Archive for the ‘aliens’ Tag
A while back, in “The Process, Part One”, I very briefly discussed matters to do with imagination and where story ideas come from. What follows illustrates one way the tales I tell can get started. It isn’t always a daydream that points the way to the destination. On this particular occasion – and it has happened before – I had to sleep on it.
I’m currently under treatment for hypertension, and one of the medications I take has, as one of its few side effects, the tendency on my part to have “lucid” dreams. And they really are lucid. More than once I’ve not so much woken from such a dream as segued from the dreamtime into the dimly lit real world of the bedroom, early in the morning. Balanced between the two I am, for just a moment, convinced of the reality of both. All too often this segue comes as a relief, as the realization comes that it really was just a dream, and I don’t need to come up with a resolution for whatever awkward situation the dreamtime concocted for me that night. And these dreams are, far more often than not, weird. Some are seriously weird and even disturbing.
Sometimes they’re something more, posing puzzles that linger into the waking world, puzzles that I find myself thinking through whether it makes much sense to do so or not. Like the one last night, during which I was in the midst of an alien invasion. It was sort of a cross between the films Independence Day and Skyline. Strange machines in the sky, people in a panic, buildings collapsing under an avalanche of inexplicable lighting effects – you know, the standard Hollywood stuff.
Weird, yes, but after the fact, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that the dream took the form it did, considering how much of my time is taken up by reading and writing fantastical fiction. And I’ve enjoyed my share of alien invasion fare over the years. There was an oppressive quality to the dream and the waking-world residue that reminded me of the film Skyline, a movie I actually dislike because of its realistic hopelessness. Yes, faced with such a situation, it is unlikely humanity would prevail, but who wants that for entertainment? The aliens would surely have their way with us. All of which begs the question of why they’d want to have their way with us. Science fiction writers have, since the days of H.G. Wells, dreamt up a variety of motivations, the majority of which are most likely to be nonsense. Resources? Living space? Women? Please…
That’s the puzzle that lingered after the nightmare anxieties faded. It’s not a new question; I’ve heard and seen numerous readers and writers of science fiction raise it in the past. For some reason, this morning it was my time to tackle it, all because a weird dream triggered that train of thought. So – a species capable of traveling through the vastness between the stars would surely be able to tap the raw materials of the universe as needed. Why would they need to come here and make a fuss? There would have to be something about this Earth of ours they desired, something that didn’t accrete routinely from the interstellar dust from which stars and worlds are formed. Skyline was actually on the right track, in that regard, with the aliens after something you’d only find on a living world like Earth. (The way they employed their plot device struck me as being as biologically absurd as aliens wanting human women, but still…) Yes, it would have to be something very rare, if not unique.
There would also need to be a compelling reason to acquire that “something.”
And just like that, I had an answer. A thing we have here that might provide a motivation for aliens to come here, and a reason for them to want what we have, although perhaps not with hostile intent. In fact, there almost certainly wouldn’t be any hostilities. And with that answer, that idea, I found myself making note of a new place to go, and a trail in need of cutting to the destination that is a story’s climax, to reuse that metaphor I apply so often when I write about story telling.
I got up, went into the space I call an office, and jotted down some notes. Not sure when I’ll get to this one – it has a few competitors for my writing time – but the idea has been safely recorded, the trailhead marked for future exploration, and it will someday become either a long short story, or a novella. Because now that I’ve glimpsed this new story, I’ve got to write it. For me, there’s really no choice about it.
Crazy, perhaps, that it came about as it did. And yet, it just works that way, sometimes.
Ringworld by Larry Niven
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1971
World-building is a term used to describe what science fiction and fantasy authors do to create the setting for the story being told. Any work of fiction requires some degree of world-building, of course, though in a murder mystery or a work of historical fiction this can be accomplished by describing the real world. In science fiction and fantasy, the world of the story may have few connections with the real world, and quite likely would have no connection to it at all. We often build worlds “from scratch,” so to speak. The “world” built for the story sometimes provides little more than a backdrop, but more often than not it becomes a powerful tool for moving the plot forward. It may even be the central element of the plot to begin with. To say that this is the case in Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning novel Ringworld would be an understatement.
Ringworld is a classic example – perhaps the best-known example – of world-building that results in the so-called Big Dumb Object (BDO). The first use of the phrase is usually attributed to British writer Roz Kaveney, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It was apparently intended as a tongue-in-cheek expression, but science fiction is a genre not afraid of playfully making fun of itself, so the phrase is now used on a regular basis. The idea is that you have a plot element, and often it’s the plot element, take the form of something mind-bogglingly huge and complex. The BDO is frequently (though not exclusively) of a nonhuman origin, and the humans who discover it generally experience a serious “holy crap!” moment when they do so. Then they begin to investigate, and therein lies the tale. The BDO can be done to great effect, as seen in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and John Varley’s Titan. And of course, there’s the ever popular “That’s no moon!” – the Death Star of the Star Wars Trilogy. Science fiction has an impressive collection of BDOs, but few – the river world in Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go comes to mind – can compete with the Ringworld for sheer scale.
The artificial world Niven builds for this novel is beyond the range of the superlatives of the English language. It’s an astronomically large band big enough to wrap around its star at about the distance that Earth orbits the sun. Its foundation is an impervious substance that defies analysis by the story’s heroes. This ring structure is broad enough that oceans larger and deeper than anything on Earth can be found within, and standing in the middle of it, you can’t see all the way to either side. Big Dumb Object, indeed, although I’d debate the “dumb” part in this case, tongue-in-cheek or not.
The Ringworld is one of the grandest examples of world-building you can find in science fiction, and Niven puts it to marvelous use in the tale of the first investigation performed on the object. He drops a curious cast of characters in the now decrepit Ringworld – the builders’ civilization having collapsed thousands of years ago. Two are human, a man who has lived two centuries and “seen it all,” and a young woman born lucky, which is a story of its own. With them travel two aliens, one of the warlike Kzin, and a cowardly two-headed Puppeteer who happens to be the leader of their expedition, which is soon stranded on the Ringworld. To find a way off, they must cross to one of the edges, a journey that involves crossing a distance that would encompass all the continents on Earth. Along the way many things are revealed, of the Ringworld itself and the universe of which it is a part, and of the characters and their respective species.
For fans of Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, the Ringworld adventure, and its sequels, form a sort of hub. So much of this tale touches on other works of Niven from that universe that you have the pleasant feeling of things tied together into a network of storytelling. And yet, for someone who stumbles onto Ringworld without prior Known Space experience, the novel stands on its own quite well.
I’ve reacted to previously read Hugo Award novels a number of different ways since I started this project. There have been numerous revelations of ideas missed, and disappointments that tales haven’t withstood the test of time. This rereading of an old favorite has started an episode of rediscovery. Ringworld brought me back to a sci-fi universe that I enjoyed immensely once upon a time, and a long time ago at that. So many comments and asides from the characters invoked half-remembered tales in the same universe that I find myself pulling old paperbacks off shelves, and hunting down copies of Ringworld sequels that I never got around to reading when they were new. Aside from the Hugo award winners for these reviews, I don’t reread fiction very often. There’s so much new (and new to me) to read! But I’m going to make an exception here, and revisit in a big way one of the first multi-book sci-fi universes to ever grab my attention.
Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970
Science fiction has always been a genre that embodies change. A genre built on the question “What if?” could hardly be expected to remain static, after all. By the time I was a teenager something called The New Wave had already swept over and through the sci-fi landscape, altering it forever. I’d already traveled through some of that altered landscape, having read Frank Herbert’s Dune, among other books. If I noticed that the genre was changing, however, I have no recollection of it. Frankly, my adolescent frame of reference didn’t give me the perspective I would have needed to notice the transition. My reading was too random – old works and books more recently published all jumbled together. I just knew that the more sci-fi I read, the better I liked it – somewhat to the distress of my parents and my home town librarian. Looking back and considering the times during which I grew up, I can understand that discomfort to a certain degree. Some of the fiction I devoured back then, especially by the New Wave authors, asked “What if?” questions that most of the people around me would rather not see asked, much less answered. Questions regarding human sexuality provide an example that looms large in my memory (I was a teenager, after all), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness serves as a case in point.
I was coming up on being finished with high school, and looking forward to having it a thing of the past, when I first read anything at all by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness was my introduction to her work, and it was one of those instances in which one book made me a fan of the author while altering my impression of what science fiction was – or could be – all at the same time. It was an experience much like my first reading of Dune. This book was different. It made a very deep impression on me at the ripe old age of 18 years, and I was just old enough to appreciate some of the things the author was saying. It felt that way at the time, at least. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness at the somewhat riper old age of 60, I have to admit that more went past me, back then, than into me.
This isn’t an indictment, of course. After all, I had the frame of reference of an 18-year-old from a small Illinois town. I was also something of a loner and misfit, into the bargain. Having made very few (mutual) emotional attachments outside my own family, the very human interactions of the characters that populate The Left Hand of Darkness involved levels of relationship that were pretty much outside my experience. For instance, it did not register on me until this rereading that the relationship between Estraven and the Ekumen envoy Genli Ai could be considered a love story. Not a conventional romance, but the story of a deep, complicated, confusing, and powerful bond; a love that grows between two intelligent people who never quite seem to recognize how they feel. And yet, they somehow come to accept each other’s humanity, in the face of their profound physical and cultural differences.
In a nutshell, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of a man sent to be an ambassador of sorts from a starfaring civilization to a planet just emerging from its rendition of the Industrial Revolution. All human worlds are the result of colonization by an earlier, lost civilization, and the envoy of the story is part of the slow process of bringing all these worlds back into contact with each other. The world called Gethen (a.k.a. Winter – so named for its Ice Age conditions) is populated by a race of humans who are a form of hermaphrodite. Gethens are, most of the time, androgynous. Once a month they become either male or female. Which gender develops is influenced by situations and relationships, but no one Gethen tends to become either male or female with any consistency. This civilization is divided into a pair of competing nations, one a sort of constitutional monarchy, the other bearing a strong resemblance to the collective society the old Soviet Union thought it was. (The people in the story don’t get it right either.) How the envoy navigates through the cultures that have evolved under the influence of the planet’s conditions and the reproductive biology of the natives makes up the plot. Along the way, the story examines the very nature of gender perception and relationships between genders in a way that is remarkably timely, considering what we see in the headlines these days.
There’s a depth and meaning to this story that I simply could not have understood when I read the book in 1974. (And I can’t hope to do it justice in one essay. That such a slim volume could have such depth is a tribute to its author.) The memories I could call up from that earlier reading centered on the adventure of Estraven and Genly Ai crossing the great glacier that dominates the landscape. What the book said about how we see gender in other human beings, and how that perception shapes us as individuals and members of a culture, went right past me. This time around my understanding of, and appreciation for, what the author had to say was very different. I think that this time, I get it. But maybe I’ll have to read it again after another twenty or thirty years of experience, just to be sure.
Winner of the Hugo Award, 1968
In the late 1960s change and turmoil swirled around me, and I took almost no notice. I knew as little of real world affairs then as I did about science fiction. The only news that registered on my mind was that regarding the “space race,” and for me science fiction was all about Tom Swift Jr. and the occasional Heinlein young adult novel about teenagers skating down the frozen canals of Mars or navigating swamps on Venus. Well, of course, there were the black-and-white B movies, watched when the weather didn’t permit outdoor activities. This was Illinois, so in the winter at least, I spent a lot of time watching macho dudes fighting bubble-headed aliens and giant insects. I suppose that counts as sci-fi on some level. That the world was changing, and changing rapidly, around my small rural town, was invisible to me. The same was true of the steady evolution of science fiction as it was influenced by and reflected those times. The genre was expanding its reach, and bringing in ideas from an ever-widening set of sources. A case in point, the winner of the 1968 Hugo for Best Novel, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. I was all of twelve years old, that year.
In Lord of Light, Zelazny tells the story of an alien world on which human settlers have used Hindu mythology as the framework for their civilization. Exactly why the original colonists chose this frame of reference never came clear to me, but the consequences were so well-realized that I wasn’t much troubled by this. The resultant civilization is ruled by Hindu gods and goddesses who are actually humans rendered immortal and given extraordinary powers through advanced technology. In general, this technology is kept from the rest of the human population, although reincarnation through the transfer of minds into new bodies can be earned by the faithful. This is not seen as technology, of course. It’s divine intervention. Centuries have passed since the original colonists arrived and tamed the world, a process that included the near extermination of the original sapient species discovered there. The battles that took place in that earlier era are recounted in the manner and style of epic Hindu myths and legends. Some of these indigenous inhabitants still survive, but are now considered demons and other manifestations of the supernatural. Almost everything about how humanity came to live in this place has been forgotten, a cultural amnesia encouraged by the “gods,” some of whom were the original colonists to settle the world.
One faction of the immortal population wants to reintroduce lost technology, with the goal of improving the lot of humanity on this world. The other gods, jealous of their privileged positions, want nothing of the sort. The novel is about the conflict between these factions. The book opens with the resurrection of a man named Sam, a clever fellow who dates back to the original colony, and something of a hero to those who would restore humanity to its full potential. How he came to be dead in the first place makes up the main body of the book, which is essentially one long flashback. (I missed this at first, and for a while the narrative had me a bit confused. Watch for an early chapter that ends with Sam sitting back and reflecting on his life.) The tale of Sam’s efforts to unseat the selfish gods of his world unfolds quickly and smoothly, a very different work from Zelazny’s previous Hugo winner, but clearly a work of the same mind and imagination.
The use of a non-Western mythological frame of reference was a departure for science fiction of the time, though Zelazny may not actually have been the first to do so. It was, however, one of the first novels to win the Hugo while recognizing the validity and utility of other mythic traditions for the sake of story-telling. (The other was Frank Herbert’s Dune.) That the book was written when it was is surely no coincidence, as the counter-culture inspirations of the ‘60s were at that time spilling out into the general public in a big way. The Beatles weren’t the only ones playing sitars and practicing transcendental meditation at that point. Anyone alive in that time would have been aware of how these “exotic” ideas were being embraced – and resisted – by the people around them. For those of a creative nature, it was all raw materials, grist for the mill. The science fiction genre certainly partook of these possibilities, and Lord of Light is one result. It’s a novel that remains very readable, having “aged” well, but is clearly a product of its time, as books so often are. The product of times that passed me by almost unnoticed, even as they changed the world.
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1965
For the first time since beginning this series of essays, I find myself dealing with a new-to-me book. In the early 1980s I made it a project to read Hugo-winning novels (and short stories) in an effort to better understand the genre that inspired me to write fiction. During that earlier effort, I was unable to locate a copy of the 1965 winner. The book had apparently gone out of print (I was working in a bookstore at the time and couldn’t special-order a copy for myself), and the few copies I found in used bookstores were either too expensive, or in such bad shape that I passed them by. I always meant to bridge this gap, and this time around was determined to do so. Fortunately, during the intervening years the book was brought back into print, and so tracking down a copy through an online source proved no challenge. At long last, I could read the eleventh novel to win the Hugo Award. After all that time and effort, I suppose it sort of figures that this book doesn’t measure up to those preceding it.
The Wanderer is a tale of disaster on a planetary scale. During a lunar eclipse, a rogue planet suddenly appears in the solar system, so close to the Earth and the Moon that tidal forces are able to tear the Moon apart. The same tidal forces devastate Humanity, creating flood tides of Biblical proportions, triggering massive earthquakes, and setting off super-volcanic eruptions. As civilization is hammered by catastrophes, survivors on Earth and a lunar base seek to unravel the mystery of the Wanderer, as they all come to call the rogue planet. The hardships experienced on Earth are seen through the eyes of survivors scattered around the globe.
As interesting as the premise of this novel surely is, I had quite a bit of trouble getting into the story. There are a lot of points of view used, but there is a lack of consistency in the way they are developed. Three subplots are strongly developed and a number of others weave in and out of the main flow, apparently to add details to illustrate the horrors being inflicted on the people of Earth. Many of these subplots appear and disappear sporadically, and only those that involve the deaths of the characters involved are resolved. One of the throw-away subplots ends with what stands as the worst sex scene I’ve ever encountered as a reader of science fiction. These partially developed subplots ultimately failed to support the story, and left me feeling more distracted than informed. It’s as if the author (and the editor) couldn’t quite decide which story to tell. Two such subplots could have accomplished the job; a less-is-more editorial approach would have greatly improved the structure of the book.
Improved it, but perhaps not rescued it from the cardboard, heavily stereotyped characters that inhabit this tale. Remember how people reacted to the dialog between characters in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones? The characters and their interactions in this novel have that sort of awkwardness. And then there are the aliens responsible for the mess who, when the reader gets to know them, come across as little better than cartoonish.
By the time I was finished with The Wanderer, my reaction was one of puzzlement. This is not what I would call a very well-executed novel, especially when I compare it to Way Station, the previous year’s winner, or with either Dune or This Immortal, the winners (in a tie) of the best-novel Hugo the following year. Was the year in which The Wanderer first saw print a poor year for science fiction? That’s frankly hard to believe. And yet this imperfect book, written by an author who has done much stronger work (including The Big Time which brought a Hugo award to Leiber in 1958) took the honors in 1965. Fame is a fickle thing, and the ways in which it is bestowed often make little sense in retrospect. This is apparently as true in science fiction as it is with any form of entertainment.
This one disappointed me. I expected more of Leiber, being familiar with his work, and felt that The Wanderer fell short of the mark he usually hits. It isn’t a book I’ll ever read again, and as this review makes plain, isn’t one I’d recommend unless you share my desire to read all of the Hugo winners. Or unless you’re curious to see what it is about this book that makes it seem like such a train wreck to me. In which case, read it! I will never, in any of these reviews, tell you that a book is “bad,” or worse, heap venom and scorn on a work just because I don’t like it. If the book fails for me, it might be me and not the book at all. It may be that many others see this book the way I do, but in 1965 readers of science fiction saw The Wander in a very different way. They bestowed upon it the highest honor we have for science fiction. Who was right? Does that even matter? All I can tell you is that the book didn’t work for me and why I felt it failed. In other words, I didn’t like it. To go from saying “I didn’t like it,” to the conclusion that it’s a “bad book” that no one else should read has always seemed to me to be a step too far.
Thoughts Inspired by Way Station by Clifford D. Simak, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1964
Growing up in the 1960s was a peculiar thing. We were surrounded, as children, by such a mix of confidence and anxiety, high adventure and social unrest, lofty visions loudly proclaimed and horrible nightmares manipulated to manufacture fear – and control. Such was American society in the Cold War. As a pre-teen growing up in that time, I sometimes had nightmares in which tornados, often a clear and present danger in rural Illinois, transformed into the mushroom clouds of nuclear destruction. I didn’t fully understand the nature of the danger, but I could feel the uneasiness, the anxiety, and sometimes outright fear in the adults around me, and images of “The Bomb” were commonplace. The black-and-white B-movies I watched on TV were often tales inspired by the mutant consequences of radioactive disasters. And there were all those duck-and-cover exercises at school, cleverly concealed as “tornado drills.” Our culture was saturated by the fear that the next big war really would be the war to end all wars, because there would be no one left to fight another. Somewhere in my memories of those years I recall telling an uncle that I wanted to be an astronomer if I grew up. I remember this because great concern was expressed over my use of the word “if.”
I was barred from watching the evening news for some time, after that one.
The science fiction of those days, film and print, was heavy with variations on a theme of ultimate war and its consequences. You see this in the novels that won the early Hugo Awards: Bester’s The Demolished Man is set in a post-apocalyptic future; Heinlein’s Starship Troopers depicts a civilization that rose following World War III. These books and others like them at least contain a note of optimism; as in wars past, we survive and rebuild. It’s an optimistic assumption that shows these authors had not the slightest idea what they were talking about. Of course, to be fair, very few people did. More brutally honest is A Canticle for Leibowitz, which depicts the long and agonizing rebirth of a civilization doomed, by its failure to learn the lessons of history, to die again. So many novels, award winners and those passed over, assumed such a war would come, and tried to imagine the consequences of a thing that truly defied imagination. It is not, by its nature, an uplifting body of literature.
In the midst of this, in 1963, Clifford D. Simak added his own take on the troubles of those times, a book that stands in powerful contrast to so many other sci-fi tales from the Sixties. Way Station, winner of the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel, is the story of a man who survived the worst of the American Civil War, and who finds himself, shortly after, recruited to run a relay station for a galactic civilization. This civilization uses a strange form of teleportation to bridge the vastness of interstellar space, and knit a multitude of species into one star-spanning community. Enoch Wallace has hardly aged at all in the hundred years that followed, sustained by an aspect of the galactic technology for which he is Earth’s only, and completely unknown, custodian. Unfortunately, after a century of meeting and befriending hundreds of alien beings from dozens of species and cultures, Enoch’s quiet existence as station keeper is threatened. Someone from a government agency has realized Enoch is the same man who came home from the Civil War long ago. And in coming to the aid of an abused deaf/mute girl, Enoch has come into conflict with her family, and drawn to himself exactly the wrong sort of attention. Discord in the galactic civilization threatens to shut down his way station, leaving him the choice of being abandoned where he is on a world of which he is no longer truly a part, or himself abandoning the world of his birth forever. On top of all of this, that very same world is on the verge of blowing itself to bits. Calculations using the advanced mathematics of the galaxy show that Earth’s destruction by way of nuclear holocaust is inevitable, and the cure suggested by Enoch’s alien friends is almost as bad as war itself.
In resolving these conflicts, Simak weaves a compelling tale of interstellar intrigue and very human drama. The resolution to it all is sudden, a bit fanciful, but very satisfying. It’s also more than a bit melancholy, for the hero does pay a price to hold on to the life he has come to cherish. It ends not with a bang, but a whisper. But the story overall is one of hope, and not calamity. This is a novel that looks at the Cold War tensions of those unsettled and uncertain years not from the perspective of how bad things might turn out, but with the idea that what might seem unavoidable could, in fact, be prevented. Way Station stands apart in an era of sci-fi nuclear holocaust novels in a refreshing and thoughtful way. It also holds up well to the passage of many years, and seems not in the least bit dated. I first read this book when I was in high school, almost a decade after it was published, and was fascinated by its very different take on how a galaxy-spanning civilization might work, and how Earth might take part. Now, so many years later, with the bad dreams of glowing mutant tornado mushroom clouds fading into memory, I have a different and perhaps improved idea of why the book appealed to me. It presents a positive vision, based as it is on the thought that the worst need not come to be. It was a story of hope and melancholy, and what teenage loner growing up in troubled times could resist such a tale?