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.

Bewildered

Richard Powers has been skirting the edges of genre for years. He has exhibited the talent of consistently defying category while producing work that can, with a slight shift of perspective, be read as solidly within certain categories.

The question has always been—what category?

He has written about atomic physics, A.I., terrorism, biodiversity, virtual reality, genetic engineering, all convincingly and with a commitment to consequence found primarily in science fiction of the first water.

Now he has put science fiction itself front and center in a new novel that powerfully blends the soul of a family with the science of cosmology, neurology, and ecology and the sense of wonder that comes from imagining new worlds. Bewilderment is a profound examination of colliding worlds, both personal, global, and epistemological.

Bewilderment: A Novel: Powers, Richard: 9780393881141: Amazon.com: Books

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist. His work requires him to imaginatively hypothesize about extrasolar planetary ecologies as part of the search for new worlds. He is plugged into the community involved with finding and identifying exoplanets and advocating for further research.

His son, Robin, nine going on ten, is, broadly speaking, a special needs kid who is both brilliant and troubled. They share a love of ecologies and a commitment to the natural world enhanced by Theo’s late wife, Alyssa, who had been a dedicated eco-warrior running a non-profit and advancing legislation in an attempt to save the ecosystem. Her ghost haunts them both, inspires them, and in some ways tortures them, especially Theo, who feels he has never risen to the level of commitment she felt.

The story is set in an alternate reality in a United States that is sliding toward autocracy, threatening Theo’s work and, ultimately, Robin’s chance for the stability he needs to be effective pursuing his passions.

All the elements of a dystopian thriller are in place, but that is not where Powers takes us. The apparatus of government is left in place and the characters struggle with it in familiar (though uncomfortable) ways. There is no revolution being planned or carried out, at least not on the page. But it sets the stage for an ongoing background dialogue about the nature of science in conflict with ideologies.

The primary story is Theo trying to provide the best possible life for Robin and it is as heartfelt and affecting as one could want. Theo is in many ways out of his depth, treading water, and fighting to keep an unsympathetic world at bay while he works to get Robin through to a place where he can function in that world.

The science fiction comes in unexpectedly and wonderfully in Theo and Robin’s relationship. Theo is a longtime fan. He mentions that he still has over 2000 science fiction paperbacks and that he was inspired to pursue science (like so many scientists and engineers) by reading SF. But the best part is how he and Robin, as part of their nightly ritual before bedtime, will go visit a planet. Theo constructs one and they travel to it. These sections are beautifully-imagined and clearly drawn from decades of science fiction. This alone justifies the genre as among the most human forms of creation.

This is not the only aspect of the novel which depends on the tools of science fiction. There is an experimental neuroscience program, there is work on a new orbital telescope (to be positioned near Saturn) to enable unprecedented views of exoplanets, there is a whole worldview in play involving a defense of science and imagination.

Powers is an artist and the work at hand reads as an eloquent study of people in conflict with the world and their own souls. It revolves around the gravity well of love and the ties of the past even as we strive to progress.

Genre has long appeared to be a sort of antithesis to what some regard as “genuine” literature, despite examples of works which function comfortably within genre conventions which no one takes as any kind of handicap. Writers like Richard Powers demonstrate the absurdity of such balkanization. But he also shows the importance of taking your starting assumptions seriously, unlike those writers who, intentionally or otherwise, lock themselves into a category of their own creation by a lack of attention to the aspects of their projects which they seem to feel do not require as much (or any) respect.

Bewilderment is a literary novel that also happens to be science fiction. And a love story. And a political drama. By paying equal attention to each element and treating them seriously, he shows both that what is otherwise “mere” genre can achieve powerful, vital humanistic effect that centers on the journey of the mind and heart through a world contoured by dreams, hopes, and the realities of an imagination unafraid to go to new worlds.

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.