Monday, August 20, 2012

This is her nest - The Space Merchants and Chicken Little, imagination at play

Science fiction is about ideas, I sometimes read.  I resist the usage.  Kant and Nietzsche work with ideas.  Fiction writers, fantasy writers most prominently, work with conceits.  They imagine something new and interesting which I then admire using words like cool and neato and awesome.  The new cool thing is like a new toy.  I do not develop a toy, or take it to its logical conclusion.  I play with it.*  Or, in literature, I follow along while the writer shows me the cool, neato, etc. ways he thought to play with his new toy.

I take this as the greatest pleasure of fantasy literature and its branches, including science fiction: imagination in isolation.  Thus enthusiastic readers overlook or forgive or indulge lapses in story, characters, writing, and taste.  Just keep the cool stuff coming, please!

The Space Merchants (1952) by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth is one of the earliest American science fiction classics.  I revisited the novel after twenty years in part because it has just been reissued as part of a Library of America collection (the accompanying website is itself pretty neato), and in part because I wanted to play with its best toy again.  The Space Merchants was originally published under the title Gravy Planet – that’s one of those lapses of taste, although I am not sure that I do not prefer it, given the part of the book I like best.

The novel is a satire of consumerism and advertising.  Michael Dirda runs through that side of the book, the parts that have dated and those that have not.  Many of the jokes would work well today in a situation comedy set in an ad agency.  Timeless or shallow?  A little of both.  One solid idea, or running joke, is that although this future society is completely captured by consumerism and advertising  the standard of living, despite all sorts of magical technological advances, is lower than in 1952.  Wealthy people in New York City can afford cabs, but the cabs are bicycle-powered.  Meat is plentiful, but meat comes from Chicken Little.

That’s the one great invention, I think: Chicken Little,  the giant pulsing living blobs of meat that feed the planet.  Pohl and Kornbluth understand the value of their own idea well enough to know that just talking about Chicken Little is not enough.  They have to rig the plot so we meet it.  Sensitive eaters, avert your gaze:

He swung open her door.  “This is her nest,” he said proudly.  I looked and gulped.

It was a great concrete dome, concrete-floored.  Chicken Little filled most of it.  She was a gray-brown, rubbery hemisphere some fifteen yards in diameter.  Dozens of pipes ran into her pulsating flesh.  You could see that she was alive.

Herrera said to me: “All day I walk around her.  I see a part growing fast, it looks good and tender, I slice.”  His two-handed blade screamed again.  This time it shaved off an inch-thick Chicken Little steak.  (Ch. 9)

Almost the exact midpoint of the novel, right at Syd Field’s Plot Point 2.  Maybe this does not look like much.  No, as prose, as a description, it is not.  I wonder why “fifteen yards” is not “fifty” – reach for the sublime!   The authors build to the moment well, dropping the name without quite saying what it is, and they cleverly use Chicken Little in the plot, so that is part of the scene’s effectiveness.  Even better, though, is the carver and his blade.  I have to imagine him bouncing around on this enormous blob of gum, slicing away with his oversized sword, all of which is completely ridiculous but vivid, a fun use of the new toy.  Perhaps I have to play with the imaginary toy myself, too.  Perhaps that is what it is for.

*  I play with ideas, too, but with toys I only play.


  1. But surely Nietzsche and Kant merely play with conceits: it seems like the very definition of philosophy to me. Nietzsche in particular resembles sci-fi, in that he posits a world which is similar to our own but has a slightly different basis, and then writes (increasingly hysterical) fictions about it.

  2. Yeah, Nietzsche is a good test case for this whole setup.

    I think of an idea as a conceit capable of development by means of logic and other rules of argumentation. Imaginative leaps are among those rules.

    Now I sound like an old-timey philosopher - an idea is a conceit possessing extension. I barely know what I am talking about.

    If I keep that "merely" in my definition of philosophy, I am going to need to put a lot more heft into "play," and then I need a new, weaker, word for my post.

    Some of the conceits of science fiction turn out to be rich enough to turn into ideas. My impression is that this is a rare event.

  3. So glad to see LoA didn't put the SF books in the stodgy black covers but gave them appropriate SF treatment! I disagree that the conceits of SF rarely turn into ideas. To be sure there is lots of neato pulp that goes nowhere and chicken little is (gross) neato pulp, but there are plenty of SF books that play with ideas of race and gender and religion, what it means to be human, and the consequences of science and technology (I'm thinking Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein in some instances and even Philip K. Dick manages it now and then).

  4. I would suggest that LeGuin and Dick fall under the heading of "rare"! There are "plenty of SF books" etc. and yet they are rare. Some statistical thinking is in order here.

    If there was an idea in Heinlein - a good idea at least - I never came across it, but he wrote a lot of books. Example, please! I grant LeGuin for the sake of argument and Dick because it is clearly true - he had an unusually fertile imagination, even if he had trouble developing ideas by means of narrative.

    But I know, that's the line - ideas about consequences of science and so on. I haven't seen it for myself, though. What if we switched genders once in a while - is that an idea or a conceit? It's a terrific conceit.

    My contention is perhaps that fantasy writers are best at creating neat stuff out of received ideas.

  5. I read The Space Merchants when I was a kid! The only thing I remember about it is Chicken Little, which makes another appearance in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, doesn't it?

    I read piles of Heinlein until I was about 25 when I realized Heinlein was crazy and had nothing to say about anyone but Heinlein, who was not such a great human being. In fact I read piles of SF until I was about 25 when I realized that SF does not, in general, talk much about the human condition except in a very naive and limited manner. Received ideas, indeed. I like LeGuin, but Dick--despite his active and wild imagination--still had a very few not particularly sophisticated things to say about being human.

    I'm always ready to go watch a SF film, because I like the toys, but I don't look to SF for answers to the existential questions.

  6. "They imagine something new and interesting which I then admire..." - Hmm. I'd say that this accurately describes a certain, arguably lower tier of sci-fi. I think just like the best of "standard" fiction deals with grand ideas, so too does the best of sci-fi or fantasy. Books that are cool conceit only very, very rarely make for good literature... and this is a problem in all genres. I really don't think it's exclusive to sci-fi.

  7. The Space Merchants is high tier! The Library of America picked it because it was already high tier.

    The novel is not only cool conceit. It is primarily an advertising satire and adventure novel. I am arguing that the cool conceits - the best inventions - are the most valuable thing in it.

    My claim is that fantasy novels are more likely than, say, domestic novels, to make it into the high tier based solely on the inventive power of the author. H. P. Lovecraft is perhaps the single best example.

    I am not sure where the "problem" comes from. This is not a problem with science fiction and fantasy - it is the great advantage! Let 'er rip!

    All fiction, not just the best, deals with "grand" ideas. Many novels, for example, are "about" race, gender, and religion - good, mediocre, and bad novels. The Little Professor has devoted her career to unbelievably bad books about religion. The presence of a theme tells me nothing about why a book is remembered, why it is good.

    Scott - you sent me to the internet. Atwood's novel seems to include little Chicken Littles. Grow-you-own versions. All the meat is on the outside of the chicken, ready for eatin'. Ick! Ha ha ha!

  8. "Enthusiastic readers overlook or forgive or indulge lapses in story, characters, writing, and taste", that is very true of most genre fiction, not just SF. For example, in the Horror genre, Stephen King's "The man in the black suit" won the World Fantasy Award and the O. Henry Award for Best Short Fiction. And yet, its prose is just of average quality; but its main idea or conceit is unforgettable: if the devil can carry to hell little innocent children what hope is there for the rest of us?
    There have been genre writers as accomplished as the masters of more serious fiction: Stevenson, Pu Song Ling, Kafka, Borges, etc. At least some, if not all, of their work could be described as genre fiction. What separates those masters from the Frederik Pohls and C. M. Kornbluths of this world is the attention they paid to the details of their writing, because, to paraphrase Nabokov, what matters in fiction is the details.

  9. I happily put King and horror in general in my mental "fantasy" category, which includes science fiction. A better example of the idea of this post than The Space Merchants is H. P. Lovecraft, whose prose, ideas, and ethics are often questionable, but who came up with so much good weird stuff.

    I have never read a word of King - no, the titles count, right? The story you mention sounds hideously memorable.

    Nabokov and Borges are presiding spirits at Wuthering Expectations, so I am happy to hear them invoked. Stevenson is particularly important here because he is an early advocate of the kind of free imaginative range found in so much good fantasy literature.

  10. Thank you for pointing me in the direction of those two wonderful earlier posts. Now I feel bad for pointing you in the direction of Stephen King, and since you sounded mildly interested let me spare you the pain of reading that... thing. After all, fans of Becky Sharp should not play pranks on each other.
    In short, The man in the black suit tells the story of a young kid about nine years old visited by the devil while fishing. The kid proceeds to buy from the devil a stay of his damnation to hell by feeding the devil the fish he just caught. Fast forward many decades, the kid as an old man reflects that there is no hope for the rest of us if a little kid can be dragged to hell. The End.

  11. All for the best - I got to read your efficient retelling! It's a variation on an old, old story, isn't it? King presumably knows that there are some traditional sources of hope available even (or perhaps especially) given proof of the existence of the devil?

  12. Ok, I concede if you are looking at precentage-wise how much SFF is about ideas and how much isn't, the really good stuff is across the board rare. As for Heinlein, I was thinking of Stranger in a Strange Land and Job.

    We can look to Margaret Atwood and even H.G. Wells (Dr. Moreau) and Huxley's Brave new World for what science has has done/ can do. Gender switching is a neat conceit but there are other ways to examine issues of gender besides switching. I am thinking of Marge Piecry's Woman on the Edge of Time which, among other things, posits a world in which there are no gender pronouns in the language and how that plays into creating a more equal society.

    Totally agree with you about fantasy writers being best at creating neat stuff from from received ideas. They tend to be especially good at writing about power and politics.

  13. Ah, late Heinlein, sure, you're right. Not that I have read any of it. But he deliberately refashioned himself as a Novelist of Ideas. I have picked up the impression somewhere that the ideas are dreadful, but that is irrelevant to my argument! Those books are About Ideas.

    Feminist science fiction has been especially - I think unusually - idea-oriented, so those are also excellent counter-examples, although I still have some doubts along the "what is ultimately valuable" lines. That's why I picked the LeGuin example - I wanted a big prestigious one. I suspect over time inventive power will keep these books alive more than their ideas, which will be replaced and updated by newer novels.

    Brave New World is a great counter-example, too. Wells is a little more slippery. I'll try to write about that today, although perhaps using an inappropriate example.