Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

The Death of Science Fiction: A Dream

        Part 3

3. Death and Resurrection

By now, it should be plain why we might be at least half-serious in suggesting in our contribution to the third appendix of the new edition of Earl Kemp's symposium that Robert Heinlein in "The Number of the Beast—" should be given credit for killing science fiction. (Bloodthirsty Bob, the fastest draw at the Universal Ego Convention.) It is certainly worth taking seriously when a writer as central to modern science fiction as Robert Heinlein turns renegade, and like some sinister Darth Vader aims a fatal blow at science fiction, the empty cloak of truth and certainty drooping limply to the floor.

But we were half-joking, as well. It isn't all Heinlein's fault.

Heinlein alone can't be blamed for the demise of science fiction any more than he can be credited as solely responsible for its birth. Heinlein didn't come to the writing of modern science fiction by himself in 1939—he came in company. And he is not departing from science fiction alone, either.

Close examination will show that over and over again through the history of modern science fiction it has been a commonplace for different writers to submit stories for publication that are highly alike at nearly the same moment. As just one example, William Tenn—among other things the author of "Me, Myself and I," a story of a character traveling in time and meeting himself that has many similarities to Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps"—has told us how haunted he felt in the early Forties by Heinlein's uncanny ability to reach John W. Campbell first, not once, but repeatedly, with stories just like those that Tenn was in the process of writing.

There are more general confluences of theme, as well. As we may remember from the beginning of this book, where we reviewed an anthology that was topheavy with them, in the year 1968 the SF magazines were full of stories about comic machines, threatening machines, and comic/threatening machines. In the same way, at the present moment, human clones are a minor or a major concern in one book after another of those we have been reading, from "The Number of the Beast—" to Charles L. Harness's The Catalyst, Joan Vinge's The Snow Queen, and Evelyn Lief's first novel, The Clone Rebellion. It is clone-time just now.

In fact, we may generalize and say that at any given moment SF is always concerned with a small number of central questions, a handful of fruitful themes and a few particularly apt metaphors. It is as though there were a common wavelength, a single source of energy and insight, from which all innovative writers of SF must draw. So that if one doesn't get the message out, another will.

In view of this, then, it should not be totally surprising if we suggest that Heinlein's new book—important as it may be for what it has to say about the Future History and modern science fiction—does not stand alone. Its most significant aspects, its metaphors and materials, its most provocative assertions, are all shared by other books, so that even if "The Number of the Beast—" did not exist, it would still be possible to draw the same conclusion—science fiction is dying.

Modern science fiction claimed to be the way the future would be. Heinlein's book explicitly recognizes that this is no longer so. Modern science fiction is just one among a number of possible structurings of the imagination. It is not the all-in-all that it claimed to be or tried to be.

But the title of a memoir published recently by a fellow member of Heinlein's Class of 1939, Frederik Pohl's The Way the Future Was, makes the same recognition. So does our own title, "Farewell to Yesterday's Tomorrow." This insight is in the air.

Nonetheless, "The Number of the Beast—" must serve as our major example. Heinlein has been more deeply committed to modem science fiction than any other writer and played the game out to its last implications. Let us then look one by one at a number of this book's departures from science fiction, and show them confirmed in other current novels.

How far Heinlein has come! We may recall his lecture at the University of Chicago in 1957 where Heinlein presented the orthodox position on science fiction. He even drew up parallel tables to distinguish real science fiction—realistic future fiction—from mere pseudo-scientific futuristic fantasy. Heinlein said then:
A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.
But in "The Number of the Beast—", Robert Heinlein has written a book where there are no solid bases at all, where no such thing as adequate knowledge can exist, and where the real world, if there is any such thing, is in doubt. "The Number of the Beast—" puts into question that formal distinction between science fiction and fantasy that Heinlein was trying so hard to maintain in 1957. For how can modern science fiction exist separate and distinct from fantasy when there is no longer any fundamental difference between the Future History and Oz?

This distinction was already in question even as early as 1957, or else Heinlein would not have had to print his now-abandoned rules in such large letters. One such assault was Arthur C. Clarke's well-known dictum: "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." To this dictum could be added several corollaries implicit in stories that Jack Vance was writing in the late Fifties and early Sixties, such as "The Miracle Workers" and The Dragon Masters: "One man's technology is another man's magic," and "Any sufficiently isolated world may have its own science—which has all the outward appearance of magic."

From this line of thought during the last twenty years has developed a whole contemporary SF school, which might be called "galactic fantasy," that does what "The Number of the Beast—" does, making an art out of blurring together formerly separate science fiction and fantasy symbols. In galactic fantasy, worlds populated by the spaceships of modern science fiction—often worlds formerly ruled by galactic empires—have fallen into isolation and in this state of privacy developed their own "magic."

Listen to the titles of current examples of galactic fantasy—Joan Vinge's The Snow Queen; Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle; our own Earth Magic. How different they are in tone and implication from modern science fiction titles like "The Roads Must Roll," "Mechanical Mice," "Nightfall" and "Universe." What is a particularly interesting departure, moreover, is that all three of these galactic fantasy novels (once again following Jack Vance) attribute their "magical" powers not to unique technology but to special developments of consciousness.

Here these books are paralleled by "The Number of the Beast—" once more. Heinlein's many universes are no more in essence than differing states of consciousness. While Heinlein's story is not galactic fantasy, it can be seen as taking the propositions on which galactic fantasy is founded, treating them logically and mathematically, and exploring their permutations. Each new continuum in the Realm of 666 a different state of consciousness with its own laws and its own mode of "magic."

Just what constitutes the nature and powers of consciousness is one of the questions now under general consideration in SF. The investigation can take a variety of forms.

Robert Sheckley's recent novel, Crompton Divided, is about the fragmentation of consciousness. In Crompton Divided, a nebbish living in New Jersey determines to track down and integrate various separate and scattered pieces of his original self who are now living apparently individual lives on other planets.

Crompton Divided manages to combine within itself the multiple persons-in-a-single-body theme of Heinlein's 1970 novel I Will Fear No Evil and the situation of "The Number of the Beast— ". The book is a jape. In Crompton Divided, reality is a constantly shifting state of disequilibrium and frustration—a series of cosmic pokes in the rib from a God who wears an electric bowtie, stammers and loves practical jokes. You'd better laugh—it hurts when you don't.

Sheckley's novel is "science fictional" in appearance, if just barely. That is, there is an absence of fantasy symbols. None of the queens, castles and magic of the galactic fantasy story. And there is no Oz here, as in "The Number of the Beast—". On the other hand, in Crompton Divided there are science fiction-derived symbols like alien beings and travel to distant planets.

But this novel is by no means an old-fashioned modern science fiction story. Crompton Divided treats its science fiction devices flippantly. Sheckley's novel is completely nihilistic about the pretense to exact fact that has been so precious to modern science fiction. But then, fragmentation of consciousness and doubts about single stable realities seem to be intimately related.

Varieties of states of consciousness are another kind of exception to the claim of modern science fiction to have a lock on the one true reality. An example of one of these exceptions is dream. "The Number of the Beast—" is not the only current SF book in which dreams come true. In Robert Silverberg's galactic fantasy Lord Valentine's Castle, dream interpretation figures as a "magical" art. In this story, moreover, there are passages that seem dreamlike to the characters themselves, and there are machines through which dreams are selectively broadcast. In Frederik Pohl's near-future novel Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, dreams are also broadcast, but not selectively—as inchoate emotions that trouble a whole planet. In Charles L. Harness's The Catalyst, not only do dream events come truer than true, but computer-generated holograms take on temporary life of their own, and dead human beings continue to affect the affairs of the living.

A theory is being evolved in current SF in which units of consciousness--consciousness holons, so to speak—exist independent of bodies and matter. In Richard Cowper's The Road to Corlay, the consciousness of a contemporary scientist is projected forward in time through a drug, and there, almost like a parasite, inhabits the mind/body of another person. In Arsen Darnay's The Karma Affair, themes include survival after death, astral travel, and reincarnation.

In Golem100, a new novel by Heinlein's contemporary, Alfred Bester, forces of consciousness that are much like demons may be aroused from another plane of being, a realm of mind called "an Infraworld," and human beings may disembody and travel as holons into this land of symbol and psyche.

To anyone who still retains a firm commitment to the hard-nosed materialism that has distinguished modern science fiction, this stuff must seem like out-and-out fantasy. Spirits and astral bodies and misty pink-and-gray dimensions were precisely the sort of occult crapola that John W. Campbell kicked out of Astounding after he became editor in 1937 and began the step-by-step job of altering mush-headed romantic scientifiction into realistic modern science fiction.

It was partly to define Astounding more sharply that John Campbell started his fantasy magazine Unknown in 1939. Unknown was to contain logical but impossible stories, while Astounding was to contain real possibilities. Demons and spirits and astral bodies, if treated logically and humorously enough, had their place in the fantasy magazine Unknown. But not in Astounding, the modern science fiction magazine.

However, contemporary SF novels like Golem100 and The Karma Affair that use these materials need not debunk them, and these books are not stigmatized and kept separate from proper science fiction. Like galactic fantasy, these fantasies of consciousness on the loose are SF without prejudice.

One such astral fantasy, which concentrates within itself a wide variety of current themes, is White Light, or What Is Cantor's Continuum Problem? This book, which is to see publication shortly, first in England and then in the United States, is a first novel by Rudy Rucker, said to be the great-great-great-grandson of Hegel. Rucker, a young American, wrote White Light while studying mathematics on a grant in Heidelberg. If Rucker's novel seems particularly fresh, it is partly because he employs neither the symbology of Unknown nor the symbology of Astounding, neither magic nor spaceships. Instead, White Light is a unique combination of logic and set theory, New Head culture, and fantasy of consciousness.

Rucker's narrator is a young mathematician teaching trivial courses at a backwoods education factory. His main professional concern is the problem mentioned in the book's subtitle. We are told: "On December 13, 1873, the 28-year-old Georg Cantor brought the continuum problem to light by proving that there are more points in space than there are natural numbers."

This insight places us in an infinite universe. It is another of the significant attacks that have been made by modern Western mathematics and science on the assumptions of materialism—that there is but one reality, one set of facts, and one right and proper rational state of consciousness.

But that isn't all that is leading Rucker's narrator to fall through kick-a-stone, rap-a-lectern, hard-and-fast reality. Rucker's narrator is a New Head Seventies person—not a strange anomalous amalgam of different times and places like Heinlein's characters in "The Number of the Beast—", who are simultaneously represented as being of a future time and as having been hand-raised on Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Clayton Astounding like a person of Heinlein's and Bester's generation. It is a measure of the difference between "The Number of the Beast—" and White Light that Heinlein's fantasy takes us on a visit to Oz, while Rucker's mathematical fantasy (which also has a chapter entitled "The Number of the Beast") gives us an episode inside a flipped-out Uncle Scrooge comic book in which the narrator as Donald Duck has his heart cut out by Aztecs before Huey, Dewey and Louie can rescue him.

The Seventies were a spaced-out time. Rucker's character is the representative of a generation that isn't quite sure where truth lies, but is sure that it isn't fixed. Felix Rayman's cultural referents are all multiplex symbols of shifting realities—Neal Cassady, the Rolling Stones, acid, and Vietnam. Even without Georg Cantor, this character is already just a bit unglued.

Like Earl Kemp's foreword in Who Killed Science Fiction?, White Light is punctuated with significant quotations. The epigraph to Part III is a quote from the rock'n'roll poet-priestess Patti Smith: "Within the context of neo-rock / we must open up our eyes / and seize and rend / the veil of smoke which man calls order." It is clear that Rucker in his own way is aiming to rend the veil of smoke which man calls order, but not in the context of neo-rock. In its intent, we might call this book neo-SF.

But hold on, this isn't a complete representation of White Light. Along with mathematical games and hip tripping, Rucker has made his book out of materials that are not only not new, but are positively Victorian: lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, an encounter with the Devil and Jesus, astral travel, and a journey to "the land of dreams and departed spirits." This last we might identify with Bester's Infraworld and Heinlein's Realm of 666.

As Rucker presents it, this is entertaining stuff, so old that it is new. White Light is a clever and innovative book, and out of its mathematical ruminations, it comes to fascinating conclusions: that the universe may not just be infinite, but may contain level upon level of being unto Absolute Infinity. Once again, as with Heinlein, we are arrived in the place where Anything Can Happen.

Busted free of all the linearities and restrictions of modern science fiction.

It is all the sadder, then, that on its own terms as a story, White Light is not a success. But in this, too, it is like "The Number of the Beast— ". In fact, all of the contemporary SF novels we have been reading in one way or another are unsatisfactory as story.

In the case of White Light, early in the book the Devil and Jesus tussle for Rayman's "worthless ass"—whatever unit of body or soul that may be. Jesus instructs Rayman to travel to the dream dimension and there climb Mount On, the Absolutely Infinite mountain. And he is to take with him to the top the ghost of a young woman. Rayman is to be responsible for her. She isn't to come back to Earth.

But Rayman gets no farther than to the dream dimension and partway up the mountain. He loses track of the woman's ghost. He gets distracted into other pursuits and questions, he allows himself to be turned aside, and he never does get to the top of the mountain. Moreover, the woman's ghost comes back again to Earth, even though Jesus has said, "Be sure you don't let her come back with you. For your own good as well as hers."

So the book can't be a success. Not only is it not right to cross Jesus and not keep solemn promises, but a story quest that is set aside and forgotten halfway through a book must mean an incomplete story.

The new SF books that we have been reading—the brightest and most innovative works we could find—are all incomplete stories. A complete story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It sets forth some problem that must be resolved. The problem must be resolved if the story is to be complete. The problem cannot be dodged. It cannot be set aside. It can be redefined—but only if the stakes of the game are raised, and the original problem is shown to be but an aspect of a problem of larger dimension. But then that problem must be solved.

In John Crowley's exquisitely written Engine Summer, a subtle horror story of a consciousness holon trapped forever short of a moment of completion and resolution, there is a significant passage comparing a bit of special local geography and the necessities of story:
I told you about Path: Path is like a snake, it curls around the whole of Little Belaire with its head in the middle and the tip of its tail by Buckle cord's door, but only someone who knows Little Belaire can see where it runs. To someone else, it would seem to run off in all directions. So when you run along Path, and here is something that looks to be Path, but you find it is only rooms interlocking in a little maze that has no exits but back to Path—that's a snake's-hand. It runs off the snake of Path like a set of little fingers. It's also called a snake's-hand because a snake has no hands, and likewise there is only one Path. But a snake's-hand is also more: my story is a Path, too, I hope; and so it must have its snake's-hands. Sometimes the snake's-hands in a story are the best part, if the story is a long one.
But Crowley's story is not a success, either. Just like White Light, it loses its own Path and turns into a snake's-hand. In Engine Summer, a post-disaster situation that looks promising and ecological becomes altered and trivialized into a mere recording in the hands of a stagnant and fearful remnant technological society living in an orbiting satellite.

This is the sort of thing that happens again and again in these books. Some are content to be collections of fragments. Some set goals and then forget them. Some present situations of promise and then trivialize them. Some books dodge and run away. Some throw up their hands. Some even have endings where trumpet flourishes are sounded to herald what is announced as Complete Success—except that some significant awfulness, like the Black Beast, has been left out of the solution.

In fact, the most common conclusion in these novels, as it has been in so many of the novels we have reviewed in the past few years—such as Cary Neeper's A Place Beyond Man—is the half-solution. Viewpoint characters are permitted to find answers to their own personal problems, escaping perhaps from some imminent disaster. Invariably, however, the larger public situation, the common human condition, remains awful.

In one after another of these late science fiction books, future man is pictured as having suffered a disaster through the reckless excesses of technology, as in the Crowley. And where this has not yet happened, man is living a gray, squalid, over-populated existence, helplessly drowning in his own waste products like a self-poisoned bacterium.

The essence of this last scenario is displayed in this restaurant scene in Charles Harness's The Catalyst:
Paul had already checked the list. Swiss steak—with a red asterisk. Filet of sole—likewise. Chicken creole—also. Beef pie—the same. On down the list. And the red asterisk at the bottom: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Eating This Is Dangerous To Your Health. Paul said: "The carcinogenic index seems lowest on the roast penguin. No DES, kepone, low PCB's, BHT, just a little mercury . . ."

"It's got an EPA yellow mark," said Marggold. "You are further endangering an endangered species."

"Yeah, well everything is either poisonous, anti-ecological, or too expensive. Meanwhile, I'm hungry."
None of these books offer answers to this problem. It is merely the given condition of things. The best current SF may do, as in galactic fantasy, is to show some special isolated planet that has escaped the collapse of empire and become magical.

This was not the case in the modern science fiction of the Golden Age. In classic science fiction—in stories like Heinlein's "Coventry" and Sixth Column and Beyond This Horizon, even in Heinlein's "Solution Unsatisfactory"—personal problems are identified with public ones, and the solution to one is the solution to the other. If one fails, the other fails.

But this is no longer so. Just as in Heinlein novels since Stranger in a Strange Land, in contemporary science fiction novels the public situation is written off as a dead loss.

Some of these books allow no answers at all, either public or personal. In Robert Sheckley's Crompton Divided, for example, the fragmented Alistair Crompton eventually unites four different pieces of his psyche. He even, after a struggle with himself, hands over the captaincy of the common being to another consciousness byte nobler than himself. But the story concludes:
The new person considered. A presentiment of disaster came over him. He was still stuck in the human situation! He said, "Hey, Alistair, fellows, are you still there? I don't think this one is going to work either."
It is not demanded and should not be demanded that every story be complete. By their very length, short stories tend to present only a portion of the complete monomyth, or a highly compressed version of it. Many admirable short stories are snake's-hands.

Neither should it be demanded that every story portray a success. It is undeniable that stories of irony, tragedy and failure should have a place. But it should be demanded of stories like these that they be honest and truthful about their nature. They should not simply cop out on a problem. They should not attempt to pass failure off as success. A story of non-success should not be a cheat.

But what is to be said of the state of a literature of the imagination that can imagine no complete and honest successes? That sees the human condition as a no-win situation? That foresees nothing ahead of us but trouble and disaster, which only individuals may escape or evade? What is to be said of a literature that cannot present any true Path for a reader to travel from beginning to end, but only offer snake's-hands?

That is the state of science fiction today.

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