SCIENCE FICTION, literature of the future, sometimes seems more like a literature of the past. Take, for instance, this sample from Mike Resnick's new novel, Second Contact (Tor, $17.95): " 'Why don't you just come along quietly with me, Major Becker,' continued the man, 'and we can avoid a scene.'
" 'I told you -- my name is Smith,' replied Becker . . . Suddenly Becker let his body go limp for an instant. The man instinctively leaned forward to support him with both hands, and Becker suddenly pivoted and caught him flush on the jaw with an elbow."
In Resnick's world, men from the government still talk about "coming along quietly," a fugitive renames himself "Smith" (and later escapes identification by using theatrical makeup), and an attorney with the fresh-faced sincerity of Pat Boone can evade a hit-man simply by using a well-placed elbow.
Supposedly, this all happens in 2065. Some of the telephones have television screens, some of the computers can understand pidgin-English, and New York City has acquired more than 200 buildings "taller than the Empire State." These shreds of window-dressing, however, are themselves quaint. They are totems from a tomorrow that hasn't changed since we first encountered it in the 1940s.
The story, likewise, is dated. Basically a suspense plot, it describes one man's crusade to penetrate a Pentagon cover-up. Assassins try to kill him; he becomes a fugitive; but through it all he talks of "military honor," and when his killers turn out to be quasi-legitimate government agents he feels it is his patriotic duty to stop fighting them and start working for them. No taint of world-wise cynicism, here -- just a rehash of 1950s naivete. Second Contact is a lightweight novel, yet Resnick is taken seriously in science fiction (this year one of his stories has been nominated for a Hugo award). His book is solidly placed in the conservative mainstream -- the central body of work which even now adheres to traditions laid down more than 40 years ago by the late Robert Heinlein.
OTHER WRITERS seem aware that this context has grown stale, but they can't come up with a modern substitute; and so, unable to escape their fictional heritage, they end up writing about it with self-conscious irony.
This is the case in Universe 1 (Bantam, $8.95 paperback), a new collection edited by Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber. Herein Kim Stanley Robinson pokes fun at the old science-fictional idea of an alien-language translation device; Barry Malzberg uses his story to comment on the supposed oppressed status of science-fiction writers such as himself ("I could feel . . . my own, more imminent ruin . . . They want to smear us, they want us utterly defaced."); Richard R. Smith's protagonist is himself a science-fiction writer, who makes asides about his own narrative style; Ursula Le Guin contributes a verbose, anecdotal piece that makes use of a scenario she originally developed more than 20 years ago; and Grania Davis uses sentences such as "Neo-terre, neo celeste to goggle. Not the muddy-madre Earth sky, and the old-crone constellations" -- as if searching for some new way (any new way!) to ornament a suit of clothes that has become threadbare. Altogether, more than half of these all-new stories seem uncomfortably aware of, and dominated by, their literary lineage.
WHEN William Gibson's landmark novel, Neuromancer, appeared five years ago, it escaped this trap. It established a new sensibility and did it in a genuinely modern style. But Gibson's set of "cyberpunk" riffs has already been co-opted by many writers, the most recent being Lisa Mason.
Her first novel, Arachne (William Morrow, $19.95), draws upon her experience as an attorney as it speculates on legal systems of the future. This is interesting; yet in the process she describes human consciousnesses plugged into a consensual electronic reality, and she does it in a style that strives to be hip and hard-edged, so that inevitably we hear echoes of 1980s Gibson just as surely as we hear echoes of 1940s Heinlein while reading Mike Resnick. No way around it: Arachne is fiction derived from fiction. Gibson's concept of "cyberspace" has become a standard sci-fi buzzword just as "hyperspace" was for a previous generation of writers.
Do You Come Here Often?
WHERE, THEN, are the innovations and surprises that we expect from a literature of ideas? The answer is, at the fringes. Alien Sex: 19 Tales by the Masters of Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy (Dutton, $18.95) is an example. Edited by Ellen Datlow, this collection of stories (more than half of them previously unpublished) tackles a topic that has lain relatively untouched, hence blessedly free from precedents. The writers can indulge themselves with unselfconscious originality, and this they do.
Leigh Kennedy's "Her Furry Face" is a serious and sensitive story about a scientist's love relationship with an intelligent ape. Rick Wilber's "War Bride" disturbingly depicts humans tempted to serve aliens sexually, much as Filipinos were bribed by Americans during World War II. Pat Murphy's "Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates" is a whimsical yet convincing and intimate vision of life, pseudolife, and reproduction after a nuclear war. K.W. Jeter's "The First Time" is a vivid, visceral, hot and horrifying account of an inhuman initiation in a Mexican brothel. There are also notable stories by newer writers such as Roberta Lannes and Michaela Roessner.
The only danger in a book that sets out to mix sex and science fiction is that it may degenerate into sniggers and juvenile humor. Harlan Ellison's "How's the Night Life on Cissalda?" is the prime offender here, describing the invasion of Earth by disgusting creatures that are sexually irresistible. Public figures (easy targets, mostly) are depicted as being easily seduced by the alien lure. Two other stories in the book try to be funny, but they succeed better by taking a more droll approach. Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" tackles the concept of a sex life for Superman. Philip Jose Farmer's "The Jungle-Rot Kid on the Nod" features Tarzan, as conceived by Edgar Rice Burroughs, rewritten as if by William Burroughs. It's a classic pastiche.
But most of the writers here look beyond the established scenery of science fiction and concern themselves with adult and substantial themes. In fact, some of their work is very serious indeed, and the "alien sex" label is interpreted liberally enough to encompass situations where sex merely seems alien. The result is diverse, which is another way of saying it's a grab-bag. Datlow seems to have imposed no strictures or guidelines, and her own introduction espouses no position or agenda. In effect she has chosen a fishing net, tossed it into the river, and waited to see what strange creatures might happen to swim in. The result is a jarring mix of voices and moods, but almost all the stories are interesting in their strangeness, and this is, overall, an excellent collection containing something to please just about anyone.
Don't Cry, Scream
FOR STRANGENESS of a higher order, The Brains of Rats by Michael Blumlein (Scream/Press, $25) stands out as the most disturbingly imaginative book I have seen so far this year. Blumlein has a dark and subversive sensibility, and he examines human mores with methodical ruthlessness.
The title story, making good use of his experience as a doctor, digs down to the deepest roots of gender roles. It argues convincingly that nothing short of major genetic modification can make us, so to speak, sane. "Tissue Ablation," another story with a medical theme, takes 14 pages to describe in graphic detail an operation to strip the arms, legs, and internal organs from the living body of Ronald Reagan. This vivisection is calculatedly gruesome yet never gratuitous. Ultimately, the story reaches a moral position which is extreme yet, in its own way, valid.
Altogether there are a dozen stories here (three of them previously unpublished). Some are relatively light: "Interview with C.W." ventures into literary satire; "Drown Yourself" is a witty account of android sex in a futuristic rock club; and "Keeping House" describes the escalating hallucinations of a woman obsessed with keeping her home clean and tidy. Even here, though, Blumlein shows his talent for disturbing detail: "I have seen the severed paws and death grins of mice caught in our traps . . . For the next few weeks I dreamed about doing battle with limbless creatures whose flesh dripped when punctured . . . Yesterday I devised a way to defeat the odors. With the long-stemmed matches that Curtis keeps beside our fireplace I cauterized my nostrils."
Blumlein's stories, like paintings by Salvador Dali, are distillations of the human unconscious. They are intensely horrific yet legitimized by the author's pure, righteous air of conviction and his ability to tell us truths about ourselves. Blumlein has an exceptional vision, and he conveys it with exceptional talent. His work may be too disturbing to please a wide audience, and it's far from the main body of science fiction; but at a time when that main body is feeding off itself, we should be thankful for such a gourmet feast of conceptual originality.
Charles Platt is editor of Science Fiction Guide and author, most recently, of "Free Zone."