20 April 2011

infinity and limitation

Science Fiction (note the capitalisation!), often in Gollancz yellow jackets, played a significant part* in shaping me, culturally and intellectually, during my teens. A prominent name was Arthur C Clarke whose particular rôle, like Jules Verne, was to point the way into a technological future.

The trouble with future gazing is that it is inevitably overtaken by the future itself. Clarke, like Verne, got some things very right but others, inevitably, he got wrong; it's an occupational hazard. The more precisely the writer defines a future, the less future proof the fiction becomes.

I've just been rereading some of Clarke's short stories. Some of them are as fresh as the day they were written; others show how unimaginatively bound we humans are to the temporally and spatially parochial.

Writers, and Clarke is not immune, often see the future in terms of current cutting edge. Looking back from a few decades on, it's noticeable how much science fiction is dominated by the splitting of the atom: no further fundamental development in either physics or military science seems to occur over fictional history subsequent to 1945. A technological point reached after ten thousand years of human development is not expected to change noticeably over the next million.

Clarke's story Superiority, set in a future when whole stellar systems are gained or lost in a military engagement, describes problems with a computer which contains "just short of a million vaccuum tubes". Few people now know what a vacuum tube was; many have never even heard of a transistor, the vacuum tube's replacement before large scale integration of gates on a chip supplanted it in turn.

More startling, though, in its illustration of both imaginative power and limitation, is his Second dawn. This story is remarkable in imagining a ace of creatures (a sort of cross between cow and rabbit, but unable to swim) which have developed powerful intellects but have no hands. Unable to affect the physical world, they have nevertheless achieved a great deal in philosophy, mathematics, certain conceptual arts, through pure power of mind. These creatures, despite their advanced culture, can only hypothesise the existence of other continents on their own world, never mind worlds beyond it. This creation is, for me, a remarkable feat. And yet, the imagination which called forth this thought experiment of a race is unable to transcend 1950s social structure. It is a patriarchal and hierarchic society. All serious thinking and organisation is done by males; the only female in the story is there to offer emotional empathy alone, and her support for ideas is bought with a string of beads for adornment.

To be clear: I'm not criticising Clarke, whom I consider to be an exceptional figure. On the contrary; I'm simply musing on the fact that even an exceptional figure has such closely constraining limitations, and what that says about us all.

*Several significant parts, in fact; but that distinction can wait for another time.

  • Arthur C Clarke, Superiority, in The magazine of fantasy & science fiction. August 1951, Fantasy House.
  • Arthur C Clarke, Second dawn, in Science fiction quarterly. August 1951, Columbia Publications.

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