Writing About Europa

Paul McAuley, The Quiet War (2008):

It took Sri and Alder more than a day to reach him, travelling in stages down a series of elevator shafts, a vertical journey that on Earth would have taken them to the edge of the discontinuity where the continental plates rafted on molten lava. On Europa, it delivered them to a canyon cut into the underside of the ice and filled with air. Huge biome chambers had been excavated on either side of the canyon, and its walls were hung with tiers of platforms gardened with alpine meadows and dwarf pines and furs, jutting out above a silverly halflife membrane that flexed and undulated with the heavy wash of currents beneath. Despite the elaborate seals along the edges of the membrane, a faint curdled-egg odour of hydrogen sulphide leaked in from the anoxic ocean, and although chains of sunlamps brightened the air and panels of ice were tinted with bright, cheerful colours, it was very cold. The older citizens wore long fake-fur coats and tall fake-fur hats, and many of the younger citizens had been cut to give them thick, lustrous coats of fine hair and insulating layers of fat — seal-people with human faces and human hands and feet, clad only in shorts and many-pocketed vests. (125)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream (2009):

To one side of the white towers, an arc of pale aquamarine appeared across the whiteness. The stranger led him to this arc, which proved to be a broad rampway cut into the ice, dropping at a very slight angle, down to where it cut under an arch or doorway into a long wide chamber.

They descended; the chamber under the ice roof had broad white doors, like white gates. At the bottom of the ramp they waited before these. Then the gates went transparent, and a group of people dressed in blouses and pantaloons of Jovian hues stood before them, in what seemed a kind of vestibule. The stranger touched Galileo lightly on the back of the arm, led him into this antechamber. They passed under another arch. The group fell in behind them without a word. Their faces appeared to be old but young. The space of the room made a gentle curve to the left, and beyond that they came to a kind of overlook, with broad steps descending before them. From here they could see an entire cavern city stretching to the near horizon, all of it tinted a greenish blue, under a high ceiling of opaque ice of the same colour. The light was subdued, but more than enough to see by; it was quite a bit brighter than the light of the full moon on Earth. A hum or distant roar filled his ears. (51-2)

I’m working on a review of Galileo’s Dream at the moment, and posting these here because I probably can’t justify including two quotes this long, certainly not when one of them isn’t even from the book at hand. But I’m fascinated by them, and how differently they describe what is essentially the same thing — a traveller arriving in an under-ice city on Europa; how they get down, the quality of the space they find themselves in, the nature of the people there. The difference, of course, is the viewpoint character. Both are scientists, but Sri is native to the time, and knows what she’s looking at, whereas Galileo has been whisked forward hundreds of years, and doesn’t. I can’t help feeling you shouldn’t be able to get away with the second one in a work of twenty-first century sf — it’s a tour of utopia (except it’s not utopia); how quaint! — and yet in a sense it works because it’s a work of twenty-first century sf, because we can sense (or impose, if you don’t believe Robinson did the research) the detail beneath the surface that Galileo sees.

Out of interest, which do you prefer?


9 thoughts on “Writing About Europa

  1. I need to pick up the Robinson at some point. It sounds like an interesting premise.

    Can I say neither? Mostly I am going on the strength or lack thereof of _The Quiet War_, which this seems to mirror. Something about all of the near-affectless tech descriptions finally got to me. It seemed to me that I knew how things were meant to work and how characters seemed to react to their various environments, but it never gelled for me. I never understood how it felt to experience any of it, which really gave me a lot of trouble.

    Robinson, I know from past work, has less of an issue with this (honestly, so does McAuley in a lot of his work, I was surprised that TQW was so flat). But you can almost see the too-marks there, lots of ‘appeared to’ and ‘seemed’, et al, which makes me think that the author is perhaps not getting entirely inside of his subject’s future shock.

  2. I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that I prefer Robinson’s version, which stresses the protagonist’s experience of the city as opposed to McAuley’s omniscient, encyclopedic description of it. Though I do agree that both passages are nominally about travelers arriving at the Europan city, only Robinson is really talking about either the traveler or his journey.

  3. Evan:

    But you can almost see the too-marks there, lots of ‘appeared to’ and ’seemed’, et al, which makes me think that the author is perhaps not getting entirely inside of his subject’s future shock.

    Well, I’d defend those on the grounds that Galileo spends much of his time trying to figure out what he’s seeing — he’s smart enough to know there’s more to it. But I know what you mean.

  4. From those excerpts, I prefer the one from The Quiet War – it tells me more. I don’t visualise as I’m reading, so the impression I get from the second is just very fuzzy – to work out what he’s actually seeing I’d have to stop at every word and try to think of what it might be. That’s both dull and hard work. The likes and seems and kind ofs annoy me.

  5. When I read The Quiet War I felt it was written by a warm reader of The Mars Trilogy: ‘Alpine Meadows and Dwarf Pines…’, and part of a lovely arc of joined up stories about biology reaching out into the Solar System. Would you say Galileo’s Dream is also part of that arc? Seems it might be.

    But, taking the two passages out of context, I prefer the first. The second reminds me a bit of Dante. Not that… what do I know of Dante? I suppose I mean it’s mediaeval, and that’s an accomplishment in itself: looking through mediaeval eyes on the future. But that means a slightly annoying vagueness, because Galileo doesn’t have the detailed vocabulary to describe what he sees. And it is the rootedness in physical detail of bamboo and kava and regolith and so on which I enjoyed so much in the Mars books and the novels which have been influenced by them.

    Thinking more. Of course we don’t lose that sensory detail, just the shorthand to contextualise it. But would ‘a faintly curdled egg odour’ be enough without ‘Hydrogen sulphide’? I can imagine I’d be hanging there thinking ‘what’s the odour supposed to be?’ Can a whole book of phenomena without conceptual anchors be enjoyable?

    Of course as usual I’m stretching to an opinion on a book I’ve never read.

  6. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t say that either of these passages represent their respective novel at their best. On the other hand, they are characteristic.


    Would you say Galileo’s Dream is also part of that arc? Seems it might be.

    No. The majority of the novel — like, two-thirds of it — is set in Galileo’s native time. He’s only pulled forward to the future for interludes, the dreams of the title. But I think your comment about rootedness in the physical is key — this is one of the things that’s most distinctive about KSR’s writing, for me. (Although I wouldn’t say The Quiet War felt as though it was written by a warm reader of the Mars books; it felt like it was written by a cold reader, to me.) In Galileo’s Dream, however, such rootedness is almost entirely found in the historical sections. I think it’s quite deliberate that the future visions feel detached, a bit distant.

    But would ‘a faintly curdled egg odour’ be enough without ‘Hydrogen sulphide’?

    Nothing like getting straight to the heart of the matter, is there? Since this is a question that’s fundamental to The Quiet War, and to science fiction writing in general. Arguably, “a faint curdled-egg odour of hydrogen sulphide” is redundant; readers might be expected to know that rotten-egg smell is predominantly caused by hydrogen sulphide, or contrariwise that hydrogen sulphide smells like rotten eggs. But I’d argue that for the atmosphere The Quiet War wants to create, that link between chemistry and experience has to be explicit.

  7. I much prefer the McAuley passage to the Robinson one, perhaps because the latter could be people entering the City of the Ice Elves in some kind of generic fantasy. I like my sf to give me the sense that this might be how it really could be (for some value of “could”), and I get that from the McAuley quotation.

  8. I clearly prefer Paul McAuley’s text. I find Robinson’s text very boring to read, because – my native language not being English – I just dislike the fact that most of his sentences are rather short – and start with the subject. When you are used to juggling more liberally with the order in which you use the different parts of a sentence in your mothertongue, English can easily seem like a monotonous language. I guess it is mainly for this reason I find McAuley’s ‘more complicated’ prose in the example above more attractive.

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