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A Gadget Too Far
a feature by David Langford

Author's note

First published in New Worlds 2, 1992.

I later based an sf convention speech on parts of this critical article, and it's the speech rather than this more sober original that appears in my mostly nonfictional collection The Silence of the Langford (NESFA Press, 1996). A slight cut made for New Worlds has been restored, and a couple of clarifying phrases added.

The general public regards sf as a wonderland of amazing gadgets and special effects in titanic collision -- where, by implication, all problems and conflicts are artificial because the author (or the movie producer) can always dispose of a superscientific threat by dreaming up a hyperscientific counter-attack. What a superficial and unfair view -- or is it? By and by we shall examine the technological clutter of some recent and popular books.

Let me creep up furtively on the subject matter. There is an official myth about science which persists in spite of regular debunking (see Stephen Jay Gould or Sir Peter Medawar) -- the myth that all scientists dispassionately collect data, turn a cold eye on the resulting array of facts, and then for the very first time permit themselves to think. Induction takes place; a theory is born. The funny thing is that although creative scientists almost invariably work the other way around, beginning with a perhaps half-intuitive speculation and testing this by experiment, most of them solemnly pretend to follow this mythical pattern.

The often-cited myth of sf has a similarly austere and unlikely flavour. Following the tradition of H.G.Wells, sf writers are or were supposed to permit themselves a single innovation, a solitary change in the world. 'Suppose ... suppose that chemical fertilizers made people grow 36 feet tall. What then?' The rest of the story must follow with iron logic and implacable extrapolation. Like the science myth, this version of things tries for an appearance of intellectual rigour at the expense of such airy-fairy trimmings as, well, creativity....

Actually Wells himself found it necessary not so much to extrapolate as to avoid too much extrapolation. Think of Cavorite in The First Men in the Moon. This is a mere device for getting our heroes to the Moon by cutting off the tiresome pull of gravity -- but it does rather tend to overthrow a great deal of existing physics. As described in the book, a slab of Cavorite instantly infuses any object immediately above it with the full gravitic potential energy required to shift said object to infinity. Energy from nowhere! First-order perpetual motion machines! No wonder the luckless inventor Cavor had to be disposed of by ravening Selenites, along with his formula.

(He was a rotten scientist anyway, remarking among other things that a small, bolted-down square of Cavorite could rapidly squirt away the Earth's entire atmosphere. The student is invited to estimate what percentage of our planet's mass would be gravitationally screened off from the viewpoint of an oxygen molecule two miles up. But I digress.)

Gravity insulators, space warpers, time machines, matter transmitters, faster-than-light travel, even the humble instantaneous communicator: let any of them into the story and a great deal of extrapolation has to be rigorously avoided. Otherwise, cracks begin to radiate from the big hole you've just kicked in physics, and the entire structure wobbles tremulously. To save the day it may even be necessary to invoke a race of enigmatic aliens whose science does not know our puny human limitations. (L.Ron Hubbard's Psychlos went so far as to use a different periodic table, full of unfamiliar elements.)

Thus the 'farcaster' or instantaneous matter transmitter of Dan Simmons's entertaining Hyperion (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990) is the gift of exceedingly clever AIs who, by generously not telling humanity how it works, permit our own scientific knowledge to remain intact and self-consistent even if presumably wrong.

In fact there's a great deal more in Simmons's two-part space opera -- or space grand opera, as one critic put it -- including some very good inset stories. Gadgetry proliferates; no Wellsian he. The cumulative developments don't half get cosmic ... for example, the story's major, all-purpose plot device the Shrike appears to be an invincible killer machine with control over space and time, whose hobby is carrying people off to eternal torment on its Tree of Pain. This unfriendly practice is eventually explained as quite logical and practical, being the baiting of an empathic trap for the ultimate, autonomous principle of compassion, i.e. one aspect of God. (That is, of one God. Real space opera doesn't stop at just one.) Gasp, boggle.

Unfortunately, having finally grasped that this is what the Shrike is up to, one does begin to wonder at its habit of buzzing helpfully about almost every subplot, smoothing transitions, precipitating climaxes and generally doing things unrelated to its supposed purpose. Surely some hidden guiding force must lie behind this behaviour, some ultimate Author?

I wondered if Simmons might be getting a trifle carried away when after vast amounts of physical and metaphysical exposition he revealed that his other major gadget the 'fatline' (instantaneous radiophone of unlimited range) operated on the private wavelength of God. Eventually, displeased at being made a vehicle for military communications and obscene chatlines rather than prayer, God concludes the book by announcing the withdrawal of this facility until further notice. Which is all very mind-wrenching, although I noticed that His prose style has deteriorated badly since the King James Bible; one can only be grateful that He didn't cancel other misused privileges like electromagnetism or the strong nuclear force.

This way lies pure fantasy, or perhaps not so pure when we recall Arthur C.Clarke's Third Law: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a completely ad-hoc plot device.' Does it make that much difference whether Jack Chalker, as is his wont, transforms unfortunate female characters in grotesque and humiliating ways by scientifically rewriting the reality equations (his 'Well World' series) or magically pronouncing spells (his 'Soul Rider' series)? Either way, it appears to sell depressingly well.

The best fantasy avoids the looseness of 'anything goes' plotting by invoking rigid magical and/or moral laws. Alas, the erstwhile sf master Roger Zelazny seems to have wandered a long way off these narrow paths of restraint. His second series of 'Amber' novels (1985, 1986, 1987, 1989 et seq) must set some kind of record for the sheer quantity of magic gadgetry which the hero carts around an ever more convoluted multiverse, with no end in sight. As an Awful Warning, I feel that I should summarize the story so far -- noting also that all these fantasy props and gimmicks could be all too effortlessly translated into sf.

Merle or Merlin (no relation) is the son of Corwin, whose adventures filled five earlier books of seething complexity, labyrinthine family trees and an increasing dead weight of flashbacks and explanation. Merlin is a Lord of Amber (the good guys). He has walked the maze-like Pattern of Amber, gaining various powers such as pedestrian travel between worlds. (When you can't find the basic and practically unique Pattern to hand, there's always the subaquatic anti-Pattern, the alternate Pattern in the sky, and a whole slew of more real, less real, metaphorical or broken Patterns.) Owing to mixed parentage he is also a Lord of Chaos (formerly and perhaps still the bad guys). This provides innate gifts of shapeshifting and other handy magic: 'My Concerto for Cuisinart and Microwave spell would have minced him and parboiled him in an instant'. Some of these interesting attributes we don't learn about until the second book, where a nasty Lurker at the Threshold explains rather too smugly that none but a shapeshifting Lord of Chaos can pass this particular dread portal, and shortly afterwards adds: 'Shit.'

As well as the Pattern, Merlin has mastered its Chaos equivalent the Logrus, conferring added powers of tactical nuclear weaponry, remote handling and magical apportation (useful and indeed much used for summoning beer and pizza). He also possesses Amber's inevitable pack of Trumps (occult teleportation and cellphone service). Plus a sentient, self-propelled and chatty strangling wire, and some arcane blue stones whose properties escape my memory. Furthermore he has constructed Ghostwheel, a vast, innovative, magic-powered computer complex (I kid you not) which is semi-omnipotent in his service whenever it happens not to be sulking. I gave up at the end of the fourth volume -- which strangely fails to be called Forever Amber -- when, obviously feeling the lad Merlin to be lacking in worldly resources, Zelazny issues him with an enchanted ring controlling immense new powers and offensive weaponry. Just what he needed!

I forgot to mention the Jewel of Judgement, or the Corridor of Mirrors, or the add-on pack of nonstandard Trumps, or the extremely special swords Grayswandir and Werewindle, or ... one could go on and on, and Zelazny does.

It seems rather difficult to provide this guy Merlin with any credible opposition, especially since he also has many sorcerous pals, sisters, cousins and aunts of awesome talent to help him out of tight spots. Even though the writing is inoffensive and even amusing, enlivened by the odd wisecrack, one's lack of interest in Merlin's perils is relentlessly fanned into a blaze of apathy by this wretched plethora of plot devices. The reader is warned.

Back in the real world, the strict Wellsian rule is not altogether viable. Writers plotting their way more than a few years into the future can no longer assume that a realistic background will remain technologically (let alone politically) stable in everything except their one 'permitted' addition, the amazing Doubletalk Ray or whatever. Information technology and genetic engineering are not going to stand still, and neither, unfortunately, will global resources.

In David Brin's Earth (1990), for example, there are whole thickets of perfectly legitimate extrapolative material which we can take on board as a mere part of concensus future number 12, subtype IV: eco-doom, UV hazards, extinctions, pollution overload, data-net hacking, clunky writing, and the like. Along with this come the unexpected developments which are so much to be expected (if only as happy confirmation that those bland, 'surprise-free' scenarios beloved of futurologists are particularly unlikely to come true) -- strange quirks like a bloody war fought in the name of Freedom of Information against Switzerland's too-secretive bankers. I wonder which side the British government was on?

Against this quite reasonably teeming background, our author duly slips in the one real Wellsian innovation, which would appear to be a glibly plausible extension of gravitational physics as we know it. Microscopic black holes, rather than suffering the quantum-thermodynamic decay predicted by dear old Stephen Hawking, can here be 'knotted' into a kind of stability and thus last long enough to threaten the Earth by nibbling at its core. On top of this is piled a (to say the least) highly unlikely theory of gravity lasers, whereby the hungry singularities can be manipulated by surface-mounted detectors or probes, with all manner of weird anti-gravitic side effects -- such as portions of the landscape bounding into orbit with an accompaniment of visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic. This particular plot-line devolves into a sort of global ping-pong game as the good guys try to nudge the unpleasantness out into space while others, many of them anonymous, prefer to keep it in there for their own nefarious purposes.

All right. The story is indeed good clean fun, exciting to read. But meanwhile, in another part of the hypertext, a more familiar computer-net war is being fought. Here the climactic action comes when a revered ecological prophetess and Nobel laureate, hard pressed by both viral assault programs and gravitic mayhem, manages with her dying keypunches to download her entire personality (a thing never apparently done before) into ... well, I have neglected to mention that those orbiting singularities within the Earth had been leaving funny tracks behind them in the planetary mantle. From the book's description it's hard to believe that these could have anything like the connective complexity of an ordinary, dumb, personal computer, but nevertheless our lady of the Green (and/or just possibly the whole of the world data net) is electronically translated into them, becomes the formerly hypothetical Gaia, and assumes control over gravitational physics -- being able by unexplained means to exercise veto power over whether or not the gravity-laser effect works. This includes using it to literally rip to shreds 'a few hundred' persons judged as Evil (no trial; no hope of appeal; organic, holistic Gaia knows best). Once again, metaphysics.

By this time the symptoms of sf indigestion are in full writhe. What, the Tunguska 'meteor' explosion of 1908 was in fact the arrival of an ultimately life-enhancing singularity? Too much, cries the bloated reader, too much. But the irresistibly readable David Brin still has his funnel down your throat and eases in one last little delicacy, like that final wafer-thin mint which detonates Mr Creosote in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Perhaps, he hints excitingly, this unlikely farrago of events was not mere chance, but was choreographed throughout by aliens working amongst us for our own good!

It is deeply worthy, it is ecologically sound, but a certain desperation seems to have set in when an author tries to smooth over an excess of coincidental developments by piling on such a new and all-encompassing one.

Sf gadgets and plot devices pose especial problems in series, since they can accumulate dismayingly as the series continues (an effect already seen in 'Amber', above) -- unless the writer exercises the Star Trek option, whereby any inconvenient addition to human knowledge may be erased at will from history before the next episode. This is not thought wholly sporting on the printed page.

Larry Niven played by the rules and, after a good deal of colourful invention, more or less ran out of creative room in his popular 'Known Space' sequence. Its chronologically final book [as at 1991] Ringworld Engineers (1980) seems to be largely an exercise in resolving earlier contradictions, at the cost of adding some new ones. For example, Engineers centres on an expedition to Ringworld motivated by interest in the transmutation machine that produced the implausibly strong material of which this giant artificial world had to be made. Later, the possibility of such a machine's existence is dismissed, implying that the Ringworld is constructed from 2 x 1027 kilograms of nonexistent stuff.... But the book's most hilarious ploy involves organic superconductors. Ringworld civilization fell apart when bacteria ate said superconductors. Now our heroes wander the world, reactivating ancient devices by connecting new lengths of superconductor between likely terminals! To relish this, imagine the vanishing of all silicon chips from our own technology, and the return to life of CD players or personal computers when kindly aliens connect little bars of silicon between terminals found on the outside of each device.

The more recent 'Xeelee' stories of Britain's very own Stephen Baxter are in several ways reminiscent of Niven, and are thickly studded with enigmatic alien artifacts. I always enjoy a good old enigmatic alien artifact myself, but Baxter has determinedly Thought Big about it all. As a result he's saddled himself with such a vast, sprawling, cosmological overplot (something to do with retrospectively landscaping the entire universe) that a godlike and disembodied point of view is required to explain all its complexities to the increasingly bemused reader -- which duly happens in 'The Baryonic Lords' (in Interzone, 1991). Only Olaf Stapledon ever succeeded on this kind of scale, and Olaf Stapledon is dead.

Admittedly Dan Simmons, concluding his own mini-series in The Fall of Hyperion, makes a brave attempt at putting across his bizarre metaphysical rationale for everything that's been happening. Sensing that this stuff might read as excessively mindboggling or even ridiculous if delivered in clear, he filters it through a maddeningly quirky AI who talks a mixture of Zen koans and Keats quotations, laid out as blank verse and festooned with funny symbols evocative of computer meeps and bleeps. A special Signal To Noise Ratio Award is surely merited here.

Orson Scott Card has been more cautiously parsimonious when introducing new elements to his award-laden 'Ender' series ... at least until the latest [as at 1991] volume, which after a long, harrowing and genuinely impressive development suddenly goes bananas. It is a puzzle. The page ripples and blurs at this point, to denote a flashback.

Ender's Game (1985) begins the sequence. Andrew 'Ender' Wiggin comes on stage at the tender age of six, an all-round genius, destined to be humanity's military leader against the unspeakable alien 'buggers'. (Almost immediately, he kills a contemporary in unarmed combat. Tougher school than mine.) A great deal of battle training and war-gaming follows. Ender never loses, no matter how overwhelmingly the odds are piled up against him. (He kills a second comrade in the course of all this -- again, unarmed.) By the age of eleven he has wiped out the alien race.

Which sounds like awful, jackbooted stuff; but in fact Card manages to have it both ways. If you like rousing descriptions of strategy, tactics and action on artificial battlefields, these can be enjoyed for their own sake. If not, the object of distaste is not our child hero but the military types who (not without remorse of their own) manipulate him: although definitely too gifted to be true, Ender himself is a sympathetic character. His killings are unintentional, in desperate self-defence. Even his genocide is unknowing, tackily forced on him in the guise of training simulations. It is somewhat harder to believe the parallel storyline which has his equally precocious Good Sister (12) and Nasty Brother (14) more or less running Earth through media manipulation by the time of the climax, but on the whole the book works.

Plot devices: instantaneous communicator (Card borrows Ursula Le Guin's name for it, the ansible. Did you know it was an anagram of 'lesbian'?), slower-than-light interstellar craft, planet-busting disruption gadget, one surviving 'hive queen' of the insect-like aliens.

Speaker for the Dead (1986) heads off in a new direction, with a complex -- though science-fictionally all too familiar -- biological puzzle on Lusitania, a new planet of human colonists, intelligent native 'piggies', a weird animal/vegetable life cycle, a dread virus which makes AIDS look like a pussycat, and much inter-species incomprehension. Not bad at all, with some strong and emotive character interaction.

Plot devices: 'descolada' virus, sentient trees, a mysterious artificial intelligence called Jane, Ender's compassionate release of the hive queen to breed anew on Lusitania (perhaps not very logical with two intelligent species already in residence).

Xenocide (1991) marks the point where all the accumulated gimmicks and plot points reach a dangerous critical mass even though most of the book is compulsively readable and well written. As it has to be to keep all its crummy-sounding elements under control. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

Item: the descolada is constantly rearranging itself to overcome human medical defences, and might even be intelligent. Item: for the foregoing reason, at least one person feels strongly that 'xenocide' should not be committed even against the virus. (Later, this interesting point is quietly dropped.) Item: running scared, the human Hegemony has long since despatched a relativistic fleet carrying planet-busters to sterilize Lusitania ... and here it comes. Item: Jane the AI, who mysteriously lives in the interstices of the ansible network, is able to cut off all fleet communications so that the fatal order cannot be given. Item: on a Hegemony world of super-geniuses kept under control by deliberate genetic crippling (giving them uncontrollable OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder), the very brilliant Qing-jao is hot on Jane's informational trail and will soon be able to kill or disable 'her'. Item: the hive queen with its new brood of workers has now developed spacecraft and generously offered them to the piggies should they (with their dread disease) wish to escape and infect the galaxy. Egged on by rogue sentient trees, some of them do wish it. Item: a counter-agent to the virus seems impossible to synthesize owing to impossible intermediate steps. Item: the nature of the descolada implies an author, in the form of yet another intelligent and nasty race (as yet unencountered) which has chosen this means to set its own seal on developing species -- the piggies' evolution has been grossly tampered with.

Phew. There is more, but this covers most of the elements in Card's intractably knotted plot. It seems impossible that the book can end other than in major tragedy. Card hasn't shirked incredibly painful climaxes in the past. One pants at the edge of one's seat.

And then....

In a narrowly legalistic way, much of what follows can be sort of justified by the stipulated existence of the ansible. As implied earlier, trying to insert this device into a universe dominated by relativity (all those slower-than-light spacecraft, etc) does in principle bust the whole of physics wide open. One contradiction in a logical system means that anything whatever can 'logically' follow. A puzzled don once asked Bertrand Russell how the assumption that 1 equals 2 could possibly lead to the conclusion that, say, Russell was the Pope. It was perfectly simple, the philosopher explained. The Pope and he were two people; but it was now given that 2=1; and so the Pope and he were one.

Just so, by fiddling around with the fake physics of the ansible, Card fudges up a justification for genuine, physical travel with the same instantaneous alacrity. Fair enough, although even this is something of a betrayal of the book's remorseless quality -- this fearfully sci-fi rewriting of basic physics exactly at the eleventh hour. That door once opened, in comes the metaphysics. The instantaneous transit is achieved by, approximately, assuming that in a context of ansible 'Outspace', location and matter are mere functions of mind. So Jane the AI simply thinks you from A to unspeakably distant B. Moreover: 'Things can be created just by comprehending the pattern of them.'

Thus, merely by thinking about their molecular structure in the course of a eyeblink journey through space, a scientist creates, simultaneously, the impossible counter-agent to the descolada and a rapid viral cure for the genetically acquired OCD of Qing-jao's entire afflicted planet. (The latter takes some swallowing. Correcting the genes for the next generation, yes: but overcoming a lifetime's obsessive habits, just like that?) A tragically incurable cripple muses on his former, healthy body, and recreates it. (His personality somehow flips across, while the crippled remains crumble tidily into dust after the manner of Dracula.) Ender inadvertently thinks of his brother (long since dead of old age, owing to relativistic lags) and still-living sister, in such incredible detail as to create perfect clones of both as they'd been in youth. All evoked by Mind from nothingness. It is the Age of Miracles. It is too, too much.

And even though Card takes some care to bracket this miraculous excess with thoroughly effective tragedies -- a piggy scientist dying nobly for the sake of research, Qing-jao lapsing into a kind of religious mania and refusing to accept her release from OCD -- it remains too much.

There still seem to be a couple of loose ends (notably those hypothetical alien creators of the descolada), in addition to a huge spray of fresh possibilities. No doubt in a few years' time Card will bring us an award-winning sequel, confirming or denying my faint suspicion that this devout author's 'philotic' physics is meant to be taken metaphorically as bringing salvation through the love of God, through a very nearly literal deus ex machina.

I stress that I'm picking on Orson Scott Card only as one representative of this great sf escape clause, the plot device that solves everything. They're found all over the place. Another example which I perversely enjoyed is Storm Constantine's Hermetech -- a book full of zany, wacky applied sex, with two of my favourite phrases of 90s sf so far ... the description of a super-transsexual who acquires, dotted all over his or her stomach, 'a fleet of sphincters' -- and another line which in a world of radical cosmetic surgery is just a shade ambiguous, where as a quick health check someone prods this skinny kid, and: 'He could feel the bones through her spare buttocks.' At what one can only call the climax, it is discovered that the world can be put right by climbing into bed and tapping the unlimited, earthquake-like potential of the female orgasm. 'Drop your pants, Luke, and use the Force!' (I wonder if Margaret Thatcher ever tried that one. As the famous blues song goes, 'She was only a grocer's daughter, but she taught Sir Geoffrey Howe'.)

As a contrast to that disappointing moment in Xenocide where almost everything suddenly comes too right too easily, I point the finger at Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990). This certainly doesn't limit itself to a single assumption. Like the 'consensus' parts of Brin's background, though, the Bear version of 2047 Los Angeles (City of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels) seems generally reasonable. Designer bodies and souls are available through genetic and psychological engineering, but accompanied by the right sort of real-world complexity and mess. The heroine's flashy skin job isn't quite perfect and she needs to take corrective vinegar baths. A new class system has automatically formed, with shabby, raw-state bodies and minds like yours or mine very much at the bottom of the heap. The psycho-twiddling techniques can be perverted to administer hitherto impossible torments; some terrifyingly idealistic vigilantes do precisely this to those they've defined as enemies of society.

Utopian city arcologies are featured, but appalling murders happen in them just the same. Nanotechnology (molecular-scale engineering, a recent flavour-of-the-month in hard sf) is all over the place, providing wonder-gadgets, 'perfect' fabricated components and even a kind of tortuous telepathy, with a dark side to every application -- such as the detailed and impressively nasty speculations on what it would 'really' be like to contact and explore an insane mind. The most triumphant note of the book is the first coming-alive of an AI; yet it's a hard, cruel birth and a convincing price has been paid, with self-awareness born out of shattering disappointment.

The one thing we think we know for sure about the future is that it won't be easy. For this reason, Bear's highly mixed blessings carry conviction. Alas, the one other thing both he and we suspect about the future is that it's a different country and they will talk a different language there. The book's heavy larding of imagined 2047 slang and neologism does yield to patient study, but not, I fear, before our author had lost a fair percentage of the ever-fickle readership and, in due course, the 1991 Hugo Award for best novel.

Historical note: Brin's Earth and Simmons's The Fall of Hyperion were also shortlisted for this award, the winner being some piece of tomfoolery far less ambitious than any of them. So it goes.

It's an old and familiar story. Too many sf and fantasy authors entertain us with conflicts which turn on arbitrary pseudo-answers to pseudo-problems. (And why not? We are duly entertained, even if half an hour later we're hungry again.) Only a few seem to devise realistic, complex and involving problems, and then meet them with realistic and complex answers -- which can of course include tragic acceptance of a dilemma's insolubility, although speaking as an optimist I rather hope not. Those who pose good strong problems and then shoo them away with a waft of imaginary physics: ahh, their hearts are doubtless in the right place, but once you've invoked spectres as grim as AIDS, genocide or global eco-disaster, is it kind or convincing to pretend these things will go away if only we pronounce the right words and clap our hands?

All together now....

© David Langford 1992, 1997.
This article was first published in New Worlds 2, 1992.

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