Monday, September 22, 2014

Confusion and understanding: one post about The Stone Boatmen

[For those who care, fair warning: this post contains what probably amount to spoilers.]

Though I try always to extend sympathy at least, it is difficult for me to approach any new work of sf with anything other than suspicion. But very early on in my first reading of Sarah Tolmie's The Stone Boatmen — I am no longer able to say when or where, exactly — I decided to trust: to have faith in the work, and in Tolmie's ability and above all responsibility in pursuit of it. Or — can this really be characterized as a decision? Perhaps better to say that I found myself trusting her, that something palpable but not quite locatable in or between her words made such trust not only possible but natural, even unavoidable. Tolmie does not betray this trust.

The Stone Boatmen sets itself in, and in the ocean between, three coastal cities, none of which have names, none of which have been in communication with the others for a millennium prior to the events of the novel. Each has staked its being on one semi-mystical, semi-rational organizing principle, each carrying with it its own contradictions. There is the city of ceremonies, in which not only do elaborate rituals mark certain days and certain events in life, but smaller rituals attend almost every quotidian moment of every day; these ceremonies give the people of this city a physical (and therefore mental) connection with tradition, with the knowledge and power of "the ancestors" (on whom more to come), and yet the people often find the constant adherence to ceremony stifling. Then there is the city of poetry, in which the power of the word is almost — but not exactly — worshiped; this city understands the ability of art, specifically literary art, to create a world, but it lives perhaps too much in the world of mere art, has perhaps too much of a misleading, superstitious (even frantic) belief in the identity of the word with the thing. And finally there is the city of the golden birds, where priests study the behavior of a peculiar breed of bird in order to govern and advise the people according to what they divine therefrom; the actions of these birds are, explicitly, only a pretext, an arbitrarily ordered set of otherwise formless information focusing on which allows the bird-priest's mind to explore and to conclude; and yet these birds are no ordinary birds, and they do in fact possess authority — of some kind.

Each city, in short, has its own particular way of ordering and understanding the world, all of which have many appealing, crucial facets which it would be disastrous to lose but which nonetheless work also to conceal the world, to prevent the people from, as it is described later on, hearing what the world has always been saying to them. The relationship between these systems, once they encounter one another, is no simple, easily graspable thing. They are not complementary in the sense that some facile combination of them would result in enlightenment. There is a kind of trajectory to the order in which we encounter them: ritual, with its mystique and secretiveness, conceals words; words conceal what the birds, perhaps, reveal; and what the birds reveal conceals...well, whatever it conceals — "reality"? "being"? ..."truth"? — is what the book could, in a way, be said to be "about." But it would be a terrible mistake to take this trajectory as indicating a hierarchy, some kind of progressive step-by-step sense in which words are "better" than ritual, bird-divination "better" than words. Indeed it could be thought of as a circle (or as a closed chain consisting of three interconnected links, the form the cities choose to symbolize their new relationship), as the connection to ancestral ways of being and knowing that the people of the first city experience through their ceremonies is intimately tied to this world-speech to which the characters, and the book itself, seek to be attentive.

On a first reading it is tempting to think The Stone Boatmen is about — or perhaps better it is tempting to try to make it be about — a society becoming modern, much as, in our world, Europe did in the period centered around 500 years ago (proceeding as it did to steamroll that modernity catastrophically over the entire world). And indeed at first it seems to be so; the book opens with Prince Nerel alternately embracing ceremony and chafing against its restrictions; it then moves on to Mahar, a man of the next generation, who, as Maureen Kincaid Speller puts it, is "bored by the emphasis on ceremony and ritual in his own city. He is also acutely aware that he does not belong fully either to the city or the palace and his determination to be a sailor and boat-builder is a deliberately calculated expression of that uncertain status" — impatience with tradition, questing for novelty, and struggling for self-definition in the face of the confusions of uncertain status being of course some of the major characteristics of modern life.

But, as Speller notes in her insightful review, Tolmie's book "seems constantly to fold itself into new shapes in the reader’s mind." Even before the opening section — before Nerel's story — there is a prologue, bearing the title "The Ancestor's Tale" (the Chaucerian resonances are entirely appropriate, as we shall see in a moment), which haunts any attempt to make such simple meaning out of the narrative that follows. These two pages sketch in the planned death and mystical transformation of "the senior technician," Harel, who occupies a position of some power in a high-technological society (these are the people who will come to be known as "the ancestors") and, seeing disaster (of the type we ourselves are about to face?) approaching, decides to take action. It is not clear exactly what this action is, but it is obviously this that leads (singlehandedly? immediately? it is, deliberately, forever, unclear) to the relatively static, mostly "low"-technological societies we encounter in the novel proper, a millennium later. In light of this any attempt to view the three cities as we encounter them in the novel as "pre-modern" is necessarily a distortion of what the novel gives us — indeed, it would be more accurate to call the societies "post-modern," were the term not already taken by something to which it is much less suited.

The events of the prologue have complex ramifications on everything that is to follow, in the shape both of the cities and of the events that occur within and between them (to the extent that these two things are separable elements of the novel). Even in the first two sections, dealing with what could be misread as Nerel's "pre-modernity" giving way to Mahar's modernity, things are not so simple; and as we then progress first to the section dealing with the poet Rose and then of her daughter, the seer Fjorel, the novel "performs the remarkable feat of maintaining a permanent tension between tradition...and modernity or modernization" (as Thomas Foster puts it in his review in The Cascadia Subduction Zone). This is a work that recognizes the value and the problems with both, admitting it all into itself, refusing propaganda, resolute in its determination not to place one over the other.

A digression may make clearer what I mean, and clearer too how Tolmie manages to perform her remarkable feat. Tolmie says (in fact it is quite apparent that she wants the reader to know) that William Langland's poem Piers Plowman was heavily on her mind as she wrote The Stone Boatmen. Not yet having read that poem, I turned for assistance to Gabriel Josipovici's The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction and its discussion of Langland alongside Dante. Josipovici’s subject in this book is what it means to become modern, which means he will be useful in exploring the ways in which modernity and non-modernity interpenetrate in The Stone Boatmen. He writes that both Piers Plowman and the Commedia

open with the hero-narrator’s sudden awareness of being lost and his asking a figure of authority (Virgil, Holy Church) who appears before him what it is he needs to do to find salvation. Both poems then provide an answer to this question not in terms of logic or metaphysical argument, though there is plenty of both in the poems, but in terms of experience. The hero undergoes a number of experiences which lead him eventually to see that the universe and his own life make sense. … In Langland too the public and the private, his own history and that of the world, come together when he wakes up on Easter Sunday to hear the bells ringing for ‘God’s resurrection’. Here, for the first time in the entire poem, the dream vision and the waking reality coincide, significantly enough in the one event which stands outside human time and yet gives meaning to all human history: the Passion and the Resurrection, eternally re-enacted in the sacrament.
        It is as if both journeys had been undertaken to cleanse man of the stiff and stubborn man-locked set, the private vision of the foolish natural man* which led only to the dark wood of chaos and confusion, and to give him back himself by revealing to him the reality of the world and the meaning of God's plan. But this is not simply a matter of listening to what people have to say to you. Virgil and Beatrice and St Bernard have much to say to Dante, but they are important to him primarily for what they are and for where they lead him, rather than for what they teach. Similarly, in passus XII of Piers Plowman Imagination warns the dreamer that 'learning and intelligence are both worthy of praise', for 'without the use of learning, bread could not be changed into the Body of Christ' ... and without intelligence, which 'springs from men's observations of many things — of birds and beasts, and of experiments both true and false', man could not come to the Truth. ... For the world is a book and all the parts fit and yield forth God's meaning. Dante and Langland thus both construct their poems so as to elicit from the hero (and hence from the reader) the exclamation: 'Now I see how it is!'
* "Stiff and stubborn man-locked set" is a reference to a previously-discussed Wallace Stevens poem, and "foolish natural man" to a passage from the twelfth-century Hugh of St Victor, also previously-discussed; this type of man is contrasted against "he who is spiritual and can judge all things," aware of the way God works through the world.

If we make allowances for large differences in theological orientation from work to work, Josipovici could almost be describing The Stone Boatmen here. Just as Dante and Langland present a journey from confusion to understanding, so too does Tolmie*, though here the confusion and understanding, and the experience that leads from one to the other, are those of a whole society over multiple generations rather than one individual within one lifetime (this difference is, as I have discussed, typical of sf). The characters speak rarely if ever of a God or gods, and never of salvation per se, but nearly all of the action of the novel is driven by the attempt to regain the ability of the revered ancestors to listen to the speech of the world, to understand the nature and plan of these ancestors, and to discover what place the lives of individuals and of communities have in the context of that plan. And to read the book is to experience this attempt, to try along with the characters to listen to what the world is saying.

*With a lot of "logic and metaphysical argument" as well, to the point that it almost obscures the necessity of experience. I will not have the space here to explore this seeming contradiction — which is in fact the very soul of sf — but I hope to do so in a follow-up.

But this book is neither written nor read by people with medieval understandings of the world; though in it modernity and tradition always coexist, it is itself a product of the modern world, and so things are not so simple as the above might lead one to believe. But neither are they in Josipovici, who is discussing Dante and Langland in order to lead into an examination of the radically different worldview one finds in Chaucer, for whom the crises that would lead to what we think of as modernity were already well underway:

Instead of making experience reinforce what old books say Chaucer seems to be at pains to pull the two apart. The perpetual concern with dreams is just another aspect of this problem, since the question whether dreams are prophetic or not is really the question of how far God impinges on this world and how far we can tell what kinds of relation exist between this world and God’s providence. In Dante and Langland, we saw, there was an answer to these questions, and an answer that had to be sought for, but which was connected with the public facts of the Incarnation and the sacraments of the Church. But Chaucer’s poems make no mention of this. Instead they merely raise the question and leave us more puzzled than before.
Once again Josipovici could almost be describing The Stone Boatmen, and reading this passage with this book in mind it can be tempting to say that Tolmie is more "Chaucerian" than "Langlandian." This is particularly so in the early parts of the novel’s final section, the one dealing with Fjorel and her dream-visions. These dreams come from Maleki, the current temple bird* — who is also, Fjorel comes to realize, the current incarnation of Harel, the senior technician whose transference into a bird we witnessed in the prologue, known to the people of the cities as the last king of the ancestors. In a sense, then, it is possible to take Maleki/Harel as a stand-in for God (or rather for His role in the Josipovici passage) and say that there is no doubt as to "how far God impinges on this world" — there is no question as to whether Fjorel’s dreams are true visions — which would seem at first to set Tolmie’s enterprise against Chaucer’s. But as ever it is not so simple. For one thing, Harel was not God, or a god, or even supernatural in any way; he was merely a man, different from others only in the extent of his technical know-how, possessing no transcendent authority. Then too Harel’s mind, inhabiting the body (which emphatically includes the brain) of a succession of birds over the course of a millennium, is no longer that of a human. Though it retains much of the same factual information it possessed when he was a living human, along with the urgency that led him to abandon the technical way of life while also ensuring that a record of it would exist**, its perspective on this knowledge, its interpretation of this urgency, and its ability to communicate any of it, are now that of a bird, not a human — and as such Fjorel’s dreams cannot be a transparent window onto the truth of things. "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him," goes the line from Wittgenstein that serves as one of the novel’s two epigraphs, and the same is true of this bird — indeed, the problem of comprehension is more pronounced, as Maleki cannot even speak, has no language. Fjorel spends most of her time in the novel being confused, frustrated, even resentful at what is happening to her; she knows that her visions have meaning, but she can find no way to grasp this meaning.

*Low-budget bookblogging problems: I had to return the book to the library, have not yet been able to buy my own copy, and my notes as always have frustrating lacunae — so I’m not quite getting the terminology right here. In the city of birds all birds are "sacred" (or some near equivalent), but there is always one mated pair which occupies a central place, physically and otherwise; Maleki is the male of this pair at the time the novel takes place.
**In multiple ways — the books of the ancestors still exist, the rituals of the city of ceremonies descend from the ancestors, and Harel himself seems to have been waiting all this time for a mind, Fjorel’s, that is in some mysterious way "ready" to receive his messages.

Later on, Josipovici looks at Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and finds it emblematic of the modern worldview that rose up to deny the (Chaucerian) uncertainty and anxiety that had followed in the wake of the collapse of the (Dantean and Langlandian) medieval worldview.* Where the "I" in the medieval poems is "moving slowly towards understanding (and leading the reader with him)," in Bunyan it is more as though "he passively records a film which passes before his eyes." In the medieval poems meaning is something that must be searched for; "in Bunyan the meaning is there from the start." Rather than learning "how to make sense of the world," Bunyan’s Christian "learns how to flee from it ... his task is to escape the World, the Flesh and the Devil" where in Dante and Langland what must be escaped is not the world but "a false and subjective view of the world; what they discover is not a new set of facts, but a new understanding of the nature of that false view." Bunyan’s work is a presentation of a set worldview and morality "which we either accept or reject, depending on our prior allegiances and our own fear of damnation," rather than a process in which the reader as well as the writer and the "I" all take part. And rather than there being a tension between the real event, the real being, and what it allegorically "stands for," Bunyan’s "story is meaningful in so far as it is reducible." But what is on the surface for the Calvinist Bunyan but is increasingly obfuscated as modernity progresses is that "this is true of the story because it is true," for the person with a modern perspective, "of the world as well." Looking ahead to later forms, we can put this another way: that no matter how much secular modernity insists it has no need to see the world as "meaningful," the shape of what is by now traditional narrative puts the lie to this insistence, indeed subtly but powerfully propagandizes for a particular interpretation of what the world "means."

*As discussions of these issues are always open to accusations of oversimplification and nostalgia, I would like to stress here that I am summarizing very roughly in the interest of keeping this post to some reasonable length. Josipovici is very aware (as am I) that "the medieval era" was neither a monolith nor some golden age of perfect harmony; but in Europe during these centuries a shift did occur in the prevailing ways of relating to the world, and this shift, especially as "Europe" metastasized across the face of the planet, does continue to govern our own prevailing ways of doing so. Any discussion of such phenomena must engage in generalization to some degree, which by no means must entail losing sight of the fact that generalization is what is going on.

I bring this up to emphasize once again the degree to which Tolmie avoids such propaganda. If Bunyan's "story is meaningful in so far as it is reducible," Tolmie's is meaningful in so far as it is not. The Stone Boatmen is practically overflowing with elements that seem to mean, to carry some set allegorical meaning (the recurrence of twins and doubles, for instance, or the encounter between Rose and the fox that eats her pears), but Tolmie, much like Kafka though reading her otherwise feels nothing like reading him, takes great pains to undercut the allegory, to insist that what is presented to us is itself, not some reduction of itself.

And as we saw before, The Stone Boatmen incorporates the Langlandian (or at least what I am interpreting through Josipovici as Langlandian) insistence on process, on coming, through experience, to the truth, with the Chaucerian emphasis on the absence of a knowable truth. The Chaucerian anxiety in the face of this absence (which, lest the point be lost, is very close to the anxiety that runs through those works called "modernist," at least when the term means more than some simplistic periodization) is present, in its way, again most especially in Fjorel’s story. In a conversation between her and the bird-priest Herodias, Fjorel’s mentor, the talk turns from the confusion of her visions to the mysterious event that not only started the novel proper but set in motion all of the events that follow the prologue: the discovery that among the commoners there is a man who, despite being unrelated to him, looks exactly like Prince Nerel, and who therefore also looks exactly like the ancient stone boatmen in the city’s harbor, the Prince’s resemblance to whom has long been a source of amazement in the court. Herodias says,

"It must mean something. Two men born in one generation, exactly alike but not twins, both looking just like those statues more than a thousand years old. All have wondered about it since. Who knows? Maybe the birds will tell you why and solve a long mystery." Fjorel looked anxious.
Fjorel’s anxiety, as a character in the novel, is not quite that of Chaucer-the-writer. One feels that she would have been fine going through life simply experiencing, feeling no need for the world to have meaning (this perhaps is how one can read "the stillness," the state of semi-meditative hyper-awareness in which she, for the most part comfortably, spends much of her life); but suddenly she finds the demand to find meaning thrust upon her. It is this responsibility, and her lack of faith in her own ability to live up to it (perhaps because of personal failing, perhaps because to fulfill this responsibility is by its nature impossible) that makes her anxious. The position of the book itself, I think, to the extent that it can be said so simply to have one, is to be found in Herodias’s response to Fjorel’s anxious look:
Fjorel looked anxious. "But if they don't it doesn't matter. We do not need to know everything," he added hastily, apologetically.
The eager curiosity to know, to find out, paired (humorously, in this case) with the understanding and acceptance that the mastery of knowledge has limits. The tendency occasionally to forget the one in the acknowledgment or pursuit of the other. The mingling of aspects of both modernity and "pre-modernity" in multiplicitous and, unlike the modernity we actually live in, non-prescriptive, variable form. The book is after — and it is possible to interpret this, as Foster does, as "utopian," though I would call it more properly, specifically sfnal — a reconciliation between these, in reality, unreconciled (and perhaps unreconcilable) ways of being in the world. In Tolmie as in Dante and Langland, the world is an interpretable set of information, like a book (though the novel thoroughly questions that breezy "like"); but as in Chaucer there’s no guarantee that this information "means," indeed when it most seems to mean is when it can be most deceptive. In light of all this, and in light of its own nature as a (resistant) product of modernity, the journey from confusion to understanding that The Stone Boatmen otherwise shares with Piers Plowman and the Commedia necessarily occurs between somewhat different poles.

Wittgenstein, recall, provided one of the two epigraphs: "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." But before this is one from Langland: "Whan all tresores arn tried, treuthe is the beste". The movement of the novel can perhaps be understood in part as a movement from a "confused" melding of these two lines (or rather of aspects of them) to an "understanding" one. As things stand at the beginning, Prince Nerel, or rather the society he (metonymically, politically, problematically) represents, has long staked itself on the understanding that there exists truth, that it is the beste of all tresores, but there is a growing discomfort with the distance at which it seems to reside. The ceremonies continue as always, at times even leading to moments of startling clarity, but increasingly the silence, the absence of the ancestors with whom the ceremonies are supposed to be a link weighs on them; and even in those moments of clarity there is the sense that something is missing. Truth exists, perhaps, but the splendor of the ancestors is so foreign to the people of the present that it seems only a fundamentally different kind of being could ever grasp it and even then could never communicate it; Wittgenstein's aphorism is readable as expressing ultimate unknowability, the absence of truth from a world that promises to possess it.

The crisis escalates in the figure of Mahar, but then a peculiar thing happens: in his confusion, his being deeply unsettled, he acts — and through his action, the three cities, unaware of each other for a thousand years, are linked. What each possesses throws into relief what another lacks. As I said before, they do not complement, let alone "complete" one another, but the shift from mere learning to experience that their intercourse allows for allows also for the life of Rose, transplanted by choice from one city to another (and unwittingly bringing the best of her city with her), and then her daughter Fjorel, who would never have been born without the contribution of all three cities. In a sense the crisis is embodied in Fjorel to a greater extent even than in Mahar; from what I have already discussed about her role in the novel it is probably apparent that Langland's Treuthe and Wittgenstein's incomprehensibility pervade every aspect of her being.

But through her own life, her own experience — both in submission to and in reaction against the role of seer that has been thrust upon her — Fjorel is able to come to a new synthesis of these seemingly opposed elements. Not for her Chaucer's puzzlement (though she passes through it), nor Bunyan's and modernity's obfuscation (though she sometimes wishes for it), nor the anxiety and melancholy of those who struggle against modernity, whom I find it useful to call modernists (though, again, she is no stranger to anxiety or melancholy). Neither does she succumb to the glib triumphalism of much of what is called postmodernism, which, refusing to look at the problem, noisily declares that there is no problem.

When Fjorel attempts to explain the understanding she has come to, she begins by disclaiming that what she has to say is perhaps "not spectacular," not, at any rate, as exciting as people might hope the solution to ancient mysteries would be. In a sense she is right; this is no "all will be revealed" TV series finale. What she provides are not so much answers as (and someone — her father? augh, if only I hadn't had to return the book — points this out) the understanding that different questions need to be asked. The question is not: what is the ancestors' plan? for there is no plan, or at least not one that matters any longer. The question is not: how can we be more like the ancestors? how can we know what they knew, do what they did? — it is not, that is to say: how do we break through the barrier of incomprehensibility to seize the truth? Rather, the question Fjorel enables her people to begin asking (and here I want to emphasize Speller's observation that this novel has no truck with overnight transformations, that it "is less bothered about these moments of epiphany, more concerned about the responsibilities such rediscovery brings with it") is closer to: how can we be ourselves?

By the end of the novel, we, having read it, are able to hold Langland's and Wittgenstein's words simultaneously in mind in a new way. They are not opposed; they are aspects of the same thing. Truth exists, for we are all linked, with one another and with everything else in the world. But truth is truth precisely because of who we are, because of our experience. A lion, or a bird, or an ancestor, given the ability to speak to us, could not make itself understood. But this does not mean there is no truth, only that truth, consisting of everything that is, is larger than any one vision of it — and that our responsibility, knowing this, is to seek it always.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Noted: Delany on sf's "fictivity" and "double futurity"

As I begin slowly to make my way through Samuel R. Delany's recently reissued The American Shore, I am gratified to see him approaching — from his very different directions, for his very different reasons — many of the same issues I discussed recently in my two posts on what I called the fictional writer and the fictional reader. (I'm also glad that I wrote those posts before I read this passage, because if I hadn't they probably would have turned into still more thoughts-on-passages-from-Delany lingering in my drafts and notes, along with countless others; and too I might have lost some of those aspects of my thought not directly relevant to Delany's here.)

From the commentary on lexia 2:

With the reader located firmly at the only real present, and the object and the speaker organized out from that present, we see that the fictivity of the science fiction story is structured differently from the fictivity of the mundane fiction story. In a third-person, past tense tale of mundane fiction, the incidents are "false" but the telling is "true." The incidents take place "before" the telling; the telling takes place "before" the reading. In a third-person, past tense mundane fiction, therefore, a simple temporal path leads away from the (present) reading back through the telling into a past that becomes more and more fictive (i.e., "false") the further back it goes. In a third-person, past tense science fiction tale, however, this path is looped into a bizarre knot in which we find the first tensions of that special charge unique to the s-f genre; we find it with the occurrence of the first verb. The incidents, which are false, occur in the future. But as the narrative voice places them in its past, the telling must (fictively) occur farther in the future than the incidents. Therefore, the ordinary fictive voice of science fiction is even more fictional than the incidents; the telling is less true than the incidents recounted. The narrative voice of science fiction (unlike the narrative voice of mundane fiction) is more fictional than the incidents it recounts. (A number of s-f writers have conscientiously exploited this: the "telling" of Asimov's Foundation series takes place specifically several thousand years after the incidents — the series posits itself as an historical reconstruction. Several of Cordwainer Smith's tales launch from a distance at least a generation beyond the major fictive occurrences.) The futurity of science fiction is not single, therefore: it is essentially doubled, supporting itself, interwoven with itself, creating a dense fiction by the same process with which it severs itself from the substance of the mundane. In one sense science fiction is a discursive image of futurity speaking of its own exhaustion. In another, it is a luminous interim, where projections from the past may dazzle us in transformation, hung between a real and a virtual limen, a reading and a telling, displaced about a proairetic axis. (The temporal fictive framing of other modes — first-person mundane fiction, for instance, where the telling is fictive, and so forth — is all suggested here: but we must progress.)
[At the word proairetic, Delany provides this footnote explaining the term as he's using it: "Proairesis (Greek, προαίρεσις pre-choice), largely through Barthes's S/Z, has become the term for the acts of fictive characters, e.g., going to the park, plotting, taking pills, dancing, etc.)"]

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Adventures in Time and Space: Don A. Stuart's (John W. Campbell's) "Forgetfulness"

Adventures in Time and Space series table of contents

An anthology that opened with a story named for the mass for the dead, held in remembrance, now continues with a story named "Forgetfulness." Where the Heinlein remembered one life which it insisted was extraordinary, what has been "forgotten" here are the achievements of a species (or, as we can say who try to be conscious of barely-submerged ideology, a single culture) over the course of millennia. Adventures in time, these stories about the pain of its passage?

Along with his earlier "Twilight" (not in this anthology, sadly) Campbell's "Forgetfulness" makes up a sort of diptych of ambiguously melancholic stories, written under the Don A. Stuart name, about The Fate Of Man [sic] in the almost obscenely distant future. In both stories our view of humanity in the future is heavily mediated, and we are deliberately prevented from gaining much sense of what it would be like to live in these future societies which we see only from the outside. "Twilight" was mediated through a complex formal structure involving multidirectional time travel and several layers of reported speech; here it is a formally much simpler — but equally peculiar and suggestive — matter of perspective.

"Forgetfulness" opens with a team of explorers from a planet called Pareeth landing on a world three and a half light years from their home; it is apparent almost immediately that this alien world is Earth. The earliest sign that this is the case, reinforced beyond all doubt by the second page (where among other things we learn that the people here call their planet "Rhth"), appears in the first paragraph, as "Ron Thule, the astronomer," stands in the airlock looking "out beyond" and sees that

above the western horizon, a pale ghost of the strange twin world of this planet, less than a third of a million miles distant, seemed a faint, luminous cloud in the deep, serene blue of the sky.
In "Twilight" too Campbell had used the moon as a signal of the strange mixture of familiarity and unfamiliarity in his futures, but while there it was because the moon had changed, here it is because it is the same — familiar to us, but unfamiliar to those with whom we are asked immediately to identify. Seeing it through this alien-not-alien astronomer's eyes at the same time as we see it with our own, the moon takes on for the sympathetic reader a marvelously strange air in more ways than one. When I read this, for a moment I am able to see the moon as not just "the moon" but as the "strange twin world" it truly (or rather also) is; and too I am brought to find new beauty in its routine appearance in the sky through its description in terms that, however trivial, would not normally occur to me.

This familiar-unfamiliar perspective* continues, or rather repeats — and expands, spiraling outward through these repetitions — throughout the story. In the terms I have begun to lay out recently, the fictional writer and the fictional reader here are both people of Pareeth; everything is given us from their perspective, and we are expected to understand. Engaged as they are in the expansionist agenda typical of this colonialist brand of sf this perspective is, for those accustomed to the ways of American magazine sf and its successors, immediately familiar, for better or worse easy to slip into; and Joanna Russ's push-and-pull of belief and disbelief becomes a kind of double image, almost a palimpsest. What is curious, then, is that their expansion pushes them precisely onto Rhth — which is to say Earth, where "we" are; and though the Rhth-humans of this distant future are presented as being so massively removed from us as to be alien the story does not let us forget that they are, in some sense, us — that we should be concerned for their well-being in the face of the potential threat these also-human** newcomers pose, still more that we should be proud of their accomplishments: for these are The Triumph of Man.

*I would call it "estrangement" but I do not wish to invoke the specific baggage that term carries with it from outside of sf or from the sf criticism of Darko Suvin and his followers. Some of that baggage is relevant to what I'm talking about; much of it is not.
**There's some scientifically nonsensical fluffery explaining away their also-humanness, which is in itself interesting and deserves attention, but for my purposes here it need not concern us beyond the fact that their humanity is a factor in the issues of (un)familiarity I am discussing.

Just past the middle of the story there comes a moment where a second mission from Pareeth (made up of some but not all of the same people as well as many new ones), following the recommendations of the first mission and the orders of "The Committee of Pareeth," tell Seun, the representative of the Rhth people, that they intend to settle permanently in an abandoned city (clearly New York) near the Rhth people's small countryside settlement. Seun reasonably points out that the planet is full of empty cities, that he and his people would prefer that the people of Pareeth settle a bit further from them. The colonizers respond that they have their hearts set on this city, and anyway if they're near the Rhth people's settlement they can "help" them in their "development," or if not they can relocate them, because one place is surely as good as another to such simple folk — and then, ever so reluctantly, they threaten the Rhth people with annihilation if they do not acquiesce to Pareeth's whims.

The logic of colonialism. It dawned on me as I read this that what we have here is American magazine sf, early on, attempting (probably by accident) to form a critique of its own violent, genocidal, colonial urges: what happens when the reader is asked — and is able — to "identify" with the colonized and the colonizer equally? Of course, this is Campbell, and no matter how far he pushes himself, no matter how obviously some small part of him understood the problems with his ideology, no matter even how far he distances himself from himself with the Stuart name and brand (for it was a brand, and a perplexingly popular one at that), he cannot bring himself to let go of his "Earth people (read: white westerners) are always superior" dogma, and so "what happens" is that the colonized make a sudden show of overwhelming force in terms the colonizers understand and have to respect that, outside of science fiction, no colonized peoples have or would ever have access to, that forces an accommodation on their terms. The critique stalls; from "these violent impulses might be wrong" it turns into "these violent impulses are wrong, and will fail, only when enacted on us."

Despite this, though, the contradiction, even the paradox, remains; and it is one of many. To begin with, everything in the story is attended by a bizarre mixture of melancholy and triumphalism: even before the first paragraph gives us the moon it gives us Ron Thule with "something of a vast triumph in his eyes, and something of sorrow," and like the familiar/unfamiliar perspective introduced by that glimpse of the moon this triumph/sorrow will spiral in repetition and expansion throughout the story. In parallel to this (parallel spirals? — oh, I'm just not going to worry about it) is a presentation of the then-new state of constant technological advance as both permanent and impermanent: the Rhth humans have abandoned high technology (the forgetfulness of the title) because they are beyond it; their technology has, inevitably as the story would have it, progressed so far as to become non-technological.*

*Along these lines it is interesting to note that where this story presents The Triumph Of Man in the abandonment of technology, at first appearing to be The Decline Of Man, the other half of the diptych, "Twilight," presents The Decline Of Man surrounded by technology, at first appearing to be The Triumph Of Man. On the face of it this is hardly what one would expect of Campbell!

The people of Pareeth misunderstand Seun's constant "we have forgotten" refrain for the vast bulk of the story, thinking they have encountered a tragically diminished version of Rhth's former glory; only toward the end does Ron Thule realize that Seun's forgetfulness is the equivalent of the way he and his people (and we reading the story) have mostly forgotten how to make a fire without a match (or a heat ray), how to carve an effective flint knife, how to make a coat from an animal skin. Reading this I was put in mind of a moment in Karl Ove Knausgaard's marvelous novel A Time for Everything (which, as I must say every time I mention it, all sf readers should read, though it is not sf):

Everything we know is inextricably linked with loss and oblivion. And what knowledge does conquer is so infinitesimally small in comparison with what it jettisons that we might reasonably suspect it of being in retreat: why else does it always set its abandoned landscapes on fire? (trans. James Anderson)
What Knausgaard's scholar-narrator posits as retreat, Campbell/Stuart's narrator, like all committed positivists, sees as victory. But because this narrator is implicitly of Pareeth, a high-technological and highly self-regarding society, with this vast triumph comes sorrow. The landscape Rhth has set on fire is equivalent, even "superior" to that of Pareeth, and seeing this the people of Pareeth cannot help but see what they themselves have set on fire. In defeat their own victories take on a tragic tone, and not only because of the "sour grapes" attitude intrinsic to any self-regarding society faced with unaccustomed defeat.

All these contradictions and paradoxes pervade the story down to the smallest level of the language, and the "something of a vast triumph, something of sorrow" of the opening paragraph, followed by the "mighty cruiser"/"little band" (the spaceship, its crew) of the second, begins a pattern of contrast and self-contradiction that accelerates as the story goes on, ramping up until it seems hardly a sentence can go by without some construction like "dimly sparkling" or "tiny clatter" or "swift immobility"; in these surroundings even an otherwise innocuous phrase like "long moment" takes on something of this aura of paradox, of multiplicity. This tendency, which continues to the end of the story, reaches its climax just before the midpoint, when the men from Pareeth encounter the technologico-mystical source of Rhth's energy, "the sorgan unit," from which "flowed the power of the generator, instantaneously, to any ship in all space" back in the days when Rhth had such ships (it is this unit which has a "swift immobility"). As Seun explains with his silent telepathy:

"It created a field rotating" — and the minds of his hearers refused the term — "which involves, as well, time.
      "In the first revolution it made, the first day it was built, it circled to the ultimate end of time and the universe, and back to the day it was built. And in all that sweep, every sorgan unit tuned to it must follow. The power that drove it died when the city was deserted, but it is still making the first revolution, which it made and completed in the first hundredth of a second it existed.
      "Because it circled to the end of time, it passed this moment in its swing, and every other moment that ever is to be. Were you to wipe it out with your mightiest atomic blast, it would not be disturbed, for it is in the next instant, as it was when it was built. And so it is at the end of time, unchanged. Nothing in space or time can alter that, for it has already been at the end of time. That is why it rotates still, and will rotate when this world dissolves, and the stars die out and scatter as dust in space. Only when the ultimate equality is established, when no more change is, or can be will it be at rest — for then other things will be equal to it, all space equated to it, because space, too, will be unchanged through time."
(The oddity of this time-spanning device's appearance in a story about what time obliterates could be the subject of another essay; perhaps some other time.)

Looking on the sorgan unit, a single location encompassing all of space and time, a source of infinite power which literally is the powerless end-state of absolute entropy, a thing in eternal movement precisely because its lack of movement is so complete, the minds of Pareeth rebel; Ron Thule's "eyes twisted and his thoughts seemed to freeze," and this is even after Seun has exerted some telepathic force on him to prevent him from going insane.

It is too much even for the story itself. To this point, even with its contradictions and sorrow, "Forgetfulness" had been proceeding magisterially on its way (what else written in English at this time had this tone? did anything, in or out of sf?) as though nothing could disturb it, but here it begins to break down. Almost immediately after the encounter with this sfnal relative of Jorge Luis Borges' aleph it breaks off with a long dash and is suddenly interrupted by the interpolation of the "Conclusion of the Report to the Committee of Pareeth, Submitted by Shor Nun, Commander of the First Interstellar Expedition," which is itself fragmented, beginning as we're allowed to see it with the second half of a sentence, followed by the "Unanimous Report of the Committee of Pareeth on the First Expedition to the Planet Rhth," equally fragmented, cutting off mid-sentence before the story proper resumes.

It is as if the story is trying to combat the sheer magnitude of the irruption of the incomprehensible by retreating to these legalistic documents, with their pretense to authority and objectivity.* Afterwards, though nothing is the same (it is here that the break of several years between missions occurs, and the similar-but-different crew appears, with its similar-but-different approach to Seun and the Rhth people), the story seems able for a moment to regain its footing — but it is only a moment. Before long Shor Nun presents Pareeth's ultimatum, setting off Seun's response: to dislocate the many ships of the second mission in time and space, trapping them in some distant realm of entropy and timelessness at the end of the universe, altering and limiting forever their people's ability to perceive and move through space before returning them to their home at a time before they even left it.

*An authority whose problems, an objectivity whose falseness I have already touched upon above, in the discussion of Pareeth's colonialist agenda — which is laid out explicitly in these reports.

In this final section the story, in terms of event, becomes almost incomprehensible; it took me several re-readings to get my bearings enough to be able to summarize even this roughly the what-happened. The change is visible to the eye even at a quick glance at the page: the paragraphs shrink, dashes proliferate. On reading, one finds that sentences have been replaced by fragments; the earlier stateliness and clarity has been replaced, on the part of the characters and of the story itself, with panic and confusion. And things never really fully settle down; the final pages of the story have enough of a stillness for Ron Thule and Shor Nun to explain to themselves, and to us, what they think has just happened, but even the confirmation of their speculations in the penultimate sentence comes so unexpectedly and from so wondrous a source that the inattentive reader could easily miss it, or misunderstand it; and all that is left for "Forgetfulness" to do is to vanish with a sigh.

Friday, September 5, 2014

An addendum to yesterday's post

I'm writing this quickly and distractedly at work, so my apologies for any awkwardnesses.

The largest part of what I was hoping to get at in my post yesterday was indeed the kind of issues raised by this excellent little post, which I am honored to have inspired however indirectly; related issues of epistemology and ethics in writing, the relationship of style and form to structures of power, and so forth, were raised in the exciting conversations I had with several people yesterday on twitter. But last night I started to wonder if perhaps I should have brought out more clearly a much more rudimentary aspect of what I was talking about — a very basic point that I worry may be lost* in the focus on these, if you will, higher-level problems.

*To be clear, I'm not saying any of the people who responded to the post were "missing the point"; I just want to make this more explicit, in large part for my own benefit.

Science fiction, as Joanna Russ argues, is a literature in which the work's insistence on itself-as-truth and on itself-as-lie is by necessity in a constant state of flux. The work's position on the status of the fictional writer and the fictional reader — does it seek explicitly to make us aware of their fictionality or not? in what way does it do this, or not do this? to what degree? are the "non-fictional" writer and reader implicated? etc. — is one of the major factors driving this flux. It is the work telling us what it is pretending it is possible for the writer and the reader to know — which is not necessarily the same thing as what is possible to know — or even what the work is actually asking us to accept as knowable.

To lead towards the famous example:

Someone writing in, say, the 19th century, from their everyday experience, has the authority to describe an action such as "She turned the knob and opened the door" (whether they have the authority to write this is a different question); a 19th century reader, from everyday experience, has the ability to understand this action uncomplicatedly. Someone writing today has this same authority and adds to it, again from everyday experience, the authority to describe an action such as "She walked toward the door and it slid open"; and the reader of today has the ability, from experience, to understand. Robert A. Heinlein, from everyday experience, does not have the authority to describe the action in his sentence "The door dilated." He knows this; the reader (who does not have the ability-from-experience to understand the sentence) knows this. But Beyond This Horizon, as a work, behaves as though* it were written by someone who did have such authority, and also behaves as though it will be read by someone who can understand.

*Or at least I'm told it behaves as though; I haven't read it. If reports are lying, the hypothetical work-that-behaves-as-though is a close enough approximation to a large enough body of science fiction that it still serves as a decent example.

It is attention to this sort of behavior, and investigation of what this behavior in any given particular work is doing, that I was urging in my post. Now, obviously, in pursuit of these questions we will very quickly come up against those issues of epistemology, ethics, and power that yesterday's discussions were concerned with (the word "authority" is a big clue) — but (and again I want to make clear that I'm not saying anyone yesterday "misunderstood" or was distracted by trivial points, far from it) we will also come up against other issues, other questions; and at any rate the investigation must start, as always, and as of course we all know, with a lively (and wherever possible sympathetic) attention to the work at hand.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The fictional writer, the fictional reader

[See also my addendum to this post.]

Written works of science fiction that take place in the future or in alternate versions of the past or the present*, in addition to whatever fictional characters may appear explicitly in the narrative, also implicitly create two others: the fictional writer and the fictional reader.

*Concepts we should never allow ourselves to think of as natural or always-already-understood or just-given are in italics.

The fictional writer: the story pretends that there exists someone who could be aware of these events that have not occurred yet or at all, who in that awareness could write about them (this is true whether the story is in the first person or not). The fictional reader: one can only read about events after they are written about, which can only be done after they occur, and these events have not occurred yet or at all.

(There is of course a sense in which this is true of all fiction; it could possibly be fruitful to pursue the questions I hope to raise here in all written works. But at this point at least it seems to me that no other kind of writing demands the pursuit of these questions the way sf does.)

The relationship(s) between these two characters, the relationship(s) between both of them and the work, and the relationship(s) between all these and us, the work's "non-fictional" readers, are one of the fundamental determining factors in everything that the sf work does, can do, seeks to do — and the converse: everything the work does not do, cannot do, does not seek to do. (One could also, perhaps better, put it in another converse way: that what the work does and does not seek to do is what determines these relationships.)

Some works address these relationships explicitly. Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To and Clifford D. Simak's City, for example, both insist that if there is a reader, it is certainly not us, even that we certainly do not exist. The Russ presents itself as a found document that manifestly could never be found, at least not by anyone human and probably not by anyone at all (and its fictional writer — or more accurately its fictional speaker — knows this, discusses it). In the Simak, the impossibility of the reader becomes apparent when the characters we are reading about discover that their past (in which we in our present are living) literally does not exist (this not to mention what the "essays" do to the status of the fictional writer).

There are other ways than to assert the impossibility of the reader. I think for example of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which pretends, without telling us how, that texts from the future are as available to present-day translators as texts from the past, or Henry Kuttner's (and, probably, C.L. Moore's) "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," which begins by declaring the impossibility of describing the future from the vantage point of the present. Even such seemingly naïve (and, in sf, commonplace) devices as the appendices in Frank Herbert's Dune or Isaac Asimov's ploy of opening the Foundation stories with entries from an encyclopedia that does not exist yet even in the vastly future world of the stories themselves, stake out relationships between the work, these implicit fictional characters, and the actual reader that contour everything the work does and everything about how we read it.

But such relationships are staked out, in different ways, even in the remaining vast bulk of sf works that do not make any explicit issue of the fictionality of the writer and reader, that simply take it as a given (or pretend to take it as a given) that it is possible for someone to write about these events, and possible for someone else to read about them. And again these relationships countour everything about the work and our response to it. (Among many other things, consider the ways they affect the choice of verb tense, a choice whose ramifications are quite different in sf works than in others.)

These issues are inescapable in sf. It is perhaps (perhaps) not too much to say that the work's demand to deal with these issues is the larger part of why a writer might choose to write sf rather than something else, whether the writer would put it this way or not. These issues are implicit in everything that sf is, and in everything that is said about it. It seems to me that careful attention to them is vital if any critic's, any reader's, approach to any sf work is to have any chance of coming to terms with that work.