Monday, April 01, 2013

SF in SF, or Julian May, Ellen Ullman and Making Things Up

Happy seventy-first birthday to Samuel Delany! And congratulations to Mira Grant for her record- (and glass ceiling) busting haul of Hugo nominations. It's going to be a while before I get to her work, though, because I've just discovered Julian May: for once, even starting by reading the first book of a series. One down, fifteen to go.

That first book, The Many-Coloured Land, was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus and Mythopoeic Fantasy awards in 1982, and was recently -- just this January -- brought back into print and ebook by Tor, 20 years after its last edition. They fanfared the relaunch with a rare interview with May from 1982. Therein, she answers one of the perennial questions fired at writers: where do your ideas come from?
All those wild, wild ideas – where did they come from? . . . I once estimated that I had read or skimmed nearly fifty thousand volumes in the course of researching my nonfiction juvenile books and writing the seven thousand encyclopedia articles. I read very fast and retain quite a lot of the data. And besides the research I had to do, there were certain other topics I delved into for the sheer hell of it: mythology and folklore; psychology – especially Carl Jung; geology and paleontology, which I’ve always adored; sociology and political studies; history – especially English history, since I’m a keen Anglophile. 
What May doesn't answer is the implied, more complex question: how do you mesh these ideas to produce characters and narrative? What is the process that takes the 50, 000 volumes of non-fiction and composts them into the Galactic Milieu and the time-gate?

Science fiction, because it composes its realities very explicitly, foregrounds this question as a genre, whereas literary realism implies an indexical process: you observe the world and the people you meet therein, and translate them to the page. Of course, that's a useful fiction in itself; the world of a realist novel is as selected, invented and constructed as that of an SFF novel, within a framework of constraints, including formal and generic precedents and reader expectations.

It's been fascinating discovering May in the same week as discovering Ellen Ullman, "the computer programmer who became a novelist." Her new novel, By Blood, is -- in a way -- about programming: set in San Francisco in 1974, before the tech revolution of which Ullman would be a part came to dominate and define the Bay Area, it's about genetic and cultural inheritance; specifically, what does it mean to say one is (or is not) a Jew. Like May's novel, it also asks what it means to learn and research, as the protagonist is a classics professor who turns his skills from commenting on the Eumenides to researching the aftermath of the Holocaust. The effect of knowledge -- and its relation (or otherwise) to self-knowledge -- is of course a theme as old as Oedipus, but both of these novels are working it out in relation to new 20th century constraints and questions.

Is it co-incidental that this neo-noirish paranoid plunge of a novel, in which the passive protagonist eavesdrops on a therapist and her patient, opens at around the time SF-based SF novelist Philip K. Dick started receiving pink light beam visitations? While Ullman's novel, with its (characters') investment in testimony, witness and evidence, is presented as realist, the fact that it consists of material overheard by an unreliable narrator, and conveyed as oral testimony from person to person, leaves the novel in an unsettling realm where the Freudian theories of fantasy could be said to meet the genre of the same name, as American dreams/nightmares of Old Europe are dreamt and deconstructed.

Ullman's programming fascination also surfaces in the appearance of recording technologies as bearing witness; an appendix offers a link to a recording of a BBC radio broadcast from Belsen/Celle that the protagonist discovers at a key moment in the narrative. Some narration is delivered via a tape recorder. The novel passes little comment on these technological interventions and what effect they have on narrative as the "old world" of blood heritage and beliefs (such as the genetic inheritance of mental illness, comprehensively disproven) meets the new world of gay bars.

May's novel deliriously reverses what's implicit and explicit in Ullman by sending 22nd century humans back to the Pliocene, where they encounter a space-faring -- but culturally medieval -- alien race that his hiding out on Earth. Fantasy, science fiction, and palaeontology are mixed together but with a similar question in mind: what, as individuals, societies and species, do we inherit? What do we make for ourselves? Behind "how did you come up with your ideas?" lies this question of the unsettling nature of (self-)invention.

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