Archive for August 20th, 2011

My problems with science fiction

I’m not sure why it is that I’ve never been attracted to science fiction. It’s not because of its element of fantasy: I am more than happy to read ghost stories, say, or Gothic horror. But science fiction films (most of which, aficionados tell me, isn’t science fiction at all) hold little attraction for me, and science fiction books I have generally given a wide berth. I really do not know why: some quirk in my personality, no doubt. This is the point when aficionados tell me that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is science fiction, as is Huxley’s Brave New World. As, indeed, is Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or even Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Trying my best not to get drawn into an argument about matters on which I know nothing, I usually nod away politely, and utter a non-committal “perhaps”, or even a “yes, I might try some out some day”, knowing full well that I won’t: with so much out there to read (and indeed to re-read), and with only one inadequate lifetime at one’s disposal, reading books I don’t for whatever reason really fancy does seem a bit pointless.

I do admit also that I often get put off by some of the claims made for the genre by its aficionados – claims that aren’t made for other genres such as, say, horror, or westerns. Some of the finest literature of the last hundred years, I’m told, has been science fiction, and the only reason this isn’t accepted by mainstream literati is snobbery. Once again, I do not know enough about science fiction writing to comment on this, but I don’t think authors such as, say, Philip K. Dick or Arthur Clarke or Ursula le Guin or Isaac Asimov have been sidelined: these are all respected writers. Their books are all widely available, widely read, and widely admired. That I, personally, am not particularly interested, says nothing.

But recently, I have indeed been reading a science fiction book, on the exhortation of a good friend – although how much longer he’ll remain a friend given my reaction to this book remains, perhaps, to be seen. But let us not anticipate.

The book is Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. How representative it is of science fiction in general, I cannot tell: I am happy to accept that science fiction is too wide-ranging for any single book to be representative of the whole. But that this book is widely admired, and considered a classic of the genre, cannot be denied. On the cover is a quote by Arthur C. Clarke: “Probably the most powerful work of the imagination ever written.” Phew! Given the extraordinary list of towering works of the imagination written across the centuries, this one must be special indeed to be given such praise! “It is magnificent. Almost unbearable”, write Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove. Aldiss also contributes an introduction to my edition, and cites “Dante and the author of Paradise Lost” amongst writers who “helped form Stapledon’s characteristic utterance”. And praise has come from other sources as well: admirers of this book have included Virginia Woolf (“it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly”, she writes in a letter to the author); Jorge Luis Borges (“Stapledon’s literary imagination was almost boundless” … “A prodigious novel”); and Doris Lessing. Even if no single book can represent the whole of science fiction, it seems to me not unreasonable to assume that this book is representative at least of the literary heights to which science fiction, as a literary genre, may reach.

The novel starts with the narrator somehow being whisked away from earth. The narrator is not characterised. He leaves behind his wife and family, and he tells us at one point that he misses them. But they are not characterised either. We are told of the narrator’s longing for home and for his family, but no attempt is made to communicate any of these emotions to the reader.

The narrator then travels through time and through space, through a variety of galaxies in different stages of formation, and makes contact with and observes a wide variety of life forms and of living species. At his first stop, he picks up a companion for his travels. His name is Bvalltu. He is not characterised either. No-one is characterised. When other life-forms are observed, there is never any attempt even to introduce any single individual figure: all life-forms encountered are reported on en masse. There is no room here for character, for individuality, for relationships, or, indeed, for anything that I, for one, recognise as human.

Each life-form is described dispassionately. We are given precise reasons as to why they developed the way they did; why evolution on their planet took the course that it did; and so on. Everything has a clear and rational explanation. All life forms are as they are because, given the conditions, they could not have evolved otherwise.

All this is written in the sort of prose one might expect in a textbook – clear, precise, unenlivened at any point by wit or by humour, unrelieved by lyricism or by poetry. I gather that this book has a reputation of being poetic, and of containing a vision of the universe that is wondrous and awe-inspiring. I appreciate that I still have some 50 or so pages to go, but I’d be grateful if anyone could point out to me passages that are poetic, or which inspire a sense of awe, because, so far, I have missed them. I can’t really see how any sense of mystery or awe can be evoked when every phenomenon observed is given a precise and rational reason.

William Blake famously wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand, but Stapledon does it the other way round: he looks at the entire universe and finds only a grain. Far from finding any sense of awe, I find merely a somewhat disdainful look at humanity, denying it any significance at all. Here, for instance, is Stapledon’s potted view of humanity:

We saw Man on his little Earth blunder through many alternating phases of dullness and lucidity, and again abject dullness. From epoch to epoch his bodily shape changed as a cloud changes. We watched him in his desperate struggle with Martian invaders; and then, after a moment that included further ages of darkness and of light, we saw him driven, by dread of the moon’s downfall, away to inhospitable Venus. Later still, after an aeon that was a mere sigh in the lifetime of the cosmos, he fled before the exploding sun to Neptune, there to sink back into mere animality for further aeons again. But then he climbed once more and reached his finest intelligence, only to be burnt like a moth in a flame by an irresistible catastrophe.

There you go, mate – that’s yer lot.

I think I get the picture. Mankind is insignificant. We are all insignificant. There are and have been and will be many other life forms, some primitive, some equivalent to humanity, some far more advanced scientifically, spiritually, and morally, but none of that matters because they’re all insignificant and can be wiped out in a trice. Now, some may think this a profound vision, but I must admit I don’t: after trawling through 250 pages of such plodding prose (in which the poetic imagination does not rise further than such lazy clichés as comparing the extinction of mankind to the burning of a moth in the flame), I do feel entitled to a bit more than this.

I do wish, if only for the sake of friendship, that I could find something positive to say about my experience so far of this book. Maybe it’ll all turn round in the last 50 pages. Near the end, in Chapter 15, I gather, the narrator will come into contact with the great Star Maker himself (that’s God to most of us). Aldiss in the introduction writes of this chapter:

Where does one look in all English prose for a parallel with the magnificent Chapter 15?

Well, there is, of course, that passage in the Book of Job in which God speaks from the whirlwind: it reads rather impressively in the King James Version. Or there’s the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna reveals His divine power to Arjuna: there are several English translations of this which are magnificent. But if none of them can parallel what Stapledon achieves in his Chapter 15, then that Chapter 15 must be remarkable indeed. But after the 200 pages of utter tedium I have ploughed through so far, I can’t say I am holding my breath.

Well, let’s leave it there. Tempting though it is, I really should not judge the entire genre of science fiction from this single book. But for all that, the extravagant praise heaped upon this work inevitably makes me sceptical when I read similarly extravagant praise heaped on other science fiction books.

I am obviously missing something here. Maybe I want novels – or, for that matter, plays, poems, short stories – to have a human presence. Human beings are, after all, endlessly varied and fascinating, and I want writers to reveal to me something of that endlessly varied fascination. Maybe the vision of humanity as small and utterly insignificant really is a profound vision, and that it is I who am too dull to see it as such. Maybe the prose that I find merely plodding really is beautiful and poetic to the eye that can behold it as such. Maybe I come to literature with certain expectations that are unwarranted, and thus have no right to feel disappointed when these unwarranted expectations are not met. Well, yes, yes, and yes to all of that: I am happy to accept that the fault is with me, and not with the writer. But wherever the fault lies, I am no way inclined to give the genre of science fiction another go. Life is not long enough.