Friday, December 24, 2010

Judy And Mel


One of the more irritating strawmen arguments used against science-fiction writers is that because they didn’t spot (say) the way that mobile phones would transform society in the near future, they’re pretty much failures when it comes to the prediction lark. As if we’re supposed to be equipped with fission-powered crystal balls, or to somehow do better than futurologists who can draw on the resources of the multinational corporations they work for (and still get it wrong most of the time). It’s been raised yet again by Russell M Davies over at Wired UK, who claims that SF writers have given up on the future because they aren’t in the prediction business any more. Fellow columnist Warren Ellis does his best to knock it down by arguing that SF writers are more into hazy hand-waving extrapolation than hardcore prediction, but that’s not quite it, either. Here, by way of illustrating the kind of thing SF writers actually do when thinking about the future, is an example of my own so-called world building.

Some thirteen years ago, inspired by images captured by the two Voyager spacecraft and the Galileo and Cassini orbiters, I began a series of stories set in the outer reaches of the Solar System. A postwar scenario that eventually morphed and mutated into two novels, The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun. I wanted to explore the various, exotic, and unearthly moonscapes. I wanted to be as true as possible to reality, but I also wanted to measure them against some kind of human perspective.

I’m known, I guess, as a writer of so-called hard science fiction. Fiction that plays within the parameters established by current science, even if it pushes and distorts those parameters as hard and as far as possible. But very little science fiction is truly ‘hard’. For one thing, it’s fiction. It may be based on currently accepted scientific fact, but its tone and direction are shaped to some degree or other by the subjective judgements of the author. By bias, exaggeration, and whim.

And I think that’s necessary. Because if you try to work up any kind future history by logic alone, you’ll mostly likely end up some kind of sterile and hermetic thought experiment. Because as soon as you insert a figure into the hard reality of, say, the moonscape of Dione, you drag in the whole mess of human life and history. Who is she? Where is she from? What is she doing there and what does she want? An entire society springs up at her back as she treads down the dusty ice slope of some shattered crater, at the apex of a double shadow cast by saturnshine and attenuated sunlight. And unless it’s some kind of bubble utopia, rigidly bound by logic and as fragile as blown glass, that society is shaped, like ours, to some degree by chance. It’s full of frozen accidents, from the decimal system to the gauge of the railways system. Betamax v. VHS.  MiniDisc v. CD.  Why is this hard to understand? A whole subgenre of SF, alternate history, is based on the idea of history as accident.

So, when I started to build the society of the outer system, I did it partly by trying to work out the logic of how people could live there -- the kinds of technological fixes they’d need - and partly by trying to think my way inside of the heads of people who might live there. Trying to work out how they’d be affected by living inside a completely artificial environment surrounded by a hostile landscape that would kill them instantly if they made a mistake. Wondering if some kind of society based on the way contemporary scientists work and interact was viable. And quite frankly, sticking in all kinds of stuff I stumbled on more or less at random. That seemed to fit into the gestalt of my so-called future. Serendipity is a powerful, and powerfully underestimated, tool in the worldbuilding kit.

SF isn’t predictive. And it isn't utilitarian.  It isn’t about telling us what we should build, or where we are going. Claims otherwise are unhelpful. At best, it attempts to extrapolate from where we are now to some distance in the future - and the greater the distance, the greater the chance of deviation from what will happen. Especially in times like these, where it seems anything might happen at any moment. No, SF isn’t about what will happen. It’s about what might happen. The vast range of what-ifs, from wondering about what might happen if just one thing changes the day after tomorrow to full-blown satires and crazed mutant visions of cosmic apocalypses. It asks hard questions about the future, but it doesn’t promise definitive answers. Anyone who claims otherwise is speaking with a mouth stuffed with straw.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (9)

Draw a straight line from the novels of Douglas Adams, through early Ballard and the cosy catastrophes of John Wyndham, all the way back towards the early novels and stories of H.G. Wells. Pause at 1939, and you'll find R.C. Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript, an account of the end of Western civilisation after the Moon smashed into the Earth.  A foreword from the Imperial Research Press, Addis Ababa, sets the tone: the manuscript, ‘a thin, lonely cry of anguish from the gathering darkness of dying England’ is ‘almost valueless to the scholar and historian’, but seven hundred years after the smash, the story of its eponymous narrator is all that is left of what was once a great empire.

Sherriff expertly uses first-person narration to play on Hopkins’ blindness to his own faults. Cambridge-educated, living on a comfortable inheritance in a small village where he plays at gentleman farmer, he’s a Pooterish fellow hyperaware of his social status, preoccupied by small slights and setbacks, and obsessed with chicken breeding; yet there’s a genuine warmth to his character, and an abiding decency that deepens into something like heroism during the countdown towards cataclysm.  As a member of the Lunar Society, Hopkins is one of the first to learn of the impending disaster: his initial reaction is one of relief, for he feared the extraordinary meeting was about the ruinous expense of a new telescope he championed, and a melancholy dread of the End of Things is soon washed away as he continues his life in the village much as normal, his smug sense of superiority bolstered by his secret knowledge. After the revelation becomes public, announced in the village at a church service where many in the congregation mistake the vicar's news for an attempt to better his predecessors's fire and brimstone sermons, the narrative tension sharpens as the government attempts to prepare for the inevitable, and the clock ticks down to doomsday.

Sherriff’s sketches of preparations for disaster are crammed with telling and bathetic details. Hopkins briefly contemplates spending his last days in London, which ‘blazed with light as if it would squander its glittering wealth before it died’.  By day, people stockpile warm clothes and stout boots, wander about public places to no good purpose, and exhibit the ‘faint, pathetic smiles of brave passengers upon a sinking liner’; but at night, they fear to walk the streets despite the presence of soldiers and armed policemen, and there are rumours of banditry. Like the protagonists in The Day of the Triffids or The Death of Grass, 28 Days Later or Survivors, Hopkins yields to the atavistic English belief that cities are teeming pits of crime, while the countryside offers a chance at setting up one’s own pocket empire. He returns to his beloved village in time for a last cricket match, survives the hurricanes and floods that follow the impact, takes in the orphaned daughter and son of the local squire, shows unexpected resilience as he does his bit to help to restore civilisation. Sherriff rightly skimps the details of the reconstruction, generally the most tedious part of any disaster novel, and quickly introduces a new twist: it turns out that the Moon, ancient and hollow (a pseudoscientific theory used Wells in The First Men in the Moon) has collapsed into the Atlantic, bridging Europe and America. At first the new territory appears to be a desert of useless rubble, but then it’s discovered to be rich in minerals, and gas and oil reserves. Europe and America go to war over these riches. Like Toad of The Wind in the Willows, Hopkins has become a wiser and better man, but his incipient heroism has a tragic flaw: no one takes any notice of him. He gives a fine and passionate speech when the squire’s son decides to enlist, but it does no good.  England slowly empties; Hopkins retreats to London, where only a thousand or so people inhabit ruins like ghosts. His story ends on a note of quiet despair, amid rumours of a conquering army advancing from east.

Sherriff, better known as a playwright than a novelist, fought in the First World War and incorporated his experiences in his most famous play, Journey’s End. There are echoes of the themes of that play in The Hopkins Manuscript, and the novel’s account of the inability of ordinary people to look beyond their footling routines and little lives at the bigger picture have parallels with the period of appeasement before the outbreak of the Second World War. But it is above all a very fine catastrophe novel, its cynicism about human nature leavened by sympathetic comedy and shot through with images of otherworldly eeriness transforming quintessential English scenes:
The breathless glory of that rising moon robbed all terror from it and left me humbled and speechless: a blazing, golden mountain range that seemed to press the dark earth from it: clear rays of amber that caught the hills beyond the Manor House and crept down to drink the jet-black darkness of the valley - that flowed over the church and towards the cricket ground, emblazoning that shabby marquee and the threadbare bowling screens into a Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Old Tough New York

I first visited New York City in March 1983, towards the end of the tough old days when bale fires burned in the Bronx, subway cars were armoured in spraycan psychedelia, Times Square was packed with porn stores, teams of rats the size of cats, gentlemen, carried off babies, and in up-and-coming SoHo, Jon Jolcin had opened Protective Fashion, a store selling bulletproof garments to intrepid pioneers.  I had to take a picture (somewhat hastily - maybe I thought I was in a free-fire-zone).

 From the Vegetarian Times, 1984:

The merchandising comes with a $25 million insurance policy - just in case the garments fail to protect as advertised.
The most popular is the ski vest, which sells for $350.
Store owner Jon Jolcin formerly sold bulletproof clothing to the Israeli army before opening his store. Now, he's making more money than ever. "Unfortunately," he says wryly, "business is very good."

The building, at the corner of West Broadway and Watts Street, survives, although Protective Fashion is long gone.  It's an Oliver Peoples' now. selling designer eyeware.  So it goes.
Newer Posts Older Posts