The feature that unites every kind of sf is the construction - in some sense - of a world other than our own. This may be another planet (or even another universe); or it may be a 'future world' in which conditions have changed in some dramatic way. But whatever new conditions or circumstances apply - alien invasion, Martian colonies, a permanent cure for the ageing process - the writer has to signal the changes, and the reader has to be able to understand the significance of these signals. Thus, the reading of an sf story is always an active process of translation. What are we being told about the characters, the politics, the social conditions of the imagined world, through the medium of these bizarre artefacts, landscapes, relationships, industries and customs? The icons of sf are the signs which announce the genre, which warn the reader that this is a different world; and at the same time constitute that difference.
More than in any other fiction, in sf the imaginary setting is a major character in the story – and this fictional surface is held together by the highly foregrounded description of unreal objects, customs, kinships, fashions, that can be identified and decoded by the reader. The word ‘icon’ is derived from the Greek eikon – it means an image, but the term came into English usage via Byzantine art, where an ‘ikon’ is, specifically, a stylized representation of Christ or one of the saints. Similarly, an sf icon will represent something both supernatural (or at least other-worldly), artistically conventional (in that certain features are mandatory) and yet clearly belonging to the public domain. Just as Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein constructed the monster rather than ‘inventing’ him, it is probably fruitless to trace any of the icons of sf back to a single, original author.
Consider Her Ways
For years, people looked at me strangely when I cited Carolyn Cherryh as a writer of feminist science fiction. It was the kind of look people might give you if you said you ate chocolate bars for your health, but with a hint of more sinister dubiety; as if I might be in danger of taking on something seriously harmful along with the sweet disguise. My over-reading, if overreading it is (for there's over-reading as surely as there is over-writing, let reviewers beware) of what goes on in the typical Cherryh scenario is partly a historical accident. Serpent's Reach is the first Cherryh book I met. It is an early glimpse into the continuum that the back of Cyteen, the complex novel that is the culmination of this project, calls the ‘Merchanters’ Universe’ series. It features a gloomy tomboy heroine, and a good-dog toyboy who suffers the most remorseless ordeal by genre role-reversal before being awarded with equality. The plot is a space-opera revenge story. It is also a slice from a larger drama about the epic misuse of human reproduction technology. The behaviour of the hive-minded alien Majat is contrasted favourably with the humans’ treatment of their vat-bred underclass. The individual members of the different castes of the matriarchal Majat are endlessly replicated units of function. The small number of personalityanalogues involved have no comprehension of death or capacity for ‘freedom’. The mass-produced human azi, however, are individuals, and therefore slaves who live and die in misery…
Those of you who have read Cyteen, or follow Cherryh at all, may find this abstract familiar. But this was 1980, and my mind was awash with highly self-conscious feminist deconstructions of sf. It was natural for me to assume that Cherryh too was self-conscious in this way, that the story she chose was her story in the reformed sense, not a window into one writer's own private obsession. But the strong female lead has always been an option on the menu in sf. Like the gun-slinging heroine in a western she's the exception that proves the rule; and she proves it by being exceptional.
I am not a scientist, an academic or a net guru. I am a science fiction writer— inhabitant of the boundary area between our knowledge of the world out there, our science and its technologies, and the reports we have from the inner world of subjective experience: ideology, interpretation, metaphor, myth. These spaces interpenetrate each other. It is impossible to say anything about science without using the human language of fiction (there are no equations without metaphors); impossible to construct a fiction that involves no hypothesis about how the world works. Yet they present themselves, in our society and perhaps in all societies that ever were, as separate systems. My business is with the interface between them. I look for analogues, homologues, convergent evolutions, fractals, coincidences, feedback loops. Like the railway passenger Gnat in Through the Looking- Glass, I am a pun-detecting machine. Or else I am a bower-bird, picking up shiny scraps from all aspects of the current state of the world, and arranging them in a way that seems pleasing to me. Look on this paper as a visit to an artist's studio: specifically to the studio of the science/fiction of cyberspace. Which is to say, a visit to some recent images, plucked from science and fiction—images of what it means to be a member of the State of Self.
The accepted term for the notional space in which computer networking happens (a term with an explosion of applications in the early 1990s) is cyberspace, a word coined in a science fiction. But the novel, Neuromancer, published in 1984, in which ‘cyberspace’ first emerged, predated the explosion of popular and leisure use that has transformed the Internet and brought expressions like ‘electronic democracy’, ‘information highway’, ‘the Governance of Cyberspace’ into public debate. Cyberspace and its entourage (the Turing Police, neural jacking, simstim entertainment, commercial personality overlays), were secondary, in William Gibson's near-future thriller, to a classic genre narrative: the creation (or the emergence) of a non-human mind, a self conscious artificial intelligence.
The dream of creating Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been around longer than (artificial) computers themselves.
These essays and reviews have been produced over a decade during which the stuff of science fiction became part of everyday life. There have been other decades in recent memory filled with intense excitement about the imaginary future: we can see the marks of their passing in city planning, public architecture, furniture; the streamlining, the monochrome and chrome of everyday objects first admired, then considered hideous, eventually fashionable again. But whether or not we consider the Internet hideous, it is unlikely that telematic networking will be consigned to the lumber room by the next generation, or that biotechnology will come totally undone (despite its mixed performance so far on the money markets); and perhaps equally unlikely that the demographic and economic changes that have created Girl Power, leaving political and idealistic feminism stranded and bewildered on the margins, will be dismantled. Dreams of galactic empire did not come true, the Invaders from Mars (or from any other alien planet in our locality) are consigned to fantasy. But a great deal of the future imagined by my generation's sf writers is actually with us.
William Gibson, the icon of the 1980s, said that science fiction is always about the present. I could argue that it is the only fiction about the present, everything else is historical romance. But at this particular moment in time, reality and science fiction are moving into such close conjunction that science fiction is no longer the strange reflection and artistic elaboration of current preoccupations: the mirror and the actuality have almost become one. Moreover, most of the routes to a new separation (aside from the colourful fantasies of the ‘science fiction’ entertainment business) might involve losses considerably more painful than saying goodbye to the Venusian Swamps and the ancient cities of Mars. Perhaps we should hope for some kind of catastrophic fusion of future and present, the End of History as pronounced by Baudrillard: but postponed, from hour to hour, from sentence to sentence, by this narrative that never reaches closure. We should remember that though there are tragic science fictions, science fiction itself is a comedy.
In the days of Jesus of Nazareth, there were no motor cars. I still walk, however, sometimes…
As a science fiction writer it is my business to create imaginary pictures of different times and different worlds. This is common knowledge. What's less well recognised is that the imagination of any science fiction writer feeds on the past as much as on the future. ‘Those who refuse to learn from History will be condemned to repeat it’ (George Santayana): this is the aphorism on which much ‘scientific’ fiction is based, the writers being reasonably sure that the human race will never learn… No serious sf writer ever simply invents a future-world out of a vacuum. The effort involved, the sheer mass of interlocking detail required, would make that project highly uneconomic in terms of work hours and creative effort. Less than serious writers don't trouble themselves to invent anything much, and their year 2525 differs not at all from 198X in social mores, in lifestyle technology, in cultural and political infrastructure; except that in this relabelled present-day the galaxy has been colonised, immortality is available to all, and aliens of bizarre shapes and sizes mingle with the tourists on Oxford Street. Other writers, and I count myself among them, believe that technological change affects every aspect of people's lives, slowly in detail but sometimes in sudden leaps so dramatic that the passing generation can hardly recognise a world that is to their children as normal as if its gadgets and innovations had been there forever.
It should be noted that quantative change may be for the worse as well as for the better. Stocks in imaginary futures, as the standard warning goes, can go down as well as up. One short answer to the question ‘What will leisure be like in the year 2020?’ might be: there won't be any. We'll have bombed ourselves back into the stone age, and the rare pleasure of falling asleep with a full stomach will be the height of human entertainment experience.
But whenever the whole human environment has to be made over in order to present an ‘accurate’ picture of the future, the job will be quite impossible without some extremely trenchant short-cutting.
When Two Worlds Collide
The aliens can always speak English. This is one of those absurdities of pulp fiction and B movies, like saucer shaped spaceships and hairdryer machines that track your brain waves, that might well come true—suppose the visitors avoid those disconcerting forms of long haul space travel, that whisk you across the galaxy and dump you in the concourse of Lime Street station before you have time to say ‘Non Smoking’. If they come in slowly they'll spend the latter part of their journey travelling through a vast cloud of human broadcasting signals, which they'll easily pick up on the alien cabin tv. They'll have plenty of time to acquire a smattering of useful phrases. Or so the current received wisdom goes. By now it's not completely inevitable that they'll speak English, and with a United States accent, in the traditional manner. They might get hooked on Brazilian soap opera. But whatever formal, articulate language our visitors may use in real life, all the aliens we know so far speak human. They speak our human predicament, our history, our hopes and fears, our pride and shame. As long as we haven't met any actual no kidding intelligent extraterrestrials (and I would maintain that this is still the case, though I know opinions are divided) the aliens we imagine are always other humans in disguise: no more, no less. Whether or not hell is other people, it is certainly other people who arrive, in these fictions, to challenge our isolation: to be feared or worshipped, interrogated, annihilated, appeased. When the historical situation demands it science fiction writers demonise our enemies, the way the great Aryan court poet who wrote the story of Prince Rama demonised the Dravidian menace, in India long ago. Or we can use imaginary aliens to assuage our guilt. I think it's not unlikely that our European ancestors invented the little people who live in the hills, cast spells and are ‘ill to cross’—who appear so often in traditional fiction north of the mediterranean and west of Moscow—to explain why their cousins the Neanderthals had mysteriously vanished from public life.
The sound of the word South is the sound of softness and plenty. South is the preferred aspect for an Emperor's palace in traditional Chinese geomancy. South is the direction in which people of the northern temperate zone turn, when they want to imagine relaxation, warmth, repose. We head south, like the birds in winter, to escape from hardship. The South is a garden world where there is no conflict between nature and culture; where sweet fruits drop from the bough; where food plants grow and domestic animals give their service as if of their own goodwill, without any need for the violence and coercion of the plough that cuts open the earth, the goad that drives the cattle. Feminised utopias, whether or not imagined by women, are full of the warm south. Tolkien's entwives— though their ideal land is criticised by their creator, who prefers a masculine wilderness—are the guardians of a garden world. In the eighteenthcentury idyll Paul et Virginie, a work that profoundly influenced George Sand and the whole pastoral Utopian tradition, a Caribbean island is the paradise in which the children of nature live without sin, nurtured at the bosom of their mother earth. The South is a place where dominating masculine attitudes to the world and to other people (nature red in tooth and claw: you have to be cruel to be kind) are proved unnecessary, and soft feminine values—gentleness, affection, tenderness—can thrive.
Feminised and feminist utopias of the twentieth century have this same character. The best known of early twentieth-century feminist utopias, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, describes a country in the South (somewhere in Central America, to be more precise) where men have been unknown for two thousand years. Though Gilman's authoritarian and élitist Utopia has its distasteful side for modern readers, the female-only culture presents itself as a commonalty from which violence and coercion have been banished. Herland is a garden world, where compassionate farming and the gentle but intensive education of children are perceived as the most important activities of public and private life. In the period when Ursula Le Guin was producing her most important and most influential Utopian writing so far, examples of the feminised pastorale abound.
David Brin has written a book about a feminist utopia. It's about a planet which has been settled by idealistic women seeking an escape from the harsh, bestial code of natural human society…
The founding mothers were planning to do without men all together. But they discovered there is something in sperm that's necessary for the health of the placenta so—rather than bottle the something—they decided to build themselves some big, hunky blokes. They then endowed these hunks (presumably on the grounds that Mother Nature doesn't mean things to be easy) with a longish rutting season during which lavishly appointed brothels have to be provided to contain their urges, because NO WOMAN IS SAFE IN THEIR COMPANY; and endowed themselves with a similar season during which they are just dying for it and the men aren't interested, so that these radical feminists are forced to don flimsy negligés and ooze about like extras in a Star Trek harem scene… Well, women are fools and masochists, I'd be the first to agree. The first thing the boldly going separatists do is reinvent rape and prostitution? Nothing more likely!
Since the men have been built impossible to house-train, they have a separate and more or less autonomous existence. The women rule on land. The men have the sea, coming on shore only to deliver their cargoes and to fuck—usually, in order to add that vital placenta nourishing ingredient to parthenogenetic conception, occasionally, actually to father boys and the girl ‘variants’ who save the female clone communities from stagnation. This is a useful situation, since we have only to put to sea in order to escape from the dreary prospect of a feminist utopia novel all about women: and because no male character embarrasses the general reader by having to endure the intimate, constant, insidious dominance behaviour that a woman among men suffers in the real world. If a man does get in among the women unarmed—as it were—he still doesn't have to act cowed, defer, watch his manners, none of that nonsense. Note the retired sailor janitor in the girls’ school (in my uncorrected proofs, I have to allow) who goes about pinching bottoms, rousing ‘girlish shrieks of delighted outrage…’
The time is 2005. A personable young woman, a San Francisco bike-courier called Chevette Washington, steals—by pure fluke—a pair of VR spectacles. Unluckily for her what she takes for a pair of sunglasses is actually a neat piece of data-display tech holding some valuable and contraband commercial information. Meanwhile a similarly personable young man, an aspiring private-sector law officer called Berry Rydell, suffers a career setback, is almost but not quite featured on a popular tv show called Cops in Trouble ; and ends up employed by the suspect enforcement officers who have gathered to hunt Chevette down. A thriller develops, involving hacker-action, a nasty murder, drug-induced paranoia, much chasing about and much local colour. Particularly colourful is the Bay Bridge— which has been ruined in an earthquake and has rapidly metamorphosed into a funky squatters’ quartier. Commentary of one kind or another is provided by ageing-hipster Skinner, a Bay Bridge sacred elder and Chevette's protector; and by Yamakazi, an earnestly intellectual young Japanese tourist.
Some of this is standard Neuromancing: the chase-and-recovery plot, simple and robust enough to carry any amount of rococo flourishes; the densely depicted near future; the smugly lawless hackers, the two young no-hopes being thrown about (and into each other's arms) by the same old Invisible Hand—here represented by fiendish Singaporean urban developers. But even allowing for the fact that 2005 is barely a decade away, there is remarkably little cyberdelia in the wealth of meticulous nearmarket research; and remarkably little hysteria in the thriller plot. The dense invention favours culture—tv shows, folk-art, instant religion— above gadgets; and the gadgets are given no fantastic glamour. From the way the virtual light specs are described here they could be on the real life market before the paperback of the novel: and the threat invoked by the contraband information is quite unnervingly low key. A Lee Kuan Yew style town-planning facelift for San Francisco may be a scary prospect. But however allergic you are to the electronic island, it's hardly the end of the universe.
William Gibson had never been much of a genre apologist.
Where do aliens belong? The purist, (or purest) school of sf thought says that aliens are not science fiction because they are not within reach of our extrapolation. The space flight wildly imagined by the scientifiction of the genre's early days was just within the bounds of prediction, and it has duly happened (though so far on a somewhat more modest scale than envisaged). Aliens don't belong in this category. They do not represent a calculable possible development from a known situation. Whether or not they're out there, our own galaxy—in so far as we seem to know it—is such a huge place, interstellar distances so intractable, that in reason we can't expect extraterrestrial contact. Whatever you may think of the logic of this argument, both science fiction and fantasy writers continue to describe the unpredictable encounter with more or less of extrapolative rigour, and bear the reproach of the purists with stoicism. But we have to admit, in every case the aliens are not themselves. They are exploited Third Worlders, Evil Empires, unexplored aspects of the human psyche, devils, angels, elves, characters in a historical romance about foreign travel; perhaps they are ‘the other’. We cannot write about the real aliens until we've met them. Instead we use their name, and talk about something else.
The aliens in Kristine Kathyrn Rusch's Alien Influences have a distinctly nineteenth-century feel. They are native peoples encountered by human colonists in search of raw materials. They smell funny, they look funny, they don't wear proper clothes or live in proper houses. They don't have to be paid when you take their stuff. They are weak and vulnerable and yet also regarded as extremely dangerous. They are perhaps magical but their magic is helpless before the human rush to plunder. In every case they are being decimated: and true to our past though shocking to late twentieth-century sentiment, practically nobody cares.
The title of the novel refers to an instrument (in the legal sense) called the Alien Influences Act, which has recently become law in human space, or at least all of human space that appears in this novel—comprising a disparate collection of space bases, where civilised life happens…
According to a well known dictum of the genre, the first sentence of any science fiction story should instantly invoke the world of the narrative and no other world. Take down your chosen volume, which we will imagine to be in a plain cover so that the normal marketing signals are unavailable. If the first sentence is simply unintelligible, although it contains nothing but perfectly recognisable words of your mother tongue, read on in hope. Either you are on the right shelf or you have picked up by accident a book of academic literary criticism. A grounding in this subject will be invaluable to you in certain areas of modern sf—invaluable as a background in mechanical engineering might have been thirty years ago. If the first sentence reads ‘the cat sat on the mat’ read on and beware. You may have entered that copyeditor's nightmare, the rigorously imagined world. You think you know what a ‘cat’ is but you don't. It could be a foodstuff or a marital aid, or the term for a particularly esoteric degree of kinship in the imagined social structure. It could be (equally) a typographical error: it was supposed to be a czryt sitting on the mat.
Delany's dictum sounds like a familiar formula, a test that could be applied to any kind of fiction. ‘All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion’—there is Anna Karenina in a sentence. So long as Tolstoy is not cheating this is going to be a novel about broken homes. But in sf the game is more intense, more obsessive and much more game-like. If the book is to be about a world in which schizophrenia is normal, or war is unknown, or everybody is immortal, the challenge is to write every sentence, construct each scrap of dialogue as if in the Noel Coward-style party game where a player has to perform some ordinary action mimed in the manner of the word, the word that we are trying to guess. Never by so much as an adjective must the writer admit to knowledge of (for instance) a world where organised aggression is commonplace.
I should admit, before I start talking about cyberspace fiction, that I once wrote a proto-cyberspace novel myself. It was called Escape Plans ; it vanished utterly. It was an uncompromising treatment, written in a kind of machine code, and unfortunately computers aren't able to make consumer choices… yet. It featured a class of people who were plugged in, and who worshiped not computers but logic operations, function, as their living God. In my version, jacking-in wasn't an élite activity and it wasn't cool. It was slavery for the masses. If you were privileged you didn't have to go in there: you could stay out in the material world and have fun. I could be right, about the real future of cyberspace—though you won't be plugged in to work, because there won't be any, it will be some kind of low resolution happy-juice entertainment to keep you quiet. But I couldn't have been more wrong about the way the fiction was going. Let me give you an example. This is a short extract from a novel called Arachne, by Lisa Mason. It came out in 1990, which means this is a late-Eighties future. As readers of science fiction will know, the sf future is an extrapolation of the writer's present. It deals with society's preoccupations at the exact time of writing. Anyway, the story's set in California, notionally about the midtwenty- first century. This is after the Big One. San Francisco is an island. It's an age of gridlocks that last for months, routine cosmetic body-shaping, independent AIs which are more or less human; lipgloss and powerdressing. Think LA Law with cyberspace. Think Eighties greed-is-good executives injecting whacking quantities of designer-cocaine-analogue into the hole in the back of their necks… Here's Carly Nolan, a ‘slim-limbed genny with customised morphing’. She's a fast-tracker in twenty-firstcentury corporate law, horribly aware that her whole future depends on her ability to make it on the other side of the screen. She's had a bad experience at court, in ‘telespace’. This is her return to planet earth:
…And jacked out into a heap of soiled flesh, sprawled in the chair. Disgust. She'd wet her pants. And pain. The plastic straps had rubbed her wrists raw. She snapped off the straps, ripped the neckjack out of her linkslit.
I was coming out of Sainsbury's and a young man stopped me with one of those clipboards… I'm usually very short with these people, but browsing the supermarket shelves is so soothing. It's like picking berries, isn't it? Instead of standing in front of a counter and begging, like a suppliant at a shrine, you feel as if you've found all this lovely stuff. Anyway, I was feeling benign, so I answered his questions about the product. We came to the end. Are you married? Yes. Children? One, little toddler. Occupation? Writer. Do you work outside the home? Not often. Would you consider yourself to be in full time or part-time employment? Full time, says I, not having much doubt on the subject. The young man doesn't fill in his box. He says: oh. And then, are you sure? I'm sure, I repeat, firmly: and he looks very doubtful. I can tell he's going to chuck that sheet away as a spoiled ballot.
Then again, here's a quote from a recent survey the Writer's Guild did on the position of women writers. It actually comes from an interview in what we call in the UK a ‘quality daily’, with a successful male playwright (who shall be nameless, and serve him right), who is describing how he manages to work at home with a young family around: ‘I am quite capable of walking over a pile of washing on the kitchen floor, and registering mentally that it's there, but feeling no obligation whatsoever to do anything about it.’
I'm not like that, I don't want to be like that. This playwright is a selfish infantile jerk and I despise per. We run an equal opportunities house here, and it kills us both (two careers and a baby, you know the one) but I wouldn't have it any different. Still, I admit I do sometimes fantasise about what life would be like for me as an artist, if I had a nice wife to look after the house and bring up my baby for me. He'd have to be prepared to starve a little.
Female hyenas have high levels of androstenedione (a male hormone) throughout life, which possibly contributes to their aggressive nature. Interestingly, …they behave normally in reproduction and are excellent mothers, showing that the ‘female’ parts of the brain are protected from the androgens that masculinise their aggressive behaviour…
Carey points out that we already have a wonderful genetic marker for violence: ‘It's detectable at birth and in many cases before birth,’ he says, ‘The high-risk genotype is probably about nine-fold more likely to engage in violent acts… for some crimes the ratio is even more dramatic.’ Carey's marker is being male.
Two out of three women around the world presently suffer from the most debilitating disease known to humanity. Common symptoms of this fast-spreading ailment include chronic anaemia, malnutrition, severe fatigue… Premature death is a frequent outcome… the disease is often communicated from mother to child, with markedly higher transmission rates among females. No, this disease is not HIV. It is poverty.
The battle of the sexes heats up and cools down, waves of ‘feminism’ rise and fall: but received wisdom regards human gender as a given: one of the pillars of the universe. Men and women are two sides of the same coin. No matter how they bicker, in the end and by and large they have to accept the complementary nature of their relationship, and get along the same old way… But increasingly this ‘business as usual’ world-view is maintained in the teeth of the evidence. In the course of the last century world-wide creation of wealth has been making insidious attacks, finally far more damaging than anything sexual-politicians can achieve, on the concept of sexual gender. The lowering of the death-rate, high infant survival, improved standards of living, improved quality of life itself, all go to create a situation in which, inexorably, the human male's propensity for violence and the human female's capacity for childbearing, come to be regarded not as natural facts of life but as problems that threaten the prosperity and comfort of human society.
Was it only yesterday that the future was a real place? Earth was the alien planet, off-world exploration stopped short at a few orbital sex shops and high-rolling shopping malls. We were alone in the universe, contemplating otherness in the mirror. The only galaxies to be explored were in inner space, the only theatres of adventure and wild fantasy left to us were in the faux wonderlands of virtual reality. We were talking about the forseeable, we were attempting to prove the possibility of everything we could imagine. Isn't that the way it was? The wheel turns (or the helix twists) and here we are again on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Habitable planets are scattered like daisies for the plucking, aliens come in any shape or form (so long as you can do it with face-makeup); and the most important scientific decision an sf writer has to make is whether to type the letters on the warp-drive button ‘ftl’ or FTL.
It is difficult not to exaggerate when making sweeping statements. I would hesitate to claim that ‘nobody is doing realist extrapolation anymore’. One of the major sf events of the last year, Stan Robinson's Red Mars (though purest fantasy when measured up against the shrinking budget for Freedom, or any other boring, economic measures) seems to be bucking my trend. On the other hand, unreal sf has certainly made a comeback. Space-opera is no longer a joke. Or if it is, it's a very good one. Colin Greenland's splendid Take Back Plenty has replaced the canals on Mars and the swamps of Venus. Colourful adventure on alien planets (with or without actual furry or tentacled aliens) is once more in fashion. Romantic classics like Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, long relegated to the fringes of fantasy, may have to be reassessed. In the Nineties it is again possible, almost necessary, to write important sf about the kind of future that doesn't have a clue how we got there from here.
John Barnes's A Million Open Doors is set in much the same retrofitted golden-age as Sheri Tepper's planet-hopping series (Grass, The Gate into Women's Country ; Raising the Stones ; Sideshow).
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