A History of the Future

It's a given that science fiction is really about the present. You need only read pundits attempting to foresee the future of music, automobile design or political trends to realise that a realistic prediction of the next 12 months is virtually impossible, let alone the next 10, 100 or 1000 years. Science fiction is about imagining the present through the lens of a speculative future.

There is no better place to start than Issac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. Published between 1951 and 1953, Asimov's original trilogy (discounting the 1980s sequels) are an intriguing period piece that illustrates the pre-occupations of America in the early 1950s, the marginal position of sci-fi as a literary genre and the resolutely masculine outlook of its author.

Asimov, a Russian emigre with bona-fide scientific credentials, published over 200 science fiction and non-fiction books in his lifetime. The quality of his writing barely changed from the outset of his career in the 1940s. It was a barely functional, overly descriptive prose that often appeared to have completely escaped the clutches of an editor. In this classic example from Foundation, the first book of the trilogy, Asimov explains that his character has just had lunch and wonders how long a day is on Trantor, the imperial centre of the galactic empire.

"Gaal was not certain whether the sun shone, or, for that matter, whether it was day or night. He was ashamed to ask. All the planet seemed to live beneath metal. The meal of which he had just partaken had been labeled luncheon, but there were many planets which lived a standard time-scale that took no account of the perhaps inconvenient alteration of day and night. The rate of planetary turnings differed, and he did not know that of Trantor..."
Got that?

The three books, Foundation, Foundation And Empire and Second Foundation, chart the fall and rise of a galaxy wide civilization and is largely based on a retelling of the fall of Rome, but is riddled with the politics of the Cold War.

Asimov's Foundation is a secular religion based on science and a high rationalism. Its founder, Hari Seldon, is a mathematician whose 'psychohistory' is a predictive methodology based on statistics. It's as if market research were taken to its logical conclusion; canvas the opinion of absolutely everyone and you can tell exactly what's going to happen. All you need is a pocket calculator and some mysterious computations.

"Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt... ...its grey, glossy finish was slightly worn by use, Seldon's nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the hard plastic that rimmed it. Red symbols glowed out from the grey..."

Seldon has predicted that the Empire will fall. Only rational science can save the multi-trillion population of the galaxy from thousands of years of barbarism. The Foundation will publish an encyclopedia that will record everything anyone would need to know to guide them through the dark ages. "By the time Trantor falls, it will be complete and copies will exist in every major library in the galaxy," explains Asimov. Obviously, to survive the coming anarchy, all citizens must guard their library cards with their lives.

Asimov's universe is divided between the rationalist Foundation and the hysterical, emotionally enslaved followers of The Mule - a psychic mutant whose followers can no longer think for themselves. The parallels between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1950s are glaring. Seen through the eyes of an author who believes in the rationalism of science, the "great man" theory of history and the ultimate supremacy of technology, the books are a kind of endearing comic opera.

Gigantic spacecraft fly vast distances through hyperspace to unload sacks of mail at the other end. Buildings are so large that you can see neither walls or roofs. Amazing but mundane inventions like pocket calculators are mixed up with period genre details like flying cars, atomic engines and planet sized cities. The characters speak in a way no human ever has. It is, perhaps, an eerily accurate version of an alternative future that has largely fallen out of favour in the 1990s.

Asimov's trilogy is a retrospective tour through the absurdities and marvels of the distant future as seen from New York in 1950s. It's ridiculous, provocative and a lot of fun.

One of science fiction's most compelling sub-genres is a small area called 'alternative history'. It basically posits the 'what if..." scenario. What if computers had been invented in the 19th century? What if John F. Kennedy had lived? What if, let's suppose, that Germany and Japan had won World War 2? The publication of Niall Ferguson's authoritative Virtual History, a collection of essays by up-and-coming history profs going wild with the 'what if's' of historical turning points, is just one example of academia catching up with sci-fi. Philip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle was published in 1962 and is probably one of the finest examples of the genre.

Dick was an infuriatingly variable talent, given to the most dreadful pulp fiction ramblings and drug-induced inconsistency. But even at his worst, his sci-fi always contained at least one great idea. Even a marginal work like The Zap Gun, a tough read for even the most dedicated fan, is a good case in point. Dick discussed at length the possibility of the end of the cold war and the diversion of money from the weapons industry into... domestic, electronic games where the player has an empathic reaction to the fate of a small bear guided through a maze. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Perhaps the designers of PlayStation have a copy on their shelves.

But unlike Dick at his worst, The Man In The High Castle is the author at his very best. We're confronted with not just one good idea, but many. It's also a beautifully written book, subtly weaving together Dick's trademarks: reality, spirituality and the concepts of self - a hall of distorting mirrors that questions not just the framework of this particular strand of alternative history (Germany wins the war) but also ours. What, indeed, is reality? asks Dick.

The book opens in the late 1950s with America a conquered nation. On the west coast the Japanese control everything from neutral Canada, south to an Axis-allied Mexico and west to the California-Arizona border. The Germans run the east coast from their headquarters in New York to the mid west. Down the middle is a Vichy Free France style American state, neutered and powerless, the last vestige of the pre-war USA. The rest of the world is in darkness, Dick letting in only the tiniest details of what's going on.

The Man in The High Castle mostly avoids the big picture politics of this alternative history. Instead, Dick focuses on the interweaving lives of the novels characters - the owner of a shop specialising in pre-war American antiques of dubious authenticity, a jeweler and his business partner who supply the shop, an undercover German agent, a divorcee on the run and the Japanese customers of the antique shop.

Behind all of this is the shadowy presence of an author hiding out in the mid-west. A book has been published called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a science fiction novel that dares to wonder what the world would have been like if the Allies had won the war. As the Japanese characters (who have taken on westernised names) explain:

"Interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction," said Paul. "Oh no," Betty disagreed. "No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise." "But," Paul said, "it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort."

As Dick's novel progresses, more of the book within the book is revealed. The alternative history that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy presents is yet another alternative - the outcome of the Allies winning the war is achieved in a distinctly different way to the one we are familiar with. And, perhaps, in the book within the book, is another science fiction author presenting another version of events. It's a mirror reflecting a mirror into infinity, each diminishing reality subtly different to the one proceeding it.

Dick's prose is lucid and controlled with a nuanced shading of character, detail and plot that few other sci-fi novels have achieved. The author poses variations of his main theme which belie the pulp, 1950s ambience of some of the later action. The Man In The High Castle is a testament to the possibilities of the science fiction genre, taking bold steps in directions few have been able to follow. The tragedy here is that Dick was rarely better and in the wake of Blade Runner, released the year of the author's death in the early 1980s, the focus of appreciation has centered on his more obvious sci-fi writings. Although never truly terrible, Dick was given to rehashing his own work. He had planned a sequel to The Man In The High Castle that never eventuated. Luckily, with the book still in print, we can appreciate a writer at the height of his craft.

Arthur C. Clarke is another proposition altogether. Even his most ardent fans would admit that elementary devices like characterisation and believable dialogue are largely absent from the dozens of books published under his name.

What most people recognise as science fiction is what Clarke has always delivered: tight plotting and painfully believable technical detail. It's painful because, although always delivered with panache, that's all you're going to get. Clarke's attempts at characterisation are laughable. Take this gem from Rendezvous With Rama, where the author attempts to explain how two of his space crew manage their simultaneous marriage to the same woman, remembering of course that a menage a trios is futuristic. Crew members Mercer and Calvert have established a stable working relationship despite their personality differences but...

"...what was much more unusual was the fact that they also shared a wife back on Earth, who had borne each of them a child. Commander Norton hoped that he would meet her one day. She must be a very remarkable woman. The triangle had lasted at least five years, and still seemed to be an equilateral one."

Or this about the prospect of women in space: "Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction..."

About the only sympathetic vibration readers in the 1990s would share is the desire to put a size 10 space boot up the author's arse. But Clarke fans would argue that those necessary but absent devices in the creation of the suspension of disbelief are beside the point - just give us some hard technical detail about trajectories, transmission time lags and the possibilities of alien visitors.

Published in 1973, Rendezvous With Rama is undoubtedly one of Clarke's better books. It opens with a meteorite hitting the north of Italy, totally annihilating Venice and the surrounding countryside. In the wake of the disaster, the united people of Earth start up an organisation with the pithy name of Space Guard. Their mission: to protect the earth from wayward asteroids and meteorites. Commander Norton and the crew of the Endeavour are out on a mission when an object is detected heading towards the inner solar system. With no one else out in their part of space, it's up to Norton to intercept and destroy the object. But then it turns out to be a huge, slowly rotating cylinder - an alien space craft kilometers long. The next logical step is go inside and explore.

Rendezvous With Rama is an adventure in the grand tradition and Clarke's detail is staggering. The interior of Rama, the name given to the alien visitor, is vividly realised and, despite the occasional lapse into boy's own adventure, remains tightly focused on the task at hand. Clarke's background in physics and chemistry (he's an old boy of Kings College, London) is put to impressive use. It's as if Clarke uses the old tailor's maxim: never mind the quality, feel the width. The author manages to create an entirely convincing alien ecosystem with unique numerical and architectural features thrown in for good measure. You do indeed forget the quality - it's the wide-screen adventure that engulfs the reader.

Reading Clarke is a guilty pleasure. It's not the greatest book ever written - in parts it's a perfect example of just what is wrong with so much so-called "classic sci-fi" - but when you put the book down you feel as though you've been somewhere. And that in itself is no small achievement.

By way of comparison, it's amazing to consider that JG Ballard's novel Crash was published in the very same year as Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama. It's even more incredible when you realise that both works fall under the title 'science fiction'. No two books could be more dissimilar within the same supposed genre.

By the late 1960s the utopian idealism that typified so much science fiction had become untenable in the face of the escalating cold war and the emergent 'counter-culture'. Ballard, along with authors like Christopher Priest and Michael Moorecock in the UK and Thomas M. Disch, Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny in the US, had created what was called 'The New Wave' of sci-fi. Clarke and Asimov's starships were in flames: the genre returned to an Earth overwhelmed by the arms race, overpopulation and pollution - the touchstones of the counterculture. The New Wave also proposed what was then a radical stance: everyday life is science fiction, not some speculative future.

Ballard's Crash is probably one of the best examples of the New Wave; the desire to invest fiction with some of the radical departures that other art forms had achieved. But as a consequence some of its pre-occupations have dated: S&M is now the stuff of mainstream Hollywood. The positing of everyday life as the arena for sci-fi is now a standard genre device and the approaching apocalypse in the form of the family car has been consigned to the same bargain bin as Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed. The recent movie version of Crash is no better proof that, despite the radicalism of the book in the early 1970s, certain aspects have not survived the test of time. On the other hand, it's Crash's very radicality that marks it out as one of the true classics of 20th century fiction, not just as science fiction.

The literary proscenium is immediately demolished by Ballard's main character: James G. Ballard. Writing in the first person Ballard, character and author, takes centre stage as the novel's main protagonist. Driving home from his job as the director of an ad shoot, Ballard narrowly survives a car accident. Convalescing in a hospital near Heathrow Airport, Ballard meets Vaughn, his guide into a nether-world of perverse auto-eroticism. Vaughn is obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor and plans the ultimate orgasmic/death scenario - a car crash where both will die. In the meantime, Ballard is introduced to a society populated with the survivors of car accidents who recognise the implicit sexual charge of the near death experience. The faster and the more violent the accident, the bigger the thrill. A gash on a leg caused by the incision of metal into flesh is nothing more than an alternative point of entry for the sexually liberated.

Ballard's novel is also one to be read with a box of Panadol Forte to hand - it has a headache inducing intensity that has been rarely matched. The author cleverly combines pornography, violence and the fetishisation of car culture to create a portrait of an entirely convincing alternative reality. His prose is lean to the point of banality, but so charged with a sexual/violent frission that, once read, is almost impossible to forget. There is nothing like it in subsequent sci-fi - indeed, in fiction at large. The closest thing this reviewer has ever read that compares to the overwhelming intensity of Crash is Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho. A book to be approached with caution.

During the late 1970s and the 1980s science fiction had to deal with two major problems.

The first was that the radical re-evaluation of modernism that brought about the New Wave had created a no-win situation for sci-fi. It was stuck in a rut. With the aesthetics of post-modernism in the ascendancy and culture at large starting to take on the appearance of science fiction, the normal genre mechanics of print science fiction, (space craft, f-t-l travel, genetics, a cashless society, etc) began to look incredibly tired.

The second problem was Star Wars. George Lucas's 1977 film firmly placed science fiction at the centre of Hollywood's money-making machine. Publishing, which is after all another money making enterprise, followed suit. Bookshelves were groaning under the weight of endless, multi-volume series that rehashed sub-Arthurian legend for a decent profit.

In the 1980s, the work of authors like Neil Stephenson, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling helped to resuscitate an increasingly irrelevant genre by infusing it with a contemporary, post-modernist aesthetic. But the grand space opera of classic sci-fi was still missing in action.

Which brings us to Iain M. Banks. Making his debut in 1984 with the non-science fiction novel The Wasp Factory, Banks was a new voice on the literary scene. Writing in a clear and concise prose, Banks was an ascerbic commentator of life in the UK. After the Kafka-esque follow up, The Bridge, it became clear that Banks had definite science fiction leanings.

Then Consider Phlebas was published - a full on science fiction novel that spanned vast distances, alien cultures, war and fantastically groovy technology. It was Banks first completed novel, but it had languished unpublished until after the success of The Wasp Factory. It read like a first novel but it had one great idea. Banks proposed a vast galactic civilisation called The Culture. The book's metaphor was clear: western culture in space. But unlike Asimov, Clarke, or pulp writers like E.E. "Doc" Smith, Banks's future is a cynical, self-aware and avowedly ironic recreation of 1950s space opera.

In Consider Phlebas, The Culture loved its enemy - a monolithic, semi-fascistic mono-culture that stood in for the old Soviet Union. Nothing could stand in the way of a culture that absorbs and takes on as fashion everything that would defy it - either by simply being different or actively opposing it. Everything from communism to aboriginal cultures crumble in the face of a polymorphously perverse, insatiably curious conquest. Weapons are a last resort when you can offer your enemy the attractions of a free market economy.

Defying the law of diminishing returns, the tangentially related sequels found detail in Banks's first novel that was worth exploring. Some were merely diverting, like The Player of Games and The Use of Weapons. Others were excellent; the short story State of The Art (for my money the single best sci-fi Excession short story of the last 20 years) and his most recent novel.

Excession finds The Culture unopposed in the galaxy. Its citizens - humanoids, robots, artificially intelligent space craft, drones and self-aware weapons - are busily deciding how the lesser civilizations will develop, whether or not to contact one-cut-above-barbarism planets like Earth (State of the Art puts the time frame as 1978) and how to spend their copious free time. The Culture has achieved utopia - even dissension is catered for.

Then one day The Culture must deal with what is called an "Outside Context Problem." As Banks describes it:

"An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilizations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop."

The Culture detects an object floating in space that it cannot explain - it exists both within and outside the familiar multidimensional realms of space-time. The object seems benign, but its mere existence challenges the ordered universe of The Culture. Fleets are assembled, field agents from Special Circumstances (a kind of friendly CIA) are posted and The Cultures best Minds (self-aware spacecraft) are thrown into the fray. The Culture will simultaneously stabilise the situation where needed and wreak havoc if required.

Banks lines up a series of breathtakingly realised vignettes, weaving dramatic twists and turns into the narrative. In lesser hands (Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchet, please stand up), humour and irony begin to grate over several hundred pages, let alone over the 5 volume Culture series. It's a testament to Banks's talent that he manages to maintain both a high seriousness and a wicked sense of humour.

Which is not to say that Banks's writing is without fault. In a bizarre reversal of the problems usually encountered with sci-fi, Banks is a brilliant writer with vivid characterisation and artfully controlled detail. But his plotting could do with some badly needed focus. Interzone, the British science fiction magazine, is quoted on the back cover as saying "the story is vital and urgent and has a brilliantly subtle resolution." In truth, the conclusion of Excession is subtle to the point of being almost subliminal. That aside, Banks deserves his reputation as the saviour of contemporary science fiction.

Copyright Andrew Frost.

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