DREAMS & NIGHTMARES
FROM YESTERDAY’S FUTURES
Book Reviews of:
‘THE SIRENS OF TITAN’
by KURT VONNEGUT JRN
‘MORE THAN HUMAN’
by THEODORE STURGEON
‘A TIME OF CHANGES’
by ROBERT SILVERBERG
by SAMUEL R DELANY
(‘Gollancz SF Masterworks’ launched 27 March 1986, £2.95)
Bored rebellious teenage girl forms erotic liaison with scaly alien, then flaunts the relationship to provoke and outrage the locals. When they refuse to be shocked, when they even bless the mismatched union, she loses interest in the affair and dumps hapless alien. Despite appearances there’s nothing essentially Science Fictional about this Robert Silverberg storyline – from his ‘Majipoor Chronicles’ series, there’s no reason why the same narrative effect couldn’t equally be achieved by switching the locale to crossing ethnic and cultural lines in Bradford, or Brixton, or even a Belfast Catholic-Protestant tryst. There might even be credibility-points to gain by tackling ‘issues of relevant social concern’ head-on. So why deliberately distance the tale with extraterrestrial imagery? The theme becomes SF through its manipulation of a kind of magical surrealism, the literary ‘code’ of a pretend world, an intriguingly bizarre alien biology, the exotic ‘Travellers Tales’ sense of wonder at haunting strangeness.
But WHY Science Fiction? With Earth pretty much mapped into domesticity our collective hunger for Folk myths must be projected upwards and outwards, play-acting fables in imaginary space-time continuums. SF has been around a long while. The ‘Gollancz Classic SF’ paperback series was launched to ‘celebrate twenty-five years at the forefront of Science Fiction publishing.’ It’s also an opportunity to take a full body-scan of the literature, monitoring the vigour and health of its state of the art.
I grew up on the stuff. For my adolescent fix it was enough merely to hunt down the shelves of my local library for those distinctive near-luminous yellow Gollancz spines that crammed my head on the evolving fantasies of Frederik Pohl, Clifford D Simak, James Blish, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert A Heinlein et al; writers whose (literally) fabulous, (literally) incredible visions are etched so indelibly deep into perceptions of the Solar System – and beyond, that even the most determinedly persistent Voyager probe can’t touch, never mind eradicate them! There never were any ‘Sirens Of Titan’ – look at the fly-by photos! – but the book still suspends your disbelief with the sheer absurd beauty of its invention.
There’s two ways writers can use this conceptual memory bank, this data gene-pool of ideas, this twenty-year-plus accumulation of tantalising symbols. You can celebrate them – and choosing the classics from the Gollancz back-catalogue is like having to select just twelve tracks for a ‘Best Of Motown’ album. What to choose? What to leave out? Or you can ditch them entirely and reinvent the genre by going back to first principles. In an interview in ‘Words’ magazine JG Ballard advocates stripping this whole escapist cotton-candy fantasia down to its constituent atoms. He attacks the whole superstructure of artificial futures so painstakingly assembled by generations of poorly-paid Pulp hacks. This entire map of hyper-drive eternities, he argues, should be trashed back to the basis of the human vs technology interface. Ballard himself replaces it with more contemporary metaphor-symbols of concrete islands, media satire, autowrecks and urban desolation – which is fine manifesto-wise, but ignores the hypnotic lure of the traditional fictional multiverse, the ‘Billion Year Spree’ that is celebrated through the Gollancz Classics series.
The earliest reissue is Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘More Than Human’ from November 1953, a time when the genre was still considered a disreputable under-the-counter purchase targeted at acne-cratered adolescents, a furtive activity akin to masturbation. It’s an Earthbound next-stage-in-evolution novel, developed from a novella called “Baby Is Three” expanded by the addition of “The Fabulous Idiot” and “Morality”, concerning five misfit individuals; two black girls with speech impediments, the introspective daughter of a sex-worker, a mongoloid baby and an idiot-savant with unsuspected depths, who ‘blesh’ together to form a gestalt entity of unpredictable power. It’s a fine understated work by a writer who died in May 1985 aged sixty-seven, a writer whose skill did much to open the scope of, and legitimise his chosen genre. Kurt Vonnegut readily acknowledges the pioneering role that Sturgeon played. ‘It’s a tradition in Science Fiction to go as fast as possible; that grew out of the fact that people were being paid by the word when they began, quarter of a cent a word, you know?’ he explained. But ‘Ted Sturgeon for instance – if he could have spent more time on his books, he would have had those books accepted as mainstream’ (interview in ‘Space Voyager no.7’).
Samuel R Delany paid Sturgeon his dues too, in the form of a eulogy spoken by Lump, a ‘linguistic’ from the short novel ‘Empire Star’ (1966), ‘there was one ancient Science Fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, who would break me up every time I read him. He seemed to have seen every flash of light on a window, every leaf shadow on a screen door that I had ever seen, done everything I had ever done from playing the guitar to laying over for a couple of weeks on a boat in Arkansas Pass, Texas.’
But perhaps more than anyone else, it was Vonnegut who benefitted from this increasing sophistication and the eventual critical acceptance of SF, although he never underestimated the value of traditional Space-Fiction paraphernalia. His second novel – ‘The Sirens Of Titan’ from 1959, is a manic romp through the full widescreen pantheon of Pulp myth, a conscious ransacking of its every ludicrous invention, an affectionate piss-take, and a deliciously absurd concoction. Vonnegut’s protagonist, Malachi ‘Unk’ Constant, becomes involved in a well-intentioned but disastrous Martian invasion of Earth, gets trapped on Mercury with friendly luminous triangles called Harmoniums, and eventually winds up on Titan with a Tralfamadorian robot called Salo who is marooned in the Solar System midway in a journey across the galaxy to deliver a message that reads – simply, ‘Greetings’. It’s less Science Fiction, and more a careful send-up of the genre set neither in a recognisable Solar System or even an internally rational universe. He realised that SF was an entire alternative reality in which a wealth of interchangeable story components could be unquestioningly accepted, things that don’t exist, have never and probably never will exist outside fiction – Faster-Than-Light travel, telepathy, androids, laser swords, time travel, force-fields. Taken collectively they form a ‘code’, a complex web of off-the-peg myth symbols of remarkable potency.
Around the time that ‘More Than Human’ was shiny new, Robert Silverberg was poised to launch his own Pulp hack phase. Then, several phases on, he was mixing and matching genre-styles and story-ingredients with a juggler’s dexterity. ‘A Time For Changes’ (1971), originally serialised in ‘Galaxy’ and winner of a 1971 Nebula award, is far from his best novel – my vote would go to his ‘Nightwings’ (1969), but it is a highly readable example of his Majipoor-style neo-feudalism. It concerns the forbidden history of one Kinnall Darwal, prince of Salla, whose Borthan morality is eroded by ‘soul-sharing’ hallucinogens provided by a visiting Earthman. The narcotic counters the strict social taboos against the use of the ‘first person,’ and by becoming its ‘pusher’, the story becomes an LSD fable that runs its course when Kinnall’s bond-sister Halum suicides after a soul-sharing session, and Kinnall himself is hunted, presumably to death, as a result.
While Samuel ‘Chip’ Delany’s New Wave epic ‘Nova’ (1968) takes the reader not only forward into the internal rivalries of the galactic empire of the thirty-first-century, but also through the heart of an imploding sun with Lorq Von Ray’s grail-quest for the elusive Illyrion. A dense, rich work of some lyrical complexity it demonstrates just how far the genre has evolved, while remaining true to its well-used and oft-abused basic tenets. And, these four reissues taken collectively, display the breadth of diversity that exists within that definition, as well as its inter-relationships. ‘In a sense’ Delany explained, ‘ ‘Nova’ is a specialised kind of thing, because it’s a pastiche of a very classical type of Science Fiction novel… everyone has gotten this idea that I was going to do New and Different Things – and then what I essentially tried to do was write the perfect ‘Planet Stories’ novel’ (in ‘Science Fiction Monthly’ Vol.2 no.3).
But if fiction is ‘things that never happened to people who never existed,’ then SF, no matter how sophisticated, just fast-forwards the tense into futures imperfect. So can it REALLY be taken seriously as literature? Science Fiction is a serious literature of dreams, and a serious flirtation with nightmare. That’s at least as serious as Sigmund Freud, or Salvador Dalí! It was Theodore Sturgeon himself who first formulated the equation that ninety-percent of everything is crap, it’s the remaining ten percent that provides the justification. The dictum passed into SF lore – and beyond, as ‘Sturgeon’s Law’. Gollancz Classics re-presents that justifying percent in attractive new editions. Although it still falls short of explaining WHY SF? The spaceship as phallic symbol? The future as political metaphor for now? The likes of Silverberg’s scaly alien romance universalises and codifies syndromes that no amount of gritty accurate localising could do. All this and more is probably true. And sure, it’s escapist as hell too. It’s a fix like any other kind of addiction, one I still can’t clean out of my head. You can rationalise it, intellectualise it with all manner of smart-ass sophistry as technological poetry and speculative prose, but its lure remains the romance of the Traveller’s Tale. JG Ballard is correct too. Art must continually reinvent itself, for without action there can be no reaction. Without vocabulary there can be no fables.
If ‘Gollancz Classics’ exist to indoctrinate SF virgins into a sense of wonder, with a new compendium of Folk myths, then I’m grateful for the opportunity of buying in for a second time round. It’s still my favourite waste of time!
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