Posts Tagged ‘SF’

James E Gunn: The Listeners

December 29, 2017

51ZnpgDj6xL._AC_US218_I last read this one in 1979! So, having completely forgotten it for so long, I wasn’t expecting much; how wrong I was. It’s a masterly series of linked short stories set in a project scanning the universe for communications from other civilisations, other intelligent species. The lives and work of the various characters are interwoven with thoughts and reflections on the possibilities inherent in there either being other life-forms somewhere else or on our species being alone; Gunn imagines contact is eventually made and also succeeds in making us care about his main characters and their work, in an astonishingly powerful and quite erudite novel.

I’ve come across no other novels or stories by Gunn in my life of reading SF, so I looked him up; still alive in his nineties, apparently, and this particular novel a runner-up for a major award when it was published. Although life elsewhere is a standard trope of SF, the long and painstaking search for it, and philosophical implications are not. The novel was published in 1972, and this was the time when people like Carl Sagan were setting up the SETI project.

The communication Gunn imagines from intelligent life in the Capella star-system strongly resembles the drawings and coded information we sent out from Earth on the Voyager spacecraft five years later in 1977. To me, science and research has always been a double-edged sword; to be sure, we advance the sum of human knowledge and understanding, and this is a good thing, but so much that is discovered can be and has been perverted to evil ends, either in the development of weapons of mass destruction, or tools that enhance our lives whilst wrecking our environment. Against this background, I’ve always felt that the exploration of space and the search for life elsewhere is one of the best things that we do, one of the most useful things on which we can expend time and resources; I’ve never felt it to be a waste of money, given the obscene size of the ‘defence’ budgets of so-called civilised nations… And, when I find myself reflecting on the fact that I won’t be around for ever, one of the things I realise I would really like to be around for would be when we finally contact other intelligences, or when we get to Mars. I still rate humans landing on the Moon as the greatest event of my lifetime.

So, once contact is made, humans panic and fear. Will aliens invade and enslave us? Politicians’ first instinct is to suppress news, and to refuse to respond to the message; calmness eventually prevails and a reply is sent, but ninety years are needed for our message to reach its destination and a reply to come back, and here we are faced with a different issue – our attention-span. The SETI project in the novel was threatened with closure, having existed for 50 years without making any contact; 90 years for a reply to come back is beyond a human life-span, let alone any politician or manager’s working life. How does anyone cope, how do you sustain the necessary infrastructure for long enough to receive and respond? Our short lives and the nature of capitalism make us short-termists par excellence…

Gunn’s novel, which I’m sure has been long forgotten about by everyone except compilers of SF reference books, is another example of what the genre is best at: making us think. What if? I’d love to know…

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The myth of realism (2)

January 17, 2016

continued]

One of the things that is interesting to follow in the history of the novel is how, over time, novelists collectively learned and developed their craft. They learned to write detailed description to create a convincing and vivid sense of place. Nowadays, in our much more visual world, equipped with a vast stock of visual images stored in our memory, many readers tend to find these sections of early novels dull or boring, tiresome or tedious, but in their day they were very necessary. Writers learned how to write life-like dialogue, getting the tenses right, separating out the verbs of saying from the actual words spoken, focusing on how people actually spoke with each other. Just ask yourself, did people in Jane Austen’s time really talk to each other like that? And, as psychology began to develop as a science, writers began to strive to create psychologically plausible characters, and to explore their inner worlds. (Did you notice how many times I avoided using the word ‘realistic’ in that paragraph?)

In some ways, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch strikes me as a decent example of a realist novel, in the sense of attempting to portray a full cross-section of the society of its time: there is a place, and people from all walks of life, all social classes. The focus narrows down when you turn to a more naturalistic novel like Zola‘s Germinal, where the detailed picture of nineteenth century miners’ life and working conditions is no doubt impeccably accurate, but rather more in isolation from the rest of society, apart from conflict with the bosses.

Twentieth century writers zero in on the psychological angle because it is something new, something which fiction hasn’t had the chance to explore before: they take us inside the minds of characters, trying to portray their motivations, and their darker sides, too. I have always found Joyce‘s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a wonderful example of this. He successfully takes us inside the mind of a would-be artist, someone who sees himself as different from others around him, a Catholic boy wracked with torments about the penalties for his sexual sins. And the idea of the stream of consciousness, the mind pouring itself uncensored, unedited (which, of course, it isn’t) onto the page is a very powerful one.

Novelists are always in search of something new to explore, some angle on a story no-one else has yet developed. But is there anything left? Has the novel run out of steam and ideas? Avid readers of this blog (if there are any) will probably realise that I think it has. It’s a long time since I came across something genuinely new. Ben Marcus‘ superbly surrealistic The Age of Wire and String was probably one, but travelling too far down that route exposes a writer to the risk of becoming incomprehensible…

And then there’s SF and fantasy. The more into fantasy you stray, the fewer holds are barred, the more one can invent, but however fantastical the creatures or the location, writers are hemmed in and restricted by the fact that they are human. Thus, Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, wonderfully filmed by Tarkovsky, loses us in an alien world rather than exploring and enlightening us.

to be concluded]

 

Leigh Brackett: The Long Tomorrow

August 3, 2015

9780575131569I’d never come across the term ‘cosy catastrophe’ until I read the introduction to this SF novel from the 1950s; it’s an interesting label, referring to a cluster of stories from the US which imagined that a nuclear war was somehow survivable. This got me thinking: given the size of the United States, and the relative emptiness of a lot of it, even a major attack (major for then being rather different from major nowadays) would leave large tracts ‘relatively’ unaffected; the same would never be true in the crowded small island that is the UK, which is why our post-nuclear tales are rather grimmer and more horrific…

Novels like this take us back to a simpler age, perhaps even in a romanticised frontiersman fashion. In the post-war world of The Long Tomorrow, a 30th amendment to the US constitution has forbidden settlements of more than a thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile: immediately we are back with the small-town US that existed before today’s complex world. Another particularly American trait of such novels is the re-emergence of fundamentalist religion in myriad forms, embracing the frontier-days violence which (to an outsider) always seems to lurk just below the surface. Religion enforces ignorance and social conformity.

Leigh Brackett explores the obvious question: should the survivors attempt to recreate the complex civilisation of the previous time? can knowledge, once gained, ever be forgotten? Religion complicates the issue by suggesting it’s forbidden knowledge and the war was God’s warning.

Two curious boys rebel against the small-town mentality, seek and eventually find the mysterious settlement where a small group still secretly pursue the learning of the past; it is not what they expect and in their different ways they are challenged; there is real tension between the dangers of stasis and the impossibility of turning back the clock; equally, to go back to the mistakes of the past is no solution.

Something which struck me forcefully as I read were the uncanny similarities between this novel and one of my favourite-ever SF novels, Walter M Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was written a few years later, and is still, for my money, the more powerful and moving of the two, perhaps because it is less cosy; I wondered how much, if at all, Miller had been moved or influenced by Brackett’s earlier novel. Both are set in a post-nuclear war US, both posit a highly religious society springing up in the aftermath, both explore the idea of the preservation and rediscovery of the dangerous knowledge of the past; Miller is more pessimistic in his conclusion.

The Long Tomorrow is a really good, fast-paced read; perhaps the ideas are rather predictable, but it’s a novel to make you think about us as a species.

Science Fiction

January 23, 2014

It occurred to me that the reason I find myself reading far less science fiction than I used to, is because I have rather less of the future to look forward to, in the sense of growing older; when I was much younger, I had the sense that my future might be radically different… and, yes, daily life has changed enormously over my lifetime. Nothing digital in my childhood. Enough said.

I’ve always been picky in terms of what SF I read. I hate the term ‘sci-fi’, am not interested in space opera or fantasy and hobbits, which narrows down the field somewhat. It’s also the only genre (apart from Sherlock Holmes, of course!) where I’ve actually enjoyed reading short stories.

Speculative fiction is what I’ve always really enjoyed; the ‘what ifs’, the alternative futures, the utopias and dystopias through the ages. Some of these can verge on the didactic, and when I was studying, writing about and reviewing SF in the 1970s and 1980s quite bit of it did. I wrote a dissertation for my MA on speculative fiction, focusing on Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Ursula LeGuin, who, for my money, remain some of the best writers in the genre, although I know I have gone out of touch with what has been written more recently. And then I researched an entire MPhil thesis on Feminist science fiction. That’s reminded me of the stunning resource that is the Science Fiction Foundation, with their amazing library of literature and journals, the only one in the UK as far as I’m aware, currently based at the University of Liverpool. When I was using its resources more than thirty years ago, it was based in Dagenham at the former North East London Polytechnic.

Novels are created as entertainment, certainly, but I have always enjoyed being made to think as well, and the kind of SF I’ve described above has made me reflect on myself, on what it means to be a sentient being of the human type, on the future of the world, humanity and the universe. I suppose such writing may politicise readers, but it’s hardly likely to bring about social change or revolution, as novels are a creation of the bourgeois period and are for individual consumption. If a good novel takes me out of myself, allows me to escape who I am for a few hours, then SF takes me further away, makes me aware of my smallness in the scale of the universe, gives me a different sense of perspective. That’s why, for instance, the most important thing that’s happened in my lifetime is a man walking on the moon,  why I’m really excited at the thought of a space probe landing on a comet in a few months time, and why the thought that a space probe has left the solar system and is on its way to the stars at some time in the unimaginable future blows my mind completely.

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