Feb 6, 2010

Janus: the god of science fiction

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, our distant proto-human ancestors are given the ability to use tools. They are shown wielding clubs, then next thing you know, those primitive tools transform into spaceships and humanity is off to the stars. Of course, the tools get used for other things along the way. Each science fiction author has a choice: we can write about science, technology and change from either an optimistic or a pessimistic perspective.

William Bainbridge and Murray Dalziel pointed to "hard SF" which they felt was, "usually optimistic about the value of scientific and technological progress". Isaac Asimov was identified as the prototypical hard science fiction author. The "pessimistic side" of science fiction was emphasized by Sheila Schwartz, "Science fiction is a pessimistic genre, devoid of belief in the improvability of man… The overwhelming tone is despair; the over-whelming emotion is fear."

With respect to the implications of tool use, science and technology I am tempted to let Asimov get the last word: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." The most wonderful tools in the world can be turned into horrors by those who are incompetent. The entire genre of science fiction balances on a knife blade question: do tool using apes have a future or are we some kind of evolutionary dead end, destined to wink out after a death spiral of self-inflicted horrors?

The The Start of Eternity is a sequel to Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity. The End of Eternity was optimistic in that it showed humanity escaping from a dangerous reliance on time travel technology. Asimov showed humanity walking away from an evolutionary dead end and moving in another technological direction that would offer an infinite future.

The traditional structure of optimistic science fiction has two parts: 1) protagonist gets into trouble 2) protagonist is smart enough to get out of trouble. In The End of Eternity, Asimov shows the protagonist (Andrew Harlan) trapped in a dystopian culture where a seemingly unbreakable time loop assures that humanity will never move outward from our Solar System and will inevitably become extinct.

Asimov is rather famous for seldom bringing aliens into his science fiction stories. Towards the end of his Foundation Saga, Asimov mentioned the idea that humanity must some day confront aliens. Unfortunately, Asimov was taken from us before he could share with us his ideas about how aliens would interact with Galaxia. The Start of Eternity is fan fiction which explores the role of aliens in Asimov's fictional universe.

Foundations  of Eternity
Asimov was a master of writing stories in which everyone is well-intentioned. That might sound like a formula for boring stories, but it led him to imagine a logical reason for the destruction of Earth, which is a large advance past the many sci fi stories where destruction is mindless, illogical and truly boring. In keeping with Asimov's approach, The Start of Eternity involves aliens who are well-intentioned, but a strange twist of fate leads a small fragment of humanity to struggle mightily against the aliens.

The protagonist of The Start of Eternity seems trapped in a dire situation in a way that is similar to Andrew Harlan's nightmarish predicament in The End of Eternity. I've never been a great fan of horror, but I am wondering if I should try to stretch myself and better develop the nightmare theme that is used as the "hook" in The Start of Eternity. Andrew Harlan was driven to the point of self-destruction: when he delivered his "Samson smash" against Eternity, he fully expected to die.

cover art by Carolus Thole
Similarly, Observer Gohrlay is prepared to suffer the destruction of her brain in a mind downloading experiment. In a more conventional situation, Gohrlay might be tormented by her plight and driven to self-destruction. However, the truth is, Gohrlay is being guided towards self-sacrifice by an external alien force.

Gohrlay's Brain
As an example to support her thesis that science fiction is pessimistic, Sheila Schwartz used Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (see this review). I read Level 7 when I was in my teens and I was truly horrified by it. Perhaps most horrifying was the relentless logic of MAD which led to the destruction of humanity. The rather unemotional and robotic protagonist in Level 7 was somehow more frightening than an emotion-driven and shriek-filled horror story. Similarly, for me, having Gohrlay be relentlessly and logically marched towards death, with no screams of protest, is an even more horrifying fate than that of a traditional "helpless female".

How do readers react to fictional depictions such as:
1) humanity relentlessly marching to self-destruction (Level 7) or
2) Asimov's depiction of Andrew Harlan deciding to destroy himself or
3) Gohrlay selecting actual death over a living death.
I think stories like Level 7 helped move humanity away from the potential horrors of a nuclear war. Building on Asimov's general optimism, in the end, Andrew Harlan found a way to hold onto life.

I'm at the point (early in 2010) of writing the scene where Gohrlay realizes (with horror) that she was driven towards selecting death by manipulative and un-seen aliens. I hope the reader comes away with the notion that we need always be on guard for forces that manipulate us and push us towards disaster. I stand with Asimov and hold the dream that we can use our minds and tools to free ourselves and make our lives better. The universe has always led us into traps. Science and technology and reason are our best tools for escaping from those traps.

Top image. Two faces of science fiction: icon of xenophobia from District 9 contrasted with the Na'vi of Avatar, designed to appeal to humans.


  1. Given the choice I would go for optimistic SF every time, pessimism is easier to write about however.

    IMHO most well written "bad guys" believe themselves to be well intentioned. If they are not any conflict or violence can tend towards watching a tantrum by a toddler.

    Best wishes

    1. I've started thinking about ways to insert a "bad guy" into the story "Trysta and Ekcolir" ( I can't seem to imagine a better approach than going out of my way to falsely portray one character as evil, but in the end readers would know it had just been a shame...there are no bad guys in the story. The "apparent evil" arises from poor communication and the difficulty that folks from twp very different cultures can have when trying to understand each other.