Science Fiction

THE STARS MY DESTINATION BY ALFRED BESTER

Now listen to me: I’m not really into sci-fi; never been a big fan, me. Yeah, I read some Lem, back aways, but that was different, see. I was never crazies for spaceships and green fellas, not even as a little un. Not that I’m close-minded, me. No, not this guy. Just knows what I likes, don’t I? But then last week I was strugglin’ worse than a dog with a cone on its head tryin’ to lick its own balls. Every book I picked up made me nervous-like and weary as all hell. I said to myself: you can’t do it, man. Can’t read another one of those books, not you. All the things I usually enjoy seemed too serious, too uncomfortable. I needed somethin’ else, you dig me? I needed another kind of book, otherwise I’d’ve jacked it all in. And then what else would I do? Learn French? I needed a breather, is all. Spaceships and green fellas.

So, me I picks up this sci-fi book from the fifties called The Stars My Destination. Guy called Alfred Bester, he wrote it. I’m no expert with this particular type a thing, but I likes to think myself knowledgeable-like, and yet I never heard of him. So then a course I wasn’t expectin’ much, except maybe a lark, is all. A breather, see. But when I read the first page I was gobsmacked. It starts: ‘he was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.’ And I thinks to myself: By God, that’s bloody good, that is. That reads like serious writin’, does that. I carry on, and it carry on: ‘he was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity.’ And at this point I checks the front of the book because I wants to make sure I’m not bein’ duped, and it says, clear as a bell, The Stars My Destination.

“This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice… but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks… but nobody loved it.”

I shouldn’t’ve started with praisin’ the writing. That’s not how this reviewin’ lark is done, a course. But I’m just a gutter mouth, an uneducated heel; I’m not trained for this sort a thing, me. I says with my gutter tongue whatever comes down from my gutter mind first, and that was it, see. So anyways turns out Bester could write like a motherfucker, is all; and I was primed and hot for his book pretty quick out the traps. Gully Foyle’s who I should a started with, but it’s too late now. Gully’s the dying man who’s not yet dead. That tells you somethin’. Not dead. Things are bad and yet he’s survivin’. He’s a strong man, see. Plucky and durable. But that’s not all. It’s emphasised that he’s rough and brutish; a common man, it’s said, but he ain’t so common, you’ll see. A big dumb ox, Jiz calls him. A murderer, a rapist, you’ll see. Gully don’t play square.

Quick out the traps, the big dumb ox came a favourite of mine. Not just in this book, in all books. He’s dying on a ship called Nomad, and other ship called Vorga passes him by. Leaves him to die filthy, see. Gully wants revenge on Vorga. Filthy revenge is his motivation; it opens the door. Never come across such a single-minded character, me. There’s nothin’ he won’t do, for Vorga; there’s nothin’ inside ‘but hatred and revenge.’ And the big dumb book is really interestin’ in this way, because this monomania of Gully’s pushes him to extraordinary lengths and has him doin’ extraordinary things. This passion for revenge spurs him to escape the Nomad, for a start. His obsession makes him clever, resourceful, brave. He breaks out of Gouffre Martel too, and ain’t nobody ever done that before. But also it’s illogical, his quest, his mindset, as all monomania, all desire for revenge, is. Why punish Vorga, Gully? Why not be happy to be alive and free a the Nomad, son? It takes over his life; it ruins his life, see.

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Everywhere that Gully goes, mayhem and suffering comes doggin’ on his heels. He’s a walking cancer, it’s said. Revenge is destructive and filthy. Rottin’ the big dumb ox and anyone else around. And what happens when Vorga’s gone? What then, boy? Thing about monomania is, there’s no after, see. Ain’t nobody thinks a that when they in it. But anyways Gully’s ‘inspired to greatness by Vorga.’ Brutish greatness, sure; and as a readin’ experience that’s all big dumb fun, is all. But that’s not all, see. When the ox meets Jiz, Jizbella, she says to ‘punish the brain not the ship.’ She means that Gully’s been wrong-minded about the Vorga business, like a man who curses the sky when a bird shits on his head. Because he’s primitive, see. Punish the brain, the people on board, those who gave the order to pass. This is the beginnin’ of his education, the crucial first step towards logic, and reasoning and enlightenment, rather than just blind fury.

Education is key, folks. The common man, the big dumb ox don’t have to ever always remain thus. He can be lifted up, borne aloft on knowledge and reasoning and logic. Gully educates himself for Vorga, sure, but he educates himself nevertheless, see. He betters himself, for Vorga. He learns to speak not in the gutter tongue, for example, so that he can ilfultrate high society, is all. But this learning, this knowledge, makes him a better man in the end. I’m not explainin’ this right, a course, because I’m just a heel, me. But I hope you get me just a little bit. The juantes, the telepathy, the other worlds, the green fellas and spaceships, that’s all dandy, see, big dumb fun for the big dumb ox in all a us. But there’s more to this, is all. The Stars My Destination asks a question a you: what makes life worthwhile? A goal? An obsession? Not always for Vorga, no, but power, money, and all that jazz, too? And what about the rest a you, without that goal or that obsession. What do you do? Sittin’ round in your pants stuffin’ your ox face, watchin’ bigger ox on tv jest for your entertainment, while the obsessed obsess to keep you dumb. This is a book about what it is to live, you. All a you. Every you.

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WE BY ZEVGENY ZAMYATIN

I realised some time ago that I need freedom in all aspects of my life, that without it I become surly and depressed. My commitment fears; my intense, relentless fantasies about escape; my interest in creative subjects or activities; even the animals I admire [foxes, wolves, hares]: it all comes back to the same thing. Moreover, when I think back to my schooldays or any job I have had I’m immediately struck by how resistant I am to authority, so that if anyone tries to tell me what to do, or if it is demanded that I behave like everyone else, I immediately [childishly, perhaps] rebel. For example, whenever I was set a task in class, specifically in English or Art or Philosophy, subjects that I associated with a lack of rules, I would disregard it and do my own thing. Most of the time my teachers and lecturers accepted my work, welcomed it even, but there were occasions when I clearly pissed them off. I remember one time we were asked to write a story, and I made a suggestion about what I wanted to do, and this was rejected. And so I wrote something about murder and sodomy instead, and ended up getting dragged in front of the headmaster.

In this way, I am the opposite of D-503, the narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential dystopian novel We, at least in the beginning anyway. When we meet D-503 he is a happy and productive drone, a mathematician [of course!] and engineer who is helping to build the Integral, which is a sort of space-rocket that is part of a plan to bring the One State’s ‘mathematically infallible happiness’ to other planets and civilisations [by force if necessary!]. Everything in the One State is regulated, is by appointment. You wake up, go to work, have your leisure time, etc when you are told to, at the prescribed hour; indeed, there is a Table of Hours, in which the greater part of your life is mapped out.

In Zamyatin’s future world, the focus is not on the I, but on the we. The One State is like a machine, and while people do have a defined function or role within it, it is the machine that takes precedence. Individuality is a threat to the perfect running of the machine, because individuals, with their own unique hopes and dreams and desires, are unpredictable. However, as noted, D-503 is not only happy to accept the prevailing conditions, the restricted or unfree mode of living, but is, in fact, convinced of its rightness and logicality. He also frequently scoffs at the Ancients [i.e. us] whose lives were defined by chaos, at one point dismissing our love of clouds, which for him spoil the perfect sterile blue of the sky.

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[From a series of images based on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We by Eda Akaltun]

Bearing all this in mind, one can see why We is often thought to be a comment upon, a critique of, Communism, or at least a warning or prediction of what Communism might lead to. Communism, on the most basic level, advocates a classless society, whereby everyone has the same status, and what is produced by the collective or community is shared equally or according to one’s needs. Therefore, We, and specifically the One State, where everyone dresses the same, has a number for a name, etc, could be considered to be a Communist state taken to its logical conclusion. Yet, for me, the One State utopia ought not to be compared to a specific political movement. If it is the model for anything it is a number of dictatorial regimes, most of which are/were not Communistic [although there is, of course, something of a connection between Communism and tyranny]. The inhabitants of the One State are dictated to by a supreme leader called the Benefactor, who cannot be voted out of power; and those who rebel, or do not do as they are told, are publicly liquidated. Yet, even this interpretation is unsatisfactory, because there is no sense that the people, the cyphers or drones, are being exploited or generally mistreated.

Perhaps the most interesting interpretation of what is going on in We is that it is a kind of retelling of the Adam and Eve story. The heart of that story is the question of whether it is better to live free and have the potential to be unhappy, or to have no free will but guaranteed happiness [i.e. to never feel pain etc], and this is also what Zamyatin asks you to consider. In the beginning of the book, D-503 [Adam] is living in a state of blissful ignorance. He then meets I-330 [Eve], and together they taste the forbidden fruit of freedom by doing things that are against the rules. In doing so, they cause trouble in Paradise [the One State] and piss off God [the Benefactor]. Was D-503 better off not knowing 1-330? Was he happier having never experienced obsession, jealousy, rage etc? Possibly, but I’m personally an advocate of letting your soul get a little dirty from time to time.

However, I must confess that if all that was all the novel had to offer, if it was simply a political or religious allegory or satire, I might not have made it to the end. I’m on record regarding my dissatisfaction with satire and allegory, and I don’t want to go over that again, except to say that, for me, satirical or allegorical dystopian novels are often not nearly as inventive, clever or funny as they think they are. So, for example, when we are told that D-503 finds it odd that the results of our [the Ancients] elections aren’t known beforehand like theirs are, where there is only one candidate [the Benefactor], I might smile slightly to myself, and think ‘yeah, I see what you’ve done there,’ but I’m hardly knocked out by how profound this observation is. Moreover, for a book that is credited with such foresight and prescience, We also suffers from feeling rather dated or too familiar, mostly owing to the writers [Orwell, Huxley etc] who were heavily influenced by the Russian’s work and used it for the basis of their own.

“You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

What I did find engaging, and what, for me, ensures that We is still worth reading, that it will always be worth reading, is the prose style and what Zamyatin had to say about love. When we meet D-503 he is involved in a pseudo-relationship with O-90, a rather chubby and cheery non-entity. D-503 doesn’t love her, but, rather, there is a kind of mindless acceptance of the situation, as though it is a duty fulfilled. Yet when D-503 meets I-330 his world [literally] changes. Crucially, I-330 is different to O-90; O-90 is comfortable, safe, obliging. I-330, on the other hand, is mysterious and maddening. Throughout the text there are frequent references to lips and mouths, and it is telling that O-90’s is described as ‘inviting’ D-503’s words, while’s I-330’s contains sharp teeth.

So, while we may be dealing with future worlds and all that, D-503’s initial situation is the age-old human predicament of being caught between two women, of having a nice but dull girlfriend, but feeling drawn to someone more challenging. Ah, yes, we’ve all been there D. Yet just when you think that We is going to be a sci-fi Age of Innocence, it actually morphs into something else altogether, something more unsettling and, well, ultimately unhinged. As is often the case with these threesomes, D casts aside the safe-option, and goes all in with the woman who is clearly going to be hard work. It was possible that one would lose sympathy for D at this stage, that one would see him as callous or selfish, but that is not the case. In fact, the process of D falling in love for the first time happens to be really quite moving. First love is, of course, invariably a bitch. I’m sure you can remember yours as well as I can remember mine. The confusion, the despair…feeling as though something has entered you, and not being sure whether it is wonderful or toxic. One minute you were absolutely carefree, and now suddenly you feel plagued, discomforted. Zamyatin describes this disturbance of one’s equilibrium as like having a fine eyelash in your eye. I was really very taken with that.

As a consequence of being in love, D starts to act rashly, to make poor decisions, to lie. He is, in fact, prepared to do whatever it takes to please I-300 and get close to her, even if it means participating in the destruction of the One State he admires so much. Sounds familiar, right? Oh, of course, our love-lives do not, as a rule, have serious socio-political consequences, but what Zamyatin seems to be suggesting is that love is a dangerous business, and I happen to agree with him on that point. Love is chaos, it is illogicality, it is, well, yeah, it is freedom. Great, isn’t it? When one considers all this one comes to realise that the title of the book has a significance beyond the political, that it refers to a couple, a relationship. We, us, me and my true love.

“Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one.”

There is so much more that I want to say about D and I, about how one can interpret their relationship, about how even though I-300 just isn’t, y’know, as into it as he is, what matters is that he took a chance, that he opened himself up to the possibility of heartache, and how, for me, that is life at its best, that is what freedom truly is, but I am conscious of how long this review is already. I do, however, before I finish, want to briefly touch upon how intense a reading experience, and how unrelentingly psychological, We is, because I wasn’t prepared for that at all. One must remember that D is a man in crisis, a man who totally buys into the One State idea, and so as he follows I, as he rebels against it, one witnesses the entire fabric of his existence coming apart; this is a man, a mind, crumbling before your eyes. At times it is torturous to read in a way that only Dostoevsky’s work can match.

I haven’t yet said a great deal about the prose style, and I ought to to, because it is fantastic. I have never been accomplished at maths. My mind just isn’t wired that way. I knew enough to pass my GCSE, but I’ve always found numbers, equations, formulas, strangely alien and alienating, cold and restrictive. It is entirely apt then that We is strewn with mathematical references, language and symbols. Indeed, D-503 often uses mathematical imagery to describe people and things, which may sound gimmicky but is actually incredibly impressive. Less successful is the plot, which is episodic, repetitive, and never really goes anywhere, but I can forgive all that when the sentences are so beautiful, so idiosyncratic. More than anything, We reads like a delirious poem, a love poem for I-330, and for you too, you flawed but sometimes marvellous creatures.

SOLARIS BY STANISLAW LEM

When I was a kid my dad was obsessed with the idea of UFO’s and alien contact. He made me and my brother watch endless episodes of trashy American documentaries about sightings and abductions. In fact, I sat through so many of these that I started to have nightmares about bug-eyed extra terrestrial beings entering my room at night. I guess that for my dad – who did not have a partner, whose children were emotionally, if not physically, estranged from him, and whose job was not exactly stimulating – the promise of other planets and other species, of being whisked away from his humdrum life, must have been pretty appealing. While I too wanted to somehow escape the situation I found myself in, the prospect of other worlds or beings never fired my imagination. I found it difficult enough to get my head around the behaviour and motivations of humans, I had enough problems understanding my own world, that the possibility of engaging meaningfully with aliens struck me as, to all intents and purposes, impossible.

For this same reason, I have never been particularly drawn to Sci-Fi. The writers and books I most enjoy are ones that I believe contain insights about human nature, that help me come to terms with who I am and how my world works. This is, I guess, where Stanislaw Lem comes in. First of all, Lem himself was not particularly enamoured of the genre, he thought the majority of it too reliant upon the adventure story formula. My introduction to the Pole’s work was His Master’s Voice, and, on the basis of that novel, I could see why he considered himself as a kind of outlier in the Science Fiction community. The plot is almost non-existent, and entirely plausible; there are no weird creatures, no space travel. More than anything, His Master’s Voice is a speculative, philosophical novel of ideas that says more about us than it does about what is potentially out there. And so is this one.

Having said that, Solaris provides more conventional, less cerebral enjoyment than His Master’s Voice, and is therefore more approachable. Lem may have been critical of Science Fiction’s use of the adventure story formula, but the dynamics of Solaris’ plot are borrowed from the equally formulaic horror/thriller genre. Doctor Kris Kelvin arrives on the space station that has been studying the planet Solaris, and which is meant to be manned by three other people. However, Kelvin finds that one of them is blind drunk and clearly spooked, one has locked himself in his laboratory, and the other is dead. Of course, he is suspicious and senses that something is wrong. Not only is Snow visibly shaken, but he has blood on his hands; alarming noises are coming from Sartorius’ lab; and Kelvin himself feels as though he is being watched. As the narrative progresses things get even stranger: there are, it is revealed, other people on board and it is not clear how they got there or whether they are friendly.

“Successive bursts of static came through the headphones, against a background of deep, low-pitched murmuring, which seemed to me the very voice of the planet itself.”

While all this is lots of fun, and genuinely tense and unnerving at times, especially if you haven’t seen either of the two film adaptations, if it was all Solaris had to offer it’s unlikely that I would rate the book so highly. In order to begin to explain why I do I would, first of all, point to a quote from the text, which is ‘“How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?” This, for me, sums up the philosophical, emotional heart of the novel. The ‘ocean’ is the alien life-form [if it is indeed alive; it certainly displays behaviour consistent with ‘being alive’ and appears to exhibit some kind of intelligence] that resides upon Solaris. As with His Master’s Voice, Lem is interested in what ‘alien’ actually means. The ocean is absolutely non-human, and is, therefore, not accessible to us, can never be accessible to us, because we can only attempt to understand it by using human concepts, ideas, reasoning etc.

The focus here is not on the ‘personality’ or capabilities of the ocean, but on our own limitations and arrogance. At one point in the book Lem writes that we, the human race, are not actually interested in the genuinely alien, but simply want to extend the boundaries of the human world. In other words, confronted with something that we do not understand, that we can never understand, we want to explain, to interpret it in human terms; in essence, we strive to find all things human. I found all this blistering stuff, and it is something I see around me every day. Not with aliens, of course, but with animals, cars, mountains, and so on. Consider how what most pleases or charms us about our pets are the moments when we can see ourselves in them, when they do something that we see as being recognisably human.

“We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.”

For a book that is on the surface concerned with our relationship [or non-relationship] with the alien, Solaris somehow manages to be extraordinarily moving. That is all down to Rheya. I must admit that she broke my heart. There are a number of ways to interpret her role in the novel, just as there is more than one Rheya. First of all, there is the original Rheya, the young woman who Kelvin was married to, who took her own life years before he came to be on a space station on Solaris, and whose death he feels responsible for. Therefore, the counterfeit Rheya, Rheya2, the one who turns up at the space station, could be said to be a physical manifestation of Kelvin’s grief or guilt. In this way, Rheya2 is a kind of tormentor; it is not a blessing for Kelvin to be confronted with a facsimile of the woman he feels as though he failed and treated badly, a woman who looks so much like her but isn’t her. No, it is a form of torture.

It is also possible to interpret Rheya’s appearances in the text outside of any alien context. Throughout my reading I kept returning to that key line, ‘“How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?” We know that Kelvin and Rheya had a tumultuous relationship on earth, one that ended with an argument and the woman committing suicide. With Rheya2, Kelvin re-enacts this relationship. If you forget that she is non-human for a moment, the interactions between the couple are indistinguishable from the interactions of any couple going through a rough time, a couple that isn’t communicating well, who keep things from each other, who snap at and goad each other out of exasperation, who love and need each other but cannot, despite their best intentions, always show each other the patience and affection that they ought to. In this way, Solaris is a classic marriage-in-crisis narrative; it is a novel about the intense hardships of love.

Finally, and most heartrending of all, there is the issue of personal identity. Rheya2 is, in the beginning, ignorant of what she is; she believes herself to be Rheya, a human woman in love with a human man named Kris Kelvin. She is, therefore, not a malevolent entity, not consciously anyway. As the narrative progresses, she senses that something is wrong; she doesn’t need to eat or sleep, she cannot be physically hurt, she remembers very little of her life before Solaris, and she cannot bear [i.e. it causes her intense physical pain] to be away from Kelvin for longer than a minute or so. Eventually, her true situation, the true nature of her being, dawns on her, and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I had a lump in my throat the size of a football.

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[A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of the book]

There is something about this set-up, about a being who believes herself to be human, who feels human, who has a human consciousness, and human emotions, suddenly realising that she has been created by an alien presence, for reasons that are not clear, that really got to me. Her confusion, her anxiety, her struggle, her bravery and nobility [yes, I am aware of how ridiculous this sounds, but I’m in earnest here] in coming to terms with herself all but ruined me. And here’s the rub, who or what exactly is she? Isn’t she Rheya? She is not the same as the original Rheya, that is true, but what does that prove? There is a woman in front of Kelvin, whose heart beats, who breathes, who calls herself Rheya, so who, or what, else can she be? There is a point in the text, when Kelvin says that he no longer sees Rheya and Rheya2 as the same person, that he accepts and loves Rheya2 as herself. The nature of personal identity is thorny; just what is it that makes you, you? Your memories, your appearance, your personality? Rheya2 ticks all these boxes. Solaris makes you ask, is Rheya2 a facsimile or is she a distinct person? Is she a person at all? If not, why not?

I could go into all this in more detail, but I’ll quit while some readers are still with me. Before concluding, I want to quickly deal with the translation. I have read Solaris twice, once, and first, in the most recent [and only] rendering directly from Polish. For this reread, I read the version that is widely available, which is a translation from a French translation from the Polish. I loved the book in both versions. Moreover, despite Lem’s claim that the Polish-French-English translation is inadequate, and taking into consideration my own concerns about authenticity and accurate translations, I thought it was smooth and not at all inferior to the version translated directly from the original. I would have to read both versions simultaneously, or at least close together, to be able to compare them in detail, but I do think, taking into account its negative reputation, that the Polish-French-English version ought to be defended. I criticise translations a lot, and no doubt some people think I am too picky, but I am genuinely happy that the version of Solaris that most people will come across is an excellent read, because, whether you like Sci-Fi or not, you should read Solaris. It is as engaging, thrilling, intelligent and beautiful as any novel you will ever encounter.

HIS MASTER’S VOICE BY STANISLAW LEM

Reading-wise this is the final frontier for me [stop rolling your eyes], in that Science Fiction is something that I have always avoided as though it were an embarrassingly drunk girl at a club. His Master’s Voice, however, is different from, and I would say less ridiculous than, your average Sci-Fi novel, because at no point do the participants leave earth. They are grounded men, staring wonderingly, near ignorantly, at the sky; and this is infinitely more appealing to me than space suits, strange new planets and weird alien beings.

The plot, such as it is, involves human beings intercepting, in space, what they believe to be a message from another life-form. A group of shit-hot scientists [think Ocean’s 11 without the charm or good-looks] are brought together in order to crack the code of the message. And they fail miserably, of course. But their failure raises many interesting philosophical questions. His Master’s Voice, although presented as some kind of research paper, or memoir of his time working on the project by one of the scientists, is really no more than Lem’s thought experiment; it is ultimately an exploration of the idea that human beings are fundamentally incapable of understanding something other or alien, on the basis that we cannot apply anything other than human thoughts, concepts, etc, to it. So, logically, even an attempt to understand something truly alien is pointless, and borderline arrogant.

There is, I ought to mention, an often noted cold war angle which is, in my opinion, although most definitely there, rather overstated. The scientists manage to decipher a small proportion of the message and use it to create a substance that may have the capacity to be used as a nuclear weapon. But even here Lem seems more concerned with highlighting the probability that the scientists haven’t actually deciphered anything. They are more likely, he maintains, to have misinterpreted the message, because they are using human reasoning, human science, human mathematics, to try and make sense of something that is not human. In conclusion, for a novel about first contact the overwhelming feeling I was left with upon finishing the book was that no matter how many other species may exist in the universe we really are truly alone.