A Voice From Our Science Fictional Past
Hello everyone. I’ve been invited to post a guest blog on Priya’s site. As a long time reader of Priya’s fiction, I’m very pleased to join you here.
In the other post for today you’ll find an article I wrote for the British Science Fiction Association’s magazine, Focus, which discusses Priya’s novella, ‘Rag and Bone’ as a state-of-the-art example of world-building and scene setting.
In this post, I’d like to invite you on a journey to a forgotten era. Back to the 1980s, in fact. Britain had a Conservative government, it faced the threat of global war, was experiencing the rise of home computing (the ZX 81, no less), and David Mace was writing science fiction.
Roll forward a generation to today and we find ourselves in a peculiar mirror of those times. The Conservatives are back in power, we’re at war across the globe and the computer revolution has arrived (for real this time).
Which brings me to my segueway into David Mace.
On the face of it, Mace may be a tough sell to readers at Priya’s website — for he cut his teeth on military SF thirty years ago. But I’m still keen to talk about him here. Firstly, he may not be well enough known to readers who will find much to enjoy and second because he infused his work with his felicity for character, setting and world building.
I would also say that his SF was ahead of its time in his blending of genre tropes with literary conceits. This should chime with the debate around the recent hotly contested Hugo Awards where at least one tranch of fans has insisted that there is an uncrossable divide between so-called boring literary fiction and exciting adventure fiction. One response to this would be, read more David Mace.
An insider secret I’ll impart here: when you write you spoil the experience of reading for yourself. You don’t mean to, but writers constantly unpick what they read, they analyse and inspect in an annoying reflexive manner. Getting past that reflex to enjoy the writing for itself is a very tough job.
But on the other hand, if the best writing is a symphony that combines the essential ingredients of story into a seamless whole, then the reading experience becomes so immersive that we don’t even notice its mechanics. Detail builds on detail until the story surrounds us and all we know is that we’re carried safely into another world (as in the worldbuilding of Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg — or Priya Sharma).
Writing that captures our attention both viscerally and intellectually is a real challenge. It may not even be a learnable skillset — as instinct is an essential component of it.
On the face of it, Mace’s Nightrider is a novel about future war. Its elevator pitch might be: humans from a post apocalyptic Earth wage war on rebel colonies outside our solar system.
Mace opens the novel by expanding on this pitch. Rather than a simple didactic opening prologue (such as an omniscient narrator) he aims for a lyrical immersion into the story:
“Nightrider fell from the Sun to Hades.
Nightrider fell through the empty dark, fell upwards and outwards from the Sun, retarded by the gravitational pull of the star and all its little planets so far behind. Nightrider slowed infinitesimally, approaching the null point where the pull of Hades would start to win. Gravitational drag is politically neutral. The Earth and the Moon slowed Nightrider’s course just as much — proportional to their mass — as did the scattered Outsider colonies on their gas giant satellites, on Mars and on Mercury. Two political camps disputing the oh-so-important human future while united by natural law. So it has always been.” p9.
Nightrider is both a spaceship and a weapon travelling to commence a war. Onboard are seven men and women, representing the military government from Earth.
Travelling off-Earth and fighting aliens is classic space opera. But at the same time, the crew of seven characters are not merely pilots or soldiers. They are people held together in close confinement for a journey of hundreds of days. They have been filtered for “crew specialisms” as NASA or ESA would do today, but more radically, for sexual history and compatibility. This leads one of them to say about completing their journey, “Really…we should celebrate by having a good long seven-way orgy.”
This is not necessarily remarkable in 2015, but bear in mind that this book was written in 1985 when discussion about sexuality and bi-sexuality was much less mainstream.
Turning to the enemy, I described them as aliens. They are — even though they’re also human beings. Mace’s Outsiders manifest their alienness through their ability to adapt to life in a non-terrestrial home. The Outsiders are also physically different from Earth’s warriors. One of Nightrider’s crew, Yasmin, observes them as having: “Smooth synthetically sun-brown legs…smooth shoulders and arms. A smooth scalped, smooth faced woman…Yasmin looked from the woman’s face to the others, from one to the next. There were only two faces among them. Two men and three women, but only two faces, each one moment male and the next female. The confusion was perfected by the lack of hair.” p166
The Outsiders are clones and Mace creates the sense of their difference and indeed, eeriness. We might also note the repetition of “smooth.” Deliberate, sensuous, and with the control of a poet. Not, I’d suggest, what you’d normally get in military SF. Mace is a lyricist using the convention of the subgenre to propel a story about human beings surviving on the very edge of physical existence.
The Outsiders live both outside our solar system and also outside the political regime that controls the Earth. The Outsiders are also alien in a different sense. They’ve evolved an alternative human culture. That should feel very relevant for us as readers in 2015, when Isis in Syria and Iraq is equally alien in their mindset and their culture of destruction and slavery.
Mace’s Outsider society is based on peaceful expansion and colonisation. So if that’s an alternative, what is the Earth norm in this future? What’s the society like that initiates the war on a peaceful colony?
Another crewmember, Kim, reflects on the crew’s background: “The others had all grown up through their childhood and teenage years seeing some level of violence and killing on Earth — most of all Samson in Trinidad, least of all Sandra in Westamerica where the state had mostly organised it all cleanly out of sight.” p185
The characters are products of years of violence on Earth (of varying intensity). Akira, of Japanese origin, has never seen Japan. That’s because it no longer exists, destroyed entirely in one war. The Earth has survived a series of overlapping, disastrous wars before becoming unified into one global ideology: “pragmatic rationalism.”
As another character reflects, he “had grown up under the delegated care of the Earth’s newer guardians, a system of informational oligarchy that permitted the magical application of organisation, that was already consolidating and extending its power amid all the utter chaos.” p36
In post-Snowden 2015, we have caught up with “pragmatic rationalism,” with our own notions of using information for control and governments that tell us of the need to protect us from terrorist “chaos.” I feel like I live in an “informational oligarchy” built from NSA intercepts, encryption, and spying. These increasingly bypass national boundaries and democratic accountability.
Pragmatic rationalism, as imagined by Mace, is more than informational oligarchy. It brought stability to the Earth, but unfortunately, it did so through violent totalitarianism. Sandra grew up in the still affluent West. “When I was a kid…one of the Westamerica Directorates drafted people’s prostitution staff…and then the next Directorate executed most of the prostitutes. Back then the pleasure principle totalitarianists and the moral radicalists were still purging each other. Then the economy went the way of everyone else’s and pragmatic rationalism came in.” p22
Pragmatic rationalism, while neither communism nor capitalism, is a dictatorship. It’s an ideology that believes it has no ideology — it is just commonsense. Therein lies its threat — as it is just commonsense, you need neither democracy nor dissent. Who needs to vote when the state’s decisions are always commonsense? Everyone would logically follow pragmatic rationalism — so there’s no need to debate its value. And besides, everything else the Earth has tried has failed. This form of government has brought stability, but it has come from the psychosis of perpetual global war and revolution.
And it strikes me that the world Mace describes has the feeling of what Winston Smith’s life might have been like in Nineteen Eighty Four, seen through the prism of space opera. We learn of Nightrider’s crew, that “none of them were volunteers. Volunteers, like heroes, were a part of the past.” Nightrider makes the technological jump that Smith’s Oceania aspired to. And having done so, it uses the technology of space travel to pursue Oceania’s perpetual war.
Having established “pragmatic rationalism,” Mace is careful that the ideology, and discussion of it, does not overload the narrative. Initially, the ideology performs the motivation of why Earth’s government goes to the vast expense of building its warship. The totalitarian state cannot accept any dissent, either by its own ship’s crew or by the Outsiders. The war is a dispute over “the oh-so-important human future,” as Mace cued it up in his opening.
The plot involves the ship arriving in orbit around the ice planet, Hel. Mace develops several narrative elements — one centring on Nightrider itself. It is part spaceship, part weapon and part AI. In keeping with space opera, the AI aspect proves to be a danger to the crew. However, to look at just one aspect of the novel, we follow the crew as they attack the Outsiders.
The plan is to destroy the Outsider’s colony from orbit. As with all adventure narratives, things go off-beam and the protagonists fight to adapt. Instead of remaining safely in orbit, the Nightrider crew occupies the base and are brought into sharp contact with the Outsiders.
That sharp contact does not go well for the Outsiders, leaving three of them dead.
A conventional action narrative might move from one violent encounter to the next, with the advantage swinging to and from the protagonists. That happens here, but crucially, Mace adds a layer of emotional depth as well. The Nightrider crew reflects on what the Outsiders had planned for their colony on Hel. Hel would “be a full colony, with planned births…In fifteen years it would be as big as Ganymede, in ten more years the Outsider capital. And the same twelve people who have crewed the base from the very start, the same two clone groups, would still be there, senior administrators and proud eldest citizens of the newest and greatest colony, the successor to Earth and the inheritor of the future.
Would have been.
Now three of them were already Hel’s first murder victims. Hel’s first corpses.” p197
The Outsiders ran into Earth’s pragmatic rationalism and their future was destroyed.
What struck me in reading Nightrider this time was how carefully Mace establishes that the Outsiders are peaceable. They’re trying to develop their colony in a very hostile environment and trying to expand the reach of the human race. And the warriors from Earth crashed into them, destroying their base and killing them — because Earth’s ideology could not allow dissent. There was no need for this war, except that Earth is governed by a totalitarian regime that refuses to accept another independent state.
That makes the Nightrider crew, who are our protagonists, aggressors and basically villains. Increasingly, we come to realise this about them as the mission begins to disintegrate and the Outsiders fight back. The novel therefore manages to combine classical military SF — spaceship battles, futuristic weapons and guerrilla war inside an artificial environment — with speculation about social evolution, totalitarianism and the impact of extreme politics on people.
By the time we reach the ending, the question Mace seems to pose is, who are the aliens? Whose behaviour and society and very existence is antithetical to our own?
The idea of hostile totalitarian regimes laying waste to humanity is a topic that spans much science fiction and fantasy. A random sample would range from Lord of the Rings to Starship Troopers to Star Wars. It is particularly prevalent in military SF circles. But how often do you see the protagonists becoming aware that they are the enemy and that they are laying waste to humanity?
That’s the trick Mace pulls off, neatly subverting both the genre and our expectations as readers.
Pragmatic, rational Earth cannot tolerate dissidents expanding and colonising. So they destroy them. In doing so, they view the crew as entirely expendable and expose the truth of all totalitarian regimes — that the regime as an entity is far more important than any of the human beings in it. This was what we learned in of Nineteen Eighty Four and what Mace shows us here. Mace guides us to that conclusion through the conventions of space opera and hard SF. Despite it being a novel that embraces the tropes of future war, there is something for everyone in a novel like Nightrider.
Dev Agarwal is a science fiction and fantasy writer. His fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies in Britain and overseas. Dev is an associate editor for Ireland’s Albedo One and has recently begun editing Focus, the magazine on writing science fiction, for the British Science Fiction Association.