Thursday, July 11, 2013


Two things I've read recently have had effects on me that in turn have combined into an observation.

I read Vajra Chandrasekera's story, "Pockets Full of Stones," in the latest Clarkesworld. I half loved the story, half found it to be frustratingly stifling itself; even that frustration, though, is for me more positive than not, because in order for a story to feel like it's stifling itself there has to be something there to stifle--and here there very much is.

But that's all beside the point. (At least, beside the point of this post.) Part of the half-love (or the love half?) is the way Chandrasekera handles communication between a space station in Earth orbit and a ship headed to another solar system at relativistic speed.

I’d been ten years younger than Rais was now, when the plan occurred to me. I was still at Nha Trang University, working through the qualifying courses to apply for extraplanetary duty....The time dilation, Makemake Station, my career, the time and training I’d need to get there. I could talk to Rais himself; I could close the loop, answer the nagging little questions.

Now at forty-two I was as old as Mom when she had me. Ten years older than Rais, who had aged less than a year in my two decades of putting all the pieces together. I’d thought I knew him from Grandma Abena’s stories, from the things Mom didn’t say. Rais had grown bigger in the tellings, his absence having density and mass.

In person, he was too small, too young.

This (and much more in the story) gives me chills.

Now time dilation is nothing new in sf. Indeed it's been such a common theme for so long that almost forty years ago (in "Toward an Aesthetic of Science Fiction") Joanna Russ called it sf's "favorite piece of theology" and Ursula K. Le Guin (in "Semley's Necklace," aka "Dowry of the Angyar") had ten years earlier been able to use it--almost without explanation--as the basis of a fairytale; both of them were depending on an already-lengthy tradition in order to make their points. And though the concept is, for me at least, intrinsically awe-inspiring, it has certainly been dealt with tediously at times; at other times, it has been treated simply as a quotidian aspect of the world of the (interesting or not) story (for a lovely example of the interesting-quotidian, see L. Timmel Duchamp's "The Gift"). But when a good writer with something to say about it (and Chandrasekera seems to be a good writer, and certainly had something to say about it) takes up the subject of time dilation, no amount of familiarity, not even any amount of tediousness in others' hands, can keep it from being, as it is, awe-inspiring.

As I said on Twitter when I read the story, "Time dilation is literarily inexhaustible."

And I've just read Justina Robson's near-excellent space opera, Natural History. I say "near"-excellent because at times I find it to be infected with that particular glib "hip"ness which has been the bane of sf at least since, I don't know, Bruce Sterling?* But anyway it's not nearly as bad about it as most, it can for the most part be overlooked, and in general Robson seems much more interested in being what I can only think to call, for lack of a better word, genuine.

*Also, I'm sorry but Don McLean is unforgivable.

But again, that's beside the point. Were I more ambitious, I'd write a whole post about the novel, which really is quite fascinating, but I'm not at the moment so I just want to point out a very small thing Robson does, at the beginning of chapter 17, on page 173 of this 325-page mid-00s space opera:

No visuals or information supplied by the Abacand made it feel real to Zephyr. How could they be in another solar system, just like that? Yes, she could see it on the screen's portrayal of information from Isol's own eyes. Yes, it was certainly not Sol (too orange) not Earth (too much brown, wrong continental shapes), not Luna (shiny and coloured, and besides, two of them) and there were no signs of any constellations she recognized. But she was so used to all kinds of unrealities and simulations that this made as much impact as a student project, and she felt nothing. Why should she, here in her tiny womb? For the time being, however, she must accept it as if it were the truth.
This passage is interesting to me on a number of levels. Like much of the novel--indeed in a sort of microcosm of many of the larger concepts of the novel--it is simultaneously wondrous and precisely about an estrangement from wonder: at this point as readers we are fairly certain that the instantaneous travel did happen, that Zephyr really is in another solar system not a simulation, and we are in awe at the attendant possibilities; she on the other hand wants to feel such awe but is incapable of feeling much anything at all (and note how Robson, in a manner reminiscent of Joanna Russ, humorously creates and defuses the wonder with matter-of-fact phrases like "and besides, two of them"). And if we are honest, this tension between the wondrous surroundings and the inability to respond to them reflects how we are feeling, indeed how we (or, OK, I at least) often feel when reading sf*, recognizing the wonder of what we're confronting and yet feeling a peculiar distance from it, a knowledge that after all these are only words, and anyway haven't we seen it all already? And yet the awe, somehow, in some not-quite-expressible way, remains...somewhere.

*Indeed one of the many levels on which Natural History works is frequently as an allegory of reading sf.

It's a very complicated and fascinating situation we're confronted with in this unassuming little paragraph, one whose depths I have scarcely touched here. But my real point in bringing it up (and it's a much smaller one) is that what we (and Zephyr) are feeling this complicated awe/non-awe about is the plain fact of interstellar travel--and not relatively speaking very huge interstellar travel, a question of some twenty-seven light years or so.* Obviously this is an absurdly, incomprehensibly enormous distance, but relative to the size of, y'know, everything, and in sfnal terms, it's local travel.

*Just to make it clear that I read the whole book, haha, I am aware that this gets complicated later on; I'm talking only about the situation as we're aware of it at the opening of chapter 17.

Because interstellar travel per se hasn't been a new and exciting concept in sf since at least Doc Smith (and...who?). Skylark of Space was in 1928; were sf (or indeed literature or even life in general) merely the constant quest for novelty that both its skeptics and many of its defenders make it out to be, a scene of travel to another star in a space opera (and halfway through the novel, remember) published nearly eighty years later simply could not be so striking as it is in Natural History, where indeed it feels not novel but new--to the point where it can even withstand its immediate dissolution into a discussion of how disappointingly not-special it feels!

I think in both cases part of what's at issue is that the wondrous element is extraordinary in the world of the characters. In "Pockets Full of Stones" communication between those humans on or near Earth and those on the ship traveling away from it is supposed to be limited to impersonal scientific and technological exchange; to have personal conversation is a transgression (considered a waste of resources), and while an awe-inspiring story could surely be written about the impersonal communication, to speak to one's semi-time frozen grandfather, younger than you, about family matters is on another level of existence. And in Natural History, the society filling up the solar system feels the lack of interstellar travel quite strongly, and the unprecedented nature of this instantaneous travel is a major topic of discussion throughout the entire work. And yet this in-story extraordinariness, I feel, cannot quite explain the feeling these moments give me.

One could say that all I'm talking about, what Chandrasekera and Robson are doing, is "revitalizing sf tropes," but that's not it at all. For one thing, I don't think they're revitalizing anything; much more accurate to say that what they are doing is simply vital, in both senses of the word. And besides, I tend to be of the opinion that "tropes" are not so much "a bad thing" as just a bad concept for use in discussing literature; it might be too much to say that the moment you start talking about your literature in terms of tropes you've killed it dead, but I'm tempted to say so anyway. Time dilation, interstellar travel: these are not "sf tropes," they're wondrous ideas; they're elements in a conversation that's been going on nearly a century now (or better, they're nearly century-old elements in a much longer conversation). Indeed they are wondrous concepts in ways quite external to the literature that makes up that conversation. But when brought into that literature, they are immensely rich in their imagery, their metaphor, their resonance; as I said before, they are inexhaustible and therefore neither need to be nor even can be revitalized.

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