Some Observations on the New SF


In the following essay I want to take a look at what I see as some of the main trends in SF today. Before I get started, however, I have to provide some disclaimers. In the first place, I am not an authority on SF. While I am interested in SF, my fascination stays on this side of obsession. SF is a particularly lush field, and I can’t claim an acquaintance with the majority of it. The reviewing I do covers everything from history and biography to poetry and picture books, so I don’t have the time to give any one genre the full attention it deserves. In addition, my knowledge of the critical literature is sparse at best. Confessing my ignorance, but also delighting in my amateur status, I have decided to plunge straight in.

As a way of narrowing things down I have limited myself to discussing the stories found in the last three volumes of The Year’s Best Science-Fiction (that is, the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Annuals). The major issue this raises is the undue influence it gives to one man’s vision of SF – the editor of the Year’s Best anthologies, Gardner Dozois. But while I admit that this is a cause for some concern, I don’t see it as invalidating what I consider to be general thematic observations.

In any event, I didn’t feel limited by my choice. One thing Dozois does provide is an eclectic sample. The stories collected in the three Year’s Best anthologies (each containing, as their covers so appallingly tell us, over 250,000 words of fiction) cover a wide range in terms of style, tone and genre. The authors are male and female, veterans and rookies, American and European. What I wanted was a snapshot of SF today, a selection that would be both representative and manageable. I believe that is what I got.

Of course, in discussing what I take to be the main themes in today’s SF I will be focusing on some stories at the expense of others, but that is not to pass judgment or suggest that the stories I fail to mention are somehow not as good or less important. In fact, more than half of the stories surveyed will not be mentioned at all. The themes I want to discuss are not present everywhere, all the time. Still, the very fact that so many writers are expressing similar concerns and attitudes suggests pretty clearly that something is in the air.

Having dealt, however adequately, with the question of selection, I want to now add a final introductory remark on my approach.

Kingsley Amis’s 1960 study of SF, New Maps of Hell, is generally regarded as one of the landmark works of SF criticism. In it, Amis asserts that the best SF is not concerned with technology so much as society, and that “its most important use . . . is a means of dramatizing social inquiry, as providing a fictional mode in which cultural tendencies can be isolated and judged.” My sense is that this still holds true, though it is, of course, possible to disagree. J. G. Ballard, for example, retorts that Amis’s notion of how SF would become “primarily a satirical and sociological medium proved totally wrong” in the 1970s. That may be so, but it seems to me that much of the SF being written today supports Amis. (Indeed, if I was going to look beyond my chosen sample for evidence of SF’s fixation on sociological issues and social satire one of the first places I would look would be Ballard’s own work.) In the discussion that follows I want to show how the major themes that dominate today’s SF offer a diagnosis of present concerns and anxieties as well as a warning for the future.

But enough introduction. Let’s get on with the drawing of new maps, and explore the three cities of today’s SF.

1. Unreal Cities

We begin in Africa. The first story in the Fourteenth Annual anthology is Gregory Benford’s “Immersion.” The hero is a famous professor from Helsinki vacationing with his wife at a futuristic African game preserve. The call of the wild is pretty obvious. And while the Professor has a tendency to consider himself superior to the other vacationing “Primitivists” (“It seemed to him that every third word in their conversation was natural or vital”) he shares their desire to be “immersed” in the native environment. What this turns out to mean is a process where his brain is plugged into that of a chimpanzee so that he can experience life as a pre-rational being.

The situation “Immersion” deals with, one where a highly-cultivated, advanced being is drawn toward the primitive is, I would argue, typical of the new SF. And the choice of Africa – not traditionally viewed as the cradle of civilization so much as the cradle of the species – is hardly a coincidence. Another story, Ian McDonald’s “Recording Angel,” makes the same point about the primitive reality of Africa even more directly. The Africa in McDonald’s story is being eaten by some kind of alien fungus. The main character is a journalist sent to report on the celebrity-filled party taking place during the last days of a swank hotel that stands in the way of the plague. One of the people she meets is an old hunter whose despair over the destruction of the mythic Africa she can sense:

“the great untamed, unexplored, dark Africa, the Africa without nations and governments and borders and economies; the Africa of action, not thought, of being, not becoming, where a single man can lose himself and find himself at the same time; return to a more simple, physical, animal level of existence.”

What is it about contemporary life that so longs for this return? (In McDonald’s story, one of the celebrities partying at the doomed hotel is Brad Pitt, an actor who would later star in a movie glorifying the “return to a more simple, physical, animal level of existence.”) It is of course trite to say that modern Western civilization has become increasingly divorced from reality. The great urban shift in this century’s demographics makes it increasingly likely that most of us have no idea where our food comes from and no connection with our natural environments. At the same time the specialization of technical knowledge means that few of us have any idea how even the most basic electronic devices we use work. The dominance of the service economy means that for the majority of us labour is far less physically demanding than it ever was in the past (though every bit as degrading). In our advance we have clearly left a lot behind; inside we are still very much the same.

SF has long had an affinity for this split in consciousness, between what we feel is real and what we only perceive as reality. It is a theme that has recently exploded through the use of plots involving virtual reality. In a number of the Year’s Best stories we find such devices being used, dividing the world into the digital and the real, the virtual and the “meat.” In Ian MacLeod’s story “Nevermore” the evolution of the real even gives rise to a new terminology, one where the term “foreal” denotes a reality we are twice-removed from:

“Did you know,” he said instead, “that the word reality once actually meant foreal – not the projections and the simulations, but proper actuality. But then along came virtual reality, and of course, when the next generation of products was developed, the illusion was so much better that you could walk right into it instead of having to put on goggles and a suit. So they had to think of an improved phrase, a super-word for the purposes of marketing. And someone must have said, Why don’t we just call it reality?”

More than just a reaction against the atrophied physicality of cyberpunk or the facile fix of “happy booths,” the sense of our lost reality is tied to the experience of rapidly escalating social change. It is a part of our feeling of de-naturalization, our loss of connectedness to the real world of labour and sex, earth and blood. It is hardly a surprise to find the country replaced by the city in these fictions, but we should also note how the city itself has been transformed. The cities we see are characterless urban sprawls or grab-bags of cosmopolitan chaos. They are, to borrow Eliot’s phrase from The Waste Land, unreal. It is interesting to note how the way writers imagine nature has evolved. Certainly our feelings about nature today, as expressed in our fiction, are very different than they were even a century ago. What a recent novel like Don DeLillo’s Underworld describes is a world where nature is a threatening, alien force, driving people underground into their media cocoons. This is an attitude that has roots going back to Beowulf, where the warmth of the mead-hall is opposed to the monster-haunted moors. It is the opposite of the Romantic conception of nature as mother, educator and muse that reached its peak in the nineteenth century.

Contemporary SF seems (and perhaps only seems) to reflect the modern view. The nature red in tooth and claw that beckons the stimulation-seeking tourists of the future may have some value as a restorative, but it is still something other. The highly advanced “Offworlders” in Michael Swanwick’s “The Wisdom of Old Earth” are posthuman in the sense of having evolved into creatures capable of existing in an “entirely artificial” environment. In order to experience nature they have to be led on eco-tours by human guides. But even here there is no real nature, no real real:

“You won’t find the natural state here. We’re living in the aftermath.”

“No,” he agreed. “The natural state is lost, shattered like an eggshell. Even if – when – we finally manage to restore it, gather up all the shards and glue them together, it will no longer be natural, but something we decided to maintain and preserve, like a garden. It will be only an extension of our culture.”

“Nature is dead,” Judith says. It is best not to experience reality – that is, if you can find any – in a pure form, but rather as a virtual reality fix. After all, we are no longer a part of nature. As the husband and wife in “Immersion” put it:

“The natural state might be a pleasant place to visit, but . . . ”

“Right, wouldn’t want to live there.”

The odd thing is that SF writers seem, at least to me, to be such a Romantic bunch. When the professor says that he “wouldn’t want to live” in a natural state, or Judith says that nature and the natural state are dead, the irony is obvious. As human beings we are all a part of nature, all grounded in a physical and (I believe) irrational reality. Most of the SF writers in these stories would have us identify with the human and the natural more than with any human-made technology. The importance of nature is ultimately affirmed, even if it has become something frightening.

The impulse to return to nature, even if qualified, is a backward-looking one. As a result the kinds of political judgments we can pull out of these stories are often reactionary. This point is made even more obvious in those stories that invert the perspective we’ve been looking at. But reading the politics of SF introduces us to our second city.

2. Cities in the Sky

In the middle of David Marusek’s “Getting to Know You” the con-man Victor Vole makes a remarkable speech. “We’ve returned to Roman society,” he bellows, “Master and servants! Plutocrats and slaves! Oh, where is the benevolent middle class when we need it?”

Where indeed. The story is set in a structure known as APRT 24, a massive egg-shaped housing complex with a clearly demarcated social hierarchy. The upper floors have spacious living quarters filled with “rich appointments” and “crystalline decor.” These apartments are mainly occupied by a bunch of clones with upper-class pretensions and lower-case names. Meanwhile, the apartment Vole lives in is in the basement, a wretched area permeated with a “dank odor of decay.”

The starting point for any discussion of such a theme in SF is H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, with its symbolic geography of a surface world filled with gracious, beautiful Eloi being cared for (and harvested) by the sinister Morlocks living underground. It’s an ambiguous presentation to be sure, but the basic division between a beautiful leisure class and an ugly subterranean population of industrial labourers has been invoked countless time since.

A more obvious example of the enduring myth of the Morlocks in SF can be found in an episode from the original Star Trek television series. In “The Cloud Minders,” the plot involves a planet whose population is divided between a ruling elite living in a city that floats in the sky (Stratos), and mine workers (Trogglytes) toiling in unsafe working conditions underneath the planet’s surface. What a story like “The Cloud Minders” crudely draws our attention to is the rigid high-low class structure that puts power, freedom, and the mind at the top, labour, service, and the body at the bottom.

Keeping in mind what was said in the first section of this essay about SF’s need to ground itself, it should come as no surprise that most stories present the lower level(s) in this hierarchy as more like us, more human, more real. In “Winter Fire” Geoffrey Landis describes a Balkan-style conflict that is tearing Europe apart. Civilians scurry about a bombed out Salzburg, trying not to get caught in the crosshairs. Meanwhile,

Far over our heads, through the ever-present smoke, we could see the lights of freedom, the glimmering of distant cities in the sky, remote from all of the trouble of Earth. “They have no culture,” Johann said. “They have power, yes, but they have no souls, or they would be helping us. Aluminum and rock, what do they have? Life, and nothing else. When they have another thousand years, they will still not have a third of the reality of our city.”

In “The Wisdom of Old Earth” there is another level added to the hierarchy. As we have already seen, the story involves a tourist expedition made by some highly-developed “Offworlders” to Earth. The Offworlders are evolved human life forms who like to come down and slum it on wilderness expeditions. Beneath them we have their tour guides (all female), while at the bottom are the Yahoo-like Ninglanders, who seem more like talking apes than anything else. The conflict in the story arises from the feelings that the leader of the tour guides, Judith, has toward the Offworlder she is responsible for. It isn’t really romantic, so much as a sense she has that Off-world, the sky-city, is where she really belongs. For her fellow tour guides this is equivalent to having ideas above her station. They are quick to bring her down to earth:

“What are you to him but an ugly little ape? He’s sooner fuck a cow than you! . . . You know what the sky people call the likes of you and me? Mud-women! Sometimes they come to the cribs outside the Pole City to get good and dirty. But they always wash off and go back to their clean habitats afterward.”

It is this social vision that Kingsley Amis saw as being one of the main functions of SF, and it is one that is alive and well today. In Amis’s day the main concern was over the growth of the corporate state, the “cherished nightmare of contemporary science fiction.” That concern over corporate power is still there in today’s SF, where it typically takes the form of the evil global corporation, but other developments have pushed it into the background. In particular, the social diagnostics of more recent fiction reflects the anxiety over the disappearance of a middle class and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. A profound social inequality is projected into the dystopic future. (I should also point out that this seems to be a concern of the editor. See, for example, the Yearly Summary to the Fifteenth Annual collection, pp. xxix-xxx.) And while I’m not sure I’d call any of the stories “political” in a narrow sense, they certainly don’t ignore the political dimension.

As we might expect in any post-Capitalist, neo-Feudal order, the establishment is constantly threatened by revolution (the uprising of the Trogglytes in the Star Trek episode). There is, for example, no other reason that I can see for the reference to bomb-happy terrorists in a story like “Steamship Soldier on the Information Front.” What is significant is that, in keeping with the identification earlier between the reader (the more fully human) and the lower levels of the social hierarchy, the rebellion is almost always seen as being just.

Alastair Reynolds’s “A Spy in Europa” is one such exploration of the revolution theme. Europa is an aquatic moon of Jupiter with cities suspended over an oceanic core. In terms of its social organization it is a kind of police state, ruled by a group called the Demarchy. The Demarchy is threatened from within, however, by a species of shark-like creatures called Denizens who have been genetically engineered to be perfect labourers in the parts of Europa where the Demarchy has “certain mineralogical interests.” In other words, the hanging cities are suspended above an ocean where a race of physically “repulsive” creatures with “residual traces of human ancestry” labour in the mines. The structure of Europan society is a familiar one, as is the nascent uprising of its underclass.

In another story, “Sea Change, With Monsters,” we are again taken to the oceans of Europa, and again we find the moon being mined by a genetically engineered work force that has begun to rebel against their masters. This time the neo-proles are aided by a tough monster-killer who identifies with their cause because of her own romantic notions of joining a group of Europan rebels.

The terrorists play a different thematic role in Brian Stableford’s “The Pipes of Pan.” In its future world science has developed a way to let people live for a thousand years. Unfortunately, this means that the Earth is endangered by overpopulation unless people can be stopped from breeding. The solution is to design humans who only grow to a certain age and then stop, thus providing families with children while at the same time not running any risk of increased breeding (the children stop aging before puberty). The fly in the ointment is a man-made disease that actually makes children age. The family at the heart of the story has a thirty-something thirteen-year-old named Wendy who is diagnosed with this condition. Her father can’t accept that anyone would want to create something as terrible as the aging disease:

“They call it liberation,” Father was saying, “but it really is a disease, a terrible affliction. It’s the destruction of innocence. It’s a kind of mass murder.”

Nevertheless, we can’t help but feel that the father is wrong, at least partly. What “The Pipes of Pan” really suggests, I think, is that the aging disease is both liberation and murder. As Freud noted, the structure of civilization is always threatened by a corresponding death impulse he called “Thanatos.” The political argument underlying these stories, the rebellion against rigid social hierarchies and authority systems, can thus be seen as part of another concern in the new SF. This, however, brings us to the last of our three cities.

3. Cities of the Dead

At the end of Terry Daniels’s story “A Dry, Quiet War” the hero, a sort of super time-Marine named Henry Bone, has a showdown with the villainous “glim” who has been terrorizing a small town (the story is essentially a Western). As they approach each other on the main street, Henry wonders why the glim would invite certain death by forcing such a confrontation. What follows is a revelation:

And then I looked into his eyes and saw it there. The quiet desire – beaten down by synthesized emotions, but now triumphant, sadly triumphant. The desire to finally, finally die.

That desire seems to me to be at the core of what I have been describing as the new SF. In the case of the weary glim it is the result of a lifetime spent traveling through a network of alternate histories while remaining himself (virtually) immortal. It is not a condition that many of us would want to share. The glim has lived for far too long, and is now what the narrator tellingly describes as a “war ghost.” He has already experienced death of a sort, but he longs for the finality of a death that is real.

The same distinction between two kinds of death, and the longing for the more absolute, crops up in other stories as well. In Greg Egan’s “Reasons to be Cheerful” the hero is a young man who survives brain surgery only to lose his ability to feel happiness. It is a horrible fate, leaving him “dead to the world” for 18 years. When he gets home after his surgery he complains “I should have died. I should have died.” If only.

In “The Flowers of Aulit Prison” a world is described where dead people are simply not allowed to die. Their not-quite-dead bodies are instead preserved in glass coffins filled with chemicals – a kind of suspended animation that is known as “perpetual death.” The main character, Uli Pek Bengarin, has a sister (Ano) in one of these death tanks. In a dramatic act of rebellion she smashes her sister’s coffin open and buries her body, “weighted with stones, in marshy ground well off a deserted road.” Ano is now truly dead, her body free to rot speedily in the wet dirt.

We may recognize from this two important emphases: on rebellion and liberation (Uli Pek as Antigone), and on the physicality of death. In the case of the latter we see another example of the initial distinction we saw being made between the virtual and the real. There is a virtual or phony death-in-life, but there is also the real thing, the death absolute. And it is the latter, and only the latter, that provides a consummation devoutly to be wished. Thus, in the story “Nevermore”:

“Sometimes I just wish I . . . ”

Elanore trailed off there, glaring at him with emerald eyes. Go on, Gustav felt himself urging her. Say it, you phantom, shade, wraith, ghost. Say you wish you’d simply died.

Phantom, shade, wraith or ghost – but mostly ghost. The word “ghost” seems to be the favourite way of describing the state of death-in-life. As we have already seen, the glim in Daniels’s story is likened to a ghost. The little girl Wendy in “The Pipes of Pan” realizes that children in a world where children no longer have any biological function are only the “ghosts of children.” The title character in Tanith Lee’s “Jedella Ghost” (real name “Geist”) is a similar creation: a girl kept isolated from any knowledge of death and thus incapable of growing old. In “Nevermore” the label of “ghost” is applied to a whole class of virtually dead people who walk about the streets of Paris. (Paris itself is a Necropolis, where “It was obvious . . . that the living were outnumbered by the dead.”)

It’s no accident that both of the earlier concerns we saw informing today’s SF – its insistence on the real and its social progressivism – find expression in the idea of Thanatos. Death is both the ultimate reality as well as the great leveler. The two even come together in burial, since the underground symbolizes both a position in a social hierarchy (cave people, miners, Morlocks) as well as a return to the earth, a rejection of the world of art and technology for that of nature. (When the death impulse is perverted, as in Simon Ings’s story “Open Veins,” it becomes an escape into the virtual world – not a real death, but rather an aesthetic climax.)

Taken to an extreme, or perhaps just in search of a forceful enough image, this love affair with death is made literal in a number of stories involving necrophilia. In “La Cenerentola” (a strange story by Gwyneth Jones) we hear of a man who travels with a hologram of his dead wife, making everyone at the hotels he stays at treat her as they would a living guest. In “Nevermore” the connection is more physical: “A few days later, in a room in the same hotel overlooking the windy beach, Elanore and Gustav made love for the first time since she had died.”

One of my favourite stories in these volumes, and not just because of the way it illustrates so many of the themes I’ve been talking about, is Michael Swanwick’s “The Dead.” The idea it is built around is that dead people can now be re-animated and used as cheap labour. (It should come as no surprise that a large supply of human corpses are about to be imported from plague-stricken Africa, a location that suggests a kind of high-tech slave trade as well as presenting that unfortunate continent as a mine of physical essentials.) For most of the story the re-animation theme is used as a metaphor for the exploitation of an urban underclass relegated to menial jobs at, one assumes, low pay (or is it overhead?). But with a twist at the end Swanwick introduces the note of necrophilia, as the bitchy corporate raider takes herself a blue-skinned lover and presents her ex with a strikingly Pre-Raphaelite corpse as a token mistress.

Nor is this all. The novel’s final image of the slums of Manhattan spreading like “a vast necropolis, a never-ending city of the dead” is directly tied to a political vision of a potentially revolutionary underclass. (A message that seems to be typical of this author, I might add. The end of his novel In the Drift reads like a riff on Germinal). Death itself, being human and real, is a subversive force.

A more chaotic mix of many of the same elements can be found in Ian Mcdonald’s “The Days of Solomon Gursky.” Science in this story has found a way of resurrecting the dead – over and over and over again. What this leads to is the kind of distinctions we have already been noting, between “living dead” and “real dead,” the “little death” and the “Big death.” The pun on orgasm is intentional, and the necrophilia is also present in spades (“He knew that for her it was more than sex with her lover come back from a far exile. He could feel in the twitch and splay of her muscles that what made it special for her was that he was dead. It delighted and repelled her.”) In addition we have a society split between the “meat” (living) and a dead underclass that lives in Necroville. This leads to a revolution, an intergalactic war, and then some kind of resolution that I’m not sure I understand. Again, I’m not going into a close analysis of any of these stories, but only trying to show how certain ideas keep cropping up. Surely this fascination with death, to say nothing of its courtship, is telling us something.

I began this essay by invoking Eliot’s “unreal city” as a way of describing SF’s attitude toward reality, its affirmation of the human need to be grounded in something essential, primitive and natural. In discussing this aspect of Thanatos I am reminded of another of Eliot’s fragments, the voice of the Cumaean Sibyl in the epigraph to The Waste Land who, when asked by the local boys what she wants, only responds that she wants to die.

The reason the Sibyl wants to die is because she foolishly asked the gods for immortality without also asking for eternal youth. Like one of Gulliver’s Struldbrugs, her immortality soon became a burden. It is a condition that seems to crop up a lot in today’s SF, as we frequently find creatures who have evolved (or whose technology has evolved) to the point where they are nearly immortal, or else caught in some kind of time-continuum that makes them practically so. “He lived in a world where no one died,” is a line from Walter Jon Williams’s “Lethe,” but it could be found in any one of a dozen stories.

The Sibyl puts in a dramatic appearance in Damien Broderick’s story “Schrodinger’s Dog” as Dr. Elizabeth Croft, a woman “ninety-nine parts dead” but with her brain kept alive in order to monitor what happens to her consciousness as she dies and floats off into “the chaotic regime.” Like all of the other SF Sibyls, what she really wants is to die. “Can’t we just get this over and done with?” she pleads. “Can we just get this over? I’d rather be dead.”

Later in the same story the hero is put through a similar process, his personality broadcast over a range of potential universes until he finally winds up in “Ur-Aboriginal Australia.” In his experience of the tribal world as a primitivist afterlife we again see the wedding of Thanatos with SF’s Romantic back-to-nature wishful thinking. Being adopted by a tribe of aborigines may be read as just another way of being planted in the wonderful marshy earth.

There are a number of ways to explain SF’s recent preoccupation with death. Part of it may be rebellion, the rage against the corporate system we looked at earlier. But even more popular is the sense of living at the end of days. In Rob Chilson’s “This Side of Independence” the Earth is being torn to pieces by an intergalactic mining consortium. Unfortunately there are still some old-fashioned types (called “Behinders”) who insist on staying put. An agent for the mining company tries to talk a young Behinder named Enos to save himself by leaving Earth but he perversely chooses to stay. If the world he knows is about to be destroyed, he reckons he might as well go with it.

Another way of looking at the end of days is to see it as the end of the species. In this category fall all of the stories dealing with “conscious evolution,” a science that seems to be less about the birth of a brave new world than it is about the death of the old. As a technology the human species is clearly obsolete, and the death wish may be no more than defeatism, a surrender in the face of the new breed. Complaints about human “obsolescence” are repeated throughout the collections, as we see homo sapiens being surpassed by some robotic, alien, or genetically engineered super species. The truly striking number of stories – perhaps more than half – that deal with sickness and disease is testimony to this sense of human systems running down. Like the creature at the end of Jim Grimsley’s “Free in Asveroth,” our time has passed. “I did not die then or there,” he complains. “Later I would wish I had.”

At the same time, advances in the field of life and health sciences promise to extend life far beyond what we can imagine enjoying, into a future where the thrill – or indeed the point – of living will be gone. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Island of the Immortals” the narrator travels to the island of Yendi, where some of the inhabitants are cursed with eternal life. I say cursed because the only immortal we actually see is scarcely more than a shape, a tourist attraction propped up by a village well:

legless, sexless, the face almost featureless, blind, with skin like badly burned bread, and thick, matted, filthy white hair.

The creature can neither hear nor speak, but if it could one guesses it might say, like the Sibyl, that it wants to die. Or perhaps, like the hero in Robert Charles Wilson’s “Divided by Infinity,” “I don’t fear death. I dread the absence of it.” Better to “get it over with” than live forever as a ghost.

The stories I like best, however, are the ones that see the death impulse as life-affirming. Death, after all, is what gives life meaning. The father in the story “The Pipes of Pan” may complain that his daughter’s aging is the “death of innocence,” but few people would want to stay in a childhood state for a thousand years. In the story “Lethe” the main character, Davout, has returned to Earth from the planet Sarpedon. The Homeric name, it seems, alludes to the scene in the Iliad where Sarpedon explains to Glaucus that if he were immortal he wouldn’t bother fighting at all. Being a man, his life is death. Davout can’t really die (“Still alive, he thought. Alas.”), but it is his awareness of the loss brought about by the death of his partner that makes him human. “Toward the end of the universe,” Solomon Gursky comes to realize “that what made love live forever was death.”

In his journey through various “allo-histories” the hero of “Schrodinger’s Dog” seems to recognize a shared reality when he arrives among the tribe of primitive bushmen:

“I don’t know what to say,” he says stumblingly to the old men. “I’m a stranger, and you’re welcoming me into your family. If only I could tell you how beautiful your world seems to me, how sweet, how generous . . . “

“This world is a joyous affirmation,” he decides. Like the imagined places of memory it is a world that is actually a part of him, if only as a “metaphysical quantum identity.” And of course he can only know this now that he is dead.

Despite this affirmation it is hard to come away from many of these stories feeling uplifted. Overall, the futures that are imagined are pretty dark. Perhaps the sense of relief that at least we won’t have to live in such worlds is another part of SF’s strange love affair with death. But that is a speculation that would require an entirely different kind of analysis.

Essay first published online March 21, 2000. All emphases in quoted material are contained in the original. A dozen years after postingĀ this piece I began writing a regular SF column for the Toronto Star.


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