Why has science fiction spent so much energy concretising the past? I’ve always been fascinated with stories that play with time, as this review, of In the Country of the Blind by Michael Flynn, shows. The review was first published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 164, April 2002.
The past is a toy we all play with repeatedly. We change it (‘I never said that!’), we analyse it (‘What he said was…’), we test it (‘If only he’d said…’), we fictionalise it (‘Of course, what I really said…’). Any attempt to study the past (History) is only a way of telling the most likely story that links what we know; while any attempt to make up the past (Fiction) is seen as a way of getting at the truth. The past is the most important constituent of what we are, and the most unreliable. At a constant rate of one second per second all that we see and experience and know slips into the unreachable past, leaving only memories that are untrustworthy at best and wildly distorted at worst. Yet we devote vast resources to seeking out certainties, while becoming more and more uncomfortable the more certain we become, for that way lies determinism. All human knowledge, the science that makes our present what it is and seems to offer so much for our future, appears sure, quantifiable, replicable, subject to universal laws; all except the knowledge that is most fundamental to who we are, history, for that appears full of holes, contradictions, mysteries, doubts and revisions.
Little wonder, then, that science fiction, the form of literature devoted to imagining what our knowledge of ourselves might actually mean, has expended so much energy on concretising the past. We invent time machines galore so that we may visit the past and see it not as unreliable memory but as sure experience. We step sideways through alternate histories and quantum worlds, because they tell us that somewhere there is a stream where history comes out right. And we concoct elaborate psychohistories, sciences that tell us the mysterious rambling unknowns of history are quantifiable after all. All such inventions tell us that our world is deterministic, that regardless of our wishes our lives run along rails we cannot see but cannot deny. Intellectually, determinism is not something we like, but emotionally it seems to make us comfortable to feel that we need not take responsibility for our lives, that we can just relax and trust something else to get on with looking after things.
This is the game Michael Flynn stepped into with his first sf novel, now revised for its first hardback publication. This branch of psychohistory is called ‘cliology’, and it takes as its starting point that moment of Victorian potential beloved of everyone who plays with the past: Babbage’s Analytical Engine. If only this proto-computer had been made actual, Flynn says, we would have not the modern wired world 100 years avant la lettre, as other science fiction writers might have it, but a devise for predicting and controlling the future. This, of course, was not the purpose of Babbage’s machine, but it provides exactly the computing power necessary for a bunch of American businessmen, mathematicians and minor government functionaries whose thinking is taking them along this route. Their analysis suggests that slavery needs to end, the Civil War just happens to be an unfortunate and unexpected side effect (this is not, yet, an exact science); and then, it seems, it would be expedient to eliminate Lincoln, so his assassination is arranged. And on it goes in a conspiracy theory writ large as this secretive group goes on killing, investing, distorting behind the scenes.
It’s worth pointing out that Flynn’s is a purely capitalist analysis of history: all that is done is for the greater good of business. And though his heroine and hero agonise about what is right and behave on a personal level in pursuit of a moral good, this is an analysis that, broadly, Flynn does not question. Heroes or villains, all those who indulge in the manipulation of history are investors, stockbrokers, accountants of one stripe or another.
Let us jump forward to a mid-1990s present and the true starting point of this novel. Sarah Beaumont is a property developer looking over the next bit of Denver she wants to yuppify (there has to be something irredeemably capitalist about anyone who makes a hero out of a property developer – ah but his heart is in the right place, she is black and from a poor background, so that’s all right then, isn’t it?) when she comes across an old piece of paper in a derelict building which carries a curious list of names and events. Sarah is an auto-didact by inclination (most sf heroes are, if you think about it) and besides, one of the names on the list might make a good name for the development she’s planning, so she starts to do a little research on the net. (Did I tell you Sarah is an ace self-taught programmer?) Then unfortunate things start to happen. Her partner (he’s gay – Flynn is pressing all the right liberal buttons, isn’t he?) takes the list to a university historian (an old socialist agitator, another button), and the next thing we know he’s knocked down in a car accident, and then disappears from his hospital bed. The crusading journalist with whom Sarah used to work and who she now goes to for advice, is killed in what appears to be a drugs-related crime. The obnoxious fat guy she meets when she goes to look at another property also gets murdered. And then a crazed gunman starts taking pot-shots at her in the middle of a public square. Without knowing quite what it is she has stumbled into, but knowing it must be related to her research into that list of names, Sarah (the ace programmer, remember) sets a little worm at work to locate any files connected with any of the list of names, and then release them across the Internet. Then, after that little bit of sabotage, she flees, accompanied by the mysterious Red who has turned up out of nowhere to help her. Along the way Red is injured and Sarah, alone, defeats and kills a trained assassin (did I tell you she was omnicompetent – oh, you guessed) and this convinces her to side with Red’s lot.
Red’s lot turn out to be an off-shoot of the old, history-altering secret society, but these are the good guys, the ones who rejected too much in the way of assassination in favour of pure money-making. But Sarah’s worm has done its job and flushed a whole slew of secret cliological societies out of the woodwork (including one that grew out of the Secret Six, the real society of millionaire abolitionists who backed John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry), and Sarah and Red suddenly find themselves in the middle of a war between all these different societies, including a particularly ruthless European bunch who are intent on moving, Mafia-like, into US territory. The curious thing about all this scientific forecasting of historical events is that none of these secret societies seem to have been able to forecast the existence of any other secret society.
I am being a little unfair in all of this. Flynn is a master of gripping narrative that spins you along at such a breathless pace that you don’t have time to question any of what’s going on. Characters are drawn quickly and acutely, mystery is established and sustained with great skill, necessary information is dropped into the narrative at exactly the right moment to make you feel you know what’s going on while holding back enough to keep the unexpected turns of event arriving on schedule. This is storytelling of a high order, and it is only if you draw back from the thrill of the chase for a moment that you begin to see that the ideas underlying it don’t really hold up.
Of course, Flynn isn’t going to admit that. Having played with the past in his story, he keeps playing in other senses also. One of the changes introduced for this new edition is the introduction, as an appendix, of an article originally published in Analog, which throws together an awful lot of jargon and impressive-seeming references in a smoke and mirrors attempt to make the whole underlying notion of cliology seem plausible. What it tells us, at best, is that certain broad patterns can be identified in past events, not that these can be extrapolated into the future. But then, such extrapolation is part of the game, isn’t it? And Flynn also confesses to a few minor changes to his past: the Datanet of the original has become the Internet here. Whether there are other changes to history, and what we have here is a rather more substantial work that that first effort, well, we’d have to rely on untrustworthy memory or a time machine to check that. Wouldn’t we?