Monday, November 28, 2011

The Power of Myth

Is classical mythology still taught in school? Mythology, especially Greek and Norse, was once regarded as part of the essential education of Western culture. Educated people were as familiar with the doings of the Greek and Norse gods as people are today with those of the Kardashians. Classical mythology was an essential element in literature -- epic fantasy novels like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings are fairly steeped in the archetypes of the old mythologies.

I was exposed to Greek and Norse mythology as a child, and still retain some knowledge of Olympus and Asgard, of Zeus and Odin. But neither ever really touched me deeply. Some of the myths, such as Prometheus bestowing the gift of fire to mankind and being cruelly punished by the other gods for it, still resonate. But others, like Cronus swallowing Rhea's children and then vomiting them back up after being drugged by Zeus, seem only silly.

At about the same time I was exposed to classical mythology, I was also being exposed to science fictional mythology. I was reading novels like Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and The City and the Stars. I didn't know it at that time, but this mythology had its own ur-texts in the works of Olaf Stapledon, particularly Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937), imaginary histories of the future of humanity and the the entire universe (!), respectively. Stapledon has had a profound impact on the genre, although he was never a genre writer like those whose works appeared in pulp magazines in the 1930s and 40s and beyond. One can find variations of his themes in works as diverse as Clifford D. Simak's Way Station (1963), Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer (1964), Gregory Benford's Galactic Center cycle (1972-95), Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series (2000-) and Robert Charles Wilson's Spin cycle (2005-11). What they have in common is that they combine the cosmic vision of Stapledon with the appeal of classic storytelling, involving people (some larger than life, like the heroes of Greek and Norse epics, but not always human) that we can care about. In an interview with Wilson two years ago, Locus magazine called this approach "The Cosmic and the Intimate."

But it all began with Stapledon, who didn't tell stories in the usual sense, but created a mythology that could inspire such stories. And as impersonal as it may seem, it has had as deep an emotional impact on myself and others as those Greek and Norse mythologies once had. But, as I said, Stapledon's text is an ur-text – and it is a seemingly inexhaustible resource. Try to imagine how many stories could be set against the background of this brief (less than 3,000 words) excerpt from his cosmic history:

An Early Vision of Interstellar Madness and War

From Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker

Interstellar, as opposed to interplanetary, travel was quite impossible until the advent of sub-atomic power. Fortunately this source of power was seldom gained until late in a world's development, when mentality was mature enough to wield this most dangerous of all physical instruments without inevitable disaster. Disasters, however, did occur. Several worlds were accidentally blown to pieces. In others civilization was temporarily destroyed. Sooner or later, however, most of the minded worlds tamed this formidable djin, and set it to work upon a titanic scale, not only in industry, but in such great enterprises as the alteration of planetary orbits for the improvement of climate. This dangerous and delicate process was effected by firing a gigantic sub-atomic rocket-apparatus at such times and places that the recoil would gradually accumulate to divert the planet's course in the desired direction.
Actual interstellar voyaging was first effected by detaching a planet from its natural orbit by a series of well-timed and well-placed rocket impulsions, and thus projecting it into outer space at a speed far greater than the normal planetary and stellar speeds. Something more than this was necessary, since life on a sunless planet would have been impossible. For short interstellar voyages the difficulty was sometimes overcome by the generation of sub-atomic energy from the planet's own substance; but for longer voyages, lasting for many thousands of years, the only method was to form a small artificial sun, and project it into space as a blazing satellite of the living world. For this purpose an uninhabited planet would be brought into proximity with the home planet to form a binary system. A mechanism would then be contrived for the controlled disintegration of the atoms of the lifeless planet, to provide a constant source of light and heat. The two bodies, revolving round one another, would be launched among the stars.
This delicate operation may well seem impossible. Had I space to describe the age-long experiments and world-wrecking accidents which preceded its achievement, perhaps the reader's incredulity would vanish. But I must dismiss in a few sentences whole protracted epics of scientific adventure and personal courage. Suffice it that, before the process was perfected, many a populous world was either cast adrift to freeze in space, or was roasted by its own artificial sun.
The stars are so remote from one another that we measure their distances in light years. Had the voyaging worlds travelled only at speeds comparable with those of the stars themselves, even the shortest of interstellar voyages would have lasted for many millions of years. But since interstellar space offers almost no resistance to a travelling body, and therefore momentum is not lost, it was possible for the voyaging world, by prolonging the original rocket-impulsion for many years, to increase its speed far beyond that of the fastest star. Indeed, though even the early voyages by heavy natural planets were by our standards spectacular. I shall have to tell at a later stage of voyages by small artificial planets travelling at almost half the speed of light. Owing to certain 'relativity effects' it was impossible to accelerate beyond this point. But even such a rate of travel made voyages" to the nearer stars well worth undertaking if any other planetary system happened to lie within this range. It must be remembered that a fully awakened world had no need to think in terms of such short periods as a human lifetime. Though its individuals might die, the minded world was in a very important sense immortal. It was accustomed to lay its plans to cover periods of many million years.
In early epochs of the galaxy, expeditions from star to star were difficult, and rarely successful. But at a later stage, when there were already many thousands of worlds inhabited by intelligent races, and hundreds that had passed the utopian stage, a very serious situation arose. Interstellar travel was by now extremely efficient. Immense exploration vessels, many miles in diameter, were constructed out in space from artificial materials of extreme rigidity and lightness. These could be projected by rocket action and with cumulative acceleration till their speed was almost half the speed of light. Even so, the journey from end to end of the galaxy could not be completed under two hundred thousand years. However, there was no reason to undertake so long a voyage. Few voyages in search of suitable systems lasted for more than a tenth of that time.  Many were much shorter. Races that had attained and secured a communal consciousness would not hesitate to send out a number of such expeditions. Ultimately they might project their planet itself across the ocean of space to settle in some remote system recommended by the pioneers.
The problem of interstellar travel was so enthralling that it sometimes became an obsession even to a fairly well-developed utopian world. This could only occur if in the constitution of that world there was something unwholesome, some secret and unfulfilled hunger impelling the beings. The race might then become travel-mad.
Its social organization would be refashioned and directed with Spartan strictness to the new communal undertaking. All its members, hypnotized by the common obsession, would gradually forget the life of intense personal intercourse and of creative mental activity which had hitherto been their chief concern. The whole venture of the spirit, exploring the universe and its own nature with critical intelligence and delicate sensibility, would gradually come to a standstill. The deepest roots of emotion and will, which in the fully sane awakened world were securely within the range of introspection, would become increasingly obscured. Less and less, in such a world, could the unhappy communal mind understand itself. More and more it pursued its phantom goal. Any attempt to explore the galaxy telepathically was now abandoned. The passion of physical exploration assumed the guise of a religion. The communal mind persuaded itself that it must at all costs spread the gospel of its own culture throughout the galaxy. Though culture itself was vanishing, the vague idea of culture was cherished as a justification of world-policy.
Here I must check myself, lest I gave a false impression. It is necessary to distinguish sharply between the mad worlds of comparatively low mental development and those of almost the highest order. The humbler kinds might become crudely obsessed by sheer mastery or sheer travel, with its scope for courage and discipline. More tragic was the case of those few very much more awakened worlds whose obsession was seemingly for community itself and mental lucidity itself, and the propagation of the kind of community and the special mode of lucidity most admired by themselves. For them travel was but the means to cultural and religious empire.
I have spoken as though I were confident that these formidable worlds were indeed mad, aberrant from the line of mental and spiritual growth. But their tragedy lay in the fact that, though to their opponents they seemed to be either mad or at heart wicked, to themselves they appeared superbly sane, practical, and virtuous. There were times when we ourselves, the bewildered explorers, were almost persuaded that this was the truth. Our intimate contact with them was such as to give us insight, so to speak, into the inner sanity of their insanity, or the core of rightness in their wickedness. This insanity or wickedness I have to describe in terms of simple human craziness and vice; but in truth it was in a sense superhuman, for it included the perversion of faculties above the range of human sanity and virtue.
When one of these 'mad' worlds encountered a sane world, it would sincerely express the most reasonable and kindly intentions. It desired only cultural intercourse, and perhaps economic co-operation. Little by little it would earn the respect of the other for its sympathy, its splendid social order, and its dynamic purpose. Each world, would regard the other as a noble, though perhaps an alien and partly incomprehensible, instrument of the spirit. But little by little the normal world would begin to realize that in the culture of the 'mad' world there were certain subtle and far-reaching intuitions that appeared utterly false, ruthless, aggressive, and hostile to the spirit, and were the dominant motives of its foreign relations.  The 'mad' world, meanwhile, would regretfully come to the conclusion that the other was after all gravely lacking in sensibility, that it was obtuse to the very highest values and most heroic virtues, in fact that its whole life was subtly corrupt, and must, for its own sake, be changed, or else destroyed. Thus each world, though with lingering respect and affection, would sadly condemn the other. But the mad world would not be content to leave matters thus. It would at length with holy fervour attack, striving to destroy the other's pernicious culture, and even exterminate its population.
It is easy for me now, after the event, after the final spiritual downfall of these mad worlds, to condemn them as perverts, but in the early stages of their drama we were often desperately at a loss to decide on which side sanity lay.
Several of the mad worlds succumbed to their own foolhardiness in navigation. Others, under the strain of age-long research, fell into social neurosis and civil strife. A few, however, succeeded in attaining their end, and after voyages lasting for thousands of years were able to reach some neighbouring planetary system. The invaders were often in a desperate plight. Generally they had used up most of the material of their little artificial sun. Economy had forced them to reduce their ration of heat and light so far that when at last they discovered a suitable planetary system their native world was almost wholly arctic. On arrival, they would first take up their position, in a suitable orbit, and perhaps spend some centuries , in recuperating. Then they would explore the neighbouring worlds, seek out the most hospitable, and begin to adapt themselves or their descendants to life upon it. If, as was often the case, any of the planets was already inhabited by intelligent beings, the invaders would inevitably come sooner or later into conflict with them, either in a crude manner over the right to exploit a planet's resources, or more probably over the invaders' obsession for propagating their own culture. For by now the civilizing mission, which was the ostensible motive of all their heroic adventures, would have become a rigid obsession. They would be quite incapable of conceiving that the native civilization, though less developed than their own, might be more suited to the natives. Nor could they realize that their own culture, formerly the expression of a gloriously awakened world, might have sunk, in spite of their mechanical powers and crazy religious fervour, below the simpler culture of the natives in all the essentials of mental life.
Many a desperate defence did we see, carried out by some world of the low rank of Homo Sapiens against a race of mad supermen, armed not only with the invincible power of sub-atomic energy but with overwhelmingly superior intelligence, knowledge, and devotion, and moreover with the immense advantage that all its individuals participated in the unified mind of the race. Though we had come to cherish above all things the advancement of mentality, and were therefore prejudiced in favour of the awakened though perverted invaders, our sympathies soon became divided, and then passed almost wholly to the natives, however barbaric their culture. For in spite of their stupidity, their ignorance, and superstition, their endless internecine conflicts, their spiritual obtuseness and grossness, we recognized in them a power which the others had forfeited, a naive but balanced wisdom, an animal shrewd-ness, a spiritual promise. The invaders, on the other hand, however brilliant, were indeed perverts. Little by little we came to regard the conflict as one in which an untamed but promising urchin had been set upon by an armed religious maniac.
When the invaders had exploited every world in the new-found planetary system, they would again feel the lust of proselytization. Persuading themselves that it was their duty to advance their religious empire throughout the galaxy, they would detach a couple of planets and dispatch them into space with a crew of pioneers. Or they would break up the whole planetary system, and scatter it abroad with missionary zeal.  Occasionally their travel brought them into contact with another race of mad superiors. Then would follow a war in which one side or the other, or possibly both, would be exterminated.
Sometimes the adventurers came upon worlds of their own rank which had not succumbed to the mania of religious empire. Then the natives, though they would at first meet the invaders with courtesy and reason, would gradually realize that they were confronted with lunatics. They themselves would hastily convert their civilization for warfare. The issue would depend on superiority of weapons and military cunning; but if the contest was long and grim, the natives, even if victorious, might be so damaged mentally by an age of warfare that they would never recover their sanity.
Worlds that suffered from the mania of religious imperialism would seek interstellar travel long before economic necessity forced it upon them. The saner world-spirits, on the other hand, often discovered sooner or later a point beyond which increased material development and increased population were unnecessary for the exercise of their finer capacities. These were content to remain within their native planetary systems in a state of economic and social stability. They were thus able to give most of their practical intelligence to telepathic exploration of the universe. Telepathic intercourse between worlds was now becoming much more precise and reliable. The galaxy had emerged from the primitive stage when any world could remain solitary, and live out its career in splendid isolation. In fact, just as, in the experience of Homo Sapiens, the Earth is now 'shrinking' to the dimensions of a country so in this critical period of the life of our galaxy, the whole galaxy was 'shrinking' to the dimensions of a world. Those world spirits that had been most successful in telepathic exploration had by now constructed a fairly-accurate 'mental map' of the whole galaxy, though there still remained a number of eccentric worlds with which no lasting contact could yet be made.  There was also one very advanced system of worlds, which had mysteriously 'faded out' of telepathic intercourse altogether. Of this I shall tell more in the sequel.
The telepathic ability of the mad worlds and systems was by now greatly reduced. Though they were often under telepathic observation by the more mature world spirits, and were even influenced to some extent, they themselves were so self-complacent that they cared not to explore the mental life of the galaxy. Physical travel and sacred imperial power were for them good enough means of intercourse with the surrounding universe.
In time there grew up several great rival empires of the mad worlds, each claiming to be charged with some sort of divine mission for the unifying and awakening of the whole galaxy. Between the ideologies of these empires there was little to choose, yet each was opposed to the others with religious fervour. Germinating in regions far apart, these empires easily mastered any sub-utopian worlds that lay within reach. Thus they spread from one planetary system to another, till at last empire made contact with empire.
Then followed wars such as had never before occurred in our galaxy. Fleets of worlds, natural and artificial, manoeuvred among the stars to outwit one another, and destroyed one another with long-range jets of sub-atomic energy. As the tides of battle swept hither and thither through space, whole planetary systems were annihilated. Many a world-spirit found a sudden end. Many a lowly race that had no part in the strife was slaughtered in the celestial warfare that raged around it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Scholarly Rewards of Voluntary Surfitude

Note: This is a slightly revised version of a piece that appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction. It's about how the Internet has revolutionized the kind of research I do on science fiction. But the Internet has revolutionized all kinds of research – scholarly, business and any other kind you can imagine. 

“The whole human memory… accessible to every individual.”
-- H.G. Wells, “World Brain,” 1937)

Once upon a time there was a German science fiction writer named Karl Augustus Laffert. He wasn’t anywhere near as well known as Wells, but it struck me that he might have been a Wellsian of sorts. I first came across references to his sf in N.A. Rynin’s Interplanetary Flight and Communication, a Russian encyclopedia of astronautics published in nine volumes in the 1920s that cited a number of science fiction works related to space flight.
Laffert’s novels included Fanale am Himmel (Beacon in the Sky, 1925) and Flammen aus den Weltenraum (Flames from Outer Space, 1927), which centered on the efforts of a World Peace League that sought to stamp out war by attacking aggressors with everything from germ warfare (tailored for cattle in the case of a Balkan conflict, because the primitive military forces there still relied on oxen for logistics) to solar beams from a space station. That satellite is also turned to peaceful ends like weather control. After defeating a Soviet attempt to take over the station in the second novel, the League uses it to save Europe from a solar flare by creating a cloud cover over the continent.
I’d mentioned Laffert’s second novel as World Fire (Weltenbrand, 1926; it turns out that title was used only for serialization and was changed for the book edition a year later) in a section on apocalyptic sf in Foundations of Science Fiction (1987), first volume of Imagination and Evolution. I’ve been working on an update of I&E since getting the rights back from Greenwood Press, and naturally I want to be as accurate as I can. I knew hardly anything about Laffert but what I’d read up in Rynin for the original version, but from bibliographies I knew he hadn’t had any fiction published after 1929. That and the business of the World Peace League suggested that he might have been a radical support-peace-or-I’ll-kill-you type who had to lie low after Hitler came to power. Since then, I’ve had Dwight Decker read Beacon in the Sky for me, and his account gives the same impression: the League is a private organization, its membership drawn from a number of countries – and its members must forswear any national allegiances.
By the time I had copies of both novels (thanks to ABE Books) to send to Dwight (who is still working on Flames from Outer Space), however, I knew that impression was false – utterly false. And the reason I knew it was that I had done a Google book search for Laffert’s name, and one of the hits I came up with was from a book called Blood and Banquets: a Berlin Social Diary (1942), by Bella Fromm. Fromm was a society news columnist whose beat included Nazi social gatherings; she recorded her impressions in a diary that she had published in the United States after fleeing Germany in 1938. And it was here that I found out the truth about Karl Laffert, in an entry about a Nazi den mother named Viktoria von Dirksen:
Frau von Dirksen, relict of the Geheimrat Willibald von Dirksen, always a monarchist, has for many years been an eager hostess of the National Socialists in her magnificent palace. Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Helldorff, and the other accomplices have their weekly meetings at her home. When the Storm Troop organization was banned by Hindenburg, they used to arrive there in full uniform concealed under long capes. She has acted as a mediator between the National Socialists and the old courtiers. Her brother, Karl August von Laffert, the “German Jules Verne,” attends his sister’s receptions in the full splendor of his S.S. uniform.[1]
Without the Internet, I would surely never have found that reference. I doubt that anyone else would have. Certainly German Marxist critic Manfred Nagl, who must have aimed at leaving no stone unturned to seek out examples of Nazi sf in his Science Fiction in Deutschland (1972), would have loved to have this additional fodder. Could he too have been misled by the seeming radical antiwar tenor of Laffert’s sf?
But I digress. The important thing here is how profoundly the Internet has impacted literary research. When H.G. Wells conceived the idea of a universal encyclopedia (the “World Brain”) in 1937, the most advanced technology he knew of was microfilm. But microfilm is no easier to index, catalog and cross-reference than printed material. Indeed, it is catalogued just like printed material at libraries. If there were a world encyclopedia on microfilm, it would have the same limitations as print encyclopedias: it could be searched only by entry topic. What Google and other search engines have brought us is key word and key phrase searches. This goes beyond Wikipedia, for it makes the entire World Wide Web an encyclopedia.
Most of us are used to the everyday functions of the Internet. We do our banking there, we pay our bills and maybe even our taxes there. We order books and music (so much of the latter that music stores have gone out of business) there, exchange family photos, send birthday and Christmas gifts. We keep up with friends and associates by e-mail, do social networking, seek mates at dating sites. Maybe we blog. For white collar workers like me – I work for a trade magazine publisher – the Internet has become so essential for business-related research that it’s hard to imagine how we ever got along without it. As an sf scholar-historian, it’s hard for me to imagine how I ever got anything finished in the dark age of typewriters when I couldn’t write or edit in Word but had to retype entire pages or chapters to make revisions. Now I even have a flatbed scanner to copy pages from the original I&E and create new Word files for each chapter to update and revise and polish on my laptop. My research files for I&E include downloaded e-books from Gutenberg, speeches by and interviews with sf writers, and much else.
But all this is just scratching the surface. The Laffert affair taught me that; if I were younger, I’d have probably known it already. In any case, Laffert is hardly a major figure in German science fiction compared to Julius von Voss (see Dwight Decker’s “Proto-SF Before Frankenstein” in NYRSF 253), Kurd Lasswitz or even Hans Dominik. What’s important about the case is that it led me to use the same research tool to pursue matters of more general interest, such as the origin of science fiction as a recognized genre.
Nearly all of us were taught when we were young that Jules Verne was the father of science fiction. But that view has been challenged in recent years by scholars like Arthur B. Evans and William Butcher. Evans argued in Science Fiction Studies (March 1988) that Verne indeed wrote “scientific fiction,” but that this wasn’t the same as science fiction, mainly because it was a pedagogical rather than a literary exercise. Butcher goes further, declaring that Verne never wrote anything remotely resembling what we consider sf, and had to be “thrust, screaming and kicking, into a genre invented after his death.”[2]
Verne himself is quoted by Butcher as making his case: “I wrote ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon,’ not as a story about ballooning, but as a story about Africa,” he explained in an 1894 interview with R.H. Sherard for McClure’s magazine. “I always was greatly interested in geography and travel, and I wanted to give a romantic description of Africa. Now, there was no means of taking my travellers through Africa otherwise than in a balloon, and that is why a balloon is introduced.”[3] True, Verne refers to Five Weeks in a Balloon as his “first scientific novel”[4] in the same interview, but it could be argued that he was simply acquiescing in a coinage not his own.
There are other obvious arguments in support of Butcher’s position. A much-cited statement of Verne’s intentions regarding the same novel to fellow members of the Paris Stock Exchange (“I have just written a novel in a new form, one that is entirely my own. If it succeeds, I will have stumbled upon a gold mine. In that case, I shall go on writing and writing without pause.”[5]) has turned out to be spurious. While Verne is remembered today mostly for works regarded as sf, moreover, these account for only a fraction of his voyages extraordinaires – the rest are straight adventure and exploration novels or even historical romances. With 20/20 hindsight, Butcher and others consider the case closed. But it occurred to me to ask: what did Verne’s contemporaries think about him? How did they characterize his works? Did they show any consciousness of a new genre in the making?
When I wrote the original version of Foundations of Science Fiction, I was already aware of some contemporary references to the scientific fiction/novel genre from print sources. William H.L. Barnes, in an introduction to Caxton’s Book (1876, a collection of scientific hoaxes by William Henry Rhodes), had called Verne “the master of scientific fiction.” George Gary Eggleston, in a review of Mysterious Island, rhapsodized that Verne had created the “modern wonder story” through a “congenial marriage of science and fancy.”[6] In his introduction to Journey to Mars (1894), Gustavus W. Pope referenced the “scientific novel”[7] as if he expected his readers to be familiar with what he meant by it.
It’s more than a matter of coining terminology, of course. There was a stir some years back in sf circles over the discovery that the first use of “science fiction” dates back to 1851, in William Wilson’s A Little Earnest Book Upon A Great Old Subject"Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true." What Wilson had in mind was akin to George Gamow’s Mr. Tompkins series nearly a hundred years later, but neither Wilson’s idea nor his name for it caught on at the time. Closer to the point, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald credited Richard Locke, author of The Moon Hoax (1835), which had appeared in the New York Sun, as “inventor of an entire new species of literature which we may call the ‘scientific novel.'"[8] That strikes me as a misnomer on two counts: The Moon Hoax was neither truly scientific nor truly a novel; in any case, as far as I have been able to discover, nobody else embraced Bennett’s term at that time. In the first edition of Foundations of Science Fiction, before I noticed the Bennett reference, I had observed:
Until Verne’s works began to appear, neither critics nor readers seem to have had any consciousness of what we now call science fiction. In an “advertisement” (actually a preface) to the 1859 William Gowans edition of The Moon Hoax, the “publisher” compares Locke’s work to the Arabian Nights, Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, and even Robinson Crusoe and Pilgrim’s Progress. It is basically the same rationale for the travel tale as that in Charles Garmier’s Voyages Imaginaires (1787-89); nothing really new is seen in The Moon Hoax.[9]
I was already reasonably certain that Verne changed the consciousness of readers and critics, and I think that I have figured out since then why he was what I now call “le pere de science fiction malgré lui.” Whether he wanted to create a new genre or not – and I think Butcher’s case can hardly hold up given the rediscovery and publication of Paris in the Twentieth Century (1996) – he was widely perceived as having done so, because the voyages extraordinaires that made the greatest impact were those like Five Weeks in a Balloon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and especially Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.
Others had written straight adventure stories and historical romances, and Verne’s exercises in those genres simply didn’t have the same impact; they didn’t jump out at readers the way his “scientific novels” did. Yet another clue as to how Verne was regarded in his own time is that the next generation of writers we now call Vernean, such as Paul D’Ivoi, devoted their efforts primarily or entirely to sf as opposed to straight adventure or historical romance. George LeFaure even called his series “voyages scientifiques extraordinaires.”[10]
Be that as it may, there were references to Verne as a genre writer early on, some of them critical. An 1873 review of Journey to the Center of the Earth in The Galaxy called it “the poorest of M. Verne’s attempts at scientific romance that we have seen.”[11] An item headed “Scientific Fiction,” under the byline Belgravia, appeared in New Zealand in 1872 and took Verne to task for the scientific absurdities in “Voyage to the Moon” [sic]. The author claimed to have written a better scientific fiction piece himself, “Journey to the Sun.”[12] In France itself, Pierre Douhaire characterized Verne’s works “contes scientifiques” in a negative review for Le Correspondant in 1874.[13]
But Lucien Dubois soon contributed an admiring essay, “Le Roman Scientifique: Jules Verne et Ses Oeuvres” to Revue de Bretagne et de Vendée, which was published in Nantes, Verne’s birthplace. It was here that Dubois called Verne “le Walter Scott de la science.”[14] Gabriel Monod, a French historian, wrote an overview of French culture, “Contemporary Life and Thought in France,” which appeared in The Contemporary Review, a British journal, in 1879. There he referred briefly to “M. Jules Verne, who invented the scientific novel, and without being a great writer, has earned European renown, thanks to an imagination less poetical and less striking, but as rich as Edgar Poe’s and more precise.”[15] Jules Claretie’s Jules Verne (1883), one of a series of pamphlets about “célebrités contemporaines,” used the term “roman scientifique” to describe his works.[16]
“Scientific fiction,” “scientific romance” and “scientific novel” had occasionally been used before in other contexts, including the disparagement of allegedly dubious science. In “Vestiges of Creation,” an 1846 editorial in the New Englander and Yale Review, the then-anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation[17] was characterized as “scientific romance.”[18] An 1852 essay by Professor R. Hunt, “The Plant and the Animal,” similarly dismissed a theory Hunt didn’t approve of as “a bit of scientific fiction.”[19] In an entirely different vein, a reviewer for the New Jersey Medical Reporter was so enthused about book on women’s diseases that he remarked: “Perhaps we may call it a scientific novel, ‘founded on fact.’”[20] 
It was only with the advent of Verne that the same terms were widely applied to fiction, and at first only or primarily in relation to his own works. On July 29, 1884, for example, the Brisbane Courier of Australia reprinted a piece from the London Evening Standard, “The Scientific Imagination,” that referred to Verne’s “scientific fiction.” Yet in time the new terms were applied to other kinds of what we now call sf. In “The Labour Question” (1892), which appeared in a journal called The Nineteenth Century, British Liberal statesman Joseph Chamberlain referenced Bellamy’s Looking Backward as “a work of scientific fiction.”[21] In 1894, the Atlantic Monthly quoted from the Mail and Express, which had called John Jacob Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds a “scientific romance.”[22] And the 1898 edition of Appleton’s Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events described Stanley Waterloo’s prehistoric tale The Story of Ab (1897) as “a scientific novel of the time of the cave men.”
By the early 20th Century, “scientific fiction,” “scientific novel” and “scientific romance” were in routine use, and with the same meaning as “science fiction” today. Moreover, some critics began applying the new terms retroactively to what we now call proto-sf works. William Joseph Long, in English Literature (1909), called Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) “a kind of scientific novel.”[23]
Then as now there were those who took it all too far: in the July 1895 issue of The Metaphysical Magazine, J. Elizabeth Hotchkiss argued for the inclusion of not only Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886) but also George Du Maurier’s Peter Ibbetson (1891) and Trilby (1894).[24] No doubt DuMaurier and Verne alike would have been baffled at Trilby being called a “scientific novel” in a journal devoted to mysticism like today’s New Age movement.
In France, popular understanding of “roman scientifique” may have been just as confused, as that term was also applied by Emile Zola and his followers to naturalistic mainstream novels. Perhaps this had something to do with the casting about for other names for the genre, as chronicled by Brian Stableford in “In Search of a New Genre” for NYRSF 253. From available Google book and news searches, however, there can be no serious doubt that Verne was considered the creator of a new genre in his own time, and that the perceived scope of that genre was being broadened in reviews and criticism embrace other forms of what we now count as sf, such as the futuristic utopia, the interplanetary romance and gothic sf. There wasn’t even that sharp a break between Verne and H.G. Wells, whose early works, after all, include “The Argonauts of the Air” (1895) and “The Land Ironclads” (1903). What Wells accomplished was to assimilate earlier strains of sf, including the Vernean and the gothic (The Invisible Man), while inventing new strains like the tale of the far future (The Time Machine) – and, of course, raising the literary standard as well as the scope of the genre.
By about 1900, however, Verne had become something of an embarrassment to a new generation of French writers with higher literary aspirations, who took their inspiration from Wells and the Symbolist movement, and thus sought a new name and a new sense of identity for the genre, as Stableford relates in his essay Anent that: between Alfred Jarry (1902) and Maurice Renard (1909), whose prominent roles are recounted by Stableford, came Gustave Kahn – who in 1904 proposed “roman chimérique” for the genre of Wells.[25] That too comes from a Google book search. Kahn is identified by Wikipedia as a Symbolist poet, novelist and critic. No doubt Stableford could find out a good deal more about him at the London Library. But the thing about Google is that it can point sf critics and historians to primary sources they might otherwise never find.

[1] Fromm, Bella, Blood and Banquets, a Berlin Social Diary, Harper Brothers, 1942, pp.59-60.
[2] Butcher, William, Jules Verne, The Definitive Biography, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006, p. 149
[3] McClure’s magazine, January 1894, p. 120
[4] Ibid.
[5] quoted in Moskowitz, Sam, Explorers of the Infinite, World Publishing Co., 1963, p. 74
[6] American Homes, Dec. 1874, p.117
[7] Pope, Gustavus W., Journey to Mars, Hyperion Press, 1974, p. vi
[8] quoted in Ormond Seavey’s introduction to The Moon Hoax, Gregg Press, 1975, p. xx
[9] Pierce, John  J., Foundations of Science Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1987, citing The Moon Hoax, p. vi.
[10] Stableford, Brian, introduction to his translation of George Le Faure and Henri de Graffigny’s The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist Across the Solar System, Black Coat Press, 2009, p. 6
[11] The Galaxy, Dec. 1873, p. 860
[12] Bruce Herald, New Zealand, Dec. 29, 1876, p. 7
[13] Le Correspondant, 1874, p. 1386
[14] Revue de Bretagne et de la Vendee, Vol. I, 1875, p. 20
[15] Contemporary Review, 1879, p. 594
[16] Claretie, Jules, Jules Verne, Paris, A. Quantin, 1883, p. 11ff
[17] The author was actually Robert Chambers, an early exponent of evolution. See Wikipedia
[18] New Englander and Yale Review, Jan. 1846, p. 114
[19] The Living Age, Nov. 20, 1852, p. 349 (“From Sharpe’s Magazine”)
[20] New Jersey Medical Reporter, July 1854, p. 325
[21] The Nineteenth Century, Vol, 32, p. 684
[22] Atlantic Monthly, 1894, p. 863
[23] Long, William J., English Literature, its history and its significance for the life of the English-speaking world: a text-book for schools, Ginn and Company, 1909, p. 192 (Text found at Google not a digitized scan, but print edition found at New York Public Library for page citation.)
[24] Metaphysical Magazine, July 1895, pp. 381-82
[25] Nouvelle Revue, Volume 28, p. 368

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mandates? What Mandates?

Two years ago, John Kasich promised to “break the back of organized labor” in the Ohio school system. A year ago, he was elected governor, and pushed through legislation to end collective bargaining for public employees. Just a couple of weeks ago, Ohio voters overturned the law in a referendum.

Has Ohio suddenly gone liberal? Not exactly. At the same election in which they vetoed the anti-union legislation by a 61-39% margin, they also supported a proposition to block Obamacare, with its requirement for people to buy health insurance, by a 65-35% margin. Meanwhile, voters in Mississippi, the most conservative state in the nation, rejected by a 58-42% margin a constitutional amendment to define life as beginning at fertilization – but you’ll never see Mississippi support Obama in the next election.

You can’t have helped noticing that American politics are more combative than ever, with the Tea Party at one end at Occupy Wall Street at the other. Right now, a special committee created by Congress to resolve the debt crisis is deadlocked, with neither the Republicans nor the Democrats willing to give an inch on either new taxes or entitlement reform. But what you may not have noticed is that the left and the right suffer a common delusion: that the people are behind them 100%, and that if they win an election, voters are giving them a mandate to turn their agendas into law.

As it happens, Kasich was elected governor of Ohio by only a plurality, 49%. Not much of a “mandate.” And yet he was convinced he had one – “Le people, c’est moi.” But few if any elections are actually unconditional mandates. Presidential landslides, like those of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1972, are rare indeed. Johnson parlayed his mandate into pushing through Civil Rights legislation, but his popular support sank into the Vietnam quagmire. Nixon… well, you know what happened to him.

The Republicans are convinced they have a mandate now, because they won the mid-term elections. But Ohio shows how ephemeral a seeming a mandate can be. The fact of the matter is that most voters were simply expressing their disappointment with Barack Obama – as Bill Clinton once said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Obama himself thought he had a mandate for what became Obamacare, but the fact of the matter is that people in 2008 were voting against the Republicans in the wake of the economic meltdown as much as they were voting for him. Ohio’s vote on Obamacare was all the more stunning rebuke for him, paired as it was with the rejection of the GOP anti-union agenda.

Some elections are decided on single issues, but not necessarily those in party platforms. In both 2008 and 2010, the big issue was still the economy. But even if voters studied the party platforms in detail, it is virtually impossible that they would embrace or reject them on an all-or-nothing basis. Maybe they’d agree with six out of ten positions of one party, and only four out of ten of the other’s – and vote accordingly. But the winners would take this as a “mandate” for all ten of their positions, even if the election margin was close – which it usually is.

No time or space right now to get into the specifics of political issues, or the greater issue of political corruption. But even if all our leaders were as honest as the day is long in the usual sense, and absolutely sincere in their positions on the issues, they would still suffer the hubris of imaginary mandates.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Contagious Music

Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos (1887-1959) has been one of my favorites since childhood. My introduction to him came at age 10 or 11, I think, with a record sent by my Aunt Liz for my birthday.

One of the pieces on it was Choros No. 10, part of what I later learned was a series of 12 pieces – one each for guitar and piano, one for horns and the rest for chamber ensembles and full orchestra. On the same record were two movements from Bachianas Brasileiras No.2; the Bachianas comprised nine pieces combining the method of Bach with native Brazilian music; they are probably Villa Lobos’ best known works. The toccata from No. 2 is a stunt piece, inspired by a narrow gauge railroad in the Caipira – the remote back country. Somebody created an appropriate video; it isn’t the railroad, or even the right country, but it’s the right vintage:

"Yes, I’m Brazilian – very Brazilian. In my music, I let the rivers and seas of this great Brazil sing. I don’t put a gag on the tropical exuberance of our forests and our skies, which I intuitively transpose to everything I write."

That’s how Villa Lobos is quoted at the head of an article for an online journal called Guitarra:

Although its focus is on guitar music, the article touches on the Choros in general. And of the tenth, it remarks:

Considered to be one of his masterpieces (if not his greatest work), Choros No. 10 utilizes the forces of an orchestra augmented with native Brazilian instruments and chorus to create a monument of nationalistic Brazilian music.

Villa Lobos’ Wikipedia entry has it that “The first European performance of Chôros No. 10, in Paris [1927], caused a storm: L. Chevallier wrote of it in Le Monde musicale, "[…it is] an art […] to which we must now give a new name." Be that as it may, the choral section of Choros No. 10 (Its subtitle, “Rasga o Coracão,” or “Tear the Heart,” is taken from a popular ballad) is certainly one of the most infectious pieces of music ever. Just look at how the singers, especially the women, are getting into it in this performance at São Paulo three years ago:

I’ve been infected for close on 60 years now. I hope I can spread that infection!


The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet and everybody knew everybody else's family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the "girl" what to have for dinner and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare.

The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles 1942 movie version of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel, is widely regarded as one of the 100 or even the ten best movies of all time, if not quite as good as Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Much of the discussion about it has centered on cuts made by RKO, which also tacked on a happier ending, after Welles’ original version drew a poor response in previews; and such innovations as the credits being spoken by Welles, and his then-startling cinematography. I don’t want to rehash all that here; Wikipedia gives the basics:

What particularly interests me is that the film, like the book but more dramatically, has a peculiar resonance with science fiction. Like the novel, it is on the surface a story about Old Money versus the New Money. But beneath the surface that, it has a science fictional sense of transience. My father once pointed out to me that in most mainstream fiction, the people change but the world remains the same. Here, the people remain the same, but the world changes around them. This is foreshadowed in a scene where Eugene Morgan, a pioneer automobile manufacturer, is a dinner guest at the Amberson mansion, and has a set-to with George Minafer, the grandson of Major Jack Amberson, who built the family fortune:

Not just Old Money versus New Money, but an old culture versus a New Technology. We are reminded of the changes automobiles brought that nobody anticipated at the time, such as their impact on sexual behavior. As an entry at one cultural history site puts it, “Cars are also credited with or blamed for loosening sexual morals.  Young men and women could go off in cars and have more privacy than they were able to have before. Overall, cars helped loosen up American culture in the '20s, making it freer and more focused on fun and entertainment.”

Georgie Minafer has been obnoxious since childhood, the spoiled only child of Wilbur Minafer and Isabel Amberson. “He’ll get his comeuppance,” many of the townspeople whose own children he’d ridden roughshod over predicted – or perhaps only wished. For him, they were only “riffraff.” Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he disdained the idea of ever working for a living – his ambition, he tells Eugene’s daughter Lucy, is to be a yachtsman. When his father dies, his mother Isabel longs to reconnect with Eugene, an old flame from before he left town to seek his fortune; but George cruelly keeps them apart – supposedly to save the family honor, even though he himself has a thing going for Lucy.

Although he isn’t generally considered an archetype, he may indeed be one, and with a contemporary resonance. Marcia and I read a piece a while back, I think it was in The New York Times, about proper of discipline for children. Corporal punishment is now almost universally condemned, but somebody was arguing that even punishments like time-outs should be prohibited – children should not only be loved unconditionally but indulged unconditionally. Marcia’s reaction: “That’ll get you a Georgie Minafer!” If we are raising a new generation of Georgie Minafers today, they will be no more suited to cope with the challenges of life, especially in a changing world, than the Tarkington-Welles character, who is helpless and hopeless – and forgotten – after the loss of the Amberson fortune:

In that scene, we get the sense that the city (never named, but based on Indianapolis) has itself become alien to Minafer, something ominous and incomprehensible. It’s what Alvin Toffler would later call Future Shock. It draws our attention back to the earlier scenes, set in the 1890’s, when life seemed more genteel – at least for the likes of the Ambersons – and the automobile could be seen as a joke rather than as a token of the end of one age and the beginning of another:

The year before The Magnificent Ambersons was released, Robert A. Heinlein was the guest of honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver. Taking his cue from a catchphrase (“There’ll always be an England”) popular at a time when the United States hadn’t yet entered World War II, but many if not most Americans were sympathetic,

We know better. There won’t always be an England—nor a Germany, nor a United States, nor a Baptist church, nor monogamy, nor the Democratic party, nor the modesty tabu, nor the superiority of the white race, nor aeroplanes—they will go—nor automobiles—they’ll be gone, we’ll see them go. Any custom, technique, institution, belief or social structure that we see around us today will change, will pass, and most of them we will see change and pass.

Heinlein was obviously wrong about the specifics, at least in his (and our) own time – we still have cars, planes, the Baptist church, the Democratic party and, of course, the United States. Monogamy? Well, it’s more and more like serial polygamy – and not just with the Kardashians. And, despite the uproar over Janet Jackson’s 2008 Wardrobe Malfunction, the modesty taboo sure isn’t what it used to be. Yet there have also been epochal changes that Heinlein did not foresee, from personal computers to gay marriage. We have seen the rise of China and India on the world stage, global terrorism, and even the threat of global economic collapse. But unlike George Minafer, we know that we live in uncertain times and face an uncertain future. That much has changed since his day.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Getting Lucky

I was just checking for online scenes from one of my very favorite comedies, Lucky Jim, a Boulting Brothers movie (1957) based on the 1954 novel by Kingsley Amis about a young professor at one of the redbrick universities in England. I’ve read the novel, and it’s funny, but not as rip-roaringly funny as the adaptation. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the entire film had been uploaded just last month:

Of course, this may not be authorized; it’s hard to imagine that the copyrights have expired. So catch it while you can. It’s a riot all the way through, but some of the best bits are:

• History professor Jim Dixon (Ian Carmichael) at a weekend gathering at the country home of his department head John Welch (Hugh Griffith) – especially when he inadvertently climbs into the bedroom of ex-girlfriend Margaret Peel (Maureen Connell).

• The way Welch answers the phone.

• The understated false modesty with which Welch’s son Bertrand (Terry Thomas) describes his unwritten novel.

• The ceremonial procession and the potted plants,

• Jim’s drunken delivery of the lecture he’s been forced by Welch into writing about Merrie England.

• His race to the railroad station, stealing Welch’s car (a star in itself!) to catch a girl he loves, Christine Callaghan (Sharon Acker) – and a future.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cherryh Picking

Most science fiction readers aren’t even aware of science fiction critics, although they may check out the reviews at Those involved in science fiction fandom will follow reviews, interviews and other features in Locus. And scholars or would-be scholars of the genre will be familiar with such highly regarded critics as Darko Suvin and John Clute, whose mission is to cherry pick the genre and winnow the wheat from the chaff.

But I’m not here to talk about them, at least not today, as I mark my 70th birthday by getting The Seventy Year Itch going in earnest. I’m here today to talk about one of my favorite writers, C.J. Cherryh. By way of introduction, here’s a recent review posted by Jo Walton at on Cherryh’s Forty Thousand in Gehenna (1983):

Walton is herself an sf and fantasy author to be reckoned with. Her Tooth and Claw (2003) is a hoot: a send-up of the Victorian sentimental novel set on a world populated by dragons. Farthing (2006) is a marvelous country house mystery, set in an alternate history where England made peace with the Nazis, and leads into a trilogy about the rise and eventual fall of a fascist regime in England itself. But in her reviews and commentaries, she reads science fiction and fantasy the way I do – as a kind of literature that can be enjoyed as literature.

Critics tend to see a great divide between “serious” and “popular” fiction, between heavyweight and seemingly lightweight sf. When they think of literary sf, they tend to think of writers from outside the genre like Aldous Huxley, or anoint a select few from within the genre like Ursula K. Le Guin. But you can tell that Walton takes Cherryh seriously, and regards her work as having literary value. I agree, and without giving away any more essentials than she does about the plot and characters of Forty Thousand in Gehenna, her review dovetails with what I’d written for Odd Genre (1994), in a chapter about the generational saga in sf:

Forty Thousand in Gehenna, part of Cherryh’s Alliance-Union future history, also takes on elements of the science fictional robinsonade because the forty thousand of the title are castaways on an alien planet. But they are not the usual sort of castaways; virtually all are azis, products of the Brave New World-like birth labs of Union. Azis serve Union as loyal soldiers and workers; their loyalty is built into their psych-sets even as their capabilities are built into their genesets. Now a new task has been set for them, and none of them know any more about its true purpose than Jin 458-9998:

They had taken him into the white building on the farm and given him deepteach that told him the farm was no longer important, that he would be given a new and great purpose when he got where he was going, and that there would be other tapes to tell him so, very soon.

But if Jin is a slave, he and his kind are about to discover a strange sort of freedom on their own brave new world because Gehenna is a colony intended to fail, planted within Alliance space as part of a campaign to create problems for Union’s rival. The promised resupply ships will never come, and the azi, pawns in a cynical power game, are left to become masters of their own fates.
Although he has never been deeptaught anything about sex or reproduction, Jin looks forward to both; he even has his eye on Pia 89-687: “He and Pia would make born men together and the tape said this would be as good as the reward tapes, a reward anytime they liked as long as they were off duty.” And so it happens, but there are things for which the tapes have not prepared them: the abandonment of the colony, as well as the discovery of the ariels and calibans, which are a bit like dragons, but not like those legend or such mythologically based sf as Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. The ariels and calibans build mounds, and they may be intelligent, but little is known about them. Union’s research was so cursory it didn’t even get the number of species/varieties right. Jin and Pia carry out their deeptaught roles, as do the other azis – building homes and planting crops and having children – it is all they know how to do. But Gehenna does not conform to their programming; the calibans wreak havoc by tunneling under the settlement, and citizens as well as azis are killed (a new experience to Jin and his kind). There are no more tapes, and the other comforts of civilization are gradually lost as machines break down and supplies run out. As for the children, who are born men, they never have known and never will know tape; their makeup is a scrambling of the gene-sets of their parents.
The discomfort of parents over the rebelliousness of their children is an old and familiar one in family sagas; however, in Forty Thousand in Gehenna, it takes on a whole new dimension. In the third year of the colony, Jin finds his son, barely a year old, playing – or is it communicating? – with an ariel: “little Jin sat in the dirt taking leftover bits of stone and piling them. An ariel assisted, added pebbles to the lot.” A few years later, Little Jin ignores his father’s entreaties to return home; the elder Jin feels helpless for the first time. And this is only the beginning; a whole new generation is adapting to Gehenna in ways unfathomable to the parent generation. The children and grandchildren of Jin and Pia, who abandon the settlement to live and farm in the wild, are deaf and uncomprehending as the elder Jin tries to recall them to their “duty:”

“We have to keep this place,” Jin said, all the same. “They gave us orders.”
“They’re dead.”
“The orders are there.”
“Why should we listen to dead people?”
“They were born men; they planned all this.”
“So are we,” said his eldest grandson.

But at least Jin 3 will talk to his grandfather; Green, last of the sons of Jin and Pia, has long since disappeared into the warrens of the calibans. He and those like him go native completely, learning the language of the dragons and ceasing to communicate in human terms at all.
In the generations that follow, other descendants of Jin and Pia enter into symbiotic relationships with the dragons. The calibans begin to raise towers instead of the traditional serpentine mounds, and humans dwell in these towers with the ariels, calibans and grays (the type unrecognized by Union). Fields are interspersed among clusters of towers to provide food for the human inhabitants, who also do some fishing. Yet they are still flesh of their ancestors’ flesh, and remote descendants of Jin and Pia rule rival tower clusters on the Styx and Cloud rivers. But does “rule” mean what it would in a purely human society? Elai, ruler of the First Tower (and apparently recognized as paramount ruler of the other towers on the Cloud), owes her status at least as much to acceptance by her mother’s caliban Scar as to her descent from Pia 2 or “Ma Pia,” as she was known. Her distant cousin, Jin 12, who rules the Styx Cluster, is preparing to conquer Cloud Cluster as a research team from Alliance tries to make sense of it all. Just as the Kents were divided by the Civil War in John Jakes’ series, the ninth generation of the kin of Jin and Pia is divided by conflict. Some of the terms are familiar: Under the Jin dynasty, the Styx cluster has become patriarchal and aggressive; under Eliai’s branch of the family, the Clouds are more peaceful and decentralized. But human concepts—even human concepts of family—no longer really apply. What was familiar has become alien; even the conflict between the Styx and Cloud clusters is fought, and decided, on issues and in a manner, that remain elusive to Alliance observers.

Walton makes note of the connections between Forty Thousand in Gehenna, Cyteen (1988) and Downbelow Station (1981) in regards to the azi. The idea of creating specialized human beings in hatcheries and conditioning centers goes back to Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), but until Cherryh, nobody had really done anything further with the idea. Cyteen is the story of Ariane Emory (and her clone, after the original is murdered), the brains behind the azi program and a mover-and-shaker in Union politics. Not to give away any more of the plot, I can say that we learn therein that the promiscuous use of azis as a ready-made soldiery and working class has nothing to so with their true purpose: the conservation of humanity’s genetic diversity, which might otherwise be lost in the small population base of born men scattered among the far-flung colonies of Union. Of one genotype of azi, Emory remarks in a taped interview:

We do not create Thetas because we want cheap labor. We create Thetas because they are an essential and important part of human alternatives. TheThr-23 hand-eye coordination, for instance, is exceptional. Their psychset lets them operate very well in environments in which CIT geniuses would assuredly fail.

Ideally, only one generation of each type is needed; in interbreeding with other types, even with born men, each will contribute its characteristics to the wider gene pool. Azis themselves can become citizens; their offspring surely will. Emory has also been working on the problem of sociogenesis, which she considers vital to human survival as a species. If mankind is not to end in the universe as it began on Earth—‘scattered tribes of humans across an endless plain, in pointless conflict”—it must be educated, on a fundamental level, in all the wisdom gained from millennia of racial experience. As she puts it in one of her secret memos to her daughter to come, “Ultimately, only the wisdom is important, not the event which produced it.”

A cold-hearted view, but a chillingly plausible one. Yet in both Cyteen and Forty Thousand in Gehenna, we get inside the heads of the azis themselves – something Huxley never attempted to do with the products of his novel’s hatcheries. In Downbelow Station, we get into the head of Joshua Talley, a highly trained azi, whose mission is to sabotage remote Earth Company space stations (Alliance has yet to be born), to deny the Company fleet safe haven before the Union fleet arrives (hopefully) to finish it off.

Only he doesn’t know it, for he has been given false memories of an idyllic childhood on Cyteen as a born man, later recruited to serve as an armscomper for a Union ship. Captured or rescued (so it seems) by one of the Earth Company ships after the destruction of Mariner, the last station out, he is taken on by Signy Mallory, captain of the Norway, as a sexual convenience; when the retreating Company fleet arrives at Pell Station, she abandons him there as casually as she had embraced him. At Pell he undergoes partial mindwipe for the post traumatic stress of what befell at Mariner, having no idea of his own part in that. He is taken in by the family of Damon Konstantin, leader of Pell’s ruling council, treated with kindness and decency; he can feel as if he has finally begun to live again. And then a fellow Union agent, Gabriel, approaches him on the sly, and reveals the truth – which leaves him a broken man, but a man who desperately wants to be a true human, one who will not betray those who have sheltered and trusted him.

Cyteen was a lie. He was. Part of him functioned like the automaton he reckoned himself bred to be… he acknowledged instincts he had never trusted, not knowing why he had them — drew another breath, trying to think, while his body navigated its way across the corridor and sought cover.
Only when he had gotten back to his cold dinner on the back table in Ngo’s, when he sat in that familiar place with his back to the corner and the reality of Pell came and went at the bar in front of him, the numbness began to leave him. He thought of Damon, one life, one life he might have the power to save.
He killed. That was what he was created to do. That was why the like of himself and Gabriel existed at all. Joshua and Gabriel. He understood the wry humor in their names, swallowed at a knot in his throat. Labs. That was the white void he had lived in, the whiteness in his dreams. Carefully insulated from humanity. Tape-taught… given skills; given lies to tell — about being human.
Only there was a flaw in the lies… that they were fed into human flesh, with human instincts, and he had loved the lies.
And lived them in his dreams.

That’s as moving a literary passage as you’ll find anywhere. Another literary gem is a crucial scene involving Mallory. She is but one of many captains under Conrad Mazian, commander of the Company Fleet. Reeling from defeat, its collective morale is breaking down; its troopers are already turning to brigandage – in Merchanter’s Luck (1982) and other novels set later in the Alliance-Union series, we learn that they have indeed taken to piracy after having been sold out to Union by envoys from Earth itself. As has been said, Mallory is but one captain among many. We have no particular reason to believe that she will behave any differently from the rest, and yet she has become familiar to us – we have an emotional stake the choice she must make. Which way will she jump? We find out in a deliciously dry, just-the-facts, man, report she makes to Mazian and the other captains after she and her troopers intervene in a nasty incident on the station:

“On 11/28/52 at 2314 hours I entered number 0878 blue of this station, a residential number in a restricted section, acting on a rumor which had reached my desk, having in company my troop commander, Maj. Dison Janz, and twenty armed troops from my command. I there discovered Trooper Lt. Benjamin Goforth, Trooper Sgt. Bila Mysos, both of Europe, and fourteen other individuals of the troops in occupancy of this four-room apartment. There were drugs in evidence, and liquor. The troops and officers in the apartment verbally protested our entry and our intervention, but privates Mila Erton and Tomas Centia were intoxicated to such an extent that they were incapable of recognizing authority. I ordered a search of the premises, during which were discovered four other individuals, male aged twenty-four; male aged thirty-one; male aged twenty-nine; female aged nineteen, civilians; in a state of undress and showing marks of burns and other abuses, locked in a room. In a second room were crates which contained liquor and medicines taken from the station pharmacy and so labeled; along with a box containing a hundred thirteen items of jewelry, and another containing one hundred fifty-eight sets of Pell civilian ids and credit cards. There was also a written record which I have appended to the report listing items of value and fifty-two crew and troops of the Fleet other than those present on the premises with certain items of value by the names. I confronted Lt. Benjamin Goforth with these findings and asked for his explanation of the circumstances. His words were: If you want a cut, there’s no need for this commotion. What share will it take to satisfy you? Myself: Mr. Goforth, you’re under arrest; you and your associates will be turned over to your captains for punishment; a tape is being made and will be used in prosecution. Lt. Goforth: Bloody bitch. Bloody bastard bitch. Name your share. At this point I ceased argument with Lt. Goforth and shot him in the belly.”

In Merchanter’s Luck. Cherryh tells the story of a down-on-his-luck independent trader, in desperate search of a crewman, who strikes up a relationship in a space station bar with the proud daughter of a wealthy merchanter clan – eager for a chance to pursue the kind of work denied her on her own ship because there are so many ahead of her in line for helm postings. Here’s how Cherryh sets up the first encounter between the seemingly mismatched Sandor Kreja and Allison Reilly:

Their names were Sandor and Allison. Kreja and Reilly respectively. Reilly meant something in the offices and bars of Viking Station: it meant the merchanters of the great ship Dublin Again, based at Fargone, respectable haulers on a loop that included all the circle of Union stars, Mariner and Russell's, Esperance and Paradise, Wyatt's and Cyteen, Fargone and Voyager and back to Viking. It was a Name among merchanters, and a power to be considered, wherever it went.
Kreja meant nothing at Viking, having flourished only at distant Pan-paris and Esperance in its day: at Mariner, under an alias, it meant a bad debt, and the same at Russell's.

Sandor has had bad luck nearly all his life; his entire family was wiped out by Mazianni pirates, but the ghostly voice of his brother Ross still haunts his shipboard computer, offering recorded advice when needed on how to deal with trouble. Yet we sense from the get-go that his luck is about to change; as we gradually learn more about his life and Allison’s and their contrasting yet complementary backgrounds, we come to understand that they’re actually a perfect match. We can see them for who they are and we can see what they see in each other, and that’s essential to any love story.

Science fiction writers, and their readers, think differently, Cherryh argued in a 2010 appearance at Condor XVII, an sf convention in San Diego.

We can see that kind of thinking, the thinking of a science fiction mind at work, throughout her sf, including the Allliance-Union history. Future histories are part of the fabric of the genre, and writers as varied as Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson and Ursula K. Le Guin have all had their own interpretations of history, their own ideas of history. In histories of the future, as in all things, science fiction can and should be a literature of ideas. But it should never forget to be a literature of ideas, with all the sensibility that implies. Only thus can it hope to capture the experience of history – its trials and tribulations, its triumphs and tragedies and, yes, its consolations.

Cherryh shows that she understands that in an epilogue to Forty Thousand in Gehenna, set nearly a century after the culmination of the story itself, after all the sufferings of the settlers and the strange adaptation of their progeny. The Gehennans have gone through hell, as the very name of their world implies; yet something new and good and even wondrous has come of it. Union has given legal status as humans to the calibans. And at Fargone Station, it has found a use for Marik, a remote descendant of the original settlers, and his caliban partner Walker.

There was a problem, they said, a world that they had found. There was life on it, and it made no sense to them.
A Gehennan sees things a different way, they said. Just go and look—you and Walker.
So they would go and see.

But that is one of the foundations of science fiction: seeing things a different way.