Science Fiction

WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO… BY JOANNA RUSS

We all die. I know. You don’t have to keep telling me. Like it’s new knowledge. Like I don’t know. You delight in it, wickedly, in the same way that people sometimes catch spiders and make to throw them in the face of the person who is cowering and clearly afraid. I am afraid, very afraid. Of course, you don’t understand it. Death, I mean. You tell it, but you don’t understand the words. Like you’re reciting a foreign language, a language unknown to you. You say: why are you afraid? And I say: because death is nothingness. And you say: but you won’t know you’re dead. And I say: that’s the point. You cannot grasp it, that if I could experience death then it wouldn’t frighten me. Because it wouldn’t be nothing. I say: when you die, everything dies. When you cease to be, everything ceases to be. You don’t believe this, of course. But I’m on it now, and I don’t care. So I say: you are the universe. You are everything. I am everything. So naturally the only death that concerns me is mine. Yours might make me sad, but, at the same time, I would be glad to be around to feel that sadness. Yours is sad, potentially, but not a tragedy. Only one’s own death is a tragedy. Unless you want to die. There are people who want to die. There are people who choose to die. And that is perhaps a tragedy too. But only for them, not for me. I should write about the book. Must remember to actually write about the book. Joanna Russ is the author. Was? I don’t know how I came to hear about her. She wasn’t recommended to me. I never listen to recommendations anyway. My heart is beating, still, and so I can write about Joanna Russ and the book she wrote while her heart beat, still. Maybe. Maybe she is alive somewhere. Joanna, can you hear me? I hope you are alive, but not with any great conviction or feeling. I’m too concerned about myself. We Who Are About To… was published in…I don’t know when it was published. Sometime in the 1970s, I think. I recall reading that it wasn’t very well received at the time of publication. Which is hardly a surprise. I hate it when people say happy birthday to the dead. Happy Birthday, George Eliot. As though death isn’t death. It’s not a surprise because it’s a bitter, pissy little book. Someone said there is hope in it. There’s no hope. Or if there is it’s a small black dot in the distance. Death is like that too. Only the black dot is growing, and getting closer, moving ever closer until one day it will swallow you up. And then: nothing. Not even darkness. The narrator of the book doesn’t have a name. Or if she does I have forgotten it. She is part of a small crew on board a ship, a spaceship, that lands on a [previously] uninhabited planet. The plan is to colonise it, to populate it. There is very little that is recognisably sci-fi. If sci-fi means alien beings and alien worlds. The crew might just as well be stranded on an island. On earth, I mean. Only I guess that this would suggest the possibility of rescue. Which would suggest hope. I smoke, by the way, despite my fear. My fear of death. Of nothingness. I don’t fear cancer, of course, because that is still something. Terrible, but something, still. I smoke because I’m stupid. Because my species is necessarily, relentlessly, heartrendingly, hilariously stupid. The others are awful people. By others I mean the people who are part of the spaceship’s crew who aren’t the narrator. They are awful in a way that is banal, familiar. It’s amusing in a way to be introduced to people who might be the founding-fathers, and mothers, of a new civilisation, to be there in the beginning. Important people, about whom legends may one day be told. It’s amusing because they are, in reality, a dull bunch. There is no greatness in them. There couldn’t be. There is no greatness in anyone, or anything, only death. They aren’t bad people, no more than any average person is bad. One, Alan-something, does beat a woman, and that is a bad act, of course, but he does so out of embarrassment, rather than cruelty or anything interesting like that. He does it because he is stupid. For the most part, they potter around, bicker, half-formulate plans, and generally give the impression of a ridiculous species of animal meandering towards extinction. Like pandas. The narrator is no more likeable either. She is human, after all. I did wonder whether she was meant to be slightly more sympathetic, in the sense that she is perhaps a mouthpiece for the author. Although I don’t really believe that. I’m simply filling space. Pushing up the word count. I must say something more meaningful about the narrator. Include quotations from the text. Be motivated. Look interested. Think about death. Wasn’t it Heidegger who wrote that one must always have death at the forefront of your mind. In order to live an authentic existence. In order to live, period. He wrote, I think, that you must believe in your mortality. It is easy to say the words. I will die. To say it, and know it, and yet not know it, truly. To know it and believe it, truly believe it, is to collapse. To cease to function. To become like me. Heidegger, I think, was wrong. The narrator is a bitter, pissy woman. She hates the others. She is critical of them. Understandably, I guess. She is sarcastic. Confrontational, although she says of herself that she wants to keep a low profile. What is interesting – if interesting is the right word, and I am sure it is not – is the relationship between the narrator and her crew-mates. By which I mean that they – in a meandering, hopeless fashion – want to continue, to live, to bring forth new life. While she wants to die. She is afraid, but not of death. She is afraid of life. She wants to be allowed to die, to not continue. Because to continue in such circumstances is absurd. Some might say that is the crux of the novel. Should you enforce life, especially for a greater good. Or someone’s idea of a greater good. Yet some might argue that one’s right to die, or any other individual right, is meaningless in the face of the extinction of the human race. Although I don’t really believe that, what I said about the crux of the novel. The book is about disappointment. Weariness. The drudgery of existence, with its small victories and small, yet still crushing, defeats. It strikes me that the narrator uses the situation, the planet, the threat to their survival as a crew, as a species – for they have become, in being cut adrift from the rest of the human race, their own species – as an excuse to end it all. She was, it strikes me, tired of life long before they arrived. I, of course, am not tired. Not of life, anyway. I don’t believe in a greater good either. I believe in me. There is only me. I am a solopsist who barely even tolerates himself. Still, I cherish my own awful self, my beating heart. Because something, this awful something that I am, is, and always will be – for me but not Joanna Russ, it seems – better than nothing.

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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.

ROADSIDE PICNIC BY ARKADY & BORIS STRUGATSKY

His career as a master criminal was short-lived. He was twelve or thirteen, and bored, bored with his life, with being poor, with having no prospects or anything to look forward to except the day when he could leave the stinking shithole where violence and misery stalked his heels like a pair of dark dogs. He had walked to Meadowhall, a large shopping centre that resembled a hellish doll’s house, and was kicking his heels. He had no money, but didn’t really want anything anyway. He just wanted to be somewhere away from what he knew, where, to his immature mind, people were living differently. He took a turn around a bookshop, lifting books from the shelves, and, without making any kind of conscious decision, put one of them under his t-shirt, tucked it down his jeans. He expected to be caught, to be nabbed at the entrance as he walked out, but he wasn’t.

He was more scared when he got outside, when he had got away with it, than he was in the act of stealing. He knew he had done something wrong, that it should not have played out like that, and that is why he went back. He realised afterwards, that he wanted to be caught, that being caught was part of it. Something had to happen, of that he was adamant; he wanted something important to happen to him, something momentous, to give his day some sort of meaning. So he went back in, and he came back out again. Another book. No one batted an eyelid. Three, four more times. Nothing. The situation had become absurd. He was untouchable, or so he felt. Why will no one acknowledge me? Am I really this insignificant? And then, eventually, they did notice him. He had become more and more reckless; he made no effort to conceal what he was doing, and, in fact, could barely walk for all the books he had hidden on his person.

He was relieved when the security guard touched him on the shoulder. He wasn’t rough, he simply requested that he turn around and accompany him. He took him ‘in the back’ and the police were called. Only he didn’t think they were really the police. They didn’t have on uniforms and they don’t send out non-uniformed officers to deal with teenage shoplifters. It was a ruse, a way of scaring him straight. He was already straight, they didn’t get it. He wasn’t going to steal again. He had done it and had got what he wanted, which was their attention, and a new experience. Something different. No matter how negative. The policemen drove him home. He sat in the back of the car swearing to myself. They threatened to arrest him. He smiled.

Redrick ‘Red’ Schuhart is a stalker, a criminal. He stalks the Zone at night, without permission. The Zone is what the aliens left behind, after the Visit; it is a dangerous place, full of alien litter, which can kill or mutate the people stupid enough or greedy enough to enter. However, this litter is valuable, and that is why Red is important. Schuhart is an average kind of guy, street-smart, but relatively poor. He has spent time in prison for stalking, which is illegal. He drinks a lot, swears a lot, and smokes a lot; he delivers wise-cracks like a hard-boiled, tough-talking PI; he is an irascible, but likeable anti-hero. On the most basic level, Roadside Picnic is a pulp novel, a noir, about an ex-con trying to go straight. Red frequently alludes to wanting to get out of the game, to become a normal citizen, and yet he never does.

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

It is suggested that Red became a stalker, i.e. someone who enters the Zone and steals and sells objects from it, for money; he says himself that he requires money so as to be able to live without having to count every penny. Therefore, sure, you could see Roadside Picnic as being about what people feel forced to do in order to survive, in order to live comfortably, but for me that is too simplistic. It struck me that Red is just like the kid I wrote about in my introduction, that he continues to be a stalker, even after being arrested and doing time in prison, even after the birth of his daughter, when he has so much more to lose, because he needs the excitement, he needs to feel like someone. The Strugatsky’s write about the ‘surrounding, indifferent chaos,’ Red himself talks about life being ‘gray,’ and this is, I think, most telling, most significant. Some people don’t want to go straight because that would mean they are just like everyone else, working for a cunt of a boss [Red is antagonised by authority and frequently rebels against it], plodding towards extinction.

“I lock myself in the stall, take out the flask, unscrew it, and attach myself to it like a leech. I’m sitting on the bench, my heart is empty, my head is empty, my soul is empty, gulping down the hard stuff like water. Alive. I got out. The Zone let me out. The damned hag. My lifeblood. Traitorous bitch. Alive. The novices can’t understand this. No one but a stalker can understand. And tears are pouring down my face—maybe from the booze, maybe from something else. I suck the flask dry; I’m wet, the flask is dry. As usual, I need just one more sip. Oh well, we’ll fix that. We can fix anything now. Alive. I light a cigarette and stay seated. I can feel it—I’m coming around.”

Roadside Picnic is not, however, simply a character study. While it isn’t as relentlessly philosophical, or thought-provoking, as, say, Solaris, there are many points of interest outside of the protagonist. The objects, for example, that are smuggled out of the Zone are, as previously noted, valuable to humans, both scientifically and criminally. However, one character, Doctor Pillman, states that as these objects are alien, we therefore cannot truly understand them or utilise them properly, not yet anyway. Stanislaw Lem makes a similar point in many of his novels, which is that if you can only bring human reasoning, understanding etc to an alien life-form or object or message then you cannot fail but to misunderstand it. Humans and aliens are, to all intents and purposes, incompatible; and contact, genuine contact is, therefore, impossible. Like in His Master’s Voice, the Strugatsky’s show humans misusing and misinterpreting the alien. The aliens are far more advanced than we are, and so when we try to interact with their litter, when we try to utilise it, we are, essentially, like monkeys using an ipad as a dinner plate.

There is also something darkly funny about the nature of the alien visits. I’ve long thought that we are interested in aliens coming to earth, in alien-human contact, not because we want to study the creatures or learn from them, but because, in our arrogance, we think that we are worthy of their attention. The Strugatsky’s brilliantly burst this bubble, by having their aliens visit earth, only to make a mess of it, then skidaddle without ever saying a word or doing anything of note or paying humans any attention at all. The upshot of their visit is that the aliens couldn’t give a monkeys about us, and why should they? They are, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, far more advanced then we are, so why would they want to hang around with the likes of us? This is, of course, where the title of the book comes from, which is to say that the aliens came to earth almost as a kind of stopover to somewhere more exciting, almost by accident, as though they had a brief picnic and then carried on on their way.

“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”

I wrote in my review of Solaris that Sci-Fi doesn’t really do it for me, and maybe I ought to revise that opinion, because I enjoyed this novel very much. However, the Strugatsky’s, again like Lem, are more concerned with us than they are aliens. There are no intergalactic battles, no spaceships, we don’t even see the creatures that created the Zones. Roadside Picnic is a [broadly pessimistic] study of human nature. Think about how what is discovered in, or retrieved from, the Zones creates a black market and an industry whereby people are trying to snaffle up the stuff for themselves to serve their own ends. The message here seems to be that whatever man comes into contact with he will seek to exploit it, corrupt it, make money out of it. Furthermore, one could also point to the picnic idea as being a hint at environmentalism, as being a critique of the way that we treat our planet, and the animals that share it with us. The truth is that we are pretty disgusting, and we are making a big fucking mess of this eternally spinning globe. So, sure, there may be something out there, but is it any wonder that they have turned their backs on us?