Friday, 7 August 2009

More of Dave's favourite SF books

I mentioned in my preferences street-level realism, which became such a trademark feature of cyberpunk, but it goes back much further than Gibson and the 80s. In Theodore Sturgeon's collection E Pluribus Unicorn, the action takes place in low-lit bars, often narrated by a heavy-drinking shiphand or farmhand. This in turn shows the detective-noir origins of the style.

Sturgeon is convincing and compassionate about the dirt-poor – More Than Human features a character living in what is very much Depression Era rural USA.

What is the opposite of that kind of noir style? An unremitting diet of glossy super-people, maybe? Or Heinlein's all-American high achievers? Or Asimov's somewhat ivory-tower world of scientists and top engineers?

This leads me into the big pictures stuff, the deep future history theme.

It's many years since I read the Foundation trilogy, but I remember the thrill of another set of potentials that SF could lay out for the human race, a beautiful thought-experiment.

I went on to delight in other tales of future humans. The ur-texts of the whole area are, of course, Olaf Stapledon's Last And First Men and Star Maker, the first a history of mankind from the time it was written (1930) to the end of humanity on Neptune 10 billion years in the future, and the second a journey taken by an ordinary man of 1937 to the end of time and beyond, in the quest for god, basically, for the ultimate intelligence of the universe, the Starmaker.

In Last And First Men, Stapledon got a lot of his future history so far right, despite the foreword to the recent edition I just read apologizing to the Americans for his prejudices against them. He recognizes and salutes the greatness in America, but his magnificent contempt for human stupidity cannot overlook his correct prediction about the corrosive effects of the 'degenerate religion' of Christian fundamentalism. To anyone with a brain, it is harrowing and perplexing that such a mighty nation, so filled with excellent and exceptional people can nonetheless be led by a cabal of ignorant bigots trading cynically on the stupidity of their oppressed, a malign subculture that illegalises the teaching of proper science in schools, systematically poisoning the minds of its young with category errors that replace science with the most primitive and stupid theology.

The downfall of the First Men (i.e., us) is due to a 2-fold process – a neurological disease, then, much worse in the long term, a degeneration of human intelligence caused by worship of primitive instinctual behaviour, in form of obsession with endless energy-wasting flight. In this phase of breakdown, the worse the energy crisis gets, the more people think they should fly – sounds familiar? The selective upshot of this collapse is rather like what might happen if all the next generation were bred exclusively from Big Brother inmates.

He also got right some kind of nuclear power, but centuries after it happened (Gordelpus!), germ warfare as terribly important and dangerous, the wars over oil, and Nordic supremacy doctrines. But, curiously, instead of happening over 150 years it happened in the next 15...
He got badly wrong the 'Russian character' as impervious to physical possessions and status. Maybe he was still clinging onto some hope for the then-new Soviet regime.

He also got wrong the leap into space taking 200-300 million years, and biotechnology such as could intervene in human development on a similar timescale. He died in 1950, seven years before Sputnik and three before the structure-determination of DNA that led to the revealing of the genetic code in 1961. Computers were in their absolute infancy.

In any case, the name of the game is not correct guessing. This book had a massive influence on me when I first read it at about the age of 14.

Last And First Men is not a novel; it has no plot, and the only character development is that of the human race itself. However, it is beautifully written. Brian Aldiss described it, only a little fulsomely, as a prose poem.

Star Maker is something else again, set on an even bigger scale.

With a kind of fusion of logic and vision, he deals with the gulf between human love and the physical, created cosmos, and the paradoxes of perfection and imperfection in creation.

These are big mystical questions. His standpoint sometimes seems like that of the Gnostics, an ancient group of 'cults' who influenced William Blake, amongst many others, in seeing such a lack of love and compassion in the created universe as to attribute to the creation to an amoral demiurge, a blind force of creativity.

His timescales, on another hand, recall the immense time-spans of the kalpas, the 'days and nights of Brahman' in Hindu cosmology, each 4.32 billion years, in each night of which human consciousness is extinguished.

He ranges over all religious modes, in fact, in his exploration of the Starmaker's creativity. Eventually, the Starmaker makes a universe which teaches him something, but the observer still recoils in horror. From P183, contemplating the most perfect creation:

'I scorned my birthright of ecstasy in that inhuman perfection and yearned back to my lowly cosmos... there to stand shoulder to shoulder with my own half-animal kind against ... the indifferent, the ruthless, the invisible tyrant whose mere thoughts are sentient and tortured worlds.'

Phew! Not love, but contemplation of everything, is its core nature.

At that point, he goes home, a Marxist mystic who has returned from the quest and wants to go no higher into the cosmic mystery, but simply to get on with the practical matters of living a good life.

The nearest attempt in terms of scale I'm aware of since then is Charles Stross's Accelerando. This follows a family (or two) through changes over a few centuries, a much more realistic timescales from our present state. In Accelerando, the projections into the future are heavily centred on changes in computer power and the post-human software that runs it.

As a read, it's about as good a book with so many big infodumps can be. It has a magnificent scale of ideas, central to which is the transformations of humans and post-human entities by systems of resource allocation.

He posits something like an ideal world – but frames this final human civilization as an 'economic backwater' – but it reads like I'd be delighted to live in it.

This leads us into the themes of posthumanity, utopias and liberation. Something different in the way of superhumanity is offered in Michael Moorcock's The Dancers At The End of Time. Here we have very jolly post-humans, partying on to the end of the universe, using it all up for fun. This is a vision of Huizinga's homo ludens, mankind at play – a '60s dream that went deeper than most of that era, the idea that technology and repressive culture had done their job, and that humans could look forward to a future of self-actualization without being coerced economically or by force to go to boring work. (What happened to that ideal?)

This great utopia finds its limits (no utopia would be interesting if it was entirely successful!) in the end of the universe (which the protagonists have just used up) as well as in its internal limitations – the most interesting characters get a bit bored with perfect fun. Time-travel is invoked to give the protagonists societies which they can compare to their own, insular culture, and this gives rise to some great scenes, particularly the incursion into Victorian London of the Lat, a bunch of interstellar raiders rather like alien Hells Angels.

Another utopia – Iain M Banks' The State of the Art – is a novella set in his Culture universe. I could have chosen any of the Culture novels to make this point, but my personal favourite is this early one, because it has a recognizable Earth in it, therefore more 'presence' for me. The Culture is a star-spanning civilization where people live for a few centuries, have enhanced themselves to enjoy sex more and to 'gland' endogenous drugs for recreation. Way to go! But of course, there are problems in its perfection, giving us interesting plots about an advanced civilization colliding with primitive ones, and the individuals who are frustrated by perfection becoming the agents – Special Circumstances – of the Culture's interference in less sophisticated societies.

This is about the imperfections inherent in utopia. The best we can imagine has its limitations, may be a spiritual desert for some people, like the Culture citizen who 'goes native' and stays on earth, only to lose everything and yet be satisfied, fulfilled somehow as he dies in a street brawl.

An examination of some possibilities for political liberation is contained in William S Burroughs' Cities of the Red Night. It is an alternative history of freedom; 18th century pirate gangs liberate areas of the world from church and state and form free republics. They accept new members who sign up to the Articles:

  • 'No man may be imprisoned for debt;
  • No man may enslave another;
  • No man may interfere in any way with the religious beliefs and practices of another;
  • No man may be subjected to torture for any reason;
  • No man may interfere with the sexual practices of another or force any sexual act on another against his or her will;
  • No man may be put to death except for the violation of the Articles.'

Of course, the Articles are compromised by the actions of leaders – even though they are of the highest calibre of honesty. The exercise of power corrupts, and the Republics fail; this book is a lament for what might have been.

Naturally, being a Burroughs book, it contains various other levels too – magical rituals, alien diseases and lots of (mostly grotesque and mostly gay) sex, as well as a model of internal liberation based on a deadly pilgrimage through the six Cities of the Red Night, in which variations of the rallying cry Burroughs attributes to Hassan I Sabbah, 'Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted', are played out in thought-experiment societies.