Archive for January, 2010

Big Dumb Objects

24 January 2010

My latest plan was to try and work on a chapter at a time, and thereby tick them off and feel I was closer and closer to finishing. That went the way of all sensible plans – although I am nearly finished on the one I was working on, aside from the typing – so instead I’m working on word counts of the whole thing. I also wanted to ensure I’d read all the Hugo and Nebula novel winners, and that led me to the Big Dumb Object.

That’s a term coined by Roz Kaveney, possibly in her article on 1970s sf in Foundation (which I have obviously read years ago, and before I wrote the book outline, but I was avoiding a reread to try and keep my own ideas) distinct, and it refers to the vast structures that humans stumble upon, and try to investigate. It invokes the old sensawunda and the sense of the sublime, because it is so damn big and mysterious, and hardly speaks to the investigating parties.

There are three clear examples in the 1970s, and then various difficult cases, some of which I’ll gloss over. Larry Niven’s Ringworld is a cylindrical world, which our heroes crash into or onto. They appear to be straded there at first, and then travel across a small portion of the landscape. Every so often there are glimpses of something more – usually an attempt to explain the absurdities of how the environment is actually liveable – but scientific rationalism wins out, even as luck is explained away as genetic rather than narrative convenience.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama was his first novel after 2001, and again the ground need to be reclaimed for rationalism. The characters are eminently sensible, as they explore a vast cylindrical spaceship, and attempt to penetrate its mysteries. Again their are oddnesses – the characters’ sense of deja vu – but as Clute said in his review, it’s all about the c and the w and the gt.

The third example is Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, an honest-to-goodness Dyson sphere, and the answer to Earth’s problem of where to ease the over crowding problems; yet at the same time the novel is aware of the politics of power, and especially of empire and colonialism. Somebody is already there in paradise.

So why these three in half a dozen years? On the one hand it feels like its some kind of response to the fag end of the New Wave revolutions – this science is hard, dammit, it’s not just surrealism. The ghost of 2001 is in the background – the monoliths are as big and dumb as can be imagined. It marks a sense of making the impossible verisimilitudinous – but now is avoiding the cod enlightenment of the stargate journey.

Curiously the most interesting examples – aside from Orbitsville – end up deconstructing the big and the dumb and the object. Priest’s Inverted World begins with a peculiar city travelling across an increasingly surreal landscape and ends up in distinctly psychological, and apparently scientific, terms. Priest had slated Rama and Ringworld in various articles, and it is certainly tempting to read Inverted World as a response to such novels. Meanwhile Terry Pratchett’s Dark Side of the Sun parodies the ‘pataphysics as much as the physics, in a novel which is a dry run for Strata, itself dry run for something rather better known. A big flat planet. Sf, eh. You gotta laugh.