Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

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…

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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: 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…

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

Philip K Dick: The Cosmic Puppets

November 22, 2018

51OHOtUPMWL._AC_US218_I read somewhere, once, that this was the worst of Dick’s novels. For a very long time it was out-of-print and unobtainable, only re-appearing in the 1980s when Dick was dead and fashionable again.

A traveller re-visits the home-town he left at age nine, and finds it inexplicably a completely different place, unrecognisable and weird; he discovers that he was supposed to have died of scarlet fever at the age of nine. One again Dick has thrown us into the middle of things to confuse and disrupt his readers: we are drawn into the curious behaviours of two even stranger children who seem to be breeding creatures and fighting each other by proxy: they have odd powers and can bring inanimate matter to life…

There is an increasingly hallucinatory quality to this world from which the outsider cannot escape – an idea that Dick will develop much more convincingly and interestingly in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – and then he meets someone else whose vague memories of his past seem to chime in with his own. We can see Dick’s interest in the nature of reality developing, and entire universes which are actually controlled from inside a character’s mind are another idea that will feature much more effectively later in his writing career.

The novel develops – if you can call it that – into a battle between two personifications of good and evil, working at first through the two children I mentioned earlier. It is a weak novel, loose and lacking in both structure and connection: the ideas are certainly there but not developed and executed with any finesse; ultimately it failed to convince or grip this reader.

Philip K Dick: Vulcan’s Hammer

November 19, 2018

51kYpaCvS5L._AC_US218_I’ve been a fan of Philip K Dick’s science fiction ever since I first read something by him as a student. He’s a brilliant writer – although very uneven in quality – and a fellow-writer once dubbed him ‘the best science fiction writer on any planet’, which probably does him justice… But I’m aware I have a few favourites which I re-read every now and then, and that there is a lot of his work I haven’t touched for years – so time to put that right. I decided to embark on a re-reading of his novels in the sequence they were written, to see whither that is illuminating in any way at all. I don’t know whether I’ll last the course, as some of his later books were quite bonkers, as I recall, reflecting his own very chaotic and tormented life.

Vulcan’s Hammer was apparently the first to be written. The opening – in medias res – is effective, immediately establishing an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and mystery. Paranoia in many forms permeates most of Dick’s work, so no surprises here. He envisages a future with a world authority rather than individual nation-states, and everyone under surveillance to maintain stasis: prophetic enough when I look at today’s China, for example.

I did find myself noticing some shoddy language, suggesting a hastily-written text, and wonder if traits like this are harder to notice in SF, or perhaps more easily overlooked when one is taken over by plot and visions of the future? Certainly it’s one of those things I heard non-SF readers mention about the genre.

As the story develops we see emerging a conflict between two computers striving to control the world, and a people-led organisation that seeks freedom from control (although, in a typical Dickian paranoid twist, it turns out that this movement is actually a creation of one of the computers, unbeknown to its leader…) Surely Dick is looking forward to our world, where the potential of AI, and machines to manipulate us is currently a live issue? His controllers analyse the lower classes as risk-takers and gamblers who have not bought into security and stability: what does that remind you of?

But surely Dick is at his most prophetic when he visualises autonomous, programmed killing devices which can be used to target individuals – and he was writing in the 1950s! Killer drones – for that is surely what they are – are found in many of his novels and stories, as is the idea of machines creating ever more sophisticated killing machines, beyond the control of the humans who originally created them. There he was, sixty years ago, planning today’s nightmares…

Dick’s powerful controller Vulcan 3 is a paranoid computer, suffering from HAL syndrome more than a decade before Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. And we are clearly in a world where Asimov’s Third Law of Robotics does not obtain. Equally, he’s aware of the powerlessness of a grassroots movement faced by a modern bureaucratic state.

And yet, even in this first novel, Dick never loses sight of the human: the denouement returns to that level. There is a plot twist which is a bit of a cheat – no spoiler here – and I kindly remember that this is his first novel. So many of the ideas he will play with and explore in later novels and stories are foreshadowed here, albeit crudely. And you can already see that a writer who can juggle so many balls at once is something of a visionary.

August favourites #29: SF writer

August 29, 2018

512pFI-ABRL._AC_US218_Somewhere there had to be a space for my all-time favourite science-fiction writer, Philip K Dick. I think I have managed to collect all of his published works but cannot be sure: I need to check this one day. A troubled and tormented mind, with a brilliant imagination, an astonishing range of ideas and a gift for putting the little man, the ordinary person, at the heart of so many of his novels and stories. Picking his best novel is pretty difficult: I hesitate between The Man in the High Castle, an alternative universe plot where the Axis powers won the Second World War and German and Japan occupied the United States between them; a writer in that world imagines an alternative universe in which the Allies won… do you have a headache yet? – and Ubik, which is almost impossible to summarise, except that Ubik is a magic panacaea for almost all ills. Then there is Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? which became the stunning film Blade Runner… In the end I cannot choose from all the literally dozens of novels and stories; I could make a list of the not so good ones, but that’s not what this series is about. So let’s just have Philip Dick as my favourite science fiction writer.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Reflections on utopias (2)

August 21, 2018

Boring

There are other problems with utopian novels, in terms of their structure; certainly the novel which started me off raises a number of them. Utopian novels are often rather, or very dull. Rarely do they have more than the most basic of linear plots; there’s very little character development, almost no suspense or excitement; lots is left unexplained because it cannot be explained. What you have is a didactic text, not a novel as we know it, Jim. There’s almost no subtlety. Thus, it cannot be explained how our hero is escaped from the Paris blockade; he’s conveniently hypnotised to sleep while it all happens, after having promised he will never ask about it. When the author thinks we may have had enough of the Oxford student telling his linear story, he shifts to having his Cornwall vicar continue the same linear story. And then, in the mysteriously appearing manuscript, Aleriel himself continues his linear narrative. Subtle it isn’t, dull it becomes. We are never told why it’s so important that the Venusian doesn’t reveal himself to the Martians when he travels around their world…

Two exceptions

If you’re going to describe a perfect world, then what ought to have been a novel soon becomes a geography or history or sociology textbook. Some writers – better writers – realise that a real plot is going to make their novel rather more interesting. I’ll mention two examples. Austen Tappan Wright’s tour-de-force (over a thousand pages) Islandia has a wide range of characters including someone from our world who explores and comes to feel that the utopian society he visits is preferable to his own; he develops real, and romantic relationships with characters from that world, which is under threat in various ways, and he offers his help and skills in various ways as these plot strands beyond his own are played out… in other words there are plots and people to interest us

Ursula Le Guin takes a similar approach in her anarchist utopia The Dispossessed: the home planet Urras is our capitalist earth and Anarres its moon is the breakaway would-be utopia, here a work-in-progress rather than something complete, where everyone, and particularly anyone dissatisfied can see and if they choose reach the glittering alternative: there is a complex dynamic between the two worlds which moves the story along. Do you want the gritty, poor and hard-won utopia or the flesh-pots of capitalism? (I oversimplify, grossly); if you are living in one, does the other seem more attractive? Is it really? What can and should you do about it? Le Guin’s novel is possibly the supreme achievement in the genre, raising, as it does, so many real questions that pertain to us and our society, and making us think deeply about them. Furthermore both these authors succeed in creating a range of fully developed and convincing characters with whom the reader engages: their fates matter to us, played out against the backdrop of their fascinating worlds.

What is the point?

Many writers, including a fair number of cranks, have pictured their visions of a perfect society. As a form, the utopian novel often does not work, at least as a novel, for reasons I’ve listed above. They are of academic interest, perhaps. Some writers do better – see the last two examples. But ultimately, the visions are unachievable, it seems to me, without our giving up a great deal of what we cherish dearly as part of our human nature. Equally, though, we find it very difficult to imagine our species in any way radically different: Brave New World faces us with that possibility very forcefully: the inhabitants of that society are almost all completely happy. Why, then, do we recoil?

There is the issue of transition: whilst writers can imagine a utopia, to convince us that it’s possible to get to it from where we are now, is a much taller order, which fewer writers attempt. Instead we are parachuted into a new world. And no matter how desirable a new world might be, is it achievable without great violence, upheaval and bloodshed? Look at what happened with the Russian Revolution. That’s not to say that to make an attempt is not worth it, merely to underline the difficulties. My utopia will be someone else’s dystopia.

Finally there is the problem of stasis. For better or worse, so far in human history we have known intellectual and material progress, as our minds, understanding and knowledge have developed. There is a dynamism, a power in this which cannot exist in a utopia, which is by nature perfect: there is no further progress to be made. Venusians are eternal. Would we not then be faced with the problem of entropy? Would things not inevitably but slowly disintegrate? Can utopia only ever be a dream?

Further musings and reflections available here and here.

Reflections on utopias (1)

August 21, 2018

I’ve been thinking about utopias again, more specifically utopian novels and their flaws and defects, prompted by what I think I’d have to call the only really religious utopian novel I’ve come across. Driving around the country, I’ve been listening to Aleriel, or A Voyage to Other Worlds, by Wladyslaw Somerville Lach-Szyrma, a Polish-English nineteenth-century writer. (Yes, another of those Librivox audiobooks!) Very briefly, an Oxford student meets a mysterious person whilst travelling in France. He meets him several times in different places, and we quickly get the impression there is something uncanny or unusual about him. He’s eager to travel widely and learn as much as he can, and clearly knows very little about Earth, its people, nations and habits. He effects an almost miraculous, and never-explained rescue of the narrator from the Prussian blockade of Paris in 1870. He’s clearly a very spiritual creature and is given an introduction by the narrator to a friend who is a vicar in Cornwall, and who eventually uncovers the secret, that the mysterious person is a visitor from the planet Venus. Shortly after this, our visitor leaves Earth, after having allowed the vicar a glimpse of life on his home planet. Several years later a detailed communication is delivered, relating Aleriel’s travels to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and other worlds.

Eternal life?

Venusians live for ever, and spend much time worshipping the Creator in huge temples; they do not know war, violence, famine or poverty, and so Earth clearly comes off pretty badly by comparison. Martians are not eternal, but they have a similar spiritual reverence for the Creator, and have at some point in their past been visited by the ‘Holy One’ who taught them how to live righteously; they have constructed themselves a utopian society of plenty and stability, and once again Earth looks poor by comparison: whilst Martians have heeded the teachings of their Holy One, the implication is that on Earth we have not responded to those of Jesus Christ. This idea of a Creator and a spirituality common to three planets (and, indeed, taken for granted) is quite well developed if a little overbearing and hectoring at times. However, because of the nature of utopian writing, fascinating theological issues that writer such as such as James Blish raised in A Case of Conscience are unvoiced.

I remember years ago being shocked by the utopian world of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time because they made the choice to execute people who would not conform to the ways of their perfect society; the Martians do the same…

Kill the misfits?

And so I am back with all sorts of questions that utopias raise, that last moral one in particular. If you have carefully and painstakingly built a perfect society of equality and plenty, based on fairness and sharing and so on, and one or two people refuse to play, and challenge, or behave ‘anti-socially’ and thus perhaps endanger the future of that society, do you have any alternative other than to – in some way – remove such people? Huxley, in Brave New World, could not fully face up to this and their rebels were exiled to various islands where they could be supervised to ensure they did not contaminate the utopia. But if someone really does not want to belong…

The broader picture is that utopias do not do democracy, which we all know from our experience is flawed enough, but is supposed to be the least worst system we have available. Again, if you have constructed a perfect society, why would you give anyone the opportunity to vote against it, and downgrade it? There are arguments current that less democratic, or even authoritarian societies – the Chinese Communist one for instance – may have a better chance when it comes to dealing with the ecological and environmental crises the planet faces, because they can plan and act for the long-term and are not hamstrung by short-term electoral game-playing in the ways that our democratic Western societies are.

Can utopia be a human place, or are its citizens/members inevitably no longer humans as we know them, having lost various rights which we currently imagine to be crucial to our existence and our freedom? Look again at Brave New World, where the problem, it seems to me, is not that society’s control of its members per se, but the fact that a new race has been bred and conditioned, which we would not recognise as human if we met them. Whether or not we might like to live there, and whether or not we could live there, are two additional avenues of speculation. To be continued…

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