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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: science fiction (page 3 of 5)

Joanna Russ: We Who Are About To… [Die]

“You know it was self-defense!…I mean, running into the brush yelling Colonize, Colonize, and all that. They were going to force me to have babies. I was going to be tied to a tree and raped, for goodness’ sake. It was a mass-delusional system…and anybody who doesn’t agree has to be shut up somehow because it’s too terrifying. So I ran away, but they wouldn’t let it be; they came back after me to drag me back into that insanity and I killed them; I had to.”

That passage comes towards the end of Russ’s novel, after our heroine is the only one left alive. She and a half-dozen others had been stranded on a habitable planet where they will never be found, and after making half-assed attempts at “colonization,” our heroine has gotten fed up with them and the dictatorial ways of some of the men and killed them all. This happens about halfway through the book, leaving her seventy pages or so (it’s a short novel) to ruminate on her sins and her upcoming fate of dying alone.

With such a skeletal plot, the book gets by on voice alone. The narrative can seem slapdash or tedious because of the thinness of the other characters, but Russ controls the heroine’s voice more skillfully than her character’s blunt, sometimes clunky rants make it seem. She teeters between despondent, angry theorizing and irrational misanthropy; she’s not merely a “feminist” character, but also a “Trembler,” a member of a rather ascetic and Purtian-ish sect of fatalistic Christianity. (Draw Kierkegaard comparisons as you will.) I think it was Raymond Smullyan who said that Schopenhauer damaged his case by jumping back and forth between cosmic pessimism and whines about every little thing that bothered him. We Who Are About To… mixes those two aspects, the rebellious and the pathological, inextricably.

It’s there first early on, when our heroine gives a list of the reasons why their little group is so very doomed, including:

That there were no mineral poisons, but that we couldn’t test for organics of allergens.

That we could die of exposure in the winter because we had no way to make heat after our bungalow wore out and that was in six months.

That heart failure could kill.

That each of us carried five to eight lethal genes, and that even without them, humanity had not exactly been breeding for survival for the past hundred years.

Even though she’s right that they very certainly are doomed (the general idiocy of the other characters is reason enough), she grasps at too many straws here, both significant and insignificant, because she has a vested interest in their deaths. She is disgusted by society and wants it done with, at least within a billion mile radius.

The other characters tend to be pretty annoying, but the full thrust of our heroine’s disgust is implicit, denoted by the genre in which Russ is writing. Russ is answering the long tradition of macho, libertarian science fiction novels that, even post-New Wave, had shown no sign of abating. Books like Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero idolize the strong, hyperrational man who holds society together by casting off antiquated sentiments like monogamy and altruism; the female ideal is a tough, loose woman who naturally respects that man above all–and sleeps with him (she sleeps with others too, but he’s the one she respects). (See also: Heinlein, Asimov, Simmons, etc., etc.) Even if it’s not as insidious as the great masculine traditions of literature, it’s far more blatant and clumsy, and We Who Are About To… is the equally blatant response. But only in the first half.

The second half is a reflexive analysis of what it means to be that agent of reaction and militancy, the one who snaps and kills everyone. Russ is open-ended on this point. When our heroine is considering the justification (or not) of her murders, there is no answer to be had. She asks herself the question: are her murders justified given that she is a casualty of the imperialistic tendencies she’s suffered under (and her suffering is a given; Russ is scabrous enough about it)? To what extent is she a thoughtful militant reacting to the worst in human society, and to what extent is she simply a homicidal maniac long divorced from any rational cause? Russ does not offer a rational discussion but an intuitive one, as her long-seated ideas mutate and take on dissociative forms. By making her both a fundamentalist and a feminist, by having the voices of sanity and insanity comingle in her head, Russ suggests that there is simply no separating the two sides. She is incapable of isolating her activism from her trauma and victimization. Russ says: how could she? None of us are at liberty to step back freely from the preconditions of society and view the matter from an imagined objectivity. It’s a Fanonian answer, and it makes Russ one of the most distinctive radicals to have written in science fiction. Most portray revolutionaries as rational agents or great unwashed proletarian masses; Russ is not willing to stop at dialectical materialism.

Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

Lem’s obituary is not as unhappy one to write as many, because he more than accomplished his life’s work. Having identified the issues he wished to examine, he synthesized them wish vigor and brilliance, and to quote someone or other, if he did not exhaust them, they exhausted him. He had a long, productive, successful career, and he never wrote the same book twice. Under the guise of fiction (and sometimes not), he became the speculative master of two issues: evolution and technology. I cannot think of another writer who dealt with the essence and possibilities of these subjects better than Lem.

From both, Lem acquired a resigned pessimism. The limits and flaws expressed in humanity (and via humanity, in technology) were not ones of some nebulous human essence, but the product of a process–evolution–for which individuals and society were meaningless side effects. Lem’s recurrent, thrilling ploy was to play technology off of evolutionary fatalism, and to show the sparks when technological ambition runs up against the epistemological limits that bound a species. It made for concentrated stories with novel ideas, and a rigorous approach to potential technologies and societal trends. His Summa Technologiae (1964) still puts most so-called “futurism” to shame.

Politically, he could fall prey to an cold anti-humanism. His enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin (“He’s what the people want,” he declared), his sexism, and his indifference towards issues of race and class except in the most general anthopological sense all bespoke an unwillingness to be engaged in normative ethical debates. This is not unusual for science-fiction. Just as war historians celebrate the tactics of generals while ignoring those who got it in the neck, the sweep of (imagined) future history has led many science-fiction authors to embrace a cruel stability or ignore the collateral damage of establishing galactic empires–or both. These conservative instincts, pace Ellis Sharp’s belief that science fiction is mostly progressive, have in fact driven the main currents of science-fiction even at its best, from Wells to Cordwainer Smith to Mark Geston. The opposing sf trend that includes such people as Delany, Joanna Russ, and the also sadly departed Octavia Butler is so drastically different in its focus from the dominant trend that it might as well be another genre. But this is a topic for another time.

But Lem, more than many of his peers, could show compassion about human suffering, as he did, albeit ironically, in “Altruizine” and His Master’s Voice. “Altruizine” especially stands out as a sad allegory about a race of super-beings’ last attempt to bring about universal happiness, the previous 64,000 having failed. It is not the stuff to inspire polities, but it is a very human satire for any of us who have gotten frustrated at people’s constant inability to act in their own best interests.

I wrote a callow appreciation of Lem many years ago, but I still agree with a lot of it; you can see it below the fold. I would change my assessment of Lem’s ultimate message and his philosophical attitudes (see above!), but the explication of his work still seems reasonable to me. And I still think that Lem deserves a place next to Dante, Borges, and Stapledon in the pantheon of pure imagination.

John Crowley: Great Work of Time

In reviewing Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, John Clute points out that complex time travel stories (not simply going to some other time, but changing the past and having it affect the future, paradox, etc.) have evolved as such a genre into themselves that writing one is difficult: either a writer will retread territory already covered, or the writer will assume a background knowledge of time travel tropes that only a seasoned science-fiction reader will know:

Indeed, for those unfamiliar with the fantastic as a whole, the premises, assumptions, narrative strategies, affect chaos, paradox-mongering convolutions and general abandon of the time travel story make it almost unreadable. (Bones is a lot less contorted than most, but it is still no book to give to a stranger.)

Stanislaw Lem wrote an essay on the architecture of time-travel stories, or rather, the two architectures of time-travel stories. It would need expanding today, but its fundamental premises have remained the same. And so I find myself wondering, in reviewing Crowley’s brilliant, monstrous (120 page) time-travel story, whether I should target the science-fiction reader or the general reader. And I wonder what Crowley thought when he constructed this story, because it comes a good way towards meeting each side halfway. Or so it seems to me; I was schooled on Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and “–All You Zombies–“, so I can’t speak for the novice.

At any rate, Crowley uses the time travel plot and its attendant tropes–characters meeting future/past versions of themselves, alternate timelines, the negation of the past–but mitigates it in two ways. The first is a long introductory section presenting a simple excursion to the past by a man who goes back in time and mails a rare stamp to his grandfather, followed by an explicit description of the time-travel model Crowley is using. In short, it’s the many-universes model; i.e., each change to the past simply causes a fully alternate timeline wholly divergent from the original. The second mitigating factor is that Crowley uses the entirety of time travel allegorically, as a metaphor for British colonialism.

The British entrepreneur and African colonialist Cecil Rhodes left money after his death for a secret society to work to preserve the British empire in all perpetuity. Crowley runs with this idea: the conceit is that the society thrived and, through surgically changing the past, has enabled the British empire to survive while minimizing certain horrors. World War I is made less tragic by preventing the invention of the machine gun. The second World War never occurs, and Jews are deported from Germany, not massacred. (A friend asks if this means that Crowley shares Daniel Goldhagen’s position on innate German anti-semitism.) The British Empire remains ascendant. The world is more pleasant and much more colonial.

The subsequent breakdown of this world, manifested in lizards, dragons, and an ironic vision of the Perpetual Peace Rhodes dreamed of, exists in tension with the allegorical structure of the novella. At the literal level, Crowley presents the colonial effort towards order as a nullifying force; in adjusting the past to create a preferable future, the secret society creates an ever-expanding explosion of chaotic degeneration. Allegorically, the message is that the attempt of the empire to exert control over fate has the opposite effect. Their hubris is polluted by tiny imperfections and variations, which unravels their own plans. The time machinations do not need to be compreshended precisely to reveal the thrust of the story: time and empire are not compatible; empire collapses under its own ever-expanding weight. It unmakes itself.

Crowley does not privilege the allegorical over the literal or vice versa; the story remains true to both to the very end, leaving an unresolved complexity when the two levels overlap but do not quite correspond. Like another masterpiece of allegory-telling, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Crowley uses science fiction tropes as novel analogies for history, and the result is far deeper than the often limited analogical vocabulary of science fiction, where the science-fiction content so often only allegorizes trite sentiments about love, power, and other conventional wisdom.

Thoughts on Genre: Exceptional Science Fiction

When I think of the average case of genre product, I think of golden-age American science-fiction novels and short stories, from roughly the 1940s to the mid-60s). There were tons of these things written, and the content is of them so unvarying that a handful of people (Heinlein, Gernsback, Bradbury, Clarke, Clement, etc.) could be said to have invented nearly all the tropes of the genre. The content was often so unvarying, or at least so insular, that external influences did not make their way into the genre for several decades, and more outspoken dissidents (Bernard Wolfe, Walter Murphy) struggled to differentiate themselves from the mainstream of the genre. It’s striking how autonomous the genre is: very little that is recognizable from Verne or Olaf Stapledon makes its way into these works, while there are constant references to other members of the genre.

Moreover, the authors that broke with this tradition did so in a violent manner. The new wave Britishers like Moorcock, Ballard, and Aldiss, and their American counterparts like Disch, Delany, Sladek, and Malzberg, were outspoken in separating themselves from the tradition as it stood. The continuity is actually stronger than they would have you believe, since they were writing in the shadow of a monopolistic genre, and so much of the past still made its way into their work, if only to be rejected.

But I will stick with the golden age itself. A good example of the back and forth around the ideas of this genre is in Richard Harter’s analysis of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.” I think the story and its theme–nature’s uncaring hand–is trite, and could be easily used to condemn the impoverishment of ideas in the genre. But what interests me here is the fact that the story is defined in relation to its variation from the norm. Unlike most genre sf stories, the heroine dies. Unlike most stories, there is no hope. Unlike most of the stories, morality doesn’t determine the outcome. The prestige of the story is defined in terms of its variation from the norm, which is implicitly condemned.

The implicit conclusion is that golden age sf produced an undiscerning fanbase whose predominant tastes were not especially sophisticated, and that great work like “The Cold Equations” sprung out of chaotic deviations. I’m not here to argue for or against that point. I had a tough time with lots of work from the era; it all blended together and seemed awfully repetitive. But looking at today’s sf readers, it seems like my opinion isn’t so different from many fans; I just didn’t enjoy the mediocre stuff.

Early Hollywood comedies are different. Movies like “The Palm Beach Story” or “It Happened One Night” or “Easy Living” succeed or fail to the degree which they become an apotheosis of the genre’s tropes. There is very little subversion; light social satire was as much a staple of the genre as any other feature. Consequently, personal preference nearly trumps critical distance, as isolating good from bad, as I did in the lists, boils down to ineffable taste.

In contrast, consider some of the most exceptional (in several senses) writers of sf in the 50s and 60s: Algis Budrys, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, Richard McKenna, James Blish. All of these authors hold some vaunted place in the sf pantheon of the era. And all of them are remembered more for their personal quirks and flourishes than for the degree to which they represented their chosen genre. (The one possible exception is Bester, because he was more a stylist than a distinctive thinker, but I’d argue that his fluid style is why he is remembered.) Some of these authors were noticed at the time; others were discovered in retrospect, often by those who had sifted through so many bad DAW Doubles that the good ones lit up the night. But I never had that patience. I have to wait for others to find whatever remaining gems there are buried in the shelves.

So then we have a comedic genre whose best work exemplifies the genre itself, and a science fiction genre whose best work is based on exceptionality from the genre. What caused the difference?

To be continued…

[Warning: question will not be answered satisfactorily.]

Sci-Fi Novels for Liberals

Since I don’t know any longer what socialism is, I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge China Mieville’s list of sf/f works for socialists. It’s such a heterogeneous list that the set of books seems unnecessarily short. With such diverse reasons for inclusion as genre subversion, utopia, satire, and working class sympathies, the list could have easily been expanded. Socialism evidently contains multitudes.

So instead, here’s my own list of works for liberals: specifically, liberals of the United States of around this time. And there is one theme in particular that these books reflect, which is how myths (i.e., lies) occupy the collective mind of society. More than anything George Lakoff has to say about “frames”, the idea of collective myth is one that the Republicans have embraced with great success, while the Democrats have utterly lost the fabled images of strong workers and social welfare that once fueled them. This is less about the content of these myths than the compelling aspect of their totality.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

The ultimate novel of how we forget our past and recollect it as fable and allegory.

Olaf Stapledon, The Flames

Amazing, and amazingly depressing, novella of rise and fall of an alien society around a shifting religious myth. As much a tale of the Crusades as a prediction of America’s fundamentalist near-future, it’s frightening.

Mark Geston, Lords of the Starship

Neoconservative/Straussian politics put into play in a post-apocalyptic world. Not too uncommon a theme, but Geston’s book is one of the comparatively few negative portrayals of it.

Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man

Smith was a Kennan-esque Cold Warrior, and in between the more cutesy bits, his work has a Kissingerian sense of realpolitik, depicting a point in the future where government must intervene to alter people’s existential senses of themselves.

R.A. Lafferty, Fourth Mansions

A tall tale about secret powers at work. As a conservative Christian, Lafferty is rather good at playfully saying “Damn it all” to the world. More Hawthorne-influenced than it at first appears.

Kobo Abe, The Ark Sakura

Nuclear and survivalist paranoia from a Japanese point of view. The handful of main characters spend so much time locked in an underground cavern that they nearly create their own reality.

Carol Emshwiller, Various Stories

I’ll have to go back and pick some specific ones, but there is such a constant undercurrent of societal expectations being undermined in her work that nearly anything of hers seems to fit the bill. Probably the name I was most disappointed to see missing from Mieville’s list.

Bernard Wolfe, Limbo

Crazy Freudian dystopian novel that’s at war with itself, but so fevered that its societal hysteria is more vivid than most.

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