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Volume 9

Tall Tales - January 2012


Written by
Fouad Khan

They trained him to be an engineer. Given the healthy disrespect he’d always had for deadlines though, Fouad knew he was born to be a writer. He’s been using literary excuses to explain away his tardiness and other character flaws ever since. The engineer in him finds this a very elegant solution.


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Frankenstein has Pimples and Goes to Comic-Con


As rain might have run down the glass of Villa Diodatti’s Victorian panes like so much nervous sweat, and the days of a dank, swollen summer by Lake Geneva slipped past her like a stranger in a rustling black raincoat on a shivery dark night, what would Mary Shelley have made of the male cohabitants of her quarter of dread? Would she have thought of men as intellects, towering above her with their inimitable talents or would she have seen half-baked creatures of pure rationality’s creation with big metal screws where ears should have been?

We have extensive records of that holiday. After all, men of letters such as Lord Byron and Percy Shelley were there, not to mention our distinguished woman of letters, Mary Shelley herself. One account is captured in her novel Frankenstein, where the “dreary night” sets the stage for the rise of the man-machine antagonist so drearily as to wake up the monster almost all by itself. No denying that the rain, the villa, the fog-drenched lake and the gloomy nights of incessant storytelling influenced her creation of literature’s first ever novel length tale of science fiction; however, the atmospherics must have been only part of what she took away from that summer spent indoors with Byron and Shelley. There’d be more of those days, more than mere ambience, that she’d go on to capture inFrankenstein. And what she’d bury there, like the forgotten cadavra of an unfortunate murder mystery victim, would rise decades later to influence the very direction in which science fiction would evolve.

 One morning in September of 1974, somewhere deep within the bowels of the behemoth called Pentagon, a letter landed on the desk of a darkly suited agent assigned to the investigation of Cold War anti-American activities in the homeland.  The letter read, in part,

“… [Stanislaw] Lem is probably a composite committee rather than an individual… [trying] to gain monopoly positions of power from which they can control opinion through criticism and pedagogic essays is a threat to our whole field of science fiction and its free exchange of views and ideas… In earlier material which I sent to you I indicated their evident penetration of the crucial publications of our professional organization SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS OF AMERICA. Their main successes would appear to be in the fields of academic articles, book reviews and possibly through our organization the control in the future of the awarding of honors and titles.

I think, though, at this time, that their campaign to establish Lem himself as a major novelist and critic is losing ground; it has begun to encounter serious opposition: Lem’s creative abilities now appear to have been overrated and Lem’s crude, insulting and downright ignorant attacks on American science fiction and American science fiction writers went too far too fast and alienated everyone but the Party faithful (I am one of those highly alienated)…”

The letter was signed, “Philip K. Dick”.

To any fans of science fiction, and those keeping track of the history of development of the genre, this letter marks a crucial turning point; the verbal manifestation of a philosophical conflict that tore at the very soul of the medium from diametrically opposed directions. On the one hand there was Lem and his critique of mass produced, mass consumed, commoditized American science fiction; a product, at its worst, just as intellectually repulsive as the twatty little moniker it came to be identified with; “Sci-fi”. On the other hand, there were wildly popular and successful writers like Philip K. Dick who saw themselves as exploring the possibilities of technological determinism, and viewed Lem’s fiction as dull expressions of the workings of an iron-curtained imagination.

It is hard to even conceptualize the conflict unless you’ve read Stanislaw Lem. For the uninitiated, Lem was a Polish postwar writer who first shot to fame when his novel Solariswas adapted for screen by the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972. The novel was replete with long, pseudo-academic passages about the history of science and elaborate, again academically dry descriptions of the behavior of an ocean intelligence that covered the entire surface of the planet Solaris.

Tarkovsky’s movie opened up with a five-minute shot of a metropolitan with traffic flowing across its highways and roads in a seemingly random dance of efficiency, and the narrative going nowhere. Many would leave the theater during those first five minutes. Tarkovsky later admitted that he intentionally wanted the idiots to leave the cinema halls; this was not a tale for the intellectually impatient.
Lem hardly ever wrote anything for those who – as Dylan would say – never understood that it ain’t no good to let other people get their kicks for them. Lem’s science fiction was for those who were willing to put an effort into their quest for literary gratification. And gratification was plentiful to be had: a strange mix of intellectual, philosophical and spiritual awareness, once you’d invested yourself in Lem’s deep, ponderous prose. In His Master’s Voice, a novel pretending to be the memoirs of a Nobel Laureate mathematician, Lem digs deep into the annals of mathematics, philosophy, cognitive sciences, Artificial Intelligence and Cold War politics to pull out a gem of a book about what it means to be an ‘intelligent species’. The mathematician recounts his days working on the His Master’s Voice project, a Manhattan-project-like multidisciplinary endeavor to decipher a message from outer space. Thousands of scientists, philosophers and theoreticians are gathered in a makeshift base in Nevada to make sense of the message. The tone of the work is very academic, in parts it reads like a journal paper but as it races towards the end the reader finds his heart beating to the tune of a true intellectual thriller. You feel like you’ve been chosen to be a prophet and God’s about to reveal some great, eternal, universal secret to you.

At one point in His Master’s Voice one of the characters, lost for ideas on how to decode the message from space, starts perusing the pages of contemporary science fiction. Using this setup, Lem launches into a tirade against the laziness of contemporary American sci-fi, blaming it for vapidity and an utter bankruptcy of ideas.

The Association of American Sci-fi Writers, which had offered Lem an honorary membership didn’t take too kindly to this criticism and his membership was rescinded. That’s how Philip K. Dick, whom Lem had singled out as the only American sci-fi writer deserving praise, ended up writing a letter to the FBI reporting Lem’s ‘anti-American’ activities. Such were the days of the Cold War, where paranoia was rampant and commonsense and magnanimity were in short supply, even amongst men of letters. 

It would be impossible for all science fiction to be as good as His Master’s Voice, but all science fiction should at least aspire for similarly lofty aims. The question here is: “what is science fiction?” Is science fiction inspired of the imagined possibilities of technology, no different from the possibilities borne of say witchcraft or sorcery, to tell the same old white knight tales in garbs of futurism? Or is science fiction supposed to inquire into the very nature of knowledge to explore the limitations or capabilities of science?

One distinction could be drawn between technologically speculative fiction or technological fiction and science fiction. If we analyze most post-Dune science fiction using this categorization we would notice that it could at best be termed technological fiction. In Dick’s now almost canonized work Now Wait for Last Year, the narrative shifts from present to future to past and present again, as the protagonist tries to make sense of the unraveling reality around him. Dead characters come back to life and die again, only for the reader to never really give a hoot about either occurrence. In some inspirational passages – trying to recreate the spirit of Woodstock maybe – women’s nipples hold intense meaningful “eye” contact with the narrator at (futuristic, experimental) drug binges. The meandering narrative collapses into a predictably nihilistic dystopian past-future where life (and, in my opinion, the narrative) has lost all meaning. Similarly “mind-blowing” realizations mark the end of novels like The Scanner Darkly, where the narrator wakes up to the fact that his reality had been constructed entirely by proto-fascistic corporations through use of drugs and through binding entire economies around the drug trade. Even when “sci-fi” does aspire for greater truths and deeper meanings, it gives up on the narrative medium altogether as in the case of the iconic movie and literary saga2001: A Space Odyssey. What happens at the end? The likes of Windows 95 screensavers flash on the cinema screen and ta-da… the star-child is born! It doesn’t need to be that way. The choice between profundity and narrative cohesion is a false one.

At its best, say in the hands of a master such as Lem, science fiction does two things: a) it mimics science in texture and voice, bringing verisimilitude to the story through verbiage and academic culture; and through that, b) it seems to create new ‘scientific’ knowledge. The best of any type of fiction aspires to these two benchmarks. There’s realism through detail and there’s the illusion of creation of a new reality. If science fiction is to be ‘literature’ of any credible quality, it must not give up on achieving these two goals. Most science fiction today, however, comes prepackaged with a pill of ‘suspension of disbelief; from page one, nay, the illustration on the cover, you are supposed to leave the questioning parts of your brain outside. The drug takes you to the future because it does… this is science fiction, fool!


 There’s definitely a note to be made here for Cold War politics and its influence on the conceptualization of science fiction as well. Where Lem’s fiction, for instance, saw itself as distinct from the reader, almost adopting a godly voice of wisdom towards the readership – which was viewed as a body of students to be dispensed education to – the shape American sci-fi was to take was dictated by the “market” and its fickle demands interpreted by business-school graduates employed by publishing houses, and not by the authors themselves.

Just as “intelligence” in America was reduced to a measure of memorization of insignificant factoids through popularization of the game show genre on TV, sci-fi was reduced to technology worship through melding of the distinction between science fiction and fantasy to create a product that appealed to a broader market base.
So if the collapse of USSR and the failure of socialism could be interpreted as a lesson in humanity, a majority opting for a system of greater personal freedom, the overwhelming success of American (style) sci-fi may be interpreted as the rise of the “lowest common denominator” in appreciation of arts in a genre; the one genre in literature which really, should have been left to those who knew best, in service of those who brought a genuine intellectual curiosity to fore in pursuit of literary pleasures. Science fiction turned into flying blue aliens and painstakingly choreographed spaceship dogfights when it was hijacked by the growing army of ‘fanboys’ who’d been raised on a diet of marvel comics for literature and Apollo propaganda for science.


“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together – I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion… What terrifies me will terrify others; and I need only describe the specter that had haunted my midnight pillow.” Mary Shelley said of the nightmare at Villa Diodatti that was to become her inspiration for the novel Frankenstein.

What Shelley wouldn’t live to see is how characters not very unlike her “pale student of unhallowed arts” would go on to become the “market segment” that would hijack the genre her novel would inspire, rendering it as lifeless a medium as the monster Frankenstein.

Have you ever been to or known anyone who visits Comic-Con; the annual celebration of all things ‘nerd’? For if you did, you’d be better able to understand what the ‘median consumer’ of sci-fi looks like. The problem with sci-fi today is the problem with most things in a world where success in measured in terms of units shipped: commoditization. Science fiction has been commoditized and in order to make a merchandise of something and a need to develop a ‘market’ for it. The market, unfortunately, is made up of pale students of unhallowed arts. And what they want their fiction to celebrate is nothing other than technology; the most unhallowed of all disciplines of human knowledge. According to a survey published in Science Fiction Studies, 89% of sci-fi readers are male, and almost 40% of them have very few friends who are also sci-fi readers. Reading sci-fi is not a social activity. (1)

I know someone who visits Comic-Con every year, loves ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and can’t get enough of Philip K. Dick. He’s a graduate student in Physics at an Ivy League school. He couldn’t read His Master’s Voice because he thought it was ‘boring’. If you want to irk him, all you need to do is explain to him an xkcd comic that he misunderstood or didn’t otherwise get. Sometimes when he’s ‘waxing eloquent’ about the nuanced greatness of the original Star Wars, sprinkling his conversation with quaint little filmmaking and technological factoids – nothing you can’t find on a thousand geek blogs – I look at him and I wonder, which ‘market forces’ jolted this Frankenstein monster to life.

He’s the geek. He’s the nerd. He’s just playing his part. He’s cool these days. Science fiction – no, it’s not about exploring the fringes of human knowledge, it’s about wearing T-Shirts that say, ‘Are you the Kwisatz Haderach? I’ve got your worm right here’. And don’t you try to tell him otherwise, because sci-fi, it’s ‘his thing’.




1) http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/13/berger13.htm

Photo credits:

1. Portrait of Stanislaw Lem: polandhere.blogspot.com

2. Alien baby: original image from acidcow.com; text inserted by Fouad Khan



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