Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Predictive Power of Science Fiction

Exactly five years ago, I wrote about the role of women in Science Fiction and 'Gaming Culture'. Sadly, about a year after that, the whole 'Gamergate' crapfest occurred... and things just don't seem to get better in nerddom. That being said, my purpose in this post isn't to lament the state of the fandom, but to mention an author whose works I have only recently discovered.

Doris Piserchia published her first short story in 1966, and her novel publishing career lasted from 1973 to 1983, when her daughter died, leaving her to care for her granddaughter. While in Virginia visiting mom, I stopped by a used book store (tragically, these are as rare as hen' teeth in NYC these days, largely due to economic factors) and picked up a couple of Ms Piserchia's books.

A Billion Days of Earth, published in 1976, is a darkly comic tale of the far-future, when the descendants of Homo sapiens have developed psychic powers which allow them to live as extremely powerful yet effete 'gods', while the descendants of rats and dogs have formed 'human' societies. Into the society of the rat-people, a frightful, predatory alien inexplicably comes to be, a quicksilver nonesuch which seeks to absorb the egos of other lifeforms. This horror comes to a society already rotting from within due to class inequality (Chapter 3):

A few centuries before, the rich of the world were philanthropic. Their descendants monopolized wealth, eliminated all but the very elite, took the family name of Filly, stopped giving money away and knew no fear of anyone but the Gods. They needn't have worried. The Gods didn't care what rat-men did, rich or poor.

If looking over that electrified fence at the estate made an observer sick because he suddenly began to think about a hundred piles of money as high as a hundred hills, and that those Fillys in their manors were sitting on more dollars than he could count in his lifetime- if this was what the observer thought- he looked over his shoulder to make sure he was alone, after which he let it out in one loud, crazy scream and then he went home and tried to forget he had those thoughts.

It would be unendurable to live in a world where ninety-nine percent of it were serfs, while the remaining one percent silently manipulated them. The philosophy of the sacrifice of the one for the many wasn't perfect, but it had served man for all of his existence. Hadn't it? Philosophies were suspect and humanity must be cautious in his choices. For instance, consider the philosophy of the sacrifice of the many for the one: that was just too goddamn...

Leaving aside the hard science-fiction stories which predicted cell phones, microcomputers, and the like, this particular passage, written forty years ago, perfectly encapsulates the principle malaise affecting societies all around the globe. Later in the book, one of the characters watches a young boy pass by, and contemplates the possible fate of the kid:

Redo began to brood. Would that the fate of the world hung upon the decisions of smiling boys. Even now, war drums were beginning to mutter. The sounds would grow in volume. The thunder would increase to a crescendo before the year was out. Madness was coming upon the children of men because the Fillys in the Eastern Hemisphere didn't like what they read on their ticker tapes. The time had come to stir men from lethargy. If they wouldn't buy refrigerators with a little coaxing, they would be forced to buy guns and bombs. One way or another- it was all the same to the Fillys. There would be war. The sweet boy who had passed the table would gurgle out his life in some muddy hole in the hinterlands of Chin.

The novel is a bit hit-and-miss, throwing out numerous subplots in its 210 pages- there are atavistic mutations in rat-people's bloodlines, there are battles between the protagonist and dangerous genetically-engineered creatures, there are internecine struggles within the Filly clan, and skulking through the narrative like a silvery devil is the will-destroying alien. The novel could easily have been expanded into one of those 'fantasy doorstoper' blocks of paper, with all of the various narrative threads. It's an odd book, but the two passages I've cited in this post made it a worthwhile read in and of themselves.


Unknown said...

I don't read a lot of science fiction, but still, I am amazed at the foresight and, well, power it has had.

I read a biography of a guy named Jack Whiteside Parsons last year. He invented jet fuel in the 1st half of the 20th century, but he basically got interested in rockets because of science fiction (or "scientifiction" as it was called at the time.

Rockets were apparently only an interest of scientifiction fans back then, so much so that when he invented his rocket fuel, he had to call it jet fuel to be respected.

That same scene produced L. Ron Hubbard, a guy who took his science fiction interests and went a different direction.

I'm not sure what it is that creates such vision in that crowd but it's really wild. I'll look up Doris. Your recommendations are always good.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

The key to approaching science fiction, Nasreen, is to keep Sturgeon's Law in mind... Sturgeon knew what he was talking about, he was a science fiction author.

One book that I can suggest without reservation is The Space Merchants... it'll simultaneously make you laugh and want to bang your head against your desk.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I believe in the predictive power of science fiction...