The Value of Science Fiction

By Hill – Giuseppe Gerbino (Self-published work by Hill) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction is often given a bad name.  It can have connotations of strange people in jumpsuits or bizarre prosthetics, sprouting technobabble, involved with stories which have no relation to the modern world.  Yet, I believe that science fiction offers an opportunity to look at our world from a different and new perspective.  Your Great Gatsbys or Macbeths may give a deep commentary on the world we live in and human nature, yet they’re inevitably constrained by being stuck within that which they seek to criticise.  Science fiction can remove itself and look down on these issues, which makes it a unique platform for expressing such comments.

This post has been prompted by reading Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas, which I’ll focus on – although much of this will apply to other science fiction work.  Consider Phlebas covers a wide array of themes and idea.  The most immediately apparent is war; the book is set during a galactic war between two groups: The Indirans and the Culture.  We see a form of total war, seemingly without boundaries, as entire planets are destroyed and races wiped out.  This is the logical extension of human warfare.  During the 19th and 20th centuries we ‘advanced’ from a form of war involving large armies, where the result would usually be decided on the battlefield, to a situation where factions would try to win at whatever the cost.  Wars became more a matter of crippling the enemy’s economy rather than routing their armies which, through aerial bombings and the use of submarines, had a direct impact on the civilian population.  This developed into the utilisation of mass destruction, whether through nuclear weapons, chemical or biological, to achieve a victory.  In Consider Phlebas, Banks pursues this to its logical conclusion.  The destruction of planets is a terrifying concept, but largely because you can imagine it would actually happen if people had the capability to do such a thing.

This commentary is less subtle in places; the final act of the story is set on a proscribed ‘Planet of the Dead’, in this case a preserved world which perished during a nuclear war.  The characters journey through underground bunkers, the only remnants of a civilisation which destroyed itself.  They could easily be burrowing into the bowls of the Earth at some distant time in the future*.

The Indirans and the Culture are fighting almost purely on ideological grounds.  The Indirans are a religiously devout, warmongering race, while the Culture have developed a secular, anarchist, planned consumerist economy which seeks to extend its influence across the galaxy.  Conflicts between ideologies is another fascinating aspect of human nature we’ve seen develop in the 20th century, which Banks captures in his novel.  There’s a brilliant line where the protagonist Horza, fighting on the side of the Indirans, describes a seemingly innocuous bit of technology as “the real representative of the Culture on this planet.”  This line resonates with anyone who has ever drunk a bottle of coke or eaten in a Macdonalds.  Imperialism by commercialism against imperialism by military force are ideas which have conflicted in human history, which Banks shines new light on by portraying in a new scenario.  I found myself siding with the Culture, which is a testament to the realistic civilisation Banks forced considering the story is narrated from a viewpoint biased against them.

There’s another small, easily missed mention to ideologies I quite enjoyed.  After a raid on what they expected would be an unarmed temple was repelled, the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence discover that it was situated on the border between two warring states, one Socialist and one highly religious.  No other details are given, but I love the possibilities for stories that creates.

Technology is another area where science fiction thrives.  The image I chose for this is an artistic rendering of the Culture’s Orbitals which, as you can see, is a remarkable idea.  They serve as artificial worlds for people to reside on, equipped with terrain, climates, ecosystems, etc.  They look utterly bizarre and totally artificial, yet I could imagine how they would actually work.  I’d question the economic viability of such structures when there’s a multitude of planets to terraform and explore, but that’s another issue.  Perhaps the best technological prediction in the book is that of drones, fully sentient machines who are considered individuals – to destroy a drone is tantamount to murder in the Culture’s eyes.  This is explored wonderfully in Consider Phlebas.  My favourite instance was the drone Jase, which develops an infatuation on Fal ‘Ngeestra.  This is never developed, but just the small reference to Jase taking a sound recording every time Fal laughs tells us so much about the depth of these drones’ personalities.

It’s no secret that technological predictions, above all else, have made an impact in the real world.  The main example I can think of is Arthur C. Clarke pretty much inventing the idea of geostationary satellites, a good decade or so before they became reality.  You can see more here.  Today, ideas like space elevators, which have so far been imagined only in science fiction, are perfectly plausible.

These are just a few examples of how science fiction can be immensely relevant to our modern world.  This is why the genre, along with fantasy, has always existed in some form and I expect always will.  There’s never an end to the things it can give insights into, forcing us to see things in ways we might not expect or be prepared for.

*In the epilogue Banks reveals that the events take place in our past, yet the simlarity remains.

 

Aspidistras and Money

Contains spoilers.

Two weeks ago I finished reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, published in 1936.  As with most things he wrote, the issues he raised in the novel have lingered in my mind long since returning it to the library.  It focuses on the life of Gordon Comstock, a part-time bookseller and poet who descends into a life of squalor and poverty.  While not as revolutionary or powerful as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell admitted that, somewhat fittingly, he wrote the book largely because he was in need of money and claimed to be dissatisfied with the final edit – I would argue that it takes a critical look at society just as effectively.

The main theme of Aspidistra is, of course, poverty.  Never one for subtlety, Orwell shoehorns in references to the topic wherever possible, but the nature of poverty allows him to get away with it.  Throughout the novel are constant repetitions regarding Gordon’s lack of money; he is ever-aware of the coins in his pocket, he does mental calculations for every transaction he makes – every aspect of his life is ruled by money.  Through such basic repetition, Orwell gets his point across that we live in a society ruled by what he terms ‘The Money Gods’.   How shocking it is to have the dream of capitalism pulled away to reveal the murky truths hidden belief.  To follow a lifestyle where Gordon must turn down almost all social invitations, including pub gatherings, journeys to the countryside or meals, because they require him to spend money he doesn’t have.  For those of us who have never been at such a poverty line it truly is horrifying to consider how prevalent worries about money can be.

Arguably, Aspidistra is written as a comedy.  The way in which Gordon becomes obsessed by money is so unrealistic as to be comical, yet it does highlight how consuming poverty can be.  The most interesting part of the book is when Gordon unexpectedly gets sent a cheque from a magazine he sent poems to.  He begins rationally, planning to save and repay his debts, but by the day’s end he has squandered it all; on alcohol, transport, his girlfriend Rosmary, a prostitute – even his wealthy friend Ravelston – and finds himself in prison the next day.  As someone incredibly scrupulous with money I find this behaviour difficult to comprehend, yet it’s utterly realistic and the sort of actions I’ve seen displayed time and time again.  It’s not a case of “the proles can’t handle money,” but the result of handing someone the opportunity of a brief, glimmering escape from crushing poverty.  Therefore, it can be surmised that poverty breeds self destructive behaviour.  Never is this clearer than in Gordon’s eerily prophetic yearnings to see London destroyed by foreign bombers.

There are a couple of flaws with the book, however.  Most notably is that Gordon’s poverty is self-inflicted, as he actually once had a decent job working for an advertising company and throughout the novel faces the possibility of returning.  Fair enough, I can appreciate his disgust for such a job and his reasons for leaving in an attempt to defy the defy the Money God, but this does, in my opinion, somewhat limit the impact.  Is is true poverty if you have an escape route?  Much better to have had Gordon suffering from rapid unemployment and poor working conditions, I’d have thought.  It comes across less of a criticism of capitalist economics and more the character study of a slightly deranged man.

Also, I take issue with the suggestion that only two options were open to Gordon: that he could either live by the Money God or reject the system and live in complete poverty.  Orwell’s message is almost ruined by the resolution of the novel – Gordon returns to his job at the advertising company, and therefore has to submit to the Money God, symbolised by throwing his poetry manuscripts into a drain and buying an aspidistra, that symbol of middle-class money worship.  What is Orwell trying to say?  A Democratic Socialist to his death, as a person he clearly wouldn’t have supported Gordon’s decisions yet he never provides any condemnation through the narrative.  Thing is, life rarely works in absolutes and I believe Gordon didn’t have to take such an extreme route either way.  Why couldn’t he have returned to the job but continued with the poetry in his spare time, resolved to resign the moment he could make a decent income from writing?  While most of the novel is brilliance, after reading the ending I could see why Orwell was ashamed of the book.

The only other option vaguely mentioned is Ravelston’s vague Marxist theories of tearing down the capitalist system altogether and establishing a Socialist State.  This, I suspect, is closer to Orwell’s own views, yet it’s discredited whenever mentioned.  I accept that political apathy is another byproduct of poverty and this is a point Orwell expressed well, but to expand on this option for Gordon would have gone some way to giving the conclusion the depth it lacked.

Criticisms aside, it’s remarkable how relevant Aspidistra remains today.  One opinion it has caused me to rethink is the morality of tipping.  It was actually another of Orwell’s books, Homage to Catalonia, which first made me wonder whether tipping is right.  He described the Communist/Anarchist (the ideologies were diverse and vague) revolution in Barcelona where, among other rules, tipping workers was banned.  This supposedly coincided with the emancipation of workers, whereupon tipping would be considered a bourgeoisie insult.  It has always been my opinion that the introduction of, say, a living wage would be much more preferable than making people rely on tips for an income.  Of course I do tip because I know how underpaid many workers in the service industry are, and Aspidistra has reinforced this for me.  It’s very much like giving money to beggars in that we shouldn’t have to do it, that there should be provisions from the state to make such actions unnecessary, yet until that happens to do nothing would be even worse.

Overall, Keep the Aspidistra Flyingis a very engaging book which can truly change your perspective on society and economics.  I wonder how long it will continue to be relevant for?