|Nonfiction about sf: Adam Hilger, 1990, 184pp ...|
another Dave Langford review.
"A fascinating study of the role of science and scientists in science fiction", says the dignified blurb. Fair enough, but ...
The sections into which this review is divided deal with aspects of its central theme from a number of different perspectives. I do not offer a particular argument and therefore do not come to a specific conclusion. It is up to readers to reach their own views. Each paragraph was written by a different Langford pseudonym; it is this diversity that, in my opinion, distinguishes this review from others that have dealt with similar subjects. No attempt has been made to tackle any thorny issue ...
I have just been paraphrasing, quite closely but doubtless unfairly, a chunk of the book's preface. As a writing method this non-directed approach has its advantages, especially if the collaborators aren't speaking to each other. However, without any coherent line of argument or definite conclusion in mind, one and one's co-authors will clearly have a tough job producing chapters which add up to a real book.
On the whole, Close Encounters? does not add up. Some bits are naturally more interesting than others. Let's take it chapter by chapter.
1. Science and the rise of science fiction.
The all too familiar investigation of "proto sf", ingeniously wrong-footing the reader by starting off with quite a bit of Daedalus/Icarus and Apuleius and Lucian before declaring the classics to be of no relevance to this book. Several more oldies like Swift are hauled in and summarily dismissed; then it's Mary Shelley, Poe, Verne, Wells, Gernsback, Campbell, straying off into mysterious accounts of the New Wave and Tolkien (whose "influence on science fiction [is] enormous"), until science-cum-sf culminates with Gregory Benford.
2. The science in science fiction.
Some pleasant opening pages on imaginary science and real science (almost exclusively physics) turned to sf ends. Mission of Gravity, Dragon's Egg, Ringworld ... In this context one can't expect much on literary quality (though Doc Smith and James Blish come in for a few knocks), but a scientist looking at the Ringworld would do well at least to mention that the structure requires an impossibly strong material.
A few pages later, Arthur C.Clarke's space elevator is given the nod since the little difficulty of tensile strength -- of producing a cable which will support several thousand miles of its own weight -- is "the sort of problem that some future generation of materials technologists might well overcome". But the problem seems radical, involving the ultimate theoretical strengths of interatomic bonds. How light can a strong material be, and vice-versa? Could metallic hydrogen ever be made stable and tough? Or the unstable pseudo-element positronium (one electron, one positron, no heavy nucleons)? None of these ramifications is discussed.
After which, Clarke's Tales from the White Hart are regarded with puzzlement as perhaps not "real" science but "simply elaborate pieces of scientific patter". A false dichotomy: they are jokes, not fearfully good ones but in their way rather educational. Extrapolating an isolated fragment of real science into an obviously impossible gadget should stimulate any bright student into wondering precisely why it doesn't work. (All three authors of Close Encounters? happen to be university lecturers.)
Further, random-seeming examples follow, like a discussion of teleportation which skips neatly over the fundamental snags to rehash Larry Niven's entertaining but decidedly secondary speculations on the side-effects of conservation laws.
3. The Time Factor.
Having so far avoided getting to grips with science, the current author (Shallis? His 1982 On Time is plugged) opts for a substantial but equation-free summary of relativity. Quick, we need an sf reference: "What cannot happen is acceleration to speeds greater than the speed of light, such as occurs in A.E.van Vogt's story 'The Storm' (1943)." This is tokenism; not a word more is said or hinted about "The Storm".
Big guns are brought to bear on Planet of the Apes for fudging its science with a final trip backward in time from the apeish future ... but here is where a lay reader would like some insight into why causality violation is not on, rather than the flatly authoritarian "Relativity does not permit the return journey ..."
The examples multiply and are generally entertaining, but a trend is visible. Two-thirds of the authors are movie buffs. Sf writing, whose gimmicks can often be discussed in terms of the hard sciences, is giving way to movies (generally too cavalier with science to be worth such analysis). In a flash of null-A logic it emerges that most sf has to do with the future, and is therefore relevant to the "time" subject of this chapter, so that mention is due to such celebrations of temporal science as Blade Runner and Westworld. Glory, glory.
4-6. Domesticating science; The scientist as regular guy; The
real worlds of science fiction.
In another part of the collaboration, we enter what is almost a different book: a socio-historical study of the movies' images of science and in particular the scientists.
(Mere prose has suddenly been left so far behind that you could never deduce from this scholarly work -- despite the presence of a bibliography, "filmography" and index -- that Boulle's Monkey Planet, Campbell's "Who Goes There?", Clarke's "The Sentinel", Finney's The Body Snatchers or Matheson's The Shrinking Man existed before their cinematic offspring, or indeed at all.)
Scientists vs. the military. Scientists as dreamers, as prophets, as "the cleverest man in town". Mad scientists and their merely eccentric cousins. Hubristic scientists who meddle in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Scientists allied with the military ... We meet them all again in a series of potted movie critiques which make for a pleasant if sometimes inconsequential read. It's legitimate to jettison critical rigour when considering movies as cultural indicators rather than works of art, which is presumably how we come to have a page or so transcribed from the unspeakable Plan 9 from Outer Space. (But apart from its having the same director, I can't see what the non-SF Glen or Glenda? is doing here.)
The authors show their vaunted diversity by, for example, quoting a passage of dialogue from the minor film Phantom of Space twice in successive chapters with conflicting interpretations and without attempting to make the different transcriptions consistent. The same two chapters both describe Invasion of the Body Snatchers, at a total length which seems inordinate for such a slim book. But that's diversity for you.
I enjoyed these chapters. Reacting to the confused and often contradictory signals put out by movie sf, the authors leap deftly from one interesting generalization to another, but would surely be hard put to weave all this together into a conclusion. Ah, I was forgetting ...
7-8. True gods, false idols; Green nightmares.
Despite a camouflaging feint towards C.S.Lewis at the start of chapter 7, movies still predominate in these summaries of the religious angle and the eco-disaster. The anti-materialist Lewis, by the way, might have regarded the spacecraft in Out of the Silent Planet as "merely a device", but he nevertheless devoted two chapters to an evocation of that ship and that Wonderful Journey to Mars. (And while I'm in nitpicking mood, is it really necessary to refer throughout to the monolith of 2001 as an obelisk? "A tall, four-sided, tapering pillar topped with a pyramid," remarks my dictionary.)
Theologically, the author or authors' own viewpoint seems rather tendentious. "The danger of a film like ET lies not in its possible blasphemy but in its subverting imagery and in its effect of undermining traditional religious thought." To reach this position one first has to take the cheap religious parallels in ET seriously, to assume their insidious influence, and then to be quite sure that the undermining of traditional religion is a bad thing -- a point which would be hotly argued by an awful lot of sf writers.
But then, there's nothing like religion to make sane people gibber and drool. The "god-like centre" in the mother-ship of Close Encounters is explained thus: "This is the holy of holies, which in the Judaic tradition became charged with electricity when at its most hallowed." I recognize that tradition: they are referring not to the Biblical account of the unfortunate sod Uzzah who touches the Ark of the Lord and is struck dead, but to a certain bestseller's hilarious interpretation of the Ark as a high-voltage capacitor which discharges to earth through the impious (while strangely failing to electrocute the "official", though no better insulated, Ark-bearers). I'm sure Erich von Däniken is delighted to have entered the Judaic tradition.
Anyway, this religious chapter comes to the cheering conclusion (yes, conclusion) that sf "explores the deep issues of our time as widely as does any fiction." Thanks, guv.
The closing eco-doom section lists most of the expected celluloid holocausts, nods to Earth Abides and The Sheep Look Up, makes a number of entirely worthy and unexceptionably Green remarks, manages to convey that Lucifer's Hammer was a 1977 disaster movie, and winds down with a portentous retelling of The Birds which ends the book so abruptly that
|First published in Foundation 52, 1991.|