Archive for bester

Dystopography

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2011 by theclockworm

For a long time, I’ve had mixed feelings about the “dystopian” genre of fiction, and about its inclusion in the SF conversation. To the younger me, cyberpunk adherent that I was, there was an absolute disparity. The SF I loved was morally ambiguous, post-modern in the way Gibson is post-modern: not about paralysis, but about moving within something unchangeable.  This fiction didn’t make value judgments about technology, nor did it seek to separate the development of human traits, social structures, and politics from technological development. It recognized that they were linked, organic, and with this recognition made, it simply told stories. Bester, the proto-cyberpunk, did this too, and arguably better. In contrast, books like 1984, Brave New World, and the rest seemed implicitly moral, not to mention moralizing. They were “about something” in the way I disapproved of in almost every medium. They wanted you to be scared, to judge harshly; if you read 1984 and side with Big Brother, you’ve read it wrong. That’s a kind of patronization I dislike. It’s like a Spielberg movie, being told when to cry.

And then there was the moral itself. I might have prided myself on the amorality of my SF, but if it was to have a moral, it would certainly have been a pro-technology, progress-centric one. These dystopians were squarely opposite. How could so many people not see the differences here? It seemed to me you had two camps with irreconcilable values being lumped into one category because of the settings they shared, settings which I felt belonged to ‘real’ SF, the kind that wasn’t a promotion for some Luddite cave-commune.

Looking back, I see problems in a lot of these ideas. First of all, the assumption that the amorality would have given way, under pressure, to one particular opinion and not the other seems questionable at best. Oddly, Heinlein stands up in this fight a lot more than Gibson; Heinlein, definitely not a cyberpunk, and in some ways absolutely a moralizer, was the gung-ho “progressive.” In Heinlein’s novels, space travel ends war, saves humankind, and makes immortality practical; pioneering keeps Darwin happy, and free love finally breaks the bonds of jealousy. But Heinlein, for all his attempts at practicality, is guilty of something almost as bad as dystopianism – utopianism. A literary battle between RAH and Orwell is like Star Wars – good if you’re in a totemic, black-and-white, myth-as-tautology mood. It’s too much a dichotomy. There’s not enough grey.

Grey is where I tend to live. It’s more interesting, in my opinion, not to mention more realistic. I’m sure that Gibson, if asked, wouldn’t have some myopic opinion of technology and “progress;” as I mentioned, the acknowledgment of the inherent connection between technology and society would probably preclude such a view.  And Orwell? Who knows. But I think, as an adult as well as an aspiring writer,  I can understand a bit more: sometimes, you hold back some of the grey to give the work more impact. I just wish it had been clearer to me when was younger that one could have more nuanced views of these topics. I’ve grown past my own “progress at all costs” system of belief. It is, as I said about information in the previous post, not about the chronological newness, but rather the complexity, the true value.

Not that I’m giving the dystopians too much credit. In most ways, I think I was right. SF doesn’t have to support newness with abandon; it doesn’t really have to support anything. But I don’t think it can be good, or smart, if it’s built on fear-mongering, on extending the worst things in plain sight to their most extreme ends, on practicing what Vonnegut called “royal astronomy:” the constant insistence, since the beginning of time, that everything is about to end. Even if the S in SF is for “speculative” and not “science,” that’s not smart speculation. It’s effective, because it plays on our fears, but it’s not how the world works.

The one dystopian novel I really did like was We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It’s the most artful application of the tropes and structures of the dystopian novel (probably because it essentially invented them), and it seems more a reflection on the human response to oppression than sociological assumptiveness.

I occasionally hear PKD called dystopian. I disagree. I think what doesn’t work, what fails,  in Dick’s world, isn’t the country or the government, but rather the universe. Everything else is simply an emanation of that initial malfunction (this is not accidental; emanation theology is at the core of Gnosticism).  However, Dick does, on occasion, delve into the particular horrors and abuses of government and social oppression, and guess what? I love it. It moves me. It scares me. I empathize. I sympathize. Because he got it right.

The oppression of Radio Free Albemuth is simply too close to issues of the present to dismiss as Berkeley activist-politics gone the way of all things boomer-ey. The overwhelming, integrated, hidden-in-plain-sight “pusher economy” of A Scanner Darkly is not even slightly allegorical; that’s simply the way it is. If only Substance-D were a McDonalds cheeseburger, it would be a fully literal story.

As wary as I am of royal astronomy, as much as I disapprove of fear-mongering and wild extrapolation, things really are bad, and saying so in a responsible way is always brave and meaningful.

Advertisements

The Psychologist in SF: Part Four

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2011 by theclockworm

Two: More Bester! (Besterer?) / The Stars My Destination

In The Stars My Destination, Bester examines the consequences of applying a lack of intelligence to a driving hatred in a world full of back-doors toward self-betterment. Gully Foyle, a sub-human everyman, is absolutely possessed by his desire to murder the Vorga, a vessel which passed him by without offering aid when he was marooned on his own ship, the Nomad. In a shining example of science fiction at its best, we are introduced to a world where people can “jaunte,” a form of teleportation; as bester is wont to do, he makes this development the crux of culture, setting up a complex class system based around the how far a person can jaunte in one jump. He then allows us to follow one wily psychopath with no end of resourcefulness and manic drive as he navigates this world, attempting to do something literally impossible – namely, to kill a spaceship. Foyle has to worm his way into the strangest and most dynamic areas of his world in order to get what he wants.

Ahem. Sound familiar?

To my recollection, there are no actual psychologists in this book. However, there are a few very interesting surrogates. Robin Wednesbury is an occupational therapist of sorts, helping those who can’t jaunte for various reasons to learn or relearn the skill. Foyle takes advantage of her giving nature throughout the book, in yet another example of therapist-as-ragdoll. But I don’t think Bester meant this to reflect negatively on Wednesbury; after all, she sticks with Foyle through all of his questionable deeds, eventually helping him to become a sort of universal savior. It’s not as subtle and obviously Taoist as George Orr in LeGuin’s “The Lathe of Heaven,” but there’s a similar quality here, one that seems to provide a counterpoint to the therapist character in The Demolished Man: Wednesbury is resigned to being part of Foyle’s story while it is taking place, but she is persistent, consistent, and, when the time comes, ready to help him make the most of the path of self-actualization he’s already been on. In “Lathe,” the Taoist patient saves the world by remaining passive but present in opposition to the manic urges of his Psychiatrist. In SMD, Wednesbury helps Foyle save the world by sticking around, letting him play out his manic urges, but guiding him, trusting that they will end in nobler ones.

And then there are the Scientific People. One of the most visually evocative passages in any book I can recall, Foyle’s terrifying encounter with these maladapted “savages” is rife with sociological and psychological implications. The descendents of a group of scientists who crashed into an asteroid (or something like that), these primitive people have formed an entire culture – a ritualistic culture reminiscent of cargo cults in some respects – around the vestiges of the “science” left for them to find. They perform elaborate ceremonies involving men on stilts, wearing medical scrubs embroidered with the patterns of human biological systems; readings from scientific reports as if from sacred texts; and tattooing the names of everyone – visitors included – into their foreheads in a horrific mockery of thorough taxonomy. I am less interested in attempting to parse the implications here than I am in simply presenting them for review in relation to the rest of my points. Tackling the scientific people in any meaningful way would be (could be?) a whole piece.

One very interesting thing comes of Foyle’s encounter, however. Having been swept up into their society and married to one of their women, Foyle is forcibly tattooed with his “name,” actually the name of his ship: Nomad. Shortly after his escape, he has the tattoo removed. The procedure is effective, except for one thing: when he becomes overly emotional, particularly overly angry, his tattoo becomes visible, presumably standing out in white as he turns red. Foyle’s pursuers are looking for a man with a facial tattoo. If he stays calm, this can be a great advantage, as tattoo removal is rare; however, if he allows his emotions to overtake him, he will give himself away. At this point in the story, his journey is just beginning; he is driven and resourceful but emotionally and mentally underdeveloped. His rage still drives him. In order for him to succeed at infiltrating society – both high and low – to reach his goal, he would have inevitably been faced with the need to restrain himself anyhow. This event serves as a kind of “divine behaviorist intervention,” the accidental or serendipitous application, by no one and nothing other than the twists of fate that constitute Foyle’s life, of a sort of conditioning technique that does, eventually, prove effective.

This is really the heart of Bester’s approach to psychology. Though he may include a professional here and there, the real psychologist in Bester’s best works in the world. Not only does our relationship with our environment contribute to our psychological issues, it can also work with us to solve them. In these, his most transcendent moments, Bester proves himself to be more nuanced in his psychology. Elements of environmental and social psychology crop up, working in tandem with behaviorist and humanist ideas. Bester, in his later work especially, is more than just a cheerleader for the rather limited psychodynamic notions of the time. He is a true eclectic – someone who understands that psychology is only the study of the human experience, and not the thing itself – not a solution to a problem, but a sketch of a situation, in which possibility is always present.

Next and last in this series: The Psychologist in PKD (though it may be a while until I can take this on)

Also: Comments are welcome, so feel free to jump in. Science fiction is a dialogue (so is psychology) – embrace it!

The Psychologist in SF: Part Three

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2011 by theclockworm

One: Bester Introduced / The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester loved to write about roles. Throughout his works, he managed to hone in on, caricature, extrapolate, and investigate the minds of criminal saviors, homicidal CEOs, psychic psychologists, sleep-walking (and sleep-killing) perfume designers – the list goes on. Part pastiche, part fever-dream, part jazz-riffing cartooning, it is the characters – and their place in society – that really make Bester the godfather of Cyberpunk. And let’s face it – he does it better than the younger William Gibson in many ways, as hard as that is for me to say. They may be less realistic on the surface, but they’re richer for all their pomp. In all of Bester’s characters, the vein of the psychic struggle runs deep. Bester was deeply aware of the psychological epic of human life, and, even in his earlier, Freud-laden material, his insights still carry these tales.

In talking about Bester, it’s a little more difficult to find “The Psychologist,” or at least to keep him chained to the discussion for long; however, in this case, Bester himself is the psychologist, in a far more literal sense than most others in this series.

SPOILERS FOLLOW. These books were written in the 1950s; I think the statute of limitations applies.

The Demolished Man, one of the two seminal Bester novels, is a Freudian parable, a post-modernist amorality-play that simply examines – with glee, with demented fervor, but never with passé moral judgment – the consequences of mixing passion and power, especially when the motive is revenge. Ben Reich, the CEO of Monarch, is absolutely possessed by his desire to murder Craye D’Courtney, a man who he subconsciously knows is his father. In a shining example of science fiction at its best (and most fun), we are introduced to a world filled with “Espers,” telepaths who constitute a crucial aspect of society; as Bester is wont to do, he makes this development the crux of culture, setting up a complex class system based around the level of one’s telepathic power. He then allows us to follow one wily psychopath with no end of resourcefulness and innovative thinking as he navigates this world, attempting to do something next to impossible. In a world full of psychics, murder almost never takes place. Reich has to snake around almost every barrier of his world in order to get what he wants.

This is a pattern or mode that is repeated in The Stars My Destination. The Oedipal facets of DM are widely acknowledged, as is the fact that SMD is essentially a “retelling” of The Count of Monte Cristo. But what is often overlooked is the “matching pair” of similarities: DM is as much a retelling of Oedipus Rex, and both novels share almost identical plotting – a structure of revenge epic that can be found in both Oedipus Rex and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Reich is the picture-perfect Freudian nut-job: he is plagued by dreams of The Man with No Face, motivated by a self-destructive homicidal impulse, the motivation for which he is completely unaware, and, ultimately, succumbs to “demolition,” a total erasure of his memories, including not only the initial traumatic experiences, but all those that followed. Per Freud, Reich’s entire life was thrown under the train by his early traumas, and even his own recognition of this loses out to his self-destructive impulse, which he confronts within his demolition experience.

As hard as all this is to buy (even some of the most basic Freudian notions seem pretty ass-backwards to me in the majority of cases), Bester pulls something truly wonderful from the whole tale. Even if this isn’t how people really work, hey: it’s science fiction, and that means the freedom – and responsibility – to explore all kinds of what-if scenarios. Try to read DM with “what if Freudian psychology actually applied?” as one of the many science-fictional positions of the novel, and you’ll be fine.

There is a therapist character in this novel. I’d like to go back and re-read the parts concerning him; maybe I’ll do that and throw in an addendum later. Until then: the therapist is an employee of Monarch, of Reich himself, and is, needless to say, an Esper. His presence in Reich’s life is more or less mandatory, either due to company or government policy, and Reich resents it immensely, though he is conflicted in this regard: he uses the services provided up to the point where he becomes threatened. He intentionally keeps a lower-level Esper in the role, one of many actions set up seemingly long in advance to protect his intentions from being discovered.

This relationship, tertiary to the plot though it may be, is revealing of a few things. First, it is an exaggerated version of the resentment-projection I mentioned in part one. Second, it implies something about the nature of power and the effect it has on the way one receives help from others. Though any of us could snap at our psychologists and walk out, we typically don’t. This ‘ability’ is less a literal one, and more a reflection of our attitudes toward the world and others. Reich’s power, in his mind, permits any and all impulses to come to fruition, including those he knows could destroy him.

This relationship, and indeed the role of the therapist here, brings to mind the psychologist in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, which I will cover later in the PKD segment of this series (a seriously daunting task). In both cases, actual treatment is second to the fulfillment of social roles and obligations. It’s a dire extrapolation, and one that, unfortunately, is probably not far from the truth for the very powerful today. The difference with Dick, of course, is that this is available to everyday people, laborers on Mars who develop social anxiety and schizophrenic behavior en masse.

Though we are never guided back to it, I wonder about the therapist’s responsibility in the story, and what Bester would have said about that. Perhaps it was, in some small part at least, his failure to be more assertive that allowed Reich to submit himself to a string of acts which culminated in his identity being decimated? After all, psychologists now aren’t mind-readers, and they still hold some degree of responsibility. Maybe the therapist’s reliance on his own resource of power prevented his acting to the fullest potential of his skills.

Next: More Bester as I cover The Stars My Destination

Hands

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2011 by theclockworm

I had an idea for a story today, and even before I began writing, I knew it would be one of “those” stories. I wish I had time to look this up for specifics, but I remember Alfred Bester, in one of the introductions in Starbright (many of which will probably worm their way into future discussions), talking about stories that come into your head complete and can basically just be transcribed. This was one of those times. More importantly, it was the first of those times. I have close to fifteen stories started; other than The Playground, which I wrote nearly five years ago and which, if it is ever to be seen, will need an ER-level resuscitation, this is the first one I have finished. The Exploded Manifestations of Ari Ascher is done in draft form, but again, a fair amount of work lies between its present state and “birth.”

Today’s story came from a confluence of notions. I had just read Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation,” a wonderful and strange and haunting story. One of the minor aspects of this tale is the notion of memory fading over a very long lifespan, to the degree that one might forget his own origins.

I had always been struck with the astuteness demonstrated by Robert Heinlein in one or another of the Lazarus Long books, when he addressed issues of memory in a very long human life. I wondered, what if this was far more acute? What if human memory, even if our bodies were to become immortal and without need, is limited to the last x years, down to the very moment? The first wave of people to live this long wouldn’t have known to keep meticulous records of basic events.

The story is short, and revolves around one man who is about to lose his last visual memory of a photograph of his wife, whose name he doesn’t even know. It’s a personal reflection and a sketch of a life set during a lonely and uneventful countdown, one which cuts all pertinent history loose from the character’s life. It’s also a pretty apt reflection on the aimlessness of life in general, and the power of even the most tenuous connection.

I’m a little wary about posting a whole story on here just yet, so here is a short clip:

*****

I don’t know her maiden name, or the names of her parents. I don’t remember how we met, or how she died; even her funeral is fathoms beyond the shadow of my forgetting. I don’t know if we made each other happy. If we did, I don’t know whether it was the exception or the rule.

The first thing I remember is the last day I saw the image before it turned to dust. When it crumbled in my hands, an instantaneous thing, I went calmly to the sink and washed them. I swept the floor, escorting all her tiny parts into the dustbin. I wrote the date on the wall above my bed, on the steel itself. And, after a time, I wept. When I was able, I borrowed a laser-etching gun from a pilot whose course would parallel mine for a while; gently, with great care not to misfire and puncture a bulkhead, I engraved the note into the artifice, so that it hung like a plaque above my bed. This way, I would remember when I was going to forget.