Monday, April 21, 2014

A Riff on the Seeing of Sales

I've been meaning to read Ian Sales's hard SF novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains (independently published: Whippleshield 2012) for a while, whilst also being a bit wary; some puff quotes made me wonder: will I forced to read some numbers, politely pretending to myself they were as interesting as words? Or will I have to read some paragraphs of a physics textbook laid out as dialogue and larded with "But wait, surely ..." / "As you probably know ..." / "Impossible! Because ..."?

It does sometimes read a little bit like research, and perhaps that's a weakness. At the same time, those glittering clusters of acronyms, designations of military hardware series and models, and other techie terminology, are arranged tastefully, lending an appropriate sense of estrangement from an impersonal, hostile beauty. The same linguistic precision and technicity which tends to withdraw its immediate objects of reference to somewhere temporarily out-of-sight leaves behind the cadences, the shapes, the composite of associations, whose abstraction reaches out towards the transhistorical. Almost as if it is the text that is deeply natural, and it is you, dear reader, who are merely well-researched.

That technical vocabulary is also (now I'm sounding very #protip, but anyway) very convincingly rooted in the characters' consciousness; it would be silly to have these astronauts talk in potted popular science explanations.

And I think that's part of how Adrift doesn't flaunt or get hung up on its hardness: the physics reveals itself where relevant, and Adrift doesn't do zero-g somersaults trying to make it relevant all the time. Likewise, though there is what I think is a pretty Golden Age-ish engineering puzzle at the heart of the story, it isn't announced with a big fanfare as the Puzzle at the Heart of the Story; that is it isn't endlessly paraded around so stranded astronauts can throw failed solutions at it like confetti. The characters just get on with it, solving it steadily and quite quickly. What little struggles they have with it are just as much rooted in their distinctive personalities and social dynamics as they are inherent in their subject matter.

(Perhaps this is what many engineering puzzles feel like: you don't really know how fiendish it is until you've solved it, because the process of understanding the puzzle, of mapping it correctly, overlaps significantly with solving it. The puzzle is never something that's splayed out before you, like a crime scene; it's something that accumulates incrementally behind you).

But most importantly, the presiding spirit of Adrift is consistently one of quiet, elite, elegant wit.

The rest of this note is pure spoiler, and Adrift isn't much longer than this post, so if you haven't read it, go on, off you go.
[...] put his thumb over the "kill" button on the stick and waited for the lock-on tone; and his wizzo protested but he ignored him, and the reticule on the Projected Display flashed, so he pressed with his thumb -- gently, as if it were a hunting rifle's trigger and not simply a button which triggered an electric signal and so fired actuators which pushed hydraulic rams. He heard with satisfaction the grinding of the bay doors opening, the thud of missile release [...] he saw the impact, the sudden blossoming of flame on the T-4's flank, the enemy bomber shedding shattered panels which spun mirror-bright in the sun as they fell, the curving smoke trails of debris as the aircraft broke apart; and his wizzo said, Jesus Christ, you sure as shit should'nt've done that [...] (49)
Part of the wit of Adrift is actually a bit more than wit: it is tragedy. The deadpan, weirdly heartbreaking catastrophe of the novella's final moments is dripping (maybe not "dripping" in microgravity -- "spinning off in orbs" or something) with dramatic irony. Peterson has probably come to a Glasnost timeline, so even according to his own peculiarly awful values, his decision to -- to ram the space station Mir? -- is just plain wrong. It is a lamentable waste any way you look at it, and with hard-won salvation finally within his grasp. If only he knew what we, the audience, are pretty sure of!

Specifically, I think Adrift conforms very well to the influential early 20C Bradleyian understanding of Shakespearean tragedy (which notoriously Shakespeare seldom does). There is a great hero with an interesting and emo tragic flaw, which leads to his downfall, and actually he's probably brought enough downfall to share with the whole class.

(Perhaps Sales also gives us a hint of the tragic hero being retrospectively aware of what he's done, something else Bradley was also fond of. Peterson will have several hours to meditate on his unprovoked and under-evidenced attack on a space station named "world" and "peace" before he dips low enough to burn up against the atmosphere).

I'm not sure how best to sum up Peterson's tragic flaw: anger? -- or "combustibility" lol? Or "never really getting his head round the 'continuum of force' criterion on his Rules of Engagement card"?

Obvious Peterson has a propensity to a kind of hawkish militaristic tantrum, but there's aesthetic pleasure as well as moralising anger: Peterson's flaw seems to have to do with mistaking the voluptuousness of predation for an irresistible existential revelation. Whether he's ill-advisedly smoking a T-4 or Мир itself, Peterson acts as though his agency has been suspended at the critical moment, as though he were now already an instrument of Fate, a weapon rather than someone with the option of wielding one.

In both cases too there's a kind of macho territorialism: plainly so in the case of the T-4 straying into Canada, and more tenuously in Peterson's proprietorial attitude to the alt-Earth's orbital space. It resonates with Peterson's decision to undertake the mission himself and the growlingly patrician manner in which he imposes that decision.

Finally, Adrift is also a novella which -- despite involving a magic Nazi gateway to dimension X on the moon -- is thinking hard about hard SF. I'm intrigued that Peterson is just about brushing against reality (where, he speculates, they have no Bell). Perhaps reality is a kind of limit condition for hard SF. Perfectly hard SF stops being SF anymore.

Peterson of course would just sacrifice himself and his lunar fraternity by pointlessly ramming this unbreakable fourth wall. What a Мирpet.


"No one ever closes the book with the feeling that man is a poor mean creature. He may be wretched and he may be awful, but he is not small." -- A.C. Bradley


PS: I'm thinking a bit about alternate histories and complex / chaotic causation at the moment, and I've been trying to figure out the significance of covariance for the indicativeness of particular facts or categories of facts. How confident should we be that Мир is our Мир and the timeline our timeline? What would covary with the presence of Мир? How many "alternate paths" are there to having a space station up there named Мир?

PPS: Adrift is the first of a quartet, three of which have been published so far. I'm not sure yet how closely connected they are, or if the current narrative thread has been decisively snipped or not. Maybe Paterson will be rescued by a tragically flawed sexist hallucination of George Clooney after all?

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