Portraying the Transhuman Character

More Than Human

Kevin Wade Johnson’s comments on my recent post about The Good Place raised a couple of issues worth a closer look.  Here’s one:

Lots of science fiction, and some fantasy, deals with characters who are greater, or more intelligent, or more gifted in some way, than mere humans.  But we the authors and readers are mere humans.  How do we go about showing a character who’s supposed to be more sublime than we can imagine?

It’s one thing to have characters whose capabilities are beyond us.  Superman can leap tall buildings with a single bound; I can’t.  But I can easily comprehend Superman’s doing so.  (I can even see it at the movies.)  On the other hand, if a character is supposed to be so intelligent I can’t grasp their reasoning, or has types of knowledge that are beyond me, that’s harder to represent.  I can simply say so:  “Thorson had an intelligence far beyond that of ordinary men.”  But how can I show it?

Long-Lived Experience

There are a number of ways this can come up.  For example, if a character lived a very long time, would their accumulated experience allow for capabilities, or logical leaps in thinking, beyond what we can learn in our short lives?

I’m thinking of a Larry Niven story—I’m blanking on the name:  maybe one of the “Gil the Arm” stories?—in which a character who appears to be a young woman turns out to be centuries old, and when she drops the deception, she moves with uncanny grace—she doesn’t bump into anything or trip over her own feet, because she’s had that long to train herself in how to move (without the limitations imposed by our bodies’ degeneration from aging).

Of course, a story about long-lived people doesn’t have to take long-lived learning into account.  The depiction of the “Howard Families” in Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough for Love almost seem dedicated to the opposite proposition, that no matter how long we live, we’re basically the same kinds of personalities; we don’t learn much.

Galadriel, radiantIn a similar way, Tolkien’s immortal elves may seem ineffably glorious to us, but their behavior often seems all too human—especially if you read The Silmarillion, where elves make mistakes, engage in treachery, and allow overweening pride to dictate their actions in ways that may surprise those of us familiar only with LotR.  On the other hand, the books and movies do succeed in convincing us that characters like Galadriel and Gandalf are of a stature that exceeds human possibility.

Logic and Language

There are other ways to have transhuman abilities.  As Kevin observes, Niven’s “Protectors” fit the description.  Niven imagines a further stage of human development—something that comes after childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—that we’ve never seen, because when our remote ancestors arrived on Earth from elsewhere, they lacked the plants hosting the symbiotic virus necessary for transition to that final stage.  The “trans-adult” Protectors are stronger, faster, and more durable than ordinary humans.  They also think faster.  Thus Niven shows them as following out a chain of logic with blinding speed to its conclusion, allowing them to act long before regular humans could figure out what to do.  Because this is a matter of speed, not incomprehensible thinking, Niven can depict a Protector as acting in ways that are faster than normal, but are explainable once we sit down and work out the reasoning.

Sherlock Holmes, arena fight sceneA visual analogue is used in the 2009 and 2011 Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr.  Unlike most other treatments of the character, Guy Ritchie’s version supposes that Holmes’ incredible intelligence can be used not only for logical deduction, but to predict with lightning speed how a hand-to-hand combat may develop.  Holmes thus becomes a ninja-like melee fighter, so effective as to confound all opponents.  The movie shows us this by slowing down the process that to Holmes is instantaneous:  we see a very short montage of positions and moves as they would occur, or could occur, before we see Holmes carry out the final “conclusion” of his martial reasoning.  This allows us to appreciate what the quasi-superhuman character is doing and why, without actually having to execute the same process ourselves.

Preternatural intelligence may be more subtle in its effects.  Such a person may, for example, be able to understand things fully from what, to us, would be mere hints and implications.  So, for example, when Isaac Asimov introduces the members of the Second Foundation in his Foundation series, he tells us that their tremendous psychological training allows them to talk among themselves in a manner so concise and compressed that entire paragraphs require only a few words.

Speech as known to us was unnecessary.  A fragment of a sentence amounted almost to long-winded redundancy.  A gesture, a grunt, the curve of a facial line—even a significantly timed pause yielded informational juice.  (Second Foundation, end of chapter 1, “First Interlude,” p. 16)

Second Foundation coverBreaking the fourth wall, Asimov warns us that his account is “about as far as I can go in explaining color to a blind man—with myself as blind as the audience.”  (same page)  He then adroitly avoids showing us any of the actual conversation; instead, he says he’s “freely translating” it into our ordinary language.  This move illustrates one of the classic ways of presenting the incomprehensible in a story:  point out its incomprehensibility and “translate” into something we can understand.  (Note that this is much more easily done in writing than in a visual medium such as TV or the movies.)

A similar technique is used by Poul Anderson in his 1953 novel Brain Wave, which starts with the interesting premise that in certain regions of space, neurons function faster than in others.  When Earth’s natural rotation around the center of the galaxy brings it into a “faster” area, the brains of every creature with a central nervous system speed up, and human beings (as well as other animals) all become proportionately smarter.  Anderson notes that the speech of the transformed humans would be incomprehensible to us and, like Asimov, “translates” it for our convenience.  When a couple of the characters, in a newly invented faster-than-light spaceship, accidentally cross the border back into the “slow zone,” they are unable to understand the controls they themselves designed until the ship’s travel brings them out and lets their intelligence return to its new normal.  (Anderson’s concept may have been the inspiration for the “Zones of Thought” universe later developed in several fascinating stories by Vernor Vinge.)

Showing and Telling

We can glean some general principles from these examples.  If the extraordinary acts don’t actually have to be shown in the medium I’m using, I can simply point to them and tell the reader they’re there.  In a written story, I can say my main character is a world-class violinist without having to demonstrate that level of ability myself.  (Although if I have some experience in that particular art, I’ll be able to provide some realistic details, to help make my claim sound plausible.)  But if the supernormal achievement is something that can be shown in our chosen medium, we have to be able to demonstrate it:  a movie about the great violinist will have to exhibit some pretty masterful violin-playing, or those in the audience who know something about the art will laugh themselves silly.

Flowers For Algernon coverWe should note that there are good and bad ways of telling the audience about a character’s superiority.  In the unforgettable short story “Flowers for Algernon,” which consists entirely of diary entries by Charlie Gordon, the main character, the text vividly shows us the effects of an intelligence-raising treatment on a man of initially lower-than-normal intelligence.  The entries improve so radically in writing competence and understanding that when Charlie describes how his brainpower is beginning to exceed that of ordinary humans, we believe him, because we’re already riding on the curve of rising ability up to our own level that is apparent in the text—a true tour de force of writing.  On the other hand, in the drastically worse movie version, Charly (1968), the screenwriters are reduced to having Charly stand in front of an audience of experts and scornfully dismiss the greatest intellectual achievements from human history—a weak and ineffective technique at best for conveying superiority.

Summary

This quick review of the problem turns up several methods for handling supernormal abilities in a story.

 

  • If the superior ability is intelligible to us ordinary people in the audience—maybe it’s just doing normal things faster—we can have the wiser or super-enabled person explain it to someone less wise: our last post’s Ignorant Interlocutor.
  • If the advantage is mainly a matter of speed, we can slow it down to a speed at which regular people can follow the action.
  • If we can get away without actually showing the ability in question, we may be able to point toward it, or “translate” it into something we can understand, and convincingly tell the audience about it—if we can achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.
  • If a character is supposed to be, let us say, preternaturally wise, and there’s simply no way to avoid showing that in the dialogue, the best we can do is to evoke the best we can do—have the character be as wise as possible—and imply ‘like this, only more so.’ This method—like “projecting” a line or a curve—is the method of “supereminence,” which is sometimes employed in theological talk about things that are inherently beyond our full understanding.

 

Kicking around this question makes us aware that portraying the more-than-human character is only a special case of a more general problem.  When our stories try to incorporate anything that’s indescribable, incomprehensible, how do we handle that?  Our F&SF stories frequently want to reach out beyond the boundaries of human experience, yet in a tale written for ordinary humans.  We’ll talk about the more general question next time.

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.

The Great American Read

PBS is conducting a poll asking about our favorite novels in connection with a TV mini-series, “The Great American Read.”  Through October 17, we can vote each day for one or more of 100 candidates.  I haven’t watched the TV shows—but the poll alone is fascinating.

The Great American Read, logo

In my area, Fairfax County Public Libraries is running its own variant.  They’ve broken down the 100 books and series into brackets, like a tournament.  We vote on a series of pairs—which of the two we prefer—and the candidates get whittled gradually down to a climactic final round.  They’re about halfway through at the moment.

The Best and the Best-Loved

Looking at somebody else’s “Top Ten” (or Top 100, or generally Top N) list is always interesting.  We may be talking about books, classic rock songs, movie heroes and villains, or almost anything:  the most common reaction, I suspect, is when we look at some of the entries and ask ourselves, how could that possibly have gotten on the list?  Or, conversely, how could they ever have left out this?

Obviously a list of the “twelve tallest buildings” or “five longest rivers” is going to be relatively uncontroversial.  But when there’s no quantitative measure that can be applied, the lists are bound to have a subjective element.  Reading them stimulates us to ask—what could were the listmakers have been thinking when they made those choices?

With the Great American Read (“TGAR”), the subjective side is even more emphasized, because the list (and the poll) is about “America’s 100 best-loved novels,” not the best novels.  The criteria aren’t the same.  There are books we respect, but don’t like.  My favorite piece of music, as it happens, isn’t what I would judge the greatest piece of music.  A more personal appeal is involved.

Someone for Everyone

It’s clear that PBS was at pains to include something for everyone.  The books cover a wide range of genres.  The list includes plenty of “classics”—the ones we got assigned in high school—and also a lot of popular volumes that couldn’t be considered classics by any stretch of the imagination.  (I suspect there are no high-school reading curricula that include Fifty Shades of Grey.)

In other words, we’ve got our “guilty pleasures” right alongside acknowledged masterpieces.  I always enjoy the way alphabetical listings produce similarly odd bedfellows:  on my bookshelf, Jane Austen rubs shoulders with Isaac Asimov, while Tolkien is bracketed by James Thurber and A.E. van Vogt.

Adventures of Tom Sawyer, coverAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, coverAlmost any reader should find something to vote for in the TGAR collection.  If you don’t like Tom Sawyer, how about Alice in Wonderland?  Not enthused about The Godfather—try The Pilgrim’s Progress?  If you’re not in the mood for 1984, maybe you’ll find Anne of Green Gables more congenial.

By the same token, I’m guessing almost no one would accept every book on the list as a favorite.  If there’s someone whose personal top ten list includes The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlas Shrugged, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I’d like to meet them.

The F&SF Division

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverIn my own sandbox, the science fiction and fantasy field, the listmakers came up with an interesting cross-section.  I was a little surprised to see Asimov’s Foundation series on the list:  it’s great stuff, and an SF classic, but I’d have thought it was “inside baseball,” widely known only among card-carrying fans.  Another classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is probably more widely read.  (I notice the entry for Dune is not marked as a series, which is a good thing.  While there are quite a few follow-on Dune books, after the original the quality drops off exponentially.)

Other SF picks are more contemporary.  We’ve got The Martian, which I’ve mentioned before, and Ready Player One, which was just made into a movie this year—both good choices (by my lights), though not yet perhaps seasoned enough to be classics like the Asimov and Herbert entries.

We’ve got the comedic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the classic Frankenstein, the satirical Sirens of Titan, the young adult Hunger Games, SF horror in Jurassic Park, dystopian tales in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We have what you might call prehistorical fiction, The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I’d class as a variety of SF, and time-travel romance in Outlander (also recently come to video).  A Dean Koontz novel, Watchers, which I’d never heard of, may represent the SF thriller.  Then there’s Atlas Shrugged, which probably belongs in SF given a technological premise, although these days it’s more often thought of as a political tract.

Of course it’s always possible to regret the omissions—Heinlein or Brin or Bujold, for example—but a list of 100 nationwide favorites in all genres is never going to be able to pick up every quality work.  Since the TGAR candidates were largely chosen by a random survey of 7200 Americans, it’s easy to see why more widely-read examples are favored, whether or not they represent the highest quality.  The focus on American readers also introduces some selection bias, which might account for omitting, say, Arthur C. Clarke.

Lord of the Rings, coverOver in fantasy, the “high fantasy” epic is well represented by The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), with the children’s division held down by the Narnia tales and Harry Potter.  Again, there are some familiar subgenres:  satire (Gulliver’s Travels), whimsy or children’s books (Alice, The Little Prince), horror (The Stand), young adult (Twilight).

I was a little surprised to see three entries in what one might call the Christian fantasy column:  The Shack, Left Behind, and something called Mind Invaders.  When an item turns up that you’ve never heard of, it’s a useful reminder of how far-ranging people’s tastes really are.

An Author’s Range

The list can also spark some interesting reflections on the range of a prolific author.  Probably most people would pick Dune as Frank Herbert’s leading entry, and Pride and Prejudice as the most well-loved of Austen’s several great novels.  But the only candidate for Dickens on the list, for example, is Great Expectations.

Great Expectations, coverNow, I’m fond of Dickens, but Great Expectations isn’t one of the stories I particularly like.  Yet it does seem to come up frequently whenever Dickens is mentioned.  (I don’t even hear quite as much about A Tale of Two Cities, which we did read in high school—possibly chosen for school because it’s relatively short; assigning a class one of Dickens’ doorstoppers would have consumed an entire semester’s worth of reading time.)  Is Expectations really representative of Dickens’ best?  I’d have picked Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, say, if I’d been in on the original survey.  Or David Copperfield, maybe, as the most accessible to a modern reader.  But, again, the list suggests there’s a reservoir of interest in Expectations that I just don’t happen to share—a broadening thought.

In a similar way, it may be harder to come up with the most representative Stephen King or Mark Twain novel—there are so many of them.  (The listmakers did confine themselves deliberately to one entry per author, which makes sense.)  Even within a single author’s oeuvre, it’s intriguing to see which work a majority of readers picked as outstanding.

Incommensurable Goods

After enough of this kind of reflection, we may find ourselves with a certain skepticism about the whole comparison process.

The Fairfax County bracket system, entertaining as it is, only strengthens this impression.  There is a sorting algorithm to create a ranking by going down the list and placing each item in turn in relation to those above it.  And it’s fun to weigh random pairs of works against each other, even within the particular classifications the libraries used (Classics, Midcentury, Late Century, Contemporary).

But the match-up process yields some odd results.  (I understand sports tournament designers also have to take care to ensure good playoffs.)  There’s some plausibility in a face-off between Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights.  But what should we make of pitting Anne of Green Gables against War and PeaceThe Great Gatsby against Alice?  In some cases the entries hardly seem to be in the same weight class, so to speak.  It strikes me as a no-brainer to match The Lord of the Rings against Where the Red Fern Grows, a novel I’ve never heard of.

Even within a given author’s work, one can wonder about how conclusive a comparison actually is.  There’s a scale factor that makes some matches clear:  Asimov’s sweeping Foundation series seems a more logical “top” candidate than even an excellent short story like “The Last Question” or “Robbie,” just because of its greater scope and size.  But it can be hard to decide between stories on the same scale—two great short stories, say, or two very different novels.

Natural Law and Natural Rights, coverAt this point I’m reminded of an argument made by philosopher John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980).  Noting that one of the classic objections against utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) is the inability in practice to reduce all possible good and bad things to a uniform measure of “utility,” Finnis takes the position that there are a number of categories of human goods that can’t be reduced to each other.  His list of such goods includes life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (ch. IV.2, pp. 86-90).  These goods aren’t interchangeable.  They are literally “incommensurable”—they can’t be measured against each other.

It’s possible that some similar principle of incommensurability applies to the books we’ve been discussing.  Would I want to give up, say, Pride and Prejudice in favor of The Lord of the Rings, or vice versa?  They’re unique achievements, and we realize something quite different from reading each of them.  We might be able to create some rather vague order of precedence—for example, by the traditional question of what one book you’d want to have with you if marooned on a desert island.  But that’s not the same sort of comparison as equating a dollar with ten dimes.

On the other hand, the fun of weighing (note the measurement analogy) one story against another suggests there’s some common element, or elements, in our enjoyment of a good book.  If nothing else, such match-ups can get some entertaining discussions going.

Prophecy and the Plan

The ancient prophecy is a staple of fantasy.  This child will kill his father and marry his mother.  Not by the hand of man will this being fall.  The source of the information is often vague, but once we’ve heard the prophecy, we know it’s going to come true—somehow.

There’s a comparable science fiction trope:  the long-term Plan.  But the Plan functions rather differently.  Let’s take a look at the two together.

Foretold and Foredoomed

An entire story may be built around the unavoidable destiny that lands on an unlikely or reluctant hero.  Or the mysterious message from the past may relate merely to one aspect of the story—perhaps the only way to accomplish some task (“the penitent man will pass”).  Either way, in the words of TV Tropes, Prophecies Are Always Right.

As the examples on the Tropes page indicate, this is not strictly true:  writers can subvert or otherwise play with the fulfillment of a prediction.  But there wouldn’t be much purpose in introducing the prophecy if it didn’t have some relevance to the plot.  Most commonly, this is because it’s valid.

Statute of sibylThe device goes back to some of the earliest stories we have.  The Greek tale of Oedipus, for example, involves a prediction that a child will bring disaster on his city by killing his father and marrying his mother.  The very actions by which his father tries to avert this outcome turn out to produce it.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth provides a slightly less antique example.  The title character is emboldened to stage a revolt by the “prophetic greeting” of three witches (Act I, Scene 3).  Macbeth is further heartened by hearing that “none of woman born” will harm him, and that he won’t be beaten until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him,” (Act IV, Scene 1).  Both statements turn out to be true, but not as Macbeth interpreted them:  his opponents approach his stronghold holding “leavy screens” of branches (Act V, Scene 6), and he is slain by Macduff, who was birthed by Caesarean section (Act V, Scene 8).  In both these cases the message appears to be that you can’t fight fate:  the prophecy will come true despite all attempts to prevent it.

The motif carries through to modern fantasy as well.  Harry Potter’s Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is generally played for laughs, but her serious predictions come true.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch is right to fear the “old rhyme” that her reign will end when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve are enthroned in Cair Paravel (ch. 8).

Fated but Free

Eowyn slays the NazgulThe Lord of the Rings provides some interesting examples.  TV Tropes lists a number of vague premonitions by various characters.  But a more specific case occurs when the Witch-King of Angmar, secure in Glorfindel’s prediction that “not by the hand of man will he fall” (Appendix A, I.iv), boasts that “No living man may hinder me!”, and is met by Éowyn’s defiant “But no living man am I!”  (Return of the King, book V, ch. 6, p. 116).

The main issue of the story, however, is subject to no such foreknowledge.  No prophecy gives a hint as to whether the Ring will be destroyed and Sauron defeated.  As TV Tropes points out, free will as well as fate exists in Tolkien’s world.  There is no certainty of outcome in this world’s battles.  As Chesterton puts it:  “I tell you naught for your comfort, yea, naught for your desire / Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”

The foretellings we do see in fantasy seem to be guaranteed by some trans-human source:  paranormal, supernatural, even divine.  This is why they can generally be relied upon to come true.  But what of science fiction, which tends to invoke science rather than the supernatural?

Foundation

What often takes the place of prophecy in SF is a vast, far-reaching plan of some sort, whose fulfillment is guaranteed not by the supernatural but on some scientific basis.  This is, in effect, the science-fictional version of prophecy or fate.  Such plans typically are made by human beings (or similar creatures).  They are reducible to human intent—and conditioned by human fallibility.

Seldon sits in front of city (Foundation)The classic case is Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy.  Hari Seldon, inventor of a new science of “psychohistory” that statistically predicts the aggregate actions of human masses (as distinct from the acts of individual persons), realizes that the millennia-spanning Galactic Empire is headed for an inevitable collapse.  To cut short the subsequent thirty thousand years of chaos and barbarism, Seldon launches a plan to establish two “Foundations” from which civilization may be restored more quickly—in a mere thousand years.  Seldon’s mathematics allows him to arrange things in such a way that the Seldon Plan will inevitably prevail—at least to a very high order of probability (given that we’re dealing with statistical conclusions here, rather than superhuman insights).

The stories Asimov tells about the early years of the Foundation thus carry an atmosphere that’s similar in some ways to that of a prophecy in fantasy.  The leaders and people of the Foundation on the planet Terminus have confidence that they will prevail; but they are not privy to the details of the Plan and have no idea how that will occur—just as the Witch-King did not anticipate he would be slain by a woman, or the Pevensie children know just how they can succeed to the king-and-queenship of Narnia.

On the other hand, Seldon’s Plan is not quite as infallible as the typical prophecy.  This becomes evident when an individual known as the Mule upsets the psychohistorical scheme by changing its underlying assumptions about human behavior:  the Mule has mutant mental powers that could not have been predicted by Seldon.

Galactic Networks and Race Minds

The Snow Queen coverJoan Vinge’s 1980 novel The Snow Queen (very loosely based on the plot of Andersen’s fairy tale) also involves a Plan, though the characters are not aware of this initially.  They come to realize that the “sibyl network,” a vast interstellar information system run by technology beyond their understanding, has its own purposes and is seeking (like Seldon) to shape events to promote reconstruction after a collapse of civilization.  But they’re not fully aware of what the sibyl network is trying to do, and they don’t know whether its Plan will be successful.

Unlike the Plan that underlies the Foundation stories, Vinge’s Plan is not made by human agents—though the computer “mind” behind it is a human product.  But like the Seldon Plan, this long-range plan is not guaranteed to succeed.  The sibyl network is not as infallible as the mysterious sources behind the standard fantasy prophecy.

The long-term plan, or purpose, may also belong to a race or species consciousness—a mind (of sorts) that arises from humanity as a whole.  The “terrible purpose” that Paul Atreides struggles with in Dune is that of a subliminal racial consciousness that is driving relentlessly toward an interstellar jihad as a way of mixing up the gene pool to refresh the species.  This quasi-mind does not seem to have a specific plan in mind, but the overall drive, like the statistically-based Seldon Plan, is irresistible.

Something similar seems to be at work in A.E. van Vogt’s mutation-after-humanity novel Slan (1940).  In this future setting, the human species is mutating not at random, but in such a way as to consistently produce a “higher” type of being—smarter, stronger, kinder, with telepathic powers.  One character remarks:  “We have always assumed far too readily that no cohesion exists between individuals, that the race of men is not a unit with an immensely tenuous equivalent of a blood-and-nerve stream flowing from man to man” (ch. 18).  Apparently there is some vague but irresistible analogue of systematic purpose at work in humanity as a whole.  (Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, by contrast, suggests a distributed genetic mechanism for such a wave of mutation, without requiring a single overall mind to account for it.)

Ongoing Guidance

A master Plan that spans generations may be designed to operate without intervening human guidance.  This is true of certain lost world-ship stories, in which the loss of knowledge on a generation ship is deliberately arranged in advance.  In Clifford Simak’s Target Generation (1953), for instance, a book of instructions has been secretly passed down from generation to generation, to be opened only when the starship finally reaches its destination.

Of course, the transmission of such a plan won’t be reliable if it’s subject to human error or accident.  I’ve often felt that the long-dead planners who relied on a secret book in Target Generation ought to have been thrown out on their ears, when the flight was being arranged, for resting the survival of an entire shipload of people on such a fragile and undependable strategy—like the wacky souls behind the Rube Goldberg setup in City of Ember, entertaining as both those stories are.

Second Foundation coverSeldon’s Plan at first appears to function in this pilotless way.  But it turns out there is a hidden agency responsible for monitoring the Plan and correcting any deviations:  the Second Foundation, as skilled in psychohistory as the original Foundation is in technology.  The canny Seldon built in a safety net to take care of just such a random variable as the Mule—because a human-based plan lacks the mysterious paranormal guarantee of a prophecy.

 

Exceptions

Sitting squarely between the F&SF camps in this respect is Star Wars, the exception that proves the rule.  Lucas’s brain child is sometimes referred to as “science fantasy” rather than science fiction, not just because it does not delve into scientific plausibility, but because it simultaneously mobilizes both fantasy and science-fiction tropes; that’s part of the reason the movies are so widely accessible and successful.  The prophecy that Anakin Skywalker will “bring balance to the Force” (whatever exactly that means) is cited throughout the series.  But there’s no real explanation in the movies, at least, as to how this prophecy works or what makes it reliable information.  It’s a fantasy trope, not a science fiction motif.

There is, however, a genuine SF exception of sorts:  time travel stories, when they rely on knowledge gained from being in the future.  For example, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968), time-traveling dragonrider Lessa assures her compatriots in the past that they will accompany her back to her own time in their future, because that explains their mysterious disappearance, which Lessa already knows about as part of her own history.  Here the source of future knowledge is neither human nor superhuman, but sheer facticity—or, from the standpoint of the characters, experience.  They tell about future events that they’ve already seen happening.

For the Reader

Both types of projections into the future, prophecies and plans, set up a certain kind of tension in a story.  There’s a sort of security—we know how things will turn out, at least in a general way.  (Or if the outcome is tragic, as with Oedipus, the effect may be dread rather than security.)  At the same time, there’s a tension in that we don’t know how the story will arrive at that end.  The power of this combination is proved by the long tradition of such stories throughout human civilization.

The long-term plan or prediction evokes awe at the deeps of time—how something said long ago may still have effects today.  And it generates a certain wonder at the way in which things surprisingly work out.  In either form, they’re a useful part of a storyteller’s arsenal of effects.

Civilization and Chaos

Last time, we talked about Star Trek and Star Wars—but especially Star Trek—as expressing the ideal of a certain type of civilization.  Now we can broaden the range of examples.  Science fiction and fantasy make an excellent laboratory for thought-experiments here, as in so many things.

Staving Off the Fall

The threat that civilization will fail and collapse is a classic way to create a dramatic situation for a SF story.  The most common historical analogue, of course, is the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

Foundation's Edge cover artIsaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series (1942-1953) deliberately drew on that model; Asimov had been reading Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  In the Foundation universe, Hari Seldon has developed a science of “psychohistory” that predicts the Galactic Empire’s inevitable decline.  There’s no chance of preventing the fall.  But Seldon’s psychohistory offers a way to cut short the ensuing dark age from thirty thousand years to a single thousand.  The emotional charge of the original Foundation stories centers on the Seldon Plan’s bid to minimize the period of barbarism, with its chaos, violence, tyranny and suffering.  (Later developments of the series, too involved to discuss here, go off in somewhat different directions.)

I’ve mentioned H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History, which includes at least one such decline-and-fall.  The novel Space Viking (1963) gives us a whole culture of space-traveling barbarians, raiding the decadent worlds of the old Federation.  The events of the story suggest the hope of a return to lawfulness in the formation of a “League of Civilized Worlds.”  But given Piper’s cyclical theory of history, this initiative will yield no permanent resolution; the story has a happy ending, but the history does not.

Poul Anderson wrote a series of stories about Sir Dominic Flandry, a dashing secret agent of the Terran Empire reminiscent of a far-future James Bond (though Flandry first appeared in 1951, Bond in 1953).  When he can spare a moment from chasing women and loose living, Flandry devotes his efforts to shoring up the decaying Empire, though he realizes that in the end the “Long Night” is inevitable.

There’s a certain kind of romance, a mood of grandeur and doom, about these falling empires.  Naturally, they tend toward the somber and the tragic.

Defending Civilization

A more upbeat tone characterizes stories in which the fight to preserve civilization has a chance of succeeding.

Lensman imageIn the Lensman series, E.E. Smith actually refers to the heroes’ multispecies galactic community simply as “Civilization.”  That polity reflects the cooperative, yet freedom-loving, nature of the beneficent Arisians, who have nurtured it in secret over millions of years.  The Lensmen’s opponent is “Boskone,” which originally appears to be a mere conspiracy of space pirates or drug dealers.  When Boskone eventually turns out to be a whole independent culture of its own, based in another galaxy, the conflict becomes one of diametrically opposed cultures, rather than simply of order vs. disorder.

But the Boskonian culture is one of thoroughgoing tyranny, from top to bottom.  At every level, those in power scheme against each other.  Lacking any honor or ethical code, they engage in assassination and undermine each other’s plans.  Those at the bottom are essentially slaves.  The Civilization led by humans, on the contrary, respects human dignity and freedom—although the fact that these cultures have been essentially on a war footing throughout their entire history renders that freedom a little less far-ranging than we might imagine.

The Lensman example reminds us that the defenders of civilization are not always fighting against barbarians.  Autocracy and regimentation bring their own kind of chaos, as lawless warlords battle among themselves, not caring what common folk are trampled in the process.  It’s a particular kind of civilization that’s worth preserving.

This is true whether we’re in the future or the past.  We’ve seen that the power of the Arthurian legend stems partly from the theme of defending order and decency against the chaos that lies in wait.  (We may also mention Arthur’s more historically-based successor, King Alfred, who defended England against the real (not Space) Vikings.)

The embattled Arthurian Camelot is frequently connected with Rome itself, the ur-example.  The Last Legion (book and movie) provides a good example.  The waning Roman presence in Britain, as the Dark Ages set in, is a natural setting for the ideal of the lonely, valiant defender.  One example is brought up indirectly by a character’s name.  As Wikipedia puts it,  “Legio XX Valeria Victrix lends its name to the character Valeria Matuchek in Poul Anderson‘s Operation Chaos and its sequel Operation Luna; her mother is said to describe this legion as the last to leave Britain—‘the last that stood against Chaos.’”

To Valeria’s mother Virginia, “the last that stood against Chaos” is a phrase to conjure with.  That’s true for me, too.

The Right Kind of Order

If civilization represents a certain kind of order—that of the Lensmen, not Boskone—what kind are we talking about?  It’s not always easy to explain.

Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly around at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.”  The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex.  It has done so many things.  But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.  (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY:  Image Books, 1959), ch. 6, p. 83)

Chesterton’s random examples do cast some light on the question.  A community that has bookcases has books—implying a continuity of knowledge and literature, as well as the leisure to read them.  Coals to keep one warm in winter suggest both the satisfaction of basic human needs, and the whole machinery of society and technology that brings the fuel from the mine to the fireside.  Pianos reflect art and a developed culture.  And policemen indicate a society in which there is at least some attempt to defend the ordinary citizen against the depredations of the powerful and unscrupulous—the rule of law, of which more anon.

In the particular culture to which I belong, when we hold up a certain sort of civilization as an ideal worth defending, what we have in mind is a good order in which spontaneity and creativity can flourish, and people can live their lives without constant fear or privation.  There’s an order that protects the weak against the strong, but there is also enough looseness for individual variation, experiment, and adaptation.  In the “alignment” terms we discussed last time, you might say the position I’m taking is neutral good, tending to lawful.

Greco-Roman sceneThe classical roots of this ideal are found in the Greek notion of the polis and the Roman notion of civitas.  But it’s been shaped by the whole history of Western thought into what’s sometimes called the “liberal” ideal of a free society—“liberal” not in the political sense, but the root sense of “free.”

There’s one particular aspect of this ideal, though, that science fiction is peculiarly suited to address.  We’ll talk next time about civilization and science.