Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Recent Reading, Unfinished and Ambivalent

I’ve read a lot of books in recent months that I didn’t finish, or felt ambivalent about. I have notes on a few of them.

Will Elliott, The Pilgrims

This is a portal fantasy with a pair of protagonists. The first protagonist is a loser. He finds a door–a literal door–to another world, and it’s the greatest thing to happen to him in, like, ever; he fully expects that in this new world he’ll be a hero. Rather uniquely, the novel realizes he’s an idiot. He does end up touched by Mysterious Powers but his homeless friend, protagonist number two, is the one who’ll probably have something closer to a traditional hero role. This novel is trying to deconstruct stories about schlubs who travel to another world and discover their inner strength. I have a soft spot for this genre, but I still enthusiastically agree it needs deconstruction.

Unfortunately The Pilgrims never arrives where it’s going because it’s the first volume in another damn trilogy that ends on another damn cliffhanger. As usual for the first and second books of trilogies, it feels like mostly padding.

Actually, the padding is interesting to think about, if not to read. I’ve noticed some epic fantasies set lots of action in what you might call “Adventure Land.” Vague fields, forests, or mountains where nothing happens apart from bands of adventurers travelling through having what Dungeons and Dragons calls “encounters.” There’s no evidence that Adventure Land belongs to anyone, or is used for anything, unless it’s been set aside as a park. If so, fantasyland has a very extensive national park system; Teddy Roosevelt would be proud. There might be roads in Adventure Land but these novels rarely mention farms. (Civilizations need agriculture; I’d expect most cities to be surrounded by farms.) There might be a ruin, if the novel is especially D&D-ish. Usually the only inhabitants of Adventure Land are monsters. Or bandits. Or inexplicably self-sufficient cottages which if the protagonist is lucky are owned by helpful allies, and if unlucky by Tom Bombadil.

A lot of The Pilgrims takes place in Adventure Land. It’s specifically mentioned that farming is taking place under a dome. Beyond that, there’s a city, and a castle, and the rest of the land is… I dunno. I’ve got to admit, by the midpoint of the novel I was picturing the characters tramping across a giant lawn.

Graydon Saunders, The March North

Saunders writes SF like John M. Ford did: leaning heavily on incluing for explanations, feeding you only just enough context to deduce the world, the backstory, and the underlying meaning of what’s happening. I find that Ford stays just on the right side of gnomic. For me, Saunders crossed the line into obtuse. This may be partly because The March North is military fantasy, which is not usually my thing. There’s a lot of military jargon and maneuvering and it’s hard to tell how much is relevant, or in what way. The characters spend long passages exchanging technobabble about magic artillery. On the positive side of the ledger, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. On the negative side, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. It’s not particularly interesting, and it’s never clear why it’s relevant.

The characters are mostly ciphers; salient facts about the narrator’s identity and background aren’t made clear for a while, and the soldiers might as well be a formless mass labeled “soldiers.” When a good chunk of them die it’s about as affecting as seeing barrels get smashed in a video game.

There’s a second book set in the same world that doesn’t share the same setup or characters as this one. It might have been better if I’d read that first; maybe I’ll try it someday.

Marta Randall, Journey

Marta Randall’s prose is good so at first this seemed promising. I soon discovered this is a book where it’s considered acceptable for a guy to own an entire inhabited planet and treat the natives as servants. I checked some of the later chapters and didn’t see any suggestion that at any point the novel questioned this. 1978 seems late for something like this to be published.

There’s also some lack of acknowledgement of how big planets are. Like, 200 refugees come to this planet owned by a single family, and the wife wants to make it clear the refugees don’t own the land they’re living on. Because—setting aside the natives, which is, let us admit, a pretty massive thing to set aside—an entire planet inhabited by 200 people is facing a serious land shortage, right?

A. L. Kennedy, the Drosten’s Curse

The Drosten’s Curse is a Doctor Who tie-in starring the fourth Doctor. It’s an expansion of one of the Time Trips novella ebooks the BBC published a couple years ago.

At first the prose style seemed a little strange. The Drosten’s Curse uses a lot of ellipses and run-on sentences. But it felt right, somehow. Eventually it hit me: the prose is a pretty accurate replica of the way Tom Baker talked when he played the Doctor. The narrative voice of The Drosten’s Curse is the fourth Doctor as a Douglas Adames-esque third person omniscient narrator. That’s a smart choice, and appropriate: the novel takes the same whimsical tone as that one year during Tom Baker’s tenure that Adams worked on the program.

Unfortunately, after a while the novel starts to drag. There’s just too much happening, and too much of it feels random. And it may be that the fourth Doctor’s voice only works as prose in smaller doses.

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon

I’m often frustrated by the sameness of most modern SF novels’ voices. That sameness is made more stark when I read a book like Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon that has a voice of its own. Part of its individuality comes from the setting. This is a standard Earth-based first contact story, like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But these aliens, perhaps realizing we’ve seen an awful lot of U.S. and U.K. based visitations already, decide to park their spaceship in Lagos. More importantly for me–because at the moment it’s the kind of thing I notice–is that much of it is written in omniscient point of view instead of the close third person used by most modern genre fiction.

Cover of Lagoon

I sometimes think I’m tired of SF novels with casts of thousands, like A Game of Thrones. Maybe my problem is more with novels that combine huge casts with close third person, like A Game of Thrones.[1] They’re choppy. I’m just getting interested in a character and their situation when the story jumps to another and forces me to readjust; my momentum is broken. Omniscient narration flows, smoothly carrying the narrative from one character to the next.

Lagoon is free with its point of view. It can focus on one character, tour the inner voices of a crowd, or pull back to survey the city. There are chapters from the POVs of animals, first person witness statements–whatever the book needs in that moment. Some reviews have opined that most of Lagoon’s characters are a bit flat, and to some extent that’s true, but for the type of novel this is that’s fine. Lagoon isn’t any one character’s story. It’s a study of a city reacting to a historically weird event. The characters are mosaic tiles–just chips of color in themselves, but making a bigger, deeper picture.

It’s also a mosaic of genres. It’s first contact science fiction, but with regular sidesteps into fantasy, myth, and magic realism. Lagoon is the kind of book where the three main human characters turn out to be superheroes because, hey, why not. It reminded me of Douglas Adams even though it’s only a comedy in the old fashioned “not a tragedy” sense, maybe because of its willingness to enter the point of view of anyone or anything–there’s a bit with a bat that reminded me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s whale and bowl of petunias. In its early chapters Lagoon also resembles a caper story, maybe by Donald Westlake: It has a big and often eccentric cast, all with their own agendas and attitudes towards the central McGuffin, drifting through each other’s stories and occasionally converging in one place to bemuse each other.

These days it takes me a while to read a science fiction or fantasy novel; I keep stopping and starting. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the books I’m reading, but the genres have made me gun-shy. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I find most recent SF depressing and I’ve been conditioned to expect something awful to happen in any given book. No matter how well an SF novel is going, I’m never quite convinced that there won’t be a massacre in the next chapter. This is how I read Lagoon at first, too. In this case my apprehension might have been enhanced by the entire history of the aliens-on-earth trope. These situations never seem to end well. Half the time the aliens are invading monsters as made famous by The War of the Worlds. If the aliens are friendly, then the humans will be paranoid and fearful and the lesson will be that the real monsters are us.

But the occasional tense moment aside, the meeting of humans and aliens goes smoothly. And maybe that’s partly because Lagoon’s magic realist side is nudging it away from the standard tropes of the alien visitation genre: there are larger powers looking out for everybody. But mostly Lagoon is one of those books where most people mean well and the ones who don’t aren’t all-powerful.

  1. For me A Game of Thrones symbolizes everything wrong with science fiction and fantasy in the 21st century.  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club, collections of fantastic tales by a once-forgotten Soviet writer, were two of my favorite books from the last few years. So it’s odd that I just last month finished the third volume, Autobiography of a Corpse. Or maybe not; it didn’t rock my world to the extent the last two volumes of Krzhizhanovsky did. Not that it wasn’t good. It just feels less new. I’ve now read enough of his stories to notice when he repeats himself. His themes and tics are familiar: loss of identity, negations, anthropomorphized ideas, the word “I” used as a noun. Most interesting writers circle back to the same wells, and that’s not a problem as long as they ring interesting changes on their preoccupations. It’s just not as revelatory.

Cover of Autobiography of a Corpse

Still, there are good stories here; all that’s lost for me is the element of surprise. “The Collector of Cracks” deals with a mad scientist who discovers that time is made of discrete moments separated by “cracks,” like the lines separating frames of a film. In “Yellow Coal” another scientist discovers a way to generate electricity from meanness and spite. In “The Unbitten Elbow” a man’s obsession with biting his own elbow becomes a media phenomenon and sparks serious philosophical debates. In “Bridge Over the Styx” a supernatural frog proposes “a bridge suspended between the eternal ‘no’ and the eternal ’yes,” allowing the dead to mingle with the living.

What struck me this time around was how Krzhizhanovsky uses anthropomorphism. He writes about objects and ideas like they’re characters: A scholar writing a dissertation on “The Letter ‘T’ in Turkic Languages” tells how “the bustling ‘T’ would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark” at the end of a work day; the elbow-biter’s manager portrays the elbow as equal contestant in a wrestling match, at the end of every show declaring the elbow a winner.

At the same time, many of Krzhizhanovsky’s characters admit to feeling as though they’re ideas, human abstractions losing themselves in the cracks and seams of the world, like the “0.6th of a person” imagined by the narrator of “Autobiography of a Corpse.” The nameless narrator feels dead in life, and knows his disconnection from humanity is leading to his actual death, but he’s cheered by the thought that he’ll live on as an indelible ghostly image in the mind of the inheritor of his manuscript: the next tenant of his apartment. As a figment, he feels more alive than ever.

Fans call science fiction the “literature of ideas”–somewhat ridiculously, since you’d be hard-pressed to find interesting literature of any genre that doesn’t contain ideas, but we’ll let that pass. They mean that SF is writing in which the ideas are as important as the characters, or are even written about as though they are characters. Krzhizhanovsky takes this to the limit: in Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, ideas and people are interchangeable, and can go back and forth from one state to the other, like the living and the dead traveling the bridge over the Styx.

A Very Confused Detective

This year I read two Stanislaw Lem novels I’d never read before. The Invincible didn’t impress me, but The Investigation is one of his better books.

The Investigation is Lem’s take on the British mystery. As you might expect the subject isn’t the usual mundane murder: Lieutenant Gregory of Scotland Yard is assigned to look into reports of dead bodies found moved with no one around to move them. It seems corpses are getting up and walking.

Cover of The Investigation

Generally[1] I think Lem is at his best in his satirical books, like The Cyberiad, The Star Diaries, and A Perfect Vacuum. The Investigation isn’t one of those, but it’s not dry and numbingly earnest like The Invincible. Lem’s prose is good here, with sharp and memorable descriptions, as when Gregory looks at his fellow train passengers and sees “a sea of accidental faces.”

The Investigation is set in detective-novel England as seen from Poland. In the first few pages we hear of places like Engender, Planting, and Spittoon, and minor characters with names like Thicker and Samuel Filthey. Lem drops these into an entirely straight-faced conversation about animate corpses. It reads like a CSI briefing done in Monty Python voices. Lem surrounds straight man Gregory with interestingly grotesque characters.[2] The best is the birdlike, irascible statistician Sciss, who is incensed by the suspicion that someone might be making fun of mathematics.

Where The Investigation shines is in its surrealism. Lem writes like a dream here, literally: when he drops in a dream sequence it’s not a typical allegorical novel dream, it actually has the disjointed, illogical feel of a real nightmare. Yet it’s still one of those dream sequences you don’t initially realize is a dream, which says a lot about the novel’s tone. Gregory is, after all, investigating walking corpses. Meetings with his superior often take place at night, or in darkened rooms, as if Scotland Yard has instituted mood lighting policies. The case culminates with the nightmarish image of a body moving like a wind-up toy, and I can’t imagine a horror movie pulling off a creepier image than the one The Investigation evoked in my imagination.

The more impossible the case seems the more Gregory moves out of the ordinary world, and the more alienated he becomes. His life outside Scotland Yard is a series of small awkward failures to connect to other people, from the bartender whose simple questions about dinner he’s too abstracted to understand to a humiliatingly unsuccessful attempt to give a few coins to a beggar. Gregory is ultimately so confused that he walks down a tunnel, finds another person blocking his way, and only belatedly realizes he’s walked into a mirror.

Like the astronauts in The Invincible, Gregory is dealing with an apparently intelligent phenomenon that may have no intelligence behind it at all. Sciss’s best explanation for the animate corpses is essentially that some random physical phenomena happened to come together in just the right way to make the dead walk. For Gregory this calls to mind a metaphor of the universe as a bowl of soup in which bits randomly clump together to form something whole. Improbable, but as Lem wrote in another novel, mathematically improbable events sometimes happen anyway. Lem was seemingly fascinated by randomness and probability, returning to the theme over and over. (One of the fake book reviews in A Perfect Vacuum covers a book arguing that if the laws of probability are true then the universe itself, being so improbable, cannot possibly exist.) Lem’s characters seek order in statistical chaos. Many of his novels hinge on distinguishing between meaningful, intelligent phenomena and pareidolia: the misapplied pattern-seeking that, for instance, lets us see faces in clouds. His aliens are really alien. Is Solaris bringing visitors’ memories to life for a reason, or is it an autonomic response, like white blood cells reacting to a virus? Is it possible, without anthropomorphizing, for humans to understand what’s happening on Eden? Most of Lem’s stories and themes come back to the limits of human ability to comprehend an infinite, incomprehensible universe.[3] (In this Lem has a weird thematic parallel to H. P. Lovecraft, although happily Lem’s preoccupation with incomprehensibility is based in a sense of wonder, not xenophobia.) The Investigation takes these themes out of their science fictional context and applies them to the detective novel.

How readers interpret the genre of The Investigation will affect how they interpret Sciss’s theory. Gregory can’t decide what genre he’s in. Sometimes he’s seduced by Sciss’s ideas—if the human mind can’t understand everything, he reasons at one point, maybe it’s irrelevant whether an explanation seems to make sense. Sometimes he’s not buying it: the outbreak of walking dead must have some human intelligence behind it, and he increasingly suspects Sciss himself. But because the name on the cover is Stanislaw Lem and not Agatha Christie, the reader knows the impossible may be happening.

And that’s what Gregory ultimately confirms. But his superintendant has a more mundane theory—a truck-driving prankster—that almost fits. And it’s a tidy theory, since the suspect has since died and wouldn’t be inconvenienced by the accusation. In the end it’s not clear what Scotland Yard’s going to go with. Is a tidy but probably wrong explanation better, or an unsatisfactory mystery? Lem, as you might expect from somebody who lived in Communist Poland, suggests the authorities would rather be satisfied than right. The real horror isn’t the walking dead—it’s the thought that the universe might be too big, random, and weird for human beings to get their heads around.

  1. Exceptions include Solaris, natch.  ↩

  2. The biggest problem with The Investigation is that, as is often the case with older SF, it’s lopsidedly male. Only a handful of women appear and we’re well into the novel before one even gets any lines. I’m mentioning the biggest flaw in a footnote because it’s an all too common problem in older SF, and not even an interesting problem. There’s only so much I can think of to say about it beyond “it’s this crap again.”  ↩

  3. I haven’t read Lem’s philosophical book Summa Technologiae, but in it he apparently argues for something like the Singularity: eventually, he suspects, humans will reach the point where we have so much information we can’t process it all.  ↩

A Less Apocalyptic Postapocalypse

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre won the 1978 Nebula and the 1979 Hugo awards for best novel. It also won the Locus Award, given on the basis of a poll run by Locus magazine. Its first chapter was originally published as a novelette called “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand.” That got a Nebula, too. People really liked Dreamsnake, is what I’m saying. Despite this, it was out of print for years and is now only available as an ebook. Apparently it got caught in a couple of publisher meltdowns. I’d at first wondered whether it was just so different from the last twenty years’s worth of science fiction that publishers didn’t know what to do with it.

Cover of Dreamsnake

While checking the dates on those awards I came across Tor.com’s rundown on the 1979 Hugo awards and there were multiple comments to the effect that Dreamsnake hasn’t aged well. Which is weird. I mean, yes, this is a very 1970s novel. It’s a post-apocalypse where the apocalypse was a nuclear exchange, not a climate disaster, pandemic, or zombie swarm. Humanity enjoys copious free love because someone has invented biofeedback-based birth control, perhaps following the discovery of a surviving Whole Earth Catalog. Dreamsnake does not contain dolphins, but if it did they would probably talk. But these are minor quirks, not problems. Many, many SF novels still considered classics have aged far worse. There are more interesting ways in which Dreamsnake departs from today’s SF, and to me those differences make it seem fresh.

I read Dreamsnake a few months ago. I decided to finish and post this review after The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet because Dreamsnake is another SF novel set in a world that doesn’t feel malign. Which is funny, because it’s a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland. But it’s the rare post-apocalyptic story about how civilization still functions, more or less.

Snake is a doctor on the post-apocalyptic equivalent of her internship. She travels through scattered communities with a trio of snakes engineered to produce medicine instead of venom. Unfortunately a patient’s family freaks out over her dreamsnake, the snake that provides anesthetic, and kills it. Dreamsnakes are really hard-to-get space snakes, so this is equivalent to the new intern letting somebody smash the MRI machine. Snake hopes to salvage her trip by finding a new dreamsnake, or at least some clues to how to convince the damn things to breed. Meanwhile over in the B plot Arevin, a relative of the ophidiophobes, leaves to find Snake’s people and let them know the dead snake incident was totally not her fault.

Many modern science fiction and fantasy novels follow one of two templates: endless, meandering serials with oversized casts and heavily media-influenced series whose individual volumes read like Hollywood movies. Dreamsnake is a single, complete, not-overly-long novel with only a couple point-of-view characters. Like Long Way it’s a picaresque novel with ongoing plot strands that come up at the climax. (Between these novels I’m coming to realize how much affection I have for this narrative structure.) An episodic structure is exactly what this novel needs to express its themes: moving Snake between different people with different cultures and technologies, and showing them coexisting, is the point. Arevin’s subplot gives another perspective on the places Snake visits, and reveals more about her society without having to send her home.

The different sub-stories allow Dreamsnake to run its themes through several variations. What’s interesting about the novel’s setup is Snake’s reaction to the death of her dreamsnake. It would be easy to put all the blame on the people who attacked her snake, who honestly should have known better. But Snake also blames herself for not getting how afraid they were, or explaining enough: she “didn’t understand them until too late.” She should have talked to them more.

Snake’s adventures center around communication, and problems caused by miscommunication and bad assumptions. An exile from a domed city dies because she went prospecting in a radioactive crater; her people lied to her so often she no longer believed in the danger. A young man is given outdated information on those birth control techniques and causes an unwanted pregnancy. Snake discovers and rescues an abused child by being the first person to pay any attention to her. On a less fraught note, Arevin discovers late in his journey that he may have mildly offended several people by misunderstanding what they meant when they asked if there was anything they could do for him.[1] In between, Dreamsnake is punctuated by small misunderstandings cleared up by talking. Snake solves problems by asking questions, sharing information, and considering other points of view. She loses her temper with stupidity or genuine evil, but generally she’s patient, tolerant, and curious.

This is unusual for a post-apocalyptic hero. Post-apocalyptic fiction is squarely in the middle of that strain of SF that assumes heroes are tougher than they are smart. This is especially true of media SF, but given that novels are a textual medium it’s odd that many SF novels also have heroes who don’t primarily solve problems by using their words.

SF has a bad habit, going back to “The Cold Equations,” of valorizing people who make what are laughably called “hard choices” to survive. By this they mean that their heroes will compromise their morals to ensure their own safety. This never seems as difficult to these heroes as the phrase “hard choices” would imply. Nowhere is this a bigger cliché than in an apocalyptic wasteland. Survivors lock the riff-raff out of the fallout shelter and leave the weak and injured for the zombies. This is not how most people behave during disasters in real life. That’s because real life doesn’t have writers out to punish anyone who doesn’t live up to their standard of toughness. Post-apocalyptic heroes make hard choices because they’re in the power of authors who contrived their worlds to require them.

But Dreamsnake’s world isn’t inherently hostile to the people in it, so most of those people are reasonable. Dreamsnake has villains, including an abusive guardian and what’s basically a drug dealer, but it’s interesting how tawdry and how small these villains are. The narrative doesn’t center on them and they don’t drive it. They’re not strong, charismatic, or clever. They aren’t Snake’s biggest problems; they seem more like symptoms of problems. In Dreamsnake’s world villains aren’t powerful, just pathetic.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, Dreamsnake is not a utopian novel. This is, again, a world with radioactive craters. But the communities that are left are getting along okay because humanity didn’t abandon every value it ever held the moment the bombs fell. Most people do their best to cooperate and to fix things, and McIntyre didn’t construct their world to constantly pull their football away. I wish Dreamsnake had been a bigger influence on the SF genre. It needs more novels where evil is weak and heroes solve problems with kindness and curiosity instead of face-punching.

In closing, I should really try harder to review books I liked on their own merits instead of spending most of the review comparing them to the ones I disliked.

  1. They forgot to add “Nudge nudge, wink wink.”  ↩

More Science Fiction Novels Like This, Please

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a rarity in modern science fiction and fantasy: A novel with a large ensemble cast, none of whom are assholes. Most of the people in their universe are not assholes. Even the guy who’s sort of an asshole turns out to want not to be an asshole, and is just incompetent at it. God, this is refreshing. I had no idea how much I needed an asshole-free SF novel until I read it.

Cover of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which I think I’ll just abbreviate as Long Way, is a space opera about people traveling the galaxy in a small spaceship. Many reviews have compared it to Firefly. This is less because it’s a good comparison than because nerds have spent the past decade mentioning Firefly every two minutes and have forgotten how to stop. I mean, I liked Firefly, but I have to admit it was kind of asshole-based. Which this, as I mentioned, is not. Also the characters on Firefly were drifters and borderline criminals, and Long Way’s crew have actual jobs building space portals for the Galactic Commons. One of the characters is a clerk who solves problems with form-filling skills and general reasonability. If you have to compare Long Way to a TV series a better choice would be Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is also about people who like each other despite their differences working together to accomplish productive things in space.

Long Way’s structure encourages the TV comparisons. It’s an episodic novel: The crew of the Wayfarer are taking a months-long trip to set up a portal in a distant system, making stops along the way. Their adventures are thematically related, and set up plot strands that come together for the denouement, but don’t have a single overarching plot. I’m often impatient with novels that remind me of movies or television, but that’s because those novels usually seem written to fit the Procrustean bed of the default Hollywood blockbuster plot template. Long Way’s episodic structure was common in the days when SF writers gathered their stories into fix-up novels, but it goes against the modern conventional wisdom on how genre books should be written, which is pretty much “use the default Hollywood blockbuster plot template.” So I haven’t seen it much lately, which makes it feel fresh. And the novel uses this structure deliberately to support its themes. This is a novel about a family accepting a new member and becoming closer over the course of a long journey in each other’s company. Every member of the Wayfarer’s crew gets a spotlight chapter that allows both us and the other characters to learn their background and understand them better.

This isn’t just an unusual structure for modern SF, it’s an unusual subject. The SF genre tends to think that, at least at novel length, the genre is properly about epic problems: wars, invasions, world-wide conspiracies. Big crises with high body counts. Any SF plot that doesn’t put at least an entire city in peril doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Some stories kill hundreds of offstage extras just to prove how Serious they are. Not enough SF is about the human-scale problems that make up the bulk of almost every other branch of literature, from romance to social satire to murder mysteries. Long Way is proof that a small human-scale story can be far more compelling than epic bombast. A standard epic space opera plot is brewing in this universe–the Wayfarer gets caught at the very edge of it–but the novel concludes that the civilized galaxy ought to be sensible enough to have nothing to do with this sort of nonsense.

The villains are a culture that cannot tolerate difference, even in opinion: everything is true or false and they work out conflicts with fights to the death. The antagonist who seeks to establish a single worldview, creating order by assimilating or destroying anyone who doesn’t fit, is another trope standard in televised space opera–think Star Trek’s Borg or Doctor Who’s Daleks. As with those shows Long Way‘s villains clarify its heroes’ values by embodying their opposites. Everyone wants to understand each other better, and this “understanding each other” strategy generally works because in this world when you extend a hand to someone they are unlikely to bite it. The Galactic Commons is a place where everyone’s first instinct when meeting someone different is curiosity.

In SF the world is as much a character as the actual characters. Long Way uses a lot of explanations and infodumps in its worldbuilding, but that shouldn’t put anyone off because Long Way is a perfect example of how infodumping can be a workable technique.[1] Long Way’s infodumps stay interesting because they’re placed where they’re directly relevant and centered on people instead of things. They explain how the characters live and what’s happening to them in that moment, and end long before they test the reader’s patience.

Some critics are skeptical of the entire concept of worldbuilding. They’re right that it’s a bad sign when a novel echoes with what M. John Harrison called “the clomping foot of nerdism”: irrelevant yet intricately worked out histories and legends of how Lordfather Zargon collated the heavens and Tuf the Mighty defeated the Poodlians at Smug Harbor. The most unreadable of these books–usually they’re epic fantasies–include whole prologues of this stuff, usually in italics. But there are different kinds of worldbuilding. I like the kind that imagines the material conditions of the characters’ lives. Who else lives in this world? What jobs do people do, what hobbies do they have? What do they eat? It sounds trivial, but I’ve found one of the surest signs I’m reading a good SF novel is that it pays attention to food. This is the kind of worldbuilding Long Way engages in.

Material worldbuilding gives the sense that the protagonist’s world isn’t the backdrop for a solipsistic hero’s journey populated by disposable extras, but a lived-in world full of other equally significant people. The story revolves around the protagonists, but their world does not. I think this distinction is crucial to how Long Way is able to create a world that feels less dysfunctional and more benign. Not safe–these characters get hurt. But hurt is not constant and not their natural state. This world is not designed to constantly punch all but the most privileged people in the face. So when one character actually did die it connected with my emotions in a way very little recent SF has managed. It’s not that it was an unusually well written death scene, though it wasn’t bad[2]. I just hadn’t been numbed by 500 pages of prior misery. Numb, I’ve come to realize, is what most modern SF leaves me feeling.

For a couple of decades the dominant strain of fantasy and science fiction has been grimdark. This stuff appears to have sprung from the brain of Timon of Athens in full root-chewing mode. A Game of Thrones is the thought leader here: Trust gets people killed, callousness trumps compassion, and the continued existence of any possible society will inevitably depend on an exploited underclass. Fans call this “realistic.” I guess I can see how they might believe that, if they’re still stuck at the emotional age of twelve.

There’s also a superficially similar tradition of dystopian SF that’s produced worthwhile and even brilliant writing, using dysfunction and dystopia to come to grips with real injustices and the brokenness of the real world. Much as some fans would like to believe otherwise, SF is inherently political. If its imaginary worlds are not responses to the real world, wrestling metaphorically with real problems, the genre isn’t doing its job. Getting down into the weeds with exploitation, oppression, and dystopia is one way to do that, and a vital one.

What depresses me–

And when I say “depresses” I don’t mean “I don’t want to think about this stuff,” I mean I’ve come to realize many novels I’ve tried to read have literally not been good for my mental health–

What depresses me is that when I browse the SF shelves at the bookstore grimdark and dystopian stories are practically all I see. Diving into the misery seems to be the only tool left in 21st century SF’s utility belt. So much SF has so much grimness baked into its worldbuilding, it seems the genre is telling me it cannot even imagine a world that isn’t either a boot stamping on a human face or a war of all against all, if not both. Exploitation and injustice are inherent, ineradicable properties of the real world and of any other world conceivable, no matter how fanciful. It’s exhausting when most of our fictional alternatives are… well, not really alternatives. It’s like SF was taken over by Margaret Thatcher.

Long Way gave me what I haven’t had nearly enough of from recent science fiction and fantasy: a world that isn’t irredeemably terrible. Not a world without problems: the Galactic Commons is maybe too willing to make deals with assholes if it might be profitable, and their caution over transhumanism translates into second-class-citizenship for clones and artificial intelligences. But this society is not Omelas and doesn’t need to be entirely dismantled before anyone can begin to fix its problems.

Grim SF is one perfectly fine way to deal metaphorically with an imperfect world, but the genre needs alternative metaphors[3] and a wider emotional range. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet imagines a world where people are trying to do better. Not a warning, or a cry of despair, but a role model. I hope it’s a sign of a trend.

  1. Moby Dick and Les Miserables are big on infodumps and I’m fond of both.  ↩

  2. Not as good as Hamlet’s, but way better than Little Nell’s  ↩

  3. I should acknowledge, because I can imagine someone misunderstanding my argument, that when I say “alternatives” I really do mean metaphorical and allegorical alternatives, not literal alternative plans for society. I mean, I don’t expect very many people to misunderstand that, but it’s always worried me that when you mention Star Trek people–even fans, who should know better–talk about Gene Roddenberry’s “vision” as though he had a workable blueprint for the future. We’re talking about people flying around in a spaceship, guys!  ↩

In Which I Notice a Subgenre

When I wrote my post on Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible I’d intended to make an observation that would have taken the post on too long a detour. The Invincible belongs to a branch of science fiction I’ve never seen acknowledged as its own subgenre. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had already defined it somewhere.[1] I don’t have that many original ideas.) It’s a blend of space opera and horror and for the purposes of these notes–this post is too much a working-out-of-ideas to call it an essay–I’ll call it Spaceship Gothic.

I use the word “gothic” advisedly. Spaceship Gothic isn’t just any horror/science fiction mashup, but a kind with characteristics analogous to Gothic novels’ obsession with architecture and air of doomful cursedness:

  1. A small group of people confined to a spaceship, space station, or enclosed, uninhabited planetary environment.
  2. A dangerous and incomprehensible discovery. A natural phenomenon, transcendent force, or alien life form we can’t understand or communicate with.

Combine #1 with #2, assume nothing good will come of it, and you’ve got Spaceship Gothic. The best-known example is the movie Alien; I’d also cite Forbidden Planet, The Black Hole, and Event Horizon.[2] Novels include Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible and Solaris, James Smythe’s The Explorer, Peter Watts’s Blindsight, and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Dry Salvages. On television we have any number of Doctor Who stories and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Q Who” (though I’d argue that later Borg episodes don’t qualify, as the Borg became more communicative and more comprehensible).

The Spaceship of Otranto

The Gothic novel is a genre centered on environment. The hallmark of a Gothic, the thing it absolutely has to have to be Gothic, is a mansion or a castle, isolated and sparsely populated. It’s a genre named after architecture.

The horror genre borrows from the Gothic novel the tendency to strand characters in enclosed locations. Get everyone into an abandoned hospital, a cabin in the woods, or an old dark house. Isolate them with a freak storm, bleak moorlands, a confusing forest, even just a flat tire miles from anywhere. Then you pick them off one by one.

Spaceship Gothic takes this to its logical conclusion. A Gothic needs a house; Spaceship Gothic needs a spaceship. A spaceship is the ultimate closed environment. You might think your Old Dark House is in the middle of nowhere but most of the time a spaceship is surrounded by literally nothing. From the time it leaves its home planet until it reaches its destination, a ship is its crew’s entire world.

Some Spaceship Gothic stories, like Planet of the Vampires or Prometheus, take their crew to a planet. If so, it’s uninhabited aside from an alien ruin, archaeological site, crashed ship, or sparsely crewed or abandoned base. Most space opera treats planets as small spaces, metaphorical islands.[3] Whatever the crew finds planetside, it feels paradoxically claustrophobic: yeah, technically the crew has an entire planet to roam, but where would they go?

Other spaceships are the same deal: abandoned, wrecked, drifting. Few or no survivors. Except for a Curse.

The Curse

Like the heroes of happier space operas, the ones with their eyes peeled for New Worlds and New Civilizations, Spaceship Gothic crews are explorers and solvers of mysteries. They just have less fun solving them. The crew of the Nostromo is reluctantly diverted to an alien crash site. Prometheus is about an archaeological dig. Stanislaw Lem’s novels star scientists encountering unusual life forms on alien planets. The crews in Event Horizon and The Black Hole discover what happened to earlier, vanished space missions.

All of which is standard for space opera. As I implied, you could probably find a Star Trek episode with the same setup as any Spaceship Gothic story. The difference is in where the stories end up. Space opera is optimistic. The characters find a new life form, a strange gadget, a new scientific phenomenon, or a tricky engineering problem and it’s awesome, in the old sense of “inspiring awe” as well as the new. It’s a mystery to solve. Not all space opera characters succeed, but they could. Theoretically. We can talk to the aliens, we can figure out how the MacGuffin works. The universe is understandable! Human potential is limitless! Spaceship Gothic is what happens when it’s not.

In a Spaceship Gothic story the characters set out to solve a mystery but discover a curse. It’s bigger than whatever they thought they were looking for, if they were looking for anything specific at all. It’s transcendent, inherently incomprehensible. Something beyond. The characters throw themselves against it, and break.

If the Curse is an alien it won’t communicate or cooperate. It might be hostile, like the Borg, the eponymous Alien, or any number of Doctor Who villains, but it could be indifferent, or even trying to help. Solaris is, as far as we can tell, benign, but that doesn’t stop it from confusing and disturbing everyone who visits.

Often the Curse isn’t even a life form, just a force like the time warp from James Smythe’s The Explorer, or an impossibly advanced artifact like the Krell machinery in Forbidden Planet.

The Curse doesn’t need to hurt anyone itself. Spaceship Gothic being horror, it sometimes leaves most of the cast dead, perhaps with one or two escaping, Ishmael-like, to tell the story. (This is much more common in Spaceship Gothic movies, which tend towards the exploitative.) But the Curse doesn’t necessarily kill them directly. It’s often just a catalyst, the actual villain being some initially-sympathetic character whose character flaws have turned operatic. If there even is a villain. Sometimes the crew just can’t deal with this incomprehensible thing they found and self-destruct like the cast of a Coen Brothers movie.

So What is this Genre Doing?

I nominated two of Stanislaw Lem’s novels, The Invincible and Solaris, as Spaceship Gothics. I’d also add Fiasco and Eden, and maybe the novel that inspired the movie First Spaceship on Venus, though I’ve never read that one (I’m not sure it’s ever even been translated). Lem was interested in randomness, and how people look for order in randomness. He was also interested in the limits of human knowledge, and how people cope when they discover the answers to some questions (what’s Solaris up to? What’s happening on planet Eden?) are beyond their reach. Those themes, and Lem’s specifically pessimistic take on them, led him to write Spaceship Gothics.

Spaceship Gothic is a genre of incomprehensible forces that roll into people’s lives and leave them reeling. Remember how I mentioned the way planets in space opera work like islands? In SF, subjects and settings often stand in metaphorically for things on different scales. When SF talks about the universe it’s often, on another level, dealing with the world, or just our little part of it. Like the characters in SF stories, we’re surrounded by complex forces and systems–economic, legal, physical, ecological. They run our world. In a human lifetime we can only comprehend a fraction of what there is to know about them. But that doesn’t stop them from affecting our lives. No amount of Heinleinian competence can guarantee we won’t get knocked down by a natural disaster, a recession, a chronic disease, or the side effects of climate change.

(To a certain extent, this could be not only a working-out of anxieties, but also a corrective to traditional space opera, which, at its worst, can have a colonialist streak–its admiration for humanity’s potential has sometimes led to the assumption that space opera heroes have the right to control anything they find.)

The good news is that the universe is vast and there is an infinite amount to learn. This is also the bad news.

Traditional space opera looks into infinity and feels a sense of wonder. Spaceship Gothic is what you get when space opera looks into infinity, feels anxious and creeped out, and decides to hide under some blankets until it goes away.

  1. TV Tropes has a page for “Raygun Gothic,” but they’re talking about something completely different and using the word “gothic” with no reference to what it actually means, the same way geek culture uses the word “punk.”  ↩

  2. For movies aimed at such different audiences, The Black Hole and Event Horizon have weirdly similar gimmicks. How many stories are there where a Spaceship crew find a lost ship near a black hole that turns out to be a gateway to hell?  ↩

  3. A lot of Star Trek and Doctor Who becomes easier to understand when you realize they’re distant cousins to the middle part of The Odyssey; it explains, for instance, why most planets seem to have one major city and why most aliens have a single culture.  ↩

Stanislaw Lem, The Invincible

There are two Stanislaw Lems. I’m a big fan of the playful satirist who wrote The Cyberiad and A Perfect Vacuum. The hard science fiction writer, not so much. Not that Lem couldn’t write brilliantly in that mode–Solaris really is a classic–but his track record wasn’t as good.

For the longest time the only version of Solaris in English was a translation of a translation. A few years ago an ebook of a new, direct translation was released. More recently I came across another new Lem translation of The Invincible, which I’d never read.

Cover of The Invincible

The Invincible is Lem in Hard SF mode. It’s very much not Solaris. In fact, of all the Stanislaw Lem novels I’ve read this is the weakest. Lem was famously unimpressed by American science fiction but reading The Invincible it’s hard to understand why. It underachieves in exactly the same way as most “golden age” American SF.

The Invincible’s prose is nothing more than functional. It’s so straightforward it’s a slog to read. That might seem contradictory, but the difference between functional prose and good prose is the difference between a monotonous drone and a song. What’s more fun to listen to: a Beatles album, or your refrigerator? The Invincible is the refrigerator.

It’s hard to tell whether this is more the fault of Lem or his translator. Lem was usually lucky with his translators,[1] but The Invincible often felt off. For instance, at one point the text refers to “shadowless lamps” where Lem probably meant they didn’t have lampshades.

But never mind the prose–Hard SF fans will tell you the ideas are the star! This argument has problems.

First, if described badly enough even the most fascinating ideas can be boring. The Invincible’s opening sets the tone. Before any of the characters even wake up it spends 500 words narrating a starship’s automatic processes, and we’re halfway through the first chapter before we get any dialogue that isn’t tech jargon like “Full axis power. Static thrust.” This novel cares more about things than people.

We’re told 83 men are on board.[2] That statistic is hard to recall. There might just as easily be 47 men, or a dozen, because they have no personalities or distinguishing features, as even the text acknowledges:

It was baffling, because both men were entirely indistinguishable from the others in their clothing, weaponry, and appearance.

Most of the crew don’t have full names and it’s impossible to remember what surname belongs to who, or which characters we’ve seen before, or when, or where. The Invincible feels like a sketch comedy where all the characters are played by the same two or three people.

Some, again, would argue that The Invincible is the kind of book where the ideas are more important than the characters. But the main advantage a novel of ideas has over a nonfiction book is that it can bounce its concepts and themes off of idiosyncratic characters, with their own concerns and opinions, who will send those ideas in unexpected and strange directions. If the characters are flat, the ideas probably won’t bounce far.

Most of The Invincible consists of long dry descriptions of the crew’s investigation of a planet. Their activities sometimes seem to have equal emphasis regardless of whether they lead to any interesting discoveries. Following one methodical search of what appears to be a ruined city:

Rohan contacted the Invincible, informed the commander of what they had learned—which was essentially nothing

Oh. Okay, then.

Lem built The Invincible around ideas that were, for 1960s science fiction, ahead of their time. The planet is inhabited by self-organizing, self-replicating nanites which aren’t truly conscious but display pseudo-intelligent behavior as an emergent phenomenon. Most of the genre didn’t pick up on concepts like this for a couple of decades. But The Invincible doesn’t do anything with them besides argue that the universe is rather complex and incomprehensible, a theme Lem handled better in other books. “Here are some ideas!” says The Invincible. “I’ll just leave them here. My work is done.”

Which is a problem, because, well, the rest of the genre eventually did pick up on emergence and nanotechnology, and did find more interesting things to do with them. Heck, Doctor Who has done more interesting things with them. That’s the other problem with science fiction that only exists to drop a few ideas: science fictional ideas have a sell-by date. Once a SF novel is conceptually past its time it needs to give us some other reason to keep reading it. The Invincible didn’t manage that.

  1. Michael Kandel in particular is brilliant. Lem’s more playful works include wordplay that sounds completely natural in Kandel’s English but must have been hell to translate.  ↩

  2. Literally all men, which only serves to make the crew even more bland and indistinguishable. ↩

Your Best SF List is Terrible

I like fantasy and SF, as you can probably tell from this blog, but this article that recently appeared in the New Statesman is right: most “best” or “most important” SF/fantasy lists are terrible.

The biggest problem with the fantasy and SF genres is that their critical canon formed around what fans liked when they were twelve. And much of fandom’s tastes never matured beyond that. When someone curious about SF asks for recommendations I cringe, because I know I’m going to see fans jump in to push the Foundation trilogy, or Heinlein’s YA novels, as though any adult would want to read them. If the golden age of SF is twelve, that’s because hardcore fans keep pushing books that would appeal only to twelve-year-olds.

Not that there aren’t enough genuinely good SF novels to fill a real top 100 list… but in a lot of cases online fandom doesn’t seem to remember they exist. Earlier this year I read Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre. At the time it came out it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards. It’s a great book (once I get my blog going again–it’ll happen someday soon, I swear–I ought to review it) and obviously a major work. But it was out of print for years, and even now is only available as an ebook, and no one talks about it at all.

Lately SF circles have been having a recurring conversation about the improbable maleness of the SF canon. Lists of the best or most important SF often default to a few well-known mid–20th-century male writers–Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, etc.–many of whom were never worth reading in the first place, let alone fifty or sixty years after their time. (Yeah, Foundation was influential once, but there’s no reason for a SF fan to read it now any more than a student of English literature needs to read The Castle of Otranto.) These are the only writers the list-makers have heard of, so they’re the only writers who appear in these lists, so they’re the only writers later list-makers have heard of. It’s a vicious cycle.

But canons aren’t fixed. Ask anyone to name the greatest American novel and chances are they’ll nominate Moby Dick. But Moby Dick flopped when it was new and didn’t find its audience until the 1920s. The SF canon, after 50 years of critical reappraisals, is going to look different, too. I wish I had a time machine so I could see how it looks.

Links to Things

I haven’t posted one of these in a while.