Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Anti-Copernicus (VIII)

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


”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!'”-- Anti-Copernicus

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.

Anti-Copernicus 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 Anti-Copernicus, 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.

There will be one final section after this one, “The Fixed Stars”.

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