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    Book Tour: Facing Down the Future

    Science fiction’s alternate realities point the way back home

    By Phil Christman

    March 4, 2020

    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.

    Henry James and H.G. Wells were philosophical enemies but, for a while, friendly ones. According to Adam Roberts’s magisterial new biography, H.G. Wells: A Literary Life (2019), the two met around 1901, when Wells moved to the southeastern part of England. There he commissioned a mansion from an architect who always placed a heart-shaped motif on the front door. Wells drew the line at this: no hearts. He asked for a spade instead. Wells wanted to see himself as a man uninterested in subjectivity, one who called a spade a spade.

    Around this time, he met James. Henry James is all heart, all nuances and textures and interiors. His sentences are so long because he can never name anything carefully enough, or enough times. The two men fought amiably, in person and by letter, for about fifteen years, and then in 1915 Wells wrote a novel called Boon, in which, among other things, he compared James to “a hippopotamus picking up a pea”: that lumbering, magnificent style, all devoted to people’s stupid feelings. James wrote Wells a gracious letter of self-defense, saying that in his view a novelist was only answerable to his own sense of the fullness of life. Wells wrote back telling James to chill. He argued that he’d rather be thought of as an entertainer and “journalist” than an artist – he’d rather go about the world calling spades spades – and referred to Boon as a “waste-paper basket.” On this last point only, he and James agreed.

    So that was that, and the argument has stood ever since as a sort of crossroads in the history of the English novel. Critics have used it to symbolize the moment when literary art split off from entertainment, or art-for-art’s-sake from “message” fiction (for Wells was not only an entertainer but an unstoppable explainer). They have also used it to explain how science fiction diverged from "literature" as such.

    Whether this is true depends on how you define the terms. The most compelling definitions of science fiction that I know of come from Roberts on the one hand, and from Samuel Delany on the other, and they are basically diametrical opposites.

    Delany defines SF as a reading practice that doesn’t become possible until a certain historical moment. If, before the 1920s or so, you read “her world exploded,” or “he turned on his left side,” you’d take the first as a metaphor meaning “she was really sad” and the second as a description of a man shifting position. After Hugo Gernsback began to publish Amazing Stories in 1926 – he had to fill the early issues with old Jules Verne reprints because so few examples of the type of texts he envisioned yet existed – readers gradually came to have new options for interpreting these sentences. He might be a robot whose left side requires a manual reboot; her planet blew up. (A person’s world explodes, more or less, in the opening pages of Delany’s 1984 novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.) Earlier writers dealt with plot elements that reappear in SF – trips to the moon, utopias, artificial persons – but this specific kind of readerly sense-making, where figurative language itself is a trapdoor into an unreal but conceivable universe, is a product of the twentieth century.

    Roberts, who thinks science fiction is nearly as old as prose narrative itself – which, if you’re only thinking about plot and event, it is – describes it as predominantly ironic, for this reason among many others. Science fiction, he has written, describes but does not reproduce the world.

    By Delany’s definition, H.G. Wells was a respectable Edwardian writer who dabbled in planetary romances. He came in just a hair too early to write science fiction. Roberts, in his History of Science Fiction (2006), calls him “the greatest novelist” to have worked in the field. Those of us who think of Wells as the author of two good kids’ books – the one with the Martians and the time one – will learn a great deal from watching Roberts make this case in the biography. I read it because I try to keep up with everything Roberts does, not out of any great interest in Wells, but the book is a tour de force of deep, imaginative reading.

    And once again the solution to the riddle is: they are man.

    Consider the moment when Roberts compares the plot of The Time Machine to the riddle of the Sphinx. In the novel, an anonymous Time Traveler catches various glimpses of the human race in its most far-flung evolutionary turns and twists – most famously, the indolent Eloi and the underground-dwelling Morlocks, who seem to raise the Eloi for food. Later the Time Traveler shoots the machine even further forward and finds some crabs on a beach: your great-to-the-nth-power-grandchildren. Roberts writes:

    In the original [Oedipus] myth, the sphinx describes a strange monster, but the answer reveals that this monster is not so strange – that, in fact, the monster is us. Wells, in effect, does the same, asking: what are these vacuous, diminutive, infantile beings, unable to care for themselves? These pale troglodytes that feed on human flesh? These gigantic crabs? This blob of darkness? And once again the solution to the riddle is: they are man. Which is to say: they are you, they are us. . . . We can speculate that all the previous challengers to the sphinx’s puzzle failed not because the riddle is hard – we can be honest, as riddles go it really isn’t very hard – but rather because they were unwilling to take that last step and understand that the terrible beast being described is they, themselves.

    He is thinking of Oedipus by this point because Wells has placed a sphinx near the scene of the action, and because the Time Traveler hooks up with an attractive Eloi woman. Roberts makes the staggeringly obvious point, which had never occurred to me, that this means the Time Traveler, like Oedipus, commits incest: the woman is at least a tiny bit his descendant.

    The entire novel, for Roberts, becomes a gloss on the ancient story. “Oedipus, in the myth, solves two riddles,” writes Roberts – the one given him by the sphinx, but also the riddle of why Thebes has been cursed. And, Roberts points out, Oedipus himself is the answer to both: “the mirroring of these two riddles reveals a profound and upsetting truth that all these things are the same thing. Sex is incest, birth is death, existence is a curse, all folded into all.” For Wells, this nihilistic conclusion was probably The Truth of Things; but it is also possible to see it as merely the way human experience looks to someone who has, through sheer speed, missed out on much/most of it. The time machine seems to offer us a chance to sidestep death, but at the expense of deep, textured experience – “the longer we sit on the saddle, the more these superficial excitements blue-shift into invisibility.” (I would agree with this reading only if we add the proviso that the superficiality is itself just a trick of perspective.) Let the machine run long enough, and you find yourself facing down the end you sought to avoid: not merely your personal death, but that of the entire species. The only way out of this is back to where you came from. “There’s nowhere else for the machine to go except back to its own source, and death,” concludes Roberts – and presumably Wells, who never, in the dozens of books he wrote after The Time Machine, returned to the idea again.

    Lumiere by Jimmy Ernst

    Lumiere by Jimmy Ernst, 1968 (Public domain)

    Wells is among the handful of writers who have most influenced science fiction, and yet he would not, perhaps, have recognized all his children. In the US, by the time of Wells’s death in 1946, a literary career like his was already hard to imagine: a writer of well-regarded realist fiction, middlebrow experimental novels, polemics, pop nonfiction, and science fiction, who feels no sense of slumming as he turns to the last of these fields. It’s hard not to feel that SF and “literature” did diverge for a while, in some sense, though this seems less true in Europe, where the tradition of the conte philosophique (think of Voltaire’s Micromégas, or of Gulliver’s Travels) lent respectability to stories concerned with new scientific ideas. Stanislaw Lem does not seem to suffer from status anxiety for writing about robots; nor does Karel Capek, who coined the term “robot.” And a fair-minded reader would say that the barriers were always untenable if “literary” simply means “well-wrought work that can be reread, or read for reasons other than plot.” Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, and the C.L. Moore–Henry Kuttner double act all cleared this bar with some frequency during the pulp era.

    Still, one way to read the Library of America’s sumptuous new two-volume collection, American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s (2019), is as a record of a struggle between writers who were content to entertain and writers who weren’t. The collection starts with Poul Anderson, a prolific writer whose The High Crusade (1960) follows the Robert Heinlein model, in which characters do clever stuff in response to a series of problems of escalating difficulty until they win. Heinlein uses this device to demonstrate the all-sufficiency of what we would now call the STEM mindset: that good engineering and scientific problem-solving can fix everything. Anderson uses it to dramatize another concern that seems characteristic of post-New Deal America: that technologically advanced and bureaucratic societies risk decadence through the elimination of rough old-fashioned virtues from their gene pool. The novel tells of a medieval village attacked by scouts from an alien empire. The earthmen storm the ship, hoping to steal it so they can use it to sack France. When the treacherous alien they’ve kept alive solely to show them how the thing works trips the autopilot and takes them to his home planet, they use a combination of bluffing, realpolitik, outreach to other aliens, and wooden weapons (advanced detection systems don’t detect wood!) to establish a Christian galactic empire.

    It is instructive to compare this perfectly readable adventure with two masterpieces that appear elsewhere in the collection, Roger Zelazny’s . . . And Call Me Conrad (1966, also published as This Immortal) and Joanna Russ’s Picnic on Paradise (1968). In Zelazny’s novel, an immortal man is hired by representatives of the aliens who have conquered earth – they treat it as a resort planet – to serve as tour guide to a high-value kidnapping target. Conrad, too, ends up using old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity and gumption to triumph over a wealthier and more powerful race of aliens, but this potentially trite message, the burden of so many “Star Trek” episodes, is enlivened throughout by Zelazny’s unflagging wit. Picnic on Paradise, like many of Russ’s works, is written in a nervy, funny, almost Renata Adleresque style that proves perfect for depicting both the interior lives of clever women and fight scenes. (I suppose these things are not as different as one might wish/suspect.) Like Conrad, it is a rich-space-tourists-and-heroic-bodyguard picaresque, concerning an ancient barbarian who is scooped out of her timeline (accidentally?) by a mysterious far-future agency and tasked with protecting a group touring a resort planet. Where Anderson uses the hardiness of his medieval heroes to point up the effeteness and decadence of the bureaucratic aliens, Russ’s critique is more pointed: it is not comfort as such that makes her future humans ugly, but their consumerism and their tolerance of offscreen-but-omnipresent wars for profit. Her problem with them, in other words, is precisely not their lack of barbarism.

    So the colony’s leaders do what anyone would do in their situation: they yank Thomas More out of the sixteenth century and tell him to fix it.

    Though it follows Anderson, Russ, and Zelazny – and of course Wells – in its timebending premise, R.A. Lafferty’s Past Master (1968) is hard to place in relation to the history of its genre, or of anything else. Lafferty was an engineer who lived in Tulsa, went to Mass, drank, and wrote some of the weirdest books of the twentieth century. Past Master, his first novel, concerns a far-future utopian Earth colony that is facing possible collapse. (The extent and nature of these troubles are not fully specified, or maybe I missed them in the profusion of Lafferty’s ideas.) So the colony’s leaders do what anyone would do in their situation: they yank Thomas More out of the sixteenth century and tell him to fix it. (One of the leaders – just to give you an idea of the way Lafferty makes background detail of other writers’ entire premises – is Lilith, Adam’s lost first wife; she is also Eve; she is also, or maybe not, a sea serpent.) Also, time travel causes temporary sex changes and weird dreams. Lafferty’s narrative style is what you might get from someone posing an escalating series of dares to himself: what if I do this? Can I get away with this? What if it turns out that this was actually this? It is easier to appreciate his ideas in his short fiction, where he parcels out only half a dozen or so and lets you savor them. At novel length Lafferty is lovable but exhausting; even so, I’d have preferred to see his Fourth Mansions (1969), which allegorizes Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle via a story about dueling psychics.

    Clifford Simak’s Way Station (1963) is a solid, sincere novel, with a characteristically midcentury, middlebrow devotion to The Communication Problem: If only we all spoke one language, we could calmly sit down together and hash this Cold War thing out. Enoch Wallace, a Civil War veteran chosen by an alien scout to be keeper of a secret transit hub for intergalactic travel, wishes he had someone to talk to; he works at learning difficult alien languages; he befriends a deaf-mute woman (alas, if they could only speak!) The incommensurability of different ways of seeing the world, the tragedy of our inability to just talk it all out, also provides the emotional motor of Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon (1966), the sentimental bestseller about a developmentally disabled man temporarily raised to “superintelligence” via surgery. Its inclusion here will make your seventh-grade English teacher happy, if no one else.

    If, in 1960, Poul Anderson fantasized about a triumphant medieval Britannia ruling the stars, Samuel Delany’s Nova (1968) and Jack Vance’s Emphyrio (1969) reflect a fear of vast commercial, not national, empires. Nova is a beautifully rendered pirate adventure. A space captain, the wonderfully named Lorq Von Ray, wants to take an impossible trip through the heart of a fresh nova, where he can find enough of a rare, valuable element to shift the balance of power between his family and that of his sadistic rival. To give a sense of the richness of Delany’s mind: one of the members of the ship’s crew is a wandering intellectual, anachronistically devoted to an ancient, forgotten art form, the novel. You think that this is just an excuse for a bit of metafictive play on Delany’s part, until someone reminds you that novel and nova share a root. In Emphyrio, a young carver who yearns to travel off-world finds his life shadowed by the idea of a powerful, mythic hero, Emphyrio, who leads a democratic revolution. This doubling gives the novel an almost German Romantic melancholy, and the book is marred only by the ending, which smacks of another, less attractive German Romantic quality. Vance introduces the trope of the superintelligent but soulless conqueror alien, and even if we ignore the unfortunate congruence between this idea and anti-Semitic mythology, it is still an aesthetic cop-out. If the bad guys literally have no souls, half the ethical difficulty of getting rid of them is gone, and with it the complexity that great fiction needs. Both Nova and Emphyrio – the one written with a kind of post-psychedelic attention to sensory detail, the other in a delightfully mannered, Wodehouse-meets-Conan narrative voice – bring to SF a perfection of style rarely seen then or since in the genre, or for that matter in any other.

    Insofar as realist fiction today consists of characters staring as if through a chain-link fence at a long series of fearsome future climate scenarios, it is all, now, ironic in the way that Roberts attributes to SF. To simply imitate today’s world is to acknowledge the constant feeling that disastrous possibilities are at once arriving and being deferred, all the time. We all now live, to borrow from the early SF writer Stanley Weinbaum, in the World of If. Rather than worrying about the crablike beings that may descend from us, we worry that our progeny will simply die in the food riots of 2050.

    Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020) doesn’t read much like a science fiction novel, if by “science fiction” you mean Nova. It reads a lot like science fiction if by science fiction you mean, say, Pamela Zoline’s classic 1967 short story “The Heat Death of the Universe,” which compares a woman’s repetitive domestic life to a closed system menaced by entropy. The two works even employ a similar style: choppy, aphoristic, fragmented. Weather concerns Lizzie, a librarian whose intermittently suicidal brother washes up from time to time on her couch. She finds herself taking on a new gig (the economic situation is as up-to-date as the climatic one) answering sent-in questions for a podcast about climate change. I love this narrative device, because it allows Offill to spend time chasing down answers to the kinds of questions that keep Lizzie’s listeners, and me, and presumably Offill herself, up at night: what to do if, after the collapse, you run out of candles; how to keep your kids safe; where to get away from hurricanes. Offill’s style mimics the anxious flutter we all live with, the constant expectation of doom, and yet nothing particularly final happens. Critic Laura Miller has remarked that Offill makes such anxiety feel “as comfortable as an old slipper,” with the result that her books (2015’s Dept. of Speculation shares a similar approach) are “a pleasure to read and yet disconcertingly easy to forget.”

    We can choose to live lovingly within the weft of details, the daily encumbrances, that the Time Traveler fast-forwards through.

    I, too, wonder what I will think of Weather in five years, if I’m still around. Like Wells’s Boon, it risks being, not a wastepaper basket, but an unusually good meal made from scraps – too diffuse in its effects to live on in the memory. On the other hand, given the shape of world events, I may well be using Weather as a survival tool: it tells you how to make a candle from rolled-up paper and the oil at the bottom of a tuna can. Neither Henry James nor H.G. Wells, to my knowledge, gives you that. And though a time machine cannot deliver us from the awful ending to the Sphinx’s riddle, we can choose to live lovingly within the weft of details, the daily encumbrances, that the Time Traveler fast-forwards through. We can love our doomed children – for that’s what they are, sooner or later. We can embrace our impossible brothers. Offill’s novel shows, in a hundred little acts of attention, a dozen hard-pressed generosities, what it feels like to do that.

    Contributed By PhilChristman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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