Just finished reading Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World (which I highly recommend; it’s like King’s The Gunslinger meets Steampunk during the American Civil War) and which got me thinking a lot about the tangible differences between fantasy and science fiction worlds. You might love them the same, but they might not both be places you would want to explore beyond the bounds of the story itself. Others, meanwhile, are places you feel like you could keep visiting forever.
In the former case, those worlds are somehow wedded to their stories and characters so inextricably, it’s hard to imagine those worlds outside the context of that story. If the characters didn’t exist, in other words, there wouldn’t be much keeping you invested in the goings on of that world. In this category I stick places like Westeros, Middle Earth, and Arrakis. Great settings, to be sure, but settings devised to support and explore the story being told there which is, as it happens, pretty much the only story in town. What would Westeros be without the contest over the Iron Throne? What on earth is there to do in Middle Earth besides fight the Great Enemy? If the Spice weren’t a big deal, do you have any other stories to play with in Arrakis?
Of course, the assessment of what gives a world a ’life of its own’ is bigger than simply there being one story to tell. Even worlds with a lot of different things going on (the Firefly universe, for instance) need the attention to detail and the vibrancy of a well-constructed environment to make it somehow self-sustaining (which Firefly doesn’t quite have for me). The world needs a feel, a mood, a sense of possibility and a wealth of secrets ready to be unveiled. Star Wars has this, as does Star Trek, and I would say that it is that ’something’ that gives those franchises a kind of eternal life. You can imagine yourself living there, but without needing to be aboard the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise to do it. Interestingly enough, Gilman’s West in Half-Made World, while really seeming to orient itself along a single story axis (the struggle between the Agents of the Gun and the Progress of the Line and those caught in-between), affords, with the creation of those two forces, a wealth and breadth of possible stories originating from various branches off that main axis. You have people who pledge themselves to the Gun but recant, you have those who fight off the Line, but still embrace its machines, you have idealistic republics and moral philosophers of every stripe that pervade the fabric of this vast society, and then, of course, there are the First Ones in the background and the simple realization that the world itself is not completely created yet.
This sprawling complexity coupled with a clear story and frequent places where one could see drama inserted and new stories born is key to making a fantasy world into a playground, a touchstone with infinite dramatic potential. All the best role-playing game settings have this, too (must have it, actually), and this places – these worlds that are fun to visit and always interesting to explore – can make for very long and successful story arcs or, if you like, RPG campaigns.
All of this, however, is not intended to denigrate those worlds that aren’t playgrounds and those worlds that are tightly wrapped around their creator’s narrative and thematic purposes. Worlds that are driven towards a single purpose, while perhaps not able to consume our daydreams, do have more narrative and allegorical power. Arrakis is a powerful metaphor for wealth, for faith, and for the greedy impulses that undermine both. Middle Earth is a story about the loss of the beautiful in the face of the practical, modern, and civilized. Arrakis and Middle Earth do this job better than worlds like Gilman’s or Roddenberry’s, because all of their narrative effort is devoted towards ‘the Cause,’ if you will. Their ‘playground’ may only have the one swing set, but it’s a damned fine one.
As I have built (and continue to build) worlds in which to set my stories and novels, I find myself teetering between these two poles – am I crafting a playground, or am I crafting a Message. The wise course is, perhaps, somewhere between the two. Inevitably, however, I find myself straying further and further towards the playground model, and keep making a place that not only suits my story, but that could suit stories far beyond those I, myself, have imagined.
Say the technology of cybernetics/genetic engineering gets to the point where it isn’t just available to replace the stuff you need (new organs, prosthetic limbs, injury healing, disease resistance, etc.), but you can, electively, enable yourself to surpass the human norm. Super bionic strength, running for days without fatigue, seeing in the dark, breathing water…
Do you get them?
Let’s skip past some of the practical scientific problems here (which are legion) and go straight to the ethical/moral/aesthetic concerns. What kind of stuff would sell? What kind of stuff would be developed? Given our current sporting culture, it’s safe to assume that the sporting world wouldn’t embrace augmented superhumans into their ranks. So, if you can’t dunk from half-court in the NBA, why do you need the super-jumping? Seeing in the dark would be nice, I suppose, but wouldn’t going under the knife in surgery (and all the risk that entails) be a rather large inconvenience for a problem that, let’s be honest, you don’t really have? Couldn’t we just make night-vision goggles cheaper, maybe stick them in regular glasses or even contact lenses? If we wanted to jump really high, wouldn’t it be easier to build a pair of super-jump pants or something?
Well, okay, maybe/maybe not. I, personally, find the idea of augmenting the human form past its normal physical parameters to be mildly distasteful. I confess that I don’t find the idea of boosting one’s mental capacity quite so problematic, so my problem is more aesthetic than it is anything else. Then again, I also wouldn’t get a tattoo (I cannot think of a word or picture that I would love to see on my body until the day I die), don’t find body piercing all that attractive, and am perfectly fine with the color my hair is right now, thank you. Perhaps I’m a poor sampling for the kinds of things people are willing to do to their bodies just for the hell of it.
Cyberpunk is full of the concept of human alteration. It’s used, primarily, as a symbol of the machine corrupting the human temple with its hard, passionless, lifeless influence. I would be surprised if many of the authors in that subgenre actually found such alterations to be positive things, since so much of that genre demonstrates, in the moment of catharsis, the primacy of living humanity over lifeless silicon. When sci-fi authors want to present body augmentation in a positive light exclusively, they tend to do it with biological agents–they grow new glands, produce stronger antibodies, develop stronger natural muscles (Banks’ Culture novels spring to mind here, as does some aspects of Herbert’s Dune saga). Still, the sci-fi audience’s fascination with bionic improvements, all the way from Lee Majors to Keanu Reeves, seems to imply that we do, in fact, like the idea of having kung-fu implanted into our brains. The symbolic appeal is clear, of course (we get to be stronger, better, faster, defeat our enemies, be better looking, etc, etc.). I do wonder, though, that if this stuff were actually available and you could actually afford it, how many of us would go for it?
I guess it would be similar to the amount of cosmetic plastic surgery done in this country, which totaled about 1.5-ish million in 2011. This isn’t a huge number, really. Now, granted, if they were offering things somewhat more impressive than big boobs, maybe that number would go up. Maybe if they made it cheaper, the number would go up. I don’t know, though. It sounds cool on paper, but in practice I feel like it gets creepier and creepier. Would a kind of cybernetic arms race develop among the population? Would all the cool kids in school be able to change their skin-tone at will thanks to sub-dermal pigmentation generators? Would our standards of beauty change? Maybe. Probably, even.
Still, though, there would probably be a pretty sizable chunk of ‘norms’ standing on the sidelines, shaking their heads and muttering to themselves “when that Logan kid gets to be eighty and it’s a cold day, he’s going to wish his skeleton weren’t made of metal. God, think of the arthritis!”
I’m in the middle of reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (which, by-the-by, is amazing), and something about the mood of the whole thing has struck a chord in me. The age of Wolfe’s Urth (which we come to understand is some distant evolution of our own Earth) is a palpable thing. The dust and detritus of the half-remembered past seem to fill every decrepit alley of Nessus. The wonders of the past and the horrors of the present in that book are presented simultaneously, without nostalgia or sentimentality, really. Severian’s world, as strange is it is, merely exists; it is not open to critique.
On the surface, Urth seems to be situated in the distant past. We have guilds, headsmen, citadels, and old moldy libraries. The world is ruled by an Autarch, who is readily identified as a kind of absolute monarch, and our ‘fantasy world’ gears are cleanly engaged. But then things start to change a bit; Severian comes across things that seem anachronistic. There are technologies present that we do not, as yet, possess. There are oblique references to the Apollo Moon Landings (‘before the moon was green’) and other things, as well. You quickly realize that this is not the alien past, but the alien future. So alien, in fact, that you do not recognize the least part of it. Yes, they seem primitive, but the parts of their culture and technology that are far superior to ours are so ingrained as part of their world that they scarcely notice them as unusual. They lack the curiosity about such things that we would naturally expect.
Wolfe is not the only writer to do this. Frank Herbert creates such a world in his Dune novels; Warhammer 40,000 is a naked and brutish attempt at the same thing. On the surface, what such stories enable us to do is experience both the kitsch of the medieval world as well as the wild imagination of science fiction without exposing either to undue cognitive dissonance on the part of the audience. We get drawn into the world and accept it before we start wondering how it came about. By that time, of course, we are already hooked; we no longer need the explanation and, even if we get it, we are likely to be forgiving. The passage of millennia enables almost anything to be plausible.
Deeper than that, though, and the thing that really gets me engaged, is the way in which such stories are able to engage deeply-held cultural and social biases of what constitutes ‘advanced’ and ‘primitive’. We commonly look at technology as a linear progression rather than a fluid adaptation to social and environmental needs. We forget that the internet was not predestined to occur and, likewise, forget that if it were to cease to exist, we would continue along without it anyway. The day after Rome fell, the Romans were still Romans or, conversely, they had ceased being ‘Romans’ a long time ago anyway and it hardly mattered. They had a mess to clean up, that’s all. The passage of time shall erase all that we’re familiar with, but it may return from obscurity that which we have forgotten, too, should it be needed. Like all successful species, we are very adaptable critters.
And so, when looking at scifi/fantasy (or ‘science fantasy’, as Wolfe’s work has been called) stories of this kind, we find ourselves faced with the realization that our current reliance on (x), whatever that is, is not the thing that defines us, or at least not essentially. Those peripheral concerns change the circumstances somewhat, but not the essential spirit of what it means to be human. We will forever build things; we will forever forge new ideas and new inventions; we will always seek to make our mark on the universe. Whether we do it with a branding iron or a laser is a side-concern. The choice is not one of ‘how advanced we have become’, but rather ‘what method we culturally accept’.
I will close with a brief anecdote: A friend of mine who is very Italian attended an exhibit in the Boston Museum of Science showcasing artifacts from Pompeii. What struck him most was the display of women’s jewelry and cosmetics as well as men’s rings. He said he could have seen any of those things being worn by Italian relatives and friends on that very day. Indeed, his comment initiated a scene in my mind’s eye: A Roman man with a fat gold ring on his pinky sits in his coach, gazing worriedly at the spewing Vesuvius. “Angela!” He calls, “Let’s go! You can put your makeup on later!” Angela yells from the villa, “Michael, I’m not going anywhere without my face on, I don’t care if the mountain does explode!”
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
I don’t know about you, but I love a good duel. The hero and the villain (or, perhaps the hero and anti-hero, or two villains, or what-have-you) facing off, one-on-one. It’s been done thousands of times and, yet, there are still so very many ways to make it fresh, to get us on the edges of our seats, hearts in our throats, waiting to see how and if our favorite characters will make it through alive. Love it. So, for this post I’ve decided to list off my top five favorite duels in scifi/fantasy literature. first, some stipulations:
Duels Not Battles: Duels are events of single combat (or nearly so). Big battles where it’s one guy against many or two big groups of people having a free-for-all don’t count.
Books Only: This is a list of duels present in books. No movies, no graphic novels, no video games, no television series. Books. The first guy who comments ‘but what about Vader/Skywalker in Empire!’ gets a giant, metaphysical dope-slap. Yes, yes – that duel was iconic. Heck, it’s probably why I love duels in the first place. It isn’t, though, what I’m talking about here.
Gotcha? Okay, let’s go:
#5: Rand al’Thor Vs High Lord Turak and (later) Ba’alzamon At Toman Head
Book: The Great Hunt, Book 2 of the Wheel of Time Series
Author: Robert Jordan
Among the interminable tales of badassery that is The Wheel of Time, there is that first time – that very first time – you realized that Rand al’Thor is, in fact, a stupendous badass and likely only to become moreso. Up until Rand crosses swords with Turak, he’s been toting around a heron-mark blade, which marks him as a blademaster. Thing is, though, he isn’t. He sucks, actually. For the first two books, Rand is, essentially, living a lie. We, the readers, are worried about him. I mean, sooner or later, his luck is going to run out and he’s actually going to have to tussle with a serious swordsman. Then he’s screwed, right?
So then Turak draws his own heron-mark blade, except we know he’s earned it. A collective ‘oh shit’ moment ensues. Will Rand’s training with Lan be enough? Jordan then treats us with a vivid swordfight told in metaphor, essentially – the descriptions of all the moves Rand’s been taught by Lan – and he wins! But that’s not enough! Then he has to fight, essentially, Satan Himself in a damned duel. Seriously, it’s awesome! What’s more, everybody else sees it and knows it’s awesome, too. Yay! This, of course, is only the beginning for Rand, but what a start, right?
#4: Bilbo Baggins Vs Gollum Beneath The Misty Mountains
Book: The Hobbit
Author: JRR Tolkien
Not all duels are fought with weapons. This one ranks as one of my favorite duels of wits ever: Bilbo, lost, alone, stuck in the dark, finds himself accosted by the sinister and creepy Gollum in his underground hideaway. They engage in a game of riddles, with the stakes being Bilbo’s escape or his being devoured by the hungry Gollum. Thinking outside the box, Bilbo wins by simply exploiting the rules of the game: “What is in my pocket?” Brilliant. Unexpected. Wonderful.
Well played, little guy. Well played.
#3: Paul Muad’Dib Atreides Vs Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen on Arrakis
Author: Frank Herbert
This duel is as much dance as fight. Everything in Paul’s long quest leads to this, and all the political ambitions of the galaxy are wrapped up in it. Tricks within tricks, feints within feints, treacheries over treacheries. Paul’s eventual victory is fitting, given that it, itself, is a trick within a trick. “I will not say it!” tells Feyd-Rautha that Paul knows, but that Paul need not use. It is still enough; death on Arrakis is often sudden.
#2: Bronn Vs Some Knight of the Vale at The Eyrie
Book: A Game of Thrones
Author: George RR Martin
Martin’s successful and expansive series involves a number of memorable fights, but this is, perhaps, the most memorable for me. First off, if you don’t love Tyrion Lannister above all other characters in that series, there is something wrong with you. So, when Fly-Off-The-Handle Catelyn Stark hauls the little guy off into the Eyrie on a bunch of nonsense charges and he finds himself faced with the lunatic Lysa Arryn, we feel pretty bad for the guy. His trial by combat looks pretty damned hopeless, but then here comes Bronn, the mercenary. Standing up for the little guy (and for his own paycheck, no doubt), so good for him.
But wait, Bronn’s not wearing any armor? Huh? What? Oh no! But…oooohhhh. I get it. Smooth, Bronn. Smooth.
#1: Dappa (w/Otto Van Hoek) Vs Sir Charles White (w/Woodruff) at Tower Hill, London
Book: The System of the World, Book 3 of the Baroque Cycle
Author: Neal Stephenson
What’s better than a former slave dueling a former slave owner/present day bigot on the field of honor? A former slave and former sailor/pirate hunter dueling a bigot and swordsman with cannons. Yes, cannons; it’s a cannon duel. Suddenly, smarty-pants swordsman/bigot needs to know math to kill his enemy, the supposedly ‘inferior’ African man who has been taunting him for years now. Yes. Yes and yes.
This was among the most amazing, hilarious, wonderful, and satisfying duels I’ve ever read. I really can’t think of any that top it at the moment. It is worth wading through the umpteen thousand pages of the Baroque Cycle just to get here. Trust me.
Well those are mine. What are yours? I’m curious to hear.
Science Fiction, by and large, deals in monolithic political organizations. The Federation of Planets, the Galactic Federation, the Terran Empire, the Global Hegemony, and so on and so forth. Here’s my question, though: where the hell do these writers get off thinking this is going to happen? The may become a bit of a rant, so here we go:
The answer is zero. Zero times, as in never. Not once, even for a minute.
I mean, I understand the authorial motivation for creating a single world government–the world government in those scenarios is simply an analog for the author’s own national government and culture that, for the sake of convenience, has eradicated or supplanted all other indigenous world governments. It makes things easier, certainly–everybody speaks the same language, politics becomes notably easier to understand, and you can spend most of your authorial energies on writing about the stuff everybody actually cares about (that being ray guns, spaceships, and bloodthirsty aliens).
The thing is, though, that it is enormously unlikely to happen as imagined by so many authors. At the very least, humanity would have to change significantly in order for it to occur. In the fullness of time, perhaps, this will happen, but right now it is practically impossible. Can you imagine the UN actually passing laws? Laws that the rest of the world actively obeys? I can’t. Why listen to the UN? What do I care if some guy in Central Africa thinks Europe has too much money? Who is he and his people to badger me about my use of incandescent light bulbs? Screw him. I say, with full realization that this is a heartless and selfish position, that I couldn’t care less about the opinions or problems of a group of foreigners I barely know anything about.
Scoff at me as you like, enlightened ones, but consider this: I am by no means alone. There is some science behind this, too. It’s called Dunbar’s Number, and it basically dictates the human brain is incapable of maintaining social relationships (i.e. ‘caring’) with more than a finite number of people. Now, this can be made abstract to some extent (I can care about my country or my state or my city, for instance), but the relationship is necessarily different. In any case, this simple concept demonstrates a severe limitation to the establishment of a World State.
This idea is only exacerbated by the fact that there are such profound cultural differences across the world. These differences cause major diplomatic disconnects, misunderstandings, and are great barriers to these peoples making common cause with one another. Do you think the women of the West are likely to embrace Saudi Arabia? Are the Turks ever likely to see eye-to-eye with Greece to the point where they’d merge states? Do you think the Taiwanese are going to be re-absorbed into China without a fight? Not likely. I’d be less surprised if all of Mexico applied for US statehood.
Our future, assuming we have one (and I keep hoping), is going to have disparate political factions and nation-states for
a very long time. Should a galaxy-wide empire be established, it isn’t going to be some kind of Galactic Republic. We are more likely to see the pan-galactic feudal states of Dune or Warhammer 40,000. These governments are not made up of a people unified, but rather by a collection of disparate people subjected to the will of a greater external force that, by hook or by crook, binds the galaxy together to one will.
Sound dark? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. I’m afraid I don’t see the alternative, however, unless people cease being people and become something else. Granted, this might just happen, but I’m skeptical. Interestingly enough, if it is to happen, it may come from the places we least expect it. Take the Internet, for instance–if there is any place where human divisions are made less prominent, it is there. Then again, there are also those corners of the internet that make you despair for the future of our race more than anything else (I’m looking at you, comments section on YouTube and Yahoo Answers).
As I’ve said before, predicting the future is ultimately a fool’s game. All I can do is look backwards and see what’s happened before. The evidence, I feel, is pretty clear: No Federation of Planets for us. We are more likely to wind up with the Baroque Machinery of the Golden Throne.
Science Fiction and Fantasy novels and stories aren’t for everybody. This isn’t a radical statement, I’m sure, but its significance or whole meaning is often obscured behind a fair amount of sneering and looking down one’s nose at the genre(s). If somebody comes to me and wants to read ‘good’ science fiction, I want to refer them to either William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Frank Herbert’s Dune (after stressing to them that there really isn’t much point to reading past the first one). The thing is, though, I don’t always do that. I ask them some questions, first, usually revolving around their inherent purpose in delving into scifi. “How complex do you want the story to be?” I’ll ask, or, “How good are you at figuring out exposition via context clues rather than text dumps?”
If I get blinks and stares to these questions, or guarded statements like ’I don’t like crazy science stuff’ or ‘I don’t want to read something I need a degree to understand’, I back off from recommending my true favorites. I give them something pallatable and easy, like Russel’s The Sparrow or Childhood’s End by Clarke. This is not to say that these aren’t fine books (they are quite wonderful, each of them), but they aren’t the kind of sci-fi that really blows my mind. They aren’t the kind of thing that, once I start reading it, I can’t stop. They don’t suck me in. Neuromancer does, every time I read it. The very first line sets me going: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Gibson, in the first twenty pages of his novel, drowns you in the dismal streets and seedy bars of Chiba City as you watch Case stay one step ahead of Wage’s joeboys while strung out on drugs. The detail of the place is immersive, wonderful, powerful. You do not, however, know exactly what’s going on. This isn’t your world, and Gibson isn’t holding your hand as you dive into it. You’re running behind Case, glancing at the scenery as you try to keep up. Gradually, though, you build a vocabulary. At some point, when somebody says ‘the Sprawl’, you know what they mean. When Case ‘punches the Hosaka’, you feel the ridges of the buttons under your fingers. You’re part of the world now. You know its rules, its conventions, its dark alleys. You’re as much a resident as Case is, perhaps more. That is, as much as anything else, the reason I read sci-fi and fantasy.
This, though, isn’t for everyone. When I was in grad school, I can’t tell you the number of times somebody gave me a distasteful look when I said I read and wrote scifi. It was as though I had belched at a volume that would rattle fillings and refused to apologize. I had a professor in a writing workshop who forbade the submission of works of science fiction or fantasy and, when I would bring up scifi novels in the course of class discussion, she would literally sneer at me and then pretend I hadn’t spoken. I kept bringing them up anyway, though, when discussion permitted. She gave me a B+ for the course (which is horrendously low in grad school, FYI).
Once, in another class and as part of our homework, we had to bring in a chapter of a novel we loved and distribute it to the class. I brought in the first chapter of Neuromancer. When we came back the next class to discuss it, three or four people hadn’t read it and, therefore, didn’t contribute to the discussion. Their reasoning? “I don’t read scifi” or “I didn’t get it” or “It was boring.” As though the plodding, overwrought prose of their favorite litfic novelist was a blast for me. As though reading the first chapter of The Great Gatsby for the millionth time was somehow enlightening to me. As though the latest Jodi Picoult speaks to me because, you know, she writes mainstream fiction and, obviously, I should love it because that’s what books are. I was pissed at those individuals. It was a slap in my face, because there is no way one can read Neuromancer and say it’s poorly written. It isn’t – it’s brilliant.
The reason it doesn’t speak to those people, though, is that it asks the reader to do something other books don’t. It asks your forebearance. It commands you to be disoriented for the first ten or fifteen pages as you get your bearings. “This is an alien world,” it says, “so bear with it while you settle in.” That settling-in process is one of the things I love about the genre I call ‘home’. It can be done poorly, yes, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing quite like it. I mean, I admire Steinbeck and Hemingway as much as the next guy, and I’ll give my grudging appreciation to Toni Morrison and Jose Saramago (actually, no – I can’t stand his style. It’s like needles in my eyes), but they don’t take me anywhere new. I don’t get to hear the helium-giggle of Lonny Zone’s whores in the Chastubo while Ratz slides my Kirin across the bar with his Russian military surplus prosthetic arm. All I get is another scene from plain old planet Earth with plain old people doing the same plain old thing. Well done? Sure. Magical? Rarely.
Give me the Bene Gesserit administering the gom jabbar. Throw me into a book with a glossary twenty pages long. Don’t tell me another sad tale about some guy learning to find his way in a tough modern world. Give me Case, punching his Hosaka while coming down hard off a Beta high and watching his slick Chinese slow-virus get ever closer to the gleaming security ice of the Villa Straylight.