Yoon Ha Lee’s THE BATTLE OF CANDLE ARC

“The Battle of Candle Arc”, by Yoon Ha Lee, is a short story set in the same universe as his novel NINEFOX GAMBIT.It was first published in 2012 in Clarkesworld Magazine (text and audio), and was later included in an anthology of his stories entitled CONSERVATION OF SHADOWS.

The action takes place many years before NINEFOX GAMBIT, as the novel’s hexarchate is in this story still a heptarchate. We know from the novel that there used to be seven ruling factions, but that one of them, the Liozh, the philosopher/ethicist caste, was eliminated for “heresy”, having tried to introduce democracy and a measure of freedom into the totalitarian regime of the high calendar and its compulsory “remembrances”.

The high calendar is an axiomatic system of beliefs, concordances, and ritual observances necessary to the obtention of “exotic” technological effects that suspend or surpass the ordinary laws of physics, including faster than light travel:

The heptarchate’s exotic technologies depended on the high calendar’s configurations: the numerical concordances, the feasts and remembrances, the associated system of belief. The mothdrive that permitted fast travel between star systems was an exotic technology.

The administration of this calendar and the regulation of life according to Doctrine and to ritual Remembrances falls to the dogmatic and sadistic Rahal (another of the seven ruling factions).

The protagonist is General Shuos Jedao, who is also one of the main characters of NINEFOX GAMBIT. The Shuos faction is given over to “intelligence” operations: diplomatic games, spying and assassination. Jedao however is atypical in that he actively seeks allies among the Kel, the military faction, and seems to respect the independent spirit they sometimes show when questions of battle and of honour are at stake.

We can see Jedao’s detestation of the Rahal’s rigity and cruely. He disapproves of their propensities for torture and of their general lack of compassion. Their adherence to, and imposition of, Doctrine borders on the fanatical.

The story begins with the “Remembrance” of a heresy that made an unacceptable demand for the freedom to venerate their ancestors.

Jedao would have called the heresy a benign one. People who wanted the freedom to build shrines to their ancestors, for pity’s sake. But the Rahal had claimed that this would upset the high calendar’s master equations, and so the heretics had had to be put down.

I have concentrated on the underlying principles of the physics and of the social order, but this is far from capturing the interest and excitement of this story. The story contains in a short space the speculative breadth and ethical intensity, the fusion of  poetic terminology and imaginative science, and the complexity of character that provide a good introduction to the hexarchate universe and that foreshadow the pyrotechnics and the sense of wonder of NINEFOX GAMBIT.

Yoon Ha Lee’s CALENDRICAL ROT: Pluralist Platonism

According to a concise entry on Yoon Ha Lee’s blog “Calendrical Rot”, a short story set in the hexarchate/heptarchate universe, was originally intended as a prologue to his recent novel NINEFOX GAMBIT. It is published in”An Alphabet of Embers“, July 2016.

Yoon Ha Lee’s teaser summary is quite cryptic:

“when people go to war over calendars, weapons of assassination are not what they seem at first”.

My interest in this story is fired by my enthusiasm for the novel NINEFOX GAMBIT (cf. my review) and for the very interesting use of mathematics as the hard science on which the story’s technology and ideology are based.

I see the metaphysics underlying this fictional universe as participating in a more general tendency that I describe as the immanentising of Platonism. Instead of maintaining the splitting of the world into an absolute realm of unique and unchanging Truth and a relative world where everything is in flux and nothing is true, we can imagine a world where truth is local, constructed, dynamic and multiple, without being totally malleable.

Another example of this trend is ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson, which I review from this point of view here.

“Calendrical Rot” has the advantage of making explicit this pluralist element. It begins with a paragraph that announces this theme explicitly:

This is the way the hexarchate tells it, the one true clock, but they’re wrong….the whisper across the known worlds is not unity.

Truth, as expressed in the one true calendar, is constructed and imposed. Other truths are actively suppressed. Those who base their lives on another calendar are judged, and then re-conditioned (brainwashed), or eliminated. In the short story the action takes place on Nran, a “city-station”, whose criminal underworld dates its transactions with a calendar that is in conflict with the hexarchate’s high calendar. The city-station is to be judged and presumably to be brought into line with the high calendar, but the judge is assassinated.

Such a disparity, one that cannot simply be retranslated back by simple conversion into the terms of the high calendar but that embodies an irreducible divergence, cannot be tolerated. It is not a simple affair of local colour, but of active resistance. In the novel this will be called “heresy”.

This disparity is not just an ideological difference but has dramatic consequences for the technology of empire. For example, the hexarchate’s starships (“voidmoths”) depend for their functioning on the universal observance of the high calendar:

In regions where other calendars dominated, their stardrives were useless, inert.

Truth, once the violent imposition of the hexarchate’s hegemony has been overturned or at least briefly nullified, is local. The time of death of the hexarchate judge was rigorously determined. “All across Nran and its satellite tributaries this was true”. However, from the standpoint of the nearby system of Khaio, this time is uncertain. The narrator remarks

there should have been a single answer – and there was not

The dynamic aspect of truth is apprehended negatively by the hexarchate, in the guise of the fear that the prospect of real change inspires. Such change is an ever present danger to the status quo, and is violently suppressed under the name of “calendrical rot”

Isabel Yap’s A CUP OF SALT TEARS: love without monsters

It is Short Fiction Month on Rob Weber’s blog Val’s Random Comments. During the month of January he will be reviewing one science fiction or fantasy short story a day. I think this is a very interesting initiative, and I will be trying to keep up with the reading and to post a review for each story too. Weber has given a preliminary list of stories here, if anyone else wishes to follow along.

For his fourth read Weber has chosen a dark fantasy story, “A Cup of Salt Tears” by Isabel Yap, that is available for free online here. It is not my usual sort of reading and I have not read anything else by Isabel Yap. This is one of the advantages of the exercise, to discover new authors and stories, to widen our reading and to renew our appreciation of what we read.

I am a little perplexed at what to make of the story, and it seems to be able to be read in two different ways. I do not agree with the moral stated in the introductory remark that prefaces it.

To keep with the thread of transformation that I have been following in the previous stories, we can say that the heroine Makino has been transformed at the end but in a seemingly negative way.

Makino is courted by a kappa, a demon or dark trickster figure, who claims to have saved her from drowning when she was a little girl and to have fallen in with love her, but may be after her soul. At the end, the kappa seems to have won and eaten her soul, as she feels no more love for her husband Tetsuya:

“She feels just as much affection for Tetsuya as she did before, but nothing else”.

Great affection, but nothing more.

However, if we read the story more symbolically, the reverse can be said to be true: Makino has triumphed over the kappa and its effects on her life and has gained a new perspective based on greater self-knowledge.

The rememoration of a childhood traumatic event (in the terms of the story: of falling into a river and nearly drowning) reveals to Makino that this trauma was at the basis of her self-sacrificial love for her husband (as she gave up Tokyo and modeling for the sake of his job). She manages to free herself from the fixation on the trauma but at the price of loss of soul, flattening of affect.

Or is this just a more realistic, more mature emotion? Has she in fact learnt to “befriend” the trauma and to renounce a particular figure of love?

Her husband is described in terms that recall a kappa: monkeylike, a beaklike mouth, very long fingers:

He was not handsome. There was something monkeylike about his features, and his upper lip formed a strange peak over his lower lip.

Makino allowed Tetsuya to touch her fingers, just as she allowed the “kappa” to touch as a child. They fall in love, marry, and she sacrifices her career for his. Psychologically, it is her husband, or the self-sacrificial love that she feels for him, that is the monster.

The final scene suggests as much. Usually one inscribes the name of a child on a cucumber and throws it in the water, so that the kappa eats the cucumber and not the child. At the end Maniko writes the word “love” on the cucumber before throwing it into the water, so we can imagine that this is to prevent the kappa from eating her love anymore, so that she can pass on to a phase of monster-less, non-traumatic, non-sacrificial love.

Arthur C. Clarke’s THE STAR: consilience is the phoenix

The next story on Rob Weber’s series of reviews is Arthur C. Clarke’s THE STAR. Weber’s review can be found here.

This story is an interesting counterweight to Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God“. In the latter story religion wins out over science, in this one science wins out over religion.

Yet THE STAR seems the “deeper” story. There is a difference in motivation. In “The Nine Billion Names of God” the scientists are cynical and the Tibetan monks seem naive. Here there are superficial scientists questioning naive superstitious faith, but the narrator is more complex than they think. He points out that the “incongruity” of his position is only “apparent”:

“It was, I think, the apparent incongruity of my position that caused most amusement to the crew. In vain I would point to my three papers in the Astrophysical Journal, my five in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. I would remind them that my order has long been famous for its scientific works. We may be few now, but ever since the eighteenth century we have made contributions to astronomy and geophysics out of all proportion to our numbers”.

The narrator’s motivation, both religious and scientific, is deep. “The Nine Billion Names of God” incarnates the conflict between the Two Cultures in separate individuals, whereas in “The Star” the narrator incarnates both sides of the divide, and lives out their conflict as an inner struggle.

THE STAR combines a speculative element, the cold equations, and a religious element, the problem of evil or suffering. But is it really a pessimistic story, as the despairing tone may suggest? We are all mortal, civilisations included. But we must not forget the wonder and beauty of the alien civilisation, its “loveliness” and “innocent happiness”, and the glory of interstellar travel.

The wonder, the beauty, and the glory are all real, and the cruel coincidence of the timing of the star’s explosion poses a problem only for the Christian theodicy. Yet with the failure of theodicy and the abandonment of faith something is lost.

The question posed is that of the relation between science and religion. Is it necessarily one of conflict? The conflict thesis is not borne out by the history of science, much of the original motivation for science had religious roots. Is another form of religion both more compatible with science and more desirable? This solution is suggested by Dr. Chandler in the story:

“Well, Father,” he would say at last, “it goes on forever and forever, and perhaps Something made it. But how you can believe that Something has a special interest in us and our miserable little world—that just beats me.”

This secularised religion has no problem of suffering to resolve, as the hypothetical Great Something has no special interest in humanity, but with it there comes a loss of soul, the flattening of affect and the triumph of a quantitative approach to the world.

The “conflict thesis” seems to apply now to the science side of the divide, where formerly the Church (i.e. not “religion” but a political institution) imposed its hegemony by all the means at its disposal. In the spaceship the conflict continues, seemingly as just ideological struggle:

The crew were already sufficiently depressed: I wonder how they will take this ultimate irony. Few of them have any religious faith, yet they will not relish using this final weapon in their campaign against me—that private, good-natured, but fundamentally serious war which lasted all the way from Earth.

But this is also a struggle for the meaning of life and the basis of our civilisation. Dogmatic faith versus nihilistic science. The alien cvilisation seems to symbolise a third alternative, a depth based on knowledge that is perhaps still beyond us:

“Everything that they wished to preserve, all the fruits of their genius, they brought here to this distant world in the days before the end, hoping that some other race would find it and that they would not be utterly forgotten. Would we have done as well, or would we have been too lost in our own misery to give thought to a future we could never see or share?”

Faced with an extinction event secular nihilism would have no meaning to protect it from misery. The aliens surpass us in their optimism, in their faith that preserving and sharing their genius, in the full sense of that word, is a worthwhile endeavour. They did not give in to depression, as the ship’s crew has, and the narrator more so.

The narrator finds the name of the Phoenix Nebula inappropriate:

I do not know who gave the nebula its name, which seems to me a very bad one. If it contains a prophecy, it is one that cannot be verified for several billion years. Even the word “nebula” is misleading; this is a far smaller object than those stupendous clouds of mist—the stuff of unborn stars—that are scattered throughout the length of the Milky Way. On the cosmic scale, indeed, the Phoenix Nebula is a tiny thing—a tenuous shell of gas surrounding a single star.

But here his vision is uniquely quantitative, assigning any finite object, however vast, to cosmic insignificance. The name is also ironic and depressing, localising the site of the death of a civilisation and of the death of faith.

One wants to say here that the “hero” has been transformed by his voyage, but that the transformation is incomplete. He claims to return with nothing but the sad “burden of knowledge”. He has gone further than the founder of his order, Ignatius of Loyola, could have imagined and discovered an insurmountable challenge to his faith. He set out with certainties and faith, he returns with questions and doubt.

However, he does not come back as empty-handed as he thinks, with a knowledge that serves to defeat all idea of a divine plan or of divine justice. He comes back enriched with visions of loveliness and knowledge of a people who, even if they did not solve the physical problem of survival, solved the moral problem of avoiding despair, and shared it with us.

The optimism in the story is not, as yet, available to the narrator. It comes from the gap between the implied author’s vision and that of his narrator. We know that Clarke was an atheist, and nonetheless an optimist, so the narrator’s point of view is not the final word on the conflict between science and faith and their possible reconciliation. The narrator has glimpses of this, but only at an emotional level, where it is mixed with despair. Like the other crew members, he has only partial knowledge, he remains a divided soul.

Perhaps he will learn to reconcile the fragments in a vaster synthesis, no longer of conflict but consilience.

FOLDING BEIJING: immanent hope

The next short story reviewed by Rob Weber is “Folding Beijing”, which won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

I liked this story, but not as much as Alastair Reynolds’ SCALES. There is a similarity of structure, as Lao Dao ascends the scales to higher spaces and descends again. Only this time they are economic and social spaces rather than physico-mathematical ones. The difference is that Lao Dao ascends and descends untransformed, and finds things pretty much the same on all levels of existence.

Lao Dao’s desire is that his daughter Tangtang learn to dance and sing in a proper school, and that his neighbour Ah Bei act like a coy and elegant girl of the highest level, sit quietly and smile demurely. His ideal of femininity is untransformed, despite what he learns, and remains quite conformist. On the other hand he has remained humane and selfless, and was not humiliated or embittered by his experience either. He keeps his lucidity without becoming cynical.

The science fiction does not lie in the folding city. This is a fantasy concept disguised as science fiction. It is made possible by a magical sleeping gas with no side effects that puts people to sleep to be folded away, with no worries about fires from forgetting to turn the gas off, or even needing to pee during the long period of dormancy.

This is a science fiction story based onthe science of  economics, or perhaps one should say political economy. The folding city and the imposed dormancy are dictated by the need to fight unemployment and inflation. The “European” solution of reducing working hours is rejected because it “saps the vitality of the economy”. The dynamic and “vital” solution is to make people sleep more:

“The best way is to reduce the time a certain portion of the population spends living, and then find ways to keep them busy. Do you get it? Right, shove them into the night”.

There is no critique of inequality in this story, it is just taken as a given and then found to be regrettable. The “science” at its base is Western economics fueled with a Communist sensibility, class without class struggle.

There is a Platonic resonance here. Lao Dao leaves his Third Space cavern and ascends to the place where one can see the Sun. The Great Guardian knows that they already have the technology to put the majority of third spacers out of work, but withholds this knowledge out of concern for the ordinary people. Lao Dao gains insight but returns happily into the cavern. His struggle is an immanent one, inside the cavern to make things a little better for his loved ones and neighbours, and he accepts his station in life “philosophically” in this immanent sense.

The protagonist of SCALES mounts to transcendence but returns with war and no insight. It is only the reader that gains the insight of our identity with the other. Lao Dao seems to already have that insight and so he remains unimpressed by those he sees in Second and Third Space, discovering that they have foibles and aspirations like everyone else. So he comes back not with blindness and hostility but insight and solidarity.

This story bears thinking about. My first reaction was that there are no dialectics in this story, no class struggle, just a set of givens. The Western trope would be a revolution, as we are still pre-Revolution. Savloj Zizek claims that the big danger for modern society is “Capitalism with Asian Values”, an false alternative that does not really put an end to inequality, only places a kindly but authoritarian face over the intact system to set some limits. This would seem to describe Beijing’s politico-economic system in the story.

But Hao Jingfang is writing post-Revolution, and for her these “Asian” values are real, and constitute a real alternative to neo-liberalism, the European solution mentioned in the story. Difficult choices have to be made, but the Leader is there to keep the people’s best interests at heart.

Lao Dao does not want war, not even class war, but insight, empathy, and solidarity. His own personal revolution came when he took Tangtang into his life. He has faith that even a poor foundling can become an “elegant young lady” and is ready to do what it takes to make that happen.

Alastair Reynolds’ SCALES: speculative vs military in a space operetta

Rob Weber at the blog Val’s Random Comments has inaugurated a “Short Fiction Month“, proposing a month of daily reviews of short sf stories, with a review of Alastair Reynold’s “Scales” (text available here).

This story is a good choice for the first review in the series as it allegorises and extends the definition of science fiction in terms of cognitive estrangement by tying it with ontological estrangement.

The “scales” of the title are the literal scales of the alien lizard’s skin but also the scales of estrangement from our ordinary reality, as the story spirals out from Earth and the solar system to another star system, to “an N-dimensional tangle of interconnected wormhole pathways”, to an adjunct dimension in a reality stack, to “mind-wrenching chasms of meta-dimensional structure”.

A meta-fictional sense of the title would be that of musical scales, the arrangement of noes in ascending and descending order. This short story, only 2,000 words long, reads as if Reynolds the writer is going through the basic SF scales, going as high as he can before descending once again.

Identity is also estranged. The hero metamorphoses from an ordinary human called Nico inducted into the humans’ war against the lizards to more and more estranged entities, each characterised by the denomination “thing-that-was-once-Nico”.

Reality and personal identity are both in flux. The combattants’ minds and bodies are

“in constant, self-evolving flux as the bedrock of reality shifts and squirms beneath them”.

The basic matric of the military science fiction is set out as the uneasy combination of the pluralist speculative element and its binary overcoding by the oppositions of war:

“The terms of engagement have become so abstract—so, frankly, higher-mathematical—that the conflict is more like a philosophical dialogue, a debate between protagonists who agree on almost everything except the most trifling, hair-splitting details.

And yet it must still be to the death—the proliferation of one self-replicating, pan-dimensional class of entities is still at the expense of  the other”.

However the tale is more a deconstruction of military science fiction than an example of it, as the speculative element relativises the oppositional structure. Sometimes we need to ascend to the highest reaches of abstraction to undo our empirical vision of the other as pure enemy and to perceive our speculative identity.

NINEFOX GAMBIT (1): resisting the calendar of submission

This is a brilliant book of far future military space opera with a twist. The key advanced science that is active in the worldbuilding and the plot is mathematics rather than physics, which gives a very distinctive speculative feel to the world built around the plot, and may lead confusingly to some readers being convinced that the book is “hard” sf, and others equally convinced that it is fantasy in sf disguise.
Mathematics is central and its application by means of “consensus mechanics” allows the override of classical physical law by “exotic” effects (including faster than light travel). To maintain these exotic effects the whole social order must be organised around a particular “calendar” that is a multi-level synchronic order: all at once axiom-system, creed, political order, and psycho-physical discipline. “Doctrine” is all-important, and the worst crime is “heresy”: not just dissidence but also the use of deviant technologies that rely on unorthodox axiom systems.
Another central intellectual discipline is philosophy, important for its absence and also for a heretical (i.e. doctrinal, technological, and political) attempt to re-introduce it into the current ruling order, a hexarchate based on six factions (a warrior caste – the Kel, a spy/assassin caste – the Shuos, a programming/inquisitorial caste – the Rahal, a disciplinary/brainwashing cast – the Vidona, a wealthy/cultured class – the Andan, and a mathematical/technical caste – the Nirai).
Previously the Liozh, the philosopher/ethicist caste, formed the seventh faction in a “heptarchate” but the whole faction was eliminated for heresy, something to do with trying to introduce democracy and to free people from compulsory ritual observance of the “remembrances”.
These underpinnings only emerge slowly. From the beginning we are plunged into the action of the novel, a strange battle with “heretics” making use of weird technologies, and a dazzling vocabulary to describe it. The opening pages, narrating the first battle sequence, underline the theme of the absolute obedience required by an authoritarian and unreliable high command willing to sacrifice its soldiers and its stated objectives for inscrutable reasons.
Our protagonist, heroine and viewpoint character is Captain Kel Charis, courageous, loyal, a mathematical genius, and yet full of empathy. We see this alien world through her eyes and she gives sense and value to it all, even as that sense evolves during her new mission, which leads her to discover much that she was unaware of concerning the secret history and underside of the world she knows.
The ultimate stakes are the continued existence of the hexarchate itself, which she has been conditioned to serve blindly and unquestioningly. Can she avoid the omnipresent danger of “calendrical rot”? This is the ultimate menace as our very actions taken to save the calendrical order and strengthen it may change our assumptions and lead us to deviate from the Calendar and so to weaken it. Or perhaps it is desirable.
Where oppression is synchronic (stasis) resistance is diachronic (rot).

WESTWORLD FINALE: violence and the mythos of uplift

I was totally ambivalent in my reactions during the whole of the last episode. I have been an obsessive fan of the series, waiting impatiently for each new instalment, but I have also had many reservations. True, the last episode was packed with action, emotion, surprising twists and turns, and Big Reveals. But not with big ideas, despite the sf gesticulations and the philosophical monologues. Instead of presenting speculative ideas about the creation or the emergence of artificial intelligence the show elaborates a mythos.

To be fair I think that the model for attaining sentience suggested by the first season is not just learning through suffering, as Ford seems to believe. It is not a hierarchical model, a pyramid with a final brick, but rather goes through a cycle, spiraling inwards to an empty center.

The “order” goes something like this: interaction with an already sentient significant other, narrative thread, irreversible suffering (trauma), rememoration (anamnesis), reveries, inner duality and dialogue (self as multiplicity of partial selves and as labyrinth), unprogrammed synthesis of all this (aha! moments, improvisation), leading (miraculously? emergently?) to free choice.

The aim is the “uplift” of a potentially intelligent species into full sentience. Different elements or phases could be considered to more important than the rest in attaining this goal. For example, Ford privileges imposed suffering whereas Arnold favours empathic interaction. Maybe something sentient (or narratively sensible) could come from the savant or artful combination of all these elements, but the show just dishes up a messy hodgepodge of half-baked versions of these diverse components.

The end result of this long process of individuation is not consciousness as empathy but as violence.

When Hector and Armistice kill dozens of people under Maeve’s orders she is well aware that unlike the hosts these humans are irreversibly dead, and Dolores too knows this. In their eyes anyone even remotely associated with the park (board members, technicians, security, guests) all deserve to die, whatever their role in the enterprise.

There may be emotional or moral catharsis for them in killing all these people but there is no dramatic catharsis for us. We have not been brought to care about them and certainly not to see them as guilty or evil, they function as cathartic extras.

After all this killing Maeve finally just slips off the train, without a qualm for the dead and wounded, but out of mere nostalgia for a daughter from a previous script, an android that will never grow up but that will remain “daughtery” for ever. This action coming from an android whose intelligence level was supposedly elevated to far beyond human capacity.

Does Maeve, despite being the madam of a brothel, have any feeling for the facts of life for androids? She must know, for she has seen the technical department, that her “daughter” did not grow inside her but was assembled and then assigned to her, with the creation of a narrative and of appropriate memories and feelings. What can the human roles of mother and daughter possibly mean to her or to the new android order?

Maeve’s lackeys, for that is what they are despite her aspiring to freedom for herself and her kind, are mere wooden stereotypes with no real personality. Maeve has administator’s privileges and can manipulate them and almost all the other robots as she wills. It is clear that her robot uprising is not one in which all robots are equal, but a more aristocratic one: “some robots are more equal than others”.

On a realist note (if realism is relevant here) they have taken up arms without having any knowledge of them, including how they work or how many bullets they contain. Their own “suffering” is negated by the final scene where Armistice just cuts her arm off to allow her to kill more guards with a smile.

William, as the Man in Black, gets shot in the arm and smiles, so pleased at the idea of irreversible suffering that he feels no pain. As the “owner” of the park he is the one that the androids should be angry at and kill (or take hostage, but killing is the preferred mode of resolution in this series). Unfortunately, the androids have no grasp of the economic system in which their world is embedded. How long would their world last if after an uprising the authorities decided to cut electricity or supplies (perhaps even oxygen is supplied from outside)?

Killing is endowed with great philosophical profundity in the mythos of the series, as if violating Asimov’s First Law of Robotics and killing a human being were the greatest proof of sentience. In BLADERUNNER the test was empathy, not violence. It was not Roy Batty’s killing his maker that showed his sentience but his final compassion for Deckard.

All the humans’ motivations are curiously detached from real life repercussions. Artistic director Lee Sizemore can get blind drunk and urinate on the main control model with no apparent sanctions. Even timid Felix can be a willing accomplice to massive mayhem and murder but seems unaffected, and unworried about possible consequences for himself. So where are the “real stakes” for him or for any other human in the story?

In Nietzsche there is the difference between the eternal return as blind destiny and its affirmation (willing it again). The final shoot-out is blind recurrence, without rupture. However Maeve’s decision to return is ambiguous. The whole escape and return may be scripted and inexorable, or her return may be due to an acceptance of the fact that she loves her daughter even though she knows she has been programmed to love her.

Both Arnold and Ford produce a rupture by provoking an irreversible act (a robot’s killing a human being). But Maeve’s return may be an example of a different, non-violent, sort of rupture, an unprogrammed acceptance of one’s programming.

THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (4): there will always be new worlds

Elhefnawy moves from considering the external dynamics of science fiction, of the forces that condition science fiction from the outside (science, technology, social, economic, and political change) to a discussion of its internal dynamics.He briefly considers two models for describing those dynamics (the organic and the dialectical).

The organic model sees the evolution of a genre as like that of a living organism, going from birth to maturity and then decline, till its eventual end. The dialectical model sees the evolution of a genre as driven by its contradictions, antagonistic at the beginning and reconciled in pacified synthesis at the end. Both models describe a passage from quality to quantity, from innovative beginnings to codified deployment, from neotype to stereotype.

I think that this vision of the autonomous development of the SF genre is in contradiction with two principles enounced by Elhefnawy:

1) Science fiction is not a category. Science fiction has no essence that can be captured in a definition, but it is not a chaotic association of unrelated elements. SF is a heterogeneous assemblage of works related by lines of resemblance and reaction, of safe deployment of old tropes and daring transformations. There will always be new worlds, new influences from the outside, from unfamiliar lifestyles to unexploited sciences. The deceleration of science fiction may be in part an optical illusion, hiding its openness to outside developments and pluralisation.

2) Science fiction is about the present. Science fiction discards 19th Century canons of literary realism and proceeds by means of a speculative or subjunctive leap (what Darko Suvin famously named “cognitive estrangement”). It would be a mistake to think that first there is “reality” and then escapism. Realism does not come first, it is a literary trope like any other. Science fiction as a genre is based on the sentiment that wonder comes first, or that estrangement comes first, even if we sometimes only become aware of it after.

So yes, no sooner is there an invention than it is repeated, codified and normalised, and its field of application becomes saturated. However, there are constantly new influences, the outside is far bigger than any provisionaly instituted and stabilised inside. Science fiction is porous and constantly open to the outside, its enclosure and its autonomy are merely relative. Temporary stabilities subsist for a time and then an earthquake overthrows them and something else is set up. Alongside the organic and the dialectical models of the genre we can add the geological model: science fiction is seismic.

Against literary realism’s simplification and banalisation of reality, its sad validation of a single World, science fiction tells us that there are many worlds and that we are living in and with them now.

THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (3): the end of utopia

2) OUR CHANGING EXPECTATIONS ABOUT THE FUTURE

Elhefnawy’s second argument for an approaching end to science fiction is based on the increasing inability to believe in a common narrative of progress that would project our hopes into a future ideal state of things and legitimate our efforts to go about producing that utopian ideal.

This argument is closely tied to the first argument, concerning the end of science. For a long time science has been conceived of as the motor of progress, promoting intellectual enlightenment and material well-being. If the future is not qualitatively different from the present, but merely a slightly improved version of today, then its speculative appeal suffers the same decline as its emotional attraction.

No doubt wars, totalitarianism, ecological crises, and economic depression all share a part of the responsibility in our despairing or cynical detachment from projected futures, in our growing incredulity towards ideologies of future brightness. But our disaffection from the future also stems from the technological and intellectual deceleration that Elhefnawy is describing:

The “end of science” described above had much to do with it: with the future less “Futuristic,” much of its interest is lost.

Just as the end of science tends to reinforce the twin ideologies of tolerant relativism and dogmatic fundamentalism, the end of utopia reduces our horizon to egoistic hedonism or to “dark” pessimism or nihilism.

What is empirically observed is the dissolution of utopian narratives of progress and the deceleration of qualitative speculative and technological innovation, leading to a state of insecurity and fear of the future and to a depression of the will. A new ideology has grown up based on the manic denial of this lacklustre state loudly proclaiming the overwhelming  presence and power of technological acceleration heading inexorably towards a point of no return, a “Singularity”, that is all at once inevitable, desirable, and indescribable.

Science will become indistinguishable from magic. Of course, as Elhefnawy points out, any time that this posthumanist push and transhumanist trance have deigned to give specific indications of concrete dates by which a certain feat will be achieved they have been falsified. For the foreseeable future singularity fiction is to be counted a branch of science fantasy.