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.

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Changing History: “Timeless”

The initial episode of NBC’s new time travel series, Timeless (premiered Oct. 3, 2016), does a neat job of handling the classic trope of changing the past.  There’s more to that kind of plot than generally meets the eye.

Spoiler Alert!The following necessarily contains spoilers for the first Timeless episode, so if you haven’t seen it and want to, be careful when scrolling down.  I’ll drop another alert message at the point where the spoilers begin.Poster for Timeless

The Lure of the Past

Oddly enough, travel to the past fascinates us more than travel to the future.  One might expect it to be the other way around.  After all, we’ve been to the past.  The first classic time travel tale, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, concerned itself exclusively with the future.  But it’s backwards time travel that lets us imagine changing the present by altering its causes—and produces the causal tangles that are unique to time travel stories.

Larry Niven’s essay “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (found in All the Myriad Ways) points this out:  “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence. . . . The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”

The Past Doesn’t Change

Some stories assume that the past can’t be changed.  The time stream protects, or heals, itself automatically once the moving present has passed.  There was an old-time SF story (anyone remember the title?) in which successive attempts to change history misfire because of progressively more unlikely accidents.  The gun misfires.  The bullet misses.  A bystander intercepts the bullet.  A meteor knocks the gun out of the assassin’s hand.  The hypothesis has an air of fate about it, as in the Greek myths.

But unchangeability needn’t be a matter of fate.  It may simply reflect the fact that the past event has already happened, incorporating any interventions from the future that may have taken place.  There is a single past event, which is the product of all its causes, whether they come from the event’s past or its future.  As TV Tropes puts it, “You Already Changed the Past.”  Robert A. Heinlein wrote some of the most famous time travel stories using this approach to generate “constructive” or “ontological” paradoxes—By His Bootstraps and “—All You Zombies—”.

A technology that only allows viewing the past, rather than interacting with it, falls into a similar category.  There’s no chance of changing things; we’re mere observers.  Isaac Asimov’s The Dead Past leaps to mind.

These kinds of stories are fun, but they don’t have quite the emotional appeal of “Make it didn’t happen.”

How A Change Propagates

Suppose, then, that we can change the past.  How exactly is that supposed to work?

A writer sometimes introduces a sense of urgency into the plot by imagining that a change in history propagates through reality in a process that itself takes time (of some sort).  This is what creates the tension in Back to the Future.  We can see Marty’s family gradually disappearing as his disruption of history works its way forward.  Presumably Marty disappears last because he was conceived last.  If he doesn’t reestablish history before he disappears, it’s all over.

This makes a weird sort of sense, because natural processes do normally propagate gradually.  Even gravity has its waves.  But it does result in the curious phenomenon of a reality that isn’t entirely self-consistent.  Marty’s parents never got married, but Marty himself is still inexplicably there.  (For the moment.)

It makes more sense, maybe, to picture the change as taking effect instantaneously.  Take away the causal “supports” for something, and it’s no longer there at all.  This assumption would have made Back to the Future a much shorter movie—and highlighted the “Grandfather Paradox” at the core of its plot.  The time lag gives Marty a chance to cure the paradox before it fully takes effect.

What Happens to the Traveler?

But we’re assuming that the causal ripple from history’s change follows the time traveler even when the traveler’s world line has looped around into the past.  What if that isn’t how it works?  (We’re inventing a theory of time travel; we can make what assumptions we wish.)  If the traveler is absent from the future when the change “gets there,” will the traveler be affected at all?

If the traveler is affected by the same change that affects everything else, we get a time stream that’s more consistent, but harder to tell a story about—because no one in the story will remember the change.  The traveler’s memory alters along with everything else.  (There’s an old SF story about this, too—and it only works because the reader is outside the story’s time stream.  At the end the bizarre monster that was human on page one proclaims, ‘the time experiment is over, and nothing has changed.’  The story only works from an omniscient point of view.)

So a time travel story almost always assumes that the traveler, who was out of the affected time region when the change occurred, remembers the old when she encounters the new.

Here Be Spoilers!

You Can’t Go Home Again

Here’s where Timeless comes in.  Villains of some sort—or are they?—steal the secretly developed time machine and set off to change history.  Our three heroes take the older prototype vehicle (a little less streamlined than a DeLorean) and follow.  They don’t quite succeed in preventing their adversaries from altering the past.  The Hindenburg explodes on its return trip, rather than on its arrival in America.Hindenburg disaster

When our heroes come back to the present, their colleagues believe the zeppelin had always exploded on its return trip—because the change in history has affected them.  The three travelers have to explain to them what’s changed.  In a sense, they no longer belong in the world from which they set out.  It’s an unusual and interesting situation for a TV series.

The Butterfly Effect

So far, we haven’t seen what larger alterations or political ramifications may have resulted, in this new world, from the deaths of several prominent figures on what was now the Hindenburg’s ill-fated second flight.  But the personal implications turn out to be devastating.

Butterfly effect graphicThe screenwriters also have a good handle on another time travel staple, the “butterfly effect,” named for the metaphor that in a massive chaotic system, a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent might result in a tornado in another (or, possibly, named for a classic Ray Bradbury short story).  When main character Lucy Preston comes home from her adventure in the past, she is overjoyed to find that her mother, comatose when Lucy left, is now perfectly healthy.  But Lucy is appalled to find that her beloved sister never existed.  How could the Hindenburg’s altered history have anything to do with this, she cries—and now she has new, and very mixed, motivations as to setting time back on its original course.

The show thus picks up on a theme that’s frequently neglected in a tale about changing the past.  Each change has unpredictable ramifications.  Marty McFly comes home to find his parents much improved, his siblings successful, and the despised Biff reduced to a cipher.  But what of all the people in town who will have interacted with the changed McFlys and Tannens over the past thirty years?  If even minor events can have large long-range effects, it may not be so easy to confine a temporal change to the intended consequences.

This means that our Timeless heroes may have no way to put things back the way they were.  The change may be essentially irreversible—a sort of temporal entropy.  Anything they do to counteract the bad effects of the original change will lead to still more alterations.  They really can’t go home again.

If the writers carry through this fascinating, if rather chilling, line of thought in subsequent episodes, we may get some really interesting story lines—as time goes on.

How to Stage an Alien Invasion

We love our alien invasions.  Since The War of the Worlds (1897), poor Earth has suffered a steady stream of hostile arrivals—frequently from Mars, but recently from farther afield, as the possibility of other intelligent life in our solar system wanes.

We have one coming up this month, with the June 24 movie premiere of Independence Day:  Resurgence, a sequel to one of the more successful invasions of the last twenty years.  It seems like a good time to look closely at our opponents.

Footfall, a 1985 novel by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle (still available in print), is not only a great yarn, but a textbook model of how to write a modern invasion story.  We can look at it as a test case, like an existence proof in mathematics:  What kinds of conditions have to be fulfilled for a believable alien invasion, given what we now know about other planets?

 

Let’s define the target.  We’re talking about the good old classic invasion story, where the bad guys show up in person, make a direct assault, and we beat them.  That isn’t the only possibility.  There are other variants, such as infiltration, or scenarios where the Earthlings lose and end up a subject species.  But let’s look at what premises make a triumphant Independence Day-style plot viable.

 

It was easy for Wells.  His relatively nearby Martians could fire off a series of cannon shells, more or less, to land on Earth, break out their tripods, and mount their campaign.  Wells’ tour de force ending, of course, has the Martians beaten not by human opposition, but by humble bacteria.  (Arguably the best moment in the original Independence Day is when Jeff Goldblum realizes we can best the enemy by using a contemporary analogue of the Wellsian microbes—a computer virus.)

But modern invaders have to come from a greater distance.  Regrettably, none of the plausible abodes of life in the solar system have panned out.  Gone are old-time SF’s sweltering jungles of Venus, the canal-crossed deserts of John Carter’s Mars.  Until we’re ready for an attack by potential microbes from Europa, or hypothetical floating denizens of Jupiter’s atmosphere—neither of which, if they exist, have shown any signs of capability for interplanetary excursions—we have to look to interstellar sparring partners for a really good invasion.

This intensifies a long-standing problem with invasion stories.  If they got here, and across the interstellar gulfs at that, their technology must be literally light-years ahead of ours.  How can we expect to beat critters with such vastly advanced technology?  The balance of power is inherently skewed against us.

Paired with this is the question of motivation.  Why are they here?  What do the invaders want that would drive them to come all the way to Earth for it?

This is the easiest place for invasion stories that aren’t built on sound science to go astray.  We need only mention the 1983 TV mini-series “V,” which, though it had many admirable aspects, fell sadly short on the science side.  V gives not one, but two, implausible motives for the seemingly-benevolent Visitors.  They’re here to steal Earth’s water—as if there weren’t vast amounts of ice scattered around our solar system, and probably most other systems, for the taking.  And they’re here to eat us; apparently not only are humans compatible with a completely alien biology, but we’re a tastier treat than more edible and obtainable animals.  Sensible extraterrestrials need a better reason to traipse across the light-years than a local hamburger shortage.

 

Niven & Pournelle’s epic adventure handles both these questions so beautifully that it might have been plotted specifically to answer them.

Our not-quite-friendly visitors, the fithp (the singular is fi’), arrive in a large interstellar vessel, which launches smaller ships to conduct the attack.  Why are they here?  They’re looking for Lebensraum — living space.  The fithp have been exiled from their homeworld as the result of a conflict among factions—like the Protectors in Niven’s novel Protector.  They need a new place to live.  Among other things, this means “defeat is not an option”:  they can’t go back.  That ups the stakes.

But this exile premise also solves some of the balance-of-power problems.  The fithp’s resources are strictly limited.  There won’t be any reinforcements.  They can’t bring anything more from their homeworld.  All we have to do is defeat this batch of opponents, and we win.

Niven & Pournelle strengthen this limitation on the aliens, and incidentally increase scientific plausibility, by making their mother ship Message Bearer a slower-than-light vessel — a Bussard ramjet.  Their journey takes decades.  This distances the fithp even further from any potential homeworld support.  The authors also use it to introduce another twist:  there’s dissension between the space-born fithp, on one hand, and those who lived on their homeworld and are now awakened from suspended animation, on the other.  This division becomes important as the plot develops.

Without having to account for faster-than-light travel, Niven & Pournelle can give the fithp technology that isn’t too far ahead of our own.  Human numbers—and political, psychological, social characteristics—can make up for the technological imbalance.

In addition, the fithp don’t fully understand their own technology.  They’ve learned a lot of it from records left by their Predecessors, rather than developing the science themselves. This makes them less able to innovate.  By contrast, the humans’ response is a masterpiece of improvisation.  We make the best of what we have.  This, too, helps even the scales.  (Lesson for humans:  Continue fostering that STEM education.)

 

In the course of this worldbuilding, Niven & Pournelle give us fully fleshed-out aliens, with a coherent culture and society, understandable but different from our own — not an easy task.  Among other things, the fithp are sympathetic characters.  They are people, not just faceless attackers.  We see events from their viewpoints as well as our own.  This makes the story not only more believable, but more interesting.

 

The original Independence Day scores modestly on these two plausibility counts.  Motivation:  The aliens travel the stars like locusts, stripping planets of their resources.  No details are given, but the basic idea is not unreasonable, particularly in light of contemporary environmental concerns.  Balance of power:  We’re hopelessly behind in technology—but the aliens’ laziness (using our own satellites for signaling), Goldblum’s bright idea, and a captured alien ship get us (barely) over the hump of the willing suspension of disbelief.

We’ll see shortly how these premises play out in the Independence Day sequel—applying the Niven & Pournelle standard.