Bones Of Time

What are we talking about when we talk about science fiction? A genre defined by its trappings, its tropes? Or a mode of exploration of a kind of telec reification that only came into being with the advent of what we now recognize as science? A form of Gothic? An inversion of the historical drama? A subset of fantasy?

Or all of the above?

When encountering a writer like Jack Vance, it may be understandable that definitions (or at least taxonomies) fail to clarify how this can be the same as work by Gregory Benford. Aside from certain obvious aesthetic differences, there is the problem of, for want of a better term, scientific verisimilitude.

At a certain point, in conversation with anyone who does not “get” science fiction, it comes down to an ineffable quality that, while sharing much with all other forms of fiction, sets the experience apart, both aesthetically and culturally, and the only answer to the question “What is it about this stuff that appeals to you so much?” is: it lights up the imagination like nothing else.

(“I like it.” Why? “Why do you like Regency Romance? Or Gothics? Or murder mysteries? Something about them appeals and opens you up to an emotional and aesthetic experience you find no where else.”)

Before I continue I want to state that this is about Gregory Benford, not Jack Vance, whose work I mention as an example of the range to be found within the expanding pond called Science Fiction. It is about his new novel, Shadows Of Eternity.

Amazon.com: Shadows of Eternity: 9781534443624: Benford, Gregory: Books

This novel gave me an experience I have not had in some time, or at least only in some dilute form, embedded within texts that privileged other aspects of the fictive practice, that I almost forgot about it, namely the pleasure of didactic prose in service to the larger qualities of a science fiction novel. Shadows Of Eternity is done in the form we know as Hard SF, which only means that considerable attention is paid in the text to the presumed scientific justifications for the actions. In that, it is exemplary.

I say “presumed scientific justifications” because for the most part their accuracy is secondary for most readers, and many examples over the decades have proven unreliable in that. This is a novel, not a textbook, and the primary concern is to convince the reader in the moment that what is happening conforms, or can conform, to legitimate scientific understanding. “Getting it right” is edifying, both for the reader and, in a different way, the writer. Acknowledging that accuracy to a certain number of decimal points is less important than the Idea of accuracy is like saying that a reader of a novel set in the reign of Henry II does not, in the end, care if every single historical detail is correct as long as it feels correct and cannot be contradicted by a cursory glance at a history of the period.

That said, getting it right is a point of pride and, possibly, an ethical requirement, depending on the kind of story being told.

This gets tricky when writing about the far future and exotic physics and technological developments that might come about. We are talking about speculation, after all, which is one of the principle pleasures of science fiction. In practice, the might-be of a given story must be consistent with the have beens and probably ares of the currently known.

What does this have to do with storytelling?

Well, if you go down that road—Hard SF—then, just as in any other genre, it is incumbent on the writer to include material that produces a satisfying sense of realism in which the characters move. Only in this case, that material is of a bit more rarefied nature, namely the science behind the world being examined.

One of the criticisms of SF in this has been that the story often seems to grind to a halt while some bit of arcane scientific exposition takes place. This kind of thing bores a certain kind of reader. So be it. But why should this demote the work on the scale of worthy literary practice? (One of the earliest franchise efforts in the James Bond cosmos post-Fleming spent, in my opinion, an inordinate amount of time on Bond’s sartorial choices, as well as minutiae of cars, food, and other fashion bits. I could not have cared less, but I acknowledge that there were and are readers for whom this was a distinct pleasure. Trivial, you say? Then in the case of historical novels in which paragraphs are deployed in describing family lineages, treaties, court etiquette, or the mechanics of travel. But all that bears on the story? Of course it does.) It seems not to occur to critics and certain readers that these expository bits are among the reasons for the readers to pick this author and not that. One should judge how well it is done, not whether it is there.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that, in science fiction, the World is as much a character as any motile actor.

(Which of course is why it is legitimate to explicitly link science fiction to Gothic.)

Literary tastes in recent decades have caused many writers to bury their didacticism more and more. The underpinnings intrude less and less, often resulting in a cinematic effect. (I note that some writers still deliver the fascinating expository bits, but rendered cleverly so that they can be ignored. I’m talking here now of work in which ignoring those passages is anathema to the author’s intent.) Partly, this can be gotten away with because of the last seventy years of science fiction film and television, which for large audience provides the visual shorthand for what is happening in a novel. Partly, also, this is possible because of the explicitly didactic work done in novels and short stories over and beyond the same period, so a basic “grammar” is now in place. And partly because a lot of work simply does not rely on that level of foundational support—the stories are not about the changes in the world but about the same old sturm und drang one could find in just about every other genre.

Benford’s new novel is, in some ways, an echo of SF from long ago. Reading it, I felt a cozy sense of nostalgia produced by the form and the tactics used. I found myself pleasantly remembering Clarke, Clement, Gunn, as well as Pohl, Chad Oliver, and even Simak. This is a mode of SF that seems of late to be disappearing, the dialectic. For decades, especially in the magazines, writers spoke to each other through stories, one responding to another and creating a chain reaction of alternative “takes” on ideas. This formed a dense fabric of historical conceptualizing. (Hence Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was “answered” by Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, which spark John Steakly’s Armor as well as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and so on. True, this happens in other genres, but it is not nearly so clear or connected.)

Shadows Of Eternity is part of this. Benford took a page (or more) from Poul Anderson by using Anderson’s flying aliens, the Ythri. (He borrowed a couple of other concepts from Anderson as well, one notion going all the way back to Anderson’s very early novel Brain Wave.) Yes, this is a form of homage, but it is more as well. Benford’s Ythri are his own. What Anderson created, Benford built on and made richer.

The core of the novel, though, is an examination of time. Deep time. (Benford wrote a nonfiction study of this subject.) The fact that the universe is old, so vastly old that when we begin peering into the abysses we will risk being swallowed up in the antiquity of it. Rachel arrives on the moon to join the staff of the Library, which is what has evolved from the early SETI attempts. The signals from old civilizations have been discovered and it is the task of the Library to curate and somehow translate them. Some of these signals turned out to be entire AI templates, and the Library now houses Minds.

Though technically qualified, Rachel understands that this will not set her apart. She must demonstrate qualities that she is unsure she possesses. But she blusters her way through, becomes a Trainee, and begins delving into these Minds.

As the novel proceeds, Rachel grows into someone she never expected to become. Confidence accrues, a taste for the edge emerges, and Rachel develops into—

She comes into her own with the arrival of visiting aliens—the Ythri—and becomes, often in spite of herself, the primary liaison with them. The Ythri have come through a wormhole and want to find their way back.

Benford sets before us puzzles and takes us through solutions and along the way does something the best science fiction has always sought to do—opens the vistas of what may be Out There for us and gives us a glimpse of the possibilities.

And those expository bits, filled with the how-to and what-is-it and where-did-this-come-from that science offers? Those set the stage for a conceptual apprehension that renders the view coherent enough for us to feel the awe of understanding what we’re looking at. This is what was meant by “Gosh, wow!” and Sense of Wonder.

The other thing to notice is not what is there, but what is not there—Bad Guys. There’s no war, no evil overlords, none of that. There are irritating people, foolish people, annoying situations, and a great deal of genuinely unnerving discoveries, but this is a world that presents as recognizable. The conflicts are, in some ways, quite ordinary, but set as they are in this interesting future, the ordinariness only becomes part of the puzzles that challenge Rachel.

Finally, Benford writes well. His descriptions can fascinate. The universe he sees, in reality and in his imagination, is vibrant and wonderfilled. This is science fiction for the explorer lurking inside us.

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.

Imperial Relevancy

Confession.

I read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War when it came out. I enjoyed it. I then read Agent To The Stars and likewise enjoyed it. I bought a copy of Lock In and…

Lots of reasons one fails to continue reading a book or an author, many of them having nothing to do with either.  As a kind of funhouse mirror response to the long line of homages to Starship TroopersOld Man’s War was fine, more interesting than most, and written in a manner that allowed easy enjoyment. I laughed out loud at Agent To The Stars and again, the voice was pleasurable.  I can’t say there was any valid reason to not keep reading Scalzi.  Other than the growing pile of to-be-reads, research for my own projects, reading I need to do for the day-job, and, well, life itself.  I have many books to hand that deserve a read and are languishing because I am mortal.

When the first volume of his new trilogy came along, I bought it, with the full intention of getting back to a writer I felt I ought to pay more attention to.  And then, it sat there. The next volume was released and finally the third. I bought them all, in hardcover, and when the last book arrived, I determined to read them straight through. Why not? I hadn’t done that in some time, read a trilogy in one go.

I’m glad I did. The pleasures of the whole work justify the time.

The Collapsing Empire is, firstly, a lot of fun.  The characters are nicely-drawn humans of wide ranging eccentricities, proclivities, and ambitions. Following them is rewarding, because even when they do something expected, the way they do it and the outcomes are not.

The setting is not unfamiliar, but Scalzi’s perspective is refreshingly realistic. The Interdependency is an interstellar community which relies on the Flow to move from one system to another. The Flow is a kind of extra-dimensional bypass. We are told repeatedly that analogies to rivers and so forth are inaccurate and also that no one actually knows what the Flow really is, but humans use it like a river system.  For a thousand years, the Interdependency has operated over numerous systems, its make-up based on an imperial hierarchy joined to a church and a collection of noble houses each with a monopoly.  The Emperox (an intentionally nongendered term for an old idea in a new form) has been from the same House since the Interdependency was established, the House of Wu, which holds the monopoly on shipbuilding and access to the Flow Shoals, the points of entry into the Flow.

It is clear from the outset that this system has found stability.  Throughout one thing is evident—this is a post-scarcity polity.  There are no poor, although there are discontented, the truly obdurate of which get sent to End, a world at the edge of the Interdependency where over time the malcontents have been deposited. Which has resulted in a local culture of anti-authoritarian rebelliousness that results in repeated cycles of revolution and the overthrow of the local Duke.

End also is the only human habitable planet in all of the Interdependency, the rest of which exists on stations and in surface colonies that have been dug out of worlds inimical to human life.

At some point prior to the creation of the Interdependency, these systems were cut off from Earth by a collapse of the Flow stream connecting them. Earth is legend. Within Interdependency memory, however, another system, Dalasysla, suffered the same fate. The possibility of such collapses is known, but other than those two it has never happened. The Interdependency has continued on as if it never would.

The story opens with exactly that happening. The Flow stream to End is starting to collapse.

At about the same time, the Emperox Atavio VI has died and a new emperox is being elevated, Cardenia, Atavio’s daughter by a former lover. She should never have become emperox. Atavio’s son, Rennered, was supposed to ascend to the throne, but he died in a racing accident.

Cardenia is an academic, raised away from the Court. No one knows much about her in terms of what kind of ruler she might make. But the forms are followed. Not that it matters.  Rennered was supposed to marry Nadashe Nohamapetan, of the House of Nohamapetan,  a house almost the equal of the House of Wu, thus joining the two most powerful houses together. The next heir would then be of both houses.  It is decided that Cardenia will simply marry Nadashe’s brother, Amit.

Cardenia has other ideas. But regardless what was supposed to happen, everything is derailed when on her coronation day a bomb goes off, nearly killing her, but successfully killing her best friend, who was to be her closest adviser.

She then learns two things that alter the course of her rule. One, she is introduced to the Memory Room, a chamber accessible only by the emperox where the personas of all past emperoxes are stored and where she can literally sit down and have a conversation with them.  There she learns the other thing—that her father, Atavio VI, knew the Flow was collapsing. His chief Flow physicist told him. Atavio VI then sent him off to End to continue his research, to verify and make absolutely certain about his findings in a place well away from the chaos of the Court. Which he does. And now the Flow stream to End is beginning to collapse, so he has to get the finished data back to Hub and the Court at Xi’an and the emperox, so some kind of planning might proceed to meet the inevitable isolation about to shut down the entire Interdependency. As another rebellion is happening on End, this one involving the Nohamapetans, he smuggles his son out with the data, sending him to the imperial court on Xi’an.

The stage now set, Scalzi takes us on a thoroughly engrossing ride through conspiracy, technological revelation, palace intrigue, and the discovery of history within a thoroughly imagined and well-constructed world(s).

The parallels to current-world issues could not be more obvious. Factions form over the question of the collapse. Some believe it won’t happen, others believe it won’t happen anytime soon, still others believe it won’t be a collapse so much as a realignment (and this latter group intend to take full advantage of that).  The work to convince enough of the right people that change is coming and the need to act is pressing envelopes Cardenia’s young reign.

Cardenia for her part proves herself up to the task of being emperox, surprising almost everyone. She is not a habitué of the Court, no one knows her, expectations are low.  That gives her an edge, which she uses.  It’s a pleasure watching her grow into the role.  She takes the name of a predecessor who faced similar difficulties, Grayland I, and forms some unexpected alliances that—

The pleasure is in the reading.

What is interesting here is the use of an old form cast in a new arrangement. It’s a valid question, though—why an empire? Why, therefore, an emperor?  Or in this case an emperox.

Empire evokes two broad images, one technical, the other romantic.

The technical side is one of practicality. Empires are, by and large, not practical. The extent of the territory, the problems of ruling a multiplicity of cultures and nationalities, and then the inevitable problems of security make them lumbering, inefficient, doomed-to-collapse bureaucratic fossils. On the relatively modest surface of a planet, it has proven to be untenable over any length of time (unless it is in name only and managed with a high degree of local autonomy, but even then…), the problems explode exponentially over interstellar distances. The idea that a political unit can be managed from a central location over many light years is, well, fantastic.

Which is why empires appear more in fantasy than science fiction.

But there is a long history of empires in science fiction and it is obvious that their creators were more than a little aware of the problems. In one of the most famous examples, Asimov’s Empire, it’s fairly obvious that “the emperor” is an isolated figurehead with no real command of the galactic polity of which he is the titular head. The bureaucracy functions as if he were utterly irrelevant.  Likewise in Poul Anderson’s Terran Empire, wherein the emperor is barely (if at all) mentioned.  The whole is not a homogeneous unit and the idea of empire is problematic.

Indeed, it is the British model that applies, if at all.  But even then, the cracks inherent in the structure virtually guarantee eventual dissolution.   So why “empire?”

That brings us to the romantic model, by which I do not mean anything more than a fabulation of the past superimposed upon a construct for the sake of nostalgia. The idea that somehow the past was more adventurous, perhaps simpler, and the issues more clear-cut. That heroics could be recognized and performed with less ambiguity. That the politics of the day were less tangled and knotty difficulties could be solved by the hack of a sharp blade.  And that monarchies were somehow “easier” than the squabbly morass of democracy.  Escapism, certainly, but you see the model used in fantasy all the time and for good reason.  And EMPIRE has such a ring to it!

And it allows for a kind of homogeneity across vast stretches of territory (and ethnicity) that enables a certain kind of narrative.

But if the point is to react against that system, it can also be…limiting.

Scalzi avoids that by redefining—or, at least, renegotiating the basic nature of empire. Here, more than anything else, it’s a business arrangement, with a large dollop of enlightened self-interest, and a mission statement which is considerably more practical than the usual. For one thing, there seems to be no expansion in this empire. The borders (boundaries) are set, presumably by the nature of the Flow, and there is no hint of conquest. Trade is controlled through monopolies and mutual support is guaranteed by the interdependent nature of the system.

This is more empire as corporation than anything mythic, with the emperox as CEO. (Which permits, in the end, a privileged viewpoint, from a single vantage.)

And the nature of that corporation? Stasis. Keep things running smoothly.  The added wrinkle here is that all the disparate nations/systems are bound to the system because none of them are self-sufficient. Being cut off is a death sentence.

Maybe.

With the revelation that the Flow streams are collapsing, Cardenia/Grayland II is now in a struggle to find a way to save as many people as possible while fending off attempts by the Nohamapetans to displace her and move the capitol to End.  Which, while End actually is a place where humans can survive on the surface of a planet, is by no means a reasonable solution for the billions of Interdependency citizens. End will not support them all or even a significant fraction of them without suffering degradation and eventual environmental collapse.

Of course, the Nohamapetans could not care less. They’re looking out for themselves, their clients, their privilege.

Scalzi has constructed a very neat allegory.  And then set it at arm’s length, because this is a far future space adventure after all, and the Flow isn’t really the Climate…

As if that were not enough, he then adds in the history behind the Interdependency, which has surprises of its own and contributes to the search for solutions in unexpected but perfectly logical ways.  (It may be no surprise to learn that the problem of the collapsing streams is not, after all, a “natural” phenomenon, but one humans inflicted on themselves, for reasons which are also not surprising.)

There are moments when it feels at the point of being too big a story for three rather efficiently-packed novels.  That Scalzi pulls it off so well is a compliment to his skill.  That he manages it so entertainingly is, well, admirable.  He has taken what is a model almost as old as the genre, turned it around, twisted it, and produced what is, essentially, a critique of that model.  We know these things don’t work the way they should, yet we also know that humans (silly humans!) will try them anyway, and that they inevitably collapse.

If there is another interstellar empire to which this bears meaningful comparison, it would be the one in Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is also an ecological tale.  The empire there is a multi-faceted monstrosity based on trade, with a byzantine religion underpinning imperial fiat.  Herbert showed us the flaws in empire by taking it apart and revealing to us the fragile assumptions behind it.

One additional observation before closing.  We read this trilogy together, aloud. It lends itself to that very well, and perhaps benefits from it by allowing some of these characters vocal expression that adds to the overall substance on display.

Time permitting, I will have to go back and see what I’ve missed between Old Man’s War and this.

Recommended.

 

 

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.

 

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.