Eight Random Thoughts
This is the speech I put together for the Guest of Honour hour at Ad Astra 23, held over the April 2-4 weekend in 2004. I spent a week wondering what I could do that would possibly fill the better part of sixty minutes. My wife Sharry said, "Just write down the next six or eight thoughts that come into your head – give them five minutes each, and you’re done." Excellent idea. This was the result.
1. People are collectively brilliant and individually stupid.
I'll give you one concrete example. A TV commercial.
I don't know if you've seen this one. A car ad. I forget which car. Some chunky 4-wheel-drive kind of thing, for the guy who drives it every day from Mississauga to Leaside but likes to know he can cut through heavy swampland should the need arise. As the ad begins we see the car reduced to maybe four inches high, frolicking the snowy high-country with a bunch of wild rabbits. It's dealing with the snow pretty good but right away you're thinking, geeze, rabbits. Then a cougar creeps up on this bucolic scene. A cougar is bound to be bad news for a four-inch-high car, even a four-inch-high car with rear-window wipers and sonorities that look like they could peel the hair off a coconut. The rabbits scatter, but the cougar's eyes are fixed on that four-inch automobile. I don't know why. Probably the same reason your cat likes to chase your shoelaces -- sheer perversity and bad dietary decisions.
The cougar attacks. But the car is too fast for it. The cougar does his best to express a new land-speed record, but that little shoebox-sized car is pulling out in front, turning corners where the cougar can't, shooting out sprays of snow over this picturesque mountain valley where miniature Jeeps and Volvos interact with the wildlife in novel ways. Finally, the frustrated and breathless cougar gives up the chase. End of sixty-second ad.
Okay. Now, to see this as "brilliant" you have to take a step back and squint. But let's consider the authentic genius involved here. Layers and layers of collaborative human ingenuity are involved in this television ad. Some of it is embedded in the word "television" -- not just the invention itself, but the countless elaborations and refinements of video technology over the last sixty years. Total up the man-hours necessary to bring even a cheap conventional color TV into your home, and the result, I suggest, would be absolutely staggering. And that work in turn rests on an absolutely colossal body of prior knowledge, all of it generated piece-by-piece and preserved and transmitted over generations. The ad itself is a cultural act dispersed over yet more years and generations of human imagination: that car would likely not be frolicking with rabbits at all if a body of French surrealists had not made us at home with incongruous images combined in novel ways, and we wouldn't see it with such tremendous false clarity if not for the work of filmmakers from George Melies to Ray Harryhausen to Steven Spielberg.
And that's only the beginning. The point is, while the ad may seem to be (and in some sense was) some advertising guy's singular inspiration, the ad as an artifact is the work of literally millions of human beings. It can never be a desert island technology. One or two people can't build it, even if they're as smart as the Professor and as rich as Thurston Howell III. It may, in fact, require a quietly and unconsciously collaborating population of two or three billion living human beings -- and the past contribution of millions more -- before such a cultural artifact can exist, in the same way an apple tree has to reach a certain size and maturity before it can produce fruit.
So even something as inherently humble as an automobile commercial stands as striking evidence that we, as a species, have an absolute genius for collaboration. Even without conscious intent -- and after all, of all the billions of people necessary to produce that ad, only a handful of them actually wanted it to exist -- we can still create something in which our collective ingenuity is embedded and embodied.
We are collectively brilliant.
So why do I think we're individually stupid? Because the same ad has a tag-line running at the bottom of the screen that says, "DO NOT ATTEMPT."
2. Science fiction has always hovered on the verge of literary respectability but has never achieved it, and won't in the near future.
To which I would add: And it doesn't matter.
Much ink has been spilled on the subject of science fiction's respectability. The consensus is, we don't have it but we come close. "Respectability," in all these discussions, is never defined, but seems to concern the way works of SF are received by the keepers of what you might call "the canon" of contemporary literature -- university English departments in North America and Europe, or more broadly the network of newspapers, magazines, journals and web sites that serve as cultural gatekeepers. It isn't that SF isn't discussed in these quarters, but that the discussion tends to be held at arm's length. "Popular culture" is a phrase you hear -- "popular" implying "vulgar" or "common," "culture" denoting an unauthorized creative product which is nevertheless difficult to ignore.
Academia, after all, has an appetite and must be fed. Jargon is made to be used, and tenure won't secure itself. Or we might say: The critical discourse surrounding fictive objects labeled "science fiction" is shaped by the threshold demands of, and potential or imagined career trajectories in, designated cultural filter institutions.
I've been reading academic journals.
I don't want to make this an anti-academic rant. I know and like several people who work in SF studies. They often have interesting, even profound things to say about science fiction. I'm also delighted that university presses have done us the great favor of bringing back into print lost or obscure works of early SF -- Caesar's Column, or Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, or any number of other recently exhumed titles.
Nevertheless, I recently opened a copy of Science Fiction Studies at random and dropped my finger on this paragraph from Livia Monnet's essay, "A-Life and the Uncanny in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." Quote:
"Some seventy percent of the unnerving sensation produced by a-life organisms is rhetorical (via rhetorics of localization and ubiquity, and of a-life's 'genuine life' or aliveness). Another twenty percent emerges from absence or abduction (in the disappearance of life's sovereignty and substitution of the life effect for real life; the abductive mode of reasoning allowing for an encounter with a missing term that is yet to come, such as 'life as it could be'). Finally, ten percent of a-life's uncanniness is a-corporeal (the enmeshing of human bodies, affects, and ecology with the evolution of a-life creatures.)"
I read that and thought, "Dang if it doesn't add up to exactly 100%!"
My own take on it is that SF was sidelined from general respectability by an accident of literary history. The broad, mainstream trajectory of literature from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth has been a movement toward realism. Science fiction is special not because it bucks this trend but because it's an unacknowledged product of it -- the bastard child of literary realism and the scientific worldview.
Look for instance at H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, which I consider the fundamental text of modern SF -- i.e., the first widely-read novel that a modern reader would unhesitatingly identify as science fiction. The elements Wells puts together -- the journey through time, the elfin Eloi, the goblin-like Morlocks -- must have looked to contemporary critics like the stuff of purest retrograde fantasy. But his intentions are ruthlessly realistic. In The Time Machine, Wells is imaginatively inhabiting the world revealed by nineteenth-century science, the same radically godless, Darwinian/Huxleyan vision that made Victorians so uncomfortable. Wells as a young man was fascinated with this cutting edge science, the fearful and simultaneously exciting vision of an Earth far older and more mutable than contemporary clergymen wished to admit, an Earth once inhabited by creatures so deliciously strange that their fossilized remains have been mistaken for the bones of dragons, an Earth on which, in the most central Darwinian heresy, humanity itself, the thing we are, appears not as a divine gift but as an emergent property in a species of ape, a world in which the fundamental meaning of the word humanity has changed and will undoubtedly change in the future.
Wells dispatches his "chronic argonaut," in other words, into the heart of a brand new and radically different vision of humanity's place in the universe. The Eloi are not elves. The Morlocks are not goblins. The Eloi and the Morlocks are our children's children's children. Not because the author is being playful but because the author is telling a core truth about the way things really are.
So -- is this literary realism or is it backward-looking fantasy? Part of the emergent literary mainstream, or a reconfigured fairy tale? Do we swallow it or spit it out?
Many years ago, in one of those conversations that arise in the late hours of fannish excess, in some battered Boskone motel room or other, I wondered aloud to a friend of mine how a glass of Manishevitz would look to a bacterium. Would the sugar content, bacterium heaven, compensate for the alcohol, bacterium hell? How would a bacterial food critic describe it?
My friend said, "Like a steak covered in shit, I guess."
Which neatly describes, I think, the current place of SF in the discourse of literary respectability.
3. Question posed by a church billboard in rural Alberta: "Are we living in the last days?"
Headline in a local entertainment paper: "Scooby-Doo Dethrones Christ at Box Office."
4. The best sports have the best sounds.
I should add that I'm no expert on sports. I was the kid who got picked last for school teams -- not because I was a nerdish weakling, though perhaps that figured into it too, but because I was usually hiding under the bleachers with a copy of Adventures in Time and Space. From that vantage point you don't see much of the game. But you can hear it.
Since then I've done a lot of sports research -- everything, in fact, short of actually playing any of these games, which would have involved a tedious process of figuring out the rules, not to mention a distasteful amount of physical exercise -- and I've reached the conclusion that baseball and hockey are the best sports.
Baseball and hockey are seasonal metaphors, and you can hear it in the noise they make. Baseball, summer, the occasional crack of the bat, like somebody chopping wood but not working too hard at it, the long lemonade breaks implied in the murmur of the crowd; a narcotic, almost narcoleptic sport, interrupted by action the way an afternoon nap is interrupted by fragmentary dreams. Even the tension in the game is humid, muffled -- the pitcher glaring from the mound like a bored delinquent on a hot street in July, debating whether to throw hard inside and maybe send the guy to first with a bruised rib but settling for another lazy curveball, a fly out to centerfield.
Hockey, on the other hand, is three rounds of winter night incarnate, charged with the spiritual desperation of enforced isolation at thirty below zero, cabin fever armed and dangerous. It doesn't stand still because it can't; it would freeze in place. Sticks slap on ice like a prisoner beating at a barred window; fights break out -- of course they do. The rage is diverted, representational. It's not always pretty, but it's easily understood.
Lesser sports have less evocative soundtracks. Basketball, for instance, is a sport for masochists, at least when it's played indoors. Maybe the game itself isn't to blame; maybe the problem is chemical -- the varnished floor, the rubber soles, some toxic combination of polyurethane and polypropylene and friction. But if you just can't get enough high-pitched squealing, take your fingernails off that chalkboard, son, and put on your Nikes: Every point on the scoreboard is a nail through your tympanic membrane, guaranteed. And it's a high-scoring game.
(I say this even though, as we all know, basketball was invented in Canada, where it was originally played with peach baskets, leather moccasins, and the heads of our vanquished enemies.)
Which brings us to NFL football, the American id, the institutional footlocker in which a nation's suppressed homoeroticism is hoarded up and sealed away. The most basic sound of the game is the sound of men in intimate contact, not combat, exactly, but a deeply tensioned physical engagement; the sound of grunting and heavy breathing carefully embroidered with emblems of conventional masculinity: hypereroticized cheerleaders, random gestures of flag-waving patriotism, drunken vomiting, and the occasional celebratory overflight of stealth fighters or predator drones. Little wonder, then, that the Superbowl duet between Janet Jackson and Jason Timberlake caused such an uproar. The problem, I suspect, wasn't the momentary exposure of a breast, to which so much press time was devoted. As interesting as it was to watch newscasters struggle to choose between euphemisms -- the jaunty, irreverent "boob," the clinically distanced "mammary gland," the dismissive "knocker," the grim and Protestant "chest area" -- what was more deeply troubling was the threatened intrusion of contemporary sexual images and sounds, improperly framed and sanitized, into the sacred stands and locker rooms of Reliant Stadium. There's no telling where this could lead, but one imagines a calamitous collapse of reassuring archetypes into the murky floodwaters of postmodern cultural chaos: the Green Bay Packers vs. the New York Metrosexuals, a half-time tribute to Ellen Degeneres, color commentary by Al Franken. Clearly, a line had to be drawn.
None of this explains the sport of curling.
Even the sounds associated with curling -- something like the end-of-shift cleanup at a tuna packing factory -- are enigmatic. I have nothing to say about curling except to observe that, like the equally gnomic sport of golf, it originated in Scotland. The Scots, apparently, have embarked on some avant-garde project to push the frontiers of what can plausibly be called a "sport" -- they are to athletics what Frank Gehry is to architecture, what James Joyce is to English literature, and what Pablo Picasso is to the concept of bilateral symmetry.
5. This just in.
Citing an unstable political climate, proven stockpiles of chemical and nuclear weapons, a rigidly government-controlled media, and the need to confront emerging threats in a timely fashion, President George Bush announced today that the United States has launched a full-scale invasion of the United States.
6. If the universe seems strange, maybe it is.
There was a brief time in the sixties and seventies when it looked like the universe wasn't living up to our stfnal expectations. That was when the first Mariner and Viking images of Mars showed what looked like a cratered, patently lifeless planet; when the moon landings began to seem repetitious and finally ended altogether; when the entire much-elaborated SF construction of the solar system as a kind of South Pacific in the sky, which we would one day visit in our spacefaring equivalent of tramp steamers, playing Somerset Maugham to the rock people or the cockroach people, became finally and completely insupportable.
So we turned inward and read Malzberg and Russ for realism or Tolkein and his imitators for romance. Or we wrote fantasy that felt like SF, or SF that felt like fantasy. Or we ignored the solar system and focused on the stars, which were so far away that our rock people, now slightly shopworn, could be safely relocated, like the natives of Bikini Atoll back when it was considered okay to blow up tropical islands with thermonuclear weapons. We carried on, in other words. But something important had happened even if we tried to ignore it. One of our central metaphors had been gutted. We had been proved wrong. The universe was, in at least one respect, less interesting, disappointingly less strange, than we had believed it to be.
Or so it seemed.
Lately it begins to look like we've been vindicated.
You only have to look around for evidence, but I'll cite one obvious example: Opportunity, the second of the two rovers currently operating on Mars. I'm assuming most of you heard the big news last month, the confirmation that Opportunity had landed in what scientists believe to be the dry bed of an ancient, acidic sea. That bare fact alone is deeply exciting, and there's more to come -- just last week the European Mars orbiter detected traces of methane in the atmosphere, a possible signature of remnant life. Down under the surface, down where it's dark and icy, something might be growing.
I think we've been vindicated. I think we're entitled to say, "I told you so." When I was ten years old I imbibed from science fiction the archetypal image of the dry Martian oceans, lonely and vast and mysterious. Now I'm fifty years old, and I've seen those empty Martian seas. They stretch away to a hazy horizon under a tangerine-colored sky, and they're covered with millions of tiny spherules of hematite, and they are just about exactly as windswept, lonely, vast and mysterious as we ever imagined them to be.
In other words, we nailed it.
We nailed it, ladies and gentlemen, it because we knew.
Let me be absolutely clear about this. I don't mean that we predicted what Opportunity found on Mars. Science fiction isn't about making predictions. What's been vindicated here is our intuition about the strangeness of the universe.
I'm not just talking about space travel. Look at cosmology. Take a gander at string theory, where people talk routinely about multiple dimensions. Consider the rapidly-exanding inventory of known extrasolar planets. Think about the recent Hubble images of nascent, crudely-formed galaxies nearly as old as the universe itself. Ponder the biological possibility that, if there is bacterial life on Mars, we might be related to it, even descended from it.
It all begins to look non-coincidental. What does it mean, I wonder, that the human brain, presumably designed by evolution to make sense of its environment in order to exploit it more effectively, experiences the universe as increasingly strange the more we comprehend it? Think about that: the Newtonian worldview was displaced by the much less intuitive Einsteinian worldview, which is being displaced in turn by the Lewis Carrol world of strings, branes, and multiple dimensions. Each set of ideas explains the world more completely than the previous, but each one appears radically more peculiar, more uncanny. The only conclusion I can draw is that world really is in some profound sense strange. Step outside of your daily existence, people, even for a minute, and you're in deepest Oz. Which means you've always been there. You're there now.
Aldous Huxley wrote a Utopian novel called Island, which some of you may have read. One of the features of his Utopia was that the island's parrots had all been trained to say "Here and now!" "Here and now," they would screech, reminding any Utopian backsliders to focus on the moment.
In real life, I suspect this would only result in a dramatic spike in the sales of shotguns; but it occurred to me that science fiction writers are doing something similar, that our most fundamental purpose is to every once in a while tap you on the shoulder and say, "Look how absolutely fuckin' strange the world is!" If that basic intuition is wrong, then we might as well have been writing cookbooks or greeting card copy. But it isn't wrong. And I think that's good news for science fiction as a viable, relevant literature, no matter what happens in the publishing industry over the next few years.
7. It's always a good idea to flatter your audience.
If the people in this room ruled the world, wouldn't it be a much better place than it is right now? Because, damn, we're smart! And finally,
8. Brevity is the soul of wit.