Semifreddo Sci-Fi

I would like to begin by saying that there is a special section of Purgatory reserved for those overly impressionable souls who publicly self-identify with Ender from Ender's Game. For every statement that Battle School was "just like" their elementary school, five years of enforced meditation on the wholly murder-free nature of their kindergarten days. For all its wonderful qualities, Ender's Game has always seemed to me to be just a bit overboard in its estimate of the psychological and emotional maturity of kids in their single-digit years. And for all its at-times awful qualities, the misuse most bright kids get at the hands of bullies and pressuring authority figures is still in a fundamentally different category than what Ender goes through. Almost by definition, anyone who survives childhood in a position to be able to draw comparisons between themselves and Ender really hasn't had to deal with all that much. The Ender analogy is an act of almost Dostoyevskian self-aggrandizing self-pity, crying out for understanding and sympathy because the poor tormented soul is just too sensitive to handle the massive burdens the world has to bear, too brilliant to be allowed to walk away from them.

To continue, though, there is a certain relationship between Ender's Game and its first sequel, Speaker for the Dead. I don't mean simply "the sequel is worse." There's room enough later in the series for that, particularly in the most recent, Ender's Shadow, which reads like a weak retread of the original, perhaps because it is a retread of the original, told from a different and less interesting point of view. Ender's Game was tightly focused, closely tied to the Earthers' view of a terrifying Other, set in confining environments and with a spare and stunning progression towards its deep moral humdingers. Speaker for the Dead comes after, but it also opens that scope outwards, temporally and geographically, follows multiple characters in what is a more complex interpersonal drama on something of a slightly more epic scale. It poses the same moral issues, but throws new ones into the mix, as well. In essence, it has larger ambitions, and for that reason, perhaps loses the keening pinpoint fire of the first's laser intensity.

This is exactly the relationship between Mary Doria Russell's two works of science fiction (an anthropologist by training, she is a mid-life convert to sci-fi authordom): The Sparrow and Children of God. The former is one of, if not the best, first-contact tales I've ever read. Inspired by the 500th anniversary of 1492, she makes the novel a meditation on the experiences of those involved in our own planet's most memorable first-contacts, as translated into space for narrative convenience. It's a wild idea, sending off a Jesuit mission as humanity's first (secretively-sent) ambassadors to see what they make of the experience, and Russell pulls off this odd choice, makes it necessary to the deeper workings of her plot. She drives at cross-cultural misunderstandings without demonizing any particularly short-sighted view, sets up a terrible theological and personal conundrum, and is absolutely, utterly, completely and totally merciless in driving her unsuspecting characters into it. The conclusion is quite literally terrible, unswavering in its stripping down of that word to the terror at its core. Children of God, follows on in exactly the same way as Speaker for the Dead: broader, following more plot strands, more ambitious, more assertive in exploring more themes -- and in the end, it falls short of The Sparrow by the same two feet and three inches that Speaker for the Dead falls short of Ender's Game. There are more flavors in the broth, but it has cooled enough not to sear.

What it shares with its predecessor -- and with Card's Ender books -- is the wonderful acceptance that galactic scale is not so much spatial as temporal. Rakhat (the alien planet) is four light-years away; the journey takes one year in the reference frame of the travellers and seventeen years in Earth's frame. Communication with home is effectively useless, thanks to the eight-year response time, a journey out and back takes half a lifetime to those left behind, astronomers picking up signals sent out by expeditions can only watch in horror, powerless to intervene for reasons fundamental to the nature of the universe itself. Russell pulls dramatic tension from these fixed constants and the skews they induce in her characters perspectives. She never makes the point herself, but "relativity" functions richly in the novels both physically and culturally, and the novels' events make something genuinely worthwhile out of an oft-abused metaphor.

The only really comparable literary engagement with the laws of physics that I know of (I'm sure there are others out there, beyond the scope of my own limited engagement with science fiction) is Stanislaw Lem's. Many of his stories (especially the Pirx the Pilot tales) start from an insistence of taking seriously some fact of physics oft-overlooked by writers who lack the rich imagination needed to wrap the mind around reality's credibility-straining non-negotiables. And from this confrontation he builds pathos, tragedy, humor, and bleakly moving humanity. How long would it take to reach the far-off stars with even the most meagre resources and what would happen to Earth in the meantime? How well can ships communicate and track each other even within a single solar system? What solitary poetry must come to the spacewrecked? In each case, it is the physics of the situation that echoes in the taut and closely etched emotions of the plot. The science in most hard sci-fi struts with the oiled self-worship of the bodybuilder, marvelling at its technological gadgetry and the too-facile mastery of equations and buzzwords; it takes a more sympathetic and complex talent to see the hollows and aching yearnings implicit in that science.