May 26, 2013

Exodus From the Long Sun

Sometimes I search the web for words that are used in my stories. Yesterday my search for Exode
"science fiction"
returned the name Gene Wolfe.

I've never read anything written by Wolfe, but today I've looked at some online commentary about his novel Exodus From the Long Sun. I've also read some interviews of Wolfe. Based on a few interviews, he seems like an interesting guy, but I've never been tempted to read his stories.

If some people get paid to write what I view as "anti-science fiction" stories, then is it fair for me to write "anti-book reviews"?
When I was very young I read Rendezvous with Rama and fell in love with the idea of giant starships that would slowly travel through space. I was strongly influenced by Clarke's stories about ancient aliens who were enigmatic mysteries for we primitive humans. I still prefer science fiction stories about alien beings that are difficult if not impossible for bumbling humans to understand.

Based on the summaries I read today, here is my best guess of the plot in Exodus From the Long Sun. Set in the far future of Earth, some humans have been loaded into a big spaceship (Whorl), but they don't know that they are in a spaceship. The spaceship passengers worship "gods" that are some kind of artificial life: remnants of the family of the builder of the spaceship. Somehow, the "top god" lost control of Whorl and ended up having to work rather desperately by means of tricks and back channels just to be able to get some of the ignorant passengers out the door and down to settle new worlds in a star system that has finally been reached after a 330 year-long journey.

I'm not too clear on the technology of Whorl. This is supposed to be far in our future (the Sun is dying? Billions of years in the future?) so there are robot-like characters and Earthlings have the needed technology to construct the Whorl spacecraft, but I don't understand how humanity has changed so little in all that time....and is apparently just getting around to attempting space travel to other stars....and messing it up so badly.

I'm not much tempted to read a "science fiction" story where the main character sacrifices animals to bumbling "gods" who are on the verge of screwing up the mission of an interstellar colony ship. Do science fiction fans really want to read about a royally fucked up journey to the stars?

Based on the comments of Nick Gevers, I guess we are not supposed to ask such questions. It sounds like Wolfe transformed ancient Greek mythology by using a few convenient science fiction plot devices and made a modern  story in which an unlikely hero must struggle to escape a man-made hell while in a state of being bamboozled by technology. Science fiction creates a sense of adventure built on the power of science to help us understand the universe, but Exodus From the Long Sun sounds like new wave/reactionary anti-science fiction in which bumbling people fuck up technology and suffer a misadventure.

Kach and Parthney
Of course, what intrigues me about Exodus From the Long Sun are some apparent parallels to Exode, a story where we Earthlings have had a 200,000 year long journey on planet Earth during which we have been unaware of our origins. Parthney, the main character of Exode, is actually the son of a time traveler who arrived on Earth in the 20th century. With his inherited combination of genes, Parthney is simply unable to sustain religious faith and he would be offended by the idea that it is his job to lead some lost souls (we Earthlings) to the light of some spiritual transcendence. Still, he plays an important role in allowing we Earthling to become aware of our origins, of the fact that the alien Huaoshy created our species.

Parthney is no religious leader of an exodus, but at a tender age Parthney meets Kach, the only woman on his home world. Kach is quite different genetically since she is a Kac'hin, a specially designed variant of the human species that was created so as to allow direct communication between the Huaoshy and humans. In a very real sense, Kach has the innate ability to communicate with the "god-like" Huaoshy. That ability is a lingering side effect of the fact that the Kac'hin were designed to be human puppets and provide human bodies that could be used by the alien Huaoshy for dealing with a crisis on Earth. The Huaoshy are "god-like" in the sense that they are so technologically advanced that, from our primitive perspective, their abilities seem magical.

a pek in Preland form
Kach grows up in a culture where it is "common knowledge" that humans are the product of intelligent design and she is determined to "contact the gods" and put questions to her Creator. Like Parthney before her, Kach also leaves Hemmal behind and joins Parthney on a journey to the Andromeda galaxy in search for the "gods". Over the course of many years Kach is frustrated in her relentless attempts to find her Creator, but she and Parthney have a son, Boswei who helps advance her quest.

I have not been able to resist making both Parthney and Boswei the products of "virgin birth", but I intend no great religious meaning for this rather mundane reproductive fact. Parthney is genetically a clone and it was convenient to have him gestated in the artificial womb of a pek. Similarly, when Kach was ready to have a child, there was no male on hand, so Boswei was crafted "from scratch" by using stored genetic material that was originally obtained from Parthney: there wasn't any need for Kach to partake in a messy old-fashioned impregnation. Exode is science fiction that includes a religious theme, but Parthney and Kach are mortals and the alien Huaoshy only seem god-like to primitives like we Earthlings.

The Book of the Long Sun
"The experimental method of Science, incorporated into a work of Science Fiction, is used by Wolfe as a proof of Faith."
"Whorl is a Hell of misrepresentation and deception"

"Wolfe's works oppose the usual principle guiding most SF"

I'm not a fan of dystopic science fiction. I'm not rushing to read horrific scenarios in which marvelous technological wonders like Whorl are mismanaged by inexplicably stupid "gods". Having said that, I'm intrigued by the suggestion that Wolfe created a science fiction story that is designed to serve as "a proof of Faith". I wonder if Wolfe would accept or reject that description of his work. It strikes me as an interesting idea because, in a way, within Exode, Kach is ultimately granted proof of her faith in the idea of it being possible to contact the Creators.

Robin the robot
At the end of Exode and at the end of Kach's quasi-religious quest, a troublesome question is still going to be rattling around. Are we, as humans, better off living in a godless universe or having knowledge of our Creators? The Creators are as far developed beyond we primitive humans as we are evolved beyond bacteria. The Huaoshy have long been certain that nothing good can come from allowing a primitive culture like our own to gain a realistic understanding of our origins. However, a strange technological fluke has lifted the curtain and given Humanity a glimpse of the gods. Will that be our doom or our salvation? Hana believes that Earth history answers half of that question. She wants to create a brave new world where humans without faith can test their metal.

Half Empty or Half Full?
It sounds like Wolfe had fun tormenting the human passengers on Whorl with various inexplicably chaotic aliens and artificial lifeforms...not to mention simply letting the humans systematically abuse each other. In contrast, and as directed by my story telling preferences, in Exode I'm constructing a human environment that also includes aliens and artificial lifeforms, but in my story it is an environment where Parthney and Kach actually manage to exist on friendly and constructive terms with other people, the aliens and the artificial lifeforms.

In addition to my dislike of dystopia and horror when they invade the science fiction genre, I also have a problem with fantasy. Some people are color blind; I'm "fantasy blind". I've never been able to understand the arbitrary rules that guide fantasy stories. Over the years I've learned to avoid books that have the words "science fiction" on their cover when I detect the presence of fantasy inside. Wolfe has described himself as having a preference for "science fantasy". Some people neither understand, trust or welcome science: they really do prefer fantasy. I wish their books did not end up on the same shelves in book stores where I go in search of science fiction.

Exodus from Genesaunt
Central Dogma of Life
Parthney grows up within the forming human slice of Genesaunt civilization. He would have been happy to live out his life on Hemmal crafting and performing his music, but he was brought into existence for a more dramatic purpose. In a way, you could say that he was created in order to fulfill a prophecy. Parthney goes off to Earth because he is expected to do so and satisfy his destiny. As shown in the diagram above, the Huaoshy have spent the past billion years arranging for biological organisms that evolve in the "wild" to enter into a period of "observation" during which the most promising species are genetically modified in preparation for their entry into Genesaunt.

From the perspective of the Huaoshy, Genesaunt is the stage of existence during which there can be a gradual and graceful transition from biological life form to the artificial life form known as Huaoshy. From the perspective of primitive creatures like humans, "Genesaunt" means Genesaunt civilization, a vast interstellar civilization that includes thousands of sapient species. The Huaoshy originally had no intention of merging Humanity into Genesaunt civilization, no more than you might invite a skunk to a dinner party. But what if a skunk rudely wandered into your dinner party and started sniffing around the food? Maybe you could successfully maneuver the skunk out the door by dangling something yummy in front of its nose.

In Exode, we humans are the "skunk" that crashed the Huaoshy dinner party. The Huaoshy still hope to perform some corrective surgery and remove the scent glands from this inconvenient "skunk". As part of that surgical procedure, Parthney violates the Central Dogma of Life. He violates convention and is sent from Genesaunt civilization to Earth where he contributes to the process by which Earthlings become aware of their hidden origins. Earth is still under Observation and is not yet part of Genesaunt. Later, Parthney manages to escape from Earth and he helps establish his son's family on the planet Luk'ru in the Andromeda galaxy. Hana and Boswei hope to create a "New Earth", a world that is "wild" and free of Huaoshy meddling. 

I wonder if Gene Wolfe might be offended by the central religious issue that is explored in Exode, the idea that humans can be artificially selected to either have faith or lack it. I'm intrigued by the idea that the human tendency to believe in human-like gods is a biological fluke. A key human survival strategy is "the intentional stance", which works well to help us form a coherent human society. However, when we naturally apply the intentional stance too broadly in the world we start imagining the involvement of human-like gods in every thunder clap and rainbow. Wolfe accepts the idea that people are primates, yet he also converted to Catholicism. After several centuries of struggle against science, the Vatican finally threw in the towel and began to accommodate itself to a new view of reality as revealed by science.

The Dark Side
Wolfe has suggested that The Island Of Doctor Moreau is one of his favorites (calling it a great horror story). I despise horror, particularly when it finds its way into science fiction. I imagine that Wolfe has a dark side that I can't even imagine, but I also enjoy the thought that maybe I can imagine speculative fiction scenarios that might horrify Wolfe and other people of faith while at the same time appealing to my sense of what could constitute a utopian future for our species.

Maybe if I had struggled to obtain an engineering degree and then found myself helping find ways to sell salt and starch to obese consumers then I'd also have a pessimistic view of technology and the future.

I seem to share Wolfe's fascination with the idea of a "good man stuck in a bad religion". In Exode, it is a good woman (Kach) who is stuck with the "bad" religion of the Prelands. The pek have, rather halfheartedly, provided the Prelands with religious faith in the existence of Creators who expect the Prelands to ultimately transcend their physical reality. Everything is arranged and if the Prelands "keep the faith" they will join the god-like Huaoshy on their astral plane of existence where eternal life is reality. However, contrary creatures that they are, people like Hana reject the Preland religion and want to "live in sin", going their own way in defiance of the god-like Huaoshy.

Wolfe rejects the idea of fate, but in a twist of fate the Huaoshy have been forced to help craft a population of humans who are biologically incapable of having religious faith. I wonder if Wolfe would be forced to view the alien Huaoshy as devilish distractors from the true faith.

Hana's last name is Davyon. On the planet Luk'ru she crafts her own version of Humanity.

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