Sunday, August 24, 2008
SF--Review of Saturn's Children and other stuff.
Before I launch into my review, I wanted to link to this apropos article found by way of io9.com. My take?
Science fiction is like any other literature. I know this will blow minds all over the place, but it has to be said--there has been popular literature that has been enjoyed by many people, at a given point in time, that does not stand up to the ages. Read any Thackeray, lately? Couldn't put down Richardson's Pamela? Blown away by some George Elliot, much? We know these books got read, and they even get taught in classes where English Lit. majors with hangovers try to figure out why they are reading them. But at some point you have to ask--still relevant? Still entertaining?
Am I going to desperately need, as a genre fan, to read all of Asimov? Short stories, even--he wrote a lot. It's daunting. And some of it was probably to make rent--like a lot of other writers! It wasn't all intended to stand up to the ages, it was meant to pay the light bill. Ditto, well, a lot of folks. Everybody, at one time or the other, wrote to pay the bills. In addition to the really good stuff.
Also, and especially in sf, a work can be superannuated by new technology. No shame in it. You can't be prescient all the time. And also--social mores can change without warning--take a look at the difference in how female characters are treated from The Mote in God's Eye to The Gripping Hand. It's not like sf would've been backwards-compatable, anyway. Can you imagine a book like Vinge's Rainbow's End making sense at all to some clyde in the '50's? I think not. Fiction often does speak to its time, it just does, and it just has to get a suitable audience.
Now, Robert Heinlein was one of those Golden Age (Campbell) masters who laid an early mark on my sf tastes. I started on him with the later stuff--my first Heinlein novel was The Cat Who Walks Through Walls which introduced me to the Lazarus Long clan and I would like you to take a minute and reflect what this introduction meant to a young, buxom, red-headed teen of high(ish)-IQ and rampant hormones. Go ahead. Reflect, and realize that as I blazed through Time Enough for Love up to "To Sail Beyond the Sunset" (I love the cover art of Mama Maureen on the Half-shell--I just do) I found true love. Heinlein was scientific, precise, blew away arbitrary moral codes, espoused a kind of responsible Libertarianism (another fictional conceit, but you have to like him for it), and envisioned a future where living forever and loving forever were possible and the things you really wanted to do.
What was there not to love? In cantankerous Lazarus Long's notebook of Mark-Twainsian aphorisms? In the exploding of preconceptions about sex, gender, lifespan, experience, and even questioning incest--wasn't it arbitrary if it resulted in no genetic defect? Why the taboo, if not for vague science regarding defects that could be corrected? He was edgy. And Friday was one of my favorites--because in her I saw a heroine who was in many ways better than the people around her, but who took shit because she was an artificial person.
That novel explored personhood, feminism, politics, technology, and let you know Friday was a real woman no matter what her legal status was. It was like a coming of age novel for a person who sometimes saw herself as a thing, but came to find her selfhood. There was some sexual content in the novel, but the point was that Friday became self-determining, and learned who she really could be--
Fast-forward to Charles Stross' Freya Nakamichi 47.
She is a sexbot unpacked a little after mankind auto-Darwinated. Yep, the whole race. Buggered off. Farewell, pink goo-replicants. But nonetheless, she is imprinted with the desire (the panting, pants-wetting, nipple-spunging desire) to bed a human male. She calls this her One True Love--or her Dead Love. And she aches for that thing that would complete her that she lacks. Her world is entirely populated with other cybernauts, but they are mostly different from her according to changes in taste and custom. But they all have a little "human" in them in that they can be mean, petty, murderous, or lusty, according to their programming. And this is what accounts for her deep adventure as she learns more about herself and the Rhea model from which she came, and about her artificial life.
Forgive me a minute as, being me, I almost see an atheistic analogy here. We are programmed to love something we call God (it could just be a parent-figure--or an anthromorphization-gone-deification of our innate respect for natural phenemonon that went mad about when we developed the ability to articulate generalities about it---go ahead and doubt that possibility, yet chase your household pets with a vacuum cleaner and see whether or not they respect a "higher power". And you might better grasp the human response to thunder, lightning, floods, hail, and earthquakes.) But there doesn't seem to be anything there. Our yearning for connection to that thing we call God is as hopeless as Freya's yen to bed a human guy. And we go through our paces, like she goes through hers.
But she is lead to become aware through communication from one of her "sisters" (another model of her kid of sexbot) that there is a danger, and a mystery, and she is lead to understand more about who and what she is and can be, and even finds sex and something like love amongst her fellow robots--
I don't think that info will "spoiler" you--because you still have to read it to get it. But I will say, that I enjoyed this novel more for having been a fan of earlier genre fic--Heinlein and Asimov especially. I think without a background in those guys, the book won't work. I also know Spider Robinson and John Varley have done nice work emulating some of Heinlein's stuff and they've been pretty faithful, but some of the quirky takes in this novel are uniquely Stross, especially where he breaks down Professor Heinlein's tendency to do a few pages on technology to explain why space travel really is shit. His more humorous take, and the kind of in-joke name-dropping winks to fellow genre fans, made this novel really fun for me. The duplicity and the drama of robots playing games against each other gets deep, but the point is the journey--or something like that.
Anyway, this was a cool read, and I'm glad I got around to it.