Algis Budrys, F. Anstey, Frederik Pohl, Gene Wolfe, H.G. Wells, James Tiptree Jr, Kevin Anderson, m john harrison, Martin Caidin, P.G. Wodehouse, Philip K. Dick, Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Silverberg, Samuel R. Delany, Thorne Smith
And while I’m thinking about my Vector columns, here’s another from my Cognitive Mapping series. This was first published in Vector 203, January-February 1999.
‘That night they shot a needle full of some anaesthetic into my spine. When I woke up again, I had this arm.’
The motorised limb flashed up and his knuckles rang faintly against his skull. Either from the conducted sound or the memory of that first astonished moment, Martino winced visibly.
His face fascinated Rogers. The two lenses of his eyes, collecting light from all over the room, glinted darkly in their recess. The grilled shutter set flush in his mouth opening looked like a row of teeth barred in a desperate grimace.
Of course, behind that facade a man who wasn’t Martino might be smiling in thin laughter at the team’s efforts to crack past it.
She had discarded two cans of Gillette shaving foam, an old-fashioned safety razor of mine and some spare blades. She had slit her wrists. But first she had tried to shave the nascent feathers from her scalp, upper arms and breasts, hacking at the keratin until her skin was a mess of bruises and abrasions, indescribable soft ruby scabs, ragged and broken feather sheaths like cracked and bloody fingernails. Miami. In a confused attempt to placate me, Isobel had tried to get out of the dream the way you get out of a coat.
Signs of Life (1997)
M. John Harrison
For much of his life, Algis Budrys was trapped by the Cold War. Since his homeland, Lithuania, had been swallowed up by the Soviet Union, he was effectively a stateless person. Only when the Baltic States gained a measure of freedom, the first crack in the facade of the Soviet Union, was he free to leave America with the expectation of being able to return again. His powerful Cold War fable, Who?, is built upon the lack of identity his statelessness must have engendered. A leading scientist on our side is badly injured in an explosion near the Soviet border. The other side rescue him, nurse him, then return him; but now his head is encased in an iron mask that cannot be removed without killing him. He has been transformed, but has he been changed? Rogers is given the task of trying to find out if the man in the mask is who he claims to be, and Budrys presents us with the intriguing question of what constitutes identity.
It is a question that science fiction has been asking throughout its history. One way this has been done is to confront humanity with other beings – aliens, robots, monsters of one kind or another – but it is far more effective, and chilling, if we are forced to confront the monster, the stranger, within ourselves. This is something that Robert Louis Stevenson recognised when he created Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885) in which the familiar veneer of civilisation is scratched to reveal the violence of a human animal still close to the beasts. Ever since Stevenson revealed that Frankenstein’s creature can be found within us all, science fiction’s literature of transformation has found endless ways to strip away or overlay our familiar flesh in an effort to discover how much we are thus changed
Sometimes such transformation has been the stuff of comedy. F. Anstey considered how it might be if a child and an adult swapped places in Vice Versa (1882). P.G. Wodehouse wrought exactly the same transformation in Laughing Gas (1936) (as did a number of later films such as Big (1988)), while Thorne Smith essayed a variation on the theme in Turnabout (1931) in which a man and his wife swap bodies. These are all essentially social satires, the humour, as in so much comedy, resting upon the sudden shift in perspective, and the satire stemming from the opportunity, as Robbie Burns put it, ‘to see ourselves as others see us’. Wodehouse and Anstey both use the direct, uncomplicated viewpoint of a child to cut through the pretension and stuffiness of the adult world, while an adult trapped in a child’s body allows them to demonstrate how much we take for granted and how much we leave behind as we get older. Smith preferred a broader humour based on the differences between the sexes, keeping it to a superficial satire of style and behaviour rather than a deeper consideration of the subject attempted, for instance, in Samuel R. Delany’s novel of sexual transformation, Triton (1976).
Generally, however, transformation has been the basis for tragedy, the further one goes from the familiar human pattern the more opportunity there is for sadness, madness and death. No matter what the motives for making the change – and such transformations are usually entered upon for the best of motives – the end result is generally bad. Dr Jekyll sought to improve humankind’s health but ended up becoming a werewolf as violently and as fatally as the young tourist in An American Werewolf in London (1981) or the central character in Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Hero as Werwolf’ (1975). Griffiths in H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (1897) sought freedom but found only a trap as inescapable as the one confining the convict in Robert Silverberg’s ‘To See the Invisible Man’ (1962). Fred/Robert in Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977) took drugs also as a way of finding a sort of freedom, but ended up sundering his mental landscape so violently that the one person became unknowingly both hunter and prey. All lost their identity in the change.
But such transformations cannot be all bad. Artificial limbs have been available for centuries, more recently we have added plastic surgery, pacemakers, transplants and a host of other ways in which medical science remakes the body. How can we be risking our identity by extending our life in this way: for all the metal and plastic that may be insinuated in among our flesh and blood, we remain the same person surely? The answer science fiction gives is: it’s all a matter of scale. Yes, artificial means can enhance life, as in James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ (1973); it can even turn us into some sort of Superman as in Martin Caidin’s Cyborg (1972) or the film Robocop (1987). Nevertheless, the further one goes along this route, as the man gradually transformed to suit the harsh environment of Mars in Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus (1976), the more distanced one becomes from friends, family, the rest of humanity. Kevin Anderson has wrought a further variation on this theme in Climbing Olympus (1997) in which the human prisoners, transformed to survive on Mars, have the task of terraforming that planet and hence of destroying the only environment that can now sustain their life. Is greater strength worth such a cost?
Not when we are a social creature, as science fiction so resolutely paints us. Yet we cannot help pursuing our dreams. We are fascinated by the wonders and possibilities of being other (if we were not, we would not read fantasy and science fiction, would we?) and despite the moral lessons given out in sf stories and novels galore, we still welcome the chance to make our dreams come true. M. John Harrison tells what happens in his chilling novel, Signs of Life. Isobel dreams of flying, so intently that when she discovers a medical technique that can implant feathers in her body, she seizes upon it. The technique is meant to be purely cosmetic, but she imagines it will make her into a sort of bird. When, inevitably, it fails, it becomes a metaphor for the way all our dreams fail, for all the chances we don’t take, for the way we have to continue trying to change our lives.