Tell Me What You’re Doing

Shakespearean Description

A few years ago my kids gave me a copy of The Jedi Doth Return—or, in full, William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return:  Star Wars Part the Sixth, by Ian Doescher (2014).  This little book is a retelling of the movie Return of the Jedi in the form of a Shakespeare play, with the entire text in iambic pentameter.

The Jedi Doth Return, cover

It’s great fun to see the swashbuckling space epic transformed into sixteenth-century poetry.  And the reading is surprisingly good as well, with some memorable phrases bringing out nuances not necessarily detectable in the movie; at least one passage was striking enough to make it onto my Quote of the Week page back in 2017.

But one thing in particular caught my attention, perhaps because of the contrast between SF subject matter and Shakespearean technique:  how frequently the characters describe in words what’s happening.  For example, in Act I, Scene 3 (p. 25), Leia sneaks into Jabba’s palace to rescue Han Solo:

In stealth I move throughout the palace dark,
That no one shall bear witness to my acts.
Now cross the court, with footsteps nimbly plac’d.
Ne’er did a matter of such weight depend
Upon a gentle footfall in the night.
Put out the light, and then relume his light—
Aye, now I spy my goal:  the frozen Han.
Thy work is finish’d, feet.  Now ’tis the hands
That shall a more profound task undertake.
Quick to the panel, press the needed code.
O swiftly fly, good hands, and free this man
From his most cold and undeservéd cell.
O true decryptionist, thy codes are quick!
The scheme hath work’d, the carbonite doth melt.

Han & Leia illustration from The Jedi Doth Return

She’s narrating what’s happening, in just the fashion of a true Shakespeare character (“What light through yonder window breaks?”).  Of course, if she were actually saying this aloud, she’d have roused the whole palace; but of course the Shakespearean convention of the inaudible (except to the audience) soliloquy is also in effect.

This self-description seems to be even more necessary in an action sequence.  When Luke peels off from Leia to pursue Imperial scouts in the landspeeder chase through the forest (Act III, Scene 1, p. 77), along with stage directions, we get a similar blow-by-blow account:

LEIA:  ‘Tis well. Be safe, and I shall see thee soon.
LUKE:  [aside]  O sister, all my thanks for tender words.

[Luke falls behind, alongside
Imperial Scouts 5 and 6.

Now shall this bike’s keen blaster find its mark!
I shoot, and one is dead; the other next.

[Luke shoots and kills Imperial Scout 6.

LEIA:  I shall fly high o’er this one’s bike, that he
May think that I have fled.  Then shall I from
Above make my attack.  Ha!  Now beside
His bike, surprise is my sure strategy.

[Imperial Scout 4 shoots at Leia.

Alas!  My bike is hit, and off I fall!

Reading this as a book, the narration helps me figure out what’s going on (and helps me visualize the appropriate scenes from the movie I know so well).  Of course, if I could see the play actually performed, some things would be clearer.  Still, a stage play can’t provide all the visual background we’d get in a movie.  I have no idea how they’d depict the land-speeder chase on stage—though I’d like to see them try!  Maybe it’s the shortage of visual imagery that requires the dialogue.

But it’s not quite that simple.

The Comic-Book Monologue

In an old-style comic book, we also see characters providing a lot of description.  The villain doesn’t just whip out his infernal device and fire it at the good guys; he’s also likely to announce something like, “Now, tremble before the power of my unstoppable Meson Beam, as it suppresses the strong nuclear force and disintegrates your very molecules!” Here’s an example from Fantastic Four #52, the first appearance of the Black Panther (1966):

3-panel action scene from Fantastic Four number 52

Sometimes a quantity of prose is expended on a mere landscape scene, as with this magnificent Kirbyesque high-tech jungle shot.

Fantastic Four enters Black Panther's high-tech jungle

Why all the verbiage?  The trouble is, the special effects alone doesn’t tell us much.  In primarily visual media, we don’t get internals or narrator comments.  A genius like Reed Richards may be able to figure out instantly what an exotic weapon is doing, but we poor readers can’t.  Even in a non-action scene, the implications of the Panther’s “jungle” might not be obvious without having someone to explain.

Of course, as the first panels above illustrate, wedging all this dialogue into an action sequence requires another convention, as arbitrary as the Shakespearean soliloquy:  “talking is a free action.”  We are simply to accept the notion that a character can deliver a lengthy speech while taking split-second actions.  The expository lecture is more plausible when cruising through a landscape, as in the second image.

Thor's instantaneous declaration, From Beyond This UniverseWhen my brother Matt and I were working on our great unfinished comic-book epic back in grade school, we faithfully replicated this convention, allowing a hero to get off an appropriately heroic declaration while a roof is falling on his head.  (Apologies for the black-and-white shot; I don’t have the full-color original ready to hand.)

 

Sailor Moon manga attack sceneNot all graphic novels use this convention.  It may not be as common in manga, for example, where there’s a lot more action without explanation—and where, as a consequence, I sometimes have trouble figuring out what’s going on.  This discrepancy may reflect a cultural difference; I didn’t grow up with Japanese comic culture and may be missing some clues.  Still, I think it’s harder to make out events  without the occasional verbal aside.  In the Sailor Moon manga and anime, for example, if there’s any dialogue at all that relates to a superpower, it’s likely to consist in calling out an attack name like “Moon Princess Halation,” which by itself communicates even less than “magnetic anti-polarity.”  I’ve encountered some similar problems reading contemporary American graphic novels like Monstress.

On-Screen Obscurity

Visual media have some advantages in being able to show directly what people are doing, depending on the medium.  However, the audience for a stage play is likely to be at some distance from the performers, which means that very small actions may be hard to make out.  If a character on stage is, say, picking a lock, there will probably have to be some setup to make clear what they’re going to do (especially if the locked door is invisible and not actually part of the stage set).  In a movie, on the other hand, the director is free to show the character crouching next to the door with her tools, then cut to a close-up shot of her hands working the tools in the lock, then back out to the door opening.  Comic books can do the same thing.

This assumes we already understand what picking a lock is.  The need for explanatory narration is accentuated in science fiction and fantasy stories, where the things that are happening may be extraordinary.  When the action is more mundane, we can get by with less explanation.  If the villain fires a pistol at the good guys, we don’t need to be told how a pistol works.  But if the action uses superhuman powers or advanced technology that we haven’t seen before, an explanation may still be necessary.

Consider Marvel Comics’ Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff).  Her powers originally consisted rather vaguely in casting a “hex,” which caused things to go wrong (in unspecified ways) for the target of the hex.  Later retcons and expansions introduced a number of different power sets.  But in the Marvel Cineverse movie versions, her powers are hardly explained at all.  We may see her blasting Thanos, but we don’t actually understand (even in the lenient comic-book-movie sense of “understand”) what her powers are supposed to be.  For all practical purposes, she might as well be Sailor Moon.  (Now there’s an idea for a crossover . . .)

As always, there are good and bad ways to supply the necessary explanations.  As I’ve mentioned before, the original Star Wars is good at this:  Han can snap out the line “. . . while I make the calculations for the jump to lightspeed,” and that’s all we need to know.  On the other hand, there’s what Shamus Young describes as “Super Exposition” in a 7/6/17 blog post:  “The villains blabbed their plans for no reason. Heroes narrated their own actions to themselves, out loud, during a fight. Characters would stop and explain why something was good or bad right in the middle of it happening, because the writers didn’t set anything up ahead of time.”  Overdone, the practice falls into condescending overexplanation.

On the whole, the different media seem to require different types and levels of exposition.  In a purely verbal medium like a book, when we have only the words to work with, every action must be described.  On stage, at least some forms of presentation describe the action verbally as well.  And even in a movie, where we can see what’s happening in detail, we may still need to have the events analyzed.

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Changing the Past – Or Avenging It

Introduction

Avengers Endgame posterI set out to do an analytical essay on Three Theories of Time Travel—until I realized that Larry Niven’s astute and entertaining brief article “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (1971) had already covered those theories pretty well.  (You can find that article in Niven’s All the Myriad Ways, and a couple other locations.)  So I decided instead to comment on how they’re used in Avengers:  Endgame, which seems to invoke at least two and possibly three different theories.

Maybe I’d have been better off sticking with the original plan; this post has turned out to be considerably longer than I’d planned.

Endgame came out on April 26, 2019, and was released on disc August 13, so it’s still new enough at this writing that I should issue a

Spoiler Alert!

I’m not going to address the mechanics of how one might travel into the past—whether via Tipler machines, or wormholes, or simply thinking oneself into the past à la Jack Finney.  (Endgame manages it via what the movies refer to as the “Quantum Realm,” which is completely incoherent in one way but rather fascinating in another—a side issue I won’t go into here.)  I’m interested in what happens if you let causality turn back on itself.  I can think of three main ways of handling the question of changing the past.  Each has its pros and cons, from a storytelling point of view.

“Make It Didn’t Happen”

First, let’s suppose we can change the past (and, by extension, the present and future).  The idea arises because we often wish we could go back and undo something—either our own actions, or the broader course of history.  Niven observes, “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence.”  He goes on to note, “The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”  These twin aspects of the idea generate plot tensions and conflicts immediately, on both a personal and a historical scale, so it’s not surprising they’re so popular.

Back to the Future posterThe most familiar example, of course, is Back to the Future (1985-1990).  In the three movies, Zemeckis played several variations on the idea of making history come out differently.  The cultural reference is so well-known that Marvel was able to riff off it for a comic moment in Endgame.  Scott Lang, the young and relatively naïve Ant-Man, says they’ll be okay if they obey the ‘rules of time travel’ (at about 0:35).  Tony Stark, the all-round genius of the Marvel movies, derides Scott for having gotten his “rules” from BTTF, and proceeds to shoot the notion down as hopelessly unscientific.

And Tony’s right, in the sense that building a theory of time travel purely on the assumptions made in fictional stories is silly.  We don’t know what would happen if it were possible to change the past; we haven’t done it.  That would make time travel really dangerous if it could be attempted in real life.  On the other hand, that same lack of knowledge leaves a wide field open for the fiction writer.  We can make whatever assumptions we like, as long as they’re consistent.  We can imagine that you can only go back in time a certain distance, at a certain geographical location, as in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (1981-84).  We can imagine that the transition requires vast energies, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Technical Error” (1950).  Or we can invoke the imaginary “Pym particles” of Ant-Man lore and time-travel at will.

This first theory of time travel generates the paradoxes we know and love.  We have the “grandfather paradox,” in which an effect removes its own cause.  (I go back in time and kill my grandfather.)  We have what Wikipedia calls the “ontological paradox,” in which an effect becomes its own cause.  (I go back but my grandfather fails to show up, so I marry my grandmother instead and name my son after my dad…)  I talked about these a bit in a 2016 post on the TV series Timeless.

One thing that’s not always obvious is that the idea of changing the past requires a second time dimension.  There’s the familiar one that’s typically represented by a “timeline,” a one-dimensional line ordering events from past to future.  But if someone changes the past, then the old line has to be replaced by a new one:  imagine a second timeline lying next to the first.  Every time a change is made, another timeline gets added.  The set of lines forms a plane, extending through a second dimension, in which each new timeline happens after (in some Pickwickian sense) the last.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t make any sense to say that we’d changed history.  Marty can’t rejoice in having “fixed” his family unless the new timeline succeeds the first, just as events along the timeline succeed each other.  Hence, a second time dimension, to accommodate the sequence of timelines.  (This may, or may not, be related to what TV Tropes calls “San Dimas Time,” a reference from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

As a narrative device, the chance to change the past creates suspense.  But it only works if you don’t look too closely.  The author has to stage-manage things carefully so that changes of all sorts don’t start happening in all directions, and this means that time travel must be rare.  If we imagine a period of hundreds or thousands of years, during which people invent time machines every so often and start changing the past, it would become impossible to make sense of what was happening.  Different changes, each with their rippling “butterfly effects,” would take place, one after another—or even at the same, er, time.  (I tried playing around with that idea in an as-yet-unpublished story called Getting to Gettysburg.)  So I’m skeptical about stories based on letting time travel become routine, as in “Time Patrol” scenarios or Asimov’s The End of Eternity.

Avengers Disassemble

Does Endgame, after all Tony’s disclaimers, involve changing the past?  Maybe not; but it’s hard to see how the story can avoid it.

Thanos with Infinity GauntletThe screenwriters chose to set themselves an interesting dilemma that makes the simple time-travel solution (go back and kill Thanos) unusable.  When the time-travel possibility arises, five years have passed since the Snap, in which Thanos killed off half the people in the universe.  Life has gone on.  Tony and Pepper, for example, have an adorable little girl.  But eliminating the Snap would also eliminate Tony’s little daughter Morgan, along with everything else that’s happened since.  That’s unacceptable (at least to Tony).  So the Avengers are not trying to avert the Snap; instead, they want to bring back, in the present time, all those who disintegrated.

The reason they have to go into the past is to retrieve the six Infinity Stones, which Thanos destroyed after the Snap.  The Avengers will need to use the Stones for a Snap of their own to bring back all the people Thanos destroyed.  But in order to avoid changing the past, they will have to put the Stones back in their earlier times after they’ve been used.  This is a clever idea, but it’s going to be really tricky to execute in practice, as we’ll discuss below.

It’s Already Happened

Meanwhile, the business of a second time dimension may make us start to wonder about the whole idea of changing the past.  Maybe we’ve forgotten to take into account the integrity of the original time dimension.  After all, if something happened in the past, it has already happened.  The effects of past events should be baked into the present that follows from them.  If I go back to 1800 and leave a hidden time capsule, let’s say, I should be able to dig it up in 2019.  You might say that the change I wish to make has already taken place.

Kate and Leopold posterBut it follows that if I can find the evidence in the present, then I know the event occurred in the past.  (That’s what “evidence” means.)  If I find the time capsule, I know that it was buried.  This may allow me to predict or “retrodict” my future changes to the past on the basis of what’s known now. If I find the time capsule, I know I’m going to bury it—or someone else will.  A key scene in Kate and Leopold (2001) relies on just such a discovery about a future event that changes the past.  (Have we mixed up the tenses enough yet?)  Bill and Ted makes even more comically inventive use of this aspect.

But on this theory, the event in the past isn’t really a change.  It was always that way.  The time capsule persisted through all the intervening time.  You can’t change the past, because your change is already included in the past we know and thus embedded in the present.  As Niven puts it, “any attempt on the part of a time traveler to change the past has already been made, and is a part of the past.”

This approach deprives us of the fun of changing history, but I rather like it.  It ensures the timeline remains consistent with itself.  In fact, one version of this postulate is referred to as the “Novikov self-consistency principle,” named for Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov.  We avoid grandfather paradoxes:  we already know I didn’t succeed in traveling into the past and killing my grandfather, because here I am.  If I try, something will go wrong.  On the other hand, ontological paradoxes are still allowed, as in Heinlein’s classic novella By His Bootstraps (1941).  In fact, I tend to think of this as ‘Heinlein’s theory of time travel,’ because he used it extensively—not only in Bootstraps and the even more baffling  “—All You Zombies—” (1959), but also in the delightful The Door Into Summer (1957).  Of course, Heinlein’s by no means the only writer using a Novikov-type theory.

One reason I like this type of time travel story is that everything fits neatly together, like a puzzle.  The fun of the story is in seeing how they’ll fit.  In that sense, the enjoyment of you-already-changed-the-past stories resembles that of the Greek tragedies, in which an oracular pronouncement tells what’s going to happen, and the story shows how it happens.  No matter how Oedipus tries to avoid the awful future foretold, he can’t.  The efforts to avoid the predicted outcome may themselves produce it.

In such a tragedy, where time travel isn’t involved (except to the extent the oracle itself is future information acting on the past), the Greek tragedy tends to suggest that the outcome is determined by some kind of Fate, whether we like it or not.  (Niven puts this view under the heading of “determinism.”)  But the Novikov-type theory can also be seen as compatible with free will.  Even actions freely taken, once they are complete, become part of the fabric of history, not subject to further change afterwards—except to the extent that backward causation via time travel is possible, which alters the whole meaning of “afterwards.”

The Door Into Summer, coverA subclass of these stories assumes that the time continuum somehow defends itself against change.  It may automatically “self-heal” to swallow up minor changes, or all changes:  Edison doesn’t invent the light bulb, but someone else does.  Or the time stream may simply be designed so that with “fail-safes” that prevent catastrophic causality failures.  At the end of The Door Into Summer, the engineer hero seems to be speculating in this direction:  if time travel could be used commercially, he thinks,

it will be because the Builder designed the universe that way.  He gave us eyes, two hands, a brain; anything we do with them can’t be a paradox.  He doesn’t need busybodies to “enforce” His laws; they enforce themselves.  (p. 158)

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverIn a modern context, God seems to take over the role of Fate—not by predetermining everything, but by designing the system (i.e., the universe) so nothing can go fatally wrong with causality.  Something similar, I think, lies behind the way the time travel “net” portal functions in Connie Willis’s time travel stories.  If allowing something through the net would create a paradox, the net simply won’t open—which leads to some tortuous reasoning by the characters as to what is keeping the net from openingaat  a particular moment.  Something like Providence seems to be at work.  The only causal loops allowed are what we might call ‘virtuous loops’—those that work out right.

What makes this confusing is that we’re used to analyzing causality by looking at the conditions preceding the effect.  Here, we don’t see the ‘virtuous loop’ conditions being set at any particular point in time.  The conditions have to apply to the continuum as a whole—from outside it, in effect.

You Can’t Avenge the Future

When Tony initially declares Scott’s proposed “time heist” impossible, the remaining Avengers bring in Bruce Banner as a substitute scientific resource.  Banner (who now combines his own brain with the Hulk’s body) does make a nod to the fact that his scientific expertise is primarily in biology, not physics, but the story remains basically true to the comic-book idea that a scientific genius is a genius in every science.  At about 0:59, Banner says something that sounds rather like the Novikov principle we’ve been discussing:  if you kill someone in the past, that doesn’t erase their later selves.  Apparently causality doesn’t propagate down the world lines of already-existing characters to wipe them out when their original causes go away.  On this theory, Marty wouldn’t have had to worry about disappearing even if he couldn’t get his parents back together.

On the other hand, Bruce doesn’t seem to be saying you can’t kill the person in the past; he seems to be saying that if you did kill them, it wouldn’t make any difference.  This may have more to do with what TV Tropes calls “ontological inertia” (see here, but also here).  Bruce’s approach seems to allow for wild inconsistency in the timeline, because I can be alive in 2019 even after being killed in 1971.

The simplest answer may be to conclude that Bruce wasn’t a very good physicist; maybe Tony silently corrected Bruce’s theory when Tony finally did agree to join the party.

Branching Timelines

At some point in SF history, people realized that the whole paradox thing could be avoided by introducing a third theory, the notion of multiple branching timelines.  Niven’s phrase is “multiple time tracks.”  If you change the past, the original future going forward from that point remains unchanged, but a new future comes into existence, branching off to take into account the change.  (The character making the change always seem to end up in the new branch, not the old.)  We can have our cake and eat it too:  one version of me devours the cake, but another, equally real, version of me prudently saves the cake for later.

The multiple-timeline approach gains some headway from the general popularity of alternate-history stories, and some plausibility from the fact that physicists take seriously the suggested “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.  It appears to solve the problem of time paradoxes.  However, it runs very close to an assumption that would make it impossible to tell a good story at all.

Stories are about action and choice.  A mere recounting of a series of experiences that happen to someone wouldn’t be much of a story (which is one reason the ending of 2001:  A Space Odyssey is so weak).  James Michener’s introduction to the novel Hawaii (1959), which describes the geological formation of the islands, is only part of a story because it lays the groundwork for what the characters later say and do.

All the Myriad Ways coverIf every possible alternative branched off a new timeline whenever there were options, there would be no point in making a choice, because whichever choice I made, another version of me would make the opposite choice.  Niven captures the problem exactly:

. . . did you ever sweat over a decision?  Think about one that really gave you trouble, because you knew that what you did would affect you for the rest of your life.  Now imagine that for every way you could have jumped, one of you in one universe did jump that way.

Now don’t you feel silly?  Sweating over something so trivial, when you were going to take all the choices anyway.  And if you think that’s silly, consider that one of you still can’t decide . . .  (p. 117)

The title story in All the Myriad Ways explores exactly that issue—what would happen if people really started to believe that all alternatives were equally real.

But suppose we assume that every choice doesn’t spawn alternate universes—just the changes caused by time travel, by backward causality.  That doesn’t destroy all narrative in the way just described.  It just ruins the story you’re trying to tell.  The main characters move heaven and earth to get into the past and make the necessary change.  They succeed!  Whew.  Victory.  —Except that in another universe, the original one, they didn’t succeed.  Somewhere, the sad failures who are Marty McFly’s parents still languish by the TV.  That’s not a really satisfying conclusion.

Alternating Avengers

The multiple-timeline approach certainly comes up in Endgame.  What I can’t make out is whether it prevails in the end, or is averted.

Ancient One and Banner with timeline simulationAt about 1:24 in the movie, Bruce Banner is having a tense conversation with the Ancient One (Dr. Strange’s mentor) about the plan to return the stones to their original places in time.  The idea is that if he takes the Time Stone from the Ancient One at (let’s say) 1:03:12 p.m. on January 31, 2010, and eventually Steve Rogers returns it to her at 1:03:13 p.m. on January 31, 2010, there won’t be a need for a branch to form.  History continues on as it had always been.  (Steve describes his mission concisely at 2:43 in the movie:  “I know.  Clip all the branches.”)  Thus, the timeline of the movie, in which Thanos Snapped half the universe away, and five years later the assembled Avengers brought them back and did away with Thanos, remains the one-and-only timeline.  There’s a helpful description of this procedure in an article from July 2019 (which is also full of spoilers, by the way).

If we leave aside how hard it would have been to put things back exactly as they were, given the butterfly effect—not all the Stone retrievals were as simple as Bruce’s—does this work?  Did the screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) come up with a way to manage the dizzying time loops and still save the story?

I’m still not quite sure.  One glaring plot hole, as various people have pointed out, is that we have to account for Thanos himself.  In order to give us a great battle at the end (and what a battle it is!), the movie has Thanos in pre-Snap 2014 discover what’s going to happen and time-travel forward to 2019, where he’s ultimately disintegrated by the Avengers.  He never returns to 2014.  That seems to mean that the disappearance of Thanos did create a branch, since if he vanished from 2014 and never came back, the Snap would never have occurred.

At least that reduces us to two timelines, the one we see in the movie and another where Thanos does not continue to exist after 2014.  And, interestingly enough, the Avengers’ actions saved both of those timelines from the Snap.  The people who lived through the movie timeline experienced the Snap, but the lost people were eventually returned.  Meanwhile, in the new alternate timeline, Thanos never came back, he never got the Infinity Stones, and the Snap never occurred.  That’s not such a bad (dual) ending.

I don’t know.  All these causal loops produce a kind of shell game in which I’m not quite sure how things came out.  Nonetheless, it’s a great movie, if you like the Marvel characters at all.  If you haven’t seen it, you shouldn’t have been reading this (but maybe the circuitous account above will be helpful).  If you have—see it again!  Just don’t try to go back to April to catch the premiere a second time; who knows what that would do to the space-time continuum.

The Select Society of Protectors

Sorry about the delay between posts—I’ve been under the weather lately.

 

I was recently reading a new “Sharing Knife” story by Lois McMaster Bujold, and it suddenly occurred to me that the relationship of Bujold’s Lakewalkers to Farmers is exactly that of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders to Holders.

But let me back up a bit.

The Sharing Knife

The world of Bujold’s Sharing Knife series is a difficult and dangerous one.  Most people live in a basically agrarian culture, a sort of cross between the traditional medieval fantasy world and the Wild West.  They fear the enigmatic “Lakewalkers,” men and women who wander about the countryside in “patrol” groups and are rumored to have magical powers.  The Lakewalkers claim to be searching for what ordinary people call “blight bogles,” but some consider these to be a mere myth.

They’re not a myth, of course.  In reality the Lakewalkers, who have the ability to use a kind of magic they call “groundwork” (an extremely interesting and well-developed idea in itself), are constantly on the watch to destroy “malices” as they arise.  These malices are truly nasty beings that can mentally enthrall normal humans and mutate animals into humanoid minions.  If the Lakewalkers weren’t killing them off (via the grim “sharing knife” methd of the title), the malices would overrun the whole world.

Many Lakewalkers tend to look down on the people they are defending, whom they refer to generally as “farmers.”  Much of the interest of the story has to do with the prickly relationship between these two interdependent groups, explored through the romance between a farm girl, Fawn, and a Lakewalker patroller, Dag.

The Dragonriders of Pern

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern is a science fiction series that reads like fantasy.  The planet Pern is protected by men and women riding flying dragons.  The dragons breathe fire to destroy an alien organic “Thread” that falls from the sky and, if allowed to spread, would multiply to consume the planet.  To qualify as a full-fledged dragonrider, one must have the potential for a certain kind of telepathy that allows rider and dragon to bond at the dragons’ birth.

Dragonflight coverOne of the things that makes the Pern stories sound like fantasy is the quasi-medieval political structure.  A “Lord Holder” resembles a feudal monarch ruling over a sizable population of farmer/serfs, crafters, and minor nobility.  But here the dragonriders form a separate hierarchy.  The riders’ internal pecking order is a combination of aristocracy and meritocracy:  the rider of the senior gold (female) dragon is a kind of queen; the rider whose bronze dragon mates with the gold becomes leader of the entire group that constitutes a Weyr; and those who lack the telepathic talent are servitors (at the lowest level, “drudges”).

While the depiction of Pernese society mellowed a good bit over the course of the series—both holders and riders were pretty high-handed and violent at the beginning, less so later—one consistent theme is the uneasy relationship between the dragonriders and the common folk.  Everyone knows (though they may forget in the generations between periodic Thread attacks) that the riders are essential to preserve the planet:  “Worlds are lost or worlds are saved / From those dangers dragon-braved.”  But the holders often resent the taxes imposed to support the Weyrs and the “searches” in which the dragonriders carry off likely young people to see if they can “impress” a dragon.  Managing this tension consumes a good deal of the main characters’ time in the early books.

The Protectors and the Protected

Now I can make clear the analogy I noticed.  In each case we have a relatively small society of people set apart from ordinary folks, in a good cause:  they are dedicated to protecting the larger population.  The select group of protectors are genuine heroes who possess special talents that fit them for the role.  But the protectors are not stainless; they can abuse their powers.  And the grateful population they defend aren’t always grateful; they may resent the special powers and privileges of the defenders, even aside from the possible abuse of those advantages.

It seems to be a fruitful trope for storytelling.

Rangers and Protectors

Strider with pipe at the Prancing PonyWe can find a similar structure, though not so dominant, back in The Lord of the Rings.  You’ll recall that Strider—Aragorn—is one of a mysterious group of wanderers who travel the countryside, the Dúnedain or Rangers.  They are regarded with suspicion by the ordinary folks in Bree; Barliman Butterbur the innkeeper warns Frodo about the suspicious-looking stranger sitting in the corner.  Yet all the time the Rangers are patrolling the borders of the peaceful lands of Bree and the Shire, fending off possible threats.  Aragorn says at the Council of Elrond:

‘Strider’ I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly.  Yet we would not have it otherwise.  If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so.  (Fellowship of the Ring, II.2, p. 261)

Aragorn’s fond, if slightly aggrieved, remark brings out a difference.  Pern’s dragonriders are a public society of defenders; everyone knows of their special role.  But Tolkien’s Dúnedain, like the Lakewalkers in Bujold’s more recent fantasy, play a less public role.  They are set apart, but because their heroism is unrecognized, they are objects more of suspicion than of admiration.

Pak protector (by Christopher Bretz)

Pak protector – illustration courtesy of Christopher Bretz (bretz@bretz.ca)

For a more science-fictional take, consider Larry Niven’s Protectors, which figure in the novel Protector (naturally) and in the Ringworld stories.  Niven imagines that humanity is descended from a species called the Pak, which matures through three life stages:  child, breeder, and protector.  The transition from the not-very-bright breeder stage to the highly intelligent and formidable protector stage is triggered by eating a root the characters call “tree-of-life.”  When a Pak colony arrived on Earth ages ago, however, the soil lacked a chemical necessary for the tree-of-life root to function.  The “breeders” could not change into protectors; instead, they evolved on their own into modern-day humans.  Niven’s intriguing conceit is what we see as symptoms of old age actually represent the incomplete transition to the gaunt, tough, hairless protector stage.

Niven depicts the protectors as genetically compelled to protect the members of their own family or clan—the ones who “smell right.”  A functioning Pak colony wouldn’t be as much like a human society as on Pern or Middle-Earth or Bujold’s imaginary world:  it would consist of carefree, barely-sentient breeders watched over by creatures ruthlessly dedicated to their preservation.  Think of it as an extreme case of the separation of defenders from defended.

Counter-Examples

On the other hand, a number of stories depict defenders who are much more thoroughly integrated into their broader societies.

Nita and Kit ascend over New York, from Young Wizards

Young Wizards

In Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, youngsters with the potential for wizardry are called, not by receiving a letter from Hogwarts, but in more obscure ways—for example, running across a library book called So You Want To Be A Wizard.  There are more wizards around than one might think, because on our planet they don’t advertise their powers:  young wizards still go to school, grown-up wizards might be writers or sell advertising.  (And not all of them are human; there are some very entertaining books about feline wizards.)  But all of them are dedicated to the preservation and fostering of Life, by way of the Wizard’s Oath each must take.  In this setup, there’s no resentment of the society of protectors because no one knows they exist; and abuse of wizardly powers is almost unheard-of, since violating the Oath tends to result in forgetting that wizardry even exists.

Lensman image

Kim Kinnison, Gray Lensman

By contrast, the elite corps of Lensmen in E.E. Smith’s famous series are publicly known and highly respected.  They play the role of galactic policemen and secret agents, with particular attention to the mysterious pirates and drug-runners called “Boskone.”  Like the Young Wizards, the Lensmen are (conveniently) incorruptible, being screened at the outset by the equally mysterious but benevolent Arisians.  (This whole business of incorruptibility is something we need to examine more closely on another occasion.)  But they don’t mind mixing in ordinary society—Gray Lensman includes a scene set at a formal ball—although their grave responsibilities often make them feel set apart in their lonely dedication.

Superheroes, as a class, may occupy the same position.  They live as part of the general public, though their identities are usually secret.  They tend to act as individuals rather than as a whole society, though they do come in small groups (and may occasionally take part in mega-battles that engage the whole range of heroes).  But the modern superhero does show the ambivalence that often characterizes the select defender (Mr. Incredible’s remark that he sometimes wishes the world would just stay saved for a while).  And some graphic novels take up the question of what it’s like for the ordinary person to live in a world full of superheroes—notably Kurt Busiek’s thoughtful Marvels (1994).

Narrative Tensions

The select society of protectors is a fine place for heroes.  But it’s also dangerous.  What if the protectors aren’t incorruptible, and turn bad?  What if they become contemptuous of the people they protect, and come to think of themselves as better than the “rabble”?  In many of the scenarios above, it takes special talents to qualify as one of the defenders.  How likely is it that those who see themselves as specially qualified will end up thinking of themselves as superior?  These questions form fertile ground for various plotlines.

The notion of the select (if not superior) set of defenders may even be seen as applying to a military organization, whose purpose is to protect the general public.  “Citizen soldiers,” or draftees, may see themselves as primarily part of the overall society, temporarily detailed to do their civic duty; but a professional military, which can form its own tightly-knit society with its families and dependents, may be more easily tempted to think of itself as a group apart, with its own loyalties and camaraderie.  In fiction, the entire genre of military SF borders the trope we’re examining here.  In real life, the American military, at least, seems to have avoided that trap; we have not yet seen anything like a military coup.

Everyone Is a Tuvela

It’s interesting to contemplate the opposite trope:  the citizen soldier model taken to its limit.

The Demon Breed, coverIn James Schmitz’s 1968 novel The Demon Breed, a biochemist named Nile Etland on the human colony world Nandy-Cline discovers that independent researcher Ticos Cay has been captured by cruel and formidable aliens called the Parahuans.  Ticos has played on the Parahuans’ own near-superstitious fears to convince them that Nile is a Tuvela, a member of a secret society of superhumans that are the real rulers of human civilization.  All Nile has to do is convince the invaders that she is, in fact, a superior being it would be death to tangle with.  And, with the help of Ticos, two mutant otters, and her own encyclopedic knowledge of the unique biology of Nandy-Cline, she does a marvelous job of pulling the wool over the Parahuans’ eyes and sending them fleeing back to their own worlds.

But there are no Tuvelas.  Nile is a brilliantly resourceful and competent woman, but she’s not superhuman.  Neither is Ticos, nor any of the other inhabitants who are involved at the end in dispersing the Parahuans.  They’re simply ordinary humans.  And there is no secret organization.  Rather, Schmitz’s hypothesis is that a significant fraction of ordinary people (Ticos calls them “antipredators”) can take on that defensive role when extraordinary circumstances require them to do so.  As one character remarks, the Parahuans would have run into “Tuvela” behavior no matter where they sought to attack.

The title The Demon Breed doesn’t refer to the Parahuans.  It refers, from the unfortunate Parahuans’ point of view, to the uncannily resilient humans.  Like the sturdy hobbits of the Shire, human beings are capable of rising to the occasion.  At the end of the story, when the local Nandy-Cline military forces have mobilized to make sure the fleeing Parahuans don’t escape, Nile reflects:  “The human demon was awake and snarling on Nandy-Cline” (ch. 9).

The select society of defenders is a potent storytelling trope; but so is the distributed resourcefulness of the ordinary person.  And both may be useful to keep in mind as we act where we are needed.

Lyrical Misfires

“You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”
—Inigo Montoya, in The Princess Bride (1987), screenplay by Willam Goldman

 

What the Lyrics Say

When we listen to popular music, we may not bother paying attention to the lyrics at all.  If we’re mainly focused on cool guitar leads or Beach Boys “wall of sound” harmony, we may not care.  But human beings are rational animals, and we can’t escape the words forever.  Eventually, we’re going to wonder what the singer is talking about.  And when that time comes, it’s a good idea if the lyricist has put something into them that satisfies us.

Of course, making out the words in the first place isn’t a trivial task.  There are songs I’ve puzzled over for years, and others where it only dawned on me decades later what the singer was saying.  “Louie Louie” (1955) is famous for its unintelligible lyrics, to such an extent that according to Wikipedia, the FBI conducted an investigation on the assumption the words were obscene.  Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs includes an anecdote in which Barry asked the singer in his band about the words to a song they were playing, and the vocalist admitted he had no idea; he was simply mouthing nonsense syllables to match what he heard on the record.

Olive the Other Reindeer, TV posterSince sung words can be hard to make out, there are whole books’ worth of “mondegreens”—misheard lyrics.  For example, when “Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” says “All of the other reindeer . . .”, one could easily hear the line as “Olive, the other reindeer.”  That mishearing actually spawned a 1997 children’s book by that title, which later generated an animated special:  mondegreens running wild.  But that’s really another topic.

Suppose we can make out what the singer is saying.  The real lyrics can still go wrong, in sense rather than in sound.  And sometimes we only notice the errant meaning once we’ve heard the song umpteen times:  the umpteenth-plus-one repetition makes us wonder about it.  The lyricist needs to make sure that even on repeated rehearing, the words say what they’re supposed to say, and not something else—or the result may be unintentional comedy.

Unintended Consequences

If the songwriter isn’t careful, the words may come out to mean exactly the opposite of what the writer wanted.  A famous example also cited in Barry’s book is the Rod Stewart song “Tonight’s the Night” (1976) (lyrics / lyric video).  Stewart tells the girl he’s seducing, “Just let your inhibitions run wild.”  He wants to minimize her inhibitions, not give them wider scope—but the contrary connotations of “run wild” have apparently confused him.

General Waverly and company, White Christmas, opening sceneRemember the song in the movie White Christmas (1954) where the soldiers are professing their loyalty to their general?  “The Old Man” (lyrics / video) occurs first on a battlefield.

We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go,
Long as he wants to go opposite to the foe.
We’ll stay with the old man wherever he wants to stay,
Long as he stays away from the battle’s fray.

Because we love him, we love him,
Especially when he keeps us on the ball,
And we’ll tell the kiddies we answered duty’s call
With the grandest son of a soldier of them all.

I’ve always been baffled as to whether “opposite to the foe” means they want to follow him into battle, which would fit the mood of the song (“we answered duty’s call”) or whether it means they want to join him in running away from the enemy (“away from the battle’s fray”).  For all I know, Irving Berlin intended both meanings – comedy and sentiment at one time.

There’s a more recent (2008) patriotic song from Rodney Atkins, “It’s America” (lyrics / music video), in which Atkins describes stopping at some children’s lemonade stand.  He says, “They were the cutest kids I’d ever seen in this front yard.”  What he meant to say, surely, is that the kids in this front yard were the cutest kids he’d ever seen.  But the literal meaning of the sentence could just as well be that these were only the cutest kids in this particular front yard.  How many kids has he actually seen in this yard, for purposes of comparison?

Belinda Carlisle, sheet music coverI like the Belinda Carlisle song “Leave A Light On” (1989) (lyrics / lyric video / songwriter’s explanation), but one line makes the song seem faintly silly.  Carlisle tells her lover how much she will miss him, but asks him to leave the porch light on because she’s coming back.  Her urgency to return is such that she says, “I’ll be there before you close the door, to give you all the love that you need.”  Now, she’s just told him “I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” but apparently her absence is going to be pretty brief:  he won’t even have the chance to let the door close before she pops back in.  The pain of parting isn’t exactly going to be extended.  I remarked to my kids years ago that apparently she wasn’t going any further away than to take out the trash; and this became the “taking-out-the-trash song” ever after.

A song called “Everytime You Go Away” (1980) by Hall & Oates, also recorded by Paul Young (lyrics / music video) isn’t a great favorite of mine, but it did stimulate what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic”—the afterthoughts that occur to you after you’ve finished watching a show, when you go to the fridge for a beer.  The chorus repeats endlessly that “Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you.”  I began to think that if she takes a piece of him with her every time she goes away, she’ll eventually be able to reassemble him in toto at the other end, once she’s brought over all the pieces.  And what then?  Perhaps she then transfers him back, piecemeal, to where he started from.  It begins to seem more like a perpetual cycle than a loss.

Conflicting Imagery

Sometimes the anomaly isn’t so much a confusion of meaning, as a confusion of imagery.  Metaphors, like Rod Stewart’s inhibitions, can run wild and get into trouble.

Waiting For a Star To Fall, scene from music video

“Waiting For a Star To Fall”

Mixing the literal with the figurative is one way to confuse the listener.  There’s a bouncy pop song from 1988 called Waiting for a Star to Fall by Boy Meets Girl (lyrics / music video).  The chorus opens:  “Waiting for a star to fall / and carry your heart into my arms / that’s where you belong / in my arms, baby, yeah.”  The conceit that a falling star carries her heart, sure, that’s cute.  What throws me off is the conjunction of your heart (metaphorically) and my arms (literally).  The star could carry her into his arms; it could carry her heart in some sense into, say, his heart; but carrying her heart into his arms actually begins to sound rather gruesome, if you look at it the right way.  (Or the wrong way.)

Another heart goes astray in Lauren Alaina’s 2015 empowerment anthem “Road Less Traveled” (lyrics / audio / music video)  The refrain breaks out with:  “If you trust your rebel heart, ride it into battle . . .”  It’s a nice thought:  trust your independence, fight for what you believe.  But the idea of riding your own heart into battle seems, if not physically impossible, at least rather peculiar.  I can’t help but picture Alaina mounted atop a larger-than-life version of one of those diagrams you see in cardiologists’ offices, the four-lobed red organ with the truncated blood vessels leading out of it.  That deprives the fierce encouragement of some of its force . . .

We can lay the physical image to rest in Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” (1986) (lyrics / audio), but that doesn’t get us out of the woods yet.  The object of Madonna’s desire is not responding as she wishes; the song is a plea for him to open his heart.  But what she tells him is, “Open your heart to me, baby, I hold the lock and you hold the key.”  What’s she doing holding the metaphorical lock that closes his heart?  It would seem to make more sense for him to be the lock and her the key.  But I suspect Madonna just couldn’t resist the phallic imagery of turning it the other way around.

There’s a lot of unlocking to be done in love songs.  Richard Marx pleads with his beloved not to let fear keep her loveless in 1991’s “Take This Heart” (lyrics / music video). In the bridge, he tells her, “Don’t keep the dream in you locked outside your door.”  That’s an effective image; in fact, it’s two effective images.  She could be keeping her dream locked away inside herself and not following it; or she could be barricaded against the dream that’s trying to come in to reach her.  But he can’t have it both ways.

Steppin’ Out,” from Joe Jackson in 1982 (lyrics / music video), evokes the glamor of night life in New York City.  The singer persuades his girl to go out on the town with him.  “You . . . in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile / We’ll be there in just a while / If you follow me.”  But if they’re together in a taxi, there’s hardly much question as to whether she’ll follow him, right?

Have A Nice Day album cover imageOne of my favorite rousing tunes is Bon Jovi’s ”Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” from 2005 (lyrics / music video).  The lyrics are cheerfully all over the place; the song succeeds on its energy and its defiantly sentimental ‘attitude’ (an attitude that’s neatly captured in the simple graphic on the album cover, shown here).  The singer(s), who have traveled all over the world, declare that they can still come back to the place where “they call me one of their own.”  I still think that Jon Bon Jovi and his co-writer Richie Sambora got it backwards when they tell us, “You take the home from the boy, but not the boy from his home.”  Seems to me you take the boy from his home when he travels the world, while something of his home remains inside him (you can’t “take the home from the boy”).  But the song is such fun that one can hardly quibble about the details.

Conflicting Emotions

Some songs can’t seem to make up their minds whether they’re a ‘love is wonderful’ song or a ‘please come back to me’ song.  Going all the way back to 1971, the beautiful Jackson 5 number “Maybe Tomorrow” (lyrics / video) has that problem.  In the first verse and the refrain, she is looking into his eyes, she is the four seasons of his life, and so forth.  But in the second verse and elsewhere in the refrain, she’s left him (“Maybe tomorrow / you’ll come back to my arms, girl”).  Maybe she did mean that much to him and now she’s gone; but that isn’t what the words say.

On the other hand, sometimes the “wait, what was that?” double-take is intentional.  The Turtles, a popular 1960s group, were known for a subversive tongue-in-cheek style.  In “You Don’t Have to Walk In the Rain” (1969) (lyrics / video), round about the second verse, we get the line, “I looked at your face / I love you anyway.”  Anyway?  That doesn’t sound like a compliment . . .  I suspect the Turtles were just putting one over on us there.

Incoherence

Sometimes it isn’t so much that the lyrics don’t go together, but that they don’t go anywhere at all.

Backstreet Boys, I Want It That Way, scene from music videoThe famously obscure Backstreet Boys earworm “I Want It That Way” (1999) (lyrics / music video) falls into this category.  It’s pretty, and one gets the impression that two devoted lovers are having problems, but what exactly is the desire to which the singers object so strenuously?  According to this 2018 summary, and this 2011 article, apparently the mystery has something to do with the fact that the songwriter’s English wasn’t too strong at the time.  But the most entertaining fact is that the group tried coming up with a version that did make sense—and everyone liked the nonsensical original better.  Sometimes one’s ear and one’s brain just go off in different directions.

We get a different kind of coherence problem in which I like to call “general aspirational” songs, where the lyricist is trying to encourage or uplift without getting too specific about the moral or spiritual basis for the uplift—the content.  We had a whole lot of these back in the 1960s.  A more recent example is “Under One Sky” (2015) (lyrics / lyric video) by a group called The Tenors.  It’s a nice song, and I like to listen to it.  But I cannot make out what it’s talking about, and promising lines keep falling flat.  For example:  “It takes a city of dreamers”—okay, that sounds interesting, what is it that uniting a city of dreamers can do?—“to help you get this far.”  Well, that finishing clause doesn’t say anything.  How far is that?  In what direction?  Why does it take all these dreamers to help with whatever it is he’s doing?  But the lyricist is already off to something else, and we never find out.  I do like an overall sense of hopefulness or encouragement—but it helps if there’s at least a little content or substance to it.

Practical Conflicts

Train, Marry Me, music video, collage of imagesOther songs makes sense syntactically, but not as a practical matter.  In Train’s lovely “Marry Me” (2010) (lyrics / music), everything says the couple has a long history of deep intimacy.  Until we get to the line, “If I ever get the nerve to say “Hello” in this café.”  He’s never even spoken to her?  That longing-from-a-distance can also be a touching story—but not the same touching story.  At best, we have a really extreme case of love at first sight, as the video seems to suggest.

But these pragmatic plausibility issues really take us off in another direction, and I’ve already rambled on long enough here.

Conclusion

We don’t want to take our parsing of song lyrics too seriously—especially when it comes to an overliteral reading.  What these silly examples show us is partly that there can be unintentional humor lurking in all kinds of places; and partly that if a songwriter wants to produce a vivid impression on the hearer, it’s necessary to pay close attention to all the angles.  It takes some precision to put an effective musical story together, from the exact meaning of words to the interplay of image and metaphor.  Just as when we’re choosing names for a baby, we have to think about all the ramifications of our choices, even the silliest ones.

 

Becky Chambers and Domestic Science Fiction

Hugo Material

Science fiction writer Becky Chambers is up for a Hugo award (SF’s equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzer Prize) this year—twice.  Her 2018 novel Record of a Spaceborn Few has been nominated for best novel.  The Wayfarers series, of which Record is the third book, is also in the running for best series this year.

Wayfarers series coversThe series as a whole, and especially the most recent book, highlight a facet of SF that can sometimes be neglected in the shadow of the world-shaking blockbuster epics:  stories that are concerned more with what happens to individuals and small groups than with the Fate of the World.  I’m going to tag this subcategory “domestic SF.”

I don’t mean to imply that Chambers’ tales are concerned with cosy traditional family life.  On the contrary, some of her characters’ situations are decidedly nonconventional.  This is science fiction, after all.  But family and home do play a central role.

High Stakes

When we think of science fiction—especially early modern SF, from about 1920-1940—we tend to think of adventure stories:  space opera, “planetary romances” like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, or the modern revival in Star Trek and Star Wars.  In these tales, conflict was a must, and often on a grand scale.  We were Saving the World, or even the galaxy, the universe; or at least (for instance) the beloved city of Helium, as John Carter was wont to do.

Many of these early epics had to do with exploration.  We were ‘going where no one had gone before’ in the Jules Verne Voyages Extraordinaires, or in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (though in the latter case one might say instead that ‘where no one had gone before’ was coming to us).  The heroes were frequently achieving the first of something, a momentous event:  first spaceflight, first interstellar flight, first contact with nonhuman intelligence, or (when spaceflight had become routine) first landing on some particularly odd sort of planet.  Whatever they were doing, it was a big deal.

Of course this was never all of science fiction; but it made up a major part of modern SF.  And this tendency continued into the mid-20th century.  Even a scenario that initially seemed purely local and personal often turned out to have grand-scale implications.

In Heinlein’s The Star Beast (1954), for example, the Everyboy teenage hero is unusual only in having a pet that was puppy-sized when his great-grandfather brought it back from an interstellar trip, but has gradually grown to the scale of a medium-sized dinosaur.  The story opens with “Lummox” getting into trouble by eating a neighbor’s roses, plowing straight through a set of greenhouses, and so forth—the kind of domestic turmoil that might turn up in any situation comedy.  (At least in science fiction.)  But it eventually turns out that Lummox is actually a mere child from a fearsomely intelligent and pugnacious extraterrestrial species that lives for centuries.  When her relatives come calling, it requires a major diplomatic effort to head off an interstellar war.  What started out as a neighborhood squabble has become a planetary crisis.

E.T. poster, fingers touchingWe see something of the same development, but with a different twist, in the movie E.T.:  the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  The first part of the story focuses mainly on the friendship that develops between E.T. and young Elliott.  The situation grows into an adult-level crisis in the second part.  But Spielberg has a different take:  even at the end, the story remains centered on that personal relationship between the two main characters.  The trail of candies Elliott lays out for E.T. leads to a momentous first-contact moment; but it isn’t clear at the end whether Elliott’s contact will lead to some kind of new era for humanity, or whether things will return to normal once the alien spacecraft departs.

E.T. shows that what’s at stake in SF doesn’t have to be world-shaking.  The whole story may simply revolve around the lives of a few main characters.  And that’s what I mean by ‘domestic SF.’

The Wayfarers Books

Chambers’ first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), opens when a young woman named Rosemary Harper joins the motley crew of an aging spaceship-for-hire called the Wayfarer.  Her relationships with the varied personalities (and species) of the crew draw her out of herself and allow her to develop her potential in classic bildungsroman fashion.  As the plot thickens, Wayfarer does get involved in major diplomatic affairs, in a small way.  But, as with E.T., the focus stays on the characters and their interactions.  We’re much more concerned about whether (for instance) the ship’s AI, Lovelace, will succeed in being downloaded into a human body at the urging of her human beloved, than in galactic politics.  Wikipedia puts it concisely:  “The novel concerns itself with character development rather than adventure.”

This tendency is even more pronounced in the second story.  A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) leaves behind most of the characters of the first book to follow the distinct, newborn AI that ended up occupying the human body in question at the end of The Long WayOrbit entirely eschews the grand scale in favor of personal relationships, as the main character tries to decide how to manage this strange new life in the flesh while making friends with a woman who herself had an extremely odd childhood.  One review correctly observed that Orbit is even “more intimate than its predecessor.”

The third story, Record of a Spaceborn Few, takes place in the same universe but, again, mobilizes an entirely different cast of characters.  Chambers is not writing a cumulative single story on the model of, say, the Star Wars movies.  Rather, each book is complete in itself, although they share a common background and characters occasionally cross over.  This in itself indicates that we are not building up to a single galaxy-spanning climax.  The author’s interests lie elsewhere.

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Record of a Spaceborn Few coverThe most recent book builds on the backstory of which we’ve seen glimpses in the prior volumes.  In Chambers’ future history, humanity, having ruined its home planet, sets out en masse to search for new homes in slower-than-light generation ships, the “Exodus fleet.”  It’s only when the are discovered by more advanced nonhuman species that they gain limited access, as impoverished refugees, to higher technologies and faster-than-light travel.  By the time of the stories, people from the Fleet have spread out to live among other species on numerous other worlds; some have even returned to their own solar system to colonize Mars.  But a substantial number of humans still remain aboard the immense ships that had been their ancestors’ homes for so long, which have now been put in permanent orbits around a star loaned to them by another species.

Record explores possible options for choosing to live one’s life in these circumstances.  Some of the “Exodans,” like young Kip, pine for the wider horizons of a planet, yet end up opting for a place within the Fleet—after spending some time going to college “abroad,” onplanet.  Others, like Tessa and her family, do take on the new experience of living in the open, on a planet.  Meanwhile, some of the dispersed humans born on planets come to decide they’d rather live aboard the Fleet, whose close-knit culture has its attractions despite the shabby and relatively modest conditions aboard; and some of the Exodans choose to create a “cultural education” center to train these returnees so they can fit into that culture.

A friendly alien observer, visiting the Fleet to gain material for a study and staying with one of the main characters, provides an external viewpoint to place these various life decisions in context.  But the core of the story is how each individual or family chooses among the different possible ways of life.  There’s no great crisis or climax, and the story doesn’t come down on the side of one lifestyle or another.  It simply lays out the possibilities.

Family Life Out There

Chambers’ stories, then, seem to be moving more and more in the direction of ‘domestic’ or small-scale concerns.  There’s a continuing theme of belonging to a family group, or something like one—even when the “family” in question, as in Orbit, consists of both ordinary embodied humans and “sessile” AIs that never leave the home they operate (giving a whole new meaning to the term “homemaker”).

The Rolling Stones coverWith Chambers as the bellwether, so to speak, we can trace similar kinds of stories back through the history of SF.  For example, another Heinlein “juvenile” novel, The Rolling Stones (1952), really is a domestic story:  the Stone family, bored with their comfortable life on the quietly citified Moon, buys a spaceship and sets off to visit Mars and then the asteroid belt, getting into various scrapes and small-scale adventures as they go.

These “adventures” can be as mundane as the teenage twins’ run-in with bureaucracy and the law when they try to import bicycles to Mars without first researching the customs duties—or as serious as a life-endangering spacecraft malfunction.  But there are no grander events or interplanetary crises involved.  (Incidentally, the book has nothing at all to do with the band The Rolling Stones, not even if you try to compare the “rocks” of the asteroid belt with—no, even I’m not going to go there.)

Another perennial favorite of mine is Zenna Henderson’s tales of the People, refugees from a far-off world who are scattered across the Earth when they must escape in “life-slips” as their spacecraft breaks up on entering our atmosphere.  These short stories each center on different individuals or families of characters, built around a common theme of finding the lost and bringing them back to their own people.  The unusual powers of the People often evoke xenophobic hostility in the Earthlings among whom they are hiding—but just as often bring out compassion and kindness from the people who take them in and help them.  The array of short stories does not really build to any climax or conclusion.  Rather, each person’s fate is a story in itself—though it is intimately bound up with those of others.

Whole subgenres of SF are inherently oriented toward the small and personal.  There’s a significant category of science fiction murder mysteriesIsaac Asimov was famous for these—which by definition revolve around a particular individual’s death, which may or may not have cosmic ramifications.  Similarly, a SF romance necessarily focuses on a particular couple; and again, while their relationship may have broad-scale importance, the story is just as sound if what matters is only the two of them.

On the Big Screen

My impression is that SF movies, even more than books, have tended to concentrate on big crises and broad scope; perhaps a visual medium evokes a particular fascination with spectacle.  (Explosions, give me lots of explosions.)  But that’s not always the case.  Now that we’ve shown we can do believably spectacular stories along the Star Wars lines, moviemakers may be turning back toward more personal-level tales.

The Space Between Us posterA good example is the teenage SF romance The Space Between Us (2017).  I’m fond of this film, though it didn’t do well as the box office and was disliked by critics.  The movie fits our survey here because it’s all about the particular pair and the other people involved with them.  There’s a base or colony on Mars, but that’s just the background that sets up the essential premise of the story—how a boy born and raised in a scientific station on Mars is determined to visit the home planet and to meet the girl he’s been corresponding with there.

I’m tempted also to cite the Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence film Passengers (2016).  It’s all about the two principal characters (who are the only characters for much of the story).  The stakes do rise at least to “save the ship” level when the main characters have to perform death-defying acts to prevent the destruction of the sleeper ship they’re on.  But, as a romance, it does maintain a focus on the fates of those two people—in a way that is rather poignantly realized at the end.

Conclusion

Becky Chambers’ Hugo nominees thus illustrate that aspect of SF that deals with the personal and local rather than the grand and spectacular.  I’m all for more of this.  Once we get over the initial amazement at space travel and other scientific advances, we can settle down to telling the small individual stories that these advances make possible—without giving up the grand-scale tales as well, of course.  In a literary realm, eating our cake and still having it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.