Yeah, well, I’ve had a bit of a summer break. Things are settling down here on planet Patrick, and I hope to be blogging again soon. Hang in there, true believer!
Yeah, well, I’ve had a bit of a summer break. Things are settling down here on planet Patrick, and I hope to be blogging again soon. Hang in there, true believer!
You can read this story for free courtesy of Clarke’s World Magazine.
This is the one of the types of literary science fiction that I’m not fond of. It deals with Big Questions in a serious way in a carefully, although not entirely rigorously, envisioned future populated with well articulated characters. The prose is considered and a little ponderous, treading carefully as though afraid of upsetting the furniture.
It tells the story of Pico who has returned to Earth after an arduous tour of a different planets beyond the solar system and attends a party in her honour. Pico is a ‘compilation’, a person who has been created from the genetic make-up and personalities of several different immortal post-humans in the far future.
The near-immortals devised ways of making highly gifted, highly trained crews from themselves. With computers and genetic engineering, groups of people could pool their qualities and create compilation humans. Sixty-three individuals had each donated moneys and their own own natures, and Pico was the result. She was a grand and sophisticated average of the group. Her face was a blending of every face; her body was a feminine approximation of their own varied bodies. In a few instances the engineers had planted synthetic genes – for speed and strength, for example – and her brain had subtly different architecture. Yet, basically Pico was their offspring, a stewlike clone.
When she returns this syndicate of investors wants to collect on its investment: they want to cut up Pico’s brain and take a slice each to gain access to the memories of her experiences during the trip. Naturally, the process will kill her.
This story asks us to consider the nature of personhood. Is Pico no less a person because she’s been manufactured? Is it right that her creators can just kill and , essentially, eat her brain?
Well, of course it isn’t! Because Pico is the viewpoint character we the reader are left in no doubt that she’s a fully realised individual. She feels and thinks, she falls in love, she is brave and honest and most importantly she fears death. It feels axiomatically wrong and maybe this is why Reed, like Willis and her Cyclists, packs the deck so heavily against the homebodies who are basically portrayed as shallow swingers.
Dessert was finished; people stood about drinking, keeping the three-month old party in motion. A few of them stripped naked and swam in the green pond. I was a raucous scene, tireless and full of happy moments that never seemed convincingly joyous. Happy sounds by practice, rather. Centuries of practice, and the result was to make Pico feel sad and quite lonely.
This kind of dystopian set up mirrors Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go or the the clone Sunmi~145 in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Another sortt of story might have seen a thrillerish plot with Pico on the run and a storyline punctuated by gun fights and desperate measures. But like it’s literary antecedents it takes a more downbeat view.
There’s a particularly annoying twist – read the story first if these things are important to you, here be spoilers!
Pico is befriended by a younger version of one of the immortals, Opera, who offers her a chance of escape. She takes the offer and he escorts her from the party, suggesting that he’s going to take her to another starship to escape and another adventure. However, it’s a all ruse!
“Why?” she sputtered. “Why”
“Because,” he allowed, “it helps the process. It helps your integration into us. I gave you a chance for doubts and helped you think you were fleeing, convinced you that you’d be free … and now you’re angry and scared and intensely alive. It’s that intensity that we want. It makes the neurological grafts take hold. It’s a trick that we learned since the Kyber left Earth.
So, the internal, philosophical drama is entirely one-sided, and the Reed clearly has no interest in a thrillery plot, so why even bother with this addition? It serves nothing so much as to add a little bit of false tension to proceedings and make the immortal humans look like a worse bunch of bastards than they already do.
I think this story’s serious tone hides, to a large extent, the vacuum at its centre. This drama feels earned very cheaply, and genuinely interesting ideas are ignored. The story treats death as a binary state, when this ability to pass on – or around – memories implies a more fluid state. One could even consider the idea of possession that inhabits the other side of the transaction a sort of death – each of the members of the syndicate become a little less themselves and a little more the same. Over long generations of this, could the nature of individuality change completely? Guest of Honour doesn’t attempt any of that and the result, however nicely written, is pretty banal.
Themes: people as chattels, the nature of personhood, clone dystopis, trans-humanism.
In our ongoing quest to find ‘real’ science fiction, this one definitely qualifies. It’s based on a fairly simple scientific advance – a hormone shunt that allows women to avoid the need for menstruation and many of the attendant hassles. The story implies that it somehow gets minimises many of the worst effects of menopause, too, and it’s been widely adopted by women everywhere.
In classic science fiction style, this story uses a simple and familiar story of family conflict to dramatise the social change brought about by a technological advance. The main character’s daughter has announced that she’s joining a cult-like movement called the Cyclists, who have decided to reclaim menstruation as a badge of femininity. Her mother, sister and grandmothers put aside their differences in order to persuade her from joining.
It sounds like a pretty promising classic science fiction story. It also addresses what one might literally and euphemistically call ‘women’s issues’ in a way that’s entirely unique in any of these collections. Unusually, too, the cast is almost entirely female, with the one male character present in a subservient role.
However it shares a another characteristic of classic science fiction: it’s not very well written. It’s not that it’s bad, so much as pragmatic. The characters serve their dramatic purpose but never get much further than stereotypes, while the heart of the situation – bickering but loving intergenerational relationships – is as old a classical comedy. To make matters worse, Willis assays a sassy satirical tone that the pragmatic writing can’t quite sustain.
Let’s be fair, though: it’s no worse than a lot of the classics, particularly from the legion of revered golden age writers whose skill with language never quite matched their conceptual vision. One doesn’t read Asimov, Clark, James Blish or Philip K Dick for their deathless prose. They had their moments, perhaps, but their language was always at the service of the idea.
I think the real problem I have with this story is another carry-over from the golden age: it’s resolutely materialistic approach to its subject matter ends up sounding really right wing.
‘Male domination of women’s bodies began long before the so-called “Liberation”, with government regulation of abortion and fetal rights, scientific control of fertility, and finally the development of ammenerol, which eliminated the reproductive cycle algother. This was all part of a carefully planned takeover of women’s bodies, and by extension, their identities, by the male patriarchal regime.
‘What an interesting point of view!” Karen said enthusiastically.
It certainty was. In point of fact, ammenerol hadn’t been invented to eliminate menstruation at all. It had been developed for shrinking malignant tumours, and its uterine lining-absorbing properties had been discovered by accident.
‘Are you trying to tell us,’ Mother said, ‘that men forced shunts on women? We had to fight everyone to get ammenerol approved by the FDA!’
Now, I’ve never had a period myself so I won’t try and argue that they’re something women should embrace; it certainly doesn’t sound like a nice way to spend one week a month. But the way the counter argument is presented just rubs me up the wrong way. The strident tone of the Cyclist representative is surely intended to parody the kind of second wave feminist rhetoric that we all love to mock.
But this kind of parody feels like a strand of anti-intellectualism to me – while I don’t always agree with the conclusions these kinds of thinkers come to, they often have an interesting insight or perspective to offer. I think it’s worth addressing their observations fairly; that’s surely the natural reaction of the curious mind of the sort that science fiction readers pride themselves on.
It’s taken for granted that of course women are happy to cease menstruating, and the proponents of the other side are crazed New Age psycho-feminists. This story completely shuts down the challenging idea that menstruation can be anything other than a burden. Maybe that’s true, but I’d liked to have seen the opposite point of view honestly debated rather than dismissed with an ad hominen attack that in passing takes a swipe at a group of thinkers willing to put forward awkward questions and challenging answers.
On top of this anti-intellectualism, this is once more a story of the global economic and political elites. It’s almost absurdly American bourgeoisie. The option to skip menstruation and pursue a career in the socio-economic hierarchy is the only logical response for all the characters (including the daughter, in the happy ending). The viewpoint character is that stalwart of the bourgeoisie, a judge. Her mother in law is a diplomat currently running peace negotiations in Iraq, of all places.
I find it somewhat ironic that at the time reading – June 2014 – Iraq was once more erupting into civil war thanks largely to the interventions of Americans in the last two decades or so. This context gave this story a political spin that perhaps didn’t seem evident when it was written in the early 90s, the time of the first Gulf War run by Bush Senior.
There could surely be no more telling indictment of the technocratic free market liberalism that lies at the heart of so much science fiction than current the sorry state of Iraq. Raising the spectre of it here, pushes this story from the kind of tolerant free market exceptionalism that Americans call being a liberal into the dark heart of the imperialist right wing.
Themes: rationalist utopia, women’s issues
You can read this story for free courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine.
So once again I am faced with the question, what is science fiction. This time around I can feel my convictions beginning to crumble – if I think that everything that gets published under the label ‘science fiction’ isn’t the real deal, then maybe it’s me that should be revising his opinion instead of hoping that the world will fall into step with my views.
Well, screw that.
It’s not that I think stories like this aren’t at all science fiction, it’s just they’re only partly science fiction. Long-time readers (hi to you both) may be familiar with my three-tier view of genre: a shared audience, particular setting elements and a type of a story you can tell. A story can have, I think, any two of these and still be considered part of the genre, but to really be considered a great science fiction story rather than a great story that uses some science fiction elements then it must have all three.
Most sci fi, particularly in TV, comics and movies, has aspects of the first two: a dedicated fandom and the kind of surface elements we expect from science fiction stories – time travel, space ships, aliens, galactic empires and numerous other futuristic elements. These stories often borrow their story types from other genres – thrillers, war stories, westerns or detective stories, for example. A science fiction story is something else.
I can see why this story won accolades as it’s written with great skill. It’s a rather deliciously subtle portrait of family life at one of life’s crisis points, as a man faces the death of his mother. The perfect unpretentious folksy tone is matched by a clever eye for detail and an endearingly laconic style and it all builds to a rather nice conjunction of the fantastic conceit (bears discover fire) and the emotional climax when the ailing mother passes away.
And of course, there’s the bears. Bisson does a great job of making it weirdly credible. Bears have a human quality about them that’s reflected in the circus tradition of performing bears and a century or more of anthropomorphism through the medium of the teddy bear. This helps make their mastery of fire believable, while the story steers clear of addressing the specifics.
So it’s a great story. At has a change in the world that’s based – superficially at least – on scientific ideas and of course it was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, so it’s definitely embedded in the science fiction audience.
This is certainly enough for it to qualify as science fiction in the broader sense, but I’m not certain that it’s really a science fiction story in the very strictest sense. It doesn’t address the big issues introduced by the sudden appearance of sentience among bears. It focuses instead on the small family drama occurring within a world where that change is going on. We only see the affect this is having on the world in glimpses through the media – TV reports and snippets in the local news. It’s background against which a rather more everyday story plays out eventually joining up in a kind of metaphorical way, with the bears as a kind psychopomp for the dying mother.
Maybe we’re supposed to read larger social messages into this, but if so then they’re so delicately alluded to that they’re probably personal to each reader. Again, that doesn’t feel like a very science fictiony approach.
Traditionally, science fiction has been more nakedly didactic, and that’s perhaps one of the reasons it’s lost it’s potency in our post-certainty world. In this story, we prefer the practical scepticism of the narrator to the focused religiosity of his brother; the former just deals with what life throws up day-to-day which makes him appealingly pragmatic, while the latter thinks there’s some grand scheme and is a bit of an arse because of it.
If science fiction has lost faith in the future (obligatory link to Paul Kincaid’s ‘The Widening Gyre’) then it’s because we’ve all lost faith in the idea of having an over-arching belief system that seeks to change or improve the world (obligatory link to John Gray’s The War of the Words). The sort of story that I consider to be the real sticky heart of the genre has been driven out by post-modern doubt. While I’m a big fan of post-modern doubt, I’m sorry to see that it seems to have crippled our ability to imagination real change in the world around us. Under these circumstances, if science fiction isn’t dead it’s at least lost the political urgency that made it different to other forms of literature in years gone by and all we have left are a handful of lifeless metaphors.
Themes: family, practical versus theoretical wisdom, man versus nature, bears.
Robert Silverberg is the first writer in this volume we’ve come across whose name would be recognised from the golden age. Silverberg started publishing stories as a teenager in the 50s and won his first Hugo award in 1956 as best new writer. He’s had a garlanded career ever since, and don’t think there’s a decade where he hasn’t picked up a major award. A clever writer could use his career as the basis for a literary character like Kilgore Trout or Jeff Lint – maybe Michael Chabon could do the job.
You can sense Silverberg’s experience and control throughout this story. The narrator is an old man looking back on the events of his life one summer when he was a child. It’s set in the equivalent of our late nineteenth century in a northern Europen town in the province of Upper Pannonia, so it’s roughly equivalent to Hungary in the Hapsburg era. But in this world, Rome never fell. The Empire endured until the Second Republic was established after a civil war near the end of the eighteenth century, and now rules the entire world.
At first glance, it’s not obvious how a story like this fits within science fiction. It’s been considered as part of the standard science fiction armoury at least since the publication of He Walked Around the Horses, but there are enough alternate histories written by non-SF writers to make the genre’s rights claim dubious. In addition it’s not fiction of the futurist type we typically associate with science fiction, and there are (usually) no outwardly fantastical elements. That might well be grounds to exclude alternative world fiction from the genre on the strictest of definitions, but even so alternative worlds share two important characteristics with science fiction.
The first is our old friend ‘the clomping foot of nerdism’ known the the rest of the world as world building. Silverberg brings the deft hand of an old pro to quickly sketch in the new shape of the world:
It was a quiet life. The automobile hadn’t yet been invented then – all this was around the year 2650, and we still used horse-drawn carriages or wagons – and we hardly ever left the village. Once a year, on Augustus Day – back then we still celebrated Augustus Day – we would all dress in our finest clothes and my father would get our big iron-bound carriage out of the shed, the one he had built with his own hands, and we’d drive to the municipium of Venia, a two-hour journey away, to heat the Imperial band playing waltzes in the Plaza Vespasianus. Afterwards there’d be cakes and whipped cream at the big hotel nearby, and tankards of cherry beer for the grown ups.
Silverberg mashes up the Hapsburg era Central European culture of cream cakes and waltzes mixed with name drops from the Roman empire to give us a quick idea of the world we’re dealing with. Then throughout he builds his world out as required by the story. We learn about the development of Roman culture through the eyes of the narrator, allowing the older man to fill in details that eluded his younger protagonist self.
A lot of stories of this type can be exercises in name dropping: which famous name ended up in obscurity, which historical role was filled by an unlikely or obscure individual rather than the great person our own history put in the role. That’s pretty much the whole point of He Walked Around the Horses, and it’s just one of the many pleasures of Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine.
Here, though, Silverberg seems to be interested in the political world that grows out of the surviving Empire. Our Western democracies see themselves as descendants of the Roman republic, sharing their descent from the Greek city states. It’s a particularly acute comparison with America which uses the language of senators as in Rome, and has a President that’s roughly equivalent to the First Consul that leads the Second Roman Republic in this story. However, it’s a more oppressive system, where supporters of the old Imperial regime are persecuted in a way that’s reminiscent of the Soviet Union, and the story turns on the Romanov-like mass murder of the royal line during the rebellion.
It’s done with a great deal of panache, but it leads us to the other great assumption that alternate histories share with science fiction – the immutability of the rate of scientific progress. This story assumes a nineteenth century (or twenty-seventh century by the stories own reckoning) that’s technologically analogous to ours. The cultural milieu of the Roman Empire doesn’t appear to have made a big difference to the march of science or society. Technological and social advances occur more or less as in our time line as if they are set points in a logical process. But even calling technological and social developments ‘advances’ betrays a certain Whiggish view of history that science fiction can’t help but share.
This is the second thing that the alternative history genre shares with science fiction – it’s a thought experiment based around a certain variety of philosophical thinking. I described this cultural influence in my entry on why science fiction is dominated by white people: it’s because science fiction is based on a very white-people way of seeing the world. This kind of alternative historical narrative is as resolutely logical and materialist as any story about space ships and robots, it’s just that the ‘what if?’ happens in past rather than the future.
The reason the story really works, of course, is Silverberg’s fine writing. It’s a coming of age story told with tenderness and good eye for bucolic idyll. The ruined house in the woods, filled with ancient and forbidden treasure, is a potent symbol of adulthood and the distant elder voice lends everything an elegiac and insightful air. I read this at the same time as I watched the film The White Ribbon, which has a similar mood and structure of an older man looking back on events from his past, and I could imagine a fine film adaptation of this pleasing story.
Hm, that’s two in a row I’ve quite liked. I must be losing my edge.
Themes: politics, alternate history, coming of age, Romans
This story has an intriguing near-future setting that combines technological plausibility with the opportunity to explore some knotty sociological ideas. This is the first in a series. It sets up the situation nicely and I’m definitely interested in reading more of these.
Koriba is the mundumugu, or wise man, for a tribe of Kikuyu Kenyans who live in Kirinyaga, a controlled environment in a satellite orbiting the Earth, that simulates the the plains of Africa. Their world is a kind of prelapsarian paradise where they live the type of hard but satisfying life their ancestors did.
It’s not hard to imagine that there are people that might think that this kind of life is a good idea. The story opens with a vivid portrayal of how the traditions of the Kikuyu people were smothered by the onslaught of colonial capitalism and exploitation. In those circumstances a return to the old ways becomes a reassertion of self-determination and power.
Maintenance watches Kirinyaga discreetly, making minor orbital adjustments when necessary, assuring that our tropical climate remains constant. From time to time they have subtly suggested that we might wish to draw upon their educational facilities, but that have taken our refusal with good grace, and have never shown any desire to interfere in our affairs.
Until I strangled a baby.
All the people of Kirinyaga are there voluntarily. Koriba himself is not a primitive – it emerges that he has a degree from Cambridge and two post-graduate degrees from Yale – and yet he chooses to murder a baby because his ancient traditions tell him that a child born feet-first is a demon. There’s a tendency to see these kinds of acts as the result of a primitive world-view of demons and supernatural powers. This story asks us to consider the consequences of choosing that world in full knowledge of the consequences.
The story of the white man – in this case Maintenance – ‘improving’ the lives of indigenous people is turned on its head here. Koriba isn’t far from the kind of scheming witch doctor character you might find in a traditional colonial narrative. He’s conservative and resists the gifts of the white man because he knows what they inevitably bring with them. In the end, Koriba rounds up a group of young men to take ‘the terrible oath of Mau Mau’, promising a repeat of the violence in Kenya in the 1950s.
This story is a neat take on an old science fiction idea – colonialism and the alien as metaphor for a generalised human ‘other’. Here the metaphor is outed and the Kikuyu people are effectively portrayed as an alien race. They wouldn’t be out of place in one of Jack Vance’s brutal alien societies. The first-person narrative asks us to see things from the brutal alien’s side. In contrast, the rational Westernised view that might be held as paramount in traditional science fiction isn’t evil – the Maintenance representative Barbara Eaton is portrayed as sympathetic and humane. In fact they are given the same air of mystified primitivism as the alien cultures in traditional fare.
In science fiction terms, it’s also a handily closed world. There’s nothing that can really affect much from the outside and i’s just Kirinyaga against the colonial powers of Maintenance. Rightly, we’re never shown much of how the technology works. The business of satellites and controlled is plausible enough and the fact we don’t really see evidence of the mechanics means we accept it all the more easily. This lets us focus on the knotty problem of how these two societies interact.
Themes: colonialism, alien as other, indigenous rights
Literalising the metaphorical struggle of the corporate world is a popular satirical approach. In the mainstream it reached a kind of hey day in the 80s and 90s in books like Martin Amis’s Money, Will Self’s My Idea of Fun, and maybe most purely in American Psycho. At about the same time, the idea was a cyberpunk staple as ruthless corporations fought open warfare for resources and profit, but the idea goes back as far as Frederick Pohl & Cyril Kornbluth’s classic The Space Merchants. These types of story portray a kind of neo-Kafka-esque world, with the banalities of capitalist populism replacing the equivalent banalities of the bureaucratic feudal world of pre-war Czechoslovakia.
It’s hard not to see the ghost of Kafka in the premise of this story, in fact: ambitious executives undergo bioengineering treatments to get genetic advantages from different species and mutate into hideous hybrid creatures as a result. The resulting physical transformations give Gunn the opportunity to lean heavily on the grotesque to underline her satirical point as the narrator turns into a predatory bloodsucking insect.
I awoke this morning to discover that bioengineering had made demands upon me during the night. My tongue had turned into a stiletto, and my left hand now contained a small chitinous comb, as if for cleaning a compound eye. Since I didn’t have compound eyes, I thought that perhaps this presaged some change to come.
Her husband, meanwhile, is undergoing his own insectoid transfiguration:
I looked at Greg, still asleep, the edge of our red and white quilt pulled up under his chin. His mouth had changed during the night too, and seemed to contain some sort of long probe. Were we growing apart?
The metamorphoses suggest Kafka but, instead of the alienation of Gregor Samsa, everyone’s at it in this story. For some reason this makes the story relatively weak. Maybe it’s easier to believe that one person might randomly turn into a beetle than that the a significant section of the population would begin wilfully turning themselves into mosquitoes and butterflies in the name of a high-paying job? While it’s obviously intended to be over-the-top this quality makes the story a bit of a straw man. It makes you wonder whether the rapacious breed of people depicted here actually exists. And if it doesn’t exist, what’s the point of the satire?
And it’s only short, though, so it’s easy to forgive this witty satire for it’s lack of depth. Gunn has good fun with the idea, and the story has a number of funny, well-executed jokes. I can’t help but see practical 1980s-style special effects in a Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg movie, and this story shares a lot of themes in their best films. As well as the psychotic world of corporate rivalry it satirises the human need to turn to snake oil and bogus science in their hunt for an elusive competitive advantage.
Themes: the psychotic workplace, body horror, transformation, bioengineering
It’s the moment the world’s been waiting for! I have finally conceded to the pleading of my many fans to pick up the mic and give stand-up comedy a go. I’m currently honing my act at open mic nights around London, and you my many admirers are cordially invited to witness it.
This one fills up quick so get there as soon as you can ahead of the 8pm start time. It’s free on the door, but they pass the bucket after – to put money in, not vomit in you sick monkey!
This one will be my official début! Don’t miss this historic show which you will no doubt tell your descendants about and will become part of your family legendary for generations to come.
The night begins at 8.30 and tickets cost £3.
Not sure when this one opens, but it’s typically 8pm, so get there early to get a seat. Entry is £4 on the door.
I’ll be adding a dedicated comedy page to this site in the fullness of time, that will keep you abreast of upcoming gigs and host video and all sorts of other pointless wastes of time. It’s an exciting new way for me to fail, and I just know that it’s going to make all my previous failures look like mere setbacks. Stay tuned!
You can read this story for free, courtesy of Clarkesworld Magazine.
In this story we follow the antics of the mysterious narrator as he inflicts a trail of nihilistic violence across the backwater states of America. While it’s a little ambiguous regarding exactly what’s going on her – he could be a psychotic, or maybe the title hints at drugs or some other artificial stimulant – there’s the strong implication of something fantastical going. When he meets another wandering psycho murderer, he deduces she’s like him from her voice, ‘the accent of my own time. Later he reminisces about a life in sixteenth century England and scans the paper looking for evidence of others like him, causing mayhem.
An analogy is drawn between the past and the third world, with the people from the future using their economic power to exploit the natives. It reminds me It’s a little like Mozart in Mirrorshades by Bruce Sterling and John Shirley in its use of time travel as a political metaphor.
This kind of colonialist thinking is deeply embedded in science fiction as we’ve seen many times before, even where it’s been criticised as here: critique or praise, there’s an underlying assumption that this relationship is the inevitable one. There’s an interesting underlying consideration that these stories equate the developing world with our own past: in the future, they’ll become like us if left to develop according to their own devices. It’s even embedded in the language of the developing and developed world.
This story doesn’t take on the economic argument directly, as ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’ does, but looks instead at the moral hazard that this kind of power relationship generates. Rather than an economic exploiter, the narrator in this story is a bored and jaded tourist, loaded with self-loathing that he’s acting out on a world that’s unequipped to restrain him.
The ultra-violence has a reasonable pedigree. It makes me think of 70s Ballard and Ballard-influenced bad boys like Brett Easton Ellis and Martin Amis in the 80s, and Chuck Palahniuk and Will Self in the 90s. It’s the fiction of shock: it shocks the reader with it’s amoral view on the violence of its protagonists. It tries to show, perhaps, that only shock tactics can shake the quiescent classes from their stupor or, as here, that not even the most violent changes really make a difference to the world.
I am reminded of something I read by John Gray:
Even at its most pessimistic, science fiction has always been a humanist genre. The consoling assumption has been that while civilisation may be flawed and fragile, it can always be rebuilt, perhaps on a better model, if only humans have the will to do it.
This story – and others of its type – suggest the opposite. There’s no way to change the world, nothing that can be done. It is, as Gray points out, the antithesis of what we understood to be the genre’s key value – that humanity could change the world for the world for the better.
It ties in as well to Paul Kincaid’s assertion that writers seem currently unable to imagine the future, here expressed as a nihilistic denial of the possibility of change at all, for better or worse. Like Kincaid, though, one has to ask whether this is because the nihilistic view is a true depiction of the world or lack of vision on the part of the writer.
A clue to answer perhaps comes from the foreward to the story. ‘John Kessel … is a professor of American Literature and the director of the creative writing program at North Carolina State University.’
Remember when science fiction writers were engineers, chemists and mathematicians? Men of, you know, science? These types of writers are still engaged with the genre, I suppose, but there’s scant evidence of them here. The other writers with an academic career we’ve encountered so far include John Crowley who teaches English and creative writing at Yale, Greg Bear who teaches (or taught) creative writing at San Diego University and Bruce Sterling, who has held a number of academic posts in futurology and design which is closest we get to a technical discipline for writers in the volume so far, at least.
Now just to be clear, I have a BA in English literature and an MA in creative writing. If this is a crisis in science fiction – fiction as a whole, even, then I guess I am part of it in my small way. I am just evidence, I suppose, to that extent that literature has become institutionalised, and science fiction no less than the rest. As a result we get these sorts of finely executed stories and novels that don’t really have much to say.
This story reminded me a lot of the last story in this collection. Like Snow, it’s about preserving a person’s spirit using technology. While Snow had them as preserved memories, in this story we have the old cyberpunk idea of somehow recreating your actual mind on a computer.
It starts with dreams: the protagonist of this story – though not its narrator – is Lise, an artist who records her dreams which are sold like pop records. The Narrator, Casey, is the editor of these dream recordings, doing some kind of production work to make them into a commercial product.
I made a deal with Barry, the senior editor, got twenty minutes at five on a cold September morning. Lise came in and hit me with that same shot, but this time I was ready, with my baffles and brain maps, and I didn’t have to feel it. It took me two weeks, piecing out the minutes in the editing room, to cut what she’d done down into something I could play for Max Bell, who owns Pilot.
There’s a band involved as well, and it’s all high fashion, famous artists and hip futurism that just reeks of cool 80s style, all post-hippy neon, California desert highways and pastel shades.
Science fiction has always favoured the elites. Cyberpunk was the second breaking of the New Wave and so here this fascination with with the top levels of society translates into rock stars and related trades rather than the military types or super scientists that tended to dominate classic SF. As with Snow, this is a story of what we now might call 1 per centers enjoying an elegantly wasted life style.
Also like Snow, there’s not much effort here to build a world that’s radically changed by the new technology. People still fly around the world in Lear jets, drink in seedy bars at midnight and eat ‘Pakastani takeout food in a narrow shop on Fourth’. The ability to communicate dreams and thoughts doesn’t seem to have had a mjor effect on anything much outside of pop culture. Even there the main differences are in production rather than any other aspect: we’re never actually shown the audience for these recordings, or given an insight into the market place that might support them and how this might reflect the experience and technology.
Instead, the story focuses on Casey and Lise’s ambiguous relationship: she’s a tortured artist and he’s the devoted follower, both loyal retainer and parasite on her burning, self-destructive talent. Lise’s move from flesh and blood to being a personality recreated on a computer has already begun when Casey meets her – she’s disabled and supported by an exo-skeleton (that doubles as a kind of self-mortification). This already makes her unreachable to him, and the technology seems to be driven by this kind of symbolic logic rather than a more materialistic futurism.
Gibson doesn’t play much with the philosophical ideas of the artificial consciousness. There’s a gesture near the end where Casey wonder of the transformed Lise ‘but if she calls me will it be her?’ but that’s it. Instead, it abandons traditional science fiction speculative world building and turns its gaze inward.
It’s a good story, of course, because William Gibson is a fine and subtle writer. But it doesn’t really address the future, not even the nascent future expressed in the present. Technology is instead used as imagery to express other ideas about personal love, devotion and the nature of creativity.
On this last point, we might compare it to The Country of the Kind, which also looked into the troubled creative spirit. But this earlier story used a rationally considered society enabled by technology (albeit, lightly sketched in due to the length of the story) and the ideas about creativity seem to grow organically from that. Here – I speculate – Gibson wants to say something about creativity and has constructed a technology around it that he finds evocative and that will sell to a science fiction audience.
This is science fiction as mode – a symbolic arsenal to deploy against themes – rather than science fiction as a way of thinking. At it’s best, science fiction does both but science fictional thinking is the source of the sense of wonder (or horror) that lies at the heart of real science fiction, the revelation of some potential truth about the outside world that unlocks our spirit. The Winter Market and it’s like are a kind of techno magical realism that can never evoke that, however skilfully it’s written.