Books About Building

Conflict and Challenge

The “conflict” we expect in a story can take many forms.  External, internal; protagonists against themselves, against other people, against nature, against society.  If you grew up on adventure stories, as I did, you may tend to focus on showy external struggles—wars and battles.  (Explosions!!)  Even more so if your formative reading included comic books:  the first question for a new issue was always, who is Spider-Man fighting this month?—even if there might be more long-term interest in the issue’s developments regarding Spidey’s love life or character development.

But in some stories, or parts of stories, the focus is on building or making something, rather than fighting something.  The underlying engine of such a story might better be called challenge than “conflict”—a struggle to achieve some definite end product, rather than to defeat an adversary.  It’s a sort of engineering story, rather than a crisis—although there may be crises along the way.

Bob the Builder

We Are Legion coverAlmost every possible kind of conflict can be found in Dennis Taylor’s “Bobiverse” science fiction novels:  We are Legion (We are Bob), For We Are Many, All These Worlds (2016-2017).  (Looking them up, I’m pleased to see a new sequel, Heaven’s River, is now out in audiobook form.)  The series touches on a whole range of SF tropes, from first contact to space war to ecological catastrophe.

Bob Johansson, software magnate, dies in the 21st century and wakes up a hundred years later as a sapient computer program, intended to be the guiding intelligence of an interstellar probe, like a computerized version of Jerome Corbell in Niven’s A World Out of Time.  Once under way, however, Bob strikes out on his own, becoming involved with rival probes from another country, the evacuation of a failing Earth, and (eventually) honest-to-goodness aliens.  His probe is equipped with 3-D printers and other gear that allows him to “clone” himself—build new ships run by copies of the Bob program.  Each Bob instance takes a new name and, once running independently, develops a slightly different personality.  Hence the book titles:  we eventually have a whole armada of Bob spaceships, single-handedly—if that’s the right description—planting new human colonies and conducting interstellar wars.

But you don’t bootstrap your way into an armada overnight.  A good bit of the story, especially in the early parts, requires Bob to balance multiple demands.  How much of his productive capacity should be directed to manufacturing new Bobs, and how much to hunting down dangerous opponents?  Or transporting human refugees to new worlds?  To make matters more interesting, some of the Bobs specialize in research, coming up with new scientific discoveries that need to be engineered and adapted for others’ use—as time, transport, and communications permit.

Part of the fascination involves how Bob gradually builds up a sort of interstellar network of cooperating AI ships.  (Of course they cooperate; they’re all Bob.  Sort of.)  How he does this, what difficulties and complications he runs into, is as intriguing as the more exotic or action-oriented sequences.  It’s very cool to see one lone intelligent probe gradually develop into an entire star-spanning civilization.

Building Ships and Planets

Rissa Kerguelen coverF.M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen books (1976)—published in various combinations—are the saga of a young woman who starts out as an enslaved orphan under a vicious tyranny on Earth, and ends by bringing back a space fleet to overthrow the tyranny.  She allies herself (both militarily and maritally) with the equally formidable Bran Tregare and the Hulzein family, who share that goal.

When I say “space fleet,” I’m not talking about thousands of massive ships.  This is a bunch of modest-sized spacecraft manned by an assemblage of quirky, anarchic individuals—more like a Star Wars rebel fleet than an Honor Harrington space navy.  Much of the middle section of the story is taken up with the long-term preparations needed for the eventual battles.  Rissa and Tregare redesign and refit their stolen spaceships for combat; pull together the aforesaid individualists into a functional fighting group; and gradually, cautiously, get to know and love each other, after a battleground marriage for political purposes.  That simultaneous slow build of machinery, financing, and relationships is as engrossing as Rissa’s initial escape from the “Total Welfare” system or the ultimate invasion of Earth.  Even the engineering problems, solved in the context of these budding relationships, hold my interest throughout.

Or take Heinlein’s juvenile novel Farmer in the Sky (1950).  Teenaged Bill Lermer emigrates with his family to Ganymede, which is being terraformed into a habitable site for Earthly settlers.  The big moon is completely barren, devoid of life.  The “terraforming” involves not just big technology, like the atmosphere plant and heat trap, but also the creation of soil suitable for farming, inch by inch.  Rock has to be ground into soil, then seeded with Terrestrial microbes, earthworms, and the like, before the first crop can be planted.  This process, which Bill sees at ground level—he’s a farmer-to-be, not a planner or engineer—is endlessly fascinating, though no doubt the details would differ if the book were written today, with seventy years’ more knowledge about the solar system.  It left me with an abiding sense of how complex the web of geological and biological factors really is, underlying something so seemingly simple as dirt farming.

Building a Business

Not that you have to go to Ganymede to find a narrative about constructing something new.  I recently mentioned R.F. Delderfield’s “Swann saga.”  The hero (and the heroine) here are building up something apparently mundane:  a trucking business, using the newfangled horseless carriages, to connect the railroad network to the small towns and hamlets of Victorian England.  The characters tumble in and out of various conflicts, but the underlying thrust of the story is about the growth of a business.  We see its material factors—vehicles, storehouses, roadways, Adam Swann’s unique organizational planning gizmo—but, more importantly, the varied people whose talents and peculiarities contribute to the success of the whole operation.  Building a business enterprise can be as rewarding as building a spaceship—or a planet.

Working Girl, Tess at conference tableOccasionally this kind of constructive work also crops up in a modern corporate context.  My catalogue of movie favorites contains only two stories I can think of that convey some of the excitement—the romance (in both senses of the word)—of big business.  The Secret of My Success (1987), with Michael J. Fox and Helen Slater, is mostly a knockabout farce, but we do respond to the infectious enthusiasm of Fox’s character.  What makes him more engaging than the other “suits” is that he’s excited about the idea of serving customers and making a productive business grow.  Similarly, in Working Girl (1988), we’re mostly taken up in the plucky struggles of Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill to break the glass ceiling of the secretarial pool; but we can also admire the artistry and accomplishment of the radio broadcasting merger deal she puts together.

Castaways and Escapes

Construction in the midst of a crisis can become an epic in itself.  In Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s When Worlds Collide (1933), much of the story is taken up with the desperate challenges the protagonists must overcome as they race against time to build the spaceship that will enable them to escape Earth’s destruction.  (Pay no attention to the 1951 movie version, which is a catastrophe in its own right.)

When Worlds Collide coverThe oncoming disaster adds dramatic tension to an effort that would be heroic even if it were undertaken without that threat in view.  We see the thousand dedicated people of Cole Hendron’s “cantonment” working on the massive project; striving to obtain the necessary resources as civilization begins to crumble around them; making the scientific breakthrough they need to control atomic energy for their engines; defending the ship against attacks by mobs reverted to barbarism; and rejoicing in immense relief when they find they can construct a second ship that will allow all of them, not just a fraction, to escape Earth’s doom.  Even the momentary pauses to describe the design of the ship, or the careful preparations to take along the necessary plants, animals, and knowledge to recreate Earthly life on the new world, are engrossing in the context of the mighty achievement.  In fact, after all this build-up, the actual brief space-flight is almost an anticlimax.

The whole subgenre of castaway or “desert island” stories almost automatically incorporates themes of making and building, often by ingenious improvisation.  In an earlier post I mentioned Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874), a childhood favorite of mine, and Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955).  Disney fans may recall the impressive treehouse of the Swiss Family Robinson movie (1960), faithfully re-created at Disney parks.  In more modern renditions such as Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s Castaway Planet series, the main characters are similarly involved in carving out a place to live in an otherwise uninhabited locale.

Resources and Technology

Civilization VI screenshotThe interest of stories like these is akin to the way we enjoy playing certain kinds of games, those with a “resource management” feature.  I am, for example, perpetually fascinated with Sid Meier’s famous Civilization games.  In managing a selected civilization throughout its history, we can get into wars with other “civs,” whether they are run by the computer or (in some versions) by another human player.  But war is not essential to winning the game, as it is in chess.  Exploration, the founding of new cities, and scientific development are vital, and offer other ways to win.  While the danger of war with other cultures adds an important spice to the game, I find I’m more interested in discovering new places and developing a well-functioning culture.

Similar features can be found in other popular video games—Starcraft, Warcraft (but not World of Warcraft, which is a role-playing game), Settlers of Catan.  Even the venerable Monopoly fits this description to some extent.  To the extent to which these games are focused on winning, we do engage in a conflict; we seek a higher score than our competitors achieve.  But sometimes it’s a relief to play a game that doesn’t directly involve fighting.

I mentioned scientific development in connection with Civilization.  Researching how to make new sorts of units and improvements is crucial to that game.  (By contrast, in Monopoly all we need to build houses and hotels is money, and monopolies.)  Stories about building frequently involve playing out the consequences of a new technology, if only because new tech opens new opportunities and hence new fields for development.

The Ring Of Charon coverOld-time space operas sometimes touched on this factor, but tended to short-cut the extensive work of implementing a new technology in favor of getting directly to the action.  E.E. Smith’s Skylark Duquesne (1965), last of the Skylark tetralogy, alludes briefly in chapter 8 to the impact on Earthly industry of the fantastic scientific advances in the previous volumes.  But those changes hardly have an impact on the story.  We see a slightly more gradual and plausible development in a couple of books from Roger MacBride Allen, The Ring of Charon (1990) and The Shattered Sphere (1994), where a newly discovered artificial gravity technique gets put to use in progressively more advanced ways.  Even the Delderfield Swann series mentioned above is based on the new opportunities created in the 19th Century by railroads and the internal-combustion engine.

Blessed are the Peaceful Makers

The peculiar enjoyment of stories about building comes, I think, partly from the sense we share with the characters of accomplishing something.  The action of the story is constructive rather than destructive.

Granted, we’re perfectly willing to applaud destruction too, in a good cause.  (Take that, Death Star!)  And stories of violent conflict are perfectly suited to give us edge-of-the-seat thrills that are harder to come by in narratives of making.  Still, we don’t always want an adrenaline rush all the time.  It can be quietly satisfying when we don’t have to focus on winning a war, or on the danger of losing something dear to us and the desperation of defending it.

Witness house raising sceneThe satisfaction of successful making came up in a post last Christmas about the appeal of concreteness, whether in baking cookies or in building ships (as in the denouement of Pretty Woman).  Both construction and destruction are sometimes necessary:  “A time to build up, a time to break down.”  But building responds to a different facet of our humanity than destroying.  A good story may speak to one or the other, or to both.

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.

Arabella of Mars

Arabella of Mars book coverArabella of Mars, by David D. Levine (New York:  Tor, 2016), may be described as a Regency steampunk planetary romance.  Better yet may be the flyleaf testimonial from Madeleine Robins:  “If Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and Patrick O’Brian had sat down together to compose a tale to amuse Jane Austen, the result might be Arabella of Mars.”

Genres are getting complicated these days.  But sometimes that cross-fertilization produces some entertaining mixes.

Our young heroine’s British family maintains a plantation on Mars, as if it were the Caribbean islands or India at the dawn of the nineteenth century.  The native Martians, filling the role of the local population, are considered primitive by the British colonists.  In this respect the setup is faintly reminiscent of the Martian sequence in Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast.

Physically, however, Levine’s Martians are more reminiscent of the green Martians of Burroughs’ Barsoom:  large, nonhuman, living in a desert world.  In keeping with modern sensibilities, the “natives” actually possess a respectable culture and can be formidable opponents.  This accounts for the “planetary romance” aspect—“an extension of late 19th and early 20th century adventure novels and pulp romances to a planetary setting,” as Wikipedia describes the genre.

When tomboyish Arabella is removed with her mother and sister to Earth, the Austen angle takes over.  Arabella finds the Regency-era dinner parties and promenades boring; she’d rather be tinkering with mechanical piano-players and other automata.  The swiftly thickening plot, which involves period devices like entailed estates, forces our heroine to disguise herself as a boy and take a menial position on an East India, er, Mars Company vessel bound for Mars again.

At this point the Burroughs and O’Brian factors collide in an extraordinarily droll description of the Age of Space as an Age of Sail.  Captain Jack Aubrey would have been perfectly at home on the quarterdeck of this interplanetary ship crewed by rough sailors and featuring three masts, not in a row, but protruding from the top and sides of the boat at 120-degree angles.  The Diana is lifted by hot-air balloons (coal-fired, of course) into the extremely high-speed interplanetary air currents, which make travel to Mars a matter of a few months.  These vessels are reminiscent of Burroughs’ Barsoomian airships, bringing us back to the planetary romance theme.

Levine gives us with a straight face his depiction of a Solar System filled with breathable air, without deigning to worry about trivialities such as how the planets could maintain their orbits in such a resisting medium.  The absurdity of the premise simply makes the description more delightful.  As we deal with pirates on the (very) high seas, stop at a convenient asteroid to cut down trees for repairs, and make charcoal to fuel the balloons for the perilous descent to Mars, one can only ride along enjoying Levine’s inventive adaptation of one set of tropes into an entirely different world.

But it’s not just silliness.  The book isn’t a farce.  There’s a good sound story with believable characters strung through this cockeyed worldbuilding.  There’s even a real romance, in the love-story sense, though this plays a somewhat muted role.  Overall, the tale has more of the sea story than of the Regency romance about it.  But it might serve an aficionado of either genre as a cordial introduction to the other.

The novel is billed as “Book One” of “The Adventures of Arabella Ashby.”  One can only imagine what sort of eccentric scenarios might come next.  (For example, I don’t believe anything has yet been mentioned about Venus—which is bound to be a jungle world, perhaps with dinosaurs, if it’s based on the Burroughs-Heinlein model.)  I look forward to seeing where this whimsical tale may lead.