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On Not Liking Lem (or Science Fiction)

Right after Christmas I started digging into Lem’s Fiasco, an intriguing tale of contact between humans and aliens from another planet. I’d read Futurological Congress way back and I know that Lem’s novels are intellectually demanding and was looking forward to a similar experience.

The first 100 pages of the book was astounding. The tale recounted one astronaut’s attempt to rescue another on one of Saturn’s moons. The descriptions of the advanced technology (and the medical and scientific issues raised by it) were fascinating, and the rescue scene even had a lot of suspense.

Then gears shifted, focusing on Earth’s attempt to make contact with a faraway planet where there was reported to be life. The premise behind the contact was fascinating and so were the political and linguistic issues, and up to that point, I was following closely, admiring everything along the way. At some point, the “controversial issues” became major elements of the plot, causing the humans to attempt certain exploratory measures which were foolhardy if not dangerous. The novel turned into one of ideas and politics. The theme of mutual misperceptions of situations paralleled the mutual distrust of the bipolar Cold War world. That was somewhat interesting, but to someone reading it in 2005, it didn’t seem particularly fresh. Also, the scenarios became implausible (note that I am being purposely vague here; I don’t want to spoil the story for potential readers). The key to Lem’s conflict was having the humans take aggressive actions against the aliens that they didn’t realize could be construed as aggressive or harmful.

The problem is: it’s hard to believe that any extraterrestrial mission could be so clueless about causing harm to another species. I could have been persuaded of this; the plot had potential, and it could have built up more slowly and deliberately to convey a situation, but doing so would have interfered with the suspense and pace (at the risk of plausibility). As a result, the ending seemed forced and dull;

Underlying this was a deeper problem common to science fiction. The ideas being discussed were profound (albeit in a Cold War context), but the characters were not; characters (when I could even distinguish between them) represented points of view (the philosopher, the religious one, etc) than actual characters. I really didn’t care about them as characters. I didn’t know their past, and the third person narrative never stayed with one person long enough to really know them. There was no unified point of view, and it suffers from (as Dan Green puts it) the attempt to reduce a work of art to its story/plot elements.

The first part of the book tries to do this by keeping the focus on one person (and inexplicably, the rest of the plot seems to have nothing to do with this first part). The problem with much of sci fi is not with the ludicrousness of some of its speculations, but the failure to grasp emotional significance of situations and the failure to recognize that texts and words can convey the things. At heart the problem of science fiction is that focuses not on self-expression or introspection but on human potential (with all its promises and pitfalls).

Lem is probably not a representative example of sci fi, and in fact, just last Saturday, I listened to a remarkable story by Jim Kelley (Bernardo’s House) which explorers an android’s emotional connection to her owner. Not only does Bernardo’s House adopt the point of view of the house/female android, it also conveys perceptions as they would be experienced by a nonhuman (an interesting notion by the way). Lem is interested in warning us about the future and human limitations in an impersonal way; Jim Kelley is more interested in showing how attachments could exist between humans and nonhumans (and pondering the social implications of this fact). He is interested in having the reader compare the emotional needs of the android protagonist to his own (in addition to experiencing the sensual pleasures of conjuring an emotionally/sexually available female android). Jim Kelley’s story is appealing to our humanity.

Still, Kelley’s story boils down to “Gee whiz, wouldn’t it be neat if we could have sex with androids!” The problem is not that this is a ludicrous fantasy or that it is titillating; the problem of this story (and science fiction in general) is: what happens when having sex with androids become a reality? Would Kelley’s story be still worth reading?

**************By the way, Jim Kelley has put mp3’s of his scifi stories available for free online. The stories are great, and he’s a great reader too.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Kyle Janison 2/19/2005, 9:12 pm

    There’s a great new astrobiology blog, run by newspaper editor Rob Bignell, at http://alienlifeblog.blogspot.com/. It includes roundups of the latest news from the various scientific fields that form astrobiology and a daily analysis of the plausibity of a science fiction alien.

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