Thursday, October 11, 2012

Areotopia '99 (part two)

Last time, before I got sidetracked, I was talking about how the original impulse behind his wretched White Mars was supposedly a concern over the desire, fictional or not, to terraform Mars. He tells us directly that the pamphlet announcing his presidency of the cute little club APIUM (Association for the Protection and Integrity of an Unspoilt Mars) was "How It All Began."

But despite this supposedly foundational concern for Mars as a place--as an "environment with its own integrity"*--in his novel as actually written Aldiss does not treat it as such. Kim Stanley Robinson, you will remember, concludes his introduction to Red Mars by saying that, with the arrival of humans on that planet, it ceased to be an idea merely: "now it became a place." And as I examined cursorily in the last post, he takes this very seriously, dealing heavily in the fundamentally different nature of this place and in the consequences on it of human habitation and actions. Aldiss, however, true to the utopian tradition announced in his novel's second subtitle--but not true to the way that tradition has changed and expanded under the influence of genre sf--treats Mars as, precisely, "no place."

*In this quote I have changed the plural to the singular to fit the syntax.

An early indication of this (mis)treatment of Mars is Aldiss's complete and deliberate omission of what I call, perhaps goofily, "the phenomenology of space." Despite the intriguing move of having his future-science replace the term "space" with "matrix," acknowledging the important and wondrous fact that what we think of as empty vacuum is actually teeming with bizarre activity on the quantum-physical scale, Aldiss slaps his characters into cryosleep for the duration of the journey between the planets. This is not in itself a problem, and indeed he gestures toward some of the interesting possibilities raised by such a technique when he has his sometime-narrator Cang Hai go into psychiatric treatment for her overwhelming fear of going back into cryosleep, a state so near to death, as well as wondering if she is still in any meaningful way the same person now as the person who went into cryosleep. This is precisely the kind of powerful disjuncture sf is so adept at dealing with. We realize soon, however, that Aldiss is entirely uninterested in dealing with the consequences of his ideas, for just as he has used cryosleep as a convenience enabling him to ignore the experience of space travel, he uses Cang Hai's phobia not to explore the experience of cryosleep itself, but rather as a clumsy device for exposition, rushing us through the methodology (but again not the experience) of transit and introducing us to the psychological techniques of Aldiss's 21st century.

Lest I seem as dictatorial as Aldiss regarding what are suitable sfnal topics,* let me say that I raise these issues as problems only because Aldiss uses them to cheat: he is trying to chastise others for their insufficient respect for Mars as place while at the same time covering up some of the most significant features of it as a place: in this case, its distance from the Earth and all that is involved in reaching it. By having his characters go to sleep and wake up on Mars, he is no more dealing with its reality than Edgar Rice Burroughs did; no more treating it as a real place as opposed to a magical fairyland than L. Frank Baum did with Oz (this is not to criticize either Baum or Burroughs, both of whose goals lay elsewhere). He is in fact doing exactly what the writers of utopias have done for centuries: choosing a convenient place, far from England home and supposedly empty, and then filling it with his own prescriptions for what should be.

*One of the many aggravating moments in Billion Year Spree is when he proclaims that "the Frankenstein theme is more contemporary and more interesting than interstellar travel tales, since it takes us nearer the enigma of man [sic] and thus [sic] of life; just as interstellar travel can yield more interest than such power-fantasy themes as telepathy." This hierarchy, like most such absolutist statements, elides the difference between topic and treatment, and as a critical lens leaves us unable to see differences between works. Is Joanna Russ's And Chaos Died a power fantasy? Does Ben Bova's "Stars, Won't You Hide Me?" not take us near "the enigma of man"? Not to mention that the "themes" he discusses need not be either/ors (both of the works I have just named feature interstellar travel and telepathy, in different combination), or that "the Frankenstein theme" itself is in fact (among other things) a complex treatment of a power fantasy**--i.e., the ancient male desire to reproduce without the involvement of women, or that perhaps "the enigma of man" need not be the sole topic of every single word ever committed to paper.
**My footnotes tend to metastasize. I wish only to note that the term "power fantasy" is a common one in sf criticism, and that though I use it in the above in responding to Aldiss's use of it, I myself find it an almost entirely valueless term, one which tends to be used thoughtlessly to dismiss and conceal complexities that may be uncomfortable for the critic.

To be sure, I am simplifying Aldiss's work a bit: for he does not treat Mars as entirely empty, and his condescension sarcasm irony leaves it questionable whether his prescriptions presented here are all really "his" prescriptions. Nevertheless, even these two counters to the tendency I am describing are explored no more thoroughly than the issues Aldiss raises, and abandons, with his "matrix" travel and cryosleep. No, though he nods from time to time in the direction of a more interesting novel, one likely far beyond his capability, the real novel he has written remains stuck tediously not on Mars qua Mars, but in any conveniently open location that can semi-plausibly be made to be isolated.

Perhaps its seems I am making too much of the omission of the interval between Earth and Mars. Fine, then: once we are on Mars, regardless of how we got there, what then?

The single most telling detail I can give you is that Aldiss presents us with colonists who have spent years on Mars returning to Earth and experiencing no difficulty with gravity--more, he presents us with people born on Mars traveling to Earth as adults with no such difficulty. (Compare Robinson, whose character Nirgal--an extraordinarily healthy endurance runner--is nearly killed by his trip to Earth.) This is no mere oversight; for the whole time we are on Mars, with the exception of a few moments that feel like afterthoughts, we are never made to feel the planet.

Obviously no book, being after all no more than a series of words laid on a series of pages, could literally make us "feel" Mars. And one could argue that Aldiss, by not even pretending to try to trick us into thinking we feel it, might be seen as in some ways less naïve than Robinson, perhaps contemporary sf's greatest poet of unusual kinesthetics, who goes to great lengths to achieve a Martian "reality effect." Were we not dealing with sf, I would likely agree. Sf is, however (in Darko Suvin's terms*), a literature of "cognitive estrangement." That is to say that in sf, unlike in for example the realist novel, when all is going well (which, admittedly, it often is not!) we are made to recognize consciously the fictional and metafictional processes which are going on, simply by their very nature; as Russ points out, in sf the most "real" elements become "the most bizarre and the least believable."

*I have my problems with Suvin, but they are a matter for a different essay. For the moment this framework of his is serviceable enough, so long as we remember that it is not a comprehensive definition of the field.

So it is that Robinson, by evoking so insistently the phenomenology of Martian existence, creates a more powerful and self-aware literary experience than Aldiss, so intent on evading this phenomenology (and others, as we saw before with space and will see again later) in favor of what he thinks are more "literary" effects. Thus, when Aldiss gives us his "Martian marathon" scene, it is sketched out cursorily on one page:

They had set an ingenious 6-kilometre course through the domes, parts of which involved them leaping from the roofs of four-storey buildings, equipped with wings to provide semi-flight in the light gravity...

Over 700 young people, men and women, together with a smattering of oldsters, were entered in the race...

Everyone not in the race turned out to watch. The music played. It proved an exciting occasion. First prize was a multi-legged dragon trophy, created in stone and painted by our sculptor, Benazir Bahudur, with less elaborate versions for runners who came in second and third.

The winner was the particle physicist Jimmy Gonzales Dust. He finished in 1,154 seconds. He was young and good-looking, with a rather cheeky air about him; he was very quick with his answers. At a modest banquet held in his honour, he was reported to have made a remarkable speech.

The elision of events in Aldiss's novel is a frequent enough device that it surely was a deliberate choice. Again, in a non-sfnal context replacing the event with the sentences "The music played. It proved an exciting occasion" might be in itself an exciting artistic choice, denying the usual fictional pleasures of action with flat, affectless* non-action that forcibly reminds us that we are reading a fiction, not witnessing an event. But this is sf. We are given the wings and told of the semi-flight, yes, but by not giving us these wings in action all Aldiss has done is taken what would have been a scene of powerful estrangement and domesticated it, allowing us--and, one feels, himself--to pretend there is nothing unusual about it: we have, in our lives, heard music play; we have experienced exciting occasions; nothing more is happening here.

*And it is possible too that Aldiss here intends to convey the affectless nature of his narrator, at this moment the utopian Tom Jeffries. I cannot be certain, though, because I was unable to tell if he was in fact meant to be affectless; nor, indeed, was I able to discern any significant stylistic or other substantial difference between the sections narrated by him and those narrated by Cang Hai. I often had to flip back to the table of contents, which tells you who narrates which chapters, to remind myself of whose section I was reading.

Again, compare Robinson, who also gives us a sort of Martian Olympics (though unlike Aldiss's one-time event, Robinson's are ongoing--and, again unlike Aldiss's, not competitive in any significant or permanent sense):

The pole vault was Maya's favorite, it amazed her...the bounding yet controlled sprint, the precise planting of the extremely long pole as it jounced forward, the leap, the pull, the vault itself, feet pointing at the sky; then the catapulted flight into space, body upside down as the jumper shot above the flexing pole, and up, and up; then the neat twist over the bar (or not), and the long fall onto an airgel pad...

Shot puts still looked heavy, their throwing awkward. Javelins flew forever. High jumpers were only able to clear four meters, to Maya and Michel's surprise. Long jumpers, twenty meters; which was a most amazing sight, the jumpers flailing their limbs through a leap that lasted four or five seconds, and crossed a big part of the field.

Elsewhere, multiple places, Robinson describes, stunningly, the different movement of water, whether in a pool splashed by swimmers or in an ocean whipped by wind, under significantly lesser gravity than that to which we are accustomed. All of this powerfully evocative description (and much more like it) of things that simply, in Delany's terms, have not happened (no human has ever long-jumped twenty meters on Mars or anywhere else!) contributes to what might be described as a sort of sense of wonder, that classic but so widely misunderstood sfnal effect, on a quotidian scale. There will surely be essays here in the future on just what it is that I think sense of wonder consists in and of, but for now it is enough to say that all of this deals in precisely that fluctuating suspension of disbelief Russ describes, pulling us in and distancing us both alternately and simultaneously in a way that Aldiss's omissions never could.

When I continue, it will be to discuss why it is that Mars is, despite Aldiss's insistence to the contrary, so much not a place, so much not itself, in White Mars. It will hopefully also be the last part of this essay, which I never intended to spend so much time on.

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