SF

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

Isaac Asimov once predicted that by this time, many home appliances would run on atomic batteries. It would be so convenient: no need to use electricity and the battery would not run down within the consumer’s lifetime. Truly a marvel of modern science! In all seriousness, if Asimov’s failure to see anything wrong with a blender powered by nuclear fission does not clearly crown him as the king of all science nerddom, I don’t know what would. One of science fiction’s stocks-in-trade is predicting the future. Some suggestions are eerily accurate, and some are Jetsons-level laughable. Stand on Zanzibar is strange in that a weirdly high percentage of its predictions are absolutely correct.

The novel is set in 2010. The main pressure driving its plot is that there’s just too damn many of us. Brunner correctly placed the 2010 population of the world around seven billion, which is where the name comes from. Apparently, seven billion people, standing upright and shoulder-to-shoulder, would just barely fit on the island of Zanzibar. This foundational problem is not the only prediction Brunner gets right:

  1. “Muckers” go insane and go on senseless public rampages (Columbine, Aurora, Newtown)
  2. China is our main global competitor
  3. Europe has banded into a single political entity
  4. Detroit is a ghost town filled with abandoned warehouses
  5. Consumer culture is dominant
  6. News is highly processed and regurgitated on television in digestible bites
  7.  There is legislation against tobacco but marijuana is legal
  8. Rent is so ridiculous in New York that a high-level executive has to have roommates to help him pay it.

Brunner misses a few things and gets a few other things wrong (in response to the population problem, there is eugenics legislation – people cannot have children unless they prove their genetic health), but the amount that he predicts correctly in this future is impressive. He gives texture and substance to his future world by using the Innis mode.

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I found this while looking for Asimov quotations. Holy shit.

The book opens with a passage from Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, which explains the Innis mode as constructing a mosaic of facts and events without perspective or unifying narrative. Brunner’s use of this mode strongly influences the structure of the book. There are four main types of “chapters.” Chapters labeled “continuity” follow the linear narrative of the story. “Tracking with closeups” present vignettes of characters not directly related to the main plot but part of the same world. “Context,” presents, you guessed it, context for the other parts of the story in the form of fake newspaper articles, works of sociology, and other types of analyses. Finally, “the happening world,” the most Innis-modian of these chapters, is a storm of assorted facts, sometimes as short as a single line, that assault the reader with the vibrance and freneticism of all the overwhelming information in the larger world outside the main narrative. The Innis mode generally and “the happening world” in particular serve to create an immensely dense world without sacrificing main narrative time to do it.

The main narrative consists of two parallel plots: U.S. intervention in an island nation in the Pacific, Yatakang, that is embarking on a “genetic optimisation program” to build a race of supermen, and a massive company called General Technics beginning a training program in a fictional West African nation in order to exploit mineral wealth off the coast. The Yatakangi storyline consists of a lot of great spy action and explosions. The U.S. intervenes because they either want to prove the genetic optimisation program is an impossible propaganda stunt or, if it is true, take steps to make it just an impossible propaganda stunt. One Yatakangi character tells the American spy that Americans just aren’t very good at letting other people be better than them at anything. The African storyline concerns Beninia, a country that is dirt poor, where education could be improved, and where starvation is a major concern. Beninia draws the interest of General Technics because, despite all of this, there has not been a murder there in the past 15 years, there is no open conflict or dissatisfaction, no vandalism, and no theft. In a world where people regularly run amok (the etymological basis for “mucker”) and kill as many people as they can before they are put down, the complete absence of murder indicates an inviting level of stability. GT agrees to put in place a 50-year program wherein they float the Beninians a huge loan, then use it to build all the most modern conveniences and supercharge their education so that, within those two decades, the Beninian population will be transformed into a nation of extremely skilled technicians and scientists with the knowledge set required to exploit the mineral deposits in the ocean nearby. This plan is created and vetted by the General Technics supercomputer, Shalmaneser. GT’s main claim to fame is this computer. It is next-level, near-A.I. type hardware, and its predictions are the main reason the company is so confident that their Beninia plan will work. They are in it for themselves, as they will be more than paid back by the wealth at the bottom of the sea, but they get to change the course of an entire nation for the better. The book tries very hard to sell the point that this is not neocolonialism pure and simple. The President of Beninia is complicit in the plan because he is dying and wants to leave a good future to his nation. Everyone involved in the project has their hearts in the right place and wants to help. Within the book, it is absolutely believable that this is a new and benign form of economic development. Outside of the book, this is basically a company owning a country outright, and in reality that never works out well for the owned. The disconnect between what happens in the book and the real-world probabilities make this conceit of the book ring a little hollow.

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This is what Brunner means when he says “supercomputer.”

Speaking of things Brunner attempts that end up going wrong, he tries to extrapolate the future of race relations while sitting in front of a typewriter in 1968. He gets right that, due to anti-discrimination laws and the easing of overt racism, many positions of power are filled by African Americans, and racial tensions still simmer on. One of the main characters is a black vice president of General Technics. His roommate is white. They are both friends, but in their internal monologue, they each think really angry thoughts filled with racial slurs about each other. The problem is not that they get angry at each other, but that the sole source of a lot of their anger seems to be race. It seems outdated and strange, and indicates that Brunner, while trying to present a realistic future of race, was not fully free from many of his own preconceptions about it: In Brunner’s future, a relationship between equals of a different race seems not to be able to exist without some type of rancor. There is also no shortage of racist slurs against the Asian Yatakangi. Try as it might, this book is definitely a product of the sociocultural milieu of the 1960s.

Treatment of women in this book is just as big a problem as the treatment of race. There are no women involved as main characters, there are only two women in the entire book that have any real agency or power, and the current form of dating is something called the “shiggy circuit.” Codder is a mildly offensive term for a man, and shiggy is a mildly offensive term for a woman. Most young women participate in the “shiggy circuit,” a social construct in which women have no fixed abode and merely cycle around the city, moving in and out of the apartments of the men they sleep with, depending on them for food and shelter, and then moving on to the next one when either the woman or the man becomes bored. The easy interchangeability of women and the fact that they take up with the man and not vice versa necessarily places them at a disadvantage in relation to the men. This dynamic grows out of a problem that runs through many SF books written in the 50s and 60s. Most of the writers at that time were men, and many attempted to imagine new and more open sexual mores. The problem is that most of these new social systems ended up being not so much a representation of sexual progress as a result of the author’s subconscious thinking to itself, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if women were just naked? Like, all the time?” It comes off more as male fantasy than as balanced prediction (cf. Stranger in a Strange Land, The Gods Themselves).

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Glad we’ve stopped oversexualizing women in science fiction. She’s a weapons specialist on the Enterprise, by the way.

Despite the jangling treatment of race and women, the book, in the form of Chad Mulligan, delivers wry, incisive, and apt criticism of society and the humans who run it. Mulligan is a pop sociologist and is the author of The Hipcrime Vocab and the amazingly-named You’re an Ignorant Idiot. He is deeply in love with the human race, which of course means he is intensely enraged by its stupidity. He becomes a main character by the end of the book, but for most of it we see snippets of his angry, incisive writings as excerpts in the “context” or “tracking with closeups” chapters. His main thesis is that if we don’t all change drastically we are all going to die, so act a little less insane and a little more rationally and lovingly. To give an idea of what kind of vision he has, I’ve included a handful of definitions from his Hipcrime Vocab.

The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad Mulligan:

(COINCIDENCE You weren’t paying attention to the other half of what was going on.)

(PATRIOTISM A great British writer once said that if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying a friend he hoped he would have the decency to betray his country. Amen, brothers and sisters! Amen!)

(SHALMANESER That real cool piece of hardware up at the GT tower. They say he’s apt to evolve up to true consciousness one day. Also they say he’s as intelligent as a thousand of us put together, which isn’t really saying much, because when you put a thousand of us together look how stupidly we behave.)

Mulligan is a great character: contemptuous, competent, snarky, and broken-hearted by what he sees humanity doing to itself. He moves through the book spouting wisdom and being right about things, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but “irreverent middle-aged dude who is wiser than others” is a bit of an overused archetype in older SF.

This book has a lot to recommend it. It is a feat of worldbuilding, giving a nuanced and exhaustive picture of the world as it might exist in the future. Its narrative structure is innovative and effective. Its driving conflict is a problem that has affected, is affecting, and will affect the human race for the foreseeable future: increasing population, decreasing resources, and the tension and problems created by that dynamic. Its hope is that humanity finds a method to stop feeding on itself, but it presents the alternatives in horrifying depth and detail. It is a pity that, while many of the facts and events predicted are impressively accurate (the fall of Detroit, senseless acts of public slaughter, 24-hour news, the European Union), the conceptualization of race and women are mere extensions of the patterns extant in 1968. It represents a failure of imagination and a victory of narrow-mindedness in a novel otherwise exultant in its inventiveness, insight, and breadth. You still need to read this for what it does right.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Image: LA Times

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Bernard Werber’s Empire of the Ants

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

Imagine this: you are absolutely crushed with exhaustion. You’ve been working for 12 hours straight, or you’ve just run 10 miles, or you’ve just moved all of your furniture to a new apartment and only one of your friends actually showed up to help. You are about to fall down with fatigue, but you turn to your friend, who offers you nourishment from his or her own stomach. Once you lock lips and do the exchange, you feel reenergized and ready to take on the world. This process is called trophallaxis, and for ants, it’s a way to bond, exchange pheromones, and get valuable caloric units to the members of the colony that need it most. I know this because I have just finished reading a book called Empire of the Ants.

This book is strange in that the majority of it is narrated from the point of view of ants. Werber weaves three distinct threads through the book’s narrative: ant POV passages, human POV passages, and fictional encyclopedia entries. The encyclopedia was written by a deceased mad scientist, the relatives of whom form most of the human characters in the novel. Its subject is unknown at the beginning of the novel, but its author, Edmond Wells, was deep into myrmecology and wanted to establish communication with the ants. His nephew, Jonathan, inherits his old apartment and finds a note saying “Never go into the cellar!” Following story logic, of course he ends up going down there, where he discovers a massive subterranean cavern. The narrative thread of the human POV section deals with the dangers, mysteries, and discoveries of the late Uncle Edmond’s secret underground laboratory. The ant POV sections actually dominate the book, which raises the question –  how do animals with brains the size of an asterisk (*) sustain any type of comprehensible narrative? This is where the fiction part of science fiction comes in.

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Formica Rufa, the main character(s) of this novel

Ants undeniably use language. A lot of animals use basic pheromones, but ants employ a massive dictionary of them: scientists think that they can recognize hundreds of chemical combinations (side note: the scientist in that article is attempting exactly what the fictional scientist in the book is – translating and using the ant language). Werber takes this fact of ant society and expands chemical signals like “Food this way!” and “I am dying!” into a structure that can handle phrases like, “Something weird is going on here. We need to communicate this to the swarm.” It is an established fact that ants have language, and Werber simply asks his readers to apply suspension of disbelief and accept that ants have a language nearly as complex as ours. He does not abuse this anthropomorphization of his principal characters. They use their ant language to run around doing ant things – at no point do two disgruntled ants get drunk at a bar and whine about how the Queen is working them too hard. We see ants going out into the dangers of the world foraging for food, ants taking care of larvae, ants making war with a different species of ant, and any number of other antish activities. Werber does a good job illuminating the subtlety and complexity of life in an anthill and making these explanations part of the action of the story. For example, most ant colonies have a queen whose only responsibility or influence over the swarm is constantly laying eggs. Most of these eggs grow into sterile female worker ants, but some are fed better than others, and these better-fed larvae develop into sexually mature, winged females. Unfertilized eggs develop into male ants, which do nothing but sit around eating. When the weather is right, all the males and sexually mature females fly away from the colony, sometimes over very long distances, and mate along the way. The male deposits his gametes in the female then dies, and the female can then use this genetic payload to lay eggs for as long as the next thirty years. She then lands, tears off her own wings, starts digging a small burrow to lay eggs in, and builds the entire populace of a new city.

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This newly-landed queen is already stocked with every worker that will ever be a member of her colony.

Werber takes all of this information and weaves it into a tense action scene in the book. Out of the millions of virgin queens who swarm off, only a handful actually survive. They are eaten by birds, they are killed by competing ants, or they simply fail at setting up a new colony. This high failure rate allows Werber to add a lot of suspense to the situation when narrating the nuptial flight of one of the main ant characters. She flies hard as birds pick off her comrades left and right, she tires and can fly no more and falls in a river, she gets trapped in a spiderweb and faces almost certain death there, and then she lands, eats her own wings (high-protein nourishment after an exhausting ordeal), and starts the laborious process of bringing a new nation into the world. This melding of action and explanation throughout the book creates a strange phenomenon whereby, as Werber advances the plot, the reader learns a ridiculous amount about how ants work. I know about trophallaxy, the nuptial flight, where and how they store food, their symbiotic relationship with aphids, how they wake up after a long hibernation, how they use their antennae, how they care for their young, how they wage war (they can actually shoot acid from their abdomen!), and a host of other facts. The interplay between information and plot advancement creates a pleasurable sense of ambiguity around whether the book is a reference text or a fiction book. I mean, it’s a fiction book; it has talking ants for God’s sake, but from what you can learn from it, it may as well be an encyclopedia.

Which brings us to what might turn you off of this book: If you do not care about ant facts, you will be bored to tears. The main payoff of the novel is the painstaking exploration and elucidation of an extremely alien culture that exists just a few feet underneath the earth, and if you are not into that, your experience of the novel will be missing its main selling point. The humans are hands-down the weakest part of the novel. Their thoughts are simplistic, their dialogue is uninteresting, and their path through the narrative is not nearly as appealing as that of the ants. Werber does not construct solid mimetic aspects for his characters. James Phelan’s theory of character splits character creation into three aspects: The mimetic aspect is how much the character resembles an actual person, the thematic aspect is how the character serves to advance the ideas of the novel, and the synthetic aspect is how the character serves as an artificial construct that advances the narrative. Many SF novels skimp on developing the mimetic aspect of their characters (consistent character traits, subtle emotional responses, believable interactions with other characters). Having fully-developed characters along all three axes is often what separates SF books that escape the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of bookstores from more well-recognized (but not necessarily less worthwhile) SF. For example, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 are not considered genre literature, whereas the less character-centric Starship Troopers, The Gods Themselves, and Planet of the Apes are almost always found next to the Star Wars books.

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One of these categories of SF has much better book covers than the other.

In some SF novels, the subsumption of character-as-person by character-as-idea is a symptom of SF as a literature of ideas – the SF novel is an exercise in philosophical extrapolation, and everything else takes a backseat to that. It is forgivable to have two-dimensional characters in the service of ideas, but Werber’s humans are stunted both mimetically and thematically. Their only purpose is synthetic – they stumble through the world of the book and advance the plot.

The flimsiness of the human characters and the relatively lackluster plot are the only sour spots in an exact, exciting, and enlightening study of how a society completely alien to our own might function if it had just a little bit more brainpower than we give it credit for. Ants are amazing. They are arguably the most successful animal on the planet. They are on every continent, everywhere except for the highest mountain peaks and the poles. They have been around for 140 million years (humanity = 200,000 years). The total weight of all ants on Earth roughly equals the total weight of all humans on Earth. If they can communicate the way they do in this book, and we piss them off, we’re screwed. Maybe you should read this as a primer on how best to welcome your new ant overlords.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.