Tuesday, 21 January 2014
FROM HANK JANSON TO THE POSSIBILITY OF INTELLIGENT EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL LIFE, WITH APPROPRIATE DIVERSIONS.
Who is Hank Janson? some of you are wondering. He’s someone who doesn’t exist. He’s the hero of over a hundred lurid faux-American tough guy crime novels, which are ostensibly written by him but in reality are the work of more than a dozen hack British writers, published during the 40s and 50s and now mostly and deservedly forgotten.
But wait! I want you to imagine that this is the standard by which Crime Fiction is judged by those not familiar with the genre. When people (such as The Sunday Times’ AA Gill) think of CF and judge it, they think, not of writers of the likes of Conan Doyle or Raymond Chandler or PD James, but of Hank Janson and lesser writers of ‘his’ ilk. It is a genre to be sneered at as those who pontificate on this genre imagine its fans to dress up in trench coats and wear fedoras, secreting .45 calibre guns on their persons while female fans dress like sluts, exposing legs and cleavage and wearing bright red lipstick and fish net stockings. People to be mocked.
But this is a fantasy. It doesn’t happen because those who perchance to write on the subject all know better than that. And yet it does happen. It happens to Science Fiction.
In his monthly online newsletter of the SF community, Ansible, David Langford regularly includes a brief section entitled “How others see us” featuring published quotes by people on SF which show their ignorance and lack of understanding of the genre. It is both funny and saddening. Over 50 years ago Kingsley Amis (or it might have been Robert Conquest; memory fails with age alas) wrote words to this effect: “SF’s no good the critics cry/ But this is good/ Well then it’s not SF!” In over 50 years nothing, despite the enormously increased popularity of SF in literary form and in other media, has changed. It remains a genre judged by its worst examples.
Space opera and alien monsters basically, invasions and zooming about the galaxy in five seconds flat, massive space battles, aliens who are basically humans with enlarged ears or odd noses, lurid covers from pulp magazines, EE ‘Doc’ Smith (a turgid writer of intergalactic war who wrote long past his sell by date) and Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian novels. They have their place in the history of SF but the genre has evolved and become so much more. Much more than Star Trek and Star Wars which are their inheritors.
These people are, if not unaware which they mostly are, ignore the quality work of writers like Ursula K Le Guin, Brian Aldiss, Gene Wolfe, Nobel-prize winning Doris Lessing (who cheerfully admitted to writing several SF novels), Samuel R Delany, Iain M. Banks, and so many many more.
So too do they misunderstand the nature of SF. While admittedly SF can be about any damn thing an author wants it be, cheerfully crossing genres like a cross-dresser, the best of it is often about aspects of contemporary society but tackled indirectly. Who can forget Fredrik Pohl’s vitriolic satires about advertising back in the 50’s, Johanna Russ on sexuality in The Female Man, Delany on mutable identity, or Leguin on political ideology in her masterpiece The Dispossessed which opens with a simple description of a wall that is a piece of symbolism and metaphor on a level with the tortoise crossing the road at the beginning of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or Banks on the supposedly discredited (not to me, by the way) ideology of socialism?
Lesser writers, however, are unable to transcend their era and merely reflect it, their fiction being an echo of contemporary values with no attempt to imagine anything beyond them. Inevitable, I suppose.
Which brings me to Poul Anderson, a writer who is a paradigm of almost everything I’ve written thus far, whose recent reading by me (with only two volumes completed to date) of his massive 7-volume collected Polesotechnic League/Technic Civilisation future history stories has sparked me (I’m not going to be presumptuous and use ‘inspired’) into writing this piece which actually brings together a small number of things that have been knocking around the inside of my head for a while and wanting to be let out and resulting in a simplification of them all.
First of all Anderson is a very competent writer who has won several of SF’s major awards and when I started reading adult SF in the early 60s was one of the first writers (along with Asimov and Heinlein of course) to catch my attention. Although extremely prolific and with a career stretching from the late 40s to his death in 2001, he was no hack. With a scientific background, a gift for the creation and description particularly of aliens and alien landscapes, he wrote hard traditional SF. He also wrote Fantasy and many critics consider that side of his writing to be his best. I also remember a short novel of his (last published and probably never likely to be reprinted) published as half of an Ace Double (look them up) about a beer-powered space ship (so yes, he also had a sense of humour).
But a significant amount, albeit still a small proportion, of his writing came in his future history series. (Note: future history is when a writer produces a series of stories/novels with a consistent timeline.) And basically Anderson’s came in the form of space opera albeit a highly superior form of it. It’s in this series that his strength and relative weaknesses are to be found. But it’s the latter that I’m more interested in here. Anderson (who probably voted Republican though that could be unfair of me) is an avowed advocate of capitalism which is the driving force in the first half of the volume until external pressures turn it into an Empire, not a republic and nothing so wishy washy as a commonwealth. Socialism appears long forgotten. Men are men and rule the spaceways with women as support. People still smoke like chimneys as they did when the stories were written. Racism, however, appears to be a dead issue as many characters are non-white and nothing is made of this, so fair do’s.
Technology is the one thing that always dates SF just as mobile phones do in ‘contemporary’ films made over the last twenty years. Here, while we have sentient computers their actions are still restricted by their programming and secret messages are passed on by microtape.
But what characterises this series is the premise that not only are so many worlds on which mankind can live that Earth can pick and choose. Also there are countless species of aliens at various levels of technology with whom our merchants can trade. All this is accomplished by space ships which can travel faster than light, much much faster than light. This is basically a standard cliché of SF and I’m not singling out Anderson. My reading his stuff came from a whim in which I wanted to investigate the SF of my youth to see if I still enjoyed it in my dotage -I already have several collections of other writers in nice NESFA Press editions- Anderson was a good writer, and these collections were cheap.
But it also got me wondering about the possibility of intelligent life existing on other star systems. No, actually it didn’t. Of course there is. What I wondered was that if this SF cliché of a fecund universe is correct then how come we haven’t found any evidence of it and the only conclusion is that…
Well let’s see.
First off we have to consider our innate intelligence. I’ve believed for some time that there is much about the universe that we are incapable of understanding or being aware of. If we can not conceive of it then how would we know to look for it? The simple divergence of intelligence in our own species is proof of that. I’m not a stupid person by any means, though I’m not that much above average either, and there is so much in everyday life that I don’t and can’t understand that other people do; the reverse also applies. From this position it’s not unreasonable to suppose that we could be being studied by an alien intelligence without ever being aware it. I should not that I put anal probes from outer space in the same box as the Loch Ness Monster, ghosts, demons, etc.
That said I also think it’s highly unlikely. My view, which could be completely wrong, is that Einstein got it right and that faster than light travel is impossible. Theoretical Physics can conjure up self-contained mathematical proofs that it is possible but it’s basically a circular argument.
It’s also pretty obvious from recent discoveries that planets which are even remotely Earth-like are very rare indeed. Which isn’t to say that alien intelligences don’t exist on planets which aren’t earth-like but, apart from the fact of the near impossibility of ever encountering them they would be impossible to communicate with on any meaningful level if we could even recognise them for what they are.
If there are any travellers between the stars they would have to be machine intelligences able to endure the enormous time taken to travel between solar systems. Their progenitors, a biological species would probably have died out before they’d visited even a dozen so one has to ask: what is the point?
I’m not arguing against SETI -the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence- I just think it’s unlikely to bear fruit. But then, like my certainty that there is no god, I hope I’m wrong.
But we need our dreams, our hope for something more. It can be found in religion (though not by me) or in the visions of SF which are no less transcendent. And no less needed.