Interventions: Science Fiction reflects on the contemporary period… September 21, 2008Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, The Left.
I guess anyone with even a glancing interest in science fiction might have noticed that contemporary issues are beginning to appear within the pages of recently published books. Sometimes these are clearly linked into near history. An example of that is Greg Bear’s not entirely successful, but still quite interesting, Quantico which deals with the consequences of the war on terror in a near-future US. In doing so he pulls together numerous threads from home made bio-weapons, Islam, the jockeying for power within the US security structures and the role and, from his perspective, necessity for US intervention (albeit on a very limited scale towards the end of the piece). On a superficial reading it’s a slight novel compared with his earlier books, Eon and Eternity, with much of the pace and detail of a techno thriller. And yet for all that it somehow works. The writing is spare and there are few concessions to the sort of bombast of most genre thrillers and it seemed to me to be both evocative and disturbing. There is a nice thread of cynicism running through it, particularly concerning the future status of Iraq and its relationship with the US, and an unpleasant and pretty convincing localised nuclear exchange in the Middle East.
Ken MacLeod’s second to last book (or is it third, his workrate is suddenly prodigious), Learning the World, was fascinating if only because it tackled the issue of intervention in an alien culture by humans, which I won’t go into in order not to spoil the plot. In a way Learning the World is a bit like a more sophisticated A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. But Vinge is of the libertarian right and his alien civilisations are essentially a scrubbed up version of ours – too similar to be truly interesting other than as a narrative dynamic – although oddly his descriptions of meta-human civilisations seem to me to be vastly more effective. As a one-off, unrelated to his other series, Learning the World worked extremely well. And yet, a part of me found aspects of the intervention unlikely if only because it seemed to result in appalling societal dislocation. As a cure to a social ill it sought to remedy it seemed in its immediacy to be little better than the ill itself. And perhaps that sat oddly with the authors clear position on other interventions.
Another example is Paul McCauley’s (he used to use the initial J. – that’s gone, most likely in a bid to reposition him away from SF and closer to the mainstream. I wish him well, but for my money his finest book was Whole Wide World with a Cuba refashioned as a sort of libertarian left data storage and vending society) recently published Cowboy Angels. I’m genuinely unsure about that book. It struck me as an uneasy amalgam of cold war thriller and science fiction. The premise is that a version of the United States discovered a means to access parallel worlds where it has intervened in bringing democracy to numerous versions of the US. In effect this meta-US treats these variations of the US rather as Central and Southern America were treated by the US in our own history. That this version of democracy appears to be somewhat right wing, is not absolutely fundamental to the plot, anymore than when Jimmy Carter is elected President he introduces a more emollient approach which seeks to roll back the interventions.
In the end the plot stacks one switchback upon another and eventually loses coherence. And there appears to be no particular message other than the idea that resistance may ultimately only be possible on the personal level (although the institutions are portrayed as working slightly better than one might imagine – fair dues to Jimmy Carter, in whatever iteration). It’s still remains an enjoyable read.
I like it, but it lacks the cold-hearted rigour of Alternities by Michael P. Kube-McDowell and written in the late 1980s which likewise saw a US manipulating other realities, and which had a denouement, set in a Soviet dominated world where the US was utterly constrained globally, of an almost perfectly bleak realpolitic with a Soviet Premier ordering civilian aircraft to be shot down around Moscow.
As good, in its own way and from the same decade IIRC, was Frederick Pohl’s “The Coming of the Quantum Cats” where one right wing US invades another in order to attack a USSR in their home universe. Pohl is a funny one. On form he is cracking, off it – not so great. Anyhow this is a diverting read.
‘What’s the current status on enemy signal interceptions?’
He meant listening in on radio and TV. ‘No clear pattern, sir. They do keep repeating the President’s broadcast. He comes through loud and clear’.
Colonel Harlech didn’t actually say shit. He just made a noise close enough to be clear, muffled enough to be deniable. Harlech was one of Magruder’s own hotshot warriors, and everybody knew what they thought of the President. Who had opposed a preemptive strike vigorously… until the chiefs of staff let him know they had plenty of military prisons for politicians who got in the way of what they considered the essential defense of the United States.
When I got off the cross-time phone with the colonel I debated going back to the studio for a word with the poli-scientists. It would be interesting to hear their theories about why a militarily active U.S. society like ours got a jelly-backed President like Jerry Brown, while this other one, fat and peaceful had elected the fire-breater, Reagan.
This being a tale of alternate realities the Reagan referred to is Nancy. Of course.
One might argue that issues of intervention were raised in Christopher Priests award winning The Separation (or in his much much earlier Indoctrinaire), which contemplated pacifism, action and intervention in the context of the Second World War. I’m not certain what background politically Priest comes from (oddly he used the backdrop of a rather gloomy state socialism for his excellent “A Dream of Wessex” decades ago), but it is difficult to entirely enthuse about the strand in the novel where Britain comes to an arrangement with a Third Reich where Hitler has been removed. There’s a certain relativism in positing that Nazi Germany was explicable and reducible to one historical figure (nor is a short chapter set in a Madagascar where German Jews became the dominant force a la Israel in our own history convincing either). And in some ways the novel seems to undercut its own submerged pacifist message by ignoring systemic evils.
And there is of course Iain Banks whose Culture books in a way reflected the changing attitudes to intervention. In the early ones there was no question that Special Circumstances, the agency charged within the Culture to instigate interventions ranging from intelligence to military operations, was a force for good, even if “…It had about it too an atmosphere of secrecy (in a society that virtually worshipped openness), which hinted at unpleasant, shaming deeds..”. They were the people who dealt with reactionaries of all stripes. They had a certain mystique and near all-powerful capabilities. And it is impossible to understand the ethical conundrum that lies at the heart of his novel Use of Weapons unless the activities of Special Circumstances, for all its flaws, do not represent something approaching a cathartic agent for positive change in the central character.
But as time moved on that viewpoint, already rhetorically questioning, became ever less certain. Inversions from 1998 demonstrated how the tags of ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ could be considerably more complex than might be thought, and although the Culture isn’t directly referenced it is clear that intervention is equally complex. In his most recent novel Matter, which is a cheering return to form, the issue of intervention by the Culture in less developed societies, or as it is called here ‘mentoring’, moves to the fore. But Special Circumstances role is much more open to question than hitherto.
Charles Stross with his Eschaton series draws together elements of all the above, with a post-human intelligence – entitled, as one might imagine, the Eschaton – that has scattered humanity throughout the stars using agents to intervene subtly in order to prevent more massive interventions, while a rather befuddled United Nations also attempts to prevent the Eschaton intervening by intervening itself. Stross is interesting in that while clearly well versed in left politics he does not appear to be particularly wedded to same (indeed his Merchant Princes series – essentially a Zelazny like escapade set in multiple parallel Earths has as its heroine an avowed capitalist). But in his Singularity Sky there is a telling excursion as a Marxist revolution of sorts against a totalitarian neo-Tsarist regime attempts to deal with a context where yet another form of intervention has left machines scattered across a planet which can freely produce anything, a scenario reminiscent of the withering away of the state – any state. But what is interesting about Stross is the idea that interventions, or at least some, can be random. He – in a sense – points us to the unfathomable actions of the protagonists of the novels of the Russian Strugatsky brothers. Or indeed of the monolith in 2001.
That fundamental intervention, one that kick-starts intelligence in a species, sits behind many of these narratives. After all, what else is a radio message intercepted from an alien civlisation? An artifact found upon a moon? An expeditionary force from Mars? And whatever side the narrator stands in this process, as participant, instigator, victim or simple dispassionate observer what we the reader see is action.
And that action is exaggerated by the scope of this fiction in a uniquely satisfying way. After all, a security or intelligence agency that just looks on is – on the narrative level – somewhat unsatisfying. An intervention, particularly on a planetary or galactic scale, or across parallel timelines, is clearly vastly more entertaining and provides more scope for dealing with contradiction.
For the main part those examples cited above are the work left/liberal authors. And that is probably unsurprising. The left is interventionist in so many ways. We believe fundamentally that there are wrongs to be righted in our society that require activist approaches. We still celebrate those who fought in Spain and against fascism. That there have been deformations of this, particularly under the pressures of Iraq and a number of conflicts, doesn’t invalidate the necessity to determine how and when the left should intervene within and beyond our own borders. How to address these issues, these contradictions?
For an even more explicit political reading of such matters Boris and Arkady Strugatsky can, to some degree, be seen as forging a path in the 1960s and 1970s. Their Noon Universe sequence of novels set in a communist society some two centuries hence are very evidently precursors of elements of the Culture as described by Iain Banks (to say nothing of their book Roadside Picnic which Tarkovsky transformed into a stunning piece of cinema as Stalker). The issue of intervention is central to these novels. In them “progressors” from space-faring civilisations assist less advanced civilisations. The Wanderers, a civilisation so advanced that its machinations are essentially unknowable, also practices something along these lines.
As one character notes:
In the whole universe only our humankind practices progressorism, because our history is like that, because we weep over our past… We can’t change it and we strive at least to help others, since we didn’t manage to help ourselves in time… That’s where our Progressorism comes from! And the Wanderers, even if their past did resemble ours, are so far from it now that they don’t even remember it.
But, it’s not without nuance or limitation. Much of the time Progressors act as observers. The most explicit political consideration of this is probably in “Hard to be A God” where the protagonist, a human from a future communist Earth, ponders the gloomy outlook for a proto-Marxian rebel in a feudal world. The trappings are a curious mix of fantasy and… well… judge for yourself.
But the heavy iron ring on his right wrist probably went back to the time when he was still called the Fair One. The ring had been forged at the end of a chain to the rudder of a pirate’s galley, and Arata had ripped the chain apart, struck a blow against the temple of Captain Ega the Gracious, captured first the ship and then the entire pirate’s fleet, and then had tried to found a free republic on the ocean. And the whole enterprise ended in a blood fight, for at that time Arata was still a young man who had not learned how to hate and who believed that the gift of freedom was sufficient in itself to render a slave into a godlike creature…
He was a professional rebel, an avenger by the grace of God, a figure that is not often encountered during the Middle Ages. Historical evolution gives birth to such pikes only from time to time, releases them into the deep gulfs of society to stir up the fat carps who sit and dream in the mud at the bottom of the abyss . . . Arata was the only person here whom Rumata neither hated nor pitied. And in the heated dreams of this citizen of Earth, who had spent almost five years in blood and stench, he frequently saw himself as a figure resembling Arata. He had gone through all the infernal torments of this universe and was rewarded for it with the privileged right to slay the murderers, to torture the torturers, and to betray the traitors.
“Sometimes it seems,” said Arata, “that we are all powerless. I remain forever the leader of mutineers and I realize that my strength is based on my extraordinary vitality. But this strength does not help me in my powerless state. As if by magic, my victories change into defeat. My allies in battle become my enemies, the most courageous desert me, the most faithful betray me or perish. And nothing remains to me but my own bare hands. But one cannot reach the golden idols behind the fortress walls with bare hands …”
Arata fell silent again and reached for another piece of bread. Rumata observed Arata’s hands, especially his fingers. Two years ago, Don Reba in person had torn out the nails of both hands with some special device. You know only half the story, thought Rumata . . . You feel pacified by the thought that you are the only one to be condemned to failure. You don’t know yet how hopeless your entire cause really is. You don’t know that your enemy is not to be found beyond the ranks of your own soldiers, but rather within themselves. Perhaps you will succeed in annihilating the Holy Order of the Black monks and the wave of the peasant rebellion will carry you onto the throne of Arkanar. You will raze to the ground the castles of the feudal lords and drown the barons in the bay. The rebellious masses will shower you, their liberator, with all honors, and you will be a good and wise ruler–the only good and wise man in your entire kingdom; in your goodness you will distribute all the land among your comrades-in-arms, but what good will this land do your co-fighters without serfs? And the wheel will turn in another direction again. And you’ll be getting off easy if you die a normal death and do not have to watch the new barons and counts emerge from among the ranks of your faithful collaborators of yesterday. All this has happened time and again, my good Arata, back on Earth as well as on your planet.
A glum prognosis of the opportunities for progressives in such situations… but a damn sight more realistic about the realities of intervention and the nature of socio-economic and political forces and their ability to prevent progress. Glummer still is The Time Wanderers by the Strugatsky’s which posits interventions from ‘Ludens’, an highly evolved branch from humanity that makes its own interventions into the species. An agent of Com-Con2, the global security apparatus, is turned by the Ludens. He expresses his fears of that process prior to it, and gives some sense of the attractions of intervention…
I was visited by Logovenko today. The conversation lasted from 12:15 to 14:05. Logovenko was convincing. Essence: it’s not as simple as we imagine it all. For instance: it is maintained that the period of stationary development in humanity is coming to an end, the epoch of shocks (biosocial and psychosocial) is coming, and the main goal of Ludens in retaliation to humanity is, it turns out, to be on guard (like “the catcher in the rye”). At the present time, 432 Ludens live and play on Earth and in the cosmos. I was offered the chance to become the 433rd, for which I must appear in Kharkov at the Institute of Eccentrics the day after tomorrow, May 20, at 10:00.
The enemy of the human race whispers to me that only a real idiot would refuse a chance to develop superconsciousness and power over the universe. This whisper I can quell without great effort, since I am a man who is not interested in prestige, as you well know, and cannot bear elitism in any form. I won’t hide that our last conversation fell deeper into my soul than I would have liked. I do not like feeling myself a deserter. I would not have hesitated in my choice for a second, but I am absolutely certain that as soon as they turn me into a Luden, nothing (nothing!) human will remain.
Admit it, deep in your heart you think the same thing.
I will not go to Kharkov. I have thought everything over these last few days. I will not go to Kharkov first of all because that would be a betrayal of Asya. Secondly, because I love my mother and honor her. Thirdly, because I love my comrades and my past. Transformation into a Luden would be the death of me. It is much worse than death, because for those who love me, I would remain alive, but unrecognizably different. Haughty, smug, self-confident. And on top of that, eternal, probably.
A final word. Alastair Reynolds latest serving of hard science fiction is the interesting House of Suns. I won’t go into the plot other than to say that it deals with interventions on a galactic scale, and all set in a rigorously sub-light speed context. One passage sprang out from a scene where a prisoner is being tortured in a most inventive fashion in order to discover why an unprovoked and horrific attack occurred.
Mezereon began to pull the handle towards the left, slowly this time. The prisoner began to speed up from our perspective, twitching and fidgeting increasingly quickly.
Something exploded inside me.
‘Wait!” I shouted before she had tugged it all the way across. ‘There’s got to be a better way than this.’
Mezereon looked at me with icy disdain. ‘Something to contribute, Campion? You’ve been spectacularly silent until now.’
‘Dial down,’ I said, conscious of the whirling hand on my chronometer. ‘We can discuss this in realtime’.
‘I’m happy discussing it now.’
Aconite stood and turned towards me, hands raised placatingly, ‘Leave this to us, old man. We’ve got it under control.’
‘No, you haven’t. Mezeron’s burning her way through prisoners like she’s tossing coals on a fire. There are two left. We can’t afford to lose another one.’
‘I only need one to talk,’ Mezereon said, and began to tug the handle towards its limit.
‘She’s out of control,’ I said.
Mezereon emerged into realtime. ‘Get out of here,’ she told me.
‘You’re letting hatred get the better of you.’
‘They hate us. Why shouldn’t we turn a little of that back on them?’
‘Because we’re Gentian. Because six million years of good works say we’re better than that.’
Six million years, half a million. Socialist, conservative, liberal. Better than that? Nah, we’re really not.