Yes, I have seen Star Wars – Episode One; I happened to be offered a free ticket almost as soon as it came out in the UK. But if you were expecting me to put up a page (or even a footnote on my Star Trek pages) complaining about how little sense it made… no, there are some windmills I won't tilt at with a bargepole [though as of 2015 you might try my new Loose Canon page]. Instead I'm going to turn my back on “eye‐sci‐fi” and produce a set of SF review articles collected on a completely different set of criteria:
Just for once I don't need a key or glossary section, but here's the contents list:
In writing The Hitch Hiker's Guide (originally a BBC radio series, but now best known via the books) Adams happened upon a particularly good excuse for a highly effective comedy format. Much of the air of lunacy may have been an accidental side‐effect of the author's desperate efforts to find inspiration in time for broadcast deadlines, but whether by luck or judgement Adams's imaginary tourist encyclopaedia full of incongruously detailed anecdotal snapshots is inherently funny. Take for example the way the narrative hops inconsequentially from planetary annihilation to small yellow fish, or from incoming missiles to the illicit trade in parakeet glands. Even ignoring subversive plot themes like humanity's insignificance on the cosmic scale and the absurd Answer to the Ultimate Question, the style is intrinsically satirical, conveying the subtext that none of the things we take for granted are truly important or meaningful – an extreme form of the alienated viewpoint natural to science fiction.
Paradoxically perhaps, this sort of background improvisation is also an effective way of evoking a subliminally convincing universe with very little effort. The trick can't be relied on for longer‐term projects, but in the short term, everywhere the reader's attention is directed there are unintelligible details, random loose ends (or emphatically meaningless coincidences), and things going on independent of the plotline. Such obscure features enhance “realism” simply because they're taboo in conventional drama.
When a story extends into a series, writers always have trouble resisting the urge to explain throw‐away ideas (like the rules of Brockian ultra‐cricket) that worked better as mysteries – a temptation distantly related to the urge to show on screen things we'd prefer left to our imagination (even if, like the Big Bang or Usenet, they're simply untelevisable). The Guide had the good fortune to be conceived for radio, and made the most of it.
The odd thing is that after all this Adams should continue his œuvre by inserting ponderously closural loose‐end‐tyings in the Guide sequels – reintroducing the bowl of petunias (otherwise known as Agrajag), the girl in the small café in Rickmansworth (AKA Fenchurch), and so on, with less and less success. His Dirk Gently stories, while perfectly good in their own way, have the satirical formula directly backwards: everything may superficially appear trivial and unconnected, but it all turns out to be deeply significant and relevant – an approach which to me always smacks of bogus profundity and uninspired conservation of plot threads.
Of course, the Guide's format of random snippets of unreliable information is also irresistibly reminiscent these days of a trawl through the World Wide Web! The several official and unofficial “transgalactic travelogue” sites succeed mainly in demonstrating that there's more to comedy than my humourless exposition of the “formula” allows for, but I can't help wondering what new readers weaned on search engines and random hyperlinks are going to make of the idea of the Guide. I suppose it all just goes to counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor…
Egan prefaces his novel with a poem (attributed to one of his characters while insane), every line of which – appropriately to the story's themes – is an anagram of the title. Now, the book is a classic example of the type of plot that leads to interesting philosophical arguments in pubs, but I think he missed some opportunities when it comes to letter‐shuffling versification:
MY TOPIC? A NUTTER - I MUTTER IN OPACITY, CRY "I'M UNIT TEAPOT"! CAUTION: I'M PRETTY ROMANTIC, YET I PUT NUTTY IMP EROTICA INTO MY C.P.U., ATTIRE MY INTRICATE POUT IN CRYPTO - I MUTATE, EMIT CANTO PURITY.
PYRETIC A.I. MUTTON MAY NOT PICTURE IT, YET PROTACTINIUM INTERCUT MY PATIO. TURNCOAT IMPIETY PUT MY RECITATION INTO A CUT TRIPE, MY ENMITY TACIT - POUR TOMCAT-URINE! PITY MEAT PUTTY (IRONIC).
I AM CURT, TINY POET; MY TUNE PATRIOTIC. EMPTY I COURT A TIN ICY MATE - PRINT OUT "ERUPT TO INTIMACY!" (IMPATIENT OUTCRY). TYPE RUM CITATION: YOUR TIME-PIT CAN'T IMPACT OUR ENTITY - INPUT ME ATROCITY!
A mystery prize awaits the first correspondent who can send me an explanation of what this poem means in the form of a palindromic villanelle.
One thing strikes me about the twin worlds of Annarres and Urras whenever I reread this book: there is almost no sign of post‐1950s technology. Yes, there are rocketships; but no cellphones, spysats, or holoviewers. Even the televisions and personal cars are underused, for sketchily described reasons. But generally speaking, the absence doesn't make the story feel dated (as it would if Le Guin had gosh‐wowed over digital watches)… with one exception, which I'll come back to in a moment.
Now, the Internet is full of SF links, and Le Guin is one of the most critically acclaimed science fiction authors on my shelves – but you'd never know it from typing her name into a search engine. Where Niven, Gibson, or Asimov have discussion groups, web‐rings, bibliographical archives, role‐playing sites and so on, Le Guin has a bare handful of fan pages. Why should that be? Could it be that Le Guin's works don't appeal to the stereotypical computer user, a socially inept young white middle‐class male with an obsessive interest in cyber‐consumerism?
Le Guin is no technophobe – her hero is, after all, a sympathetically portrayed theoretical physicist – but she is both explicitly unhappy with “scientistic” triumphalism and implicitly uninterested in hardware‐dominated plots. Shevek's breakthrough makes possible devices of immense importance for the whole interstellar community, but the story isn't one of technology affecting society. It would be closer to say that it's about cultural and personal ideals, or intellectual responsibility, or… no, if I could sum it up neatly I wouldn't reread it so often.
If you haven't guessed by now, the problem is in the computers. Writing in 1974, Le Guin knew that she couldn't plausibly leave them out, so we hear of special desk computers for Urrasti scientists, and planning computers on Annarres (which don't just coordinate production – they also assign unique personal names, though I can't see where they get enough pronounceable “five‐ and six‐letter names” to go around: cf. my article Let's Speak Alien). But those Central Computers are seen as posing an unavoidable risk of turning into a bureaucratic seat of de facto government: a hopelessly pre‐Internet, non‐PC assumption. Still, I'm not sure Shevek would be any happier with the idea of a distributed nerdocracy – and I'd love to see his reaction to the Iain M Banks version of an anarchist utopia!
One last thing… I hear unreliable rumours that there's a sequel in the works. An interesting thought, but I hope not – I don't want the original to become topical, after all.