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On Books

by Norman Spinrad


RELIC by Alan Dean Foster
$7.99 Random House


by Brandon Q. Morris $14.99

When I was about ten years or so old, meaning somewhen in the 1950s, I was given as a birthday present a book called The Earth Among the Stars. This was a popular introduction to the science of astronomy; that is, what was believed to be true at the time about our own planet in our own Solar System and their places among the stars in our Galaxy.

What was generally agreed was that what was then called the Solar System was a chance rarity, that another star had wandered close enough to the Sun to pull enough mass out of it to form the Solar System, ipso facto a very rare occurrence indeed.

By the time I read The Earth Among the Stars I was already reading science fiction. In literary terms, this literature that was set in a future could be traced back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and even further back to fantastic myths of trips to the Moon, long before Hugo Gernsback christened it “scientifiction” in Amazing Stories, the very first pulp magazine publishing what swiftly became what was called science fiction.

In the 1950s, stories set beyond the planet Earth had long since come to dominate science fiction; and indeed, to kids like me who read the stuff and to the general public at large who didn’t read it at all, science fiction and space travel had become more or less synonymous. Rockets to the Moon. Spaceships to Mars and Venus and even beyond.

There were two sorts of genuine science fiction at the time.

What became called “hard science fiction,” which attempted to extrapolate futures set within the bounds of at least known science, and therefore credible future technology. And more or less everything else, which took literary advantage of everything not known to be impossible.

At the time this could include not only imaginary biospheres on Mars and Venus but alien civilizations and even beyond, since there was no scientific knowledge at the time to make such things impossible.

When it came to the Earth and the Solar System of our singular Sun among the stars, it was still scientific belief that while another solar system out there in the Galaxy was not impossible, it was quite unlikely. Then, too, the speed of light had long since been mathematically proven to be the universal limit of anything moving. And it would take a spaceship over four years to reach the nearest star even at the speed of light.

However, these two cold equations did not confine literary science fiction to the hard stuff. Or at least not exactly. It meant what I was much later to call “rubber science”—a certain dose of compulsory bullshit—was needed to get humans out there to the stars. While there was probably no other solar system out there, and therefore not even another biosphere, let alone an alien civilization, that at least was a negative that could never be proven.

Thus SF more or less distinguished itself from fantasy in more or less literary terms. More because fantasy not only allowed elements of the known impossible, but required them in order to be fantasy.

Less because it did allow faster than light travel, proven to be impossible, via all sorts of rubber science, when it came to stories set way Out There because it was a literary necessity.

So to be theoretical about it, all science fiction set outside our Solar System, the very central heart and soul of the genre for the people who do read it, and the central image of that sci-fi stuff for people who don’t, really is a specific sub-form of fantasy.

Even I myself, who coined the phrase “rubber science,” certainly can’t say that I’ve never used it to write stories and novels set outside our own Solar System. The Void Captain’s Tale and Child of Fortune, for example, set some three thousand years in a galactic future when the extrasolar human culture has perfect knowledge of all the scientific realities of mass and energy except one.

The one that allowed me to write the novels. The faster than light travel, which humanity inherited from a mysterious long gone alien civilization. Which they could use but not understand. The tale of a cultural singularity made possible to be written by a necessary literary singularity.

Bullshit that made literary flowers of science fiction grow. Without some form of it, no Frank Herbert’s Dune, no Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, no Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, much of Heinlein’s fiction, Larry Niven’s, Gregory Benford’s, Poul Anderson’s, and so forth. Worthy literature, serious literature, even some great science fiction, that simply could not be written without it.

Sophisticated and serious writers of science fiction had to know they were doing this because they had to—and unlike writers of fantasy whose stories were set in the known impossible, felt, and still do, that their literary tool boxes should be used to create what is called “suspension of disbelief.”

Grant us one little exception, folks, and we will play the rest of the game with the net of the known laws of mass and energy up, as Gregory Benford not only puts it but plays it.

But of course science fiction writers of such intent and ability were always the tip of the iceberg, and science fiction from the very beginning of its pulp magazine publication was dominantly adventure entertainment, good guys versus bad guys, humans versus aliens, heroes versus monsters.

Space opera, as it came to be called by people who looked down on it. Fantasy in science fiction clothing whose writers didn’t really care jack shit about the laws of mass and energy or suspension of disbelief and whose readership didn’t require it to enjoy the entertainment.

Later on, those who did care accused the speculative fiction of the New Wave of something similar—not really being science fiction, centered on cultural and political matters, written in prose styled to call attention to itself, and indifferent to scientific verisimilitude.

Although, of course, there were writers who tried to do both things in the same novels or stories, and there were writers who wrote in both modes separately. In calmer retrospect, the culture war within “science fiction” was not really a literary conflict but an argument between two different brands stuck with the same brand name.

But all that changed in 1992 with the first discovery of an extrasolar planet. Science fiction of any kind has yet to fully understand and deal with what was the first glimmer of the most dramatic revelation in the entire history of Homo sapiens, and therefore the future of human culture. And therefore the future of its literature. And therefore of science fiction.

*   *   *

It may be impossible for the negative to be proven, but for sure it’s easy enough for a negative to be disproven: all it takes is one positive example. Before 1992, the negative belief that there were no solar systems in the Galaxy but our own could not be disproved, and then the first extrasolar planet was discovered.

And another, and another, and another, until, at this writing, there are over four thousand, with the count forever rising so fast that the next one, or the next hundred, is hardly even news.

In one corner of an arm of one galaxy with billions, or maybe trillions, of stars, there appear to be more planets than stars. In a universe where there are trillions, or quadrillions, or infinillions of galaxies.

This is our now. Any so-called “sci-fi” that denies it can only be glaringly ignorant. But what of our future? While the negative proposal that there are no other biospheres Out There has yet to be disproven, the instruments are getting better and better, and it’s quite possible that the first one will be discovered before I even finish writing this.

That is the immediate future. What about a century from now or even a few decades? What about other sentient species Out There? Is it possible that we are alone? This negative has yet to be disproven. We humans are now in the process of searching for extraterrestrial life, and by then, with even more advanced technology, I wouldn’t bet the farm against it.

Nor should SF—by definition the only possible literature that can, and indeed must, extrapolate the future without denying the total reality in which it is written. Including the light-speed limit.

*   *   *

As most fiction writers have been, I’ve often been asked why I’ve written something, and my semi-smartass answer is “Because I wanted to read something like it, but no one wrote it for me, so I had to do it myself.”

So, as a reader, I wanted to read some good science fiction addressing the above. And as a critic, who wasn’t getting any such thing from the publishers, and for the most part had to buy what I wanted to review myself, I did the inevitable and searched not with Google but with Amazon. For better and for worse, Amazon sells virtually every book that is published, paper or ebook, by a commercial publisher or by self-publishers, because one way or the other, there is no other viable choice.

And, conveniently, you can search science fiction, subgenres of science fiction, titles of books, authors’ names, and get a PR pitch of everything, as complete a summary of all that is on offer as is possible in an hour or two.

That is the better. What I found is mostly the worse.

Something like 70 percent of the “science fiction,” AKA “sci-fi,” novels were parts of series, and/or first novels that announced that they were first novels in projected series. At least half of them were really fantasy in science fiction clothing. To make matters worse, Amazon makes no distinction between novels bought, edited, and published by actual publishers, and self-published books and ebooks that anyone could create and distribute via nothing but Amazon itself. What is more, there is really no way of telling how many of the novels were entirely self-published, because the self-publishing writers tended to put “publishing” names of nonexistent publishers on their product.

But okay, I could search through “hard science fiction” to make my search more specific. And there were virtually all novels by well-known writers that were still in print and were the real deal and many novels that might be the real deal, by unknown writers from unknown publishers that might be the real deal even though being self-published.

However, among reams of this sort of thing, Amazon does catalog two novels under “Hard Science Fiction” that, allowing a little bit of suspension of disbelief in the proven light speed limit via the usual sort of rubber science bullshit, do belong there if anything really does: Relic, by Alan Dean Foster, and Transformation, by James Gunn.

Both of these novels postulate alien civilizations out there in our Galaxy, with Homo sapiens having made it to the transcultural complexity, given a few thousand years or so. Both of them have been well written by writers who have long since proven that they have the chops.

Neither of them have violated the known realties of mass and energy, except of course E = mc2. So if anything can deserve to be called hard science fiction, these novels do, and likewise anything and everything written within these parameters during the long literary history of so-called hard science fiction. And there are those, including myself, who would contend that they define true science fiction itself.

But while both Relic and Transformation are set in transolar futures including many alien civilizations, they both transcend space opera that deserves to be called space opera. Each in its way attempts political, psychological, cultural, personal, and even moral dimensions, and each of them succeeds in its way, which is to say they rise above the intents of space opera.

In Relic, humanity was accepted as an equal by the advanced alien cultures out there, and indeed colonized many solar systems and attained similar cultural levels. But not really political and moral levels. The higher alien civilizations might strive against each other territorially, but with civilized manners, not warfare. Humans, however, still had not attained such moral and political sophistication and still fell into the usual tribal warfare writ large.

This is the back history of Alan Dean Foster’s galactic future, as long fallen classic Greece and Rome is of ours. In its real time, Homo sapiens have become extinct, via a totally lethal and totally infectious virus, whether natural or a bioweapon that got out of hand.

Foster leaves this hanging, for the reader and the surviving alien civilizations. Disconcerting given Covid-19. Foster could not have written Relic after the illness arrived, but an all too relevant moral question arises that he may have intended.

As we regard the ruins, physical and cultural, of Rome and Classical Greece, so do alien cultures in Foster’s future galaxy regard lost humanity—only more so, even though Homo sapiens was a troubling species not entirely regarded as having been civilized. Warlike they were, morally infantile maybe, but a fascinating lost culture, admired when safely gone.

Fascinating for alien species who competed with each other more in their knowledge than in territory and economics; though they did that too, in various levels of legalistic gentility. They are delighted by the unexpected discovery of Ruslan, the last existing human being.

Ruslan, the living relic of the title, is found by aliens who even he considers “nice,” much nicer than his own extinct species ever was. They treat him ambiguously as a pet, a celebrity, a curiosity, a hero, but never a villain, and are determined to use his DNA to recreate humanity, something his alien friends have to coddle him into.

For Ruslan has fully adopted their culture, as they have warmheartedly adopted him. They can only convince him, by helping him find the mythic lost Earth if he agrees, or do it anyway, albeit with more difficulty. They must convince him, because in their culture, in the legality of this multispecies culture, they cannot do it by force, even if their morality would allow them to do it, which it wouldn’t.

Indeed, when he was kidnapped by a less “nice” rival, all they could or would do was try to convince him that he would be happier with them because their culture is more like what they imagine human culture had been. When Ruslan chooses to stay where he is, they release him, simply telling him that he would still be welcome if he changes his mind.

Without going too far into the plot, which might ruin a reader’s enjoyment of an excellent hard science fiction novel that contains unusual political, cultural, and moral depth, it’s fair to say that the book tells the story with the scientific net up, though it does have a dramatically questionable deus ex machina ending.

Except of course for the one inevitable piece of rubber science even something like Relic requires to be written at all, denying that unfortunate fact that nothing can exceed the speed of light.

Most anyone who reads this sort of science fiction and not just space opera must surely know this, and certainly anyone writing it has to. The writer must use literary means to create the aforementioned suspension of disbelief, and the reader more or less chooses to accept it.

I’ve done this occasionally as a writer, and more times than I can remember as a reader. How could I not—without limiting my reading of science fiction to stories set within the orbit of Pluto, or perhaps a light-year or so beyond?

And I must admit that upon occasion I even read series novels, though it does piss me off when what I thought to be a stand-alone novel (getting so rare that they have their own genre label) ends in a cliff-hanger. So why did I choose to read, and now even recommend, Transformation, knowing that it was the third novel in a series without any guarantee that it would be the last one?

Because the author was James Gunn.

So when I was looking for a serious science fiction novel set Out There, in a believable multi-sapient galactic culture, on such a more sophisticated non-space opera level—something my searches in Amazon revealed had alas become a rare avis—I was drawn to Transformation, even knowing it was the third novel in a series I hadn’t followed.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

James Gunn’s series is set in different eras of his same galactic culture, which evolves technologically, and politically. By the timeframe of Transformation the upper civilizations have created a galactic federation akin to the one in Star Trek, and indeed Gunn may have been influenced by it. But Gunn takes it in another more realistic and somewhat cynical direction.

His federation began as something like the European Union or the United Nations, or what was the British Empire, and humanity arrived as a developing country, fighting a war against the federation to a standstill, and at the time of Transformation was still a probationary member.

This federation hasn’t devolved into a dictatorship per se, but into somewhat smug and nanny bubble bureaucratic rule, the top level of which is not biologically evolved beings, but AIs tending to rather stiffly follow their given algorithmic rules.

James Gunn does as good a job as possible in bringing those readers who haven’t encountered the first two books up to date. Some humans have been transformed into beings with higher, advanced, and even more advanced consciousness, but not exactly more intelligence. Instead they are more rational, and in a way more moral. They can be passionate, they can act emotionally, but they evaluate what they want to do even while they are doing it logically and morally in realtime.

Outlying federation members are going silent and/or losing their sentience and digressing into the animal beings from which their species evolved, and whatever is causing this is moving steadily toward the center. So the plot of the novel consists of a team of humans and other natural beings connected to the master AI sent to find out what or who the enemy is.

Without giving too much away, I think I can reveal that what is happening turns out not to be the result of invasion or a virus or anything that they can find on the planets they search. Their civilizations have gone silent because some unknown invisible mental weapon has cleaned the minds of their sentient populations of cultural memories and sophisticated and moral consciousness.

So James Gunn has carried the framework of the galactic space opera about as far as it can be taken in such deep and sophisticated terms. Again, anyone setting their story in a galactic civilization has to bullshit the usual rubber science past the light-speed limit, without which it really can’t be written.

Or must they?

No being can travel faster than the speed of light, so it would take decades, centuries, millennia, to travel around a galactic civilization. But there is nothing really saying that, given enough time, advanced enough science couldn’t give its species millennial lifespans, or indeed even immortality as long as that of the universe itself.

The Death of the Universe, by Brandon Q. Morris, does just that. The final era of the impending heat death of our Universe is the timeline of his novel. His characters are immortal beings who certainly consider themselves humans, who cannot break the light-speed limit, but to whom taking millennia to go from here to there Out There is no personal problem.

Given such billions of years, the laws of mass and energy could be perfectly known, and any technology that doesn’t violate them is possible and can exist, at least for literary purposes. Morris seems to have his physics well down, up to and including the impending heat death of the Universe, so this is literally as hard as science fiction can get.

His characters at least consider themselves to be humans, but billions of years from now, human consciousness can and is uploaded into whatever body a person wants to wear at the time, or even into shared bodies with other such entities. There are only about ten thousand of them in the entire Universe, and they are all backed up in a data bank run and controlled by the ultimate AI bureaucrat.

This really does take place as the stars of the Universe are going out, and the heat death of the Universe is nigh. But there is a program to try to squeeze the last drops of energy possible from the ultimate black hole, and its enemies are a billions-year-old couple who want to make it fail immediately so that they can go to the next universe beyond it as its gods.

I’ve never heard of Brandon Q. Morris, and this seems to be a self-published novel, and the endpoint of some series. But this is the real deal á la Olaf Stapledon, but better written, by someone who knows his science.

But alas, not quite what I was looking for, and have yet to find.

Morris has worked his way past the light-speed problem without the rubber science of faster than light space travel by giving his characters immortality so that it is not literarily necessary, but this is in the far future.

But what about now, and a closer future of, say, a hundred years from now?

The title of a collection of these very columns is called Science Fiction in the Real World, and both are about to change radically in steps. In few years, or even next week, extrasolar planets with biospheres will almost certainly be discovered. Probably less than a century later civilizations will be discovered on some of them.

Then what?

It’s logical to suppose that given a galaxy with millions of planets, some of these civilizations must be centuries ahead of us. So why haven’t they contacted us? What is the answer to the Fermi Paradox?

Think of the cold equation.

Assume the unpleasant reality that faster than light travel is impossible and will remain impossible even for the most advanced civilizations. Given long enough lifespans, they might be able to travel between solar systems without it, by taking their lifetime, of which they have plenty, all the way to the end of this Universe’s end.

But think of money.

Think of energy as the universal money.

To send a spaceship from solar system to solar system would cost a huge amount of energy, because the faster it went the greater its mass, the more energy required to accelerate it, approaching planetary energy bankruptcy as a limit.

And while information can travel at the speed of light, it would take four years to send a “Hi!” to the closest neighboring solar system and four more to get a “Hi!” back. Multiply that by even a few hundred light-years, next door by galactic standards, and meaningful conversation would be tedious at best, or all but impossible, and therefore not really worth the universal money.

That’s not so much my definitive answer to the Fermi Paradox but the inevitable future of science fiction in the real world. In the real world, within a century or less, humanity will know that there are other civilizations Out There, and perhaps acquire some basic knowledge of what’s going on in their solar systems—but that’s all, no real communications.

That will be the existential core of humanity’s culture soon, and it will last a very long time, if not forever. That may be bad news for our real world, or in the end maybe not, but good news for science fiction.

In such a culture, science fiction cannot help but become the central literature, because anything that ignored this existential reality would not be writing about the present or the infinite possibilities of the real world.

This is no golden era for science fiction, as I learned to my dismay when searching for science fiction at least beginning to deal with this coming future, and not really finding any.

So I’ve been giving it a try myself—just a couple of long stories to date, but who knows.

Per my answer to why I wrote something, “I wanted to read something like it, but no one else wrote it, so I had to do it myself.”

Copyright © 2020 Norman Spinrad

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