Section 9

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982): I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (1985)

Lecture 9:
New Wave SF (ii)

Dangerous Visions


Harlan Ellison: Dangerous Visions (1967)

Everyman, Protag and Ubermensch

Harlan Ellison (1934- )

It’s one thing to characterise the transition to New Wave as ‘shock tactics, tricks with typography, one-line chapters, strained metaphors, obscurities, obscenities, drugs, Oriental religions and left-wing politics,’ as Kingsley Amis did in his Jeremiad against the form (included in his 1981 anthology The Golden Age of Science Fiction).

Is that better, or worse, than what Stanislaw Lem calls ‘the whole threadbare lot of telepaths, cosmic wars, parallel worlds, and time travel’ employed by previous SF writers? Certainly the desire of J. G. Ballard – in such stories as his classic ‘The Voices of Time’ (1960) – to explore (as he himself put it) ‘inner’ rather than ‘outer’ space seemed to make sense to all but die-hard Sci-Fi purists at the time.

There are other reasons for seeing this shift in the fictional weather as somewhat prescient, however. After the débâcle of the 2017 Oscars, where the wrong film was announced as ‘Best Picture,’ New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik speculated that we might indeed be living in the kind of computer simulation envisaged by the Wachowski Brothers’ 1999 film The Matrix:

The thesis that we are in a simulation is … far from a joke, or a mere conceit. The argument, actually debated at length at the American Museum of Natural History just last year, is that the odds are overwhelming that ours is a simulated universe. The argument is elegant. Because the advance of intelligence seems like the one constant among living things – and since living things are far likelier than not to be spread around the universe – then one of the things that smart living things will do is make simulations of other universes in which to run experiments. (We’re not all that smart, and we’re already starting to do it, modelling large interacting economies and populations on our own, presumably ‘primitive’ computers.)
He’s not kidding, it seems. Or rather, he is kidding, but perhaps he shouldn’t be. A universe where George W. Bush or Donald Trump can be elected to the White House, and the people in charge of handing out envelopes to the presenters at the Oscars can be so busy taking selfies that they don’t bother to check them in advance, is clearly not one that makes much sense. As Gopnik continuing: ‘We seem to be living within a kind of adolescent rebellion on the part of the controllers of the video game we’re trapped in, who are doing this for their strange idea of fun.’

However, that’s not the only consequence of this fascinating theory:
Since there will be only one ‘real’ universe, and countless simulated ones, the odds that we are living in one of the simulations instead of the one actual reality are overwhelming. If intelligent life exists, then we are surely likely to be living in one of its Matrices. ... As Clara Moskowitz, writing in Scientific American, … explains succinctly, ‘A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors. They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.’
When I was growing up in the 1960s, we got very used to presenters in white coats walking around laboratories trumpeting how some new discovery or other – Tang, Velcro, the Moon-rocket – would once have seemed like ‘science fiction.’

As the decades rolled by, it turned out that more people were willing to believe in Stanley Kubrick’s ability to fake the moon landings than regarded it as possible that we had actually succeeded in going there. After all, the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey looked so much more convincing than the grainy TV images which were the best NASA could provide.

Gopnik’s article concludes as follows:
Whether we are at the mercy of an omniscient adolescent prankster or suddenly the subjects of a more harrowing experiment than any we have been subject to before (is our alien overlords’ funding threatened, thus forcing them to ‘show results’ to the grant-giving institution that doubtless oversees all the simulations?), we can now expect nothing remotely normal to take place for a long time to come. They’re fiddling with our knobs, and nobody knows the end.

Or perhaps, let us pray, it’s just that someone forgot to plug in an important part of the machine, and, when they spot the problem, they’ll plug us back in to the usual psychological circuits. Let’s hope for a sudden mysterious surge of energy, and then normalcy again. But don’t count on it. Expect the worst. Oh, wait. It’s already happened.

‘Who is this Slovenian?’ – Slavoj Žižek (1949- )

Har-de-har-har. What a card! But wait, when you start to think about it, as cultural critic Slavoj Žižek points out in ‘A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,’ his ingenious analysis of the Freudian ‘family romance’ in Hollywood films, it’s always breakdowns in the nuclear family that need to be resolved before a solution can be found to whatever global catastrophe is pending:
The films which are furthest from family dramas are catastrophe films, which cannot but fascinate the viewer with a spectacular depiction of a terrifying event of immense proportions. This brings us to the first psychoanalytic rule of how to read catastrophe movies: we should avoid the lure of the ‘big event’ and re-focus on the ‘small event’ (familial relations), reading the spectacular catastrophe as an indication of the family trouble. Take Steven Spielberg: the secret motif than runs through all his key films – ET, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List - is the recovery of the father, of his authority.
This scenario works particularly well in the case of The War of the Worlds (2005):
Tom Cruise plays a divorced working class father who neglects his two children; the invasion of the aliens reawakens in him the proper paternal instincts, and he rediscovers himself as a caring father – no wonder that, in last scene, he finally gets the recognition from his son who, throughout the film, despised him. … One can effectively imagine the film without the blood-thirsty aliens: what remains is in a way ‘what the film really is about,’ the story of a divorced working-class father who strives to regain the respect of his two children.
Once you’ve been alerted to this pattern, it’s difficult to avoid seeing it everywhere. It may be a bit mischievous of Žižek to claim that, in purely plot terms, the point of hitting the iceberg in James Cameron’s Titanic was not ‘simply the punishment of Fate for [Kate and Leo’s] double transgression (illegitimate sexual act; crossing the class divisions),’ rather it was:

to prevent what would undoubtedly have been the true catastrophe, namely the couple's life in New York – one can safely guess that soon, the misery of everyday life would destroy their love. The catastrophe thus occurs in order to save their love, in order to sustain the illusion that, if it were not to happen, they would have lived ‘happily forever after’...

Harlan Ellison (1934- )

However, it's increasingly plain that by comparison with this kind of thing, the ‘dangerous visions’ included in Harlan Ellison’s 1967 ‘New Wave’ anthology of the same name would have to be seen as not really dangerous enough to earn the title. They do have their uses, nevertheless.

Just as it’s as well to be reminded from time to time that solving the internal stresses in your family won’t really have the effect of repelling an alien invasion (or, for that matter, preventing a meteorite from striking the earth), it might be useful to be aware that not all plots operate along the same lines. The increasingly complex and sophisticated interfusions of daily life with technological advancement characteristic of the later work of Philp K. Dick (in particular) may prove better guides to what we have in store for us than such reductionist pieces of space opera.

Ridley Scott, dir. Blade Runner (1982)

Auckland by night already looks increasingly like a set for Blade Runner (1982) – based, as it is, on Dick’s 1968 classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – but a quick leaf through his collected stories (now available in a comprehensive five-volume edition) will provide you with many more such examples of future shock (to quote the title of Alvin Toffler’s 1970 bestseller).

If we’re actually computer simulations of individual consciousnesses rather than ‘real’ beings in our own right, we probably need to pay more attention to the rules of the master-narratives that animate us. Tom Cruise’s familial responsibilities are not really going to hack it in the long run, I’m afraid. Stories such as Dick’s late masterpieces ‘Chains of Air, Web of Aether,’ ‘Strange Memories Of Death,’ or ‘I Hope I Will Arrive Soon’ (all written 1979-80) may have rather more to offer in this respect, given the constant interplay between the author’s paranoid doubts about the reality of what he saw around him – manifest from an early age – and his immersion therapy of choice: the plot devices of classic, golden age SF.

Jack Ross, ed.: Landfall 214 (2007)

Creative Portfolio (i)

A chance to share as much as possible of the final draft of your fiction portfolios before their date of submission in a couple of weeks’ time.

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