The machinations of business and the inventions of technology have at least one thing in common: they are essentially inhuman. Oh people aplenty are involved, as instigators, perpetrators, audience, but these are people as units, their individuality has nothing to do with the thing itself. Some cool piece of kit or breathtaking financial scam really doesn’t differ because of who is using it. You and I, therefore, are figures on a spreadsheet, not individuals.
And that, alas, is how we come across in too much science fiction. Load in the gosh-wow tech, fire up the mechanical twist, and who cares about people? Well, once upon a time, I didn’t. I remember the adolescent me first encountering big concept sf, and it was just a torrent of wonders. “It’s got this, and there’s this, and gosh there’s this, and wow just think it’s got that …” I would gush, and not really notice the expression of pained indulgence on my parents’ faces. Whenever the story slowed a moment to try, a little clumsily, to establish the fragile humanity of the characters, I would start to lose interest.
Now my reaction is exactly the opposite. Now I glaze over at each catalogue of geekery and find my interest only really snagged when I engage with the humanity of the characters. Of course, science fiction has a fine line to tread. One of the most important things that sf does is address our own encounter with the new, the other, the different. In order to do this it is often useful to deploy tactics ranging from transcendental wonder to some appeal to our desire for the new cool, which can often end up sounding like the next Apple sales pitch. All of this is necessary: you can have examples of science fiction without it, but you can’t have science fiction as a whole without it. So I accept the catalogue of geekery, but if it is the only thing the author is interested in, then this reader is likely to be uninterested in the result. I also accept that, over the last 30 or 40 years, sf writers as a whole have become far more adept at creating characters and sustaining human interest. Nevertheless, the chrome-plated notion of sf as things not people still crops up with alarming regularity, sometimes in works that win a huge amount of acclaim.
For me the latest example is Mind Over Ship by David Marusek (which is the reason I singled out business and technology at the start of this brief pensée, since they are the themes that guide the whole novel). I missed his first novel, Counting Heads, but I’ve loved his stories ever since I first encountered them in a Dozois collection probably a decade or more ago. So I came into this novel expecting to be swept away and really wanting to like it. And I tried, I really tried, but I kept finding myself skidding off the shiny surface. In fact, the more this happened as I painstakingly worked my way through the novel, the more I suspected that there isn’t actually anything below the surface: lots of glitter and gloss, signifying nothing.
Let us start with an overcrowded world in which many hundreds of thousands of people are willing to submit themselves to the risks of cryogenic freezing or generations aboard a starship in order to reach a new world. Yet for all this overcrowding there are no obvious shortages of food or water or other necessities at all. In fact, the earth’s resources are plentiful enough to allow rejuvenation techniques to be readily available to everybody, and to allow the manufacture of millions of clones to serve as the planet’s workforce. And nobody, even in passing, thinks there might be a contradiction in this.
But all of this – the space ships, the regeneration, the clones and the rest – are there primarily to allow the host of cool new tech he wants to display before us. And host is the right word. This is a book overloaded with novelties, there is something fresh to get your head around on every page, you could get future shock just by opening it. And that is what the book is about, the volume of novelty that can be squeezed into its pages. This is literature designed precisely for those whose critical reaction is along the lines of: “It’s got this, and there’s this, and gosh there’s this, and wow just think it’s got that …”
Oh there are plenty of people in the book, some of whom Marusek goes to considerable length in trying to establish the messy piss and snot and tears of their common humanity. Except that they are then forgotten the moment there is no fresh novelty for them to observe: because they are there primarily as viewpoints to let us see the cool tech around them. Mary occupies the bulk of the first half of the book because she happens to witness quite a lot of the new stuff, but then largely disappears from the tech when there’s nothing much for her to see. Her husband, Fred, on the other hand, is pretty much an invisible presence during the first half of the book because he doesn’t really have much to see; but then Marusek manoeuvres him out into space and suddenly he occupies more of the last half of the book than any two or three other characters put together.
The most important character in the novel is, probably, Eleanor, who is dead when the book opens. Then we learn her personality has been distributed among myriads of fish, then it is transferred to different specially-reared fish, then to two bodies that have been grown for the occasion; and throughout all of this she is masterminding a globe-spanning business deal of stunning complexity. So complex a deal, in fact, that it depends on countless variables which, of course, all turn out exactly as they need to do. Now I don’t mind a human personality distributed among fish as an sf conceit, in fact I find it clever and fun, but I do object to the fact that not only is there no human cost to this but she behaves like a superhuman in the way she manipulates events. The result is a cartoon, mechanistic and contrived, which expects the response: “Oo shiny”; not: “So this is what it would be like to live in this future”.
First published at LiveJournal, 13 April 2010.