BIG DUMB OBJECTS AND COSMIC ENIGMAS

The Love Affair Between Space Fiction and the Transcendental

by Peter Nicholls

(To be delivered on the Queen Mary, Long Beach, California, on Monday June 23rd, 1997)

Do you have April Fool’s Day in the United States? In England and Australia April 1st is a day in which practical jokes and whimsical tricks are traditionally carried out. On April 1st, 1992, I was exhausted writing theme entries for the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, and my brain was hurting. A possible theme that had been suggested was ALIEN ARTEFACTS, but it was April Fool’s Day and I decided purely for my own entertainment, and aware that John Clute might well be cross if he found out, that it would be appropriate to write a joke entry as a prank. I would pretend that a phrase of Roz Kaveney’s that I’d always liked, but which was not in general use, was actually a known critical term. I decided that I would write ALIEN ARTEFACTS but call it BIG DUMB OBJECTS, and write in a poker-faced style, suggesting an even more absurd critical term to be used in its place, “megalotropic sf”.
But the joke was on me, because as I came to write the entry, I realized that the subject– which was vast alien enigmatic artefacts–was at the heart of what attracted people to science fiction. And even stranger, I realized that no matter what literary shortcomings you found in Big Dumb Object sf–and believe me, there are plenty–that Big Dumb Object stories were often successful, that even if badly written they were usually good to read. Why?
I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It came to me that Big Dumb Objects were part of a larger theme I had written about before. The key entries relating to this larger theme in the 1993 edition of the Encyclopedia, all written by me, are BIG DUMB OBJECTS, CONCEPTUAL BREAKTHROUGH and SENSE OF WONDER. (Another very relevant piece by me is “Doors and Breakthroughs” in the anthology Frontier Crossings which was given out as part of the package to all attending members of the world sf convention in Brighton, UK, in 1987.) CONCEPTUAL BREAKTHROUGH was largely unaltered from the theme entry I’d written for the Encyclopedia’s first edition back in 1979, and it attracted a great deal of attention, with the phrase passing into general usage, even getting its own little entry in Gary K. Wolfe’s book Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy, which was published seven years later.
SENSE OF WONDER was a new entry specially written for the 1993 edition. It had worried me that this useful phrase had become a sort of joke in the science fiction community, often whimsically contracted to a sort of Brooklynese term, “sensawunna”, as if it were a childish phrase whose nuances were long gone, now contracted into a useless romantic stereotype. Darko Suvin commented contemptuously in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction that, quote, ” [sense of wonder] is another superannuated slogan of much sf criticism due for a deserved retirement …”. Well, I thought, I still use it sometimes, Goodness Me, so there are two kinds of sf critics, the academics who are clever and sophisticated, and the blue collar workers of sf criticism–me and Sam Moskowitz and James Blish and Damon Knight to name but four, rednecks all of us–who use superannuated phrases like “sense of wonder” and aren’t good enough for the hifalutin’ academics.
Still, I knew what Darko meant. “Sense of wonder” is a rote phrase used by critics unable to find finer or more precise ways of explaining a potent effect quite often found in science fiction that is curiously resistant to analysis. I myself had once, rather helplessly, while reviewing Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero of all things back in 1972, tried to explain “sense of wonder” by quoting Wordsworth’s famous lines in “Tintern Abbey”, when he refers to “a sense sublime,/ of something far more deeply interfused,/ whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/And the round ocean and the living air,/and the blue sky, and in the mind of man.” Looking back, I was making a rather important statement. I was saying that our feeling about Poul Anderson’s ever-accelerating spaceship that, through a relativistic time contraction effect, outlived the whole universe and was present at the birth of a new cosmic egg, was equivalent to the romantic’s term “sublime”. And by implication, I was saying that hard science fiction, usually described in rational terms like “adhering to known scientific principles”, was not in fact wholly classical or Apollonian as the adherence to reason rather than fantasy would suggest, but actually partook of the romantic and the Dionysian. Which brings me to clever old Brian Aldiss.
Aldiss’s celebrated definition of science fiction, in Billion Year Spree (1973), includes the phrase “…characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode”. People who take issue with this–I think Gary Westfahl is probably one–normally concentrate on Aldiss’s claim in support of this remark that science fiction effectively began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. I’d prefer to pick up on that word Gothic more generally, for what is the Gothic if not, surely, a sort of apotheosis of the romantic movement, a kind of writing that focuses on mystery not knowledge, on moonlight rather than sunlight.
In a way this paper today is not new material. It’s more a rethinking of ideas I’ve had about science fiction for maybe forty years. I once started but never finished writing a book called Infinity, Eternity and the Pulp Magazines, which was to be a critical history of science fiction. I think I wrote four chapters. In parenthesis, today’s paper, currently called BIG DUMB OBJECTS, could equally well have been called INFINITY, ETERNITY AND THE PULP MAGAZINES. I’m sure that as writers and/or academics you’re all familiar with the word “bathos”. Not “pathos” but “bathos”, with a B. “Bathos” means according to the Oxford a “ludicrous descent from the elevated to the commonplace” and “according to me “a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous”. There’s a great deal of bathos in science fiction, which by linking such elevated terms as infinity and eternity with so dismissive a term as “pulp magazines” I attempted to include in my title. BIG DUMB OBJECTS has bathos too, deliberately focusing on the word “dumb”, and this is why I chose the phrase as especially appropriate. It would have been quite a different sort of entry if I’d called it “awe-inspiring artefacts”. The monoliths in Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are intended as awe-inspiring, but there’s something faintly silly about them too, in my opinion, and they qualify equally well to be called Big Dumb Objects.
I’ll get back to bathos later, but that was a parenthesis in this context. My point was going to be that in this book–Chapter Two to be precise, which was published in truncated form in Foundation 5 in 1974 as “The Great Tradition of Proto Science Fiction”–I wrote something that was specifically about Melville’s Moby Dick, but which was intended to be a truth about science fiction generally. I wrote that, quote, “we find a tension between the writer’s respect for and understanding of orderly scientific thought (the classical) and his love for the phenomena which do not submit to this order (the romantic).”
My argument today is characteristically more of a spiral than a straight line, but I think you can see what I’m getting at. There is in science fiction, even or especially (as I will argue later) in so-called Hard science fiction, something which in other context we tend to think of as unscientific, be it called sense of wonder, or the sublime, or the transcendent as the Panshins have it, or the romantic. And one rather mechanical way of creating this effect is for the storyteller to imagine something very very big and mysterious, like the spaceship Rama, or like Larry Niven’s Ringworld. That is, the mysterious something in science fiction often has its locus classicus in the Big Dumb Object. I’m on a hunt for the mysterious something today, but I fear it may be like Lewis Carroll’s Snark, which might turn out to be a Boojum You will recall the last stanza of that great poem “The Hunting of the Snark”:
“In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and silently vanished away–
For the Snark was a Boojum you see.”

If I disappear before the hour is up, it may be to smoke a cigar, but more probably I will have been Boojumed.
So I thought I’d approach again this old obsession of mine, and that I would do it by going back to some of the Big Dumb Object classics of sf. There’s nothing obscure about the books I selected. Many of them were award winners. This is what I read:
Poul Anderson’ s Tau Zero
The Greg Bear trilogy that consists of Eon (1985), Eternity (1988) and Legacy (1995).
The six-volume Galactic Centre series by Gregory Benford, the first two books of which deal with a man called Nigel Walmsley, and the last four books of which deal with the Bishop families flight to the galactic heart as they flee. I regret that I didn’t have time to re-read the two Walmsley books, and I haven’t yet got hold of the last book in the series, which is Sailing Bright Eternity (1995). I did read the first three Bishop books which are Great Sky River (1987), Tides of Light (1989) and Furious Gulf (1994).
Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rendezvous with Rama (1973)
Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and Ringworld Engineers (1979)
Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville (1975)
John Varley’s Gaean trilogy, consisting of Titan (1979), Wizard (1980) and Demon (1984). I only re-read the first two of these.
And for the record, if I’d had the time I would have re-read James Blish’s Cities in Flight series, Charles Sheffield’s Summertide (1990) and Paul McAuley’s Eternal Light (1991).
Big Dumb Objects are normally found in space or on alien planets, are normally enigmatic to human knowledge and senses, and are normally very big. Niven’s Ringworld is a belt-shaped section of a Dyson Sphere, almost 200 million miles across; Shaw’s Orbitsville is a complete Dyson sphere with a diameter of 320 million kilometres, much the same as that of Niven’s. Earlier BDOs were often not nearly so big, like Arthur C. Clarke’s monolith, or his alien spacecraft Rama which is a cylinder 20 kilometres across and 50 kilometres long, only a bit bigger than James Blish’s flying New York which was not alien but human, but in other respects fits BDO parameters. New York was quite a small BDO, since it contained only Manhattan having left Brooklyn the Bronx and Queens behind. Greg Bear’s BDO in Eon is the biggest, being an infinitely long tunnel. John Varley’s BDO in Titan is middle-sized, being 4,000 kilometres across, but unlike the other BDOs is organic and self-aware. Gregory Benford has a habitable warped space-time construct (or esty as he calls it) called the Wedge, located perilously close to the black hole at the heart of our galaxy. I’m sure I need give no further explanation about what a Big Dumb Object is beyond citing these examples. It is not of itself an especially sophisticated concept. But it often takes sophisticated forms, or merely grotesque ones. One of my favourites is mentioned almost in passing in David Zindell’s Neverness (1988), quote, “the swarm of the ten thousand moon-brains of the Solid State Entity”. Big, but in this case not so dumb.
Big Dumb Objects as I said are normally found in space, and space is what I’ll turn to now. As you know, this conference has two discussion strands, space and time. I’m sure I won’t be the only person to point out that space and time cannot be separated so readily and conveniently in the world of physics, as the phrase space-time continuum suggests. The two are connected, and movement in one will automatically bring about movement in the other. The simplest relationship is velocity, which is space divided by time, but with relativistic physics as you know the relationship is seen as more profound. The greater the velocity in relation to a stationary observer–not that any observer in the real universe is ever truly stationary–the greater the contraction of the time experienced by the moving object or person as compared to the time experienced by the observer. I won’t go into the math here, but it’s not too difficult. It gets more difficult of course when you bring quantum physics into it and start considering wormholes and black holes, where space and time behave–or are theorised to behave–very strangely indeed.
Of the BDO novels I’ve cited, voyages in space become voyages in time in the majority of them: in the Benford and Bear books par excellence, and in the Blish and Anderson books which climax in a time travelling into and past the end of our own cosmos. Indeed Blish’s Cities in Flight series climaxes at the end of its fourth book with a chapter entitled “The Triumph of Time”, though most of the series is devoted to exploration in space. Similar points can be made about several of the others I’ve mentioned, notably Paul McAuley’s Eternal Light, as I recall. But leaving this nitpicking aside–though it is an extremely fundamental nit that I was picking, and it makes a nonsense of the arbitrary division between time and space we find in this conference– let’s look at the metaphoric function of space in sf, especially in those sf books I’ve already cited.
Space has many functions, of course. It is, as the celebrated cliché has it, the last frontier, and this ties in with what one does in frontiers of all kinds, one meets the “other”. I think the meeting of humanity with the other is now generally accepted as one of the great themes of science fiction. A lot of this was spelled out by Gary K. Wolfe’s excellent critical study The Known and the Unknown: the Iconography of Science Fiction (1979). Space is of course, the usual venue for such confrontations, and is ideal for the purpose. I’ve always liked the pulp phrase “deep space”, which is even better than ordinary shallow space as a place for meeting the unknown.
Another point about space is that it makes us feel very small. It does that even on Earth. When I take the dog for his usual 1 am walk, I have to wait while he stops and sniffs and pees on bushes. I use this time to gaze at the stars, which light pollution in Melbourne has not yet entirely eliminated from the visible sky. I don’t know about you, but they make me giddy and small, and I sometimes feel if I look long enough that at any moment I might fall upwards towards them, lost in immensity. It is a simple earthbound version of the sublime, and no doubt as science fiction writers often show us the effect will be much stronger again when we’re up there in deep space.
But here’s a point that’s not often made: one thing about the sublime is that it is dehumanising. It makes us feel small and unimportant and indeed hardly there at all. I think this feeling of our vulnerability and littleness in the context of cosmic vastness and indifference, is one of the root feelings of space fiction, a sort of default feeling that almost all space fiction at some point approaches. When you hit science fiction’s “enter” key, that’s where the cursor goes.
I only have an hour, and I won’t therefore bother to read out any typical passages of this sort, but as aficionados you all know they’re there.
From this perspective, the Big Dumb Object is merely a coalescence of the metaphor in the form of matter, as if they are a warped section of space–as indeed matter is– that performs the identical function. Big Dumb Objects also make us feel vulnerable and threatened and lost. Observe the feelings of the explorers of the spacecraft Rama, or the psychological repercussions of the discovery of the infinite tunnel at Thistledown in Bear’s Eon, or the way in which the characters in Varley’s Titan stop talking to each other after months of walking through this vast, alien pocket universe. Being Varley characters of course, what their leader really wants to restore her humanity is a good snort of cocaine. In Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville the notion of the continuing upward evolution of humanity is destroyed at a stroke by the seemingly infinite living space on the inner surface of the Dyson Sphere, equal in surface area to five billion Earths. With lebensraum for all, huge amounts of it, territorial disputes disappear. The premium on aggression is gone. Quickly, Shaw conjectures, we would become the equivalent of peaceful herbivores, with no need to evolve further, no carnivores to prey on us. This is the downside of Big Dumb Objects–they may make us less than we are, and it is a natural human instinct to like our present selves, no matter how unpleasantly aggressive we may be. We don’t want to become vegetables.
But other big Dumb Objects might make us more rather than less. Their challenge, the adrenaline rush of attempting to pierce the veil of their enigmas, may help us transcend ourselves. The other great theme of space fiction often, and Big Dumb Objects usually, is transcendence.
Transcendence is an odd word, and it should be treated very cautiously. All too often it is used to mean entering some realm of marshmallow religiose feeling. Transcendence is not necessarily a good thing, though it may be something we yearn for, especially if we have had the prior experience in deep space of being made to feel very very little and unimportant. It is also a dodgy literary concept, inasmuch as it is by definition a state beyond our normal human state, and it cannot therefore be described in ordinary human words. Many readers have winced repeatedly at the way sf writers capable of perfectly good straightforward, journeyman prose, tend to fall into florid poetics of the most excruciatingly embarrassing kind when trying to imagine what transcendence might feel like. Just about every writer mentioned to date has been unable to avoid the trap, except perhaps Larry Niven whose versions of transcendence tend to be quite down-to-earth, like humans turning into great big wrinkled muscular dangerous Paks. Poetry, it is fair to say, probably wouldn’t come easily to Niven, who has the good sense nearly all the time to avoid it. Not all his colleagues have been so tactful. Anyway, it is a notoriously difficult crux in science fiction, and one has sometimes to admire the effort to achieve a portrayal of the transcendent state even as we wince at the result. Because in my view, though transcendence itself may not be a realistic concept, the yearning for it is a very real feeling indeed. Transcendence is not a theme that ought to be avoided, I feel, and indeed it is yet another of those themes at the very heart of science fiction, especially–paradoxically–hard science fiction, that are beginning in my mind to form a cluster at the romantic pole of the classical-romantic tension I mentioned earlier as characterising so much hard sf.
You might take it for granted that anyone sensible would regard transcendence as a legitimate theme for sf, but not everyone does. I’d like to speak for a moment about my colleague John Clute, who edited with me The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. John and I differ on this particular issue, as a very close reading of the Encyclopedia might well show, though our judgments coincide more than 85% of the time when considering science fiction overall. Like all interesting critics, John Clute is best or at his most gripping when he’s on a roll. It’s rather like listening to a Dizzy Gillespie variation on some familiar theme, high trumpet notes that threaten to shake your brain into a new format, and in John Clute’s case with a good many polysyllabic grace notes as well. Anyway, one of John’s most celebrated riffs was the one he played when he reviewed a book that is very relevant here, The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei and Cory Panshin (1989). The review appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction for July 1991, and it’s a killer. It’s required reading. At its end he says it is unbelievable that two grown writers could be, quote, “so unutterably callow about the reified wet-dream they think of as transcendence, but which others might call fetish:”. Well, that’s put us in our place.
That the idea of transcendence is a fetish, the result of a cargo-cult mentality, is a familiar item in Clute’s criticism. The cargo cults in the Melanesian islands resulted from occasional swift glimpses of white people which caused the aboriginal peoples to build up a cult in which the whites were strange gods bearing arbitrary gifts in their cargo ships. Clute argues that in science fiction lots of us–including William Gibson, see the GIBSON entry in our Encyclopedia–have just this Melanesian mentality. Transcendence is a pathetic wet dream. For me it’s natural to yearn for cargo, as all Australians do, and there’s no necessary loss of dignity in doing so.
After all, though the magic qualities of cargo were a Melanesian illusion, the idea that they needed it was perhaps not. When we meet an advanced “other”, or its artefacts, we want them. The meeting of the Melanesians with the whites was in real Earth history cognate with the meeting of humanity with advanced aliens so familiar in science fiction. And contact with the alien explorers and traders did indeed, as it turned out, transform the Melanesian peoples, a kind of transcendence I suppose, though some of the results were terrible. My point is that the desire for transformation, for transcendence, might in many cases be silly but it is a real and even inevitable feeling when first contact is made. It is perhaps a fetish, but a fetish with a reason. The reality of transcendence is not the issue, and many of us will agree that for the Panshins to call Burroughs’ Barsoom transcendent is absurd, and that in the world at large the term transcendence all too often is the precursor to a vague orgasmic mysticism that is indeed rather contemptible. What is real is humanity’s inbuilt yearning to become better and cleverer and yes, “other”. In some science fiction it gets pretty silly. For example, I can barely tolerate Varley’s Titan trilogy because of the lurid strip-show red-light-district colour he sprays over the theme of humans transcending themselves and becoming Gods. I find it appallingly adolescent. Of course the sf theme of transformation and transcendence is by no means restricted to space fiction, and one of its best examples is by one of the authors I’ve been reading, Greg Bear, whose Blood Music, mainly set on Earth, has human-bacterium hybrids growing into gods, or a god, of a sort. [In parenthesis I note as a general truth that earthbound transcendence in science fiction tends to be associated with the biological sciences, whereas transcendence in space fiction tends to be connected with physics. Clarke's 2001 is an example. Indeed godlike transcendence has always been one of Arthur C. Clarke's major themes.]
I don’t know how confused you’re all getting out there, or how many of you are picking up on the implied internal contradictions in much of what I’ve been saying. I’ve said that humans want to transcend themselves, and I’ve also said that humans value what they are. Indeed we are constitutionally incapable of wholly rejecting what we are, or even rejecting what made us what we are. In the very best Big Dumb Object space fiction–I might specifically mention Gregory Benford’s books here, and Greg Bear fits in too–this tension between the humanness we possess and love, and the “otherness” or “transcendence” we may aspire to, is the engine that drives the story. A thing I like about Benford’s fiction is that no matter how over the top he goes, he knows what he’s doing, he’s doing it on purpose. His Bishop family is primitive and squabbling and tribal precisely because this reductionism shows so well the tension I speak of, when seen in the very complex and technologically advanced context that Benford gives it.
So we’re reaching a more sophisticated view of what space fiction in general and BDO fiction in particular tends to be about. It is about being dwarfed by space and hugeness, about attempting to maintain our own humanity, warts and all, in the light of this vastness, while at the same time yearning to be better or other than what we are. And this is not a theme that is intrinsically scientific at all, which makes it all the odder that it is in the hardest and most scientific sf that we tend to find the purest examples. I believe that what drives some of us to be scientists in the first place is an unusual openness to the sort of experience–or perhaps I should say the sort of feeling–that I’m clumsily and not very successfully trying to pin down. My own training is in both the sciences and the arts, though I should say the scientific bit in its formal manifestation was a long time ago. John Clute’s training is in the arts only. I’ve wondered at times whether my greater sympathy for certain kinds of science fiction, and my lesser sympathy for some other kinds, might not be a result of this early imprinting. I probably exaggerate. After all, as I’ve said, Clute and I agree on most issues.
I’ve observed that the central science to be found in this kind of sf is cosmology. This is the case with I think every book I’ve so far mentioned, though stronger in some of them. It is in cosmology that the most exotic perspectives on space and time and even humanity are to be found. In my more aggressively simplifying moods I’ve even been tempted to define “hard sf” exactly thus: “fiction whose plot depends wholly or in large part on cosmological ideas”. I think that definition would catch up an astonishingly high percentage of the hard sf classics, but I’m sure nitpickers out there will approach me with lots of exceptions, too. But even when we note the exceptions–I noted one myself, Blood Music, a little way back–one can still argue that cosmological sf is the default to which hard sf continually returns, and that hard sf’s natural milieu is space.
Most hard sf sees humanity in a perspective that dwarfs it, while at the same time being passionately humanocentric. Even Tom Godwin’s famous short story “The Cold Equations” is arguably about this dwarfing. This creates bathos almost automatically, the sublime or at the very least the vast indifference that is out there up against the ridiculous that is us. It is, however, a very special kind of bathos, because very often it is known and self-conscious, not just the stumbling incompetence of hack writers. Benford makes a virtue of bathos of this kind. He knows how silly and limited and ignorant the Bishop family look up against everything they confront, from vicious mechs to strange spacecraft and twists in the space-time continuum, but that is the very point. The other point, of course, is that they survive.
While bathos is the literary failing of a great deal of hard sf, I’m saying, it is also inevitable, and by some writers including Benford even welcomed. There’s a certain valour, even nobility, in hard sf’s readiness to confront the inbuilt bathos of the Big Dumb Object syndrome, while knowing that the grandeur of say a Ringworld is bound to be severely compromised by the all-too twentieth century human impulses to be found in a good bit of the characterisation. Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama is a wonderful creation and I’m fond of the book, but there is true absurdity in the fact that it is being explored by characters whose complexity and lifestyle is not too far removed from say the Hardy Boys or the Biggles books or boy’s fiction generally. John Varley’s Titan series is dirty where Arthur Clarke is squeaky clean; it lingers endlessly on our sex drives, our weaknesses, our addictive personalities with special reference to alcohol and cocaine, our inabilities to get rid of appalling kinds of childhood imprinting to the degree that one is sometimes unsure whether one is reading true sf, or a manual of 1970s psychobabble. It is a series that has dated very rapidly, perhaps for this reason. It is also the most cynical of the series I looked at, for transcendence itself turns out to be a kind of fraud. The planetary intelligence that is Gaea is just as screwed up as the rest of us. Being a god is no guarantee of adult behaviour.
I began by saying that I had recently re-read a dozen or so classics of hard science fiction, and I listed them. What I didn’t say then is that it was a rather disappointing experience. To read hard sf stories a second time through is–and when you think about it must be–a very different experience from reading them the first time around. For one thing, one sees them now in a changed cultural context, and quite often one is reading books whose dominant icons were fresh at the time but have now become stereotypes of popular culture. But the main problem is the sense of wonder, that feeling you get when confronted by the truly awe-inspiring in sf. It doesn’t tend to occur so poignantly the second time round. A bit like the way we are said to become inured to violence by watching too many tv series or even news broadcasts, we become inured to wonder when we’ve seen the same wonder at least once before. Disneyland is normally disappointing at the second visit too. In the case of sf as sometimes with Disneyland, the gigantic can come to seem trivial, vast cathedrals of enigma painted onto cardboard backdrops. And because the Big Dumb Objects themselves, be they gargantuan space habitats or infinite tunnels to godhead, have been absorbed before, the second time round one concentrates much more on the characters themselves, and honestly, in most of these books they can be pretty awful.
I’m well aware that American academics and literary critics are a great deal more polite than English and Australian ones, and more tactfully sensitive to the feelings of authors, and prone to feeling that everything in life is so different from everything else that you can’t really compare them or make judgment calls at all. It is an irritating characteristic to people like me, but lovable too. The extreme case is the sf news magazine Locus, whose review columns I cannot recall have ever said a book was a bad book in the twenty years I’ve been reading and enjoying them. Books merely have different degrees of goodness. It is as if Americans have low self esteem, but high socialisation, so that they hesitate to hurt, and don’t have the confidence anyway to trust their own dismissive feelings. My own view is that you can’t adequately praise what is good unless you are well aware of what is less good. If you do not acknowledge the second or third rate as being so, then there is no spectrum to position texts on.
I come out with this as a warning, and sensitive persons should perhaps leave the room, since I’m going to come out with some judgment calls of my own, and worse, I’m not going to back them up with detailed recourse to the actual texts because I don’t have time. Or space if it comes to that. So you’ll have to accept them as dogmatic opinion, though it is I hope informed opinion.
The writers that emerged least harmed by reading them a second or third time were Gregory Benford and Larry Niven. I feel I owe Larry Niven an apology for the fairly brutal review I wrote of Ringworld in Foundation back in issue no 2 in June 1972. I compared it unfavourably with Tau Zero. I remember Poul Anderson was surprised enough to write me a polite letter chastising me, which considering the source was a pretty effective chastisement. Ringworld stands up well a second time, perhaps because, despite its dramatic setting it is not primarily a sense-of-wonder book at all, though you think it is going to be. It is a detective story. It is about a human trying to make sense of the inexplicable, and in a dogged sort of way it does it very well.
The authors that suffered the most were Arthur Clarke, Poul Anderson and John Varley, in part for reasons I’ve alluded to already. I’ll only add here with mixed praise that John Varley is brassy and readable and loud. The bathos in Anderson’s book is especially noteworthy, with events of impressive cosmic significance going on outside the window, so to speak, but trivial quarrels and couplings going on in the drawing room inside. Bob Shaw was always a modest author, and in one way unambitious. His book is characteristically packed with ideas in a fairly standard pulp setting, and it is too short to do much with these ideas, though it’s fine as far as it goes. Greg Bear is a brave and ambitious writer, but I felt much more conscious this time of the yawning gulf between the comparatively commonplace nature of the human consciousnesses into which we look (rather Californian consciousnesses I thought) and the truly incredible events and settings which these consciousnesses observe. The most ambitious of all is Benford, whose Galactic Centre series not only deals with space, time, big dumb objects, human evolution and devolution, but also into the nature of consciousness, both human and alien, and the interplay between consciousness and the cosmos. Given the almost ridiculously wide-ranging scope of all this it’s hardly surprising that he occasionally stumbles, but the six-book series will stand I think as one of the more remarkable achievements of the hard sf saga. Most important of all, I think, is that of all the writers I’ve mentioned Benford is the most conscious of the bathos trap, and most cleverly exploits it, though I must say I winced at the intentional lack of sublimity when the first person the Bishop family meet when they reach the novel’s galactic-centre Big Dumb Object is a bureaucratic customs official. Talk about anti-climax.
In my SENSE OF WONDER entry in the Encyclopedia, I spoke about the curious disjunction between sense-of-wonder catalysts and the truly pulpy matrix in which they are often embedded, a famous example being the last line of A.E. Van Vogt’s The Weapon Makers (1943), which goes, “This much we have learned. Here is the race that shall rule the sevagram”. It’s a deservedly well remembered, wonderful last line, in its sudden evocation of a perspective that retrospectively alters the whole meaning of the book. I called this sort of discovery, perhaps cruelly, “finding a diamond in a dung heap”. The entry ends as follows:
As we become older and at least in our own eyes more sophisticated, we are of course
less likely to seek diamonds in dung-heaps. Perhaps younger readers find them more readily because, while they recognise a diamond when they see one, they haven’t yet learned to recognise a dung heap. In this respect the “sense of wonder” is a phenomenon of youth.

I’d add to that now, that diamonds don’t necessarily remain diamonds for ever. It is a case of the observer altering the experiment. The sense of wonder or sublimity you feel when you encounter the diamond the first time doesn’t work so well the second, and less well again the third. The problem is not with the writer but the reader, and since as we grow older we are less likely to find truly new ideas in the science-fiction literature we love, we are more likely to perceive diamonds as mere rhinetsones, and less likely to feel the sense of wonder. This doesn’t make the diamond any less real in itself, but its magic works better on some than others.
In conclusion I want to make it quite clear that not a single one of the books I’ve been specifically discussing could be called a dung-heap. They are classics of space fiction, and deservedly so despite the reservations I’ve expressed. What I hope to have established is that the writers of hard science fiction are as a group probably more not less romantic than their soft-sf colleagues; that this romance is to a degree intrinsic in the very metaphors that deep space produces, ranging from space itself through enigmatic alien artefacts to the furthest reaches of cosmological speculation; that we do not only read hard sf for the scientific extrapolation, the “classical” elements; and finally, that for me at least this sort of science fiction is the true heart and core and centre of why I began to read this sort of stuff in the first place. My cynical tone, which I despair of myself, conceals a temperament as thoroughly romantic as any of those I’ve been describing. Despite everything, my sense of wonder has not yet disappeared.

(6360 words)


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5 Responses

  1. [...] Benford recently posted Peter Nicholls’ Big Dumb Objects and Cosmic Enigmas, a talk delivered in 1997 aboard the Queen Mary (now anchored at Long Beach, CA) on his site. Given [...]

  2. [...] Benford recently posted Peter Nicholls’ Big Dumb Objects and Cosmic Enigmas, a talk delivered in 1997 aboard the Queen Mary (now anchored at Long Beach, CA) on his site. Given [...]

  3. James Benford says:

    I remember the power of ‘the race that shall rule the sevagram’. So I was amused to hear that van Vogt picked it from a statement by Ghandi. This year, in India, I learned what ‘sevagram’ means: it’s the Hindu word for a small village, the opposite of what van Vogt intended!

  4. [...] Benford recently posted Peter Nicholls’ Big Dumb Objects and Cosmic Enigmas, a talk delivered in 1997 aboard the Queen Mary (now anchored at Long Beach, CA) on his site. Given [...]