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.

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