of the Stubs, and it is clear now that the matter at hand is alternate solutions to a set of problems faced in the present world.

Wilf Netherton, Ainsley Lowbeer, Ash, and Rainey intervene in a new stub that is on the brink of nuclear war. As the narrative unfolds, it become evident that this is not Our World. The 2016 presidential election did not go the way ours did, for one thing.

But the changes seem minor as far as they go.

At a certain point, though, none of these distinctions matter, because Gibson has tapped into the truth that we all live in our own stubs. Reality is comprised of an enormous amount of shared background, but details vary across a variety of platforms—social, economic, cultural, educational, political, informational, geographical, and temperamental.

By separating them out as if they were physically distinct realities, Gibson permits an examination of the elements that comprise distinctive characteristics—with the possibility of corrective interference. In the case of the first novel, the stub was based on aspects of rural, post-agrarian southern culture. In this new novel, it is very much West Coast venture capitalist techie.

Verity has just been hired by a company called Tulpagenics to beta test an interactive piece of eyewear. Immediately, Gibson is playing a long game through naming. Verity, which is linked to truth, to verify, to, ultimately, reality, and Tulpa, a concept of spiritualism coming from the Tibetan sprulpa, meaning “emanation” or “manifestation.”

It seems simple enough. Verity, though, apparently has been chosen because she has been successfully avoiding media attention after her breakup with a billionaire entrepreneur named Stetson, who generally drew the attention of all the popular sources of celebrity quasi-news. Verity has been sleeping on the couch of a friend named Joe-Eddy, who in his own way is a highly resourceful independent…something. Her ability to stay invisible seems important to Tulpagenics for this field test.

The glasses, though…she becomes quickly acquainted with Eunice, who turns out to be an AI program of fairly unique characteristics. They begin to build rapport. In fact, Eunice becomes so important to Verity that—

Enter Wilf Netherton, Ainsley Lowbeer, and Connor from the last novel. The stubs, using the same sort of informational technology Lowbeer and Netherton avail themselves of, can interact. To remind, Connor is a veteran given purpose in The Peripheral as an operative who then becomes the chief of security (bodyguard) of his friend-elected-president, Leon. Connor is remarkable at remote operations—drones—and is enlisted here to assist Verity and Eunice to avoid capture and death at the behest of the parent company of Tulpagenics, Cursion.  (Cursion roughly means “running, to run.”)

This stub is edging close to nuclear war. Lowbeer and company are intent on bringing it back from that edge. Eunice may be instrumental to that. It is hinted at—strongly—that while the stubs are not part of the “main” continuum, events in them have an effect. Of course, there’s some question raised as to whether the London of 2136 is the main continuum, but that’s a question to be answered (perhaps) later.

Gibson’s narrative approach is fascinating. A series of otherwise ordinary-seeming actions around key moments of invention that accumulate to a climax that, in hindsight, feels right and inevitable but still comes as a surprise. Occasionally it seems that if you take any given paragraph out and examine it, there’s not much in it, but the wavefront generated in context is inexorable.  He has always presented as a “simple” writer, but this is a serious misjudgment.  And the long game he always indulges impresses in ways we least expect.

But one thing he is completely engaged with is the idea of emergent properties of intelligence. In Neuromancer the end-game was the creation-emergence of a fully autonomous A.I. In each of his fictive creations, there is this fascination and examination of what might loosely be termed Singularites (they aren’t, but the road leading to them feels the same), and in this current work he’s playing across continua while dealing with the same suite of notions about A.I. and pivot points and paradigm shifts.

It’s not that he’s writing about the same idea. It’s that the idea is so massively encompassing that one can almost say everything is about it.

In this formulation, the Singularity can be used to label any moment where enough different threads and forces converge to leverage a pronounced conceptual change. Before this moment, we knew the world one way. After it, we see things differently.

He achieved this revelation to great effect in his previous trilogy, which was not science fiction so much as science fiction-al.  It was entirely set in our present world, with only changes in emphasis about the technology and the ways in which it manifests and is manipulated, yielding a portrait of a paradigm shift in process.  He seems to be plowing the same fields in this present work, only from a determinedly SFnal position, that of a species of time travel which is based on the communication of information across continua. The effect, interestingly, is similar to what one might experience traveling from one segment of our global society to another, with the attendant culture shocks and privileged dispositions in play.

In this, Gibson shows himself to be one of the sharpest observers we have, whose work is subversively relevant. He understands how all this “development” impacts and has a genius for dramatizing emergent properties while spinning a fascinating yarn.

 

 

Sleepless In Present Time

Nancy Kress is one of those writers who comes up in conversations about good science fiction who elicits knowing nods and smiles of appreciation, sometimes even among people who may not have read anything. The name is known and she has written material that influences.

In particular, a novel which can be regarded as a classic.

The word gets over-used and misapplied, but in the sense of meaning something of on-going value, with a tendency to remain relevant to present issues, and a reliably fascinating read, Beggars In Spain qualifies.

Let’s get the mechanics out of the way first. With regards to elegant sentences, smooth plotting, well-drawn characters, and thematic cohesion, this is as good as it gets in any genre. Published in 1993, the only thing that has “dated” is the actual timeframe in which it is set. This is a problem of most near-future SF. But here it intrudes so lightly that one may mentally move the frame forward. After a while, it ceases even to be a distraction.

As for the substance of the novel…

This is an excellent example of the kind of science fiction which is sometimes described as ideal—make one change and follow the consequences, rigorously and tenaciously. One change. One major speculative change.

I emphasize that “speculative” change because there are the usual kinds of speculations one expects in good SF. Changes in technology, changes in certain political arrangements, and so forth. This is the future, after all, it would be odd if something ordinary weren’t different. So we have a new kind of power source, Y energy, and therefore new distribution systems for it. Details.

The Change that matters, however, is singular and presented with an enviable plausibility. Gene editing has reached the point of on-demand modifications. What some people—ambitious people, hopeful people, people with means—-opt for it to create children who do not require sleep.

The Sleepless, as they become known, are in this respect a variant with possibilities of becoming a separate species. But the immediate result is a growing resentment among “Sleepers” who realize quickly the pronounced competitive advantage the Sleepless will have. All things being equal, they will outperform the unmodified simply by virtue of an extra eight hours per day to work.

There are people who require far less sleep than most of us (some as little as an hour or two per twenty-four hour cycle) and then there is the terrible disorder Fatal Familial Insomnia, which deprives its victims of sleep completely, leading to a number of unfortunate consequences and, eventually, death. Sleep is essential. We have learned even since Kress first published this novel in 1993 how complex and essential sleep is to our health, but she posits the condition in such a way that one can ignore these downsides, at least for the purposes of the story. It is a genetic modification, which comes with other unintended “benefits” which figure into the plot.

What they chiefly lose, though, are dreams.

Which she introduces into the story in a fine development that adds to the overall thought experiment.

But the question running throughout is both philosophical and sociological. By creating the Sleepless, Kress opens the subject of prejudice and, while never actually using the word, eugenics in ways that allow for an examination of the process as it manifests.

The Sleepless are born into privilege. It’s an elective in vitro procedure, very expensive, so naturally only the wealthy will be able to afford it. This introduces the class nature of it and the first one to whom we are introduced—Leisha—is the result of her father’s desire to give her the advantages he imagines for her, so she can be even more successful than he is.  In a nice twist, Leisha becomes enamored of law—not in its economic sense but in its application for justice. She becomes the focus of the various arguments pro and con over the Sleepless and a champion for tolerance—on both sides.

Asd the debate heats up over the Sleepless, the economy is changing, leaving devastation behind in many places. This is not at all ahistorical.  This happens. It’s happening now.  But with the advent of the Sleepless, there is a source of blame and a cause for rally. The hoped-for accommodation expressed by some on both sides of this genetic divide, while not ineffective, becomes compromised in the on-rush of sadly predictable politics.

And then there is a further step taken with the potential to divide even the Sleepless against each other.

This is a finely-wrought, complex narrative about the ramifications of technological changed and social reaction to that change. Into the mix, Kress throws a couple of well-chewed economic arguments with which we are all familiar, in questions of “deserving” and socialism and boot-strap judgments that attempt to organize our ethical choices according to work, ability, and social responsibility.  Kress is very good at arguing from both sides, lending plausibility to positions we can see as both tragically forceful and straw-man positions. As one reads, one knows it would play out this way.

The Sleepless are, in the larger sense, an example of what might be seen as unfair advantage in the hands of the few who can afford it. In reality, it could be anything: better access to information systems, travel options most do not have, entrée to persons or organizations barred to most, an unshared network, or simply technological enhancements.  Gaining and maintaining personal advantage in a competitive world is a constant and has always been, initially, a benefit of the privileged. By making it a genetic modification, Kress removes the illusion that what the Sleepless can do anyone can if only they had the opportunity. A certain equilibrium is maintained in our world by the surface tension of the assumption that, one day, we’ll all have “that” tool.

The only winning scenario in this is Change. Things will be different and those who can accept that and learn to live with it tend to have an advantage over those who can’t. Of course, it is never quite that simple, and the richness of Kress’s story is in the demonstration throughout of how not simple it is.

 

 

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.