Russell Letson reviews Carter Scholz

Gypsy, Carter Scholz (PM Press 978-1-62963-118-9, $13.00, 145pp, tp) December 2015.

Gypsy is the first collection of Carter Scholz material in a dozen years, consisting of the centerpiece title novella, a pair of short stories, an essay, an interview with Scholz (conducted by editor Terry Bisson), and a bibliography. As compelling as the shorter pieces are, it is the novella that grabs and won’t let go. In the interview, Scholz characterizes ‘‘Gypsy’’ as SF ‘‘with the net up’’ to ‘‘let the story come out of the constraints of the physics.’’ And throughout it is constraints, human and physical, that define the story, which follows the progress of the first interstellar voyage to the Centaurus system. As each of the hibernating crew’s ‘‘stewards’’ is awakened to solve some problem, we also get the back-story of how the starship Gypsy came to be designed, built, and launched in secret by a conspiracy of scientists, engineers, and astronauts who despair of the home planet’s future.

That future already looks bleak by the story’s mid-21st-century opening. Sophie, the first steward revived, remembers a world in a tailspin, dominated by corporations, defense contractors, and the surveillance state. She and successive stewards must deal with the expected and unexpected hazards of interstellar flight, and as the errors and failures pile up, the chances of a successful planetfall diminish, and the gradually unfolding back-story makes a happy outcome for the homeworld seem increasingly unlikely. When Sophie recovers scraps of Earth’s network traffic, she catches fragmented glimpses of rolling disasters and the insanity of a civilization ‘‘speaking its poison poetry of ruin and catastrophe and longing’’:

Drought melt permafrost thermokarsts methane burn wildfire giants 800 ppm….

Hurriedly autoimmune decay derivative modern thaws in dawn’s pregnant grave shares in disgust of high frequency trading wet cities territorial earthquake poison Bayes the chairs are empty incentives to disorder without borders. Pneumonia again antibiotic resistance travels the globe with ease….

Mankind is inwardly endocrine and afar romantic spaceflight.

Everything in the story’s science-fictional machineries emphasizes complexity and interaction and unexpected outcomes; and like the design of Gypsy itself, the story’s rolling, interconnected disasters are complex and comprehensively imagined. For example, the engineered-in sterility of commercial crops has jumped to natural species, so that ‘‘[t]here wasn’t a live food plant left anywhere on Earth that could propagate itself.’’ The starship’s necessarily minimalist design leaves only the tiniest margins of error in the elaborate and delicate systems that power and direct the vessel and sustain the sleeping crew. The stubborn resistance of the physical environment traveled by Gypsy – a set of cold equations – is the physics-and-engineering analogue of humanity’s perverse refusal to overcome the greed and power-hunger that drives the leaders of Spaceship Earth.

The most satisfying SF produces a world as dense and operationally plausible – as fine-grained – as the one we actually inhabit. Scholz’s future and starship design supply that kind of credibility for a quite non-technological set of observations about the failure modes of human endeavor. As I read ‘‘Gypsy’’, I kept thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson or Paul McAuley’s densely textured evocations of physical reality, of physics and chemistry in action. And it was quite interesting to read next to, say, Charles Stross’s various blog essays on the barriers to intra-solar-system, let alone interstellar, space travel and colonization, the executive summary of which is ‘‘space travel is shit.’’ (See Saturn’s Children and Neptune’s Brood, reviewed in August 2008 and July 2013.) Sophie, last as well as first steward, recognizes humankind’s precarious perch in the universe:

So long for us to evolve…. So long to build a human world. So quick to ruin it…. Every last bit of it was a long shot: their journey, humanity, life itself, the universe with its constants so finely tuned that planets, stars, time itself, had come to be.

‘‘Gypsy’’ is a hard act to follow, but the rest is as compelling and (sometimes) angry. ‘‘The Nine Billion Names of God’’ (1984) starts out as one of those epistolary-story goofs that used to turn up in the magazines (an author-editor rejection exchange), but it develops a sharper bite as ‘‘Carter Scholz’’ explains the genesis and significance of his text, which only appears to be a word-for-word copy of the famous Clarke tale of the same title. Post-modern hilarity ensues. ‘‘The United States of Impunity’’ seems to be a new piece, a kind of op-ed essay driven by anger but expressed with considerable rational restraint: a reasoned case against the moral bankruptcy of our governing class and the moneyed, kleptocratic classes that run them. ‘‘Bad Pennies’’ (2009) is another narrative stunt piece, the answers-only side of a Congressional hearing that points up the strange banality of geo-politico-economic operations.

The volume lives up to the PM Press’s ‘‘Outspoken Authors’’ series label, and while the genial and often funny interview does not exhibit the anger behind the stories, it does supply some biographical, political, literary, and musical background – that early on Scholz was ‘‘drawn to the core modernist works’’ of Eliot, Beckett, and Pound, and that he has argued for the science-fictionality of Beckett, Borges, Calvino, Gaddis, and Pynchon. (The brief comments on the nature of genre are right on the money.) It also made me very curious about his music – anybody who admires Monk and gamelan is going to be very interesting.

Scholz is anything but prolific. The bibliography that closes out the book is only a little over two pages long, showing his most productive writing period to have been the 1980s, with two dozen titles, most thickly clustered in the middle of the decade. He is, nevertheless, a powerful voice in the field, and Gypsy and ‘‘Gypsy’’ both pack a lot of punch for their sizes.

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