WHEN H.G. Wells sent his time traveler into the far future, he landed among recognizable beings: the eloi, a fun-loving mindless species resembling the British aristocracy, and the morlocks, the murderous troglodytes who, like British workers, resentfully keep the machines running. In extrapolating futures, science fiction writers never leap far from their own cultures.
This is especially true in tales of the near future, rooted solidly in our own world, but following some real or imagined trend into new places. Pacific Edge (Tor, $18.95) is the third novel Kim Stanley Robinson has set in a near-future Orange County, California. The others -- The Wild Shore and The Gold Coast -- showed a future following a global nuclear war and a future ruined by industrial technology gone mad. Now he presents a third alternative, namely, the struggle to live in harmony with the natural world.
The year is 2065. Green Parties or other unspecified social forces have changed the governments of the world, allowing the UN to set stringent limits on corporate growth and individual wealth. Multinationals and millionaires are seen no more; small is not only beautiful but mandatory. Private enterprise continues within a socialist matrix, possibly on the Swedish model. Robinson wisely avoids spelling out too many details, and so keeps it all plausible.
It is also clear that petroleum has virtually run out, and that all of the present-day solutions to this problem have added up to very little. Ocean travel is now largely by sailing ships (rather magnificent ones with automated rigging). Cars, probably running on alcohol, can be rented from the state for use on certain freeway lanes, but normal practical travel is by trail bike. For this reason, despite electronic contact with the rest of the world, people necessarily turn inward towards community problems. Most of this world is seen only indirectly, through the eyes of Kevin Claiborne and other dwellers in the village of El Modena. These people, who went to high school together, now sit together on the town council. They perform community service, play softball, fall in and out of love, and generally carry on a life style that (except for the lack of cars) would not surprise a middle-class Californian of today. They have fun swimming, body surfing and gliding aloft in pedal-powered fliers. There is even a tequila party in a kind of natural hot tub.
The group all work locally. Kevin renovates houses to make them environmentally friendly. Others teach or work in science, medical technology, or the law. If their lives are bounded physically by Orange County, they are bounded also by California thinking. This means that they live in their bodies rather than their minds, with thoughts rather excessively given over to quads, biceps, triceps and peak experiences. Only the lawyer from Chicago notices anything odd about this kind of eloi consciousness.
Where are the working-class morlocks? Lodged in other towns around the county. We glimpse them on a couple of flying visits, where they turn up in dirty jeans to watch pro wrestling and drag-racing events. They are presented as pathetic and comical in trying to cling to a life no longer appropriate. There is something irresistibly funny about the image of huge Hell's Angels in leather jackets putt-putting along in tiny motorbikes at 5 mph.
By contrast, Kevin and his friends have an almost pathological love of nature. It goes beyond such practical concerns as gardening and solar air conditioning, beyond the aesthetic concerns of preserving unspoiled beauty, and beyond even moral concerns of harmony with the land. These people go all the way to mystical experience. Friendly ghosts appear to bless an environmentally friendly house. A drunken man finds a pack of coyotes flopping down to sleep with him. Kevin keeps seeing a mysterious shape lurking among the avocado trees.
Every Paradise must have its snake, and this one has Alfredo, the village mayor. For reasons of his own, perhaps a lust for power, he wants to build a new industrial park and shopping mall on an unspoiled local mountain. Worse, his backers include shady Hong Kong interests -- the illegal multinationals trying to sneak back into town. The town council meetings turn into ideological battles.
It should be emphasized that while the reader may be skeptical, as I was, of the ability of world governments to enact and enforce anti-wealth laws, the novel is nevertheless utterly convincing. However air-headed and politically silly the characters may be, they are convincing. There are no false notes. That alone sets Pacific Edge head and shoulders above much of what is currently packaged as science fiction. New York Armageddon FROM California eloi we turn to New York morlocks. In Heathern, by Jack Womack (Tor, $16.95) almost everyone is as fast-talking, restless, pointlessly violent, and insane as we all believe New Yorkers to be.
The opening scene is typical. The heroine, Joanna, is almost killed by a falling baby flung from a window by its mother. This is New York craziness and despair cranked up to a painful pitch, and it does not stop. The greenhouse effect is about to flood Wall Street. AIDS and muggings are rampant, hospitals handle mainly emergencies, and the police no longer investigate the murders of unimportant people. Long Island is ravaged by a guerrilla war. As the army units patrol Manhattan, streets collapse under their tanks, dropping them into subway tunnels.
It is 1998, and clearly the world is coming to an end. None too soon, the reader may think, since it is a bleak, heartless world without any redeeming features. But ending it ought to be more fun than this.
Womack certainly assembles the ingredients for a good time. Joanna is a vice president of a powerful and mysterious entity called the Dryden Corporation, or Dryco. Dryco is evidently capable of striking deals with Tokyo or Moscow, assassinating presidents and pretty well doing what it pleases. When she and other company executives travel, their bodyguards are empowered to kill anyone who causes them the slightest annoyance. Their offices are in the World Trade Center, the roof of which is mined to prevent surprise visits by helicopter.
Threats seem to fly in from all angles. A Dryco operative is assassinated by a blowgun using blowfish poison. The treacherous Japanese, the dangerous Cubans, the insidious Russians -- suspect everyone and no one.
From a close study of the tabloid press, Dryco unearths a charismatic named Lester Macaffrey, a kind of messiah with powers of healing the sick and raising the dead. Dryco immediately sees the possibilities of exploitation and puts Joanna on the case.
No doubt this is all meant to be good fun, but it never comes off. Adding more weapons, such as a multiple-barreled magnum shotgun that also shoots acid, doesn't seem to help. Perhaps the techno-thriller territory has been too thorougly explored before, not only by cyberpunks but by Robert Heinlein's Friday and even Modesty Blaise.
Nor is there any fun in the dialogue, full of neologisms and coyly twisted sentences. " 'AO,' he said. 'Litcrit twicecovered this month.' " It becomes especially irritating when the author has to stop and explain each neologism. " 'What's tagged for intersits? List me.' Intersits were, in our economical shorthand, international situations."
Heathern seems hastily done; rough drafts of ideas are tried out but never followed up. The reader is left finally with plenty of loose ends, no doubt to be resolved in a sequel. Womack threatens, in an author's note, to write a "six-part ensemble" of which this is third, following Ambient and Terraplane. Raise the Titanic! A NEAR future populated by the highest tech is the setting for The Ghost from the Grand Banks (Bantam, $19.95), by Arthur C. Clarke. This concerns fictional plans to raise the Titanic in 2012, exactly 100 years after it went down. The ship has broken in two, and two separate projects are under way, one to raise each portion. Indeed, the story at first promises a kind of race. One project, the Nippon-Turner conglomerate, wants to raise the stern section only, by encasing it in ice, then shooting it to the surface with rockets. It will then be towed to Tokyo-on-Sea, where it can pay for itself as a very elaborate tourist attraction (tourists will sit in lifeboats beneath an artificial night sky and watch the Titantic's stern sink again and again).
The other project is sponsored by a British glass company and an American inventor. This scheme involves tiny hollow spheres made of a special glass and filled with air. These will be pumped to the ocean floor, where robots will pack them into bundles and tuck them throughout the main part of the wreck. It can then be raised to a shallower depth (but not completely out of the water, because of the dangers of corrosion) and towed to New York or possibly Disney World. In part, it will pay for itself because of a fortune in rare Italian glass objets d'art which the glass company knows is aboard and intact.
The cast, as in most Clarke stories, are mainly technical wizards with flat personalities -- the most interesting character is a 50-ton octopus -- but then no one reads a Clarke story to find out about human nature.
A team of mathematicians, Donald and Edith Craig, are shoehorned into the story for no discernible reason except to allow Clarke to talk at length about the Mandelbrot set. This mathematical artifact can (in real life) generate beautiful and infinitely complex patterns on computer screens. It becomes an obsession of Edith Craig's, after the death of her daughter, Ada. All we ever learn about Ada is that she, too, is a brilliant mathematician.
Edith Craig has made a fortune by inventing a mathematical algorithm that rescues many bookkeeping systems which might otherwise become obsolete in the year 2000 (because they cite dates in shorthand -- e.g., 11/25/90). The Craigs make even more money sanitizing films for TV. Using digital techniques, they remove from the films all images of cigarette smoking, including ashtrays and smoke. None of this has the slightest relevance to raising the Titanic, but it does allow Clarke to lecture about number theory.
He further lectures on undersea optical cables, nanotechnology, personal phones, elaborate undersea robots and diving suits, a new refrigeration principle, self-cleaning windows, and other wonders. The actual undersea adventure story becomes lost in the parade of technology. This book might have worked as a nonfiction forecast, in Clarke's inimitable style.
John Sladek's books include the satirical sf novels "Roderick" and "Tik-Tok," as well as many short stories.