Contact (Part 1?)

Great science fiction stories should leave the readers asking questions. This statement is probably true of all stories, but I’m particularly interested in science fiction, so I’m focusing on those. In the past week or so I’ve had intense discussions about science fiction television shows and films, and I’ve thought intense things about science fiction books, but I lack others who have read those books to have quite the same kinds of discussion. I’ve posted the discussion I had with a friend on Twitter about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man” (Season 2, episode 9) before (and here is it again), but even now I’m having new thoughts about that episode – about the importance of addressing ideas we hold to be true (in this case, the consciousness of Data) against those who do not agree in a way which allows us to examine our viewpoint and make it more forcefully. I wish I could do that too, sometimes. I’ve been reflecting on how stories encourage us to ask those questions, how they might lead us to certain answers, and what it is useful to ask in science fiction; in particular recently I have been thinking about the question of contact with alien life.

There are two principal sources of these thoughts: the first was reading the Hugo Award nominated The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu); the second was this article in February’s Clarkesworld magazine, which I only just got around to reading. (In the background, I’ve been re-watching The X Files too, in which contact comes up a lot). In the Clarkesworld article, Mark Cole discusses the limited examples of “friendly aliens” in science fiction (mostly cinema; there’s no discussion of the Federation or Ekumen or any other alliance of worlds) and suggests that stories of conquering aliens are more common because we can believe that from human nature and history. I’m not completely convinced that human history is quite so replete with conquerors and violence (perhaps European history) rather than co-operation and allegiance – perhaps it’s just that the conflict receives greater emphasis in our history books? But I also feel that this interpretation is a far too literal reading of contact stories. The Three-Body Problem discusses the impact it would have on human society if the existence of extraterrestrial life were discovered, which is a much more interesting idea. In this scenario, human beings discover that they are not alone in the galaxy and have to come to terms with that knowledge. The approach here is more interesting because it looks at how human beings behave, requiring no idea about the alien life at all – because we have no idea what alien life is like, but we know how human beings react to the unknown, or to new knowledge. Personally, I find the questions about how human beings behave much more interesting than inventing an alien conqueror.

Retro Post: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I really enjoyed The Forever War when I read it in 2010; the version which I read had a fantastic cover which is the collection, Peace and War, which includes the other Haldeman books on the same theme, Forever Peace, a companion novel, and Forever Free, the sequel which I describe (accurately) later in this diary as “batshit fucking loco”. I’ve put together several entries from my diary about the novel, with the dates attached.

24th May 2010

In reading The Forever War I have become much, much more interested in proper sci-fi. The book, thus far, is brilliant, conveying a proper sense of isolation, of distance, and of the difficulty involved in long distance space travel, and especially war. There’s a lack of distinct otherness to the alien life-forms and world – although the cold, empty planet on which the Privates train is certainly well feeling. It’s mostly that the Taurons, as bi-pedal two-armed upright-walking creatures are just a bit too close to human for me. Insofar as interstellar travel is concerned this is certainly the best sci-fi I have ever read.

But I suspect that my interest grows for other reasons, too. A Scanner Darkly is probably the best Philip K. Dick book I’ve read [this remains true], and I have been reading a lot of Interzone too. But I am starting to believe that while fantasy can and perhaps should [be able to] get away with principally being a romp (as Retribution Falls and The Lies of Locke Lamora are) sci-fi needs to be more than that. The Forever War is a commentary on the Vietnam war (and by extension all wars) by a veteran; A Scanner Darkly by a veteran of the war on drugs, showing that the side on which he fought was the wrong one.

26th May 2010

Some initial thoughts upon finishing The Forever War: it is good, very good. One of the best books that I have read so far this year, and certainly the best that isn’t by Ursula Le Guin [which were The Earthsea Cycle, in its entirety by this point I think]. I’m not too certain about its attitude to homosexuality, but given the contexts of a) the time it was written and b) its use in the book [as an alienating factor for the veterans] I think that I can understand it. I’m not certain that it’s meant to be condemnatory, rather than just alienating.

I like the ending, even [obviously, edited for spoilers]. I think that works, as does most of the rest of it, especially the [spoilers deleted]. It was a satisfying conclusion.

The warfare, the technology, the extraterrestrial setting – I liked all of that. The sense of distance, isolation, and loneliness I thought were fantastic. My internal imagery was usually better [in my opinion] than, say, the comic book, and though Alien is probably the closest film adaptation and despite my love of Blade Runner, I’m not certain that even Ridley Scott should bring this to the screen. [As he was rumoured to be doing at the time; this was before Prometheus, so I didn’t complain about this film, despite the opportunity to do so. It’s rubbish!]

My criticism, ironically, is mostly to do with (so far as I can tell) the novella “You Can Never Go Back”, which wasn’t in the original publication of the book because it was too dark and negative. If it is the earthly part of Lieutenant Mandella the it’s mostly because of the treatment of homosexuality, but I wasn’t so keen. It did, however, provide the right sort of sense of isolation that I thought was necessary for the story. [The soldiers go home to a world that has moved beyond them and changed, which is now unrecognisable – they can’t stay, and re-enlist in the army, as I recall.]

Other than that, there were some minor inconsistencies which, frankly, I’m willing to ignore. Generally, I really liked it, and I’m looking forward to reading some more classic sci-fi this year.

Retro Post: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

I’ve been meaning for years to use entries from my old diary (23rd May 2010-2nd July 2012) as the inspiration for blog entries. Now that I have some distance between then and now, and as many of my more recent entries are based more firmly on notes from my current diary, I feel more able to do this. The plan is to copy out slightly edited versions of the entries themselves, perhaps with annotations [in square brackets]. In some cases (such as the entry on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino) I may re-read the books in question and add new comments; in others (such as the entries on The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin) I will have to check that there isn’t already information on this blog which matches them. I guess I will try to make these updates regular, once or twice a week, rather than just whenever I can be bothered with them. It might help the blog keep going, and prevent further four-month gaps in updates.

The entry with which I am going to begin is from 23rd May 2010.

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding was alright. As good as I really expected it to be, not at the level of the best fantasy like the Earthsea cycle but it was a readable, Firefly-esq jaunt in a fantasy world. The problems which I have with it [are typical:] towards the end, especially when dealing with the character’s feelings, he over-indulges in telling rather than showing. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by his female characters – they were minimal, and exclusively introduced with sex in mind: Frey thinking about how useful it was that Jez was plain, the beauty of the female Century Knight, and the others being primarily Frey’s conquests in one form or another.

The other part is setting. Much of the geography of the world in Retribution Falls, besides some of the NSEW locations, is indistinct. I couldn’t figure out my way around the Ketty Jay, nor even precisely what it looked like. [I think my gist here is that the type of ship the Ketty Jay was – airship? Aeroplane? – was unclear, so there were no clues about how it should look apart from the cover.] Greater descriptions would have been nice, but there was also the chance to imagine it for yourself, which was quite good.

[I think the comparison of this novel to Firefly was over privleging, but I know what I mean. The idea was that there was a group of misfits, on the run, on a ship. You’d like them because they were roguish, although I don’t remember them being funny. I have a lot more to say about this book in later entries concerning the rape of all the female characters; a theme of this diary was how many of the novels I read approached rape, as a vast number of fantasy novels seem to do. Perhaps also worthy of note is that this book has two sequels now, neither of which I have read or really intend to.]

R.U.R: Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Čapek

His sole purpose was nothing more nor less than to prove that God was no longer necessary.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play, which coined the word “robot” for all subsequent SF authors. I don’t usually enjoy reading plays that much, and I have to say that I probably would have enjoyed seeing this more than I enjoyed reading it. Which is not, of course, to say that I did not enjoy reading it. But plays are not there to be read, unless you’re an actor (or director etc.).

The Robots are very different to what robots would become, although the cover of the Gollancz Masterworks version by Arthur Haas seems to have taken its inspiration from the Will Smith adaptation of Čapek-derider Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. Was that sentence too long? Is it too late to add an idle reference to the wonderful title of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that is “I, Robot . . . You, Jane”? Anyway. The Robots themselves are very different, organic rather than mechanical, but the themes of creator and created, of the soul, and of the relationship between class and mechanization were not new, nor would they end at this point. The story is said to have been described by Čapek himself as a modern version of the Jewish Golem legend (although a citation is needed on the wikipedia article), and Philip K. Dick is just one of the many later authors who would ask what ultimately will distinguish “artificial” life from biological.

“I don’t believe that rascal is a Robot at all any longer.”

“Doctor, has Radius a soul?”

“He’s got something nasty.”

The play’s importance is one thing, but what makes it any good? There is an interesting tension between the Robots and the men in charge of the factory; it is demonstrated that the Robots themselves have no concerns about the work they do, about their enslavement, despite the protest groups from those who have not encountered robots. Even as they overthrow their human masters the Robots continue to work – more efficiently, but without purpose – there will be no-one to benefit from their work. But work is what they do. I haven’t seen the film, but this prefigures in some ways what I understand about George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, where the zombies follow their former lives, wandering about the mall with no direction or intent. But I digress. The Robots have no purpose beyond work, but they are still threatening. It has been necessary to rid workers of their desires beyond work. But as soon as they are changed, they are a threat. And why would the Robots keep humans around, as soon as they realized that they did not need them?

You are not as strong as the Robots. You are not as skillful as the Robots. The Robots can do anything. You only give orders. You do nothing but talk.

My assumption is that Čapek was writing from the Left, although in post-Second World War Communist Czechoslovakia his work was said to be too bourgeois. His later work, in the 1930s before his premature death in 1938, was thoroughly anti-Nazi; if R.U.R. is anti-Nazi it is especially prescient as it was first performed in 1920. The presentation of the factory owners is clearly critical, despite Domin’s desire for a (human) utopia without work:

It was not an evil dream to shatter the servitude of labour – the dreadful and humiliating labour that men had to undergo. Work was too hard. Life was too hard. And to overcome that –

His dream can of course be criticised on a number of accounts – freedom from labour is not necessarily freedom from work; many who perform labour would not find it “dreadful” and “humiliating”, but he as a man who (presumably) has never worked in his life assumes that it must be so. He identifies the mistake as being the Universal nature of the Robots – split the Robots up, create National Robots, and they will not rise up. Divide and conquer, as was done with human labour across the glob, unable to organize itself through the communication barriers. But he is cut off in his explanation of his dream (above):

Was not what the two Rossums dreamed of. Old Rossum only thought of his God-less tricks and the young one of his millards. And that’s not what your R.U.R. shareholders dream of either. They dream of dividends, and their dividends are the ruin of mankind.

But the Robots are not beyond criticism. Radius wishes to rule over men – his end is not equality, it is dominance. They will continue to work – nothing but work – until the end. Radius is one of few individual Robots, one of few who fears for his life and has the sickness of a soul; the rest are a mass, identical, as far as having the same face. But they are an angry mass. They have the numbers – when they are armed and unified they become unstoppable. Whether this was intended as an approving Left-wing message or as a dire warning for the bourgeoisie, the message is clear – if those we oppress, the workers, unite against us, they are the many, we are the few – they will win.

The question of mechanization, of workers replaced by efficient “machines”, has always been and remains strong. Were the Luddites whose names have become synonymous with anti-technology wrong to oppose mechanization which increased production but potentially put people out of work? The Robots represent both these workers and their replacements, but these replacements are intelligent, and alive. And that makes them a threat.

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Nothing ages like the future.

2001, as I’m sure everyone has noticed, is long past. The future imagined by Clarke and Kubrick has not come to pass – there are no bases on the moon, humankind has not gone as far as Mars, let alone Jupiter or Saturn – but things which they can’t have imagined have occurred, such as mobile phones and tablets and female characters in SF novels. When you read slightly older SF, especially slightly older SF which insists on having a date in the title which a fair portion of its original audience will live to see, you have to accept that much of the narrative will seem dated. Can you imagine Siri doing any of the things Hal does? Of course not. Siri is nowhere near that competent. But then again . . .

Were it not for that date in the title, 2001 would not seem like an impossible future today. True, it would require a revival in the space programme which doesn’t seem to be particularly pending (when is the first manned flight to Mars planned?) but that is a minor point. Also, discoveries and knowledge of the solar system has grown exponentially since the publication of 2001 in 1968 and the Moon landings which followed. I expected this book to feel a lot more dated than it did. As it stands, there is very little in it which (to someone uneducated in astronomy and physics) couldn’t feature in a novel today. The book even features an e-reader, albeit only for newspapers, and not wireless; and is somewhat prescient about the response to such devices:

Despite all the electronic read-outs, there were times when good, old-fashioned printed material was the most convenient form of record.

And so, having established that the story is not hopelessly dated, on with its actual contents. 2001: A Space Odyssey claims to be about the human race’s place in the universe. As such, it begins with the origins of the human race as a tribe of ape-men on the verge of becoming sentient, definably human. From the beginning, it suggests, the human race was guided along the path which it takes, with evolutionary bounds encouraged by those who have passed them before us. Having seen one of these mysterious monoliths guide the apes towards humanity, we leap a few million years in time to twelve years ago, when (mild spoiler alert) another one of these monoliths is discovered on the Moon. Archaeology happens, and it is discovered that this object hasn’t seen light in millions of years – but it has just broadcast a signal deep into the solar system.

After this, much of that story is forgotten for the bulk of the book. We are treated to poetic exposition about the solar system as Bowman and Poole travel past Jupiter towards Saturn; the time, beauty, and also boredom involved in this is conveyed throughout the middle section. Eventually, of course, things start to go wrong. The next events are pretty famous, but still – spoilers. And it is far from the end. The adventure continues as the true meaning of the mission becomes clear – even if the true meaning of the novel never really does.

As far as I can tell, having not seen the film, the novel is a little less ambiguous and seemingly insane than the film. That doesn’t mean it is in any way obvious. Humanity is shown to be remote, insignificant – but potentially of enormous importance. The ambiguity of this ending is similar to that which Ridley Scott achieved in Blade Runner (although it is less obvious what is supposed to be ambiguous) and seems to be exactly what he was hoping to achieve in Prometheus, and failed miserably. There is a short essay at the beginning of this edition of 2001 titled “Back to 2001”, written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1989, in which he comments:

He [Kubrick] wanted to make a movie about Man’s place in the universe – a project likely to give a heart-attack to any studio head of the old school, or, for that matter, of the new one. It’s certainly difficult to imagine it being welcomed in Hollywood today.

This may have been true of the late 80s, but it is no longer true. Hollywood produced Prometheus, and showed that it may be willing, it was no longer able. I feel as if I have come across these two narratives the wrong way around, although Prometheus’ apparent lack of knowledge that these topics have been covered before does somewhat suggest that Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott haven’t seen or read 2001. I don’t wish to elevate 2001 too far by comparing it to something so completely inferior; it is an interesting meditation about how humanity’s exploration of the universe may change its very meaning. But because of the ambiguity, the answers really come from the reader, from their disposition. It is an aid to thought, not a place where the answers will be found.

I look forward to watching the film at some point. Perhaps I will have more to say then.

[EDIT] I forgot to say… it is IMPOSSIBLE to read this book without having this as your earworm for days afterwards:

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

On the planet Jeep there are only two options: change or die. A virus centuries ago wiped out all of the planet’s men and altered their women, who survive somehow reproducing despite the lack of males. Anthropologist Marghe Taishan is sent to the planet to find out the secrets of their society, and to test out a new vaccine which will allow Company to exploit the planet for its natural resources. But she soon finds that she is changing, and the women of Jeep are much more than they seem. A profound and moving novel, Ammonite stands in the tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man as an evocative study of the role of gender in society, and what it means to be human.

This was not Earth; this was Jeep, a planet of alien species, a place where the human template of dual sexes had been torn to shreds and thrown away.

Or . . . that’s how it was sold to me. At least, that’s how it seems that it has been sold, ever since it’s publication in 1992. But it took me some time to fathom while reading and since finishing the novel why Jeep needed to have had its men eradicated. There are hints: Company cannot come to the planet (and exploit it) because they are men and the will not survive (although the virus kills about 20% of women, too); the virus represents the male in society, it is destructive and kills (this one does not hold up at all through the narrative of the book). What I have ultimately settled on is that Griffith is aiming so show that a society without men could work – it is imperfect, stone age in its technology, but it works. Having found a way to reproduce without men the human race goes on, and it is not that unfamiliar. But further speculation has made me think a little further: perhaps, perhaps, Griffith has taken a world like, say, Middle Earth (or perhaps more likely Gethen) where the default is male (the use of the male pronoun in Left Hand) and only when a character’s sex matters is that particular character female. Except that Griffith’s default is female – there are no men. And for most of the characters, it doesn’t really matter. What can’t a female character do that a male can?

In that last instance, I used the word “sex” carefully. Because I think that is, really, what Ammonite is about – the quote above from page 56 of the recent Gollancz Masterworks edition seems to reinforce that. The virus has wiped out everyone with a Y chromosome; it does not care about gender identification. This, is feel, is really the fault at the heart of Ammonite and The Female Man – having removed one of the sexes, rather than replaced the binary concept of gender as in The Left Hand of Darkness or, uh, reality, the situation becomes about biologically determined characteristics rather than culturally defined concepts.

But then again . . . Ammonite is sold, as I suggested above, on the basis that it has profound things to say about the sexes, and it won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for precisely that. But after about three chapters there is no real discussion of sex or gender. There are possibly three mentions of something male (although I can only remember two of those, off the top of my head). Non of the female colonists think about how they might miss men, whether male family members or the male member, even those dissatisfied with the way that things are going on Jeep. In fact, it is either implied or shown that several of them have engaged in same-sex relationships. To take a non-utopian approach, Griffith could be showing how easy it is to have a science fiction novel where lots of the characters are female (indeed, all but one of the speaking characters). Slightly more troubling for me is that she is showing that society could exist perfectly well without the male. And I actually find myself convinced.*

Beyond this major issue, Ammonite is a serviceable SF book. Occasionally suffers from telling-over-showing; we do not see the action from a varied enough perspective, and Griffith has far too much faith in the conviction of Marghe, the main character, which is not entirely warranted. There are, I feel, a few too many loose plot ends, threads started unnecessarily which disappear or are never resolved. I’m willing to let this slide as it was a first novel, although that seems a little patronising. The natives are not alien, and they work as humans who have learned to live on this planet, in these climates, with this virus, without men. The colonists seem to be coping well with those things too (except I really do feel they could have spared a thought for the last one). It is both enjoyable and food for thought, although not quite as much food as I was hoping.

* Since finishing the book I have listened to the In Our Time podcast on Modernist Utopias, which mentions that most utopias are reductive (something has to be taken away from society to make it perfect); through that I learned of Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, perhaps the first example of an SF story about a land occupied only by women (Amazons notwithstanding, of course); and discovered this page on Lesbian utopias on Wikipedia. Of course, Ammonite never uses the word lesbian (fair enough, none of them are from Lesbos) but there it is on that Wikipedia page.

Covers of Doom Part 2: More library ramblings

Looking closely at this picture may tell you things about my life I don’t necessarily want you to know.

Is there anything more depressing than empty bookshelves? Yes. Many things, like war and the Conservative Party and other bad things. But empty bookshelves seem fairly depressing, and I am not entirely certain why. The books which we are removing from the Taylor Institution library tend to be those which have been entirely replaced by the internet, like bibliographies from other libraries which were out of date before the ink was dry (according to the antiquarian bookseller who is taking a lot of the books which we are getting rid of). And many of the empty shelves are the result of books being moved, not disposed of. So why do I look at an empty bookshelf and want to fill it? I believe this is something which I have come to think of as book fetishism.

The thing is that books like Fahrenheit 451 seem to value the book as an object. This is fair enough – certain books, like The Book of Kells or The Voynich Manuscript are beautiful objects, worthy of veneration. But these books are 1200 and 600 years old respectively. Is the average paperback – like my copy of Fahrenheit 451 – a work of beauty? Some of the covers which I will display later are certainly not beautiful, but they have brought delight by being objects rather than texts. This should not disparage the text. But if we are not to judge a book by its cover, then the eBook should be a wonderful thing which removes the problem of covers, and my girlfriend should stop being so worried about what might be chosen to represent her novel when it is sent to an artist. What book fetishism does is value the object over the function: we like books rather than liking reading.

I suppose my point is that getting rid of books shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as a bad thing simply because books are things of intrinsic value. There is a danger, if we devalue books, that reading loses value as well and people star to read rubbish or, worse, don’t read at all. But a book can lose its value if it is updated, replaced, or rendered unreadable; similarly it becomes of lower value if it is not read and no pleasure or purpose can be gained by reading it. Cheapening books, as much as censoring books, is a problem. But loosing a connection to the physical object should not be considered such a bad thing. A book can still be entertaining, funny, moving, risible, beautiful, lovable on an e-reader. They can still be valued, perhaps more for their content than for their covers.

On the subject of book covers…

This novel won the Hugo Award in 1965. Seriously. And yes, it does include sex with a humanoid cat thing.

Read a review of that book here, on The Guardian website.

 

I’m sure there’s a 100% valid, plot worthy reason why that woman’s clothes got torn in that precise way which isn’t objectifying or horribly sexist at all.
No need to illustrate this one – everyone knows what Gerard Sorme gets up to.

 

This book was actually shortlisted for an award by the Guardian, which suggests that it is probably actually quite good, maybe. But the title and cover don’t do it any favours, do they?
I thought this book sounded good and genuinely wanted to read it!

 

There’s one review of this on amazon.com, which complains that it likens Jesus to the old gods, and the reader felt this lessened Him. I studied Greek and Roman religions, including early Christianity, and I can tell you this: He is exactly the same se the old gods; his dad was one for Christ’s sake.
Just… the boobs. Yeah.