Sunday, September 24, 2006

Book: Master's voice

Reading "Master's voice" reminds me why I loved science fiction. In fact, like many science geeks, in high school I was eating and drinking science fiction. Why I stopped being science geek, and why I stopped being science fiction fan?
First thing came somewhat naturally, as I enrolled university with lots of applied science, enough to overload greater science fans than I was.
Science fiction on the other hand... Starting to read postmodern literature, I realized that sf was just a particle of this literature, usually far inferior but too isolated from the rest of literature world to ever realize that. Most of sf world (save for a few writers like j. G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut or William Gibson) were completely oblivious of the development of mainstream literature, considered themselves top of the literature having compared themselves only with writings of the same genre. I couldn’t disagree with Theodore Sturgeon’s assessment that 90% of everything is trash, but Sturgeon would probably be surprised of the number of his respected colleagues I consider trash (like Bradbury, Clark, Asimov, P. Jose farmer...)
The breakdown happened after reading David Brin's lengthy novel "Postman" (so perfect for Kevin Costner to direct a film after it that he actually did). Now, Brin isn't the most respectable sf writer ever, but after his bland patriotic propaganda romp, I asked myself whether I really need to systematically waste time on such things. I cannot read quickly (that has always been my problem), shouldn't I pick something better, more enjoyable to spend my time on? Should I choose the bland and romanticized writing style over Nabakov or Calvino? The "what if" novels that stumble upon serious, humanistic themes, like a man in the dark stumbles to the chair, against those that actually deliberately speak of human nature? Melodrama over real understanding of human character? Finally, isn't great writing great and marginal writing marginal for a reason? Or is it all part of the great conspiracy? As a teenager, I was fascinated with ideas. Nowadays, want to see the ideas actually saying something, not being self-sufficient.
But let's not be hasty, I’m not dissing sf as a genre, I’m just dissing narrow literary sf circles. In fact, I have a lot of faith in cinematic science fiction, and estimate that unusually large percent of cinematic masterpieces is from sf genre. Almost every one of world's greatest directors at one time or the other shaped his ideas through sf.
And then, there are great science fiction writers, I’d be hard pressed to generalize so much as to say there are none. For one, brilliant Kurt Vonnegut grew out of sf. Then there was a cult writer Phillip K. Dick who managed to write at least a few impressive works before becoming reproductive and repetitive. James Graham Ballard whose "Crash" is even more mind-boggling than Cronenberg's film based on the book. Then there are Brothers Strugacki who, no doubt, managed to write several memorable pieces (one that I've recently read, "The snail on the slope", trippy ode to bureaucracy, is one of the better). And here, I’ll be talking about Stanislaw Lem, Polish misanthrope and surprisingly knowledgeable man.
Last two have in common that they both had their books turned into films by Andrei Tarkovski. Strugacki's "Picnic by the road" was made into infamous "Stalker". Lem's "Solaris" was turned into, also excellent, eponymous feature.

Lem built opus of a fine comic sf writer in first half of his career, after which he turned to depressive, pessimistic novels where he accomplished his greatest works. But both his comical and dramatic works shared vision of humanity as desperately petty, clumsy and fallible community. To contrast them, Lem often introduced superior alien race, which was usually vaguely defined as to accent that we're incapable of even grasping its way of functioning, least to communicate with it. Purpose of this was never to talk about aliens or first contact, but to reflect humans and their failings. We always want more (contact with other races) before resolving problems around what we already have, concludes Lem.
So in "Solaris", alien is a giant ocean covering an entire planed, and space station rotating about it is trying to reach this organism without knowing how it communicates, or even if it does. Yet, ocean communicates by digging through memories of humans on the station, finding deep mistakes from the past and sending it back to humans. It is not said whether ocean acts as a reminder, out of pettiness, curiosity, or ever unconsciously, it is, however, symptomatic that humans choose to wallow in their pity rather than to act.
I am reminded of a short story by Lem, mathematical sf if you will, about a hotel with infinite number of rooms. This hotel has no vacancies, but when an infinite number of guests arrive to a convention, they can all fit because two times infinite is still infinite. This short story is full of mathematical extrapolations on theme of infinite numbers applied to actual (though physically impossible) situation.
I was once said that American sf fans had a theory that Stanislaw Lem doesn't exist, but that there's an entire set of scientists of various profiles working on books published under his name. Crackpot theories aside, most of his Books contain wide knowledge of many science, seemingly too wide for one man to grasp (himself being a doctor by trade) and it's fascinating, seeing how he juggles various areas of science, seemingly foolproof knowledge as if coming from mouths of his characters, scientists of various specializations.
Such knowledge is shown all around "Master's Voice", novel that shakes borders of sf genre. Aliens aren't present like in other books of his, the whole book is revolving around a teak of scientists trying to decode the radio-message received from somewhere in e space. Aside from knowing that it is a message (thanks to its repetition, it is known that it's source isn't random), scientists know nothing of the code in which the message was written, or what kind of message it is. This gives Lem a lot of opportunity to think aloud about matters of linguistic, communication, culture differences, etc. Even though "Master's voice" is a novel, it doesn't escape from essayist content, so a great deal of the novel is his thinking aloud, some would say, philosophy (although, if he thought so he would probably write a philosophy book, not a work of fiction). I won't try to describe this dense net of thoughts, and metaphors, but a little fiction works were so directly thoughtful.
The rest is a little history of failed attempts, theories and half-results that in the end lead nowhere. Sometimes, in his cynism, Lem is viciously humorous, like in an early chapter about the discovery of a message, that first goes through hands of various crackpots and alien conspiracies, or even later when scientists are on the verge of breakthrough, but fear from it, evaluating it to bring more power than humans can handle. This chapter's high point is extrapolation of half-drunken scientists as to what destruction will happen to Earth if they succeed.
The most vicious Lem's joke is, they fail. Not only contact isn't made, but they're left unsure of whether there were aliens at all. In the end, everyone believes what they want to believe, depending on how sure they are of human competence.


At 9:52 PM, Blogger PlotlessViolence said...

I want to become the fourth member of the How Not to Run a Webcomic staff. I'll actually start posting peoples' submissions again. Apologies for contacting you this way, but all other relevant e-mails are apparently dead (the HNTRAC yahoo e-mail has been cancelled or something).

At 7:00 PM, Blogger Srdjan said...

Eh, I've kind of lost track on HNTRAC, didn't work on it for a year or more. It should be better if you contract Terotrous (, even when HNTRAC was active, he was the one doing almost all work.


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