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from the January 1999 Locus Magazine

A Course in Life, A Foot in Two Worlds

by Brian W. Aldiss

A certain uniformity is creeping into science fiction. Maybe it was always there. Writers all read each other; ideas come unstuck and stick on other pages. Every now and then, a brilliant but unworkable idea surfaces. Such as this:

Let us imagine that a certain number of authors, instead of describing at random ... certain more or less interchangeable cities, were to take as the setting of their stories a single city, named and situated with some precision in space and in future time; that each author were to take into account the descriptions given by the others in order to introduce his own ideas. This city would become a common possession to the same degree as an ancient city that has vanished....

The essay from which this passage is taken was published in 1960, and entitled ''The Crisis in the Growth of Science Fiction''. The author was Michel Butor. James Blish was one author who railed against the absurdity of the idea at the time. However, thanks to the ingenuity of SF writers and the even greater ingenuity of publishers, Butor's wish has now been made manifest. The Shared World is with us. Each author has to take into account the descriptions given by others in order to introduce his own stale ideas.

The obsession with coralling the future dies hard. Indeed, it forms one of the basic ideas of SF. When I was last in Singapore, that island republic's famous hotel, The Raffles the very name of which smacks of another age was closed and barricaded round with hoardings, while another new and enormous Raffles was under construction. To the publicity lady who was rabbiting on about the new glories soon to be unveiled, I expressed my doubts concerning the retention of the relaxed atmosphere of the former building. Would not that atmosphere be changed? To which she gave the snappy retort, ''Same but bigger!'' Much of the history and the present of SF is encompassed by those three words: Same but bigger.

Why not Bigger but Different? Why not Same but Smaller? Why not Same Size More or Less but Utterly and Rabidly Different? Like, for instance, that wonderful prose pudding, John Crowley's ''Great Work of Time'' (recently making a return appearance in David Hartwell's anthology The Science Fiction Century). I throw out these rhetorical questions rather wildly, aware that every so often something new comes along, sometimes to be accepted, sometimes to be rejected.

But the ground floor plan strongly asserts that on it should be built an expansive universe, a hymn to the American Technological Sublime to borrow the title of David E. Nye's brilliant book on the subject. More lights, taller buildings, faster speeds, giddier tomorrows. And all this must conform to the Western Way of Life which, as the years canter by, means increasingly the American Way. (Of course, I feel pretty safe saying this since I speak your language and share most of your opinions, not to mention using your toothpastes, watching your movies, and trying to interest myself in your president's sex life.)

And there's no doubt that this particular future most of us have chosen to write and read about is an enormous slice of unreal estate, where many unlikely and exciting things can happen except, perhaps for some deep and troubled metaphysics about power and its uses.

Whatever happened to Philip K. Dick? No, don't tell me. There was a writer who went foraging for his own kind of present/future. But few can follow him.

Well, Trantor ended up covered over with a metal dome, cutting out the naked sun. I always worry when the big fleets leave for galaxy X to bring order to yet another imagined corner of the universe: who mined the ore, and how, and at what dreadful expense to the environment?

Not only to the environment, but to the people left behind on the planet, black, white, and khaki. In his book Imperium, the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski writes of Soviet times, ''in the shops of Smolensk or Omnsk, one can buy neither a hoe nor a hammer, never mind a knife or a spoon: such things could simply not be produced, since the necessary raw materials were used up in the manufacture of barbed wire.'' Barbed wire, you say?!

Well, look at it Kapuscinski's way. That vast megalomanic dream, the Soviet Empire, covered some twenty-two million square kilometres. Its continental borders were longer than the equator, stretching for forty-two thousand kilometres. All of these borders consumed the Soviet metallurgical industry, for every kilometre of frontier was guarded with coils of barbed wire... Of course, there's no parallel here with science fiction. We are free to imagine anything we like. Yet the parallel lines do tend to converge. I don't see too many stories these days like the one by Italo Calvino, ''The Light Years'', in which a man looking through his telescope at a distant galaxy sees a sign hanging there, saying I SAW YOU. The story is funny, philosophical, and contains a peck of that cosmic discomfort without which we are not truly alive and capable of self-examination.

So that is why this article is an affectionate obituary to an American (probably) writer who died recently: Carlos Castaneda, whose books such as The Teachings of Don Juan sought to find an alternative way of living, an inward way which millions were inspired to follow.

''When I asked if I was on the right path, I meant: Do I have one foot in each of two worlds? Which world is the right one? What course should my life take?''

A perfectly legitimate question for today's science fiction to consider.

-Brian W. Aldiss

© 1999 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.