Science Fiction II


More notes on some classic science fiction titles.

Previous parts: SF I.

This piece is just a collection of short observations on sci-fi titles that I've read.

Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood's End (1954, 265pp)

A story about our place in the universe, delivered with grand perspective and compelling mystery. Childhood's End is a slow-motion tragedy in three acts, three ages of man, gently reminding us to be careful with our wishes.

In the 1950s the space age was supposed to be decades away still, but from the first edition of Childhood's End, it didn't take even 20 years for mankind to put boots on the Moon. As a result, Clarke was compelled to rewrite his dramatic opening scene for later editions. In the end it doesn't make much of a difference, for that one giant leap turns out to not be much to brag about.

The Overlords arrive. They come in peace, and liaise with the UN, an institution clearly living its best life. The head of the outfit is not quite Hammarskjöld, but another strong Nordic leader. The Finnish language wins an early mention — this is a book about aliens after all.

The Overlords keep to themselves, and simply nudge humanity on a different path — gently, but firmly. Lacking human failings, they don't get too involved in things. They stand back and steer humanity to an unimaginable utopia of freedom and abundance. And still we cannot be happy and at rest. A socially progressive message runs through the novel, but it's not elevating or remarkable. If anything, it's rather domestic and normalised.

The story is full of mysteries to uncover. The trick is that not all mysteries are equally important, and it's impossible to tell which one are in advance. Only the missing knowledge can give the perspective needed to judge events appropriately. This is the foundation of the book's drama. It's all about finding out who the Overlords are, why they came, what they want to do, and what happens when all has been said and done. It only makes sense in retrospect.

Our technology is primitive compared to the Overlords, but using a teleprinter to talk to interstellar travellers is something else. Telepresence is not a thing, one has to travel to the visitors in order to address them. Fortunately Overlord designers know that a sphere is where it's at. Primitive relay networking makes a dramatic appearance.

Our understanding of gravity and other deep physics hasn't advanced that much since the '50s, so Clarke's musings about these things sound commonplace. After all, what is a hundred years in galactic terms. Time overall is just another dimension. The visitors have inertial dampeners, but even men manage to put together flying cars in the 21st century; autopilots and all. Visual projection at a distance is a special technology. Mental powers beyond the reach of science find use in entertainment. Overlords read libraries like the devil reads the Bible.

It's a fine story, the mysteries keep up momentum. As it all unravels, though, the message doesn't come clearly through. Maybe the question is: Should we and could we live our planet in a different way, if we knew that we weren't alone anymore?

Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1952, 186pp)

Mad Men up to eleven in the solar neighbourhood. A fast-paced dystopian satire that finds dark humour in the armed conflict between advertising superpowers.

Earth has become a hyper-populated sprawl, the playground of multinational megacorporations. These deeply hierarchical advertising agencies wield absolute power, shaping public consumption and entire economies at a global scale. And beyond: the Moon has been claimed, and already boasts a thriving mining community. The agencies are now turning towards the next destination, Venus, and our protagonist is right in the middle of the scramble.

The agencies employ legions of talent generating copy and spin, but primary research on products as well. The media landscape of screens and moving images is saturated with ads. Even the olfactory system finds use in consumer training. The agency you support, the ads and products that you consume every day, determines your identity. Those who have nothing have to work in the factories or they fall out of society altogether.

Most people have very little, and even the elite lead lives of cramped scarcity. Nature is in short supply: a wooden ring is a valued item, and hot tubs with fresh water are outrageous luxury. The C suite relaxes with virtual pleasures among the false trees.

The book has a green theme. A mysterious eco-terrorist group, the Consies, fight for a different kind of world. They know about the slime factories that produce the essential nutrients for the billions, and they keep tabs on what the great agencies are up to. Consies are the conscience of the advertising mafia families. They believe in society and they, too, have plans for Venus.

No matter how bleak the vision for future, Americans always have something in abundance: shuttle flights are still commonplace, even if automobiles carry a stiff premium. High-flyers have flats up in the sky, but they, too, have to fold out their beds. Drinks and food are mostly synthetic substitutes. The real stuff is only enjoyed to mark special occasions. Logistics is a big business, tourism is a thing for the select few.

In this world of transformed institutions, marriage is provisional and has limited term variations. There is little time for love and leisure. Children are loudly absent from this maxed out world. Fortunately the next world could open up for expansion after a little terraforming. The pioneers will have a hard time, but the thing is, their fate would probably not be that different from those left behind on old Earth.

A peculiar little story, a satire about the ad men of the 1950s and the world as they see fit. Can't help thinking about the tech giants we have today, their influence on world affairs, and the brutal competition for the last vestiges of our attention span.

Theodore Sturgeon: More Than Human (1953, 233pp)

Mind games and gripping supernatural mystery. A study of individuality and unity, of separation and belonging, of being together and alone. A story about a band of unusual outcasts falling in and out of society, and the ripples they leave behind in the lives of ordinary people.

Sturgeon is one of the artists of the genre. He takes a fairly simple three act narrative, and decorates it with beautiful, sensual prose. At the same time the world is ugly and full of misshapen characters. Sturgeon's take on the mental and the supernatural is evolutionary. It's all about out relationship with the next level and our longing to connect. Sturgeon uses rather crude literary tools and devices to explore some of the deepest themes that emerge from encounters and conflicts between individuals.

The science fiction in the story is concentrated on a single anti-gravity engine, a smoking Chekhov's gun. Of course, there's the mind games as well, but those could fit in any supernatural thriller. Indeed the nature of the engine is irrelevant — it could equally have been anything else advanced. The human condition is where the drama is.

Science fiction for humanists.

Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956, 240pp)

What would happen to society, if teleportation became the primary means of transportation? Alfred Bester's novel The Stars My Destination — also known as Tiger! Tiger! in the UK — explores this question in the context of a hectic revenge story. Ahead of its time in certain ways, yet borrowing freely from prior art, The Stars is a proto-cyberpunk novel tailored for a particular kind of youthful reader.

The fantasy unfolds episodically in great bursts of energy. Things happen conveniently for the narrative, whether orchestrated by the author or the powers at play. Our protagonist, the tiger himself, Gully Foyle, travels the Solar System looking for answers and retribution, sampling the highs and lows of society as he goes. It is a polarised world, once again, controlled by megacorporations and the family brands behind them. The aristocrats own and buy, the guilds and freelancers sell their specialist services. The great masses jaunt from opportunity to opportunity.

Interestingly, hyper-globalisation by teleportation has, by the 25th century, resulted in a fairly stable world order. People trust one another and their chosen institutions. There's a global currency with little inflation. For the purpose of the story, there are limits to the distance and manner of teleportation. Locks have little utility, so secret spaces are simply hidden and layered in mazes. Security is through obscurity and special construction. A prison poses a considerable design challenge.

Technology has advanced as well. All the liveable planets in the solar system have been well populated, space flight is no big deal. Amusingly the wealthy show off through historical means of transportation: not having to jaunt about the globe is a measure of stature and prestige. They have the luxury of time.

Biohacking is a big business, sensory supercharging can be bought from the black market. Exotic fundamental physics leads to a new kind of weapon. At the same time there are newspapers around to catch fire and scraps of paper to device the plot. Computing is absent and urgent messages have to be delivered in person. Lawyers lawyer much like they have done for centuries. Cities, oddly, have evolved very little, though people live all over the place.

Telepathy, telecasting and other psionics feature prominently. Religion has been shunned and driven underground. Isolated tribes have their own ways, repurposing or perhaps even keeping alive the age old traditions of man. Green growths are sacred in the outer planets. The seeking types look to the great corporations, the aristocrats, and the new institutions for guidance.

Bester dates himself through his language, but the people of the future are mostly free and equal on the face of the world. A savage underclass of scavengers feeds at the bottom, slavery is a thing, and a war of the worlds is underway, but for the average middle class citizen life offers relative prosperity. Or perhaps the author shuns away from the ugliest things in his world. Ridiculous things remain entertaining.

Gully Foyle carries the ornate story on his back — or perhaps his face. Bester's world is so foreign and hyperactive that its logic is at times difficult to follow, but there is also some depth to the construction. As Foyle gains power and authority and secret knowledge, he transforms into something greater. He leaves mischief and mauling behind and turns towards morality and meditation.

The tiger, burning bright, turns back to the forests of the night.

Walter M. Miller Jr.: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960, 319pp)

The Dark Ages all over again. Life is hard after the Flame Deluge and the great Simplification. When all the world has been turned into post-apocalyptic wasteland and all progress is undone, what remains of human civilisation?

The wretched turn away from society and live in savage tribes in the wilderness. The enterprising and crafty band together and form communities. The powerful and wealthy take charge, and cities eventually follow. The most resilient organisations hold on through the generations, surviving in quiet practice hidden out of sight. Traditions and greater purpose give institutions longevity, and give culture a chance to heal.

Walter Miller's Canticle is the epic story of mankind in three parts: the new beginning, the slow march of progress, and finally the twilight of the gods. The first account is given by a young novice of a monastery in the desert. He finds relics from the old world of centuries past, the (in)significance of which has been lost in time. The second account is given centuries later, when forgotten knowledge is beginning to be rediscovered, and the old ambition of domination rears its ugly head. The third account is set in the far-near future and presents man's inevitable downfall.

Faith is a mission like no other. Belief in a higher purpose, a higher power, leads individuals to great acts of creation and to extraordinary feats of perseverance. Life is hard in the desert, but the righteous minds at monastery can manage it. They guard the morals of the world. In Canticle, scientific curiosity and the mixed blessings of progress get pitched against the heart and soul of man. Are we willing and able to play nicely with the toys we have, or is all play destined to end in tears?

Canticle is a study of cycles and the way history rhymes. Miller makes light, compassionate fun of his characters and at the same time manages to deliver a serious argument with great economy. Miller combines mutants and misery with folly and deeply human feeling and even satire in the most brilliant way. This the ur-Fallout that helped create the irreverent post-apocalyptic aesthetic.

The future is advanced, we have proper spaceships and colonies on distant planets. Nuclear is a force to be reckoned with. Robot trucks roam the six-lane highways and don't bother slowing down much for the pedestrians crossing the road. TVs are still around, and have knobs on the side to turn them on and off. Radio is there as well. The old traditions live with the new, shiny things. There is something in them that can stand the test of time — as long as there is someone around to believe.