Saturday, 14 September 2013

Robert A. Heinlein - Double Star (1956)

"Let us protect our own - but let us not be seduced by fear and hatred into foolish acts. The stars will never be won by little minds; we must be big as space itself."

It's not difficult to argue that Robert A. Heinlein was the greatest out of SF's Big Three. Out of him, Asimov and Clarke, only one of them was consistently able to write character and dialogue. He pioneered many of the subgenres and basic ideas of SF, and wrote great stories in the ones he didn't himself help to develop. So why have I read far more Clarke and Asimov than Heinlein? Michael Moorcock nails much of what makes me uncomfortable with the man's work far more eloquently than I ever could here. To illustrate from my experience, last year I read Heinlein's 'Have Spacesuit - Will Travel', one of his classic juveniles. It's a tremendously fun, fast-paced space adventure filled with well-drawn characters, inventive aliens and sound physics. So why didn't I like it? At the end, the Mother-Thing's race kill an entire planet-ful of aliens because they deem them dangerous and aggressive. They then put mankind on trial and decide that humans aren't quite dangerous and aggressive enough to warrant genociding them out of existence. Basically, I find this morally objectionable as well as wildly inconsistent. No one has the right to mete out judgement to other species, or rain down destruction on a less powerful people utterly unable to defend themselves against  you as punishment for aggression. I found the Mother-Thing's people to be smug and hypocritical, yet the narrative and the narrator side with them, and if you have a problem with that, or with the way that the alien aggressors' ugliness is treated as part and parcel of their villainy and why they deserve to be destroyed, Heinlein couldn't care less. Heinlein's strong, uncompromising attitude colours much of his more iconic work - like, say, Starship Troopers, even more so. This is, of course, Heinlein's prerogative and Heinlein's opinion, and I in no way deny his right to it, but it makes much of his work difficult for me to enjoy uncritically.
   So imagine my surprise on finding out that 'Double Star' finds Heinlein defending democracy and equality. (Mea cuplua - it's worth remembering that people you disagree with are as capable of complexity as anyone else). The premise of the novel - a sleazy out-of-work actor his hired to impersonate a politician - could be horrifically cynical, but it actually turns out to be the opposite. True, you have to find a super good reason to justify duping the public, but the book isn't really about that. It's about Lorenzo Smythe's transformation from a xenophobic, selfish and petty man into the genuinely honest, altruistic and thoroughly moral politician Bonforte.
   Many of Heinlein's characters are born special. Kip from 'Have Spacesuit - Will Travel' has his fair share of adversity to overcome in the shape of his poor background and unsympathetic surrounding community, but there's no question about his intelligence and courage, even before he discovers he's a kid genius and saves the world. Lorenzo Smythe is a more engaging protagonist because he has to overcome personal issues as well as situational difficulties. As he studies Bonforte through recordings of his life, speeches and beliefs, he comes to understand where the man's moral centre and convictions come from, and to cast of the shackles of his own prejudices. It is Lorenzo, not the real Bonforte, who makes the speech quoted at the top of the page. Like Bonforte, he comes to realise that in order to reach the stars, humanity is going to have to overcome its petty prejudices, and that it is imperative that humanity not turn the stars into yet another empire run on exploitation and human privilege.
   Heinlein's gift with characterisation and dialogue is in full swing here. The novel is told in first person from Lorenzo's point of view, and his crude, sarcastic and cynical voice is frequently hilarious and ultimately a very canny instrument with which to tell this particular story. His transformation is handled deftly and subtlety as his character changes and he adopts more and more of Bonforte's dignified tone. 'Double Star' is as breezy, fun and engaging as 'Have Spacesuit - Will Travel', but not only do I find its outlook more palatable, it is also an excellent character study.

K. W. Jeter – Infernal Devices (1987)

“I have seen the gears and furious machinery of the world that lies unreckoned beneath our feet. No longer can I note, as other men do, the passing hours upon the heavens’ gilded face, without a vision of a hidden master-spring uncoiling to its final silence. I await the day when all clocks shall stop, including the one that ticks within my breast. Do thou the same, Reader, and profit from my example.”

K. W. Jeter coined the term ‘steampunk’, somewhat in jest, to describe the warped alternate history Victorian feel of the books he, James P. Blaylock and Tim Powers were writing. Although the term has since taken on a life of its own, the books they were writing at the time – specifically ‘Homunculus’ and ‘Lord Kelvin’s Machine’ by Blaylock, ‘The Anubis Gates’ and ‘On Stranger Tides’ by Powers and ‘Morlock Night’ and ‘Infernal Devices’ by Jeter – retain a strange alchemical magic that sets them apart from everything that has come under the label since. Indeed, Jeter, Blaylock and Powers remain difficult to classify by any rubric, and despite being the forefathers of the genre all three of them have written a wide range of stories that cannot be so easily classified under steampunk or any other heading. While those core six books are a lot stranger than most steampunk fare, they also contain many of the key elements of the genre, most prominently the recognisable but noticeably alien Victorian (or thereabouts) London, and steam technology run amuck. Out of all of them, Jeter’s ‘Infernal Devices’ is the most quintessentially steampunk, and the one that pre-empts so much of what would come later. Despite similar ground being well trod since, the original retains much of its charm, and has enough characteristic Jeter weirdness to still surprise and entertain. Much criticism is justifiably thrown at steampunk that it glamourises the Victorian age whilst ignoring all the exploitation, jingoism and racism that fueled the British Empire. However, the original works by Jeter, Power and Blaylock avoid this pitfall due to their focus on poor, down and out and disenfranchised characters and their healthy cynicism towards the upper classes.
   ‘Infernal Devices’ is a rollicking adventure story about George Dower, the very normal son of a genius clockmaker and inventor, who manages to gets swept up in a plot to destroy the world, shenanigans with a clockwork double and petty criminals who can see the future, human-fish hybrids straight out of H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Out Of Innsmouth’, and an attempt to save a dying race of selkies. It’s written in convincing mock-Victorian style. Yet the reason it succeeds so well is because it questions the assumptions of the time it emulates. George Dower, our viewpoint character, maybe a model level-headed and morally upright English citizen, but he is almost Bertie Wooster-ish in his bumbling incompetence. He spends the whole book being manipulated by more savvy characters, and only really figures out what’s going on right at the end. The only lord in the book, Lord Bendray, is a dangerous lunatic bent on destroying the world, while the only other upperclass character is a well-intentioned extremist who spends most of the book trying to kill Dower for the greater good. Dower’s most trustworthy (well, it’s a relative term) companions wind up being a pair of petty criminals. Scape and Miss McThane may be confidence tricksters playing everyone for everything their worth, but they wind up being the most charming characters in the story, and are one of the few people who, for the most part, never wish Dower any harm and team up with him on several occasions. Their modern, slang-heavy speech, learned through hours spent looking into the future, offers a nice counterpoint to Dower’s formal old fashioned style.
   Crucially, ‘Infernal Devices’ doesn't shy away from either depicting the ingrained racism of the time or commenting on it. When the Brown Leather Man – actually the sole remaining selkie in an environmental suit – first pays Dower a visit and so sets the plot in motion, Dower’s butler mistakes him for a person of colour and makes some standardly racist assumptions – that the man is there to rob them, and is drunk – and is immediately deflated by Dower, who for all his daftness knows better than to stereotype people.
   ‘Infernal Devices’ also explores the environmental impact of the industrial age, another thing rarely given consideration in steampunk. The reason for the Brown Leather Man’s villainy is that the entire species of selkies save him have been wiped out because a seaweed harvesting device invented by Dower’s father destroyed their breeding ground. Like the classic scientific romances by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne it emulates – the final chapter is even titled ‘Mr. Dower Sees It Through’ in a blatant shout out and an echo of the same device in ‘Morlock Night’ – ‘Infernal Devices’ warns against science unchecked by morality. Dower senior is the very figure of scientific progress regardless of the cost – the doomsday device he built Lord Bendray actually works because the man was too arrogant to pass off a non-functioning piece of work even when scamming a delusional lord. It is this hubris that allows everything else in the plot, all the other characters’ various schemes, to take place. The old man’s folly is only prevented from destroying the world at the price of his son’s innocence. 

Sunday, 1 September 2013

David Gerrold - The Man Who Folded Himself (1972)

"I went back and talked myself out of eliminating Jesus Christ."

Not as cool as the original cover.
   Since H. G. Wells' 'The Time Machine', time travel has been an essential part of SF, but it's rarely thought through to any great extent, not even by TV shows that have time travel as part of the central conceit. Frequently little more than lip service is given to the mechanics of the process, the paradoxes that can result from it or the practical applications that it provides to those using it. I like to point to 'Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure' as a good example of time travel used well, as not only is the time travel in that film internally consistent, the heroes, for all their apparent idiocy, realise that because they can travel through time, there's no reason why they shouldn't make life easier for themselves by coming back later and leaving useful items in convenient places. Leaving aside the blatant missed opportunities, Michael Bishop points out in 'No Enemy But Time' that the problem with travelling back in time, say, to the Pleistocene era to make out with some hot Homo habilis, (read the book, this is exactly what happens), is not just the temporal difference - the Earth, Solar System and Milky Way itself have been moving for all those millions of years, winding up in a completely different relative position. 'The Man Who Folded Himself' by David Gerrold is one of the fullest, most complete explorations of time travel and its implications the genre has ever produced.
   In 'The Man Who Folded Himself', Daniel Eakins is left a belt and a document by his recently departed Uncle Jim. The document purports to be from an alternate version of himself, who received this belt in turn when his Uncle Jim died. The belt is a timebelt which allows him to travel to any set point in the past or future. Daniel proceeds to use this new found ability to cheat at the horse races to make money, see great historical events, and interact with past and future versions of himself, including having sex with both male and female versions of himself. In short, all the things you would probably do if you discovered you could travel through time.
Would that this belt were a timebelt!
   The time travel in 'The Man Who Folded Himself' is thought out to the last detail. Daniel sensibly does some experiments to determine how it works, to find out if he can change the past or not. He likens time travel to painting, and changing the past to going back and painting over a previous mistake - the artist knows the original mistake is there but just covered up, but no one else does. Ultimately he realises that each time he travels through time he is jumping to an alternate universe. This allows him to change events in this universe without affecting his origin in a different universe - he can go back in time and kill his great grandfather, but his great grandfather still existed in the universe that spawned him. It also provides a sensible rational for why someone would invent such a potentially dangerous device - all the malcontents who would wish to rewrite time to their advantage can cheerfully go and do so in some alternate universe, preserving the original. Daniel can always go back in time and stop himself from making some change by appearing to his past self before he makes the change and talking himself out of it. This transports both versions into new variant universes, and so means he can make changes like this without the fear of erasing this variant of himself from history.
   David Gerrold is probably most well known to SF fandom for writing one of the most iconic episodes of the original Star Trek, 'The Trouble With Tribbles'. After reading 'The Man Who Folded Himself', I think the most quintessentially Gerrold-ish part of the episode is where, after the fight breaks out between the crew of the Enterprise and the Klingons on Space Station K-7, Kirk interrogates his crew to find out what happened. What could be unspeakably tedious as we hear described exactly what we just witnessed instead becomes a deft piece of comedy as Kirk ekes out the truth from Scotty that the fight broke out not because the Klingons insulted Kirk but because they insulted his precious Enterprise. Gerrold here gets similar comic mileage through describing events from different perspectives, as Daniel interacts with his past and future selves, but at the same time he uses it to make serious points about the nature of perspective and the difficulty of communication between people. Even between different versions of himself, there is a gap between the intention and how it is received, as he finds different versions of himself naive or cocky.
   As well as being about time travel, 'The Man Who Folded Himself' is about individual people and what it means to be one. Daniel welcomes the opportunity to interact with another version of himself because he finds the strains of interacting with other people exhausting. I think we can all relate to this on some level. When he is with another version of himself, Daniel no longer has to worry about impressing the other person whether or not they like him, if what he says or does will be misinterpreted. However as the different versions of Daniel diverge and undergo different experiences, even though they started out as the same person they become different people. In effect, it's the things we experience and the things we do that make us who we are. Change this and you change the person. In this way, 'The Man Who Folded Himself' is a tribute to the almost infinite potential within each person.
   The book also explores just how complicated human sexuality is. 'The Man Who Folded Himself' was notable for its frank depiction of both homosexual and heterosexual sex, something the genre still to this day is not exactly well known for. It is not accurate to define Daniel as either purely straight or purely gay. As the different time-variants of Daniel branch out, some of them find happiness in relationships with other Daniels while some of them are ashamed by their attraction to other versions of themselves. The version of Daniel we follow through the main narrative finds sexual satisfaction both with the male Daniels and with a female time variant of himself, with whom he has a child.
   This child ultimately grows up to become Daniel, while Daniel himself becomes his own Uncle Jim, leaving the timebelt to himself as his own inheritance. Thus the circle is completed, Daniel's life is like the worm Ouroboros eating its own tale, with no beginning and no end.