Adam Roberts' novelette Anticopernicus

(Part of a site on literary criticism of Adam Roberts' works by Rich Puchalsky)

"There was nothing special about her. She was as perfectly ordinary as anybody else in the world. And the world itself was perfectly unexceptional, ordinary, banal, in cosmic terms a Copernican un-wonder." -- Anticopernicus

Anticopernicus is a short work E-published by Adam Roberts. It's a work about where the center is. Since the center is in the Western tradition troped as an exceptional place, it's also about what is ordinary and what isn't.

I've chosen to write about Adam Roberts' novels within arbitrary formal structures -- for this piece, that means I've written within sections labelled according to the spheres of the Ptolemaic system: Earth, Moon, Mercury and so on. But in the comical reversal that often accompanies formally structured attempts of this sort, I found myself writing more and more; Adam's short piece will go with my longest writing on his work.


Anticopernicus, and Adam's own introductory post about it, mention dark energy and the Fermi Paradox. SF has this idea that it is a literature of ideas. The text doesn't mention, oddly enough, the Anthropic Principle.

I think that a plot summary is required. (And yes, these are spoilers.) Ange Mlinko is a space pilot, considered for a First Contact mission with the only aliens who humanity has yet encountered. Instead she gets sent on an ordinary commercial run. An ordinary space voyage for her, of course, is not ordinary for us the readers. During the course of her trip to Mars to deliver a cargo of barnacles, a series of accidents kill the two other crew members on board, and a in a final accident that threatens her own life, she meets one of the aliens after all.

The alien explains that all other intelligent life in the universe has one creature per species (or one hive mind per species, but in any case only one intelligence), and that the three aliens who banded together to contact Earth are not representatives, but each their entire species. They are aghast at the billions of humans living on Earth, because intelligence produces dark energy, and the tremendous amount of dark energy produced by humankind will over a long term destabilize the cycles of expansion and contraction of the universe, leading to continual expansion of the universe and its effective destruction as a support for life. Therefore Earth is really the center of the Universe, or at least a very special place unlike any other; the dark energy isn't and hasn't been produced in these quantities anywhere else. But it is a destructive center. The aliens die, overwhelmed by the effect of so many nearby intelligences, and Ange, a rather withdrawn person, decides after her near-death experience to have a child.

It's a satire, of course. But at the center are these ideas, which work through SF escalation to treat overpopulation as more than Earth-ecosystem-threatening -- as universe-threatening. Does this work as hard SF?

Having posed the question, I'll immediately qualify it. I was an astrophysics grad student ABD (all but dissertation) when I left that field to do environmental work. As a result, I'm weirdly overqualified to comment on this particular text. Hard SF is very difficult to do well for a reader with scientific training, or perhaps only I find it so. The only hard SF that I've found very convincing is Stanislaw Lem's, and, fitfully, Kim Stanley Robinson's (though his still has its gaffes, as with his Mars windmills that heat up the planet). With this text, I immediately thought that the "intelligence generates dark energy" idea was extremely doubtful. It relies on a lot of handwaving about the observer changing the observed that's part of a continuing misunderstanding of quantum behavior beloved by science popularizers, because after all it puts we the observers at the center through the fallacy of equivocation, treating "observer" used as a physics term of art as the same as "living, intelligent and perceiving creature". In terms of biological science, too, I wondered how it was that these aliens were so verbally communicative, so fluent. Why would they have evolved the capacity for speech when there was literally no one else on each of their home planets to talk to? For that matter, how could they evolve at all, when their singular nature means that there's no population for variation and natural selection to work on?

But this is a story, and unlike Kepler's Somnium (the first work of SF, possibly) the science ideas are in the service of the story, not the reverse. So the question is, do the scientific ideas help make the story work? In particular, a lot of the impact of the work is the reader's bogglement at the idea of each intelligence being a whole civilization, solitary and self-contained and rare. That seems unlikely, doesn't it? -- the idea that our multiplicity is unique, and that makes the Earth unique. Shouldn't we trust our intuition that it's really unlikely that we live in a one-of-a-kind place?

It turns out, we shouldn't.

The phrase "anthropic principle" first appeared in Brandon Carter's contribution to a 1973 Krakow symposium honouring Copernicus's 500th birthday. Carter, a theoretical astrophysicist, articulated the Anthropic Principle in reaction to the Copernican Principle, which states that humans do not occupy a privileged position in the Universe. As Carter said: "Although our situation is not necessarily central, it is inevitably privileged to some extent."

That's a quote from wikipedia. It's so apt that I'm I don't know whether Adam didn't encounter it, or chose not to include it, but in any event it's one of those rare cases in which an astrophysical concept will illuminate a story rather than serving as backdrop.

How to explain the Anthropic Principle? It says that an observer -- in the sense of "living, intelligent creature", this time -- requires an environment that supports its existence, or there can be no observation. Why does the Universe have fundamental constants that support our kind of life? We don't know why, but we know that it has to -- otherwise we couldn't be here to see it. Therefore, if there was some kind of random variation or multiplicity of universes with different fundamental constants, we would only see the universe that supports us, no matter how unlikely it was, or how long it took for that universe to appear. We can't appear and observe it until it comes into existence. What if the conditions that created life on Earth were incredibly unlikely? Well, we wouldn't know if they were, because we can only appear on Earth, even if it were the only such planet in the multiverse.

This is a strange, de-centering principle for scientists. We're used to thinking that if we have no information at all, the safest guess is that we're in the middle of a Gaussian bell-shaped distribution of some kind: many things look like bell-shaped curves, and it gets increasingly unlikely that you're out on one of the tails of one. But it doesn't work that way in this case. Would life be likely to appear on planets like ours? We can reason from our knowledge of physics, chemistry, and biology that the same kind of processes that produced us would work elsewhere. What we can't do is just look around and say that we're more likely to be average than not. Scientists seem not to like the Anthropic Principle; they grumble about it being unfalsifiable, not really part of science at all, and it's rather stuffily been classed as part of philosophy.

I like the Anthropic Principle. When I was young it was one of the first things that I really got about astrophysics; a paper or conference presentation that someone had summarized claimed that since we saw some kind of astrophysical object nearby, it was likely that they were common. But you can't do that, I said, at least not in cases where the object could have some possible connection to life on Earth. Nearby supernovas? They create heavy elements which later became part of our planet, so if life requires an old supernova within a certain distance, then we will see one at the right distance, even if that's really rare. Large moons? Some people theorize that our moon was important for the emergence of life because of the tides that it creates, so, again, if what we needed was an unusually large moon for a planet of the size of the Earth, we'll see one, even if they almost never appear around other planets.

I remember my realization about the Anthropic Principle occurring when I was a freshman or sophomore in college, 17 or 18, which seems young and perhaps my memory is falsified to a later event from grad school, but at any rate what matters in something trivial like this is what I remember, not what really happened. Why am I bothering with telling this personal story now? Because a significant sub-thread in Anticopernicus is how supposedly rational decisions are really made on the basis of very basic biological drives. When I had my realization about the Anthropic Principle, I was in a serious relationship with a girl a couple of years older who'd already decided on astrophysics as her field. She was impressed that I'd seen something wrong with the paper that she hadn't. At the time I had no idea what area of physics I wanted to go into. I only knew that I didn't want to go into anything that could lead to weapons development. So... astrophysics seemed interesting enough, a safely theoretical field without the necessity of working for some defense contractor someday. My rational decision to go to grad school in astrophysics was probably more about the warm glow of admiration from my first sexual partner than anything else.

To get back to general matters. The odd thing about what Brandon Carter in the quote above describes as our inevitably privileged position in the Universe is that it acts rather like "privilege" does, as used casually in accusations on the Internet when someone is supposed to be writing out of social privilege of some kind. It's there, but we just can't see it. It's always been part of our environment, and we're so used to getting its benefits that they're part of our assumptions; we have difficulty imagining anything else. And unlike the various forms of social privilege, there really isn't anyone else we can compare life experiences with. A white, heterosexual, middle-class etc person can meet other people and begin to see that what they thought was normal is really a set of special benefits that they get that other people don't. No contact with aliens means that in a larger sense we can't do this; we are solitary despite our multiplicity. Maybe other intelligent life really is all singular while ours is multiple. It seems very unlikely to me, for various physics-chemistry-biology reasons. But we can't tell simply through introspection, because even if our kind of life is really rare, we'd be there to see ourselves. A radical distrust in our intuition is what's required by the Anthropic Principle.

And now back to SF. The whole point of SF being a literature of ideas is not that it's supposed to be ideas about geosynchronous satellites that people later actually invent. Well, some fans think that it is, but I don't. It's supposed to be about ideas that de-center you, make you rethink where you are in ways that more realistic literature can't, because reality as we know it doesn't furnish what we need to see our position of privilege. Hard SF is supposed to do that with scientific ideas, ideas that have force because, as far as we know, they're really true. That is what is essential to hard SF, not scientific plausibility in all of the story's supports.

So, does Anticopernicus work as hard SF?

I think it does.

Continuing from here a piece on Adam Roberts' E-published work Anticopernicus.


Adam Roberts sent me this text through Email, as a .docx Office 2007 file. When I first read it, it looked fine. When I read it a second time -- the read I'm doing now for this piece -- it had changed. I was using a newer iMac, and OpenOffice instead of NeoOffice, and a strange corruption had set in. There was now a gap after every apostrophe. Spaces between paragraphs had de-spaced, changing the page count that I remember from the original 32 to 21 pages. The file hadn't even gone through a save-and-restore sequence, but it appeared wholly different. (And again, as I copy this piece about Anticopernicus from the blog I wrote it on in 2011 into a standalone HTML file in 2014, the single quotes, double quotes, and double dashes have all been replaced with question marks.)

A book doesn't read the same with a different font, with different cover art, different margins. These things normally do not change for a particular instance of a book; they are physically stable. E-publishing brings out a Lovecraftian lunar madness, a mutation of form that depends on the (programs used by the) observer, not the observed. Books that are published purely electronically may well become unreadable in time, just like so many electronic records have whose formats become disused.

But we don't have to wait for decades. I'd guess that within a month, or a day, someone is going to look at the sentence in Anticopernicus "At a cafe she decided to respect the e-acute and ordered herself a latte" and see strange, unreadable symbols whose meaning can only be gained through context. I hesitate to write much about it since it is so well known within the group of people likely to read this, but electronic text is firmly centered on English, more specifically on the 94 printable characters of ASCII. Even within the symbols in ASCII, people managed to somehow mess up the tab and the apostrophe. Going beyond English, even to any kind of accented character, puts you into a wasteland of varying implementations of Unicode.

I'm not trying to write yet another screed bemoaning the supposed death of printed books. The logic of electronic publishing is inescapeable. And in an environmental sense, there are obvious disadvantages to cutting down trees, bleaching wood pulp, shipping the product all over the world etc. Although, as Bruce Sterling pointed out in the Viridian list, bits are not metaphysical, abstract entities. They require hard drives, backup tapes, electricity. For you to read what I'm writing sometime around 2011, coal is being burned in a electric power plant somewhere. Still, since we're all connecting to the Internet and using some computing device near us anyways, the additional marginal cost of one E-published book must be fairly negligible.

But E-publishing is, again, currently in a Lovecraftian mode. "I'm seeing indescribable symbols that people were not meant to see!" and all that. The cultural imperialism that goes along with it, written into its most basic set of codes. Even its inevitabilitty.

As the text's readability suffers a strange decay, certain formal qualities become weirdly apparent, like lunar features not screened by atmosphere. How many words does a particular book contain? At the beginning of the book, no one knew, without an obsessive act of counting. Then when books began to be typeset, perhaps the typesetter knew. The publisher. The author, once authors used word processing software. When you get a file as an Office document, the reader knows. Using, from the menu, Tools / Word Count / there are 13,115 words in this work.

Science fiction, as a genre, has an obsession with word count. Possibly because of the Hugo Awards, possibly because at heart it was a magazine-based genre during certain formative years, with pay by the word and stories cut smaller or fixed-up larger as space allowed. It is one of a couple of genres to really care about the definition of the "novella" and "novelette". If you look up these words on Wiki, the SF definitions are formalized to word count. Therefore, this isn't a Dwarf novel as Adam jokes, or a mini-novel. A novelette, in SF, has a word count of between 7,500 and 17,499 words. This is therefore a novelette. The formal classification of this work is scientific. Anyone can see it. The book has lost its physical center, but its word count is a rock.


"It was all very unsatisfying. Ange did not find it so, however. On the contrary she found the offkilter non-symmetry of the whole thing actually rather pleasing; pleasing in an aesthetic sense." -- Anticopernicus

Since Mercury is a planet named after a god of language, this is the best place to write about the work's aesthetic qualities. I could write about a number of aesthetic features of the text, such as the way that double quotes are avoided everywhere, blurring speech and thought and telepathic communication and omniscient narrative into a single, immediate but slightly reserved distance. But I may as well focus on the aesthetic concerns brought up within the text itself. The aesthetic concerns within Anticopernicus are concerns about story shape. If the piece has an aesthetic effect beyond its science fictional one of presenting us with a decentering idea, I see it in an ironic set of layers around story shape: promising, playing out, denying.

The book begins with a chapter called "The Mighty Adam". The elemental habitat of humanity is in Western mythology the Garden -- the center, from which we are displaced with the necessity of toiling for bread -- which is what the Adam reference in the chapter title is supposed to be about, according to the second paragraph of the text. ("Let's call this first, solitary atom Adam. It is all that exists. [...] -- just it, alone in its spacetime Eden.")

When a text has an in-written authorial interpretation, that is the center around which our idiosyncratic readings orbit. So here we are told in so many words that this is a text concerned with archetypal, primitive Biblical imagery and mythology, but that metaphor is used in the context of three paragraphs all about scientific cosmology. A contradiction, in other words. A throwing off balance.

"First Contact" introduces Ange and a mood of absurdity. Ange was going to be sent to the presumed center of action of the story, the First Contact mission, but she wasn't. We're following a viewpoint character who could have been special, but instead watches events on TV just like us. But it's an anxious absurdity. Here's a part of first contact with the aliens:

Fingers are a mode of madness--and toes! Toes? Toes! What do you mean? Do you mean you don't possess fingers and toes? That the sight of them distresses you? Do you have flippers, or tentacles, or do you manipulate your environment with forcefields directly manoeuvred by your minds? We can wear mittens, if you like. If it distresses you. We can wear shoes on our feet and boxing-gloves on our hands! Not that we wish to box with you ... we have no belligerent feelings towards you at all!

This is straightforwardly rather funny; I think of the expectations for a serious, diplomatic Star Trek first contact confounded by the aliens' giddy ramble, the human representatives, under pressure to respond quickly, blurting out more than they meant to say. But even setting SF paranoia aside, it would be deeply worrying to have an entity that goes on like this anywhere nearby. The aliens deny any intent to hurt people, but an accident with an FTL drive could be quite damaging enough.

But Ange hasn't been chosen for the mission, so she goes on an ordinary one. And during that she hears that the aliens seem to have just gone away. Her two crewmates talk about why they would have left, one of them saying that there must be some reason, the other saying that the universe doesn't always give us coherent reasons. And Ange thinks this:

She believed (and this belief was as close to religion as she came) that the universe was not structured according to the logic of the human mind, despite the fact--ironically enough, perhaps--that the human mind is unavoidably part of the cosmos. The billions of buzzing homo sapiens brains craved pattern, structure and resolution; they saw the beauty of a story arc in every rainbow's bend. The cosmos liked structure too, of course; but of a much less complicated, or perhaps it would be truer to say a much more monotonously replicated, kind. Hydrogen and helium everywhere in varying alternated clumps; the inverse-square-law everywhere in every direction. Everything existent, nothing mattering. And above all the cosmos had no sense of story whatsoever.

And Ange doesn't find this unsatisfying. This is where the quote that I started this section with goes, about her liking the off-kilter non-symmetry of it in an aesthetic sense.

Gareth Rees commented, on the blog-posted "Earth" section of this essay, that:
The trouble with taking Anti-Copernicanism as your theme is that nearly all fiction (and especially science fiction) is already Anti-Copernican: the hero or heroine really is at the centre of the fictional universe; the events of the universe really are set up just so that they can save the day.

This is true. But possibly because Adam Roberts is a historian and critic of SF as well as a writer, the story is set up to (nearly) metafictionally address these very expectations.

So where is this going, aesthetically? This seems to be going into Stanislaw Lem territory. A large part of the feeling of real science that I get from Lem's work is his explicit insistence that scientific questions usually don't have answers, that the story centered on a particular character is going to end without the reader ever getting the closure of finding out what really happened. It's what many of his major books are based around -- Solaris, His Master's Voice, The Investigation, The Chain of Chance (to use the English names). Len undermines himself a bit by giving hypotheses at the end of each work that are a bit too good, so believable that it feels like cheating. But people do create convincing hypotheses without really knowing what's going on.

So that's where the reader -- or, at least, me -- thinks the work is going at this point. The asymmetric story, the denial of an easy wrap-up, the refusal to center everything on the character in a genre-typical way. I've written about this before. As a general aesthetic for SF, it's one of my favorites -- my aesthetic theory, such as it is, being somewhere near Umberto Eco's Opera Operta (The Open Work) rather than his later criticism.

Is that what we get? As Ange's journey goes on, her ship suffers from a series of accidents: one of the crew dies of a recreational drug overdose, a micrometeorite damages the trip and takes off the other crewmember's foot, and ... wait a minute:

At this Ostriker began to weep. I feel faint, she said. Oh my foot! My poor foot! How will I do without a foot? My toes! My foot.

Her toes? Where have I seen that before? The uneasiness for the reader with this implicit aesthetics is starting to take form: things are circling back. And indeed they do. Ostriker dies via another accident, and Ange, alone on the ship, realizes that it is heavily damaged and that she's probably going to die. Ange reinforces the theme:

If I live, she decided, and get home again I will write a work of philosophy, explaining how Copernicus revolutionised our living and dying as well as our cosmology. All those Greek tragedies, all that Shakespeherian to-do about death, the distinguished thing--it all belonged to that Pre-Copernican delusion of our importance. Only an important being can have a significant death! An unimportant entity dies, as she was doing (there was little point in denying it), stupidly, belatedly, unexpectedly, in a downbeat banal accidental way. The modern mode of it.

And then, totally without justification -- or if there is one, I missed it -- the alien that she lost the chance to talk to at the beginning mysteriously crashes into or contacts her ship. At first I thought it might be a hallucination, but there is all sorts of confirming physical evidence, then and after: a neat circular hole in her ship, the alien ship's detection on many other people's sensors. And the alien answers all of the significant questions of the story for her and us. And then, because people detected the alien ship, a ship is sent that rescues Ange. She lives after all. It's a neat wrap.

Why would the story raise the expectation of a certain kind of aesthetic, talk about it, and then withdraw it in favor of a different one? Well, of course I don't know, I can only give a reading. It could be something as simple as: in Adam Roberts' books characters don't tend to get what they want; Ange wants an off-kilter story, therefore she doesn't get one. It could be the requirements of commercial publishing. But I think -- and here perhaps I should read Eco's Interpretation and Overinterpretation -- that it has something to do with those toes.

Why do the aliens go on about toes in the first place? Here's what the surviving alien out of the original three tells Ange, about their reaction to being near so much dark energy produced by the multitudes of human intelligences:

It has destroyed my two companions.[...] We were giddy. We were intoxicated by the glory and seediness and splendour of it all. When they died I took my craft away, but my own consciousness has been ... poisoned, I suppose you might say ... as well. So I have come back. I might as well expire here as anywhere. Here at the heart of the cosmos.

So the giddy ramble wasn't the aliens' natural state, it was a state of being intoxicated and dying. That's a lot more grim than that amusing exchange appeared at first read. Why toes? Well, traditionally, a child uses fingers and toes to count. The intoxicated aliens are saying that fingers and toes are a mode of madness because they're boggled by our numbers. When Ostriker mourns the loss of her toes later, it's symbolically -- for each of us is a civilization, according to the aliens -- us mourning the human losses that we're going to take if things go on as they are.

What's the opposite of a story with an unknown ending? A story where, from the start, you know how it's going to turn out. This text is centered around overpopulation. That, I think, is the reason that this aesthetic is raised, celebrated, and then rejected. We all think that we know how the overpopulation story turns out.

Is this sometimes rather funny story really that grim? No, it isn't: Ange's final decision to have a child has its own evident irony, but is optimistic for all that. But the reversal of aesthetics is part of the unsettling that the story seeks to cause. The aliens in the story are concerned that because of human-generated dark energy, the universe won't close its big bang/big crunch cycle, will expand forever and end in entropy. Meanwhile the reader may be conscious that the story has, ironically, done the reverse.


"The petri dish is foaming with bacteria, has gobbled the disc of nutrient jelly to a sliver, and is still consuming it, although starvation must necessarily follow. When she was younger, before her marriage, Ange had been quite active in a Netherlands-based Ehrlich group, agitating for much more aggressive population control." -- Anticopernicus

That's half of a quote, really. The other half will come in the Mars section below. Venus and Mars traditionally go together.

Remember when I said that everyone thinks they know how the population story turns out? Well, in reality, no one really knows how it turns out. Concerns of this kind are, I think, best divided into two overlapping areas: how high will the population get, and can that population be sustained without damaging the ecosystems that it depends on and thereby leading to mass deaths. These are "overpopulation" and "sustainability" respectively. As long as the death rate doesn't go up due to some catastrophe or ecological crash, and lifespans don't get extended much (it seems very unlikely that they will), overpopulation is mostly a matter of births: how many do people have, and how late in life do they have them. Sustainability depends on how people live, so it's pretty much determined for a given population level by a mixture of culture, technology, and politics unless people bump up against some kind of hard limit on resources needed for that population level and can't do anything. No world society has yet bumped up against a hard limit, so we don't really know what this looks like. I pretty much believe in Amartya Sen's work, which says that famines so far have been political, not resource-constrained. Even the collapses of island societies that Jared Diamond writes about in his excellent book Collapse are political, if you look at them closely.

Anticopernicus is mostly about overpopulation, so I won't write much more about sustainability. For overpopulation, the United Nations' current best guess is 9.3 billion people in 2050. However, there has been a decline in the population growth rate, and the United Nations predicts 10.1 billion in 2100. Declining fertility is supposed to be linked to the Demographic transition, and high standards of living generally, although there's a paper in Nature that claims that this will reverse itself back to what looks to me like replacement levels. There's no point in my quoting a number of wiki pages at you at this point: the environmental work that I do is mostly about pollution and global climate change, and I don't have any special expertise in the actual field(s) of study involved in overpopulation.

However. I do know about SF, and SF's general attitude towards overpopulation is all wrong. This may be the most problematic area in the text. The first warning sign is Ange's membership in an Ehrlich group. Ehrlich groups still exist, in an attenuated form, and I suppose it's conceivable they'd still exist in Ange's time. But it's rather like saying that she was a Yippie, or a Situationist, or part of a Maoist group. People are still very concerned about overpopulation, but Ehrlich's approach is considered to be antiquated where it isn't considered to be discredited, the heir to eugenics. At least in the U.S, towards the turn of the century, work against overpopulation is mostly about feminism.

The accepted conventional wisdom among people who care about overpopulation is, as far as I can tell, that what's important is how much power women have. Raising children is a whole lot of work. It starts with the aptly named labor, and continues with nursing and a multitude of home chores, and with basic education, all of them typed in Western societies (and most non-Western ones, as far as I know) as women's work. Now that child mortality has gone down to the point where people don't have to have a lot of children so that some will survive, the ability to have a lot of children depends on one's ability to fob off this work unpaid to someone, and (in richer societies) for women to choose having more children over more leisure time. The more power that women have to decide on when they'll get pregnant and how many children they'll have, and the more that their labor has to be accounted for in monetary terms, the fewer children people tend to have. Therefore, the main concern is really patriarchy. Population control is centered on women, not in the simple they-produce-babies sense, but in the sense that if they have power the natural incentives not to have many children are quite strong enough. Cultural imperialism makes talk about natural incentives problematic, of course.

I'm not sure how much it's useful to write about Ehrlich at this juncture. It's sort of a shame that anyone is still concerned with his work on population and famine in a world where Amartya Sen exists. As of a roundtable in 2008, he seems to be saying mostly unobjectionable things about the importance of women's rights, although he seems to slip back naturally into a genderless, central-incentive approach: "You could simply raise the taxes very high on people who have beyond two children." But the policies he advocated in the past, in his book The Population Bomb, were really very bad: various kinds of coercive regulation, sterilants added to staple foods if only more biological research on them could be done, denial of food aid to countries that didn't control their populations. Big science fiction ideas, in other words. I'm inclined to think that The Population Bomb may be a significant part of SF's problem; it was one of the first "futurist" books that I remember of the kind that SF fans of the era fondly liked, and SF authors and fans may dimly remember it when they haven't been exposed to much else. Ehrlich was later involved in U.S. anti-immigration groups, and that strain of thought led to a quite recent and damaging blowup in the U.S. Sierra Club.

I don't want to focus too much on a single word in the text. But Ange seems to be following a Zero Population Growth (Ehrlich's first group) kind of line; she refers to her "rationally chosen childlessness". If rationality is defined as taking actions that seem likely to lead to a desired result, then personal childlessness isn't a rational response to overpopulation. Overpopulation is a social problem, and no likely amount of volunteerism from upper-middle class people (because that's what Ange is) is going to have any effect on it. Political action is rational, but politics depends on communication with people: what does a voluntarily childless person really have to say to a parent? Their daily concerns are very different, and people who want children are naturally suspicious of people who don't seem to want them at all saying that they should restrain themselves. Of course this decision, and Ange's decision in the text, is not really made on the basis of pure rationality.

At any rate, it's not that Ange is being held up by the text as an exemplar of the ideal activist. On the contrary, it's made quite clear that she's a personally rather chilly person whose politics are guided by her personality. Maybe she's supposed to have gravitated towards a tiny splinter group that isn't representative of majority concerns in her future society at all. The problem is that the rhetoric of what I'd consider to be a more mainstream extrapolation from current concerns doesn't seem to be familiar to her, to crop up in her internal monologues. She, and the text, seem to think of overpopulation as an abstracted "people having children" rather than "some people having children for particular reasons". I could more easily believe that she was a member of a (Margaret) Atwoodite group, say. That would bring feminism more obviously into an already crowded work. But for a work concerned with overpopulation among humans, it kind of has to be there. Feminism is at the center.

Feminism is still present in the work, of course. Ange is skilled, independent, not waiting for a man to tell her what to do. And she isn't a heroine-iized character made to be unusual and remarkable because she has these qualities; her crewmate Ostriker is presented as being somewhat annoying, but really has them too. This is nowhere near the usual SF attitude in stories about overpopulation. About which, more later.


When Adam Roberts sent me this text he described it as sort of a borderline environmentalist fable, except not really. Is it environmentalist? There's no simple answer because of conflicts over what "environmentalist" means, but it's possible to clarify those meanings by considering the different ways in which the story might or might not be. My own understanding of what environmentalism is about is idiosyncratic, so I'm going to have to summarize it in a few paragraphs.

Modern environmentalism has two main branches of concern: ecosystems (habitat and wildlife preservation, sustainability, endangered species, climate change, etc.) and pollution (persistent bioaccumulative toxics, radioactive wastes, industrial chemical releases, untreated sewerage, smog, etc.) Clearly there is some overlap. But at base, when people talk about environmentalism, I think that they're generally talking about damage to ecosystems or damage to human health from pollution. I'm leaving out resource depletion concerns as such because if the resources in question are renewable, that's an ecosystem concern, and if they're not, the usual next step is to say that they should be replaced with renewable ones.

What are ecosystems about? Mostly, they are centered on the Sun. The best way that I've found for thinking about ecosystems is that they are complicated ways to trap solar energy and use it to maintain biomass. The solar energy coming to the Earth is limited and approximately constant for any particular geography. The more efficient the ecosystem is at using solar energy, the larger a biomass the area can support. Biomass, in turn, makes everything that we live on: air, water, food.

Why do I write that they're "mostly" centered on the Sun? Because science is really overwhelmingly Copernican in that not everything has a single center. The ecosystems in abyssal hydrothermal vents are based around geothermal energy, which comes partially from primordial heat of the Earth's accretion and partially from radioactive decay. And of course life in tidal pools depends in part on tidal energy, which is mostly from the Moon. But most of the other forms of energy in the environment, like wind and hydropower, come from the Sun indirectly.

What makes an ecosystem efficient? I'm simplifying tremendously, of course, but it's largely a matter of whether specialist species have coevolved in the area. The longer an ecosystem goes on in more or less the same state, the more time that evolution has to produce species that occupy complicated ecological niches and trap solar energy that would otherwise not be used. Disturb the ecosystem seriously and the specialist species die and generalist species remain or move in. But they can't maintain the same ecosystem efficiency as before. I remember a particularly ignorant poster, back in the days of Usenet, who declared that human damage to ecosystems didn't matter because if you took wild land and turned it into a city block, it was still habitat for nonhuman animals -- as if generalist scavengers like crows and rats could replace a functioning climax ecosystem.

So human economics, the allocation of scarce resources, is really a subset of a more important ecosystem economics. There are various chemical substances that can limit biomass if they aren't present, but the most important limited resource is solar energy. But it has to be solar energy that's used, and the way that it's used is by being filtered through a vast, evolved information system -- the information held within both gene and population distributions -- that is adapted to local conditions. This information system passes around all of the local resources that it can hold incessantly among its living components. Human damage to the ecosystem through land use, over-extraction, bioaccumulative toxins, or climate change either destroys part of the information system or changes conditions so that it no longer applies. Over-extraction may also mean that too much biomass/energy is being appropriated for human use out of the system, as with some kinds of farming.

Getting back to the story now, is Anticopernicus an ecological story? There doesn't appear to be anything ecological going on that I can recognize with the dark energy. It's not directly used by anything, not passed around within a system. It's not a sustainability story, because there isn't a resource produced by the system that is being overused; there isn't a mechanism by which the universe removes or detoxifies dark energy that is being overloaded. Within the story, the universe seems to simply have a limit on the amount of dark energy generated within it during a big bang/big crunch cycle, and below this limit the universe going back to a big crunch again and restarts the cycle, above it it expands forever. It appears to be an ecological story because of the basic idea that "you're communally approaching a limit over which you should not go", but ... not really. Things that you communally or individually should not do, yet do anyways, are a staple of all kinds of admonitory stories, including the Biblical myths referenced in several places in the text, and this isn't really a specifically environmental concept.

So I'll go back to the other main branch of environmentalism. Is this a pollution story? Here the argument looks a lot clearer. There is dark energy, an unwanted byproduct of human activity -- thinking, in this case. We're heedlessly putting more or more of it out into the environment as our population grows, and over the long term it's going to destroy the universe's ability to support life.

But there are subtle differences that make this not quite work for me as an environmentalist story either. The pollution in this case is a necessary part of our existence as human beings, since we can't stop thinking. It's not the result of our tool use or our built environment. That's not necessarily a problem: all organisms produce waste of some kind, and many organisms have evolved the ability to produce poisons that work in the environment specifically to kill other life. So pollution is something that ecosystems naturally have to deal with. Ecosystems have evolved ways to deal with pollution of this type, though, and detoxify or re-use it. There's no way that the universe in this story has to deal with the dark energy.

What the story reminds me of most, in an environmental sense, is the Proterozoic Eon when cyanobacteria were producing the free oxygen that now exists in the Earth's atmosphere. I can imagine one implausibly intelligent cyanobacteria telling another that "If we keep producing this much waste oyxgen, we'll overwhelm the banded iron formations on the ocean floor. We need to reduce our numbers before all the dissolved iron is used up, or there'll be a mass extinction."

It's a good analogy, but following it along, the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere was also when eukaryotes appeared, another form of life. A pollution-related catastrophe on Earth (by a volcano that put too much ash in the atmosphere, say, or perhaps a worldwide radioactive isotope release from some kind of dirty bomb) can't normally destroy the whole ground of being. Life just starts evolving again to meet the new conditions. That is no comfort for species (like us) that are either destroyed in the extinction event, or that depended on particular ecological conditions that are now gone.

But the potentially catastrophic buildup of dark energy in Anticopernicus is supposed to have no direct effect on humans until the universe keeps expanding rather than contracting again. The human species would probably be long gone by then in any case, or if it were still around, might last longer in the continually expanding universe than one beginning to contract. So we wouldn't really be destroying ourselves -- we'd be destroying the ground of being for all future life. It's this element of SF escalation that turns this from what I think of as an environmentalist story into something else. Something that's surely about overpopulation, but in a more religious kind of story-type -- there's one sequence where Ange imagines the horror of an afterlife where the multitudes of dead don't allow anyone oblivion. That's a rather picky interpretation, though, and someone else who wanted to think of this as an environmentalist story could without being wrong.

One last bit: there are many species that use a kind of waste that they're immune to as the aforementioned poison for other life, giving them an evolutionary advantage. For instance, dead leaves from trees kill other plants that might compete with the trees for sun or soil nutrients. In Anticopernicus, humans are apparently immune to the negative effects of a high concentration of dark energy, perhaps since they're evolved in those conditions. (But those conditions wouldn't occur until intelligent life did, and by that time there wouldn't there already be a lot of humans in comparison with the one-per-planet rule elsewhere? Yes, I'm looking at this too closely.) But the dark energy is fatal to other intelligent life within a fairly short time interval. So the dark energy from the multitude of humans is like dead leaves from trees, crowding potential competitors out. That might be the environmental story within the story.


"It was not enough, she thought, to flatten the rising curve; human numbers had to be actively reduced. But the group eventually fractured: some stayed true to the group's original Pimentelist beliefs; some insisted more radical Francipettian strategies were needful, and a small group declaring that mass terrorist action was needed. The bickering depressed and alienated Ange; she distanced herself from her former friends, and moved to a different country."-- Anticopernicus

Anticopernicus is scattered with current-day trite SF references, which in the future society of the book have evidently become the cultural referents by which people handle alien contact -- itself one of the most hoary, endulled SF ideas. The people in Ange's society keep referring to the Earth as being in an insignificant spiral arm of the galaxy, so Hitchhiker's Guide must be a cultural signifier in their world. The aliens sometimes boom like ents. (Ents are Tolkien. They're trademarked. When they wanted to use them in D&D they had to call them treants.) A Martian town is even Robinsontown, presumably after Kim Stanley Robinson.

If people had to prepare, in a mass cultural sense, for overpopulation in the same way that they "prepare" for First Contact by reading SF, how would they do? Well, as a general mash-up of SF ideas, I'd expect the following from severe overpopulation. First, people would start to go crazy from crowding and begin to kill each other. Then frenzied violence of all against all during the collapse, followed by mass death leaving the survivors at a pre-technical, tribal level, possibly even with the world stripped of all other animal life. Science fiction's ideas about overpopulation are centered on war, violence, and total catastrophe.

This is all, as far as I can tell, BS. We have extensive experience of people dying in famines. There may be food riots during times when prices are rising out of people's reach, but actual starvation does not fill people with the manic strength to go out and kill everyone they see. Resource wars are mostly done by rich groups with the resources to carry out a war. The people who are first to die in resource shortages are usually, pretty much by definition, the least powerful people in society, which generally doesn't have much problem in protecting some resources from them for the benefit of more powerful people. And the technical collapse? As Bruce Sterling pointed out somewhere in the context of Peak Oil, we could drop back in energy terms by more than a century and still have coal-fired trains delivering stuff that people ordered by catalog. Horrible tragedies are quite possible, but they aren't SF tragedies.

On the other hand, I think back to Jared Diamond's book Collapse and reflect that no society is safe from the greed of elites who want to cut down the last tree on the island because it's their tree. Then I think about the wonderful, demonstrated competence of our own elites, and I'm a lot less sanguine about our prospects. But this is basically a matter of politics, which SF fans in general don't get.

I felt a bit of foreboding when I read about how the main character in Anticopernicus was a solitude-loving, rather chilly environmentalist once involved with a group attracted to mass terrorist action to reduce population. Because that is where SF goes. Compare, say, George R.R. Martin's character Haviland Tuf, a chilly, solitary ecological engineer who avoids killing off the overpopulated planet that hires him but does use coercive methods to bring them into line. SF loves drama, and SF loves escalation. The most natural solution to the alien contact story is a genocide, and the most natural SF solution to overpopulation is either exporting the problem to other planets -- this is explicitly brought up in the text by Ange's annoying crewmate -- or by villains and even, mind-bogglingly, heroes taking action via some dump-sterilants-in-the-water method, or even by killing off lots of people off first so they won't die later.

Luckily Ange avoids being quite part of the killer environmentalist cliche through some mixture of the matter-of-fact way that the text humanizes her life, and her ordinary cargo run to Mars. But both of her two crewmates die of accidental drug overdoses. She gets more cheerful after the first death. There's a scene where she wakes up and only then realizes that she's put her spacesuit helmet on automatically in her sleep in response to a loss of cabin pressure. I had to wonder: has she been sleepwalking, or in a fugue state of some kind, and been wandering around killing her crewmates off by arranging convenient overdoses? I decided not, unless the narration is a lot more unreliable than I thought it was, but the history of SF makes it the first thing I think of.

Against my better judgement, I'm going to go into a lengthy digression on how SF handles environmental issues and environmentalists. For a sample, I'll just look at a shelf of the late B's. There's Earth, by David Brin, a 1990 Hugo nominee / lengthy potboiler in which Daisy, the environmentalist, naturally sets out to kill all but 10,000 people in the world. In most of the verbiage written about this book on the Web, people want to mention Brin's technical predictions, but no one seems to want to mention Daisy... John Brunner? His environmental/population books were, as I remember, mostly one horrific, deadly incident of amok violence or industrial / accidental death after another, a kind of futurist nightmare that mostly had middle class viewpoint characters who experienced overpopulation as if they'd suddenly wandered into the bad part of town. The aftermath of mass death is just as bad. Algys Budrys, in what is admittedly one of his worst books (Some Will Not Die) writes a plague that kills off 9/10th of humanity and three years later people are still all individually holed up in their apartments, trying to shoot anyone who passes by. It's just natural, I guess, that instead of people coming together after a catastrophe, they grab a weapon and become individual monads, and the hero has to kill them to unite them. Or something.

Enough Bs. Special mention has to go to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle "environmentalists are New Age anti-science non-slans, and if civilization broke down they'd turn into rampaging cannibals. By the way, did I tell you about my global warming denial"? That some part of SF fandom still considers these people to be leading hard SF writers is expected, but absurd.

How about some better authors? Herbert's Dune was a standout book in part because it was set in an actually different environment than the landscapes that SF readers were used to, and because the novel centered around an environmentally produced source of power. But it also posited that sand dwellers would be forced by the hazards of their environment to become incredible warriors, instead of -- as in reality -- being limited in numbers by that environment to irrelevance. The tribes sweeping out of the deserts that you read about were nomadic pastoralists, not sand dune dwellers. Ursula Le Guin's The Word For World Is Forest? It's a book that might have been used as a template for the movie Avatar: invading people-like-us fail to understand ecologically different natives, sympathetic viewpoint character helps them, natives repel people-like-us through violence. But, as in most of the stories from that time I can think of, the sympathetic viewpoint character doesn't start out as an environmentalist to begin with; it's a realization that they come to when they see something different than they're used to. They start out clueless.

Have there been SF books where the heroes were environmentalists as such? I can think of two, offhand. One was Kim Stanley Robinson's "Science in the Capital" series, where the viewpoint character is employed by the National Science Foundation. I had high hopes for that, based on KSR's past work with similar themes in his Mars and Gold Coast trilogies, hopes sadly dashed by the amazing and nearly complete failure of the work. Mostly what that work tells us is that if you take sociobiology too seriously, you'll turn yourself into a kind of sociopath who justifies your misdeeds through Just So stories about how primitives act.

The other was Zodiac, by Neil Stephenson. I have to admit liking Zodiac in some ways: the hero is instantly identifiable as a certain rare type of Greenpeace staffer, right down to the authorial admission in the acknowledgements that the character is an asshole. But Stephenson can't resist SF's love for drama, and escalates to a world-threatening biological release and nuclear weapon use considered to destroy it, and all kinds of other overly thrilling stuff that never happens. The French government deciding to sink a Greenpeace ship and killing people in the process did, of course, actually happen, so maybe Stephenson gets a bit of a pass.

I'm tempted to go on about popular written tropes around environmentalism ? did you know that both the first James Bond book, Dr. No, and one of the first trashy legal thrillers by John Grisham, The Pelican Brief, both involve evil masterminds who come to the attention of the good guys because they get rid of presented-as-nutty people who want to protect birds? -- but I really should stop and focus back on the main point. Why does SF do so badly on overpopulation, specifically? Other than its general love of dramatic stories, that is.

I think it has something to do with engineering culture, a part of geek culture. And geeks confront overpopulation, when they happen to think about it for some reason, like this. "You can't have infinite growth on a finite planet!" This is true, but also very obvious, so obvious that the only people who you have to explain it to are mainstream economists. And it's not much of a constraint on anything. Nine billion people by 2050 and ten billion by 2100 is not exactly ever-expanding growth, much less the exponential growth that people dimly remember being warned about with the whole bacteria in the petri dish metaphor. But an appropriate got-to-do-something atmosphere has been created. Then the mind naturally turns to engineering solutions, i.e. getting rid of people. The staggering cost and practical difficulties of shipping people off-planet probably having been realized by even the most stubborn fans by now, some massive technocratic solution is the only way to go. The whole bit about why people have children and what kind of normal social processes might cause them to have fewer of them is, after all, a big mystery.

Anticopernicus doesn't exactly have these problems. But as in every case where common tropes are ironized, it's difficult to say exactly where irony blends into straightforward use.


"There's a TV reality show in the US (Same Name) about people with the same name swapping lives. I feel confident that the producers won't be calling on me. But a few weeks ago, Google alerted me to the improbable existence of another Ange Mlinko."

The above was written by Ange Mlinko. (It's from here.) It transpires that Adam Roberts had read an article of hers in Poetry magazine, used her name as a placeholder, and then kept it. (Luckily she seems to like this, or at least not to mind. I wonder if she still won't mind once Google starts alerting her not only to mentions of her work, but also to irrelevant (from her point of view) pieces like this one? Having an unusual name can be quite an advantage in finding mentions of your work, as I well know.) So I in turn read some of Ange Mlinko's poetry. Her poetry is good, with the kind of concision that I can't do and therefore don't try for. (That was intended to be a joke about about my comment on someone else's poetry naturally turns back to me as the center. It didn't come off very well.)

Adam Roberts mentioned this on his blog (together with a recommendation of this still-being-written piece: thank you), but I didn't find out about the exchange from there. I found out about it much earlier. Quoted in full:

Just saw this on the LRB blog, and I'm wondering if I might just not be responsible for the connection. I don't know for sure whether Adam Roberts reads this blog -- though I suspect he's glanced once or twice, perhaps due to SEK's occasional links. On the other hand, I've posted stuff like this about Ange Mlinko... Anyway, funny stuff, who knows...

That's from a post on ads without products, a blog written by one CR (who has pretty much said who he is, but it's polite to use someone's pseudonym.) This kind of thing is heartening. At least to me.

Most people want to be at the center. Not in an overly egotistical way, but in a good, part-of-the-social-web way. "Did you hear that Jim and Thomas got married? Hey, they met at one of my parties." That kind of thing. Or "Someone named his blog after something I wrote. Not that it's an influential blog, but..." Or "I was Googling my name and found this weird connection."

Why do I find this heartening? There are theories of people being at the center of their own worldviews, of people looking out for (mentions of) themselves. They usually come down to theories that because we're interested in events that even tangentially involve us, we're selfish, and that's good or at least unavoidable. In economics, this is the rational man looking out for his own self-interest. In politics, it's right-libertarianism, (plain libertarianism to people within the U.S.), which comes down to the rational man not wanting to pay taxes for public goods or to help anyone else in any kind of organized or sufficient way. But there is, or should be, a left social-economic version of people wanting to be at the center, too. Not the left dreaming of a return to the Party and the Great Book of some 19th century worthy. But a left in which most of the action looks like people wanting to be at the center of their own doing-good-connections.

But enough about politics. These exchanges, apparently tangential to the text as a text, should remind us that what writing is really about is sociability of a particular kind. Texts that are not notations to oneself are meant to be read, and every reading of a text is a social exchange between a writer and reader. Perhaps the writer is dead, perhaps they even left the work to be published after their death, but the text was written in the expectation of readers eventually. And a text in any kind of circulation makes its own connections between reader and reader.

That's the real center among all these imagined centers. A text isn't centered on the Earth, on its (physical or electronic) form, or on its aesthetic qualities, on its politics, on the systems that support it, or its genre history. It's a social occasion around which each reader picks out the piece that resonates to them. That's what really looms largest to us, and that's what should.


"One night Ange had a dream. She was back in her house. A man clothed entirely in black, with white skin and black eyeballs, stood balanced upon an opened book. 'Population is self-regulating,' he said. 'But we must understand self in the largest way! The Cygnic aliens have come to winnow humanity, and they will destroy a third, and a third more will die of famine and disease after they have gone! Rejoice!'" -- Anticopernicus

I wrote previously about how SF has its own myths about population. But these are centered on even deeper, much more fundamental myths -- myths about death, or rather, myths about a kind of necessary balance between life and death. Saturn, in Roman myth, was depicted with a sickle in one hand and a sheaf of wheat in the other.

Anticopernicus started with "The Mighty Adam", started with Genesis. Midway through, it's reached the Book of Revelation. (I encourage anyone who's forgotten the book to follow that link. It's to a form of it that made the most sense to me.) That's where all of these thirds of humanity dying off come from. But this isn't just an element of Christian myth. There's a much more general myth cycle, ironically encouraged or drawn on by environmentalism itself, that says that life and death need to be in balance, that an unusually large number of births throws off the natural order and requires an unusually large number of deaths to balance it out. Well, of course every birth results in a death eventually. But since births in overpopulation are mentally thought of as a sort of huge wave, the deaths are mythically thought to have to be a huge counter-wave of war, famine, and other catastrophe, rather than deaths due to, say, old age.

This is a myth of closure. Instead of an overpopulated world causing people to have fewer children, so that population gradually declines and people find their own, individual ends, things are neatly wrapped up in a communal story conforming to Freytag's Triangle. And Anticopernicus, in keeping with how its story unexpectedly closes, participates in this myth.

In addition to the textual passage in which Ange dreams in Biblical imagery, deaths in thirds form a neat loop. The aliens go on a trip with three of them on board. Two of them die, and the third talks to Ange. Ange goes on a trip with three people on board. Two of them die, and the third, Ange, talks to the Cygnic. Cygnic itself meaning swan, this is the alien's swan song. The last alien dies (or does it? perhaps it escapes, since Ange does), and Ange lives on.

And this is where the text reinforces its skepticism about rationality in this important matters of birth and life and death. As she's mentally communicating with the alien, this happens:

Ange went through, got herself some food. She held it in front of her helmet for a while, and pondered how to get it in her mouth. She could certainly hold her breath long enough to get the helmet off, and the food in, but there was always a risk that she would fumble her grip, and have to scrabble around to get the helmet back on. Was it a risk worth taking? She would be dead soon, but had no desire to die sooner than absolutely necessary. On the other hand, she was hungry.

And after the alien leaves, just before Ange is rescued:

Ange took the plunge, more out of boredom than hunger. Deep breath, pop up the helmet, morsel in mouth, helmet down again. Then she checked through the ship. She even managed to sleep--a nap, at any rate.

A completely irrational act, given that she has no desire to die any sooner than necessary. It must be deeply risky to pop open a spacesuit helmet and put it back on with the assurance that if you fumble resealing it, you'll die in short order. But she's hungry -- not starving, just hungry and bored. People eat themselves to death (more slowly, of course) all the time. A Heinleinesque or Golden Age, deeply boring old-type SF hero would never do this. But this is what the text wants to bring forward about how people are. When it comes to basic biological activities like food, sleep, and having children, rationality is most often a rationalization for what we've decided at a more basic level. At the end, flattered by being the focus of social attention, the "flush of near death and survival touched even Ange's distant soul" and she decides to have a child -- no more rationally or irrationally than how she previously decided not to have one.

There is something Gnostic or Buddhist, about this, as it's generalized to more than Ange's individual condition -- there is not just contemporary Christian myth involved. When the alien is telling Ange how its companions died, it communicates "We were giddy. We were intoxicated by the glory and seediness and splendour of it all. When they died I took my craft away, but my own consciousness has been ... poisoned, I suppose you might say ... as well." The Bardo Thodol (the "Tibetan Book of the Dead") works in pretty much this way. After death, the individual sees one display of pure light after another, which if they have the ability to follow, will get them off of the wheel of reincarnation. But most people can't bear these light-visions, instead get attracted by the "glory and seediness and splendor" of visions of sex and blood, and are put back into life again. In Gnosticism, the whole seedy physical world with all of its tribulations is a sort of fake, concealing a higher truth, and attachment to biological reality is rather like ... well, it's rather like being attached to reading SF.

For me, this is the final unity in the work. Ange's consciousness is "poisoned" in just the way that the alien's was; she's intoxicated by her brush with death, by the physically attractive, attentive crew that rescues her. But being intoxicated with the glory and seediness and splendour of life is, after all, the basic reason to live.

The Fixed Stars

"gambling, arrogance, boasting, stealing, self-mutilation, literary criticism, running with animals in the wild, or marrying strangers" -- fragment from Projects: A Manual of Ambition, by Jenna Moran

There are no fixed stars. All of the other sections in this piece are named after actual astronomical objects, although their order and implicitly their orbital center is wrong, based on what we now know to be an erroneous model. But the stars never were embedded in some material that kept them from moving relative to each other. They swirl around, although they do so on long time scales. So this section is really about unfixed stars, about familiar social-role reference points slowly shifting. In this case, the social roles around literary criticism. This section is also a sort of appendix, or a bait-and-switch; it has even less to do with the text Anticopernicus than some of the previous sections do. But I figure that anyone who has read this far must be really interested in literary criticism, and thus capable of writing answering opinions about it.

Because I think that this piece that I'm writing can be described as literary criticism, as a matter of genre classification. It's also fan labor, a subset of fanac, something that has existed as long as SF-as-a-genre has. Fan writing about SF is more often fanfic or book reviews, but literary criticism is sometimes written too. What good is this kind of thing, in general? Can it do anything other than participate in the fan gift/attention economy? Those aren't rhetorical questions.

The reasons why literary criticism is written are generally explicable in occupational terms. For a while, literary criticism was largely written by people who published in literary magazines. Then there was a shift to academia, with magazines generally going to the more restricted task of book reviewing. The reason for existence of the vast majority of current-day literary-critical essays is that they are either written by a student for a grade or by a professor for academic publication. These are understandable and familiar reasons.

Literary criticism might be written by ex-academics, or those with an academic education in the humanities, who never got or held a job in the field but don't want to give up doing what they like. I encourage anyone actually interested in this to read John Emerson's piece Les Erudits Maudits if they haven't already. But John Emerson does actual scholarly activities like translating Chinese texts and doing historical research. Most of the fans who write on SF are not under-or-differently-employed humanists, or even autodidacts who have found their own way to an education in the humanities. They aren't really capable of producing scholarship per se, even if the academically crowded humanities were disposed to include their work.

The usual response is to say something like "But fan communities can collect and annotate a huge amount of descriptive material. Have you seen any wiki page on something SF-related? Or TV Tropes?" That isn't really what I have in mind either. People like Franco Moretti could undoubtedly make use of a horde of people without much training to classify works for some database or other, or analyze fan information already collected. But I'm interested in actually doing interpretations and readings, rather than furnishing raw material. In aesthetics, for instance.

Since the 1940s or so, SF in English has had a troubled relationship with attempts at aesthetic quality, starting out with Pulp, which didn't have time for it, and the Golden Age Campbellian work, which rather actively scorned it. The genre went through a "discovery" by academia, a single avant-garde movement, the New Wave, a reactionary period, during which many fans sullenly played up to SF's subcultural self-image by insisting that academia was ignoring SF and that academia's values had no place within it. And after that? Cyberpunk insisted that it was avant-garde in a certain sense, but particular qualities of writing really weren't one of those senses. Certain British writers, loosely grouped, had a lefti-ish political sensibility that gave their work coherence , and a willingness to do certain kinds of formal experimentation -- here I'm thinking about Iain Banks, Alasdair Grey, the later Moorcock, et al. -- but didn't really try to form an artistic sensibility as such. And other than some New Wave holdovers like M. John Harrison, and the scatter of individually gifted writers like John Crowley or Adam Roberts, that's about where things stood until China Mieville and the New Weird. Mieville, at least, combines a left political sensibility with influence from some current literary theorists, as least as shown by his interviews.

So now everything is fine, one would expect. Fans can read any one of a number of literary-SF writers, write screeds like this for whatever reason -- but wait. Here's something that Martin Wisse recently wrote about:

"I don't have a problem with fandom," she says. "But I don't think fans realise the pressure they put on authors. The very vocal ones can change an author's next book, even an author's career, by what they say on the internet. And writers are expected to engage and respond." She pauses. "The internet is poison to authors."

Ouch. This is only one person's experience, of course, and not the only reason that Steph Swainston gave when she said that she was going to stop writing for now. But she was the only author that I remember reading when I was wondering if the New Weird actually meant anything more than China Mieville's books. The article mentions the first appearance of her character Jant, who (as I laughed to myself when I read her first book) was a kind of iconic shorthand of the New Weird: a winged guy in a T-shirt, carrying an ax, coming back on his way from doing illegal drugs and battling a giant insect to go to a press conference.

I'm used to thinking of what I write as having certain flaws. A tendency to start with a certain type of close reading and go on pointing everything out at far too much length. An impoverished critical vocabulary, due to never taking an English course that I remember past high school -- for instance, I really would have liked to use more than the word "concision" to describe (the real) Ange Mlinko's poetry, but I'm never able to come up with convenient descriptors or genre relationships in that regard. (Although I did cut myself off at a bare word because I was making a joke about egocentricity). I'm not used to thinking of it as potentially actually harmful.

I'm not thinking so much of Adam Roberts here; he seems to me to be a seasoned critic and not likely to be bothered by anything I might write. But what's the right attitude to take to something like, say, Jenna Moran's Hitherby Dragons? Hitherby is, I think, a work of genius, or could be, or contains them in some manner. It's unfinished, and may never be finished. It started as something written and published every day, so readers saw it as written, before later revision. Since I'm trying to consider more than this particular case, I won't try to describe specifically what I see in Hitherby. But the author claimed not to be writing high art, and I really wanted/want to perceive it as high art. I was itching to dig in, close-read, make an interpretive apparatus... all the usual. And to a limited extent, I did, in comments, along with fanfic and the usual fan exchanges.

And at some point I had to step back. What the work really seemed to me to need was an experienced publisher, hopefully one that employed both a publicist and an editor. It didn't need a critic, especially one that consistently saw the work in a different way than the author did. John Clute, a well-regarded SF critic -- well-regarded by me, at any rate -- wrote about misprision being a necessary element of good criticism. But that's after the work is sent out into the world, and can bear a "very vocal" (to quote Swainston) differing interpretation than the authorial one.

Hitherby is different from the vast majority of works that people read in that it is read before it's done. But this is not exactly new for SF and fantasy. It was in one of Adam Roberts' blog posts, I think, that I read that the fix-up -- linking short pieces together or re-writing a short story into a novel -- is a characteristic form of science fiction. (Apologies for the mis-paraphrase from memory.) And one of the other things that Swainston mentioned was the pressure to publish -- to keep writing books, in her case all within a linked series. If an author always is in the middle of writing the next book, then I can see how misprision could start to gum up the works. An author can always choose to ignore a fan, of course, but this is a small world and not that many people are actually paying attention, so it's correspondingly more difficult to ignore the very vocal ones.

None of this would be a problem if there were an accepted reason to do this kind of thing in the first place. Book reviewers have to write to get paid. Academics have to write to get tenure. But less and less literary criticism from either of these sources appears to be to be read by anyone outside the relevant professional communities. More and more of it, such as it is, is from fan sources like this one. And this is a form of writing that has no center. Theorizing one -- making reasons for readers to write something other than fan-chat and book reviews -- may be one of the more useful literary activities for SF at this time.

2011 Rich Puchalsky

(Part of a site on literary criticism of Adam Roberts' works by Rich Puchalsky) E-mail:

Last modified: December 28, 2014