The Flutter of Space Bat Wings

You don’t actually know a time or a culture until you discover the thoughts that its people can’t allow themselves to think. I had a reminder of that the other day, by way of my novel Star’s Reach.

I’m pleased to say that for a novel that violates pretty much every imaginable pop-culture cliché about the future, Star’s Reach has been selling quite well—enough so that the publisher has brought out two more SF novels set in deindustrial futures, and is looking for other manuscripts along the same lines. What’s more, Star’s Reach has also started to inspire spinoffs and adaptations: a graphic novel is in the works, so is a roleplaying game, and so is an anthology of short stories by other authors set in the world sketched out in my novel. All of this came as a welcome surprise to me; far more surprising, though ultimately rather less welcome, was an ebullient email I received asking whether Star’s Reach was available to be optioned for a television miniseries.

For a variety of reasons, some of which will become clear as we proceed, I’ll call the person who got in touch with me Buck Rogers. He praised Star’s Reach to the skies, and went on at length about wanting to do something that was utterly faithful to the book. As I think most of my readers know by now, I haven’t owned a television in my adult life and have zero interest in changing that, even to see one of my own stories on the screen. I could readily see that people who like television might find a video adaptation entertaining, though, and no doubt it would make a welcome change from the endless rehash of overfamiliar tropes about the future that fills so much of science fiction these days.

Ah, but then came the inevitable email explaining exactly what kind of adaptation Buck Rogers had in mind. It was going to be more than just a miniseries, he explained. It was going to be a regular series, the events of my novel were going to provide the plot for the first year, and after that—why, after that, he was promptly going to drag in one of the currently popular bits of hypertechnological handwaving so the characters in my story could go zooming off to the stars. Whee!

Those of my readers who haven’t turned the pages of Star’s Reach may welcome a bit of explanation here. The core theme of Star’s Reach—the mainspring that powers the plot—is precisely that humanity isn’t going to the stars; the contrast between the grandiose gizmocentric fantasies of today’s industrial world and the grubby realities of life in 25th-century Meriga frames and guides the entire novel. An adaptation of Star’s Reach that removes that little detail and replaces it with yet another rehash of the interstellar-travel trope is thus a bit like an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in which the hobbits enthusiastically sell out to the powers of evil and Sauron wins.

I communicated this to Buck Rogers, and got back a lengthy response of the take-my-ball-and-go-home variety, saying in a hurt tone that I was wrong and just didn’t understand how his proposal fit perfectly with my story. I sent him a polite note wishing him luck in his future projects, and that was that. All in all, I think the situation turned out for the best. I’m not particularly desperate for money—certainly not desperate enough to be willing to see one of my favorite books gutted, stuffed, and mounted on the nose cone of an imaginary starship—and this way I still have the movie and TV rights, on the off chance that somebody ever wants to film the story I wrote, rather than a parody of it.

It was only after I’d clicked the “send” button on the short polite note just mentioned that I realized that there was something really quite strange about Buck Rogers’ final email. He had taken issue at rather some length with almost everything I’d said while trying to explain to him why his proposal wasn’t one I could accept, with one exception. It wasn’t a small exception, either. It was the core issue I’d raised at quite some length: that he’d taken a story about what happens when humanity can’t go to the stars, and tried to turn it into a story about humanity going to the stars.

I don’t think that absence was any kind of accident, either. You don’t actually know a time or a culture until you discover the thoughts that its people can’t allow themselves to think.

This wasn’t the only time Star’s Reach had attracted that same sort of doublethink, for that matter. Back when it was being written and posted online an episode at a time, I could count nearly every month on hearing from people who enthused about how wonderful the story was, and in the next breath tried to push me into inserting some pop-culture cliché about what the future is supposed to look like. Far more often than not, the point of the insertion was to show that “progress” was still on track and would eventually lead to a more “advanced” society—that is, a society like ours. When I explained that the story is about what happens when “progress,” in the sense that word has today, is over forever, and our kind of society is a fading memory of the troubled past, they simply insisted all the louder that the changes they wanted me to make were perfectly consistent with my story.

Regular readers may also recall the discussion a few weeks back of the way so many people’s brains seem to freeze up when faced with the idea that others might choose not to use the latest technology, and might instead keep using older technologies they like better. Further back in this blog’s trajectory, three or four other topics—most notably the prospects for the survival of the internet in a deindustrializing world—reliably triggered the same odd behavior pattern, an obsessive evasion of the point accompanied by the weirdly stereotyped repetition of some set of canned talking points.

It’s fascinating, at least to me, that so many topics brought up in this blog seem to function, for some readers, as a kind of elephant’s graveyard of the mind, a place where thinking goes to die. That said, among all the things that trigger a mental Blue Screen of Death in a portion of my readers, challenging the frankly rather bizarre notion that humanity’s destiny centers on interstellar travel stands at least a little apart, in the sheer intensity of the emotional reactions it rouses. If I try to call attention to the other evasions on the list, I get a blank look or, at most, an irritated one, followed by an instant return to the evasions. On the subject of interstellar travel, by contrast, I get instant pushback: “No, no, no, there’s got to be some grandiose technofetishistic deus ex machina that will let us go to the STARZ!!!”

The question in my mind is why this particular bit of endlessly rehashed science fiction has gotten so tight a hold on the collective imagination of our age.

I suppose a case can be made that its ascendancy in science fiction itself was inevitable. SF in its pulp days found its main audience among teenage boys, after all, and so it makes sense that the genre would fixate on the imagery of climbing aboard a giant metal penis to be squirted into the gaping void of space. Even so, plenty of other images that were just as appealing to the adolescent male imagination, and just as popular in the early days of the genre, somehow got recognized as hackneyed tropes along the route that led from the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s to the paperback SF novels of today, while interstellar travel has so far evaded that fate.

By the time I first started writing science fiction, for example, everyone had more or less noticed that traveling to an exotic future by way of suspended animation, or the couple of other standard gimmicks, had been done to death decades before, and deserved a rest. Somehow, though, very few people noticed that traveling to an exotic planet by way of one of the three or four standard gimmicks for interstellar travel had been overused just as thoroughly by that time, if not more so, and deserved at least as much of a break—and of course it’s gotten even more of a workout since then.

It’s reached the point, in fact, that with embarrassingly few exceptions, you have your choice between two and only two futures in today’s science fiction: you can have interplanetary travel or apocalyptic collapse, take your pick. No other futures need apply—and of course the same thing is true even when people think they’re talking about the actual future. So taut a fixation clearly has something to communicate. I think I’ve figured out part of what it’s trying to say, with the help of one of the authors who helped make science fiction the frankly more imaginative genre it was in the days before the Space Patrol took over exclusive management. Yes, that would be the inimitable H.P. Lovecraft.

Few people nowadays think of Lovecraft as a science fiction writer at all. This strikes me as a major lapse, and not just because the man wrote some classic gizmocentric stories and made the theme of alien contact a major concern of his fiction. He was unique among the authors of imaginative fiction in his generation in tackling the most challenging of all the discoveries of twentieth century science—the sheer scale, in space and time, of the universe in which human beings find themselves.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould coined the term “deep time” for the immensities of past and future that reduce our familiar human timescales to pipsqueak proportions. It’s a useful coinage, and might well be paired with the phrase “deep space,” meaning the spatial vastness that does the same trick to our human sense of distance. Lovecraft understood deep time and deep space to an extent few of his contemporaries shared—an extent that allowed him to take firm grasp of the yawning chasm between our species’ sense of self-importance and its actual place in the cosmos.

If the view of the universe revealed to us by modern science is even approximately accurate—and, like Lovecraft, I have no doubt of this—then the entire history of our species, from its emergence sometime in the Pleistocene to its extinction at some as yet undetermined point in the future, is a brief incident on the wet film that covers the surface of a small planet circling an undistinguished star over to one side of an ordinary galaxy. Is it important, that brief incident? To us, surely—but only to us. In Lovecraft’s words, we are “faced by the black, unfathomable gulph of the Outside, with its forever-unexplorable orbs & its virtually certain sprinkling of utterly unknowable life-forms.” Notice the adjectives here: unfathomable, unexplorable, unknowable. What he’s saying here, and throughout his fiction as well, is plain: the message of deep time and deep space is that the cosmos is not there for our benefit. 

That’s precisely the realization that so much of today’s science fiction is frantically trying not to get. The same sort of thinking that led ancient cultures to see bears, queens, and hunting dogs in the inkblot patterns of the skies has been put to hard work in the attempt to reimagine the cosmos as “New Worlds For Man,” a bona fide wonderland of real estate just waiting for our starships to show up and claim it. It’s not just ordinary acquisitiveness that drives this, though no doubt that plays a part; the core of it is the desperate desire to reduce the unhuman vastness of the cosmos to a human scale.

The same kind of logic drives the fatuous claims that humanity will watch the sun die, or what have you. Let us please be real; if we get lucky, not to mention a good deal smarter than we’ve shown any sign of being so far, we might make it a few tens of millions of years (that is, five or ten thousand times the length of recorded history) before our mistakes or the ordinary crises of planetary history push us through extinction’s one-way turnstile. For all we know, other intelligent species may arise on this planet long after we’re gone, and pore over our fossilized bones, before they depart in turn. “Nor is it to be thought”—this is Lovecraft again, quoting his fictional Necronomicon“that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters.” Spooky, isn’t it? Now ask yourself this: why is it spooky?

The modern attempt to impose a human scale on the cosmos is actually something of an anomaly in terms of human cultures. If the ancient Greeks, for example, had gotten to telescopes and stratigraphy first, and figured out the actual immensity of space and time, that discovery wouldn’t have bothered them at all. Ancient Greek religion takes it as given that human beings simply aren’t that important in the scheme of things. Turn the pages of Hesiod, to drop only one famous name, and you’ll find a clear sense of the sharply limited place humanity has in the cosmos, and a calm acceptance of the eventual certainty of human extinction.

It’s one of history’s most savage ironies that the scientific discoveries that revealed the insignificance of humanity were made by societies whose religious ideas didn’t take that sensible view. Most versions of traditional Christian teaching place humanity at the center of the cosmic story: the world was made for our benefit, God himself became a man and died to save us, and as soon as the drama of human salvation is over, the world will end. Of all world religions, Christianity has historically been the most relentlessly anthropocentric—it can be understood in less human-centered terms, but by and large, it hasn’t been—and it was societies steeped in Christian ideas that first found themselves staring in horror at a cosmos in which anthropocentric ideas are all too clearly the last word in absurdity.

I’ve discussed at some length in my recent book After Progress how belief in progress was turned into a surrogate religion by people who found that they could no longer believe in Christian doctrine but still had the emotional needs that had once been met by Christian faith. The inability to tolerate doubts concerning “Man’s Destiny In The Stars” unfolds from the same conflict. Raised in a culture that’s still profoundly shaped by Christian attitudes, taught to think of the cosmos in anthropocentric terms, people in the United States today crash facefirst into the universe revealed by science, and cognitive dissonance is the inevitable result. No wonder so many of us are basically gaga these days.

Such reflections lead out toward any number of big questions. Just at the moment, though, I want to focus on something on a slightly less cosmic scale. Regular readers will remember that a while back, at the conclusion of the last Space Bats challenge, I wished aloud that someone would launch a quarterly magazine to publish the torrent of good stories set in deindustrial futures that people were clearly eager to write. The publication fairy was apparently listening, and I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new quarterly magazine of deindustrial science fictionInto The RuinsGiven the frankly astonishing quality of the stories submitted to the three Space Bats challenges we’ve had so far, I suspect that Into The Ruins is going to become one of those “must read” magazines that, like Weird Tales in the 1920s and 1930s, defines a genre and launches the careers of any number of major writers. This is a paying market, folks; let your writer friends know.

With that under way, we can start pushing the boundaries even further.

One criticism that’s been directed at past Space Bats challenges, and at the three published After Oil anthologies that have come out of them so far (the fourth will be published early in the new year), is that collapse has become a cliché in contemporary science fiction and culture. Mind you, a lot of those who make this criticism are in the unenviable position of the pot discussing the color of the kettle—I’m thinking here especially of SF writer and prolific blogger David Brin, whose novels fixate on the even more spectacularly overworked trope of salvation through technological progress, with space travel playing its usual hackneyed part—but there’s a point to the critique.

Mind you, I still think that the decline and fall of industrial civilization and the coming of a deindustrial dark age is far and away the most likely future we face. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, the opportunities that might have gotten us out of that unwelcome future have slipped past, and the same mistakes that have been made by every other civilization on its way down have been made by ours. What’s more, there are still plenty of good stories waiting to be written about how industrial society ran itself into the ground and what happened then—it’s the apocalyptic end of the spectrum of possibilities that’s been written into the ground at this point, while the kind of ragged decline that usually happens in real history has barely been tapped as a source of stories. That said, since we’re talking about imaginative fiction, maybe it’s worth, for once, stepping entirely outside the binary of progress versus collapse, and seeing what the landscape looks like from a third option.

Yes, the sound that you’re hearing is the flutter of space bat wings. It’s time for a new challenge, and this one is going to take a leap into the unthinkable.

The mechanics are the same as in previous Space Bats challenges. Post your story to the internet—if you don’t have a blog, you can get one for free from Blogspot or WordpressPut a link to it in the comments section of this blog, preferably in the comments to the most recent post, so everyone sees it. Stories are due by the last day of June, 2016—fans of Al Stewart are welcome to insert the appropriate joke here.

The rules of the contest, in turn, are almost the same as before:

Stories should be between 2500 and 8500 words in length;
They should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work;
They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;
They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;
They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet;
They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not magical or supernatural fantasy—that is, the setting and story should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;
They should take into account the reality of limits to growth, finite supplies of nonrenewable resources, and the other hard realities of our species’ current predicament;
They should not include space travel—again, that weary cliché is long overdue for a rest;
They should not rely on “alien space bats” to solve humanity’s problems—miraculous technological discoveries, the timely arrival of advanced alien civilizations, sudden lurches in consciousness that make everyone in the world start acting like characters in a bad utopian novel, or what have you;
Finally, they must be set in futures in which neither continued technological progress nor the collapse of civilization take place.

I probably need to explain this last point in more detail. Through most of human history, progress was a very occasional thing, and most people could expect to use the same tools, do the same work, and live in the same conditions as their great-grandparents. The last three centuries changed that for a while, but that change was a temporary condition driven by the reckless exploitation of a half billion years of fossil sunlight. Now that the earth’s cookie jar of carbon is running short, to say nothing of all the other essential resources that are rapidly depleting, the conditions that made that burst of progress possible are ending, and it’s reasonable to assume that progress as we know it will end as well.

Does that mean that nothing new will ever be invented again? Of course not. It does mean the end of the relentless drive toward ever more extravagant uses of energy and resources that characterizes our current notions of progress. Future inventions will by and large use fewer resources and less energy than the things they replace, as was generally the case in the preindustrial past, and the pace of invention and technological obsolescence will decline very sharply from its present level. Authors who want to put interesting technologies into their stories are entirely welcome to do so—but don’t make the story about the onward march of gizmocentricity, please. That’s been done to death, and it’s boring.

In the same way, history is full of crises. Major wars come every few generations, nations collapse from time to time, whole civilizations decline and fall when they’ve exhausted their resource bases. All these things will happen in the future as they happened in the past, and it’s perfectly okay to put crises large or small into your stories. What I’m asking is that this time, your stories should not center on the process of collapse. Mind you, quite a few of the stories in the first three anthologies didn’t have that focus, and the fourth anthology—consisting of stories set at least a thousand years in the future—is entirely about other themes, so I don’t think this one will be too difficult.

Neither progress nor collapse. That opens up a very wide and almost unexplored territory. What does the future look like if those overfamiliar options are removed from the equation? Give it a try.