Reading List: Golden Witchbreed

Golden Witchbreed coverIn the end, it all comes down to the words on the page. For sf, which aspires to describe new things, this poses an immediate challenge. The answer we’re most familiar with is new words — either new slang or technical words in the language we’re reading, or, less commonly, words that have allegedly originated elsewhere, and been imported. It’s primarily the latter strategy that’s deployed in Mary Gentle’s 1983 novel Golden Witchbreed, and it’s a serious mark in the book’s favour — an indication of how solid its foundations are — that the profusion of apostrophes introduced by the alien words dotted around the text are barely a distraction. But there’s a subtler way of addressing the challenge, too, and it’s this way in which Golden Witchbreed really excels: words we know don’t always mean what we think they do.

Arriving as an envoy to the fifth world of a star close to the galactic centre, a world whose light and vegetation are even at first glance “shockingly alien”, this is what greets Gentle’s narrator:

A man walked out of the trade station, waved a careless hand, and headed towards me. He wore shirt, britches, high boots — and a sword belted at his hip. He was not human. An Orthean. (9)

The problem here — aside from the simple improbability of a humanoid alien, hand-waved later on the grounds that similar cosmological conditions give rise to similar life — is that a non-human cannot be a man. The contradiction is introduced obviously enough that it should put us on our guard. It’s a hint that the alien words for alien things are not the whole story, even though they’re rendered in italics (a habit I find irritating and somewhat patronizing); a reminder that what is being translated here is not a language, it is a culture, and that such translations cannot be perfect. Barely two pages later, in fact, the narrator is warned to “beware intrigue”, but the word her guide uses is not “intrigue”, it is “an untranslatable expression”, which requires the gloss that it “includes the Orthean term for challenges and games” (11). So we bear such ambiguity in mind as we read on, and when we’re told that it’s always hazy on Orthe, we nod sagely and think, in more ways than one.

We probably forget that this answer doesn’t explain why the narrator used the word “man”, rather than pointing out directly that the Orthean greeting her was not one, and thus probably get a small shock when it’s revealed that the narrator is an empath. The ability to look beyond surfaces makes her a boon as an envoy to an alien world even if it means her superiors don’t quite trust her. And it makes her a boon to her creator, precisely because her readers can’t quite trust her, either. For long stretches, the narrator will interact with the other characters as though they are human, only to be reminded of where she is by some jolt of alienness. The repetition of these shocks — sometimes, recognition of “a more alien quality of thought” (181) than previously appreciated; sometimes a simple glance around, such as the observation that, filled with stars even in the day, “Orthe’s pale sky gleamed like water” (156) — is effective for several reasons. In part, it’s because they’re emotional notes, not informational; but more importantly, it’s because each time we are reminded of the gaps between how the narrator sees the Ortheans, what she has the words to say, and what they are. Under careful management, as it is here, this is an extraordinarily effective approach to depicting the alien. Within those gaps, our hesitant imagination makes the unknown more real than any description that might pretend to be complete and true ever could.

Of course, it’s only because so much of the description does pretend to be complete and true that it’s effective to realise that in some ways it can’t be. Golden Witchbreed is an observant, attentive book, generous with the sort of specific detail — the specific words — that are needed to build a world, to the point where the plot, as much of it as there is and as scrupulously justified as every twist is, cannot quite hide the fact that it’s essentially an excuse to tour Gentle’s magnificent, rich creation. So, after an introductory section in which she meets the first contact team that arrived before her and have been stalled, the narrator sets off on her journey. Sometimes with companions, and sometimes alone — “an adventure in the old sense!” she thinks at one point, and laughs at the thought — she makes her way from city to city, across fens and mountains, from the north of a continent to the south. To start with, her travels are ostensibly for research purposes. Later she has to escape danger, in the form of attempts on her life, or schemes to frame her for murder – a significant faction of the Ortheans want no part of human technological society, and some even believe the humans are the disguised return of the despised Golden Witchbreed, whose high-tech rule is long gone but not forgotten.

This is by no means the only Orthean opinion, however. Central to Golden Witchbreed’s success is its variegation: the wealth of flora and fauna encountered, the distinct nature of the cities and societies through which the narrator moves, and the individual nature of the Ortheans themselves, who vary in colour, markings, physique, temperament, language, sexuality, and every other domain that you might expect a large population to show variation in. There’s more than one alien world that needs learning, in other words; it’s always clear how incomplete our picture is, how little one first-person perspective can capture of a world. “We can’t judge a world by you,” one Orthean tells the narrator, “and you can’t judge the Southland by a Roehmonder priest or a Dadeni rider — or even a Melkathi woman” (66). Even when, late in the novel, we finally get a sense of Orthe’s history, it comes not as an authoritative lecture, but through the recollection of a series of limited, personal memories.

Which is what all this magisterial display of worldbuilding prowess is in service of: a planetary romance that explores the interaction between the personal and the social. At one point, considering her options, the narrator asks herself, “how dangerous would it be? Physically, mentally, politically?” (279). That last word is the telling one; it is a word that many other sf novels might omit at such a point, but that Golden Witchbreed must include. The human xeno-team find the society they’re living in fascinating in part because to them it appears to represent a political paradox — “the first socially mobile pretech world on record — no caste-system, nothing” one enthuses (39) — and Gentle’s unpacking of the mechanisms by which this apparently inconsistent system is sustained, which are in the first instance cultural, is exemplary. It has the rigour of good design. There is almost never the sense that something on Orthe is the way it is for the sake of authorial convenience or desire, and implications — for example, of the organisation of the Southland into entities known as telestres that are neither precisely families nor precisely estates — continue to evolve right up to the end of the novel. When the narrator is tripped up by Orthean society it is because, for all that she is observant both of individual behaviour and cultural practice, her estimate of the political danger — her understand of the flux between individual and culture — has turned out to be wrong.

And yet she inhabits that flux, and over the course of the novel is inexorably shaped by it. This is why I have, somewhat artlessly, withheld her name for so long: because unlike a novel such as, say, Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters, Golden Witchbreed does not create its world from its protagonist outwards. Rather, it builds from the outside in. We come to know the narrator — her openness, her perceptiveness, her desires and fears, her practicality and her wry humour – not through her introspection, and not through her interaction with any frame of reference we know, but through her relationship with Orthe. This is what makes the revelation that her empathy is not as reliable as she might wish so effective, because we are as dependent on it as she is. The revelation that Orthean young, known as aishiren, are not sexed (there is a little confusion with gender at a couple of points, but it seems pretty clear that what is meant is biological sex, that aishiren are neuter until their equivalent of puberty), and that a character the narrator has been assuming is male is actually not, is probably in principle more of a challenge to the narrator than it will be for some of her readers (the male/female binary “was not a view one questioned”, she thinks). But in practice we feel the shock along with her. Put another way, the narrator’s possession of this view never feels terminally old-fashioned in the way that the views of so many of the protagonists of yesterday’s tomorrows have become (sometimes through no fault of their author!). It helps that she makes clear that she well knows how thoroughly little she knows; but more importantly, her thoughts and actions are sufficiently framed as her individual responses that we don’t have to take her as representative of humanity of her time, and sufficiently detailed that they retain the ring of psychological plausibility. And so she remains, impressively, someone who could be written tomorrow.

Words make a world which makes a character; and as in any great novel, all of this remakes a reader. By the time Orthe has reshaped the narrator such that she is sympathising more with the Ortheans than with her own species, we might even think we’ve got a handle on the society we’ve been shown. We might think we could play Ochmir, the game Gentle invents that slightly too explicitly mirrors the values of the Southland, with the best of them. If we know that there is a sequel, Ancient Light (1987), and we know that it sharply divides opinion, it’s not really a guess to conclude that we shouldn’t feel so secure; but even Golden Witchbreed’s wrenching final pages, in which a devastating betrayal is followed by a tentative, partial answer to the question of how Orthe and Earth will relate in the future, offer some correction. The narrator departs, as she must – it’s the only appropriate resolution the novel can offer – but we can feel that she will return. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the narrator we know would not exist without Orthe; nor to say that the fifth world of Carrick would not be known to us as it is without the privileged British envoy of the human Dominion, Lynne de Lisle Christie.

Reading List: Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering

Oof. Much like “Train Tracks”, this strikes me as an article that carries on for far longer than its insight warrants, and that in the process “develops” its arguments to some quite impressively dumb conclusions.

The first part of “Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering: Science Fiction as Science” [pdf], which provides an overview of what nanotechnology is and how it presents itself to the world, is good, usefully highlighting how inflated the rhetoric of the field can be:

Scientific journal articles reporting experimental achievements in nanotech, or reviewing the field, frequently speak of the technical advances still required for “the full potential of nanotechnology to be realized”, of steps needed towards fulfilling the “dream of creating useful machines the size of a virus”, of efforts that, if they “pan out … could help researchers make everything from tiny pumps that release lifesaving drugs when needed to futuristic materials that heal themselves when damaged”. These texts – representative of the genre of popular and professional writing about nanotech that I will call “nanowriting” – incorporate individual experiments and accomplishments in nanoscience into a teleological narrative of “the evolution of nanotechnology”, a progressivist account of a scientific field in which the climax, the “full potential”, the “dream” of a nanotechnology capable of transforming garbage into gourmet meals and sending invisible surgeons through the bloodstream, is envisioned as already inevitable.

The problems begin when Milburn starts to dig into the fact that “many critics have claimed that nanotechnology is less a science and more a science fiction”. To be clear, I don’t actually doubt that this is the case. But here’s how Milburn characterises the words of one such critic:

Gary Stix, staff writer for Scientific American and a persistent critic of nanotech … maintains that nanowriting, a “subgenre of science fiction”, damages the legitimacy of nanoscience in the public eye, and that “[d]istinguishing between what’s real and what’s not” is essential for nanotech’s prosperity.

Here’s what Stix actually wrote:

Less directly, Drexler’s work may actually draw people into science. His imaginings have inspired a rich vein of science-fiction literature [see "Shamans of Small," by Graham P. Collins, on page 86]. As a subgenre of science fiction-rather than a literal prediction of the future-books about Drexlerian nanotechnology may serve the same function as Star Trek does in stimulating a teenager’s interest in space, a passion that sometimes leads to a career in aeronautics or astrophysics.

The thrust of Stix’s piece is indeed what Milburn says it is – an argument that the improbable rhetoric around nanotechnology obscures the reality of the field – but at this point, Stix is not asserting that nanowriting is a subgenre of science fiction, as Milburn suggests, but rather that when nanowriting filters into science fiction it may serve the same inspirational function as other sfnal transformations of real science. For an argument centrally concerned with the distinction between speculative fiction and speculative science, that seems quite important, and for an article that often turns on paraphrase or interpretation of key texts, a little worrying. Here’s how he summarizes the relationship:

Succinctly, science fiction assumes an element of transgression from contemporary scientific thought that in itself brings about the transformation of the world. It follows that nanowriting, in positing the world turned upside down by the future advent of fully functional nanomachines, thereby falls into the domain of science fiction.

No, it doesn’t. There is a clear relationship between the two things. There are depictions of nanotechnology in science fiction, and science-fictional claims by nanotechnologists. But these two things are not the same, not in source or form or intent or effect. At the very least, if you’re going to argue otherwise, you have to show that they are the same by comparing examples of each, and while Milburn dissects several articles about nanotechnology at no point does he perform a similar dissection on a science-fiction text. (Although it’s noticeable that he doesn’t tackle actual nanotechnology research articles, but rather general commentary on the field and its potential, which for the most part is held to stand for the whole; when he does mention “celebrated experimental results”, they are presented “in no particular order”, rather than the logical, chronological order, which rather demonstrates Milburn’s lack of interest in the non-fictional side of nanotechnology.) Absent such analysis, no amount of assertion or appeal to Baudrillard will make nanotechnology “simultaneously a science and a science fiction”, such that “only a more sutured concept – something like ‘science (fiction)’ – adequately represents the technoscape”. (At this point my print-out of the article has “Oh, come on!” written in the margin.)

This is not to say the article is without good bits, although at times it’s hard to shake the feeling that Milburn is just on a mission to add “nano” to as many words as possible — nanotech, nanomachine, nanowriting, nanorhetoric, nanofuture, nanoscientists, nanological, nanosystems, nanofanciful, nanonarratives, and so forth. The analysis of the rhetorics of nanotechnology is interesting, such as the observation that so many of the “dreams” it promotes are drawn from golden age sf. There’s an intriguing, if not nearly as definitive as Milburn seems to think, suggestion that Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, owes a debt to Heinlein’s 1942 story “Waldo”, and an exploration of the ways in which Feynman’s talk is a much woollier affair than it is often presented as. And there’s a useful presentation and critique of the strategies nanotechnology advocates use to distinguish between their theorising and science fiction.

But much of the article is undermined by that failure to distinguish between the presentation of nanotechnology and the practice, or indeed just between informed and uninformed speculation. Here is the issue in microcosm, perhaps: Milburn writes that “despite many determined critics, nanotech managed to secure its professional future by combining fantastic speculation with concerted attacks on science fiction”, completely missing the point that the attacks are on claims that nanotechnology is sf, not on sf as a thing in itself. This leads to Milburn arguing for equivalence between a golden age sf story that imagines an application that could be achieved through nanotechnology – miniature surgery, for instance – and a contemporary nanotechnological speculation, and further that this equivalence “destabilizes” the division between theoretical science and science fiction. I would suggest that the relationship between the fiction and the science in the two cases is different, and that the division remains clear.

The final section of the article, having established to its satisfaction that nanotechnology is science fiction, takes a bit of a left turn into discussion of what our inevitable nanotechnological future will look like, summed up as follows:

As these scenarios suggest, nanotechnology has unprecedented effects on the way we are able to conceptualize our bodies, our biologies, our subjectivities, our technologies, and the world we share with other organisms. Whether positing the liberation of human potential or the total annihilation of organic life on this planet, nanologic demands that we think outside the realms of the human and humanism. Nanologic makes our bodies cyborg and redefines our material experiences, redraws our conceptual borders, and reimagines our future.

Stirring stuff! Although you start to wonder at that present tense, given that Milburn seemed to be arguing that nanotechnology remains science fiction, i.e. not yet real. And then you hit:

Accordingly, even before the full potential of a working nanotechnology has been realized, we have already become posthuman.

Oh dear. There’s not really any way to walk that back, is there? Unless … yes, I’ve got it! This article, which draws on science fictional imagery and techniques in its distortion of reality, is itself science fiction! I’m a genius.

(Some days, postmodernism makes me feel very tired.)

London Meeting: Doctor Who book launch

Tonight’s BSFA London Meeting will be a panel discussion of and book launch for The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who, featuring contibutors to the book, Melissa Beattie, Simon Guerrier, and Colin B. Harvey.

The venue remains the same: the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

The event will start at 7pm, though there are likely to be people in the bar from 6-ish; the meeting is free, and open to any and all. There will be a raffle (with sf books as prizes).

Reading List: The Heritage of Hastur

The Heritage of Hastur coverWhatever the virtues of The Heritage of Hastur — and to my mind they are limited in the extreme, although apparently enough people thought it had virtues to nominate it for a Nebula Award in 1976 (although not, so far as I can tell, the Hugo Award that the back cover of the edition I read claims) — it is a deeply tedious read. This is, in part, because it contains dialogue like this —

“You’re a licensed matrix mechanic, aren’t you, Lew? What’s that like?”

This I could answer. “You know what a matrix is: a jewel stone that amplifies the resonances of the brain and transmutes psi power into energy …” (32)

– despite the fact that “As you know, Bob” must have been a cliche even in 1975. And in part it’s because Marion Zimmer Bradley is careful never to tell you just once what she can tell you three times. For example:

“Give it up, Regis. Only a catalyst telepath can ever do it safely and I’m not one. As far as I know, there are no catalyst telepaths alive now.” (33)

Two pages later, some narration from the above speaker:

Then he had at least latent laran. Arousing it, though, might be a difficult and painful business. Perhaps a catalyst telepath could have roused it. They had been bred for that work, in the days when Comyn did complex and life-shattering work in the higher-level matrices. I’d never known one. Perhaps the set of genes was extinct. (35)

And a scant three pages on, from the same narrator:

A catalyst telepath probably could have reached him. But in these days, due to inbreeding, indiscriminate marriage with nontelepaths and the disappearance of the old means of stimulating these gifts, the various Comyn psi powers no longer bred true. [...] As far as I knew, there were none left alive. (38)

Nor is this the last time we are earnestly informed that a catalyst telepath is urgently needed, but that there are none left alive. The problem with this – or at least, the first problem with it — is that it all rather primes the pump, so that it’s no surprise at all when a catalyst telepath does turn up, and so that it’s blindingly obvious who said catalyst is about fifty pages before Bradley will admit it to us. And the whole novel is as thuddingly obvious as this. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s a complete lack of spark in Bradley’s writing. The Heritage of Hastur tells, according to the back cover, this epic, tragic story:

This is the complex and compelling tale of the early life of Regis Hastur, Darkover’s greatest monarch. But HERITAGE also spins the terrifying and heartbreaking story of those who sought to control the deadly Sharra Matrix, and tells how Lew Alton met and lost his greatest love, Marjorie Scott.

The two narratives are told in alternate chapters, Lew’s in the first person, and Regis’ in the third person. Despite the blurb’s emphasis, I’d say the end result is much more Lew’s book than Regis’; it’s Lew who is sent to investigate rumours of an alliance between a rogue Darkovan kingdom and Terrans, and Lew’s decision to try to use the Sharra Matrix that leads to the novel’s climax. But neither strand lives up to its promise. Here’s the young Regis, resentful of the path laid out before him by his heritage, yearning to escape offworld:

Below him an enormous cargo ship was in the final stages of readying for takeoff, with refuelling cranes being moved away, scaffoldings and loading platforms being wheeled like toys to a distance. The process was quick and efficient. He heard again the waterfall sound, rising to a roar, a scream. The great ship lifted slowly, then more swiftly and finally was gone … out, beyond the stars.

Regis remained motionless, staring at the spot in the sky where the starship had vanished. He knew there were tears in his eyes again but he didn’t care. (45)

Do you feel moved to tears by his experience? ‘cause I don’t. There’s no specificity in this image, no gnarls or details to really ground it; it’s just a generic ship, going through a generic takeoff procedure. There’s nothing to really evoke the gap between Regis’ experience of life and the life he dreams of – or rather, there’s a huge gap, indicated by “… out, beyond the stars”, that we’re left to fill ourselves.

Lew, meanwhile, is our vehicle for experiencing Darkovan psychic life. But here too Bradley’s writing is flat:

His pain tore at me; I was wide open to it. Through the clawing pain I could feel his emotions, fury and a fierce determination, thrusting his will on me. “You will!

I’m not Alton for nothing. Swiftly I thrust back, fighting his attempt to force agreement. “There’s no need for that, father. I’m not your puppet!” (55)

To anyone who’s read – to take a recent example – Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books, such exchanges will seem rather lacking in intensity, and even plausibility. We’re told that there was “clawing pain”, but the experience is distanced: there’s no sense that Lew still feels that pain, looking back on it, just that he knows it was there at the time. “There’s no need for that, father”, meanwhile, sounds like a polite disagreement over tea, not a fierce riposte in the middle of a psychic duel. (Mind you, this is a novel in which the naughty words are literally censored: “He used a word which made Regis, used as his was to Guard Hall coarseness, gasp aloud and draw away, shaking and almost physically sick” [139]. So perhaps the politeness here shouldn’t be a surprise.) Later, Lew notes that in Darkovan psychic circles you have to get used “to knowing that everyone … can share all your feelings and emotions and desires”; but if there’s one thing that’s notable about Lew’s narrative, it’s that he’s locked inside his own head, with little sense of the experiences of others.

What energy the book does possess comes not from its sentences but from its melodrama; unfortunately, this is almost all psychologically unconvincing. Most notable is the aforementioned relationship between Marjorie – very nearly the novel’s only significant female character – and Lew, which is one of those supremely unconvincing romances in which the participants fall madly in love (and, inevitably, we’re told over and over that they’re madly in love) on the basis of no obvious fellow feeling whatsoever, and which consequently has absolutely no impact when it ends badly. But it infects other relationships as well: we will pass lightly over the honourable but unfortunate attempt at including gay characters, save to note that the insistence that the bad gay is bad for reasons that have nothing to do with his gayness comes, precisely because Bradley repeats it so often, to have an air of protesting too much, while it’s noticeable that the good gay remains chaste for the entire novel.

All of this is a tremendous disappointment. I did not want to dislike The Heritage of Hastur; I actually wanted quite badly to like it, since the planetary romance itch – taking the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s definition of the form, as “Any sf tale whose primary venue (excluding contemporary or near-future versions of Earth) is a planet, and whose plot turns to a significant degree upon the nature of that venue” – is one that I don’t find contemporary sf particularly effective at scratching. And in the abstract, the Darkover setting sounds fine and interesting. Here’s how the Encyclopedia describes it:

[…] perhaps the most significant planetary romance sequence in modern sf [...]

Darkover’s inhabitants — partially bred from human colonists of a previous age — successfully resist the Empire’s various attempts to integrate them into a political and economic union. Darkovans have a complex though loosely described anti-technological culture dominated by sects of telepaths conjoined in potent “matrices” around which much of the action of the series is focused. Increasingly, questions of sexual politics begin significantly to shape the sequence, and to cast an ambivalent light upon the gender distortions forced primarily upon women (and the androgyny required by all aspirants to a higher state) through the strange exigencies of Darkovan culture.

[...] Shadowy, complex and confused, the world of Darkover is increasingly a house of many mansions; a few (either writers or readers) seem to feel unwelcome.

This is, indeed, what I want from a planetary romance: a full exploration of an alternate human society. Unfortunately, little of the sophistication claimed here is in evidence in The Heritage of Hastur. The central conflict of the book – and, I gather, the series – has to do with the relationship between Darkover, an early colony that developed its psychic potential as a result of a lack of the materials needed for more mechanistic technology, and the rest of human space, and in particular whether Darkover should join broader human society, or remain separate. This has potential — there is an obviously useful frisson to be generated from the juxtaposition of higher and lower-technology societies, not to mention the more general questions of community identity that this set-up raises – and Heritage is not entirely without moments when you can feel the weight and frustration of, as one character puts it, “living inside a dead past”, the cost of an enforced societal stasis. Even with the flatness of Bradley’s writing, it does add some shading to Regis’ otherwise by-the-numbers reluctance to embrace his destiny.

But there’s a wearying thinness to the cultural construction. We’re told that Darkover’s culture is descended from a mix of Spanish, Gaelic and English colonists; it’s good that we’re told, because to that point, names aside, the lands of the Seven Domains are to all intents and purpose a generically ersatz feudal setting. And while it is rather wonderful, in a pomp-deflating sense, that among all the grandly named nobles there is one that the text regularly insists on referring to as “Bob”, the court of which he is part, which should be (we’re told is) the best of a fusion between Darkovan custom and Terran tech, feels little different to every other place we see. And so on and so forth. Even ignoring the wince-inducing comments about “alien blood” in human lines – I hold out some faint hope that this is explained in other Darkovan books as simply a family mutation, and that Bradley isn’t actually trying to offer up human/alien interbreeding as plausible – it becomes increasingly clear that The Heritage of Hastur is not, in any meaningful sense, science fiction. The Darkovan psychics are functionally wizards, and the Sharra Matrix is your standard immensely powerful but corrupting magic item: what we have here is the most generic of fantasy narratives, complete with a map to travel across, and even some ballads.

This last problem, of course, will only be a problem for some readers. Those who see fantasy and science fiction as straightforwardly interchangeable will (assuming they can get past all the other flaws chronicled above) not be bothered by the idea that Darkover is generic fantasy with sf window-dressing. Me, though, I can’t see the point of it; and to be clear, the problem is not the fantasy so much as the generic. A large part of the point of setting a society such as Darkover within a science-fiction context – for me, the major attraction of planetary romance, which I would not dispute is a kind of fantasy – has to be that it creates a distinct perspective from which to interrogate that society’s values. But all Bradley seems to be interested in is the recreation of too-familiar tropes. In this as in other things, repetition is the novel’s undoing. As The Heritage of Hastur wears on, we’re told with increasing frequency and emphasis that Regis Hastur really is born to lead, while others are born to serve (when a friend offers him his service, it is “a pleasure and a relief” for that friend); and while we may well be meant to greet such statements with scepticism, with Regis only once allowed the faintest of twinges that something might not be right with the distribution of power in his society, clumsiness can’t help but start to look a little like convenience – or even, whatever the Encyclopedia may say about the Darkover series in the round, an endorsement.

Reading List: “The Queen of Air and Darkness”

If nothing else, “The Queen of Air and Darkness” (F&SF, April 1971) will now be my go-to example for the absurdity of overcategorising short fiction, since it won a Hugo as best novella, a Nebula as best novelette, and a Locus Award as best short. I’m not sure I’ve read any of the stories it was competing against in any of those categories, but it doesn’t strike me as exceptional work.

At the very least it’s a more conventionally plot-action-driven narrative than either the Russ or Delany stories. On a colony world called Roland — where, although no intelligent life has been found, settler stories about mysterious beings persist — a child is lost on a biological research expedition. His mother, Barbro Cullen, believes he can still be found, but in the absence of help from local authorities, turns to a private investigator, Eric Sherrinford. Together they set out on an expedition into the wilderness to investigate. Of course there is native life, and in fact interspersed with Cullen and Sherrinford’s journey are other viewpoints, most commonly the perspective of Mistherd, a human boy who was abducted as a baby, and raised to view the human colony as an enemy.

What such a summary omits is that the story addresses a question framed by Sherrinford at the very end: “We live with our archetypes, but can we live in them?” The pipe-smoking Sherrinford himself is clearly — and, as it turns out, self-consciously — modelled on the Consulting Detective; he reports that he’s been studying Roland stories of the Old Folk “on the principle of eliminating every imaginable possibility”, and insists that “when facts are insufficient, theorizing is ridiculous at best, misleading at worst”. Meanwhile, the Old Folk themselves are understood within the frame of Earth legends of faery, with the sections focusing on Mistherd, told in a quite different register to those focusing on the travellers; compare:

A boy and a girl sat on Wolund’s Barrow just under the dolmen it upbore. [...] He played on a bone flute and she sang. They had lately become lovers. Their age was about sixteen, but they did not know this, considering themselves Outlings and thus indifferent to time, remembering little or nothing of how they had once dwelt in the lands of men.

And:

In from the sea came freighters, the fishing fleet, produce of the Sunward Islands, plunder of whole continents further south where bold men adventured. It clanged in Portolondon, laughed, blustered, swaggered, connived, robbed, preached, guzzled, swilled, toiled, dreamed, lusted, built, destroyed, died, was born, was happy, angry, sorrowful, greedy, vulgar, loving, ambitious, human.

This difference is more than a stylistic conceit on Anderson’s part, since it turns out that the Dwellers have been playing quite deliberately on human superstitions as part of a long-term strategy to defeat the colonists. They can do this thanks to their psychic powers — Anderson attempts to provide a justification for these, but it’s not terribly convincing, and sits oddly with the introductory note to the collection I read this story in, which notes that “you will find nothing [in these stories] which most twentieth century physicists would flatly call impossible”, and leads to FTL being ruled out of bounds — and the movement between a more and less rationalist worldview lends a convincing instability to the story.

Less convincing is Sherringford’s deductive process, which starts from the rather dubious premise that “something must be causing” spacefaring humans to believe in fairies because as good “hardheaded, technologically organized, reasonably well-educated” people they’d never do that of their own inclination, although is revealed as a bit more nuanced over the course of the story:

His pipestem gestured at the stars. “Man’s gone to stranger places than this.”

“Has he? I … oh, I suppose it’s just something left over from my outway childhood, but do you know, when I’m under them I can’t think of stars as balls of gas, whose energies have been measured, whose planets have been walked on by our prosaic feet. No, they’re small and cold and magical; our lives are bound to them; after we die, they whisper to us in our graves.” Barbro glanced downwards. “I realize that’s nonsense.”

She could see in the twilight how his face grew tight. “Not at all,” he said. “Emotionally, physics may be a worse nonsense. And in the end, you know, after a sufficient number of generations, thought follows feeling. Man is not at heart rational. He could stop believing the stories of science if those no longer felt right.”

This does ring true, and is a nice way of getting into one of the tensions that seems to run through a lot of planetary romance (more on this as and when I write up The Heritage of Hastur and Golden Witchbreed), but it’s a bit of a shame — or an irony signposted too subtly for me to spot on one reading — that in working out this argument to its conclusion, Anderson removes from the Dwellers not just any sense of their own culture or concerns (that, at least, could be read as deliberate, we can’t truly know the alien), but any sense that they’re really a credible threat to humanity. More in sorrow than in anger, seemingly, Sherringford observes that “They tried to conquer us, and failed, and now in a sense we are bound to conquer them”, on the grounds that rationalist mechanistic technology has been proven — through the rescue of Barbro’s son — to be superior to the Dwellers’ alternative biotechnological pathway, which is reduced to failed magic. It’s another archetype shaping the story, but not fully acknowledged.

Reading List: Train Tracks: How the Railroad Rerouted Our Ears

Well, so much for schedules. I’ve been getting through the reading OK, but writing time has been scarce. Today the catch-up begins, and first up is Michael Jarrett’s 2001 article “Train Tracks: How the Railroad Rerouted Our Ears”. He proudly notes that it’s an expansion of an article that first appeared in the Tower Records in-house magazine Pulse, and that it is thus “a hybrid form of writing — a theoretically informed feature or popularized theory”, and while it’s true that it’s fairly digestible, I’m afraid bits like this –

Rather than speak of what I already know about railroads, I plan to interrogate, in this case, the sound of railroads as a possible site of my own sonic knowledge. Or to adapt a phrase coined by music critic Kodwo Eshun, I want to listen to the levels of science that inhere in railroads (1999, p. 70). What do trains already know about me, about my biases and prejudices regarding sound? How do I hear because of trains? Or more generally, How did trains train or even create modern ears? People, get ready; here are a few speculations.

– remind me of nothing so much as the proverbial Dad dancing at a disco. It also has nothing explicitly to do with sf, although Jarrett does frame his description of the perceptual shift introduced by trains as that most familiar sfnal operation, “literaliz[ing] the railroad-as-musical-instrument metaphor”. It’s easy enough to brainstorm a list of significant fantastic works that feature literal trains, and you might speculate as to whether the presence of the train shapes reader or character behaviour in the ways Jarrett talks about here. Mind you, whether such works have anything in common beyond that motif is another question: China Mieville’s Iron Council, Lucius Shepard’s “Over Yonder”, Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, Geoff Ryman’s 253, Patrick Tilley’s Amtrak Wars books and One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, are a pretty diverse bunch.

There’s also a slight overlap with Lysloff’s article; when Jarrett notes that “The railway brought noise — the sound of machinery — into rural and wilderness environments”, and that “What counts as music is all a matter of framing”, there are echoes of Lysloff’s concern with “natural” and “artificial” sounds. And if Jarrett was only making the small claim that “The railroad’s noise — its surfeit of stimuli — demanded that traveler’s adapt new modes of perception”, there wouldn’t be much to argue with in his article; it’s a rather obvious point that new types of experience promote new types of engagement. Where he falls down a bit is in trying to extend that argument. Without trains, he asks,

Would we have rock ‘n roll? Not likely, answers Albert Murray in his novel Train Whistle Guitar. His protagonist bluesman, Luzana Cholly, played guitar like “an engineer telling tall tales on a train whistle, his left hand doing most of the talking including the laughing and signifying as well as the moaning and crying and even the whining, while his right hand thumped the wheels going somewhere” (1974, p.8).

For starters, offering a novel as an answer to a sociohistorical question in this way is a pretty dodgy move, but more importantly, it’s not even a good start to an answer: the fact that one novel compares a guitar player to a train engineer in no way indicates an essential connection between train engineers and guitar players. He goes on to cite Houston Baker writing, in 1984, that “The dominant blues syntagm in America is an instrumental imitation of train-wheels-over-track-junctures“, which is a bit more useful, but a lengthier quote from Baker in which he ruminates that “Only a trained voice can sing the blues” seems almost parodic. (Jarrett’s comment that “groove is a way to declare that, while human beings always possessed the body part, asses were built by the railroad” surely is parody, but by that point I couldn’t really tell.)

There are useful, or at least interesting, or at least entertaining, observations scattered throughout the piece, and some of them do engage in the sort of riffing I’m digging at above; but the best bits of the article are the less flighty:

A number of scholars have explored how the railway prompted or, at least, reinforced distinctly modern ways of seeing (Schivelbusch, 1977; Stilgoe, 1983; Kirby, 1997). In brief, they note that all 19th-century railroad passengers, accustomed to pre-industrial modes of transportation, seemed to agree on one matter: “travelling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity” (Schivelbusch, 1977, p. 58). Put even more analytically, the velocity that atomized and automated objects — making them dart or roll past train windows — mechanized and diminished perception. [...]

The visual challenge of high velocity rail travel prompted a choice, actually two possible methods of coping with the new technology. Passengers could develop modes of perception adequate to the new form of transportation, or finding prolonged window-gazing exhausting, they could direction their attention inward.

Again, however, at least to my mind, Jarrett undermines his piece by making larger claims than his evidence warrants:

Upon the ears of its passengers, trains imposed new ways of hearing analogous to panoramic perception. In place of the focused, engaged listening espoused by partisans of the symphony and institutionalized by concert halls, the railroad’s incessant refrain prompted “deconcentration” or “dispersal of attention” (Schivelbusch, 1977, p. 69). Ears conditioned by the sound of trains are neither attentive nor inattentive. [...] Encased in a womb of steel, a sonorous envelope, the chronically distracted rail passenger bathes in patterned noise: adrift, blissed-out, “enraptured with the inescapable” (1941, p. 27). This is, in fact, the mood habitually summoned by electronic ambient and dance musics.

That there is a line to be drawn between immersion in a technological environment and electronic music of various kinds I have no problem with; as Jarrett notes, there is a comparison to be made between listening to music for structure or texture/timbre. That trains are, as Jarrett seems to suggest at times, at one end of this line, rather than a point on it, seems rather more tenuous. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the mill or factory worker whose ears were conditioned by their environment were not, in a comparable way, chronically distracted, that the railroad was truly the first instantiation of “the technological sublime” shaping music.

Reading List: “Aye, and Gomorrah”

Another story I’ve read before, and had a slightly different response to this time. My first reading was when the story appeared at the late lamented Sci Fiction, at which time — without really knowing anything about the story beforehand other than that it won a Nebula and was nominated for a Hugo — what I took away, in general terms, was the experience of being othered, the experience which Hal Duncan describes so expressively in his tribute to the story, on the occasion of Sci Fiction’s demise:

Which, in its clipped tumult of young neutered spacers tearing up the town on shore leave and the fetishists, the frelks, they scorn, tease, hustle and, in one brief fling of incommunication, try to understand–in short, of desires abandoned and frustrated–managed to articulate in a way I couldn’t the disjunction at the zero-spot of my queer adolescent sexuality. Laid out in dynamic snapshots of an Earth of foreign cities, the Other, what it is to be it and what it is to want it. Delany riffed with his modern jazz of language, concise yet complex, and I understood something of the frelk in me, that thwarted appetence, and the spacer, the corresponding surgical disconnect, the pervert and the neuter . . . and the gap of need between them filled with energy.

It’s there in the coupling of constant movement — up and down — with repetition, that is without progress or change, the Spacers encountering the same limited spectrum of understandings and responses wherever on the Earth they go. And, as Duncan identifies, it’s there in the gaps in the story, the bits that don’t quite connect.

This time around, I read the story in a copy of the book it originally appeared in, Dangerous Visions (1967, although the Sci Fiction text has copyright of 1971; I don’t know what the revisions might be), and it struck me as being more about the process of othering, and how human sexuality and society interact to produce alienation. Not for nothing does Delany describe it in an afterword as “a horror story”; it describes a tragic arms-race of sexuality, encouraged by the technological ability to reshape human bodies. The encounters between spacers and frelks “only allay. They cure nothing”. On either side; the frelk tells the narrator. “If spacers had never been, then we could not be … the way we are.” And later:

She looked back at me. “Perverted, yes? In love with a bunch of corpses in free fall!” She suddenly hunched her shoulders. “I don’t like having a free-fall-sexual-displacement complex.”

“That always sounded like too much to say.”

She looked away. “I don’t like being a frelk. Better?”

“I wouldn’t like it either. Be something else.”

“You don’t choose your perversions. You have no perversions at all. You’re free of the whole business. I love you for that, Spacer. My love starts with the fear of love. Isn’t that beautiful? A pervert substitutes something unattainable for ‘normal’ love: the homosexual, a mirror; the fetishist, a shoe or a watch or a girdle.”

Glamorisation of otherness has become as much a dead-end as an attempt to repress it.

Of course, the story is actually always about both sides of the equation, as Duncan identifies, and Graham Sleight does too:

The Spacers’ nature becomes apparent as the story progresses. They have somehow been altered to make their bodies withstand the rigours of space travel. (It’s impossible not to remember Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” [1950] in this context.) The process deprives them of the ability to have sex, and so Spacers are chosen from children whose sexual responses are “hopelessly retarded at puberty” (p. 97). Frelks are unaltered humans who find spacers sexually attractive. The story is a series of vignettes exploring these two linked conditions, from the point of view of the group being objectified. (At one point, a female frelk launches into an extended rhapsody about the “glorious, soaring” life of Spacers (p. 97). It seems very detached from how they experience their lives.) Anyhow, nothing is “resolved” in the story: the Spacers go up and come down in place after place. At the end, they and we have a clearer sense of where they stand, but they still have no abiding city.

“Scanners Live in Vain” is indeed one of the stories that comes to mind; the other, for me, was Tiptree’s “And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (1972), in which aliens represent a hypernormal sexual stimulus to humans; their perceived beauty is irresistable as the perceived glamour of the spacers is for frelks, and to the same futile end. (There’s also an echo of Delany’s story in the liaison of Shaheen Badoor Khan and the nute Tal in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods.) Perhaps the resonance with Tiptree’s story, the memory that it uses sexuality to critique science fiction‘s outward urge, is what gave me a fresh spin on Delany’s story, or perhaps it was just noticing this passage:

Marsscapes! Moonscapes! On her easel was a six-foot canvas showing the sunrise flaring on a crater’s rim! There were copies of the original Observer pictures of the moon pinned to the wall, and pictures of every smooth-faced general in the International Spacer Corps.

On one corner of her desk was a pile of those photo magazines about spacers that you can find in most kiosks all over the world: I’ve seriously heard people say they were printed for adventurous-minded high school children. They’ve never seen the Danish ones. She had a few of those too. There was a shelf of art books, art history texts. Above them were six feet of cheap paper-covered space operas: Sin on Space Station #12, Rocket Rake, Savage Orbit.

Duncan heads towards this point when he suggests that, “Maybe it’s appropriate that I wanted to be this story’s . . . worshipper? . . . so bad I end up trying to express my reverence by imitating its style”, but the above passage makes it explicit: this frelk’s perversion is fannish.

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