Archive for the 'science fiction' Category

Proud to be human

April 15, 2019

I regularly reflect on what it is that makes us humans different from other species – not necessarily superior, but different – and feel it is our capacity for reason, and our self-awareness. We have astonishingly complex brains, and when we use them sensibly, they are capable of incredible things; consciously we can hand our knowledge down through the generations, building on what has gone before. People have sought to know, to find out, to understand the workings of the world and the cosmos, and, because of our individual mortality and our awareness of this, have wondered about whether there is an ultimate cause or creator, and whether there is any other state of existence awaiting us after the end of this one that we know. It is possible that in our need for this reassurance, we have invented those very things… “Everyone is the first person to die,” the king is told in Ionesco’s masterpiece, Le Roi Se Meurt.

I can know of our human past and what we have achieved as a species – the good and the evil – because it has already happened and we have historical records of much of it; many of these achievements contribute to what I suppose is a sense of pride in our species: there have been great thinkers, scientists, inventors, writers, musicians… Our future is unknown because it hasn’t happened yet; some of it I will get to see in my remaining time, and an enormous amount of it I will not. And because I have an imagination, I know that there are things I would dearly like to see in my lifetime – a human landing on Mars, contact with other intelligences elsewhere in the universe, solutions to our problems (self-inflicted, I know) such as climate change; I wouldn’t mind a socialist utopia, either. On the other hand, I have no wish to live through war and ecological disaster, and sometimes fear for my descendants because of our lack of intelligence as a species.

There is a science fiction tour-de-force, written during the Second World War, I think, by Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men, in which he imagines the future of humanity into the incredibly far future, through a number of different incarnations, wrestling with enormous epochs of time – billions of years – as humanity moves to other planets, evolves new capacities, far outshines what we are currently achieving. And yet, there is the awareness that eventually we must die out. Various incarnations of humanity pass on, along with geological ages, and it’s with a pang that, quite near the beginning of the novel, our variant homo sapiens, First Man, and all our physical and intellectual achievements vanish as though they had never been… such a waste, it feels, in an unfeeling universe. And yet, surely, that is how it must be, however we comfort ourselves with other possibilities.

But one thing is for sure: life will outlive me. There is an Arabic saying I came across a few years ago which I love: one day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one. To me, that seems a thing to aspire to.

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On the stars

March 18, 2019

I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, and occasionally find myself, somewhat ashamedly admitting that, even though there are aspects of those vast areas of human knowledge that I really do enjoy talking about, if the discussion gets too technical, I actually do develop a headache: there are certain ideas that I cannot get my head around, no matter how hard I may try. Perhaps some scientists may have similar difficulties when attempting to engage with literature; I don’t know.

download3.jpegIt was not always going to be like that. I discovered science fiction at a very young age: there were the adventures of Dan Dare, in colour, on the front of the Eagle comic, which I only got to read when we stayed at my grandparents’, and I could catch up on my youngest uncle’s collection. And in the public library I found the series of novels by Angus MacVicar about The Lost Planet, which gripped me while no doubt flying hard in the face of the laws of physics. Certainly they gave me a sense of the vastness of space and our relative insignificance in the grand order of things. And in the primary school playground, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men on the moon… which dates me rather.

I have always got a certain frisson from staring up at the sky on a clear night and seeing the constellations, even though I can’t really recognise more than the Plough, the Pleiades and Orion; I remember being astounded when on a trip to Morocco as a student, I actually saw the Milky Way in all its glory for the first time.

If you asked me what world event in my lifetime that has made the greatest impression on me, it would undoubtedly be the first moon landing, now almost fifty years ago. I can remember the excitement of watching it live on TV and – because of course all the timings were for the US television audience – getting up at 3am to watch the first moon walk live. I think, somehow, I regard it as the summit of human achievement. Humans have always explored and sought knowledge, and the efforts and sacrifices and lives that made all of that possible are a testament to that wonderful trait of our species, our curiosity; I could wish that far more of our energies had been turned outwards to the planets and the stars, rather than inwards to strife, warfare and destruction. And I still hope that it will be in my lifetime that humans return to the moon, and reach Mars, too.

One of my teachers was on holiday in the USA at the time of the first landing, and knowing of my fascination with newspapers, brought me back a copy of the New York Times with the news and the photos on the front page; it remains a treasured possession, and I have no idea what it may now be worth.

My interest in science fiction and its ideas has been lifelong; I know, thanks to Theodore Sturgeon, that 95% of it, along with 95% of everything, is crap, but the good 5% encourages us to look outward from our small planet, to contemplate our potential as well as our insignificance in the great scheme of things, and sometimes to lift our thoughts from the merely material onto another, perhaps spiritual plane. I find the idea that there might be other life, other intelligent species somewhere out there quite logical as well as thrilling, although of course I am never going to find out.

In purely practical terms, of course, it also does rather look as if we will be needing a replacement planet quite soon…

Philip K Dick: Clans of the Alphane Moon

March 2, 2019

51iJJB54ArL._AC_US218_Dick continues to get ever weirder as I work my way through his oeuvre. An abandoned Earth colony, on a small moon in the Alph system, is home to the former inhabitants of a mental institution, who have constituted themselves into townships focused on their different conditions… and now, for unknown reasons Earth is interested in moving in again and re-hospitalising the inhabitants, who regard them as invaders and will fight to retain their autonomy, which is eventually guaranteed by their agreeing to become an Alphan colony.

This takes place against a personal conflict between a psychologist and marriage counsellor who is divorcing her CIA husband who wants to try and murder her by proxy; she has taken him to the cleaners and he can only survive by holding down two jobs, working a 24-hour day assisted by illegal drugs provided by a Ganymedean slime-mould who is good-naturedly telepathic. Are you still with me? Psi powers are rife on Earth too. Oh, and there’s a powerful TV mogul secretly in league with the Alphans, pitted against the CIA.

I’m finally beginning to fathom what Dick does to his readers, which is probably just as well for my own sanity and peace of mind… as reader, you have to remain fully inside his constructs and just accept his insane premises, weird characters and incomprehensible plots: there is no point in trying to step outside and ‘make sense’ or analyse what is going on, you just have to remain fully immersed in the hallucination until the end. You are part of it all while you read, drugged and tripping along with the author and his characters. It all makes for very interesting yarns…

And the resolutions are interesting: I’ve been noting, all the way through this series on Dick, his focus on and care for ordinary people and their feelings: good people rediscover themselves, are reunited with those they care about, learn something about themselves from all the craziness they are involved in, and emerge better people, better able to manage in what remains a crazy world. Maybe there are lessons for our times in here.

Philip K Dick: Now Wait For Last Year

February 19, 2019

41SF83b2GSL._AC_US218_We really are fully into Dick’s hallucinatory drug period with this novel, and it seems to be leading up to the masterpiece which is The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which is the next but one novel in the time sequence of writing. Readers who are expecting a brief plot summary with my reviews will need to be a tad patient and understanding, as it’s pretty difficult.

The world of 2055 is at war with the reegs – we never really find out exactly what this race of creatures is – and in alliance with the Starmen of Proxima Centauri, who are far more powerful than we are and keen to exploit us. Or are we? Because in parallel time sequences the reegs are our allies… and there is a new, powerful hallucinogen which can mess with time as well as perceptions of reality, which is where it starts to get complicated: not all of the alternate realities, or time-tracks, are compatible with the real one… if you see what I mean.

We have to remember we are reading a novel written in 1966, from the hippy era and time of experimentation with all sorts of hallucinogenic substances; a lot of what Dick presents in his stories resembles the effects of LSD, but with added excitement or confusion. He’s clearly extremely knowledgeable about drug effects and side-effects, both physical and psychological, and how they can change an individual’s perceptions of reality.

And so we come back to what is an ongoing Dickian theme, the nature of reality itself. In the ‘reality’ of this novel, nothing is fixed, nothing secure: the evil new drug, which is quickly lethal, gives access to alternative time-tracks, and to the future – but which future? – for some, so it’s also easy enough to get the antidote from the future; then you can play all sorts of games. And the characters of the novel all do seem like pawns in some cosmic game. The plot, and truth itself, are continually collapsed in on themselves until there is no clear frame of reference from which we can speak of a plot in the way we usually expect to follow one.

In the end, you have to take it as a sort of psychedelic romp in a weird future world. And through it all does shine another of Dick’s preoccupations: that of being a decent human being, motivated ultimately by the urge to do what is good, what is right..

The novel’s ending is open, unsatisfactory even, certainly inconclusive, but the only one possible, given what has gone before. The war exists forever, the hero’s mentally-ill wife remains drug-scarred, but he remains a good man, although trapped in an endless series of hallucinations from which he must try to escape…

On intelligence

February 17, 2019

I know I’m not the only person deeply concerned by the growing evidence that human activity is irreversibly altering the planet’s climate, and not in a good way. Similarly, the growing evidence of the extinction of species, particularly of insects, is very worrying. Fairly well on in years myself, I perhaps have little to worry about in my lifetime, but I have children and grandchildren, as well as having friends and acquaintances among those who I used to teach not that long ago, and who in theory have the best part of a lifetime ahead of them: the future may not be very kind to them.

In my thinking about what is wrong with the world, I reached the conclusion long ago that a combination of greed and scarcity was at the root of most of our problems: greed on the part of relatively few, and scarcity, or many different kinds, for far more of the planet’s inhabitants, short of food, water, shelter, freedom, affection…

I’ve read widely in the literature of utopias, and have encountered many visions of how humans might do it all differently. Some of these visions are more attractive than others, but what the writers have in common is daring to dream of humanity living more harmoniously, as a species and with the rest of creation. Unfortunately – or inevitably? – the writers mostly fail to tell how we get there, and that’s the biggest problem. The visitor from our world to the utopia represents us and our collective failings, and is wowed by the alternative future s/he encounters. About thirty-five years ago, Ernest Callenbach, in two novels, Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging, attempted to show how the California of his own time gradually separated itself and seceded from the United States, and founded a nation based on true ecological principles. I remember thinking what a brave and wild idea it was, and almost plausible too, way back then when I read it. It hasn’t happened.

So here is the real issue: there are many possible maps out there. We can have the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the rural idyll of William MorrisNews From Nowhere or W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, we can have the feminist utopias of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time – if someone can show us how we get there.

Back in the real world, the forces of wealth and greed are firmly embedded, and are not about to give up without a struggle. Logically, one might argue that nobody needs an income of, say, more than £100k per year; anything in excess could be taxed away at 99%. Nobody needs more than a single residence, or a single vehicle. The Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world will never spend all those shedloads of money, but they aren’t going to give them up either. And don’t kid yourself about their being philanthropic: they still retain power and control.

When the Bolsheviks seized power after the Russian revolution, they eliminated the wealthy and the aristocracy and commandeered their assets: that was one way of tackling the forces of wealth and power decisively. And yet, we see that ultimately what happened was that one wealthy and powerful group was replaced by another… and so it goes on. However hard I try to visualise the transition to a better world, I cannot see beyond the powerful digging in their heels and using their power and wealth brutally to hang on to it, at horrendous cost to everyone else, or else another group replacing them. Can you visualise anything different?

Is there something deeply rooted in the human psyche which drives us to seek power over our fellows and to accumulate surplus just in case we ever go short? And can we never forego this desire, or educate ourselves out of it? Is there time? We live on a very bountiful planet, capable of supporting large numbers in comfort and sufficiency. Digging more deeply, when, in the millennia of our development and progress as a species, was the tipping point? Clearly, hunting and foraging was not enough: we craved more and had the brainpower to pursue more, with the results we see today. Are we a highly intelligent species that is unable to use that intelligence in our own best interests? So many questions, so little time.

My father used to say, ‘you can’t learn everything from books!’ He was right: sixty years of reading have not shown me the answers to the questions above. I would be very interested to know if any of my readers can cast any light on them for me…

Philip K Dick: The Crack in Space

February 13, 2019

51WZTVM2SSL._AC_US218_This one was a bit more fun that the last one, although no more credible in any sense of the word. It’s a crazy futuristic thriller focused around a US presidential election campaign in which the first back man is about to become president… except that unlike Obama’s campaign, it involves futuristic weapons, time travel and a murder, linked to businessmen who own a satellite-based brothel…

What is interesting, gripping even, in this weird tale, is the discovery of a parallel universe where homo sapiens does not exist: here is the answer to overpopulation problems and without so much as a thought, people are being shipped over into that world before it’s realised that although homo sapiens may not exist, in that parallel track Peking Man became the human species.

Now it becomes fascinating: here is speculation, real SF, and the unexpected: what if that had happened? How different would the world be? And then there are the moral issues: could and should homo sapiens attempt to colonise, or even share such a world: the whole of white US history is under the microscope here. And true to what we know, the political and capitalist jungle takes over without a thought. This may be almost a throwaway novel, but you do end up thinking about a lot of real ideas along the way.

Philip K Dick: The Simulacra

February 13, 2019

61e66jMA2ZL._AC_US218_Dick very skilfully takes us into a completely different world in only a couple of pages or so through carefully-chosen details; psi powers, his love of classical music and alien life-forms are immediately part of the future USA which is a matriarchal one-party state, which has just outlawed psychoanalysis and replaced it by drug therapy…whew!

I started to lose the plot literally and metaphorically when a time-travel strand was introduced, in which the government was scheming to go back and seek to alter history using figures from the Third Reich! It’s wild and fantastical, outside the bounds of SF as I recognise it (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms in itself) yet Dick does demonstrate a deep understanding of the nature of history and historical forces. There is also an immediacy to the future in that he posits a world where big business is far more powerful than government and politicians, and calls the shots.

It’s another unsummarisable story, which had me feeling that some of this Dick re-read that I took on is becoming a bit of a chore. The ending of this novel made little sense, really, and I found myself back with what I suppose is Dick’s meta-question: what is reality? But this isn’t one I shall be reading again…

Philip K Dick: The Game-Players of Titan

February 4, 2019

51xRvFi006L._AC_US218_Dick’s novels continue to get weirder, and as I worked my way through The Game-Players of Titan, I found myself thinking, what is Dick doing now? This isn’t SF as I know it. Certainly it’s set in the future: there are all sorts of automated devices which communicate with the user, the kind of devices that we are actually becoming more familiar with in our own real world. But I struggled to find a conventional linear plot. Some of the characters were the fairly typical cardboard cut-outs of SF of the time, but others were deeper, more rounded and complex, and at times I sympathised with them…

And yet… there are all sorts of psi powers all over the place, in a depopulated Earth which has lost a war with the vugs of Titan, who maintain the planet in good order almost devoid of people, and have constructed some sort of gambling game apparently with the aim of ensuring as much sexual promiscuity as possible in order to rebuild the population: luck in their game means a couple conceiving…

Except, it’s not quite that simple: as the story progresses, it become apparent – sometimes quite crudely – that other forces are also at work, including rivalries between the vugs on Titan. It really isn’t possible to summarise a chaotic plot; you will have to read the book yourselves (if this review makes you feel you need to!). It is so off-the-wall, so crazy, and yet compelling enough that I didn’t give up on it.

So, the usual Dickian stuff in what I have to label as ‘not one of his best’: what is reality, psi powers, aliens, smalltown decent people and – a new one, this – Dick’s personal love of classical music makes an appearance.

Philip K Dick: Dr. Bloodmoney

January 31, 2019

51rslz-9fgl._ac_us218_I’m picking up my re-read of Philip K Dick’s novels after a Christmas break, and just finished re-acquainting myself with Dr Bloodmoney after forty years – so that must have been around the time I was working on my MA thesis. It’s hard to know where to start with it, really. If we go for the links with what’s gone before, then there are the first tentatives at colonising Mars, which in this novel are interrupted by nuclear war: the story jumps between the future of 1981 and 1988 and it’s clear that at some time in between these dates, US civilisation has been seriously disrupted by unspecified nuclear conflict. As usual, Dick makes the insanity clear: war was instantaneous, unexpected, nobody knew what it was about and it may have been an enormous mistake…

Or – and here Dick is off on another nature of reality trail – the war is caused by a madman who imagines that he is God and by concentrating his powers he can make war happen; he is plagued by his guilt at having been a nuclear research scientist responsible for an ‘accident’ at some time in the past, and obsessed with the need to atone for this. It’s certainly Dick’s most disturbing novel so far, for my money; he will go on to develop some of these ideas even further in Deus Irae.

Even after war, which may be construed as a warning from God, the remaining humans rebuilding their lives persist in behaving in the same old stupid and venal ways. Practical knowledge and skills are obviously vital for a surviving and recovering society: in the US they are a commodity, for sale as always.

As a narrative, it’s quite episodic and disjointed, though characters re-appearing provide some continuity. It’s a pretty nightmarish small-town world that Dick creates, of ordinary people as well as a host of mutations caused by radiation. The one unifying force in the crazy times is the prospective Martian colonist marooned by the war in orbit above the earth, broadcasting hopefully to those he passes over, and the forces of chaos are embodied not only by the scientist who has survived but also by an increasingly power-crazed ‘phocomelus’ – a survivor of the thalidomide drug which caused so much damage to newborns in Europe in the 1960s – who also enjoys supernatural powers.

It’s a worthwhile and chaotic read, with so many of Dick’s ideas up in the air at the same time that it lacks the power of many of his other more disciplined novels. But you have to admire the man and his ideas: he gets you thinking on so many different fronts…

Philip K Dick: Martian Time-Slip

January 6, 2019

5156jr1yvcl._ac_us218_At the outset, it’s hard to know where we are going or what to make of this one, really.

It’s entirely set on Mars, in the new Earth colony, which survives with difficulty and is looking to expand massively by encouraging emigration from Earth; there are the remnants of a dying-out humanoid Martian race who resemble the Aborigines of Australia, and who are either ignored or exploited almost as slaves by the colonists. Many of Dick’s novels feature colonies on Mars, perhaps reflecting the optimism about space exploration of his day – we are still five years or so before the Moon landings – as well as the relative lack of knowledge at the time about that planet. Obviously Mars performs the same isolating function as a desert island in earlier fiction…

Dick’s main concern in the novel, though, is with schizophrenia and autism (which is much more widespread in his future society than it is now) in various of his characters and how they cope (or do not) with their conditions. He shows a great ability to make his readers see and empathise – as far as that is possible – with those characters; the story itself seems almost unframed and unplanned: you can’t really see where he intends to go with the plot, but you know there will be a point to it all. It all develops quite slowly, though never failing to grip; it meanders, taking in a whole range of characters, and Dick’s focus is, as usual, mainly on ordinary decent people.

I did find myself considering what a trained psychiatrist would make of Dick’s exploration of the interior experiences and workings of his characters. Is the author an expert, or an amateur?

There’s also a strong anti-trade union line in the plot through one of the main characters, a repellent man who uses his power to manipulate and punish others. I wondered if Dick was here reflecting experience of unions in the US in his time.

Ultimately the plot hangs on the idea of both autistic and schizophrenic people to perceive time differently from the rest of us, to interact differently with it, and even to be able to travel through it. This makes the plot confusing at times, but I found the development and conclusion of the story very powerful. As always, Dick manages to confront us with real questions about the nature of our reality, about moral decisions, and about issues in the world today which we are apt to ignore: he frames those questions through fiction and approachable characters, so that we cannot ignore them.

While I am aware that there is a preference for not using the term schizophrenia today, I use it in this post for simplicity’s sake, because this is how Dick refers to the condition in his novel.

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