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8. James Blish (1957), Year 2018!

This book was my response to the 'Doesn't belong to me' prompt when I did the book a day meme back in June. I hadn't actually read it yet at that point, but had spotted it on my Dad's bookshelves, and felt it deserved to be read in this year of all years. The cover looks like this, and was at once promising and off-putting:

2018-06-03 19.42.20.jpg

I mean, on the one hand that's a great example of a hand-painted pulp SF cover; but on the other in my experience novels with that sort of cover tend in practice towards jet-packs and misogyny. Thankfully, now that I've read it, I can confirm that the latter expectation was entirely unfair. This is actually a very thoughtful vision of what the future might look like from the standpoint of 1957.

It is true that the author cannot mention his female characters without specifying whether they are pretty or not - a dynamic which does not apply to the men. But there are at least a whole two of them (out of a cast of only about seven meaningfully-developed characters), and both are intelligent, autonomous working women. We meet Anne Abbott first, who appears to be an ordinary receptionist at a medical research company called Pfitzner, but is actually the daughter of one of its leading scientists, with a role which is as much about industrial espionage and politics as anything else. Then later comes Evita 'Eva' Chavez whose Latin name 'no longer meant anything among the West's uniformly mixed-race population', and who works in a base on one of the moons of Jupiter helping to build a bridge on Jupiter itself using remote-controlled robots. She is 'apt to become enthralled by the sheer Cosmicness Of It All, precisely at the moment when cold analysis and split-second decisions were most crucial'. She is also desperate to have a child, and although she attempts to persuade one of her fellow bridge-workers to provide the necessary sperm so that she can go on to raise the child by herself, this isn't really so much about her agency and self-determination as it is a set-up so that the book can end up with her (and him) ready and willing to go out and populate the stars. So, yeah, she in particular reflects the fact that this book was written in the 1950s - but its female characters are less objectified, two-dimensional and confined by their gender roles than I'd expected.

As for the book's vision of humanity's future, its main concern lies with issues of culture and imperialism - the rise and fall of power-blocs, the nature and impact of powerful states and corporations, the limits of human endeavour. Indeed, the feel of the USA being an empire in decline is evoked at one point by reference to that most iconic of all fallen empires when a character mentions that the current Senate 'had been involved in scandal after scandal of more than Roman proportions'. As you would expect given the date of writing, Blish has assumed that Cold War conditions will still apply in the early 21st century. But he is not particularly focused on the earth-bound politics of this, and his characters are all American, so there aren't lots of jarring references to the USSR. Instead, the story unfolds within a general framework of west vs. east which matches the real 2018 perfectly well.

Other things which also rang surprisingly true for a 21st-century reader included scientists suspected of being insufficiently patriotic receiving hate-mail from members of the public; religious fanatics who believe the Earth is flat; intrusive advertising (it comes out of bubbles which float into a taxi cab and burst releasing scents and a spoken message); and a sort of internet / Kindle consisting of pages of a book projected onto a screen and scrolling by at a rate perfectly calibrated to the user's personal reading speed. Indeed, the main science-fictional element of the story which didn't match up to the reality of 2018 was the fact of human beings permanently stationed around Jupiter, flights able to get them back and forth from there to Earth and major projects being carried out in space. And given that a central theme of the book is why, in spite of all this, space exploration has actually atrophied, advancing far less than people in the middle of the 20th century might have expected, even the mis-match between our reality and Blish's imagination is part of the story. Our efforts at space exploration have just been even more underwhelming than he anticipated, is all.

His scenario is that cumulative scientific discoveries have created a situation where only the government can afford to fund the extremely expensive experiments required to achieve any further advances. But like any government it only really wants to pay for pretty much sure-fire projects, and as US society has also become very authoritarian it particularly prefers to pay competent but unimaginative people to carry out the work, while discouraging freedom of information. This relates back to Blish's cultural thinking, where part of what he is exploring is a setting in which the USSR has effectively won the Cold War, not politically or militarily but by putting the West under constant pressure for 50 years until they 'Sovietized' themselves. Between this and the expense factor, the combined result has been a creative drought and huge slow-down in new advances, so that there are no major space expeditions and in particular no break-throughs in speed which might allow travel to other solar systems.

Amongst all this, one rogue senator named Bliss Wagoner has great things in mind. He's not on centre stage very much, but over the course of the book we gradually learn through the eyes of other characters that after consulting an equally unconventional scientist, he has developed a scheme to break the scientific dead-lock by developing both an anti-gravity device for further, faster space travel and anti-agathic (i.e anti-mortality) drugs so that human beings can live long enough to reach and colonise the places travelled to. His goal is to preserve western culture by sending westerners out into space to do all this first, while fully accepting that human society on Earth will be destroyed by the anti-mortality drugs. 'It's going to be the bigger, blackest social explosion the West ever had to take,' he declares - because for example of the way in which it will all the destroy assumptions on which religion and insurance built, not to mention causing a huge and uncontrollable population explosion.

The Bridge on Jupiter, which is trailed right from the front cover of the book, transpires to be part of the anti-gravity experiments. It is supposed to provide a fixed platform under extreme known gravity conditions for the purpose of conducting gravity experiments, and is built out of Jupiter's own ice, mined by robots controlled remotely by humans like Eva. They have to have special conditioning before they go out in order to cope with the distance from home and the horrible experience of the work, and we get some very good descriptions of the uncanny eeriness for them of working through VR headsets to build and repair the bridge, constantly battling against the wild elements on Jupiter's surface. Meanwhile, the bridge itself leads from nowhere to nowhere, a perpetual and unending effort to push back against the conditions on Jupiter, which would otherwise tear it apart. It just might be a metaphor for something.

As for the anti-agathic drugs, these have been developed by cultivating any and all organic compounds brought back in mineral samples from planets and moons across the solar system, and then testing them at Pfizner on babies from a foundling hospital. It's a pretty bleak world all around, then, and is supposed to come across as such. When characters forge connections with one another, there's a feeling of them doing it against the odds - small, passing moments of humanity in spite of it all. Even after the triumph of Bliss Wagoner achieving inter-stellar space flight and sending off the first explorers to find brave new worlds at the end, a closing chronology of subsequent events shows that it all ends up in a load of wars and death anyway. Indeed, if I've understood correctly, this is a prequel to at least one pre-existing book set later in the same universe, so presumably most of its original readers would have known that already from the first page.

To me, though, that's all only appropriate to its central themes of rival power-blocs and their consequences. I would much rather have read a thinky book about the consequences of imperialism than the jet-packs and misogyny I was expecting. Blish was obviously a serious scientist as well, demonstrating a good solid grounding in the relevant fields of medicine, space flight etc. to the extent of including occasional chemical diagrams to illustrate his points. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by this book, not to mention somehow comforted to find that as badly as we seem to be fucking things up here in the early 21st century, someone in the 1950s imagined nothing very different and possibly something worse. Glad not to have disappointed too badly...

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 17th, 2018 10:24 am (UTC)
That sounds fantastic. And now I sorta want to write a story called Jet-Packs And Misogyny.
Nov. 17th, 2018 02:26 pm (UTC)
That would definitely be fun. I'm imagining a kind of Zapp Brannigan figure as the main character...
Nov. 18th, 2018 10:42 am (UTC)
Oh yes!!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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