Science Fiction V


More notes on some classic science fiction titles.

Previous parts: SF I, SF II, SF III, SF IV.

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

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Dispossessed (1974, 319pp)

The life and times of an ascetic physicist torn between two worlds. A contrasting take on forms of society and their varied failure modes. On one hand we have a united anarchist society on a deprived, Moon-like planet Anarres. On the other, a league of rival states in eternal competition fighting it out on Urras, a verdant, plentiful planet not unlike our Earth. Solidarity in the face of adversity on the Moon, discontent over the spoiled, wasted Utopia on the other side.

The story of The Dispossessed is divided in two threads, two sequences revealed in alternating chapters. The life of Shevek the physicist, the protagonist, is revealed to us one step at a time. We go from the past to the present, and from the present forward — or perhaps we make two steps at the same time.

Shevek's life's work is the development of a mathematical theory of simultaneity, a milestone achievement in human understanding of the nature of time. This discovery ultimately leads to the development of a faster-than-light communications system, the ansible, which features prominently in other novels by Le Guin, the so called "Hainish cycle". In The Dispossessed, Shevek's time physics research pulls him away from his Anarresti life and into the surreal circus of Urras.

The book explores social organisation and the evolution of human life in different environments. Anarchism is portrayed as a viable system, albeit prone to similar challenges as the communist ideal. The environment and what we make of it, anther major Le Guin theme, features in the story through the contrast between a bad harvest on the prison of a planet Anarres and the excesses of the high life the one percent enjoys on Urras.

Feminism is a minor theme in the book, perhaps sexual agency in general, though later critics have argued that Le Guin should have pushed further. The socio-political debate arguably hides some of the most pressing questions. Women feature in the story, but only in a supporting role. The Dispossessed could be viewed as a story about men and the mess they make of society.

The language of choice on the anarchist Anarres is Pravic, a constructed language in the tradition of Esperanto. This is a clever device by Le Guin, as an anarchist language sets the stage for confusion and smooth exposition. How does one argue about property ownership in a language without the possessive case?

Spaceships fly, the Hainish bring their deus ex machina. A breakthrough in our understanding of the nature of reality heralds in a whole new age, but we are too busy with concerns at hand to fully embrace the opportunity. We fail to communicate, whether our messages travel near or far.

The Dispossessed is an inspired look at society set on a rather different kind of world. And yet, simultaneously, it is a familiar story.

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969, 304pp)

Richly imagined alternate takes on interpersonal relations on a divided winter planet. An ethnographic report of the ambisexual Gethenians and their society, as reported by Genly Ai, interplanetary envoy of the Ekumen confederation. A postmodern, many-voiced study of trust, loyalty, and understanding — and their equally powerful counterparts.

In Darkness, Le Guin continues with the expansion of the Hainish universe. Our protagonist, Genly Ai, is sent as the "first mobile" to bring the ice planet Gethen into the confederation. Your friendly neighbourhood alien, Ai makes his way into the inner chambers of power and government, only to be cast away as courtly intrigues and nationalist sentiments intensify. Ai's failure to appreciate shifgrethor, the indirect Gethenian manner of giving and receiving advice, leads to misfortune for many.

As a "pervert" with a fixed gender, Envoy Ai is an oddity among the androgynous, genderfluid Gethenians. At its heart, Darkness challenges the relevance of gender and sexuality in the organisation of interpersonal relations. LeGuin's late 60s sketch of what today might be called "postgenderist" society yields remarkable formulations like the now immortal: "The king was pregnant."

Darkness is fundamentally a story about relationships. We have the first hand relationships that grow between Ai and the individuals around him. We have the relationship between the rootless alien and the peoples of Gethen. There's the relationship between the rival nations, among the citizens of each nation, and all the way to interplanetary affairs. Loyalty and betrayal feature at every level.

Le Guin shows that these relations are tricky to manage even before you add in ethnic or sexual complications or an inhospitable planet. The drama is in the bonds that form between people and in the sudden breaking of those bonds. Identity plays less of a role. On a more symbolic level, Darkness is a reflection on the nature of strongly contrasting opposites and their tensioned balance in the Taoist tradition.

The spaceships still fly, though the Hainish have left the stage. Darkness is more about the gifts they left behind. The peoples of Gethen are not technologically advanced, but do have some mental powers to match the alien's. While Ai is capable of telepathic "mindspeak", the Handdarata of Gethen can sometimes reveal the future. The ansible appears in the story, promising interplanetary communion for those willing to participate. Radio saves the day.

Ultimately light joins hands with darkness and the children of the Hainish reconnect.

Robert Zelasny: Lord of Light (1967, 284pp)

An epic clash of gods in a fantasy tale of religion, revenge, and resurrection technology. Zelasny's Lord of Light is an episodic fantasy narrative that borrows liberally from the Hindu mythos. The story explores the impact of technology on society through the lens of religion, power, and war.

A pantheon of pretender Hindu gods rules the land and the heavens. Each god maintains a personal Aspect of their godhood, a technologically enhanced self-image inspired by the mythic powers of their namesake deities. The gods have access to their personal Attributes, a technique of temporary body and mind strengthening. Wielding their personal Attribute, each god can amplify their will and desire, enhancing the power at their disposal.

Heaven, an artificial plateau in the polar regions, is the dwelling of the gods and a setting for much of the narrative's intrigue. Heaven is divided into the Celestial City, where the gods go about their lives, and the Forest of Kaniburrha, where great white tigers roam. A giant dome, serving both a defense and a weather control function, shields Heaven from the world outside.

The gods rule over the masses by maintaining a stranglehold on the access to advanced technology, particularly the sacred technology of reincarnation and soul transfer. Access to reincarnation effectively creates a caste system, with the immortal gods at the top of the hierarchy. To maintain their status, the gods actively suppress any citizen efforts to advance technology beyond a medieval level.

Sam, the god Mahasamatman, is one of the few remaining Accelerationists, a band of opposition gods who hold the view that advanced technology should be made available to the masses. Specifically, the Accelerationists believe that reincarnation technology should not be controlled by the elite. The other gods fear the Accelerationists and the renaissance they wish to bring forth, believing that any enlightenment or technological advancement would lead to societal changes that would eventually overthrow the gods.

Zelasny tells the narrative of this world in seven episodes, starting from the middle of the action and jumping back to the beginning to tell the whole story. Various Hindu gods and goddesses make an appearance as the story unfolds, many episodes highlighting the complications arising from the reincarnation process.

Great battles ensue, with demons, demi-gods, monsters, and men all coming together to fight alongside the rival factions of gods. Alliances shift and the celestial home itself comes under attack as various groups seek to decide who controls technology and the world.

Sam, the enlightened one, is the centre point for the whole narrative, and ultimately takes on the character of the Buddha, ending up seeking Nirvanain the charged ionosphere above the heavens. The Christian mission to stamp out the Hindu religion fails to pan out.

Ultimately the capricious gods find a way to leave centre stage and leave the world behind. And great myths develop around reincarnation and the departure of the gods.

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar (1968, 650pp)

A portrait of a world bursting at the seams, a bleak dystopia of discord and division. Set in 2010, then the distant future, Brunner's novel projects fifty years forward from the social revolutions of the 1960s, showing how societies cope with overpopulation and related issues. At the same time the novel explores corporate power at the global scale and various social complications that arrive with scientific and technological advances.

Brunner's novel is remarkable in its foresight. The story is driven by a variety of technologies and advances that later became reality, from genetic engineering and designer babies to electric cars, satellite TV, and in-flight entertainment. Extrapolating from the 60s, Brunner imagines new synthethic drugs, but also the decline of tobacco. Affirmative action, a unified Europe, and Asian superpowers all feature in Brunner's world.

Zanzibar's main narratives take our protagonists from the US to the other side of the world. General Technics, GT, a major American conglomerate, seeks to profit from an ambitious transformation project in Beninia, a third world African nation. At the same time the US government sends an unwitting super-solider-spy to investigate a scientific breakthrough in Yatakang, a highly developed East Asian nation.

Brunner does much of his worldbuilding in lengthy side plots and timely collages of document scraps and snapshots. Excerpts from the writings of celebrated sociologist Chad C. Mulligan serve as the glue that holds the novel's many stories together. Mulligan features prominently in both plots, providing social and political commentary as a kind of a straight-thinking man in a world gone crazy.

Zanzibar features technologies that haven't quite been realised yet. General Technics have a mainframe AI system, Shalmaneser, capable of advanced computation and deep business analytics. A general purpose AI with arguably even some personality, Shalmaneser can hold a conversation in natural language. The wonder machine gives GT almost an unfair business advantage, letting the company validate all manner of plans and to make maximally informed decisions about them. Naturally, perilously, the company ends up relying on the computer's output.

Indeed, Shalmaneser is shown to be fallible, unable to fully grasp the subtleties of the human spirit, and chaos quickly ensues. Despite all of the engineering resources available to the corporate giant, it takes a humanist — someone who does understand people — to save the day.

While AI has a significant role in the story, at the same time Brunner underestimates the transformational power of IT. Modern personal computing and mobile communications are absent from Zanzibar in a way that highlights some of the major plot points. It is difficult to imagine all of the other advances in Brunner's world without personal computing.

A world in turmoil, Brunner shows us rebels and a resistance movement, social divisions, and political extremism. Overpopulation has resulted in runaway inequality, riots and violence on the streets, and crowded prisons. Those with means resort to carrying advanced personal weaponry on a night out.

Zanzibar asks prescient questions about humans and technology and whether we can make the most of our shiny toys without losing ourselves in the process.