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Sunday, November 29, 2009

The End of Civilization and Its Discontents:
A Review of The Road

by Gary Westfahl

Privy to no inside information, I cannot be sure why John Hillcoat's The Road, originally scheduled for release in December, 2008, has been repeatedly held back before finally appearing in late November, 2009 (just in time to ruin the Westfahl family Thanksgiving); certainly, there is no evidence of last-minute rewrites or hastily added scenes in a film that is, for the most part, a remarkably faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. But one factor may have been current events: at a time when the world seemed on the brink of an economic meltdown, executives may have reasoned, filmgoers might not have been in the mood for a depressing vision of the total collapse of global civilization in the near future. Now that the economic news is finally getting a little better, perhaps the producers thought audiences would be more willing to endure two hours of artistically crafted gloom and doom.

Be that as it may, it remains the case that, whether you are feeling poor or prosperous, The Road is a film that stretches the definition of "entertainment": in a world devastated by an unspecified catastrophe, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McGhee) wander through a bleak, lifeless environment desperately searching for food, like other scattered survivors, and the one thing separating the "good guys" from the "bad guys," it seems, is that the good guys are unwilling to resort to cannibalism. The only glimpses of bright color come in the Mortensen character's vivid dreams of a happier past, and there is one — precisely one — line in the film that will provoke laughter (strategically occurring during the film's modestly uplifting concluding scene). Everything else is grim: since no food is available, everyone must constantly wander in search of food and thus become homeless people, so the Mortensen character carries his and his son's belongings in the iconic device of the homeless, a shopping cart; they walk past money and jewelry lying on the ground since such things have no value in a world without food; and with gasoline no longer available, abandoned cars are nothing more than convenient shelters on cold and rainy nights. And this may be another reason why this film was originally planned, and ended up, as an end-of-the-year release: to lure people to a film that so conspicuously fails to match conventional expectations of what audiences like, the most viable strategy may be to launch it during awards season and hope that it garners, say, a few Golden Globe or Academy Award nominations to feature in advertisements.

Readers and filmgoers familiar with science fiction, of course, have visited post-holocaust societies many times in the past, and they will be intrigued by the ways in which this film, and the novel it is based upon, are in dialogue with previous depictions of future worlds driven back to primitivism. Oddly enough, though, the first science fiction film that The Road brought to my mind was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), obviously not part of the post-holocaust subgenre. But its opening scenes also depicted thin, hungry representatives of humanity whose lives are a constant struggle to find enough food and avoid deadly predators. What saved Moon-Watcher and his tribe from threatened extinction was an alien monolith that taught them how to use tools that could kill animals (and would subsequently help them plant crops) to provide ample food, a boon emphasized in the film's numerous later scenes of people eating healthy meals. Their civilization may have many sources of discontentment, as Sigmund Freud noted, but widespread hunger isn't one of them. What has ruined the lives of the film's father and son is that, in a world without animals or plants, their ability to use tools is no longer helpful in obtaining food — except on rare occasions when a shovel can smash the lock to an underground chamber that might contain an unlooted cache of canned goods to temporarily stave off starvation. Both films, then, share a central point: the basis of human civilization is simply having sufficient food to eat, and when there isn't enough food, a civilization can't be built or maintained. One telling image in the film is the piano, a traditional icon of a frontier becoming civilized in American westerns: in the flashbacks showing the Mortensen character and his late wife (Charlize Theron), who committed suicide rather than carry on the struggle for survival, we see them playing a piano in their house, and the wife is described as an excellent player. Later, while rummaging through yet another house in search of food, the man lifts up a cloth and finds a piano; he stares at it, plays a few measures, and then covers it up again and walks away. Clearly, he is now living in a world that has no place for pianos (which may be why it is also a world where his music-loving wife could no longer bear to keep living).

Other science fiction stories about post-holocaust societies may include similar remnants of a happier, more civilized past — Walter Van Tilburg Clark's "The Portable Phonograph" (1941) also uses music, recorded on a vinyl disk, to represent the beauties that humanity had lost — but reminders of yesterday typically evoke other emotions as well: regret about the folly that drove people to destroy everything they had built, anger at the specific persons responsible for the disaster, and a determination to begin the process of reconstructing their vanished technological society. These stories manifest a desire, in other words, to impose a narrative of progress onto a narrative of apparent regression: mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned, and humanity now can again start moving forward toward a glorious future. McCarthy's novel, and this film, have no intimations of this kind. McCarthy refuses to say anything at all about what caused his world to fall apart; the film includes scenes of ongoing earthquakes and firestorms vaguely suggesting that it might have been a purely natural disaster but otherwise is also silent about exactly what happened. Thus, there are no fools or villains to condemn for humanity's sufferings who would logically inspire the hope that wiser, better people could do better in the future. There is in addition no suggestion that anybody is planning, or dreaming about, a restoration of civilization; the Mortensen character abandons the piano and throws away a picture of his wife and his wedding ring, essentially rejecting his and humanity's history as irrelevant to his current situation. When he says to his son, born after the catastrophe, that "You think I come from another world," he also seems to acknowledge that it is a world he can never return to.

The Road might be said, then, to recall George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), a classic novel wherein most of humanity is wiped out and the survivors first prove unable, and eventually unwilling, to rebuild their vanished civilization. Yet Stewart's hero Ish is at least able to gradually assemble a community of like-minded people that evolves into a happy tribe, living off a still-verdant land using primitive tools like a bow and arrow. In contrast, the Mortensen character resolutely refuses to expand his two-person team. A telling moment comes when he and his son encounter an old man (Robert Duvall) who clearly represents a good-hearted soul and a third set of eyes and hands that might have proved useful to the pair of travelers; but instead of inviting him to join their family, the father grudgingly lets him share one meal, at the insistence of his son, and then sends him on his way, probably to die. Thus, the most heartening aspect of the film's conclusion may be that we encounter another small family which is, unlike the father, more than willing to take in additional members and will perhaps continue expanding to become a community like Ish's.

The question then becomes: why is the Mortensen character so unrelentingly hostile to people like the old man and, later, a principled thief (Michael Kenneth Williams) who might have become his helpful companions? One answer would be the issue of severe deprivation, which not only eliminates civilization but may even impel people to resist bonding with others as they fight to keep themselves alive. Ish, after all, found himself in a bountiful world where he never had to miss a meal and hence had no reason to feel competitive when encountering others. So, to explain why the other family was more open to strangers, one might seize upon the film's one sign of a coming revival of life, even though it is not a flourishing green plant (like the one which signaled Earth's rebirth in Wall▪E [review here]) or a soaring eagle, but rather a tiny beetle that flies from an empty tin can up into the sky. True, one might describe this image as a deliberately feeble and far from inspirational indication that the environment might be recovering from disaster, but it does offer modest hope that conditions may be changing so as to again allow people to stop fearing and fighting others and start befriending them.

But there is another possible explanation, one which may have been on the minds of the people who voted to give McCarthy's novel the Pulitzer Prize. Arguably, the Mortensen character is simply acting in the way that increasing numbers of people in contemporary Western society are acting: while perhaps fiercely protective of family members and close friends, they otherwise live solitary and cloistered lives, "cocooning" by themselves and regarding strangers with indifference or hostility. They certainly aren't starving, but they are, one could say, emotionally deprived. Following this line of thinking, then, the dreary, miserable world that the Mortensen character finds himself in is a metaphor for the sad, empty lives that isolated individuals in our own world are now experiencing; and his tragic fate represents a warning to such people that they need to change their ways and start behaving more like the adults in the other family who survive.

The only problem with these interpretations of the story is that all the communities that we do observe in this film are evil: a roving band of gun-toting looters, another band that hunts down and captures a fleeing woman, and a house filled with cannibals and their intended victims. Could it be, then, that the film is actually arguing that staying isolated is beneficial while forming communities is dangerous? If the Mortensen character had indeed invited others to join his little group, would they all have ended up bonding with each other by becoming well-fed cannibals? Are audiences, like the son is initially, supposed to be suspicious of the motives of that other family and see their apparent benevolence as nothing more than a flimsy disguise for their sinister plans? Such ideas seem counterintuitive, to say the least, but it appears possible to argue that, according to the visible logic of this film, individuals or small groups can generally remain good (although they may, like the protagonist, feel compelled to do cruel things in order to survive), whereas larger organizations invariably become wicked, which would make the Mortensen character a role model, not a cautionary tale.

It is also possible, admittedly, to downplay its posited broad arguments about civilization and human behavior and maintain that The Road is a simple story about a father's overpowering love for a son, which compels him to continue his journey and do everything he can to keep his son alive in a world where he would otherwise, like his late wife, prefer to die. However, while this theme is manifestly central to McCarthy's novel, it is the aspect of the film that I find least persuasive, which might account for the fact that, as my wife noted, the whole story is somehow less emotionally involving than one would expect. Despite a remarkable performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee, the son is not really a believable character; as anyone who has spent time with boys will attest, he is too patient, too stoic, too gosh-darn good to be true. When his father describes him as an "angel" and a "god," it signals that the character is more a symbol of all the values that the father wishes to cling to against all odds than a living, breathing person. Indeed, while I would never say this about the novel, it is possible to imagine the film concluding with a plot twist not unlike those in The Other (1972) or Fight Club (1999), with the boy revealed to be nothing but an illusion created by the father as a device to motivate him to maintain his struggle for survival.

In stark contrast to all of the portentous ideas that might emerge from pondering The Road, there are subtle signs that someone involved in the making of this film had a strange sense of humor, although the references are of a nature that will not immediately amuse filmgoers and thus spoil the film's mood; rather, one has to remember and think about them. Consider: soon after the son gets his father to affirm that they are indeed the "good guys" who are "carrying the fire" of civilized ethics, the son blows out a small torch they were using for illumination, putting out the fire. At one point, for no particular reason, the father takes his son to the house where he grew up and starts pointing out where his family put the Christmas tree and the Christmas stockings; thus, however marginally, The Road can be considered a Christmas film, befitting its holiday season release, even though it is otherwise the complete antithesis of everything associated with that subgenre. Like the novel, the film is deliberately vague about precisely where in America the man and son are traveling south, but in one scene the father shows his son a fragment of a map to indicate their progress toward the coast, and we see that they are approaching a coastal city named Outland. Because I can locate no evidence that such a coastal city actually exists, this may be a reference to Berkeley Breathed's sardonic comic strip about small-town America, Outland (1989-1995), to the 1981 film Outland (a version of High Noon in outer space featuring a lonely hero surrounded by villains), or to the World of Warcraft game's "extradimensional realm" Outland, constructed out of the shattered remains of an orc planet. And buried within the typically interminable credits is a line crediting the film's "Cranes" to one "Ichabod Crane"; and since no one of that name can be found in the Internet Movie Database, this must be a reference to the protagonist of Washington Irving's 1820 story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," another solitary traveler beset by evil forces.

Overall, in both large and small ways, The Road may not be an enjoyable film to watch — it will be quite a while before I will want to see it again — but it is a very pleasurable film to talk about and think about after you have watched it. In the milieu of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, then, it definitely represents the road less traveled.

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Please note: a correspondent has pointed out that the credit for "Ichabod Crane" probably actually refers to a company, Ichabod Crane, Inc., which provides films with equipment. — Gary Westfahl

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two collections of essays -- Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell -- the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

Directed by John Hillcoat

Written by Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac Mccarthy

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McGhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Charlize Theron

Official Website: The Road - In Theaters November 25

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Paul Witcover reviews The Secret History of Science Fiction

The seeds of James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel's ambitious, provocatively titled new anthology, The Secret History of Science Fiction, were sown in 1998, when Jonathan Lethem's controversial essay "Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction" appeared in the Village Voice. Lethem asked readers to imagine an alternate history in which Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow won the 1973 Nebula Award — for which, by the way, it was nominated (Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama was the winner). In that alternate reality, the literary potential of science fiction was recognized and embraced both within and without the genre, with the result that the walls enclosing the ghetto of SF crumbled at long last. Obviously, that didn't happen.

Or did it? Kelly & Kessel have selected stories from inside and outside the genre to demonstrate that, despite the continued reliance of publishers on such marketing labels as science fiction and fantasy, "the divide between mainstream and science fiction is more apparent than real," and that "outside of the public eye," writers on both sides of the supposed divide have been producing work that, on the one hand, has the ambition and sophistication of literary fiction, and, on the other, makes use of the tropes of speculative fiction, though not necessarily labeled as such by writers, critics, or readers. This is the secret history to which the title refers.

It's a bold assertion, and I have a lot of sympathy for it. In fact, before I read this anthology, I was inclined to agree with it. But as I read these stories, I began to doubt it more and more, and finally I became convinced that Kelly & Kessel are wrong in a centrally important way, and that there really are substantial differences between genre speculative fiction of literary ambition and what is written outside the genre, even if it contains speculative elements. And I think these stories prove it: that is the secret history of The Secret History.

First off, these are wonderful stories, every one. And I applaud unreservedly any project that is likely to take readers outside their normal comfort zones — though I wonder, in this case, how many mainstream readers are going to pick up a book with this title; SF readers, on the other hand, will be drawn to it by that same title. This is a small but telling indication of the narrow yet deep fissure that really does separate speculative fiction from mainstream literary fiction.

It's worth giving the entire list of contributors in order to demonstrate how Kessel & Kelly have, for the most part, made selections that would seem sure to buttress their thesis: Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, Thomas M. Disch, Karen Joy Fowler, Molly Gloss, James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jonathan Lethem, Maureen F. McHugh, Steven Millhauser, George Saunders, Carter Scholz, Lucius Shepard, Kate Wilhelm, Connie Willis, and Gene Wolfe. (I note in passing that the editors have included stories of their own: worthy stories, to be sure, yet I wish editors would refrain from doing this, especially in an anthology that, like this one, has a polemical purpose — even the whiff of self-interest detracts from one's argument.)

That's a pretty even split between writers mainly associated with speculative fiction, those with a primarily mainstream reputation, and those, like Lethem, Chabon, and Fowler, who slip back and forth between both camps with relative ease, regardless of where they started. The stories are presented mostly in chronological order, from Tom Disch's classic "Angouleme", which appeared in 1971, to Steven Millhauser's "The Wizard of West Orange", of 2008; I suppose the editors decided to begin in 1971 in order to include Disch's story; it's hard to see another reason why that date, rather than any other, was chosen as the starting point: indeed, the logic of their thesis would seem to argue for a starting date of 1972 or 1973, when stories nominated for the 1973 Nebula would have been published.

I did wonder at the absence from this list of such writers as J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Samuel R. Delany, Elizabeth Hand, Jeffrey Ford, Nalo Hopkinson, and James Tiptree, Jr., just to throw out some names from the SF side off the top of my head, each of whom would seem like a poster-child for the editors' thesis. Even stranger is the fact that, with the exception of the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, all the writers here are Americans. It seems ironic that a secret history of science fiction dedicated to the proposition that genre boundaries don't truly exist should attempt to prove that assertion from behind geographical boundaries. Also notable is the absence of writers of color. Shouldn't a secret history attempt to take minorities into account?

As I said, the stories are all strong — many of them are award winners, and at least one is so well known that it seems out of place. There is nothing secret about Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". It is a widely anthologized story, taught in many high schools, and as such is probably as well known outside the genre as inside it; unless its inclusion here casts it in a new light, making a convincing argument for a fresh interpretation, which I don't believe is the case, I don't see why some other, less well known Le Guin story couldn't have been chosen. Yet interestingly, "Omelas" is the one story here from the speculative fiction camp that I think could have been written by a mainstream writer. It's a postmodern fable, not a piece of speculative fiction.

I'm going to attempt a definition here, or at least an explanation. Speculative fiction writers are apt to treat the subjects of their speculations as if they were real, no matter how outlandish and unlikely; thus, speculative fiction of the highest quality often has a unique reality to it. It employs the tools of mimetic fiction to ground and particularize its flights of fancy, whether they be technological or magical. It takes them literally. It concretizes metaphors. But when mainstream writers venture into speculative fiction, it's all too often either a day at the playground, during which they feel free to cast aside the mimetic conventions they normally hold to in regard to plot, character, setting, etc., or a trip to the Olde Curiosity Shoppe, where they can pick and choose among exotic settings, objects, atmospheres, etc., to use as symbols and such in their own stories, which remain highly mimetic in a traditional sense. I don't mean to suggest that this distinction holds for every story published by a mainstream or speculative fiction writer, only that it expresses something true and important about the unique quality of speculative fiction. Put another way, when mainstream literary writers or readers venture into what they perceive as the realms of speculative fiction, they follow the tedious bromide of the suspension of disbelief. When speculative fiction writers and readers do their thing, they engage the engines of belief. This is a distinction borne out again and again in the stories of this anthology. Let me give some examples.

Don DeLillo is a writer that many in the SF community regard as "one of us," or at any rate a second cousin once removed. And I wouldn't dispute that; his novel Ratner's Star shows a genuine affinity for science fictional ambience, and I think he's had a strong and salutary influence on many speculative fiction writers, myself included. But his story here, "Human Moments in World War III" (1983), merely drapes itself in the trappings of science fiction, beginning with that vaguely Ballardian title. The story takes place in a space station on which two astronauts go through their routines as, below them, an apocalyptic war breaks out. But really, there is no central reason for the story to take place in space. It could just as well be set on a submarine, or in a nuclear missile silo. Even the war is secondary: or, rather, symbolic. DeLillo is following the second course set forth above: he's made a trip to the Curiosity Shoppe. Perhaps that's too harsh; what I mean is that DeLillo doesn't take any of it literally; the settings in space and in the future are not important to him in themselves but only as vehicles to transmit that certain feeling of anomie and absurd estrangement so central to all his work. This is true of Ballard as well. But here's the difference. For DeLillo, the present is like something out of science fiction. For Ballard, the present already is science fiction, only most of us don't recognize it yet. For DeLillo, it's a simile. For Ballard, reality.

In "Descent of Man" (1977), T.C. Boyle follows the first course: a trip to the playground. In this antic, satirical romp, he skewers the conventional story of marital estrangement with savage zeal, setting up a romantic triangle between the nameless narrator, his wife Jane, a primatologist, and an ape, Konrad. The story makes no pretence at verisimilitude: it is hyperbolic by intent, full of clever allusions to other works of science and of fiction, with ironic hat-tips to Darwin and Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others. Boyle's magpie approach is textbook postmodernism. Readers are not supposed to take the characters or the setting of the story any more seriously than Boyle himself does; which is to say, not at all. The point is the author's cleverness, his wit and humor and jaded sophistication, which extends even to featuring an African-American character who speaks in the kind of blackface dialect that would normally, if we weren't all so cool and beyond that, be, well, kind of offensive, especially coming from a white author. The story is a performance meant to shock yet also to be applauded. And I do applaud it, though I don't shock as easily as all that. But I will insist that, whatever heart is beating beneath its shaggy hide, it's not the heart of speculative fiction.

Now let's look at two representative stories from speculative fiction writers. If Kessel & Kelly are correct, then there should be no difference between these fictions and those of Boyle and DeLillo beyond the superficial. There should be no way that an intelligent reader of Boyle and DeLillo, familiar with their work, could misread these stories in any fundamental way, even if coming to them for the very first time. We shall see if that's the case, or if, rather, some very specialized reading skills are not required — skills that readers learn from reading speculative fiction, because speculative fiction is written in a certain way, and demands to be read in a certain way.

Karen Joy Fowler's "Standing Room Only" (1997) is a remarkable story. Grounded in the most minute details of the quotidian mundane, which Fowler presents with the cool yet sympathetic exactitude of a Flaubert, it follows the day of a young girl in Washington DC — a girl who happens to be Anna Surratt, the daughter of Mary Surratt, whose boarding house was a meeting place for conspirators in the assassination of Lincoln, which took place on Good Friday 1865, the very day of Fowler's story. Little by little, the author, with exquisite control, introduces jarring elements into her account, elements that are inexplicable to Anna yet, to the sensitive reader, gradually add up to the realization that Lincoln's assassination has become a popular destination for time-traveling rubberneckers. Nowhere, however, is this stated explicitly. And so dependent is the realization upon an openness in the reader to the consideration of speculative fictional possibilities, that otherwise intelligent and acute readers, whose experience is limited to realistic, mainstream fiction, could potentially miss the climax and leave the story in a state of dissatisfied confusion. Rather than experiencing the exhilaration of reading a small masterpiece, the final revelation of which unlocks the story in emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating ways, such readers would feel they have instead read a pointless and failed story. Even if they do understand the time-travel aspect, they are likely to feel it trivializes the historic moment by taking it into woo-woo territory, reneging on what had seemed to be the promise of some small yet savory epiphany in a young girl's life. If this seems far-fetched, consider the number of mainstream readers and reviewers who did not recognize that Fowler's novel Sarah Canary might have been more accurately titled The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Fowler applies the imagination of a speculative fiction writer to Lincoln's assassination, and it doesn't result in a visit to the playground or to the Olde Curiosity Shoppe — it results in a visit to Washington DC on Good Friday 1865: yet also — and this is indispensable, because a writer of historical fiction could also take us there — to some distant, unknown, but not wholly unknowable, future. Because through the hints that Fowler drops in the story, readers can deduce certain facts about the future — our future — from which the time travelers have come: it's an integral part of what Fowler is up to, yet it's almost certain to be lost in its entirety upon a mainstream reader. The misreading is not because of Fowler's clumsiness or the reader's stupidity: it's due instead to a difference in the very DNA of speculative fiction and literary fiction, a difference that Kelly & Kessel want to gloss over. But to gloss over this distinction is really to sandpaper away the bumps and sharp edges, the grainy specificity of a particular application of the imagination that makes speculative fiction unique and vital.

Gene Wolfe's "The Ziggurat" (1995) is another time-travel story, though a very different one in aim and execution. But it, too, presents serious difficulties to a mainstream reader. The full complexity and ingenuity — not to mention the horror — of this bravura exercise in unreliable narration may be lost on those who are unfamiliar with the history of speculative fiction and its evolution as a literary form. The plot is too complicated to recapitulate here, but suffice it to say that Wolfe presents readers with a main character, Emery Bainbridge, whose view of the world, and women in particular, is atavistic, bordering on, if not crossing into, the misogynistic. He is at the very least suicidal, and perhaps murderous: the stereotypical angry white man who shocks everyone when he goes postal. In Bainbridge, Wolfe provides a devastating deadpan satire, yet also a poignant portrait, of that SFnal archetype, the omnicompetent man: a man out of his time in the modern world, chivalric, capable, a man of action and of logic, yet also, in the right circumstances, a monster. Wolfe sticks like glue to Bainbridge's point of view, yet he also allows us to see that Bainbridge's self-perception and account of the events that take place at a remote mountain cabin during a snowstorm are not to be trusted. At the end of the novella, readers are left with three possibilities: (1) Bainbridge is crazy and has just murdered his son, his second wife, and one of his two adolescent or even preadolescent stepdaughters, taking the other as his new wife, all while under the delusion that he is responding to an incursion of time-traveling females from a future devoid of men; (2) Bainbridge is perfectly sane and, with ruthless, cold-blooded efficiency, has avenged his son's murder, protected his wife and stepdaughters, and successfully — indeed, with admirable ingenuity and resourcefulness — met the challenge of an incursion from the future... met it and turned it to his own advantage by murdering some of the invaders, stealing their advanced technology, and keeping one woman as what amounts to a sex slave; or (3) some mix of (1) and (2). I find it hard to imagine a mainstream writer even conceiving of this story, let alone executing it. And I believe its subtleties, complexities, and ambiguities — to say nothing of the dialogue Wolfe is engaging in with genre writers from Heinlein to Joanna Russ — are likely to be lost on mainstream readers. They will understand that Bainbridge is not to be trusted in his explanations and rationalizations, but in doing so, they will either dismiss the time-traveling females as delusions, evidence of Bainbridge's insanity, or they will accept the time-travel aspect of the story but search for a symbolic or metaphorical meaning without grasping the truly horrifying implications that arise when it is accepted as a brutal fact: among which is the possibility that Bainbridge, the omnicompetent man, is ensuring not only his own extinction, but that of his entire gender, not just because of what he does but because of who he is. Bainbridge, as much as the women of the future, is trapped in a time that is alien to him, the circumstances of which conspire to make him monstrous. He is the real ziggurat of the title, not the spaceship to which that term is applied in the text. Here, again, the speculative fiction writer takes seriously, as something real, what in a mainstream story would be unreal: either a delusion on the part of a character, or a bit of literary artifice inserted by the author as a symbol or metaphor, an objective correlative standing in for the "real" reality of the story.

Could the editors have made their point with stories from other authors? Perhaps they could have done a better job of it. Steven Millhauser's "The Wizard of West Orange", about the unsettling effects of a prototypical invention being developed in Edison's laboratory in 1889, is one story by a literary mainstream writer that actually enters into the realm of speculative fiction in the way I've outlined above: it takes its premise absolutely seriously. And yet, there will always be individual mainstream writers who "get" speculative fiction. Michael Chabon is another example: he's written, and written about, speculative fiction before, and his story here, "The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance", is a wonderful bit of steampunk — but only because Chabon understands and respects the special qualities of speculative fiction, not because there is no such thing, really, as speculative fiction. It's important to stress commonalities among writers across genre lines, but after having read this provocative anthology, I feel more convinced than ever that those lines, at least in the case of speculative fiction — I'm not qualified to speak to other genres — reflect more than simple marketing categories. They, too, are real.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the November issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

The Secret History of Science Fiction

James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel, eds.
(Tachyon 978-1-892391-93-3, $14.95, 382pp, tp) November 2009.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Russell Letson reviews Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner

With Destroyer of Worlds, Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner continue the Ringworld prequel/Known Space fill-in series begun in Fleet of Worlds and Juggler of Worlds. Set two centuries before the events of Ringworld, these novels reveal the background of some of the classic Known Space stories while also showing how the secretive, manipulative, hypercautious aliens humans call Puppeteers live on their mobile home system (as distinct from a mobile-home system), which is, as the first book's title has it, a fleet of planets accelerating away from the wave front of the all-sterilizing detonation of novas in the galactic core.

Once again the paranoid ex-cop Sigmund Ausfaller is the principle human protagonist, but this time his puppeteer opposite number is not the atypically adventurous, politically ambitious (and now very high-ranking) Nessus but the voluntarily exiled engineer Baedeker. This odd couple is joined by an even odder collaborator and companion, Ol'tr'o, a "16-plex group mind" of the starfishy-aquatic Gw'oth (a species introduced in Fleet), most often represented by one of its individual components, E'ro. Playing for the other side is one of the most formidable opponents one could have in Niven's universe: a Pak protector, the adult stage of the genetic great-granddaddies of humankind. Thssthfok, fleeing the Core explosion as part of an uneasy alliance of Pak refugees, gets separated from his clan and the breeders whose welfare is his reason for living, but even marooned on a primitive world or imprisoned naked in a bare cell he is a one-creature army of literally superhuman strength, intelligence, and subtlety.

The crucial problem is that the Puppeteers are not the only ones running away from the core explosion. The Pak homeworld was much closer (and in fact must now be sterilized), and there are waves of Pak ramscoop starships heading outward, destroying any possible threat or rival along their courses. One such is pointed at the Fleet of Worlds, and Sigmund finds himself in the role of protector of his new home among the liberated humans who once served the Puppeteers.

Probably the crucial Nivenian given here (yes, it's a collaboration, but it's Larry's playground and Larry's rules) is that of evolutionary forces as the primary determiners of species character/nature/behavior (and thus moral conduct). Protectors can't help being genocidal; Puppeteers can't help being extremely risk-averse (and curiosity-averse, and occasionally genocidal); kzinti are natural slave-holders and sometimes slave-eaters; and so on. As usual, the story is driven by the conflicting motivational systems and behavioral repertories of creatures inhabiting the same neighborhood – everyone wants to survive and breed, but each species take a different approach, and the resulting cross-species negotiations can get very, um, interesting. In the course of a dialogue with Sigmund, Thssthfok reflects on the differences between breeder (which includes Earth-human) and protector social protocols.

[He] remembered his life as a breeder, remembered giving favors and expecting favors in turn. He remembered the vague sense... that such social obligations somehow helped everyone.

With maturity came clarity and wisdom. You protected your family and your clan. You took what you could, and all that you could, to benefit your bloodline, but never more than you could defend. Nothing else mattered.

To seek allies exposed weakness and desperation. When you allied, you did so knowing the other side would betray you the moment the cost became acceptable. As the other side expected from you...

Just to keep things interesting, in the course of conflict (and in response to the urge for individual, as distinct from species, survival), characters manage to expand their repertories, introducing modulations, variations, and stretching of the limits of the core sets of drives and strategies. For example, without breeders to look after, a normal Pak protector will lose the will to live – lose appetite and starve to death. But some breederless protectors have learned to transfer their loyalties from their own bloodline to some other entity, generally the species as a whole. Thus do the Pak librarians, who preserve technical and cultural information across the periodic collapses of Pak civilization (and whose activities triggered yet another global war), and Thssthfok, who, having lost contact with his clan, manages to discover a cause that will keep him going.

Niven's stories are like games with increasingly complex rules and constraints and possibilities, in this case rooted in the interactions of five sets of aliens. The central problem of how to counter the threat of a completely ruthless, powerful, and (by human standards) treacherous enemy is counterpointed by the situation of the rapidly advancing Gw'oth, who face threats not only from the protector hordes but from their Puppeteer allies (who eliminate even the faintest threat as ruthlessly as any Pak, though more sneakily). And in keeping with the integrative style of this sub-series, earlier stories are worked into the mix, notably the tale of Phssthpok and the Brennan-monster from Protector (1973).

The result is an absorbing mix of problems and puzzles and conflicts, space battles and interrogations and negotiations, shot through with fresh takes on familiar tropes and themes. It more than holds its own in the Known Space canon, which ought to be recommendation enough.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the November issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Destroyer of Worlds

Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner
(Tor 978-0-7653-2-205-0, $25.99, 368pp, hc) November 2009.


© 2009 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.