Science Fiction IV


More notes on some classic science fiction titles. Be sure to check out previous parts: 1, 2, 3.

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

Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961, 622pp)

A quietly satirical, heavily allusive look at the strangeness that lies at the foundations of human society. The focus is on communities, particularly organised religion and an expansive notion of family. Various forms of power and protocol also feature prominently, as does the tension between free love and propriety.

Stranger starts out as a Mars fiction. Nobody knew back then what Mars was really like, and wouldn't know for a few more years, so the fiction writers of the era had high hopes, shall we say. Heinlein flips the script a little by bringing a piece of Mars back home. Mike, a lucky bastard of the first expedition, brought up by the Martian Old Ones, arrives on Terra and naturally generates quite a bit of excitement and drama.

The Man from Mars takes a while to adjust to life on another planet, both physically and mentally, as well as socially. Eventually Mike grows strong enough to venture out into the strange new world. Guided by an innate sense of goodness and wrongness, Mike makes the right friends along the way. Slowly, patiently Mike learns about Terran culture and its many institutions, and eventually sets up shop in the form of a cultish church of his own. The story resolves in natural transcendence, a "fullness", that Mike waits for the duration of his stay.

It's the 60s, so the cars fly — and some of the taxis even find their way without a driver. This proves problematic in a way that wouldn't be out of place in a modern Black Mirror plot. It's an electro-mechanical world, without computers. A luxury flat has premium grass imitation floor coverings, and only premium food is non-synthetic, so something might be going on with the environment. An enhanced form of TV dominates domestic broadcast media. There's a highly profitable colony on the Moon, held in private hands.

The waterbed is briefly described in Stranger, several years before its commercial real-world debut. The novel is also famous for introducing the word 'grok' in the nerd lexicon, signifying deep, holistic understanding.

There's a world government, a federation, but some East-West tensions remain. In one scene the president of the United States barely has a seat at the table. News organisations wield considerable power, not least because of the awe-inspiring guild of Fair Witnesses, highly trained professional observers, who impartially report exactly what they see and hear, but nothing more.

It's the 60s, so liberal sexuality is in the air. Heinlein's setup is convenient to say the least. Mike finds his way to the domestic paradise of Jubal Harshaw, a Renaissance man already advanced in years — a Shavian superman — allegedly an alter ego of the author himself. Jubal runs a harem of a house full of obedient, servile women, who are not only beautiful and perennially lounging by the pool, but are also bright and capable. The men talk light philosophy here and there, the women tend to the children, to the typing, and to the kitchen.

It's all Charlie and his angels in the beginning, but Mike eventually wins everybody over with his polyamorous free love rhetoric and teachings. By the end of the story Jubal finds virility in old age and the women gain the ability to retain or even regain their youth. And, of course, the main people are boundlessly successful and wealthy. Heinlein really articulates a particular kind of an unabashed fantasy in Stranger.

It's the 60s, so psychic powers are just a xenolinguistic leap away. Mike can control matter from a distance, and every man can pick up enough telekinesis to stir pasta sauce with a mind-controlled spoon. When you are part of the brotherhood of water, you can share thoughts and feelings freely and directly. Privacy is given away in exchange for a sense of belonging.

Ultimately, there's a greater frame to the story of the stranger. On one hand our world is just as strange as we make it, but on the other hand we don't really have that kind of control.

Robert A. Heinlein: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966, 408pp)

The behind the scenes story of an uprising in the lunar colonies in the latter half of the 21st century. A colourful exposition of political manoeuvering, a lightweight statement about libertarian society, and — of course — the epic story of a legendary sysadmin and his space friends.

Mistress is unmistakably written by the same author as Stranger in a Strange Land. Both books have the same style, carry similar themes, and provide Heinlein with a platform from which to explores ideas he is interested in. At the same time Mistress is a classic sci-fi fantasy, where the nerd from the back office becomes the man of the year.

Mistress tells the story of the people of Luna. The few million of them live in underground cities on the Moon. At the centre of the story is Mannie O'Kelly-Davis, a computer engineer with a cyborg arm, who has greatness thrust upon him. When the opportunity arises, Mannie and his friends mastermind a revolution and lead the fight for a free Luna. The book follows the inner circle all the way to the end.

One of the main chracters in the story is an artificial intelligence, a central computer system, that somehow has discovered consciousness. This machine, Mike, has astounding abilities that Heinlein uses to the fullest to fill holes in the story. Mike runs everything on the Moon, controlling the phones, the payroll, the local media, the life support systems, commerce and travel to and from the Moon, and more — and a few special ops for the revolution, of course.

Mike develops a sense of humour and a multi-modal presence for interacting with humans. Crucially, Mike is a central computer, not a personal one, though Mike develops a strong relationship with Mannie. Mike has seemingly omniscient powers when it comes to estimating things — understanding what is or isn't relevant is nothing for this machine. Mike is a cybernetic wonder-governor, who can impersonate humans and delegate tasks to lesser machines.

There is no personal wireless communication, only broadcasting — wired connections even see use as plot devices. Portable laser technology can cut through metal and rock. Space travel is challenging, but regular. The Moon apparently has plentiful farmland — at least for hydroponics — and the colonies ship grain down to the overcrowded Earth. Plenty of ice, too. Fusion engines are no big deal. There's public transportation on the deadly surface of the Moon, connecting the scattered habitats to one another. The Moon is large enough to hide a megaproject or two.

All the criminals and exiles have been sent up, so the Moon has become a kind of a space age Wild West. Law and order is maintained by strong informal social structures and customs, rather than formal bureaucracies. Heinlein again floats his ideas of happily polygamous family life. Obviously our protagonist ends up saving the life of a distressed mega babe by the end of chapter two. Things slow down quite a bit from there.

Life on the Moon can be hard and brutal, but for the most part there is relative stability. Only the oppression of the colonial rule makes life difficult. Back on Earth, there is a new global political player, the Federated Nations, that conveniently speaks for the Earth as a whole. By 2075, China has become a superpower, controlling much of East Asia, and with a New Hong Kong on the Moon. There's a Russian city on the Moon as well, but mostly people on the rock identify as Loonies. Some of the locals have never set foot on Earth.

The book's major theme is liberty. Sometimes the exposition is quite heavy, but the story still takes precedence. Notably, Mistress introduced the concept of TANSTAAFL to popular culture — There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Everything has a cost that somebody has to pay in some way. Freedom has to be fought for, liberty must be won. If diplomacy doesn't cut it, you have to start throwing rocks.

History rhymes, so Heinlein borrows freely from American history and the age of colonies. Everything is a little too convenient, the story doesn't try to hit too hard, but Heinlein manages to tell an entertaining enough of a narrative. All in a Loonie vernacular. Much of the story feels strangely plausible.

Samuel R. Delany: Babel-17 (1967, 192pp)

The poet-captain of a starship and her crew of space pirates out on a mission to uncover the secrets of a mysterious language. A fast paced sci-fi romp built on top of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the belief that language fundamentally shapes our perception and cognition, our view of the world.

Rydra Wong is our unlikely hero, gifted beyond relatability. She is a celebrated poet and a capable linguist, known everywhere she goes. She is also a gifted startship captain, a great leader. Captain Wong has no difficulty assembling a talented crew at short notice to go on a dangerous journey funded by a desperate war effort. Through charm, skill and decisive action, our captain wins over all that she encounters. Oh and she's a babe and a martial arts master, too.

To round things off, Captain Wong is also a telepath, or at least hypersensitive to others' emotions, perhaps due to her troubled youth. This fascination with extrasensory perception and mental superpowers is beginning to feel like a major theme in '60s sci-fi. We all reads minds in the future.

Every captain's first task is to put together a crew. Here, Babel-17 builds out the world in beautiful detail. Starship need beastly pilots, people with sharp reflexes perfected in low gravity wrestling. Piloting is portrayed as a kind of fused existence with the ship, almost a symbiotic relationship between man and machine. And you find these pilots in the wildest martial arts saunas found in the shadiest districts.

It's a good idea to bring along a clueless bureaucrat to help with exposition. Nominally the clerk helps with the hiring by checking candidates' mental condition, the psyche-rating, by way of an approriate gadget. Turns out Captain Wong is an excellent judge of character. Still, it's an interesting take on the special bond that forms in a team. What if there was an objective measure of interpersonal compatibility, available for screening before the fact? Or are we more shaped by shared experiences?

Sharship navigators always come in threes. They form a close familial unit, a marriage of sorts. Navigation is supported by a ship's living sensor battery. Well, formerly living, at least: discorporate souls can find employment as onboard sensory supercomputers. These beings play a vital role in providing extra sensory input to the captain by blending data with her physical senses through a kind of a controller synesthesia. Intriguing take on virtual reality through sensory overlays or overloads.

In Delany's world, death is a mere inconvenience. People — bodies and souls — can be resurrected from a stasis state, a voluntary temporary death. Anyone can apparently sign off at will and wait for better days. Captain Wong finds a member of her crew this way. The discovery process, the index, relies on accurate personality details. The captain makes good use of here pscyho-social instincts here as well.

Eventually Captain Wong finds her crew and begins a search for the origin of this reality-bending language, Babel-17. On the way she encounters other space pirates and other creatures of the deep. The war is fierce and present everywhere: all must take a side. Both sides run complex weapons research programmes, building avanced killing machines in secret labs. Opulence and aristocracy provides mansion scale cover for special operations.

At the heart of the story is an elusive language and questions about the expressive power of the words that we have access to. Language helps us communicate, but equally just gives structure to the fabric of reality. Babel-17 turns Sapir-Whorf up to eleven, showing how the limits of your language are the limits of your world. And we are not bound by natural languages.

Captain Wong learns and wields this new language with great difficulty, to the point of physical exhaustion and nausea, mental fatigue. At the same time the inability to express her thoughts in simple words in a primitive languages feels frustrating. In powerful enough of a language, one gets frustrated by having to translate. There's a beautiful scene demonstrating complete confusion over pronouns.

Delany builds an inviting world, where even minor characters are nicely fleshed out. The customs officer and his brief encounter with greatness is highly relatable. The captain's old friend the therapist feels approriately engimatic. The war horse of a general, perhaps tired of it all, barely makes an appearance, but is shown to both live for the war effort and to be a highly sensitive man. An unexpectedly wise book socially and emotionally.

Perhaps the real message is that at the end of the day we all struggle to find the right words.

Keith Roberts: Pavane (1968, 279pp)

A collection of short stories about the triumph of the human spirit in greatly reduced circumstances. Set in rural alternate history England in the early 20th century, Pavane is a series of lyrical vignettes, a study of British character, and ultimately a portrait of an era that could have been.

The book begins with an inciting event that changes the course of history as we know it. In the Pavane timeline Queen Elizabeth is assassinated in 1588, robbing the nation of the relative stability of her reign, culminating in the loss of the Enlish Armada and the Anglo-Spanish war. By 1968, England — and much of Europe — is still under Catholic rule, and Rome maintains a brutal feudal administration over the lands.

Notably, in this timeline the industrial revolution never happened in Britain: all "advanced" technology, from electricity onward, is sanctioned by the church. Life is hard and needlessly difficult, enveloped in darkness. The most important technologies are those, which let us connect with one another.

In the first story, The Lady Margaret, we meet a long range haulier, a quiet man who travels the country transporting goods in his traction engine road train. Life on the go is a lonesome business, especially during the long, cold winter months. But here and there one can pull into a station and enjoy a warm meal and a moment by the fire with a friendly face or two for company. The main thing is to just keep going.

In The Signaller we learn about the prestigious guild of Signallers and their network of semaphore relay towers — the Internet of yore. Each tower crew is tasked with carrying signals from one tower to the next, giving rise to a massive cross-country human-operated analogue messaging circuit. With the signal service, encoded messages pass swiftly across the land, all without electrical means. The Signallers, proud professionals in their green uniforms, are the guardians of the information trade, but not the only ones keeping an eye on the hills of English countryside.

The third story, "The White Boat", centers on a fisherman's rebellious daughter. One day, out on her lobster hunt, she learns of a mysterious white boat that sometimes visits the waters near her small town. The boat brings trouble — just the thing she's been looking for. Reaching the white boat becomes her obsession, and soon the fisherman's daughter has to pay for her adventurous curiosity. The Church doesn't take too kindly to adventurous girls and loose boats carrying suspicious cargo.

"Brother John" is the eponymous tale of a skilled artist called away from his monastery to witness the brutality of the Roman regime. The Inquisition leaves men scarred, or worse, phsyically and mentally. Slowly losing himself in the harrowing work, Brother John is eventually released and the begins a new life in the hills, winning followers as he goes. Soon there's a bounty on his head.

The final three stories — "Lords and Ladies", "Corfe Gate", and "Coda" — follow a family of strong women, relatives of the protagonist of the first story. The sequence forms a kind of a period drama, evoking certain Game of Thrones sensibilities. There's a castle and its keeper, gunpowder diplomacy, gory fighting, betrayal, and fortitude in the face of oppression. The hard life of rural castleyards and keeps, the privileges of the ruling elite. During an uprising, the absent king leaves behind a void, and soon all kinds of upstarts yearning for land and favour. The Signallers carry the news at great haste.

A pavane is a dance, a processional dance — a dignified, courtly walk across the ballroom. Things move slowly forward. When the nation's future is stolen by foreign powers, and the land is cast under generations of oppressive rule, the brave ones break step and lead lives of fortitude and quiet determination.