Outside the Tent
by Norman Spinrad
CLOUD CUCKOO LAND
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HOW HIGH WE GO IN THE DARK
William Morrow Paperbacks $17.99
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PROJECT HAIL MARY
Ballantine Books $20.00
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John Elizabeth Stintzi
Two Dollar Radio $17.99
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What today is a publishing genre called variously SF or sci-fi is also a tribe. The fandom thereof was born less than a century ago, but the literature that is now described as science fiction or, more recently, speculative fiction is older than that—older, in fact, than the name itself.
Going backward, it is at least as old as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Neither of these novels was called “science fiction” when first published, because the literary term did not then exist. And neither Shelley nor Twain wrote any more such fiction, even though these two novels are generally regarded as the first fully science fictional novels by historical critics. They have been endlessly republished as science fiction, and, in the case of Frankenstein, turned into zillions of movies and still counting.
Going a little further forward, while Jules Verne did mostly write what we call science fiction today, H.G. Wells wrote something we now definitely call science fiction, but many other things that obviously are not. While Verne created a proto-genre for himself that would become science fiction, Wells rather looked down on what Verne was writing as literarily inferior to his more highbrow work.
So while Hugo Gernsback did invent “scientifiction,” which quickly became a pulp magazine genre called science fiction, and soon enough developed science fiction fandom, quite a bit of science fiction did continue to be written by writers who were not within the sci-fi tent. A healthy amount of such fiction continues to be written by “serious literary writers” and likewise published outside the genre tent. Aldous Huxley, Margaret Atwood, and Doris Lessing are a few obvious examples.
However, the times they have been a-changing, beginning with Star Trek. Star Trek had about twenty million people viewing science fiction every week. Overnight, this turned science fiction from a genre specialty into a cultural generality as widely known and literarily understood as Wild West or detective fiction or the historical novel.
And then came Star Wars and superheroes. Science fiction fandom continued to exist inside the genre tent, even growing, and genre writers continued to be raised and indeed captured within it. Yet, science fiction, or SF, has long come to be the dominant cultural genre of films, television, video games, and so forth.
But roughly at the same time, if nowhere near as lucrative, there came a literary movement, named the New Wave by the critic Judith Merril, championed by Michael Moorcock, new editor of the former genre science fiction magazine New Worlds, who turned it into something different. Merril and Moorcock, and a little later, well, me, believed that so-self called serious literary literature had reached a dead end, while genre SF had become—or to some had always been—literally jejune.
As I put it at the time, “Genre science fiction writes about serious matters literately primitively while so-called serious literary artists use their superior literary artistry to consider their own belly-buttons.”
Who won? Well, arguably both and neither.
Following the economic bottom line, genre SF has won hands down, and “the New Wave” had to become Speculative Fiction in order to keep the “SF” logo just in case.
But, on the other hand, there has been a vice versa. Now what is published and sold as science fiction, or genre SF or speculative fiction, has the freedom to be just about anything in style and content. As I put it now, the price of liberty is taking care of business.
And of late, there is another vice versa. Writers of genuine literary stature who have not emerged from the genre tent are writing science fiction; likewise would-be literary lions. Some are writing works that are predominantly or even entirely speculative or even hard science fiction, but also injecting bits or significant chapters of science fiction into novels that otherwise are indifferent or simply ignorant of the laws of mass and energy.
Sometimes it can work, sometimes it doesn’t, and perhaps it can be both. Take the current prime example, Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr. Doerr won a Pulitzer Prize for a previous novel that had nothing at all to do with science fiction, and Cloud Cuckoo Land was both a top best seller and considered a major serious literary triumph by those who award such laurels.
And far be from me to say it was not deserved. Doerr is a master of both literary style and mimetic description, and he has not only done exhaustive political, military, cultural, architectural, literary, and even language homework going back over thousands of years, but used it all to create a story that works.
Actually several stories, via several different main and minor characters, not only covering classical Greece, the war between Christians and Muslims for Istanbul AKA Constantinople, the 1950’s Korean War, Middle America in the same era, and much additional such stuff.
This would be a unique masterly historical novel, but it is more than that. This novel is both brilliantly mimetic and out and out fantasy, when Doerr wants to break the laws of mass and energy as if he just doesn’t give a damn.
But Doerr is much more cunning than that, much more lovingly literary, and, in a way, the overriding hero of this novel is the written word itself.
There is an overarching story to this long and complex novel, and, in a way, Doerr has chosen to write it as both mimetic and fantastic. How can a story be both? Easily enough if, like Doerr, you simply decide that the true reality of both is the literality of both.
But Doerr cunningly takes it further. The story of Cloud Cuckoo Land is the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land down through the ages, shifting from one name, and even one language, to another.
Like the unwritten words of Homer, perhaps first written down on stone, fragments found, bits and pieces put together, turned into a written story, a stage play in a middle American high school, all of which is downloaded into the AI library of a generation starship.
What is this immortal story? In simple terms, the longing of all people in all cultures to attain their own better immortal lives in a heaven, an Ultima Thule, their own personal land above, their Cloud Cuckoo Land.
And here, in Doerr’s version, this is literature itself, his own Cloud Cuckoo Land—pure, eternal, neither mimesis nor fantasy, the Ding An Rich itself.
Including science fiction. Why not include it in a multi-reality novel among the mimetic histories, humans turning into donkeys, and vice versa? From Doerr’s point of view, it’s all literature, all fictional—and as science fiction has long since escaped the genre tent into the general culture, why can’t the general culture, even a hodgepodge of the literature thereof, appropriate science fiction for its own usage?
Appropriated by writers who have never been in the tent, such as Doerr, who have respected it enough to learn how to do it. Among the backs and forths of times and fanciful realities, there is a girl living in a generation starship, not very central, until the finale. This is straight science fiction, maybe even hard science fiction, and Doerr has the chops to do it.
For those who may have spent enough time inside the genre tent, this is a rather conventional generation starship. Earth has suffered some terrible catastrophe and sent the starship out to the nearest habitable planet. No faster than light rubber science here—it’s going to take four hundred years, meaning that several generations will be born and die inside the ship, and they know it. There’s some hibernation aboard, but the ship can’t put everyone into hibernation at the same time because there would not be enough food and air to do so.
Doerr uses this science fiction premise to not only tie everything together plotwise, but as the epitome of his story, the ultimate Cloud Cuckoo Land.
The ship is run by an AI that is also the ultimate library that contains all history, all art, all mapping, all science, all fiction, all everything that was the lost Earth—and not only that, but as virtual realities in which the generations aboard the starship can live and meet with anything and anyone lost from Earth.
A universal Cloud Cuckoo Land for each and every one.
That Doerr’s denouement at the end may make you groan at what seems like it was there to make a sort of genre happy ending can surely be forgiven. This is not a “science fiction novel” by page count or intent. This is a successful use of a science fictional element in a multi fictional literary novel.
More and more fiction like this may be coming out, but all too much of it reads as if the writers don’t know the differences among mimetic fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, or don’t give a damn. Or, even worse, don’t even understand that there even are such differences in the “real world.” Or that there is any real world at all.
To some extent, an Anthony Doerr or Philip K. Dick or William Burroughs or Michael Moorcock can make such a literary premise work. But if you don’t have the chops and the dramatic education, the result can become gibberish, even if you are excellent on the prose level.
For example, My Volcano, by John Elizabeth Stinzi. This novel was a Novel of the Week in Publishers Weekly.
Stinzi has apparently been primarily a poet, and on that level My Volcano is impressive; they write quite well on the prose level, even on the mimetic description level, even in dialoge. But while this may work on those levels, on the dramatic level, My Volcano is not really a novel but a gibberish conglomerate of characters in different time zones, different realities, often at the same times, broken contradictory pieces of beings and consciousnesses, humans, animals, hive minds, whatever. . . .
I suspect that My Volcano was primarily put together from poems, probably long ones, probably modern poetry indifferent to rime, rhyme, or mimesis, and perhaps even good poetry. Even this nonnovel shows that Stinzi can write very well, mimetically, realistically, amusingly, and even realistic science fiction bits when they want to, that seem to demonstrate knowledge and respect for the existence of the laws of mass and energy.
But this is not a successful science fiction novel, not even a successful novel like Cloud Cuckoo Land, which uses science fiction as science fictional element in a multi fictional literary novel, though Stinzi shows capability to do that. It is not successful because they do not appear to understand that it is drama and emotion that make a real story.
Not that much genre SF, particularly on the novel level, has not regarded plot to serve as story, conflict as drama, emotion as good guys versus bad guys, us versus them, we versus the other.
From Gernsback’s “scientifiction,” through the pulp magazines, and when science fiction books came to be published as a genre after World War II, science fiction was generally regarded as fiction for “young adults.” It was published for that market, and when the books made it into the libraries as often as not they were regarded as “non-adult” literature.
This quarantine of science fiction affected the genre’s subject matter. What was and was not suitable for innocent minds was of course defined by self-created “adults,” not the readership. Until about the 1960s, this more or less meant simple prose, no sex, no adventurous revolutionary questioning of the politics and culture that be.
Yes, the New Wave was both created and a creator of the 1960’s cultural revolution. It kicked down those jams, and yes, did enrich general fiction with scientific speculation, but in retrospect so-called “serious literature” largely failed to enrich science fiction. To put it more fairly, science fiction largely failed to learn what was and always has been what makes real stories true literature.
What the classical Greeks knew from the beginning: that the best and fullest stories were dramas, and dramas touched and raised not merely the mind but also, and indeed centrally, the heart and spirit—in a word, emotion.
In retrospect, what the New Wave didn’t really see was that so-called serious contemporary and so-called modern literature had come to lack not just speculative imagination, but also touching emotional drama. And so did much of the New Wave’s own philosophical speculation, despite its adventurous stylistic prose and structure.
Even now, much, if not most, science fiction, even much of the otherwise best of it in terms of speculation and story telling, still rarely creates drama centered on emotion.
How High We Go in the Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu, is a true science fiction novel that does.
Sequoia Nagamatsu is a professor of university level creative writing, an editor of a magazine of innovative prose, and so on and so forth and plenty of it— in other words, a literary intellectual who has written some short stories, but no other novel, speculative fiction or not.
Yet this novel would be accepted as sophisticated and knowledgeable science fiction by any readership thereof. If not a sure bet to win a Hugo or a Nebula, it certainly is better science fiction than many novels that have.
In the near future a pandemic is killing overwhelming numbers of people worldwide, enough to endanger homo sapiens’ very existence. It causes the DNA to mish-mash human bodies to produce livers where hearts should be, hearts where stomachs should be, and so forth, resulting in slow inevitable agonizing death that the victim knows is going to happen.
Worse still, from a certain point of view, babies and children are not only the most vulnerable, but are carriers.
This is the scientific setup, and Nagamatsu makes it as all too real as the hardest science fiction. Of course some of the central characters are scientists combating the plague, but the story, at least the majority of it, is about the culture, the consciousness, the emotions, the despair of dying people who know they are doomed to die slowly and horribly in the despairing culture of a dying human race.
This is a future where inevitable death is the major business. Hotels designed to die in. Burials and fancy funerals, Disneylands for children to die in, even a roller coaster for children to die on peacefully by passing in a 10-g drop.
Yes, there are scientists and doctors doing what doctors and scientists must try to do heroically, but a central character is a more or less ordinary man who works in this death business, in the death hotels, the death preparations and funerals, a kind of worker in the death pornography, an accompanist of the dying, and particularly as the accompanist of innocent and not so innocent children inevitably going to their final roller coaster ride, chosen for their ends by their parents or even themselves.
But he is no heartless monster. Far from it. He suffers from doing the work that people like him must do. People who do suffer for doing what someone must willingly do, and therefore are moral heroes and heroines.
And therefore this turns this genuine science fiction novel into much more than genre SF. This raises How High We Go in the Dark into genuine tragedy, and therefore drama.
Nagamatsu is an American born in Hawaii and raised in a Japanese American family. While I am not at all of Japanese descent, I have long been interested in Japanese art, history, cuisine, and culture, and enjoyed a little time in Japan. There seems to be something subtly Japanese about the attention he pays, almost to a fault toward the end, to family life, family loves, family relationships, family regrets, family realities in this science fiction novel.
Not that Japanese American novelists are the only American novelists who center novels around family life, but it certainly is something rare in most American science fiction, and that adds additonal literary depth to this novel.
Yes, the last quarter of the novel takes place on a colonial starship seeking to find another livable planet, but there is no faster than light rubber science denying the law of mass and energy. This is a scientifically rendered and believable hibernational colonial starship, and the only quibble might be, literally, that Nagamatsu has used it to give us a rather generic happy ending.
But much more important is that a science fiction novel written by a university literary intellectual such as Nagamatsu demonstrates that by now science fiction has entered general fiction as a respected literary element, beyond mere genre.
And an out and out thoroughly hard science fiction novel such as Project Hail Mary, written by a novelist like Andy Weir, has been successfully published as simply a novel.
Weir’s first novel, The Martian, was as hard science fiction as hard science fiction could get. It was the story of a single astronaut marooned on Mars. And this is the real Mars as we currently know it—lifeless, killingly cold, without a breathable atmosphere. It depicts how he manages nevertheless to survive using technology and ruins left by the team that mistakenly left him there.
Weir first self-published The Martian. It was then republished by a major publisher, became a best seller, and was turned into a successful movie.
What did that mean? Well, obviously it meant that well-written science fiction, even hard-core science fiction, could not only be written and published outside the genre tent, but succeed and prosper. Meaning that now there existed a large popular readership within our general modern culture knowingly eager to read such science fiction.
Project Hail Mary is such hard science fiction, even more so. But Weir takes hard science fiction into the realm of drama, morality, true friendship with the other, and even self-sacrifice of choice.
Hard science fiction by any possible definition, and on that rises to genuine literature by any reasonable emotional measure.
Ryland Grace was a significant scientist who discredited himself by championing the concept that life could not only exist beyond the Goldilocks Zone, but even without oxygen, water, or carbon. He lost his stature and became a high school science teacher.
But a particle stream of something, a life form or not a life form depending on your definition, entered our Solar System and started eating our sun. Unless it was stopped, it would destroy all life on Earth in a matter of decades. Ryland Grace became a key part of the scientific program to combat it for the very reason that he had been right about the possibility of such a life form.
However . . .
It then turned out that the same thing was happening to other suns in the galactic vicinity. And then that the Tau Ceti sun was somehow immune. So it was desperately and ruthlessly decided to send a team of four volunteers to Tau Ceti to find out how, and somehow use this information to save our sun.
Thus the title Project Hail Mary. It would be a desperate Hail Mary, because it would take more than human lifetimes to get there. Meaning they would have to go in questionable hibernation and the chances of surviving were dubious. Very few humans had the DNA that would even give them the possibility of surviving.
The four volunteers knew that their chances of returning alive were as dubious as there being an Earth to return to unless they could succeed and send back the solution. But after all, if no one tried, everyone was sure to die anyway.
Four heroic volunteers.
But one of the volunteers who had the right DNA died in an explosion too close to the launch date to find another volunteer, and Grace, who was conned into believing he had been chosen because of his scientific knowledge, was actually also chosen because he had the right DNA.
He refused to volunteer for almost certain death. But that didn’t matter. They ruthlessly hibernated him and shoved him into the spacecraft, and he woke up alone, with only the ship’s AI, the three volunteers having died.
Thus the hard science fiction set up, and it is masterly and convincingly done as the ship approached Tau Ceti. But it turned out that an alien spaceship was likewise approaching Tau Ceti, because the same thing was happening to another solar system and its likewise desperate beings had likewise sent out the same sort of mission. And likewise, all of them but one had died.
Thus a first contact story, but one like no other. On a scientific level, these aliens were like no other literary aliens anyone but Grace had imagined. Not merely physically different, but coming from a planet too hot for human life, where breathing oxygen if, there was any, would be deadly poison. They breathed ammonia, the life giver in their atmosphere.
Weir makes this scientifically credible, but this is no conventional first contact on a higher personal and literary level. These two beings were on the same quest to save their planets, and they are alone except for each other. They do not fight each other, they become allies because they have to, and the scientific story of how they manage to do it is top grade hard science fiction on a technological level, and exciting on a plot level.
But what makes Project Hail Mary more than that on a dramatic level, on a moral level, on an emotional level, is that slowly the human and the alien become deeper and deeper friends. From the point of view of each of them, they are no longer “the Other.” Indeed, they become comrades, who come to love each other, on an entirely impossible physical level, and to love each other’s races, on a moral, and personal level.
When they find their scientific solution, both say their fond farewells and part to take it to their home worlds, but the story does not stop there.
Something happens to the alien’s ship that makes it impossible for Grace’s friend to take the solution back to his planet by himself. Grace can take the solution home, or he can save his friend’s people. If he chooses to save the aliens, all he can do is send the solution back to Earth without himself, and he will be unable to live long enough to know whether it is going to get there before he dies. Or whether the Earth is still there.
Which does he do?
Which would you do?
What does Weir do?
Weir seems to be unable to avoid softening the question with a standard plotline answer, but the question itself is really the epitome of this drama, and cannot really be answered without one kind of tragedy or another.
When Lyndon Johnson was asked why he kept J. Edgar Hoover, a man he despised and who despised him, as the leader of the FBI, he answered, “Better in the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”
Better still than either, take down the tent.
Copyright © 2022 Norman Spinrad