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Old Earth Books have recently republished two classic works from the 1960s in very handsome hardback editions: Way Station by Clifford Simak and Davy by Edgar Pangbourne. I read both of them when they were first published (and loved them immensely). I own both of them only in very tatty paperback editions and I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to buy them one more time and possess them in hardcover. Having bought them, I had to re-read them, of course. And they cast their magic spell all over again – and no, I don’t think it is a case of rose coloured spectacles and youthful nostalgia turning off my critical faculties. You see, Frederik Pohl, another writer of their generation (who, unlike Pangbourne and Simak, has the advantage of still being alive) has recently published a new novel called The Boy Who Would Live Forever, and the comparison of these three books revealed a truth that I had never really considered before.

Way Station tells the tale of Enoch Wallace who fought in the American Civil War and then returned home to rural Wisconsin to live out his days. Rather to his surprise, he is approached by an alien who recruits him to supervise a way station; a stopover for galactic travellers as they journey around the universe. Wallace’s house is remodelled to accommodate the mechanisms that allow travel between the stars and Wallace himself is remodelled to become effectively immortal. For many years he does his job unnoticed by the outside world but in the late twentieth century paranoid government agencies start to suspect that something is going on. And the observers close in.

The book exemplifies everything that Simak does best. There is the authentic folksy tone of voice, the down to earth reactions of ordinary people involved in extraordinary events and the almost elegiac sense that the very fact of being alive makes all life throughout the universe part of the same family. He emphasises the essential decency of all his characters, both alien and human, and in the end they come to realise this and they cooperate with each other in order to achieve a mutually satisfactory solution to their problems. It is beautifully done, quietly understated and absolutely stunning.

Davy is a fairly traditional after-the-holocaust story. What raises it head and shoulders above the rest of that genre is the extremely detailed society that Pangbourne envisages as arising from the ruins of the old. At one and the same time it is utterly original and yet obviously derived from what, even then, were worrying trends in contemporary American culture. The society of the novel is tyrannically religious and Davy himself is a rebel with a very just cause indeed (from my point of view anyway). Subsequent events in America have only served to illuminate just how prescient Pangbourne’s vision was, and the current sad state of American paranoia, repression and fundamentalist intolerance makes this forty year old novel read like a contemporary fable.

And then there is Frederik Pohl who has been writing first class SF for more than six decades and is showing no signs of losing his touch. The Boy Who Would Live Forever is another novel in his Gateway sequence (don’t worry – you don’t have to have read the others, it stands alone perfectly well). For those who are familiar with the sequence, the events of the novel take place during and shortly after those of Beyond The Blue Event Horizon. Wan has been rescued from the Heechee habitat where he grew up and finds himself fabulously rich from the royalties due to him from the Gateway Foundation. Unfortunately this means that he is now rich enough to indulge the paranoia and distrust that his isolated upbringing has engendered and this has dire consequences for humanity. Even those people who have migrated to the Core to hide with the Heechee are unable to escape the effects of his machinations; and the Foe in the Kugelblitz are coming out to play. Don’t worry if none of that makes any sense to you. It’s all explained in context in the novel – and a very gripping novel it is, though it is also undeniably strange. Pohl has an oddly sideways view of the universe and the things that live in it.

There’s something that unites all three of these books. I can only call it imagination, (or perhaps Imagination) though I’m not sure if that’s the right word. I’m not even sure exactly what I mean by it. I can only try and sneak up on it while it isn’t looking...

One element of the imagination that goes into these books is pure science fiction itself. None of these novels would exist in any recognisable form if they didn’t make use of their science fictional elements. In other words it is completely impossible to re-write (or even re-state) the story in mainstream, or other genre terms and end up with anything approaching the original. The stories would mutate beyond all belief if you tried it. They are simon-pure SF all the way from the foundations to the roof. In some ways that’s a very good pragmatic definition of SF. If you can restate the story as (say) a western, or a detective novel, or a soap opera without losing any salient plot point, then it isn’t SF. (Okay, okay – now define salient. I didn’t say it was a perfect definition of SF, I just said it was a good one).

The same cannot be said of many of the books that are marketed as SF today. A lot of contemporary SF tells stories that are not really SF at all. The SF elements are peripheral to the plot rather than being intrinsic to it. They are only window dressings that neither add much to (nor, to be fair, detract much from) the story. James Blish referred to this as the "…call a rabbit a smeerp" syndrome. In other words, they look like rabbits but if you call them smeerps that makes it science fiction. Novels such as Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan stories are simply Regency romances with ray guns and could easily be re-written as historical stories without sacrificing anything of significance. That doesn’t make them any less worthy, but it does make them different in a rather slippery way.

Even today’s so-called hard science fiction novels which many people perceive to be the direct inheritors of the mainstream SF tradition (if that isn’t an oxymoron) sometimes fall a little bit flat in the imagination stakes. Writers such as Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter, for example, do wonderful things both with science and with fiction but they seldom mix the two successfully. Far too often they fall in love with a neat idea simply because it is a neat idea. Gosh! Wow! Nanotechnology! Isn’t that cool? And then, overwhelmed by their own cleverness in explaining nanotechnology (or whatever) they do something utterly mundane with it. Forty years ago the writers, the good ones anyway, would have said: Hmmm. Nanotechnology. I wonder what the implications of that are? And rather than simply explaining it (perhaps with large dollops of that mysterious element called handwavium, just to make it look good) they’d poke it a bit to see what fell off, or lift it up to see what crawled or slithered out from underneath. All too frequently the present day writers just leave it sitting there instead, with a light shining on it so we don’t lose sight of it.

Frederik Pohl’s last four Heechee novels (the ones where we actually find out what happened to the Heechee when they left this universe) are, on one level, simply dramatisations of (then) current scientific ideas about black holes. But rather than wave his arms about lots and say Black Holes, Black Holes, Black Holes! This is how they work! This is what they do! Gosh, aren’t they hairy! at the top of his voice, Pohl has elected to tell us almost nothing about black holes per se; at least not directly. He doesn't lecture us with large Baxterian infodumps. Instead, far more subtly, he invents a completely unrealistic, and in some ways deeply stupid, device called a disruptor which allows his characters to penetrate the Schwarzchild radius. And then he pokes his head inside and reports back the raree show that he finds there. And it isn’t a physics lecture at all; it’s just people living with different rules. Isn’t that a much more satisfying way of doing things?

When you dig deep and go way down below the surface of an idea, you start to find profundities. Only then can you lift yourself beyond the mundane and achieve transcendence. Pohl’s disruptor is a magic wand, a bit of skilful misdirection. And when our attention is properly diverted by a magician who is a fully paid up member of the Magic Circle, real magic seems to happen before out very eyes, though at no time do the magician’s hands leave his wrists. We can truly say: Gosh! Wow! Look at that! And we actually mean it, for it dazzles us.

Egan and Baxter and their ilk tend to swim in calmer, shallower waters than this. They are deeply concerned with explaining; they want their audience to understand. The idea is holy and the idea is the whole of the law. And so when they try to dive beneath the surface of the idea and finally exhibit some tendency towards the profound, all too often they vanish into incoherence. They are far too preoccupied with getting it all said, with dotting the t’s and crossing the i’s, and frequently that simply demonstrates that they don’t really know what they are talking about in the first place. They haven’t properly thought it through because of course they aren’t really research scientists at all. They are novelists pretending to be research scientists. And their grasp on the nature of the idea is probably just as tenuous as yours and mine. So the magic and the dazzle go away because the audience gets to see how the trick was performed (either that, or the audience gets so lost in the tangled web the writers weave that they fail to realise that there was even a trick there in the first place).

Baxter is particularly guilty of this sin. Look at his recent Time/Space Manifold series, for example, where the explications so far outweigh the implications that there’s absolutely nothing left. Except a smelly pile of handwavium, of course. It was very noticeable that when Arthur C. Clarke took Baxter in hand and slowed him down and pointed out to him just what he really was implying, that suddenly his incoherence vanished and his imagination flourished once more. Baxter has written two novels in collaboration with Clarke (with the promise of more to come) and they are far and away the best things he has ever done. And so much of Egan’s recent work has started to read like undigested lumps vomited up directly from the pages of The Journal of Physical Research that my eyes start to glaze over as soon as I open the book. That’s not imagination at play – it’s not even homage. It’s just words that have no purpose other than to fill the blank spaces on the page.

Pohl is far too wise and far too skilful to fall into that trap. And that’s why he can still do magic and the likes of Baxter and Egan can’t.

Imagination is also playfulness – another quality sadly lacking today. The answers to the question "What if…?" don’t have to be sensible ones. Indeed the answers are often a lot more insightful if they aren’t sensible at all. You can be much more serious with humour than you can ever be with solemnity; a lesson that seems to have escaped the current SF scene, which is almost totally lacking in any trace whatsoever of a sense of humour. And again – no, I am not talking about in your face Pratchettian farce. There’s nothing wrong with that, other than the fact that there is far too much of it polluting the bookshelves, but it lacks subtlety. Much of the appeal of Way Station is the sheer delight that Simak takes in describing the travellers who pass through Wallace’s station. They may only appear for a sentence or two and they have no large effect on the detail of the plot; they are just bits of business that add to the atmosphere. But brief though they are, these episodes are clever, fun and sometimes funny. Simak put a lot of work into those few sentences and they repay him a thousandfold by giving the story a shape and a depth and a lived in feeling. Contrast that with a recent blockbuster such as (to choose something pretty much at random) Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon which is utterly glum throughout. I enjoyed it a lot – but I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if it had laughed inside itself a bit. I’m sure it would have felt more real if Morgan had employed more of that thing I’ve been calling imagination. Perhaps I could have lived inside the story then, instead of being an external observer. It was a good book. It could have been a great one.

The hero of Davy tells his own story in the first person. And he takes such joy in simply being alive and indulging his senses and his appetites that the essential darkness of the story slips down without you really noticing. There’s a lot more sex in the book than I remembered from the first time round and there’s also a lot of eating and drinking and dancing and just plain fun. All this despite the fact that Davy and his friends have suffered a serious defeat in battle, many of their friends are dead or captured by the reactionary majority forces and Davy’s army is in tatters. Davy knows his cause is hopeless but it doesn’t stop him telling his tale. Hope isn’t completely dead. It still survives in the Pandora’s box that is Davy’s future. He is telling his tale for the ages and perhaps the people in the future (if there is a future) can learn from Davy’s mistakes. I think the best way to describe that is well-rounded. And that alone makes the whole rather more than the simple sum of the parts. Joie-de-vivre can illuminate the darkest concerns.

Perhaps there’s a feeling that you have to be serious today. The rules don’t allow you to be playful when you have deeply serious concerns to deal with. If you sell your birthright for a pot of message (as somebody who I can’t remember once famously quipped) you aren’t allowed to laugh any more. I'm sorry, but I don’t believe it for a minute. Truly serious things aren’t supposed to take themselves seriously.

Look at Roger Zelazny. He was one of the towering SF geniuses who peaked magnificently in the 1960s. But even a deeply thoughtful work such as Lord of Light was full of play as well as of profundity. And when Zelazny was being overtly light-hearted (in, for example Doorways In The Sand) he was often laugh out loud funny. I miss those games and that sense of playfulness in contemporary SF.

The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were alive with literary promise. Something about that generation of writers struck sparks from the material; sparks which just aren’t there any more. Oh, there was plenty of rubbish then as well. I’m certainly not saying that every SF novel from the mid 1950s was a work of genius – far from it. Go and read Charles Eric Maine’s Timeliner (Hodder and Stoughton 1955) and weep. But I am saying that the proportion was higher then than it seems to be today.

It isn’t just nostalgia that made me devour both Way Station and Davy in a single marathon sitting and it isn’t only hero-worship that made me follow them with The Boy Who Would Live Forever with scarcely a pause for breath. They all have that indefinable something that I’ve spent the last 2000 words trying to pin down even while it wriggles away from me. I can only ever see it out of the corner of my eyes (a science fictional notion in itself) but I never fail to recognise it when it’s there.

Joe Haldeman once said that he had spent a lifetime bent double staring into his navel and writing down what he saw in there. "After you’ve done that for thirty years," he said with a grin, "you get a little weird."

I think we need a few more compulsory navel-gazing lessons for today’s young turks.

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