Monday, March 12, 2012

A speculative-fiction spectrum: Clifford D. Simak to David Mitchell

In the course of a year -- March 2011 to March 2012 -- my reading group chose, read, and discussed two works of speculative fiction. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was published in 2004; Clifford D. Simak's City was published a half-century earlier, in 1952.

Each describes an extended period of human history: Mitchell's novel begins in 1850 and ends some thousand years later. Simak describes a period ten times as long, from the twentieth century to -- what would that be? -- the two hundred twentieth or so.

Each is a series of related, and in some manner interlinked stories: Mitchell's six to Simak's eight.

Mitchell's stories are nested one within another, like a matryoshka doll, ending partway through in the first half of the book, and continuing in the second. Each is linked to the next, as a story, manuscript, film, or myth discovered and/or cherished by a character living in a subsequent time.

Simak's tales, originally published individually between 1948 and 1951 in science fiction magazines, are presented as fragmentary folklore of a possibly-mythical creature called "man." The stories are interleaved with scholarly commentary by dogs -- Rover, Tige, and the like, cited as reverently as human graduate students in this century might nod to Harold Bloom or Richard Ellmann or Stephen Greenblatt. Dogs are the dominant species on Earth by the end of City, who differ with one another over whether the bipedal creatures described in the tales are historical or invented.

Both novels are dystopian. Not a lot of happily-ever-after in either of these works.

Mitchell traces an arc from colonial inhumanity to corporate dehumanization, and ends after the fall of human civilization (the end of human civilization occurs in the middle of Cloud Atlas; having advanced a thousand years, the novel then regresses to its 19th century beginnings).

For Simak, humans are doomed by their own uncontainable aggression, and decide almost unanimously to decamp from planet Earth in order to be transformed by some named but otherwise undescribed biotechnology into otherworldly and infinitely more sensitive creatures on Jupiter, leaving the planet they nearly destroyed to the more constructively-social and empathetic canines -- after enabling them to talk and read and utilize robot-companions to compensate for a lack of opposable thumbs.

On Goodreads I've given a personal rating of four stars to the Mitchell novel, but recorded only two for Simak's. Why is that? What was the difference for me?

I did find Mitchell's acrobatic technique impressive: six tales in six styles and six voices, and yet the stories cohere in a whole. I found his characterizations rich and credible, where Simak's struck me as wooden and allegorical (a stiffness that seemed part and parcel of the novel's overall academic conceit, but even in a sympathetic reading this struck me as too heavily applied). Mitchell's interlinking plots, and the cliffhangers at which he put five of his six tales on pause, pulled me deeper into the novel; Simak's ersatz-scholarly apparatus flattened City's drama.

But it wasn't the quality of the writing that made two stars' difference for this reader.

For me, there's speculative fiction and there's speculative fiction. That is to say, there's only so far I'm willing to speculate along with an author before I become ... well ... bored. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Talking, reading dogs who get around their deficit in the paw department by employing robotic personal assistants? For me that's an allegory too far. Simak's fables were too far from the world I live in to induce empathy. I couldn't make myself care.

I don't claim special status for my personal taste. Both these books are works of fiction, I'm as subjective as the next reader, and there are delightfully many ways to tell a tale. There were times in my own bibliophilic history when I found hobbits and elves, or Poul Anderson's exotic aliens, delicious.

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas reaches its dystopian end of human civilization without leaving an arc of human history that is reasonably, rationally traceable from the world we know today. At this novel's furthest speculative pole, the "Fabricant" Sonmi-451 is a cloned human, brainwashed by a wacky hybrid of Catholic ritual and capitalist aspiration -- not far, alas, from early 21st century reality, not nearly far enough if you ask me; though it's the reality I'd change, not the fiction.

(To anyone keeping track: I write this post mere weeks after reading Simak's City, to which I am comparing Mitchell's novel; though a few days after I finished Cloud Atlas I wrote, in Facing things we'd rather weren't so, that its author leaned too heavily for my current taste on fictional science. So: I'm not only subjective, I'm fickle. Take that, guardians of consistency!)

Bottom line, for me, speculation that forgoes wild improbability is speculation that satisfies.

How 'bout for you?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Facing things we'd rather weren't so
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Dystopias in fiction


  1. As I consider some speculative fiction of my own, I'd ask you if you thought it was really the distance from the world you live in or the unfilled gap and lack of essential human truth/story (this is often a problem IMO with high-concept sci-fi) that left you cold. Would it have made a difference if how they got to talking dogs was made more clear/believable? Would you have been able to invest emotionally in the reality if it was put in the context of a story with emotional, essentially human content, even if the content was between a dog and his robot? I haven't read Simak, so I can't speak to the specifics, I just think that good speculative fiction writing requires an understanding that readers need to see themselves/humanity to be engaged (ideas are great, but not enough for really good story).

    1. @Steven -- For me I'm pretty confident it's the distance from the world I live in. The 'levels of indirection' (as a programmer might phrase it) are, to me, a distraction from this-world-centric, human, and emotional elements that I find compelling in fiction -- not an enhancement, or even a helpful decoration/embellishment. As I said in my post, this wasn't always true: once upon a time I used to read speculative fiction (when we called it sci fi) by the shelf-foot.

      An interesting example in this vein is a novel I have blogged about before: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (cf. my post of Nov. 2010, Dystopias in fiction, also linked above). I won't give any spoilers here because I see on Goodreads that you're reading the novel now; but the biotech science in Ishiguro's book is left completely unexplained (deliberately, one must conclude) ... and yet I found it brilliant and haunting because the science (not so distant from humankind's present knowledge and abilities) wasn't what the book was about. It was about the characters. Unexplained science didn't get in the way. Pseudo-science sharply divergent from reasonable trajectories arcing out from now didn't get in the way. And yet the novel was certainly speculative, and I was moved by it.

  2. Interesting. It's true that when I think of speculative fiction that's drawn me in, usually it isn't too far (whatever that means) from our world. Oh, maybe the people are blue, whatever, but things aren't so weird as to be distracting.