Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Gradisil, SF, and Sacred Hunger

Since I've begun re=thinking space travel I think it's time to dust off this old review of Adam Roberts' Gradisil. I published it in The Valve on July 11, 2006 and Adam replied on July 13. The interesting thing about Adam's reply is that he argued, contra a statement in my review, that "SF killed the space race, I fear."

There's some interesting discussion to both posts. I've appended one of my comments – the major one – to Adam's reply.
* * * * *

A few weeks ago I decided it was time to a novel by our own Adam Roberts. So I went over to his website, looked around a bit, a 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 on 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 rather than to some generalized Other.

Others should feel free to join in the conversation.

Gradisil, the book

Adam described 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. We learn that at least 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.

* * * * *

Dear Adam,

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, and 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 are 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 least) three programs of space advocacy – recently released on DVD, btw – and I spent hours and hours drawing space ships 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 been 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 the motivating context of competition with the Russians. So, I’m not going to argue that the manned space program was 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 even learned that NASA had 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 the imaginative flame. 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 their 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 that sacred hunger. In your book it’s about a new propulsion technology, something other than rockets. We don’t have such technology now, but 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 earth orbit at £155,000 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?

Regards,

Bill B

* * * * *

My reply to Adam's reply:

Dear Adam,

As I see it, you're offereing two, maybe three with at bit of interpretive extension, ideas about the demise of . . . the space race, the sacred hunger?

You say
. . . once upon a time the road to space lay all before us like a dream of dawn.  We were going to have hotels on the moon and trips to Pluto by the twenty-first century; instead of which we have nuclear piles the size of tumble-driers upon which microprocessors the size of scrabble-tiles fly silently and coldly past the outer planets.  And nothing else. 
Let me continue this thought rather differently than you did. Perhaps the space race was best left as a grand goal. Once the goal has been achieved, well, so much for that. Now what? So that's one notion, whether or not you'd assent to it is another matter but I'm tossing it into the ring for sake of discussion.

Coming toward the end of your piece you suggest that it's the money. It's just so bloody expensive. If manned spaceflight were significantly cheaper, there'd be more of it. I suspect that's so.

I don't know how the cost of sending Columbus off to the Indies compares with the cost of putting Neil Armstrong on the moon, but both were expensive enterprises requiring state sponsorship. In the case of Columbus, whatever the prospect in terms of adventure, knowledge, and a sense of Spain's (and Europe's) place in the world, there was also the prospect of practical gain. And that prospect remained alive in the wake of the first voyage -- despite the fact that it was a failure in certain terms -- and so there were follow up voyages that produced sufficient practical value that the whole enterprise prospered and expanded. But man on the moon has had little or no prospect for practical return, and so that was the end of that.

The symbolic point had been made and there was no point in simply repeating it time and again, though any number of people would have been willing to make the trip for personal gratification. But moon shots are too expensive for the extreme adventure biz, like trips to the top of Mt. Everest or, apparently, five minutes in space courtesy of Virgin Galactic. So the grand goal as been achieved, the symbolic point has been made, but there's no obvious way of putting human spaceflight on a more routine footing. There is, of course, the Shuttle, and orbiting space stations, but those ventures are not quite routine and not quite successful and haven't captured the imagination.

But putting space flight on a routine footing, doesn't that entail some diminishment of the adventure?

So that's the first and third of your notions. Now for the second, that SF's very success has killed the space race. The Roswell stuff you mention goes back before the space race, does it not? and is as much about Them having visited Us as about Us going out there. This shades into the whole alien abuduction thing -- which has had the imprimateur of a Harvard psychiatrist as I recall. "The aliens have landed" is, of course, a venerable SF genre, but one that doesn't engage the urge to go Out There.

And then there is Star Trek and the Enterprise and now we have spectacle. And we've moved to a medium that gives us things to see. Most of the effects in 50s SF movies were pretty cheesy, though Forbidden Plant was cool. I suppose the real landmarks are 2001 and Star Wars; after that the effects ante was very high. Kubric was going after the Deep Metaphysics; Lucas not so deep. Here Anthony O'Keefe's remarks about spectacle are germane. So, Lucas remakes the chariot race from Ben Hur into CGI thrills and chills for one of his franchise flix. Does that have anything to do with the dreams of Arthur C. Clarke or the paintings of Chesley Bonestell?

Let me conclude with another data point from my own experience. I don't have any distinct recollection of how I felt about Armstrong actually landing on the moon. I don't remember whether I watched the launch on TV or how I felt when I finally learned about the landing. I have a vague recollection of being cynical about it all. The war in Vietnam loomed larger in my consciousness at the time. And yet, on the evidence of how I felt years later when I went to Kennedy Space Center, that cynicism didn't extinguish deeper commitments.

How do we differentiate the urge to go Out There from the other premises that have fed SF? Has this been extinguished from all but those libertarian dot com billionaires Rich mentioned in the other thread?

Meanwhile, I'd still like to know when SF writers started putting women in the drivers seat.

* * * * *

Finally, here's a passage from an article I linked earlier:
But the man behind the project to send tourists into space says the journey will be more than just a pleasure trip. It will, according to the chief executive of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space programme, be a journey that will change its participants’ perspective of our planet for good.

And that, says George Whitesides, will lead them to work harder to change the world for the better when they set foot back on Earth.
I can believe that, but is it really so? And if it is, then I think we need a way to get people other than the super-rich into space. It's not going to be enough for just rich people and celebrities to get that perspective. Everyone needs it.

* * * * *

Addendum, January 17, 2015: Rick Searle resonates with Adam Roberts in this remark:
Arguing that we are in a period of technological stagnation at first seems strange, but when I reflect a moment on the meaning of facts such as not flying all that much faster than would have been common for my grandparents in the 1960’s, the kitchen in my family photos from the Carter days looking surprisingly like the kitchen I have right now- minus the paneling, or saddest of all, from the point of view of someone brought up on Star Trek, Star Wars and Our Star Blazers with a comforter sporting Viking 2 and Pioneer, the fact that, not only have we failed to send human visitors to Mars or beyond, we haven’t even been back to the moon. Hell we don’t even have any human beings beyond low-earth orbit.
Viewed against the (implicit) promises of science fiction, our actual achievements in space are a paltry thing. 

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