Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Future Histories

i've been thinking about what we call "historical knowledge" quite a bit these days, all the while chewing my way through my annual summer treat, the two "years best" annual science fiction anthologies (Gardner Dozois' and Hartwell & Cramer's respectively).

Historical knowledge is taken as something of a given, and for that reason not really questioned too much by most of us. We take it for granted, kind of like snow in winter or boring speeches as a demonstration winds up. Unexamined.

Philip K. Dick, one of the most wonderful science fiction writers of the 20th century (despite the fact that he was a snitch and a woman-beating misogynist), occasionally posited the idea that we were living mere decades after the time of Christ. Our past twenty centuries of "history" being an illusion laid over the real world, meant to occlude our minds, to prevent us from seeing what was at stake. In books like Valis and Radio Free Albemuth he suggested that Richard Nixon was really head of the Roman Empire and hippies like himself were the persecuted disciples of Christ.

What Dick was playing on - or what was playing on him - was the fact that historical thought, in the way we think about it, is neither universal, nor is it a natural given. Indeed, as the Pocket Essential Philip K. Dick expounds:
In one of the novels there's a Zippo lighter which was in Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated (not that Roosevelt was assassinated). To prove the authenticity of this artefact (look at the scratch where the bullet scraped past) there's a framed certificate. Is the certificate genuine? Well, you could go to the trouble of getting that verified too, but sooner or later you have to take reality on trust. And hold tight when the trust turns out to be misplaced.
Not only in PKD tales, but in the real world too, pondering the nature of the past you quickly bump into questions with no certain answers, only shades of the probable. How do we know two millenia have passed since the days of the gospels? Why do we trust some sources and not others to build this narrative? What's more, the entire exercise only holds together thanks to the gentleman's agreement to only pick at one scab at a time, to only direct inquiry at one aspect at a time, leaving the rest black-boxed, assumed to be ok, axiomatic for the time being.

And yet for all that, it works.

In fact it works so well that our different versions of history - of the past - are often more important to us than our different versions of the present. More emotionally evocative, even though it only takes a little thought to see that it would make more sense the other way round. Talking about what has happened becomes the preferred way of exploring how things do happen, what might and what will and what can happen in the future. The past becomes a sandbox in which to build and test our ideas about just about everything, meaningful precisely because differing versions will be judged by how well they fit, not only with the rest of the historical record (remember what i said about only picking one scab at a time) but also with our ideas about human nature (or the lack thereof) and even metaphysical questions about the nature and origins of the reality itself (just ask those folks who believe god hid the dinosaur bones as an elaborate practical joke on paleontologists).

According to historian Hayden White different historical narratives in fact say more about the historians and their public than they do about actual past events. The narrative, for this early post-modernist, really is everything. (You see, i have been chuffed to recently discover that there is an entire genre of philosophical inquiry - "the philosophy of history" - devoted to precisely these questions.)

But i digress - let's get back to the SF.

A story can offer insight, amusement, drama, and more, but if you're attracted to a particular genre you end up wondering why that is. & i think part of the appeal of SF is precisely that as a genre it draws a lot of its oomph from its relationship to the aforementioned questions, to the philosophy of history.

In SF - which the higbrows have tellingly switched from meaning "science fiction" to "speculative fiction" - we get a new sandbox in which to play with and test our ideas, but the test is the inverse of what it is in actual historical writing. Precisely because these stories are supposed to by imaginary, what they need to fit with is not our knowledge of actual reality, but our assumptions of how reality-might-come-to-be. If history provides a canvas on which to paint our ideas about life the universe and everything, and about what the future may bring, then SF certainly does the former while also providing a back channel to develop our ideas about history.

On that note, here's my thoughts about these two lovely books: David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Camer's Year's Best SF 14 and Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection

My Favorites
Evil Robot Monkey, Mary Robinette Kowal
Five Thrillers, Robert Reed
Crystal Nights, Greg Egan
Days Of Wonder, Geoff Ryman
Old Friends, Garth Nix
Lester Young And The Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues, Gord Sellar

Story-By-Story Reactions
"Turing’s Apples" by Stephen Baxter. A message from across the galaxy provides a rorschach test for humanity, though all it really takes is one well-placed dude to press the "on" button.

"From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled" by Michael Swanwick. Having the space suit tell the story is something i don't remember seeing before, and while it works better here than in Alastair Reynold's Fury (see below), this tale of a human diplomat observing an insect-alien war was not very gripping.

"The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi. The author likes to use sci-fi to comment on the present, favouring near-future settings and eco-themes. Here the tale of a refugee from Laos trying to get by as a journalist is used to skew what you get in a lowest-common-denominator rules, titillation-at-all-costs, media world. Elsewhere Bacigalupi explains that "'The Gambler' was partly inspired by my work as an online editor at High Country News, where one of my jobs was to plan for a digital future. The promises and perils of the technologies I was working with turned out to be fertile ground for a story."

"Boojum" by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette. i do so like the theme of sentient space ships - this is a good one. Not great, though, but good enough.

"The Six Directions Of Space" by Alastair Reynolds. Now you see this could have been a great story - parallel universes all intersecting, Reynolds' tale is based in one where the Mongol Empire dominated the earth and then beyond. Wonderful spy-thriller beginning, great concept - especially enjoyed the universe where lemurs evolve space flight - but a pablum ending with a Rodney-Kingish plea of "can't we all get along": "If the Infrastructure is truly breaking down, allowing all these timelines to bleed into one another, than (sic!) we are all going to have to get along with each other sooner or later. No matter what we all did to each other in our various histories. We're all going to have to put the past behind us." Presentist anxieties, anyone?

"N-Words" by Ted Kosmatka. i think Neanderthals deserve their own post, but until i get around to that i'll just say that our swarthy friends are sexier than ever theseadays, doubtless due to the exciting discoveries being made using genetic research. In N-Words a scientist resuscitates the species from old DNA à la Jurassic Park (not an impossibility it seems), leading to a new racial divide which really is racial, as the not so subtle title indicates. Note that on a cultural level, Neanderthals are coming to represent the suppressed european - we are being told they look conveniently like big vikings ("spent ten times longer in light-starved Europe than a typical Swede's ancestors") and racist "people of sun"/"people of ice" lingo is rolled out and turned on its head. On his website Kosmatka pedantically describes N-words as "my story against racism", which i think sells it short. Very reminiscent of Terry Bisson's Scout's Honor from 2006. And like Bisson's short story, Kosmatka's N-Words was one of the few that made it into both the Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer anthologies. [available as audio story here]

"An Eligible Boy" by Ian Mcdonald. i'm about ready to say that i don't like McDonald's stories, but for now i'll just say that his stories set in a near-future AI-dominated Indian subcontinent are getting old.

"Shining Armour" by Dominic Green. A town of farmers needs protecting from greedy prospectors. Done well enough that that this traditional western-genre story transposed itself seamlessly onto a far-future post-imperial colony world. The ending lacked the emotional impact i need to made a story stellar, that's why this one isn't on my faves list.

"The Hero" by Karl Schroeder. Have not checked out Schroeder's work before now, but after reading this (and his Mitigation - see below) i certainly will. A protected humanity living in a dyson sphere needs to grow up, and it falls on one young man to put this in motion. Provisionally on my faves list - am curious if he can sustain this in the other writings set in his Virga universe.

"Evil Robot Monkey"
by Mary Robinette Kowal. It is very difficult to use the very-short-story (or "flash fiction") to pack emotional punch, but with a boosted chimp as protagonist this quickie delivers the goods. Perhaps the best in this collection, it's short so why don't you read it on the authors site!

"Five Thrillers" by Robert Reed. This is a tale by one of my favorite authors, and while the politics and historical philiosophy are both about as openly reactionary as you can get - it takes a sociopath to raise a village kinda thing - it was one of the most enjoyable this year. According to this interview, one inspiration for the novella was television's 24 - don't be fooled though, Reed's work is much better.

"The Sky That Wraps The World Round, Past The Blue And Into The Black" by Jay Lake. Our protaginist is hiding from his past (i like that we are only ever given glimpses of this) painting space memorabilia with radioactive goop so it will be the color people think it "really should be." A nice take on what a let-down authenticity can be (worthy of P.K. Dick, actually), but this is just garnish on the side, and unfortunately i found the main storyline kinda empty.

"Incomers" by Paul Mcauley. Kids acting bad make a nice friend with a sad past. Next...

"Crystal Nights" by Greg Egan. This is probly the most explicit example of what i was blathering on about above, SF providing a chance to explore how history might work. In this case we have a virtual reality universe - been there done that i know i know - that its creator hopes will become autonomous. This has been done so many times (the Matrix anyone?), and in fact if you are bored you can spend a lot of time worrying that we probably are stuck in such VR plane (which begs the question of what the "V" actually indicates). The point is that Egan does what most fail to do, he makes an extremely engaging story out of this idea - one of my faves. [also available as audio podcast]

"The Egg Man" by Mary Rosenblum. Set in a realistic dystopian near-future, where pharmaceutical crops and eggs provide the SF engines, and an abandoned corner of post-America provides the setting. Good, but not excellent.

"His Master’s Voice" by Hannu Rajaniemi. The author's stuff is just too weird for me to really get into, try as i might.

"The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay. Great story set after his space opera The Political Officer, this offering is not surprisingly inspired by our world's Holocaust though a lunch break spent on google could certainly find a dozen other worthy precursors. Woulda been one of the best this year if not for the wimpy ending - both in terms of an emotionally vacuous resolution and a morally vacuous bromide. Too bad.

"Balancing Accounts" by James L. Cambias. Not only do i really like this guy's writing - i loved his funny Ocean of the Blind a couple of years back - but this story provides some real clever sideways glances at the place of the "non-quantifiable" in economic decision-making. Useful. Definitely one of this year's best.

"Special Economics" by Maureen Mchugh. There's potential in this theme - slavery in communist China - but it is all wasted in this reactionary little tale. Actually, too tepid even to be reactionary... (for another take on this and other tales of future Chinas, see this on Torque Control)

"Days Of Wonder" by Geoff Ryman. Fantastic story of post-humanity; a "hero's journey" structure where our hero is a genetically melded horse-human. Great ending.

"City Of The Dead" by Paul Mcauley. A sherif has to ward off bad guys looking for a lost alien artefact. Not much here, though the hive rats are cool, and i do like organic computers... somehow it wasn't better than ok.

"The Voyage Out" by Gwyneth Jones. Prisoners beamed through space to colonize far off worlds, but on the way all kinds of spooky things happen. Nice concept (the space spookiness thing can work great, viz. Solaris and such) but it really failed to hold together. Seeing as this story is part of a series (The Buonarotti Quarter), maybe i would have enjoyed it more if i'd read some of Jones' accompanying work, but on its own it failed to impress. Too bad.

"The Illustrated Biography Of Lord Grimm" by Daryl Gregory. Interesting that i liked this one so much considering how much i hated Gregory's Glass (see below). Also, i'm a bit confused as to this atory also appearing in Hartwell and Cramer's Years' Best Fantasy this year - the story is clearly SF. Though some might be put off by the Axis-of-Evil aura around it, this story will be remembered for its vivid depictions of near-future warfare with the focus where it should be - on the civilians. Plus no sappy ending, thankgawd.

"G-Men" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Now this is certainly SF, and superficially it falls directly in the purview of the whole "looking at history thing" - but the thing is, it's just straight up alternate history and the only real appeal is of the trainspotting sort. Which is alternate history at its most shallow. Nevertheless, very well written, so as a detective short story it's fine. (Indeed, so fine is it that G-Men also appears in both Sideways in Crime and in The Best American Mystery Stories 2009)

"The Erdmann Nexus"
by Nancy Kress. Ah yes, emergence - increasingly sexy concept thesedays. It would be interesting to compare it to ideas of the quantitaive-becoming-qualitative, which it definitely isn't... indeed in some ways it's almost the opposite. But i'm getting off track. This is a very well written story, kept me interested and was satisfying despite the less-than-stellar ending. Still, one of the best "emergent property" stories i've seen.

"Old Friends" by Garth Nix. Great little story, wonderful ending which i won't spoil. Soldiers off AWOL, you know.

"The Ray-Gun: A Love Story" by James Alan Gardner. Very nice story, very nice ending. Felt somewhat like a Stephen King novel. i think it's the boy-as-protagonist thing, but it does work well.

"Lester Young And The Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues" by Gord Sellar. Space aliens just want to be entertained. One of those rare stories focussing on music to get where it's going, and it really pays off. i admit to being curious about this white African author whose story draws so heavily on 1940s Harlem. The take on authenticity comes at it from the opposite direction as Jay Lake's story (see above).

"Butterfly, Falling At Dawn" by Aliete De Bodard. Alternate history when done well is like this - no name dropping, no slack-jaw staring at phenomenon under the historical microscope, just proceed with your story as if nothing was wrong. And that's what De Bobard does here in her Xuya world, where North America was colonized by China a century before Columbus made his trip. Reading this interview by Marshall Payne, the woman has obviously put a lot of work into Xuya. But for all that, the story itself - while a clear take on cultural appropriation and such - left me cold.

"The Tear" by Ian Mcdonald. Wonderful wonderful far-future story about a multiple-personality branch of post-humanity ("the Clade") meeting up with some even stranger cousins.


My Favorites
"Exhalation" by Ted Chiang
"The Scarecrow's Boy" by Michael Swanwick

Story-By-Story Reactions
"Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman. Waterworld setting inspired by recent discoveries about Saturn's moons, unfortunately while the terrain was fresh and new, the characters were stereotyped knock-offs. Will people in the far future with Japanese names really be obsessively passive, and guys named "Jack" really act like they just escaped from a spaghetti western? i guess so...

"Orange" by Neil Gaiman. An ok story delivered as a set of answers to an investigator's questionnaire - great concept, but in the end i didn't feel the naive/homourous tone was done right. you can see a youtube video of Gaiman reading Orange here.

"Memory Dog" by Kathleen Ann Goonan. A dystopia that can be overthrown by high-tech communication devices (hey, maybe we should invent the internet) - mind you, the main aspect of the story, the transmigration of a man's soul into a dog, was as brilliant as his grief was painful. So that makes it worth reading.

"Pump Six" by Paolo Bacigalupi. This is memorable but i'm not sure it should be. Bacigalupi is a good writer, but too many of his stories seem like cheap vehicles to quickly sketch a vision, and the thing about sketches it that to make an impact they need more power than he normally manages to summon up.

"Boojum" by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette. Made it into both collections, so see above.

"Exhalation" by Ted Chiang. The best story in either collection this year. Holy shit this was good. Set amongst steam-driven robots in another reality, where one scientist's discovery about how the mind works has ramifications for the whole universe.

"Traitor" by M. Rickert. Was there anything to this piece of shit story? Methinks not. Terrorists brainwash children to blow themselves up, and this a tale makes. Barf.

"The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away" by Cory Doctorow. An examination, in a not heavy-handed way, of personal responsibility in a panopticon dystopia.

"Oblivion: A Journey" by Vandana Singh. Drawing on the Ramayana, the Hindu epic, Singh gives us a protagonist willing to sacrifice anything to exact revenge on a war criminal. The ending did not work for me.

"The House Left Empty" by Robert Reed. While Reed is one of my favourite authors, this story left me cold. Near future post-amerika isn't so bad after all, if the worst thing about it is the end of the space programme.

"The Scarecrow's Boy" by Michael Swanwick. Beautiful yarn about sentient machines bound to serve the local despot. At one point the scarecrow asks the car if she believes in free will, to which she replies that she has often wondered but must obey her programming. "I don't mean for us. I mean for them. The humans," Scarecrow answers - priceless! One of my favorites this year.

"N-Words" by Ted Kosmatka. Very good story, it made it into both collections - see review above.

"Fury" by Alastair Reynolds. Told by a space suit that evolved into something sentient. Reynolds tried this same idea in Dozois' 2006 anthology to much better effect, in his masterful Zima Blue. But in Fury the trick falls flat; my guess is because its ancillary to the main story-line, and as such is reduced to being a cheap trick. Whereas in Zima Blue we had real reflection about identity and personal development, in Fury we get a sorry little morality tale. Too bad.

"Cheats" by Gwyneth Jones (writing as Ann Halam). Described as for young adults, but apart from the fact that the protagonists are children (not rare in this genre) i don't see why. Which is a good thing. This is a simple story of how a virtual reality game gets crossed over with something much more serious, and where the search for easter eggs leads down the rabbit's hole. Nice, but not gripping.

"The Ships Like Clouds, Risen By Their Rain" by Jason Sanford. Very weird story, which i liked a lot until the ending, where it just got a bit too weird. Different world, different universe (it seems), and spaceships rain torrents of water crushing the poor people who live below.

"The Egg Man" by Mary Rosenblum. Appeared in both anthologies, so see above.

"Glass" by Daryl Gregory. Great clockwork-orangeish premise, crap story. Partly the caricature prisoners bothered me, partly the silly ending which distracts from any real reflection on violence and morality. Gregory is normally very skilled at creating an ominous mood, but it's a difficult task in just a few pages.

"Fixing Hanover" by Jeff VanderMeer. Wonderful steampunk offering about an engineer who - horrified at the warlike uses to which his skill has been applied - flees empire to live amongst the barbarians. This could have been a sentimental disappointment, but VanderMeer's hard ending saved it.

"Message Found in a Gravity Wave" by Rudy Rucker. Flash fiction SF from Nature magazine's Futures section, which i normally find disappoint. In this case the tone was cute, but i think i've seen this kind of message-in-a-bottle-coz-the-end-is-nigh stuff done enough.

"Mitigation" by Tobias Buckell & Karl Schroeder. A near future heist thriller set on a backfrop of an economy increasingly dominated by carbon trading. The cool thing about this story is how it effortlessly implies that global warming will continue unhindered, and the sideways focus on the new economic gruntwork and displacement caused by capitalist band-aid solutions. As has been noted here there and everywhere, if you've been focussing on the green part of "green capitalism", you've been focussing on the wrong thing.

"Spiders" by Sue Burke. A cute story about people on a strange new world, with pretty hackneyed parental gender dynamics.

and that's it for 2009. Writing down these notes has been nearly as much fun as reading the stories, but there's real work to do now...

1 comment:

  1. Have you heard that magpie (do you know magpie?) has a book coming out (about nowish?) that's interviews with anarchist SF authors? I'm looking forward to getting a copy.