Tag Archives: sci-fi

Imaginative Limits

My brain is in a weird place this morning. I woke up in the middle of a vivid dream and I haven’t quite managed to get my head on straight since; also, it’s a new month. The year’s turning. There’s a lot going on.

All this – and some incidental stuff, like the fact I watched the movie Avatar yesterday for the first time in ages and a book review I read this morning – are conspiring to fill my mind with thoughts of speculation about the future and how little, in real terms, we can know or imagine about it.

Photo Credit: Firestoned via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Firestoned via Compfight cc

I like to read SF books. I won’t say that I’m well read; beyond the basics (Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein and Ursula K. LeGuin, and a few others), and a couple of oddities I’ve picked up second-hand over the years, I have a fairly thin knowledge of the genre overall. I’m more of an interested amateur. However, one of the things that has always struck me when reading SF is, strangely, not the unlimited breadth of imagination that greets the reader, but the strangely limited views about humanity and its future that one tends to encounter. One of the ways in which this manifests, for me, is the fact that I’ve rarely, if ever, come across a classic SF book which doesn’t mention ‘tapes’ – audio and video tapes, history recorded on reels and reels of celluloid, manually operated and paused and edited. This has always fascinated me.

We can imagine worlds where giant gelatinous cubes can make three-dimensional copies of any object placed in front of them – essentially, an organic 3-D printer – but we can’t imagine anything like a digital future (In Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death (1970)). Even Fahrenheit 451, one of my favourite SF novels, imagines a totally analogue world, despite the fact that television screens have become so large that they act as the walls of the room the viewer is sitting in. Books are still hard-copy, and nothing like the internet has even been thought of. The book review I read this morning was for The Monadic Universe, by George Zebrowski (1977), which features a story called ‘The History Machine’, again imagining an archive far in the future which is entirely dependent on tapes. I haven’t read this story but it did chime with the impression I have often received when reading SF books and stories – when it comes to certain aspects of human culture and technology, SF seemed to have been strangely blind.

(Then, of course, you have books like Neuromancer which blow this ‘theory’ out of the ballpark, but you don’t often find books like that – books which resemble our world, but a much less humane and comforting version of it. Usually SF books make me feel like we live in a horror-filled version of their dream of the future; Neuromancer makes me feel like we live in paradise. But I digress).

Sometimes I read SF books and I realise exactly how rooted they are in the world which created them, and how indicative they are of the prejudices and preoccupations of their own age. Inverted World, for instance, which I recently read, was originally published in 1974 and, while being an amazing book about relativity, environmental decay and massive-scale engineering, it also features the most egregiously offensive scenes in terms of its treatment of women and marginalised peoples, and their function in this society. Of course, perhaps this was the point – maybe the author was trying to say something meaningful about how no matter how much changes in terms of technology, old school prejudice and sexism will always be alive and well – but I’m not sure. It just seemed to be a no-questions-asked, this-is-how-the-world-operates acceptance to me, and quite possibly a reflection of the world it came out of rather than the world it was imagining. I know all literature does this – and of course it does, because nobody can see the future – but for some reason I expect more of SF. I expect it to be focused on imagining wider horizons, presenting ways in which the future will be better, more than we can dream of, filled with impossibility. But this genre, more than any other, describes exactly how limited the human imagination can be. We see futuristic societies and thought processes and whole centuries of imagined history (far into our own future, of course), but we still rely on tapes, or women are still abused, or it’s still all about war and terror, and the whole edifice collapses.

Then, perhaps is a cause for optimism that these SF novels seemed so limited in so many ways. As they wrote stories about far-distant futures where celluloid was king, in reality the seeds for a digital future were being sown. As they wrote stories about women as objects for use like any other resource or tool in worlds all over the galaxies, women in reality were fighting – and winning – their battles here on Earth. As we were taking some of the best ideas from the SF novels so beloved by so many and turning them into reality, we were also developing faster than any SF novel had ever dreamed. Perhaps it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that our development has outstripped the dreams of our most far-sighted writers, and perhaps that’s something to be celebrated.

And perhaps I should have rolled over and gone back to sleep this morning instead of getting up and trying to function. Who knows?

Welcome to a new week, y’all. Let’s try and make it something to be proud of.


Book Review Saturday – ‘Ender’s Game’

*Takes a deep breath*


Some of what I’m going to say here in this review may offend die-hard Orson Scott Card fans, and it may even cause some of you to think I don’t deserve the right to call myself an SF fan. However, I’m not going to sugar-coat my opinion. I know that ‘Ender’s Game’ evokes huge devotion among some of its readers, and that dissenters often face scorn, but heck – this is my blog, and I’ll say what I like.

I did not enjoy ‘Ender’s Game.’ I’m sorry, but there it is.

Image: sarahsaysread.com

Image: sarahsaysread.com

Note that I used the word ‘enjoy’. I didn’t enjoy the book, that’s true – but I do appreciate it for what it is, for what it’s trying to do, and for some of the things it anticipated about the world, particularly in terms of computing and the internet. I didn’t enjoy its brutality, its coldness, the writing style employed by its author and the – to my mind – disturbing lack of connection between the characters, and the lack of humanity in a book which takes the idea of ‘what is humanity?’ as a central concern.

‘Ender’s Game’ was a strange book, for me, insofar as I really thought the idea behind it was brilliant, and so much of what I was reading intrigued me. However, there was so much about it that I just couldn’t get on board with – no matter what the author himself says in his ‘Introduction’ to my edition (people who don’t ‘believe’ the way he’s written the children in this book simply have no idea how gifted children behave and act and think, apparently) – that it failed, for me, as a story.

Ender (Andrew) Wiggin lives with his parents and siblings – an older brother Peter and an older sister Valentine – and, as the story opens, we learn that he is being monitored via a machine in the back of his neck, and that – at six – it has been in place for a long time, longer than either of his siblings had theirs. His brother had his removed at five, and his sister at three. Ender, then, is special. For his brother, this is a cause for violent, jealous anger and for his sister it is a source of concern; Ender is a ‘Third’, a child who was born after his parents sought, and received, special permission to conceive and carry him. Thirds are not supposed to be gifted, or talented, or special. Yet Ender is.

The world in which they live exists in the aftermath of a massive invasion of alien enemies, the first of which happened some seventy years in the past, and the people of Ender’s world – a future version of Earth – are waiting for the next wave of attack from these aliens, called ‘buggers’. They are preparing to repel them, and have been working on ways to fight them for generations. Ender’s monitor – which all children have to wear, until the powers that be are satisfied that they have learned enough about the child and how he or she thinks, feels and acts – is designed to spot future battle commanders, children with the potential to be great fighters. Ender is taken from his family by a colonel from the International Fleet, or I.F., and brought to Battle School in order to learn how to kill the ‘buggers’.

So far, so good.

Ender in his flash suit, from the movie 'Ender's Game'. Image: blog.zap2it.com

Ender in his flash suit, from the movie ‘Ender’s Game’.
Image: blog.zap2it.com

The book then begins to take us through Ender’s training, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I found a lot of it impossible to imagine. I haven’t yet seen the film of ‘Ender’s Game’, but I’d certainly like to, if for nothing else than to see how a film director imagined the battle room, and the simulations of warfare, and the ‘flash suits’ the boys have to wear (for, despite the fact that girls are technically ‘allowed’ to train at Battle School, very few of them make it in due to their naturally peaceful and conciliatory inclinations – imagine me rolling my eyes here, if you like.) I did enjoy reading about how Ender gets to grips with null gravity, and how he works out a better method of attack than was previously used, one which leaves the body of the fighter at less risk of being shot by enemy fire, but really I got tired of the repetitive training sequences after a while. I’ve read many books about interstellar warfare, and I have a good imagination, but Mr. Card’s descriptions were beyond me.

Alongside Ender’s amazing military and tactical ability – bear in mind, of course, that he is six years old, turning seven and eight as he progresses through the ranks – his sister and brother are, back on Earth, turning themselves into political orators in an effort to overthrow governmental control and establish themselves as powerful players in world politics. They take the screen names ‘Demosthenes’ (Valentine) and ‘Locke’ (Peter), and soon become widely known, and their writings avidly read. They are barely teenagers, something which Valentine keeps mentioning (even, weirdly, noting that she has not yet started menstruating, so how can she possibly write a weekly column for a major newsnet, which I found disturbing. Why would any twelve-year-old girl say such a thing?) I really enjoyed how Card anticipated things like blogging and anonymous internet users exercising huge power over thought processes and web culture, years before anything like it existed in reality, but again it all seemed so unreal, unbelievable and ridiculous to imagine two pre-teens doing all this that I couldn’t really lose myself in the story. Ender, Valentine and Peter’s parents are so unimportant in this book that I really don’t see what would have been lost by aging them all ten years – they’d still have been remarkably young to be so intelligent and accomplished, and it would have seemed a little more believable to the reader.

So, the story progresses in a rather predictable way – the ending didn’t take me by surprise at all, though that’s not to say it wouldn’t have been a shock ending to its original readers, back in the 1980s – and we follow Ender’s story and that of his siblings to their adulthood, and a spark of hope for the future is planted. Or, at least, the kick-off point for this book’s stack of sequels, if you’d rather be cynical about it. I thought the concept behind the ‘buggers’ was interesting, and I was sorry that more wasn’t said about it (though, of course, I haven’t read the sequels yet), and I worried a little about where this book stood on the question of ‘gung-ho’ humanity, destroying everything around it just because it can.

I’m not sorry I read ‘Ender’s Game.’ It’s a classic, a Hugo- and Nebula-award winning book, and I didn’t really feel I’d earned my stripes as a reader of SF without having had a crack at it. However, part of me wonders why it is so successful. The children – no matter how gifted or brilliant they are – act and speak and think like middle-aged men, and I just couldn’t buy that; there is no character development; everyone, even Ender, reads like a flat cardboard cut-out, despite the fact that Card’s book tackles huge questions like the morality of war, and the idea that ‘might is right’, and the philosophical struggles inherent in everyone’s maturation process. However, all this depth, all this thinking, all this layering, is done in huge paragraphs of exposition and explanation, instead of through dialogue between characters or something that could’ve helped a reader get a handle on the people in this novel, and that left me cold. I was completely indifferent to Ender’s fate, and even though I warmed to Valentine (who is shown as having a heart and who loves her brother deeply – the very ‘weakness’ that marked her out as unsuitable for Battle School), and I liked Ender’s friend Alai, a non-white character who is shown, through his (rather stereotypical) speech to be religious, I couldn’t have cared less about anyone else.

The book struck me as racist, and sexist, and strange (lots of scenes take place where the children, for no good reason, are naked); it was coldly intellectual and – in my opinion – not the sort of book I’d have read with enjoyment as a teenager. The concepts, the science, the military strategy, and the setting are all top-notch, but the writing just didn’t do it for me. I accept its place in the canon of SF masterworks, but I reserve the right to dislike it, and so it goes.

Read some Robert Heinlein or Philip K. Dick or even Ursula Le Guin instead, is my advice.

Wednesday Write-In #39

This week’s prompt words were:

report  ::  scorched  ::  landslide  ::  dead end  ::  rosemary


I knew he was coming by the sound of his boots, imperious and whipcrack-sharp. I glanced at the clock – his shuttle had made good time. He’d taken our distress call seriously, which could be a good thing, or its opposite. All around me, the others raced to gather paperwork, make the final preparations for the HoloDisplay, check if the water was chilled, and, I was pretty sure, familiarise themselves with the exits.

If his boots didn’t give him away, there was always the smell – as he got closer, it got stronger. Nobody even knew where he managed to get the leaves of rosemary that he was constantly chewing. Legend had it he even had a specially designed censer in his quarters to burn them in. It was just one of the many inexplicable things about the man. I’d heard the scent of it was supposed to improve memory, or sharpen acuity, but that had to be Old-Age nonsense. Earth-bound superstition.

He strode into the room without a word. As he swept his way to the chair at the head of the conference table, the only sound was a nervous tinktinktititink; the young cadet given the task of pouring his water had an unsteady hand. It did not go unnoticed.

‘Report?’ He snapped, before he was even properly seated. The suddenness of his voice in the stillness made the young cadet jump, and she slopped water across the surface of his Viewer. He cleared his throat with unnecessary force, and she scampered away.

‘Sir,’ I said, snapping my heels together. ‘Ensign Japper Centrada reporting.’

‘Ensign?’ he said, flicking his eyes to me. ‘Is there nobody more senior who can give me an accurate picture of events on the ground?’

I paused a moment, allowing the first rush, and the second, to pass over me. When I responded, my voice was level. Cool.

‘Sir,’ I said. ‘No, sir. My senior officers were planetside when the event took place, sir.’

‘Event?’ he bit the word off at the end, like a bone breaking. His fingers fumbled to his breast pocket, and he brought forth a few dried rosemary sprigs. He crumbled them on the table in front of him, releasing their sharp, Earthy scent. I realised how long it had been since my last trip Home, and I took a deep breath, and then another. ‘Ensign,’ he said. ‘The event?’

I collected myself.

‘Sir,’ I began. ‘At approximately 1000 Earth-time yesterday, a major catastrophe took place on the surface. It temporarily knocked out our Comms, and it seems to have largely destroyed our planetside base. Sir, we have sustained severe casualties.’

‘I was under the impression that a council had been requested,’ he said. The scent of rosemary in the air grew more pungent as he crushed the sprigs beneath his thumb, almost idly. ‘Our personnel were under Sanctuary, in that case. Were they not?’

‘Sir – yes. They should be under Sanctuary. That is, if they are still living. The landslide… well. The landslide has pretty much wiped out our presence on the surface. Sir.’

‘Landslide?’ he said. ‘What are you talking about, man?’ His eyes were wide, and he’d stopped his mindless toying with the rosemary leaves.

‘We… ah. We believe it to be…’ I signalled frantically to one of the others to get the presentation primed for the HoloDisplay. Someone raced to comply. ‘Sir, if you’d care to look, just here?’ I said, indicating the heads-up unit. An image of the surface appeared, the planet’s yellowy, dusty landscape as familiar to our eyes as Earth itself. The Display took in a huge swathe of the largest landmass, which we’d named Aldrin.

‘This was the surface, sir, at approximately 0958 yesterday. Our people were stationed here,’ – I zoomed in, briefly, to show him the base. It was nestled in the hollow between two of the uncountable number of mountains in the Aldrin region. He nodded, and I restored the screen – ‘and they were awaiting the arrival of the Takasian delegation when this happened.’ The first explosion, more massive than anything we were capable of, happened on the far left of the screen from our point of view. It would have been maybe five Earth miles from our base. Rapidly, every few hundred meters, explosion followed explosion followed explosion, until the entire mountain, it seemed, began to topple. The landslide completely engulfed our base. There was silence in the room as we watched.

‘Survivors?’ he asked.

‘None confirmed so far, sir,’ I replied.

‘You have sent word to Earth?’

‘Of course. Sir.’ I cleared my throat. Several minutes passed as he examined the screen, barking commands. He wanted the screen magnified, then decreased; then he wanted to see the heat signature for the past 48 hours; then he wanted a planet-wide HoloDisplay. I watched him through all this. His colour deepened, and his breathing quickened. He took a pinch of rosemary like it was snuff, but it had no perceptible effect. He shrank before my eyes, his fingers quivering – barely noticeable, but there – as he touched the screen.

‘We must make a retaliatory strike,’ he eventually announced. ‘Here.’ He zoomed in on their main city. ‘We must implement a scorched-earth policy; cut them off from everything. Smoke them out.’

‘Sir,’ I said, hoping the edge in my voice was only audible to me. ‘Sir, that tactic is a dead end here. It doesn’t work with the Takasians. They live mainly underground, and…’

‘Do not presume to tell me how to run a war, Ensign Centrada!’ he shouted, turning to face me. ‘You have your orders. Prepare the incendiaries, and get ready to contact the Takasian command. Give them as little warning as possible before engaging.’

‘Sir,’ I said. ‘Of course, sir.’ He glared at me for two or three heartbeats, before sweeping his way out and up the corridor again. No doubt to get back into his shuttle, and leave all this behind.

The scent of rosemary hung in the air after him. I took a lungful of it, and a calm certainty settled on my brain.

I began to key a command into my CommUnit, and I waited for the Takasian response. I wondered, as I did all this, how it would feel to be back on Earth.

In prison, of course, there wouldn’t be a lot of opportunity to smell anything that didn’t emanate from a human body, so I took another breath of rosemary-scented air, just before it faded.