Tag Archives: science fiction

Entropy, agency, and determinism.

Nothing is more characteristically American about science fiction than its explicit activism and the faith which its writers have expressed that events can and will be moved in desirable directions by a strong-minded people. Yet entropy is a law of nature standing athwart the history that such people might make—and a law not so easily finessed with a vaguely defined ‘warp drive’ as is Einstein’s universal speed limit. […]

Although he defined his own personal faith as Deist, Campbell’s own opinion of human nature added to an Old Testament view of divine justice a very Augustinian sense of human depravity, a Puritanical acceptance of Apocalypse as no more than people deserved. Similarly mixed were his views on the consequences of science and technology. They were at once the highly desirable goal of human struggle, the producers of the mechanized luxury of decadence, and the revealers of entropy with all its terrors for the rationalist.

The ultimate inevitability of entropy made Campbell a determinist about human history, despite his personal distaste for determinism and all his attempts to deny that he was a determinist. The attempts at denial, moreover, were rooted in what was most conventional about his Americanism: problem-solving activism, optimism, hope (if not necessarily faith) in the ability of the right kind of people to master their physical environment.[…]

Left to themselves [in a closed system], Campbell was saying, people cannot reform, rebuild, or revitalize their own lives, their own societies. That has to be done for them—or to them.

–Albert I. Berger, The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology (1993), pp. 27, 31-32

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Imaginative exercise and practice.

There’s a tendency in American culture to leave the imagination to kids — they’ll grow out of it and grow up to be good businessmen or politicians. […]

But much of it is derivative; you can a mash lot of orcs and unicorns and intergalactic wars together without actually imagining anything. One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice. You can’t tell a story unless you’ve listened to a lot of stories and then learned how to do it.

–Ursula K. Le Guin, interviewed by David Streitfeld


Flood plain

illustration by iDaisan

via bellatorinmachina


What’s wrong with relative obscurity?

Why is Blanch’s influence on Dune worth recognizing? Celebrating Blanch is not a means to discredit Herbert, whose imaginative novel transcends the sum of its influences. But Dune remains massively popular while The Sabres of Paradise languishes in relative obscurity, and renewed public interest in Blanch’s forgotten history would be a welcome development. […]

The history she produced is a minor masterpiece, an unabashedly romantic account of a conflict that continues to inform religious and political tensions in the Caucasus to this day. (It’s no accident that Chechnya was the geographic core of Imam Shamyl’s movement, or that the Murids’ austerely militant Islamic faith recalls the theology of modern fundamentalists.) Blanch was not a professional historian, and one suspects that an academic would have produced an altogether less satisfying account of this period. The climax of The Sabres of Paradise, a tension-fraught exchange of hostages between the Russian army and the insurgents, would probably be relegated to a few dry paragraphs in an academic tome. For Blanch, it occupies an entire chapter — a magnificent account of the trade of three Georgian princesses, kidnapped in a daring Muslim raid, for Shamyl’s firstborn son, captured as a boy and raised to manhood in the court of the The Great White Czar.

–Will Collins, The Secret History of Dune

Though it’s probably beyond the scope of this kind of review, I wish Collins had dug further into the comparative stylistic cues of these two books. At least half of the review traces the direct influences on Herbert’s lexical and structural borrowings, while the latter half never really explicates what makes Lesley Blanch’s prose so masterful. On the one hand, I feel like Collins wants to recommend The Sabres of Paradise on its own merits as a literary historical work. On the other hand, the entire structure of his review suggests that, without considering its influence on a much more canonical work, Blanch’s minor masterpiece is more minor than masterpiece — and thus more or less justly overlooked. Collins’s description of the climax, for instance, gives me no sense of how Blanch depicts it or why it’s so successful in transforming a minor historical moment into a narrative climax of transcendent significance.

In writing about literary history, it seems to me that there’s no shame in simply acknowledging that a minor or mostly-forgotten work is made more interesting by its influence on a major, more canonical work. Such minor masterpieces are often fascinating and well-written in their own right, but I don’t see the need to pretend that, by themselves, they’re more than that. At the end of the review, Collins analogizes the influence of Blanch on Herbert to the influence of Edward Gibbon on Isaac Asimov. I get the point, and it’s fair to a certain extent, except for this: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was and remains fairly widely-read, and was certainly close to canonical among intellectuals for more than a century. Anyone interested in the history of civilization qua “civilization” has heard of it or read at least a part of it. And it’s supposed to be damn good. It didn’t just influence the Foundation series; it influenced the entire field of historiography, and as a popular account of the collapse of the Roman Empire, it has had an incalcuable impact.

Collins can only claim for Blanch a sizeable impact upon a single science fiction series. Based upon his review, I’m persuaded that said impact was, indeed, sizeable. But Lesley Blanch is not Edward Gibbon, and it is no sleight to acknowledge that she’s not. Guiding the mind that conjured Arrakis is actually pretty cool. Given the sheer volume of written material that is forgotten by literary history, making into the footnotes is not unimpressive. Perhaps we should value the footnotes more instead of trying to give every minor masterpiece its own chapter heading, which is flatly impractical. After all, being relatively obscure is better than being totally forgotten.


Only a kind of obsessive monoculture

Ms. Tippett: … I want to take a slight diversion, which I don’t think is completely a diversion, which is your love of science fiction and the way science fiction is in your fiction. And I also love science fiction, and my story is not your story, but I grew up in a very small town and went to Brown, which was like going to a different planet. And you came from Santo Domingo to central New Jersey; it was like a different planet. And for the very first time, when I was reading you, and the science fiction references keep jumping out at me, including “Fear is the mind-killer,” it occurred to me that science fiction is there for people who change worlds. What did you say a little while ago? You were talking, also, about that numinous world that — the sense that there are many worlds within the world. I just kind of wanted to note that. I mean — and it’s not an escape. It’s actually revealing or kind of opening your imagination to vast cosmic possibilities that aren’t immediately reflected in the world around you.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, well, it could be an escape, but I do find science fiction to be — for me has been an excellent literary technology for understanding our many worlds, for understanding what’s been disavowed about our societies, for understanding our political unconscious. It’s really — science fiction is really good to think, man. And for some folks, the aliens and all the stuff about otherness is just surface titillation. For others of us, it becomes a source for theorizing about real-world alterity and alternate possibilities. And that’s the way I reacted to science fiction, in some ways. For me, science fiction offered the possibility of different ways of being and of ways of possibly overcoming the cage that surrounded us.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and another reference that I feel is kind of in the ether right now is this Whitman line of “I contain multitudes.” It’s come up a lot, lately, and you invoke that in the context of a question about what is America — that there are these multiple Americas. I wonder how your long view of time, your rootedness in the whole sweep of history, of your ancestors, of your people as the ground on which you stand in the present, how that speaks to you about multiple Americas and how to live with this, generatively.

Mr. Díaz: Well, I mean shoot. It’s a question that has bedeviled the New World and bedeviled societies for a long time. I mean shoot, we’ve got the Babel myth at the heart of the Bible, the idea that God struck down humans by making them more diverse. [laughs] Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing. But, you know, so it goes. I just — when I think about what is required for all of us to live on this planet, it’s going to be the kinds of solidarities and the kinds of civic imaginaries and the kinds of radical tolerances that we’re not seeing. We’re going to have to practice a democracy that we’ve yet to define or even lay down the first four bricks of. There’s nothing about our impoverished political systems, our imagined communities, that is going to be able to hold us together in the face of the coming storm of climate change. We need a lot more than we have. And the fact that so many of us are scared by our multiplicity shows you how much work we have to do.

Our multiplicity is our damn strength. There is no getting around it. People want to make it the danger. People want to make it the problem. No, it’s only going to be the problem if we don’t make it our strength. And you don’t want to be so fantastically reductive, but really, at an operational level, it’s really what it comes down to — either we’re going to embrace humanity and figure out how we can all live together and work together to overcome the damage that certain sectors of us have inflicted on the planet, or we’re not. And I, for one, think eventually there’s — I don’t trust our politicians. I don’t trust our mainstream religious figures. I don’t trust our business leaders. I don’t trust any of the sort of folks who already have power and have already shown us how little they can do for us, and they’re showing us their cowardice and their avarice — I don’t trust any of those people. But I do trust in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these wicked systems. I trust in that. I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.

Junot Díaz in conversation with Krista Tippett

This is a fascinating, somewhat confusing exchange. Díaz and Tippett link sf to alterity, and they link alterity to the plurality inherent in systems of democracy. So far, so good. But Díaz alludes to the Babel story to illustrate the notion that humanity has struggled with multiculturalism for millennia. “God struck down humans by making them more diverse.” Hm, okay. If language is a metonym for all diversity, sure. And if scattering people to diverse areas around the globe equals “striking down,” I guess. But then he says, “Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing.” This is the confusing part. To which “obsessive monoculture” is he referring? Who sees what part of that as a terrible thing?

I suppose that Babel often serves as a kind of metaphor for irreconcilable breakdowns in communication. Fair enough. And we do, I further suppose, generally think of communication breakdowns as bad things. But that’s us: the generations raised to believe in the rightness of democratic politics. Weirdly enough, I wouldn’t take exception to Díaz labeling we 21st-century moderns as a kind of obsessive monoculture. But I don’t think that he’s doing that.

God’s reason for scattering the people is that if they succeed in building their city and its tower to heaven, then “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” There’s not much elaboration there. I’m confident that theologians over the centuries have spilled much ink and hot air over why God really confused humanity’s languages or the myriad things the story signifies. On the most basic level, it simply seems that God did not think it good that humans find nothing to be impossible, and it’s worth meditating on why God would place barriers in front of people reaching for radical possibilities of self-definition and agency.

This kind of meditation is something sf is really good at. And one might even generalize that stories modeled on the story of Babel tend to emphasize the hubris, avarice, and cowardice of leaders who want to place themselves on the same plane as God at the expense of common people and the natural world.

That still doesn’t help me understand which “obsessive monoculture” Díaz refers to or precisely why invoking the Babel story helps us understand why it would view multiplicity as such a terrible thing. Perhaps he meant nothing more than to imply some sort of intrinsic correlation between the Bible and fear of the Other. But, you know, so it goes.

 


Not alone in the universe

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

–Clay Routledge, Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s

Routledge ends with this: “The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?”


R&D, sf division

Science fiction is now a research and development department within a futures industry that dreams of the prediction and control of tomorrow.

–Kodwo Eshun, “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism.” CR: The New Centennial Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 2003, p. 291