Science Fiction

Beyond Time, Space, and Mortality


Eclipse, by John Shirley, New York: Bluejay Books, 338 pages, $8.95 (paper)

Marooned in Realtime, by Vernor Vinge, New York: Bluejay Books, 356 pages, $17.95

Science-fiction writers have long used the genre as a vehicle for presenting individualist and antigovernment themes. Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, for example, built their reputations on such individualist works as The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Fahrenheit 451. These themes are now being taken up with gusto and skill among a new generation of science-fiction writers. Whether or not the literary establishment acknowledges it, a respectable number of very good science-fiction novels—novels that satisfy on literary, philosophical, and narrative terms—have been published lately. These books are so far from being "space operas" that they may at last break down the walls of science fiction's literary ghetto.

Like the works of Heinlein and Bradbury, these novels portray characters who often have very little use for governments. At best they seem to consider them wasteful and inefficient institutions; at worst, the most direct road to slavery or mass extinction.

Bluejay Books is one of the primary publishers recently responsible for quality science fiction of this character. In the past two years, the Libertarian Futurist Society, a group of enthusiasts for science fiction that advances themes of individual liberty, nominated five Bluejay books for its Prometheus Award. If any LFS member had read John Shirley's Eclipse (volume one of A Song Called Youth) before the deadline, I predict that it too would have been nominated. Another recent Bluejay title, Marooned in Realtime, has just been nominated for next year's award.

Eclipse confronts many of the worst hobgoblins of Western culture: global war, creeping totalitarianism, and the seeming powerlessness of the individual. In Shirley's future history, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty in 1998 that restricted them to small tactical warheads and conventional weapons in case of conflict. Their first "limited" engagement devastated Western Europe. The starving survivors of once-great European cities—a few compare themselves to unwilling maggots in the corpse of civilization—are so weak and psychologically demoralized that many would have preferred total obliteration.

The terror and hopelessness of the war's aftermath proved to be the perfect medium for the machinations of the Second Alliance, an American-based neofascist organization led by a powerful "Christian" leader. The aims and methods of the Alliance make the Nazis of World War II look like bumbling idiots: Second Alliance leaders are far more subtle, secretive of their goals, clever, and, most dangerously, sincere.

At the book's outset, members of the Alliance have already infiltrated governments and businesses worldwide. They have convinced the citizens of targeted nations that foreigners, especially those with brown skin, are the cause of scarcity and conflict. In each case, Alliance goals are skillfully presented as a national movement, conceived and directed from inside.

Fighting the Second Alliance is a sometimes motley, and often very intelligent, group of men and women who have only one thing in common—they know that human lives and human freedom won't be worth a spit in the wind if the Second Alliance completes its takeover. Shirley introduces his "good guys" one by one. We meet them in a gutted high-rise in Amsterdam, in "Admin" quarters in an orbiting space colony, and in a "mini-mono" (future-punk gone bad) bar on an artificial island in the Atlantic. Steinfeld, the New Resistance leader, gathers them up (a few fall in his lap) and trains them to become freedom fighters.

But the way the Second Alliance is foiled—as ingenious, as just, as wonderful as it is—has less to do with Steinfeld and more to do with the effect of music on the human soul. There is probably no way for a reviewer to write that without sounding silly, but there it is, and it works. One cautionary note: if you loathe rock and roll, I suggest you substitute a concert violinist and a Stradivarius for Rickenharp and his Telecaster. It would work just as well, if on different people.

Eclipse functions well on its own; it has a beginning, an end, and no small amount of satisfaction in between. It is impossible, however, not to anticipate volume two of A Song Called Youth—Eclipse Penumbra—due out this spring. Part of this anticipation is just a reader's reaction to a good novel: one is unwilling to give up interesting characters after living with them, however vicariously, for a time. But another part is what science-fiction author Norman Spinrad calls "something that all natural men and women crave in their heart of hearts in one form or another unless they are totally spiritually dead, namely to transcend, if only for a moment or the length of a book, time, space, and mortality and contemplate some credible vision of one's destiny in the universe entire." For me it is a desire to visualize our future (and our children's future) in some other way than as victims of merciless governments, nuclear war, global terrorism, or killer pollution. If there can be more, if there can be something better, I want to know about it, plan for it, help it happen.

Vernor Vinge takes this desire to see the future several steps further. Marooned in Realtime is the sequel to Vinge's 1984 novel, The Peace War, a beautifully crafted book about an enforced peace. To recapitulate, scientists at Lawrence Livermore invent the "bobbler," a device that creates a perfectly spherical, mirrored artifact—a bobble. Bobbles can instantly surround a weapon, a munitions factory, a capitol building. They are impervious even to heat, light, or nuclear explosion. After the first one pops, it is discovered that bobbles are also a sort of one-way time machine. Everything inside, including humans, is kept in perfect stasis as long as the bobble is intact. In the name of world security, the Peace Authority bobbles any evidence of advanced technology. Out of necessity, illicit subcultures create a technological and pharmaceutical underground that finally overthrows the Peacers.

As fascinating as The Peace War is, it contains one monumental disappointment. At the book's end, some of the main characters discuss the kind of government they hope to institute now that the Peacers have been overthrown, and they long, wistfully, for the present-day U.S. government. Well, it would be an improvement over the Peacers, but I would have expected more of them.

Marooned contains no flaws of that kind; either Vinge or his characters had a change of heart. At one point, in fact, Marooned hero Wil Brierson asks himself, "Could there really be a situation so weird that he would advocate government? He felt like a Victorian pushing sodomy." And at the end of Marooned's 21st century, New Mexico, the last remaining government, finds that it cannot compete with the very successful "ungoverned lands" except as a sort of amusement park. Tourists come to pay taxes, vote, and observe a real Congress, just like their grandparents had done.

Of course, this turn of events makes the president of New Mexico feel a little too much like Rodney Dangerfield. So he and a hundred followers bobble themselves 500 years into the future where they hope to get a little more respect, and they find…no one. But more about that later.

Marooned is fascinating because it can be looked at on three levels. The first is as a science-fiction detective story that is summarized neatly on the dust jacket: Everyone who is still bobbled while the rest of the human race disappears eventually rendezvous 50 million years in the future in order to establish a viable colony and save the human species. One of their number kills a charismatic leader, and detective Brierson must try to find the killer's identity. On a second level is a deeper and more complex problem: can 500 of Earth's most troublesome species put aside their power lusts long enough to build a technologically functional, genetically viable, and coercion-free society? On a third level—and this is what got Vinge to write the book in the first place—what happened to the rest of humanity in the mid-23rd century?

Vinge and many scientists postulate an increasing rate of technological growth and discovery, and this in our lifetimes. What happens to humanity, Vinge asks, after several centuries (or, more likely, several decades) of exponential growth? He, and we, must assume here that we won't blow ourselves up first and that we learn to moderate our population growth, control disease, and limit pollution. In his afterword, as well as in the novel, Vinge predicts a "singularity," some change or metamorphosis in the human animal that we can't foresee but may live through.

Has this metamorphosis happened to extraterrestrial species, and is that why we hear no signs of intelligent life in the universe? Can we live long enough, and well enough, to find out?

Victoria Varga is the editor of Prometheus, the newsletter of the Libertarian Futurist Society.