Thoughts, insights and other stuff. Lory Kaufman, post-dystopian young adult author.
This blog was taken from a paper I presented at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario this past September. It was at a conference on science fiction, in honor of Robert J. Sawyer donating his papers to the university. The theme of the conference was “Science fiction as an interdisciplinary writing genre”. As I spoke the thing, it’s written in first person present.
My talk explores the idea of humans as a tribe, whether in a group of thirty to sixty, as was apparently the case for many thousands of years, or as a collection of seven billion.
I start with the observation that every tribe needs members with specialized talents to work towards its prosperity and longevity. Rationalists with a scientific bent, like Rob Sawyer, would say it is through evolution and the phenomenon of nature’s genetic mutation process that caused the necessary tribe specialists to appear. I would concur with part of this assertion, and it is my aim to prove conclusively that a very important member of our global tribe includes specifically . . . science fiction writers. Yes, we’re here for a purpose.
As wordsmiths go, sf writers are the ultimate interdisciplinary workers, playing an important role by synthesizing ongoing developments in all the sciences, both physical and social, and describing them using a vehicle used for millennium by humans for informing and educating their tribes . . . that is … by use of the story.
In original science fiction, before the internet, indeed, before printing or even writing, stories of the world and the cosmos were told around the campfire. That’s when ancient storytellers would talk about gods in the sky, of ethereal beings riding through the heavens on stars, on the backs of turtles, or in other representations. In modernity, we humans have repopulated these stories with spaceships, aliens and transport devices. But, they are the same stories, weaving into their tales the most up-to-date speculations of the day. Originally they worked into their plots how Gods from the heavens must, for example, be changing the seasons, making the crops grow and women fertile or, if you gave them enough recognition through ritual prayer and sacrifice, persuaded game animals to give themselves up to hunters.
This curiosity about how the universe works persisted and, gradually, humans parsed the mysteries of matter and life down to minute sub-molecular levels. In the process, we’ve largely ceased to believe that we are the center of the universe, and now understand our miniscule place in a ginormous cosmos. But this took millennia, as technological progress was slow, like evolution. But over the last few centuries things speeded up and, like the exponential growth of human population, knowledge and technology followed suit.
Word constraints force me to combine the earlier thousands of years to what I have already described and fast-forward to the 19th century. The industrial revolution is in full swing, powered by steam. The art of medicine is turning into a science; the art of everything is turning into science. Knowledge is doubling every century instead of millennium. Electricity is on the technological horizon and empires are now being formed that span the globe.
So now, to counter the huge egos and ambitions of the financiers, industrialists, politicians and despots, nature in her wisdom brings forth a creature that is cunning, insightful, moral, visionary, and very necessary. Can you guess what creature I’m referring to? That’s right, the science fiction writer.
I’m not saying industrial progress was wrong. Like any invention, it’s neutral. It’s how it’s used. And you’ll notice in my list of people the sf writer challenges, I include financiers, industrialists, politicians and despots, not scientists or inventors. But can we even blame the despot and their cronies for their actions? Coming from a ten thousand year history of cultural growth through conflict with neighbors, one can almost understand why leaders act, or are, greedy and short sighted. So, it is my thesis that it is the science fiction writer’s job to be the Socratic gadfly at the trough which is the boardroom table.
So, let’s look at a very short and incomplete chronological list of some notable science fiction gadflies. We shall start in the early 19th, and I warn you, the descriptions are brief.
Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was actually born in the 18th century, but wrote in the early 19th. Inspired by burgeoning sciences of the day, medicine and electricity, Shelley takes a mixture of science, philosophy and social commentary and places it in the melodramatic and romantic milieu of her day. What I like about her writing is that it doesn’t preach. It just tells a story about true-to-life contemporary characters caught in a situation where the “what if” question is: what if the science that society is now playing with could actually do “this” or “that”.
Then there is Jules Verne. Alfred de Bréhat, his publisher, said that Vernes’s mission was, “to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format that is his own, the history of the universe.”
Vernes’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (that’s how far they travelled, not how deep) was a great science fiction story, as it predicted where the new technologies of submarines and energy systems could possibly go in the future, like sf writers fifty years later did with rocket ships. But just as importantly, it also had underlying social themes, showing characters who were affected by the all-pervasive moralizing of proper society, which was really just a way for the rich to get the middle and under class to do what they wanted.
Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain, was mostly known for the social commentary he built into his general fiction stories of 19th century USA, but his one foray into what could be considered sf is a time travel story, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Here, he shone with the likes of Dickens and Balzac with wonderful characters, illustrating the pomposity of the rich and the indignities heaped upon the poor. When I read Clemens and about him, I get the sense of a philosophical giant frustrated because his best efforts had not moved the world to a better place as fast as he wanted and worried that it never would.
This early sf titan more or less created the template for 20th century SF. Wells is among the first to showcase BIG technology, alien invasion, and technologically-based travel through time, as opposed to time travel by being … say … hit on the head, as Twain did. He unknowingly hinted at quantum physics in the Invisible Man, and genetic manipulation in The Island of Doctor Moreau. From today’s perspective, the stories are so . . . so far off technically, but the questions and possibilities they posed showed a serious analysis of life on a strictly scientific basis, as opposed to by mystical means. I have no doubt that young people who read these stories back then and then became scientists and engineers were influenced highly by them. Of course, we still can’t make people invisible or travel through time, but the science that came from quantum physics gave us the iPod.
But as for Wells holding up a mirror to his society, I think he does this brilliantly in The War of the Worlds. He does this surreptitiously by showing the then colonizing British just how it felt to be on the receiving end of an attack by a technologically advanced power.
So, now we enter the 20th century. Forgive me if I don’t mention all your favorite writers. The ones I mention are the ones that mostly influenced me.
George Orwell: 1984 is a book read by nearly every high school student in North America. I sometimes wonder if reading it was government-mandated as an anti-communist inoculation during the Cold War, although ironically it should be noted that Western governments used and continue to use many of the techniques described in 1984, as well as the book itself, to manipulate the public.
The same goes for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. As in Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, in Brave New World, complex medical manipulation is achieved by simple mechanical or chemical means, like oxygen deprivation or the use of alcohol in fetuses to retard mental development. If it were written today, the story would be about genetic manipulation. Still, and once again, this was literature that advised the reader, not only about the science of the day, but educated, warned and stimulated debate about how unscrupulous leaders could corrupt humankind’s new knowledge.
William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, was the book that made me want to be a writer of futuristic fiction. I loved how technology was just on the periphery. All we are shown in the first few pages, to let us know this is a futuristic story, is a large group of children being dropped from an airplane’s “passenger tube” when the plane is under attack. The tube is so large it gouges a long, wide trench along the beach and into the undergrowth of a remote jungle island. With this technology being so foreign even now, the reader has to conclude events are taking place in some imagined future universe. But then, this is probably why the book still reads so well. There are none of the sf speculations that, in hind sight, turn into scientific oopsies. That’s because there is no technology on the island. What we are then left with is pure, human drama.
The only non-book I’ll mention is the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, based on a 1941 short story by Harry Bates. It’s been remade, but I’ll only comment on the first version. Humans have just recently created the nuclear bomb, so intra-galactic beings come down to invite us to join their galactic “peace club”, or else. We learn how many other worlds went through the same phase of near self-destruction and solved the problem by ceding oversight responsibility to a race of robots who allowed humanity’s free will — except when human actions could lead to their’s and other’s extinction.
Let me mention here that the nuclear threat is probably the ultimate example of the science fiction writer warning the public. There are hundreds of stories; books, movies, comics, etc., in which the visionary imagination that nature gave sf writers was used to spread the alarm. It’s like the warning call of a songbird when a predator is nigh; an apt simile, I think. Interestingly, there were more original movies produced with this theme in the early fifties than novels, but then quite a few novels were subsequently made into movies. These include Frank’s Alias Babylon, Shute’s, On the Beach, Burdick and Wheeler’s Fail-Safe, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and Boulle’s Planet of the Apes.
But who said sf had to be so serious all the time, or warning about the oppressive use of technology? In the 1960’s and 70’s much of science fiction emphasized the breaking down old fashioned mores, and the encouragement of individuals to the see and explore the world on their own terms and not those of the rule writers.
So, enter writers like Larry Niven with his Ring World books. This is a man with a CRAZY imagination. I was at a writing seminar where one speaker advised that, when you finish the first draft of a story, rewrite it and push all the elements to the max, and when you’ve done that, do it again. I think Larry Niven did that when he wrote his Ring World books. He designed a world built on popular scientific theories in the 1960’s and 70’s, and added extrapolations regarding the ideas of evolution and the organization of diverse societies. To do this, he developed many wonderful sentient characters who were distant relatives of common Earth animals, domesticated and other. Outrageous characters offer wonderful commentaries on the morals and worldviews of people of that time. Personally, I lean toward the belief that Mr. Niven was also on a mission to show the world how funny we all looked in that hippie clothing while we spouted on about free love.
Robert Heinlein: Speaking of seriously crazy amongst the sf writers of the mid-20th centuries, Robert Heinlein is among my favorites. Writers, I mean. Not crazy people. He’s the one who introduced me to the idea that mythical creatures could be aliens or people from different dimensions, an idea all the rage now, if you watch the sf channel. I personally think these creatures are manifestations of a shared cultural angst, but who knows?
As far as taking one’s self seriously goes, in Grumbles from the Grave, Heinlein’s posthumously published autobiography, he admitted that once he could more or less write anything he wanted, he did push some things as far as he could, like incest, which was part of his in-your-face campaign of breaking down the sexual stodginess of America in the mid-20th century.
And then … for me … came a most interesting development – the introduction of young adult literature and the formulization of the dystopian novel.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite dystopian stories unfolding either in a post-apocalyptic world, where things are still in a state of chaos, or in a world of totalitarian control, at war with aliens, etc. Lowry’s The Giver, Scott-Card’s Ender’s Game, Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, Anderson’s Feed, Shusterman’s Unwind, (oh god, one scene in that really creeped me out), Westerfeld’s The Uglies, Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Wilson’s Spin, and Collins’s The Hunger Game Trilogy.
A dystopian work that wasn’t written as young adult novel but one I want to give a shout out to is Cormac McCarthy’s 2006, The Road. I just really like it and feel it resides at the pinnacle of post-apocalyptic literature.
And then we come to Robert J. Sawyer: What can I say that hasn’t already been said about him? After three days at this conference in his honor, what hasn’t been said? Hmmm. Let’s see . . Oh, he cuts his hair like Robert Heinlein, and . . . and he uses a similar moniker, “The dean of Canadian Science fiction.”
As far as Mr. Sawyer’s contribution of disseminating scientific developments to the general public, the warning of using it for ill, and giving a peek at the way the world could be better organized, I shall refer to only one of his series, The Neanderthal Parallax. Now, this shows the beauty of what a science fiction writer can do. When the unsuspecting general public reads these books, they might believe they are just reading some piece of fantasy involving humans and Neanderthals . . . cavemen. But what people won’t likley understand is all the research and cogitation it took to create a modern Neanderthal world, and the many sociological reasons the author constructed it the way he did . . . and the implications of what it means in the discussion of inventing a better civilization.
To give but a few examples. In the Neanderthal world, there is a determined steady-state population of less than two and a half percent of what our bloated human population is in reality now. Two and a half percent. Just the mention of this difference, just the fact that Rob Sawyer positions his society in such a situation puts into question, indeed, focuses a mirror on our own human situation now. As well, the world of his Neanderthals have not commodified food, healthcare, they don’t have money, as we conceive of it, and haven’t created a financial system that insists on exponential economic growth that denudes and ruins the natural world, and as I said, so much more.
So, Mr. Sawyer’s writing voice is then the gentle tonic that entertains while he informs and uplifts. But don’t let that fool you. It is much more powerful than it appears, for, just like the story teller around the fire eons ago, and like other great science fiction writers now, Rob is placing concepts into the public’s subconscious, which will make them more easily accepting of necessary changes in the future as the ideas become more main stream.
Now, of course, it’s impossible to prove that science fiction writers are an affectation or experiment of nature. But I think any species needs to have members who compete, to try out all possibilities to survive. And since scientists seem to be too busy doing science, and most are not gifted in communication or philosophy, it falls upon other members of our tribe, ones who are both interested in the sciences and can tell stories, to both teach and sound the alarm. And that, Robert J. Sawyer does very well.
That’s right, an epiphany!
I participated in a wonderful conference on science fiction this past weekend. It was to celebrate Robert J. Sawyer donating his papers into the archives at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. From this day on, Rob’s papers will be available for scholarly study, sitting in the stacks next to the likes of HG Well, Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat and John Robert Colombo.
The conference was from Friday night to Sunday late afternoon, and was filled with the presentations of nearly fifty lectures, discussions, and scholarly papers, all about science fiction as an interdisciplinary genre. As well, between sessions, at meals and in the hallways, I had many interesting discussions with scholars, writers and fans from all over North America.
As for the “man of the hour”, Robert J. Sawyer, and his wife, Carolyn Clink, they were wonderfully open, generous, available, modest and fun. Rob is a fantastic orator, as well as writer, and his numerous talks and discussions over the weekend both informed and entertained.
A full itinerary of the events would be too long, so I’ll list a few of the highlights and then let you in on my epiphany.
Firstly, I sat with author Robert Charles Wilson and heard about his next time travel book, Burning Paradise. As a time travel writer myself, it was gratifying to discuss the subject with someone who can so handily weave a story around the paradoxes that the genre naturally brings up. In fact, with Burning Paradise, Bob has found a way to eliminate them. Another treat was to have several conversations with John Robert Colombo, quote collector, anthologist and author. He’s a gentleman who everyone wants as their favorite uncle. I also sat next to his wife, poet Ruth Colombo, at supper. She really made me laugh and called me out on several things I said . . . and how I said them. But can it get any better than sitting around and sipping on a glass of scotch while talking sci-fi with Senior Tor Editor David G. Hartwell and Sunburst Awards organizer Paul Halasz. Those guys know EVERYBODY!
As to my epiphany. First let me say that I am a cranky, old businessman whose interest in writing science fiction is to be part of a discussion about the future, with the expressed dream that human culture can find a way to reach and maintain some sort of near-Utopia. So, the highlight of the conference for me occurred while listening to a paper by Cameron Ellis, a PhD candidate from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. The title of his piece was, “Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy: A Jungian Eupsychia?”
Buried within his dense text was a simple phrase that made my ears prick up. So, during the Q&A I asked Cameron who had penned the phrase. He said shyly that he had written it. Here is the quote.
“Utopia is an advanced economic system.”
Before publishing this blog, I sent Mr. Ellis a copy, explaining how I thought his phrase could be a very useable quote, since it encapsulates a simple truth and clarifies something that should have been obvious. As well, it breaks down the assumption that a peaceful human civilization, one that can last ten thousand years and more, is not just some airy-fairy fantasy. Mr. Ellis wrote back clarifying that, while he agreed the idea does have social-economic aspects, he also thinks about Utopias as private, subjective, and more of an inner-life phenomena of the psyche. I can appreciate this and understand how the aspect I am honing in on is just part of a larger theme he is working on. But I believe my interpretation can also be valid. After all, once a serious writer or artist releases his ideas into the world, they take on new life of their own and can inspire the work and thinking of others in unexpected ways. This it has definitely done for me.
I must I have an ear for quotes. About a decade ago, I was the one who, while looking for a David Suzuki quote to put on a Green Party T-shirt, gleaned from the middle of one of his radio talks, “We all live downstream”. Doing a recent internet search showed that the phrase has taken on a life of its own. I hope this happens to Mr. Cameron’s citation.
Finally, I presented a paper at the conference entitled, “What is the social worth of the science fiction writer?” I shall post the text to it on next month’s blog, plus put up a link to a video of it.