My first attempt at writing science fiction felt like being a kid again and playing with my favorite toys—but the playtime was documented. Reading over the pages I became more conscious of the set dressing: colonial expansion by brave explorers to new worlds, militarized starships, power struggles among the crew, and hostile aliens. The early history of the genre contains the human aspiration to travel to other planets in our solar system—which human imagination had populated. The stories resembled the adventure books derived from the experience of European colonialists—so the basic tropes are ships, guns, and foreigners. Pointing this out isn’t to find fault with the exploration of space; and Star Trek has a great code of ethics, so it’s not all killing Indians and claiming New Worlds.
Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel (New Series in NASA History) is a valuable resource for anyone who writes science fiction, or anyone interested in the history of space travel. The book outlines the expectations of human space-exploration and the eventual discovery that robots could do the work of scientific discovery more efficiently than humans in the inhospitable environment of outer space. When humans are in outer space, much of the engineering becomes involved with the task of keeping the astronauts alive. An interesting aside in the book details proposed modifications of the human body to better survive in zero gravity environments. Most people found the idea of cyborgs to be repulsive and it didn’t get much traction, but if you’ve seen The Six Million Dollar Man, that’s the cultural origin of the show’s character, astronaut Steve Austin.
To venture beyond the conventions of the sci-fi genre, I wanted to find stories that aren’t set in outer space, and William Gibson’s cyberspace seemed like the best place to start. (I had heard him speak at Powell’s when he was on book tour for Distrust That Particular Flavor, and not only were his comments and observations fascinating, he is an excellent speaker. His use of language is literary and yet it still sounded natural when he read his essays aloud.) Gibson’s recent novels, the Blue Ant Trilogy, didn’t capture my interest, but his prose reads well, and so I kept opening the covers of his other books and eventually, I thought okay, let’s try this, and I got to say, I really enjoyed All Tomorrow’s Parties. The praise Gibson receives is well-deserved. He’s a fantastic writer. After reading the novel, I went online to find what people had to say about it; because while it’s a page-turner, the ending made me wonder, what is this about? Looking for some analysis, all I found were reviews that give a synopsis and then basically state what I’m thinking, this is a good read and the ending is kinda anti-climactic. But what’s more? I had to stop and think about it, but here are my thoughts. SPOILER ALERT: if you are going to read the book don’t read my stupid thoughts, go read the book and then if you remember, I’m still here. Okay, my thoughts:
All Tomorrow’s Parties is a sci-fi thriller that celebrates technology. Through the obsession and caretaking for the mechanical things people make, one of the book’s characters, Silencio, experiences healing; the mute orphan boy regains his voice and finds a father in the kindly shopkeeper and watch enthusiast. A drug (pharmaceuticals are also a kind of technology), though it has nasty side-effects, the substance allows Laney and Harwood—with the aid of cyberspace-connected goggles: to observe at a distance, anticipate events in the future, and to bring on the end of the world “as we know it.” The story also presents us with a device that can fax an object like a 3-D printer, but at the infinitely fine resolution of the nano, a billionth of a meter. During the book’s climax a girl materializes in the Nanofax. She isn’t identified but the story implies she may be the materialized entertainment-software called Rei Toei, an artificial intelligence and object of desire.
William Gibson pictures a technology with life-giving power. The poetry of the prose and the fantastic images make the unfolding story an enjoyable experience, and I like the boy’s healing at the end. But technology might be better as just part of the story, like furniture in a living room drama, rather than a central motive. I’ll venture that all fiction that explores the contemporary world is science fiction; we live surrounded by the influence of our technology, so it’s just an inevitable part of a story about the contemporary world. The creative invention of new technology in prose is great too, but the object of human technology that All Tomorrow’s Parties ends with—a watch-makers tool—is like basically saying, Technology Is All Powerful: you can put an old watch on this rectangle, and the nanobots will make it as good as new. Oh yeah and don’t forget, you can fax a naked girl!
All Tomorrow’s Parties is the third book in Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, now I’m going to make my way back to read Virtual Light and Idoru. And if you have any recommendations of contemporary science fiction that takes place in the here and now, please let me know. Or does all science fiction take place in the future?