To bootstrap the stars— Walter M. Miller & Poul Anderson

fig. 1. Captain Rovic on the deck of the Golden Leaper. Cover illustration by John Schoenherr, Analog, December 1960.

To bootstrap the stars— Walter M. Miller jr’s ‘The Big Hunger’ and Poul Anderson’s ‘The Longest Voyage’

One of the more persistent tropes of SF, inherited from its ‘golden’ heyday, is what we might call ‘bootstrapping’. To ‘bootstrap’ is to do something without any help or assistance. In the case of SF, the ability of humans to ‘bootstrap’ their way from animal origins to the stars is often held out as a prime human quality. At the very least, if not peculiarly human, such an ability is nonetheless contrasted with those poor alien species who are gifted the space drive or what have you, and are, consequently, lesser for having been patronised thus.

Under the stewardship of that renowned bigot, John W. Campbell jr, such fables took on a quasi-religious form, disguised under the ludicrous misnomer of ‘hard’ science fiction. Nonetheless, it would be too much to simply damn all such stories, whether produced under Campbell’s direction or not. In that spirit, I will briefly examine a story by Walter M. Miller jr, and a story by Poul Anderson, both of which appeared in that magazine with two names.

Without doubt, both stories appealed in part to some of Campbell’s prejudices, but such flaws by no means exhaust their content or worth. I am not, however, arguing that we should judge these works by the sins of the father, nor his virtues either for that matter. Which is not to say that I subscribe to the dubious thought of the postmoderns who recommend extricating a work from the time and space of its production all the better to judge it by way of the space time of its consumption. No.

Poul Anderson—‘The Longest Voyage’ (1960)

Though both stories have their pains and pleasures, the later published story is the least interesting of the two. Still, Poul Anderson’s ‘The Longest Voyage’ (1960) is a cracking tale. He effectively conjures a world not unlike the Earth’s early 16th century, except in this case the people are descendants of human exile, millennia past and largely forgotten and mythologized. The story is told from the perspective of a young ship’s officer, Zhean, onboard this world’s equivalent of Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation, embarked from a land not unlike Europe at the dawn of the epochs of science and colonial conquest. The ship’s captain, Rovic, complete with red beard, seems more akin to Sir Francis Drake than Magellan, just as the former’s ship, The Golden Hind, is reborn here as the Golden Leaper.  The bulk of the tale involves the sailors of the latter ship encountering a primitive people, whose story of a fallen ‘Sky God’ proves to be more than a mere legend.

There is little subtlety in Anderson’s analogues. The ‘Montalirian’ sailors are effectively stand-ins for Portuguese, Spaniards and/or English, right down to their corselets, caravels and grapeshot (the kilts are a nice, if familiar touch on Anderson’s part). The ‘primitives’ they encounter, the ‘Hisagazi’, are a curious admixture of Polynesians, pre-modern Japanese, and the people of the Kingdom of Butuan (the latter encountered by Magellan in what are now the Philippines). However, what is most remarkable about Anderson’s amalgamates is that despite the minor differences in detail, this alien world inhabited by humans nonetheless proves to be an exact analogue of Earth’s early 16th century. Indeed, one may even conclude that Anderson replicates an historical trope often erroneously attributed to Karl Marx: that there are iron laws of history that must be expressed, no matter the differing initial conditions.

The most apparently alien, and indeed science fictional aspects of this tale lie in the planetary setting. Though set on an Earth-like planet, the heavens above are somewhat different. The world is one of several satellites of a gas giant that the Montalirians call ‘Tambur’. Indeed, their world is tidally locked to its primary, a fictional fact that plays a minor if vital role in the narrative.

However, most alien of all is the encounter between the Montalirians and the Hisagazi. Despite their roles, conveniently borrowed from Earth’s history, Anderson has lifted the burden of bigotry and assumed superiority from his quasi-Europeans. Unlike Magellan’s sometime bloody Christian proselytising, Anderson’s Montalirians act only with honour and ultimately in defence of the entirety of the human species on the planet. Indeed, Rovic unveils his motivation most clearly at the end of the tale, in what amounts to a plea for the right to bootstrap against any pesky interference from technologically advanced utopians. And even though this right is asserted along with Rovic’s use of superior technology against the Hisagazi, the comparison and thus hypocrisy of his pontificating is never drawn out. One is left wondering why Anderson, even though closely hewing to some of the details of Earth’s history circa the early 16th century, chose to in effect whitewash the inconvenient bits from the miserable story of Europe’s ‘discovery’ of the world. This is perhaps all the more strange considering that Anderson was far from being simply an apologist for European superiority, and was even capable of a more sensitive portrayal of non-Europeans (consider, for instance, his Maurai stories). Still, the scene in which Rovic and his sailors destroy the rocket of the ‘Sky God’ from Earth—no less—could perhaps be interpreted as a sly dig at Campbell, in which the human right to bootstrap is asserted against the original bootstrappers!

fig. 2. The ‘space-spider’ weaves its web. Illustration by Pawelka in Astounding, October 1952.

Walter M. Miller jr—‘The Big Hunger’ (1952)

Though it shares some thematic similarities with the Anderson piece, Walter M. Miller jnr.’s ‘The Big Hunger’ (1952) is a substantially different beast. Miller’s story regale’s the reader in its short length with the tale of humanity’s ‘big hunger’ for the stars, which drives it on to spread throughout the entire Milky Way. Yet his tale is more prose poem that short story. It is told from the unique perspective of the ‘eternal’ rocket—‘my principle lies beyond particular flesh’—the ‘space-spider’ that weaves its web throughout the galaxy at the behest of the humans.

By evoking the depths of a future in which individuals come and go, mere character masks of the greater story of the species, Miller’s tale bears comparison to Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Star Maker. However, unlike Stapledon’s chilly prose that often borders upon omniscient indifference, Miller’s epic is more lyrical in expression, ably evoking the fleshy desire that drives the humans on, even as he reveals the emptiness that resides at the heart of this discontent.  Indeed, it is this ability to both hail and call into question this ‘eternal thirst’ of the humans that marks his tale out from Anderson’s. Whereas the latter poses that to divert or impede the drive can only be a misfortune—one that would rob the human of the very essence of their humanity—Miller is more equivocal, evoking the bitter costs of this drive: the destruction and even ‘genocide’ rained down in the name of human desire. Caught between praise and damnation, Miller achieves an elegiac quality largely absent from Anderson’s tale.

Miller’s story has both that curious quality that Stapledon’s epics have. It is as if we are reading an actual fable from tomorrow, not just a projection of our present anxieties into the future. And despite Miller’s ambivalence about the use or virtue of human exceptionalism and expansion, his story is the more human of the two, even as Anderson’s is the more conventionally appealing narrative. The latter tells a story of the past in a science fictional setting, whereas Miller attempts to fashion a melancholic song of events yet to come. His story opens upon both the possibility and impossibility of the future described, rather than merely pinching off a tale from a tale we already know, and dressing it up with some science fictional curtains.

Henri Lefebvre once defined science fiction as that “which explores what is possible by using myths from the past.”[1]  In doing so he was arguing more than what has become something of a platitude: that SF is merely about the present in which it is written. More pointedly, by Lefebvre’s lights, is that SF is about possibility immanent in the present moment. And so, such projections are an ambivalent thing. They appear as both plans for realisation and frustration. In part, Lefebvre derives this view from Hegel and Marx; and in part he derives it from a reading of contemporary science fiction (for instance, the oft mentioned Clifford Simak novel City had an outsized influence on Lefebvre’s rallying to what the situationists would later propose as their minimum program: “never work!”). At stake is a grander claim. SF is a bastard child of the bourgeois epoch, at once heir to the utopianism and science of the rising bourgeoisie, as much as product of the antagonisms that drove the latter to commercial and political supremacy.

I will return to this in future posts.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume II: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, trans. John Moore, London: Verso, [1961] 2002, p. 333.

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