Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How sci-fi cuts us down to size (and shows us what we can be)

[From my Forbes Life book column]

It takes a while to figure out exactly what Isaac Asimov’s “Does a Bee Care?” is about – short though the story is, and simply told, you might need a couple of readings to grasp its full scope. The narrative begins with a man, or a creature that has the appearance of a man, hanging around as a spaceship is being constructed. No one pays “Kane” much heed, but his presence has an effect on some people; it stimulates their minds, creating ideas that can have far-reaching consequences.

Eventually we learn that this alien entity had been deposited on earth as a sort of ovum, and that its natural process of maturity required driving a whole planet towards civilization, so that it could find the way back to its own corner of the galaxy. Driven by instinct over thousands of years, not fully understanding why these things had to be done, “Kane” lit sparks in the minds of individuals like Newton and Einstein, all with the sole purpose of facilitating space exploration. “Does a bee care what has happened to a flower when the bee has done and gone its way?” is the story’s closing line. The flower in this analogy is earth, which has thus been “fertilized”, and the knockout punch is that the things we are so proud of – our capacity for scientific thought, our accumulation of knowledge through the centuries – are incidental byproducts of the actions of this extraterrestrial “bee”.

If you have watched Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you may see a very fleeting resemblance in the story of the apes in the “Dawn of Man” segment – where a new strain of consciousness is awakened by the appearance of a mysterious black monolith, which points primitive man towards a new future. That film was based loosely on an Arthur C Clarke story titled “The Sentinel” (Clarke later developed it into a novel as the film was being made), and anyone who knows science-fiction writing of the 1940s or 50s will know that masters like Asimov, Clarke and Robert Heinlein often took on human hubris and punctured it. They also took special pleasure in pulling the carpet out from under such ideas as patriotism. Most of them did it gently, though, and with humour.

I was thinking about this given all the talk there has been in India about nation-love, and about showy ways of demonstrating it (saying “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, standing up in movie halls for the anthem, bullying those who don’t, and so on). A lot of this has been downright absurd, but of course we don’t have a premium on this sort of thing. Consider this quote about NASA’s Pluto mission last year, which came from a White House representative: “I'm delighted at this latest accomplishment, another first that demonstrates once again how the United States leads the world in space.” It is especially amusing to see patriotism take front seat in such a context. Here we are talking about a journey through millions of miles, a vastness that makes any distance between two points on Earth look insignificant by comparison. Yet we can be parochial even about such achievements.

In Clarke’s story “Refugee”, a character reflects how odd it is that shrill nationalism had managed to survive into the space age – a time when the astronaut's-eye view should have made the artificial geographical divides on our tiny planet appear ridiculous and irrelevant. Others have expressed this thought in different ways. As Carl Sagan put it, Earth when viewed from a long way off is just a pale blue dot, incredibly fragile-looking; the sight should humble us, make us feel protective of the little rock we inhabit, and forget about the many divides we have created over the centuries.

Many people think sci-fi deals only with “otherworldly” things, not with essential questions about humanity. (This snobbery is even more prevalent when it comes to fantasy, but I’ll save that for
another column.) Actually, this is one of the few genres that can remind us how trifling we are in the larger context of the universe while at the same time showing us the potential and the value of our species. The authors I mentioned above have all written beautiful stories that demonstrate the best in human nature. Asimov’s collection Robot Dreams has the incredibly moving “The Ugly Little Boy”, which centres on an organization named Stasis Inc that has transported a Neanderthal child through time and kept it enclosed in a special centre. A woman named Miss Fellowes is employed to look after the child; initially she is repulsed by its feral strangeness, by the largeness of its head, but soon she comes to see it as she would any other lonely infant: “It was a child that had been orphaned as no child had ever been orphaned before. It was now the only creature of its kind in the world. The last. The only.”

What follows is a most unusual bond, one that is headed for tragedy, given the nature of Stasis Inc’s operations; but the story ends with Miss Fellowes doing something that will take your breath away even as you realize – if you put yourself in her place – that it was the only thing she could have done. As the author points out in his introduction, the story “is only tangentially about time-travel. What it is really about is love”. This is true of much other writing in the genre.

Among my favourite stories to combine humour with the subject of what it means to be human is Clifford Simak’s “Skirmish” (you’ll find it in the Brian Aldiss-edited anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus, a book I highly recommend). It involves a newspaper reporter named Joe Crane – your average Joe – gradually discovering that small, machine-like aliens from another planet are scouting earth with the intention of “freeing” their brethren – the earth machines that are being controlled by humans. The problem for Joe, as he begins to piece things together, is that he alone is in possession of this information and has no tangible proof: if he tried to take it to the authorities, he would be treated as a drunk or a psycho.

You have to read the story to see how Joe handles this great responsibility that has fallen on his shoulders – and to see how the last line of the story (I can tell you, without any spoilers, that it is “Well, gentlemen? he said”) shows how politeness and etiquette can coexist with firmness of will, even in very strained situations. That’s one of the things that allows us to call ourselves rational, or civilized.

But as a companion piece to this affirmative narrative, I would also point you towards Bertram Chandler’s “The Cage”, which offers a much more bittersweet view of what an “evolved” species might be. “Only rational beings put other beings in cages,” goes a cynical but reasonable observation in the story. The best of sci-fi shows us how to break the cages we have built for ourselves and for others, or at least how to bend the bars. 

[Some earlier Forbes Life columns are here]


  1. Over the last four years I have read plenty of Science Fiction, largely in order to gauge the assessment that SF can be as engaging, profound and literary as “literary fiction”. I have read classics of Jules Verne and HG Wells, and I have pored over the writings of Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Dick, and writers of more recent vintage (Haldeman, Gibson, Stephenson, Scalzi, Ann Leckie et al). Then there are those I have read who’d rather not be called “Science Fiction writers” – people like Murakami and Ishiguro. My not so hasty conclusion is that regardless of the “importance” of their ideas, SF writers are unlikely to find any respect outside of devoted fan groups because their writing is poor. Take Asimov, for example. There is no doubt about the thought-provoking nature of his ideas. However, his writing is irredeemably prosaic and devoid of any literary flourish. The same can be said of several other writers. Even Clarke – a writer I admire despite my ambivalence towards SF – has written only two noteworthy novels; the rest is the sort of writing that would appeal only to readers looking for a “breezy” read. A rigorous grammarian would have a field day correcting the errors littered throughout the oeuvre of Phlip K Dick. James Wood’s prodigious reading does not include a single SF book; Christopher Hitchens dismissed it as “crappy”. Our revered literary critics aren’t bothered by the arrival of a new SF book.

    An important thing to note here is how fans (and writers) continue to demand the same kind of respect that would be given to, say Philip Roth. They argue that SF deals with “the human condition” or other markers of literary worth just as well (and sometimes even better!) than any literary writer. But alas, the very fact that SF writing needs to be defended shows how open it is to (rightful) criticism. This isn’t the celebration of a dense, difficult to comprehend novel like Gravity’s Rainbow; it is merely an irreverent attitude for writing that is not careful.

    At the heart of this argument is the idea of “anti-elitism”: the argument that even inferior work should command respect; it should be rewarded, and eventually, even canonized. It’s the packaging of something inferior as something “accessible”; something that is meant for the masses, and the wide acceptance of which is to signify greatness. Many SF defenders even posit that the idea is more important than the execution: which is to say that if a writer has thought of something profound, we must excuse how he documents and presents it to the reader. But if purity of purpose were to trump delivery, would many of us working for corporations ever get paid? Can an entrepreneur get away with sloppy execution, and bank solely on the brilliance of his idea? To take a more literary example, consider Jonathan Franzen. At the core of all his novels is the bickering, frustration and dilemma of family members learning to tolerate each other with as much decency as is possible. In other words, there isn’t anything “profound” or “celestial” in his material. However, his writing is polished with such skillful prose that reading a 500 page book about an American family becomes a delightful and rewarding experience. (Franzen’s gimmicky debut was dubbed “Science Fiction” by some obtuse observers; he was quick to retort that it was “all fiction and no science”).

    So, I did “break the cage” – assuming that I was trapped into believing that only literary fiction is worthwhile – however, I did not like very much what was outside of it. I will continue to be out on parole every now and then, and would be happy to report any difference in my experiences.

    1. Yayaati - just re-posting the short comments I put on FB as a part-response to your comment:
      - There are many fine literary critics (I don't know about "revered") and many wise readers who do, for very good reasons, rate SF much higher than you do, in terms of BOTH form and content. I'm as happy to ignore "literary" critics who barely even try to engage with genre/popular writing as I am to ignore highbrow film watchers who don't try to engage with popular cinema.
      - Also: no, Asimov is not a "poor" writer; nor are many of the other old-time exponents of sci-fi. And there seems to be some confusion here in your own expression - are you really conflating "poor writing" with "devoid of any literary flourish"? There is no shortage of great writers who have very little "literary flourish" (as most people use that phrase), and those writers usually get celebrated for their lucidity - as Asimov (in my view at least) deserves to be.

    2. "But alas, the very fact that SF writing needs to be defended shows how open it is to (rightful) criticism."
      This is a complete non-sequitur. Throughout history, many things that are of very high worth have been looked down upon by highbrow critics of the time.

    3. "James Wood’s prodigious reading does not include a single SF book"

      This says a lot more about James Wood than it does about SF, Yayaati - surely even you can see that! (And to clarify, I don't mean that as a wholesale putdown of Wood. Life is short; even the most dedicated readers/movie-watchers among us have to make decisions about what we want to spend time on, what works best for us, etc.)

    4. Lots more to say, of course - maybe another time. For now, I'll just add that more than your views (which of course you are entitled to), I was a little alienated by the lofty tone of your comment (whether or not it was intended), which seemed to stem from the fact that you devoted 4 years to "gauging the assessment that SF can be as engaging, profound and literary..." and that this makes you qualified to pronounce an objective verdict. (Just to repeat what I said in the first comment: there is absolutely no shortage of intelligent and engaged readers who find profundity and depth in SF - even if James Wood is not among them!)

  2. this is boooooring shit jai.

  3. Dear ma'am I think you are taking the discussion away from what it was meant to be. Author simply wants to applaud the SF for it opens up the new avenues of thinking. This is not at all a praising of SF literature but its about the novelty of idea it gives birth to which at times potentially possess the ability to change the outlook of our existence and our relation with the cosmos.