Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Readings 2K9: Marseguro

by Edward Willett

Golden Age science fiction is a funny thing. I’m talking here about SF written from 1926, when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories, through to about the end of the Second World War. A lot of that fiction is good adventure-story stuff, and some of it’s even better. Characters tend to be flat, but often that’s in the service of getting across some aspect of the science-fictional setting; it’s weirdly like some of what’s called literary fiction, where characters may be made to develop in odd ways for the sake of some thematic point. By the time you get into writers like Ray Bradbury, you’re looking at writing that’s stylistically interesting as well. 

But on the flip side, much of what was written was pretty poor stuff. I’ve read Gernsback’s novel, Ralph 124C41+, and it was pretty rough going. Well, so what? Low-quality fiction is and has been written in every genre, every form, every circumstance. But: the problem with Golden Age science fiction, to me, is that a lot of the low-quality work has been held up as good, even as something to emulate. I think there are a number of reasons why this is so. SF was traditionally a commercial form, so there was likely an instinct to emulate what sold; like most marginalised groups, or groups felt to be marginalised, SF fans held tightly to what they had, and celebrated it, even — especially — in the face of mainstream condescension; and then, also, readers were more concerned with the science-fictional aspects of stories, rather than the quality of the writing (which is something I think is the case for most readers, of most kinds of stories — they’re more interested in form than content. Interested in what a story does with its genre, whether it’s in traditional ‘genre’ fiction or not; it should be obvious, but novels set in and around a university, novels about the immigrant experience in North America or elsewhere, novels of small-town life, all these things can be seen as genres as much as science-fiction, mystery, or westerns).

All of which is to say that there’s good stuff and bad stuff in traditional science-fiction, and in my opinion the bad stuff often gets hailed as good stuff. To me, the great example of the bad being hailed as good is Robert Heinlein. I’ve read a lot of his books, for various reasons, and on the whole I’d say that they’re mostly incredibly uninteresting. The style is undistinguished, the characters seem perfunctory, the morality is white and black and the good guys line up nicely on one side and the bad guys on the other. His plotting skills are typically strong, in the sense of keeping the action going, but to me his stories never come to life — they never become more than the plots that drive them.

Rightly or wrongly, I also tend to associate Heinlein with a particular plot structure which seems not uncommon in SF — the story in which a ragged band of rebels with minimal resources fight against and overthrow a corrupt empire. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an example of what I mean. There are obviously antecedents to this structure from long before SF; this is basically the Robin Hood story, for example. I think it’s often developed differently in SF, in that the small band is often depicted as winning by being more intelligent in the way they fight than their adversaries. In one sense, this structure seems to fit with an idea of justice appropriate to Heinlein and Golden Age SF in general — victory goes to the brainiest. But it’s often difficult to justify the imperial power being outsmarted, even notwithstanding Imperial hubris and the advantage of native guerillas in waging war; you’d expect the larger population base to have the greater share of geniuses. 

Small rebel bands may thus also be helped in their battles by coincidences of timing, which turns out to limit the imperial forces more than expected (by having much of the imperial force tied up elsewhere, for example); or by magic technology, which gives them an unassailable edge, such that the story may become about the rebels fighting to hold on to their technology against agents of the imperial power — in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which did seem the most interesting of all the Heinlein books I’ve read), the mass drivers which the rebels could use to throw rocks at Earth fit the bill. An interesting inversion of this (well, interesting to me) is Asimov’s Foundation series, which could be read as a parody of much of the above — a small band of geniuses on the fringe of a decaying Galactic Empire is faced with a series of crises, usually incursions by neighbouring military powers, and frantically tries to find ways to hold off the invaders; in every case, at least in the first set of stories, these efforts turn out to be misguided, because what saves the Foundation isn’t individual action but the inevitable force of History.

This is all by way of saying that I didn’t really enjoy Edward Willett’s book Marseguro. It seemed to me to have both the bad, and good, qualities of Heinleinian SF. The idea of the book is that about a hundred years from now a meteor crashes into the Earth; a few survivors get away to colonies elsewhere, and one group of genetically-modified humans found a colony of their own on a water-world. But there are survivors on Earth, who put together a church based on the sinfulness of genetic technology, and who set out to exterminate all genetically-modified humans they can find. When they locate the lost planet of Marseguro, the water-world, an invasion seems inevitable. 

The best thing about the book is probably the speed at which the plot moves. It’s quick, and filled with action. It’s also on an engagingly small scale — no vast interplanetary battles here, only a skirmish or two between colonists and landing parties. But: It’s got the small band of rebels fighting a greater imperial power, and really struggles with the difficulties of making the battle credible. 

So we’re introduced to an Earth general with clearly a genius-level grasp of strategy and tactics, who, once the conflict begins, is continually wrong-footed and makes bad decisions. There's a convenient battle against a rebel colony on Mars, tying up all the Earth spaceships capable of wiping out the Marseguro colony from orbit. Magic technology takes the form of a bio-weapon, a plague created by the scientist who modified the Marseguro humans (despite said scientist being adamantly opposed to the use of biological weapons). It’s such a clever plague, it can even get around the anti-bioweapons protocol on board Earth spaceships. Between the plague and the surprising incompetence of the Earth general, the book comes to seem a foregone conclusion fairly early on.

Still, all that said, I found the plot less problematic than the novel’s conception of human character. One can consider the shallow depiction of religion as an immediate example; the near-brush with the asteroid has caused every single religion on Earth to be swallowed up by the new anti-genetic-science cult. Which is difficult to swallow. Particularly since the gospels of the religion, some of which are given in the novel, are flat, uninspiring, lacking in anything resembling mythic resonance or poetry. Possibly Willett meant to portray the church as a kind of totalitarian government — certainly Earth is ruled by a dictatorship — but this never comes alive. It doesn’t help that the church is portrayed as solely evil, and genetic modification as an untroubling technology; which is to say that the book skates over the real issues of the science at its core.

Even more problematic on a character level, though, is one of the book’s central sf conceptions. The scientist who created the Marseguro humans also left several cloned embryo versions of himself behind when he left Earth, with arrangements for the embryos to be birthed and raised as his ‘descendants’ in later years. He also left these embryos with a genetic time-bomb, which includes memories of the location of the Marseguro colony, and some of the scientist’s personality elements, to make the clone think and feel like the scientist — to make sure the clone is loyal to the Marseguro colony, not to the church. Which only undermines the idea of human character entirely.

In the world of Marseguro, personality is virtually meaningless. A character can switch from believing one thing to believing entirely the opposite, not because of events changing his or her mind, not because of some sort of epiphany, not because of moral transcendence or revulsion, but just because a switch went off in their head. These characters aren’t characters; they’re chess pieces. Except in chess, usually two players compete. Here, it’s more like watching a run-through of a video game — the on-screen character moves as the player decides, not through the logic of their unique circumstances. The lack of understanding of character in Golden Age SF goes to an extreme; there is no character, only genetics. The reasons we do the things we do are explicable by, and manipulable through the use of, science. 

So I didn’t care for the book. If you like Heinlein, you might well enjoy this book more than I did. The question, though, is also going to depend on your outlook on character; on what it is that makes up a human being. It’s something which may not be easy to swallow. To me, though, the biggest flaw with Marseguro is that it doesn’t even feel like there’s anything to argue with; there’s no rational debate about the value of genetically-modified people, or about the way genes may shape consciousness. The issues of the technology, the questions of what makes us human, aren’t even noticed. The best stories of the Golden Age, I think, were canny enough to address the ramifications of their technology in human terms; Marseguro’s lack in this department means it can’t come up to the heights of its models.

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