Okay, we’ve spent some time talking about hard sf, but how about the idea that sf is the literature of ideas? Let’s start with this review of Transcension by Damien Broderick, which was published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 168, August 2002.

transcensionGreat ideas are what make great science fiction: discuss!

We all know science fiction is ‘the literature of ideas’. We all know that a stunning ‘novum’ can guarantee a story immortality (the history of the genre is littered with enough dismal examples of ‘classics’ with no other discernable quality to justify such a claim). We all know that we are nerds hungrily searching each new tale for the next ‘gosh-wow’ moment.

And yet…

Damien Broderick has a great idea. Does that make Transcension great science fiction?

Actually, to say Broderick has a great idea is to understate the case. He has an idée fixe, nay an obsession. It is transhumanity, that moment when humankind shrugs off the old analogue mode for the exciting new possibilities of digital, when we transcend this too, too fragile flesh for anodes and diodes and little blips of electronic information. Broderick has already written non-fiction about the idea: The Spike (2001), a curious mixture of futurology, literary criticism and wishful thinking. Now he has taken the central thesis of The Spike and recast it as a novel.

The result is a book with more than enough ‘gosh-wow’ moments to satisfy the nerd in us all. Almost too many; so profligate is Broderick that a truly shattering moment, such as the sun briefly turning off three times during an afternoon, can slip by virtually unnoticed. After all, we’ve already had a talking mule, liar bees, human bats, and a host of other greater or lesser novelties.

Away from the animal fantasy, there are three central characters in the novel, each taking their turn to provide the viewpoint. (Actually, as the novel progresses a host of lesser characters will briefly serve as our viewpoint, but this is mostly to allow us to observe things the three protagonists would not see.) The first of these, and in a sense the most important character in the book though hardly our most congenial companion, is Abdel Malek. But if he is important, he is also slippery, a shape changer presenting us with a host of different aspects depending on where Broderick chooses to place him. When first we meet him he is an aging computer pioneer in our very near future being kicked to death by a gang of thugs. Then suddenly he reappears as the urbane and slightly mischievous Magistrate who seems to be the leading authority figure in a very distant, hi-tech future. At one moment he is a loving husband so devoted to his wife, Alice, that her appearance can be used to control him; the next he is a libidinous scoundrel indulging in casual sexual affairs with just about every woman he meets. Every so often throughout the book we glimpse Abdel Malek as a cryogenically frozen head being periodically revived and refrozen, struggling to understand a world that is incomprehensible; yet by the end we are asked to accept that he has become the epitome of reasonableness and wisdom, and is, in fact, the model for the world, or at least for the AI who controls the world. Some of these disparate figures do eventually cohere, but not all of them (the womaniser never gels with everything else we are told about the character), and I am not sure that Broderick himself is altogether clear who or what Abdel Malek is at any one time.

One thing we do know for sure: he is not real. The old man being kicked to death is human, but the others who share his name must be something else. What that something else might be is never certain; a clone? a robot? a concatenation of 1s and 0s in a cyberworld? at one time or another it seems he could be each of these. But if Abdel Malek is not human, what are we to make of the other characters with whom he interacts in the body of the novel, especially our other two viewpoint characters, Amanda and Mathewmark? By the time the book reaches its spectacular climax we know that, yes, these are meant to be full, flesh and blood, human beings. Yet Broderick does nothing to convince us of this, on the contrary he places them in a setting that is so blatantly artificial it is hard to believe that anything here could be real. And if you can’t believe in their reality, it is next to impossible to care one jot what might happen to them.

The world has shrunk to just two locations. There is the City, which embraces technology with a passion and which has extended the human lifespan to such an extent that maturity is artificially delayed until the age of thirty. Next to this (the geography is never clear) is the Valley, a rural backwater of religious bigots and extreme luddites. It is an important part of the plot that a Maglev runs from the City, under the Valley, to … where? Broderick’s imagination doesn’t seem to extend far enough outside the envelope to even provide a name for this destination, certainly it never features in the plot. We are in such an obvious pocket universe of caricatures and cardboard cut-outs that it would be absurd not to question the reality of Amanda and Mathewmark.

Amanda is a child of the City. She is a mathematical genius and a violin virtuoso who talks (and writes) in a near-incomprehensible cant that eschews ‘the’ and ‘and’ and the infinite ‘to’ along with all the other useful little words that make the language work; she is also 28 which makes her still physically and emotionally a child, and she is a neglected child who devises ever more hair-brained and dangerous escapades. Her latest plot is to ride the outside of the Maglev (a variant of the train surfing that enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1990s). She involves her friend Vikram in the scheme, but they are caught, brought before Magistrate Abdel Malek, and sentenced to a form of house arrest. Still determined to succeed in her scheme, Amanda and Vikram break into the Valley to reach the Maglev through an air shaft. Here they meet Mathewmark, and eventually make their way into the air shaft, but as they board the passing Maglev Vikram is killed and Mathewmark is badly injured.

Mathewmark belongs in the Valley (his younger brother is Lukenjon, which is cute but just seems to emphasise the artifice of the situation even more). The Valley is, strictly, The Valley of the God of your Choice: since every inhabitant of the Valley is portrayed as a religious fanatic of one stripe or another, it is impossible to believe that such a set-up has survived for longer than a nanosecond without bloodshed. Though truth to tell, although there is a passing reference to Kali, one character is described as being a witch, and there is a priapic statue displayed at a wedding, in everything involving lifestyle, observance and belief this is a realm of fundamental Christians whose closest resemblance is to the Mennonite or Amish lands of America. It does, of course, go without saying that the greater the belief, the greater the hypocrisy, so that the Elder of the community is revealed to be cruel and duplicitous, a devotee of the supposedly banned technology and a gambling addict. Broderick clearly puts no faith in religion, but to expect such a one-dimensional portrait to convince is the expectation of propaganda not of storytelling.

After the accident that leaves him severely brain-damaged, Mathewmark needs high-tech equipment put into his head, and this excludes him from the Valley. Amanda finds herself serving as his host and guide in the brash world of the City, but when she discovers the Elder’s gambling she is able to blackmail him into allowing Mathewmark home. Of course a Romeo and Juliet scenario has been set up, but the lovers do come happily together again, and as they do the Earth splits open.

This is Broderick’s other great idea: the Singularity. Under the guiding genius of the AI (which is, of course, modelled on Abdel Malek) a nanotechnological army is taking apart the Sun and Moon and Planets to provide raw materials for their great leap forward. It is notable that Broderick describes this with considerably more flair and colour and life than anything involving human characters. The remnants of humanity we have been following are offered a simple choice: become digital information or perish. So, of course, they all become digital information, even those who have been most devoutly opposed to technology in any form. And all ends happily with a new golden age.

It’s a great idea. But the dice are so blatantly weighted at every throw that there is no chance we will be convinced by the story. Broderick’s sympathies are all with the technology, not the people. His technological future is rich and complex and intriguing; his human future is thin and skimpy and unconvincing. His argument is not developed simply because he has not allowed himself any realistic opposition.

Is it good science fiction? So long as ideas make for good science fiction, it is, for this is a book awash in ideas. But if story counts, and character, and the familiar literary skills, then no. This is the schema for what could be great science fiction, but the bones need too much flesh still to be whole and solid and convincing.