Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Deep Future

Science fiction, if we date its birth to Mary Shelley's work, emerged in the same era as Hutton, Agassiz, and Darwin's elucidation of "deep time:" the extremity of Earth's age and of the (even greater) longevity of the stars and galaxies. The discovery of a "deep past" helped scientists remove human beings from the conceptual center of the universe, much as Copernicus and Galileo had moved humanity from its astronomical center. If all of our planet's history, Mark Twain observed several decades after Shelley's death, comprised a tall tower, human history would constitute merely a single thin layer of paint on the very top of the tower. We should, Twain implied, have nothing but pity for the poor souls who think the purpose of the tower is to hold up the paint.

The concept of a deep past, along with subsequent discoveries in Earth science, evolutionary biology, and astronomy, made possible an equally unsettling line of speculation: after our own brief lives will come a deep future, extending billions of years after the present. In so distant a future human beings will evolve out of recognition, or even (as Shelley herself speculated in The Last Man) go extinct; the mountains and rivers and continents will assume strange new shapes; the Sun will grow old and red and the billions of other stars evolve toward their own states of senescence. This kind of speculation can inspire awe, as one reflects on the chronological "size" of time and space, and a certain peace of mind, born of one's imagined mental journey far beyond the greed, vanity, and tumult of our own day. It also breeds alienation, as one realizes how both the deep past and the deep future reduce the lives of human individuals, nations, even the whole species, to comparative nothingness.

This makes speculation about the deep future difficult for SF writers, even though one would assume it a natural subject for them. Fiction requires protagonists, and thus a human or sentient presence to grapple with hardships and challenges. Deep-future sci-fi scenarios usually employ some contrivance to preserve a narrator or point-of-view character with whom readers can sympathize. Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question" imagines disembodied humans and computers surviving as beings of pure thought. Poul Anderson's Tau Zero shepherds its human protagonists to the end of time with relativistic time dilation. Vernor Vinge's Marooned in Realtime uses stasis fields to catapult a human colony into a post-human - actually, post-Singularity - future, 50 million years hence. Charles Stross's story "Palimpsest" features quasi-human time travelers colonizing future Earths with the few survivors of various geological extinction events. 

Even non-fiction essays on the deep future find it necessary to posit some form of intelligent life in order to engage their readers' attention. For example, Laurence Krauss, Robert Scherrer, and Avi Loeb, in their speculations on the far-future expansion of the universe, raise the question of how "future astronomers" (post-human or non-human) will be able to perceive galaxies beyond our own, after dark energy has propelled them so far away that one cannot see their light. They imagine that these scientists may have somehow preserved observational data from our own era, but will not be able to confirm it with their own observations. Avi Loeb offers a glimmer of hope in the form of "hypervelocity stars" that break free of the gravity of their home galaxies, and which may pass near enough the Milky Way to demonstrate to our poor future stargazers the reality of extra-galactic objects.

This is a reassuring possibility, but I must confess I am a bit less interested in what the universe will look like in 100 billion years than in the changes that will have occurred on our own planet over, say, the next 100 million years. One of the appealing features both of Vinge's Marooned in Realtime and Stross's "Palimpsest" is their presentation of a future Earth as analogous to another world, a habitable but alien planet located not many light years but many chronological years from our own. Frank Landis makes a more direct observation to this effect in Hot Earth Dreams. Our own planet was, after all, a different world just 10,000 years ago, with different atmospheric chemistry (less carbon dioxide and methane), significantly different geography, and a greater variety of fauna. Ten or even five thousand years from now, Earth will have undergone equally great biological and physical change. Our descendants will adapt to an essentially colonize a new Earth. So will their descendants in later geological epochs. Landis argues that this is a more realistic vision of colonization than trying to find a human-inhabitable world, a biosphere haven if you like, in another star system. Over the course of tens of thousands of years I imagine humans will do both, but the huge expense of interstellar travel will mean that the vast majority of our future colonists will necessarily embark on a timewise rather than spatial expansion of our human civilization.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Atwood's Dystopias for the Comfortable

Margaret Atwood, the much-lauded author of several dozen books, including several famous works of dystopian speculative fiction, got into a bit of hot water earlier this month over her defense of fellow writer Steven Galloway. Galloway stood accused of sexual misconduct at the University of British Columbia, whose administration fired him after an ineptly-conducted investigation. Atwood and other professional colleagues signed a letter of protest to UBC in 2016. Last year, with the long-delayed rise of the #MeToo movement – and, I suspect, with  growing doubts about Galloway’s innocence – many of the letter’s supporters withdrew their signatures. Atwood, however, not only defended Galloway but published a self-aggrandizing op-ed in favor of established institutions and against revolutionary “terror and virtue” – that is, in favor of the status quo. The essay was learned and intelligent, but the author deployed both of those virtues in defense of her own narrow privileges.

In The Root, Clarkisha Kent has some incisive and some usefully caustic things to say about Atwood. White privilege and cultural appropriation, Kent argues, find their way into a good deal of Atwood’s writing, both non-fiction and fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale, M.A.’s most famous work, stands as Exhibit A. Members of Atwood’s own privileged class (including myself, I must confess) see Handmaid’s Tale as a canonical, irreproachable work of dystopian and feminist fiction. Kent (following the lead of Ana Cottle) presents it instead as a “white feminist” nightmare, a scenario in which white American women are subjected to and ennobled by the same treatment actually meted out to African-American slaves: degradation, rape, forced pregnancy, elimination of human rights and identity. Atwood does this with barely a nod to persons of color. Indeed, she set Handmaid’s Tale at one of the citadels of modern white American privilege, a place where Atwood herself went to graduate school: Harvard University. M.A. horrifies the reader not by recalling the ghastly treatment of women in historic (and modern) slave societies, but by positing a threat to the well-being of upper-middle class whites. If one of the purposes of good fiction is to build empathy for others, Handmaid’s Tale fails the test: it serves instead to boost the self-regard of the comfortable.

Atwood’s tendency to appropriate the experiences and creative work of others extends to her treatment of genre fiction, or at least science fiction. I’ve written before of her dystopian novel Oryx and Crake and Atwood’s unattributed borrowing of at least one idea from Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. Much of O&C reminds me of more recent work by Paul di Fillipo and Nancy Kress, some of whose more famous stories came out when Atwood was writing her biological disaster novel. One may defend M.A. by noting that she probably has no idea these authors exist, or by arguing that no author, particularly an accomplished and respected one, has the obligation to cite their sources in a work of fiction. I am not sure the latter is true – writers of historical fiction, for example, usually mention the non-fiction works that informed their own. The former observation, if true, merely reinforces our view of Atwood as insular and privileged.

Unfortunately, M.A.’s work appeals to exactly the sort of people who craft high-school and college curricula and book-club reading lists, so I suspect Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake will remain widely read and discussed for years to come. Fortunately, we have other writers of speculative fiction with less insular views, a greater appreciation of racial and class oppression, and at least as much writing skill as Atwood, writers who are gradually gaining the regard of canon-makers. I look forward to a future where students are far more familiar with the works of Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin than with Margaret Atwood’s well-written but intellectually-confining future visions.


(Image of Margaret Atwood from

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

No Genre for Old Men

My consumption of science fiction, both in print and in other media, has been declining steadily for the past fifteen years, even as my overall consumption of books and television has increased. Sci-fi, like other genre fiction* (especially horror, fantasy, and supernatural romance), primarily appeals to a younger audience, and Your Aging Narrator no longer fits that demographic. Popular franchises like Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, and (a level or two below them but still well-known) the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy tend to feature young or childlike protagonists, quest-like central stories, conflicts with stupid and mulish authorities, and lots of action. Those of us in the "(wo)men of a certain age" category usually aren't much into action, unless we are paying someone else to do it, and are likelier to sympathize with the stupid authorities than their antagonists. (You kids get off my lawn!)

Trying to think of exceptions to this rule, in the form of SF novels or shows specifically aimed at middle-aged audiences, I recalled a fragment of a movie line from memory: "Before you really do grow old." Of course! The Star Trek movies, or the first six of them at least, aimed themselves at fans of the Original Series - most of whom were hitting or passing 30 when ST I appeared in 1979 - and at members of their age cohort. The first movie hit the mark too well in one respect: it had the sloooow pacing of a European art film, though without the charm. The other installments had peppier (or at least more suspenseful) narratives, while presenting themes that would appeal to more mature audiences: peace making (ST VI), fighting extinction (ST IV), looking for personal or divine meaning (ST V, alas), and coping with death (ST II and, to some extent, ST III). The corny dialogue, references to classic literature (Shakespeare and Melville, for example), and offbeat villains also denoted an older target audience. The later Star Trek films adopted an action-movie format** and, with the Abrams reboot, a much younger cast. I can't blame the producers for reaching out to a newer, younger, and more profitable market, but I have not been able to take either pleasure or comfort from any of the ST movies made after 1991.*** 

So hand me my copy of Julius Caesar, in the original Klingon, pass me my Romulan ale and my reading glasses, give me a star to sail by, and I'll be happy.

* Mysteries, westerns, and spy novels and movies are the exceptions here, but the western is dead and spy movies are moribund except as parodies.

** A friend referred to Star Trek: Generations as "three old white guys fighting on a rock."

*** I liked Star Trek: Nemesis, but that was just a tribute to Star Trek II  and VI.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Did You Ever Take the Voight-Kampff Test Yourself?

When someone (one of my college TAs, as I recall) introduced me to the most popular fan theory about Blade Runner (1982), namely that Rick Deckard was a replicant, I got rather angrier than the remark warranted. The aforementioned theory rested on Rachel's pointed question to Rick about the Voight-Kampff test, a mechanism used to distinguish replicants from "real" humans: "Have you ever taken that test yourself?" I think many fans, and eventually director Ridley Scott himself, read the question as a hint* that the VK machine would reveal Deckard's android identity.

I read it instead as a deeper philosophical question, a rare one in movies and one a science-fiction film was well-positioned to ask: how does anyone know s/he is real, is human? Most of the replicants in Blade Runner were "Nexus 6" models who strongly resembled humans: they had the same physical abilities as humans, could reason, could feel love and fear and pain, could and did hope for a future. Rachel had even more human features. She had a childhood, or at least the memories of one; had mastered a creative art, piano-playing; had the capacity for complex human emotions. She had, in short, all the attributes of a human being. All that became irrelevant when she failed the VK: she was now a replicant and a slave, a lesser life, someone whom Rick could murder at will. The only things separating Rachel from Deckard or Bryan, however, were the Tyrell Corporation's (presumably secret) records of her manufacture and the results of a mechanical test. How many natural-born humans would have fared any better at the VK exam than her? How arbitrary, then, is the difference between a full person and a fake person, between freeman and slave. This interrogation of mental and social reality is, I suggest, the philosophical heart of the original Blade Runner film. Simply saying "Oh, Deckard must be a replicant" robs it of its power.

To its credit, the sequel movie, Blade Runner 2049 refuses to answer the "human or replicant" question, except to imply (through the film's villain, Niander Wallace) that in Deckard's case it doesn't matter. All of the (other?) replicants in the new film are aware of their artificiality, have easily-accessible serial numbers, and in some cases routinely take a "baseline" test determining their level of obedience. The main character, K., not only knows what he is but prefers being a replicant; indeed, he is upset by even the possibility that he might be partially human. The other replicants in this film don't want to be human, either. They merely want the few things that make human beings independent, including control over (to borrow a Marxist term) their own means of reproduction. "More human than human" was a subtle joke in the first Blade Runner movie; now it is something audiences are willing to accept at face value. BR 2049 has shed some of the poetic ambiguity of its predecessor, but it has made its social criticism more explicit. And it has put a spoke in Ridley Scott's rhetorical wheel, which these days is a plus.

* Another supposed hint was Captain Bryant's threat: "If you're not cop, you're little people." Bryant didn't explain what that meant. One could translate "little people" as "replicants who don't have a badge to protect them." Or it could mean "regular shmoes like everyone else in this dump."

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Cyril Kornbluth, Accidentally Encountered

Margaret Atwood‘s ecological-collapse novel Oryx and Crake, which I have just gotten around to reading, contains a concept that one might call accidentally derivative. Researchers in the book’s pre-collapse era, the setting (in flashback form) for much of the narrative, discover how to breed a giant, brainless lump of chicken cells, a sort of “chicken hookworm,” from which one can harvest meat at will. Long time science-fiction readers will note the similarity between Atwood’s idea* and an equally horrifying entity in The Space Merchants: Chicken Little, a huge poultry-flavored teratoma whose flesh feeds the corporate future’s proletariat. I think the similarity is an accident because I doubt Atwood read Cyril Kornbluth (1920-58) and Frederick Pohl’s novel; the profit-oriented, price-cutting logic of her future dystopia simply pointed in a similar direction. It is unfortunate, though, how few authors encounter Kornbluth’s ideas, if only so that they can build on rather than duplicate them. Not This August is a far grimmer version of “Soviets Invade America” than Red Dawn, whose one-dimensional Russian bad guys seem comically inept compared to Kornbluth's methodically murderous communists. “Two Dooms” imagined a bleakly believable Hitler Victorious future whose survival Kornbluth grounded in the mental and physical starvation of the helot class and the Nazis ' careful use of psychological manipulation. "The Marching Morons," in its cynical cruelty, still feels surprisingly modern - I remember first reading it in 1983 or '84 and thinking it was new. In one respect it is the exception to the above rule: it served as the unacknowledged basis for Mike Judge’s 2005 film, Idiocracy, though Judge played the scenario more for laughs. Atwood, like Judge, might benefit from doing a little more literary slumming.

*Granted, neither Kornbluth nor Pohl thought to have their chicken cancer colony turned into anything quite so memorably and lubriciously named as “ChickieNobs Bucket o’Nubbins.” Atwood can outwrite practically anyone else alive.

Monday, October 16, 2017


At the second or third Arisia convention in Boston, back in Nineteen Ninety-Something-or-Other, Your Humble Narrator attended a panel on science fiction writing, a profession he  hoped one day to undertake. None of the panelists' advice left an impression, alas, but I do remember one author remarking that she had written several hundred blurbs for sci-fi novels. The other panelists asked about the logistics of such an operation; apparently it involves reading a lot of books' first and last pages. I recall thinking that while I might never become a fiction writer, there seemed to be a demand for blurbistes, and perhaps I might one day write one myself.

And so it came to pass! My first SF blurb* appears on Sue Burke's forthcoming novel Semiosis, a tale of interstellar colonization and first contact with an original, unforgettable alien species. I would say the book reminds me of, and compares quite favorably to, the early work of another prominent SF author, but I couldn't do so without giving away some surprises. Best to just read Semiosis and find out for yourself.

(Many thanks to Jennifer Goloboy for making the appropriate introductions here.

* Since someone will likely ask: yes, I read the entire book, cover to cover. Skimming isn't my strong suit.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

How Larry Niven Made Donald Trump President (Sort Of)

The American press periodically ascribes the election of Donald Trump to working-class rural whites, but post-election polling tells a different story. DJT’s core support came from “respectable,” middle-class white suburbanites. It seems hard to believe that this staid cohort supported such a vulgar, racist demagogue, but it really shouldn’t surprise us. The suburban populace has historically chosen to live in a racially-segregated, socially isolated environment, and to view with suspicion city-dwellers and activist governments.

What did surprise me was my discovery, in reading David Forbes’s long article “The Old Iron Dream” (2015), of how strongly the reactionary ideology of the suburbs infused one of the most ostensibly progressive, escapist genres of American media: science fiction. Forbes observes that sci-fi has nurtured authoritarian and racist tendencies since at least the late 1950s, and that publishers and booksellers gave prime placement to the more fascistic sci-fi authors well into the 1980s. To an extent not found in contemporary mainstream literature, the “Iron Dream” writers indulged in thinly-disguised racism, less thinly-disguised elitism, sexism, authoritarian leader-worship, and a narrow definition of liberty. John Campbell, the much-lauded editor of Astounding Science Fiction, prefigured the SF reactionaries' racism in his editorials. Robert Heinlein became the most well-known example of the type, with his seminal military/authoritarian sci-fi novel Starship Troopers (1959, movie review here), his libertarian parable The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), and his racist fantasy Farnham’s Freehold (1964).* Jerry Pournelle gladly assumed Heinlein’s mantle in the ‘70s and ‘80s, inveighing against revolutionaries, urban “barbarians,” and welfare cheats in his novels. He later colonized book racks with his There Will Be War anthologies, each a melange of masculine mil-porn and Cold War propaganda. Orson Scott Card, probably the hottest new SF writer of the 1980s, purveyed an increasingly toxic brew of elitism, moral casuistry, and right-wing paranoia. Piers Anthony, who seemed to have an entire bookcase to himself in some bookstores, laced his fantasy and SF novels with sexism and misogyny, not to mention occasional pedophilia. Much of the popular sci-fi of the Reagan era thus reinforced the attitudes that helped Reagan's conservative and reactionary successors (George I, George II, DJT) win elections and push their political agendas.   

Forbes adds another name to his list, though only as a part-time “Iron Dreamer:” Larry Niven. Niven seems and odd fit for this category. His Known Space stories and novels, written in the ‘60s and ‘70s - the most famous of them the classic RINGWORLD (1970) - featured exotic alien worlds, bizarre aliens, and morally easy-going if over-populated human societies. He did co-write several novels with Jerry Pournelle, such as LUCIFER’S HAMMER (1977) and OATH OF FEALTY (1981), which featured darker and more reactionary story lines. Most readers ascribe these stories' right-wing politics to Pournelle alone. This, on reflection, seems another mistake.

Educated in Kansas, Niven spent most of his life in southern California, where a large inheritance (family oil money) helped him begin his writing career. He liked the libertinism of 1960s Los Angeles, but it did not make him a liberal. Niven considered himself a “right-libertarian,” one willing to support the Vietnam War (he co-signed a 1967 pro-war petition) and Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), and to advocate anti-immigrant policies. His Known Space novels and stories suggest that even early in his career, Niven leaned more to the conservative side of the libertarian spectrum. His future societies were libertarian utopias, populated by pleasure-seeking “flatlanders” (Terrans) and self-reliant, problem-solving miners and colonists. Not surprisingly, his heroes (like Beowulf Shaeffer and Gil Hamilton) tended to come from the latter elite group.** Niven did not obsess over welfare drones like his friend Jerry Pournelle, but he did base one alarming feature of his 22nd and 23rd-century societies, the Organ Banks, on a right-wing epigram beloved of Pournelle and Heinlein: democracy can only last until the poor realize they can vote themselves money from the public treasury. In Known Space, the “treasury” consisted of the bodies of criminals broken up for organ transplants, and the “poor,” the mass of unhealthy citizens willing to approve the death penalty for increasingly trivial crimes.

Niven later evoked the Organ Banks in his (2007) proposal that the Department of Homeland Security spread the rumor, in Spanish, that doctors were kidnapping emergency-room patients and stealing their organs. This would, he hoped, drive Hispanic immigrants away from public hospitals. Niven might perhaps say that he meant his “modest proposal” as a joke, but it is an unspoken rule in comedy that you avoid punching down. L.N. probably thought he was “punching upward,” because he sees poor non-Anglo immigrants as a threat, financial if not cultural.

Some of Larry Niven’s SF contemporaries went beyond mere elitism, anti-democratic skepticism, and anti-Latino racism to endorse authoritarian leader-worship. Pournelle admired monarchy and what he called “Iberio-Italian” fascism (i.e. Mussolini), and Orson Scott Card valorized ruthless warlords and religious leaders. Niven implicitly endorsed anti-democratic politics in LUCIFER’S HAMMER, in which the besieged heroes bring back slavery, and OATH OF FEALTY, whose heroes' massive gated community brings back feudalism. Even before these works, however, Niven included a troubling speculation about freedom in PROTECTOR (1973). In this later Known Space novel, an asteroid miner named Jack Brennan was transformed by an alien disease into a sexless monster - but a monster with enormous strength and superhuman intelligence. Asked by one of his former fellow humans to describe his new mental abilities, Brennan replied that he no longer had free will: he could immediately see the optimal course of action to take in any situation, and any other decision would have been a stupid one. This is a fairly narrow definition of intelligence, privileging problem-solving over creativity or kinesthetic acumen, but that's not altogether relevant in this context. The implication of Brennan’s revelation is that true freedom belongs to the young and stupid, and that those who want good, intelligent leadership cannot value freedom. It is a pretty short way from this to the conclusion that free societies are immature and stupid, and that the best leadership comes from supermen, warlords, or other autocrats.

So, let us not let Larry Niven off the hook. He had a lot more creativity and joie de vivre than his more didactic contemporaries, but he still shared their elitist, autocratic principles, and shared them with his impressionable readers. I was a big fan of Niven in my youth, having been introduced to his novels by my gaming buddies in the sixth grade, and read his fiction almost compulsively until I was eighteen. If I left my teen years feeling politically schizophrenic, this may have resulted from my dual interest in history, which introduced me to revolutionary idealism, and sci-fi, much of which told me that was dangerous hokum and that I should defer to my Republican political betters. Fortunately, my interest in history won out, and the emergence of a more progressive group of popular SF and fantasy writers - Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain Banks, Terry Pratchett, Nancy Kress - in the 1990s helped turn the genre back into one that offered a genuine escape from suburban reality.

That a small but dedicated group within the "alt-right" are now earnestly trying to restore Card, Pournelle, Heinlein, and their reactionary kindred to the center of the genre should alarm us. Youthful dreams shape adult attitudes, and the merchants of Iron Dreams apparently want adults who will support out-and-out fascism. Last year more than fifty percent of American voters my age and older voted for a fascist TV celebrity, and I will bet that at least some of my DJT-supporting contemporaries were old sci-fi fans. If we are to keep the millennials from climbing on the Trump-and-Brexit train, offering them alternatives*** to Heinlein, Niven, Vox Day, and their creepy future visions is essential.

(Photo of Larry Niven [2006] is by David Corby and licensed by him under Creative Commons. Space Nazi Armstrong photo via

* Featuring a future African civilization that eats white babies.

** Louis Wu, the sybaritic flatlander hero of Ringworld, was a partial exception, but he was also a xenophile and explorer.

*** Examples of SF authors pursuing more progressive visions include Ann Leckie (author of Ancillary Justice and its sequels), Ted Chiang, Adam Rakunas, and Becky Chambers.