Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
August 2018

Title: Arthur C. Clarke
Author: Gary Westfahl
Publisher: University of Illinois Press

I’ve been enjoying the Modern Masters of Science Fiction books ever since the series launched with Jad Smith’s excellent John Brunner (2013). Since then other scholars have written about William Gibson, Gregory Benford, Ray Bradbury, Greg Egan, Lois McMaster Bujold, Frederik Pohl, Octavia E. Butler, Alfred Bester, Iain M. Banks—Paul Kincaid’s fine volume is, as of this writing, a Hugo finalist—and J. G. Ballard, with future entries projected. Based on the books I’ve read, I think the series accomplishes the admirable task of offering fascinating critical insights in a manner accessible to the lay reader. The writing tone is mostly academic, yes, and contributors fully engage existing critical literature, but they eschew abstruse jargon and specific schools of lit crit. In addition, while not being dedicated biographies, these books often include compelling biographical summaries or asides that help to illuminate the works of the authors being considered. Finally, they benefit from the latest information available on their subjects, who in some cases haven’t been critically evaluated in years, and perhaps never at book-length. All of which brings us to Gary Westfahl’s Arthur C. Clarke, which I’ve been looking forward to for some time.

Clarke, who may perhaps not be read all that much by younger readers today, is often considered one of science fiction’s key figures in histories of the genre. Undeniably in part because of his involvement with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, he received a fair amount of public and scholarly attention, both during his life and posthumously. We already have several volumes that study his fiction; a lengthy biography; a book of remembrances edited by his brother Fred, and so on. Fortunately, Westfahl answers the obvious question—why do we need another book on Clarke?—in his Introduction. It boils down to three main reasons: 1) No existing work surveys all of Clarke’s fiction, including his short stories; 2) Westfahl has access to certain texts and sources unavailable to prior scholars; 3) in Westfahl’s own words, “Clarke remains a writer who has never been properly understood.” This last point is particularly significant, as Westfahl presents ample evidence that Clarke’s work has been consistently misread through the lens of classical literature and in a kind of split-personality context (“the hard-nosed, practical Clarke” versus “the wild-eyed, mystical Clarke”), both of which he seeks to remedy.

In my estimation, Westfahl succeeds in the comprehensiveness of his survey, and in the presentation of a new, over-arching view that connects threads of Clarke’s works and experiences that previously appeared disparate. In particular, Westfahl considers how Clarke’s proclivity towards adolescent humor, his closeted homosexuality, and his disability later in life inform much of his work. Combined with an appreciation of Clarke’s early days as a fan steeped in magazine culture, and his deep-seated desire to become a scientist, Westfahl successfully relocates the context of Clarke’s work, which in turn allows him to bring a fresh perspective even to oft-analyzed texts.

Westfahl divides his book into nine chapters. The first two, a “Biographical Sketch” and “Jocular Juvenilia,” deliver exactly what their titles promise and are essentially a chronological introduction to Clarke’s life and his early literary efforts. I applaud Westfahl for here referencing little-discussed sources, such as the collection of early Clarke writings Childhood Ends (1996), and neatly integrating these into his text. One of my favorite observations from the first chapter relates to Clarke’s “apparent proclivity for writing satirical poetry.” Numerous commentators have described Clarke’s best passages as cool and poetic; this is no longer so surprising in light of Westfahl’s research.

Later chapters target specific themes and attitudes—“Marvelous Machines,” “The Conquest of Space,” “Human Destinies,” “Alien Encounters,” “Under the Sea,” “Future Faiths” and “The Solitary Observer”—and throughout Westfahl makes a convincing case regarding what previous critics have missed, and how some aspects of Clarke’s work have benefitted from the passage of time. Two particularly striking correctives by Westfhal to “standard” discourses are his observations that “Clarke consistently depicts futures wherein humanity is marginalized—or extinct” and that “Clarke’s characters are regularly reluctant to express their innermost emotions—to companions, the narrator, even themselves—so they can seem bland to readers who are focused on what they are saying, not on what they are revealingly not saying.” Through these later chapters a new view emerges of Clarke’s almost obsessive preoccupation with everyday aspects of life in the future, and his prophetic tendency to describe isolated, functionally unattached individuals whose interactions with other human beings are often possible only through advanced technologies.

By organizing the bulk of his book thematically, Westfahl is able to highlight patterns and adduce dozens of examples to back up his contentions. One of the downsides of this approach is that stories or novels that fall into multiple categories are often synopsized repeatedly, though usually such summaries are only a line or two. As someone who has read many of Clarke’s novels and non-fiction works, I did have occasional disagreements with some of Westfahl’s assertions. I think, for instance, that he goes too far when he speculates that “Clarke probably viewed his space fiction as an extension of his nonfictional proselytizing for space travel;” in his discussion of authors who influenced Clarke as a developing writer I wish there would have been reference to Olaf Stapledon, and allusions to more specific authors and stories that Clarke himself expounds on in his “science-fictional autobiography” Astounding Days (1989); Westfahl regards The Ghost of the Grand Banks (1990) as one of Clarke’s “best works,” and as such mentions it often, while I consider it one of his poorest; and so on. But that’s part of the joy of these books—to spark conversation.

It seems fitting to end this review by invoking, as Clarke was wont to do, a future date, in this case of explicit authorial significance: 2038. As Westfahl observes, “Clarke generated a vast quantity of private diaries,” and he stipulated that they could only be published thirty years after his death. Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

Title: Infinity's End
Author: Jonathan Strahan
Publisher: Solaris

In his Introduction to Infinity’s End, the seventh and concluding volume in Jonathan Strahan’s stellar anthology series, he notes: “When it became clear that the book you’re holding, Infinity’s End, might be the final volume in the Infinity Project, at least for now, I wanted to do something a little different. I asked the writers creating new stories for this book to try to open up the solar system, to look again at its vastness, its incredible scale, and at how humanity in different ways might fit successfully and happily into its nooks and crannies.” The book’s fourteen contributors—Justina Robson, Kelly Robson, Paul McAuley, Naomi Kritzer, Alastair Reynolds, Seanan McGuire, Stephen Baxter, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Hannu Rajaniemi, Linda Nagata, Fran Wilde, Lavie Tidhar, Nick Wolven and Peter Watts—certainly succeed in responding to Strahan’s challenge. On the one hand, I feel like this makes Infinity’s End a little broader in its scope than some of the previous Infinity volumes; at the same time, it also feels a bit more diffuse. Quality-wise, this may also be the most consistent book in the series. Again, there are two sides to this: all of the stories are well-crafted and highly readable, but I found fewer that were quite as memorable and visionary as in some of the preceding books.

My unabashed favorite is the anthology closer, Peter Watts’s “Kindred.” The speculative heart of this story is deceptively simple, almost cliché: What if an artificially-powered hive mind evolved and took over the planet? Watts brilliantly follows such an intelligence’s inexorable, unsentimental, profoundly non-human logic to its ultimate conclusion, conjuring it up in a believable first-person voice as it explains the current state of affairs to a recently recreated human consciousness named Phil. Paragraph breaks anticipate Phil’s—and by proxy, the reader’s—objections. At one point, for instance, the hive mind mentions the word “lies” and then clarifies:

The lies, Phil. The lies that come preinstalled. My child is more important than yours. My tribe is more important than yours. My bloodline is the most important thing in the universe. They poison everything you perceive, every thought you think. You’re not even consciously aware of the world until your brain has filtered and censored and hammered it down into a mush of self-serving Darwinian dogma. The cataracts on your eyes are four billion years thick; it’s amazing you can see anything at all. Oh, they had their uses once upon a time, but this ain’t the savannah. So I stripped them away. And I gotta tell you, the view from here’s amazing.

I love this story and hope everyone reads it.

Another standout for me is Naomi Kritzer’s “Prophet of the Roads,” about a character named Luca who bears a fragment of an advanced Engineer AI and doggedly searches for another individual harboring a second fragment, so that the pieces may be linked; this, Luca believes, is a necessary step to recreating the full Engineer and restoring humanity’s rightful course to the stars. Krizter evokes intriguing ideas with quiet, understated language, and I was strongly drawn in by Luca’s voice.

A couple of other excellent stories explore the theme of super long-lived individuals wrestling with questions of purpose and evolution. In Alastair Reynolds’s “Death’s Door,” Sakura’s friends Tristan and Gedda try to convince Sakura to minimize the risk he has allocated to the titular teleporting, body-reconfiguring “door” employed for adaptive jaunts to other worlds. Reynolds ably captures the mood of Sakura’s melancholy experiential weariness against the backdrop of nearly miraculous technologies, and his story’s end has a neat plot twist. He also manages to provocatively literalize poetic notions, as for instance when he describes Luminals, beings comprised of clouds of distributed processors:

The largest of them have to deal with non-negligible self-gravitation. They start to collapse under their own mass. The only way around that is to use their own thoughts as light-pressure, counteracting the inward pull.”

Like stars, Sakura said. “Thought-pressure, instead of fusion-pressure. Actually, that’s rather lovely. Your own thoughts, keeping you alive. Never stop thinking, never stop dreaming, or you start to die.

In Linda Nagata’s beautiful “Longing for Earth,” Hitoshi is likewise at the end of his days; on a climb at the Loysan Escarpment he exchanges pleasant conversation and tea with a woman named Carol, while politely resisting pressure from his family members, all of whom have transitioned to a Virtual world, to join them there. Nagata’s prose is elegant, her descriptions vivid and immersive, and the story’s final lines exquisitely freighted with meaning.

Lavie Tidhar’s moody and striking “Talking to Ghosts at the Edge of the World” depicts a woman named Rania who specializes in retrieving the connectivity nodes—or “ghosts”—from the recently deceased. Nick Wolven’s “Cloudsong” gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “music of the spheres,” positing a fascinating offshoot of humanity in the Kuiper belt, which our protagonist Warren must somehow convince to relinquish as fuel for the future of the Solar System’s inner worlds. The story’s combination of breezy tone and profound concepts make for a fun, enthralling read.

Justina Robson’s “Foxy and Tiggs” is a witty, fast-moving murder investigation featuring two not-quite-human characters in the employ of a third, even more powerful non-human consciousness. As with Michael Swanwick’s Darger and Surplus stories, there are some unforgettably absurd images and plenty of quips; it’s a great anthology opener. Stephen Baxter’s “Last Small Step” is an ingenious science-fictional take on some passages from Gulliver’s Travels; this is a clever, efficient narrative that fits smoothly into Baxter’s Xeelee series, but it doesn’t provide much emotional payoff. Fans of Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean le Flambeur series will enjoy “A Portrait of Salai,” with its elevated ratio of high-energy, theoretical physics concepts per page; though quite abstract, I found myself captivated by its arresting imagery. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s fast-moving “Once on the Blue Moon” chronicles what happens when a kid named Colette Euphemia Josephine Treacher Singh Wilkinson Lopez interferes with the plans of some Bad Men who weren’t counting on her presence aboard a starship; think Home Alone with science-fiction gadgets and bigger stakes.

I’m not keen on saying this, but I think Seanan McGuire’s “Swear Not by the Moon” is a misfire, delivering melodrama built around the implausible premise of an individual buying Titan. Kelly Robson’s “Intervention” is well-written but its episodic, ruminative nature kept me at a distance from its intrinsically touching subject. Paul McAuley’s “Nothing Ever Happens on Oberon,” a new Quiet War story, begins promisingly but was, at least for me, undermined by an inexplicable character choice in its second half, and its time jumps, as with Robson’s tale, proved somewhat disruptive. Finally, Fran Wilde’s “The Synchronist” contains many tantalizing notions about time and familial responsibility, but I had trouble buying into its world.

“There are only so many permutations of experience a human nervous system can process,” Sakura remarks in Reynolds’s story. “I don’t ever want to be bored.” With anthologies like this one on hand, boredom isn’t something we need worry about.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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