by Norman Spinrad
THE BODY LIBRARY
by Jeff Noon, Angry Robot, $12.00
by Jeff VanderMeer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $10.20
edited by Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emmanel Lottem, Mandel Villar Press, $24.95
by Gregory Benford, Saga Press, $27.99
When photography began to come into practical artistic use near the start of the nineteenth century, there was a certain fear among painters that it would render obsolete the creation of pictures created with paint on canvas, since their skills could not compete with the perfect mimesis of visual reality of camera on film.
What is “mimesis”?
There are many definitions, some of them theoretically abstruse, some of them philosophically arcane. But in the practical terms that worried those painters it meant creating a flat image that, at least ultimately, perfectly mimicked the three dimensional reality seen by the human eye.
For centuries, this was the dominant goal of western European and later North American painting, whose artistry, skills, and clever semi-scientific tricks such as shadowing, chiaroscuro, and perspective brought it closer and closer. But then photography threatened to render this goal and painting itself pointless.
But that’s not what happened. Instead photography freed painting from the artistic goal of mimesis. Flat two-dimensional painting no longer had to strive to render the best possible imitation of three-dimensional, external reality. It didn’t even have to produce recognizable images at all. It could be totally abstract.
What does this have to do with “SF,” the modern literature of both fantasy and science fiction? Therein lies the tale of this essay.
True science fiction as we now know it more or less began with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Verne and Wells had a literary dispute, Verne accusing Wells of using what was not quite yet being called “science fiction” for political and psychological ends, Wells accusing Verne of writing what was not yet called mere “nuts and bolts science fiction.”
But that dispute is not the point here. The point here is what Verne and Wells agreed upon without really thinking about it. Both of them wrote mimetic science fiction. Almost all of Verne’s “nuts and bolts” were rather modest extrapolations of technologies that existed at the time, and none of them really violated then-known scientific rules of mass and energy. And while such extrapolations were not as central to the science fiction of Wells, he, too, if not quite as vigorously, took care to keep them mimetically credible.
What Gregory Benford was to call much later “not playing tennis with the net down,” and I was to call “rubber science.” And that is what still arguably makes serious science fiction “science fiction”—even much new wave speculative fiction, cyberpunk, perhaps even steampunk—rather than “space opera” or “fantasy.”
What is now called “modern” or even “post-modern” space opera is something that more or less admits that it’s fantasy in science fictional costumes, and modern fantasy by definition must forthrightly admit the known impossible.
But I said arguably. Does “serious” science fiction, or better, serious speculative fiction, have to be mimetic? The other side of the argument says, like modern painting, maybe not.
What about alternate history fiction, such as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, or the open-ended alternate World War II series of Harry Turtledove, or my own The Iron Dream for that matter, none of which have anything to do with the question of mimetic or not any more than the cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso or the abstractions of Jackson Pollack?
Alternate history fiction may not be extrapolation from the linear present into a hypothetical linear future, but it is somehow at least “SF” of a kind, is it not, meaning Speculative Fiction?
And more, much more, is that the current quantum world views of mass and energy, probability versus simple determinism, linear time as illusion, and so forth, complicate, or even better literarily, enhance, the possibilities of speculative fiction, even without taking down the net of mimesis, since the laws of mass and energy themselves have been scientifically revealed as probabilistic and indeterminate.
Thus freeing speculative fiction of a certain kind from the literary constraints of adhering to hard and fast physical mimesis or even rubber science, while still succeeding as speculative fiction by maintaining its own internal imaginary rules of engagement.
Let’s take, for instance, Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Borne.
VanderMeer’s early works, short stories and novels, were set in an imaginary city called Ambergris—a word by the way more or less meaning whale snot, gooey stuff from the heads of whales that, however disgusting, was a key ingredient in perfume. I mention this because it is never explained why VanderMeer’s fictional city was so named, nor is it related to any geographical locus on our planet, any other planet, or any time-frame. Purely a literary venue with its own literary rules of engagement, highly amusing, playful, and rather sardonic.
So is this science fiction, speculative fiction, or fantasy, and why should we give a damn which? Well, whether it is “science fiction” or more inclusively “speculative fiction” may indeed be useless nit-picking, but why it is not “fantasy” is germane to the question of whether such fiction can be mimetic or not.
Fantasy by definition cannot be mimetic because it must include the known scientific impossible, which is as good a definition of “magic” as any. VanderMeer doesn’t do this in the Ambergris stories, or most of his later fictions, which take place in purely literary venues disconnected from any other realities that nevertheless do not really violate any known rules of mass and energy.
Thus, such fiction being by that definition mimetic, cannot be fantasy, just as by that definition, fantasy cannot be mimetic.
Borne, however, presents a literary reality that defies such clear-cut definition, being at the same time somehow neither and both.
Once again the literary setting is a city somewhere and some time never really connected to anywhere or anywhen else, and in Borne even nameless. However here there seems to be at least a kind of cautionary connection to an alternate future we may be in the process of bringing down on ourselves.
This city is not merely in physical ruins, not merely infested with dire creatures created by runaway biotech, not merely a physical behavioral sink, but a psychological, spiritual, and moral behavioral sink.
Rachel, the narrating viewpoint character, is a scavenger, like most of the degenerate population of this terminally rotting away city. Its desperate and dwindling amoral denizens live off whatever can be scavenged, stolen, or bartered, and if not, the victims thereof. She lives with her mate Wick in a refuge in the ruins that she seldom leaves except to scavenge. Wick is a former employee of the biotech company that knowingly and then degenerately created this hideous biological mess and its creatures, and is now a kind of biotech hacker.
The remains of the company still sort of rules much of the city via its creation and ultimate weapon Mord, a five-story high bear with the unexplained ability to fly, opposed by a hardly-ever-seen woman called the Magician, vying for power.
Borne, the title character and ultimately the third entity in the central triangle, discovered by Rachel in the fur of the sleeping Mord, and taken back to their refuge, is . . . is . . .
And that is the central mystery, despite or because of all of the above that turns out nevertheless to be a three-way love story, and a deep and complex one.
Borne, the name given it by Rachel, is found as some kind of seeming semi-plant, semi-invertebrate, that she at first treats as such. But, as it turns out, it not only morphs into a larger and larger, more complex shape-shifter, but learns to speak, becomes childlike, and stepwise evolves into a peculiarly sophisticated intelligent and emotional being.
Rachel begins to treat it as a child, then more or less as a him, while Wick wants to take it apart for its parts—and while there is nothing sexual about it, the situation becomes a conflicting emotional triangle.
The macrostory involves the conflicts among the giant flying bear Mord and his minions (sort of allied to what’s left of the company) and the Magician and her minions, and the action climax is a battle between Mord and the full-grown shape-shifter Borne.
So much for the novel plot and its dering-do and daring-don’t, which taken on the surface seems like a confusing and even silly sci-fi or fantasy action thriller paying no attention, what with giant flying bears arbitrary shape-shifters, mutant beasts, and people, to any question of mimesis, like post-modern space opera on methedrine in a totally imaginary nowhereland.
But though some people will no doubt read Borne as a cautionary screed against the dangers of runaway biotech, this is not what VanderMeer’s real story is about. Borne’s major concerns are social, psychological, and moral. Not just how low, savage, and amoral human cultures can sink given a deep and desperate enough behavioral sink, but how specific individuals—Rachel and Wink—can very painfully evolve above it into beings capable of love.
And beside and beyond that, in the person of Borne, what indeed makes a consciousness a person, regardless of the physical package, or the ability to speak, or even to develop a sense of humor, let alone of caritas, which Borne rather forlornly and painfully seeks to become.
Is this novel, then, science fiction? Not really. Whether the runaway biotech that has created the physical situation makes any sense, whether it does or does not violate the known rules of mass and energy, is entirely beyond VanderMeer’s point. Is this novel fantasy? Not exactly either, since it introduces no such violation.
Is it speculative fiction? Since it is not fantasy, not set in our real present or past, what else is there for it to be? And why should we even care?
But is it mimetic or not? Therein lies a serious literary question.
Does speculative fiction have to be mimetic? Can it not speculate entirely within a context that has no connection to any reality but its own literary creation?
I have often said that the essence of true science fiction, real speculative fiction, is the two-way feedback between the consciousness of the characters and their external surround. So why not tales that speculate on the effects of entirely literary and even non-mimetic surrounds upon fictional consciousnesses and vice versa?
Non-mimetic paintings. Non-mimetic speculative fiction,
Of course straightforward fantasy has done this time out of mind. But things got blurry somewhere past the middle of the twentieth century when genre science fiction and genre fantasy began to be published together under the same commercial SF logo. The hard-boiled hard science fiction writers of the day, Gregory Benford most coherently among them, warned that in the end this would dilute mimetic science fiction into a kind of pseudo science fiction.
Cut to the present, what with superhero films and their tie-ins, open-ended sci-fi schlock franchises and their tie-ins, post-post-modern space opera, dominating so-called “SF.” This literary dilution, at least when it comes to Anglo-American “science fiction,” has long since come to pass.
So much for the dark side of the non-mimetic force.
But is there, or at least can there be, a light side to this force, something of positive literary value struggling to evolve, something not so different from the New Wave of the last third or so of the twentieth century? In the end, perhaps, what goes around may come around.
Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem have edited an anthology called Zion’s Fiction, a Treasury of Israeli Speculative Fiction, interestingly enough, not Israeli Science Fiction or Israeli SF. Israel is a small country with a potential readership of less than eight million people that did not really exist before 1948, and with an official language, Hebrew, that produced little if anything like speculative fiction before then either.
Therefore there was no real literary history of speculative fiction to speak of, whether in Hebrew, or even in English, in which many of these stories were originally written, before the 1950s. As in many non-Anglophone countries, what began to be published was American science fiction in the original English or in Hebrew translation.
But while the same thing was happening in various European countries during that period, some of them did have pre-World War II literary SF histories. Some, like Romania, were rather avant-garde, some, like Russia, were political underground literature in sheep’s clothing, others mimicking American schlock. However, Israel didn’t really exist as a culture at all; it had to create one out of European Holocaust refugees, a small extant native Jewish population, and Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Small wonder then that such a young cultural bouillabaisse would end up with its own version, or rather versions, of Israeli speculative fiction. Even as there is a divide in Israel between backward looking, religious, and mythical factions epitomized by Jerusalem, and dynamically modern Israelis epitomized by Tel Aviv, so the stories in this anthology epitomize two dominant threads of Israeli “speculative fiction”; mimetic science fiction, and more or less non-mimetic fantasy, though this being Israel, for better and for worse, they do often mix.
Some of the stories in Zion’s Fiction are more fantasy than speculative fiction, in that they are indifferent to any serious requirement of mimesis. “The Perfect Girl,” by Guy Hasson, for example, is straight fantasy, as are Rotem Baruchin’s “In the Mirror,” Savyon Librecht’s “A Good Place for the Night,” Elan Gomel’s “Death in Jerusalem,” Yael Furman’s “A Man’s Dream,” and Shimon Adaf’s “They Had To Move.”
There are vague speculative set-ups, but they are no more true speculative fiction than, say, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles collection of stories, or more often than not Harlan Ellison’s best stories, or many of the stories in Dangerous Visions, including my own “Carcinoma Angels,” or for that matter many of the recent winners of Nebulas for short fiction.
Those examples of fantasies in SF clothing don’t have very much else in common, but this stream of Israeli stories, one way or another, to one degree or another, do. The focus, the raison d’être, is internal, not external, more fearful and paranoiac than enlightening or hopeful. The quality of the writing is generally high, not surprising since Zion’s Fiction is an editorial selection of previously published tales. But there is something somewhat more noticeably Israeli than speculative here, the psychological flavor of the general literary culture of a country both ancient and recently born in historical terms, created and inhabited mostly by refugees, a nation that has never known true acceptance from the states bordering it.
But modern Israel is also as post-modern as a state can be in terms of cutting edge technological and scientific prowess, and another stream of science fiction from another Israeli culture, an up-to-date forward-looking popular culture—to oversimplify it, Tel Aviv versus Jerusalem. And a minority of the stories in Zion’s Fiction are from that fictional stream, modern Israel’s Fiction, as it were, rather than Zion’s.
“Burn Alexandria” by Keren Landsman may rely on somewhat rubbery science, but it is not just a simple time travel story. It’s a complexly quantum one, and written with a cutting edge flair. “Hunter of Stars” by Nava Semel may be based on a McGuffin that seems like fantasy, but aside from that extrapolates with believable mimesis. “White Curtain” by Pesakh (Pavel) Amnuel is more or less straight down the middle science fiction.
Lavie Tidhar is something well beyond that. His story here, “The Smell of Orange Groves,” seems to be either the opening of his Central Station novel, which may be a part of an ongoing series, whatever, I won’t go into that because I have already done so in a previous column here. But Tidhar is the best writer in this collection by a wide margin, not only the most significant writer of speculative fiction to come out of Israel, but one of the half dozen or so most interesting and cutting edge writers to emerge in the past few years from anywhere.
Which is not saying that “The Smell of Orange Groves,” set in a speculatively complex and fascinating future Tel Aviv, is not thoroughly Israeli. A coming of age of Israeli speculative fiction—and yes, it is thoroughly mimetic science fiction, and more than that, on the cutting edge of speculative fiction, period.
So in a way, Zion’s Fiction is really the condensed history not of “Zion’s” speculative fiction, which implies biblical roots in the long ago of the Jewish people, but of Israeli speculative fiction, which goes no further back than the existence of Israel itself, influenced in certain unique ways by the long pre-modern Israeli Jewish culture, but born, like so much of non-Anglo science fiction, mimicking American, and, to a lesser degree, British commercial science fiction, the so-called “pulp tradition” going back to a so-called “Golden Age of Science Fiction” in the 1930s.
And because modern Israeli speculative fiction only had brief roots in that “Sci Fi” tradition, it has not really simply evolved from such commercial “Sci-Fi,” but from a mish-mash thereof and its own Jewish cultural emphasis on the characters’ internal consciousnesses and struggles and the understandable paranoia, fears, and psychological negativities of a nation that in reality was born fighting surrounding enemies and still has no easy confidence of continued existence except its own proven technological and scientific superiority to its would-be destroyers.
In a way, then, the short history of Israeli speculative fiction is what the title says, a compressed backward version of the evolution of Anglo-American speculative fiction that was not born of the Sci-Fi Golden Age of the 1930s. A fiction that had a relatively brief secondhand brush with it in the 1950s, but since then has gone its own way—in which, perhaps because of its dominant emphasis on the psychology of the story characters over the exterior surround, with some exceptions, blurs the distinction between mimetic “science fiction” and anti-mimetic “fantasy.”
And, like it or not, this is becoming a literary trend in “speculative fiction” beyond the grandsons and granddaughters of the “Pulp Tradition.” This is in part because of the New Wave of the end of the last century, but also because “science fiction writers” no longer own literary speculative fiction, but share it with authors of talent who may be writing it but don’t really know much of anything about any literary science fiction history at all, or if they do, either don’t give a damn, or avoid “Sci-Fi’s” literary constrictions like the plague they have long since become.
These post-post modern speculative fiction writers may or may not really even know what the laws of mass and energy might be. On the one hand they don’t care about that sort of mimesis, but on the other hand, like the best of Latin American magic realists, once they create the laws of their own purely literary reality, they tend not to violate them by continuing to pull arbitrary rabbits out of their hats.
Beyond mimesis? Or faithfulness to mimesis of a different kind?
No one has gone further in this direction than Jeff Noon, not William Burrows or Samuel R. Delany, or J.G Ballard, or Michael Moorcock, and nothing that Noon has written has gone further in this direction than The Body Library, because it would seem to be impossible to do so.
Because the setting of this novel is a city called Storyville. This not only has no connection to any place else but the fiction that Noon has written but no reality at all save that of forthrightfully fictional stories, self-written, by its denizens, or purchased from writers, or told on the streets by poets and stand-ups for small change, and these changeable and intertwined stories are their lives.
By the rules of this reality these are their only lives. There are official “editors” of a kind who go around rating them, encouraging people to write better endings, threatening them if they don’t. You can mix your current life story with those of others. Indeed, you more or less can’t avoid doing so.
This novel, this city, this reality, is a collection of nothing really beyond fictional stories that are the lives of the characters, which can be rewritten by them or by others for good or evil. In Storyville, intertwined stories are reality, and writing nonfiction is frowned upon or perhaps even impossible.
And this novel is not a dystopia, taken as a set up, it’s a writer’s thoroughly mimetically impossible literary wet dream without being narcissistic. Jeff Noon is writing all the stories that make the novel in total, but all the characters are not only writing their stories too, they rewrite them.
Into this entirely fictional reality—in both senses of the term—Noon drops his private eye John Nyquist from another entirely different but equally non-mimetic city, that of another novel, A Man of Shadows, where part of the city lives in perpetual night, and the other in perpetual light.
Nyquist is still the same hard-boiled loser with a heart of poached egg, and is hired to tail someone who is perhaps part of one or more cabals planning bad rewrites of the Storyville stories, somehow centered on the Body Library of the title, a mysterious condo building inhabited by the alternate rewritten versions of people outside, living and dead. This seems itself to be a different non-mimetic reality.
I will not attempt to explain more of the overall story of this novel or the inner stories of the characters who exist as various versions of their own multiplex rewrites, except to assure the would-be readers that Jeff Noon actually makes it work.
The Body Library the novel, and what goes on inside the Body Library the building, and the nature of Storyville the city being what they are, it takes a master storyteller to make it work, which Jeff Noon is. He is much better at it than any pulp traditional writers who believe the plots are the stories, for here the interweaving stories are the plot. But it also takes a masterly stylistic artist too; for after all, in our reality it is Jeff Noon who has written every line of every story within it.
This is as far beyond mimesis as fiction can get, speculative or fantasy. But in the dramatic climax, Nyquist is the central character in two divergent stories at the same time (whatever that means here), one near death in a hospital bed, the other within the Body Library, that only converge at the end.
But whether Noon is conversant with quantum indeterminism or not, there is a theory that makes this possible at least on the rubber science level where a simplified version has been fairly often used, nor can it be definitively disproven.
Gregory Benford, a scientist as well as a science fiction writer whose day job has long been quantum cosmology, surely knows this, and in his novel Rewrite uses it to argue that a sort of time-travel of a quantum sideways kind could be mimetically possible.
Uncountable stories have been written around the basic paradox that makes time travel impossible, namely if you go back in time to kill your father, you wouldn’t exist in the present to go back to do it. If you could change the past to change the present that sent you back, you couldn’t return to the same present. Any future that somehow changed its past couldn’t be the same future that did it.
Not the same future.
But an alternate future?
Not the same present but an alternate present?
Not an alternate present but an all but infinite numbers of timelines not in one universe, but in a multiplexity of universes.
According to one version of quantum cosmology, this is not only possible but inevitable. When any event whose indeterminism collapses into one deterministic reality it creates a universe timeline, but other timelines still exist indeterminately, so that multiplex realities exfoliate from any significant event.
In theory then, chez quantum mechanics, or at least in a rubber science version thereof, if you kill your father it may create a timeline in which you did not exist to do it, but in another you didn’t and you do.
Or something like that. I’ll leave the deep quantum physics explanation to Benford, who does a far better job in Rewrite than I could ever do, more than making the novel mimetic speculative fiction in literary terms really requires.
Charlie Moment in his middle age dies in a car crash and finds his adult consciousness in his teenage body back in his teenage past with all his memories in between intact. No explanation of how this happens or can happen is offered by Benford, so this much is left as fantasy. This sort of story has been written as straightforward fantasy before, and is probably a species of dream many people have actually experienced.
But what the teenage Charlie does with the memories of his future adulthood is something else again. Charlie remembers what is to become, which includes the memories of films and TV series to come, what will be big hits, what will have pop culture and political significance, who will direct what, who the stars will be, and so forth.
So he goes to Hollywood and becomes the boy genius rising up the totem pole like a rocket, since he can predict the winners from memory.
This part of the story is probably the best Hollywood novel ever written and not a comedy, all the more so because Benford has the chutzpah, his own showbiz memory, and the willingness and academic skill to do what may be necessary to enhance it. Charlie Moment becomes a Crown Prince of Hollywood. He knows everyone of cinematic consequence before they make the movies that will make them, picking out the future winners so perfectly that he becomes a producing wizard.
Chutzpah? Benford uses the real people by name and even as characters. And gets them right, if you’ve been in the know. To my knowledge, and I’ve been a film critic of some importance and a sometime screenwriter, no one has ever tried to do anything like this and pulled it off. In showbiz terms, mimesis to the max.
And that’s not the whole novel. Without giving too much away, it turns out that some other people, like Charlie, get transported to other timelines when they die, with their memories intact, and over and over again, so that for them suicide becomes a kind of sideways time line machine that gives them a strange kind of immortality moving sidewise up the multiplex timelines.
Benford offers no rationale as to why some people have this multiplex immortality and most people don’t. How can he? This is the only fantasy given, hitting a serve without the net, but playing the rest of the game mimetically.
In this part of the novel, Benford also uses real people as such immortal characters. Einstein. Fermi. Casanova. Philip K. Dick. Robert Heinlein, among others, engaged in a complex multiplex timeline struggle that may be a bit of perceived obligatory action plot to the point where the preceding Hollywood story could have stood alone as a great novel.
Not that the last part of Rewrite doesn’t have its own merits. How can it not when Benford, in the same manner, uses such real people of true stature as his speculative characters? And played the little joke of introducing his own twin brother James as the author of Timescape, which he wrote himself in “our reality “ thus reminding us that Rewrite is a collection of multiplex other possible versions of the timeline present of the reader.
Thus Gregory Benford, who championed playing the literary game within the net of scientific mimesis back in the day, ends up confronting the paradox of the need to go beyond mimesis a little bit in order to write what is a successful novel of true speculative fiction.
Or does he?
True, he cannot offer a mimetic explanation of why some people have cross-timelines multiple mortality while most people don’t. But seemingly paradoxical modern physics, quantum and otherwise, may be turning out to be becoming not a scientific restriction enclosing literary speculative fiction, not a seeming constriction of mimesis, but a paradoxical doorway beyond.
Copyright © 2019 Norman Spinrad