Monday, March 06, 2006

The Galaxy in My Mind

Back in my teenage years— 8th grade up through my first year or two in college— I wrote an astonishing pile of science fiction stories. Short stories, novellas, sketches, fragments, background pieces, and half an unfinished novel. They were all set in the same fictional universe, a future history where Man (this was back before "inclusive" language) went forth to conquer and colonize the galaxy. Tons of material, much of it never got written down, and to this day I could lay it forth for you out of my head in mindnumbing detail.

Let's see if I can briefly sketch out this future history...

Man (this was back before "inclusive" language) spread out and began to explore the Solar System by the late 20th & early 21st century. The Moon and Mars were colonized, space-based industry grew up in earth orbit, lunar orbit, at the L5 points, etc. At first freedom flourished on this new frontier. But eventually the economic leverage of space-based industry grew until Earth and its colonies were ruled by an authoritarian military-industrial complex.

Eventually the Moon, Mars, Venus, and Mercury were terraformed. The young heir to a major terraforming corporation led an unsuccessful revolt on Mars; this was the last open rebellion against the regime which ruled over the Solar System.

The moons of the outer planets were settled, but were never economically very profitable. The joker was the Asteroid Belt: vast, widely dispersed, resource-rich, and far too large to be effectively controlled or policed. Earth tried to maintain a grip on the asteroids; but much went on in the Asteroid Belt which was beyond any central control.

At long last, a rebel enclave among the asteroids constructed and dispatched a ship to the Alpha Centauri system. It took the ship many years to travel the four light-years to Alpha Centauri. There Man's first interstellar colony grew in freedom on the habitable planets of Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri.

Several centuries thereafter, ships from Earth arrived in the Alpha Centauri system, leading to the outbreak of the First Interstellar War, which continued fitfully for a couple of centuries. Not much you can do when it takes years to reach your enemy's territory. A peace was concluded, but it didn't hold, and the Second Interstellar War continued for another several hundred years. Then a hyperlight drive was discovered, cutting travel time between Earth and Alpha Centauri from years to mere days: in short order, the two star systems bombed each other back to the stone age.

Several thousand years later, Alpha Centauri climbed back up from barbarism to civilization, and back to the stars. They were equipped with the old hyperlight drive, which they had retrieved from the ancient wreckage of war: they learned how to duplicate and use the hyperlight tesseracts, but understood their inner workings no better than a headhunter understands an airplane engine. So Man went forth to his second and greater colonization of the stars.

Humans spread out across hundreds of light-years, colonizing thousands of worlds. The Hermetics grew up as interstellar traders, something like the Free Traders in Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, and my Hermetic language became a lingua franca among the stars. For some reason, the interstellar economic system in my stories was neither capitalism nor socialism, but mercantilism. Many of the little craft items I turned out in those years were marked in Hermetic "Zinir," "For Export."

More than 100 light-years from home Men encountered the Camels, a race of intelligent creatures from the Gamma Geminorum system which had themselves been colonizing the stars for several millennia. Imagine talking deer standing upright on their hind legs. Men and Camels were vastly different physically, and they also had certain psychological differences, but overall they had far more in commmon than most alien races, and they hit it off well together. Men and Camels, for all their differences, eventually became culturally one race.

There were other alien races that appeared in my stories. The Esloniki were a more or less humanoid race, much engrossed with board games and card games. (!!!) The Esloniki (Slaun Ki, "People of the Game") were also masters of a surreal martial art known as the feng cra, pirouetting through the air, balancing on the edge of a knife blade, punching through stone without effort, walking through walls— something like in The Matrix, you know. The Uranai, inhabitants of smaller and colder gas giants like Uranus and Neptune, had been around in the galaxy far longer than we had; they had five sexes, and lived for tens of thousands of years. The Proyng, a silver-based life form from the intensely hot planet of a blue supergiant star, were (as in C.S. Lewis's Perelandra) unfallen.

Human and Camel settlement came eventually to extend out to stars more than 6000 light years from Earth. Then a vast war broke out, between two human interstellar empires, the Cliton Confederation and Wolf 851. The Clitonian-Wolfite War continued for 3000 years, until finally a Clitonian physicist, Robert Ansel, unraveled the how and the why of the hyperlight tesseract, which yielded not only an improved hyperlight drive, but also weapons along the lines of the Star Wars Imperial Death Star.

In fact, Ansel had discovered far more than this: his "Unified Grid Theory" was something like a cross between a Unified Field Theory and the Kabbalah. He was called in to be examined before a session of the Clitonian High Council. The session dissolved in confusion when Ansel testified: "I am not saying that there are less than a dozen persons in the galaxy who understand my theory. I am saying that there are less than a dozen persons in the galaxy who are capable of understanding my theory. You cannot teach the calculus to a chimpanzee."

It later came out that Ansel had metaphysically "sealed" some of the more deadly portions of his Grid Theory, and had rendered himself metaphysically immune to having these portions of the theory extracted from him, even under torture. Meanwhile, the Clitonian military took those portions of Ansel's new technology which they already had in their possession, and reduced the Wolfite homeworlds to pea gravel. As an afterthought, they also slaughtered the Esloniki, for no apparent reason. The handful of surviving Esloniki were consigned to a reservation, where they played games, went into a moping decline, and went extinct within a few generations.

(These stories reflect the rather acid view of the human race which I had as a teenager... as if you hadn't already guessed?)

And then a future history which stretched on and on... after a long span of millennia, Men and Camels achieved the Zenith of the Sentients (Mna Thijad Pmopaninl), where they walked among the stars physically like ghosts of light, with vast powers, each individual capable of singlehandedly remaking the face of an entire world in beauty.

But then came an invading alien race, known only as the Enemy— think of intelligent cephalopods, octopuses, devious, nihilistic, and utterly without mercy. And Men and Camels gathered for the Council of Tau Ceti, where they debated and wrung their hands like relativist postmodern university professors, agonizing over whether they had any right to prevent the Enemy from exterminating them. The Council's final decision: We have no right to defend ourselves, we have no right to survive; let the Enemy come and wipe us out, for that is his truth, and we have no right to oppose it. (My high school English teacher hated this story, because she felt it impugned her sacred relativism. Wonder what she must think in today's post-9/11 world?)

Men and Camels were stripped of their powers, and became fugitive, hunted creatures, fleeing among the stars. Such was the Coming of the Darkness. A few, like the Camels of the Blue Nebula, or the Raldic Empire under Catherine the Wise, fought back against the Enemy, or preserved fragments of learning and culture through those Dark Ages. A few, like the giant redskinned human Tlanti, fled thousands of light-years out along our spiral arm of the galaxy, and settled on worlds far remote from the conflict.

But darkness held sway for long ages, until a warrior-king returned from the Galactic Rim, bringing with him a fleet of interstellar battleships. For from among the Tlanti arose a sometime warrior, a sometime interstellar merchant, a ruler among men, who declared war upon the Enemy, a war for the liberation of the Galaxy; and he came proclaiming: "Behold, I am Simon Athelstan, who is Emperor of the Seven Stars, and Lord of the Princes of the Vanmoor; let the record of my victories be set forth among every people in every star system, in Tlantic and in Hermetic and in Alhennan, on plates of violetized steel..."

Oh, and in these science-fiction stories, people engaged in hand-to-hand combat with swords. Also with "nimbic torches," a handheld device which generated an energy arc that could slice right through solid objects. Rather like an energy-field chainsaw. Or something like a light saber.

I was writing these stories, an endless pile of them, in my teenage years, late 60s through mid 70s. So you can see why I was just blown away when I walked into a movie theater one day in 1977 and saw a movie called Star Wars...

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Blogger The Tetrast said...

There were folks similar to the Esloniki on an episode of Deep Space 9, but they were aggressive, trapped people into dangerous holosuite-style games, and had trouble understanding why the people got annoyed -- "It's just a game!

Star Trek: Voyager had two episodes about a silver-based life form. The second one was kind of sad. "It" or "they" can take on the forms of things which they touch, but they had never done this with complex organisms before Voyager visited their hot planet. Thus they learn about the wonder of consciousness, & they really like it. Later they're kind of forgetful that they're really creatures of the "silver blood" and not human at all, and it's kind of sad.

It sounds like you should pursue sci-fi, decades after you dream ideas up, form of them are on TV.

You can tell that I haven't read sci-fi in a long time, my associations tend to TV sci-fi.

When I was a kid, I made covers for sci-fi novels that I thought I was going to write, but I never even began to write them. Still, having read all the Skylark and Lensmen novels, and having fantasized of growing up and turning them into movies, plus having read any number of other "classics," I was totally blown away like you when on a lark I went with a friend to a movie of which I had barely heard called Star Wars.

Monday, March 06, 2006 9:55:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Ah! Yes! "Doc" Smith!! I read the Lensman novels back in high school!!

Amazing how many memories all this stirs up. I have two bookcases full of science fiction paperbacks from the good old days. Of course, like you, I haven't kept up on science fiction in years. But there was a time when I was reading (and writing) this stuff all the time.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006 8:11:00 AM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

My mom's a sci-fi fan (or was, back in those days). She gave me a paperback copy of The Skylark of Space for my birthday, my 12th, I think. It was the first book that I ever read not for school. How I stared at the cover. The typeface on the cover is etched in my memory and, besides, I still have it if I want to check (a lot like bold Bookman Old Style). I was reading one chapter a night. Many chapters. We were spending summers at a place called Beach Haven on an eight-mile-long six-block-wide island off New Jersey called Long Beach Island, with my father coming out to join us on the weekends. So my early sci-fi reading was amid the great times that I was having there, & my sci-fi fantasies were all mixed in with the beach, waves, sky, intense colors, delicious smells, beautiful girls in bikinis. I developed an internal aesthetic life that made if very difficult for me to accustom myself to reg'lar lit'rature in later years and which in high school impressed girls when I talked about it but nobody admitted to having anything similar. At Wesleyan U, I found people more like myself. But I couldn't help thinking, that everybody had such aesthetic experiences but somehow they didn't discern them separately and talk about them.

Soooo, did you read all the Lensmen novels? Even Masters of the Vortex?

You have two BOOKCASES of sci-fi paperbacks! I have two shelves of them, though I've read a lot more sci-fi than that. (My mom has much of the rest.) Best sci-fi that I've read in recent years: The Forgotten Planet by Murray Leinster, an entomologist. Band of humans trapped on planet with giant insects! Leinster wrote real prose, good style, & maintained a "scientific" viewpoint even when narrating about the humans & without weakening the style. Part of a cheap old double paperback, I sure as heck didn't expect such quality, outta the blue, my old fantasy of genre sci-fi of literary quality. A few months ago I found that somebody had posted the whole thing to the Internet, but now it's gone, just the short stories from which it was made are online, e.g., The Mad Planet.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006 5:28:00 PM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

My mistake, that wasn't the original short story (which was actually set on a distant future Earth), that was a chapter from the novel, which I had unknowingly found. And there's another of his novels there too.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006 7:42:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Yeah, I read all the Lensman novels, even Masters of the Vortex; though my memory, from a remove of more than 30 years, is that I couldn't quite figure what it had to do with the first six volumes. Seems to me like the series wrapped up satisfactorily with Children of the Lens.

I loved the writings of Robert Heinlein, especially Citizen of the Galaxy, Have Spacesuit Will Travel, The Door into Summer, and (oddly enough) Farnham's Freehold. Unlike my friend Dean Esmay, I haven't read everything Heinlein wrote; but close.

I also was very much into the writings of James Blish, a science-fiction writer who unfortunately has gone into eclipse. The Cities in Flight tetralogy. A Case of Conscience. Short stories like "Surface Tension," "Beep," and "Common Time." In fact the name of my blog— Let the Finder Beware— was the name of an earlier, shorter version of Blish's novel Jack of Eagles.

Also many other favorites from back in those days. Ringworld by Larry Niven. Space Skimmer by David Gerrold. Waystation and City by Clifford Simak. More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. The White Mountains trilogy by John Christopher. The wonderfully McLuhanesque Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Old classics like The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which always sent a chill up my spine.

And then there were the short stories and the novellas. "Rogue Moon" by Algis Budrys. "The Spectre General" by Theodore Cogswell. "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Lewis Padgett. "Scanners Live in Vain" by Cordwainer Smith. "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby (after reading that, I've never dared watch the old Twilight Zone episode). "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight. And "They" by Robert Heinlein.

Yeah, I developed a detailed inner life of my own based on all my SF reading. In high school whenever we were assigned to write a story, I'd crank out another installment of my future history. Though that was only the tip of the iceberg, most of the stories I was writing, I wrote for my own satisfaction.

And the thing was, science fiction wasn't a mainstream part of the culture back then, as it is today. That shift really came about, SF entered the cultural mainstream, only with the coming of the Star Wars movies. I knew very few people back then who had any real acquaintance with science fiction, much less any liking for it. Science fiction was a self-contained, ghettoized, vaguely disreputable literary genre, sort of like detective stories or Harlequin romances.

In fact, one of the joys of the past 30 years has been watching our popular culture move more and more in the direction of the kinds of visions that used to bounce around inside my head back in the days when I was writing those science-fiction stories.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006 8:50:00 AM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

Yes, I've read many of those, too. I'm sorry to hear that Blish has gone into eclipse. I'd heard a few years back that a movie based on Cities in Flight was in the works, but I heard nothing more on it afterward.

Thursday, March 09, 2006 11:49:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Hadn't heard about that; I'd love to see a Cities in Flight movie! For that matter, I think Jack of Eagles would make a good movie.

When I say Blish is/was in eclipse, I mean that several years ago (like, late 90s) I checked the (fairly extensive) SF section of several bookstores, and didn't find any books by Blish in stock. Though he could have been reprinted more recently, for all I know— haven't checked lately.

I'd be interested in knowing how many of the "older" SF writers I used to read are still widely in print. Of course some of the big names like Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke are always in print; or, I suppose, some individual well-known books such as Frank Herbert's Dune. But these are all names, or titles, that have some recognition among the general public.

I don't think Blish was ever known very widely outside of science-fiction circles. Except, obviously, for his Star Trek books; and there it was the series, rather than his name, that stuck in most readers' minds, I'm sure. (Ironically enough, the last however many of those Star Trek volumes were actually "ghost-written" by Blish's wife & mother-in-law!)

Friday, March 10, 2006 9:05:00 PM  

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