Monday, 30 April 2012

Influences on "SPECTRE"


The word "spectre" has a literary history. Marx and Engels famously wrote, "A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism." (1) Echoing this Marxist literary flourish but from elsewhere on the political spectrum, James Bond fought both SPECTRE and Communism. Ian Fleming, apparently fascinated by the word "spectre," used it three times. One criminal organization was based in "Spectreville," an American ghost town. Another was called SPECTRE, an acronym for "Special Executive for..." etc. A deciphering machine was called the SPEKTOR.  In Fleming's novels, the SPEKTOR pre-existed SPECTRE but, in one film, was re-named LEKTOR to avoid confusion with SPECTRE because that organization planned to steal that machine. SPECTRE wanted the SPEKTOR/LEKTOR.

My proposed SPECTRE is, like Marx's "spectre," Communist in the original meaning of the word and, like Fleming's SPECTRE, an organization to be regarded as evil at least by some. In this case, an appropriate acronym was easy to construct. Fortunately, "Socialist Party," or "Parties," is SP and it is easy to list the names of a planet and several moons: Earth, Callisto etc. The question of the precise meaning of the acronym gives some scope for deliberate misdirection about the location of Party cells. There is a moon called Enceladus and an asteroid as well as a moon called Rhea.

Future Histories

In Robert Heinlein's Future History, The Man Who Sold The Moon and The Green Hills Of Earth show the capitalist development of Earth and the Solar System, Revolt In 2100 shows a successful revolution and its aftermath, Methuselah's Children shows the flight of the persecuted Howard Families from the Solar System and Orphans Of The Sky shows a human community that has traveled far beyond the Solar System. My proposed future history is derivative both in concept and in content.

Poul Anderson's Harvest Of Stars future history shows the flight of free humanity from the Solar System when Artificial Intelligence takes over the System. In American science fiction, flight to the stars is the ultimate symbol of freedom although long periods inside a metal spaceship might be seen as the antithesis of freedom and it is no longer regarded as likely that habitable environments will easily be found on arrival. However, a community that crosses an interstellar distance must take its environment with it. I imagine the capitalist exiles as finding energy sources and constructing vast structures in the Outer System and in interstellar space. If they do reach a nearby System, then they are unlikely to find there either habitable or inhabited planets.

Heinlein's story about interplanetary exploitation is called "Logic of Empire." Asimov's characters experience the Fall of one Galactic Empire and aim to build a Second. Anderson's Dominic Flandry delays the Fall of a Terran Empire. Brian Cox in "The Wonders of the Solar System" on British television, poetically described the Solar System as the Sun's Empire. "Solar Empire" is an appropriate name for the capitalists opposed by SPECTRE.

Asimov's Second Foundation, building his Second Empire, applies a science of society to populations and a science of mind to individuals. In A SPECTRE Is Haunting Europa, the "science of society" is Marxism and the "science of mind" is either yoga or Zen. In the Foundation Trilogy, the psychohistorical Plan worked only if the population was unaware of its details whereas Marxists envisage the laboring population as becoming actively aware of its own historical role. The Second Foundationers' mental powers enabled them to control others whereas yoga is control of the yogi's own thought processes.

The future histories were presented as versions of our future. Space travel began in the twentieth century and continued in the twenty first. Since this has not happened, I envisage A SPECTRE Is Haunting Europa not as a possible future but as an alternative past. It is, or would be if it were written, a critical re-examination of earlier future histories.

(1) The Communist Manifesto. 

"A SPECTRE Is Haunting Europa"

Notes towards a future history:

(i) A technology that enables people to live and work throughout the Solar System, generating energy from the materials available, while recognizing that the System is electromagnetically and gravitationally a single environment, not merely a number of bodies with empty spaces between them. Colonies on the outer satellites.

(ii) Stories showing the exploitation of the System over several decades with political opposition symbolized by a stylized spectral figure occasionally drawn on walls or machinery. Capitalist conglomerates with names like "Solar Empire" and private space navies.
(iii) Philosophical debate between scientific materialists and Sol-worshippers. New art forms in low gravity environments. Speculative literature about an alternative history in which, although space was probed, humanity itself remained Earth-bound in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.

(iv) Large-scale industrial production, economic slumps and military conflicts. Continued co-existence of wealth and poverty although it is technologically possible to produce abundance for all.

(v)  A novel describing a successful workers' revolution in the industrial centers of Earth, Callisto, Titan, Rhea and Europa. Socialist Parties in these centers uniting Bolshevik revolutionaries and "karma yogis" against the exploitation of humanity and the destruction of the Solar environment. Sympathetic characters on both sides of the conflict. Scientists who try to maintain their research while ignoring political controversies as much as possible. Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries who respect science and do not try to annex asteroids occupied only by astronomers, physicists etc. Others unleashing unnecessary destruction.

(vi) Flight of capitalists in self-sustaining mobile environments towards the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. The capitalists and their followers believe that the successful revolutionaries will fight among themselves and that this conflict will be resolved by the imposition of a dictatorship and an end to all freedom in the Inner System.

(vii) Further works showing an emancipated society in the Inner System and the continued struggles and achievements of free enterprisers in the space between Sol and Proxima Centauri. Space is big enough for diverse civilizations that no longer interact. Humanity becomes more than one species.   

Saturday, 28 April 2012


Many aliens in sf have heads with recognisable faces, minimally two eyes above and a mouth, for drinking, eating and speaking, below. A nose and visible ears are optional but usually present. Ears may be pointed. Star Trek has Spock of Vulcan and Poul Anderson's History of Technic Civilisation has Aycharaych of Chereion, although Anderson does not commit the absurdity of suggesting that a Chereionite (descended from flightless birds) could interbreed with a Terrestrial. 

A fictional alien is generated, e.g., by putting a cat-like head onto a humanoid body. Thus, terrestrial features are projected onto extraterrestrial organisms as, in the past, onto supernatural beings. Closely linked to recognisable faces is easy communication. Like us, the aliens not only have faces but also use them for communication. Intelligible sounds emanating from mouths are supplemented by tones of voice and facial expressions as well as by familiar body language. We can learn each other's spoken languages. We may be friends, enemies or trading partners but in any case we understand each other. It is harder to imagine easy communication and friendship with faceless beings.

Probably all that can be said about alien intelligences is that, if they exist, they must have:

organs for perception and communication;
limbs for locomotion and manipulation;
orifices for ingestion and excretion. 

Anything lacking these functions is inanimate. Static, plant-like organisms do not interact with their environment enough to need to think about it so no motion or manipulation probably means no intelligence. Organs, limbs and orifices need not be immediately recognisable by us. They need not be organised in a way that we would recognise as bipedal, quadrupled, winged etc. The brain might be protected within the body or brain functions might be dispersed throughout the body. Organs etc should be identifiable by their functions if we have enough time to interact with their owners but their initial response to us might be fear, hostility, aggression, indifference etc.

 A bodily surface need not resemble skin, fur, feathers, rhinoceros hide etc. It will not have evolved in an exactly Earth-like environment. Too many factors could differ:

the mass of the planet, hence the strength of its gravity;
distance from its sun;
nature of that sun;
whether the "sun" is one of the fifty per cent of stars that have one or more stellar companions which might prevent the formation of any planets or at least of planets with stable orbits;
rate of rotation;
axial tilt;
the precise mixture of gasses in the atmosphere;
radiation levels;
the amount of free liquid on the surface;
whether chemistry on the planet is right- or left-handed;
whether there is a plant like grass that grows across the surface and that can be cropped down to ground level without being killed;
whether there is a large satellite whose gravity can thin out the atmosphere of the primary and can also cause tides, facilitating the evolution of amphibians and thus the transition of life from sea to land;
whether a quadruped climbed into equivalents of trees, stayed there long enough to develop opposable thumbs and came back down to the surface with forelimbs freed for manipulation;
whether such a biped was solitary and taciturn or social, thus potentially linguistic;
whether manipulation and communication could have developed otherwise;
whether predators, an ice age, a solar flare or a comet wiped out a promising species before it developed intelligence;
whether such a species has developed civilisation, then technology, and managed not to destroy itself long enough to contact intelligences in other solar systems.

The Burgess Shale implies that a small difference in environmental conditions could cause large differences in organic forms.

A long series of contingent events and processes was necessary to generate technological civilisation on Earth. Is it probable that such events and processes have been duplicated or paralleled elsewhere in the observable or even just the reachable part of the universe? There is as yet no positive evidence despite regular observation of heavenly bodies and, specifically, a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The expanding universe needed to reach a certain age, therefore size, before stellar fusion had synthesised, from the primordial hydrogen and helium, the heavier elements necessary for life. Thus, despite cosmic size, it is possible that we are the first intelligences. The discovery of several systems with super-Jovian planets near their primaries contradicts an earlier idea that the Solar System was a model for the formation of planetary systems, with at least one terrestroid planet in the temperate zone near the Sun and gas giants further out. A single datum from another planetary system is worth more than endless speculation.

Other optimistic sf premises are: 

easy faster than light interstellar travel;
humanly colonisable extra-solar planets (albeit sometimes requiring special equipment, precautions or dietary supplements).

Although I value Anderson's History, I doubt that our descendants will travel quickly or easily to other stellar systems there to meet equivalents of Merseians, Ythrians, Scothani, Donnarians, Cynthians, Wodenites, Chereionites, Diomedeans, Ivanhoans, Ikranakans, Starkadians (two species), Talwinians (two species), Didonians (three species symbiotically forming one intelligence), Martians (in this case, extra-solar aliens colonising a solar planet) etc. The non-humanoid Ymirites and Baburites might be less unlikely. Although many sf aliens may be as impossible as the gods of fantasy, we still enjoy such fiction, particularly when it is brought to life by Anderson's prose. The old quarter of a city on a colonised planet has:

  "...a brawling, polyglot, multiracial population, much of it transient, drifting in and out of the tides of space." (1)

Buildings are low because of Imhotepan gravity. The multifarious wares of the market place include a screen displaying:

" exquisite dance recorded beneath the Seas of Yang and Yin, where the vaz-Siravo [Starkadian refugees] had been settled." (2)

"Folk were mainly human, but it was unlikely that many had seen Mother Terra. The planets where they were born and bred had marked them. Residents of Imhotep were necessarily muscular and never fat." (3)

The view point character hears (Space) Navy men complaining about "Merseian bastards", then rushes to greet the first Wodenite, a giant centauroid, that she has ever seen. Such multi-species scenes are one glory of old sf.
(1) Anderson, Poul, The Game of Empire, New York, 1985, p. 1.
(2)  ibid, p. 3.
(3) ibid, pp. 3-4.


Brief Comments on Dune

Dune seems to exist in five forms:

the original six novels (a trilogy, a sequel and an unfinished second trilogy);
an Encyclopaedia by Willis McNelly;
a series of prequels and interstitial novels by the original author's son and a collaborator, both successful independent sf writers;
a film;
a TV series.

There seem to be four continuities here. There is an unwritten rule that any screen adaptation of a prose or graphic fiction is set in a continuity different from that of the original and there are two independent screen adaptations in this case. Further, the Encyclopaedia and the later novels are consistent with the original novels but not with each other.

Like Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry series, Dune presents a more colourful and imaginative account of an interstellar empire than Isaac Asimov's Foundation. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson write better than Frank Herbert who often switched between points of view in the course of a single dialogue. For story purposes, the series imaginatively projects past social relationships into a technological future although that is not serious futuristic speculation.

Herbert's series lost focus, I think. In the later novels particularly, each brief chapter recounted a dialogue between two or three leading characters with the main action apparently occurring elsewhere. The central characters could foresee possible futures and apparently steered mankind towards a preferable future but it was not clear to the reader, or at least to this reader, what that future was. Curiously, the writing, often rather dense, became strangely vivid towards the end of either Heretics of Dune or Chapterhouse: Dune (the last two novels by Frank Herbert). The purpose of the later series seems to be to prolong the series for as long as possible. I could not see the point of the trilogy set in earlier generations, The Butlerian Jihad etc, and stopped reading somewhere in the first or second novel. Paul of Dune, which I am currently reading (May 2010), is an easy read like any new novel set in a familiar fictitious setting, like Star Trek.   

Future History Chronologies

In Ensign Flandry by Poul Anderson, the Terran Empire is over four hundred years old. (1) According to Sandra Miesel's "Chronology of Technic Civilisation", the Empire was founded about 2700 and Ensign Flandry is set in 3019, only about three hundred and nineteen years later. (2) However, Anderson's texts warrant no chronological precision. When the Chronology was being compiled, an editorial decision decreed that Dominic Flandry was born in 3000. Since Ensign Flandry does clearly state that its title character is nineteen, the date of 3019 for the novel automatically followed. (3)

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov and Earthman, Come Home by James Blish are set in remote futures with no dates given. When, later, precise dates were specified, the effect was to shorten the histories implied by the earlier narratives. The Time Chart of Larry Niven's Known Space future history states that the dates as given in one story must be seen as erroneous. Robert Heinlein's Methuselah's Children and Time Enough For Love disagree about Lazarus Long's age. However, I do not accept Time Enough For Love as a valid addition to Heinlein's Future History.

Some generalisations emerge from these observations:

future histories usually are not pre-planned;
when a work has been published, its author becomes another reader with a fallible memory;
authors imagine longer periods when writing narratives than when compiling chronologies.

(1) Anderson, Poul, Ensign Flandry, London, 1976, p. 104.
(2) Miesel, Sandra, "Chronology of Technic Civilisation" IN Anderson, Poul, The Rise of the Terran Empire, Riverdale, NY, 2009, pp. 477-478.
(3) Ensign Flandry, p. 32.

SF Themes

Eleven Themes

HG Wells pioneered time travel, space travel, alien invasion, future history and invisibility.
Other writers address telepathy, teleportation and immortality.
Isaac Asimov appropriated robots and the idea of an applicable science of society.
(His future history incorporates time travel and "psychohistory," the science of society, and presents an immortal space-traveling telepathic robot.)
Robert Heinlein's future history introduced the "generation ship" (multi-generation interstellar spaceship) idea.


Interviewed on British radio, Asimov described robots as "mobile computers." However, brains are conscious of their environments and linguistic brains are additionally conscious of meanings whereas computers merely manipulate symbols according to rules and thus are conscious neither of an environment nor of the meanings of the symbols. Asimov's robots have artificial linguistic brains, therefore are not computers.

Asimov formulated Laws of Robotics, then subverted them for story purposes. Pre-Asimov robots were Menace or Pathos. Asimov's were Engineering. But he returned to Menace in "That Thou Art Mindful Of Him", to Pathos in "The Bicentennial Man" and to both in "Robot Dreams" where the robot who dreams suddenly becomes both threat and victim. He says, "I was that man," and is destroyed. (1) I discuss human-robot interactions and interpretations of the Laws in two articles here and here.

I have never seen Otto Binder's earlier I, Robot although I have been told that it is a series that does not develop. Asimov's I, Robot begins with a household servant, continues with several experimental robots and culminates when a humanoid robot (possibly) holds elected office and also when giant robot Brains control the global economy for the good of humanity in accordance with First Law. "Robots as Menace" returns in a later collection when the Brains, regarding self-determination as the greatest human good, have phased themselves out but have been succeeded by the Georges who, programmed to prioritie obedience to the ablest, most intelligent human beings, come to disregard the difference between flesh and metal and therefore to regard themselves as the human beings who should be obeyed in accordance with the Second Law of Robotics, now Humanics. 
If, like most, though not all, of Asimov's robot stories, "That Thou Art Mindful Of Him" is incorporated into his future history, then we know that the later history contains not a robotic dictatorship but secret guidance of historical processes by the benign humanoid Robot Daneel Olivaw who, concealing his robotic nature because human beings would reject help from an artifact, plans to transform humanity into a telepathic collective whose "good" will be single, concrete and easier to achieve. Because men programmed robots to value human beings, Daneel now persuades humanity to value itself. Asimov simplified history but was a master of dialectics, the interpenetration of opposites. We have come a long way from Robby the faithful servant to Daneel the benevolent manipulator and Asimov would probably have taken us further if he had lived longer.

Immortality etc

Several future histories incorporate immortality. Robert Heinlein's Future History introduced the generation ship idea and revealed that an immortal man had lived right through the History - and, before that, through the twentieth century in which we lived while reading the series. Poul Anderson's first future history, modeled on Heinlein's, addressed Heinleinian themes (a generation ship and an immortality that becomes pointless because it requires total isolation) and Asimovian themes (an unemployed robot and an applied social science that prevents mutiny in the generation ship but fails to prevent revolution on Earth).
In James Blish's Okies history, antiagathics make generation ships unnecessary and preserve some interstellar nomads until the end of the universe. In Anderson's The Boat Of A Million Years, a few immortal mutants live through recorded history into an indefinite future but I prefer Anderson's treatment of artificial immortality in World Without Stars. In Larry Niven's A World Out Of Time, chemicals associated with aging are teleported out of the body. Thus, immortality meets teleportation and the instant elsewhere is the young forever.
My point here is that sf resembles an extended seminar with authors presenting innovative deductions from shared premises. I briefly discuss immortality in fantasy and sf in "Immortality" here.


In Superman versus Aliens, an alien is teleported from inside Superman's body. One X Man is a teleport. In Kenneth Bulmer's Behold The Stars, aliens at war with Earth sabotage interstellar matter transmitters so that Earthmen arrive without the will to fight. In Anderson's The Enemy Stars, fuel is teleported to interstellar spaceships and crews teleport between Earth and the ships. One of Heinlein's Scribner Juveniles, Tunnel In The Sky, features interstellar teleportation instead of the usual faster than light spacecraft. In Star Trek, "transporters" make scenes with shuttle craft unnecessary. Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! presents a society in which most people can teleport.


Wells' Invisible Man was, like Mr Hyde, a pre-comics super-villain. Invisibility has become a comic book super power (see "Comics and Science Fiction" here) and occurs in CS Lewis' juvenile fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia.


Anderson's character Dominic Flandry learns how to lie to a telepath. Blish presents four different scientific rationales for telepathy. In Heinlein's Scribner Juvenile, Time For The Stars, the confirmed instantaneity of telepathy between twins on Earth and in an interstellar spaceship facilitates the development of instantaneous spacecraft. Bester's The Demolished Man describes a telepathic society. Telepathy is big in Olaf Stapledon's works, discussed below. In CS Lewis' "The Shoddy Lands," Lewis as character enters another character's consciousness. I have heard of but not read other major works on telepathy. Readers of this article will fill the gaps.
Future Histories

A British future history is a fictitious historical text book whereas an American future history is a series of stories and novels set in successive periods. Olaf Stapledon recounts Martian invasions and Neptunian colonization but as a historian, not as a novelist, whereas Robert Heinlein's Future History includes a story about financing the first Moon landing and a novel about the Second American Revolution. American future histories can be constructed either "inclusively" or "exclusively." See "American Future Histories" here and "CS Lewis and James Blish" here.

Future histories develop. Wells covers a single period and historical turning point whereas Stapledon covers the entire future. In A Short History of the Future, the little known RC Churchill combines narratives from Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Vonnegut etc. Anderson's Psychotechnic History imitated Heinlein's Future History  but Anderson later constructed his Technic History by linking two existing series. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are later successors of Heinlein. In Anderson's Tales of the Flying Mountains, extra-solar colonists discuss how to teach their earlier history among the asteroids to their children. Anderson's Harvest of Stars future history covers human-AI interaction. His Genesis covers post-human, aiming to become post-cosmic, AI. In Galaxies like Grains of Sand, Brian Aldiss synthesies the British and American approaches by linking short stories with historical passages. In Genesis, Anderson synthesizes the two approaches by alternating chapters of action and dialogue with chapters narrated on Stapledonian timescales.
Four Wellsian Themes

In "CS Lewis and James Blish," I argue that:

(i) Wells' The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon, The War of the Worlds and The Shape of Things to Come pioneered time travel, space travel, alien invasion and future history, respectively;

(ii) following Wells, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men incorporates these themes and opens a tetralogy also covering past history (Last Men in London), cosmic history (Star Maker) and a contemporary evolutionary advance (Odd John);
(iii) replying to Wells and Stapledon, Lewis' Ransom Trilogy covers an interplanetary journey, a demonic invasion of a sinless planet and demonic manipulation of a Wellsian plan for the future of humanity;

(iv) like The Time Machine, Lewis' unfinished Ransom novel, "The Dark Tower," begins with a group discussion of the possibility or otherwise of time travel;

(v) thus, four works by Lewis parallel four by Wells;

(vi) following Wells and referencing Lewis, James Blish's theological trilogy, After Such Knowledge (ASK), addresses past and future science and present demons;

(vii) like Ransom, Blish's character Adolph Haertel travels to Mars in the juvenile novel, Welcome to Mars;

viii) also like Ransom, Haertel's successors travel to a sinless planet in ASK Volume III, A Case of Conscience;

(ix) like Ransom's adversaries, other Blish characters invoke and converse with demons in ASK Volume IIa, Black Easter;

(x) thus, three Blish works, including one and a half volumes of ASK, parallel Ransom;

(xi) however, Blish's Mars is scientifically accurate, his sinless planet is Godless and his demons are victorious;

(xii) thus, his informal post-Lewis trilogy is also an antithesis;

(xiii) Blish disagreed with Lewis' beliefs but respected his insights and admired his novels whereas the later writer, Philip Pullman, is not post- but anti-Lewis;

(xiv) however, Pullman's juvenile trilogy, His Dark Materials, is fantasy, not sf, and replies to Narnia, not to Ransom.

Thus, sixteen works by Wells, Stapledon, Lewis and Blish, though not by Pullman, form a conceptual sequence addressing philosophical and moral issues through sf themes. (Two related works are the earlier, unfinished version of The Time Machine, "The Chronic Argonauts," which introduces the circular causality paradox, and the earlier, unfinished version of Star Maker, Nebula Maker, which covers pre-stellar nebular history.) Wells and Stapledon present an anthropocentric alternative to Biblical-Dantean-Miltonic metaphysics. Lewis re-affirms the latter. Blish defends science, though without advocating a Wellsian scientific restructuring of society. He writes ambiguously about the supernatural in ASK Volume I, Doctor Mirabilis, and Volume III, A Case of Conscience, but imagines it as real in Volume II, Black Easter/The Day After Judgement.

These four writers reflect on man's cosmic role by showing men interacting with extraterrestrial races. Lewis alone presents such races as "unFallen" although Blish addresses this issue ambiguously in ASK III. Wellsian and Stapledonian Martians invade Earth. Stapledonian Terrestrials invade Venus and Neptune. A Lewisian demon infests Venus by possessing a space traveling scientist. Thus, Lewis subverts the alien invasion idea for theological purposes. His Ransom Volume II, Perelandra, also, though less obviously, replies to Star Maker because Ransom's Christian vision of creation contrasts with Stapledon's revelation of an aesthetically motivated but morally indifferent creator.

Although Blish's alien invasion novel, VOR, is not part of this conceptual sequence, his A Case of Conscience definitely parallels Perelandra by describing Earthmen arguing on a sinless planet. Despite this summary, the differences between Lewis' and Blish's novels are greater than their similarities. Lewis' humanly habitable sinless planet is Venus whereas Blish's is extra-solar. Lewis' Venerians are green but humanoid and immortal because unFallen whereas Blish's Lithians are reptilian and, of course, mortal. Lewis' Christian character, like Lewis an Anglican layman, fantastically confronts unequivocal evil whereas Blish's Christian character, unlike Blish a Jesuit priest, more plausibly contends with colleagues who have different points of view.

The Time Machine, The Shape of Things to Come, Last and First Men and Ransom Volume III, That Hideous Strength, all address the human future. Will humanity devolve, degenerate or remake itself? Does it need a supernatural salvation? To this second question, the Biblical tradition answers yes, Wells and Stapledon answered no, Lewis answered yes and Blish was agnostic. The other sf futures mentioned above, anthropocentric, robotic or AI-dominated, would also be unacceptable to Lewis who would find demons concealed in the technology of any society that was not theocentric.

That Hideous Strength, although not a future history, is about the future and is specifically a reply to The Shape of Things to Come and to Last and First Men. Lewis mentions Stapledon in the Preface and parodies Wells (as "Jules") in the text. Written during the war, published at the end of the war and set after the war, the novel dramatizes two alternative futures for Britain and the world. Wells and Stapledon had thought that mankind would be able to remake itself with science. Lewis replied that any supposed remaking would in fact be a technological dictatorship destroying humanity and even allowing demonic control (!) His invocation of an Arthurian past is not irrelevant but is part of his response to a Wellsian future. Black Easter, although not a reflection on the future, does end with apparent demonic control and is in memoriam CS Lewis.
In Julian May's Pliocene Exile/Intervention/Galactic Milieu sequence (one tetralogy and one trilogy with one intermediate volume):
many people become telepathic;
a few also become immortal;
one character reads Odd John;
a benign extraterrestrial intervention changes society;
a few terrestrials flee to the Pliocene only to meet malign alien invaders then;
the trilogy covers a short period of future history;
a Pliocene exile surviving until the Galactic Milieu influences the events that led to his exile;
Catholic and extraterrestrial characters present a post-Lewisian cosmic theology.

May's sequence addresses Wellsian and other sf themes and Christian theology, refers to Odd John and echoes Blish with the term "Okies" although used in a different sense. Thus, May's eight volumes can be added to the sixteen earlier volumes of this conceptual sequence which now has three British authors and two American of whom the first, Blish, moved to Britain (which may not prove much but is an interesting observation).

The four Wellsian themes also provide a template for comparing other authors' works. Most sf is post-Wellsian but not also post-Lewisian, including Blish's time travel story, "The City That Was The World," his interplanetary novel, Welcome to Mars, his alien invasion novel, VOR, and his future history, Cities in Flight. Welcome to Mars fits into the above mentioned sequence first because, as a journey to Mars story, it parallels Ransom Volume I, Out of the Silent Planet, secondly because, as hard sf, it is antithetical to Lewis' theological/mythological approach and thirdly because, although not part of ASK, it is a prequel to ASK III.

Heinlein wrote three first man on the Moon stories: his Future History version, his Scribner Juvenile version and a film version. He also wrote an alien invasion novel, The Puppet Masters, three classic statements of the time travel circular causality paradox, the original American Future History and, arguably also, a Juvenile Future History because five early Scribner Juveniles share background references with each other and with the "Green Hills of Earth" period of the (adult) Future History.

Larry Niven combined first man on the Moon with time travel in "Wrong Way Street". Logically, a future lunar explorer who finds an alien time machine and travels into the past while remaining on the Moon thus becomes the first man on the Moon. Niven addressed alien invasion with Jerry Pournelle in Footfall and is still writing a major future history. Poul Anderson wrote eight future histories, six volumes on time travel covering both circular causality and causality violation, including the sacred texts of the Time Patrol, a novel in which a time dilated spaceship outlasts the universe and a short story in which militarily superior humanoid aliens sell their services to the highest bidding terrestrial government, thus conquering Earth economically. Again, the premises are familiar but not always the conclusions.

Time Travel 
Because time time travel distorts the order of events, it is difficult to write about. An astronaut who will travel to Mars has not yet arrived on Mars whereas a chrononaut who will travel to the eleventh century arrived in the eleventh century a thousand years ago. A ten year round trip to Mars equals a ten year absence from Earth whereas, if a chrononaut who has spent ten years in the eleventh century returns to his departure point, then he loses no time in his home era. If history books do not record a chrononaut's activities in 1918, then they will not start to record such activities after he has departed to 1918. These points may seem simple but conversation about them is not.

A fellow sf fan once argued that, since we do not know how time travel would work, it is pointless to argue about how sf writers present it. However, we do know whether a conclusion follows from a premise. If the Enterprise crew have traveled from the twenty second to the twentieth century without loss of memory, then it cannot be assumed later in the same script that, if a man is returned to an earlier time, then he automatically forgets everything that he has experienced since that time. Writers reasoning consistently from stated premises would improve the quality of time travel fiction. See "The Logic of Time Travel" here.


Listing themes helps us to classify and compare sf works. Such classifications and comparisons can be extremely comprehensive but never complete.

(Added Feb 2012: In There Will Be Time, Poul Anderson linked time travel to the generation ship idea in a way that I had thought of but was not able to write a book about: if time travelers enter a generation ship before it leaves Earth, travel future-wards within the ship, visit its destination, then return past-wards within the ship, then they can report the outcome of the mission before its departure.

(In his Martian Trilogy, Michael Moorcock linked time travel to interplanetary adventure. Edgar Rice Burrough's character John Carter had astrally traveled to a humanly inhabited Mars. Moorcock, pastiching Burroughs but also knowing that Mars is not humanly inhabited, made his character Michael Kane time travel to Mars at a time when it was inhabited, before humanity had migrated from Mars to Earth.) 

1. Asimov, Isaac. Robot Dreams, Ace Books, 1986. 

Friday, 27 April 2012



“Immortality” in science fiction (sf) can mean just that someone is immune to disease and old age but not also to accident or violence. He is not indestructible. By contrast, in Neil Gaiman’s fantasy series, The Sandman, the source of Hob Gadling’s immortality is supernatural, not chemical or genetic. The anthropomorphic personification of Death has agreed not to come for Hob. Consequently, he enjoys, or endures, more than just perpetual good health and middle age: he can be immersed, burnt and deprived of food but cannot be drowned, burnt or starved to death.

Hob’s immortality differs from that of Bernie Capax who is older – he remembers the smell of mammoths – but who meets Death when a wall collapses. Bernie then learns that his soul has a different kind of immortality. The fantasy Sandman presents the full panorama of Heaven, Hell and states between. Although Hob, like a few other deathless men, welcomes his physical immortality, The Sandman presents two other characters who, having become physically indestructible, long for extinction, the mythical Orpheus and the super-heroine Element Girl. (All mythologies and many comic book characters co-exist in this series of “graphic novels.”)

Fictional vampires have the same problem of living indefinitely and needing to conceal their longevity but we know how they can be killed.


Although there are many other examples, I will mention briefly just twelve instances of sf immortality. Of the three Campbell future historians, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and James Blish, two addressed the idea. In Heinlein’s Future History, the Howard Families breed for longevity. After a few generations, they live well into their second century. The oldest member present chairs meetings. Like Hob and similar characters, they practice what they call the Masquerade: to conceal the fact of longevity, they periodically move elsewhere and change their identities. Later, public disclosure of the Howards’ longevity inspires a research project that finds a means of indefinitely extending anyone’s life span. Such artificial means of longevity exist in other works to be mentioned below but, first, there is another idea in the Future History.

An early Howard, Lazarus Long, lives indefinitely, for millennia, and becomes “the Senior”, the oldest member of the human race. Thus, he is a mutation who need not have been born to Howard Family parents. “Lazarus Long” is a Masquerade name. His birth name, Woodrow Wilson Smith, is a clue to his real age. In The Boat Of A Million Years by Poul Anderson, a small group of such mutations survives through recorded history and into an indefinite future. Crossing interstellar space, they split up but plan to meet again in another million years. 

Of course, Anderson could not possibly have written what these characters would be like after a million years. By that time, either they would all have died in accidents or those who yet survived would have become different characters. How much would they even remember? Each of them had already preserved his or her sanity by somehow marshaling inner resources in order to resist being overwhelmed by accumulating memories. By living that long, they perform functions that are usually performed by successive organisms without a memory accumulation problem. Death is the natural mechanism for memory deletion.

In Asimov’s future history, extra-solar colonists, inhabiting a germ-free environment, extend their life spans well into a second century and usually record their age in decades, not in years. A year becomes more like a month on that time scale. The only immortal being in this future history is a humaniform robot, not a human being. Thus, Robot Daneel Olivaw, having been introduced in the Robot novels, appears again millennia later in the Foundation novels which had originally been an unrelated series.

In James Blish’s Cities In Flight future history, antigravity and antiagathics make interstellar travel possible. Star-traveling characters live for centuries although we only realize later in the main volume that so much time has elapsed since the beginning of the book. Logically, some of the characters happen to live until the end of the universe although, for story purposes, that ending is brought much closer to the present than we would have expected. In fact, the date given, 4004 AD, contradicts suggestions in the previous volume that several millennia have elapsed during the interstellar period. Despite antiagathics, everyone dies but new universes begin.

In Larry Niven’s Known Space future history, “boosterspice” performs the same function as antiagathics. Further, protector-stage humanoids are immortal, although at the expense of no longer being “breeders”. However, in his alternative future history, A World Out Of Time, Niven imagines an elegant alternative source of immortality. If teleportation is possible, then the chemicals associated with aging can be teleported out of the body. Thus, the instant elsewhere is a young forever. It is perhaps a more acceptable form of immortality than another in the same book which arrests physical development before puberty, producing immortal children who must preserve mortal adults for breeding.

In Anderson’s Psychotechnic History, modeled directly on Heinlein’s Future History, it is suggested that an organism can be made immortal only by shielding it from all radiation, thus by incarcerating it underground, consequently producing a human being with an extremely limited experience and mental range. Scientists care for an immortal hospital patient: a dead end. Appropriately, this story is called “What Shall It Profit?” In Anderson's Technic History, “antisenescence” explains why Dominic Flandry remains active and might yet have more children although he is nearly seventy. However, antisenescence delays aging but does not prevent death.

By contrast, in Anderson’s World Without Stars, every human being uses “the antithanatic.” A few immortals lead changeless lives on planetary surfaces or in orbiting space stations but many trade and explore endlessly between galaxies which are made accessible by a series of instantaneous jumps in a spaceship. Many memories are artificially deleted to prevent cerebral overloading but it is necessary to preserve the overall pattern of the past and the important details. Hugh Valland, three thousand years old, remembers Mary O’Meara who died young in 2037 just before she would have had access to antithanatic. He revisits her grave on Earth as if revisiting a living woman and recounts experiences on many planets but must also have deleted many intermediate memories. He has somehow made sense of his indefinite longevity by focusing on one set of memories.

At any given time, what exactly does Hugh Valland remember? First, he has normal memories of whatever he has experienced since his most recent memory deletion. Secondly, he preserves vivid memories of Mary O’Meara. Thirdly, he remembers the pattern of his life since leaving Mary. Fourthly, within this pattern, he has perhaps a natural life span’s worth of memories of experiences in space, on other planets and back on Earth. However, he must have had to delete far more details than he has been able to retain. He maintains his purpose and remains celibate by focusing on ever fresh memories of one person. Only at the end when we realize that that one person is long dead do we doubt Valland’s sanity.

It seems appropriate to begin a brief consideration of fictitious immortality with the fantasy character Hob Gadling and to end with the sf character Hugh Valland.


An Unexpected Future History

Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw is a series of plays set in successive future periods. Therefore, this work is a British future history like The Shape of Things to Come by HG Wells, Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, A Short History of the Future by RC Churchill and Galaxies like Grains of Sand by Brian Aldiss. Like the novel, Methuselah’s Children, in Robert Heinlein’s (American) Future History, Back to Methuselah addresses the issue of the prolongation of human life. Like Last and First Men, it ends in a far future with an ultimate evolutionary stage of humanity.

Back to Methuselah is not classified as a science fiction (sf) future history partly, of course, because Shaw is not classified as an sf writer but mainly because of its different medium: stage drama, not prose fiction. However, screen drama makes original contributions to sf and Karel Capek’s stage play, R.U.R., contributed the term “robot. Star Trek, whose complete canon comprises both TV and cinema screen drama plus both prose and graphic fiction, approaches future history status and includes the TV episode, “Requiem for Methuselah,” about the Biblical Methuselah surviving into the interstellar period. Thus, there is a curious “Methuselan” conceptual trilogy of Shaw, Heinlein and Star Trek. The titles form a sequence.

Immortality, whether mutational or medical, is a major sf theme covered, for example, in One Million Tomorrows by another Shaw (Bob), This Immortal by Roger Zelazny and “Now That Man Has Gone” by James Blish. For a brief account of immortality in future histories by Heinlein, Blish, Poul Anderson and Larry Niven, see “Immortality”, here.

Religion in Future Histories

My James Blish Appreciation site includes an article comparing the Christian CS Lewis with the agnostic James Blish. Each wrote a theological trilogy and the latter’s refers to the former’s. Also, Blish was a future historian and Lewis’ theological trilogy had replied to earlier secularist future histories by Wells and Stapledon.

Secularist future historians show mankind making its own future without divine help. They also often show religion surviving as an irrational social force, either opposing science or cynically manipulated as a means to social control. Lewis disagreed. In order to address this full sequence of ideas, my article, “CS Lewis and James Blish,” summarises religious and anthropocentric themes in British future histories by Wells, Stapledon and others before considering Lewis, then summarises similar themes in American future histories by Blish and others before considering Blish in relation to Lewis.

The section on American future histories grew as it was written and maybe should have become a separate article that would have been called “Religion in Future Histories.” Heinlein, Asimov, Blish, Anderson, Niven, Pournelle, Burroughs, Simak, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Herbert, Cordwainer Smith and no doubt others all present futures for religion. For a summary and some comments, please see “CS Lewis and James Blish.”

One further comment here: there are different kinds of Christians. Lewis did not believe that only he and his co-religionists were saved or that everyone else was damned. He was a Professor of English Literature whose own fiction incorporated Greek mythology. His theological trilogy presents an Armageddon that is millennia hence and that is clearly mythological in content. Thus, he was not the same kind of Christian as the authors of the recent Left Behind series.

A Reply To The Authors Of The Left Behind Series

No one can possibly deserve endless torment, let alone everyone. Society is obliged to take action against convicted murderers. We can imprison them and can debate the justice or efficacy of execution but torture must be unacceptable. Endless torture, if such were possible, would be a punishment worse than the crime. Some Christian apologists argue that Hell is not divinely inflicted punishment but freely chosen deprivation. I reply to the free will defence elsewhere and summarize the reply below but here I address Evangelicals who do believe in literal fire.

Even if the “original sin” doctrine were acceptable, what would it entail? First, no one chooses to inherit original sin. Secondly, it, or at least a combination of factors which, for purposes of the present argument, can be labeled as “original sin,” influence our behavior before we have become able to reflect on the morality of that behavior. It follows that we are caught in a situation that is not of our making and that we need help towards moral development, not the ultimatum: “Believe or be damned.”

We judge ourselves when we reflect that our actions have been reprehensible and that we must live differently. This realization is an acknowledgement that we are morally improvable, not that we are damnable or accountable to a creator who, if he existed, would be accountable to us. Any omnipotent creator would be able to make his creatures both willing and able to act rightly. Thus, they would always freely act rightly but would not be automata. 

A finite fellow creature can advocate courage and honesty but an omnipotent creator could have made us brave and honest. A pacifist saint is physically capable but morally incapable of kicking a dog that bites him. If we know the saint, then we confidently predict that he will not kick the dog but do not think that he lacks free will when he fulfills our prediction.

There are other philosophical problems with Evangelicalism. The creator before the creation would be a self without other which is like a square without sides. Is endless experience even possible? Can memories accumulate indefinitely? A subject no longer able to remember his earliest experiences would effectively be a different subject as we are in relation to our ancestors. How could temporary suffering by one sinless person negate the alleged necessity of endless suffering for the sinful many?

666 is the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of the name Nero so Revelation is about the Neronic persecution. It is not about still future events and there would be no reason to believe it even if it were.

As long as states exist, they should be secular institutions, treating everyone within their borders equally. Therefore, there should be no Jewish state. Israel is built by men, not by God, and will be as transient as any other human institution. Anglo-Israel theorists believed that the British were the ten lost tribes and that the British Empire, fulfilling the Promise to Abraham, would last forever. In Engels’ phrase, Christian Zionism is a “fantastic reflection” of current US strategic interests.

Matthew and Luke wrote that Jesus was born in Bethlehem only because they believed that it had been prophesied that the Messiah would be born there. It was prophesied that a young woman would bear a son to be called Emmanuel but not that a virgin would bear a son to be called Jesus and this prophesy addressed then current events, not a future Messiah.

No Pope would lead an ecumenical movement denying the importance of religious disagreements or affirming the divinity of all humanity. I do not defend Catholicism but nor would I insult it by suggesting that.

In the Left Behind scenario, it is possible to like, admire and respect a man, yet “fear for his soul.” Thus, there is a dichotomy between the person and something else supposed to be him but described as “his.” Christians sometimes claim that their religion addresses persons, not abstractions. One Rapture FAQ writer’s response to 9/11 was not to ask how to prevent terrorism but concern that some of the deceased may have been waverers who had not yet committed to Christ so now are lost. This is a diversion from reality.

Does the god who tries to save souls then dismiss them so casually? Can’t he prevent an explosion, send more persuasive messengers or allow spiritual development to continue in the hereafter, assuming there is one? The Evangelical deity sounds as limited, unimaginative and narrow minded as many of his disciples but then what we hear about him is filtered to us through their understanding.

If we are after all in the hands of a mad god who condemns all those who have never heard of him and all those who honestly disbelieve that he exists, then all we can do is continue to enjoy this life and to act on this Earth. But such a god might favor Catholics, Muslims or Hindu fundamentalists instead of Evangelicals.

Despite their offensive theology, the Left Behind books are well-written futuristic fictions which is why I classify this discussion under “Science Fiction,” not under “Christian Origins” or “Philosophy.” I refuse to buy the books new but acquired Volumes I and II from an Oxfam bookseller who describes them as “evil” and usually bins them on arrival. They are the only books that he will not sell. Thus, he does sell anything else Christian whereas a nearby Evangelical bookseller would not sell anything “occult." I will be interested to read parts of Volumes XII and XIII because these describe Jesus’ return, when he effortlessly kills all his surviving enemies, and his thousand year Reich, when those who are born after his return but who refuse to believe are accursed and die young.

If you worship such a deity, please ask him to reconsider his position. Human morality has evolved far beyond his. Thor, whose hammer protects us from hostile elements, is a better friend to humanity. Of course, Thor exists only in our imaginations but so surely does the cosmic Jesus. Revolutionaries, scientists, doctors, artists and meditation instructors all do far more human good than "born-again" Christians who aim only to sign us up to their belief.

The global disappearance of all "born-agains" is logically possible but, until it occurs, I will continue to believe that it is physically impossible. If it occurs, then I will study subsequent events but will be surprised to see either two Old Testament prophets killing their attackers with flames from their mouths or a politician quickly overcoming all the barriers to international co-operation and disarmament. The world is more complicated than that and would become far more chaotic after a mysterious event like the Rapture. I propose a treaty whereby this Jesus removes all his zealots and leaves the rest of us to re-make the Earth.

In poetic, prophetic, apocalyptic or dramatic writing, it makes perfect sense that a transcendent being manifesting himself should proclaim, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” because theists and mystics believe that such a being is indeed the beginning and end of all things. That he should announce it like this in history is another matter. If he exists, then he is already working cosmically and spiritually. Scriptural passages express this present and perennial working in vivid and physical language. Dare I hope that I have represented Revelation more fairly and accurately that some American “prophecy scholars”?

Strengths and Weaknesses of Larry Niven


Larry Niven is, I think, the most ingenious American future historian, particularly in the Ringworld Tetralogy that concludes his Known Space future history. The Ringworld is an inhabited artefact encircling a star at a planetary distance. Known Space is like an update of Robert Heinlein’s Future History and an improvement on Isaac Asimov’s future history. Heinlein describes terrestrial conflicts and extraterrestrial colonies. Asimov describes extrasolar colonies and interstellar civilisation. Niven describes all four.

The first four short stories in the Known Space Series describe the exploration of the solar system in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Niven’s Mars is the one revealed by Mariner probes. His "Belters" colonise not the planets but the asteroids because the latter contain more easily accessible industrial wealth. Alien motives differ and matter.

Asimov’s characters merely build robots and travel through hyperspace to inhabitable, uninhabited planets. Niven’s characters, both human and alien, do much more: 

use ramjets before hyperspace; 
build and populate the Ringworld; 
fight and trade with other species; 
extend lifespans; 
become immortal "protectors" or genetically lucky "teelas"; 
move a Fleet of Worlds to the Greater Magellanic Cloud to escape the Core explosion; 
use teleportation booths in known space and stepping discs on the Fleet of Worlds; 
apply anti-matter and nanotech. 

Asimov posited a Galactic Empire only to get a population big enough for "psychohistorical" predictions to work, not, like Anderson or Niven, to speculate imaginatively about environments elsewhere in the galaxy. Niven’s future history is diverse and open-ended, not unilinear. It cannot be summarised in a single narrative and is not dominated by a single character.


As the Known Space Series grows, a stylistic problem develops. Niven wants us to know that his characters are intelligent enough to witness an event and immediately to understand its implications without having to articulate these to each other. Unfortunately, to make this point, the characters and their author often do not articulate the implications, or even sometimes describe the event, to the readers either so that we are left wondering what is happening.

Niven’s style becomes cryptic and allusive. He italicizes a word as if for conversational emphasis although the reason for the emphasis may not be clear to a reader. 

" ‘…and I haven’t seen any insects.’
…" ‘Carrion?’
"He guessed her meaning." (1)

I do not.

(Added on 26-7-09: I did not. I am currently enjoying re-reading the Tetralogy. At this point in the text, the continuing dialogue does provide an explanatory context for the query, " 'Carrion?' " Why did I not understand this before? I reached the characteristically cryptic "He guessed her meaning...", stopped reading in irritation, then later resumed reading from that point, thus missing the connection between " 'Carrion?' " and, three sentences later, a reference to (carrion-eating) "Ghouls". How much of this is my fault as a reader? Niven's style had predisposed me to be irritated rather than intrigued by opaque statements like "He guessed her meaning" when we do not yet know her meaning.)

I do not understand why a character laughs when hearing some Ringworlders described.( 2) Characters interrupt each other:

" ‘Did you see any sign of-’
‘Yes, of course…" (3)

See what and why "of course"?

(Added on 26-7-09: Again, I think I have got this on re-reading. It would have been clearer if the first speaker had been allowed to complete his question.)

- or expect us to finish their sentences:

"Give them decent telescopes? No, they’d still – Ah." (4)

They’d still what?

Louis Wu (human) races a kzin (a carnivorous feline alien) along a mile-long ship and through an on-board garden that had fed herds for kzinti sailors. When asked how he knew that he would win the race even though the kzin had started first, Louis replies that men chase fleeing prey whereas kzinti find something slower. Does this statement alone answer the question? (5)

" ‘…now we have to guess whether Teela saw it.’
" ‘And if she did?’
"Louis sighed. ‘Bram, what have you got on living protectors?’ " (6)

Why do they have to guess whether Teela, a protector, saw "it" (evidence of the activities of other protectors)? We later learn that, if she did, then this gave her a reason for wanting to die. But Louis already knew one reason for this and does not seem to need the information in any case.

"Bram must have noted Louis’ rapt gaze. ‘What strikes you, Louis?’
"What struck Louis was that the Hindmost [a cowardly ‘puppeteer’] wasn’t going to be much help to Louis Wu. Bram had had too much time to intimidate the puppeteer. Louis said instead, ‘I had an insight…’ " (7)

Louis then discusses puppeteer reproduction and suggests research on digger wasps but never returns to the subject. It took me a long time to suspect that Louis refers to reproduction and wasps only in order to prevent Bram from drawing unwelcome inferences from his "rapt gaze." If those who have not read Niven find this confusing, so did I.

Long journeys and dramatic battles are described as briefly and colorlessly as possible. Niven becomes the master of the telegrammic epic which is a pity because his scientific imagination rivals or surpasses that of Blish or Anderson.

(Added on 3-2-08: Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner, published 2007, does not suffer from the stylistic problems discussed above.)

1. Larry Niven, The Ringworld Throne (London: Orbit, 1998), p. 175.
2. ibid, p. 297.
3. ibid, p. 237.
4. ibid, p. 274.
5. ibid, pp. 272-273.
6. ibid, p. 295.
7. ibid, p. 284.