Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Gradisil, SF, and Sacred Hunger
A few weeks ago I decided it was time to read a novel by our own Adam Roberts. So I went over to his website, looked around a bit, and decided to order his latest, Gradisil. It arrived in due course and, in due course, I read it and decided to engage Adam on it right here at The Valve.
But how to do that? It would be easy enough to write a review, said I to myself, but that would put Adam in a rhetorically awkward situation no matter how the review came out. So I opted for a different approach, and emailed him about it.
Here’s what I’m doing. First I’m going to say a little about the book, quoting from a description Adam’s posted at his web site. Then I’m going to write him a letter, here in public. I rather like the idea of addressing my remarks directly to him as opposed to some generalized Other. It affords us a bid of freedom. Maybe we can go exploring.
Others should feel free to join in the conversation.
Gradisil, the book
Adam describes his basic intentions thus:
I wanted to write a ‘space opera’ in the Heinlein or Stephen Baxter mode, inflected through my particular slant on these things. I wanted to write a fairly expansive book, the background-narrative of which would be the birth of a nation, the first century or so of the colonisation of space. I wanted to model this on the birth of actual nations, rather than on some purely notional ‘shipload of colonists uploaded into a new place’. How have new countries actually been populated in Earth’s history? They’ve been populated bottom-up, not top-down: by ordinary people, usually poor people, shipping themselves into the country, displacing the aboriginal peoples (often violently), taking the land themselves. I don’t know any SF novels that dramatise that process.
And so it is, a space opera, spanning four generations. The central figure, Gradisil, is in the third generation. She’s a political genius who forges the Uplands into (something rather like) a nation. She’s single-minded, manipulative, and neglects her family.
The Uplands? you ask? By the middle of this century it had become possible for private individuals not only to fly into earth orbit, but to set up residence there. [This due to a new electromagnetic mode of propulsion, which Adam describes in brief, without making a big deal of it. It’s not that kind of SF book.] While not cheap, it wasn’t so outrageously expensive that one had to be a Richard Branson or a Paul Allen to be able to pay the freight. With time, daring, and a bit of disposable cash, tens, then hundreds, and even thousands of people had established residence - some of them 24/7 365 - in earth orbit. This zone of habitation became known as the Uplands.
Nor does the space-opera intention preclude a touch of post-modern meta-tude. One of the narrators tells us that her part of the narrative has been vetted by lawyers - so just how reliable can that narrative be? And there’s the slightly odd, but transparent spellings (e.g. “bak” for “back”), and the ligature binding “ng” into a single character. You can neither forget that this story is inscribed in language nor can you get lost in the intricacies of such inscription.
I’ve enjoyed Gradisil quite a bit. It was a good read. I’m not sure what “high-concept SF” is, but if you’re its king - I’m alluding to the blurb on the front cover of the paperback - then more power to you.
But it’s not so much a concept as a feeling that engaged me. I have no idea how to parse it as between your story and my life, but within 50 pages you took me to a feeling I had several years ago in Florida. I’d been working a trade show and decided to bag the last day and head over to Kennedy Space Center. I purchased one of the standard tours and saw some launch pads, gantry towers, control rooms, and a Saturn V suspended from the ceiling of a long, low building. The physical scale was humbling, but it was more than that. Big is big, but this earth and these buildings birthed journeys that took us to the Moon. That sacred energy was in this soil and these structures.
That’s where you took me, to that . . . what would you call it? Feeling? Psychic zone? Station of the soul? No matter. And it wasn’t through gee-whiz techno-stuff, but through desire. The desire of Miklos Gyeroffy to get OUT THERE, followed by his daughter Klara, then Gradisil her daughter. But then Gradisil’s two sons . . . let’s leave them ‘til later.
This got me to thinking about the relationship between fiction - such as Gradisil - and reality, men landing on the moon. In the case of SF there are at least two clichés available. One is that it happened in SF first and the other is that, though SF may be set in the future, it’s always about the present. These clichés aren’t exactly compatible, but let that pass. Let’s enter the zone of the first cliché.
As I’m sure you know better than I do, Arthur C. Clarke didn’t just write science fiction; he actively advocated space exploration. He can’t have been the only SF writer to do so back in the 50s and later, not to mention readers and fans. When Walt Disney got on TV he did at three programs of space advocacy - recently released on DVD, btw - and I spent hours and hours drawing space ships and robots modeled on those I saw in those programs, as well as in SF movies (e.g. Forbidden Planet). Thousands of kids must have done the same. Thus when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, we were ready. We may only have been kids, but we understood the significance of that event through the comics, books, TV programs, and movies we’d eagerly consumed.
For our elders, of course, Sputnik was also yet another reason to be concerned about the missile-gap and Russian technology and such things. And that concern brought NASA into existence in 1958, basically through “re-purposing” an existing agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Now, I rather imagine that this enormously expensive business of sending live human beings to the moon - the mission for which NASA was created - wouldn’t have gotten through Congress without a desire to whip the Russians. So, I’m not going to argue that the manned space program was entirely motivated by sacred hunger. But I don’t think it would even have been conceived and imagined without that sacred hunger as articulated in SF novels, commix, TV, and movies. Sacred hunger brought the objective to view, and nationalistic competition paid the bills.
How many of those early NASA engineers and administrators and flyboys read SF? I don’t know. But in 1981 I spent a summer consulting with NASA on their computer programs and SF was in the air, and in peoples’ hands. I learned that NASA had even hired an SF writer or two as consultants on “blue sky” planning projects.
By that time, however, NASA was having morale problems. The Apollo program had been over for a decade and the Shuttle program just didn’t have comparable imaginative appeal. An agency that had been created to put a man on the moon was bored to death with the job of lifting high-tech freight into low-earth orbit. Many of NASA’s best people were leaving.
And, in a way, that’s the ambiance we find at the beginning of Gradisil. NASA’s lost it, and it’s up to others to feed the sacred hunger. In your book it’s about a new propulsion technology, something other than rockets. We don’t have such technology now, but nonetheless the hunger has arguably shifted to the private sector, with Paul Allen funding Burt Rutan’s construction of Space Ship One and Richard Branson selling seats into space at $200K each.
I can’t imagine any of this without SF. I’m not arguing any direct causation. I don’t know what kind of causation I’m arguing for, but it’s there.
But, tell me, when did SF writers start putting women in the driver’s seat?
What a small world. I’ve been browsing through and debating whether or not to buy “On” for a while now. I didn’t realize this site’s Adam Roberts was the very same one! Cool
I commented on this yesterday, but the Valve ate it. But in short, Adam’s pieces seem to spark high-concept responses (linking to mine above, which Scott linked to). And the “sacred hunger” that SF was highly influential in promulgating seems to me to be crashing and burning with the SF that spawned it; the enthusiast of space today is stereotypically an Internet libertarian, a dot-com bubble billionaire who inherited his money from the market, someone who still really likes 50s SF. Near-Earth hard-ish SF is now dominated by people like Sterling or Robinson, and their relationship to it is a lot more troubled.
Rich, I don’t follow SF closely enough to have an informed opinion on the current state of that “sacred hunger” in SF. I’m wondering whether or not its one of those cycles, of which there seem to be many.
The “sacred hunger” for space has been politicized, basically. There’s now what I’d guess would be a pretty significant correlation between hungering for space and global climate change denial, say. It’s played out explicitly in Robinson’s Mars series: what’s the first thing to happen when people reach Mars? An ecological conflict. The people who now are most enthusiatic about space have generally replaced interest in science with ideological commitment to something like Heinlein’s politics.
This is not true of Adam Roberts, obviously, which is why I assume that the Heinleinian aspects of _Gradisil_ (I haven’t read it) are highly selective.
Selective is the word, Rich, yes. You’re quite right that I share almost none of Heinlein’s political views. Except his idea that voting booths should have the capacity to release lethal gas should the person trying to vote fail a government-set IQ test. That’s an excellent idea.
As I say in my reply post it’s a bit fruitless discussing the specifics of the novel since only Bill, me and my agent have read it; but the big event in the book’s central section is a war between the Uplands and the USA, the latter wanting to tax the former, the former disinclined to be taxed. I discovered an almost perverse satisfaction, writing this section, in balancing it as carefully as I could, such that were Heinlein to read it in the Great Military Academy in the Sky he really couldn’t be sure whether the Uplands were being presented as a nascent USA caught up in a 1776-in-space, or as a futuristic North-Vietnam, or something like that. (Not that I want to give the ending away. Not that the war ends the way you expect it. Say instead: a Velvet-Revolution-style Czechoslovakia-in-space, or a Confederate States of America type thingie).
Rich—I agree with you about the current politicization of space. The Mars thing was a grand distraction. But the US space program was politicized from the start. Sure, for the good of mankind and the greater glory, but, above all, before and better than the Russians.
Adam—I rather liked the way you handled the politics. For the USA wasn’t merely the USA, but USAJapan, and that entity was in opposition to the EU. The southern hemisphere, though, didn’t figure in things at all.
Bill, maybe “the politization of space” isn’t the best way to put it. Space, as you say, was always politicized. What I’m talking about is the politicization of the *hunger* for space. It’s gone from “We will show what a great nation we are, and beat the Russians” (not much in there about space, really) to “I love space because I’m a free-thinking libertarian”. There’s not really that much about actual space in the second one either, it’s space as proxy for “If only there was a way to get away from your nanny state”. That’s a large part of what Heinlein was about. The space that exists inside an empty, just-eaten bag of Cheetos.