Gravity Is Not Science Fiction, but It’s One Hell of a Ride

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At this point, to review Alfonso Cuaròn’s masterpiece, Gravity, would be redundant. Pretty much everything there is to be said about it – awe-inspiring, hopeful, terrifying, beautiful, and so much more – has been said by reviewers far more successful and talented than myself. Suffice it to say that I’ve never seen its like before, and will be digging my fingernails from my thighs for weeks to come. If you don’t go and see it in the cinema, you will be doing yourself a disservice.

Much has also been said about its indebtedness to prior movies set in space, almost all of which are science fiction. As a result of its influences and setting, the film itself has been categorised by a number of critics as such. It’s even been dubbed a “space opera”, which sounds somewhat odd to anyone who’s ever actually read science fiction. It’s an understandable mistake to make, but a mistake nonetheless. Gravity is a disaster movie, a drama set in space.  It is not science fiction.

Sci fi takes improbabilities and impossibilities, asks us to suspend our disbelief, then uses those scenarios as a mirror for ourselves and our society. Gravity, on the other hand, presents a clear view of human response to adversity in a physically distant but completely plausible scenario.  There is no suspension of disbelief required, partly as a result of Cuaròn and his team’s virtuoso filmmaking, but also because of the sheer humanity and connection Bullock’s performance establishes between the audience and her character. Here, there are no grandiose themes except as background, the film does not concern itself with issues or ask the Big Questions in the way science fiction so often does. The question which animates and drives tension throughout the film is “can she make it back home?”

The stark message which precedes Gravity’s balletic opening 12-minute shot is that “Life in space is impossible.” And it conveys the cosmic awe and almost surreal beauty of our unforgiving, Newtonian universe better than any film to date. There is the constant sense of wonder there too, and terror, not only at the life-threatening situations its heroes find themselves in but also at the obviousness of their insignificance – and the insignificance of our pale blue dot with its fragile atmosphere hanging suspended in the night. Even faced with oblivion and drifting into the void, George Clooney’s jetpacking Major Kowalski wonders at the beauty of the sun on the Ganges.

Its sense of awe and wonder at the unforgiving beauty of space is as universal as the journey of suffering, struggle and redemption at the centre of the plot. It’s a feeling captured best in another recent film, The Europa Report, which tells the story of a manned, privately-funded mission to the eponymous moon of Jupiter. As you’d expect, disaster strikes; but the most surprising thing about the film is that, like Gravity, in the end it is profoundly uplifting. Despite all the terror, death, and destruction depicted, the furthering of our innate curiosity and wonder at the universe is something to be celebrated. It’s what makes it all worth it.

This celebration of the wonder of space exploration, whilst acknowledging the existential terror of being separated from the only home we’ve ever known, cast adrift into the black airlessness surrounding it, is something Gravity shares with much science fiction across many media. It is never a question of whether they – or we – should be up there, but of how we can overcome the adversity inherent in that exploration. Like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, like Kubrick’s 2001, like Tarkovski’s Solaris, it’s the journey, what we see and learn along the way, that counts.

So Gravity is not science fiction. But it stands upon the shoulders of giants like Ridley Scott’s Alien and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Cuaròn even acknowledges his debt to Scott in the credits). The tension it elicits between the incredible grace, the beauty of earth hanging in George Clooney’s visor and the violence of debris ripping apart our tenuous footholds beyond the earth’s atmosphere sums up our relationship to the manned investigation of the cosmos. It might be dangerous, it might even kill us, but the view is incredible.

Science Fiction’s Queer Problem

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Never let it be said that Stonewall aren’t pushing for marriage equality everywhere. Kronos included.

Sci fi has a problem with gay and lesbian characters. This is especially true of TV science fiction, but print is almost as guilty, and most games with a sci fi flavour are exercises in testosterone-fueled head-stomping (which, while good fun, does not generally make for nuanced or diverse characters). I can probably name on the fingers of maybe both my hands the number of gay or lesbian characters I’ve come across in the genre as a whole, across all media. For a category of fiction predicated on imagining worlds stranger than and off at an angle to our own, it seems a rather glaring failing to exclude the minority aspects of human sexual identity from the vast majority of its stories. With a few notable, excellent exceptions, gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters are simply not present in science fiction. And that’s a problem.

There’s a throwaway exchange in an episode of that wonderful, short-lived, and much loved space Western, Firefly, which provides a very good example of this issue; not in itself, but in the reaction it engenders in its gay and lesbian viewers. Mal Reynolds (the captain of the eponymous smuggling ship and its crew) and a brothel madame whose house he’s agreed to defend during the course of the episode are flirting over some very pretty handguns, when she asks him if he’s “sly”. To make the neologistic slang perfectly clear to the audience, she quickly follows with “…’cause I’ve got my boys…”, making it equally clear that being “sly” – i.e. gay – is simply a fact of existence even out there on the rugged frontier of the far-flung future. It’s merely an explanation she suggests for Mal’s standoffishness, and a potential business transaction. The avowedely heterosexual Captain is of course quick to reassure her of his attraction towards the fairer sex, followed by a roll in the hay just to make certain, but those few lines were enough to send a shock all the way up my spine when I first watched the episode.

That shock will be familiar to any readers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or otherwise not heterosexually-inclined. It’s the feeling of being recognised, of being treated not as a marginal or external part of society, but as an integral, everyday part of it – however small. It’s the same reaction, in a far smaller context, as the visceral, joyous response I saw in the faces and on the cheeks of my friends when Barack Obama mentioned gay people in his election-night victory speech in 2008 (this was before he started reading our email). It was a powerful, though brief moment. It told every LGBT person watching, in and outside the US, that we were no longer outsiders, no longer an Other. The President of the United States had extended his arms and welcomed us into society. Even if some people still didn’t get it, we did. In a few short, completely incidental lines of dialogue in one scene, Joss Whedon manages to achieve the same effect, albeit on a much smaller stage.

But, wonderful as the initial excitement of inclusion is, it’s problematic in and of itself. It shouldn’t be that much of a shock merely to be acknowledged; least of all by a genre that often prides itself on pushing social boundaries and dealing with a diverse range of identities and social frameworks. Science fiction is supposed to get there ahead of reality, not the other way around.

There are any number of shows, books, or games – frankly, most of the genre – to which I could turn for examples of LGBT characters’ marginalisation or simple nonexistence in the worlds sci fi authors and screenwriters create. But if any one property, universe, or franchise is to be singled out on these grounds, it must be the grandfather of all modern TV sci fi, Star Trek.

One of the great things about Star Trek and its spin-off series and films was its ability to push boundaries, challenge social conventions, and do so in a way that still made it one of the most popular shows ever on American television. It was the single most progressive show on television for all of its truncated, three-season run. It had a woman, and a black woman at that, doing the same competent, professional job as her male counterparts; not to mention Russian navigator, Chekov, and the ever-fabulous Asian helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei). It even had the first ever on-screen interracial kiss on American airwaves. When Nichelle Nichols informed Martin Luther King Jr. of her plans to quit the show and move to stage acting after the first season, he persuaded her to stay, explaining that she was on TV showing the world “how we should be seen every day”. Her representation of a strong, confident black woman on equal footing with her mostly white, male colleagues was incredibly important at a time when black Americans still lived under – and were fighting against – the awful reality of segregation. Unsurprisingly, she stayed.

As a vehicle for Gene Roddenberry’s utopian, post-racial vision of the future, Star Trek didn’t just break the mould, it vapourised it.

Given how much of a struggle it was to get that first kiss between Nichols’ and Shatner’s characters to air in the US (it was initially cut from some syndicated broadcasts), you wouldn’t expect any overtly LGBT characters to show up in the original series of Star Trek. George Takei’s shirtless swashbuckling was about as much as they could get away with. The 1960s were the decade of Stonewall and the start of the modern LGBT rights movement, but the cause hadn’t progressed far enough for any network to broach the topic in a primetime show.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is another matter entirely.

Launched in 1987, TNG is often viewed as the point where Star Trek really took off as a TV franchise. It entrenched a multinational, multi-racial, and multi-species crew in the minds of another generation of enthralled kids who stayed up late to watch, eyes glued to the screen. For me, and legions of fans, it’s one of the finest long-running series ever broadcast, up there with The West Wing, The Wire, and Battlestar Galactica (the reboot). The utopian, positive vision of the future Gene Roddenberry saw us reaching for if we could only conquer a few of our baser inclinations is still as relevant today as then. Modern TV sci fi should take a lesson. I could go on for pages about how brilliant it is as a show, but I won’t. That isn’t what this is about.

In light of how great TNG was at dealing with high-concept issues like the nature of humanity and sentience, slavery, or civil liberties and McCarthyism, it seems very odd that the show never deals with anything relating to LGBT issues other than tangentially. There’s an episode where Riker, who assumed Kirk’s duty of making “first contact” with every buxom alien woman in the galaxy, falls for a member of a race which only has one gender – and which treats their few citizens who believe themselves to have a binary-type gender as mentally ill. It’s a decent analysis-by-proxy of trans issues, but that’s all there is. One episode. For seven series. With hundreds of supporting characters and a large group of main characters to choose from, they couldn’t have slipped one or two in? It’s statistically impossible that at least a few of the supporting characters wouldn’t have been partial to the same gender. But, except for one female-only romance in Deep Space 9 which ended after an episode and was in itself illicit for reasons other than the fact Lieutenant Dax was kissing a woman, not a single character in any Star Trek series or film has been openly gay or lesbian. (As an aside: sci fi seems far more comfortable with lesbian romance than gay; probably something to do with the assumed audience being mostly straight and male, thus supposedly titillated by the idea.)

There are two reasons for this lack of representation. The hand-wringing, slightly mealy-mouthed explanation given by Gene Roddenberry when asked about the subject was that because people in his future didn’t care about sexuality, it didn’t need to be shown (despite straight male and female characters having sex all the time). Then there’s the real one, which is that ABC executives, all the way up to the end of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2004, were phenomenally uncomfortable with showing, or even implying the possibility of, same-sex couples on-screen. They figured it was a money-loser, was too controversial for US audiences, and so vetoed any real attempt at including gay characters in the franchise. Deep Space 9’s Cardassian tailor Garak, for instance, was supposed to be bisexual, but ABC vetoed the idea. To his credit, Andy Robinson, who played Garak, didn’t take this lying down and made up for it by flirting heavily with one of the more attractive male lead characters (Siddig El Fadil’s Dr Julian Bashir) non-stop for 7 series.

Somehow even more fabulous than Sulu. He can still kill you with his little finger though.

Whether it was cowardice or prejudice on the part of network executives, the idea that audiences would automatically reject any explicitly LGBT characters was enormously powerful even in the ‘90s and early 2000’s. It’s likely it persists to this day, given how few non-heterosexual characters there are in current shows. On TV, it was generally easier for sci fi to simply allegorise potentially uncomfortable issues such as sexuality via alien races and speak to general civil rights debates without addressing the real meat of the matter. J. Michael Straczynski’s epic Babylon 5 is probably the only show I can think of which had an unabashedly bisexual character in the form of Commander Susan Ivanova – an incredibly badass, no-nonsense career officer and the titular station’s second in command. She’s the only long-term, central character of a successful sci fi series I can think of whose sexuality is both non-heteronormative and where it isn’t treated as an issue. There’s no debate, no discussion, and it’s given in one line, after which no more is said. So while Straczynski’s addressing the issue is laudable, it isn’t used to reflect on contemporary debates surrounding the topic.

It’s worth mentioning that there is some promising evidence of increased diversity of characters in more recent  sci fi shows. Caprica, for instance, had a relatively major character (a tough mob assassin) who was married to a man (also a mobster). The two men’s relationship was simply there, without comment or any indication something was out of place, while still being very much present as a part of the show’s fabric. Which is how it should be. Sadly, it was cancelled after the first series, continuing the grand tradition of SyFy killing off good, big-concept sci fi for vapid fare like Warehouse 13, and so there’s a big gap to be filled.

Print, on the other hand, has less of an excuse. Authors are always subject to a similar type of pressure from publishers to produce books which the company believes will sell, urged to write out contentious or potentially difficult characters, ideas, and situations to give their books a broader appeal. That being said, they have significantly more creative control of the final manuscript than screenwriters and directors, so “the publishers made me do it” is not really an excuse for the non-appearance of LGBT characters in most written science fiction. There are certainly many more individual authors whose books and characters have some flavour of non-heteronormativity to them, such as the late, great Iain (M.) Banks’ Culture universe, where people can change their gender at will. Ursula LeGuin, China Mièville, and Samuel R. Delaney also address issues of sexuality and gender politics in their work, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War adroitly disrupts its readers preconceptions of sexual normalcy. I’d recommend Delaney’s Dhalgren if you like having your mind blown in a slightly uncomfortable fashion. But however excellent these individual texts might be, they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.

Despite the aforementioned exceptions, there are very few honest-to-god gay or lesbian characters in literary science fiction. There are, as always, myriad reasons for this deficit, but apart from publisher pressure to write to a particular demographic – which assumes that white, straight men can’t enjoy any characters which aren’t essentially like them – the two major ones are the type of people who are assumed to read sci fi, and the type of people who are generally perceived to write it. Both of these categories can, again, be boiled down to “straight, white men”.

Of course, in reality that’s completely wrong. Women and people of all races, sexualities, and gender identities read, write, and love science fiction. But it’s the perception that the only people who like or read science fiction are male, generally around middle age, and love breasts to the point where, as with David Brin’s Uplift, they are almost the only feature female characters are given. And perception – both audience-specific and generalised in the aether of public opinion – does help shape culture just as much as the people who produce the novels, films, TV series, comics, and games that make up most cultural output in the genre. So in fact the problem of LGBT character representation in science fiction is a problem of patriarchy and gender as much as, if not more than, homophobia/transphobia – real or perceived.

Sexism and patriarchy in sci fi is another issue that’s far too large for a single blog post, or at least for the rest of this one. It is, however, a good demonstration of the fact that LGBT issues also tend to be women’s issues. If the market for sci fi is perceived to be entirely composed solely of white, straight men over 35, then publishers will continue to sign authors who produce work they believe caters to that market, and authors will feel pressure to conform to its supposed demands.

The fact that some of the greatest, most successful and lauded sci fi novelists are women – Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E. Butler, and Anne McCaffrey, to name but a few – and that the primary readership for “young-adult” science fiction novels like The Hunger Games and Catching Fire is female (as my 14 year old sister will attest) seems to have escaped publishers. Against this background things are, frustratingly, getting worse. No novel by a female author has won a Nebula Award since 2011, and there is a growing sense of disenfranchisement and exclusion of female authors, as well as readers, spurred by incidents like this.

While it would be wonderful to be able to suggest some kind of immediate solution to patriarchal exclusion of women in sci fi, which by definition also largely excludes LGBT characters and themes in the same way it tends to reduce female characters to paper-thin vehicles for male agency or fantasy, there are unfortunately no quick fixes. Sci fi as a genre needs a much greater diversity of real, fully fleshed-out, strong LGBT and female characters to match the diversity of settings contained within its enormous bounds.

Surely, with all the imagination displayed in building the infinite worlds in which the fascinating, transformative stories of science fiction are told, authors can write better, more interesting LGBT and female characters than the cardboard cut-outs which are so often the case. As readers we can and should use the channels of communication which media like twitter, blogs, and facebook have opened up with our favourite authors, screenwriters, and directors to demand more complex, more diverse characters in our sci fi. Because, unless we do just that, we’re going to keep on getting fed the same, often inaccurate, sexist and limiting assumptions about us, and about what we like reading and seeing in our characters.

Unevenly Distributed – Cyberpunk as a Social and Mental Laboratory (Part 2)

The previous post in this series covered how Cyberpunk acts as a mental and social laboratory for new concepts, new ways of looking at the world. Now that we’ve established the background, I want to take a closer look at two other, quite different cyberpunk works of fiction (which incidentally happen to be two of my favourites): Neuromancer and The Diamond Age.

Unevenly Distributed

There’s a famous quote from William Gibson which goes, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” This is a pretty good summation of the present, and tends to be carried on into the future in a lot of cyberpunk. In our world, we have people walking around with powerful computers in their pockets, which give access to nearly the sum total of human knowledge within seconds, contrasted against grinding poverty and starvation. Inequality and hardship define the lives of many. We’ve reached a stage where real life is beginning to look a lot like some of the dystopian visions of the future imagined thirty or so years ago.

It’s appropriate that the genesis of the genre came in a similar period of conspicuous consumption and rampant inequality. Neuromancer, released in 1984 and written on a typewriter at a time when personal computers were still extremely basic and the internet as we know it today was a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, articulated this near-future world perfectly. In fact, the term “cyberspace” originates within its pages, and Gibson’s vision of a networked web of billions of computers where everyone has access from a device in their pocket has turned out to be startlingly accurate. We can forgive the little things he slightly misses (selling 3Mb of RAM for a plane ticket, for instance, or full immersion online), because the overall picture is so compelling.

Part of the problem in analysing Neuromancer as a work of cyberpunk fiction is that it appears to be the genesis for so many of the tropes that are now considered distinctive to the genre. Sexy female assassins with built-in blades? Check. Skull-mounted sunglasses providing a HUD to said sexy assassin (see also: Deus Ex: Human Revolution)? Check. “Jacking in” to an immersive online environment (think The Matrix or Ghost in the Shell – incidentally, the web’s called “the matrix” in the novel)? Check. A dystopian world controlled by giant mega-corporations? Check. Badass space-Rastafarians? Check. Well, okay, I’ve not come across them anywhere else, but they’re just cool. It’s these details, the vignettes and throwaway snippets of information about the diegetic world which serve to draw you in to the point where you can almost smell the grime of neon-lit back alleys.

The world-building element illustrated so well by Neuromancer is one common to the genre as a whole. Because it’s interested in the underdog, the down-and-out hacker forced up against the wall by a corrupt system, the people on the fringes fighting to survive, cyberpunk necessarily portrays its protagonists’ worlds in as much detail as possible – warts and all. The places where the system breaks down can only truly be explored if you don’t ignore the products of those failings: the crime-lords, the homeless, the strung out junkies, the prostitutes. Those fringes exist in our world, and it is the job of sci fi to hold up a mirror and reflect them back to us, twisted and dark, but visible nonetheless. Both Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and Gibson’s Neuromancer take their protagonists from these liminal spaces. As in real life, the worlds built around the characters are in fact necessary to produce them in the first place.

In Notes Towards a Post-Cyberpunk Manifesto, Lawrence Person argues that The Diamond Age and works with a variety of similar characteristics should be defined as ‘post-cyberpunk’. For Person, their heroes usually try to reform a broken system – or create something better – rather than simply aiming for its destruction, and this, among other things, renders them distinct from previous cyberpunk. While I understand his point, I think Person’s being too rigid in his definition of genre; he also suggests that this development is a result of writers who were in their 20s in the 1980s ‘growing up’ and becoming less radical as they did so. I do not believe this to be the case (or indeed relevant), but I can see where he’s coming from, and it’s certainly true that the works he defines as ‘post-cyberpunk’ are more concerned with characters who attempt to improve the world’s lot. Personally, I rather like that.

The Diamond Age feels markedly different to Neuromancer, and, as Person points out, the classic cyberpunk protagonist to whom we’re introduced in the first few pages gets himself killed in a rather gruesome manner near the start. The heroine of Stephenson’s novel is his daughter, Nell, who starts off on the bottom rung of what is nominally a post-scarcity society with advanced nanotechnological engineering and ‘matter compilers’ to provide food and water for everyone free of charge.

The simple provision of food, clothing, and water doesn’t create a utopian society similar to Star Trek, however. The world is still divided and stratified, but instead of nations and corporations, humans are organised into latter-day tribes – ‘phyles’ – formed around common interests, philosophies, or ethnic identification. Those without a phyle (such as Nell) are known as ‘thetes’ and excluded from most of society, left to survive in the urban wild. Despite the lack of scarcity in terms of food and clothing, there is still inequality and there are still spaces from which revolutions and more radical, stranger changes can come.

Aside from being a very interesting idea, the way in which he organises society in the novel allows Stephenson to analyse different aspects of the societies to which the phyles loosely equate (Han Chinese, “Anglo-Saxon” New Atlantis, Nippon). Nell views this fractured society from the classicl cyberpunk outsider’s perspective, but with a far more positivist spin than, say, Neuromancer’s Case. The terrible things she experiences as the novel follows her growth into adulthood do not make her the bitter and cynical washed-up hacker archetype, but provide her with the raw material to enact world-shaking changes.

Person is right to suggest that works like The Diamond Age, written a decade or so after the initial flowering of cyberpunk in the ‘80s, take a different approach to the social problems they portray. However, I would view this as a maturing of the genre, rather than the budding of a new one. With the more positivist, proactive attitude taken by Nell and the other main characters in Stephenson’s novel, we see a genre finally beginning to get up off the sofa and suggest solutions rather than simply pointing out the cracks. Despite the brilliance of Gibson’s writing in Neuromancer, the world it depicts is just as dark and depressing at the end as on page 1. This doesn’t mean that it’s inferior at all, merely that it sets aside for others one of the jobs sci fi tends to do so well: that of imagining how we can overcome our own dark impulses and fix or replace broken systems.

Both novels are excellent, and I advise anyone reading this to pick them up as soon as they can. You’ll be missing out otherwise. They also trace the development of the genre across a decade, and we can see by comparison that the development Lawrence Person terms ‘post-cyberpunk’ – and I see as merely a genre becoming more complex – is a necessary and enriching one. We as a species are very, very good at thinking our way out of problems. Given that the world is looking awfully similar to it these days, near-future sci fi which tries to posit fixes to problems just around the corner is needed more than ever.

Transhumanism, Post-Humans, and Human Nature: Cyberpunk as a Social and Mental Laboratory (Part 1)

The previous two articles I have published on this blog concern how sci fi pushes the limits of our imaginations with big ships, interstellar flight, and takes us to the end of the universe. While this is a very broad and rich area of science fiction to cover, there is an equally rich vein of content which concerns itself with the inner world and social analysis here on earth. It would be a failing on my part if I simply stuck to space opera when there is so much other material to cover. And so, we turn to Cyberpunk, that child of the 1980s focused on the big, sprawling city-scapes of the near future, filled with corrupt corporations, dirty cops, and cybernetic antiheroes. Think Blade Runner and you’ll be on the right track.

Over the course of three posts we will look at how this sub-genre can act as a test chamber for different ideas of what it means to be human, and just how far our technology can take us before we lose that humanity. Or whether it’s even worth preserving.

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Being a post-human, cybernetically augmented badass is hard work.

Part 1: Deus Ex Machina – Technology and the Laboratory of the Mind

Because we all possess certain broad “natural fictions” and set ways of thinking about issues – “frames” and “schema” – which set the parameters for how we react to new situations and process new data, it is entirely possible for us to believe things which aren’t true. Indeed, all of us do so to a greater or lesser extent: we employ fictional constructs to help us think about new things, whether we recognise them as fiction or not.

In, Beyond the Frame: Cognitive Science, Common Sense, and Fiction, the psychologist Marishka Grishakova develops these well-established psychological ideas to construct a continuum between reality and literary fiction, arguing for a blurring of the dividing line we place between literary fiction and reality. For her they are contiguous, as literature by and large uses the same schema and frames employed by its readers, and tends to reinforce them. Using this framework can help us see how science fiction functions as a critical excercise as well as a damn good yarn.

One of the distinguishing features of speculative fiction is that it often introduces frames completely foreign to the reader, forcing them to confront the new and the strange, to consider new possibilities. Beyond the Frame makes a convincing case for fiction as a social tool for creating and testing new frames and ideological constructs: ‘Fiction may be considered as an experimental cognitive laboratory, where updating of the mind’s “software” occurs and finds a hypothetical resolution.’

Cyberpunk is perfectly placed to illustrate this argument for fiction as this laboratory. Usually set in the near future, the noire, technologically-driven narratives and universes built within the boundaries of the sub-genre are fertile ground for consideration of our own, neighbouring reality. Because cyberpunk tends to use themes drawn straight from our own world (corporate and government corruption, greed, the darker side of society, technology as both blessing and curse), which we see every day, it can more easily take the familiar stuff of everyday life and make it into something altogether alien. This blending of the familiar and the strange serves as a powerful test lab for how we think about issues such as our relationship with the tools that help us survive, and the way in which our experiences in the world change us as individuals and a society.

Technology and its impact on our essential nature is a central preoccupation of cyberpunk science fiction. From Ghost in the Shell to Neuromancer (more on those later), the question of how augmenting yourself beyond your natural capabilities through cybernetics or nanotechnology affects your ability to think and feel human animates the genre and pushes it to some extremely dark places. Indeed, the recent game Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR) takes the question one step further and actively puts it to the player. You get to choose whether we become one with our machines (effectively ceasing to be human as we now know it), or whether we preserve our species as is and reject technological enhancement.

The interactive nature of the medium allows the player to participate in the experiment as it is progressing, to drive the action in the story as well as experience it. While there is a set narrative arc to DX:HR, the final choice allows the player to decide which conclusion they have reached from the available evidence.

The world’s reactions to the central character, Adam Jensen, augmented without consent to save his life after a terrorist attack, also change depending on how you play and which augmentations you decide to pursue. If you refrain from killing entirely, or only kill as little as possible, then you tend to get more positive reactions to your presence in the world; if every mission is a bloodbath, then the other characters react negatively and comment more on your lack of humanity. The final choice between technological singularity and base human nature is actually less important to how the game acts as a conceptual laboratory than the hundreds of choices (whether to spare your enemies or kill them, or how you talk to the other characters about your augmentations, for instance) made throughout its course.

In DX:HR, the player gets to decide how far they wish to depart from their humanity and become something else. They are also presented with numerous examples, major and minor, of the ways in which this can turn out. Just as in the real world, there is a tapestry of competing ideas and arguments on either side, and the player must navigate their way through them to arrive at their own conclusion. As such, it provides a very good example of how we can think about this kind of problem. It helps us see the road we may travel, albeit a fictional and somewhat exaggerated version.

At what point along this road do we cease to be human, and does that even matter? It is a troubling question to consider, especially in light of our increasing use of wearable technologies such as Google Glass, and the development of ever better artificial limbs. While I don’t believe we will end up amputating our hands simply to play the piano better, it is still necessary to consider the possibilities for our own future the development and further integration of technology into our lives implies.

In the next two posts I shall look at this issue, and others, in more detail through a closer examination of how different cyberpunk works of fiction deal with them. Feel free to come along for the ride.

The Tau of Light Speed: How Propulsion Changes Everything

There are a huge number of sub-genres of science fiction. They all have their own tropes, archetypes, and ways of doing things. The characteristics of any given one vary wildly, because sci fi is such a broadly-defined category and because it lends itself to wild flights of imagination into universes as disparate as their creators’ minds.

A number of these categories, often grouped under the heading of ‘hard’ sci fi (we’ll cover how problematic the hard/soft distinction is in another post), tend to include space ships and interstellar travel. This is the classic vision of high-tech sci fi and brings me onto the main thrust of this article: there are two basic ways those ships reach the stars, and each technology fundamentally influences the character of the universes they help drive.

The challenge, both for fictional and real-life space travel, is that space is big. Astronomically so, if you will. Take the light year, the basic unit of measurement we use for the distances between stars: The mean distance from our planet to the Sun (known as one Astronomical Unit, or AU) is 149,597,871 km. One light year, or the distance light travels in one Earth solar year, measures just over 63,239 AU or 9.4605284 × 1012 km. Our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is just over 4.2 light years away.

We simply can’t cover those kind of distances using conventional chemical rockets like those we currently use to get into orbit and which sent astronauts to the moon. Even our fastest, which launched the Voyager probes out of the gravity well of our star and into interstellar space, only travel at 16.3 kilometers per second. The speed of light is 299,792.5 km/s.

This is also where that wonderful genius, Einstein, comes back to kick us in the teeth. According to the General and Special Theories of Relativity he devised, which – mostly – have been proven correct by experimental data as well as further theoretical study, the speed of light acts as the effective speed limit for the universe. Nothing can go faster than light. Ever. Sir Isaac Newton may be the deadliest son-of-a-bitch in space, but Einstein’s the biggest bastard.

You see the problem. If we can’t go faster than light then, even assuming we can approach light speed in any meaningful way, it is going to be a long time before any of humanity’s ships reach the stars. When they do, the children of mankind will be scattered across the vastness of space, unable to communicate effectively or create any kind of interconnected civilisation. Because subjective time moves ever more slowly the closer you get to light speed, a few years of ship-time on any of these interstellar voyages will equate to decades or even centuries back home. Any travellers or explorers heading to other solar systems will return to entirely different worlds from which they left; they will be orphaned in time.

If, on the other hand, we can somehow negate the light speed barrier then it becomes a different ballgame altogether. With space travel taking weeks or months of normal time rather than decades or centuries, we will be able to communicate and spread much further than we would travelling at sub-light speeds. We can go and explore the cosmos, see its wonders and terrors, and generally fly around the galaxy like we own the place (assuming someone else doesn’t already). This future is brighter, and holds the prospect of an interconnected human diaspora, a civilisation such as the the ones imagined in Star Trek or Dune. It is worth noting that it is now at least theoretically possible to travel faster than light without negating Einsteinian Relativity, so the real future may actually be a form of warp drive. NASA is apparently working on it, but unfortunately for us all the technology is still at its earliest stages of development.

As I mention above, the distinction between sub-light and FTL travel fundamentally changes the feel of the universes created by works of science fiction, and the stories told within them. Universes in which it is extremely difficult or impossible to break the light speed barrier tend to be darker, grimmer, places with humanity scattered across the stars. The stories told in them, such as Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, are almost without exception ‘hard’ sci fi, and Reynolds’ work is a perfect example.

The Revelation Space universe is a very dark, dangerous place filled with inhuman monsters and nanotechnology gone awry. Humans have spread across multiple worlds, but are often impoverished and eking out a meagre existence in the fallen civilisations built by their forefathers. The kilometer-long, heavily armed ships which travel between the stars – ‘lighthuggers’ – are crewed by ‘Ultras’, post-humans modified with nanotechnology and physical augmentations to be more effective in combat, think faster, work in zero-gravity, and for other more esoteric purposes. Travel between systems takes decades, and the appearance of a lighthugger above a planet heralds either trouble or once-in-a-generation opportunity for acquiring new technologies. There is also the positing of an answer to the Fermi Paradox, which clearly influenced Mass Effect’s Cosmicist, genocidal ‘Reapers’.

The inability to easily travel faster than light in the Revelation Space universe (for, as it turns out, you can but it’s an incredibly bad idea) is a core factor in how the narrative plays out and how the central concepts it addresses are developed throughout the novels set there.

Other novels, such as Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson, take the concept of relativity and time/mass-dilation at relativistic speeds to extremes in different ways. Instead of Reynolds’ sprawling space-opera, Anderson’s novel limits itself to a single crew of 50, confined within the hull of a ship sent to explore a nearby star system. Halfway through the journey, they encounter a micro-nebula which damages their deceleration system, and because of the nature of their engine (the Bussard Drive, a real-life proposal for interstellar travel), they must keep accelerating in order to survive.

Anderson’s crew ends up a very long way from home and, due to the time-dilation effects of adding velocity at near-light speeds, tens of billions of years into the future. I shan’t spoil the ending, but the novel deals adeptly with the psychological and social effects of being isolated from your civilisation, confronting the inevitable death of your entire species, and the basic insignificance of not only our individual human lives but our whole universe. Like Revelation Space and many other excellent ‘hard’ sci fi works, it is able to perform these quite remarkable feats of psychological and social imagination in part due to the basic constraints of the universe it posits.

Just as the constraints of a sonnet help poets explore new possibilities, so the bonds of Relativity help push science fiction to new and often terrifying places. While there is much excellent sci fi featuring faster than light travel, the gloom seemingly inherent in the acknowledgement of the limit of light speed forces the fictional envelope to be pushed in unexpected ways. Placing limits on our ability to overcome the laws of nature does rankle somewhat, especially in fictional genres often so freely untethered from them, but the ways in which those limits change our responses can be absolutely fascinating, even inspiring. Much as I hope we can circumvent the laws of physics and travel to the stars quickly, the inverse proposition produces some excellent fiction.

Death and the Author – Sci Fi, Iain Banks, and Genre Trouble

The recent announcement by Iain Banks that he has terminal cancer is very saddening. Our country is going to lose one of its finest writers in any genre, and Science/Speculative Fiction (which he wrote as Iain M. Banks) is going to lose one of its most astute, witty, and talented voices writing today. He has helped prove to the critics what those of us who read it regularly have known for a very long time: that it is possible to write science fiction and have it be excellent literature in its own right.

I don’t intend to write on his life or how he is as a person, both because I do not know him and also because the facts of his life are largely irrelevant to an understanding of his work. I do however intend to try and describe what his work — his success both in and out of the literary ghetto — says about our perception of ‘genre fiction’, and specifically Science Fiction.

Starting with the publication of The Wasp Factory in 1984, Iain Banks’ novels have enjoyed considerable critical acclaim and commercial success. I remember reading The Wasp Factory when I was 13, and it thrilled and profoundly  disturbed me. The scene describing how the protagonist’s brother lost his mind haunts me to this day, due in equal measure to the incredibly disturbing content and the pitch-black humour of the whole passage. Banks has a talent for rendering even the most horrible images or situations into something potentially funny. Once the occasional urge to put down the book and run in the opposite direction screaming with an odd combination of horror and laughter is overcome, at least.

His movement into Science Fiction was equally as triumphant, publishing Consider Phlebas in 1987, followed by a string of extremely successful works, the latest  of which (The Hydrogen Sonata) was released last year. These novels have quietly become an important fixture of the British SF landscape, and represent a much-loved trove for many readers. My favourite’s probably Excession. The conversations between the AI ‘Minds’ which control the ships, giant Ringworld-inspired ‘orbitals’, and almost everything else important in the Culture, are wonderful exemplars of the acid wit and talent for character-building dialogue which run through much of his canon.

For me, the Culture universe he creates is one of the few truly believable and well-structured Utopias in fiction. It is also, as he has said himself, not quite the subject of the novels. Banks writes on the edges of civilisation: the backwoods planets off the beaten track and the jumping-off places usually occupied by Special Circumstances, the Culture’s semi-official, self-described “dirty tricks” organisation. Trekkies will recognise notes of Star Trek’s ‘Section 31’ — although SC has a far better sense of humour.

The parallels with Star Trek do not end with the vaguely unethical, but necessary (and it absolutely is, Banks never needlessly hand-wrings), intelligence and covert ops organisation. The Culture is very much like the Federation, except vastly more powerful, more certain of itself, and run by hyper-intelligent, snarky AI Minds inhabiting massive ships.

Just as the huge size and scope of the Star Trek universe allows for almost any story to be told, so too the galaxy-spanning Culture universe and its external, liminal spaces allows Banks to achieve the goal towards which much good Science Fiction strives: examining our own culture and society through the lens of an entirely different one. It can and does go absolutely anywhere. There is even a literal, and hugely, blackly funny, instance of self-reflexive socio-cultural examination in The State of the Art, when in one of the stories that comprise that collection, a Culture ship and its crew find modern-day earth.

Another apt comparison, as an author whose work takes a traditionally ghettoised genre and makes it accessible in the best possible way, is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Pratchett’s universe is a more direct, overtly satirical, fantasy take on our own than Banks’ high-technology Culture, but functionally the two writers’ worlds are fairly similar. They both use humour to, as the Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin put it, “…deliver the object into the fearless hands of investigative experiment — both scientific and artistic — and into the hands of free experimental fantasy.” It is this quality which makes the Culture novels and the rest of Iain (M.) Banks’ science fiction quite such compelling literature in universal terms, as well as those of its own genre.

The best science fiction — amongst which I and many others count Banks’ work — is not merely social analysis, an examination of human nature, or a rollicking good adventure, though those are certainly all aspects that can play a part. Science Fiction is relevant as a genre outside of its often ghettoised limits precisely because it allows us not only to examine our own culture and society through a lens (or scanner) darkly, but that it can also imagine solutions to the problems it often highlights. It is this incredible gift for imagination, for seeing not only the problems but how they can be overcome, that characterises the work of great sci fi authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Iain Banks with or without the M.

Or it could just be a damn good story with sentient starships and a whole lot of shooting.