3 March 2014
The genre of Science Fiction is a, “philosophical perspective on what it means to be human in a changing world,” (McKitterick 19). Since its inception, Science Fiction has allowed its masters to delve into what is often referred to as “Speculative Fiction”: a new way of observing and analyzing both the potential and limitations of humankind through often-hyperbolized versions of reality. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and The Sirens of Titan, Terry Bison’s They’re Made Out of Meat, and Christopher McKitterick’s Jupiter Whispers represent three authors whose works have assumed the role of Speculative Fiction in order to question the nature of humanity in the face of extreme circumstances; Arthur C. Clarke’s essay, “Hazards of Prophecy,” and McKitterick’s introduction to Science Fiction, “The Literature of Change,” help to highlight these four works’ impact on what Speculative Fiction is capable of being.
Clarke’s, “Hazards of Prophecy,” argues that without successes of imagination, there would never be new discoveries made. His examples of highly educated and powerful people, such as the widely respected American astronomer Simon Newcomb, declaring perfectly possible things like human space travel ‘impossible’ due to what he aptly calls “failures of nerve and imagination”, are troublesome to say the least (Clarke). The widely spread refusal to accept anything new into humanity’s already limited knowledge-base serves as nothing more than a hindrance to the advancement of the human race. Clarke is warning his audience against the arrogance of certainty because there will always be more to be learned, discovered, and changed. An unfortunate aspect of this common error is that humankind is both arrogant and inquisitive by nature; thus, humankind has an inherent need for an absolute, inherent ‘Truth’. Once they think they have it, they hold on tight. Speculative Fiction is an immeasurably valuable tool with which to combat these failures of nerve and imagination. According to McKitterick’s introduction to Science Fiction, “The Literature of Change,” “Science Fiction is a discussion about what it means to be human in a changing world, and everyone’s invited,” (McKitterick 19). The genre approaches philosophical questions about the human condition through an infinite amount of perspectives we are unable to achieve from a mere earthly standpoint. The draw, he argues, is not the credibility of the science itself, but the speculation that arises within the story about the limitations of humankind and technology (McKitterick).
Vonnegut’s powerful novel Cat’s Cradle is possibly the most thorough examination of modern society within the realm of Speculative Fiction. This alternate history focuses on the nation of San Lorenzo; an island with no wealth, no power, and no hope until, “Bokonon, cynically and playfully, invented a new religion,” which very closely parallels modern Christianity (Vonnegut 172). These islanders gladly turned to Bokononism: a religion openly based on foma, or harmless untruths (a.k.a. lies), in order to find a greater meaning and purpose to their terrible circumstances. Though their island had been invaded countless times, their invaders never stayed long, and “when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies,” (Vonnegut 172). After generations of misery the islanders were left, still miserable, to live out their lives in poverty and hunger. Bokonon saw this and he pitied them, but he also saw an opportunity. He became their most beloved citizen by telling them to “believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon,” (Vonnegut 2). This system of belief is essentially an assurance that there is a ‘reason’ for the terrible conditions of the islanders’ lives. Vonnegut’s deconstruction of religion through Bokononism is an attempt to force his audience to consider the wider implications of any belief system. It is an attempt to make us understand that religion itself is not important; the fact that we search for answers is.
The protagonist, John, upon arriving in San Lorenzo, discovers that the man who created the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker, also created a substance called ice-nine which essentially insta-freezes any kind of liquid it touches. Here, we approach Vonnegut’s dive into a unique form of Speculative Fiction. He does not attempt to make some wild jump into a new universe, but instead gives a perfectly practical reason for ice-nine’s invention and the consequences of such an invention to take place: the Marines were sick of drudging through the mud. They asked Hoenikker to invent something that would allow them to walk on top of the mud instead of through it. His solution was ice-nine, but, immediately realizing the dangers of such a compound, he never releases it to anyone until he much later kills himself with it and leaves it with his dim-witted children who effectively cause the end of the world—but that is neither here nor there. Once ice-nine is circumstantially dropped into the ocean, all of the liquid on the face of the planet is instantaneously frozen, and life on earth ceases to exist. John and the few other survivors, mostly fellow Bokononists, struggle greatly with what the end of the world means in terms of their religion and the karass they believe they are a part of. Vonnegut uses this necessarily extreme situation to illustrate that science promotes inconvenient truths while religion promotes convenient untruths. Science promotes successes of both nerve and imagination while religion promotes their failures. Post-apocalypse earth allows the survivors the insight that there is no argument for their karass or for intrinsic meaning in the universe when there is no life, that there is no ‘God’ when there is no life, and that religions can only exist as long as we do. When the entire species is gone, their beliefs go with them. The only thing left is the cold, hard fact that when you twist a bunch of string around your fingers and decide to call it a Cat’s Cradle, there is “no damn cat, [and] no damn cradle,” (Vonnegut 165). Vonnegut is not trying to take anything away from modern religion; he is trying to force his audience to understand that it is used purely as a way of understanding the impossible, and that it is nothing without its followers. He uses Speculative Fiction to argue in favor of humanism because no matter what an individual chooses to believe, if ice-nine falls into the ocean, all life on earth ceases to exist, and therefore meant nothing. If humanity stopped worrying about what it means to be here and instead chose to live here, it would be a very different place… But it is, Vonnegut supposes, a basic principle of humankind to philosophize.
Another amazing aspect of Science Fiction is its ability to transport its audience not only across time, but also across space. McKitterick’s work Jupiter Whispers plops its audience on the frontier of human space travel—in orbit around Jupiter. In the midst of JoveCorp’s most recent chemical mining expedition protagonist Mike discovers something, “just so much bigger, something I hadn’t even imagined,” (McKitterick 358). What his AI system calls, “obstructions,” and what he learns to call, “Jovians,” have been eating away at these corporate pipelines and he has been sent to investigate (McKitterick 355-356). The beauty of this discovery immediately strikes him. Actual, tangible proof of life on another planet would be the most significant discovery since humanity crawled out of the mud, and yet, JoveCorp has been hiding the Jovians’ existence to avoid a PR scene because their solution thus far has been to burn them off the pipelines. Mike is deeply troubled when he confronts Don Williams, the man in charge of the JoveCorp Way Station, and demands, “If the future of Humankind requires killing the first aliens we encounter, what does that say about what we’ll do when we encounter the next? I don’t know if our future is worth the devastation it leaves in its wake,” (McKitterick 360). Williams’ arrogant argument for such treatment is that the Jovians are ‘dumber’ than earthling jellyfish based on his very limited knowledge of the way life is capable of forming. This is something Clarke warns specifically against because it has happened time and again: humanity refuses to move forward based on its limited current knowledge of the way the universe works, and would be stuck in the dark ages if it weren’t for people like Mike being struck with overwhelming successes of imagination. When he discovers a way to communicate with the Jovians, he is confronted by the fact that he is forced to tell the first aliens humanity encounters to, “Fly away!” because the alternative is their destruction (McKitterick 371). The driving force behind this decision is McKitterick’s speculative examination of humanity’s sometimes deeply-buried though crucial instinct to reach out to fellow creatures of the universe in a realm of kindness rather than judgment. If Mike had decided the fractional amount of knowledge previously gathered about the Jovians was the most they could possibly know about them, they would have continued to be slaughtered just for trying to snack on the chemicals JoveCorp is pumping out of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Because of his all-too-human inclination towards apathy, Mike discovers an entirely new species with a previously unfathomable biology and absolutely unique way of communicating that would never have been thought possible to exist. Speculative Fiction lends McKitterick’s audience the understanding that a single success of imagination can lead to the most singularly significant discoveries of humankind as long as humanity retains the nerve to follow its collective gut.
Bison addresses humankind’s narrow-minded idea that life could only exist within the parameters that we are familiar with in his short story They’re Made Out of Meat. This work is a speculative dialogue between two machine-based aliens who have come to earth to observe humans and decide if it is time to make contact. This idea of a decision to be made is the very antithesis of the modern expectation that any alien life that would happen across us would immediately contact us. This is arrogance in its most human form. Our assumption is that we are so great and so interesting and so special that any alien race would happily share its technology, and Bison derails all of that. The aliens are flat-out disgusted when they learn that we are not machines like the majority of the universe seems to be and instead use machines to do our bidding, declaring, “That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat,” (Bison). It is just as absurd to these aliens that we are made of meat as it is to us that they are made out of metal. We consider sentient machines ‘impossible’ but what if that is actually the norm in the universe? If that were the case, we would seem endlessly inferior. Here, once again, we see Speculative Fiction illuminating an issue we would hardly have succeeded to imagine on our own. Bison is able to force his audience into the perspective of machines in order to show us just how unimportant we are—and begs the question: are we being ignored? Just because we have sent signals out with no response does not mean they have not been received. We live horribly short, violent lives and our track record for peace is pathetic. Humankind is nothing more than presumptuous and Speculative Fiction allows its audience the ability to look beyond our preconceived notions of the way things are and experience them as they could be; this is a unique way of considering something outside of our tiny, limited, human experiences. It is both a vital lesson and a harsh warning that we cannot possibly be alone in the universe, and that someone is probably watching. Humanity is humankind’s only hope of continuing our society, and stories like this are the only way to keep that hope alive.
Winston Niles Rumfoord lacks nothing less than nerve and imagination in Vonnegut’s first and spectacular dive into Science Fiction with The Sirens of Titan. Being the first man on a mission to Mars, Rumfoord flies his private spaceship directly into an unchartered chrono-synclastic infundibulum, essentially becoming stretched through time and space between our star and Betelgeuse, forced to spend specific amounts of time on Earth, Mars, Mercury, Saturn’s moon Titan, and the alien planet Tralfamadore in an endless circle. He claims therefore to see all of time as if it is happening all at once, uncovering the very purpose of human life in the process. But rather than tell the human population exactly why they are putting around on this planet to begin with, he gives them small prophecies: things he knows will come to pass with minimal to no effect on the world at large just to prove his credibility. Then, and only then, is he able to manipulate humankind into discovering the answers they have always searched for: “Mankind, ignorant of the truths that lie within every human being, looked outward—pushed ever outward. What mankind hoped to learn in its outward push was who was actually in charge of all creation, and what all creation was all about,” (Vonnegut 1). Vonnegut utilizes Speculative Fiction in order to answer the question that has plagued mankind from the beginning: what is the purpose of our existence?
To approach this, Rumfoord invites the richest man on earth, Malachi Constant, to one of his materializations, which happen on earth every fifty-nine days. Here, Rumfoord informs Constant that he will travel to Mars where he will marry Rumfoord’s beautiful wife, then go to Mercury, back to Earth, and finally to Titan, where he will live out the rest of his life. Rather than be offended by Rumfoord’s presumptions about his life, Constant accepts his path without much question. Vonnegut speculates that it is human nature to search for meaning outside of ourselves, and that we will do or believe anything if it means our lives are significant. The apparently inherently human search for ‘Truth’ in the universe leads Rumfoord to create The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent in order to combat modern religions. Their main tenant of belief is that, “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all,” which eradicates the idea that anyone could be predetermined to a better life and forces humankind to see each other as absolute equals (Vonnegut 233). Vonnegut suggests that maybe we are not going to find our ‘Truth’ outside of ourselves where we have always searched, and that maybe we must create our own ‘Truth’ to answer our questions. Vonnegut, ever the humanist, argues that human life is significant within its own existence, that no outside force can possibly give human life significance, and that loving another human being is the only way to open yourself up to that possibility. He uses Science Fiction to throw Malachi Constant across the solar system several times in order to show his audience that no matter the scope of what we think we are doing, there is no happiness or fulfillment to be found outside of ourselves.
Speculative Fiction is an open dialogue with the past, present, and future of humankind. It forces its audience to understand that there are an infinite amount of possibilities for how things could have and will happen, and the unique ability to speculate about such situations before they even arise. Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Bison, Christopher McKitterick, and Arthur C. Clarke each lend a unique hand to the realm of Science Fiction, observing and analyzing both the potential and limitations of humankind through often-hyperbolized versions of reality.
Bison, Terry. “They’re Made Out of Meat.” Omni 1990: Web.
Clarke, Arthur C. “Hazards of Prophecy.” The Futurists. New York: Random House, 1972. 133-50. Print.
McKitterick, Christopher. “Jupiter Whispers.” Visual Journeys: A Tribute to Space Artists. Hadley Rille, 2007. 334-82. Print.
McKitterick, Christopher. “Literature of Change.” World Literature Today 84.3 (2010): 18-19. Web.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York, NY: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1963. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. The Sirens of Titan. New York: Delacorte, 1959. Print.