Friday, October 3, 2014

The turtle could not become a starship

This unassuming paragraph from early on in Vonda N. McIntyre's Superluminal comes very close, for me, to containing all of science fiction.
A rank of electric cars waited at the corner, tethered like horses in an old movie. She slid her credit key into a lock to release one painted like a turtle, an apt analogy. She got in and drove it toward the waterfront. The little beast rolled along, its motor humming quietly on the flat, straining in low gear on the steep downgrades. Laenea relaxed and wished she were back in space, but her imagination could not stretch that far. The turtle could not become a starship; and the city, while pleasant, was of unrelieved ordinariness compared to the alien places she had seen. She could not, of course, imagine transit, for it was beyond imagination. Language or mind was insufficient. Transit had never been described.
There were no electric cars when McIntyre wrote, at least not readily available for use at, essentially, a vending machine. Movies with horses in them are not "old" here because transportation by horse is outdated (after all lines of tethered horses continue to appear in movies in our age of cars), but because movies themselves are old. An infodump disguises itself, transparently, as incluing (any writer to whom the action in "She slid her credit key into a lock to release one" was routine would not, almost could not describe it so thoroughly; more likely the actual action, and its economic consequences, would disappear into a phrase like "She released one"). A metaphor ("The turtle...") tries to become literal at the precise moment ("...could not become a starship") that metaphor becomes impossible. The city at which the reader has marveled in previous passages must suddenly be reinterpreted, retroactively, as quotidian. Rationality, language, imagination and the mind fail in the face of what their furthest explorations have opened up to experience. And the words on the page leap the gap from the unremarkable to the unimaginable, more than once, in more than one direction, in the space of nine short sentences.