Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

The Death of Science Fiction: A Dream

        Part 5

Now, in 1980, we are once again at the end of an era. The solutions, values and tools of the mid-Twentieth Century vision are no longer sufficient to deal with the urgent problems of the day. This order has had its good moments and done its good work, but its hour has passed. We are once again at one of those moments when the times alter and one vision gives way to another.

The mid-Twentieth Century order had many accomplishments to its credit. It dismantled the old Victorian colonial empires. From its tolerance of multiplicity and willingness to accept fact has arisen the present climate of concern for women's rights, minority rights. and human rights in general. Its great engineering projects have sent men to the Moon, and established the first world-wide communications network.

The time has come when a kid in Singapore may wear blue jeans and a Grateful Dead T-shirt, just the same as the kid in Topeka. The world has been united, and the mid-Twentieth Century order is responsible! Hooray! Hooray!

But, so far, what has been put into place is all exterior. It is an engineering-works-and-economics sort of unification. All money and gross fact, and little understanding. That's in keeping with the nature of the times.

Right now, however, the economic glue that holds the world together is threatening to come unstuck. Inflation, shortages of material, cartels, unemployment, weighty taxes, massive dislocations of population. And nothing seems sufficient to get things working right again. Rather than answering all questions, the facts pull in a thousand different directions.

And meantime, the sins of the mid-Twentieth Century order have mounted in number. Let us speak only of America's sins and be content to name the major fiascos of the last twenty years, one by one—the times when American authority acted according to the values and priorities of the mid-Twentieth Century vision and made an ass or a villain of itself: the Bay of Pigs; the Gulf of Tonkin; the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; Vietnam; Cambodia; Kent State; Jackson State; Watergate; the Mayaguez incident; the Great Iranian Helicopter Raid.

Oh, and add just a few more things to make the picture more complete: the revelation of longstanding CIA and FBI misdeeds; the business and political scandals of the Seventies; the financial collapse of giant businesses and major cities; Three Mile Island; Love Canal.

Again and again the same mistakes have been made, the characteristic mistakes of the era: The use of lies for tactical gain. The employment of questionable methods for near-sighted ends. Willful ignorance of the consequences of selfish courses of action. The employment of massive force to crush insignificant opposition. Most of all, the consistent overestimation of the powers of technology.

Even more than coming out on top in the wrestle for dominance with the Russians. the chief concern of the mid-Twentieth Century order has been to force the universe to accommodate itself to us. And that, finally and above all, is what hasn't worked.

Lying, cheating and intimidation are not tactics that the universe responds to positively. Methods like these have a way of rebounding, as we are now finding out, coming back to haunt us as chemical dump explosions, as withered grass and malformed babies struggling to live on old dump sites, as nuclear wastes that nobody wants to give a home to, and as silent nuclear reactors filled with trapped radioactive gases.

Once more a mythic vision has become exhausted and discredited. Once more there are choruses of "never again." Once more there is the widespread conviction that there must be new ways and new thoughts.

The materials out of which the new vision of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries will be made are already on the scene. For more than twenty-five years, the fundamental ideas and metaphors of the next vision have been developing within the mid-Twentieth Century order—new mathematical ideas, new scientific ideas, new social and cultural ideas. Ever-increasing numbers of people are embracing these ideas. The ideas themselves are falling together and mutually reinforcing each other.

What have been odd and contrary thoughts and practices subscribed to and fostered by individuals and minorities will soon become the basic premises of a new vision held by the majority in our society. In 1980, we stand at the very last moment of the mid-Twentieth Century era, on the verge of an almost miraculously rapid transition.

Within SF literature, we are as close to the onset of the New Head Golden Age as, say, 1937 was to 1939. In 1937, the mid-Twentieth Century era and modern science fiction were still a dream. But it was already possible in 1937 for John W. Campbell to write a series of articles for Astounding on the planets of the solar system that in retrospect can be seen as a primer for modern science fiction to come.

In the same way today, although the new era has not yet arrived, it is possible to identify some of its pertinent elements and key ideas. In the mid-Twentieth Century, fact has been the prime index In the new organization of reality, the central concept will be pattern.

Pattern is the higher organization of fact into configurations that may be only partly visible and that may perform functions not predictable from a knowledge of individual bits and pieces. Once again. the elephant in the dark is a good simile. Those who touch it in various places know the facts of the matter—respectively perceiving a "fan," or a "rope," or a "pillar," or a "hose pipe"—but only one who knows the overall pattern can recognize these individual elements as being the parts of an elephant.

In a real sense, pattern was the central concept that the mid-Twentieth Century vision was straining after from the very beginning. The makers of modern science fiction—Campbell, Asimov, van Vogt and Heinlein, with their "laws" and "thought systems" and the like—were reaching ahead from the Forties toward this very moment. Like all good mythmakers, they were genuine seers.

What is about to change is a matter of emphasis. For the mid-Twentieth Century, fact was primary. Patterns, to the extent that they were recognized, were elaborations of fact. In the New Head Vision, however, systems are going to be recognized as more fundamental than separate individual facts.

This is an insight of ecology, which perceives the ecosystem as a whole as more basic than individual creatures or species. Along with genetics and computer science, ecology is one of the model sciences of the New Head vision, a source of metaphors and analogies in the same way that astronomy and physics served as the sources of modern science fiction.

The Old Head vision claimed to be objective and realistic and to stand apart from the facts that it so blithely manipulated. But contemporary physics
the science which has been more important than any other in the making of modern science fiction—now tells us that it is not possible to stand apart and manipulate fact. There simply is no such thing as pure dispassionate objectivity. This is a participatory universe. Every action we take not only has consequences, but involves us in the outcome of the processes that we affect.

There would be no way to pretend, for instance, that this essay is objective
in spite of the care we have taken to read widely, to quote aptly and to check our facts. As readers of SF, as fans of SF, as writers of SF—we are involved with SF. This essay, these various pieces, and this book as a whole are not isolated and autonomous. They are factors in an ongoing process, produced by that process, and intended to affect that process. They are elements in a pattern.

If ecology, genetics and computer science are models for the New Head vision, it is because they are sciences in which pattern is central. In computering, the program is more fundamental than either the information stored and processed or the machine on which the program is run. Similarly, in genetics, the individual is perceived not as an autonomous physical construct, but as the outward expression of a pattern encoded in the genes.

What is particularly interesting is that in both computering and genetics—as in the human brain—information is stored nonlinearly. If the facts in these systems were to be taken in order of storage, they would seem to be nonsense. It is the program itself, the overall pattern, that maintains and orders the facts, and not the facts that determine the system.

There is a story to the effect that once a man was headed home from the market with a piece of liver, intending to make himself păté, when a vulture swooped down on him and made off with the meat. The man shook his fist after the bird. "You may have the liver," he cried, "but I still have the recipe!"

There is an ever-increasing awareness of the presence of pattern, the nature of pattern, and the power of pattern in contemporary SF. We can find examples in the three galactic fantasy novels we have named—Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle, Joan Vinge's The Snow Queen, and our own Earth Magic.

In Lord Valentine's Castle, awareness of pattern is an important detail, but not the central matter. But early in the story, Valentine takes up with a troupe of jugglers and proves to have a natural aptitude for tossing balls around. So easy does it come and so well does he do in his first attempt, that he finds himself thrown into another headspace:
Time seemed divided into an infinity of brief strokes, and yet, paradoxically, he had no sense of sequence: the three balls seemed fixed in their places, one perpetually in mid-air, one in each of his hands, and the fact that at each moment a different ball held one of those positions was inconsequential. Each was all. Time was timeless. He did not move, he did not throw, he did not catch: he only observed the flow, and the flow was outside time and space.
In other current books, the perception of pattern is not a matter of momentary insight, or of a special state of consciousness, as here, but is the crucial fact whose revelation is the climax of the story. In The Snow Queen, for instance, we learn that sibyls, discounted and persecuted people who claim to have access to a source of higher knowledge, are in fact the remnants of an informational network established long ago by a now-fallen galactic empire.

That pattern can be treated as though it were a fact to be revealed as a kicker means that a book like The Snow Queen is still being written within the parameters of modern science fiction. The true implications of pattern taken in its own right are yet to be recognized.

And we as storytellers are as bound by this as Joan Vinge. In our Earth Magic, at a crucial turn the protagonist realizes that the countryside in which he was born and raised, the land he has always taken for granted as given and natural, has deliberately been altered and shaped in some former time:
Below, the pattern of land was as deliberately made as writing on the page of a book. But the pattern was visible only to one who could sense the power that the pattern gathered. Otherwise, it was invisible, unsuspect, unimaginable. And still, the power gathered in the land, as palpable as fear and hate, as imminent as catastrophe, awaiting direction, awaiting discharge.
At this moment, in stories like The Snow Queen and Earth Magic, it is only the half-obscured outlines of ancient broken patterns that are being perceived. We are not arrived at the time when the power of these patterns is fully harnessed, directed and discharged. And as for new patterns altogether with even greater power, they yet wait to be discovered.

However, even in contemporary stories that do not concentrate explicitly on the subject of pattern as pattern, the growing awareness of pattern may still be present, manifested in the form of art. Art—unbased on fact and a requisite number of decimal points—has been an area of expression generally excluded by the fact-minded techno-heads of the mid-Twentieth Century.

It is probably no accident at all that modern science fiction has never been a well-illustrated literature—not as Victorian fiction in general and scientifiction in particular were well-illustrated. Astounding, the magazine of modern science fiction, was notorious for having the poorest drawings of all the pulp magazines of the Golden Age. With the exception of usually inadequate and often inaccurate cover paintings, the vast majority of SF books published during the last forty years have had no illustrations at all.

In just the past several years. however, illustrated books have appeared in increasing numbers. John Varley's Titan, which we reviewed last year, was illustrated by Freff. Joan Vinge's The Snow Queen is illustrated by J. Michael Nally. Heinlein's "The Number of the Beast—" has over fifty illustrations by Richard Powers, known for his SF book covers of the Fifties. That this new wave of illustration is not yet fully taken seriously by those who have commissioned it can be seen in the fact that the publishers of these three books have not thought it necessary to send copies of the illustrations to reviewers along with advance copies of the text.

There is one exception to this among the new SF books we have gathered. In Alfred Bester's Golem100, illustration is not just a dispensable ornament to the novel, but an integral part of it. In Golem100, trips to the psychic Infraworld are represented by clutches of Jack Gaughan drawings—perhaps the most impressive work he has ever done, as well as by dialog.

Bester says:
I have tried to invent a brand-new style for myself. I have tried to write a story in a visual, narrative style where the visuals lock in with the text. The text doesn't mean anything unless you see the visuals, and they don't mean anything unless you see the text.
Perhaps even more significant than this trend toward the incorporation of illustration in SF are all the many new stories that concern themselves with music and dance. The fulfillment of an unfinished opera is a central motif in Charles Harness's The Catalyst. In Bester's Golem100, it is a musical chant that summons the demonic being from the Infraworld. In Vinge's The Snow Queen, it is use of music that enables a character to survive a crucial ordeal. In Spider and Jeanne Robinson's Stardance, a collaboration between a writer and his dancer wife, there is dance in outer space and dance as a means of communication with aliens.

Music is coming to be recognized as a transcendent force. It may be taken as representative of the growing power of pattern in exactly the same way that the super-science wielded in the Thirties' scientifiction of E. F. Smith and the young John W. Campbell was a foretaste of the power of fact to come.

The purest expression of this new music of power is to be seen in the most imaginative and romantic current SF—those galactic fantasy stories and post-disaster fictions that have freed themselves from the domination of fact and technology through the suffering of catastrophe. In one after another of these stories, there is a minstrel-hero—a singer, a piper, a guitarist whose power derives from his music.

In Richard Cowper's The Road to Corlay, for instance, a piper's music renders enemies senseless. In Orson Scott Card's Songmaster, a minstrel's song directed against a tyrant drives the man mad and causes him to rip his own guts out with his bare hands. In Arsen Darnay's The Karma Affair, a consciousness holon passes through a significant series of reincarnations—first it is a Nazi villain, a representative of Victorian superiority; then it is a fact-minded American engineer in the 1970's; later yet, it is a scavenger of artifacts from our crashed-out civilization; finally, this holon is reborn as a power-minstrel who can send a general and his army into flight with the magic of his finger-picking.

This multiple appearance of the same theme is a synchronicity for you! And it is a sign of change. Modern science fiction was never like this. In a modern science fiction story like Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll," a competent man might defeat a bad guy by knowing and stating the cold inescapable fact of his deficient I.Q. score. But never ever would a Heinlein character be a minstrel who withers the unworthy with the cosmic power of song.

We should point out that for all their New Head materials, these contemporary SF stories are still being written within the parameters of the mid-Twentieth Century vision. If 1980 is the equivalent of 1937 in the last cycle, we may note that it was in 1937 that the last major works of Victorian SF were published. John W. Campbell wrote two Don A. Stuart stories, including the highly important "Forgetfulness." E. E. Smith's novel Galactic Patrol—the very peak and summation of Thirties' scientifiction—was serialized in Astounding. And Olaf Stapledon published his mythic overview of post-human and non-human development, Star Maker.

All of these works contained materials vital to the making of modern science fiction—but these crucial stories themselves were not modern science fiction. They were written within the confines and assumptions of the Victorian vision.

In exactly the same way, the contemporary novels we have been reading while stuck away in the Critics Lounge contain metaphors and materials that will be central to the coming form of SF, but themselves are still written within the frame of modern science fiction. Many of these novels regard Old Head methods and their consequences with deep dismay, but even so the mid-Twentieth Century order of value is still honored as basic, fundamental, the way things must be. Even as they expect to be bitten by them, these stories are spellbound by the old attitudes.

It is this that accounts for all the current stories of polluted futures and technologically-induced eco-disaster. At exactly the same moment that they appear to be rejecting it, these novels are hung up on the mid-Twentieth Century vision. It is as though until the vision changes, these writers must continue to believe that the red asterisks and roast penguin they extrapolate from the conditions of the present must inevitably be the facts of the future.

It is no accident at all that so many contemporary SF novels should fake successful endings, or force endings, or fall into fragments, or turn into snake's-hands. For exactly as long as the old commitments continue, they will be helpless to do otherwise.

At the same time, however, even while this is true, in contemporary SF the New Head elements become ever more visible. There is a conspicuous drift toward the new matter and attitudes. If there is a single source of energy and insight from which all innovative writers of SF must draw, producing synchronicities like all the current power-minstrels it is New Head ideas that this source is broadcasting now.

We can see the movement toward the New Head clearly illustrated in a new novel by Michael Bishop. Bishop's first novel, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, was published in 1975. Now, five years and half-a-dozen books later, Bishop has rewritten the novel completely and issued it again under the title Eyes of Fire.

The differences between the two books are instructive. Even though they have nearly the same title and use the very same Szafran cover illustration they are not at all the same book. The bones of the two stories are the same—an essentially Old Head situation of duplicity, betrayal and disaster. But the flesh is different. The pattern is the same, the facts have changed.

In Eyes of Fire, narrative voice is altered from first person to third. In all but a few places, the language of the book is completely new. Names of planets are different. Cultures and customs are different. Character names, ages, sexes, relationships and motivations have all been changed.

The Old Head situation that is shared by the two books is deeply important to Bishop. Even as he despises it, Bishop is committed to the deceitfulness of his characters. Even as he finds it loathsome, he is wedded to the awful inevitability of his disintegrating situation. Bishop desires the disaster to occur. Only if it happens can he serve us his true dish, the savory well-seasoned bitterness of innocence deliberately betrayed.

Nonetheless, essentially (anti-) Old Head as both books are, the sum of changes from A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire to Eyes of Fire is all in the direction of the New Head. We might note two changes in particular—the recognition of the female side of humanity, and the introduction of the theme of the clone.

In the Seventies, large numbers of new female writers of SF arrived on the scene. It has been these writers who have led in the writing of galactic fantasy, and in the amalgamation of formerly separate fantasy and modern science fiction symbology.

That's new. Modern science fiction, with its facts, its decimal points, its machines and its contests of dominance, has been a man's game. Women and their thoughts and values could safely be ignored as unfactual, and therefore not completely real.

Women, of course, were not all that was excluded by modern science fiction. So were non-rational states of mind, like dreams. So were non-material states of being, like astral bodies. So were art of all sorts, unorthodox sexual practices and relationships, and superior aliens.

Now, however, as fact gives way to pattern, all these formerly excluded materials are appearing in SF stories. The sign on the SF clubhouse door that for forty years has said, "Rational Heterosexual Engineers with Muddy Boots Only," is coming down. And Eyes of Fire is a measure of that.

A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire was published only five years ago. It was dedicated to the author's mother. But so thoroughly a modern science fiction novel was it that there were no female characters of any kind in the story. Two different planets and characters from four separate cultures were involved in A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire—but women and the female side of nature went completely unrepresented.

Michael Bishop has labored to alter that in Eyes of Fire. Now, in the new book, the society of one planet has become female-dominated, ruled by a Liege Mistress. And the entire population of the second planet, defined as crystalline-eyed but otherwise ordinary human beings in A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, has been changed in anatomy and physiology. In Eyes of Fire, the crystalline eyes remain, but the people have become hermaphroditic beings not unlike the populace of the planet Winter in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.

Where once on this planet all the visible characters were male, and we were given a dominant society and a dissident community whose destruction was the central tragedy, in Eyes of Fire, this has been reconceived. The dominant culture is now presented as technology-minded and as hermaphro-male by choice. And the breakaway culture that is destroyed is now given as ecological in orientation and hermaphro-femme.

By these changes, Bishop not only brings female notes into his formerly all-male story, but opens the door to new, experimental sexual unorthodoxy. There is sexual unorthodoxy involved as well in the other major alteration Bishop has made in Eyes of Fire, the introduction of the theme of the clone.

In A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, the narrator, Gunnar Balduin. is an ordinary human being who happens to have a strange, over-intense relationship with his untrustworthy and domineering older brother. In Eyes of Fire, the protagonist, now named Seth Latimer. and his older sib are given as "isohets," two clones of different age budded from the same isosire. Not only are Seth and his older isohet bound together by their shared gene pattern, but by a homosexual predator/prey relationship as well.

Does this constitute incest, or is it merely masturbation? This is only one question among a great number raised by the coming of clones.

Clones are to the present moment what robots were to the Age of Technology. Clones are pure pattern in just the same way that robots, buckets of bolts, were assemblages of fact. The mid-Twentieth Century had to come to terms with the robot, our mechanical image. Modern science fiction had to discover rules for the robot to follow and social roles for it to perform.

In the same way, the coming period is going to have to resolve the problems raised by the existence of clones, organic beings made in the same pattern as ourselves: our three-dimensional mirrors. How should we relate to our clones? What do an isosire and an isohet owe each other? If a man dies, which relative inherits his estate—his child or his clone? What are the rights of a clone, and what are its duties?

His newly-introduced clone theme is highly important to Michael Bishop. The title of his book, as it appears on the cover page of the manuscript, is not Eyes of Fire, but rather The Isohet. And any number of times in Eyes of Fire, he repeats the thought: "We are all imperfect iso-hets of the same perfect progenitor."

Notice if you will that this perception, this appreciation of the universality of pattern, applies not merely to known clones like Seth Latimer. It is all of us who are given to be imperfect copies of the same perfect pattern.

With this in mind, it is possible to perceive Eyes of Fire as something more and something other than a mere redrafting of A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, The two books themselves are isohets. One can wonder if someday Bishop will present the same situation yet again in a third book, resolve the problem, and complete an isotrilogy?

As things are, neither of the two existing books is satisfactorily resolved, Both are content to be indictments. A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire charges Old Head thinking with being guilty of violence and duplicity. The effect of the changes in Eyes of Fire is to make the charges more specific. Now the crimes that the Old Head is given as being guilty of are offenses against the New Head—the corruption and abuse of an innocent young clone, and the destruction of a mystical, ecological community of hermaphro-femmes.

If Bishop does write a third version of this story within the context of the next period, will the nature of the inhabitants of the second planet be altered yet again? Perhaps the one feature of A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire and Eyes of Fire that ties them most strongly to modern science fiction and the mid-Twentieth Century vision is the fact that there are no alien beings in either book. As much as Asimov's Foundation stories, Bishop's two variant novels are set in a humans-only galaxy.

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