Archive for criticism

Shaking the Tree

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 3, 2012 by theclockworm

There’s something I’ve been struggling to put my finger on about a lot of newer SF;  it has to do with the prevalent mood, pacing, and characterization I’ve been seeing for a number of years. Let me preface by saying that there are certainly very good stories being written, and that some of the people whose work sometimes falls into the realm of these criticisms have a great deal of my respect. But.

But there’s a sense of flatness to most lead characters I come across lately. It seems an echo of the cyberpunk ethos, something more hip (even in loser-ey characters) than I am drawn to, something just a bit too self-comfortable, too solid, too witty and vernacular. It’s not so overt or extreme, most of the time, that it ruins stories, but it leaves me feeling a bit empty, like I’ve watched a heavily-produced film or ad campaign. I find myself, especially now that I’m knee-deep in my own stories and can recognize such things, asking the same set of questions: what is the motivation? Is this character a real person in some universe? Is she round? Is she too consistent? People aren’t a set of clear goals, an area of obsession, and a neurotic tendency. But that seems to be the rule lately. Beyond the characters, there’s simply a sort of atmospheric paradigm that screams of a very particular and relatively limited influence. It’s post-Gibson, post-Sterling, maybe, if we’re lucky, post-Stephenson. And all these writers have something to offer, especially the latter, in my opinion. But there’s a thread of aesthetics and values that seems to emanate from this school and which seems to have set the tone total for modern SF.

The problem?  That 80s cyberpunk school was largely an oppositional movement – it didn’t intentionally incorporate older SF influences in the way SF had always done, even f it was critical and carried out critically. It ignored it. That’s the “punk” in cyberpunk. But for a generation of writers to echo only (or largely) the kinds of worlds implied, if not created, by these writers is to eschew a lineage of writers and works whose influence is sorely needed. Where are the writers who could be accurately (though not thoroughly) described as post-Dick, post-Delaney, post-LeGuin? If they exist, are they SF writers?

One of the factors that drives a wedge between this heritage and the prevalent narrative is that of science – in particular its unambiguously positive powers. But it’s not just that there’s too much utopianism (maybe there is a hint of an older SF influence, but if so, it’s old and stops at Asimov, still neglecting the entirety of the “New Wave”). It’s also, quite simply, its ubiquity. Yes, technology everywhere in our world. And no, I’m not advocating a harsh revival of dystopian SF, with all its didactic finger-wagging. But let’s face it: the role of SF is more nuanced than either extreme; it’s not some luddite warning-cry that despises progress. But it’s not the futurist consultant telling you how to fix everything with science either. We’ve gained too much ground, become too relevant, and we’ve done what so many before us have done in such a position: slid easily into the comfortable role, the vizier role. SF shouldn’t be all about saying “wow, look how far this could go!” It should be, by its nature, self-critical, world-critical, paradigm-critical. It should always be asking what things are like for the underdog.

I feel a distinction needs to be made when it comes to science. Science, for all its might and beauty (and I revel in the amazing discoveries being made as much as any wide-eyed SF fan), is a language of description, not of articulation. The biggest hole in most SF now is not the believability of the technology or its implications; it’s the way the dirty, ugly, boring, compromise-laden translation of discovery into anything you can use as a plot device is completely neglected. SF writers who say, “Hey! Check out all these technological, engineering solutions. Isn’t physics cool?” are being irresponsible. There’s a lot of space between the observations and the implementations, a space of culture-clashes and pragmatic issues, where other civic and technical languages (like engineering, law, public policy, ethics, ownership rights, politics, etc) have to take the static and make it dynamic without killing everything in sight, including the beauty and meaning of the discovery. We need to stop equating things which are different. The ripples are not the stone.

But beyond that, we only see how these things filter through a very limited set of disciplines, despite the obfuscation of that process: we see the outcomes in engineering. We sometimes see it in politics. And, in an increasingly mundane way, we of course see it from the standpoint of people. But people are a little bigger than the sketch of a life. People are where the lofty questions find poignancy. If nothing else, our characters, flat and culture-perfect, show us a documentary-style glimpse at a handful of implications. But not enough.  What I do not see is the way those things filter through ontology, through spiritual thinking, through legality; I don’t see nearly enough of what happens at the edges. There’s been a retreat, even as more cultural diversity is seeping into SF, from a critical examination of colonialism, globalism, education.

I keep going back to the pre-Socratics, to the whole mess of human history where there weren’t the hard delineations there are now. Of course I’m glad science isn’t in the purview of the church anymore; but the separation of the physical from its non-corporeal counterparts has killed entire schools of thought, entire disciplines, that I am amazed every day to discover still have value. Whither cosmology that is neither physics nor theology? Whither latent forms, metaphor as both symbolic and true, soul as literal substance, universe as mind?  Natural Philosophy has become science, which is not philosophy at all, while philosophy has failed to keep up with the questions posed by scientific discovery.

SF should never be simply the wagging finger or the optimistic smile. It should be the devil’s advocate, where the devil is whatever stone has been left unturned. Science is great, though it’s not synonymous with technology; but we know that. In this respect, SF accomplished part of what it set out to accomplish. And that means, for a field as vital as ours, that it’s time to move on, to look at the latent, the hidden, the troublesome, the ambiguous. Perhaps there are other stories worth telling.

Verifying the Dream: The Reader as Scientist in “Soft” SF

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 11, 2011 by theclockworm

The argument against “soft” or social (or personal) SF tends to involve the seeming subjectivity of the social sciences. If it can’t be measured quantitatively, it can’t be approached with anything called science. Leave out the importance of context – that numerical data is not so much impossible as it is inapplicable when it comes to understanding the human mind or human culture. Leave out verifiability in the cognitive sciences. We are faced with, as is mentioned before in this forum, an understanding of science limited to engineering, and which respects or acknowledges only data, not knowledge. To the hard SF fan, he must be able to get inside the engine of the ship and make sure it holds up to the forces of the universe. If he cannot be similarly sure that a character or society is of a certain integrity, he calls the whole thing fantasy.

The one criteria that never seems to be involved in the appraisal of the “scientific-ness” of a tale is the ability for peer review through replication – something no “real” science would be complete without. So you’re satisfied – the author has built a spaceship, and it checks out. But really, the author has painted a very loose image of a world in which someone has built a spaceship, and what he tells you is not impossible according to your own knowledge. How remote the craft is to you! How unscientific your appraisal of its capacity!

Dare I suggest that “social” SF – that which pries into the minds, let alone the brains, of its citizenry, practicing a form of participant observation in an imagined world – is more scientific than that distant craft? The reader is the scientist then – applying what she knows about culture and self and society – to her assessment of the record. In hard SF, the scientist is no one at all – he is nowhere has never existed. He is a ghost. The reader is less the scientist even than the author. Even if you can tinker inside the engines, so what? You haven’t been allowed into the control room.

Of course, in both situations, the only record available is the one the author has furnished. But what can be replicated is the assessment, the extraction of meaningful information, from that record. If the engine works, what of the story? If not, does the whole work go in the trash? When I read The Left Hand of Darkness, I know that I am the anthropologist. I see connections in the ways of Winter than Mr. Ai misses – not that Ms. Le Guin has missed them, for no author is her characters (except maybe Heinlein). I could write my own account, and it might reveal something meaningful in relation to the world in question. If I disagree with Mr. Ai, it changes nothing about the world he has recently visited; in addition, I may have a better idea, something to offer in his stead. The work is alive through readership.

But again, one must consider science a way of understanding more than a way of doing. The kind of critical, informed reading I’m talking about is not simply intuitive – knowing about psychology and anthropology and sociology and gender studies and religion, in formal ways, enrich and enliven the reading experience. Hard SF fans will be happy to know it’s still somewhat elitist – still restricted, at least at some level, by special knowledge. But let us remember that knowledge is not necessarily the thing that happens at the ass-end of an equation. It can happen on the last day of an immersive experience, through trauma or revelation. It’s not just bullet-counting and the summoning of conflicting theories in quantum mechanics (which is also fun, of course). It’s the ability to discern how IT works – whether that it be an engine or a village or a human mind.

Terms of Endearment: Atwood’s Null Taxonomy, Part Two

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2011 by theclockworm

I know this may not be the most popular opinion, but I don’t really see the necessity of the term “speculative fiction,” at least not as an alternative to science fiction. When I type “SF,” I mean science fiction. It’s not that the speculative fiction moniker is offensive, but it seems to arise from the sort of skeevishness about a term that has negative or limiting connotations that drives Atwood’s quackery. Science, in Atwood’s view, is about “impossible” aliens (I’m not sure where she got the idea that scientific consensus finds alien life impossible or even improbable), while speculation is about feats of practical engineering. This strikes me as totally backwards.

Atwood says that “…”what Le Guin means by “science fiction” is what I mean by “speculative fiction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.”” I wonder if Atwood knows that Le Guin shares her definition with others – lots of others. Her definition is the one that’s based in something reasonable. At best, Atwood’s differentiation is arbitrary. At worst, it’s downright scientifically ignorant. To her credit, Atwood does acknowledge that War of the Worlds might have been considered plausible in its day. But that doesn’t seem to cause her to reevaluate her position; instead, she launches into a summary of “slipstream,” an even more pointless non-classification.

The building of an air-balloon or submarine involves real, applicable science – that’s how those things were eventually made real. But Verne was still speculating at the time, just as Wells was. SETI was a scientific venture; does the fact that we haven’t found aliens yet make them silly and fantastical? Does silliness somehow connote science? Might not Wells’ time machine be, like the submarine was when it was conceived by Verne, something which will one day exist through the practical application of science?

Look, it’s not that hard. If a story features, as a significant aspect of its basis, a plausible situation that is based on or best understood through scientific thought of one kind or another, it’s SF.*If a story has a basis in things which were written without the intent of plausibility, featuring things known, more or less, to be impossible, it’s fantasy. Got it? If the author wants to quibble, she is certainly free to, but she’s wasting her time. Old writers may spend a lot of time talking about how meaningless genre terms are, but that neglects a sociological and anthropological truth- that art and its identity is a cultural process, and an important one. And neglecting sociological and anthropological truths is irresponsibly unscientific.

Science isn’t “truth,” or “being right.” It’s not what is, it’s our process of trying to understand what is, and what could be, using the most objective criteria available to us. Dividing out speculation about alien life, reducing science to engineering alone, quibbling about the involvement of the social sciences simply because they are less often able to utilize the mathematically quantitative (and less often benefit from it), is simple-minded. Science is not math, or engineering, or proven facts alone. Science is the pursuit of truth and understanding in all literal things, a process that involves a good deal of informed speculation and which is never complete. There’s room for aliens, anthropologists, and hot air balloons alike.

 *

* This is a whole other thing, but the only grey area here is “psychology.” In some sense, all fiction involves the understanding of a character with respect to their psychology. That’s not necessarily scientific, though; we’re all sort of folk psychologists simply by virtue of our membership in a social species. Use of actual, technical psychology in writing or understanding a character or culture, however, crosses the line into SF.

Terms of Endearment: Atwood’s Null Taxonomy, Part One

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2011 by theclockworm

There’s an essay by Margaret Atwood over at io9 right now. It’s from her new collection of essays about SF which, judging from this grump-fest, promises to be a real hoot. Atwood, who is shaping up to be the sort of anti-LeGuin, tries to take not-anti Le Guin to task for, well, taking her to task for running from the warm hug of SF like it has cooties. She fails. Atwood goes on to argue defensively and unconvincingly her own private definitions of science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. It boils down to this: science fiction comes from Wells, and involves ray-guns and aliens (because that’s science, I guess), and speculative fiction from Verne, which is characterized by realistic things that simply haven’t happened yet, like submarines.

It’s actually a fairly interesting idea, and I’m sure there’s a great essay in it: SF as the parallel but overlapping threads originating with Verne and Wells. The problem is that Atwood, with an eye-roll-inducing air of presumption, talks as if this is the criterion for genre distinction by anyone else in the world. She also lumps Star Trek in with Star Wars under “fantasy.” For all her literary pretense, I think perhaps her true bifurcation is aesthetic. Sure, various technologies in Star Trek may seem unlikely. But that doesn’t make it fantasy. SF doesn’t have to be provably possible. It just can’t be demonstrably based on known “impossibilities,” a word I use with some reservation. The federation may be lightly utopian, but it’s a relatively rational extrapolation. There are aliens, but there’s no magic. The force is magic. Magic is fantasy. Ethics-and-exploration-based multi-planetary unions facing the unknown is not magic.

The fact is, we don’t know much about this thing called “possibility.” We don’t even know if it exists in the physical universe. Scientifically, we can’t – we haven’t seen even a shred of evidence than anything exists other than, well, what exists. So until we stumble into an alternate timeline or some such oddity, all fiction remains speculative. We can quibble about what’s more likely, what’s more realistic, but that works on a spectrum like most things. Is alien life “possible?” Certainly, as far as we know. It falls into the realm of accepted scientific possibility, whatever that means. Would they likely resemble Wells’ invaders? I don’t know. Probably not. But what are the odds of Atwood’s dystopias coming to pass? Limited extrapolation is far less likely than a singularity like an alien invasion for which we are wholly unprepared. Not that the world isn’t going straight to hell, but that’s not the question. The question, for Atwood, is “will it look like this when it happens?” And with most settings offered by SF, the answer is “who the fuck knows?”

Another important thing to remember is that it’s about intent. A responsible SF author, on the whole, should try to work within the framework of the possible. But that is a negative pool, a field that is narrowed down gradually from a starting point, at one time in human understanding, of nearly everything, to a slightly more restricted field. As scientific innovation and discovery continue, that field becomes even more narrow (and sometimes, as a nice surprise, a little less) all the time. If science proves the basis of my central conceit very unlikely tomorrow, that doesn’t suddenly render the work fantasy. Writers of fantasy know they’re writing fantasy, They intend to. That’s the point. And they have it easy – fantasy is the inverse of plausibility, and so it grows larger all the time. There is never a time when a work penned as fantasy could become confused for SF. Again, to make the point: Star Trek may not be the most rigorous application of plausibility at every point, but it never deals with what is accepted as impossible.

Whether the first word is “science” or “speculative,” let us not forget that the second word is always “fiction.” The conversation about genre delineations has gotten so bull-headed and grandfatherly! SF needs a core of believability, but that doesn’t mean its readers should be freed from the burden that all readers of fiction are faced with – the suspension of disbelief. The point of SF is not that it is possible; that’s simply the undercarriage. SF has as much right to be narrowly-focused on a particular issue as any other work of fiction. SF is allowed to be pastiche, allegory, caricature, remix; it is uniquely able to function as meta-literature, as the entire field is a sort of open-source dialogue. The obsession with a kind of imaginary and impossible rigor with respect to the “scientific” has simply gone too far.

EDIT: Someone on that io9 thread posted this, which is less wordy and emotionally-driven than my tome of a rant, and also uses the word cooties in the exact same context. Really weird, but I guess the image is just that clear.

In Response to ‘Expansive Reality…’

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2011 by theclockworm

So I began reading Josh Lind’s thesis on PKD quite some time ago, and have happily returned to finish the task. I rank Josh’s paper amongst the more enjoyable and edifying PKD studies, and recommend it highly. I apologize for the lack of structure, but really, who wants to read a formal review of a formal thesis? My feedback mostly focuses on the main thesis and the chapter on Martian Time Slip, largely due to space, time (mine, not in the absolute sense), and the fact that I haven’t read Three Stigmata.

EDIT: In light of how crappy it was of me to turn the productive discussion of Dick and Postmodernism into a seeming “sports competition,” I have redacted much of the paragraph that used to be here. Instead, let me just say this: Lind’s thesis helps tackle the question of Dick in terms of Postmodernism and Humanism, delineating the way in which his context and approach were PoMo and his conclusions largely Humanist. In one brief statement, Lind sums up the synthesis of these two approaches beautifully: “ The implications of these techniques will lead to the positive aspects of humanism — such as connectivity, empathy, and karma — that survive problematized reality.”

There it is, folks. It’s a conservation-of-value situation. Dick, ever rigorous in his critiques, puts everything through the gauntlet, and what survives are the things of highest value. Dick did have more concrete ideas, he did have certainties – they were, however, limited to those things which could stand up to scrutiny. Reality fails where humanity sometimes sneaks in a win. There’s another good summation in the closing: “Dick insists that there are human consequences involved in indeterminacy.”

Lind takes us through various critical responses, and seems to resolve with Lem’s balanced understanding – one which doesn’t throw away the tenuous and tentative spiritual introspections of the later works for the dynamic mythologizing and social commentary of earlier material. It’s refreshing to see this balance reinforced in the present; I think it’s the appropriate response to a complex man with a complex body of work.

One connection which seemed to be plain but which was not articulated is the way the former Dick gave way to the latter. Dick believes, according to Lind, that “reality is constructed through social processes. Clearly, however, he does not trust the way it has been defined.” However, the movement of this uncertainty – portrayed several places as it relates to ontology and cultural reference – toward the deeper, more fundamental uncertainty about self, is only implied. I suppose that’s better fit for another work, but I would like to see someone further trace the drastic shift in his writing from this sort of metaphorical, notional fictionalizing to the very human, humane, and personal approach of his latter novels. I’ve always loved the Dick who wrote Valis; it’s only more recently that the Dick who wrote the ‘puzzle-box’ stories of the fifties has gained my understanding.

I really like that Lind gives so much attention to Martian Time-Slip. This was the first Dick book I loved, the one that led me to my present state of obsession. I’ve re-read it many times, and though it has some flaws, it has far more of value than is usually recognized. If most of Dickhead-dom can look past the obvious failings of Ubik to see the underlying value, I think MTS should be an easy fix.

Lind pursues the implications of socioeconomics astutely in this chapter, without a corrupting stance in any particular camp. He also gives us a truly perfect statement: “Waiting in the check-out line is the one great ceremony of consumer society, a ritual in which one’s faith in the consumerist system is most severely tested, where the desire for the fetishized product triumphs over the androidization of standing in line.”

Though I like and agree with the metaphorical reading of Jack’s perception that his boss is a machine, I’d also like to see someone tackle these negative revelations and in terms of an early dualist orientation toward reality, predicting the eventual strains of Gnosticism in which he found some rooting (though later, he seemed to move past the radical dualism of Gnosticism’s more immature iterations). Occurring before much of Dick’s important spiritual experiences and realizations, there are, as he himself admits, strains of this position that stretch through his oldest works. It strikes me that much of the “pessimism” in pre-Pink Beam works is essentially a negative/dualist shade of cosmological insight, having not yet become mediated by study and personal integration.

“…crucial to Martian is the idea that time is something that one can shut out or disregard in the face of social alienation only if one can face indeterminacy of a completely subjective existence.”

Another connection that was all laid out but not assembled was the way this conclusion related back to the ways in which Dick was and was not a Postmodernist and a Humanist. I’m also curious about how this might play into Dick’s own sense of literal unreality; it could act as a precursor to the self-doubt he expresses so eloquently when grappling with the cosmological issues of Valis.

I realize that most of my feedback here is just riffing on an idea, riding it over to the areas of study most important to me personally. This is just the way my brain works. However, the fact that Lind didn’t do these things is proof of the strength of his thesis. I commend him for a well-constructed piece that actually manages to confer insight. Well done. And anyone who’d like to look at some of the PoMo discussion without spending the dough for Umberto’s book (I wish I had it!), this is a great place to start.

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