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Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, 2015, $9.99.
Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 2015, $35.
The Martian, by Andy Weir, Broadway Books, 2014, $15.
Denial in fiction I mean. In real life you can take your Zen self-awareness and shove it. I'm just as addicted to denial as the next person.
Yet over half a lifetime of novel-reading I've slowly come to the conclusion that looking at denial—noticing the things we agree not to see—makes reading fiction not only more understandable but also more enjoyable.
The ultimate denial in all fiction is, of course, plot. Real life is mostly static. Novels, in contrast, are a sort of comfort food for the mind, providing the kind of structure that children crave when they beg their mothers not to let the different foods on their plate touch each other.1
And if fiction is denial, then genre fiction is denial squared. Each genre has its own special flavor of denial, symbolized by ritualized cover art images (think shredded bodices and exploding space ships). Even Literary Fiction participates in the grand conspiracy, despite all its protestations of innocence. It ignores the staggering heroism and horrifying psychopathy of real human beings in order to produce a sort of thin gruel of realism which we are then urged to eat for our own good.2
So what is the denial at the heart of science fiction? At the risk of frightening the horses, I'm going to answer that question in one simple word:
Obviously I'm not the first person to say this. The girl cooties factor in sf has been widely lamented in certain quarters…and just as widely celebrated in other quarters. Bear with me, though. Because I'm not talking about sex as in "look at that sexy little thing in her skin-tight zip-up spacesuit." I'm talking about the actual nuts and bolts of sexual reproduction. You know—that stuff we have to do every generation in order to not become extinct.
"That stuff"—except for occasional titillating glimpses of step one—is exactly what you don't find in most science fiction. Most sf writers seem as oblivious to the real facts of life as Republican congressmen. Even most feminist sf focuses less on the biological nitty-gritty of sex than on the opportunities it affords for social commentary. And yet the survival of the human species as a whole—which required popping out a whole lotta babies last time I checked—has been a core theme of sf going back at least to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.
So what's going on here? How did we end up with a genre that's all about sex but where you can't talk about sex?
Like most of life's big questions, this one has already been answered by H. P. Lovecraft. Basically, sex is sf's version of the Dunwich Horror—that lurking shadow whose name cannot be spoken precisely because so much depends upon it.
I've suspected this for a long time, but now I know I'm right. And how do I know? Because suddenly everyone in hard sf is writing about sex. They can't write about anything else. Genetics. Epigenetics. Island population biology. Potato farming. You can't open up a hard sf novel anymore without having sex practically slap you in the face. And can it possibly be a coincidence that this has happened at precisely the moment when most scientifically literate people have come to accept that we have already locked in four degrees Celsius of global warming and are in serious danger of rendering our biosphere hostile to mammals?
This is practically a geological shift in our genre. In some ways it amounts to a tacit admission that the feminist barbarians are inside the gates and running the whole shebang. To this longtime hard sf fan, it feels like I went to sleep one night in a familiar world ruled by Hal Clement and Arthur C. Clarke and woke up to the news that Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin had been declared our Galactic Overlords.
Normally I would think that was terrible. I feel about feminist sf and hard sf much the way that I feel about chocolate and strawberry ice cream. Love 'em both. But, please Mom, not touching each other. And definitely not stirred together into a bland, pinkish-brown chocolaberry soup.
But I'm glad to say that this is not at all the case. Instead, climate change seems to have managed to make good old-fashioned rockets and sprockets space exploration sf cool for the first time since about 1962. Suddenly space exploration sf isn't the pathetic last refuge of the pocket protector brigade from the oncoming tsunami of New Wave revisionism. Instead—for the first time during my lifetime—hard sf has become politically relevant. And that is the case regardless of whether the moral of your story is "screw the biosphere, we'll just figure out how to survive in space" or "we're never going to survive in space so we'd better get serious about saving this planet now."
Which, in a nutshell, is the dichotomy between the first two books I'd like to talk about this month: Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora and Neal Stephenson's Seveneves.
Both Robinson and Stephenson have written nail-biting sagas of space survival. But while these two novels begin in the same place, they end…well…about as far apart as it is possible to get.
Kim Stanley Robinson focuses squarely on the genetic fragility of island populations, and he is absolutely fearless in following the science to its logical conclusions no matter how grim. I don't like to throw around the word Shakespearean, but there is something monumental about this novel. It is one of those stark, severe, pessimistic stories where you can live with the lack of a Hollywood ending because, deep down inside, you know he's right. And sometimes it feels better to accept reality than to hide behind happy talk.
Aurora chronicles the voyage of a generation ship bound for an Earthlike planet orbiting Tau Ceti. The intellectual and emotional turning point of the book takes place in a series of heartbreaking scenes where the settlers discover that their new planet already has life—but that life is poisonous to them. By the time they tentatively identify the fatal pathogen, the mission is already doomed. As one character wanders to his death outside the failed settlement, he begins to articulate the unnerving concept that eventually emerges as Robinson's main thesis in this novel:
I bet they're all like this one. I mean, they're either going to be alive or dead, right? If they've got water and orbit in the habitable zone, they'll be alive. Alive and poisonous. I don't know. Maybe they could be alive and we live with them and the two systems pass each other by. But that doesn't sound like life, does it? Living things eat. They have immune systems. So that's going to be a problem, most of the time anyway. Invasive biology….
Maybe that's why we've never heard a peep from anywhere. It's not just that the universe is too big. Which it is. That's the main reason. But then also, life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. It's something that water planets do, maybe. But it develops to live where it is. So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. That's its home. So, you know, Fermi's paradox has its answer, which is this: by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it's too smart to want to go. Because it knows it wouldn't work. So it stays home….
[O]f course, every once in a while some particularly stupid form of life will try to break out and move away from its home star. I'm sure it happens, I mean, here we are. We did it ourselves. But it doesn't work. And the life left living learns the lesson, and stops trying such a stupid thing.
This is an extremely compelling idea. And it's not one that other sf writers have explored in any significant way that I'm aware of. Here we have Kim Stanley Robinson at his best: not merely a powerful and elegant writer on a line-by-line level, but an inspired practitioner of sf as a literature of ideas. And to hang a 466-page novel on an idea as starkly fatalistic as this one demonstrates the kind of intellectual courage that Robinson has shown again and again throughout his long career.
Having taken us to this pinnacle, however, Robinson makes what is (for him) an unusually obvious move. His settlers split into two opposed camps. The "stayers" want to continue to a barren planet in the same system and try to terraform it. The "backers" want to attempt an unplanned return voyage to Earth, which will severely stretch the capacities of their aging generation ship. But no one suggests the third—and, really, incredibly obvious—option.
Why not settle the planet anyway? Why not bet on humanity's long track record as an extremely successful invasive species? Why not try to do the same thing on their new planet that homo sapiens has already done on every single continent of Earth?
Mathematical models of virology, as well as the history of infectious diseases, suggest that ten percent survival is fairly typical of an encounter between a new disease and a virgin population. And indeed, a small percentage of the surface colonists survive the initial encounter with the pathogen. Their panicked crewmates kill them. But from a coldly logical perspective what they really should have done was breed them. It would have been a brutal calculus for the other ninety percent of the crew. But it would have given them at least some chance of threading the genetic bottleneck and establishing a viable colony.
Robinson, however, is not interested in going there. In fact he is so not interested in going there that if there was a mention of that option this usually careful reader missed it. Instead he has his colonists return to Earth, and the book ends with a reaffirmation of his central thesis: that our genetic ties to Earth run so deep we may not be able to survive anywhere else.
The future that Neal Stephenson imagines in Seveneves gives even less comfort than Robinson's future to those who oppose global climate initiatives based on magical thinking about "the power of technology." Seveneves is basically an eight-hundred-and-sixty-one page train wreck. You feel sick to your stomach with horror, yet somehow you can't stop reading. You desperately want the characters to survive, yet you fear that they will have to commit such atrocities to survive that death might be preferable. And the most horrible part of Stephenson's novel is the uncanny way in which it mirrors today's climate change politics.
When the disintegration of the moon dooms the biosphere, all of Earth's nations pull together to create a global response. They launch the Cloud Arc—a vast swarm of arc ships that will carry Earth's brightest and best young people into orbit, creating the seeds of a new spacefaring future. The first hundred pages of the novel are so full of techno-optimism that they lull you into thinking survival in space is going to be a cakewalk. But then the other shoe drops. The astronauts tasked with expanding the International Space Station to accommodate the Cloud Arc begin to suspect that they are working on a PR exercise instead of a real escape plan. And finally one character asks—and answers—the million dollar question:
What's the best way to calm down a scared kid, get them to go back to sleep? Tell them a story. Some shit about Jesus or whatever.… Like the video you pop into your car's DVD player to keep the kids quiet during a long drive.
The idea that Earth's governments would choose orderly extinction over survival is, in Stephenson's words, "so monstrous in a way that it was almost inconceivable." And yet Stephenson is clearly aware of the uncanny parallel with the real world politics of climate change. The picture he paints of governments engaging in a solemn charade to keep the masses quiet so business can carry on as usual is a scathing allegory for the real world officials who give lip service to holding global warming to 1 degree Celsius even as they pursue energy policies that make that goal impossible.
From this grim beginning, Stephenson launches a solar-system spanning saga that puts him squarely in the Asimovian tradition of sf as psychohistory. By the end of Seveneves, some five thousand years from now, Stephenson has imagined a thriving future for humanity based on sustainable technology and aggressive genetic engineering. But in order to get there, he burns Earth down and rebuilds from the ashes. He suggests that humans are collectively incapable of responding to any truly serious crisis—perhaps that we are even genetically hardwired to be incapable.
And he envisions a great winnowing. Those who are able and willing to do what it takes will leave the rest behind. Only the fittest—and the luckiest—will survive. It would be grossly unfair to dismiss Seveneves as a sort of science fictional Fountainhead. Yet it is impossible to watch Stephenson's tiny band of techno-elites hacking armageddon without seeing the echo of Ayn Rand's society of elite "makers" leaving the "takers" of the world behind to wallow in their own incompetency. In this sense, Seveneves belongs to the long and august tradition of intelligent libertarian sf—a tradition starkly at odds with the collectivism of Kim Stanley Robinson.
This brings us to yet another intriguing parallel between Seveneves and Aurora. Having decided that he is going to have to burn the planet down in order to save it, Stephenson doesn't waste any time doing the deed. In fact, he dispatches Earth with so little ceremony that he never really gets around to explaining why no one tries to move the broken pieces of the moon into a stable orbit. Admittedly, this would be a seriously hairy engineering problem. But would it really be any hairier than supporting a viable breeding population in space for two thousand years? And wouldn't at least one of the seven billion people left behind to die have suggested this solution?
This is almost a perfect mirror image of the power move that Robinson made in Aurora. Just as Kim Stanley Robinson didn't want to write a book about a successful extraterrestrial colony, Neal Stephenson didn't want to write a book about humanity coming together to save Earth from ecological catastrophe. And why didn't he want to write that book?
Well, actually…I'll let Kim Stanley Robinson say it.
Deep into the second half of Aurora, after the doomed colonists fail to settle on their target planet and survive their harrowing return journey to Earth, Robinson provides us with a bizarre cameo scene in which his characters attend a scientific conference put on by amateur space colonization enthusiasts:
There are a dozen people on stage, a moderator is asking questions…and they sit and listen to what she slowly gathers is a discussion of the latest starship proposals.…
The current plan, with prototypes being built in the asteroid belt, is to send out many small starships carrying hibernating passengers, who will sleep while the ships make their way out to all the hundred closest stars that have been identified to have Earth-like planets in their habitable zones, not just Earth twins but Earth analogs. These stars range from 27 to 300 light-years away. Probes have already passed through several of these systems, or will in the near future, and are sending back their data, and everything looks very promising.
The people describing this plan get up one at a time from a bank of chairs on the other side of the speaker's podium, go to the podium, and tell their part of the story, with big images on a screen behind them always changing, after which they then sit back down. They are all men, all Caucasian, most bearded, all wearing jackets. One speaker among them introduces the others, and he then stands to the side and listens to their presentations, quizzically, his head tilted to one side, tugging at his beard, a small smile playing under his mustache. He nods at everything the others say, as if he has already thought their thought, and now approves its articulation. He is very satisfied with the way this event is going. He stands after another speaker has finished, says to the crowd, "You see, we'll keep trying until it works. It's a kind of evolutionary pressure. We've known for a long time that Earth is humanity's cradle, but you're not supposed to stay in your cradle forever." He is obviously very pleased with the cleverness of this aphorism.
When Robinson's main character rushes the stage and punches the smug conference moderator in the face…well, I defy any red-blooded reader not to cheer for her.
In Robinson's imagined future, dreams of life in space are a dangerous escape from the real challenges facing humanity. This planet, our home, is irreplaceable. And the idea that we can "outgrow" Earth, like a child leaving behind its cradle, is little more than a seductive death wish.
Reading Seveneves and Aurora back to back is kind of like graphing a limit in calculus. Both plots start out on the horizontal. Then, at the crucial moment, they go vertical—but in diametrically opposed directions. Robinson has devoted an entire novel to inveighing against space colonization as a seductive death wish. And Stephenson has devoted an entire novel to…well… celebrating just how seductive that death wish can be, complete with sexy cannibals.
And where does The Martian fit into this?
If Aurora and Seveneves are sophisticated revisionings of classic hard sf tropes, then Andy Weir's The Martian is straightforward hard sf at its most classic. There's no sex at all unless you count potatoes, and the core of the story could have been written before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It's basically G.I.-issue science fiction. So why has it achieved a level of readership usually reserved for sf lite instead of fat hard sf tomes that grind through multipage accounts of Mars rover specs and chemistry experiments?
When a survival story becomes a runaway bestseller, it's because something about the peril faced by its characters expresses deep societal fears at just the right moment in history. Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air swept through book clubs and bestseller lists because it arrived at precisely the moment when middle-class Americans were starting to experience first-hand (however mildly) the deep global inequalities that make it possible for Manhattan stockbrokers to have sherpas carry them up trophy mountains. Robinson Crusoe reassured eighteenth century Britons that they could survive the brutal globalization of capital and labor markets that came with imperial expansion. Captain Bligh's legendary feat of open ocean navigation after the mutiny on the Bounty captured English imaginations (and made him a national hero, contrary to the bad rap he got in Hollywood) precisely because it occurred in 1789—a watershed year when most ordinary Englishmen believed that the Royal Navy was the only thing standing between them and the guillotines.
So what deep source of societal angst is The Martian assuaging? What is it about Mark Watney that makes his individual survival meaningful to so many Americans? I don't think we have to look any farther than a basic plot summary to find the answer: brave young American survives alone on Mars by farming Idaho potatoes in his own shit.
Sure, the average American might not be able to complete astronaut basic training or even get a passing grade in the required math and science courses. But we can all make fertilizer, can't we? So quit worrying about climate change already! If worse comes to worst, we move to Mars, dance to disco and watch Happy Days reruns just like Mark Watney.
Poor Andy Weir surely did not intend this woeful misreading of his book. In fact, he drives home on almost every page the terrible fragility of human life in space. But these things happen even to the best of writers. After all, more stupid rich people have probably paid to climb Mount Everest because they read Into Thin Air than climbed the mountain in all of recorded history before Jonathan Krakauer wrote the book.
So is the crossover success of The Martian a tragic symptom of America's progress through the twelve steps of climate denial addiction recovery? Maybe. But either way, it's still a rock-solid hard sf novel worthy to be ranked with the classics of the genre. So do yourself a favor and read it.
2 I mean, seriously. I hated Twilight, too. But that doesn't mean it's less psychologically realistic than last year's Booker Prize winner. Laugh if you want, Dear Reader, but don't you have at least one sparkly vampire in your own life?
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