Understanding Space and Time

To judge by some of the most visible metrics of quality, Alastair Reynolds had a good 2005. His novel Pushing Ice was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and three of his short stories were picked up for various year’s best volumes: “Beyond the Aquila Rift” by Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer; “Zima Blue” by Dozois again; and a novella, “Understanding Space and Time” by both the Strahan and Horton volumes. As this perhaps indicates, although Reynolds is best-known for his novels—and in particular the four-volume Inhibitors sequence—he has been amassing a significant body of short fiction, culminating in not one but two short fiction collections due later this year: Galactic North, from Gollancz, collecting the existing Inhibitors stories (except for “Diamond Dogs” and “Turquoise Days”, which are available as a separate double-feature) and adding a few new ones, and Zima Blue and Other Stories, from Night Shade, collecting everything else.

Because I haven’t read any of the Inhibitors books, I can’t help feeling relatively under-read in Reynolds; this can in fact be attributed to being thoroughly dissuaded from reading his work by a story published in Interzone sometime in the late nineties, which I suspect was “Galactic North” itself. Since then I’ve gradually read more of his output, although I think he remains a problematic writer. The two novels I’ve read both had fairly serious flaws (Century Rain primarily of pacing, Pushing Ice primarily of characterisation), and while I’ve been impressed by much of his work at shorter lengths, the three stories I mentioned above run the gamut from forgettable to surprisingly moving. “Beyond the Aquila Rift” falls into the first camp, “Zima Blue”, with its build to a striking abdication of humanity, into the second; and Understanding Space and Time (published as a standalone book for last year’s Novacon) seems to me to equally illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of Reynolds’ writing.

In many ways, it’s a prototypical cosmological hard sf story. A catastrophic plague on Earth wipes out humanity; the story’s protagonist, the last man, John Renfrew, escapes by virtue of the fact that he’s in a base on Mars; he decides to spend his remaining years studying the mysteries of the universe; and he is contacted by aliens who help him with his quest. So much is familiar. The ultimate revelation is, for obvious reasons, withheld from the reader, but even that is hinted to be somewhat hoary. But in most such stories, that doesn’t really matter: we read them for the experience, to feel the thrill of approaching transcendence.

There’s an intriguing subgenre of sf stories that take music as a metaphor for their subject. Reynolds doesn’t take it as far as, say, James Alan Gardner’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Organism” (1992), or John G. McDaid’s “Keyboard Practice, Consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord and Two Manuals” (2005). His story, although it has the graceful swell and fade of music, is not literally structurally dependent on it. But it sings the music of the universe. It is threaded through with musical analogies: the life-support machines surrounding Renfrew’s last colleague begin to seem to him like music; the aliens, when they turn up, communicate in musical tones; Renfrew’s imaginative exploration of the universe leads to fever dreams which recapitulate “the entire history of the universe, from its first moment of existence to the grand and symphonic flourishing of intelligence”. (There’s also, as Peter Hollo points out, an egregious misuse of the word ‘crescendo’, but you can’t have everything.)

The most obvious representation of music in Reynolds’ story, though, is the delusion that Renfrew indulges in to cope with his isolation: he strikes up a dialogue with a hologram of Elton John (named throughout only as ‘Piano Man’, and who also contributes the story’s epigraph). At first, the appearance of the hologram, and his white Bosendorfer grand piano, seems like a sign of hope—the station isn’t broken beyond repair, Renfrew has more options than he thought he did. It’s not true, but even so “when the piano man was playing,” we are told, “he did not feel truly alone.” Gradually, their interaction deepens, their conversations becoming more involved. Narratively, this is useful for Reynolds—along with the dreams mentioned above, it allows him to make the physics lectures slightly more digestible—but what’s most interesting about the piano man is how he becomes a hook for characterisation.

John Renfrew appears, at first glance, to be a standard hard sf protagonist. Andrew Wheeler neatly nailed the type recently, with reference to Spin: “everyone in it is just a bit more like an engineer than real people actually are: they all explain things just a bit more clearly, and they all do what they say they will do, and they’re nearly always rational.” And sure enough, when the time comes to sit down with the Mars station’s supply of books, Renfrew discards the fiction—”too depressing, reading about other people going about their lives before the accident”—and the philosophy—not a total waste of time, but “detached from anything that Renfrew considered mundane reality”—which leaves (ta-da!) the physics textbooks. When it comes to the day to day stuff, Renfrew acts like an engineer. But Reynolds’ trick is in how Renfrew reacts to his larger situation:

And what if there was in fact no one else out there at all: just empty light years, empty parsecs, empty megaparsecs, all the way out to the furthest, faintest galaxies, teetering on the very edge of the visible universe?

How did that make him feel?

Cold. Alone. Fragile.

Curiously precious.

It’s that trace of ego that’s the key, because it only grows. Confronted with the immensity of the universe, Renfrew strengthens his belief in himself. It is strongly implied that, like the creation of Piano Man, it’s a survival tactic, a mild insanity to prevent a much more total one. As Maureen Kincaid Speller notes, this sort of thinking-through of the psychological consequences of hard-sf scenarios is characteristic of Reynolds’ work. In Understanding Space and Time the sense of pressure builds steadily, although Renfrew’s situation is not visibly changing; it’s his conversations with Piano Man that spur him on.

Piano Man was right. It was a question of how deep he wanted to go.

But surely there was more to it than that. Something else was spurring him on. It felt like a weird sense of obligation, an onus that weighed upon him with pressing, judicial force. He was certain now that he was the last man alive, having long since abandoned hope that anyone was left on Earth. Was it not therefore almost required of him to come to some final understanding of what it meant to be human, achieving some final synthesis of all the disparate threads in the books before him?

On one level, this is simply a description of the force of the story, a recognition that this is how the last man is meant to live his life. Later on, as Renfrew’s quest nears its end, he senses the proximity of an answer as an approaching ending. But more immediately, when the (refreshingly unenigmatic) aliens arrive, bearing the bad news that the virus that wiped out humanity subsequently mutated and wiped out every other biological organism on Earth as well, a stereotypical hard-sf dismissal—”Renfrew dealt with that”—looks somewhat more pathological than usual. Even more tellingly, when the Kind offer to create new humans from Renfrew’s genetic material, he refuses, because “When I was alone, I spent a lot of time thinking things through. I got set on that course, and I’m not sure I’m done yet. There’s still some stuff I need to get straight in my head. Maybe when I’m finished …” It’s not exactly a profound examination of the human condition, but it’s something for us to hold on to.

And so Renfrew upgrades. And so the story almost grounds itself. Reynolds is committed to hard sf—even the Kind are explicitly limited in their capabilities—with the advantage that his work engenders trust that it means what it says: that Renfrew’s characterisation is grounded in a fairly close approximation of what his situation would really be like. But despite this, his portrayal of deep time is curiously flat. It is a portrayal rooted in casual dissonance, the sudden passing of great gobs of time, or the creation of great structures. As his intellectual exploration becomes more demanding, Renfrew leaves behind his human body, becoming first a kilometre-high crystalline mound on the summit of Pavonis Mons, and then growing until eventually he has to detach himself from the planet (for the wonderfully practical reason that the heat dissipation from his thinking is starting to disrupt the planetary climate). But throughout, Reynolds’ description is matter-of-fact:

In space he grew prolifically for fifteen million years. Hot blue stars formed, lived and died while he gnawed away at the edges of certain intractables. Human civilisations buzzed around him like flies. Among them, he knew, were individuals who were engaged in something like the same quest for understanding. He wished them well, but he had a head start none of them had a hope of ever overtaking. Over the years his density had increased, until he was now composed mostly of solid nuclear matter. Then he had evolved to substrates of pure quark matter. By then, his own gravity had become immense, and the Kind reinfoced him with the mighty spars of exotic matter, pilfered from the disused wormhole transit system of some long-vanished culture. A binary pulsar was harnessed to power him; titanic clockwork enslaved for the purposes of pure mentation.

It’s the sort of thing that put me off “Galactic North” way back when. There’s nothing in this that captures how Renfrew’s pursuit of knowledge feels; compared to similar passages in most Stephen Baxter novels (or any of the vastly more personal stories of intelligence amplification that sf is fond of), this is cold, flat stuff. That the story doesn’t collapse entirely is a tribute to the groundwork Reynolds has laid earlier on. We’re content to wait for wave to break, because we suspect it’s fundamentally unstable.

As it turns out, it is and it isn’t. As noted above, the answer Renfrew seeks is both old-fashioned and eventually sidestepped, left to implication. In fact, Renfrew splits his identity: one part of him goes on to the answer, and possible oblivion, while the other waits, receives confirmation that an answer is reached (without being told what the answer is) and chooses to diminish, to return to humanity. As is common in such cosmological stories, a certain amount of this is cast in religious terms, and for the second time Reynolds’ touch almost fails him (there is little excuse for dialogue such as “But that would mean I’m—” “Don’t say it”). But this time, it is not just the glimpses of selfish humanity that keep us reading. The echoes, in Renfrew’s return, of a similar, much more famous story, are distorted, muffled: but in the distance there is the music of the universe, cold and clear.

The Wheel Turns

So we’re losing Emerald City (and, sadly, the blog), but we have gained a new ‘zine this week: Heliotrope, from the people behind Fantasy Book Spot. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, you can download a pdf of the whole first issue, or smaller pdfs of each individual article and story, but there’s no easy way to actually view the content online (i.e., no HTML version).

As you might expect for a first issue, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Heidi Kneale’s essay “Where’s the Sci-Fi: the relationship between trends in science fiction and modern history,” for instance, seems perfunctory, to put it kindly; Edward Morris’s story “On The Air” is an intermittently entertaining but clunky alternate history, largely cast in the form of an radio broadcast by Hugo Gernsback. (Others may like it more. It’s in a similar vein to “Imagine“, from Interzone last year, which I also wasn’t bowled over by, but which made the most recent BSFA Short Fiction Award shortlist.) But there are some good reviews by Victoria Hoyle, and an interesting poem by Catherynne M. Valente. (Which may sound like faint praise, but I’m a tough sell when it comes to poetry.)

There’s also “The Skeptical Fantasist: in defense of an oxymoron,” an essay by R. Scott Bakker which, from the title, I was hoping was going to be an antidote to Charles Stross’ odd assertion that “fantasy is, almost by definition, consolatory and escapist literature. Pure fantasy doesn’t really tell us anything about the world we live in”. (Further discussion, although mostly of the other bits of Stross’ post. And while we’re in the neighbourhood of the subject, see this discussion of what’s ‘cutting edge’ in sf.) And it is, in a way, once you get past the equally odd assertion that “Where science fiction, one might say, constructs pseudo-knowledge of the future, fantasy fiction reconstructs the pseudo-knowledge of the past” by realising that Bakker is talking almost exclusively about genre fantasy.

His argument, I think, is that (1) to go along with the general fall in scientific literacy, there has been an equally damaging but less recognised fall in “interpretive literacy”, the ability to recognise the fluidity of texts; and that (2) genre fantasies, typically based on anthropomorphic (“familial”) worldviews, look familiar and comforting to those who lack facility of interpretation, but can be used to “speak out, to use the frequency of shared interests to communicate different values, different perspectives, to people engaged in their own ingrown conversation.” Fair enough. But along the way, this argument almost gets lost in the noise of an entirely separate argument about the stagnation of the literary establishment. I’m also not entirely convinced that he understands molecular genetics enough to be drawing on it for similes:

Within the literary establishment itself, the consensus seems to be that the culture industry is largely to blame, that in the interests of reaping the efficiencies that follow from standardization, the media corporations have literally trained the capacity for critical interpretation out of consumers. […] No one, they might say, laments interpretive illiteracy more than they do, but so long as the system continues unchecked, there is precious little they can do.

Of course this story is an oversimplification. Nor is it the case that all the literati buy into even its most sophisticated versions. But nonetheless reproductions of this tale float around university literature departments like bits of messenger RNA, ready to undo any damage to the master code that not only determines the form and content of all things literary, but also secures the authority of those with the proper institutional credentials.

A shame. But the ‘zine is worth a look anyway, and it pays good rates, so long may it survive.

On an entirely different note: John Clute’s new website has a page of notes and things, including a collection of “aphorisms and thoughts, mostly swollen, out of which is it sometimes possible to say something”, of which my favourite is probably this:

Genres: Stud farms for McGuffins that lasted the course.

Reading is sexy (again)

Or so reports the Guardian blog. Don’t they do this survey about once every eighteen months? Surprisingly, this time sf doesn’t seem to feature in the list of turn-off genres (and not only that, the picture in the post is of someone reading a fantasy novel. A Booker-longlisted fantasy novel, admittedly, but even so). There is this rather good story about a third of the way down the comment thread, though:

My worst ever literary experience came from re-reading Asimov’s I, Robot. The film had just come out; I hadn’t read any sci-fi since I was 14 and I wanted to go back and see if there was anything to it.

Obviously I took great care on my morning commute to shield the book from the view of the several attractive women sitting near me. However this was a Routemaster (no. 12), and when the conductor came to check my ticket he spotted the cover and launched into a 20 minute conversation/monologue about the merits of various sci-fi authors and novels, in the course of which I was compelled by politeness to admit familiarity with several of those authors, in full view of girls.

Astonishingly, the exact same thing happened the next day with a different conductor. I did not mourn the advent of the bendy bus.

Maybe they have a reading group.