SF in All Its Glory – A Review of “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction”

My first introduction to SF was Flash Gordon – an old black and white movie my parents took me to, in our tacky local theatre. I think I was five at the time.

It was not a grand success. As soon as those aliens started attacking Flash, I started bawling. I continued this throughout the movie until they were forced to take me home.

But when I met Flash again, in Indrajal Comics, I started liking him despite ‘Mandrake the Magician’ and ‘The Phantom’ being more popular titles in the franchise. Apart from the superhero Flash, I loved the spaceships, the outlandish landscapes, the weird aliens, the obsessive Zarkov, the beautiful Dale Arden – even Ming the Merciless. This was a totally new experience: imagination need not have a boundary.

I was in love with Science Fiction.

———————————

Now I understand that Flash Gordon was nothing but ‘Space Opera’: somewhat looked down on as not sufficiently intellectual by serious purveyors of the form. But it pulled me into the magic of this genre, as it must have thousands of other youngsters.

I learnt that SF can be serious too, however, when I came across Isaac Asimov in my late teens. For a bookish, socially awkward youngster (I don’t know whether the term ‘nerd’ had been coined then) this was the perfect escape – stories written with the precision of science, very less of character conflicts, romance, sentiment and other time-wasting side avenues: there was a problem, there was a solution. Period.

Well, gradually my reading universe expanded, and I found out that the genre contained writers of much greater skill than Dr. Asimov (but I’d still give him top marks for sheer imagination) and it was much more than robots and space exploration. Instead of a genre, SF was a whole new way of forging literature, of tackling philosophical and existential questions, of analysing the impact of science on the human condition… above all, it was exhilarating. It was escapist, yes, but the escape was to a more sharply defined reality.

———————————

The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction examines science fiction under three aspects. The first section examines the history, from its genesis as stories of wonder, through the ‘pulp era’ of American magazine SF, through the intellectual ‘New Wave’ when the boundaries between SF and Fantasy were blurred, on to the current ‘postmodern era’. The second section examines the genre through various critical approaches: Marxist theory, feminist theory, postmodernism and queer theory. The last section examines the various tropes of SF: its icons such as space ships, robots etc; various sub-genres such as space opera, alternate history, utopias, dystopias etc; and how politics, gender, race, religion etc, are handled in SF. Each section contains various chapters, written by well-known authors and critics, and presents a fairly comprehensive view.

The History

The origins of SF can be traced back to the fantastic voyages such as Gulliver’s Travels and dream journeys, where the authors tried to break the shackles of the requirements of realism. However, it was arguably Mary Shelley who wrote the first novel which could be really termed science fiction: Frankenstein is the tale of the quintessential mad scientist, tempting fate by trying to create life and playing God, and quite predictably coming to a sticky end. Edgar Allan Poe also used the tropes of science to expand the horizon of his fantastic stories. And most readers know Jules Verne, the purveyor of extraordinary voyages and H. G. Wells, whose stories are also social statements.

But it was the availability of cheap paper made from wood pulp, which made the publishing of magazines very cheap in the USA, that really contributed to the rapid growth of this genre. The so-called ‘pulp magazines’ gave birth to and nurtured many of the latter day greats like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Hugo Gernsback, whose magazine Amazing Stories was founded in 1926, was the pioneer in the sense that it restricted itself to publishing only SF; the flame was carried forward by the iconic editor John W. Campbell in Astounding Stories, who mentored most of the American greats.

Later on, SF moved away from the blood-and-thunder stories and adventure yarns of yore into more thoughtful fiction, with literary quality and speculative exploration given more importance than action, the so-called ‘new wave’. Currently it has reached the level of meta-fiction and ‘cyberpunk’ (where the action is mostly within virtual realities).

The section also examines film and television, with such iconic shows as ‘Star Trek’, and the still-continuing saga of ‘Star Wars’.

Critical Approaches

This section was a first for me. I never knew one could analyse so much within this genre which – well – most of us consider primarily entertainment. But consider this: from a Marxist viewpoint, isn’t each society imagined in SF conducive to a political analysis? For example, Wells’s The Time Machine is clearly a criticism of bourgeoisie society taken to its logical extreme: same way, his The War of the Worlds is an indirect criticism of British imperialism. However, on the whole, SF believes in a technology-driven society which provides a just society where everybody can thrive – in that it mostly follows the American ideal of free market capitalism. But of late, social criticism has become one of its significant aspects.

SF initially had women only for the aliens to kidnap and be rescued by the swashbuckling hero. But slowly, writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ (to mention two of the prominent authors) brought a distinctive feminine outlook to the field; and now, more and more novels and stories which can be interpreted from a feminist viewpoint are emerging.

This section also analyses postmodernism, where SF moves away from scientific exploration into societal exploration in the current turbulent world – moving beyond the boundaries of the genre itself: and queer theory, where SF’s obsession with the ‘other’ (as different from the normal) is analysed to examine the changing attitudes of society towards ‘deviant’ sexual practices. (I must confess that this section went a bit over my head!)

Sub-genres and Themes

This was the section I enjoyed most, as various critics and writers examine the beloved icons and themes of SF. There are rockets, robots and aliens as brave and pioneering adventurers venture outward; there equally exciting challenges within human biology, mutation and evolution, and the mind-boggling possibilities of genetic engineering as the hardy scientists labour here on earth. There is the ever-present threat of environmental destruction and the tantalising promise of terraforming a hostile planet. There is ‘hard’ science fiction where the problems of science are explored in a future setting and ‘soft’ science fiction where the science is minimal and the human aspect is all-important.

There is the “Space Opera” with intrepid heroes chasing diabolical villains across vast swathes of space: there are alternate histories where authors toy with the idea of what might have been – say – had Hitler won the war, and other such interesting speculations. Here we have the utopias where everything is hunky-dory for humanity, and the dystopias (infinitely more popular!) like 1984 where daily life is a nightmare.

This section also examines how politics, gender, race and religion are treated in SF, with iconic examples like Ursula K. LeGuin’s totally anarchic society of Anarres (The Dispossessed), her planet containing sexless beings who become male or female during breeding season (The Left Hand of Darkness), Orson Scott Card’s strange race of the ‘piggies’ in Speaker for the Dead etc. There are many more, and for an aficionado like me, it was pure pleasure to read the erudite analyses of so many old favourites.

———————————

In short: for an SF fan, this is a book which cannot be missed.

A Review of “The Martian” by Andy Weir

The art of engineering is finding solutions.

Engineering is applied science. The scientist will find out that a high enough force applied over a small area will provide tremendous pressure: the engineer will use the knowledge to fashion the sword. The scientist will discover that magnetic fields, when cut by cables, will produce electricity: the engineer will design the generator with this information. The scientist will posit e=mc2: the engineer… (Well, you get the drift. No need to go into that.)

Mark Watney is an astronaut, a botanist and an engineer – but primarily an engineer, as evinced by his sheer glee of fiddling with machinery and recording his antics faithfully in a laconic fashion, even when faced with the prospect of a lonely death on Mars. The Martian is Mark’s valiant tale of survival in an inhospitable terrain beyond imagination. I would have called it Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but old Rob had nothing as challenging Mark had in odds against survival – so calling Mark Crusoe would, I feel, be sort of demeaning.

mars-curiosity-rover-msl-horizon-sky-self-portrait-pia19808-full
Watney is part of the Mars mission Ares 3, and is left for dead when the crew does an emergency evacuation in the face of a sudden deadly dust storm. The good news is that he does not die – the bad news is that he is the only person in the universe who is aware of it.
Actually, this is the backstory. The novel properly begins with Mark alone on the red planet, opening his log with the following passage:

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Of course, being the engineer he is, Mark is not willing to let go of life without giving it a shot at staying alive. What follows is his attempt to do so, and makes up pretty much the lion’s share of the story.

—————————————-

From an engineer’s point of view, the novel is terrifically exciting – as Mark ponders each problem threatening his continued existence and works out solutions to each one of them. I was pulled into the tale, and literally devoured each technical tidbit, rooting for Mark as I did so. But I think someone with a non-technical background might get lost unless they skip all the details and take it on faith that whatever the protagonist did was within the realms of possibility. With my Chemical Engineering background, I can assure you that almost all the engineering described in this book is not even stretching the imagination – most of it is business as usual (I especially loved the making of water inside the hab).

Suspense is maintained throughout by making the survival neither too difficult nor too easy – and the helplessness of NASA, even after spotting their man on Mars, to do anything urgent due to the sheer distances involved. Andy Weir has put in a lot of effort to make his world believable.

And therein lies the novel’s major weakness – it’s all Mark Watney and Mars. The other characters, even though tantalizingly sketched, are never fully fleshed out. We don’t know what makes them tick. Commander Lewis, Martinez, Vogel, Beck , Johanssen, Venkat Kapoor, Mitch, Bruce Ng – we feel that these characters have a life, but that Weir was not much interested in showing it to us.

Oh well – maybe it’s too much to expect characterisation in SF.

martian-gallery3-gallery-image

A Review of “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” by Kate Wilhelm

(Warning: The review below contains what some may consider to be spoilers. But on the whole, I do not think that reading this review will spoil the enjoyment of the book for you.)
tumblr_n1xkfkAZ2C1sndzdgo1_1280
Science fiction stories usually concern the impact of the progress of science on human beings. When the science part dominates, it is called “Hard SF”: when the human part dominates, it is “Soft SF”. However, this is not a rigid categorisation as most Hard SF stories (for example, Asimov’s Foundation series) contain some sociology, and most Soft SF cannot exist without some science. The most fascinating Soft SF stories deal with a society unalterably modified by science, and how human beings come to term with it.

Did I just say “human beings”? Well, as far as Kate Wilhelm’s Hugo and Locus award-winning novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is concerned, you can add the word “almost” – since most of the characters in this story are clones.

***

The novel is a dystopia: one that many science fiction writers seem to love – the whole world having gone to hell on a handcart. Wars, pollution and pestilence of Biblical proportions are slowly wiping out life on earth. To compound the problem, human beings and animals are becoming increasingly sterile. It seems that the world is doomed to extinction.

The filthy rich Sumner family, up in their farm on the Shenandoah Valley, have read the signs early and have found a solution. They will preserve an island of stability and sanity in a world gone volatile and mad in their mountain citadel – and led by the gifted Dr. Walt, Harry Vlasic and David Sumner, they develop the ultimate answer to sterility – cloning.

So far, so good. Only, they discover too late that clones are not humans in the true sense of the word. Much more single-minded and efficient than their originals, and sharing an extra-sensory empathy with one another, they soon take over… and the world seems ready for a new species. A society where individuality is unknown and any deviation from the group is frowned upon; where sex is a group activity and the production of children, other than the cloned ones, is by harvesting a handful of fertile women as “breeders”. It is the end of humankind as we know it.

DNA_Double_Helix

Or is it?

On a field trip to gather information and building materials (a perilous one that a few hardy individuals periodically make – it is literally a matter of life and death for any clone to be separated from the group for too long), Molly, the artist, is touched and permanently changed by nature. She can’t go back to the group existence any more: she has rediscovered humanity. Her art becomes steadily less utilitarian and more idiosyncratic, and she begins questioning group values. Of course, this striving for individuality is major deviant behaviour among the clones, so they isolate her in the old house, with its hoard of books. Unknown to them, she is carrying something else – the son of the doctor Ben in her womb.

Molly and her son Mark enjoy an idyllic existence in the old house for five years until they are ultimately discovered. Mark is taken away to live in the communal nursery with other children, and Molly is assigned the role of a breeder, a baby – producing machine.

But once touched by nature, man cannot become a machine again. As the clone community declines because of lack of innovation, abhorrence of nature and the steadily dwindling resources from a dead world, Mark, the earth-child, provides the spark to ensure that humanity is born again.

***

The novel is structured in three parts: the first part (and in my opinion, the weakest) showing the development of the society of the clones and their takeover, the second part detailing Molly’s “conversion” and the third, the renaissance of humanity through Mark. Even though it attempts to be nothing other than science fiction, the mythical overtones are hard to miss. David Sumner is the original savior prophet/ hero, who creates the chosen race and is ultimately sacrificed by them: Molly, the Mother of God/ Mother Goddess: and Mark, the persecuted God Child/ Hero/ Messiah of the new world.

Kate Wilhelm wrote this novel in the seventies, when the cold war was going strong. For Western Europeans and Americans, the Soviet Union was the Devil Incarnate and the ultimate dystopia, a place where human beings have lost all claims to individuality and function only as cogs in the machine, as epitomised by the communist bloc (we now understand that this was far removed from the truth). In those days, a communist takeover of the world was a real threat in the mind of the average American; the end of civilisation as we know it. Part of the success of this novel is that that particular paranoia is explored in detail, without being judgmental.

“The Freedom of the Individual” is at the heart of the American secular religion, sometimes (in the opinion of citizens of other countries) carried to ridiculous extremes (one cannot imagine a philosophy like Ayn Rand’s meriting serious consideration anywhere else in the world). Collectivism of any kind is to be abhorred. So imagine the situation if the human race becomes collective, not through force, not through choice, but as an inherent feature of their biological make-up? That is what the author does, and her prediction on the fate of such a society is clear and unambiguous: death by atrophy of the spirit.

The passage reproduced below encapsulates the author’s philosophy in a nutshell.

…He looked over the class, and continued. “Our goal is to remove the need for sexual reproduction. Then we will be able to plan our future. If we need road builders, we can clone fifty or a hundred for this purpose, train them from infancy, and send them out to fulfill their destiny. We can clone boat builders, sailors, send them out to the sea to locate the course of the fish our first explorers discovered in the Potomac. A hundred farmers, to relieve those who would prefer to be working over the test tubes than hoeing rows of carrots.”

Another ripple of laughter passed over the students. Barry smiled also; without exception they all worked their hours in the fields.

“For the first time since mankind walked the face of the earth,” he said, “there will be no misfits.”

“And no geniuses,” a voice said lazily, and he looked to the rear of the class to see Mark, still slouched down in his chair, his blue eyes bright, grinning slightly. Deliberately he winked at Barry, then closed both eyes again, and apparently returned to sleep.

The community where everybody is forced to work in the fields and children belong to the group and not to their parents seems like a parody of Chairman Mao’s China.

It is interesting to note that Mark saves the society because he is more in tune with nature than the clones who needs the presence of each other for sustenance and cannot survive alone. While stressing individuality, Ms. Wilhelm also seems to advocating the recognition of our umbilical tie to Mother Earth (Gaia, Bhumi, call her whatever you will). Presumably it was the separation which brought about the unnamed catastrophe at the beginning of the story – a scenario which eerily parallels the situation we find ourselves in today…

61cY1SATpSL__UX250_

A Review of “Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny

13821Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment at the foot of the Bodhi tree and became the Buddha: his teachings swept across India, striking at the roots of decadent Brahmanism. The Hindu priests were understandably alarmed, but were helpless against the doctrine of the eightfold path as the stale air inside a room against the tempest raging outside. So they did the clever thing: after the Buddha’s passing, they assimilated him and made him an avatar of Vishnu (in fact, they licked him by joining him). Perhaps this is the fate of all reformers!

This much is history. Roger Zelazny takes the bare bones of this story, adds the exotic ingredients of Indian myth and legend haphazardly, seasons it with the spirit of Prometheus who moved against heaven, and serves it up as a science fiction novel. For people who have not tasted exotic and spicy Indian dishes (at least not regularly), this is extraordinary fare indeed: alas, for my jaded palate, this is quite ordinary.

Zelazny writes superbly. The novel is structured imaginatively-as Adam Roberts says in the introduction, the author deliberately wrong foots us with the flashback. The language is rich and lush and a bit cloying, like India at its exotic best (or worst), seen from an “Orientalist” perspective. In an age when characterization was almost nonexistent in SF, Zelazny gives us rounded characters who behave consistently. The SF elements are also well developed and lord-buddha-18aconsistent with a technology so far advanced that it is “indistinguishable from magic” (to borrow from Arthur C. Clarke).

That the author is well acquainted with India is obvious. He knows the names of a lot of Indian gods (not only the Vedic pantheon – Murugan is a Tamil god). From the way the Kathakali performance is described in detail, I am almost sure that Zelazny has travelled in Kerala (my native place). The way each god’s “Attribute” defines him or her is more or less consistent with Hindu mythology – and it has been translated into scientific terms quite convincingly. And the way the “Rakasha” (the Rakshasas and Asuras of Indian myth) have been described as elemental spirits of the planet, subdued and imprisoned by the human colonisers, closely parallels the real origin of these demons in folklore.

But once all the bells and whistles were removed, I found the story of a renegade god moving against the celestial dictators quite ordinary. If the whole Indian pantheon were not in the story, if it was just the tale of a plain “Sam”‘s rebellion, I do not think this book would have merited a second glance at the awards. It was sold under the label of exotic India, like many other orientalist offerings. One might argue that this was Zeazny’s intention, and that there is nothing wrong in it: I would tend to agree. His vision of using Indian myth to flavor a science fiction novel was (at the time of its publication) a bold, path-breaking move. Only thing is, I am not one of the intended audience!
kathakali20131111114431_15_2 Varaha_avtar,_killing_a_demon_to_protect_Bhu,_c1740
I have one more caveat: Zelazny mixes and matches the gods and their attributes with a free hand (especially towards the end). Since these are not true gods but human beings who have taken on these attributes, this is technically OK, but it soon becomes a pot-pourri very difficult to follow. Also, in the process, he saw many of the gods only single dimensionally (this is most notable in the case of Krishna, who is seen only as a lecher).

I would recommend this book for people unfamiliar with Indian mythology. I am afraid those who are well-read in the same may feel disappointed.