Science Fiction as Erosion – Meditation on Gibson’s Spook Country

I recently reread William Gibson’s Spook Country. I read it first years ago shortly after publication and it has lurked the back of my memory ever since. Its characters, plot elements and moods would surface even though only vaguely connected to the matters at hand. I wanted to get back into it for another full immersion.

It was a very satisfying re-read.

Now then, I read it on the Kindle  and the Kindle has a dangerous aspect, particularly for insomniacs: you can buy a book on impulse at 2 am and be reading it minutes later. Spook Country (of which I had vivid memories) lead to Pattern Language (which I remembered hardly at all despite some overlap in characters and vibe) and then on into a mini-sf reading spree of early Gibson, newer Ian Banks, and mop up Kage Baker.

Noting what remained vivid in memory and what didn’t  lead to some thinking about what sf does.

I’ve read various theories over the past decades about the pulps and the  limits and appropriate role of genre fiction. My theory of sf matches none of that and simultaneously works as a description of why I like all the interrelated genre’s of sf, fantasy, & horror.

The role of sf is, quite simply, to erode the present.

  • Imagine that we sit down with a new volume by a favorite author on the flat plain of the present.
  • Hills and valleys have been flattened since last time by the familiarity of the everyday world.
  • We read.
  • If the volume is effective the world begins to erode.
  • In the best possible case, like a stroll atop Sheep Mountain in the South Dakota, flat prarie drops away into a deeply erode landscape of shape and color.

The gradient of how things will move forward has now been changed!

The present flows into the future along an altered channel with different resonance and open possibilities.

And finally that new future feeds back and revises the present. Our world becomes more eerie, more open, more wondrous, more strange.

Kage Baker: An Appreciation

A favorite author of mine, Kage Baker, died young at 57 on 1/31/2010.

I took the news as a call to chase down and read anything I could find of hers that I’d somehow missed. There was very little to find. I’d been following her work assiduously since reading her In the Garden of Iden in 1997. Not much had slipped by me.

I was particularly fond of her popular Company series but I’ve liked everything she’s written.
The Company series began with a premise introduced in Garden of  Iden of a secret organization using a highly constrained version of time travel to ‘guide’ human history. Its agents are recruited (by other agents) from among otherwise doomed young children who are trained up, given immortality and near invulnerability, and then deployed to rescue cultural treasures and prevent the derailment of human history. Or at least that’s the story the agents are given.
The master organization exists in the 21st – 24th Century and stays there since time travel is one way and it would doom the non-immortal company officers to life in a primitive past.
The agents slowly realize things are not necessarily as they seem, factions form, and different strategies constellate all focused on 2355…the point where something happens and the news and instructions channel from the future goes dark.
The beauty of Baker’s writing is that she focuses on the human side of her cyborg agents. She gets to play with a clash of cultural backgrounds and character formation from different epochs with agents recruited in periods ranging back to the Neolithic but deployed potentially anytime or anywhere forward…although she focus on relatively recent missions (1500 and on).  She deals with the challenge to relationships and the strains on the personalities caused by her agents inhuman condition and there alienation from the regular human population who are, nonetheless, producing the magnificent cultural artifacts they are raised to protect and treasure.
It’s a great use of a nerdly science fiction premises to anchor an exploration of personality and culture. Oh, and did I mention that a key thread through all books is the romance of the two characters introduced in Iden, one of which repetitively dies and then reappears.
If I have any criticism, it’s that her later books have too much plot to get through. She seemed to be racing forward faster and faster to cover the full narrative to the events of 2355 in fewer and few pages. The final book in the series appeared in 2007. I don’t know the events of her personal biography: perhaps this rush was related to her illness; or it could be she was simply bored with the series but wanted to give her fans a conclusion and get on with other projects. In any case, I liked it better when she took her time and did a slower dive into culture and character.  There she shone although it was all interesting.
My favorite of her novels is Sky Coyote. Imagine an competent version of Rowling’s Gildaroy Lockhart, surgically altered to appear part coyote, and sent to convince a coastal, mercantile-oriented, California tribe to do the Companies bidding and move from their rich home territory. This is the second book in the Company series. I give it a strong recommendation. If you’re a purist, read Iden as a warm up.