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Wot I red on my hols by Alan Robson (Uropygium)


Once SF was a dangerous, perhaps even a subversive literature, that buried itself behind lurid covers for camouflage. If you were caught reading it people would laugh at you for your stupidity, your naivety. Who with any sense could possibly want to concern themselves with spaceships, computers, genetic engineering and environmental catastrophes? Such nonsense was so far removed from real life that even thinking about it, let alone discussing it or reading about it was simply beyond the bounds of belief for most people. The average man on the Clapham omnibus had more immediate concerns. Airy fairy speculations were not part of his world view.

But the rate of progress in the sciences and technologies is quite overwhelming. In less than a generation reality has caught up with (and in some case surpassed) the fiction. Any novels about spaceships, computers, genetic engineering and environmental catastrophes that are published today are most unlikely to be filed in the SF section of the bookshop. These are now the stuff of everyday life. We read about them in the newspapers. Perhaps you and I had a few years advance warning, but that was all.

In a sense, the science fictional situations described in those older stories have migrated down into in the mainstream. In the late 1970s a series of adverts on British television extolled the virtues of Cadbury’s Smash (a species of instant mashed potato). Nobody though it in the least bit odd that the product was advertised by rather strange looking aliens drooling in ecstasy over their bowls of reconstituted spud. Bob Shaw used to claim that the Cadbury’s Smash adverts were the best SF on television, and few would disagree with him.

If anything vindicates our genre, that does. Adverts always follow cultural trends and patterns, they seldom lead (that’s too big a commercial risk). Cultural acceptance on prime time television is probably the closest we will ever get to an accurate opinion poll on any given subject.

However I prefer to think of it the other way round – rather than assuming that our speculations are becoming common coin perhaps it is more true to say that society has matured to the extent that the concepts no longer seem odd to it. I don’t think SF migrated outwards, I think the culture in which it lived grew up and absorbed it. And once that happened, it was the kiss of death for the subversive literature that used to thrive in the cracks in the wall.

It is reported that shortly after the first moon landing in 1969 a journalist asked a group of SF writers, "What are you guys going to write about now?". He was laughed at – SF, they explained, had much wider concerns than that.

Well I’m not so sure that it does any more. In the years since those epochal events, the almost casual general acceptance of the reality of the speculations that we once thought were so dangerous seems to have had a dumbing down effect on the literature. It is trite to say that commonplace ideas are dull simply because they ARE commonplace, but nonetheless it is true. And SF still seems to concern itself almost exclusively with those old, safe, familiar middle of the road speculations that now belong more properly to the mainstream.

I believe we have forgotten our heritage, we’ve forgotten that we are supposed to push the edge of the envelope, we’ve forgotten how to be dangerous. We’ve forgotten how to think.

Take Vernor Vinge’s new novel, for instance. A Deepness in the Sky is a 606 page doorstop that never achieves transcendence and often descends into maudlin soap opera.

The Queng Ho traders have sent a fleet to the On/Off star. With almost clockwork precision, the star goes dark for a long period and then reignites. This odd astronomical phenomenon would be fascinating in itself, but when you add to that the fact that radio signals have been detected from a planet orbiting the star, it becomes irresistible.

The planet is inhabited by a spider-like race who despite long periods of enforced hibernation when their sun goes dark and their very atmosphere freezes, have somehow managed to build a crude technology.

The Queng Ho arrive at the star almost simultaneously with a star fleet from another human culture. The Emergents prove to be quite untrustworthy and attack the Queng Ho fleet. In the subsequent battle, both fleets are so severely damaged and each side suffers so many casualties that their only hope is to wait for the spiders to develop to a much higher technological level so that their resources can be used to rebuild the fleets. At first the spiders are left strictly alone – overt meddling with the society might have the reverse of the planned effect. But once the spiders develop computers and start to network them together growth can be encouraged subtly through the net.

The tale is told from multiple viewpoints. The Queng Ho, the Emergents and the spiders themselves all have tales to tell. Not surprisingly as in most novels of this kind, the spiders are all too recognisably human (so that we can identify with them). They may sit on perches instead of chairs, but we soon forget that when Sherkaner Underhill’s children are kidnapped (I did mention the soap opera aspects didn’t I?). There isn’t anything really alien here – the spiders go for drives in the country and have picnics and visit museums. They watch television.

It all seems so safe, so middle of the road, so cosy. There are no ideas here that we haven’t seen a million times. Instead there are just McGuffins called localizers that are the size of a dust mote and have sophisticated computers embedded inside them – computers that only Queng Ho rebel Pham Nuwen knows how to operate and which are constantly revealing more and more super powers that are undetectable by the Emergents. The Emergents themselves have developed a technique called Focus which effectively concentrates human thought into monomaniacal specialisation which, in combination with computer technology, amounts almost to artificial intelligence. There are lots of snide jokes about bloated, bug-ridden, software that has been constantly under development for more than ten thousand years, and nobody understands what it does or how it does it any more.

It is a simple and a comfortable story, and I mildly enjoyed it. But it is so middle-of-the-road that I couldn’t get excited. Feeling jaded, I turned elsewhere…

Like everybody else, I have always assumed that Eskimos have 400 different words for snow. Sooner or later this urban legend crops up in every discussion. But now I have read The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax which is a collection of irreverent essays on the study of language and I am enlightened. I think.

The author, Geoffrey Pullum, is a linguist and these essays originally appeared as space fillers in a very learned linguistic journal. Consequently while there is much here to enjoy, including a wonderfully amusing debunking of the Eskimo vocabulary myth, there is also much that is abstruse and inaccessible as Pullum delves deep into the arcana of his profession. What is one to make of a statement concerning:

…a treatment of unspecified object deletion that makes the right predictions…by burying the existential qualifier in the lambda-expression that translates eat.

I am not putting Pullum or his book down by this statement – his essays are addressed at a specialised audience and he uses the language of that specialisation to explore his ideas. But sometimes it does make for difficult reading.

I turned back to the genre, but even Tom Holt let me down. In Only Human, God and Jesus go off for a fishing trip, leaving the universe in the charge of Kevin, Jesus’ younger brother. He proves to be a bit of a dweeb and stuffs up the computer as a result of which a Shipcock and Adley lathe becomes sentient, the British Prime Minister turns into a lemming and lots of highly arbitrary and deeply unfunny things happen. Holt has found a formula that works and he is currently pushing it in book after book. The fans buy the book because of the name on the cover; they know what he will give them. They want Tom Holt - his audience won’t let him be anybody else and neither will his publisher because the formula sells books. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

But it does lead to far too much that is predictable and therefore safe. In my opinion, that means that is broken and it SHOULD be fixed.

However there is a certain undeniable comfort in "the mixture as before". It explains the general lack of spice in the SF field as a whole (as with Tom Holt and Vernor Vinge). Also I suspect that it is the major reason for the peculiar (and ever more prevalent) incestuous habit that some authors have of writing stories using characters and situations that other writers have set up for them. Sometimes it seems that not only has SF forgotten how to think, it has forgotten how to innovate as well. Let’s just use the same old settings, the same old characters, the same old plots.

One phrase for this is "sharecropping". It is (I feel) yet another indication of just how stale and unimaginative the field has become. Are we following in father’s footsteps? It seems to me that the safety of familiarity tends towards superficiality. After all, that’s how soap operas work, and that’s why the bookshop shelves contain so many clones.

It takes very little thought and very little skill to dash off yet another Star Trek or Star Wars novel, to write a story set in Isaac Asimov’s Robot Universe, to pen a tale of Thieves World, to deal a Wild Card or to explore the dimensions of Hell. Mostly the material is pre-digested; it slips down easier that way. Medea – Harlan’s World seldom even attained mediocrity despite the galaxy of talented writers it attracted. Interestingly several of these shared universe creations have now become moribund and are no longer published – perhaps the fans are turning away from them. I hope so.

The very worst manifestation of this trend is the so called "fan fiction" that currently infests megabytes of bandwidth on the internet. Here fans of (say) X-Files or Star Trek write stories about their favourite characters and are generally so overwhelmed with awe at their temerity in daring to write Spock said that all they can do from that point on is dribble drivel. I know two people who indulge themselves in this vice and perhaps the most damning indictment of the whole practice came from the mouth of one of them who remarked to me, "I like writing fan fiction. It is so relaxing. I just pound away at the keyboard and I don’t even have to think. It’s so easy!"

What was I saying earlier on?

As a result of this, it may strike you as rather odd when I tell you that the best book I’ve read this month, standing head and shoulders above the all the rest, is a sharecropped novel set in somebody else’s universe.

In Long John Silver, Björn Larsson tells us the tale of the eponymous pirate. We learn how he lost his leg and why he was nicknamed Barbecue, we learn what happened to Flint, how Blind Pew lost his eyes and where they recruited Israel Hands. We learn how Silver met and fell in love with his negress concubine Dolores and how he acquired his parrot, and what was its ultimate fate. (What sits on top of your computer and squawks "Pieces of Seven!" Pieces of Seven!"? -- A parity error! Sorry; the geek in me just came out for a moment).

Much of the magnificence of this book lies in the rolling Stevensonian prose in which it is told. The credit for this must largely go to Tom Geddes who translated the book from the original Swedish, and did it superbly. You could almost read Treasure Island, put it down and then pick up this book and continue reading without even noticing the break. But either Geddes is a literary genius, or he had brilliant source material to work with for the book is far more than just a simple stylistic homage. Real flesh is put on John Silver’s bones and he is placed in a real historical context. The events of Stevenson’s novel didn’t take place in limbo; there was a real world going on out there and its politics and its economics played a large part in shaping Silver and his compatriots. Perhaps the most harrowing parts of the novel concern Silver’s time on a slave ship – both as crew member and later (following an abortive mutiny) as a slave chained in the ‘tween decks with no way of avoiding the steady drip of excrement from those chained in layers above him. Small wonder that he was cruel and vicious and utterly lacking in conscience.

Silver’s life was not one of which to be proud and while you learn to respect him when reading this book, you would never learn to like him. And the sharp edge that this gives the narrative turns the book from sharecropping into a distinct work of art.

There seems to be a fascination with Treasure Island. Forty years ago, R. L. Delderfield covered much the same ground as Björn Larsson in the novel The Adventures of Ben Gunn. I read the Delderfield book as a child and loved it and I read it again as an adult and loved it a second time. It is quite different from Larsson’s tale, though some of the characters and incidents are common to the two. The books complement each other to an enormous extent.

Given my feelings about the essential unthinkingness of setting a story in someone else’s world and taking over someone else’s characters, how can I possibly justify even reading Larsson’s and Delderfield’s books, let alone praising them? It gets worse – I loved Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships which is a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. I adored Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine which combines elements of both The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Am I becoming like Walt Whitman, entertaining contradictions because I am large enough to contain multitudes? I know I’ve put on weight recently, but really!

There is a pattern here (and these are not just my Jesuitical squirmings). The books I have praised begin on very high literary ground. Their whole raison d’ être stems from the fact that the works of Wells and Stevenson (et al) are themselves classics of their kind. When you start from strength (and bring huge talent to the task) it is almost impossible to go wrong. When you build on trash the foundations are so infirm it is almost impossible to do anything with them.

Of course, it doesn’t always work. In the last few years there have been sequels to Pride and Prejudice, Gone With the Wind, and Rebecca, and all have been uniformly dire. A certain native talent would seem to be required as well! But it still makes a better starting place than most.

Isaac Newton claimed that his great insights into the structure of the universe came because he stood on the shoulders of giants. John Donne told us that no man is an island, entire unto himself. Nothing happens in isolation, so it is quite legitimate to do what Larsson and Delderfield and Baxter and Priest have done. And because they are standing on giants’ shoulders they succeed magnificently (though it helps that all are brilliant writers as well!).

IBM had a motto to inspire their sales staff and their technicians. The motto was "THINK!"

I once saw a cartoon which depicted an enormous and complex computer with lots of chrome, bells and whistles. Pinned up on the wall above the computer was the IBM motto. "THINK!", it said in enormous letters of fire. A puzzled employee is standing by the computer looking up at the motto. "You mean we still have to?", he asks plaintively.

There is a Dilbert cartoon wherein Ratbert rolls his head at random across a computer keyboard. "Congratulations," says Dilbert, surveying the results. "You’ve just written a web browser." He might equally well have remarked "You’ve just written a Star Trek novel."

Many of us really do use such web browsers and read such novels every day and by and large they do their job. Not too brilliantly, not too fast; they stumble and they trudge because nobody thought too hard about putting them together (nobody realised they still had to). Just pound the keyboard.

If you really, really try hard, even when buried up to the neck in manure, you can transcend your origins. Let us not forget that Vonda McIntyre has written Star Wars novels, John Brunner wrote for Thieves World and Roger Zelazny wrote stories for the Wild Cards series. But it is so much more difficult to succeed when the source material is so poor and very few people even bother to try. Why should they when the lowest common denominator demand is what causes these things to sell in mega numbers in the first place? Turn your mind off and wallow. Mud, mud, glorious mud.

The nice thing about being in a rut is that it keeps you on the straight and narrow.


Vernor Vinge A Deepness in the Sky Tor
Geoffrey K. Pullum The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax University of Chicago Press
Tom Holt Only Human Orbit
Björn Larsson Long John Silver Harvill

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