Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Rule-of-Thumb on Fantasy vs. SF

If I had to point to one idea that divides most fantasy from most sf, it would be “Born to the Power.” In fantasy, there are at least two sets of physical laws. One for the special people (magicians, heroes) and one for everyone else. In sf the laws of the universe hold for everyone: anyone can pick up a gun and fire it, as opposed to a magic sword which may only activate for one person. [Let me point out right now that I don’t believe that this is the end-all, be-all, one-size-fits-all, Final Answer to the sf vs. fantasy genre split. It’s simply been a handy rule of thumb that I’ve found useful over the years. Certainly there’s a lot of slipstream and magic realist fiction for which this idea wouldn’t be particularly useful.]

Let me use a specific case. There was a side conversation in this thread at Torque Control about Perdido Street Station winning the Clarke award as sf. (Paging Richard Morgan!) I tended to read it as sf because the magic in its universe is technological. There are many species with many differing abilities (like aliens) and the ReMade are much like cyborgs, and the scientist Isaac is trying to learn about his universe and its laws, which seem to consistently apply to everyone there. Even the appearance of the Slakemoth, which is by far the most fantastic element of the story, is much like an alien intrusion from another dimension (a hoary sf trope). Just because it’s not our universe doesn’t mean that Bas Lag isn’t a scientific universe. There’s no one in the story wielding unique power by virtue of birth or something similar.

I should mention that in ‘wielding unique power’ I mean some sort of magical or physical power. Even in our mundane universe, lots of people wield political power by heredity, and there’s nothing inherently fantastic about that. In fact, I believe that the “Born to the Power” idea stems from the historical notion of the divine right of kings: some people are simply more special that others, by birth, and nothing can ever change that. Thus we get heroes such as Aragorn--Gondor doesn’t get to vote about who to lead them, the story simply assumes (and confirms) that Aragorn is the right person, by virtue of birth. Whereas sf is literature born during and after the enlightenment, and (mostly) rejects many of those notions of inherent ‘specialness’ and looks at science and technology as a somewhat more level playing field.

This does lead me to a few odd categorizations: Star Wars becomes a fantasy because of the Jedi (and no silly ‘midichlorian’ ret-conning will change that). Gail Carriger’s recent Parasol Protectorate series becomes sf (as well as being steampunk and romance) because in its universe: a) there is a soul and it is measurable; b) anyone with enough of it can become a werewolf/vampire/ghost with some reliability; c) its existence or lack thereof appears to be heritable.

So I’m not drawing the line based on whether things are possible or not. After all, huge amounts of stuff in sf is not actually possible (warp drives, time travel, etc.) And I’m not assuming that sf has to be set in ‘our’ universe, or anything recognizable as such. I’m focusing instead on the physical laws of the universe of the story. Are they consistent? Do they apply equally to everyone? To go back to LotR for a moment, the dagger Sting is fundamentally technological--it glows in the presence of goblins no matter who is wielding it. But spell-casting magic is the preserve of the select few. By the way, having admitted that some of the magic in Tolkein acts as technology, I must admit that in my rule-of-thumb take on things, one drop of fantasy makes it fantasy. A story with a universe exactly like our own (or even with spaceships) except for one magic sword that can only be activated by one special guy winds up in the fantasy category.

One counter argument is all the super-spiffy heroes in sf: don’t they count as being ‘Born to the Power?’ Lazarus Long is an amazingly Competent Man, as well as being effectively immortal. That’s true, and it certainly indulges the same emotional satisfaction of having a super-special fantasy hero. But Lazarus was the product of a very specific breeding program, and while he is the longest lived of his brethren, he is not fundamentally unique in his universe. So I’ll still call that one sf. I don't need much of an explanation--I just need something I can pretend is an explanation.

I now look forward to teh Internets letting me know just how wrong I am. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pulp Fiction Dinosaurs

For my last official pre-Golden Age sf books, I went back to the pulps. The last two books I read were given as: “ACE Science Fiction Classic D-473” and “Galaxy Science Fiction Novel #13” and both were priced at 35 cents. Although my editions date from the 1950’s, the actual works are The Greatest Adventure (1929) and Seeds of Life (1931), both by John Taine. Before I get into his fiction, let me mention that John Taine is a pseudonym for Eric Temple Bell, a mathematician at Caltech in its early days. He developed, among other things, the Bell series of numbers, and wrote a number of non-fiction popular math and science books. From what I understand, he kept his fiction writing entirely separate from the rest of his life--to the point where his friends and family were surprised to find out about it after his death. The Mathematical Association of America published a biography of him: The Search for E.T. Bell, Also Known as John Taine which I plan on reading someday.

For the fiction, I started with The Greatest Adventure. This story feels like Taine had run out of Verne books to read and decided to write his own. It is structured much like The Journey to the Center of the Earth, but with a few extra characters. Two seamen come to the house of a wealthy scientist to tell him about some fishy oddities they’ve found--as well as a gushing ocean of oil. (I read this only a few weeks after the Deepwater Horizon well was finally killed, so this didn’t seem like quite so attractive a prospect to me.) The scientist agrees to finance an expedition down to Antarctica--the seamen can profit from the oil, and he’ll profit from the biological research. He also brings along his smart and pretty daughter and the smart young man obviously destined to be a son-in-law. They get to the Southern seas and start having Adventures. There are dinosaurs, and killer weed spores, and gushers of hot gas, and lots of other challenges. In the end they escape with little but their lives.

It’s a fast read, and actually has some things to recommend it to the modern reader. For one, the female lead is not insufferable. She’s actually the best pilot in the bunch and gets to do some flying--she’s not one for having to be rescued all the time (not, I'll grant, the impression you'd get from the cover). Also, the story has a sense of humor, especially in the first mate character. And the whole thing is rich trove of tropes that are more and less common now: it shares an obsession with Antarctica with many other classics (think of At the Mountains of Madness and The Purple Cloud and Who Goes There? among so many others). It must have been useful to have a huge, barely explored, and almost unreachable continent on which to project your fancies. And then there are the dinosaurs! Jurassic Park anyone? Well, these aren’t the product of Man, but nothing says Adventures quite like heroes running away from dinosaurs.

Next I picked up Seeds of Life and it couldn’t be more different. It’s fundamentally a lab story, and has far fewer redeeming qualities. An irresponsible lab tech mutates himself into a genius while mis-using equipment. He takes on a new identity and comes back to run the lab and make its corporate owners rich. Unfortunately, the same radiation that mutates him creates many other horrific beings. He marries the director’s daughter, but horrible things are happening in her womb. Also, his mutations start to wear off (!) and he comes to realize that what he’s set in motion is wrong, but he also can’t stop it. He’s neither the hero nor the viewpoint character of the book--that is another scientist instead. Our hero is simply darn smart. He’s not smart enough to thwart the bad guy, but he knows that something is wrong and does his best to warn people. In any normal novel he would get the girl (the director’s daughter) at last, but this is a very dark book that spends a lot of time teetering on (or crossing the line into) horror, and there’s no happy ending here.

While this book has some effective (horrific) imagery, that’s about the best I can say for it. The plot in a way pre-figures Flowers for Algernon, but it’s the Evil Universe version. The daughter is a horribly stereotyped cliche with no reality of her own--she lacks any semblance of agency and is horrifically punished for the crime of being attracted to the charismatic bad guy instead of the stalwart good guy. (By the way, there are some dinosaurs here as well--including one presented in a theatre to a crowd of disbelieving scientists. Shades of King Kong, two years before that story hit the screens.) The plot is awfully convoluted, and I couldn’t help but feel that it contained just as many twists as needed to fill out an installment count.

For those of you who enjoy the pulp sf adventures of the past, you could do a lot worse than pick up some Taine novels. But you might want to read some reviews first: if I pick up more of his work, I’ll be pretty choosy. I could easily enjoy another romp in the vein of The Greatest Adventure, but I’d like to avoid any more four foot wide black widow spiders dropping onto people’s heads a la Seeds of Life.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Stimulating the SF Core of the Brain

After a long stint reading 1920’s fantasy, returning to Olaf Stapledon was a breath of fresh air. I had previously read Last and First Men and Star Maker, and found them fascinating. Stapledon tosses off scenarios in a paragraph that other sf writers would build a novel out of. His vision of the very far future, both for humanity and the universe, was neither utopian nor dystopian but utterly captivating. In Star Maker he explored many different kinds of aliens, including sentient stars, which diversity was pretty rare for the 30’s. Most other stories of the time either didn’t have aliens or regarded them as objects of horror and killed them on sight.

Odd John and Sirius are more intimate stories on smaller canvas. They both involve super-beings in contemporary times. Much like Gladiator by Philip Wylie, also written in the mid-1930’s, these supermen do not end well. Odd John is a human, but of a more advanced strain. He has a prolonged physical youth, but is mentally far advanced compared to those around him. He stays out of the limelight, using adult proxies for many of his activities. Eventually he is able to make telepathic contact with others like himself, and they form a colony on a remote island. Unfortunately they are eventually discovered by the British Navy. When the real world finally intrudes on their home, the super-beings decide to end themselves. There is consolation in the fact that none of them die alone, but it is a cold comfort.

Sirius frankly has an even harder time of it. He is a super-dog with human intelligence, the only one of his kind. The scientist who made him, while breeding other sheep dogs that were very smart, was never able able to replicate Sirius’ success. He is raised with the scientist’s family in Wales, again staying out of the limelight. He forms a close bond with the youngest daughter of the family, named Plaxy. He goes through many life stages: growing up and learning about the world, working as a sheep dog, going into a laboratory and learning about the larger world, and eventually running a farm more-or-less on his own. However, he loses many close friends and family in the WWII bombings of England. Finally the war-time tensions in his small town in Wales rise up against him, and he is hunted down. While he doesn’t die alone, his one small death feels more tragic and heart-breaking than that of Odd John’s colonists. They had foreknowledge and embraced their fate; Sirius still wanted to live. [By the way, I am a big ol’ softy dog person, so you can guess which narrative left me in tears.]

Stapledon thinks through these scenarios just as much as he did his far-flung futures. Odd John also goes through many stages as he progresses, systematically tackling and conquering one aspect of humanity after another. Sirius suffers constantly from his dog-like nature: his lack of hands, his lack of clear speech (only the scientist’s family can understand him easily), and his occasional return to a wolf-like nature in the Welsh hills. Stapledon also doesn’t blink when it comes to the sexuality of these isolated individuals. While leaving everything off-stage he makes it clear that incest and bestiality taboos are broken by these characters, and the out-of-wedlock sex hardly worth mentioning.

How do these stories hold up? Rather better than most sf of the time. While each covers two decades, and are firmly grounded in the world of the 1920’s-1940’s, their themes are universal. The characters remain interesting and sympathetic; their outsider perspective on the world gives us a chance to take a different look at things. I reserve the right to change my mind over time, but for now I’m willing to say that Stapledon is right up at the top of my list of favorite sf authors of all time. His stories have a density of ideas that reward re-reading and have in no way aged out. By focusing more on human universal questions he is timeless in a way that Hal Clements (to pick an author focused on science that may become dated) can’t be. While these stories are not known for their novelistic virtues (plotting and character aren’t the point here), there are moments of poetry in Stapledon’s work that accompany the sense of wonder of it all. And they are genuinely moving on an emotional level.

He writes straight to the core of what makes sf my favorite branch of literature, with its way of changing the way I perceive the world. While I am glad that the genre has progressed in the matter of those aforementioned novelistic values, Stapledon’s work still wends its electrodes into the sf-pleasure center of the brain--skipping elaborate preparations and getting straight to the Wonder.

[Old] Star Maker

[This is a review that I wrote in 2007 on my old website, reprinted here so I can link to it.]

In Last and First Men Olaf Stapledon covered all of human history up to the extinction of mankind roughly two billion years from now. In Star Maker he covers the history of our entire universe, plus other universes as well. Amazingly, he provides a vision of what could be described as a secular religion.

Our narrator is a human who ends up projecting his consciousness into the cosmos and discovers the ability to see things distant in both time and space. As he encounters new species, he gathers alien compatriots with similar abilities, and together they probe the far reaches of the universe and beyond. The structure of the tale is that first he is only able to encounter species very close to humanity in consciousness and level of civilization. As he binds with more alien minds they become able to perceive aliens of much different biology and advancement, eventually leading up to the climactic encounter with the Star Maker himself.

Thus Stapledon is able to let his mind and imagination wander all over an incredibly broad canvas. First we meet aliens much like ourselves, then slightly weirder, then weirder, until we have fish/amphibian symbiotes, vegetable intelligences, the intelligences within stars (very alien), the combined minds of galaxies, and the combined mind of the universe itself. Only at that stage do we get a glimpse of the Star Maker, more accurately a shaper of Universes, and get a brief idea of where we fit in the incredibly grand scheme of things.

The end vision of this book verges on the religious, although it is a religion that even an atheist could love. The Star Maker is making a series of Universes (at least that is how our pathetically linear-time-limited intelligences perceive it), each of which reaches some new aspect of sophistication. Our universe is somewhere in the middle of this “sequence.” The Star Maker does not care about our individual lives and struggles except as they add to the tapestry that becomes the complete aesthetic vision of that particular universe. The Star Maker certainly is not meddling in day-to-day occurrences within any given universe. One of the aliens captures the sentiment thus:

He looked down once more upon the ruined city, then continued, “And if after all there is no Star Maker, if the great company of galaxies leapt into being of their own accord, and even if this little nasty world of ours is the only habitation of the spirit anywhere among the stars, and this world doomed, even so, even so, I must praise. But if there is no Star Maker, what can it be that I praise? I do not know. I will call it only the sharp tang and savour of existence. But to call it this is to say little.

The same liberal, secular humanist world view that Stapledon provided in Last and First Men informs his vision here. He posits that the only way to achieve our fullest potential is to learn to relate to even the most alien beings as “human” in some fundamental way, and to be able to blend our consciousnesses with the Other in order to achieve a higher level of mental sophistication. It is a compelling vision, one that presages much of the New Wave philosophy of alien contact that would be written in the 60s, 70s and beyond. As in the previous volume, Stapledon becomes easier to read the farther he gets from humanity; when he talks about people much like ourselves he can come off as preachy or didactic, but when he describes the truly alien he is at his strongest.

The writing of this book is not the easiest to read; it is in no way a novel, lacking any real plot, character or dialogue. It is a work of pure imagination and philosophy, and it is structured as much as myth as anything else. It is also informed with a certain urgency, written as it was during the Great Depression, close to the start of WWII. It recognizes many political issues of the day: the pacifism of Ghandi and its inability to cope with the fascist threat, the failures of capitalism and how they’re blamed on the proletariat, the numbing of the masses with popular entertainments. It is a window on politically liberal British thought of the time. More than that, however, it could almost have supplied a mythos for the Secular Humanist world view. In reality, Secular Humanism rejected any notion of the deity (see the First Humanist Manifesto: “FIRST: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.”) and thus couldn’t countenance even such a distant power as Stapledon’s. This is a bit of a shame, since the overall message of the book is a brilliant balancing act between the overall futility of our individual lives and fates, and their place in the overall beauty and aesthetic of the universe. As an atheist I found it a strangely compelling and reassuring vision, one that took into account the realities and scope of the universe as a time and space infinitely vaster than one human life, while still imbuing each individual life, species, solar system and galaxy with some meaning, albeit a humble one. This is not a trivial achievement, to be so realistic without resorting to nihilism, and philosophically it may be one of science fiction’s finest accomplishments. It should be more widely read, and I recommend it to all those looking for deep intellectual engagement with their science fiction.

[Old] Last and First Men

[This is a review I wrote back in 2007 on my old website, reposted here so I can link to it.]

Last and First Men is completely different from any of the classic adventure tales I’ve been reading recently, and also completely different from almost anything published today. It lacks most of the “essentials” of fiction writing: plot, characters and dialogue. However, that does not keep it from being a fascinating, thought-provoking read.

Last and First Men is written almost as a documentary about the fate of humanity projected into the very far future. Throughout descriptions of the eighteen “races” or phases of Man, humanity repeatedly almost destroys itself, only to pick itself up after millennia or eons and rise up to higher heights, until eventually falling into permanent decline and extinction. It is the work of a fertile imagination, and also a very cosmopolitan definition of “human,” as most of the ages of Man involve creatures much different than ourselves.

Stapledon obviously has a political agenda with this narrative. He pushes a secular, liberal humanist agenda throughout, always with an eye for the futility of it all in the (very) long run. In his mind diversity and cosmopolitan attitudes are key to human progress and survival; only when humans can look at almost all other humans and recognize them as equals can we work together to achieve great works. He doesn’t have much use for technology; in his universe the first race (us) gets hung up on the wonders of aviation and doesn’t progress further, and it takes until the Fifth Men for us to develop any kind of space travel (even though the Second Men were invaded by Martians), and even then it is only interplanetary. For him biology will be more important: instead of developing computers the Fourth Men are essentially gigantic brains, and they end up designing their own successors using tailored breeding programs (a common theme in this story).

The hardest part of the book to read is the first part, where he sketches out a possible future for us, the First Men. Since he was writing in 1931, it is impossible not to compare his predictions with some of what actually occurred: we certainly got to space flight a few eons before he predicted, and we haven’t formed a real world government yet. Some passages are quite prescient, though:

The economic life of the human race had for some time been based on coal, but latterly oil had been found a far more convenient source of power; and as the oil store of the planet was much smaller than its coal store, and the expenditure of oil had of course been wholly uncontrolled and wasteful, a shortage was already being felt. Thus the national ownership of the remaining oil fields had become a main factor in politics and a fertile source of wars.

It’s not a huge leap, and today it is patently obvious, but it shows the detail of his extrapolative process even back then.

Once we leave the First Men behind, surviving only through the most miraculous accident, things are easier to read since you don’t have to compare the text to reality all the time. His imagination runs rampant, through different biological forms, politics, aesthetics, philosophies and social organizations. With a two billion year canvas on which to paint, he doesn’t fill in many details but fills his narrative with variety. He throws away in a sentence or paragraph things that other authors might use to fill an entire trilogy.

The pioneer ship was manned with a navigating crew and a company of scientists, and was successfully dispatched upon a trial trip. The intention was to approach close to the surface of the moon, possibly to circumnavigate it at an altitude of ten thousand feet, and to return without landing. For many days those on earth received radio messages from the vessel’s powerful installation, reporting that all was going well. But suddenly the messages ceased, and no more was ever heard of the vessel. Almost at the moment of the last message, telescopes had revealed a sudden flash of light at a point on the vessel’s course. It was therefore surmised that she had collided with a meteor and fused with the heat of the impact.

Man’s first ever space flight, and neither the ship nor the crew even get names.

For all its distance and lack of emotion, this approach allows the author to investigate a huge scope of human intellectual territory. It is an approach that some other authors perhaps should consider even today. Stephen Baxter often deals with the entire universe in one book or series of books, but usually tries to bow to received wisdom regarding the necessity of having consistent characters that the audience can relate to. The enduring survival (if not huge commercial success) of Stapledon’s work shows that an author can abandon that approach if necessary. Likewise, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history spanning centuries. His approach to getting consistent characters was to use reincarnation. Perhaps simply writing a mock history book would have been just as successful (more so from my perspective; I wasn’t able to finish that book, although I usually enjoy Robinson’s stories).

Stapledon isn’t the sort of author that asks the reader to emotionally engage with his writing, but instead he asks for your brain power. In spanning two billion years he engenders a significant sense of awe and amazement at the huge variety of possibility that the future may hold. Even if it does turn out to be futile (spoiler alert: humanity ends up going extinct), the vast array of experience really seems to be worth it on some fundamental level. Even for the most secular of us, that is an inspiring vision.