Sunday, 27 April 2008

Cities in Flight, by James Blish

One of the founding fathers of the science fiction community, the UK-based American author James Blish is chiefly remembered for his short story collections based on Star Trek, a project that occupied him from 1967 up to his death from lung cancer in 1975, at the comparatively early age of 54. This is unfortunate because he was an excellent writer who won the 1959 Hugo Award for his thoughtful novel A Case of Conscience.

Blish’s most ambitious work, however, is Cities in Flight, which has been compared with the Foundation Trilogy. Though failing in execution to match Asimov's masterwork, Cities in Flight is certainly comparable in scope, spanning nearly two millennia from the crucial discoveries that made interstellar travel practical in the year 2018 to the "Ginnunga-Gap" in 4004. The work is generally encountered in a single volume, but actually comprises four separate novels, which in order of the events they describe are They Shall Have Stars (aka Year 2018!), A Life for the Stars, Earthman, Come Home and A Clash of Cymbals (aka The Triumph of Time).
The first volume describes a near-future in which the Cold Peace has resulted in the bureaucratic regimes in Washington and Moscow becoming equally repressive.

Anticipating that the West will eventually be absorbed by the Soviets, an American senator, Bliss Wagoner promotes two crucial projects. The first is a practical space drive, the Dillon-Wagoner graviton polarity generator or "spindizzy"; the second is an anti-agathic or longevity drug. Wagoner flees to Jupiter V (Amalthea?) and organises the first interstellar expedition. He is later arrested and condemned to death, but dies knowing he has secured a future for mankind beyond the reaches of the bureaucratic state that will dominate Earth for centuries.

The second and third volumes are set over a millennium later. By now, the bureaucratic state is long gone and after a long-running struggle with an imperialism known as the Vegan Tyranny, Earth has become the Milky Way's third great civilisation. We follow the career of New York City, which following the example of practically every major city on Earth has "gone Okie", that is to say gone aloft to flee Earth's economic slump and seek work on the planets settled by descendants of the expedition sponsored by Bliss Wagoner.

In effect a gigantic spindizzy-powered spaceship, New York is under the rather Machiavellian leadership of Mayor John Amalfi, though supreme authority is vested in a computer complex known as the City Fathers. A Life for the Stars describes how Chris De Ford is impressed aboard Scranton, Pennsylvania when that steel-town goes Okie, only to be offloaded on New York. There he does sufficiently well there to be appointed City Manager, though for reasons more to do with haphazard manner in which the work evolved, by the time of Earthman, Come Home, he has been shot by the City Fathers.

Earthman sees the first appearance of De Ford's replacement, Mark Hazelton, whose endless shenanigans cause Amalfi no end of grief. New York is caught up in interstellar wars, tangles with "bindlestiffs" (bandit cities), faces bankruptcy when the galactic Germanium Standard collapses, and thwarts an attempt by the Vegans to destroy Earth. There are continual run-ins with Earth's and local police forces. Finally, she is forced to leave the galaxy proper and settle on a planet in the Greater Magellanic Cloud, where a struggle follows with another "bindlestiff" city known as the Interstellar Master Traders.

In the final volume, A Clash of Cymbals, Earth's interstellar empire has been conquered by a new imperialism, the Web of Hercules. New York is permanently grounded on the planet now known as New Earth, with only Amalfi nostalgic for the old space-faring days. Then comes news that the entire Universe will be annihilated in just three years time....

In Norse mythology, the Ginnunga-gap was, in the words of H.R. Ellis Davidson, "a great emptiness which was nevertheless pregnant with the potential power of creation". Blish manages to capture the essence of this notion with astonishing power. The date of the catastrophe, 4004 AD, is a reference to Archbishop Ussher’s calculated date of 4004 BC for the Creation.

Though an immensely satisfying space opera, Cities in Flight suffers from the rather piecemeal fashion in which it was put together. The core volume of the work, Earthman, is itself comprised of four novellas spliced together - Okie, Bindlestiff, Sargasso Sea of Lost Cities, and Earthman, Come Home, and was the first to be written. Blish then added a prequel, They Shall Have Stars, then A Clash of Symbols and finally Blish backtracked to write A Life for the Stars, which is aimed primarily at younger readers. He admits this leads to a lack of economy in the work, but there are also some inconsistencies. The timescales in Earthman do not match the chronology of the work as a whole and the conquest of Vega is described therein as nothing more than a police action. Only later is it revealed as a full scale interstellar war involving Wagoner's colonists and the first wave of Okies to leave Earth. Another unfortunate consequence is that the work's best character, Chris De Ford, appears in only one volume. It would have been very interesting to follow the relationship between this likeable young man and the ruthless Amalfi in subsequent adventures, but by this time Blish seems to have tired of the project.

The plotting is sometimes unconvincing, and in particular the analogy with the migrant workers ("Okies") of the Great Depression is at times rather strained. The Okies need anti-agathics (which cannot be synthesised and must be harvested), germanium (for trade), oil (raw material for synthesising foodstuffs), and "power metals" (uranium?). They are required by law to earn these materials by honest endeavour, which is fair enough if they want to mine or harvest an inhabited planet or system, but what is wrong with obtaining them from planets which are not inhabited?

One of Cities in Flight's strongest points is the use of anti-agathics to keep the same characters alive through action that spans centuries, enabling character-development of a kind impossible in the Foundation Trilogy, where the strictly-mortal cast constantly changes. But the characters, though strongly drawn, are mostly unlikeable. Only the teenage De Ford and his mentor Frad Haskins are likely to evoke any reader sympathy.

Cities in Flight has been described as influenced by Spengler's cyclical view of civilisation, but these ideas strike me as being peripheral to the story line.

An interesting feature of Cities in Flight is that it goes into the theory behind the spindizzy in some detail, even quoting "Blackett-Dirac equations" describing a relationship between rotation, gravity and magnetism. Though the equations are fictitious, the British astronomer Paul Blackett did speculate that a relationship between rotation and magnetism might actually exist, in an attempt to explain how large electrically neutral bodies like the Earth, the Sun and Jupiter possess magnetic fields. Others speculated that the relationship might extent to gravity. The theory was eventually abandoned when other means were found of explaining the phenomenon, but not before Blish had picked up on the idea.

Its quirks and limitations notwithstanding, it is a fact that Cities in Flight has remained in print for well over forty years. This in itself marks it out as one of the greatest of all science-fiction works.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Captain Hornblower in Space: Naval Warfare and Science Fiction

Some years ago came across a personal website whose owner had listed his favourite works of science fiction and had included the Hornblower novels. He had stated that he was quite serious in classifying the adventures of C.S. Forester's inestimable hero as science fiction.

In fact difference between stories about Nelson's navy and some science fiction is not as great as you might imagine. The adventures of Horatio Hornblower heavily involve a technology that is not, at the current time, in use by mankind. They differ from science fiction only in that the technology they involve has been superseded; as opposed to yet to be invented.

Consider huge fighting machines, the most powerful fighting machines in the world. Constructed of wood and powered by the wind, they sail the oceans of the world. They can operate alone, or in great fleets. They can be at sea for literally years at a time, never touching port, being re-provisioned from tenders. It does begin to sound a bit like a science fiction story, set on a world a couple of centuries behind present-day Earth.

Of course, these stories are not science fiction, they are based firmly on historical fact. But it would be interesting to see how much science fiction they have inspired. The late Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was inspired in part by the Hornblower novels - one Next Generation episode features a Federation starship named the USS Sutherland, in honour of the 74 gun ship-of-the-line skippered by Hornblower in one of his many run-ins with the French. And when – many years ago now, of course – Star Trek premiered on BBC Television, the Radio Times very aptly introduced Captain James T. Kirk as a “space-going Captain Hornblower” .

Naval warfare in the days of sail might have also at least partly inspired an ingenious series of novels by the late Bob Shaw. The "Ragged Astronaut" trilogy envisaged a war between the humanoid inhabitants of two planets so close together that their atmospheres touched. Though technologically about as advanced as the Earth of Napoleonic times, the Landers and Overlanders were able to constrict a fleet of "wooden spaceships" which fought in the gravitationally neutral plane between the twin planets (Shaw got round the scientific implausibility of such a planetary system by setting the series in a parallel universe where different laws of physics and mathematics applied – for example the mathematical constant pi was exactly three).

Naval warfare has made its mark on science fiction in other ways. How often, for example, is the term "battlecruiser" encountered in novels and movies dealing with space warfare? "Battlecruiser" conjures up a vision of a fast, powerful warship. It somehow sounds more impressive than a battleship, the latter suggestive of a sturdy but lumbering battlewagon. Up to and during World War I, this was in fact a fairly accurate picture, and even admirals were seduced by battleship-sized warships, mounting comparable firepower, but capable of much greater speed.

The battlecruiser was the brainchild of the remarkable Admiral Sir John Fisher, who revolutionised warship design in the early years of the last century. At that time cruisers and battleships were large warships of roughly equal size: however battleships possessed heavily-armoured hulls and were armed with a mixture of high and medium calibre guns; cruisers by contrast were lightly armoured and had only medium-calibre guns – but they were considerably faster. In an era before radar and aircraft, they acted as the “eyes” of a battle-group, and were fast enough to run away from anything they couldn’t fight.

Many years ago, I explained this to a friend over a few beers and he asked me what would happen if you put a high-calibre armament into a fast, lightly armoured ship. “You’d have a battlecruiser”, I said. In fact it isn’t quite as simple as that. In 1906 Fisher came up with the idea of an “all-big-gun” warship. HMS Dreadnought dispensed with secondary armament and used Parsons turbines rather than reciprocating engines as prime movers. She displaced no more than any other battleship of the time but she was significantly faster and had more than twice the fire-power of any other ship afloat.

HMS Invincible was a spinoff from this design – she was even faster, comparably armed (actually she dropped a couple of 12-inch guns) but her hull was only lightly armoured. Adm. Fisher believed that her speed would keep her out of trouble. The press dubbed the new ship a “battleship-cruiser” and later (because it was somewhat easier on the tongue) a “battlecruiser”.

Battlecruisers scored an early success. The outbreak of hostilities in 1914 found a powerful German battle group in the South Atlantic under the command of Admiral Maximillian von Spee, who was flying his flag in the heavy cruiser SMS Scharnhorst (not to be confused with the later battleship of that name). On 1 November 1914, von Spee’s fleet annihilated a British force at Coronel off the coast of Chile. The cruisers HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope were sunk with all hands and only the light cruiser HMS Glasgow and an auxilliary vessel escaped the rout.

Not for the last time, a British military debacle in the South Atlantic led to a swift counterstroke, and two Invincible-class battlecruisers under the command of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee were dispatched on a mission of retribution. On 8 December 1914 the two fleets clashed off the Falkland Islands and Scharnhorst and her sister ship Gneisenau proved to be no match for the British battlecruisers, which could both outrun them and outgun them. The tables were turned, and although von Spee's ships put up a courageous fight, only the light cruiser SMS Dresden (temporarily) escaped destruction. Despite the best efforts of the British to rescue survivors, 1871 German sailors lost their lives, including Admiral von Spee and his two sons. British casualties were just ten men killed and 19 wounded.

But the battlecruiser’s light hull armour was to prove its Achilles heel. The British lost three spectacularly at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, leading Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty to memorably complain that "there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today". The truth was that battlecruisers were simply not capable of slugging it out on an equal basis with battleships and Fisher's contention that "speed is armour" proved to be tragically naive. Sadly, the lessons of Jutland weren't properly learned and in 1941, HMS Hood, one of the largest and most powerful ships in the world, suffered the same fate while engaging the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. Only three men survived.

By this time, advances in naval technology had made the type obsolete and battleships capable of thirty knots were being built, including the magnificent Iowa class, which saw active service with the US Navy as late as the 1990s.

Battleships and aircraft carriers are the largest moveable fighting machines ever constructed, and the temptation to envisage space-going equivalents has proved irresistible to many a SF writer. I myself made use of it (and many other concepts) in my unpublished novel The War in Time's River. Though this work never found a buyer, I was rather flattered that many of its ideas were subsequently used in the highly-acclaimed SF drama series Babylon 5, though (to the best of my knowledge) nobody involved with the series ever saw a draft of my story.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Fascist Pigs in Space?

Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein & The Forever War (1974) by Joe W. Haldeman

Written fifteen years apart, either side of the Vietnam War, these two award-winning novels both follow the adventures of infantrymen in an interstellar war as Earth fights for her survival against an implacable alien foe. But the two works could not be more different.

Heinlein's Starship Troopers, filmed ten years ago, describes a society set some centuries in the future where only those who satisfactorily complete a minimum two-year term of Federal Service are eligible to vote. The story is narrated by trooper Johnny Rico and follows his progress from enlistment, through training at Camp Arthur Currie (named for the Canadian WW1 general) and subsequent officer training, to his eventual command of a platoon. During his training, war breaks out between Earth and an arthropod life form known as the Bugs. Earth is raided and Buenos Aires is destroyed.

Starship Troopers is not a fast-paced action adventure, but if you have any interest in politics, sociology and social issues, then irrespective of your views, then this controversial book is compulsive reading.

Throughout the novel, Rico frequently recalls the words of his History and Moral Philosophy teachers, Lt-Col. Dubois and Major Reid, and through these recollections, we learn something of how the society in which he lives came into existence, and of the political philosophy which underlies it. In the later years of the Twentieth Century, law and order began to break down all over the world. People dared not venture into public places such as parks after dark. To do so was to risk attack by wolf-packs of delinquent children, armed to the teeth with chains, knives and even home-made firearms. Drug-addiction, vandalism, burglary and violent crime had become commonplace. Even school grounds and buildings provided no refuge from the mayhem. These details sounds particularly jarring now. Remember, Heinlein was writing almost half a century ago.

The 1987 war in which the USA, the Soviet Union and the UK joined forces against the Chinese Hegemony provided the catalyst that led to the birth of the Terran Federation. The Treaty of New Delhi brought about an end to the fighting, but it ignored prisoners of war, with the result that over one hundred thousand British POWS were not released. Many eventually escaped and made their way home, only to find they had no jobs to go to. With national governments collapsing, disaffected war veterans moved in to fill the power vacuum. The first actual take-over occurred in Aberdeen, where a group of veterans got together to form a vigilante committee to stop rioting and looting. They hanged a few people, including two veterans, and decided not to allow anybody but veterans to serve on their committee.

Within a couple of generations, what had started as an emergency measure had become constitutional practice. The franchise is restricted to those who have done their Federal Service because only they, through voluntary and difficult service, have proved that they place the welfare of the group above personal advantage.
In one lecture on the late Twentieth Century, Colonel Dubois gives us an insight into the philosophy that now informs the political life of the Federation. Just as a dog should be beaten in order to house train it, so should juvenile offenders be flogged to teach them right from wrong. He rails on about social workers, the lenient treatment dished out to juvenile offenders, and how do-gooders saw to it that corporal punishment in schools was outlawed. "I do not understand objections to cruel and unusual punishment", he muses. "Man has no moral instinct", he states. He claims that a human being has no natural rights of any nature and finally goes on to take a swipe at the "unalienable rights" of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Predictably, Heinlein has been accused of glorifying war and his Terran Federation described as fascist or at best a society along the lines of Plato’s Republic. While Starship Troopers is first and foremost a science fiction novel, is it also a political manifesto? Does it reflect the views of its author?, or is it a "dystopia" along the lines of Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four or Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, to take three of the best examples of this sub-genre.

Novels about dystopic societies generally feature a disaffected lead character and some sort of mind control, be it the Thought Police of Nineteen Eighty-four or the tranquillising drugs of Levin's novel. But Heinlein's society is free of the latter. The freedom of speech is guaranteed. Johnny Rico, while not entirely uncritical of the society in which he lives, can hardly be described as a dissident and portrays it in a largely positive light.

In all matters other than the franchise, non-citizens, such as Rico's own parents, enjoy equal status with citizens. Rico's parents, for example, are well off. Though corporal and capital punishment are available to the judiciary, they are rarely necessary, as crime rates are low.

Federal Service itself is comparatively enlightened. Nobody has to join a fighting service, even in time of war (Heinlein strongly opposed conscription). You can quit at any time (even prior to going into combat!) and lose nothing except the possibility of earning your franchise (there are no second chances - fair enough). Even deserters are not actively pursued (though why anybody deserts in preference to resigning is not made clear).

The novel tries to justify war and emphasise the honourable traditions of the fighting services. But it does not glorify war as such.

The novel is clearly in favour of the society it describes, though whether Heinlein himself was remains an open question.

The problem with Heinlein's vision of the society of the Terran Federation is that it is idealistic and romanticised. The reality I fear would be very different. To illustrate the point, I have no doubt it would have been possible around 1930 to have written a novel painting a very attractive picture of life under a National Socialist government.

Messrs. Dubois and Reid would probably disagree, but the assertion that Man has no moral instincts is utter nonsense. "Moral instinct" is that instinct which goes beyond the needs of the self, in other words altruism. Dubois implies that altruism is the product of an advanced human society: purely something that man has invented. But this is not the case. Though the subject of altruism in the (non-human) animal kingdom is a complex subject, beyond the scope of this article, biologists do not doubt that it exists.

Paul Verhoeven's 1997 movie is a straightforward action film that bears very little resemblance to Heinlein's novel. The Terran Federation is portrayed as being openly fascist, with military officers wearing Nazi-style uniforms. Whether this is intended as a satire on militarism or even a attack on the book's original values is not clear, but as Verhoeven allegedly failed to even finish reading it, the latter is unlikely.

Starship Troopers is on the reading lists of the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

In contrast to Starship Troopers, The Forever War is a strongly anti-war polemic. Drawing on Haldeman's experiences in the Vietnam War, it follows the progress of trooper William Mandella from his conscription in 1996 to the birth of his son in 3143, during which time he has aged less than a decade due to the effects of relativity. The war is seen through Mandella's jaundiced eyes in the dry conversational style that is Haldeman's trademark.

Discovered in 1985, the collapsar jump has made interstellar travel possible via a network of black holes, the nearest of which, Stargate, is conveniently located half a light year from Earth. But when a colonising vessel is destroyed in the vicinity of Aldebaran, blame falls on an enigmatic alien race known as the Taurans. Colonial ships are henceforth accompanied by warships, and indeed the latter are frequently sent out alone. Finally, it is decided to garrison the "portal planets" of the nearer collapsars, and an elite group of infantry, chosen for their physical and intellectual prowess, are conscripted and sent off to engage the Taurans in ground action.

The only way Mandella and his lover Marygay Potter can get back to Earth is at the end of a combat tour - but because the effects of relativity, while they will only age a couple of years, decades or even centuries could have passed on Earth. By the time Mandella returns to Earth, it has become so alien that he and Marygay both re-enlist. There are two versions of the mid-section of The Forever War, describing Mandella's brief stay on Earth. The original was rejected as being too downbeat, but it has been re-instated in the recently released "author's cut" version of the novel.

Haldeman's conception of army life in the late Twentieth Century is percipient inasmuch that he anticipates women fighting alongside men, but the institutionalised "free love", where troopers are paired off by rota each night, now seems very dated. Haldeman has also been accused of homophobia in describing a society in which homosexuality is encouraged to cut down the birth rate, and the uneasiness felt by the few remaining heterosexuals. But the novel should be viewed in the context of the time it was written and not be berated by "political correctness" enthusiasts.

Haldeman set the novel's beginning in the late Twentieth Century to allow officers and NCOs in the book to be Vietnam veterans; he admits "most people realise we didn't get into an interstellar war in 1996" and even in the 1970s the time scale seemed rather implausible.

Haldeman finally bowed to public pressure to write a sequel to The Forever War, entitled Forever Free, though sadly it failed to live up to the original.

Starship Troopers and The Forever War are products of very different times. Starship Troopers has been described as a "cold war paranoia" novel but although the anti-communist line isn't entirely absent, this novel isn't about the Cold War; it is more inspired by America's role in World War II. While few will dispute that this was a just conflict, fewer still will not agree that Vietnam was – prior to the Iraq War - the greatest foreign policy disaster in US history. After World War II, America's fighting men were feted as heroes; by contrast those who served their country with equal courage in Vietnam (including Haldeman) were treated as an embarrassment. It is hardly surprising that while Heinlein's novel is idealistic, Haldeman's is cynical, highlighting the stupidity and utter futility of war.

© Christopher Seddon 2008