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Border communities

Jakob Kolding

Traveling in and around the borders of science fiction


In principal there are no borders in the world of science fiction that cannot be crossed or dissolved.
You just start out with the assumption that they do not exist. So I guess the life/death border is as good a start as any.


At least since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) the question of what life is, of artificial life and what it means to be human have been recurring subjects in sci-fi, as have various versions of eternal life.

There's also the possibility of being somewhere between life and death having absolutely no clue if you are on one side or the other as is the case in Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick. A story where no one, including the reader, really knows who are the living and who are the dead whilst their bodies are placed in a freezer with their brains still active with only the last remnants of life. There they are being heavily influenced by an equally dead, young, over-imaginative boy who interferes with all attempts at communication between them and the living. Everyone is fairly certain to be the ones alive with a firm hold on reality. However doubts start to creep in as they find weird messages above the urinal when going for a piss.


One great thing about sci-fi is that it's possible to create a whole universe from scratch and define its own rules and logic, creating a perfect set-up for testing different ideas and concepts. What would it mean if people could live on after death, had no fixed gender, could read each others minds, travel in time, cross between parallel universes and alternative realities, turn drug hallucinations into reality or choose to organize society in general after a different set of rules than the existing ones?
It's a way of speculating without being stopped by the borders of the obvious.
As a sort of paradox, sci-fi sometimes seems to be incredibly contemporary as the experiments are clearly based on speculations at a very specific point in time. In the 50's sci-fi was full of cold war paranoia (nuclear radiation, aliens, brainwashing), in the 60īs and 70īs identity, drugs and alternative realities entered the frame, in the 80's cyberspace and virtual realities, followed more recently by issues like nano-technology, globalisation and privatisation.

A very basic technical example is how eternal life used to be based on freezing and reviving whereas now it's more typically based on brain back-ups and body cloning. Sometimes those technological aspects, the science in sci-fi, mean that the books can seem quite dated or even nostalgic later on when the envisioned technology has long since been overtaken by reality (data storing on tape for instance) but I guess that's the risk of trying to "predict" the future. In the end what really matters is of course the relevance of the books' subject matter rather than the accuracy of the technological predictions and whether or not they have become outdated. It is not unlike ignoring those huge things people are carrying around in movies from the time of the early mobile phones and focusing on the story.

What is interesting about the contemporary aspect of sci-fi is looking at what exactly it is that gets explored? What becomes the subject of thought at a specific time, when faced with a world of no limits? Where is it possible to go? What borders can be crossed?

In Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad there's a stunning critique of commercial mass media and how it corrupts democracy. It's incredible how accurately it reflects todayīs climate. But despite the emphasis on media, power and representation, one thing Spinrad seems incapable of imagining is women as anything other than pretty, helpless accessories to the men's activities. Eternal life also plays an important role in the book. This he is capable of imagining. Perhaps the truth is that he has more fun imagining that.

In this he is far from alone. It is astonishing how many authors write about travels in space and time, life after death, outer space species, mind reading, parallel realities.... without ever hitting upon the notion that women, even in some far off crazy parallel universe, could play any other role than temptress, wife or mother. This of course might have something to do with the fact that by far the most sci-fi books are written by straight white men. A fact hard to miss.

In the same year that Spinrad wrote his book, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote The Left Hand Of Darkness in which the subject of gender plays a very different role. Here, an Earthman arrives at the world of Gethen where the inhabitants have no fixed gender. Rather, the inhabitants' gender changes in cycles and according to whom they are with at what time. The Earth man, an ethnologist, plays a classic explorer role, an envoy representing a sort of UN of the universe trying to persuade Gethen to join. In a world with no fixed male/female dichotomy he has to consider a wholly different understanding of gender, culture and social relationships as he ends up as a part in a political battle over power during which he gradually develops a close and intimate relationship with the ex-prime minister of one of the two states.

Charlotte Perkins Gilmanīs Herland (1915) is also a classic explorers story, involving three men who travel to an unknown isolated society made up solely of women, following a map deep into the rainforest. The men simply cannot believe that there are no other men around (it goes against nature!) but it gradually dawns on them that the women really succeeded in constructing a utopian society and have even been able to reproduce without the aid of men. Each man plays the part of three stereotypical male stances towards women. One of them feels that once the women experience a real man they will soon be converted, another adores the women for their beautiful, emotional and sensual qualities and the last has a sort of "objective" scientific approach.

In Trouble on Triton (1976) by Samuel R. Delany, however, the idea of a utopia has been replaced with "an ambiguous heterotopia" as the subtitle goes. (The title and the novel itself written in a sort of dialogue with Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An ambiguous utopia (1974)). On Triton (a former colony now at war with the old world, Earth) you can, due to technological advances, choose your own gender and your sexual preferences. And you can choose in what sort of community you want to live, whatever combination of female/male/transgender/gay/straight you can think of. An immigrant and former male prostitute from Mars plays the main character who is trying to find his true self.

And then there are the dystopias. Lots of them.
In We (1920-21) by Yevgeny Zamyatin people live in glasshouses. Every action is visible and every part of life is controlled by the state, 'OneState'. D-503, a scientist, is an enthusiastic advocate of the system - until he falls in love. The woman he falls in love with is part of a resistance group but really the main reason for him falling out of love with the system is that once in love he can no longer look at anything in his "objective" way. Increasingly his language in telling the story dissolves into something very different from the strict ordered grammar of the first pages. His whole viewof the world and identity fall apart and there's a nice scene as he first ventures outside the glass bell encapsulating OneState and steps onto this strange thing called 'grass', hardly able to walk on such an unorganized surface. The book, which was a major influence on George Orwell, was published abroad in various translations but wasn't published in the USSR until 1988.

A Russian novel, which did find it's way past censorship, was Roadside Picnic (1977) by brothers Arkady & Boris Strugatsky. In a small town in Canada there is a Zone, that is closed off and guarded by the state, which contains the leftovers from an alien visit. The story centers on Redrick Schuhart working as a "stalker", someone who illegally enters the Zone to get a hold of alien artefacts which he sells to collectors. The objects are nothing special really, just small things and the title of the book refers to a theory that what is found there is basically just the leftovers from a short stopover on earth, a roadside picnic by some aliens traveling through the universe coming from somewhere else and going somewhere else. You never hear anything about the aliens whatsoever. However, things have changed after their visit and going into the Zone is going into the unknown. Traveling into a space where logic doesn't apply and known laws of nature like gravity don't behave as they should. Surrounded by the military, researchers and bureaucrats traveling into the zone (at the risk of death and mutation of offspring because of the exposure to radiation) is crossing the border to the abstract and irrational. Soldiers are ordered to kill anyone attempting to enter.

Another border much traveled in sci-fi is, of course, time. We all know the basic dilemmas of time travel from films like Terminator, Back To The Future and many more, so here's one of the more depressing versions courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake (1997).

Something weird happens - a timequake - a rupture in time and everybody is sent back from the year 2001 to 1991. Great, you might think, considering that you would still have all your memories and all your experiences of those ten years with you, it should be an opportunity to correct all your wrongs, to do the right thing. But the catch is that you have to replay those ten years without being able to change anything at all, going through every single boring, destroying or embarrassing moment, while still being fully aware of what will happen.

However depressing, that might still not be quite as bad as the fate of Desdemona, the sister of the main protagonist Scribble of Jeff Noon's Vurt (1993). She's caught inside a 'vurt' which is something between a drug and virtual reality. There are legal vurts offering you things such as a Hawaii beach or porn and there are illegal vurts. The sister is caught inside an illegal vurt where you re-live all the bad experiences of your life over and over. Scribble is trying to find her, Orpheus style, but first has to access the vurt she is in through another rare vurt.

It's as if Jorge Luis Borges meets Lewis Carroll and goes clubbing in Madchester.

In Pollen (1995) Noon follows up with a story where the fictional characters from manmade myths residing in vurt try and cross the border into reality. The devil, tired of being confined to fiction, finds his way to reality. Passing through the looking glass. And uses flowers to pave his way with consequences for everyone in the real world that any victim of hay fever or asthma can relate to.

But, of course, you don't need to travel in time, into parallel worlds or across the universe…

In A Scanner Darkly (1977) Philip K. Dick has essentially written a socialrealistic autobiographical novel about drug abuse, adding a few futuristic elements. In it a new drug is not only heavily addictive but it severs the two halves of the brain resulting in acute schizophrenia. The main character, Bob Arctor, is an undercover police agent who, to work undercover, has to take the drug himself. On top of this his identity is kept secret even to his superior to whom he reports at the police station and at one point he is asked to follow himself (his drug addict persona) without the superior knowing that that is what he is asking (although aware that it could be so). So a schizophrenic is surveilling himself, having his every movement in his own home videotaped for later viewing. By himself. It can sort of only go wrong.

An altogether different novel using the home as a setting is The Shrinking Man (1956) by Richard Matheson.

Exposed to a weird radioactive cloud (itīs the 50's, you know) the main character slowly starts shrinking. First it leads to an identity crisis in relation to his wife. He grows smaller than her, then he is child size, then he can't drive a car anymore (all highly emasculating), and eventually the terrifying neat suburban neighbourhood becomes a nightmare. Living inside a dollhouse he is attacked by a cat and later, venturing out, by a spider before almost drowning in drops of water in his own basement.

Also staying on familiar territory, J.G. Ballard's Concrete Island (1973) plays out a modern Robinson Crusoe adventure on a small island in the middle of a highway intersection in central London as architect Robert Maitland crashes his Jaguar there. He tries to attract attention with fire and he tries to climb the slopes to find help but only succeeds in being run over by cars either ignoring or overlooking him and thus further injuring himself. Slowly surrendering to his situation, stuck between the busy highways, he sets out for a more permanent stay on this isolated island of modernity.

In Ballard's later novel High Rise (1977), a new high rise complex with everything the upper and middle class urbanites need, becomes the scene of the most unlikely of revolts. The revolt of the upper middle class (as so often with Ballard) and thereby the end of civilization. The building is basically organized after class. At the very top the owner, the architect below him, further down the executive chiefs and at the bottom the BBC producers or university teachers. Literally fighting their way up the class war is not really started off by a sense of class injustice but rather more trivial matters such as placement of doormats, noisy dogs and so on.

It was most likely no coincidence that the Barbican complex in London was completed just one year before this book was written once again showing that sci-fi really can be the most contemporary fiction.

Ballard, by the way, is one of the very very few who have managed to cross perhaps the most difficult, almost impossible, of all borders in sci-fi. That from sci-fi into "high" literature. There is much less of a distinction between "high" and "low" literature in sci-fi. This can be a great asset, allowing freedom from conventions, but it also means that practically none of it is taken seriously within the world of "high" literature . With sci-fi as a whole being seen as pulp trash freedom comes at the price of each individual book being excluded from "serious" literature.

Another effect of jumbling all sci-fi together in it's own corner of the bookstore is that as a reader it's hard to find your way at first and a lot of readers never think of going there at all. So perhaps sometimes it would be helpful to call it anything other than sci-fi simply to avoid it being bordered off by its own stereotypes. Scaring people off with visions of three-eyed green aliens, laser guns and wizards. Or as C.S. Lewis is said to have put it on hearing Tolkein read a day's work on Lord of the Rings to his circle in their Oxford local, "Not another fucking elf."
Starship Nummer 11, Seiten 38ff