Falling to the Moon

Albrech durer sky wheel






In Rostand’s play, Cyrano de Bergerac decoys the determined de Guiche by telling him seven ways to reach the moon, and of those, several must have sounded practical either in Cyrano’s time or even when the play was written.

When teen-aged Mary Shelley and her companions sat around in Switzerland telling stories because the weather that summer was so inexplicably rotten, the electricity central to her story of a composite corpse shocked to life was super high tech.

I love science fiction as well as fantasy. It’s never been the rocket ships, but rather where the ships would take one, and the experience (weightlessness, looking out at the stars) of getting there, and how it would change the travelers.

My first love was Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom planet books. Such simple books, but intensely interesting and even potentially scary to an eight or nine year old struggling to cope with a world whose dangers had already proved that one is very small and helpless, that safety is relative at best. What I took away from those books was woo powers, yeah!, but also the idea of the alien as potential friend. Good. I was already well aware that human enemies there were in plenty, far away and ready to send A-bombs at any moment, or closer to home, their moods as inexplicable as their anger and power to hurt inescapable. I didn’t need any more monsters.

At age twelve, there was Andre Norton waiting to be discovered, and once I did, I haunted the SF shelf (there was only one) at the library on every visit.

I don’t read everything–well, who can, any more? I didn’t read everything way back when, either. Most of the Golden Age stuff didn’t do anything for me. Too many manly men doing manly things for manly reasons, far too few women, and most of those were boring as they seldom had agency (except the Wicked Woman, and you knew she’d be toast by the last page). The idea-heavy sf made me impatient as it was so often allegorical, that is, telling you what to think, rather than throwing the cards in the air. Except for Sturgeon and Blish, and later Vance, for interesting social ideas and new ways of approaching human relationships character I turned to the women writers just beginning to emerge during the late sixties and early seventies.

At this period of my life, after having read as much as I have, I don’t really read for new ideas, though I sure like them when I can get them. World-building has a tendency to fall into recognizable patterns. But then everything has patterns. We are creatures of pattern, living in a universe whose patterns are barely discernible to us. Language has patterns–looking at humans and language is both fascinating and exasperating: as George Steiner says in After Babel, “proceeding inside a circle of mirrors.”

In the 1620s, there were writers who were determined to produce exact equivalencies of word and idea, so that intelligent people would understand one another immediately. But at that very same time, Madame Rambouillet was establishing the first salons, at which talk was the most important activity. The epitome of courtly conversation, according to Mlle. Scudery, a saloniste and mega-best selling novelist of the mid 1600s, was artistic conversation, because a courtier must be stylish in all things. She stated, A thought is worthless if it can be understood by the vulgar, giving rise to some fairly ridiculous convolutions of metaphor when one wished to observe, for example, that it rained. Neither Comenius or Scudery were quite successful, the one in pinning down exact meanings for each word, and the other in requiring layers of language only penetrable by aristocrats.

I got excited about language right about the time I first read Andre Norton. I’d begun taking German, and discovered that the Germans had a verb for something we did not in English: dichten means to write poetry. That made my head reverb, as with the subsequent discovery of words for concepts we didn’t have in English, like gloire, which isn’t glory, or pomp, or display, but a term of political as well as cultural (and social) significance. Then to discover that the Japanese had a term that I think corresponds–eiga–how exciting is that? Patterns!

Language, like invention, is a shared collaboration, reinvented at a cartwheeling pace, at times a tumble or two behind change in the world, sometimes a flip in the air ahead as a new word–a new idea–catches on and spreads. Language both explains and distorts reality, because reality is transformative. So of course is fiction. What we call science fiction–fantastic fiction–scientifiction–sfnal–speculative fiction–the fantastic doesn’t insist on telling us about the world as it is, it speculates on what it might be, what it could be. I just love science fiction for the never-aging playfulness, and the profound and powerful, What if?s.

Read some good sf lately? What do you recommend?



Falling to the Moon — 23 Comments

  1. Other worlds hold a fascination for me. Sci fi, fantasy, history–I eat them all up. So sorry I don’t have sci fi rec for you. Art can take one to another world, too. A few days ago I finished Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper.

  2. He’s always worth reading, but I liked his books on Michelangelo and Brunelleschi better.

  3. ROADSIDE PICNIC from the soviet era, full of language-related angst, the saying and not saying of stuff. recommended for what the Strugatskys say and do not say. what were those careless aliens doing there…leaving all that high tech dumpster-diving scavenger stuff lying around? and ROADSIDE PICNIC does correspond with the human propensity for putting stuff together without understanding its interconnected substructure and sub-substructure and sub, sub…point made! think harmful mess left behind and we get the Strugatskys’ prescience. but, really, it’s the warm human stories, the family, embedded in the plot that make the reader care. IIRC, it has a dystopian ending. but the SF discussion, warmth, and spiritual victory made all worthy for me. that, and the perfectly captured atmospherics.

    • I do love Roadside Picknick! On my first read, I thought it one of the most frightening books – even so I can’t really say why! Because there isn’t much for horror in there. On the other hand, I am easily impressed by intense books and it was one of the first SF books I ever read (in my twenties).
      Maybe the uneasiness, the inexplainability, the human-ness of it all did it! – definitely worth reading.

  4. I would recommend Spin by: Robert Charles Wilson. While it’s a novel of “big ideas” I liked how it explored them through their impact on different characters and their reaction to these changes.

  5. Have you tried Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series? It’s sort of steampunk, but set in a different world with the mental sciences (magic). Her wry humor gets better with every new addition and she has one of the few literary assassins which don’t throw me out of the narrative with improbabilities. Wen Spencer’s Elfhome stories are fun as well.
    As for a more international outlook, there’s some classic Japanese sci-fi translated in the last five or so years. Most notably Issui Ogawa’s The Next Continent (building a hotel on the moon) and The Lord of the Sands of Time (a paradoxical time traveling war – significant time is spent in ancient Japan). The Yukikaze duology is another classic, although I’ve only watched the anime so far (cutting tech fighting an aerial war in a misunderstood dimension against incomprehensible enemies & the unreality of the situation). There’s Hiroyuki Morioka’s Crest of the Stars trilogy, which is space opera with elves. Only the prequel Crest trilogy has been translated, but the sequel series Banner of the Stars has been released in anime format in the U.S, as has Banner of the Stars II. I’m not really sure if my last suggestion is sci-fi or not, though it does have some of those aspects. Kino no Tabi (Kino’s Journey), a series of short stories of travel to different city-states of varying levels of technology & customs. The stories can be quite poetic. It has always reminded me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

      • I forgot to mention that the first volume of the Emperor’s Edge series is free on Amazon’s Kindle.
        The Ukiah Oregon series by Wen Spencer is also interesting – covert hybrid aliens fighting on earth (for or against assimilation).

  6. Based on coffeeandink’s recommendation, I picked up Ankharet Wells’ books of Require, The Maker’s Mask and The Hawkwood War. They are self-published SF, but easily as well-written as a lot of conventionally-published work.

    I think you would like them in particular, Sherwood, because they include things like multi-party marriages, spaceships turned into castles/cities, the use of both swords and blasters, independent women active in politics and war, romance, geekery, upended gender roles, and a fascinating caste system based on the ability to interact with the operating system of the spaceships. Oh, and it’s all about a Lost Colony.

    So many cool genre tropes, portrayed with panache and a lot of wit. I really like the characters and their relationships, and if I wish there were more exposition about the history of the colony, at least the writer respects my intelligence enough to expect me to pluck what I need from the narrative. I’m about halfway through the second book, and I wish there were more after this.

  7. Funny that you mentioned Norton so much as I took my first sample of her work back in late October with Star Born and just finished reading The Time Traders last night for a book club I belong to. I enjoyed them both very much but of the two liked Star Born the best. The primitive butting up with decaying high end technology reminded me of what I like about Vance’s Dying Earth stories.

    I read Hugh Howey’s Wool Omnibus back in December and was caught up in it. One of the best SF books I’ve read in a long time.