Sunday, May 22, 2011

"A Scientist Rises" (D. W. Hall, 1932) w/Commentary

"A Scientist Rises"

(c) 1932 by D. W. Hall

On that summer day the sky over New York was unflecked by clouds, and the air hung motionless, the waves of heat undisturbed. The city was a vast oven where even the sounds of the coiling traffic in its streets seemed heavy and weary under the press of heat that poured down from above. In Washington Square, the urchins of the neighborhood splashed in the fountain, and the usual midday assortment of mothers, tramps and out-of-works lounged listlessly on the hot park benches.

As a bowl, the Square was filled by the torrid sun, and the trees and grass drooped like the people on its walks. In the surrounding city, men worked in sweltering offices and the streets rumbled with the never-ceasing tide of business—but Washington Square rested.

And then a man walked out of one of the houses lining the square, and all this was changed.

He came with a calm, steady stride down the steps of a house on the north side, and those who happened to see him gazed with surprised interest. For he was a giant in size. He measured at least eleven feet in height, and his body was well-formed and in perfect proportion. He crossed the street and stepped over the railing into the nearest patch of grass, and there stood with arms folded and legs a little apart. The expression on his face was preoccupied and strangely apart, nor did it change when, almost immediately from the park bench nearest him, a woman's excited voice cried:

"Look! Look! Oh, look!"

The people around her craned their necks and stared, and from them grew a startled murmur. Others from farther away came to see who had cried out, and remained to gaze fascinated at the man on the grass. Quickly the murmur spread across the Square, and from its every part men and women and children streamed towards the center of interest—and then, when they saw, backed away slowly and fearfully, with staring eyes, from where the lone figure stood.

There was about that figure something uncanny and terrible. There, in the hot midday hush, something was happening to it which men would say could not happen; and men, seeing it, backed away in alarm. Quickly they dispersed. Soon there were only white, frightened faces peering from behind buildings and trees.
Before their very eyes the giant was growing.

When he had first emerged, he had been around eleven feet tall, and now, within three minutes, he had risen close to sixteen feet.

His great body maintained its perfect proportions. It was that of an elderly man clad simply in a gray business suit. The face was kind, its clear-chiselled features indicating fine spiritual strength; on the white forehead beneath the sparse gray hair were deep-sunken lines which spoke of years of concentrated work.

No thought of malevolence could come from that head with its gentle blue eyes that showed the peace within, but fear struck ever stronger into those who watched him, and in one place a woman fainted; for the great body continued to grow, and grow ever faster, until it was twenty feet high, then swiftly twenty-five, and the feet, still separated, were as long as the body of a normal boy. Clothes and body grew effortlessly, the latter apparently without pain, as if the terrifying process were wholly natural.

The cars coming into Washington Square had stopped as their drivers sighted what was rising there, and by now the bordering streets were tangled with traffic. A distant crowd of milling people heightened the turmoil. The northern edge was deserted, but in a large semicircle was spread a fear-struck, panicky mob. A single policeman, his face white and his eyes wide, tried to straighten out the tangle of vehicles, but it was infinitely beyond him and he sent in a riot call; and as the giant with the kind, dignified face loomed silently higher than the trees in the Square, and ever higher, a dozen blue-coated figures appeared, and saw, and knew fear too, and hung back awe-stricken, at a loss what to do. For by now the rapidly mounting body had risen to the height of forty feet.

An excited voice raised itself above the general hubbub.

"Why, I know him! I know him! It's Edgar Wesley! Doctor Edgar Wesley!"

A police sergeant turned to the man who had spoken.

"And it—he knows you? Then go closer to him, and—and—ask him what it means."

But the man looked fearfully at the giant and hung back. Even as they talked, his gigantic body had grown as high as the four-storied buildings lining the Square, and his feet were becoming too large for the place where they had first been put. And now a faint smile could be seen on the giant's face, an enigmatic smile, with something ironic and bitter in it.

"Then shout to him from here," pressed the sergeant nervously. "We've got to find out something! This is crazy—impossible! My God! Higher yet—and faster!"

Summoning his courage, the other man cupped his hands about his mouth and shouted:

"Dr. Wesley! Can you speak and tell us? Can we help you stop it?"

The ring of people looked up breathless at the towering figure, and a wave of fear passed over them and several hysterical shrieks rose up as, very slowly, the huge head shook from side to side. But the smile on its lips became stronger, and kinder, and the bitterness seemed to leave it.

There was fear at that motion of the enormous head, but a roar of panic sounded from the watchers when, with marked caution, the growing giant moved one foot from the grass into the street behind and the other into the nearby base of Fifth Avenue, just above the Arch. Fearing harm, they were gripped by terror, and they fought back while the trembling policemen tried vainly to control them; but the panic soon ended when they saw that the leviathan's arms remained crossed and his smile kinder yet. By now he dwarfed the houses, his body looming a hundred and fifty feet into the sky. At this moment a woman back of the semicircle slumped to her knees and prayed hysterically.

"Someone's coming out of his house!" shouted one of the closest onlookers.

The door of the house from which the giant had first appeared had opened, and the figure of a middle-aged, normal-sized man emerged. For a second he crouched on the steps, gaping up at the monstrous shape in the sky, and then he scurried down and made at a desperate run for the nearest group of policemen.

He gripped the sergeant and cried frantically:

"That's Dr. Wesley! Why don't you do something? Why don't—"

"Who are you?" the officer asked, with some return of an authoritative manner.

"I work for him. I'm his janitor. But—can't you do anything? Look at him! Look!"

The crowd pressed closer. "What do you know about this?" went on the sergeant.

The man gulped and stared around wildly. "He's been working on something—many years—I don't know what, for he kept it a close secret. All I knew is that an hour ago I was in my room upstairs, when I heard some disturbance in his laboratory, on the ground floor. I came down and knocked on the door, and he answered from inside and said that everything was all right—"

"You didn't go in?"

"No. I went back up, and everything was quiet for a long time. Then I heard a lot of noise down below—a smashing—as if things were being broken. But I thought he was just destroying something he didn't need, and I didn't investigate: he hated to be disturbed. And then, a little later, I heard them shouting out here in the Square, and I looked out and saw. I saw him—just as I knew him—but a giant! Look at his face! Why, he has the face of—of a god! He's—as if he were looking down on us—and—pitying us...."

For a moment all were silent as they gazed, transfixed, at the vast form that towered two hundred feet above them. Almost as awe-inspiring as the astounding growth was the fine, dignified calmness of the face. The sergeant broke in:

"The explanation of this must be in his laboratory. We've got to have a look. You lead us there."

The other man nodded; but just then the giant moved again, and they waited and watched.

With the utmost caution the titanic shape changed position. Gradually, one great foot, over thirty feet in length, soared up from the street and lowered farther away, and then the other distant foot changed its position; and the leviathan came gently to rest against the tallest building bordering the Square, and once more folded his arms and stood quiet. The enormous body appeared to waver slightly as a breath of wind washed against it: obviously it was not gaining weight as it grew. Almost, now, it appeared to float in the air. Swiftly it grew another twenty-five feet, and the gray expanse of its clothes shimmered strangely as a ripple ran over its colossal bulk.

A change of feeling came gradually over the watching multitude. The face of the giant was indeed that of a god in the noble, irony-tinged serenity of his calm features. It was if a further world had opened, and one of divinity had stepped down; a further world of kindness and fellow-love, where were none of the discords that bring conflicts and slaughterings to the weary people of Earth. Spiritual peace radiated from the enormous face under the silvery hair, peace with an undertone of sadness, as if the giant knew of the sorrows of the swarm of dwarfs beneath him, and pitied them.

From all the roofs and the towers of the city, for miles and miles around, men saw the mammoth shape and the kindly smile grow more and more tenuous against the clear blue sky. The figure remained quietly in the same position, his feet filling two empty streets, and under the spell of his smile all fear seemed to leave the nearer watchers, and they became more quiet and controlled.

The group of policemen and the janitor made a dash for the house from which the giant had come. They ascended the steps, went in, and found the door of the laboratory locked. They broke the door down. The sergeant looked in.

"Anyone in here?" he cried. Nothing disturbed the silence, and he entered, the others following.

A long, wide, dimly-lit room met their eyes, and in its middle the remains of a great mass of apparatus that had dominated it.

The apparatus was now completely destroyed. Its dozen rows of tubes were shattered, its intricate coils of wire and machinery hopelessly smashed. Fragments lay scattered all over the floor. No longer was there the least shape of meaning to anything in the room; there remained merely a litter of glass and stone and scrap metal.

Conspicuous on the floor was a large hammer. The sergeant walked over to pick it up, but, instead, paused and stared at what lay beyond it.

"A body!" he said.

A sprawled out dead man lay on the floor, his dark face twisted up, his sightless eyes staring at the ceiling, his temple crushed as with a hammer. Clutched tight in one stiff hand was an automatic. On his chest was a sheet of paper.

The captain reached down and grasped the paper. He read what was written on it, and then he read it to the others:

There was a fool who dreamed the high dream of the pure scientist, and who lived only to ferret out the secrets of nature, and harness them for his fellow men. He studied and worked and thought, and in time came to concentrate on the manipulation of the atom, especially the possibility of contracting and expanding it—a thing of greatest potential value. For nine years he worked along this line, hoping to succeed and give new power, new happiness, a new horizon to mankind. Hermetically sealed in his laboratory, self-exiled from human contacts, he labored hard.

There came a day when the device into which the fool had poured his life stood completed and a success. And on that very day an agent for a certain government entered his laboratory to steal the device. And in that moment the fool realized what he had done: that, from the apparatus he had invented, not happiness and new freedom would come to his fellow men, but instead slaughter and carnage and drunken power increased a hundredfold. He realized, suddenly, that men had not yet learned to use fruitfully the precious, powerful things given to them, but as yet could only play with them like greedy children—and kill as they played. Already his invention had brought death. And he realized—even on this day of his triumph—that it and its secret must be destroyed, and with them he who had fashioned so blindly.

For the scientist was old, his whole life was the invention, and with its going there would be nothing more.

And so he used the device's great powers on his own body; and then, with those powers working on him, he destroyed the device and all the papers that held its secrets.

Was the fool also mad? Perhaps. But I do not think so. Into his lonely laboratory, with this marauder, had come the wisdom that men must wait, that the time is not yet for such power as he was about to offer. A gesture, his strange death, which you who read this have seen? Yes, but a useful one, for with it he and his invention and its hurtful secrets go from you; and a fitting one, for he dies through his achievement, through his very life.

But, in a better sense, he will not die, for the power of his achievement will dissolve his very body among you infinitely; you will breathe him in your air; and in you he will live incarnate until that later time when another will give you the knowledge he now destroys, and he will see it used as he wished it used.—E. W.

The sergeant's voice ceased, and wordlessly the men in the laboratory looked at each other. No comment was needed. They went out.

They watched from the steps of Edgar Wesley's house. At first sight of the figure in the sky, a new awe struck them, for now the shape of the giant towered a full five hundred feet into the sun, and it seemed almost a mirage, for definite outline was gone from it. It shimmered and wavered against the bright blue like a mist, and the blue shone through it, for it was quite transparent. And yet still they imagined they could discern the slight ironic smile on the face, and the peaceful, understanding light in the serene eyes; and their hearts swelled at the knowledge of the spirit, of the courage, of the fine, far-seeing mind of that outflung titanic martyr to the happiness of men.

The end came quickly. The great misty body rose; it floated over the city like a wraith, and then it swiftly dispersed, even as steam dissolves in the air. They felt a silence over the thousands of watching people in the Square, a hush broken at last by a deep, low murmur of awe and wonderment as the final misty fragments of the vast sky-held figure wavered and melted imperceptibly—melted and were gone from sight in the air that was breathed by the men whom Edgar Wesley loved.



"Commentary on 'A Scientist Rises'"

(c) 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

Back in the days of classic pulp science fiction, there was combined a strong worship of scientists and engineers (pulp sf was not always clear on the difference) as noble and superior benefactors, with an older attitude of fear of them as impious delvers into divine secrets.  The attitudes reinforced each other in dichotomy:  if a scientist was not a noble and superior benefactor, he was liable to be corrupted by his burden of knowledge and tempted by the desire to force men to follow his high intellect, becoming a Mad Scientist or even an Evil Genius.

Consequently, the good guy scientists of pulp science fiction have a tendency to be saintly characters.  Action-oriented ones will be a Science Hero, possibly a Gadgeteer Genius and perhaps a Genius Bruiser (to let him mix it up with the bad guys personally).  More purely intellectual good guy scientists will be an Omnidisciplinary Scientist, perhaps a Mentor to the more action-oriented characters.  Good guy scientists are very important to pulp (or indeed any) science fiction because they provide exposition:  they let the writer explain the scientific concepts on which his story is based.

There is a strong mind-body dichotomy imposed in addition to the good-evil dichotomy, which roughly stands in for the real-world dichotomy between science and engineering.  Mind-oriented scientists will tend to renounce the flesh:  their objectives will be cerebral ones (whether benevolent or malevolent) and they will often be entirely celibate (if one has a child then the scientist will almost always be a widower).  Body-oriented scientists will have more earthy objectives:  a Science Hero will pursue his One True Love, while his villainous counterpart will either be lecherous or (if not) celibate only because he has arrogantly high standards (consider Dr. Zarkov and Emperor Ming, or Richard Seaton and "Blackie" DuQuesne).

"A Scientist Rises" has as its (utterly silent, yet expressive) main characters one of the most pure examples of a Good Guy Scientist and the worshp of such a character to be found in the pulp sf genre.  Dr. Edgar Wesley develops some technology based on expanding or multiplying atoms, allowing objects to become much larger (and less dense).  We never find out just what the practical applications of this might have been (though I can think of a few) (*), because when a foreign agent tries to force Dr. Wesley to give him the process, Wesley brains the spy with a hammer and then commits suicide (?) by using the process on himself.  He leaves the community of mortal men because he fears the damage his discovery might do in evil or callous hands:  there is a strong symbolic (and perhaps real) implication that in the end he becomes some sort of god.

Notice that as Dr. Wesley takes his final walk (to avoid growing inside and destroying his building), he hurts absolutely no one (**), taking great care to avoid trampling people (we're not entirely sure if his density decreases at the same rate that his size increases, or how this affects the strength of his molecular bonds until the very last dispersal).  He is both literally and figuratively a gentle giant, towering over mere mortals and benevolently looking down on them.  From his note it is obvious that he sacrificed himself for love of his fellow man.  His atoms will now mingle with the world:  it is possible that his spirit still animates them.

This should be corny, but in the story it works.  It works because the imagery is so powerful, and because Hall manages to characterize Dr. Wesley so well despite the fact that all he has to work with are the man's actions, expressions and his suicide (?) note.  Edgar Wesley is a hero of the intellect, a literally Titanic figure who discovered something too dangerous for Man to use in his current condition, and sacrificed himself rather than let it destroy the human race.

It's a sad story, but a hopeful one.  And it's even the more poignant when one considers the year of its publication -- and what was about to happen in reality.  There is something innocent about the Interwar Era.  They'd been through Hell, and they naively hoped that in doing so they had earned safety.  They did not know that they were to have to go through it all over again.

But it was not a doomed society that could produce the concept of a Dr. Edgar Wesley, and the dawn would come again too.  And from the Interwar Era came stories of strange beauty, like this one, which by existing show the value of all science fiction.

(*) - If he can apply the process rapidly, he has an explosive, possibly one approaching the destructiveness of real nuclear weapons.  If he can stablize it, he can reduce the density of a substance to some unknown limit, which means that he has a lift bag for airships.  If he can reverse it, he can implode objects or make ultra-dense projectiles.  And so on.

(**) - He had previously slain the spy, but that was clearly in self-defense.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Damon Knight and the Conceptual Ancestry of the Mundane SF Movement

"Damon Knight and the Conceptual Ancestry
of the Mundane SF Movement"

(c) 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior


As those of you who've been following this blogzine may have noticed, I love both space opera and planetary romances, and have a deep contempt for the Mundane science-fiction movement.  In "The Fear of Boundlessness" and "The Promise of Boundlessness," I discussed the conceptual origins of the movement in an implicitly pre-Copernican cosmology, in which the Earth is the only "really real" place, eternal home to human actions, and the "Heavens" are a spiritual place, literally above gross human concerns; and discussed the fear of the true scale of the Universe in space and time, as revealed by modern astronomy and astrophysics.  In those articles, and again in "Selective Science for Mundane Fiction," I demonstrated in detail that the Mundane movement, far from being rooted in "hard science," operates by ignoring those aspects of "hard science" which would render the limitations they propose on the human future to be silly, short-sighted and absurdly parochial in a vast Universe. 

Recently, I discovered a forty-year old article, "Goodbye, Henry J. Kostkos, Goodbye," by Damon Knight (1922-2002), in Clarion II (1972), which demonstrated even older roots to this attitude, way back in the American branch of the late New Wave.  Knight shows in this essay both a greater grasp of science than the modern Mundanes (though he makes a major error in his understanding of cultural evolution) but also more nakedly displays the hatred of humanity which lies at the core of the Mundaniacs, and for this reason the article is highly interesting.

I. Donald A. Wollheim's Cosmogony of the Future

Damon Knight starts by explaining that he no longer can take the old space operas and planetary romances seriously and thus cannot derive as much pleasure from them as was once possible.  He says that the reason why is that there has been a fundamental shift in the attitude of science fiction, in which he has shared, from what we would today call one paradigm of the future to another.

The "old" view, as he terms it, was famously outlined by Donald A. Wollheim (1914-1990) in The Universe Makers (1971).  Summarized, Wollheim's "Cosmogony of the Future" divides the likely human future, as explored by science fiction, into a number of "stages," as follows (reprinted and summarized by James Gunn and Thomas Seay here:

First we have the initial voyages to the moon and to the planets of our Solar System. In this sequence we also include stories of the contact of man with intelligent species elsewhere in this system—Martians, Jovians, Venusians, if any. Stories of the first efforts to set up terrestrial bases on such planets. Stories of the first colonies of such worlds, their problems internal and external, their conflicts with the parent world, their breakaway or interplanetary commerce, spaceship trade lanes, space pirates, asteroid mining, the weird wonders of the Outer Planets, and so forth.

Second, the first flights
to the stars. The problem of whether science can ever exceed the speed of light: a very important one where the problem of colonization is concerned. Starships, ships that must travel centuries and contain generations, descended from the original crews. Other planets of other stars. Intelligences on such planets and our problems with them or against them. Human colonies on other starry systems. Contact with Mother Earth, independence or dependence. Commerce, exploitation or otherwise.

Third, the Rise of the Galactic Empire. The rise of contact and commerce between many human-colonized worlds or many worlds of alien intelligences that have come to trust and do business with one another. The problem of mutual relations and the solution, usually in the form of treaties or defensive alliances. Implacable aliens in the cosmos who must be fought. The need for defense. The rise of industrial or financial or political powers, the eventual triumph of one and the establishment of a federation, a union, an alliance, or an autocratic empire of worlds, dominated usually from Old Earth.

Fourth, the Galactic Empire in full bloom, regardless of what form it takes. Commerce between worlds as established fact, and adventures while dealing with worlds in and out of the Empire. The farthest planets, those of the Galactic Rim, considered as mavericks. The problems of aliens again outside the Empire, and outside our own galaxy. Politics within the government setup, intrigues, and dynasties, robotic mentalities versus human mentalities. "Terra-forming" worlds for colonization. The exploration of the rest of the galaxy by official exploration ships, or adventurers, or commercial pioneers.

Fifth, the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire. Intrigue and palace revolt. Breakaway planets. The alliance of worlds strained beyond its limits by rebellion, alien wars, corruption, scientific inability to keep up with internal or external problems. The rise of restless subject worlds. Decline, then loss of contact with farthest worlds, crumbling of commerce, failure of space lanes, distrust, finally worlds withdrawing into themselves as the empire/alliance/federation/union becomes an empty shell or is destroyed at its heart.

Sixth, the Interregnum. Worlds reverting to prespace-flight conditions, savagery, barbarism, primitive forms of life, superstition. Worlds taking to barbarian raids on defenseless isolated planets, hastening the downfall of knowledge. Fragments of space flight, fragments of empire, some starships, some efforts to revive. Thousands of years of loss of contact. Humanity in this period becomes indigenous to most of the habitable planets of the galaxy, forgetting origins. Evolutionary changes may take place. Alterations of form to fit differing world conditions—giant men, tiny men, water-dwelling men, flying men, mutations.

Seventh, the Rise of a Permanent Galactic Civilization. The restoration of commerce between worlds. The reexploration of lost and uncontacted worlds and the bringing them back to high-technology, democratic levels. The efforts to establish trade between human worlds that no longer seem kin. Beating down new efforts to form empires, efforts which sometimes succeed and revert to approximations of the previous period, with similar results. The exploration of other galaxies and the entire universe.

Eighth, the Challenge to God. Galactic harmony and an undreamed-of high level of knowledge leads to experiments in creation, to harmony between galactic clusters, and possible explorations of the other dimensions of existence. The effort to match Creation and to solve the last secrets of the universe. Sometimes seeking out and confronting the Creative Force or Being or God itself, sometimes merging with that Creative First Premise. The end of the universe, the end of time, the beginning of a new universe or a new time-space continuum.

(from Wollheim. The Universe Makers. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.)

Now, there are a few points I would make about this outline.

A.  It is very generic, as it has to be to fit many different science fiction universes.  For instance, it specifies neither the sorts of technologies being used for interplanetary, interstellar or intergalactic flight or colonization, nor does it specify the governments which administer these future human polities.  It merely states what technologies and governments and situations might appear at the various stages.  It also says nothing about how long each stage lasts, save for the occasional "centuries" or "thousands of years."

B.  It makes one very big assumption:  namely, that the human race will survive long enough to colonize the other worlds.  In general, science-fiction futures may be divided into "optimistic" or "pessimistic" based on whether or not they assume that high-tech humanity will survive long enough to colonize other worlds.  (The third option, that high-tech humanity will simply live on Earth and only Earth forever, makes very little sense, unless "forever" is a very short time even on a species timescale).

C.  Given the assumption that high-tech humanity survives long enough to colonize other worlds, it is difficult to argue against the fundamental premises of this "cosmogony of the future," because they are firmly rooted in historical reality.  Humans do expand into any and all available environments, they do found colonial empires, and their civilizations do rise and fall with some regularity.  Of course, this sequence could at any point be aborted by the extermination of the human race at any stage, as mentioned under "B" -- though the human race would be the more difficult to exterminate the more widely they colonized, for obvious reasons.

So, given the strong logic underlying Wollheim's outline, what logical arguments does Knight advance against this scheme?

He doesn't.  Instead, he advances a set of feelings:  and feelings of a nature highly-relevant to the later Mundane SF Movement.

II.   Knight's Feelings About the Cosmogony of the Future

Knight first points out that Wollheim analogizes humanity to mold in a petri dish.  Wollheim had written:

Let us watch what happens next ... The several spots grow.  They begin to touch each other's borders.  There is a brief period of stasis, then they grow around and into each other.  In time the petri dish is one solid surface of mold life and no untouched part of the nutriment can be seen.  The mold flourishes.  It grows dense.  It grows tall.  It then flowers -- it begins to form spore balls.

Assume that the lid of the dish is taken off.  The spore balls reach maturity -- they burst and send out into the atmosphere millions and millions of new spore seeds to float away.  After this flowering the mold forest begins to diminish.  The nutriment of the dish is being exhausted.  Some of the mold begins to dry up, to die away ...

Knight considers this analogy somehow detrimental to Wollheim's point, but actually it's an excellent one:  this is a good description of how self-replicating entities (like life forms, or cultural entities) behave.  They expand until they encounter an obstacle, then (if this obstacle is somehow surmounted) expand further.  An area which they have thickly inhabited for long tends to die, because the local resources have been exhausted.

This is of course, an argument against trying to live on Just One Earth forever.  The longer we live in only one tiny spot in the Universe, the greater the risk of local resource exhaustion.  The mold culture would not have benefitted had the lid of the dish remained on forever -- it would have died.  Likewise, a humanity confined to one world, for the rest of its existence, will die out sooner than if it expands to many worlds.

Knight then asks:

But what is the basis for this almost universal belief that it is good for us to explore, colonize, and annex new worlds?

He clearly considers this a rhetorical question, because he never answers it.  But the question is answerable.  We believe this for two cultural-evolutionary reasons, one Darwinian and the other Lamarckian in nature. 

The Darwinian one is that cultures which do not "explore, colonize and annex new worlds" are very quickly relegated to the sidelines in competition with other cultures, if they do not wind up so weak in comparison with other cultures that they are casually and with ridiculous ease "colonized" and "annexed" by those other cultures.  Consequently, we inherit our beliefs overwhelmingly from cultures which do so expand.

The Lamarckian one is that humans, being sapient, are quite capable of seeing that cultures which fail to grow will die, and thus want their own cultures to keep on growing, that they may last as long and rise as high as possible.  Consequently, save in very sick cultures, most thinkers consider expansion and growth to be good things in and of themselves.

Knight then parenthisizes:

(I call it "almost universal," because there are some few non-believers -- the American Indians, for example, the black people of Africa, etc.) 

which is a hilariously-condescending and historically-ignorant statement.  In point of fact the American Indians and Black Africans did consider expansion and growth to be good things, and repeatedly demonstrated this by producing and trading things and warring against their rivals.  These native peoples simply lost out in competition to Western cultures.  Today (and in 1972 for that matter), they are rising again, in part because they have adopted superior Western attitudes and in part because the West is no longer hostile to them.

Knight again asks rhetorically:

Wouldn't it perhaps be better to stay on this planet, clean it up a little, and reduce our numbers to some reasonable figure, so that we don't have "to dry up, to die away?"

Again, this is a question that is far from rhetorical, but instead deserves some analysis and answer.

First, note that this is a clear "false dichotomy."  Knight assumes that we must either overpopulate the Earth and then spill out to other worlds, leaving a ruined planet behind us, or utterly avoid expansion beyond the Earth's surface.  He ignores the obvious possibility that we might "clean up" the Earth while colonizing other worlds, which would of course be a more desirable outcome than either of Knight's offered choices.  Even more fundamentally, he ignores the possibility that access to the resources of other worlds might make it easier to "clean up" the Earth, rather than the effort of such colonization making it more difficult.

Secondly, the implicit assumption underlying this false dichotomy is the belief that, if we have the OPTION of colonizing other worlds in our future, we will be much more likely to ruin the Earth.  And, of course, this is one of the exact assumptions of Mundane SF, namely:

That this dream of abundance [from colonizing other worlds] can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.

But it's also interesting to examine the dichotomy on its own terms.  If we were limited to the choice between ruining the Earth and expanding outward, or not ruining the Earth but also not expanding outward, which would be better for the human species?  Logically, the first one (ruin the Earth while expanding to other worlds) because that would render us as a species independent of the fate of any one planet.  (Of course, wrecking the Earth would be stupid, but I did specify limitation to the false dichotomy for the duration of this paragraph).

But Knight misses an even larger point.  There is no one leader which can decide for the whole human race whether or not we will stay home or expand outward.  Just because (say) America, or Russia, accepts Knight's argument does not mean that (say) China, or India, or for that matter Lockheed-Martin, will accept this argument.  Inevitably, those human groups which choose to expand offworld will gain control of greater energies and territories and consequently wealth and power than those who remain at home.

And even if such a leader existed, he could not make the decision for all time.  Leaders are mortal, ideologies are mortal, civilizations are mortal.  If, for instance, China became the Universal State of the Global Civilization, and decided to not only not expand outward but to violently prevent everyone from doing so, then Man would be confined to the Earth -- for the duration of the dominance of the Chinese Global Empire.  But the Chinese Global Empire would be unlikely to rule humanity forever, and a successor state might very well adopt a different policy. 

Even an immortal Emperor could not hold on to power forever.  All things pass, and the only way in which the decision could be truly final would be if the human race was annihilated at the same time that the Emperor fell from power.  This is of course possible, but hardly necessary, or even likely.

Knight then says that Wollheim

can't see that the same goofy idealism that made us welcome the atomic bomb (because it would lead to the world state and Utopia), urbanization, the federal highway program, and so on (Progress) will lead us to still greater triumphs of stupidity and greed if, God forbid, the program of interstellar conquest he cherishes should ever be carried out.

(emphasis mine)

To begin with, it is hardly "goofy idealism" to welcome any or all of the list of technological advances.  The "atomic bomb" was part of the general unlocking of the power of the atom, which among other things has given us nuclear energy.  Even the specifically-explosive aspect of nuclear energy turned out to be beneficial:  it ended the Pacific War and prevented the Cold War from developing into World War III.

"Urbanization" (which began thousands of years ago, and is thus hardly a recent development even from the POV of 1972) has enabled craft specialization, the development of markets and intellectual cross-fertilization on a very large scale.  Were it not for urbanization, we would not have developed general literacy, and there would be no forum within which Damon Knight could make this argument!

It is debatable whether the US Federal Interstate Highway System (which is of what Damon Knight speaks here, at the time of writing the enabling Act was only 16 years old) was an optimum solution to the problem of interstate cargo transportation and passenger travel (in point of fact it was meant as a solution to the problem of interstate military mechanized mobility, but like the Roman roads of two millennia earlier turned out to have many other useful applications), but it certainly was a solution.  The interstate highways make long-distance personal travel much easier, and today carry about 24 percent of all our highway traffic.

So all three strike me as mostly-good things, and if these be "stupidity and greed," make mine a moron miser sandwich!

But the real money line is

 if, God forbid, the program of interstellar conquest he cherishes should ever be carried out.

Aside from the assumption that human expansion through the Universe would necessarily constitute "conquest" in some evil militaristic sense, which is debatable and would also obviously depend on the motives and actions of some undetermined number of alien civilizations we might encounter, note that he's saying here that he doesn't WANT humanity to expand beyond the Earth.

And here we've arrived at the meat of the later Mundane SF Movement.  Damon Knight, coming from a more intellectually-rigorous era (and one with a fandom who on the average had a far better understanding of science), accepted the inevitable technological possibility of interplanetary and interstellar expansion:  it's built into the laws of physics.  Knight's error is that he imagines that the human race can decide not to do something, and make this decision stick for all humans and all time.  Geoff Ryman, who lives in a less intellectually-rigorous era and is dealing with far less well scientifically-educated fans, imagines expansion beyond the Earth to be made impossible by his personal fiat:  he does not understand that (and indeed gets cranky, in both senses of the word, when) the laws of physics do not support his emotionally pre-Copernican worldview.

There is also a general hatred of humanity at work here.  Why does Knight assume that human expansion to other worlds would logically be worse than those worlds remaining uninhabited, or inhabited by aliens, or expanded onto by aliens (the other options)?  The assumption operating here is that Nature Unspoiled is better than human colonization, and that alien colonization is better than human colonization, and at no point does he explain why, other than that we have been known to make mistakes.  Why should he assume that aliens wouldn't make the same mistakes -- or different and worse ones?

Damon Knight then goes on with a rant in support of "the new science-fiction writers" against the presumed assumptions of "old guard" science fiction, which is not well-justified either by the actual literary corpus or the logical demands of extraterrestrial expansion:

What the new science-fiction writers are telling us is precisely that a culture can't keep on growing geometrically forever; that Bigger isn't necessarily and always Better; that the quality of life is more important now than the quantity,

I have, in fact, read rather a lot of the "old" science-fiction, and I can assure you that not all (or even most of it) argues that a culture can "keep on growing geometrically forever" (indeed, much of it is precisely about the way in which growth is limited by available habitat, namely colonizable worlds), nor that "Bigger is necessarily and always Better" (more commonly, it argues that smarter is necessarily and always Better), nor that the quantity of life is more important than the quality.

and that we are faced with a whole congeries of unanswered and mostly unasked question about ourselves:  who are we?  where have we come from?  where are we going?  what is a man?  and how should he live?

Science fiction has mostly been primarily about just such questions since H. G. Wells modified it into its present form, some seventy-five years BEFORE Knight penned this critique.  Indeed, in part Wollheim's "cosmogony of the future" was written in answer to such questions.  Just because Knight didn't like the answers doesn't mean that the question hasn't been posed and answered many times already.


Well, we all know what happened.  The New Wave ended, and space opera came back strong, especially in science fiction novels.  To some extent the "new writing" dominated the magazines, though, and I believe that it is partly in consequence of this that the short story format has been dying out. 

I've noticed a prevalence, especially since 2000, of self-consciously "literary" short stories in the annual anthologies.  These stories tend to have gaping logical or scientific flaws and (in the worst cases) no discernable plot or even point to them, and it's easy to see why they are unloved by the fans.  So in this venue the "New Writers" indeed did win, though they don't seem to be having much joy in their triumph.

Meanwhile, space opera grows as a genre and spawns multi-book series and doorstopper books.  Among the practicioners who rose to prominence after 1972 have been Alan Dean Foster, Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, Stephen Baxter and David Weber.  Also, among the "Killer B's," Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and David Brin, all of whom had important publications before or around 1972, but whose careers didn't really take off until the 1970's and 1980's.  All of these have written futures which can clearly be fit into Wollheim's cosmogony, and all of them are wildly popular.

It may be relevant here that Damon Knight was one of the founders of, and Geoff Ryman a product of, the Clarion Writers' Workshops.  In a very real sense the Mundane SF Movement was founded to try and revive Knight's dream of a science-fiction future without space colonization -- and thankfully, it seems to be going the same way as the movement of the "new writers."

And science fiction marches on.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Song in a Minor Key" (C. L. Moore, 1957), followed by Commentary

"Song in a Minor Key"

(c) 1957 by C. L. Moore

Beneath him the clovered hill-slope was warm in the sun. Northwest Smith moved his shoulders against the earth and closed his eyes, breathing so deeply that the gun holstered upon his chest drew tight against its strap as he drank the fragrance of Earth and clover warm in the sun. Here in the hollow of the hills, willow-shaded, pillowed upon clover and the lap of Earth, he let his breath run out in a long sigh and drew one palm across the grass in a caress like a lover's.

He had been promising himself this moment for how long—how many months and years on alien worlds? He would not think of it now. He would not remember the dark spaceways or the red slag of Martian drylands or the pearl-gray days on Venus when he had dreamed of the Earth that had outlawed him. So he lay, with his eyes closed and the sunlight drenching him through, no sound in his ears but the passage of a breeze through the grass and a creaking of some insect nearby—the violent, blood-smelling years behind him might never have been. Except for the gun pressed into his ribs between his chest and the clovered earth, he might be a boy again, years upon years ago, long before he had broken his first law or killed his first man.

No one else alive now knew who that boy had been. Not even the all knowing Patrol. Not even Venusian Yarol, who had been his closest friend for so many riotous years. No one would ever know—now. Not his name (which had not always been Smith) or his native land or the home that had bred him, or the first violent deed that had sent him down the devious paths which led here—here to the clover hollow in the hills of an Earth that had forbidden him ever to set foot again upon her soil.

He unclasped the hands behind his head and rolled over to lay a scarred cheek on his arm, smiling to himself. Well, here was Earth beneath him. No longer a green star high in alien skies, but warm soil, new clover so near his face he could see all the little stems and trefoil leaves, moist earth granular at their roots. An ant ran by with waving antennae close beside his cheek. He closed his eyes and drew another deep breath. Better not even look; better to lie here like an animal, absorbing the sun and the feel of Earth blindly, wordlessly.

Now he was not Northwest Smith, scarred outlaw of the spaceways. Now he was a boy again with all his life before him. There would be a white-columned house just over the hill, with shaded porches and white curtains blowing in the breeze and the sound of sweet, familiar voices indoors. There would be a girl with hair like poured honey hesitating just inside the door, lifting her eyes to him. Tears in the eyes. He lay very still, remembering.

Curious how vividly it all came back, though the house had been ashes for nearly twenty years, and the girl—the girl ...

He rolled over violently, opening his eyes. No use remembering her. There had been that fatal flaw in him from the very first, he knew now. If he were the boy again knowing all he knew today, still the flaw would be there and sooner or later the same thing must have happened that had happened twenty years ago. He had been born for a wilder age, when men took what they wanted and held what they could without respect for law. Obedience was not in him, and so—

As vividly as on that day it happened he felt the same old surge of anger and despair twenty years old now, felt the ray-gun bucking hard against his unaccustomed fist, heard the hiss of its deadly charge ravening into a face he hated. He could not be sorry, even now, for that first man he had killed. But in the smoke of that killing had gone up the columned house and the future he might have had, the boy himself—lost as Atlantis now—and the girl with the honey-colored hair and much, much else besides. It had to happen, he knew. He being the boy he was, it had to happen. Even if he could go back and start all over, the tale would be the same.

And it was all long past now, anyhow; and nobody remembered any more at all, except himself. A man would be a fool to lie here thinking about it any longer.

Smith grunted and sat up, shrugging the gun into place against his ribs.


"Comments on 'Song in a Minor Key'"

(c) 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

Hopefully Northwest Smith needs no introduction:  he debuted in C. L. Moore's classic "Shambleau" (1933) and figures in about a dozen other stories.  He's one of the archetypal space wanderer characters, ancestral in concept to heroes such as Han Solo (to name his most famous memetic spawn).  Moore's character influenced many subsequent science fiction writers, especially Andre Norton.

This is in one respect an unusual Northwest Smith story, in that it's really just a vignette which gives some hints about his backstory.  We see Smith reflecting on his past and -- briefly -- regretting the act of violence which forced him to flee his old life and sweetheart and become an interplanetary outlaw.  He wonders if he could have chosen differently, given his nature.  Then, very much in character, he realizes that it is far too late for him to do anything about it, and that he must return to living his life the way it is, rather than the way it might have been.

That's a bare-boned description of the plot, but as written by the incomparable C. L. Moore it's so much greater than that.  Somehow, she managed to encapsulate in a few hundred words the essence of regret.  Evoking emotions so powerfully with such a swift sketch is the mark of a truly great stylist, and one with something important to say.  Compare with the doorstopper books and series which aren't really about anything, no matter how many hundred thousand words they take to fail to say anything.

What gives the vignette such power is that it touches to the heart of why C. L. Moore (and her fans) found Northwest Smith such an attractive character.  Namely that Smith is a strong and dangerous, but essentially good man with inner wounds, wounds which (implicitly) the right woman might be able to heal.  This is a common female fantasy, and one which in real life often leads to a woman falling for a very self-destructive (and, what's worse, other-destructive) person, under the delusion that he's "good deep down." 

What's interesting is that, while this obviously appealed to Moore's female fans (like Andre Norton), it also appealed to her male fans.  The female fans wanted to love him:  the male fans, of course, wanted to be him.  Who wouldn't want to be strong and smart and indomitable of spirit, even if the package came with a "Wanted" poster and the need to flee from one's past?

In Smith's case we know that he really is "good deep down," because (from other stories) we've seen his motivations:  he's often ruthful and sometimes wrathful, but not really evil, and he's often willing to fight to protect the (what he imagines to be) innocent (which is exactly how he gets into trouble when he meets the Shambleau).  So the fantasy is perhaps justified in his case, and thus all the more powerful.

We see in this story that Smith was far from innocent in his own ruin.  He obviously had wealth, education and social status:  he threw them away when he killed a man, possibly in a fight over his sweetheart.  Smith himself blames this on a lack of self-restraint and social restraint:  he is (as is obvious from his earlier stories) a "natural killer," someone who would be a sociopath if not restrained by his own moral code.  In this respect he's rather like (Ian Fleming's version of) James Bond, save that Smith's moral code is sterner than Bond's. 

Despite his general chivalry and strong sense of honor, he would not be a safe person with whom to be involved, either as a lover or a friend:  trouble seems to follow him (as Yarol has found more than once).  On the other hand, if one were already in trouble, he is a friend who could be counted upon to do his utmost to save one.  And because of his personal code, he's not a random killer:  he'd need a pretty good reason to attack you.  He's dangerous, but admirable, and if one knew him, one might want to be his friend.

Interestingly, C. L. Moore seems to have realized the way in which the fantasy was a bit self-destructive (as is the character himself:  he's to some extent seeking his own death when he flings himself into obviously-dangerous situations, but his inner vitality and will are too strong to let him die).  It may be relevant to this that she wrote the Northwest Smith stories before she married Henry Kuttner, and that previous to marriage they had a long-distance relationship.  Once she experienced what was really involved in being with a man, not just romantically but facing day-to-day challenges as partners in life, the romance of Byronic heroes faded for her.

Northwest Smith can be criticized, but never dismissed.  Like John Carter or Eric John Stark, he's an archetypal science-fiction hero, and one whose echoes will live on as long as does the genre.  Possibly, into the time when spacemen with a dark past really do ply the lanes between the planets.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

"All Cats Are Gray" (Andre Norton, 1953), with a Commentary

"All Cats Are Gray"

(c) 1953 by Andre Norton
(writing as "Andrew North")

Steena of the spaceways—that sounds just like a corny title for one of the Stellar-Vedo spreads. I ought to know, I’ve tried my hand at writing enough of them. Only this Steena was no glamour babe. She was as colorless as a Lunar plant—even the hair netted down to her skull had a sort of grayish cast and I never saw her but once draped in anything but a shapeless and baggy gray space-all.

Steena was strictly background stuff and that is where she mostly spent her free hours—in the smelly smoky background corners of any stellar-port dive frequented by free spacers. If you really looked for her you could spot her—just sitting there listening to the talk—listening and remembering. She didn’t open her own mouth often. But when she did spacers had learned to listen. And the lucky few who heard her rare spoken words—these will never forget Steena.

She drifted from port to port. Being an expert operator on the big calculators she found jobs wherever she cared to stay for a time. And she came to be something like the master-minded machines she tended—smooth, gray, without much personality of her own.

But it was Steena who told Bub Nelson about the Jovan moon-rites—and her warning saved Bub’s life six months later. It was Steena who identified the piece of stone Keene Clark was passing around a table one night, rightly calling it unworked Slitite. That started a rush which made ten fortunes overnight for men who were down to their last jets. And, last of all, she cracked the case of the Empress of Mars.

All the boys who had profited by her queer store of knowledge and her photographic memory tried at one time or another to balance the scales. But she wouldn’t take so much as a cup of Canal water at their expense, let alone the credits they tried to push on her. Bub Nelson was the only one who got around her refusal. It was he who brought her Bat.

About a year after the Jovan affair he walked into the Free Fall one night and dumped Bat down on her table. Bat looked at Steena and growled. She looked calmly back at him and nodded once. From then on they traveled together—the thin gray woman and the big gray tom-cat. Bat learned to know the inside of more stellar bars than even most spacers visit in their lifetimes. He developed a liking for Vernal juice, drank it neat and quick, right out of a glass. And he was always at home on any table where Steena elected to drop him.

This is really the story of Steena, Bat, Cliff Moran and the Empress of Mars, a story which is already a legend of the spaceways. And it’s a damn good story too. I ought to know, having framed the first version of it myself.

For I was there, right in the Rigel Royal, when it all began on the night that Cliff Moran blew in, looking lower than an antman’s belly and twice as nasty. He’d had a spell of luck foul enough to twist a man into a slug-snake and we all knew that there was an attachment out for his ship. Cliff had fought his way up from the back courts of Venaport. Lose his ship and he’d slip back there—to rot. He was at the snarling stage that night when he picked out a table for himself and set out to drink away his troubles.

However, just as the first bottle arrived, so did a visitor. Steena came out of her corner, Bat curled around her shoulders stole-wise, his favorite mode of travel. She crossed over and dropped down without invitation at Cliff’s side. That shook him out of his sulks. Because Steena never chose company when she could be alone. If one of the man-stones on Ganymede had come stumping in, it wouldn’t have made more of us look out of the corners of our eyes.

She stretched out one long-fingered hand and set aside the bottle he had ordered and said only one thing, “It’s about time for the Empress of Mars to appear again.”

Cliff scowled and bit his lip. He was tough, tough as jet lining—you have to be granite inside and out to struggle up from Venaport to a ship command. But we could guess what was running through his mind at that moment. The Empress of Mars was just about the biggest prize a spacer could aim for. But in the fifty years she had been following her queer derelict orbit through space many men had tried to bring her in—and none had succeeded.

A pleasure-ship carrying untold wealth, she had been mysteriously abandoned in space by passengers and crew, none of whom had ever been seen or heard of again. At intervals thereafter she had been sighted, even boarded. Those who ventured into her either vanished or returned swiftly without any believable explanation of what they had seen—wanting only to get away from her as quickly as possible. But the man who could bring her in—or even strip her clean in space—that man would win the jackpot.

“All right!” Cliff slammed his fist down on the table. “I’ll try even that!”

Steena looked at him, much as she must have looked at Bat the day Bub Nelson brought him to her, and nodded. That was all I saw. The rest of the story came to me in pieces, months later and in another port half the System away.

Cliff took off that night. He was afraid to risk waiting—with a writ out that could pull the ship from under him. And it wasn’t until he was in space that he discovered his passengers—Steena and Bat. We’ll never know what happened then. I’m betting that Steena made no explanation at all. She wouldn’t.

It was the first time she had decided to cash in on her own tip and she was there—that was all. Maybe that point weighed with Cliff, maybe he just didn’t care. Anyway the three were together when they sighted the Empress riding, her dead-lights gleaming, a ghost ship in night space.

She must have been an eerie sight because her other lights were on too, in addition to the red warnings at her nose. She seemed alive, a Flying Dutchman of space. Cliff worked his ship skillfully alongside and had no trouble in snapping magnetic lines to her lock. Some minutes later the three of them passed into her. There was still air in her cabins and corridors. Air that bore a faint corrupt taint which set Bat to sniffing greedily and could be picked up even by the less sensitive human nostrils.

Cliff headed straight for the control cabin but Steena and Bat went prowling. Closed doors were a challenge to both of them and Steena opened each as she passed, taking a quick look at what lay within. The fifth door opened on a room which no woman could leave without further investigation.

I don’t know who had been housed there when the Empress left port on her last lengthy cruise. Anyone really curious can check back on the old photo-reg cards. But there was a lavish display of silks trailing out of two travel kits on the floor, a dressing table crowded with crystal and jeweled containers, along with other lures for the female which drew Steena in. She was standing in front of the dressing table when she glanced into the mirror—glanced into it and froze.

Over her right shoulder she could see the spider-silk cover on the bed. Right in the middle of that sheer, gossamer expanse was a sparkling heap of gems, the dumped contents of some jewel case. Bat had jumped to the foot of the bed and flattened out as cats will, watching those gems, watching them and—something else!

Steena put out her hand blindly and caught up the nearest bottle. As she unstoppered it she watched the mirrored bed. A gemmed bracelet rose from the pile, rose in the air and tinkled its siren song. It was as if an idle hand played…. Bat spat almost noiselessly. But he did not retreat. Bat had not yet decided his course.

She put down the bottle. Then she did something which perhaps few of the men she had listened to through the years could have done. She moved without hurry or sign of disturbance on a tour about the room. And, although she approached the bed she did not touch the jewels. She could not force herself to that. It took her five minutes to play out her innocence and unconcern. Then it was Bat who decided the issue.

He leaped from the bed and escorted something to the door, remaining a careful distance behind. Then he mewed loudly twice. Steena followed him and opened the door wider.

Bat went straight on down the corridor, as intent as a hound on the warmest of scents. Steena strolled behind him, holding her pace to the unhurried gait of an explorer. What sped before them both was invisible to her but Bat was never baffled by it.

They must have gone into the control cabin almost on the heels of the unseen—if the unseen had heels, which there was good reason to doubt—for Bat crouched just within the doorway and refused to move on. Steena looked down the length of the instrument panels and officers’ station-seats to where Cliff Moran worked. On the heavy carpet her boots made no sound and he did not glance up but sat humming through set teeth as he tested the tardy and reluctant responses to buttons which had not been pushed in years.

To human eyes they were alone in the cabin. But Bat still followed a moving something with his gaze. And it was something which he had at last made up his mind to distrust and dislike. For now he took a step or two forward and spat—his loathing made plain by every raised hair along his spine. And in that same moment Steena saw a flicker—a flicker of vague outline against Cliff’s hunched shoulders as if the invisible one had crossed the space between them.

But why had it been revealed against Cliff and not against the back of one of the seats or against the panels, the walls of the corridor or the cover of the bed where it had reclined and played with its loot? What could Bat see?

The storehouse memory that had served Steena so well through the years clicked open a half-forgotten door. With one swift motion she tore loose her spaceall and flung the baggy garment across the back of the nearest seat.

Bat was snarling now, emitting the throaty rising cry that was his hunting song. But he was edging back, back toward Steena’s feet, shrinking from something he could not fight but which he faced defiantly. If he could draw it after him, past that dangling spaceall…. He had to—it was their only chance.

“What the….” Cliff had come out of his seat and was staring at them.

What he saw must have been weird enough. Steena, bare-armed and shouldered, her usually stiffly-netted hair falling wildly down her back, Steena watching empty space with narrowed eyes and set mouth, calculating a single wild chance. Bat, crouched on his belly, retreating from thin air step by step and wailing like a demon.

“Toss me your blaster.” Steena gave the order calmly—as if they still sat at their table in the Rigel Royal.

And as quietly Cliff obeyed. She caught the small weapon out of the air with a steady hand—caught and leveled it.

“Stay just where you are!” she warned. “Back, Bat, bring it back!”

With a last throat-splitting screech of rage and hate, Bat twisted to safety between her boots. She pressed with thumb and forefinger, firing at the spacealls. The material turned to powdery flakes of ash—except for certain bits which still flapped from the scorched seat—as if something had protected them from the force of the blast. Bat sprang straight up in the air with a scream that tore their ears.

“What…?” began Cliff again.

Steena made a warning motion with her left hand. “Wait!

She was still tense, still watching Bat. The cat dashed madly around the cabin twice, running crazily with white-ringed eyes and flecks of foam on his muzzle. Then he stopped abruptly in the doorway, stopped and looked back over his shoulder for a long silent moment. He sniffed delicately.

Steena and Cliff could smell it too now, a thick oily stench which was not the usual odor left by an exploding blaster-shell.

Bat came back, treading daintily across the carpet, almost on the tips of his paws. He raised his head as he passed Steena and then he went confidently beyond to sniff, to sniff and spit twice at the unburned strips of the spaceall. Having thus paid his respects to the late enemy he sat down calmly and set to washing his fur with deliberation. Steena sighed once and dropped into the navigator’s seat.

“Maybe now you’ll tell me what in the hell’s happened?” Cliff exploded as he took the blaster out of her hand.

“Gray,” she said dazedly, “it must have been gray—or I couldn’t have seen it like that. I’m colorblind, you see. I can see only shades of gray—my whole world is gray. Like Bat’s—his world is gray too—all gray. But he’s been compensated for he can see above and below our range of color vibrations and—apparently—so can I!”

Her voice quavered and she raised her chin with a new air Cliff had never seen before—a sort of proud acceptance. She pushed back her wandering hair, but she made no move to imprison it under the heavy net again.

“That is why I saw the thing when it crossed between us. Against your spaceall it was another shade of gray—an outline. So I put out mine and waited for it to show against that—it was our only chance, Cliff.

“It was curious at first, I think, and it knew we couldn’t see it—which is why it waited to attack. But when Bat’s actions gave it away it moved. So I waited to see that flicker against the spaceall and then I let him have it. It’s really very simple….”

Cliff laughed a bit shakily. “But what was this gray thing? I don’t get it.”

“I think it was what made the Empress a derelict. Something out of space, maybe, or from another world somewhere.” She waved her hands. “It’s invisible because it’s a color beyond our range of sight. It must have stayed in here all these years. And it kills—it must—when its curiosity is satisfied.” Swiftly she described the scene in the cabin and the strange behavior of the gem pile which had betrayed the creature to her.

Cliff did not return his blaster to its holder. “Any more of them on board, d’you think?” He didn’t look pleased at the prospect.

Steena turned to Bat. He was paying particular attention to the space between two front toes in the process of a complete bath. “I don’t think so. But Bat will tell us if there are. He can see them clearly, I believe.”

But there weren’t any more and two weeks later Cliff, Steena and Bat brought the Empress into the Lunar quarantine station. And that is the end of Steena’s story because, as we have been told, happy marriages need no chronicles. And Steena had found someone who knew of her gray world and did not find it too hard to share with her—someone besides Bat. It turned out to be a real love match.

The last time I saw her she was wrapped in a flame-red cloak from the looms of Rigel and wore a fortune in Jovan rubies blazing on her wrists. Cliff was flipping a three-figure credit bill to a waiter. And Bat had a row of Vernal juice glasses set up before him. Just a little family party out on the town


"Commentary on  'All Cats Are Gray'"

(c) 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

At first sight this is a fairly standard science-fiction story:  plucky heroes find derelict spaceship haunted by alien menace, defeat alien menace, gain love and fortune.  It's most obviously derivative of C. L. Moore's "Northwest Smith" series, with hints of Stanley G. Weinbaum.  The reason why this early work of Alice Mary ("Andre") Norton's is significant is the ways in which it specifically violates a major convention or character and plot, normal to the pulps of that era.

Namely, while the story has a hero and heroine, it is clearly the heroine who is the protagonist.  The story starts with the unnamed narrator talking about how much he admires Steena.  Steena is clearly a very intelligent woman who listens to rumors (and probably also researches data) to the point of being a highly-valued member of the spacefaring community.  Implied in her ability to move safely amont the "stellar-port dives" is a certain streetwise; and in the main story she demonstrates calm, courage, and quick reactions in the face of unknown danger.

What's more, Steena lacks many of the attributes of a typical pulp science fiction heroine.  She's neither beautiful nor seductive, and to the extent that she's being chased by men it's primarily for her knack at ferreting-out valuable information.  Note her fundamental independence:  she won't take drinks or other rewards from her male friends because she doesn't want to compromise her integrity and make them see her as in any way being like the other sort of female who would haunt predominantly-male bars.  The only gift she accepts is the cat Bat, and that is because she clearly likes cats, a lot -- and accepting a cat from a man doesn't have the same social implications as would accepting a drink from him.

When she finally does decide to team up with a man, she is the one to make the first move.  She clearly does so out of a desire to rescue him, to wit:

He’d had a spell of luck foul enough to twist a man into a slug-snake and we all knew that there was an attachment out for his ship. Cliff had fought his way up from the back courts of Venaport. Lose his ship and he’d slip back there—to rot. He was at the snarling stage that night when he picked out a table for himself and set out to drink away his troubles.

Which means that, if Steena had done nothing, Cliff probably would have gotten blind stinking drunk and then done something violently foolish, resulting in him being in even more trouble.  Steena tells him the orbit of the Empress of Mars, and then stows away aboard the ship, both to make sure that Cliff succeeds, and because even at this point she is probably attracted to him.

When they get to the ship, it is Steena who notices the alien, in part due to her own unusual vision, and in part because she pays attention to Bat's reactions.  Cliff is neither incompetent nor cowardly, but Steena is the one who takes charge, takes the blaster and shoots the alien.  Instead of being offended by Steena's presumption of what in most stories would have been male prerogatives, Cliff is clearly impressed by Steena to the point where -- a few weeks later -- he marries her.

Steena, in short, finds the derelict's coordinates, leads the expedition there, defeats the guardian monster, gets the guy, and (implicitly) lives happily ever after.  All pretty standard -- save for the gender flip.  But that gender flip meant a lot, in 1953. 

The premise was very obviously "What if a girl like an idealized version of me got to be the hero of an adventure and win a wonderful man?"  Which was revolutionary, for its time, simply because so many stories -- even ones written by female authors -- never let the heroine outshine the hero (even Edgar Rice Burroughs, who often had very strong heroines indeed, always matched them with stronger heroes).

There were exceptions, but usually the the exceptions were femme fatales of morally-dubious status -- they tended to be either out-and-out villainesses or at best anti-heroines by the standards of the day.  Steena's neither:  she's clearly a good person who finds spacefarers fascinating and goes out of her way to help them, without sacrificing her own integrity.

There's an element of personal wish-fulfillment here, of course.  But Steena's not that much of a Mary Sue:  Andre Norton doesn't give her ridiculous advantages, and well-establishes long before she takes charge in the fight against the invisible beast that she knows how to get respect from the spacefaring adventurers around whom she's been for years by that point.  Nor does she instantly morph into a beautiful seductress after she wins her fight and her man:  she marries the man, and dresses better (in part because they are now rich), that's all.  There's nothing really unbelievable about Steena.

Chronological Note:  Andre Norton fans may find it of interest that this story may well take place in her main future history, sometime many centuries after Star Guard , centuries after the Second Atomic War and the Big Burn, and centuries before The Sioux Spacemen, probably in the late 6th or early 7th millennium, during a period after the fall of (the earlier) Central Control.  For the evidence and argument, check out the Andre Norton Multiversal Timeline.

Final Note:  The title can also be seen as having the double meaning of arguing that intellect and character should be valued more than mere physical beauty when selecting a mate, referencing the saying that "all cats are gray in the dark."

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Ratchet Effect

"The Ratchet Effect -

Why Technological Progress and the Expansion of Man's Habitat is Irreversible"
(c) 2010, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior


A common science-fictional scenario is the post-apocalyptic story, in which some war or disaster has destroyed civilization and the human race must rebuild from a low-tech foundation. And in real history, we see abundant evidence that civilizations are mortal: Toynbee ( made a famous study of their life cycles.

This has led to a theory that humanity can never engage in the long-term colonization of any region (such as the Moon or the sea floor) which we could not survive in without an "advanced technology." (1) The obvious analogy is made with the Greenland colony of the Vikings, which perished when Greenland became too cold for medieval European farming technology.

However, if one looks at actual history, one will see that the actual loss of a technology, especially in the sense of it being lost to all humanity, is very rare. For instance, while the technology of civil engineering definitely declined in the post 5th-century AD Roman West, in what became Western Europe, it remained in practice in the East (2). As Robert Wright points out in Nonzero, it is rare for anything important to be forgotten by the human extended mind (

Why is this?

Knowledge As Self-Replicator

Technology is a form of knowledge, and knowledge is a self-replicator, whose habitat is the mind. A useful piece of technology -- such as the principle of the wheel or how to smelt and forge iron into tools -- unless it fails to spread at inception -- will be passed on to many other minds, and thus spread so widely that it is very difficult to exterminate (3).

This is why, as we observe the passage of centuries, we see a steady rise in human technology. This rise is independent of the occurrence of "dark ages" -- in fact, since a "dark age" is the early springtime of a new civilization, a period in which the cold restraints of the winter of the last civilization have been slipped, thus technological progress may actually accelerate in a dark age, as happened to agricultural technology in the Western Dark Age of the early medieval period (4). It is easily noted that each civilization starts from a higher level of technology than did its predecessor (compare Europe in the 7th-10th centuries AD to Greece in the 10th-7th centuries BC) and rises to greater heights (compare the Classical Greco-Roman world of the 1st century BC to the American-Anglosphere-European world of the 21st century AD).

The Technological Ratchet Effect, and Cultural Competition

This is because any human culture is based upon certain technologies, which for this reason are important to that culture. These technologies will be strongly embedded in customs which ensure that they are taught to the next generations, and hence cannot be forgotten. What is more, because "human culture" is composed of numerous "sub-cultures" (or will fragment into such given protracted political breakdown), if by horrid mischance some human culture manages to forget an important technology, it will simply be outcompeted and displaced by other human cultures which have retained that piece of technology (5).

The important point here is to realize that we speak of humanity as a whole, and in terms of centuries or even millennia. It is quite possible for an important piece of technology (such as the construction of aqueducts) to be lost locally (as it was in Northwestern Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire) for centuries. But note that building aqueducts is only important if one wishes to build large cities, and it was precisely in Northwestern Europe that cities were of only minor importance for everything save imperial administration (6). In Southeastern Europe and the Levant, the technology was never lost, in fact was taken further with wind and water-mills -- and eventually spread back into Northwestern Europe, to aid in the rebirth of the cities in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance. The modern West builds water supply systems which are far more sophisticated and extensive than anything Rome managed at her height (7).

Think of this as a "ratchet" effect. A ratchet gear permits motion in only one direction: it is easy to push forward, but extremely difficult to push backward. The technological ratchet is somewhat less reliable than the mechanical one, but it makes forgetting a technology extremely difficult. In general, once anything important to a civilization at a time is discovered, it will not be forgotten (8).

Failed Colonies

But what of failed colonies? We can point to examples in which attempts to implant higher civilization failed: Late Classical Britain, Viking Greenland, and the like. Surely this could happen to humanity if we attempt to plant colonies on other worlds?

Yes, it could. But locally, temporarily, and only to a limited extent (9).

First, note that Late Classical Britain succumbed not to natural cultural decay (the withdrawal of Roman authority led to political fragmentation but not technological decline) but rather to a barbarian invasion (that of the Angles and Saxons).  As for Viking Greenland, the problem there was a change in the climate: medieval Viking technology would have sufficed indefinitely to permit organized survival in the Greenland of the Medieval Climatic Optimum, but survival in the Greenland of the Little Ice Age was a much tougher proposition.

(Incidentally, climate change might have also been a factor in the fall of Roman Britain; note the extreme cold snap of 535-536, as described in There was also a barbarian invasion in the case of Greenland, in the form of the arrival of the Eskimos).

Secondly, note that neither Britain nor Greenland remained permanently barred to civilization. The modern West has recolonized both territories, in the case of Britain producing a brilliant culture which proved highly-influential in the spread of the West worldwide; in the case of Greenland, at least rejoining it to the wider cultural sphere.

Finally, note that in each case the catastrophes were local. The fall of Roman Britain into darkness did not mean the fall of the Classical legacy everywhere; its survival in Italy, Gaul and Ireland, in fact, proved decisive in eventual the restoration of civilization in Britain. The fall of Greenland did not mean the collapse of all Scandinavian-derived cultures, nor even of Norse seafaring. Because the technologies survived elsewhere in the mass human memory, they could eventually replicate back into the regions from which they had been extirpated.

A Spacefaring Analogy

Imagine that, in the far future, humanity has colonized a star system possessing no planets habitable to unprotected higher Earthlife, such that the maintenance of artificial habs is vital to human survival. Assume that there are at some point six cultural zones in this system; call them Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta. Each of these zones exploits various local resources, and trades them with the other habs.

Suddenly the star suffers a nova flare, causing great damage to the human civilization in that system. Alpha is caught directly in the flare and vaporized; Beta takes lethal thermal effects, and computers are scrambled throughout the system so that Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta all suffer losses of some of their knowledge. On Gamma and Delta the loss of knowledge is so extreme that people no longer know how to run the hab life support systems very well, and over the ensuing decades, most of the people in these colonies also perish. Epsilon manages to preserve life support knowledge through embedding in cultural ritual, and on Zeta they used superior hardened computers and hence very little knowlege is lost -- but with only limited trade from Epsilon and no trade from Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, the Zetans are impoverished.

Now, what are the effects of what has happened?

Well, to begin with, the surviving cultures, Epsilon and Zeta, are clearly not going to be vulnerable to further nova flares of similar magnitude. They have already survived the worst, and learned to buffer their cultures against the deletrious consequences of such a nova.

Secondly, Zeta has both a clear motive and opportunity to attempt the recolonization of Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. This may be slow due to limited resources, and of course in the case of Alpha there is a lack of infrastructure and Beta perhaps a lack of optimism about operations so close to a lethally-variable star, but such recolonization is inevitable barring an immediate recurrence of the catastrophe.

Thirdly, though the knowledge on Epsilon may be limited to bare-bones survival tech, it won't stay that way for long. The technologies lost to the nova flare will return, in the form of copies carried by Zetan traders; this is inevitable even if the Zetans don't want it to happen, because people will accidentally say too much, or deliberately defect: and in any case, the Epsilonians will be shown by example what is possible.

On Gamma and Delta, small populations may survive. We may suppose for the sake of argument that the population of Gamma completely fails (a "Greenland colony"), while on Delta ("Iceland") a small population persists using less-than-optimum life support techniques in straitened circumstances.

Eventually, the culture of Zeta becomes decadent and inward-looking, but not before the Epsilonians have learned Zetan technologies, perhaps from ambitious Zetan engineers who seek opportunities no longer available in their moribund society. Their culture reborn by the influx of Zetan ideas, the Epsilonians trade with both Delta and Zeta, recolonize Beta and Gamma, and eventually not only build new habitats in the long-lost Alpha region, but go on to found new colonies at Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa and Lambda! And the new civilization, aware of the nova peril, hardens all its habs from the start, so that future novae will do far less damage to their economy.

How long does this take?

Who knows? Decades, centuries, millennia. The point is that something like this is fairly inevitable (10). And if things went worse in this system (call it Aleph), no doubt it would have been re-colonized from Systems Beth or Gimel. This or that pocket of a self-replicator may be extirpated, but extermination is far more difficult.


Science marches on. Technological progress is irreversible. Catastrophes are local, and recovery inevitable. Assuming that the human race is not annihilated, we have nowhere to go but up.



(1) -  Which of course begs the question of what constitutes an "advanced" technology, as opposed to an ordinary one.  A moment's thought shows that the "advancement" of a technology is always relative to the overall level of advancement of that technology in that civilization:  thus, to people living in the year 1850, coal-fired steam locomotives and simple mechanical lathes are "advanced" technologies, while to people living in the year 1900, they are "ordinary" technologies and to people living in 1950 they are "old" technologies.  The same logic applies to high-density integrated circuits:  "advanced" today, they will probably be "ordinary" in 2050 and "old" by 2100.

(2) - Many of the common implicit assumptions about the rise and fall of civilization are overly parochial to the Mediterranean and European world (the fall of the Western Roman Empire was a local catastrophe, and even around parts of Europe and the Mediterranean (specifically in Eastern Europe and around the Black Sea basin) the level of civilization continued to climb in the centuries immediately after the fall of Rome.  They also tend to be too much focused on things which emotionally or politically affected scholarly chroniclers:  in particular, they miss the immense advances in power and agricultural technologies that spread through Europe and the Mediterranean in the last half of the 1st Millennium CE, because monastic scholars didn't often concern themselves with such grubby base mechanic details. 

This is ironic, since the very monasteries in which the scholars were writing their chronicles were centers of the invention and diffusion of such technologies, and, had they appreciated how important these technologies were to become, they would have proclaimed their achievements to the greater glory of their Mother Church.  But the Medieval Church had inherited Neo-Platonism from the Classical world, and consequently viewed these technological achievements as things of which to be philosophically ashamed rather than proud.  I strongly suspect that this attitude was more common the higher one rose in the Church, since monks who were themselves the children of peasants and artisans probably took a more positive view of labor-saving and labor-multiplying devices.

(3) - Think of the idea as a fast-breeding life form.  We have difficulty enough eradicating destructive memes, such as Communism, Naziism and Islamism:  consider then how hard it is to eradicate a constructive or even an essential meme, such as how to farm in a medieval society, or how to efficiently and safely generate oxygen and hydrogen from mined ices for a hab located on Callisto.  Cultural selection by survival of the fittest works against the eradication of the essential meme:  any settlement that starts to lose the meme will begin to fail and die, while those which keep and grow the meme will succeed and reproduce.

(4) - Classical Greco-Roman labor-saving technology suffered from the assumption that a large percentage of the population were "natural" slaves and that keeping them at slave labor was essential to the maintenance of civil order.  Hence Greek and Roman philosophers and emperors saw advances in such technology as <i>un</i>desirable, as potential threats to the civil peace.  As the Empire broke down, it became increasingly difficult to get and keep slaves, and the central authority which could suppress technological progress was replaced by a multi-national feudalism in which any one Power which sought to rein in such progress would simply be outcompeted by others.

What technologies are our assumptions likewise suppressing, which would flourish with the fall of Western Civilization and the Springtime of its successor Civilizations?  Nuclear energy and propulsion are obvious candidates, and there are bound to be many more.

This is not to say that the fall of a Civilization is an inherently good thing:  it is accompanied by horrible human suffering and the loss of much accumulated knowledge.  While core technologies are rarely lost, peripheral ones may be forgotten, and many beautiful albiet non-essential knowledge (particularly art, music, poetry and prose) may be lost forever.

Better for a Civilization not to suppress useful technologies, that it may live all the longer in peace and prosperity, rather than fall to the Barbarians.

(5) - To put it another way, the fall of a Civilization is the cultural analogue of a biological mass extinction event.  Those cultures which survive the fall will undergo an evolutionary pulse, rapidly re-radiate, and fill most of the now-empty niches.  Note how soon after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire rose the first barbarian kingdoms:  Merovingian France, Ostrogothic Italy, and Visigothic Spain.  Power politics abhors a vacuum. 

Also note how the monasteries rapidly morphed from religous retreats to scholastic-technological libraries, museums and then research institutions.  When people know that something was once possible to do, they will try to do it again in the future.  The fall of the Roman Empire was really more a collapse of order and trade than of technology.

(6) - Priorities changed when the Empire fell.  This resulted in a loss of technologies which required large political units to function, but a gain of technologies which could be applied locally.  Great aqueducts (for example) required a general absence of war in their vicinities (else the next invading army would simply wreck one's laboriously-built waterworks as part of the general despoilation of one's lands); mills and iron plows, on the other hand, could respectively be rebuit with relative ease or hidden from the invaders.  Likewise, small Early Medieval polities lacked the labor to build miles-long aqueducts, but once they knew the techniques could construct watermills, craft horse-collars, or forge iron-bladed plows with local resources.

In fact, the breakdown of international trade meant that one could no longer selectively farm each crop on the soil best suited to it, even if said soil were hundreds of miles from the point of consumption:  now, one had to learn how to make the best possible use of the farmland close enough to one's local military forces for such forces to meaningfully protect and patrol.  Hence, there was a strong pressure to devise and adopt a more advanced agricultural technology.  Because Medieval Europe was balkanized, once long-distance trade began to return with the revival of Britain, France and Germany, economic competition then rewarded successful early adopters and penalized the (literal) stick-in-the-muds.

(7) - The technological superiority of Western to Classical Greco-Roman Civilization is utterly-obvious now (we fly into orbit while they merely rowed and sailed around the coasts of their world) but came as a big surprise to the men of the 15th century, who suddenly began to realize that they could do many sorts of things (one of them to sail across oceanic expanses) which were impossible to the men of the Roman Empire.  Europe had been so long overshadowed by its Roman past that Medieval Europe had not noticed that they had already attained a more advanced technology:  this advance was further masked by the fact that Medieval scholars generally paid no attention to technological context.  Note the many Medieval romances which depict Julius Caesar and his men as clad in armor and riding warhorses utterly unknown and far superior to any cavalry, actually available to the Romans of a thousand years past.

(8) - The stipulation "important to a civilization at a time" is vital, because many things not very important to the civilization on a fundamental cultural or economic level will be forgotten.  For instance, we have lost large parts of the corpus of Classical Literature, simply because much of it was irrelevant to the cultural and economic survival and vitality of the people of the Medieval world.  We did not, however, lose much if any high-level Classical marriage or property law, since such was absolutely necessary to maintaining the economic and political order.  The monks failed to copy many secondary literary works, but they did not fail to copy and recopy legal codes.

(9) - It is important to grasp that this or that extra-terrestrial colony might fail, without necessarily causing the failure of all the others.  There is a tendency by pessimistic writers on the topic to implicitly assume that one and only one such colony will ever be founded, and its failure mean the eternal failure of Mankind to expand beyond the Earth, or conversely that if one such colony fails, it means that all such colonies will fail.  Neither assumption makes much sense.

(10) - I'm not trying to be flippant, or blind to the obvious death and suffering involved in my scenario.  What I'm doing is taking a long-term cultural-evolutionary viewpoint.  Evolution is not necessarily a kind process, but nevertheless in the long run it tends to result in improved adaptation to one's environment, whether that environment is the Mediterranean of millennia ago or extrasolar planetary systems of millennia hence.