Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Generation Ships

Christopher Beiting's article on The Book of the Long Sun (which I blogged about yesterday) has got me very interested in generation ships. A type of "interstellar ark", the generation ship is a hypothetical ship capable of sustaining a human population for a number of generations, traveling a great distance in this time.

The first fictional depictions of the generation ship are, so far as I can ascertain, Don Wilcox's "The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years" (Amazing Stories, October 1940), and Robert A. Heinlein's "Universe" and its sequel "Common Sense" (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1941 and October 1941 respectively, collected together as Orphans of the Sky in 1963). These were followed by many other science fiction stories centred around the 'trope' of the generation ship, including Brian W. Aldiss's Non-Stop (aka Starship) (1958), the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" (1968), Harry Harrison's Captive Universe (1969), and the short-lived 1973 Canadian science fiction series The Starlost. More recently, Elizabeth Bear has taken up the concept in her Jacob's Lader Trilogy (2007-ongoing).

The generation ship of Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, called the Whorl, is a hollowed out asteroid, outfitted with life-support systems and a propulsion system. According to this website, the "hollowed asteroid generation ship" has also been used in Greg Bear's Eon (1985), Gregory Benford and David Brin's Heart of the Comet (1986), and the Star Trek episode mentioned above.

 A hollowed asteroid generation ship. http://www.weirdwarp.com/tag/neo/

Related to the generation ship is the sleeper ship, which transports people over great distances by placing them in a kind of cryogenic sleep or stasis. I think that these are a more common science fiction trope than the generation ship, since it allows authors to avoid their characters aging during interstellar travel (the alternative, of course, is to have faster than light travel). Wolfe's Whorl would also classify as a Sleeper Ship, since in addition to the human beings living within the hollowed asteroid (the "cargo" of the Whorl), there are also thousands of people being transported in stasis (called "sleepers").

It seems that a lot of thought has gone in to generation ships, and their feasibility as a form of interstellar transportation:
Such theorisation on generation ships is by no means limited to science fiction: in the 1970s Princeton physicist Gerard K. O'Neill designed the "O'Neill Cylinder" or "Island Three" as a hypothetical generational ship in which gravity was created from centrifugal forces. The US National Space Society has made a fascinating 1977 book called Colonies in Space by T. A. Heppenheimer, an aerospace engineer, available online - it is worth a look.
    Gene Wolfe's treatment of the generation ship trope seems more and more interesting the more I think about it. As Beiting notes in his article, Wolfe completely overturns the tendency to use the trope as a materialist or scientific empiricist allegory. Traditionally, the ship's inhabitants discover that their 'world' is actually a giant space ship, and must cast off the ignorant mythology or religion they have developed around the ship's builders or artificial intelligences (AI). In Long Sun, while Silk's faith in the 'gods' of his religion is destroyed when he finds out they are (mostly evil) AI, he comes to a stronger faith in the transcendent 'Outsider' (i.e. the God of Christianity). Long Sun as a whole can be read an allegory for of the coming of Christianity to the pagan, and the triumph of the religious worldview over more scientific and secular alternatives.

    I shall have to find a way to incorporate this into my thesis. Perhaps instead of writing on the role of the priest -protagonist in science fiction in general, and dedicating one chapter (of three) to Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, I will instead focus entirely on the relationship between empiricism and transcendence in the text, dedicating one chapter to Patera Silk as Wolfe's unique utilisation of the priestly character to affirm the existence of a transcendent God.

    Tuesday, 23 February 2010

    Scholarship on The Book of the Long Sun

    In preparation for my thesis I have been reading up on prior scholarship on Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun. Not much has been written on this tetralogy, but I did find these three articles incredibly insightful:

    1. Nick Gevers, "Five Steps towards Briah: Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun," http://www.ultan.org.uk/five-steps-towards-briah/
    Gevers's treatment of The Book of the Long Sun is absolutely fascinating, and definitely worth reading by anyone who has read the tetralogy. He begins by observing some parallels between The Book of the Long Sun and Wolfe's earlier Book of the New Sun, but soon launches into a great analysis of the interaction between "the religious and the worldly," or faith and materialism, in Long Sun. He discusses the text in terms of plot, characterisation, and dialogue.
    I was most fascinated by Gevers's assertion that each of the four books of Long Sun tends towards a different literary genre, and in doing so represents a scientific or secular approach to the problems afflicting the Whorl. Thus, Nightside of the Long Sun is seen as a detective novel; Lake of the Long Sun is read as a spy or espionage tale; Calde of the Long Sun represents the military story; and Exodus of the Long Sun embodies utopian idealism. Each of these secular attempts at problem solving and truth-finding turns out to be futile, and only manages to make things worse. Thus, as each of the secular approaches is tried and fails, only one option remains: that of "religious transcendence". Gevers explains how Wolfe, in demonstrating the futility of more 'scientific' approaches, leaves the acceptance of a "religious paradigm" as the only option.

    2. Nick Gevers, "The Reader as Augur: Beginnings and Endings in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun," http://www.ultan.org.uk/the-reader-as-augur/
    This article is more or less a continuation from "Five Steps towards Briah," and similar themes are addressed. In this article, Gevers's central thesis is that Wolfe uses augury (divination from the entrails of sacrificed animals) as an analogy for reading. Thus, in Wolfe's descriptions of Patera Silk's augury and (at the start of Nightside) textual interpretation, we have demonstrations of the kind of careful reading necessary to truly understand Wolfe's text. Gevers goes on to illustrate how careful readings of the beginnings and endings of the four books reveal to us how each of the books are to be read and understood. The article mostly comprises rich textual analysis, and of particular interest are his discussions of Silk's enlightenment at the start of Nightside, and the role of Horn, one of Silk's pupils, in the series.

    3. Christopher Beiting, "The Divine Irruption in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun," Logos 11, no. 3 (2008). Accessed through the Project MUSE database.
    Beiting's article, published in the Catholic journal Logos, is a very enjoyable read, and contains many insights into the religious themes of Long Sun. Beiting sees the story as one of "divine irruption" - the direct intervention of God in human history. This irruption comes in the form of Silk's enlightenment, which guides all the events which follow. Beiting makes a point of the fact that Silk continually misinterprets the Outsider's (i.e. God's) command - when told to "save the manteion", Silk assumes that the physical building is what must be saved, but only realises at the end of the books that the manteion is in fact the people of his quarter, who must be saved from the dying generational ship which is the Whorl. In this way, Beiting likens Silk to Saint Francis of Assisi, who was also commanded by God to "go and rebuild My house which, as you see, is being destroyed" (p. 86), and also misunderstood the command.
    Beiting covers much of the same ground as Gevers, but makes another point which I found very fascinating: while Wolfe uses the common science-fictional motif of a generational spaceship, he offers a very new take on it. In the usual tale, characterised by Robert Heinlein's "Universe" (1941) and Brian Aldiss's Non-Stop (1958), the generational ship is failing (or is adrift, or has reached its destination) and the ship's inhabitants have, after many generations, forgotten about the universe beyond the ship and mythologised the ship's original builders, often forming a religion around this mythology. The protagonist of the tale discovers that their 'world' is only a spaceship, and must enlighten others to this fact, and encourage them to repair the ship or leave to colonise a planet. Beiting sees this usual playing-out of events as a "materialist allegory: the scales fall from the eyes of the ignorant, benighted protagonists, who abandon their primitive beliefs for the truth of a glorified Science and a bright, technological future" (p. 88). He argues that Wolfe is "demolishing this trope utterly" by using the generation ship paradigm as the foundation for a "Christian allegory" (pp. 88, 102). This article is definitely worth reading, if you can get your hands on it.

    Wednesday, 17 February 2010

    The new Gene Wolfe novel is nearly here!

    Not long now until the release of Gene Wolfe's latest novel, The Sorcerer's House, on 16 March 2010.


    The novel is contemporary fantasy and written as a series of letters, mostly short in length, giving the book a fast pace. The book's publisher, Macmillan, describes the book on their website as follows:
    In a contemporary town in the American midwest where he has no connections, Bax, an educated man recently released from prison, is staying in a motel. He writes letters to his brother and to others, including a friend still in jail, to whom he progressively reveals the intriguing pieces of a strange and fantastic narrative. When he meets a real estate agent who tells him he is, to his utter surprise, the heir to a huge old house in town, long empty, he moves in. He is immediately confronted by an array of supernatural creatures and events, by love and danger.

    His life is utterly transformed and we read on, because we must know more. We revise our opinions of him, and of others, with each letter, piecing together more of the story as we go. We learn things about magic, and another world, and about the sorcerer Mr. Black, who originally inhabited the house. And then knowing what we now know only in the end, perhaps we read it again.
    PS Publishing is also releasing limited editions of the book, with cover art by Dirk Berger and an introduction by Tim Powers. There are Hardcover and Traycased Hardcover editions available.

    Now I just need to decide which copy to get (although I want all of them! I quite like both covers), and then find the time to read it. I've been contemplating a self-imposed ban on all non-thesis related reading for a while. Right after I finish Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett, of course!

    Sunday, 14 February 2010

    James Blish, A Case of Conscience

    I finished reading James Blish's A Case of Conscience weeks ago, but haven't got around to blogging about it till now. The Hugo award-winning book was a must-read for my upcoming honours thesis on (loosely) the role of the priest in science fiction literature. The 1958 novel is divided into two parts, with the first part being an extended version of Blish's 1953 short story by the same title.


    The protagonist of A Case of Conscience is Father Ruinz-Sanchez, a Jesuit biologist, who at the opening of the novel is part of a research team on the planet Lithia. The first part of the novel, set entirely on Lithia, sees Ruinz-Sanchez make a discovery about the indigenous Lithians that is central to the rest of the story. In short, Ruinz-Sanchez finds out that after birth the Lithians go through a very visible evolutionary cycle before they reach adulthood (evolving from sea creature to land-dwelling reptile). Ruinz-Sanchez believes that this, and the fact that the Lithians seem to live perfectly civil and moral lives without any religion, are incontestable evidence that the entire planet was created by Satan (a heresy, since his faith teaches that Satan cannot create). The rest of the first part of the story is mostly concerned with a lengthy conversation between Ruinz-Sanchez and his three associates, Cleaver, Michelis, and Argonski. The four scientists discuss whether or not Lithia should be open to the general public, and Ruinz-Sanchez argues that it should not, since it is all the work of Satan.

    I found the logic here, not to mention the science, to be somewhat problematic – though I suppose that was more to do with when the text was written than anything else. Nevertheless, the entire book seemed to be predicated on some highly questionable assertions: that Satan would create an entire planet to shake the faith of a few Catholics; and that seeing the growth or "evolution" of the Lithians would actually destroy Catholicism altogether. The possibility that Lithian society is "perfect" because the Lithians were not fallen creatures was dismissed out of hand by Ruinz-Sanchez, solely because of how the species "evolves". I found the long conversations between the scientists to be a struggle to get through, primarily because of the absurd logic involved. However, I was never sure whether or not I was meant to understand the logic. I kept thinking that Ruinz-Sanchez was a lunatic, but perhaps I was meant to?

    At the end of the first part of the novel, the Lithian Chtexa gives Ruinz-Sanchez a jar with a Lithian infant inside, with the intent that he take the child back to Earth to learn from it and teach it about human life. The second part of the book is set on Earth and is mostly concerned with this Lithian youth, named Egtverchi, who is raised by Ruinz-Sanchez and Liu Meid, another biologist. The story seems to grow increasingly absurd, as Egtverchi, probably the only alien life on Earth, becomes a prominent television personality. Ever critical of Earth and the state of human society, Egtverchi incites hatred towards authority and eventually calls for widespread rioting and civil unrest. There is also a very confusing scene set at a dinner party, with people getting high on psychotropic gasses and so on.

    The second part of the novel seemed like quite a different animal to the first, though I didn't find it any more interesting. It is primarily concerned with the same issues as the first part, but it has a faster paced narrative (which is a mercy). I found the end of the story to be rather underwhelming – perhaps because by that point I had given up trying to care about the story, or any of the characters.

    It is clear why Blish chose to have a Jesuit priest as his protagonist – he needed to utilise the priest's moral and theological framework in order to create the "case of conscience" upon which the story is based. This, perhaps, reflects one of the most common uses of the priest in science fiction: as the source of a unique worldview. I believe that this utilisation of the priest character is most common when the priest is one of a number of central characters. For example, in Joss Whedon's space opera Firefly, the priest, or "shepherd", provides the crew with a unique concern for morality, frequently offering counseling and spiritual insights to others. Dan Simmons' Hyperion (which I have just finished reading), is comprised of six "tales" within a frame narrative, and "the priest's tale" presents us with a unique concern for the theological and religious implications of what the priest uncovers, particularly as they pertain to the Catholic church. I shall have to find some way to work this use of the priest as the provider of unique insights and opinions into my thesis somehow...