I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK. I recommend it in particular to those who are suffering from influenza or who have a high temperature. During such feverish interludes, normal thought processes take a bracing vacation, much like cart-horses freed from their carts. The liberated quadrupeds canter about the heath, taking a bite from whatever plant they come across, without indulging in further reflection upon the inertial problems of pulling carts.
Indeed, if you accosted one of the beasts in mid-canter, and accidentally mentioned carts, they would probably rear up in startlement, asking, “Cart? What cart?”
This is what we mean by delirium.
My impression is that if one asked Robert Sheckley about reality, he would most likely rear up like a startled cart-horse and ask, “Reality? What reality?”
It has been his endeavour in this book to get as far from reality as it is possible to go without emerging through a complete circle and entering ones own private ward. As far as one can see, Sheckley is the major exponent of the Extremely Unlikely. He has pursued to the polar limit Philip K. Dick’s dictum that science fiction should be about, not “What if…?”, but “My God, what if…?’, three dots and all.
Whereas most writers of this kind of futuristic fairy tale will go to great lengths, by deploying ordinary language, and by methods of realism adapted from the mundane or everyday novel, to reassure us that their feet are on the ground, even if their heads are in galactic space, Sheckley’s heart is with the Unbelievable. His main target is the Incredible. With one swing of his computer he hacks through the string which suspends our disbelief. It would crash down, were it not for the fact that there is no gravity in Sheckley’s space. Mindswap is the Realm of the Absurd. Or, in Mindswap’s own parlance, Beyond the Humoristic Philologicality Threshold. It’s what he does.
Robert Sheckley came to prominence in the 1950’s. His hay day was possibly in the 1960’s where he was one of the stars of “Galaxy Science Fiction”, together with other satirists of similar ilk, the expert exponents of the “wacky”, such as Cyril Kornbluth, Damon Knight and the brilliant William Tenn. Sheckley’s impossible plots, his leaky spaceships, were then one of the delights to which one turned first.
However, it is noticeable that these satirists were most successful in short takes. Their novels are few and far between and lack the bite of their shorter material. This reservation applies in particular to Sheckley, whose ‘novels’ are generally episodic, much as if a few short stories have been tacked together.
While this also applies to Mindswap, the premise of the story almost demands episodic treatment, thus evading to some extent criticism of what can be seen as a weakness. The story-premise is that mind can be separated from body, and therefore exchanged, to fit into other bodies: not only other human bodies but bodies of the weird life forms with which Sheckley’s paper galaxies are habitually populated.
The explanation of this non-scientific achievement is given to a chatty encyclopaedia, which has this to say:
“So let’s just consider Mind as a sorta electroform or maybe even a subelectroform entity. You pro’lly remember from our previous talk that Mind is thought to have begun as a projection of our bodily processes, and to have evolved into a quasi-independent entity. You know what that means, fellas. It means it’s like you got a little Man in your head – but not quite. Isn’t that quazi?”
We are talking impossibilities here. And impossibilities are often delivered in some form of weird vernacular, such as the semi-gadzookery we confront in Chapter 24: “Me likes not the sound oft; for braggarts steel is ever pliable tin, shiny to the eye yet damnably maleable to the touch.”
Fractured idiolects suit the dreadful run-down planets to which the central character, Marvin Flynn, is driven, after renting – or trying to rent – the body of a Martian called Ze Kraggash. When his mind gets to Mars, it is only to find his designated body has already been rented to Aigeler Thrus, a being from Achelses V. From then on, Flynn is driven by circumstance, and forced to search for ganzer eggs. Flynn is a figment to whom events happen, like many another Sheckley ‘hero’. Even the ganzer eggs are against him.
Fortunately, the events are amusing, and from them many aphorisms fly. “It is strange how the human mind is forever unwilling to accept the unacceptable”; of a prostitute, “Those who sell pleasure must portray enjoyment”; “When you accept help, you must be prepared to take what one is capable of giving, not what you would like to receive”, and so forth.
We meet the strange prince who was unpopular. “Nor did he win favour among the burgers of Gint-Loseine, whose proud city he ordered buried under twenty feet of earth, “as a gift to future archaeologists.” The story is packed with cod histories and strange personages who often propound strange theories, the most intriguing of which is possibly the Theory of Searches. This is explained and acted upon by Valdez when Flynn falls in love with Cathy. The conversation takes on an Alice in Wonderland complexion.
“Marvin searches for Cathy”. That seems fairly to describe our situation, does it not?”
“I think it does.”
“Well then, what does the statement imply?”
“It implies – it implies that I search for Cathy.”
Valdez shook his nut-brown head in annoyance. “Look deeper, my impatient young friend! Identity is not inference! The statement expresses the activity of your quest, and therefore implies the passivity of Cathy’s state-of-being-lost. But this cannot be true. Her passivity is unacceptable, since ultimately one searches for oneself, and no one is exempt from that search. We must accept Cathy’s search for you (herself), just as we accept your search for her (yourself). Thus we achieve our primary permutation: “Marvin searches for Cathy who searches for Marvin….
“I never thought of that,” Marvin said….
“Now, to ensure our success, we must decide upon the optimum form of Search. Obviously, if both of you are actively questing, your chances of finding each other are considerably lessened… The mathematics are a little intricate, so you will just have to take my word for it… Therefore, you must fight down your instincts and wait, thereby allowing her to find you.”
And indeed, after this sophistry, many people do find Flynn, including his Uncle Max and his Mother.
Thus, the Confusion Principle of Alternative Logic brings us to a conclusion. It is only just and right that this conclusion should rest upon misapplication miscegenating with paradox, so that Marvin Flynn is at once unutterably lost and perfectly at home. We are always pleased when endings fell us with a fairy master-stoke of genius.
Mindswap remains the most satisfying (and highest) of Sheckley’s tall stories. Although it hardly qualifies for the label of novel, it has about it a charm of innocent mischief which takes us a long way into that inaccessible land claimed by the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Lewis Carroll.
Soft as Steel
the Art of Julie Bell
SOME WHILE AGO, I WAS LUNCHING IN A LEBANESE RESTAURANT IN OXFORD, ENGLAND, where writers meet. I fell into conversation with a young woman sitting across the table from me. We were talking about our interest in Pluto, the remotest planet of the solar system, and its large moon, Charon. The lady was so pretty that it took me a while to realise she was also clever, witty, well-educated – and skilled in the European game of flirtation.
Appearances count for much. They may not be of primary importance (or then again they may be) but they remain the first elements of anything or anyone which meets the eye. Long before we smell, hear, touch, kiss, a woman, we see her. The interior computer has immediately started on its complex calculations.
A memory of that Lebanese lunch returned as I gazed at the feast Julie Bell sets before us. Her paintings are often fearsome and generally highly attractive. Mainly they have a strength beyond mere prettiness. They exist in regions beyond our ken, regions inhabited by giant snakes, immense suns, mountains, violent winds, lowering planets, arrogant banners. They delight with frank sensuousness in the human body – human or near-human. These are the sort of active anatomies
Michelangelo would have painted it he had not been such a wimp!
We’re plunged into a world of action. Would an ordinary human spine survive such poses? How many of these half-naked heroes have feet that never touch the ground? Man, this is the cubic root of vitality! Julie presents a pure world of violence, of threat and triumph – of swords, sexual symbols, butts, and breasts. Near-naked the women may be but, as Julie says, they may be exposed but they are totally untouchable. They emerge from somewhere amid the burning permafrosts of her mind and brush. They burst out upon us. Certainly they are no stay-at-homes.
These slay-at-homes are the vital ladies Julie admires. Many of them resemble her. And why not! Julie, on her own admission, has recreated herself: so why not recreate her image on canvas – that vibrant body, that sensitive face? So she comes clad as Lilandra, in gleaming body armour, or as a near-naked lady bearing a banner with a strange device, or with streaming dark hair she calls a robotic bird to her presence. As she says, she thinks in sensual terms. I have been particularly struck by an earlier portrait Julie painted of one of her sisters posing as a centaur. From the great carcass of the horse wells a luscious female body with ripe breasts. Above the body is perched a visionary head – a beautiful long-haired woman looks upwards into the distance, tenderly and intelligently.
To my prejudiced mind, this painting ranks with some of the works of the great symbolist and decadent painters of last century:
Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Franz von Stuck, and especially the Belgian master, Fernand Khnopff, who also liked to paint his sister. Julie’s female centaur seems to rejoice in her own beauty and freedom, in silence.
But Julie works in a commercial field where action is the order of the day. Her personages throw themselves from the page at life. Monsters may attack them – they are beyond harm. Some come armed to the teeth, some leap from explosions, some use great wings, while others dance above lakes of tomato-pure-and gold. Many tote amazing armour, amazing hairdos. The thongs between their thighs vibrate with their energy. Some indeed have liquid metal (one of Julie’s trademarks) instead of flesh. What flows in their veins is some superfluid, maybe argon 38. They are transformed.
And here we have something of the story of Julie herself. She and I knew each other only slightly, in days when we were both different people. She was then beautiful and energetic, immensely friendly, and getting into body-building. But there was a nervous quality about her which puzzled some of her friends. Then she met and married the celebrated fantasy artist, Boris Vallejo. She transformed herself.
It seems, for what she has said, that she suffered from diffidence. However that may be, she was inspired by Boris to work hard and master the techniques which dazzle us in Soft as Steel. Unusually, she is very frank and clear about the way she works. It’s a wonderful life-story. It’s a life-story which holds captive two seeming opposites; body-building and oil paints.
We all thrive on opposites. Seems that those great opposites, fantasy and reality, are two of Julie Bell’s chief talents! Anyone gazing at these paintings can enjoy those talents in vivid display – and feel their batteries recharged.
Carbon Based Bipeds
THE SUN NO LONGER REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH. The Earth revolves round Arthur C. Clarke. Or at least such, one suspects, is the thought in the great man’s mind, as the reader travels though this immense bureau of essays, articles, bulletins, addresses, and self-puffs – stopping on the way to gaze at those photographs of Clarke ignoring famous guests standing by his side to grin into the camera as if at his own reflection.
So I don’t like the book? No, no, on the contrary I think it is fabulously entertaining and amusing. I merely state a minor flaw before hurrying on to praise its brilliance.
Clarke’s cleverness, in which both we and he rejoice, comes in small things as well as large. For instance in describing nations as “transient tribal groupings”. Or in speaking of developing communications, the inexhaustible future, the death of capitalism, or God. All these things discussed in Clarke’s easy colloquial manner.
This omnium-gatherum has a sort of subtitle or explanation, A vision of the 20th century as it happened. This is in part true, although it also, slyly, constitutes A Life of Arthur C. Clarke. But a reader does receive an impression of the extraordinary developments we have lived through – not least in the increased ease of travel and talk, and the sound of new voices, new aspirations. Among the brilliance certain homely but profound truths confront us, as for instance on IT: “It is vital to remember that information – in the sense of raw data – is not knowledge; that knowledge is not wisdom; and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these”.
It is now not “Will we reach the stars?”, but “When will we reach the stars?”
Behind such questions lies Clarke’s rather sunny belief in the powers of science fiction to encourage bold thinking – the thinking Britain seems to lack at present. He points out, for instance, that for the cost of one dollar per person per year, engineering alone could bring immeasurable benefits in hearth and happiness to all. Not just in Africa and India, either. Certainly engineering could lift the whole vast area of Central Asia from its present frugal-style existence. But it would have to be the right kind of engineering – and that is a political question, as the draining of the Aral Sea has demonstrated. Clarke’s text encourages such speculations.
Not all is theoretical. When Clarke speaks of poverty, he knows it, lives among it in Sri Lanka. There is authority behind his perception that “illiteracy, ignorance, and superstition are not merely the results of poverty; they are part of its cause
The theoretical is at its most enjoyable in a brief piece on “God and Einstein. Granted that the velocity of light is the speed limit, strictly enforced, of our material universe. How does God travel? Hell might be breaking out ten light years away; news of it would take ten years to reach Him. It would then take another ten for Him to rush to the spot. But if God is already everywhere, then this means that his thoughts and influence travel at infinite velocities; so the Einstein speed limit is not unbreakable…
It is the sort of mind-stretching fun argument Clarke enjoys. He might care to consider another possibility: that what we term the Universe is in fact God’s Brain. We are all figments of this terrible organ, with its insane contradictions, its bizarre thoughts.
Science, Genetics & Popular Culture
AS I WAS READING THIS VOLUME, news that the giant US pharmaceutical company, Monsanto, was going on an oxymoronic “charm offensive” to convince its customers of the goodness of its genetically modified foods. Since it has fifty million acres of the new crops, a charm offensive is probably advisable.
Should we be alarmed? Should we be delighted? Or is there a third course, with better ways to articulate natural fears and hopes?
One suggestion seems to be that, since molecular biology is here to stay, we should reconceptualise our attitudes to life – which in one sense is a matter of information.
Reconceptualising means re-educating, and is no easy process. Collaboration is required: a home match between scientists on one team and consumers on the other, with – it seems, journalists and science fiction writers as unreliable referees.
Or such is the message I glean from Jon Turneys interesting but ultimately rather tiring book. His conscientious researches demonstrate how a few images on the subject of bioengineering have acquired a life of their own and still tend to dominate discussions of developments. This mythic life originates, first and foremost, from Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein Or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818. In her introduction to the 1831 edition, Mary Shelley declares that she wished to devise a story that “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature. She was remarkably successful.
The birth of Louise Brown, child of in vitro fertilisation, in 1978, and more recently the cloning of Dolly the sheep, roused up those mysterious fears all over again.
What Turney calls the cultural cacophony of the last years of the twentieth century sees a diffuse public debate about what research is desirable – a debate conducted in the media (and in such films as Jurassic Park) as well as the sober chambers of legislative assemblies. Turney’s argument is that popular media are as important as official deliberations.
Of course, scaremongering has a long association with science. However beneficial the advance may prove, fears attend its birth. Edward Jenner’s seminal discovery of a vaccination against the small pox provoked a caricature from James Gillray in 1802, in which everyone inoculated with the new antidote bursts forth with miniature cows, from nose and throat and buttocks.
The seminal point about Frankenstein is that Victor Frankenstein abandons old alchemical procedures, which are useless, and deliberately turns to science to create life. Neither religion nor superstition is involved. He is the primal scientist, before the noun was invented. This is what makes Frankenstein the first real science fiction novel.
It is true that things go wrong. Things are always going wrong in novels. But nowadays both Victor and his creature would be counselled for post-operational stress, rehabilitated, given one-parent family support, and live together happily in Wandsworth. Society has become more complex than it was almost two centuries ago. As Turney says, “Every new discovery of a vitamin, hormone or gene made the [living] organism seem more complicated, more delicately balanced, more difficult to describe as the product of any single organising principle”.
Yet the paradigms of this fiction, and of Wells’s Island of Doctor Moreau, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and other science fictions, still linger. Turney sifts through the story of how these images are resurrected with each new advance in biological and genetic science. They prove an impediment to rational discussion.
Particularly creepy is the case of nuclear radiation. It was undetectable by unaided human senses, yet could increase risks of cancer even in future generations yet unborn. As Turney says, science fiction magazines overflowed with stories about such perils. Sometimes nuclear warfare ended civilization; but after The End, new and better civilizations might arise.
Many half-forgotten crises and triumphs appear in Turney’s pages. Haldane’s brilliant little book, Daedalus, for instance. Julian Huxley’s story, The Tissue Culture King, published in Amazing Stories. Christian Barnard’s first heart transplant operation. And Grey Walter’s ‘thinking tortoises’, which wandered about and sought food (electric current) when hungry.
The truth is that nebulous fears of progress accumulate round biological advances. A nightmare world is our proud inheritance. So debates are not always reasonable, for or against. Nor are they conclusive. “Civilization” is a creature with – we hope – unstoppable momentum. Despite all reservations, Monsanto’s fifty million acres continue to yield their mutated crops.
My Sort of Fairy Tale
Mara & Dan
DORIS LESSING’S NEW NOVEL TELLS, she informs us in a prefatory note, ‘the oldest story in Europe’. This is the story of brother and sister who, as orphans, endure a hundred hardships, only to survive to a happy ending and be revealed as princess and prince.
With her usual cunning, Lessing sets her story in Africa, within three time zones. The story itself is ancient; the dreadful drought which afflicts the two orphans is of the present, or almost – a drought such as Lessing herself witnessed – while the scene is set thousands of years in the future, when Africa has become Ifrik, the known world. There comes a point where the time-serpent swallows its own tale and the future becomes much like the past. As here. The footprints in one lot of dust resemble the footsteps in another.
Mara is a good sister. Throughout the long trudge of the narrative, her chief characteristic is her care for her younger brother, Dann, whether as child or adult. Dann is more unsettled, more traumatised by his early abandonment. He becomes a general; he gambles away his sister, who is then claimed by a brothel-owner; he suggests that he and Mara sleep together, and reforms only just in time for the long-promised happy ending. Mara is tolerant and forgiving – always slightly vexing in a fictional character.
When she marries, to escape whoredom, the marriage remains unconsummated. Nevertheless, there is much discussion of sex in the central section of the book, ‘the middle parts of fortune’, as it were. There is also much talk of pregnancy, of amenorrhoea, and of babies dying. One becomes imprisoned in the book, its sorrowing tone is hard to bear. In Rock Village, where the story opens, everyone is dying of thirst. Mara and Dann have a bad time of it, with starvation and drought and heat enclosing them. Desperate are their many journeys. Some journeys entail decrepit and ingenious forms of transport, relics of a better organised world. Dust almost chokes a reader’s throat.
People die slowly, including Daima, protector of Mara and Dann. The Mahondi tribe, to which the young couple belong, are failing to reproduce.
Late in the book, they discover they are of royal blood. An effete ‘cultivated’ couple explain that Mara and Dann are ‘really’ Princess Shahana and Prince Shahmand. Their true names bring no revelation. They have become their assumed names, Mara and Dann. Moreover, they are expected to mate with each other to continue the royal line. They reject the idea of royalty, and flee to claim happiness with their true loves. Thus the outlines of the old story are fulfilled.
Lessing also fulfils the formulaic nature of stories set in the distant future, long paragraphs being one of them. Which is to say that we solve the mystery of what sort of nemesis has visited our civilisation – our ‘Yerrup’- and learn some hard lessons thereby.
The pair visit an old museum where elements of the past are preserved, much as in the Palace of Green Porcelain in H G Wells’s The Time Machine. ‘These were not rooms, but halls, of machines once used for travelling between the stars.’ (Where Wells has ‘huge bulks of big machines’.) So what brought Ifrik to its present state?
There is mention of an asteroid strike in the Mediterranean. This is not stressed; our present has become a fairy tale, buried ‘thousands of years’ – the running joke – under the calamitous past.
The Ice Age returned. ‘Yerrup’ was buried under ice once more. Our civilisation grew and flourished within a 15,000 year interregnum between ice ages. But now the ice is again in retreat. The drought, too, is almost over; everything is transient.
Ultimately, the novel carries a Biblical message: ‘Vanity of vanities, said the preacher. All is vanity.’ Transience rules all. Of course, everyone in their seventies or older chews on this bitter herb. This must be a book for the young.
One assumes that books about the future must be designed for the young, and for the improvement of their perspectives. Why else write about periods of time long past the deadline of our deaths?
Is a book about the future necessarily classifiable as science fiction? Lessing has a well-known habit of slipping into future time as, proverbially, one slips clothes-wise into ‘something more comfortable’. This she did in her final Martha Quest novel, The Four-Gated City, in 1969. Her Canopus in Argos: Archives 1979-1983, so challenging to the higher criticism, won her many new friends; indeed, she almost single-handedly made science fiction respectable.
We may suspect her of SF here. However, it becomes difficult to see Mara and Dann as falling within this category, particularly if one compares it with Salman Rushdie’s new novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet. From Grimus, his first novel, onwards, Rushdie has been a SF writer manque – or rather, s’acquitte. Only by having the cold compress of ‘magic realist’ applied has he escaped the inferior label.
In the ludic nature of Rushdie’s novel, where President Kennedy lives because Oswald’s gun jammed, where Britain is fighting in Vietnam, and where the living can communicate with the dead, we see the true impulse of science fiction, to cross many bridges before the chick is half-way hatched. In a sense, we arrive at Lessing’s novel already knowing its profound truths, whereas Rushdie takes up the Pontius Pilate position: What is truth? – and does not hang around for the answer.
Lessing’s novel has the quality of a fairy tale. Her orphaned pair, having parted at one stage, are together again. Dann says, ‘There were people once – they knew everything. They knew about the stars. They knew… they could talk to each other through the air, miles away… His mood was changing: he seemed to be wanting to laugh, but properly, then giggle… ‘
For Dann, our present is not worth taking seriously. It’s over. For the story-teller, it is different. Lessing knows we live in the midst of catastrophe, and can but take it seriously; Rushdie, himself the epicentre of a personal catastrophe, is inclined to laugh it off.
What the ‘true’ philosophical position is remains unclear. We must be grateful that, in our transitory world, we have two such excellent fabulists to entertain and instruct us. Whether SF or not.