Tag Archives: science fiction

Hush! Caution! Echoland!

It’s a cliché to speak of Ulysses as an endpoint, the culmination of the nineteenth century novel, finally bled dry of plot and incident and to a certain extent character (we only feel that we know Stephen and Bloom so well because we spend so much time with them) and erupting into a monstrous growth of period detail and stylistic parody. It’s not the last station on the line, but at least, unlike with Finnegans Wake, one can still pretend it’s something like a readable work of fiction.

But Ulysses was my gateway into mainstream literature: before that, excepting what I was forced to read for educational purposes, I’d only read science fiction and fantasy. Literature was too boring, just a bunch of normal people doing grown up stuff. Ulysses was different: the first handful of chapters were pretty slow and contained a great deal of matter relating to Thomas Aquinas which I let slide by in peaceful incomprehension. But once the newspaper headlines started in the seventh chapter it started to get fun, if not easier to understand.

So for me, it’s always felt like a starting point, not a conclusion. It’s not exactly a friendly introduction to the Western canon, but there’s a lot of writers I first heard of, or was exposed to parodies of, under its influence. And its attitude of “hey, keep up with this if you can”, the sense you get of being complicit with someone taking everything they knew about every book they’d ever read for a dance, is exhilarating.

This post started out as another very short science fiction story, which is what I usually post here on Bloomsday, but it felt like it was getting into territory I’ve covered too often: a sort of dystopian scenario where after the Singularity, or some parody thereof, the AIs really do reconstruct Dublin from Ulysses, and put a bunch of human consciousnesses in it, and it’s terrible, like being trapped in a Bloomsday costume party for all eternity. I gave it up because, for one thing, I was unconsciously plagiarising part of a short story by Ian Watson from the 80s called, I think, “The Bloomsday Revolutions”. (I thought of Ian Watson for the first time in years the other day. He’s a good writer, look him up if you get the chance.)

The other reason I stopped was that I’m weary of science fiction being about computers and AI. I think that the real event underlying the Singularity is the collapse of the sf imagination into the computational. Too many of my own attempts to write longer pieces of fiction have gotten stuck or faltered for the same reasons.

I was remembering Jorn Barger, the guy who coined the word ‘blog’ and had a kind of internet celebrity which then dissolved into anti-Semitism and silence. Barger was an autodidact Joyce fan and had a site called “IQ Infinity”, the central thesis of which was that in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Joyce had solved AI, that through sheer brainpower he’d comprehended how the human mind worked. I don’t remember, if I ever really understood, exactly in what sense Barger thought that the works themselves constituted artificial intelligence: could one create the personality of “Leopold Bloom” from the text if it were somehow transformed into software? As another Joyce fanboy I can understand Barger’s reverent awe — without sharing it to that extent. And looked at dispassionately, it’s a ridiculous and self-infatuated idea: if only everyone else loved my favourite author as much as I do, they’d understand how consciousness works, too.

I was also thinking of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project, the origin of the term ‘hypertext’: I’d known about it for decades, and based on what I’d read of his writing at various times, I thought of him as a crank, embittered by the success of the web. Xanadu proposes a much more complex way of linking and embedding documents within one another, with links that go both ways, and an elaborate system of building a top-level document from a variety of sources. Having come across this summary by a recent participant made me sense, in an obscure way, the allure of this vision of a global network of interpenetrating words. But in another way, it feels nightmarish.

In my mind, Xanadu’s “transclusion” is a codified and rigid version of the sort of association of ideas which the reading mind does in a flexible way all by itself. All writing depends on this, but it’s essential to a text like Ulysses, and even more so Finnegans Wake. Rather than narrating, “Stephen thought about Aquinas’ doctrines of sense perception as he walked along Sandymount”, Joyce interpolates “the ineluctable modality of the visible” and so on, all those weird terms I didn’t understand the first time, leaving it to the reader to either follow the echoes, if they are aware of the reference, or, if not, to fold the unusual texts into their own memory, to be echoed later or in other texts.

I love this process: to some extent, what I’ve just described is what being literate means to me. But I enjoy doing it with my own mind, or letting my own mind do it for me, and the thought of it being made explicit, with coloured markers joining the texts in different columns, makes me queasy, as do the very few working xanalogical demos.

I should add that sometimes just reading Joyce gives me the same feeling of vertigo. There’s a central image, or nightmare, behind these different incarnations, a cousin of Borges’ total library, the idea of mind as a sort of infinite glossary. It makes sense that my imagination, in trying to come up with a response to Ulysses as Bloomsday comes around each year, would return to the machines with which I work, and the fantasy that one day they’ll be able to read our favourite books so well that they’ll bring them to life.

I often get the same feeling reading blogs from the rationalist and AI risk communities. I suspect that these are not so much a school of philosophy as a literary genre, in which people with a very particular form of intelligence — discursive, articulate, fond of numerical arguments, insistent that any discipline can either be reduced to economics or physics, or is empty or misleading — imagine, with the same kind of self-infatuation, that magnified forms of this form of intelligence will either save or wreck the world. Earlier this year, I got so compulsive about reading this kind of thing that I had to use a site-blocking extension to stop myself.

I console myself with the idea that Joyce, had he lived in our era, would have been very bad (one imagines with glee his towering contempt and exasperation) at using computers.

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Too Like The Lightning

Ada Palmer, 2016, Tor

I have been looking forward to this ever since I heard that it was a medium-future science fiction novel written in the style of an eighteenth century conte philosophique, two of my favourite literary forms. (Medium-future as in a couple of centuries from now, between near-future, which is decades away, and far-future, which is your Olaf Stapledon or Stephan Baxter stuff when humans have evolved into moonbats or the universe is running down and the sun’s turned into a cannonball.) It’s such an ambitious book — the narrator is describing a twenty-sixth century world which is several technological marvels and a world political revolution distant from our own, but is doing so from another imagined future perspective, after it’s all changed again. This doesn’t quite work as well as I’d like it to, particularly in the book’s treatment of gender: I felt like Terra Ignota’s conventions were not well-established enough before the narrator starts poking holes in them. But I forgave this for the fact that it’s a future history which is about radical social change. (Altered Carbon, which I was looking forward to after seeing people rave about it on Twitter, is a depressing example of how lame most sf is: the hero wakes up after 250 years and nothing seems to have changed except that the rich are meaner. Everything’s still a shopworn cyberpunk dystopia which, let’s be completely honest, was always just Chinatown as seen by a scared white kid.)

The other thing to point out is that the book comes with an in-universe title page, rather lovingly done in imitation of the sorts of eighteenth century books it’s emulating, complete with content warnings from the relevant organisations. Most of the text on this page is incomprehensible unless you’ve read the book and got your head around the very different political structure of its future world, but the content warnings themselves are straightforward, accurate, and should be taken very seriously. It’s an easy book to spoil, and I don’t want to do that, except to warn you that there aren’t many novels where I’ve read certain pages and then had to make a conscious decision whether I wanted to keep reading it in the morning.

I’m glad that I did. Palmer has created something quite unique and exciting, which reminds me of a bunch of authors I never thought to see yoked together. She acknowledges her debts to Asimov and Bester with a couple of sly references, and the portrayal of an utopian society about to unearth social forms which it has buried or obscured reminded me of Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man stories, in content if not in style. And, most unexpectedly, the baroque characterisation made me think of R A Lafferty, who is not an author I ever expected to compare to anyone.

New Wave Music

A month or so ago I started making playlists based on tracks that reminded me of some of my favourite fantasy authors: here are versions of them (minus a couple of obscure 80s Australian indie tracks which aren’t on GrooveShark)

Grey-Green Music: Philip K Dick

The Voices of Time: J G Ballard

The Lathe of Heaven: Ursula K Le Guin

The Autumnal City: Samuel R Delany

American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-1958

I never got around to reviewing the second volume of the Library of America’s science fiction anthology! Here you go.

Double Star

Robert A Heinlein

Wow. Robert A Heinlein was such a bullshit-artist.

The Stars My Destination
Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester, on the other hand, wrote preposterous space opera with more panache than anyone, before or since. Forget Heinlein: Bester does science fiction libertarianism as it should be done, a tattooed teleporting madman with a fistful of sub-atomic dynamite.

A Case of Conscience
James Blish

Father Ruiz-Sanchez, the thoughtful Jesuit scientist who reads Finnegans Wake when he’s not pondering the theological implications of the peaceful, religion-free inhabitants of the planet Lithia, is still one of my favourite characters in literature. The first half is a beautiful first contact story: the second half, which moves to an overcrowded and decadent Earth, is much less convincing. The satire is shrill and dated, and the Lithian ambassador to Earth is an unconvincingly camp false prophet in the centre of a bad Wyndham Lewis pantomime. 

Who?
Algis Budrys

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this, as projections of the Cold War into the 80s from the 50s rarely satisfy, but it was surprisingly good: a controlled and deliberately ambiguous story of a scientist who is returned from East to West after a lab accident, having been rebuilt as a cyborg by Soviet scientists.

The Big Time
Fritz Leiber

A short and impressive novel which deals with an aeon-spanning time war in an elegant and effective way: by setting the action in a pocket universe/bordello used by the agents of one faction for shore leave. A bit marred by the narrative voice – the story is told by one of the girls in a corny sub-Judy-Holliday-in-Born-Yesterday vernacular – but if you consider that Leiber’s parents were touring Shakespeareans of the old school, and treat it as farcical theatre, the whole thing snaps into focus. (Curiously, the narrator of the Heinlein novel is an actor, and he is, somewhat mystifyingly, given that it’s set on like the Moon or something in the 21st century, and that Heinlein is supposed to be a master of social world-building, an incredibly corny caricature, just the sort of old stager who was disappearing in 1956, so, yeah, as I said. A bullshit-artist.)

The Causal Angel

Hannu Rajaniemi

The conclusion to the Jean le Flambeur trilogy which started with The Quantum Thief. I enjoyed this as much as the first two books, although for me, nothing really capped the moment in The Fractal Prince when we discover the true nature of the Aun, as breathtaking a piece of meta-(science)-fiction as I’ve read in decades. The Causal Angel has a society which uses quantum entanglement as currency/politics, entertaining intertexts, especially the Finnish ones, and just enough explanations of the backstory of Rajaniemi’s posthuman solar system to not spoil the mystery. In principle, I frown on the “computational turn” in contemporary sf, but this disapproval wilts in comparison to the pleasure I get from stories that throw you in at the deep end and expect you to keep pace with a bewildering array of strange terms and situations. What we might call high modernist science fiction.

Coincidentally, I was reminded the other day of Cyriak’s bizarre manipulation/animations: I don’t think the world of Jean le Flambeur could really be filmed but this animation made me think of Rajaniemi’s Sobornost.

American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956

I’ve become addicted to Library of America editions so I got pretty excited when their boxed set of classic science fiction novels from the 50s was announced. I grew up reading mid-century sf but with a few exceptions I haven’t revisited them since. This post covers the first volume.

The Space Merchants
Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth

After a few pages of this satire I quipped on Twitter that it was “Mad Men with rockets and assassins” but Pohl and Kornbluth’s overcrowded corporation-ruled 21st century makes the 60s look like paradise. It’s a snappy thriller: a bit light compared to the next two novels, but its vision of the future seems depressingly prophetic.

More Than Human
Theodore Sturgeon

I thought that I hadn’t read any of the novels in this volume, but a couple of phrases were so familiar that I suppose I must have read More Than Human. My childhood reaction to Sturgeon was that he was weird and dull, which translates from the 9-year-old as “too many veiled references that go over my head” and “not enough spaceships”. More Than Human is very good. Psychic powers are a sf trope that seems to have just petered out after the 70s and are, I suppose, thought of as the opposite of hard sf. I think telepathy is more scientifically plausible than FTL travel — but then if you ask me the whole hard/soft divide uses scientific realism as a proxy for literary differences: which is a subject for a whole essay. Anyway, Sturgeon’s fable of a group of misfits who develop a gestalt identity has a genuine sense of menace, and the woodland setting had me imagining it adapted in a Twin Peaks style by David Lynch, which, if done right, would be awesome and also terrifying.

The Long Tomorrow
Leigh Brackett

Not only had I not read The Long Tomorrow, I hadn’t even heard of it. This is a shame, because it’s great. A post-atomic-war story (a sub-genre which as a child I was both fascinated, repelled and bored by) which avoids most of the obvious clichés, has a solid and believable post-industrial society, and is even-handed enough to make both the pastoral simplicity of its world and the comforts of the world it replaced seem, at their best moments, equally idyllic. Worth the price of admission just by itself.

The Shrinking Man
Richard Matheson

This was also a pleasant surprise — I thought it would be fairly pulpy, since I was expecting something like the unrelated and idiotic TV show Land Of The Giants. But it was surprisingly tense and moving, given the absurd premise. The way in which the domestic settings — mostly, the cellar of the hero’s house — grow more and more abstract made me think of the nouveau roman, or at least of what I’ve read about the nouveau roman, and also to wish that I had actually read any Robbe-Grillet so that I could back that reference up with something. Sorry. Sticking to things I actually know about, I found it impossible not to imagine the hapless protagonist as Pete Campbell.

The LOA’s companion website to the set is really good but be warned, the essays on each novel have spoilers.