Sunday, November 3, 2013

How Science Fiction Works

Ralph explained the coasters and their use to his companion; and after they had put them on by means of an ingenious clutch, whereby the coaster could be snapped onto the shoe in less than five seconds, they both went out into the street. From each coaster, a thin insulated wire led up the wearer’s back to the hat or cap. Here it was attached to the collector, which was a stiff pin about eight inches long, projecting half-way out from the hat or cap. This pin sucked up, as it were, the high-frequency electricity and carried it to the small motors, which later propelled the coaster.[i]
If Hugo Gernsback’s account of electric-powered roller skates (er, Tele-motor-coasters) in Ralph 124C41+ (1911-12) doesn’t strike you as particularly funny, check out the dead-on parody of Gernsback’s style of technical exposition in Lin Carter and Randall Garrett’s “Masters of the Metropolis” (1956):
The Bus, or Omnibus, was a streamlined, self-propelled public vehicle, powered by exploding gases of distilled petroleum, ignited in a sealed cylinder by means of an electrical spark. The energy thus produced was applied as torque to a long metal bar known as the “drive shaft,” which turned a set of gears in a complex apparatus known as the “differential housing.” These gears, in turn, caused the rear wheels to revolve about their axles, thus propelling the vehicle forward.[ii]
 “Masters of the Metropolis” could put old-time sf fans in stitches, but chances are today’s readers wouldn’t get it. Nobody would read Ralph today, except for historical research, and it’s hard to fathom why anyone ever did – much less considered it the fountainhead of modern science fiction. Yet in Gernsback’s day sf fans were evidently as oblivious as their mentor to the clumsy style of what we now call information dumps. Or perhaps they were so carried away by the ideas (which could be a lot more ingenious than Tele-motor-coasters) that neither the story nor the style of its telling mattered to them. Eventually they learned better, which is more than Gernsback ever did. In Ultimate World (1971, but written around 1958-59),[iii] this was his idea of a hot sex scene involving a powerful aphrodisiac brought to Earth by alien invaders:
Duke immediately divined its purpose. It had an extremely powerful effect on his spinal nerves and erotogenic centers. The tumescent effect was overpowering and within seconds he as well as Donny dismissed their recent experiences and everything else from their minds except animal passion. Duke ripped off his abrijamas and flung himself passionately at the nude form of his wife in a marital union such as humanity had never experienced.[iv]
Besides being atrocious writing, Gernsback’s scene is bad exposition: Duke and Donny are going at it in a zero-gravity environment, but we never get a sense of their experience being any different from what we are used to under normal gravity. Exposition in sf has changed a lot since then. Having begun with an imaginary development in transport in Ralph124C41+, let’s see how other writers since Gernsback have tried to create the illusion of reality in stories that involve means of transport unfamiliar to us.
In “The Roads Must Roll” (1940), Robert A. Heinlein wants to communicate essential information about a system of moving highways that have replaced conventional highways as a result of an oil shortage. Since ordinary Americans in Heinlein’s future are already so familiar with them that it would destroy any illusion of reality to have them talk about what they already know – under ordinary circumstances. Heinlein thus contrives to have Larry Gaines, chief engineer of the Diego-Reno Roadtown, escort the Australian transport minister on a guided tour. It may all be second-nature to Gaines, but it’s new to Mr. Blekinsop (“I am not a technical man,” he confesses. “My field is social and political”).[v] What follows is a cross between learning by experience and a more natural form of narration.
They threaded their way through homeward-bound throngs, passing from strip to strip. Down the center of the twenty-mile-an-hour strip ran a glassite partition which reached nearly to the spreading road. The honorable Mister Blekinsop raised his eyebrows inquiringly as he looked at it.
“Oh, that?” Gaines answered the unspoken inquiry as he slid back a panel door and ushered his guest through. “That’s a wind break. If we didn’t have some way of separating the air currents over the strips of different speeds, the wind would tear our clothes off on the hundred-mile-an-hour strip.”[vi]
While Heinlein integrated exposition and storytelling, he still found it necessary to resort to digressions to explain the origins of the moving roads and of the Functionalist movement that threatens them by instigating a strike. Even so, he pioneered a natural, even folksy style of sf storytelling that set a standard for an entire generation and remains influential today. In contemporary science fiction, however, there is room for the novel of character, in which the sf invention recedes into the background, and style is seen as part of the expression of character, rather than of the exposition of subject matter – here, the almost generic style of a Heinlein or an Asimov will no longer do.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast  (1988) is one such novel. Set only a few decades from now in an Orange County, California, that has been completely overrun by development, it centers on Jim McPherson, an alienated youth who, in the tradition of all alienated youths, is trying to make sense of the world and his place in it. As it happens, the most important technological innovation in his world involves transportation: streets and highways with electronic guides, which both power electric cars and keep them on track; “tracking” has replaced “driving.” But McPherson and his friends have nothing to do with the operation of the system; they are just along for the ride:
Night in Orange County, here, and the four friends are cruising in autopia. Stars of their high school championship wrestling team, ten years past that glory, they roll over the seats of the Volvo and try to pin Tashi Nakamura, to keep him away form the eyedropper of Sandy Chapman’s latest concoction. Tash was their Heavyweight and the only one still in good shape, and they can’t do it; Tash surges up through their arms and seizes the eyedropper, all the while singing along with one of Jim’s old CDs: “Somebody give me a cheeseburger!” The onramp bends up, curving more sharply, the contacts squeak over the power-and-guidance electromagnetic track in the center of the lane, they’re all thrown into a heap on the backseat. “Uh-oh, I think I dropped the dropper.” “Say, we’re on the freeway now, aren’t we? Shouldn’t someone be watching?”[vii]
From a single paragraph, we know what kind of people Tash and his friends are, we know that recreational drugs of their near future are taken through the eyes, and we know that their cars do not necessarily need drivers at the wheel (off the freeways, at least). But what was central to Gernsback, or even Heinlein, is peripheral here. True, Jim McPherson’s friend Abe Bernard is a paramedic, who responds to occasional accidents on those freeways – “This time, one of the lane-changing tracks appears to have malfunctioned,” we learn during a call. “It’s rare, but it happens.”[viii]
But for the most part, the technological discourse is completely submerged in the story – in the restless tracking of McPherson and his friends, or in his arguments with his father over keeping his car’s contacts adjusted. The story is about the young McPherson and his relationships. We see him as part-time word processor at a real estate firm, part-time teacher at a junior college, and even part-time terrorist against the very military contractor who employs his father. We read his precocious poetry, experience his failed love affairs. Yet even as we are immersed in his story, that story is itself immersed in the reality of its time – a time of endless freeways, shopping centers and condominiums that have overwhelmed open spaces once the domain of ranchers, and before them the Spaniards, and before them the Indians. Monumental and disturbing, it is pure science fiction in a style all its own.
Recalling Gernsback’s Duke and Donny, we can find examples of how styles in sex scenes have also changed for the better. In Walter Jon Williams’ Angel Station (1990), lovers Kit and Maria have to cope with the problem of making love in the weightless environment of a starship’s cargo hold. It is not mere pornography; we have come to know these lovers and the circumstances (also science fictional) that have brought them together. Still, Williams appeals to the prurient interest in all of us, while developing the seriocomic potential of a scene in which two lovers eager to do what lovers have always done find it difficult – even with an elastic-strap harness to hold them together – to maintain the leverage needed to make them one flesh:
Kit cupped her hips in his hands, tried to drive himself far into her; but he was weightless, floating in a tangle of her hair and limbs and his own blazing desire, and his lunge went nowhere. Maria kept him at bay, her pelvis stirring lightly, maddening him. The air in his lungs turned to fire. She leaned back, holding his body firmly between her thighs. The improvised harness bit into his flesh. He could see the pulse beating in her throat. The cargo bay began to turn lazy, gentle circles.[ix]
Neither transport nor transports, of course, exhaust the possibilities of style in science fiction. As in other types of fiction, exposition in sf can be at the same time highly functional and highly individual. Here, for example, is the opening passage of William Gibson’s Count Zero (1986), which reveals at once what kind of story we’re in, while conveying some scary details about near-future society and technology:
They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.
He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco façade of a place called the Khush-Oil Hotel.
Because he had a good agent, he had a good contract. Because he had a good contract, he was in Singapore an hour after the explosion. Most of him, anyway. The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight and had to spend the night there in a shed, in a support vat.[x]
We never get any further description of a slamhound, but we get the sense of it, and of the kind of world Turner inhabits. Conveying a sense of things, is also the point of the Joycean prose Brian W. Aldiss uses to convey the end of Western civilization in Barefoot in the Head (1969), in which followers of the mad prophet Charteris in a future Europe devastated by Psycho-Chemical Aerosol (PCA) bombs have taken to wandering in search of some refuge, after their cars have all broken down:
So as the Pleonastocene Age curtled to a closure the banshee [the prophet’s car] crumbled under the chunderiing glearbox to grow up into deeply scarlet peony by the sacred roadslide where they finally went on foot with Anjie meandering through the twilicker her golden grey goose beside her in its beak holding gently to her smallest twigged finger with Charteris choked in his throat’s silence.[xi]
Barefoot in the Head also employs fractured poetry and word diagrams to convey the madness unleashed by PCA bombs. Alfred Bester used analogous devices in The Stars My Destination (1956) to convey the experience of Gully Foyle, whose senses have been scrambled by the shock to his nervous system from an explosion of the secret weapon PyrE:
Sound came as sight to him, as light in strange patterns. He saw the sound of his shouted name in vivid rhythms:
Motion came as sound to him. He heard the writhing of the flames, he heard the swirls of smoke, he heard the flickering, jeering shadows... all speaking deafeningly in strange tongues:
 “BURUU GYARR?” the steam asked.
“Asha. Asha, rit-kit-dit-zit m’gid,” the quick shadows answered.
“Ohhh. Ahhh. Heee. Teee,” the heat ripples clamored.[xii]
The radical styles of Aldiss and Bester seem to have no more in common with the straightforward prose of Heinlein, Williams or even Gibson than that of James Joyce himself has with, say, Jane Austen’s. Yet they share a common purpose: They are means of inventing reality, as opposed to simply representing it.
In Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1988), we first meet the heroine, Laura Webster, jogging across a beach on the Texas coast. It seems like a perfectly mundane scene out of our own present, even when she trips over an old cable half buried in the sand. When she hauls the cable out, along with an obsolete VCR attached to it, the whole character of the scene changes:
It was an old-fashioned unit. Heavy and clumsy. Limping, Laura dragged to behind her by its cord. She looked up the beach for the local trash can.
She spotted it loitering near a pair of fishermen, who stood in hip boots in the gentle surf. She called out, “Trash can!”
The can pivoted on broad rubber treads and rolled toward her voice. It snuffled across the beach, mapping its way with bursts of infrasound. It spotted Laura and creaked to a stop beside her.
Laura hefted the dead recorder and dropped it into the open barrel with a loud, bonging thump. “Thank you for keeping our beaches clean,” the can intoned. “Galveston appreciates good citizenship. Would you like to register for a valuable cash prize?”
“Save it for the tourists,” Laura said.[xiii]
That scene has nothing to do with the plot, but it tells us we are in a relatively near future, where consumer technology and public amenities have improved significantly, but ordinary life and common pastimes remain the same. Sterling’s scene setting is at once informational and atmospheric; giving us a glimpse of everyday life in a world not quite like ours, it prepares us for the actual story, which involves data piracy and terrorism directed at a new world order that has supposedly put such threats behind it.
In “The Star Pit” (1967), Delany similarly evokes the everyday reality of an alien planet in a similar piece of literary stage setting:
The kids would run out before dawn and belly down naked on the cool sand with their chins on the backs of their hands and stare in the half-dark till the red mill wheel of Sigma lifted over the bloody sea. The sand was maroon then, and the flowers of the crystal plants looked like rubies in the dim light of the giant sun. Up the beach the jungle would begin to whisper while somewhere an aniwort would start warbling. The kids would giggle and pike each other and crowd closer.
Then Sigma-prime, the second member of the binary, would flare like thermite on the water, and crimson clouds would bleach from coral, through peach, to foam. The kids, half on top of each other, now lay like a pile of copper ingots with sun streaks in their hair—even little Antoni, my oldest, whose hair was black and curly like bubbling oil.[xiv]
As with Sterling’s passage, this tells us nothing of the story to come, but we know we are on a planet of a double star – the kind of setting that became familiar to moviegoers after George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), with its double sunset on Tatooine. We are thus prepared for a story with an interstellar background; yet as it unfolds, Delany’s world is revealed on deeper levels. Vyme, the narrator-protagonist, is Antoni’s father – but not the kind of father we are familiar with. And that opening scene turns out to be a memory of a long-ago idyll on a homeworld since destroyed in an interstellar war. Delany thus works with such familiar human experiences as nostalgia and grief, while at the same time evoking the wonder and terror of a time and place we have never experienced. This is what the literary experience of science fiction is all about.
Delany argues that style and content are inseparable. In a hypothetical example, which doubtless inspired or was inspired by “The Star Pit” – “The red sun is high, the blue low,”[xv] – the first part could refer to a hazy day on Earth, but the second instantly transports us to alien world light-years away. Yet most readers and writers still make some distinction, which they might articulate by asking whether a new translation of the Bible, even in a radically different style, changes its meaning completely.
Comparing translations of Dmitri Merezhkovsky’s The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci (1896), Delany shows that one is clear and readable (“Grey smoke rose and curled from the slate chimney”), whereas the other is practically unreadable (“Billows of smoke, grey and gloomy, elevated and contorted up from the slates of the chimney”).[xvi] Not all translations offer such stark contrasts, of course; moreover, one can still argue that – at least in original works – writers must have their content in their heads; that they must think of that blue sun before setting it down on paper or typing it into their Word documents. Still, for sf as it is actually published and read, Delany may be right on target.
In most fiction, there are common referents outside the text. Readers can rely on everyday experience, the news media or history books for whatever background information is not made explicit by the story itself. But in science fiction, what you see on the page is what you get. The text must both advance the story and create the background in which the story takes place, in order to evoke what Delany calls “possible images of the impossible.”[xvii]
Fans of Star Trek know that transporters can sometimes create duplicates of the same individuals, a rather far-fetched idea exploited for morality tales, as when Captain Kirk is split into good and evil twins in “The Enemy Within” (1966). Six years before the series debuted, however, Algis Budrys had used a similar idea in Rogue Moon (1960), but to an entirely different end.
Edward Hawks, head of a project to explore a deadly alien artifact on the Moon, has the actual explorers scanned and turned into raw data – destroying them in the process. Duplicates are created from that data, one on the Moon and the other back on Earth in a state of sensory deprivation so that he can telepathically share the experience of the his lunar double – until that double is killed. Hawks uses thrill-seeker Al Barker as a sacrificial victim over and over, until he manages to find a way to get through alive. But for a final journey through the now-tamed artifact Hawks has himself copied – both see things through on the Moon before they lose contact with their counterparts back on Earth. Hawks L tries to explain it all to Barker L, but Barker L, a man of action rather than a man of thought, still doesn’t quite get what has been happening:
Barker laughed again. “You’re a peculiar duck, Hawks.”
Hawks looked at him sidelong. “That sums me up, does it? Well, I’m not Hawks. I remember being Hawks, but I was made in the receiver some twenty-five minutes ago, and you and I have never met before.”[xviii] 
No morality tale here, at least not the kind familiar to Star Trek fans; rather a simple statement of  “fact” in the context of an imaginary reality – a sort of reaction shot to Delany’s “possible images of the impossible.”
In Roadside Picnic (1972), Arkady and Boris Strugatsky use the context of a near-future visitation of Earth by aliens to – among other things – invest familiar words with new meanings or connotations. The visitors have left behind discarded artifacts, much as we might discard junk by the side of the road. For humans, the refuse is strange, even deadly – lives are often lost among the stalkers and their clients, who scavenge the Visitation Zones in hopes of finding valuable technology. But the deadly effects of the alien devices remind experienced sf readers of Budrys’ alien artifact on the Moon. Meanwhile, the Strugatsky brothers play with the language of sf: “Stalker” is a word that has taken on a new meaning; another is an “empty:”
It’s just these two copper disks the size of a saucer, a quarter inch thick, about eighteen inches apart, and not a thing between the two. I mean, nothing whatsover, zip, nada, zilch. You can stick your hand between them—maybe even your head, if the thing has unhinged you enough—nothing but empty space, thin air. And despite this, there must be something there, a force field of some sort, because so far no one’s managed to push these disks together, or pull them apart, either.[xix]
Even in early American pulp sf, there were innovations in sf language – when Wilma Deering tells Buck (well, in that version, Anthony) Rogers, “This looks like business,”[xx] in “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” (1928), “business” has come to mean warfare. And while early genre sf was full of awkward neologisms, it also contributed at least a few words to our common language.
“Android,” for example, first used in its present sense by Jack Williamson in The Cometeers (1936) for an artificial man made from organic material, as opposed to “robot,” which had come to mean a mechanical man, even though Karel Capek had a synthetic man in mind when he coined it for his play R.U.R. (1921). Heinlein’s “Waldo” (1942) gave its name to the remote control devices used to handle radioactive materials, and it is still used by genre sf writers, for example, by Laura Mixon in Glass Houses (1992).
“Tractor beam,” coined by Edward E. “Doc” Smith in Spacehounds of IPC (1931) and later used in his Lensman saga, eventually made its way into Star Trek and Star Wars; it’s practically self-defining. “Tightbeam,” a Smith coinage from Skylark Three (1930) for a means of beaming messages so narrowly they can’t be intercepted, isn’t familiar to movie fans but still crops up in genre sf, as witness Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (2012). “Conapt,” Philip K. Kick’s term for apartments of urban arcologies in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964), has found a home elsewhere, as in L.E. Modessit in Archform: Beauty (2003). So has “ansible,” a term introduced by Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) for an instantaneous message communicator – not bound by the speed of light – in her Hainish cycle. “Com-link,” a piece of sf shorthand in the works of C.J. Cherryh and others, spread beyond genre sf when romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz picked it up for an imaginary sf story being written by the heroine of The Devil to Pay  (1985, as by Stephanie James).
Some sf coinages, such as “organlegger,” from Larry Niven’s “Jigsaw Man” (1967) for criminals who deal in black market transplant organs, remain identified with particular authors. Other examples include “QX” (“OK” in Edward E. Smith’s Lensman saga), “pinlighter” (a specialized warrior in the future history of Cordwainer Smith) and “lighthugger” (a starship that travels close to the speed of light in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe). In any case, borrowed words should keep their original meanings; it was a mistake for Delany to adopt Cordwainer Smith’s “planoforming” (a kind of faster-than-light travel) and use it as an alternative to “terraforming” (without reference to Terra) in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984). “Terraforming,” the process of altering environments of other worlds to produce Earth-like conditions, was itself coined by Jack Williamson in “Collision Orbit” (1942), and has since been embraced by many other genre writers.
For longtime fans, going beyond such inventions, there is a sort of collective sf background, running from text to text that can imply a background for a particular story – that is another aspect of Delany’s “reading protocols”[xxi] and Thomas J. Roberts’ “thick reading.”[xxii] Readers of New Space Opera by writers like Gregory Benford and Alastair Reynolds, for example, will hear echoes of both the old space operas of Edward E. Smith and the cosmic mythology of Olaf Stapledon. Fans of subgenres like military sf and alternate history will be familiar with their tropes, and the variations on those tropes.
Veteran sf writers have shared the tricks of their trade in such forums as Harlan Ellison’s Medea: Harlan’s World (1985), a symposium-anthology on the creation of alien worlds. But how they convey their imagined realities is an important as what they convey. As a contrast to infodumping, Jo Walton has coined the term “incluing,” which she defines as “scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture:”
The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun. SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about world building as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues. When you read that the clocks were striking thirteen, you think at first that something is terribly wrong before you work out that this is a world with twenty-four hour time—and something terribly wrong. Orwell economically sends a double signal with that.
Because there’s a lot of information to get across and you don’t want to stop the story more than you can help, we have techniques for doing it. We have signals for what you can take for granted, we have signals for what’s important. We’re used to seeing people’s names and place-names and product-names as information. We know what needs to be explained and what doesn’t. In exactly the same way as Trollope didn’t explain that a hansom cab was a horse-drawn vehicle for hire on the streets of London that would take you about the city but not out into the countryside, and [A.S.] Byatt doesn’t explain that the Northern Line is an underground railroad running north south through London and dug in the early twentieth century, SF characters casually hail pedicabs and ornithopters and tip when they get out.[xxiii]
Orson Scott Card, in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1990, later republished as The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy), one of a number of how-to books by genre authors, cites the first sentence of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed (1980) as a classic example of another genre sf basic principle – and reading protocol – that he calls “abeyance:”
Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages.[xxiv]
From that opening we know that Doro is the name of the viewpoint character, and that he is going to meet a woman who will doubtless be important to the story. But what the hell is a seed village?
We don’t know what a seed village is. And Butler doesn’t tell us—because Doro, who knows perfectly well what a seed village is, wouldn’t stop and think about that information right now. But in due time we will find out what a seed village is. So we hold that question in abeyance. We have a hook with the label “seed village” over it; we trust that the author will let us know in due course what information should be hung on that hook.[xxv]
But even though Butler doesn’t clue us in at the outset, we can trust her to inclue the background for us in due course; not just about seed villages and the selective breeding Doro fosters there, but the very nature of Doro and his antagonist Anyanwu. Both are seemingly immortal – he a telepathic energy being who can switch bodies, she a shapeshifter – and are pursuing rival agendas for the evolution and perfection of the human race. Moreover, Wild Seed is part of Butler’s epic Patternist series, which carries the conflict from the 1690’s into the distant future and to other worlds.
Genre sf readers take abeyance for granted. In Frederik Pohl’s All The Lives He Led (2011), there are references early on to the “stans” that facilitate terrorism in an apocalyptic future; only later do we learn that these are former Soviet Asian republics. Writers from outside the genre have picked up that trick. In Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (2011), we learn in the first few pages that the Livable Zone in an apocalyptic world is threatened by a fire that has broken out on the Jorgmund Pipe:
It was on fire in a big way, The Pipe was burning powerful white, magnesium, corpse-belly, nauseating white, and beside it were buildings and fences, which meant this wasn’t just the Pipe, but something even more important: a pumping station or a refinery.[xxvi]
As in Henri-George Clouzot’s film classic The Wages of Fear (1953), a band of volunteers is recruited to deal with the disaster. But it is more than halfway through Harkaway’s nearly 600-page novel that we learn just what the Livable Zone and the Jorgmund Pipe are, and how they came to be. Talk about abeyance! Along the way, as we follow the lives of the heroes, we are also inclued that we are in an alternate history rather than the future, for a kung fu master who was born in China some time in the 1920’s is not only too hale to be anywhere near 100, but discourses facetiously on why the Americans will probably beat the Chinese to the Moon. Harkaway has still other tricks up his sleeve, involving a global conspiracy behind the Jorgmund Pipe, and the identity of the narrator in what seems at first to be a solid reality but turns out to be as surreal as anything in the works of Philip K. Dick.
Within genre sf, we can see how Cordwainer Smith employs Card’s principle of abeyance in “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950). The opening paragraph tells us that the protagonist, Martel, is a Scanner, and that he is so angry about something that he doesn’t adjust his blood away from anger and has to scan himself after running into a table to make sure he isn’t injured. Only later do we learn that he is a member of a guild of cyborg pilots called Scanners whose every sense but sight has been surgically disconnected in order to protect them from something called the Great Pain of Space.
But that story is also notable for violating what was already a nascent taboo on infodumps by casting the background information in the form of a ritual the Scanners go through at their meetings. Only in this case, Martel, who comes to an emergency meeting “cranched” – that is, restored for a time to normal sensation – can actually hear the words of Senior Scanner Vomact and the chorused response:
“How, O Scanners, are habermans made?”
“They are made with the cuts. The brain is cut from the heart, the lungs. The brain is cut from the ears, the nose. The brain is cut from the mouth, the belly. The brain is cut from desire, and pain. The brain is cut from the world. Save for the eyes. Save for the control of the living flesh.”
“And how, O Scanners, is flesh controlled?”
“By the boxes set in the flesh, the controls set in the chest, the signs made to rule the living body, the signs by which the body lives.”
“Scanners Live in Vain” is part of a cycle of stories set in different periods of a future history in which the affairs of mankind on Earth and elsewhere are governed by an elite called the Instrumentality of Mankind. Only what is the Instrumentality? Smith could scatter hints here and there, but also use an infodump as a form of incluing, as in “Drunkboat” (1963):
The Instrumentality was a self-perpetuating body of men with enormous powers and a strict code. Each was a plenum of the low, the middle, and the high justice. Each could do anything he found necessary or proper to maintain the Instrumentality and keep the peace between the worlds. But if he made a mistake or committed a wrong—ah, then, it was suddenly different. Any Lord could put another Lord to death in an emergency, but he was assured of death and disgrace himself if he assumed this responsibility. The only difference between ratification and repudiation came in the fact that Lords who killed in an emergency and were proved wrong were marked down on a very shameful list, while those who killed other Lords rightly (as later examination might prove) were listed on a very honorable list, but still killed. With three Lords, the situation was different. Three Lords made an emergency court; if they acted together, acted in good faith, and reported to the computers of the Instrumentality, they were exempt from punishment, though not from blame or even reduction to civilian status. Seven Lords, or all the Lords on a given planet at a given moment, were beyond any criticism except that of a dignified reversal of their actions should a later ruling prove them wrong.
What this inclues us about is that “Drunkboat,” set about 15,000 years hence, is being told from the viewpoint of more remote future, where the Instrumentality no longer exists and the ostensible reader would not be familiar with its workings. Smith used other variations of the same technique, and a variation of abeyance in cross references. In “The Burning of the Brain” (1958), for example, an emergency during a journey on an interstellar planoforming ship – designed to look like a Southern mansion of ancient times – is signaled thusly: “A strange figure appeared on the verandah. It was a pinlighter in full fighting costume.” To understand that, the reader has to have read “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (1955), in which we follow the story of a pinlighter – a warrior who fights monsters of space in telepathic partnership with a cat.
These examples and others are all means of creating “possible images of the impossible,” and also of telling possible stories of the impossible. The possibilities of literary invention in science fiction, and the uses of that invention (even if never realized in most sf) are what has convinced Delany himself that “the science-fictional-enterprise is richer than the enterprise of mundane fiction.”18 But Walton reminds us that reading protocols are not only about the images and the word coinages and incluing the background, but about how we read the stories – how we know what’s important and what isn’t:
My ex-husband once lent a friend Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. The friend couldn’t get past chapter 2, because there was a tachyon drive mentioned, and the friend couldn’t figure out how that would work. All he wanted to talk about was the physics of tachyon drives, whereas we all know that the important thing about a tachyon drive is that it lets you go faster than light, and the important thing about the one in The Forever War is that the characters get relativistically out of sync with what’s happening on Earth because of it. The physics don’t matter—there are books about people doing physics and inventing things, and some of them are SF (The Dispossessed...) but The Forever War is about going away to fight aliens and coming back to find that home is alien, and the tachyon drive is absolutely essential to the story but the way it works—forget it, that’s not important.[xxvii]
Walton also has also weighed in on the literary delights – going beyond the kind of incluing that The Forever War represents – of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series, which has been in the works since 1989 when The Steerswoman appeared. Kirstein has driven fans crazy with the slow pace of sequels to that first novels, but she has a devoted following because she has mastered a new way of writing sf, in which the reader has a better idea of what’s going on than her protagonist:
The world of the Steerswomen looks at first glance like fantasy. It’s low tech, and there are wizards. The Steerswomen are an organization of people, mostly women, who go around charting the world and inquiring into the nature of things. At the beginning of the first book the heroine, Rowan, is in a tavern trying to find out about some mysterious jewels. Fantasy, fantasy, fantasy. But it's all a cunning illusion.
As is slowly revealed over the course of the series so far, there’s a science fictional explanation for everything. The wizards are using science that they keep secret, the world they live in is an alien world in the process of being terraformed, and wider things are going on. The reason it is, as Andrew Plotkin put it a long time ago, more science fiction than anything else, is because it's about the scientific method and how to use it to discover the world.
It’s a very difficult trick to have revelations within a story that mean different things to the reader and the characters, but Kirstein dances over this constant abyss with delicate grace. The books are more than anything about the process of Rowan figuring things out – some of them are familiar to us from our lives, or from science fiction, and that only makes it better. These books really are terrific fun to read.[xxviii]
Here’s just one example, which doesn’t give away too much, but shows a lot about how Kirstein works. Rowan and her friend Bel have come across what they take to be an odd sort of string or cord with a “gleaming central core” surrounded by something faintly resembling “the gum used to coat the boot soles of steerswomen and sailors.”[xxix] What is Rowan to make of it, even recognizing that the core is copper?
“It might have any number of uses. It’s thin, it’s very tough, it holds a shape, and it’s probably impervious to weather … “It would be excellent for tying things. Sailors would love it.”[xxx]
What we can make of it, besides seeing (as Rowan can’t) that she is looking at electric wire, is that there’s a real art to science fiction, as Nalo Hopkinson (whose own specialty is postcolonial fantasy) has found, based on her experience of teaching Creative Writing at the University of California-Riverside. Students who want to write mimetic fiction or creative non-fiction have an easier time of it, she told Locus in 2013, because “science fiction and metafiction is a metagenre. Not only are you writing the plot of what happens, you are creating a world as you go.” Would-be sf and fantasy writers have to master that, and the literary essentials of style and characterization. “I love the moment when that clicks. When they get it, boy do they get it.”[xxxi]


[i] Gernsback, Hugo, Ralph 124C41+ (Frederick Fell, 1950), p. 79
[ii] Carter, Lin, Beyond the Gates of Dream (Belmont, 1969, pp. 20-21)
[iii] Gernsback, Hugo, Ultimate World (Walker, 1971), p. 17
[iv] Ibid., p. 23
[v] Heinlein, Robert A., The Past Through Tomorrow (Putnam’s, 1967), p. 33
[vi] Ibid., p. 34
[vii] Robinson, Kim Stanley, The Gold Coast (Ace, 1988, p. 1)
[viii] Ibid., p. 47
[ix] Williams, Walter Jon, Angel Station (TOR, 1989), p. 68
[x] Gibson, William, Count Zero (Ace, 1987, p. 1)
[xi] Aldiss, Brian W., Barefoot in the Head (Avon, 1981), p. 206
[xii] Bester, Alfred, The Stars My Destination (Vintage 1996), pp. 233-34
[xiii] Sterling, Bruce, Islands in the Net (Ace, 1989, p. 2
[xiv] Delany, Samuel R., Driftglass (New American Library, 1971), pp. 13-14
[xv] Delany, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (Dragon Press, 1977), p. 39
[xvi] Ibid., p. 42
[xvii] Delany, Triton (Bantam), p. 337
[xviii] Budrys, Algis, Rogue Moon (Gregg, 1977), pp. 175-76
[xix] Strugatsky, Arkady, and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic, trans. Olena Bormashenko (Chicago Review Press, 2012), p. 8
[xx] Nowlan, Philip Francis, Armageddon 2419 A.D. (New York, Ace, 1972), p.44
[xxi] Delany, Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Dragon Press, 1984), p. 201
[xxii] Roberts, Thomas J., An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction (University of Georgia Press, 1990), p. 205ff
[xxiii], retrieved Dec. 19, 2011
[xxiv] Butler, Octavia E., Seed to Harvest (Warner, 2007, p. 5)
[xxv] Card, Orson Scott, The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy (Writer’s Digest Books, 2010), p. 92
[xxvi] Harkaway, Nick, The Gone-Away World (Vintage, 2011), p. 5
[xxviii], retrieved Sept. 16, 2013
[xxix] Kirstein, Rosemary, The Steerswoman’s Road (Del Rey, 2003), p. 206
[xxx] Ibid., p. 207
[xxxi] “As Magic Does, Nalo Hopkinson,” Locus, Sept. 2013, p. 66

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Peter (Wiggin) Principle


Orson Scott Card has become notorious of late, first for hateful attacks on gays as part of a campaign against same-sex marriage and then for a ludicrous conspiracy theory about Obama plotting to become president-for-life with a secret police force recruited from black gangbangers.

From the reactions of LGBT community, you’d get the impression Card had hardly written anything in his life but anti-gay screeds.[i]  In reaction to the Obama conspiracy post, Dave Schilling proclaimed Card to be “officially” the most racist science fiction author.[ii] The furor over what turned out to be Card’s short-lived deal with DC Comics to collaborate on an episode of Superman may have been aggravated by fears that he would somehow sneak anti-gay propaganda into the episode, but the protest soon expanded to call for a boycott of the forthcoming movie of his 1985 novel Ender’s Game. Card stayed away from Comic Con, where producers of the movie managed to talk about it without even mentioning his name – except during the Q&A session. As for Schilling, it isn’t clear just what gives him “official” authority to determine that Card is the most racist sf author ever – he’s a comedian.

One thing is clear: Card is finished in the sf community. Even if people keep buying his books, he can never show his face at a con again. He’ll never be nominated for another Hugo or Nebula; for all I know, the Science Fiction Writers of America might expel him. David Gerrold, the most prominent gay sf writer, has opposed the boycott of the movie, much as he detests Card’s rants, but his may be a minority opinion even among straights. And Card has certainly brought it on himself; he could have opposed gay marriage, as C.S. Lewis might if he were alive today, without characterizing gays as sexual abusers or products of sexual abuse (Lewis opposed legal sanctions against homosexuality, and – unlike the Religious Right today – thought theocracy was the worst possible system of government.). And while Cards’s rant against Obama may bring to mind a conspiracy theory popular among liberals around 1970 – that Nixon planned to cancel the 1972 election and have all his opponents thrown into concentration camps – it crossed the line in racist venom as well as patent absurdity.

It’s safe to say Orson Scott Card the anti-gay racist is the only Card most people know today; the media and Internet campaign against him has gone viral. And that campaign has exaggerated his importance; you’d think that he was the Prime Mover of the entire anti-gay movement, and if only he could be stopped, it would usher in the Millennium for LGBT’s. I think the real reason for singling him out is that he’s a soft target; his readers, and the potential audience for the movie, are doubtless overwhelmingly straight  – but chances are a good number of them are liberal in the broad sense. Card can be hit where it hurts. What can gay activists do about Pat Robertson – boycott The 700 Club? There’s a parallel with celebrity chef Paula Deen, whose career went into the toilet after she was accused of racist remarks. Deen may indeed be obnoxious, but from the furor directed at her you’d have thought she was the Grand Dragoness of the KKK. She too was a soft target, compared to racist political and religious leaders in safe (for them) constituencies.

When the controversy about Card erupted, I realized that I’d somehow never gotten around to reading Ender’s Game and its sequels, although I was familiar with a number of his other works. I’d also seen him at cons, back in the days when he had a traveling road show called The Secular Humanist Revival Meeting, in which he poked fun at the Religious Right for its opposition to the Theory of Evolution. I knew he was a Mormon, but in his revival meeting he mentioned that the Mormons had abused secular power when they had a chance, and in a series of Mormon sf stories, The Folk of the Fringe (1989), he even seemed to be flirting with heresy in “America,” a story in which one of the heroes has a one-night stand with a native American woman and fathers “a boy who will become the future leader of an America that is controlled by Native Americans.”[iii]  Not, in any case, what you’d expect from the “officially” most racist sf writer. And in Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (1996), time travellers from an environmentally-devastated future Earth set things right by undoing the genocide of Native Americans – introducing genetically-engineered viruses in order to give them immunity to European diseases, while also preaching a form of Christianity to persuade them to give up human sacrifice.

Other novels of Card’s I’d read include Invasive Procedures (2007), a variation on the hoary old scenario of a Mad Scientist trying to take over the world. In Empire (2006), he decried the very sort of toxic ideological politics he has since embraced, although in a sequel, Hidden Empire (2009), he seemed to have accepted Caesarism as inevitable. I’d also read some of Card’s non-fiction. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1990, reissued 20 years later as The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy), this rabid racist praised Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed (1988) as an example of the principle of “abeyance” in sf exposition – withholding basic information from the reader until there’s good reason for the protagonist to be thinking about it. In an introduction to the 2003 Modern Library edition of H.G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), he had intelligent things to say about Wells and sf as a genre.

So how did we get from that Orson Scott Card to the pariah we know today? Perhaps the Mormon hierarchy had been on his case for seeming deviation from the True Faith. Or maybe he’s undergone one of those political conversions, where people do a 180 from liberal to conservative or vice versa. There may be a hint of this in Earth Afire (2013, with Aaron Johnson), one of a series of prequels to Ender’s Game that deals with the first Formic War: here, the aliens have already invaded the Solar System but the government and media try to cover it up in hope of appeasing the enemy. Earth’s leaders make Neville Chamberlain seem like a war hawk; is this really supposed to be about the Muslims, and an attack on liberals who supposedly regard any criticism of jihadist Muslims as “islamophobic?”  I don’t know, but I think I do know why I’d put off reading Ender’s Game. I’d read the 1977 story from which it grew, and thought it was over the top. I’d also read some of the stories in the Worthing Saga about the same time, and thought they were pretty dumb. Maybe I thought Ender’s Game would be too.

Card himself had second thoughts about the novel, because the version now available is a 1991 revision. I don’t know whether the changes are substantive rather than cosmetic, but I assume the basic story is the same: the boy Ender being trained from age six in battle simulations to prepare him for combat against the Buggers – never realizing that he is being manipulated every step of the way to turn him into a weapon that is supposedly the only hope of victory. The whole point of the novel is that he is manipulated into wiping out the enemy in what he thinks is only a simulation – and he has to atone for his crime by finding a surviving hive queen and searching for a place to give her refuge. It’s all very manipulative; it seems the hive queen was actually communicating with him before he wiped out the rest of her kind, without him knowing it at the time. And he makes himself a pariah by ensuring that the story of his xenocide is spread far and wide

Card’s critics are legion, but they seem to have overlooked the obvious in some regards.. There was an attack on Ender’s Game in 1987 by Elaine Radford (“Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman”) that accused Card of basing his character admiringly on Adolf Hitler. In 2004, with “Creating the Innocent Killer,” John Kessel rejected that interpretation, but considered the novel a sham, masquerading as a story of redemption when it was really feeding into the sick fantasy of abused children: “Your mistreatment is the evidence of your gifts.  You are morally superior. Your turn will come, and then you may severely punish others, yet remain blameless. You are the hero.”[iv] Kessel found Card’s argument about judging characters by their “intentions” rather than their acts to be an evasion of any foundation of morality. But while he gave a lot of attention to Ender’s having been bullied as a child, by his older brother Peter and then by older children at the Battle School, he seems to have been at a loss on one issue: “One of the unaddressed questions of Ender’s Game is how did the Wiggin family produce a psychopath like Peter? The book gives no hint of an explanation for his behavior; it’s possible I suppose that Card believes simply that 'some people are just born bad' but I find no clear indications of a source for what seems to be Peter’s motiveless evil.”[v]

Only, what jumped out at me early on was that the Wiggins are a totally dysfunctional family. We learn next to nothing about the parents, but it’s hard to believe they could have ever loved their children. This is strange, as Mormons are supposed to be big on family values; and Card writes a lot elsewhere about the importance of loving families. Yet neither in Ender’s Game nor in Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide (both 1991) is there a single example of a family that isn’t dysfunctional – except for that of Ender’s younger sister Valentine, and we actually see very little of her and her husband and children. As for other issues that concerned Radford and Kessel, Card has Valentine compare Peter to Hitler,[vi]  And the man in charge of manipulating Ender at the Battle School admits that he has “as much chance of being a monster as a military genius.”[vii] Ender is and remains a very conflicted man in the first three books of the series; he has trouble connecting with anybody (except an artificial intelligence named Jane), and can’t seem to learn basic social skills. I can imagine that the 100,000 to 200,000 people a year who were buying Ender’s Game when Kessel wrote his essay might sympathize with him, but I can’t imagine them wanting to be him.

But there are other issues that seem to have been overlooked. Card admits that he came late to reading sf; when he wrote about psionics in The Worthing Saga, he “had no idea this was a sci-fi cliché at the time.”[viii] When he conceived “Ender’s Game” as a short story, he may likewise had no idea that nasty insectoid aliens were also a cliché. (Calling them “buggers” has been called into question; surely he must have known then that the word was an epithet for gays; yet in the novel, Ender’s tormentors call him a bugger, and it was common long before that for bullies to use that and other epithets of the kind for boys they considered sissies.). By the time he wrote the novel, he was better read in sf, adopting Ursula K. Le Guin’s “ansible” as an instantaneous message communicator. Of course, he comes up with his own imagined “science” to explain how it works, having to do with elementary particles called “philotes.”

Science fiction writers do this sort of thing all the time, warp drives and wormhole jumps and the like are used only to explain how people traverse interstellar distances. Ansibles have likewise been adopted by Elizabeth Moon and others for their original purpose, and any explanations have to do only with that purpose. But in Xenocide, Card turns philotes into practically a religion: it seems that they’re not only the basis of all matter and all life but even the basis of immortal souls. In one scene, Ender explains to the hive queen he’d rescued at the end of Ender’s Game and found a refuge for on Lusitania that in producing a new hive queen “this philote that you call out of the non-place … takes on that identity and possesses the body and becomes the self of that body—”[ix] As if that weren’t enough, when the plot calls for a faster-than-light drive (For some reason, nobody’s been able to devise one for 3,000 years!), a neophyte manages to invent one on the spot. Only besides traveling to wherever, Ender miraculously creates avatars of Peter and Valentine – not the older Valentine, who still lives – plus a healed edition of a Miro, a stepson who had been crippled as a young man. The Force, the Force!

This is the most cockamamie stuff I’ve ever seen from a major sf writer. But bringing Peter back reminds me of another Peter: the Peter Principle. We’ve seen it before in science fiction, when a writer has gone beyond his level of competence – the most obvious example is Robert A. Heinlein. With Stranger in a Strange Land, he imagined himself as a guru, and his philosophizing there and in most of what he wrote after The Moon is a Marsh Mistress (1965) can only be called embarrassing. Of course, there had already been the galactic social Darwinism of Starship Troopers (1959), which many find offensive; but it still served a good story. “Novels” like The Number of the Beast (1980) were just silly. The thing about Card is that his encounter with the Peter Principle came a lot earlier.

I haven’t read Children of the Mind (1996) yet, but from the Wikipedia entry, it seems to be even sillier, with Peter (actually Ender’s soul downloaded into his body – so that’s what Peter was really good for! Though he has somehow played a positive political role in the meantime.) and Jane (her computer mind is likewise downloaded into young Valentine’s body) finding wedded bliss. This is apparently intended as apotheosis, but strikes me as just the opposite – the young Peter and Valentine are evidently treated as nothing but vessels for their “betters.” I haven’t seen such arrogance in Card’s other novels that I’ve read; maybe he got over that sort of thing – before he got into paranoia.

What he didn’t get over, I think, was that his imagination is more that of sci-fi movies and TV shows than of literary genre sf. That shows not only in the business of philotes, but in other aspects of his invention, such as the pequeninos (piggies), the natives of the planet called Lusitania, where there is a small human colony of dark-skinned Catholics from Brazil. They have a bizarre life cycle, being born from trees and eventually turning back into trees – all native life forms go through similar life cycles. This seems to be guided by a virus called the descolada, which has also infected the human settlers. The humans take anti-virals to keep from being similarly transformed themselves, but the virus itself keeps mutating – and anyone leaving the planet (human, pequenino or formic) could spread it elsewhere. That’s why the Starways Congress has sent a fleet to sterilize the planet, even as Ender once sterilized the homeworld of the formics (buggers). One can easily imagine James Cameron coming up with this sort of scenario.

The exasperating thing is that there are both good and bad things in the Ender saga. The just-the-facts eulogy Ender gives for Marcão in Speaker for the Dead is eloquent, and honest, if also very painful to those who hear it (He has made a career of such truth-telling eulogies, although we are never given any other examples.). But the circumstances are hard to take. The plot has manipulated Libo, who has been studying the pequeninos, into becoming the father of two different families, and his son Miro falls in love with his half sister Ouanda – finding out the truth almost too late: contrived tragedy is no better than contrived happiness. Miro’s mother Novinha had married Marcão, but never had any children by him; after he dies, she marries Ender – but he isn’t really much of a stepfather, for all his seeming show of concern. Meanwhile on Path, a distant world populated by Chinese who supposedly hear the gods but in fact are genetically engineered to have an obsessive compulsive disorder that makes them think they do that, there is yet another dysfunctional family that plays a role in the saga.

But most of the action is on Lusitania. For some reason, a lot of pequeninos embrace Catholicism. That seems illogical to begin with, and Card has fun with the idea of Father Estavão, who also goes by the pequenino name of Quim, trying to find “a meaningful way to perform [marriage] between a fathertree and the blind, mindless slugs who were mated with them.”[x]  But a distant pequenino community comes up with a novel heresy that descoladas are the incarnation of the Holy Ghost, and Quim sets out to bring them back  to the True Faith. He dies at their hands, and Ender seems to take him seriously as a martyr – although he is no more a Catholic than Card himself (What Card does and doesn’t take seriously as religion is a continuing bizarre element.).

Yet in a powerful scene right after that, a mob of crazed Catholics attacks the nearest pequenino community – which had nothing whatever to do with what happened to Quim. Yet they scream “For Quim and Christ!” and “Die, pigs, die!”[xi] They slaughter their alien neighbors and torch the mothertrees and fathertrees. Grego, another of Ender’s stepsons, takes part in the pogrom although he repents at the end, and the Bishop imposes a harsh penance afterwards, ordering his people to tear stones from their homes and every other building in town, leaving them shattered – while using the stones to build a new chapel, where: “We will pray for Christ to include our terrible sin in his atonement, so we will not have to spend eternity in hell.”[xii]

That scene is full of passion, and outrage at the kind of crimes committed in the name of religion. And yet, in the name of religion, Card himself has since resorted to shameful hate speech. As I said at the outset, I can’t understand why. From his Wikipedia entry, Card’s shifting political allegiances don’t make a lot of sense, except for the fact that he was offended at Mitt Romney being attacked as a Mormon. And after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage (but before his attack on Obama), he gave up the fight on the marriage issue, but pleaded for tolerance from its proponents – and couldn’t seem to figure out what anyone had against him.[xiii]

One thing for sure: you can’t make this stuff up.

[v] Ibid.
[vi] Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, TOR 1991, p. 93
[vii] Ibid., p. 41
[viii] Ibid., p. xv
[ix] Card, Xenocide, TOR 1991, p. 313
[x] Ibid., p. 109
[xi] Ibid., p. 226
[xii] Ibid., p. 233