Sunday, October 25, 2009

51̊28'38"N 0̊00'00"E

To Greenwich and the Royal Observatory on Friday, to take part in a discussion about ‘whether science fiction authors are wasting their time writing about interplanetary travel, space colonisation and the spread of mankind across the universe given everything science has taught us about the realities, possibilities and costs of doing so’. The answer to which is of course no, they are not, but I hope the various ramifications and byways my colleagues and I explored were sufficiently entertaining to the small but perfectly formed audience. The organisers may have been a tad optimistic to expect large audiences for the three panel discussions and the screening of Star Trek which were all running at the same time, but I can’t fault the location: our event took place in the circular library at the top of the observatory - the place where the telescope used to be housed, in fact. The round table at which we sat (with an inlay indicating true north) was directly beneath the dome that once opened to the night sky; there were some fine brass telescopes, astrolabes and other instruments in glass cabinets, and all kinds of wonderful books on the shelves running around the room.

The Royal Observatory is also the location of the Prime Meridian, where longitude is 0̊, the dividing line between east and west. Its location is arbitrary, defined by Sir George Airy in 1851, ratified by the International Meridian Conference in 1884 and observed by international convention (although not by everyone, to begin with; the French continued to use the Paris Meridian for a number of years). Appropriate then, that our panel discussion several times touched on the arbitrary division between science fiction that’s based on what’s possible, and science fiction that uses traditional but implausible tropes such as aliens and faster-than-light travel, reminiscent of a recent declaration by Margaret Atwood that she writes speculative fiction rather than science fiction, defining the difference between the two with her usual laser-like precision:
Speculative fiction encompasses that which we could actually do. Sci-fi is that which we’re probably not going to see. We can do the lineage: Sci-fi descends from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; speculative fiction descends from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
I’m sort of sympathetic to Atwood’s need to avoid the science fiction tag (she believes that being defined as an SF writer would be the kiss of death to her career as a literary novelist), but her distinction between ‘speculative fiction’ and ‘sci-fi’ is not only as arbitrary as locating the Prime Meridian at 51̊28'38"N 0̊00'00"E, but is completely wrong-headed.

Obviously, novels about Martian invasions lie on the far side of the improbability, but it’s not always easy to predict what we’ll be able to do in the future. Who, in the nineteenth century, could have predicted that their great-great-grandchildren would be able to teleport photons, calculate the number of universes in the multiverse, or create black holes? These seem fantastical even now, yet they are as plausible as Verne’s deep-ocean submarine - if not more so, given that the Nautilus was coal-fired.

Wells’s The War of the Worlds is a realistic depiction of what we in the twenty-first century know must be a fantastical event - the invasion of Earth by Martians. We know now that the only Martians that might plausibly exist are some kind of bacteria or archaeobacteria because observations of the planet from orbit and from the surface have conclusively demonstrated that it is incapable of supporting advanced forms of life. But when Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, in 1898, there was a strong strand of scientific opinion that Mars was not only habitable, but inhabited. In 1877 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed patterns of lines on Mars which he called ‘caneli’ - channels. Twenty years later, Percival Lowell argued that these channels really were canals, part of an irrigation network built by an ancient civilisation to transport water from the polar caps. He and others also claimed to have observed seasonal advance and retreat of vegetation across the surface of Mars. In the late nineteenth century, then, it was not at all fantastical to write about Martians because belief that some kind of life existed on Mars was commonplace.

Of course, even though some scientists in the late nineteenth century believed that there might be Martians does not mean that, when it was published, The War of the Worlds could have been included in Atwood’s speculative fiction category. There was no absolute evidence that Martians existed; photographing or dissecting a Martian was not something that scientists could actually do. (Although the Martian heat-rays, then fantasy, now are not.) But it’s a trivial exercise to think of novels that were once ‘speculative fiction’ but are now ‘sci-fi’ simply because the science or universally held assumption on which their speculations were based has since been disproved. One of the tropes in Atwood’s latest novel, The Year of the Flood, is the creation of weird new hybrid species of animals and plants by genetic engineering. But while that seems a pretty probable development of current science, we can’t predict with absolute certainty that one day splicing parts of two different genomes together may be routine. We already know that genomes aren’t simple instruction manuals but are highly dynamic and packed with delicate checks and balances, and there’s now experimental evidence that rewinding evolution and deriving ancestral forms from modern genomes is far more difficult than was formerly believed. What was once rock-solid speculation too often melts into thin, thin air.

In any case, defining novels by a single characteristic - how realistic they are, how close they are to things we can actually do - is dangerously simplistic. The War of the Worlds is not just about a war of the worlds; at the heart of its narrative is a lesson in hubris founded on a powerful and unsettling scientific truth. Wells makes a famous comparison in the opening paragraph of his novel:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
Wells studied biology under Thomas Huxley, who rejected current ideas of vitalism and strongly (and correctly) believed that all characteristics of living creatures could be explained by interactions between their constituent chemicals, and was a ferocious and famous supporter of Darwinism (he coined the term). And the idea that most strongly informs The War of the Worlds is not the possibility of life on other worlds, but Darwin’s theory of evolution. If life could evolve on Earth, Wells argues, then why not on Mars? And if there are two separate kingdoms of life, what would happen when one contacts the other?

The war of the worlds is not a war between Martians and men, but an extreme example of the struggle for existence that has shaped the evolution of every species on Earth. Human beings are incidental to the struggle. They are collateral damage. Wells has his Martians land in England when it is at the height of its pomp: the centre of the British Empire, the largest ever known; the epitome of industrial enterprise and scientific innovation. Yet the combined might of the British armed forces is swatted aside by the Martians, English civilisation is swiftly reduced to anarchy, and in the end the Martians are not defeated by microscopic bacilli to which, because they are from another world, they have not evolved resistance.

The epigraph of The War of the Worlds, taken from Kepler’s The Anatomy of Melancholy,* asks ‘how are all things made for man?’ Wells’ answer is that the world and all that is in it is not made for us at all; that the belief that, by divine right, we are masters of the world and the apex of creation is a false and dangerous illusion. That’s the heart of his novel, and we know that it is as true and real as television. Against that, the so-called difference between speculative fiction and sci-fi is trivial indeed.

*EDIT: Oops, actually a quotation from Kepler used by Burton in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, and then borrowed by Wells. Thanks to Cosma for spotting it.


Blogger Cosma said...

This is very fine, but a small correction: Burton wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy — not Kepler!

October 25, 2009 3:02 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

You're right - my error. Burton quotes Kepler in The Anatomy of Melancholy, and Wells borrowed the quotation.

October 25, 2009 3:05 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

I find Margaret Atwoods reluctance to admit to writing science fiction depressing. She's a damn good SF writer, and I'm not ashamed to admit to liking SF. Oryx and Crake was excellent, and I'm keen to read the new one, whenever I can get it for (much) less than £18.99.

But Paul, without wishing to needle you, some of your novels were published as general fiction, even though I would say they were clearly SF, albeit without spaceships. I'm thinking of White Devils and Mind's Eye, both of which I only found by accident while browsing the general fiction shelves.

Was that a publisher's decision? The publisher was Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster) instead of your usual Gollancz. I can see they might reach a more general audience that way, although the SF audience might miss them. I'd be interested to know if it paid off, in terms of sales.

October 26, 2009 3:47 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Pete - Yes, S&S did publish three of my books as general fiction, but only one - White Devils - was SF and sold to them as such. But the editor who bought it and ran their SF list felt he could give it a heavy promotional push if it wasn't given the SF label. I would have preferred to have the label and get the heavy promotion, but there you go.* S&S published two more titles, Mind's Eye and Players; neither are SF.

So, I'm sympathetic to Atwood's refusal of the SF label - no author would want to lose sales, and obviously she and her publishers think that would happen, if her SF books were labelled as such. But I do think her attempts to distance herself from the genre by deploying hairsplitting taxonomic arguments are silly.

*In the end, for various stupid reasons, the big push I'd promised evaporated into thin air. This wasn't anything to do with the editor who bought White Devils; through no fault of his own he was let go before the ink was dry on the contract, his replacement was let go in short order too, S&S's SF list was shut down ... it wasn't a happy time.

October 26, 2009 1:36 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

Mind's Eye not SF? I guess it's not all that SFnal, but a strange ancient technology that can crash your mind seems somewhat less than mainstream to me.

Incidentally, I'm rereading it now. It's really good, one of your better ones.

October 26, 2009 6:34 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

I like to think of it as the novel Kate Mosse would have written if she could write.

Alfie Flowers's caravan was sited just around the corner from where I live. Now a block of flats. Really.

October 26, 2009 6:56 pm  

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