On Speculative Romance

The etymological root of the word romance is the Old French romanz, which referred mainly to the “vernacular language of France, as opposed to Latin” (OED). While this sense of the word later encompassed other “Romance” languages that derive from Latin, the contrast with Latin remains in the critical sense of the word “romantic” as a style of art or music opposed to “classical.” At some point, the word romance (or rather romanse) comes to mean story or a type of story. In their collection of Medieval Romances (1957), Roger and Laura Loomis tell us that the word roman “was applied indiscriminately to any long narrative in French verse,” but by the end of the Middle Ages it developed a narrower meaning: “a tale of Knightly prowess, usually set in remote times or places and involving elements of the fantastic or supernatural” (x).

John William Waterhouse: La Belle Dame Sans Merci – 1893

The origin of many of these stories from the oral tradition (told in the vernacular) and their less scrupulous content may also help explain the distinction between classical and romantic.

The more distilled sense of “love story,” which dominated twentieth-century pulp fiction and film, developed sometime in the seventeenth century, but of course it is already latent in the chivalric emphasis of medieval romance—one has only to think of Lancelot and Guinevere.

An acute fusion of these variant meanings for romance is found in the second generation British Romantic poet John Keats, who penned the following poem in 1819.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said –
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

–John Keats (manuscript version, 1819)

Keats balances sexual rapture and loss in an encounter with the  faery world, natural cycles of loss with intimations of supernatural predation. In this poem we hear medieval romance–a knight seduced by a faery–the macabre danger of the Gothic, and a second generation romantic poet pondering the failure of idealism and subjective desire.

Gothic romances flourish in the eighteenth century by simultaneously sustaining regressive flights into fantastic medieval ballads and insanely intense love stories. For example, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto gigantic helmets fall from the sky to wreak divine vengeance, while the passionate but forbidden love of Matilda and Theodore wreaks havoc.  Medieval revival fades to architecture and religion in Ann Radcliffe as the appearance of the supernatural is resolved into affect and trickery, and the love story emerges to structure narrative resolution. (Oddly, the love stories in Walpole and Matthew Lewis often end in substitution or doubling of the beloved, a sort of displacement that re-inscribes the dominance of the social world.)

While the supernatural dimension of medieval revival is accentuated in Matthew Lewis, it is displaced entirely by scientific hypothesis in Mary Shelley.Whereas in medieval and Gothic romance, the fantastic element is elaborated by way of supernatural incursion (or the appearance of such), the animation of Frankenstein’s daemon is predicated by scientific conjecture, albeit veiled and ambiguous.

By the time Jules Verne is being translated into English in the 1860’s, the term is Scientific Romance, and  Charles Howard Hinton and H. G. Wells thought of what they wrote as Scientific Romance. When Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories–at first this was often reprinting of nineteenth-century Scientific Romances by Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells–the label was at first Scientifiction and later Science Fiction. As Science Fiction established itself in mass market paperbacks, the back spine was marked with the acronym SF. But as some writers resisted the narrow implications of Science Fiction, they identified SF with Speculative Fiction, a genre term also applied to Fantasy, a genre that also develops out of nineteenth-century medieval revival and that is increasingly confused with genre sf toward the late twentieth century.


© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Semley’s Journey: Fantasy at the Inception of the Hainish Cycle

Usually described as science fiction, Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, which includes seven or so novels and a few stories, is marked by lucid instances of genre inversion. This might be expected given that Le Guin is writing in the late sixties when she also begins the Earthsea fantasy series, but such inversion doesn’t occur in the Earthsea novels–only in the  Amazing Stories cover Hainish Cycle.  In general, fantasy characterizes the isolated world, while science fiction often supercedes or displaces fantasy as these worlds are enjoined with the broader galactic community. The most vivid instance of this occurs right at the very beginning of the cycle: first published as a short story in Amazing Stories (1964), “The Dowry of Angyar” later served as the prologue for Rocannon’s World (1966) and again as “Semley’s Necklace” in the retrospective collection of Le Guin stories called The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975). Alternatively, as can be seen in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which I’ll discuss another time, fantasy  operates as a mode that informs and potentially subverts the premises and assumptions of science fiction.

The science fiction rubric is clear enough: these are novels about the Hainish, an ancient galactic civilization that has collapsed and is being re-enjoined by the League of Worlds and then the Ekumen. The worlds, including Earth, are rationalized in terms of colonization by the Hainish some hundred thousand years ago. Species are ambiguous hybrids of autocthonous and alien, with some suspected genetic modification and probable evolutionary change. There is advanced technology such as ansibles, which provide instantaneous interstellar communication, and faster than light travel (no one can survive it, but it can be used for genuinely terrifying military purposes that anticipate Iain M. Banks’ 1987 Consider Phlebas). There is travel between the stars at nearly the speed of light, and so there is time dilation.  And so on—many of the obvious markers of science fiction.

Immediately at the beginning of the prologue of Rocannon’s World there is an italicized anthropological entry that identifies the different “High-Intelligence Life Forms” for “Galactic Area 8, No. 62: FOMALHAUT II.” The physiological characteristics, social state, and level of technological progress are noted for each species and race. The Gdemiar are “[h]ighly intelligent, fully hominid nocturnal troglodytes, 120-135 cm. in height, light skinned, dark head-hair,” who possess “a rigidly stratified oligarchic urban society modified by partial colonial telepathy, and a technologically oriented Early Steel culture” (3). The Fiia are likewise highly intelligent and fully hominid, but they are “diurnal, av. ca. 130 cm. in height”; they seem to live in “village and nomadic communal societies,” with “partial colonial telepathy, also some indication of short-range TK,” and they appear “a-technological and  evasive, with minimal and fluid cultural patterns” (4). The Liuar are taller hominids, above 170 cm, and they possess “a fortress/village, clan-descent society, a blocked technology (Bronze), and feudal-heroic culture” (4). There are two races of Liuar: the Angyar, who are very tall with dark skin and yellow hair, and the Olgyior, who have light skin and dark hair. The Angyar are “lords,” while the Olgior are “midmen.”

Obviously, this particular style of anthropological documentation is itself unfamiliar. We could peruse an entry on hominids on Earth and feel unsettled.  The discourse is pseudoscientific, that of a quantifying observer who fancies naming and classification. The bare rudiments of taxonomy, metrics, and abbreviations allude to a broader scientific culture. This perspective is that of the League of Worlds, of which Rocannon is the main representative in both the prologue and the subsequent narrative. Rocannon peruses the entry while trying to identify Semley, one of the Angyar, but it doesn’t tell him “who she is…” (4).

The story that gives us Semley’s story is not told from Rocannon’s point of view.  In this sense, it differs from the novel proper, which follows Rocannon in limited third person. The story, instead, follows Semley on her quest to recover her great grandmother’s jewelry, a necklace with one jewel called “Eye of the Sea” that is worth a kingdom, literally. Once we turn away from Rocannon’s point of view and follow Semley’s story, we enter into a fantasy world despite carrying this anthropological catalogue that cues us to science fiction. It immediately elicits us to think about the fantastic and all of the markers that constitute fantasy.


Marina Krasilnikova’s “Rocannon’s world”

The Angyar themselves are startling. They seem mythical or heroic. They are large, almost gigantic, beatific  and lordly people. Their world is feudal, and it is so essentially: they rule over the Olgyior by natural right. The coming of the Starlords seems to have initiated a crisis or decline—one that Semley responds to by seeking the necklace to restore her family’s status. They are sublimely beautiful in that oxymoronic sense to which Samuel Taylor Coleridge so strongly objected:  giant dark skinned and golden haired.

Semley’s quest for the necklace is, as Mary Fraughton has observed, a fantasy quest, in part because she seeks treasure, in part because the journey that she undergoes is the archetypical hero’s journey, what Joseph Campbell called Monomyth. (Campbell’s theory is problematic; I use it here as a shorthand for a narrative pattern.)

The crisis that precipitates her departure is the general decline of the Angyar. The discontent that leads Semley to leave home has been affecting her from some time before she acts. She is finally driven to leave by the humiliation of the Starlords using “a couple of dwarvish Clayfolk as interpreters” when they come to collect taxes.

The “Eye of the Sea,” the heirloom she seeks, went missing before the present crisis, and her attempt to recover it is really restorative: to restore the world and her family to its former status and social order. The quest is fundamentally nostalgic, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. It is, after all, a sort of unfathomable journey. Indeed, the “necklace all of gold, with the blue jewel set in the center,” described as a “kingdom’s ransom,” haunts the entire novel with an almost mystical presence—a quality of returning, an emblematic aesthetic that counterpoints Rocannon’s own quest. And yet, as Durossa and the Fiia tell Semley, she is what her husband Durhal values—not some token of wealth and status.

Monomyth is typically marked by a series of challenges and temptations, helpers and guardians, crossings of thresholds into abysses (the belly of the whale) and eventual return or rebirth with mastery of both spheres.

Semley’s two most prominent helpers  are also the starkest fantasy elements throughout Rocannon’s World: the flying beasts of the Angyar called windsteeds and the elf-like Fiia. Half feline and half raptor, the wingsteeds resemble griffons with tiger heads: “striped coat fitting sleek over hollow, buoyant bones, green eyes slitted against the wind, light and mighty wings” (8). Married women among the Angyar don’t ride for sport, so the wingsteed represents a return to her childhood.

Semley's wingsteed

Moreni Zaczytana’s Semley na wiatrogonie (Semley on windsteed)

The Fiia “are fair; they look like children, only thinner, and wiser” (7).They have no interest in gold. For them, “there is sunlight in warmyear, and in coldyear the remembrance  of sunlight; the yellow fruit, the yellow leaves in end-season, the yellow hair [on Semley]” (9-10). They are collective and telepathic, lovers of and dwellers in nature. Of course they don’t have the necklace—why would they want it? In the hero’s journey, the Fiia represent either wisdom or regression.  They don’t think she should go to the Clayfolk in pursuit of the necklace. She goes anyways. This double possibility–are they wise or merely like children who can’t engage with the realities of the world–continues to the end of of Semley’s journey. If we question Semley’s pursuit of her inheritance, we probably find the Fiia wise. If we admire Semley’s quest, we may well see the Fiia as an obstacle on her journey.

The Clayfolk are the Gdemiar. They have “lank black hair and gray-white skins, dankish looking like the skins of grubs, eyes like rocks” (11). In some ways, they are the crucial figure of transfiguration in the prologue—they are both the guardians of the threshold and the means of transport. As alluded to earlier, these troglodytic people are based on the dwarfs of Germanic or Norse mythology (or perhaps, more likely, J. R. R. Tolkien). Dwarfs, as we know from The Hobbit, love treasure. Indeed, they originally made the “Eye of the Sea” and sold it to the Angyar.

In the domain of these “Night-lords,” as the Gdemiar call themselves, Semley encounters significant technological progress, without understanding or even caring about it. They have “lights that burn forever,” cars that pull themselves, and machines that make clothes, cook food, sweeten the air, and serve (15). Such progress was implied in the anthropological entry describing the Gdemiar as “a technological oriented Early Steel culture” with technology “enhanced to Industrial” who were presented with an “Automatic Drive ship” (3-4). It may seem hard to believe that the League of Worlds would accelerate an iron age society to an industrial society and lend them a star ship, but this is exactly what has happened. Perhaps equally difficult to grasp, but of the utmost importance, the materialistic Clayfolk agree to take their star ship some four to five light years to New South Georgia in order to recover the “Eye of the Sea.” And they do this in return for Semley’s “thanks” (and perhaps a some groping of Semley’s golden hair enroute). Their adoration for Semley is evident in the compliance to her request—a request that is absurd by almost any measure, especially for a culture with a “bargain-obsession.” It is also seen in their “grudging wonder, a sullen yearning” manifest in their desire to touch her hair and her hands, feet, and throat during the voyage.

I want to emphasize Semley’s own perspective of the journey in order to hold it against what readers, who perhaps want to privilege the Gdemiar’s technological point of view  at this point, might overlook. As I’ve argued before, such instances of genre inversion mark different investments of belief and disbelief.  Held in tension here are two variants of the journey. Semley’s interstellar journey is stunning from a genre perspective. In fantasy terms, a journey into the underworld and the realm of night, a visit to the land of the dead, punctuates the big stories of mythology from Odysseus to Virgil. Bilbo Baggins is lost in the Goblin tunnels and has his encounter with Gollum. Gandalf has his battle with the Balrog. The Gdemiar tell Semley that they will take her “to the place where the treasure lies” on a “greater windsteed”—it is a “very far journey,” yet “it will last only one long night” (15).

The salient point, noted by the Gdemiar, is that Semley does not understand nor care about their superlative technology. Her wingsteed is packed away in some cryopreservation box. She is taken on a space ship at speeds approaching that of light. But Semley doesn’t understand these things. To her, a couple nights have passed and she just wants to put it behind her: “The price was paid, the past was the past” (20). For Semley, her ability to persist and undergo the unknown is the price she pays.

In many ways, Semley’s journey through the “long night” resembles the crossing of the magical threshold in the hero’s journey, what Campbell calls the “belly of the whale.” For Campbell, the hero is “swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died” (75). When Semley experiences the lack of gravity as she wakes up enroute, she asks, “Am I dead?”

And yet there is a marked difference between Campbell’s sense of the “belly of the whale” and Semley’s transit. “Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again,” Campbell tells us. But, of course, Semley goes precisely outward and well beyond the confines of the visible world. She doesn’t go inward. Indeed, Semley lack of interiority remains a constant from beginning to end. Nor is she reborn.

Semley goes on the hero’s journey and she returns from the sea of night with her prize, the “Eye of the Sea.” But the return  is not what she expects nor what we would expect from the hero’s journey. For, of course, nine years have passed in what has only been a few days for her. Her husband is dead. Her daughter is grown up. Semley breaks on what is, for her, an incommensurable experience.

Of course, Campbell’s hero’s journey seems overly focused on male heroes. As a woman, Semley has her own journey and her own conclusion.  She is heroic and her journey is a story, unlike her broken father, whom Semley visits in Kirien, and for whom “the story’s over” (9).  Semley’s journey marks the beginning of a new story. Her encounter with Rocannon in New South Georgia is what motivates his visit to her world.

The change to the world marked by Semley’s journey is encapsulated by her daughter Haldre, many years later when speaking with Rocannon, who has now come to their yet unnamed world: “The world itself has become a grain of sand on the shore of night. All things change now” (41).

Postscript: Rocannon’s World can be found in the three volume collection Worlds of Exile and Illusion (Orb Books, 1996).

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Children of the Slime on Darwin’s Radio

“[W]e may simply be spaceships for bacteria” –Greg Bear, “A Short Biological Primer”

Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Radio (1999) exemplifies the capacity of hard sf to use rigorous gobbledygook to invite speculation Darwin's Radio Covertangential to the main narrative arc. In the fine tradition of Jules Verne’s Professor Pierre Aronnax, Bear’s pedestrian genius geneticist Kaye Lang, rogue archeologist Mitch Rafelson, and the proliferating, conference attending multitude of corporate and government scientists seem to locate us in the heart of current research. There is even a short biological primer and glossary at the end with terms like Lysogenic phage, HERV or human endogenous retrovirus, and Trisomy. As a reader, I pick and choose from this cornucopia of jargon, filtering out the heavier, headache-inducing stuff: “less than 80,000 nucleotides of single-stranded RNA…associated with an unidentified 12,000+ kilodalton protein complex Retrovirus imagein the host cell nucleus” (119). On the other hand, I can’t get enough of Lang’s work on phages, viruses that use bacteria as hosts, and horizontal gene transfer. For several decades, these ideas have disturbed the view of the world I inherited as a child, suggesting that fantastic range of ancient and invisible forces we sometimes associate with the supernatural—events and powers such as the plague of Justinian in the sixth century CE, which killed something like one in every four people, or mutualism, the reciprocal adaptation of species.

Not surprisingly, Bear deploys bacteria metaphorically to figure the novel’s central message of biological purposiveness. If Lang’s initial visit to the Republic of Georgia invokes current fears about superbugs and the failure of human science to constrain bacterial disease, the real problem in Georgia is a social response to the unknown, massacres betrayed by the discovery of mass graves. The real problem in the Unites States is a government predicated by reaction and a bureaucracy of dogmatic scientists who put profit and fear before truth.  One of the most compelling aspects of the story is the descent of the Unites States into pseudo-fascism driven by the complicit interests of biotech companies and  institutions of government security, especially the Centre for Disease Control.  Bear is fascinated by the positive roles played by bacteria: “Bacteria are extremely important and though some cause disease, many others are necessary to our existence. Some biologists believe that bacteria lie at the root of all life-forms, and that eukaryotic cells—our own cells, for example—derive from ancient colonies of bacteria” (528). I like this. It pushes the Darwinian insistence on origins into the biofilm cities we associate with rot and decay. It pushes the envelope of humility to say that we are children of the slime.

And yet, this emphasis on the sociality of bacteria and our mutual dependence is belied by the main narrative arc which ends up imagining an idealized post-human. This homo sapiens novum is familiar to the fantasies of baby Einstein popular in child rearing. (Albeit some of the “getting there,” such as the horrifyingly malformed miscarried fetuses and the Lone-Ranger facial masks, isn’t as familiar.) If only our child could be the beautiful post-human genius that heralds the new age. In the face of the world’s crises, its information density and multiple stressors, is it time for homo sapiens sapiens to “evolve”? To take that next step and become, well…better?  As you can tell, I find this fundamentally distasteful. As much as I appreciate little Stella whistling dual variations of a Mozart piano trio, I can’t help but think that Bear has missed something about reciprocal adaptation. Lang’s metaphor—Darwin’s radio—reverts to a centralized and hierarchical model of organization that forgets the lessons of mutualism and horizontal gene transfer. The gradual working out and randomness that allows reciprocal adaptation can’t be reconciled with a centralized gene computer or “wizard” (Lang’s word for it) that figures it all out for everyone.

Not to mention that such biological provocation—and this is rendered brilliantly by Bear—subverts itself from the outset.  What sort of “wizard” would produce such radical change that the society of organisms it is reprogramming resorts to massacres and mass abortion? It doesn’t seem like an effective selection strategy. At the very least, if I was the “wizard,” I’d let go a few more of those deadly retroviruses buried in the genome to clear the ground, as it were.

I’m interested in the “romantic” dimension of genre sf, and especially here in hard sf where we might think it wouldn’t be as important. I want to distinguish between two senses of romantic: on the one hand, the humanist, subjective apprehension and imagination of the world; on the other hand, the tendency to romanticize in the sense of idealizing or participating in dissociative fantasies that obscure material practices. The first type resists cynicism and abstraction–especially the propensity of abstraction to rationalize the status quo or injustices. In the late eighteenth century, romantic writers participated in abolition and rejected the economic imperatives of the slave trade. Blake critiqued abstractions when they became substitutions for reality, and one variation of the “fall” in his minor prophecies occurs when the character Urizen thinks that the mind can explain and control the whole body. Kaye Lang, in Darwin’s Radio, has a similar insight when she realizes that the separateness of mind is illusion, that she is her body.

On the one hand, Darwin’s Radio insists on the body as the site of knowledge and practice while moving from paranoia to acceptance. Weena and the Time Traveller (1960)This is one of those rare books in which a birth is the climax. It asserts the central role of women in evolution and knowledge making. And it invites genuine reflection and speculation about both our bodies and society. It is also a heavy romance, reminding us yet again of the literal love making that is so important to genre sf. Like the time traveller and Weena in H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel, this romance is central to the plot, and it marks the shift of knowledge from professional to personal.

On the other hand, it also participates in romanticized notions of evolution and perfection. Rather than following the curve of Lang’s insight into the presence and function of retroviruses in the human genome and keeping the children in the slime, as it were, Bear flirts with intelligent design and allows a wizard into the genome.

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Critical Inversions: Rationality and the Reenchantment of the World

“An inversion is produced”  (de Certeau, 1984,  179)

My use of the word “inversions” derives from the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, whose 1998 science fiction novel Inversions followed what was ostensibly the last in his “Culture” series, Excession (1996). (I’ll discuss later Culture novels another time.)

Excession bends the conceptual limits of genre sf by deploying the literary topoi of sublimity in a literal and scientific manner. Excession coverBanks’ use of the verb “to sublime” denotes a voluntary civilization-based choice by so called “elder” species to—simply put—up and vanish. The problem posed by sublimity is that those elder civilizations that do sublime don’t seem to pay attention to what continues to happen in the galaxy under their superlative lintels: for instance, they don’t interfere with apparent evil, such as genocide, and they don’t bother to communicate anything of their state post-sublimation (82). Banks’ emphatic reiteration of the problem of sublimity makes it an insistent preoccupation of the novel, marking the antithetical limit and other of the quasi-utopic “Culture,” which is the epitome of  secular and scientific progressive rationalism. The fact that sublimed species don’t even bother to communicate their discoveries from the great beyond is an anathema to the Culture’s insistent progressive science.

If the sublime marks the antithetical limit of progress represented by the Culture, the excession proper of the title marks the limit of science itself.  In the Culture series, Banks  reinvents space opera by pushing the plausibility of science fiction to its hyperbolic but sincere limits on pretty well every possible scientific front. The Culture builds orbitals, habitats on a planetary scale. Its plate class General Service Vehicles (GSV) are the size of small moons, housing millions of people, and moving between the stars through hyperspace at speeds approximating 100 000 times light. Artificial intelligence is ubiquitous, in ships, drones, suits, and even weapons, and the Minds of the ships are certainly godlike in scope. And the list of excesses runs on: the Culture represents almost total scientific and technical mastery.  Against this backdrop, the Excession intrudes exhibiting technology “outside all known parameters and precedents” (114) alongside impossible data, namely the ember of a trillion-year old star (65), literally marking an intrusion from another universe.

If the sublime and the Excession intimate the  limits of a scientific worldview, the novel’s extension of the Culture’s technological capacity achieves a sort of apotheosis of science in its realization of almost total control over the body. The extreme modification and control over the body is a staple of the Culture series: one merely focuses on one’s internal body image to set changes in motion, whether these be body-mass in relation to gravity or one’s sex. Alteration of face or any body part is routine. In Excession, one character has grown wings, while another alters her face to resemble another person.  Neural laces afford telepathic communication, not to mention assisted intelligence. Average lifespans routinely exceed four centuries. The key development in the novel involves what is called a mind-state abstract, a sort of record or print of a psyche that allows a person to be reconstituted virtually, say for the purpose of communicating with someone far away, or to be reborn, as in the case of accidental death.  Banks engages in a pervasive examination of mind-state abstracts that blurs the line between machine and human, self and other, and soul and simulacra.  For example, Genar-Hofoen’s uncle Tishlin’s mind-state abstract is used to create a holographic version of him that has a conversation with the nephew (61-73). Later Tishlin ponders the morality of disposing of mind-state abstracts and notes that he refused to have his reincorporated afterwards: “What if it had changed a lot while it was away?” (234). Genar-Hofoen is sent to “steal the soul of a dead woman” (54), meaning that her mind-state abstract has been stored long after her death and the destruction of her body. Yet another character is reborn into a new body (with the same genetic properties) after his violent death. The spiritual implications emerge most forcefully when the sentient module Scopell-Afranqui contemplates death before committing suicide: “There was a certain continued existence, of course. He had faith in that; the assurances of the priests that his soul was recorded in a great book, somewhere, capable of resurrection” (298). In the climactic scene of the novel, characters faced with imminent death are offered the opportunity to have their mind-state abstracts broadcast and their bodies reconstituted elsewhere so they can continue the conversation. By exploiting the conceptual limits of science and technology underlying the radically progressive galactic culture of the series, Banks plausibly erases dichotomies between natural and supernatural, science and magic. In a literal sense, he reinvents the soul and imagines a scientifically viable immortality. Upon reaching a certain old-age, many people choose to be stored and revived at a later point. Many choose to be revived when and if the Culture ever chooses to sublime.

Before turning to Inversions proper, I want to note that the tendency seen in Excession is one that occurs in a number of works of genre Veve of Papa Legbafiction between the 1980’s and the early 21st century. In general, I characterize this tendency as a genre inversion in which science fiction and fantasy reinvent themselves by reconstituting basic genre premises and effects. An early glimpse of this inversion can be seen in William Gibson’s flirtation with voodoo spirits in the matrix in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  A couple years after Inversions, China Mieville’s brilliant production of artifical intelligence based on steam technology in Perdido Street Station (2000) signals the reinvention of fantasy as a genre. And there is a pervasive tendency in genre sf, seen in Karl Schroeder’s Ventus (2001) and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002) and Broken Angels (2003).

Inversions coverIn Inversions, Banks draws on genre innovations found in steam punk (e.g., Gibson and Sterlings’ Difference Engine) and techno-slip fiction, which involves discordant or anachronistic technologies that occur simultaneously. In this novel, Banks appears to drop the Culture series and take up a post-medieval world, albeit the two stars and three moons subtly signal a world other than Earth. The novel consists of two interleaved stories about  a kingdom and a protectorate. The key characters in each story are foreigners: a woman doctor who practices unorthodox but remarkably effective medicine attends to the king in a society in which only males are doctors; and an obsessive bodyguard to a Protector, who dawdles over the Protector’s only son. The stories occur within the bounds of a nascent renaissance society: torture is still employed to force confessions, but crude firearms are changing rules of warfare, especially when calvary is involved, and so on. The key to the novel is the point-of-view of the narrators, who are both indigenous to the adopted societies of the foreign doctor and the bodyguard. As a result of the narration, inexplicable events and curious details remain unexplained, relying on a reader familiar with Banks’ Culture series to infer the identity and roles of the doctor and bodyguard.

The arranger of Inversions’  two stories (also as the narrator of the Prologue and Epilogue) is a more mature Oelph, the spy who tells the story of the Doctor. This is a time when belief in the old gods has given way to a more unifying understanding of Providence, which the younger Oelph tells the doctor is “the rule of laws” (126). The older arranger Oelph, speculating on “progress,” puts it somewhat differently: “Providence is the name of the mystical, divinely inhuman Court before which we wish our actions to be judged, and which we hope will agree with us in our estimation both of our own worth and the culpability or otherwise of our behaviour” (2). Oelph, appealing to the reader of  his “chronicle,” acknowledges that “the Reader” is “a sort of partial providence” (3). And as the second narrator emphasizes, such “partial providence” includes the granting or withholding of belief from the story: her motive, she tells us, is “to present the reader with a chance to choose whether  to believe or to disbelieve what I have to say about the events of that time” (22).

Oelph’s emphasis on judgement is juxtaposed by attention to belief by the narrator of the second story, “The Bodyguard.” This narrator, we find out much later, is Perrund, one of the Protector’s concubines, who eventually murders the Protector and tries to kill his son because the Protector raped and slaughtered her family when she was young.

What to believe eventually becomes a matter of genre as readerly belief is played against appearances constrained by limited narration. That is, it is by way of genre conventions developed through the Culture series that a reader invests the details of these stories with alternate accounts that are impossible from the cultural reference of the story tellers.

Readers of the Culture series identify the good doctor and the devoted bodyguard as sorts of alien Cultural (big C) anthropologists visiting this proto-renaissance world from the transgalactic Culture, and so read certain inexplicable events as underwritten by a superlative science and technology. In this way the novel inverts conventional representations of magic and miracles. But Banks goes beyond these showy demonstrations to touch on narrative and philosophy. The bodyguard tries his hand at telling what amount to fairly poor children’s stories about Lavishia, a country in the “land of make-believe” (107), a land where there are “wizards” and “enchanted swords,” where “everybody is able to fly” (145-147). We might ask whether a wizard is an appropriate name for a Culture Mind, but we probably would be forced to admit  that a knife missile, a sort of sentient nuclear capable short sword featured in The State of the Art, falls aptly into that fantasy category of enchanted swords. As to everybody flying, well, we know that is only possible in the quasi-socialist delusions of Banks’ utopian science fiction. The re-enchantment of the world comes by way of science and technology, or almost, but not quite, because re-enchantment or dis-enchantment occurs by perspective and investment of belief (or the lack thereof).

“The investment of belief passes from one myth to another, from one ideology to another, or from one statement to another. Thus belief withdraws from a myth and leaves it almost intact, but without any role, transformed into a document.”  (de Certeau, 1984,  181)

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Dream of Waking

Albion awakes

Plate 8 of William Blake’s America: A Prophecy

“Fiery the Angels rose, & as they rose deep thunder roll’d
Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc…”

–William Blake, America: A Prophecy

My epigram from William Blake gets at my purpose here. This, of course, is the passage that Roy Batty misquotes in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (Hampton Fancher and David Peoples wrote the screenplay), the 1982 film based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Batty says, “Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.” The reversal of rising to falling is everywhere in Blake (and Edgar Allan Poe, for that matter) and is already happening again. It performs a change in perception rooted in the critical apprehension of world view. In America, the thirteen angels governing the American colonies recognize their moral hypocrisy and “rend” the symbols of their office, rejecting oppression and empire. The fall of John Milton’s angels into the fires of hell is appropriated by Blake to symbolize the angels embrace of their own desire and autonomy.

Plate 5 of Blake’s America

Batty’s quotation begins to get at the arc I’ll trace here: romanticism to science fiction. More generally, I want to ponder  historical genres and modes that break with realism, but my focus is on the revival of medieval romance in the guises of the Gothic, scientific romance and science fiction (genre sf), and fantasy. Speculative Romance, as a term, tries to capture the odd tensions I encounter as I shuttle back and forth between romantic writing at the end of the eighteenth and through the nineteenth century and how this leads to the emergence of the modern genres and modes of science fiction and fantasy. Part of these tensions involve the blurring of genres–perhaps the commonalities between them–especially the re-convergence of sf and fantasy in the past few decades, the apparent shift in sf from science fiction to speculative fiction, and an emerging insistence (already witnessed in the post-colonial imperatives of Magical Realism) on the importance of fantasy.

Roy Batty

Roy Batty in the rain