segunda-feira, abril 24, 2017

Luminiferous Aether: "Four-Day Planet" by H. Beam Piper



“I went through the gateway, towing my equipment in a contragravity hamper over my head. As usual, I was wondering what it would take, short of a revolution, to get the city of Port Sandor as clean and tidy and well lighted as the spaceport area. I knew Dad's editorials and my sarcastic news stories wouldn't do it. We'd been trying long enough.
The two girls in bikinis in front of me pushed on, still gabbling about the fight one of them had had with her boy friend [sic], and I closed up behind the half dozen monster-hunters in long trousers, ankle boots and short boat-jackets, with big knives on their belts. They must have all been from the same crew, because they weren't arguing about whose ship was fastest, had the toughest skipper, and made the most money. They were talking about the price of tallow-wax, and they seemed to have picked up a rumor that it was going to be cut another ten centisols a pound. I eavesdropped shamelessly, but it was the same rumor I'd picked up, myself, a little earlier.”

In “Four-Day Planet” by H. Beam Piper

I used to read/watch SF and was also always careful to be scandalized at how little regard the genre got until I realized that ... well ... an awful lot of it does suck. Or at least, an awful lot of it is an awful lot like an awful lot else. The same five characters, the same one plot. There's good stuff out there, but the signal to noise ratio is lower than almost any other genre of entertainment or literature. Vast, vast, vast swathes of the stuff is bug-eyed monsters, buzz-cuts with guns, female eye-candy, and explosions: the power fantasies of 15 year old boys, in other words. Okay okay, okay, there's some good stuff -- someone will always point out the celestial Octavia Butler or Ursula Le Guin -- but the fact remains, you need to swim through an ocean of silicone and lasers to get to the good stuff. And oftentimes, the target SF demographic (who are all too often a lot more like Comic Book Guy than they want to admit) who rushes to lay claim to writers like Butler and Le Guin to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the oppressive lit-critic are the same ones who sneer at the stuff when asked to turn away from their tits-and-explosions for three seconds to read something that doesn't posit a 1950s Ward-and-June sensibility transplanted into The Future. (I'd always heard how "revolutionary" and "incredible" Asimov's books were, as an example, and I was incredibly disappointed to open the things and find out that his stuff was just one whiter businessman with a briefcase coming home to a pearl-necklace-wearing housewife who said hi-honey-how-was-your-day. Revolutionary? More stodgy and unimaginative to me, it reeked of the dust of the past even at the time it was written.) Even the supposedly "mind-blowing" 2001 movie could posit such "incredible" and "imaginative" things as enormous space babies and colonies on the moon but couldn't do any better than false-eyelash-wearing Space Stewardesses when it came to social imagination. Even at the time that stuff was dusty and stale. And SF is still no better. Again, sure, you can always flap Butler and Tiptree in people's faces, but they are plainly not in the mainstream and are often only mentioned by the core demographic as a means of telling people who call them out on their dull social imaginations to STFU. The ONLY time your typical white-guy SF geek even acknowledged the existence of a novel like "Kindred" is to shut up someone who asks why all the women in modern SF are housewives, harpies, or underwear models. And I can bet you a steak dinner that that same geek hasn't even read it.

In all honesty though, I don't feel any more generous toward fiction of any kind. It's all the same five characters and the same one plot after a while. That's what nonfiction is for -- for when a reader gets sick of the smoothed-out predictability of fiction and wants to see what happens when stuff's actually not within any given "protagonist's" control. For me the problem is not the bad science. It's the bad fiction. But the best SF is, in its very different way, as good as the best literary fiction: that is, it enriches our culture and our lives just as deeply, though sometimes by rather different routes...

And that’s why I love reading vintage SF, the good and the bad. The appeal for me for has always been so I can learn more about what influenced the books that were written today and not for their own sake. Everything comes from somewhere, every author was influenced by some other author, and I enjoy these connections. Reading Vintage SF is like having a conversation with my grandmother, and watching her make the same hand motions as my Mom makes. Today’s SF is the descendants of what came before. Reading currently every Science Fiction anthology I own, just before I will chuck them all out (but the Stanislaw Lem/Robert Sheckley/ Ray Bradbury/ William Gibson/ Robert Silverberg and a few others stay!) Some of them, specifically from the 50-60, are truly awful (remember E.E. “Doc” Smith? Ah, EE Smith's coruscating beams of force ... he introduced these early on in every one of his novels, and then every couple of chapters would want to up the ante, so would have to try and outdo his earlier description, and they would become ravening beams of unimaginable pure power…), but you can still find some hidden gems like this one from H. Beam Piper. Piper has always been one of my favourite vintage SF authors. With Piper it is interesting how a specific subject of science (which is still Fiction) changes. But "science-fiction" is just a catch-all phrase for speculative fiction (SF), not an enforceable limitation. I read a lot of SF, all the way from junk/pulp through to the serious hard-science stuff and the only complaint I ever have about any individual book is if it's badly written. Some of the more glaring errors and redundant theories raise an eye-brow (I love H. P. Lovecraft despite plate tectonics being fifty years in his future and all his mentions of luminiferous aether...) but what the hell, if it's a good book it's a good book. H. Beam Piper wrote a good with SF book no fillers or infodumps at a time when it was very difficult to produce stuff above average.

I also read vintage SF for nostalgia, and that’s awesome as well.



SF = Speculative Fiction.

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