This One’s For the Boys

Sometimes a song offers an archetype or a role model for persons to emulate.  I recently heard the phrase “motivational rock.”  More commonly I think of such a song as “aspirational.”

 “This One’s For the Girls”

Martina McBride had a 2003 hit with “This One’s For the Girls,” written by Chris Lindsey, Hillary Lindsey and Aimee Mayo.  If you don’t know it, check out the music video and the lyrics.

This One's For the Girls - young girl and older womanAs Wikipedia puts it, “The song’s lyrics are a salute to women of various ages (early teens, middle twenties and approaching middle age) dealing with the struggles of different phases of life—starting high school and facing new pressures, coping with uncertainty about a career, and reaching middle age—and tells them ‘You’re beautiful the way you are.’”  It’s addressed to “girls” of all ages, “from one to ninety-nine.”  (The varying usage of the term “girl” over the last fifty years is a whole separate subject.)  The song is explicit about expressing an archetype, or an ideal, for women of any age:  “we’re all the same inside.”

This One's For the Girls - girls w.soccer ball singingIt’s interesting to see what characteristics are asserted of this common core identity.  The refrain implies that women are characterized by wholehearted love—“who love without holdin’ back.”  They’re sentimental:  “who’ve wished upon a shooting star.”  They’re idealists—or maybe just striving for some lofty goal:  “who dream with everything they have.”  And this willingness to put oneself on the line is courageous, because they’re also vulnerable:  “who’ve ever had a broken heart.”  Each verse portrays integrity and being true to oneself.  All these characteristics are commended:  “beautiful.”

There could be vigorous debate about any or all of these specific ideals.  But the popularity of the song testifies to the notion that at least some listeners can identify with this vision of womanhood.  More generally, “Girls” a member in good standing of the large family of female empowerment songs.  Just as a sampling of recent hits, we could instance “Fight Song,” “The Road Less Traveled,” “Scars To Your Beautiful” . . .  There’s no lack of inspiring characterizations for women.

The Missing Complement

It’s less clear what the corresponding archetype is for men or boys.  We’ve been challenging traditional stereotypes of masculinity for several decades.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But we seem to be having trouble figuring out what should replace those stereotypes.

There are plenty of general-purpose motivational songs about—which makes sense, because most of what we are, we have in common as human beings.  But what would a comparable song for guys look like—a “This One’s For the Boys”?  We don’t see a whole lot of candidates stepping up for that position.

I’m thinking of good role models for boys.  We have plenty of bad ones, to be sure.  We can discard at once the overly violent, the nihilistic, or the tedious “bro-country” stereotype (to which “Girl in a Country Song” made an entertaining response).  But what do we want young men to take as an ideal?  Are they supposed to be really sensitive?  Really tough?  Down-to-earth?  Geeky?  It seems to me there’s a significant gap here, or at least a state of considerable confusion about masculine ideals.

This isn’t as trivial as it sounds.  Sure, one song isn’t going to make the difference between a world of well-developed mature men and the reverse.  But we do need the subtle guidance our stories and our songs provide as we grow.  So I’ve been on the lookout for the kind of song that would say to men the kind of things “This One’s For the Girls” says to women.

“Never Enders”

Never Enders, band performingEarlier this year I ran across the title song from Lonestar’s 2016 album “Never Enders,” written by Dean Sams, Richie McDonald, and Marv Green.  I liked the full-speed-ahead energy of the music, but I loved the lyrics:  one of those cases where you say to yourself, “yes, that’s just right, I’ve been wanting to hear someone say that!”

At first hearing, the song struck me as evoking an ideal that anyone could sign onto.  And so it does.  Just as men, not only women, could perfectly well aspire to the wholehearted love and “dream big” of McBride’s song; in the same way, both women and men could identify with Lonestar’s lyrics.

In fact, some of the same characteristics appear in both.  In “Never Enders,” the unidentified “we” are, among other things, “crazy wild dreamers” and “long shot believers,” and we “wear our hearts out on our sleeves.”

But it also occurred to me that this song might be especially well keyed to guys.  The song commends some traits that seem particularly suited for young men’s aspirations.

Never Enders, soldier embracing wifeOne major theme is faithfulness.  The singers are, in the lovably idiosyncratic phrasing of the song, “make-a-promise keepers.”  We “ain’t never gonna walk away.”  “We are now, we are forever / We are in this thing together / We don’t give up or surrender.”  Here traditional masculine qualities of steadiness and persistence are embodied in loyalty and standing by one’s partner—“for worse or better.”  Since unfaithfulness or lack of commitment (to a relationship) is a traditional male shortfall, the song’s assertion seems all the more decisive—embodied in the very title.

What’s even more interesting is a notion of balance and growth.  The first words are:  “We’re lettin’ goers, we’re hold-on-ers”—someone who knows when to hold tight and when to allow space.  Moreover, we’re “changers with the timers.” “We are the fire that keeps on burning / Always living, always learning.”  The notion of lifelong learning is a somewhat surprising meme to hear, considering how often country music devotes itself to standing by traditions—but “always learning” is an excellent lodestar for someone who’s trying to become a real man.

Never Enders, astronaut kid on bikeThe music video depicts the band itself cruising around, seeing sights that evoke a healthy sentiment—like a kid on a bike pretending to be an astronaut—and occasionally participating.  If we focus on this, we could read the “we” very narrowly to mean the band members.  But it’s clear the song is aiming for a wider applicability than this.

So on this Father’s Day, I recommend “Never Enders” as a song we can all join in on to help point ourselves in the right direction—especially, perhaps, us boys.

Action and Passion

Our story approaches its climax:  Our Hero prepares for the cataclysmic action on which all depends.  She tenses her muscles, tightens her fists, screws up her face into a tense grimace.

Or does she?  There are actually two ways to imagine how one achieves some brilliant feat.  We have conflicting ideas about what makes action most effective.

Passion Conquers All

The most common view is that passion brings a sort of high-tension focus that intensifies action.  (I’m using “passion” here to mean any violent emotion or supreme effort, not specifically romantic passion.)  The more you feel, the more vigorously you act.  This connection obviously correlates with our common experience.  F&SF, as always, takes the idea to new levels.

The HulkWe picture this most obviously in fighting.  Today’s most iconic image is probably that of the Hulk, from Marvel Comics, who changes from mild-mannered Bruce Banner to a massive powerhouse when Banner gets angry.  The idea isn’t new to comics, of course; it goes back at least to the Norse berserker, who fights in what Wikipedia calls “a trance-like fury.”  In a more mundane case, we see the milquetoast George McFly motivated by anger at a threat to the girl of his dreams when he finally decks Biff in “Back to the Future.”

But we also see passion as the path to other kinds of achievement.  Great stress, suffering, or effort leads to a breakthrough in ability.  Jean Grey of the X-Men becomes the cosmic-powered Phoenix when her power and endurance are tested to the limit piloting a space shuttle through a solar flare.

Gully Foyle achieves a previously-impossible interplanetary teleportation (“jaunte”) when he’s at the end of his rope in the SF classic The Stars, My Destination.  Roger Zelazny’s hero Corwin recovers his memory and his full powers when he effortfully “walks the Pattern” in Nine Princes in Amber:

          It was agony to move.  Everything tried to beat me aside.  The waters were cold, then boiling.  It seemed that they constantly pushed against me.  I struggled, putting one foot before the other.

In Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, the tormented Felice Landry achieves new levels of power under extreme stress (The Golden Torc, part III, ch. 3).  On a more positive note, the coda of E.E. Smith’s Lensman series shows Clarissa MacDougall, intensely suffering the loss of her beloved, finding the power necessary to retrieve him from unimaginable reaches (that chapter is a trope namer for TV Tropes’ “The Power of Love”).  Just last night, I saw the movie version of Wonder Woman (excellent, by the way) use the same trope:  a climactic accession of power under immense emotional strain.

Some of the modern roots of the passionate effort concept can be found in the Romantic movement.

Dispassion Also Has Its Points

But there’s a more paradoxical view that we can achieve more when we stop concentrating and enter a state of calmness or centeredness.

This approach also has many roots.  We’re frequently advised, when struggling with a difficult task, that we’re “trying too hard.”  Zen and other Asiatic traditions mobilize a strategy of detaching one’s mind from too great a concentration.  The currently popular practice of “mindfulness” seems to partake of the same idea:  a focus on the present moment without worry or intense concern.  Wikipedia even refers to “choiceless awareness,”  “the state of unpremeditated, complete awareness of the present without preference, effort, or compulsion.”

A nonpassionate sense of focus also appears in F&SF as a way to great achievement, though it’s much more rare.  In Robert Jordan’s massive fantasy epic The Wheel of Time, for example, Rand al’Thor is receiving sword training from a mentor who recommends “[n]ot the wild leaping about and slashing that Rand had in mind . . . but smooth motions, one flowing into another, almost a dance.”

“ . . . Blank your mind, sheepherder.  Empty it of hate or fear, of everything.  Burn them away. . . .”

Rand stared at him.  “The flame and the void,” he said wonderingly.  “That’s what you mean, isn’t it?  My father taught me about that.”  (The Eye of the World, ch. 13, paperback p. 177)

It’s through “the Void” that Rand can be most effective with the sword—and, later, with other things.

Honor Harrington faces the duelDavid Weber’s military SF heroine Honor Harrington, after surviving a shuttle explosion and emotional trauma, faced with a ritual duel to the death, dramatically decapitates her opponent with a single stroke.  But she doesn’t do it in a burst of rage, well-justified as that would be.

Honor waited, poised and still, centered physically and mentally, her eyes watching every part of [her opponent’s] body without focusing on any.  She felt his frustration, but it was as distance and unimportant as the ache of her broken ribs.  She simply waited—and then, suddenly, she moved.  (Flag in Exile, ch. 29, paperback p. 376)

We might also compare Frozen, from a previous post.  Elsa gains full control over her powers not when she lashes out passionately, nor when she painfully restrains herself, but when her power flows freely and gladly.

It’s hard to specify exactly what this dis-passionate state is.  It’s not pure rationality, à la Mr. Spock.  We might consider it a sort of pure will; but it’s not a blind will creating its own goal à la Nietzsche.  What you’re seeking still matters greatly; this Void state is how you approach it.

Nor is it lack of restraint, as we saw with Frozen.  Rather, the mindful actor seems to have perfect direction, perfect control, by means of this very Void state.  The arrow goes straight to the target—but it strikes with unparalleled force.

We don’t see as many examples of such centered intensity in the movies.  Film tends to prefer the display of passion:  it’s showier.  A character whose action arises from an inner balance is likely to look entirely inert, from the outside—until she moves.

Convergence

What these two approaches have in common, maybe, is wholeheartedness.  This seems to be the point of Yoda’s famous advice:  “Do, or do not; there is no try.”  Mr. Miyagi says something very similar to Daniel in The Karate Kid (at about 0:54).

The best modern description of a condition in which complete involvement in an action combines calm with wholehearted dedication may be “flow state.”  Most of us have probably experienced this ourselves.  There’s a certain detachment; yet there’s also deep involvement.  Emotion doesn’t get in the way, but the activity itself involves a sort of ecstasy (which, etymologically, means ‘standing outside oneself’).  Note that the berserker was described above as possessing (or possessed by) a “trance-like fury.”

In other words, the two paths may converge in the end, where maximum emotion is wholly embodied in or transmuted into the act.  None of that energy is wasted on subsidiary symptoms or mechanisms like straining, sweating, grimacing, screaming,

 

The way we approach these two paths affects how we tell a story.  Depending on our hero, and the hero’s personality or way of life, we may depict the climax as the moment of greatest strain or passion, or as a great achievement in a moment of crucial calm—“the still point of the turning world.”

If we’re simply living life—dancing, singing, coding, negotiating, loving—this may be good advice as well.  The way to do our best may not be to strain every sinew, but to relax and center.  Or possibly both.

Guest Blog: Solstice Publishing contest for Plots and Schemes Vol. 1

Solstice, which published my short stories Rescue Redux and The Green Song, is holding a contest to give away copies of a new anthology, Plots and Schemes Vol. 1.  Here are the details!


Solstice book giveaway bannerEnter to win!  That’s all you have to do.  Solstice Publishing is celebrating Plots & Schemes Vol. 1 becoming a best seller in Germany during its release by giving away three autographed copies of the print edition of this fabulous anthology.

https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/237966-plots-schemes-vol-1

All you have to do is click on the Goodreads link between May 26 and June 9 and enter.  It’s that simple.  Once the contest ends, Goodreads will notify us of the winners’ names and you will receive your copy.
Plots and Schemes Vol. 1 cover
Her child vanishes in a puff of smoke
When murder is on the itinerary
An eavesdropped comment leads to an impossible scheme
Mysterious events pull Dana into danger
A rock star’s murder leaves Emlyn Goode questioning everything she knows about herself
Murder most foul puts this cop to the test
One murder, one plan, two possible outcomes
Losing your mind is scary…
If you’re not at the beach, the Tough Luck stories will take you there
Trail Town Texas leans heavily on their sheriff
Murder, kidnapping, mysterious events, and more are our treat to you in this wonderful anthology from Solstice Publishing.  Discover the talents of K.C. Sprayberry, Debbie De Louise, Donna Alice Patton, E.B. Sullivan, Susan Lynn Solomon, Johnny Gunn, K.A. Meng, Leah Hamrick, Lois Crockett, and Stephy Smith.

https://bookgoodies.com/a/B072L7KZ6K

Here’s a little taste of what you’ll find inside this intriguing book!

A smile was on his face. Despite the fact that he was supposed to connect with the egg donor of this lovely child, he had no thoughts of doing that or returning the kid at the appointed time. His timing was perfect. The child—Lanie is such an idiotic name; I’ll have to come up with another one—would be five in a few days. In time, she would forget there had been his loser ex in her life. She—Sheila will regret divorcing me—had battered through his training, all he’d gone through to make her a compliant and complacent wife. She’d run away after he ordered her to get an abortion.

Good thing the bitch ignored me. I wouldn’t have this gorgeous child to raise to be like me.

Granted the child was weak now, but he would fix that, as soon as he made sure they vanished forever. No one would stop him from raising his daughter as he saw fit, and that meant keeping her away from her weakling of a mother.

Quietly, Mark Jannson, scion of the globally famous Jannson family, whose assets numbered in the billions, removed anything he considered important from his lavishly furnished thirty-room mansion located in the mountains above Denver. His mother’s jewels were carefully packed into a leather satchel, to be given to his daughter, if she remained true to the Jannson name. The woman who called herself his mother had been consigned to a hovel in the southeast somewhere, once she showed her true colors by attempting to take him from his father.

“Let the bitch live in poverty the rest of her life,” he whispered.

https://youtu.be/3xUn1SZZrF8
Starting May 26, 2017, simply click on the link provided and enter. If you aren’t a member of Goodreads, you can join easily. This is a great place to discover books by new and exciting authors and be in on the fun of all sorts of entertainment!

Let it Go

Buying gifts for small granddaughters reminds me that the popularity of Disney’s Frozen (2013) is undiminished.  This is a fine thing.  It’s a great movie and includes some good role models for little girls.  However, there is something faintly disconcerting about seeing children’s clothing emblazoned with the slogan “Let It Go” (title of the lead song from the movie).

“Let It Go”

At these links, you can find the lyrics to the song (by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez); a video clip of the song as it appears in the movie, sung by Idina Menzel, with the lyrics helpfully added; and a pop version, with a driving rock beat, by Demi Lovato (with slightly different lyrics).

Let It Go poster with ElsaYou’ll recall that Elsa, the newly-crowned queen of Arendelle, has her uncontrollable ice powers suddenly revealed in public, and flees the city.  Alone on the mountainside, she abandons the careful restraint and concealment that her dead parents imposed, and gives her abilities free rein.  As she creates a magnificent ice castle, she renounces the land and people she’s left behind.  She proclaims that she will break through the limits and use her powers as she will:  “No right, no wrong, no rules for me:  I’m free!”

It’s a great song.  I have both versions on my playlists.  The music is powerful, and the lyrics take some clever turns.  (It’s the first time I’ve heard the term “fractal” used in a song.)  Moreover, the movie visuals that accompany the song are amazing.

Elsa as Role Model

As an anthem for young girls, “Let It Go” is a very appealing choice.  It praises the kinds of qualities we all want to see in young people growing up:  asserting your own identity, using your abilities, being unafraid to admit what you are.  (“What you are” could represent anything from personal tastes and talents to sexuality—the latter of which is suggested by Elsa’s costume change).  The song evokes the “breaking free” trope that’s so appealing to the young—not to mention, now and then, the rest of us—and speaks for self-reliance and independence.

So far, so good.  We can always benefit from another strong female role model.  The trouble is that fixing on “Let It Go” as a rallying cry assumes these attitudes are what we admire in Elsa.  But that’s not actually the role the song plays in the story.

Renunciation

I assume that by now pretty much everybody has seen this movie, so I won’t issue the customary caution about spoilers—since we now have to discuss specific plot points.

Elsa wants to cast aside all association with humanity (“kingdom of isolation”).  She has a praiseworthy motive—she feels she has to be alone, so others won’t be harmed—but she also revels in the freedom of isolation.  She declares independence, not only from arbitrary constraints, but from moral rules (“No right, no wrong”).

Once we’ve seen Elsa’s moment of solitary glory—and it is glorious—the story starts to subvert that declaration.  Her isolation leaves her unaware that she’s transformed summer to winter, not just where she is, but also back in Arendelle.  Not until her sister Anna and the skeptical Kristoff struggle up the mountain to find her does she find out how far-reaching the consequences are.

To her credit, Elsa is taken aback at these unintended consequences (which are not a consequence of her self-assertion per se, but an incidental side effect).  She hasn’t really abandoned all concern for other people.  On the other hand, she still doesn’t know how to release this Fimbulwinter.  She can’t turn it off.  Her only resort is to further distance herself—which endangers Anna and doesn’t solve the problem.

Redemption

Elsa and Anna embraceIn the end, renunciation of human contact and human limitations is not the right answer for Elsa.  Her salvation comes in re-establishing contact with her sister and, eventually, with the rest of the world.  Anna’s loving sacrifice reminds Elsa that love is the right answer.  As soon as she realizes this, she is able to use her powers under full control, for good purposes.  (The abruptness of this solution is a little implausible, but this is a fairy tale, and we’ll let it pass.  Maybe she’ll return to Dagobah to “complete her training” some other time.)

Love does enable and empower; but through connection, not disconnection.  In the end Elsa renounces the very withdrawal she was expressing in “Let It Go.”  The disjunction may have been a necessary stage, but eventually it’s replaced by a deeper bond.  Which is, after all, just the kind of development that normally faces a child making her way through adolescence to adulthood.

To Be Continued?

So I have some misgivings about “Let It Go” as an ideal motto for kids.  The message of the whole story is broader and deeper than that of the song alone.  It’s still a great song, though.  What I’d really like is to have it paired with a song that’s as powerful an affirmation as ”Let It Go” is a renunciation.

There’s actually a sequel to the movie scheduled for release in 2019.  I have no idea what it’ll be about, and such sequels don’t have a good track record for coming out well.  But maybe the story will develop in such a way as to give an opportunity for just such an affirmation song.  We can always hope so.

Strangeness

One of the specialties of science fiction—and to some extent fantasy—is to evoke a sense of strangeness.  In dealing with the alien, the cosmic, that which is far away in space or time, SF can make us feel we are encountering something that passes the limits of our knowledge or understanding.

This isn’t as easy as it looks.

The Used and the Unusual

Since at least the original Star Wars (1977), it’s been good practice to portray a “Used Future.”  Star Wars gave us a world full of beaten-up, grimy equipment that looked as if it had been duct-taped together.  This is generally a good technique.  It adds realism.  We feel at home in a world where everything is not perfectly cleaned and aligned; it’s like where we actually live.  There’s a sense of familiarity.

One opposite to the “used future,” of course, is the kind of earlier SF movie that was full of shiny, spotless spaceships and immaculate gizmos.  But the sense of familiarity also has its own opposite:  the thrill of unfamiliarity.

One way the challenge arises is with extraterrestrials.  Suppose a story has us meeting intelligent aliens.  If they seem just like us—“rubber-forehead aliens”—they won’t be convincing.  We expect something from another world to be different.  The writer or director has to show creatures, technologies, behaviors that are unlike anything we’ve seen on Earth.

Escher: Wallpaper CaveYet these things must also be believable.  Something that simply looks random or arbitrary, like an abstract swirl of colors, won’t convince us we’re seeing a real thing at all.  How do we thread the needle between the too-familiar and the unintelligible?

Just Alien Enough

Natural laws do enforce certain constraints on physical objects.  But other characteristics are a matter of custom, design choices, or aesthetics.  To show something convincingly alien, we need to know the difference.

Alien ship from movie ArrivalSometimes a single feature can be odd enough to alert us that we’re “not in Kansas any more.”  The alien ship that appears in the movie Arrival looks strange at once, because it’s smaller at the bottom than at the top.  It looks as if it’s upside-down or sideways. Not the way we’d build, yes.  But is it physically impossible?  Nope.  The ship isn’t on the ground, balanced implausibly on a narrow end.  It’s floating in the air.  This not only frees the ship from the usual need for wheels or other supports; it also introduces a second, subtler strangeness.  When we humans land somewhere, we expect to land, to set ourselves down securely on a surface.  These folks seem quite comfortable floating just above the ground.

A classic example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.  A massive spacecraft—a spinning O’Neill cylinder—enters the solar system, apparently inert.  A human crew matches course to explore it before its hyperbolic orbit takes it out into interstellar space again.  The ship begins to “come alive” around them—but there’s no sign of intelligent life aboard.  The explorers find one strange and amazing feature after another.  The purpose of some becomes clear:  the long, shallow rectangular valleys turn out to be immense lights that illuminate the interior.  But they never find out the reasons for many other objects.  In the end they have to cut loose from the vessel, letting it go on its mysterious way.

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustrationClarke’s mastery of clear detail—how the airlock doors open, for instance—gives us the necessary sense of realism.  But leaving many things mysterious evokes the sense of mystery and wonder that is among the most distinctive experiences in science fiction.  The unfamiliar is clearly and concretely depicted, but the purpose remains obscure.

(Parenthetically, I advise paying no attention at all to the dreadful sequels Gentry Lee wrote to Rama under Clarke’s direction.  They make the classic mistake of erasing the mystery without replacing it with anything at all interesting.  As with certain other sequels, the only thing for a conscientious reader to do is declare them non-canonical and pretend they never happened.)

For another Clarke treatment, remember 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  The mundane and even humdrum character of the long space voyage makes the psychedelic sequence at the end feel even weirder than it is in itself.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Extraterrestrials need not be involved.  Distance in time or space, and the concurrent advances in technology, can also provide a good foundation for the sense of strangeness.  (It was, after all, Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Among the numerous virtues of David Brin’s Hugo-winning novel Startide Rising is that sense of entering a new and unaccountable world.  His Earthly spaceship crew of “uplifted” dolphins, with their small group of human companions, use advanced techniques that are still recognizable to us.  But they’re dealing with galactic cultures that draw on hundreds of millions of years of accumulated science.  The results can be mind-boggling.  One species, for example, travels by using a captive creature that creates portals “by the adamant power of its ego—by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality.”  This isn’t your grandmother’s hyperdrive.

Toy stack of ringsThe body of another species, the Jophur, consists of a stack of distinct rings, like a child’s toy.  The Brothers of the Ebony Shadows employ a probability weapon that sends out “waves of uncertainty.”  The fact that these species are nonhuman is incidental to the fact that their immense background of far-advanced science lets them use techniques that seem to surpass our understanding.

For a purely human example, let’s look at Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.  (Clarke really had the knack for this sort of thing.)  The main character, who bears the pedestrian name of Alvin, lives in Diaspar, the last city on Earth, billions of years in our future.  The city’s structure does not erode or decay; it’s maintained by “eternity circuits” according to the model held in its master computers.  The people do not die in a conventional sense.  After living for a thousand years, each individual walks back into the Hall of Creation and is dissolved—but is also retained in the memory circuits, to be rematerialized eons later.  Thus the population of the city is always changing, but the individuals continue.  And that’s only the beginning . . .

The City and the Stars, illustration

Exotic Ways of Life

Technology is one thing; behavior is another.  The City and the Stars does a terrific job of imagining how the society of Diaspar is shaped by the extraordinary conditions under which its people live.

When I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, it was billed as ‘military science fiction’—but it’s nothing like the general run of military SF.  The six factions in the story make use of technologies that create real-world effects based on “formations” of people and their consensus beliefs.  Much of the plot revolves around a revolt based on “calendrical heresy”—which is just what it sounds like:  deviation from the standard calendars.  In Lee’s world, calendrical uniformity isn’t just a matter of convenience, but of crucial importance.  The resulting society is correspondingly peculiar.  Reading the story makes you feel as if you’re constantly being knocked sideways.

Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time combines present-day characters with those living in a city one hundred trillion years in the future.  The far-future people consist of “noötic” or virtual mass, are defended by “reality generators,” and are trying to fight a cosmic entity that’s trying to destroy the universe by disintegrating its history, acting backward through time.  The present-day people in mundane Seattle keep us grounded, but trying to understand the end-of-time characters and what they are doing requires a constant stretching of the imagination.

Strangeness and Wonder

The sense of strangeness or mystery is one form of the “sense of wonder” often used to characterize science fiction.  It takes us out of the mundane, makes us strain to conceive the inconceivable.  We’re often told that world travel expands our horizons by exposing us to different places and cultures.  Science fiction goes further:  it exposes us to ideas and places and people that don’t exist in the world at all.  At its limits, SF seeks to show us more than we can even comprehend.  The lack of reality is compensated by the greater impetus to go beyond our mental limitations.

To achieve that experience, we seem to need the right combination of the familiar and the exotic.  The weird stuff at the end of 2001 isn’t entirely successful, in my view:  it’s too strange.  Not only do we not understand what’s happening; we don’t quite feel there is anything to understand.  You have to read the book to figure out what’s going on.

But when we have enough groundedness to effect the “willing suspension of disbelief,” yet enough mystery to defeat (in part) our attempt to understand, the combination is uniquely fascinating.  As I noted at the beginning, this isn’t an easy balance to strike.  But the payoff makes it worth attempting.