THIRD WORLD WORLDS
First we had better define what is generally meant by the “Third World.” The expression itself was born during the late Cold War. The United States, its NATO allies in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, being the ones doing the defining, called themselves the “First World.” The Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, the satellite nations of the Warsaw Pact, and assorted other Communist states, being defined as the enemy, were called the “Second World.”
The Third World was everything else, more or less.
The Cold War is gone, no one talks about the First World or the Second World anymore, but the label “Third World” for “everything else” is still current.
But everything else than what?
You will notice from the lists of the original definitions that the First World, with the exception of the Japanese who were granted the status of “Honorary Aryans” by their Nazi allies during World War II, was a collection of countries with a dominant Caucasian majority of European descent, and that the Second World was more of the same, with the large exception of China, and some other smaller exceptions.
Basically, the Third World was Latin America, Africa, and most of Asia, including India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the so-called “Arab World,” and so forth, and that is still more or less what is meant by the term today. Another, and more politically incorrect term for this basket of nations was once the “underdeveloped nations,” now the politically correct “developing nations,” meaning more or less the same thing.
Meaning existing, one way or another, to one degree or another, outside what the “Developed World” in general and the United States in particular is pleased to consider “globalized world civilization.”
Meaning those nations and peoples having attained the current height of technological prowess and cutting edge science, enjoying one form of democratic government or another, or at least a good pretense thereof, economically integrated into the world-spanning economic spiderweb of globalized capitalism, and culturally integrated into the worldwide info and showbiz spiderweb created and dominated by “Hollywood.”
Considered by most of its inhabitants as more or less the “consensus reality,” the “global civilization” of the planet Earth.
And yet, if you add up all the inhabitants of the Third World, there are more of “them” than there are of “us.” The “global civilization” may dominate the Earth economically, scientifically, technologically, militarily, politically, and even perhaps culturally, or anyway pop culturally, but the culturally diverse “developing nations” of the Third World dominate demographically.
What, you may now be asking, does all this have to do with science fiction?
Or better, what does science fiction have to do with the worlds of the Third World?
The answer would seem to be not much, or at least not nearly as much as it should.
Now I must confess that I do not read Mandarin Chinese, any African language, Arabic—indeed any Asian language at all—and I must also confess for we Anglophones, that, with the exception of Japanese, hardly any, maybe no, science fiction written in these languages has been translated into English, or for that matter other European languages, and it would seem that such science fiction may hardly exist at all.
If one includes Latin America in the Third World, a hot-button political minefield I intend to sidestep here, it’s a large exception to this, since there is a goodly amount of science fiction written there in Spanish and Portuguese. But these are languages of European origin, and therefore not entirely culturally disconnected from the self-styled First World. With the exception of the Japanese, I at least, am at a loss to point to any science fiction that I know of that has evolved independently in non-European languages or cultures disconnected therefrom.
If it exists, I haven’t seen a significant amount of it translated into any language I can read, however badly, nor have I read much about it in secondary sources. So what we’ll be considering here is Anglophone science fiction written in English by Anglophone writers about the past, present, or futures of so-called “Third World” cultures.
There has always been a certain amount of this stuff, but there’s getting to be more of it of late, and it’s getting better, more sophisticated, more embedded in the cultures in which it is set—less culturally “colonialist” if you will, and even if you won’t.
I’m not trying to get into a political argument here, but I certainly could, since most Anglophone fiction set in Third World countries in general, from the eighteenth century onward into the twentieth and even the dawn of the twenty-first, has been colonialist, in that the points of view from which the tales are narrated have mostly been those of “First World” protagonists dropped down or embedded in “Third World” settings, and not those of “native” inhabitants thereof.
This is not surprising, really, nor really that much of a political scandal, since, after all, the people writing this fiction were for the most part cultural and psychological products of the First World, not the Third. Even when they were living in Third World venues, indeed even when they grew up there themselves, whether they were political or economic colonialists or not, they were colonists or tourists in alien lands.
But there is that word—alien.
Anglophone science fiction has a long history of stories of contact between non-human civilizations and ourselves. Anglophone science fiction has perhaps a smaller but quite significant trove of novels and stories written from the points of view, even the first person points of view, of non-human sapients who differ from us not merely in biology or technological level or cultural assumptions, but style of consciousness itself.
We’ve got the literary tools. We’ve developed them over nearly a century. Anglophone science fiction writers fear not to tackle alien beings, civilizations, and consciousnesses from other planets.
But what about the ones on this one?
Well, Mike Resnick has been writing science fiction sent in Kenya for decades now—of which the novel Ivory set in past and future and now reissued by Pyr is exemplary—and doing a good job of it, maybe as good a job as any science fiction writer has done with this sort of thing. That is, science fiction with major and even central point of view characters formed by Third world cultures. And in Ivory at least, portraying future societies evolved from those cultures rather than from what we in the so-called First World are pleased to consider our progressive, dominant, so-called global civilization.
Resnick fell in love with Kenya on safari a long time ago, and has been carrying on the intermittent love affair ever since, and there is genuine feeling and affection for Kenya, and by extension Africa, or at least East Africa, in this body of his work.
And yet there is something quite Hemingwayesque about it, and I mean this as neither a compliment nor an insult but descriptively. Ernest Hemingway was a great writer with a varied body of Nobel class work who, like Mike Resnick, set some of his major fiction in Africa, The Snows Of Kilimanjaro in Kenya, in fact.
I am not going to contend that Resnick is in general a better writer than Hemingway (sorry about that, Mike) or even that his “African” fiction is literarily superior to Hemingway’s, though in another more specific sense it is. It is more genuinely African.
Not perfectly African, for Resnick, like Hemingway, is the product of American First World culture, not Third World African culture. Hemingway’s fiction set in Africa is forthrightly that of First World characters embedded in African settings but not really African culture, and he never really puts native African characters front and center or presents their world-views or consciousnesses from the inside, perhaps because trying to do it never interested him, perhaps because he correctly judged that making such a leap was beyond his literary powers.
But Mike Resnick most certainly is very much interested in taking his African fiction there, making the sort of attempt that Hemingway never cared to dare, portraying African characters, African central characters, from the inside, at the least to the extent possible. And more, something Hemingway probably couldn’t even conceptualize, extrapolating future, not degenerate, but further evolved African culture.
Mike Resnick, after all, is a science fiction writer, and imagining highly evolved “alien” cultures is a central part of the trade, as is getting inside the heads of their inhabitants, as is the most central concept of science fiction, the one that by definition only science fiction possesses, indeed that which makes it science fiction—extrapolation itself.
I suspect that virtually everyone reading this in this magazine knows just what I’m saying. I suspect that were it being published in, say, The New York Review of Books or the New York Times Book Review, half the readership wouldn’t even comprehend what “extrapolation” meant in literary terms.
So, for now at least, and in the apparent absence of a significant body of science fiction written by born and bred Africans, this Caucasian American is probably the closest thing there is or has been to an African science fiction writer, with the exception of Octavia Butler. Who did write the same sort of thing, and did it well, and was Black to boot, but I use that politically incorrect word rather than “African American” because aside from her genetic heritage she was no more African than Mike Resnick.
Paul McAuley is a British writer I have admired long enough to wish that his work was more readily available in the United States, and now Pyr has published his latest novel, The Quiet War.
In one way, this is a very traditional science fiction novel, being the oft told story of the struggle of the culturally and politically variegated inhabited moons of Jupiter and Saturn and points beyond to maintain their independence and freedom from the nasty governments of depleted old Earth.
This sort of thing is usually one kind of libertarian screed or another; the humans of the asteroids and the outer moons adapting to their varying conditions biologically and politically and eventually speciating into clades of genus homo, seen as a positive evolutionary step by the writer and therefore hopefully the reader, with the forces of the homeworld seen as the reactionary tight-ass bad guys.
McAuley is more or less operating from this political and evolutionary point of view too, and the dénouement more or less follows the tradition. But The Quiet War is much more interesting than the usual such thing because, without giving too much away, McAuley admits of the possibility of tragedy, and on both sides of the coin.
Indeed, for most of the length of the novel, there isn’t any war—well, not exactly—and the interwoven story lines are for the most part those of people trying to prevent it. And I thought that McAuley was just maybe going to do the unthinkable, outrageous to the usual readership, delightful to me, and something I didn’t think had ever been done before—spend a whole novel leading up to the climactic outbreak of war, only to have it heroically prevented.
I will say no more in order not to give away any more, but I guess I can at least say that McAuley brings this conventionally utterly outré and morally and politically mind-bending new literary concept and political possibility front and center.
Another unusual thing that Paul McAuley does here is make the dominant terrestrial neo-colonial power, or anyway the only one we see in operation, “Greater Brazil.” In The Quiet War, the United States is down the willy-hole, and the Earth is divided up into three sometimes competing sphere-of-influence powers—the European Union, a kind of Greater China that includes most of Asia, and Greater Brazil, overlord of the Americas and some points beyond. This not only with a nod to George Orwell’s 1984, but with reference to same by some of the characters.
Greater Brazil is a green theocracy dedicated to the ecological revival of the human-devastated Earth, well on its way to more or less successful completion. It is spiritually led from a Zenlike distance, like the other two blocks, by a “Green Saint,” but ruled by a quite nasty forthrightly feudal military-capitalist plutocracy that pretty much actually owns its serfs, including even the well-off and high ranking ones like major scientists.
McAuley does a fine job of creating this entirely believable space age feudal semi-dictatorship, except for the final dénouement, which seems a kind of well-meaning cop-out add-on to an otherwise far darker outcome that the novel seemed to have been heading for, as if McAuley wanted to end it in a far less formulaic and semi-tragic manner. Or maybe this is something I’m reading into it because I did something similar to the end of my first novel, The Solarians, and have regretted it ever since.
Be all that as it may, The Quiet War is a fine and generally successful novel.
But there’s something pro-forma about McAuley’s Greater Brazil, or anyway the Brazilian identification of the very well rendered culture of his future terrestrial green feudal capitalist imperialist power, so that this doesn’t really hurt the novel per se, but there seems to me to be nothing essentially Brazilian about it. Change some names, some locales, and so forth, and it would work just as well as “Greater Congo” or “Greater Indonesia.”
It’s almost as if McAuley had good political reasons not to make it “Greater North America,” let alone the “Greater United States,” or even the European Union, which he mentions but doesn’t visit or describe, and figured Greater Brazil was as good a “non-America” as any. And since the society he describes is just about entirely his own invention, it doesn’t really affect the story one way or the other.
If there was a more specific reason for making “Greater Brazil” the terrestrial heavy, I don’t get it, since the future updated feudal plutocracy doesn’t seem to have much of a Brazilian flavor, especially to someone who has read Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, which so thoroughly places the reader in such strongly and completely Brazilian futures.
I happen to know that there are in fact Brazilian science fiction writers, but I wonder if any of them have created extrapolated future Brazilian cultures as deeply rooted in their own culture as has McDonald, an outsider from Ulster. How did McDonald take it to such a deeper level? One might suppose that he had some special personal connection to Brazil beforehand and that therefore Brasyl was a special case from which there is no general lesson for a writer seeking to learn something of the technique.
Except that McDonald has done exactly the same thing with India in the novel River of Gods, and in the collection of stories, Cyberabad Days, some of which seem to have been written before the novel, and some afterward, and all of it set in the same highly complex, masterfully rendered, and totally Indian future. To do this once might be a sui generis fluke, but to do it twice, with two totally different cultures, and in such rapid succession, would seem to indicate that Ian McDonald has developed some kind of generalized method.
A blurb from an Indian newspaper review of River of Gods admitted that it was pretty good for a foreigner, which brings up the question of whether or not any Indian science fiction writer has done anything nearly as good with the same cultural material. I happen to know that there are Indian science fiction writers, having had dinner with one, Dilip Salwi. But he is primarily a scientist, as I remember, and that Indian newspaper review, or at least the extract, didn’t seem to have brought up an example of a work by a native Indian writer who did the same thing better.
So what’s the secret method? Well, what do McDonald’s fictional future India and his fictional future Brazil share in common?
They both seem very well researched in terms of what can be researched—the history, the geography, the cuisine, the settings, and so forth of the real pasts and presents out of which the fictional extrapolated futures arise. But that would have to be said of any successful historical novel, the relationship of which to science fiction of this sort we will get to later with In The Courts Of The Sun.
I had to deal with something of the sort in Russian Spring, set partly in the fairly near future of a Moscow I had never seen before I had written two drafts of the novel, and when I went to the then Soviet Union for its publication more than one reader paid me the compliment of saying that they couldn’t believe it wasn’t written by a Russian.
Well, I know what I did aside from the standard sort of research. I read contemporary Russian novels. I read a history of Russian rock and roll written by a prominent Russian rock critic and entrepreneur, and I listened to what examples I could find of the music. I tried to immerse myself as best I could in contemporary Russian popular culture without ever even having been there at the time so that I could extrapolate a Russian future as rooted in the real Russian cultural present, rather than the official or academic one, as much as I could manage.
And what I did pales in comparison to what Ian McDonald did in Brasyl and his Indian future, an immersion in the popular culture—music, sports, styles, urban legends, cults, religions, trends, television soap operas, television reality shows, etc.—orders of magnitude beyond.
Okay, to write fiction as well as McDonald does requires a talent that can’t be taught, and to write science fiction this puissant requires an extrapolative gift that probably can’t be taught as method either. But upon reflection, and in comparison to something like The Last Theorem, which we will get to shortly, I do believe there is a lesson that can be learned from McDonald by any First World writer trying to write science fiction set in the future of any Third World culture not their own.
Which is that despite the twenty-first century global show biz sphere, despite the global Internet infosphere, despite the seeming universality of Anglo-American popular music, despite the supposed globalization of so-called high culture, major “non-western” civilizations like those of India, Brazil, Japan, West Africa, and so forth have developed, continue to develop, and will probably always continue to evolve their own popular cultures.
And these popular cultures—the music people are currently listening to, the TV shows they are watching, what they wear, their junk foods, their street-level life, their criminal gangs, their sports, their waves of transient fads, cults, urban legends, their media spheres—are what really create the consciousnesses of their inhabitants in the permanently and rapidly mutating twenty-first century and for any foreseeable non-devolutionary future.
And therefore, if you are not taking these true full-spectrum presents into account, when you try to extrapolate their future evolutions, you can’t quite get it. This is what is missing from Paul McAuley’s Greater Brazil, and to make it more glaringly obvious, consider the great reams of science fiction of the 1950s, 1960s into the 1970s, and much of the same sort of thing still written today by American science fiction writers extrapolating American-based futures.
If you’re not au courant with the popular culture of your own civilization, your extrapolated future thereof is going to lack a certain level of conviction, because it cannot truly bring to life the consciousnesses of characters that have developed under its evolving influence. And on the deepest level, it is consciousness that creates overall culture, as much as culture creates consciousness, in a spiraling feedback loop.
And if it’s difficult enough to do with the total culture that your own consciousness has evolved within, what a bitch it is to succeed in doing it with another popular culture. So difficult that most science fiction writers dealing with their own cultures, let alone “alien” cultures of any kind, consciously or not, opt to ignore it.
Even the most experienced recognized masters of science fiction like Frederik Pohl and Arthur C. Clarke. Even though Clarke lived in Sri Lanka for decades. Even the two of them collaborating on a novel like The Last Theorem.
A novel like The Last Theorem?
Well, no, there never has been a novel like The Last Theorem, and I seriously doubt that there ever can be again.
Whether Pohl will ever write another novel remains to be seen, but Sir Arthur certainly won’t, since he was facing his own death after a very long and very productive life when he began this one in failing health in his ninth decade, felt he could not complete it on his own, and died soon after it was successfully completed in collaboration with Pohl. Both the introductions and the text of the novel make it quite clear that this was meant as Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s final literary testimony, and would serve almost as well for that of Frederik Pohl unless and until he decides to write another.
Needless to say, The Last Theorem, therefore, is quite literally a monument in, and in a sense to, the history of science fiction. And, it would seem, deliberately meant as such by two of the greatest writers of traditional twentieth century science fiction, almost frantically seeking to use their mighty extrapolative powers to reach beyond their self-recognized imminent departures from the scene.
That is both its strength and its weakness.
The main protagonist of The Last Theorem is the Sri Lankan mathematician Ranjit Subramanian. Subramanian wins the Nobel Prize for creating the totally rigorous proof of Fermat’s “Last Theorem”—the theorem being real enough, but the proof being fictional and unspecified, since, after all, if Clarke and/or Pohl actually produced it, the Nobel would be theirs. Though from the introductions and the mathematical games in the novel, one suspects that they may have actually tried.
The novel narrates the life of Subramanian from boyhood through old age, and in a certain manner even predictably beyond into electronic immortality. He gets married, has a family, gets innocently caught in a piracy hijacking and haplessly jailed as one of the hijackers, he gets involved in complex international geopolitical hugger-mugger involving a sub rosa United Nations security outfit and the American National Security Agency. He becomes involved in an ultimately successful project to build a Space Elevator anchored in Sri Lanka planetside. His wife sickens terminally, and is uploaded to electronic immortality, and it is indicated and foreshadowed at the end of the novel that Ranjit will join her there at the end of his protoplasmic life.
And that’s not all, far from it. There’s a whole other plot thread involving the “Grand Galactics,” all-powerful alien rulers of the galaxy, and their forthrightly subject races, who among grander things in their own eyes, take it unto themselves to decide which sapient species are fit to become their subjects, and which must be exterminated for the greater good. Humanity does not make the cut.
Meanwhile, the UN has developed a weapon that can fry an entire nation’s electronic infrastructure while harming no one, and begins using it to bring down unpleasant regimes and usher in an era of peace where war has been technologically rendered impossible.
Clarke and Pohl have crammed two long productive lifetimes of technological, mathematical, political, philosophical, and even moral and theological passions, hopes, obsessions, and neato science fictional ideas into a 290 page novel, not counting the abundant forewords and afterwords.
As if, approaching the end of the journey, they have heard and harkened to what Brian Kirby, the editor of Essex House, the most literary line of porn novels ever published, used to tell his writers—“Get it all out!”
They do. Clarke’s long-time dream of building a space elevator anchored in Sri Lanka. Pohl’s long-time dream of world peace brought about by technology rather than politics. Pohl’s long-time fascination with mathematical fun and games. The nature of quantum reality. The immortality of the soul, if you will, and consciousness if you won’t, achieved by uploading into computer storage. Humanity proving its worth and right to continue to exist to far more powerful aliens by demonstrating moral achievement.
In a sense, The Last Theorem, consciously meant at least by Clarke as “the last novel,” is both a summing up of two long careers and a compendium of the central concerns not only of these two writers but of an era of science fiction itself and a major trend within the genre even today—Arthur C. Clarke’s somewhat reluctant technologically based transcendentalism and mighty passion for the expansion of the human species beyond the bounds of Earth, Frederik Pohl’s cynical and knowing brand of political utopianism and passion to see true peace in his time, and the dream of contact with non-human sapients shared by both of them. The latter has been the central core of science fiction itself for something like a century.
You may well be asking whether it is possible for even the combined talents of Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl to bring all this together in some kind of overall coherent story structure. Amazingly enough, the answer is yes they can, yes they do. And stranger still, the first quarter or so of The Last Theorem is sort of wasted, rather ploddingly introducing Ranjit Subramanian as a young boy and dragging the reader through his growing up, education, and so forth in what seems like an obligatory manner, while maintaining just about enough intercut build-up of the Grand Galactic shtick to keep the reader interested until the novel really gets going.
This is the worst part of the novel by far. It comes across as rather dull, schematic, passionless, and colorless. This is both truly odd and yet quite revelatory as an almost textbook example in extremis of how the failure of an Anglophone writer from the outside to really embed himself in the street-level popular culture of the Third World society in which he is setting the story can place the reader at the same less-than-deeply involved remove.
Most of the first third or so of the novel, and indeed the bulk of the rest of it, is set in a future version of Sri Lanka, where Clarke lived for decades. Yet when it came to this novel set in his adopted homeland, he, even with the assistance of Pohl, could not do for Sri Lanka what Ian McDonald did for India and Brazil. And this is not the failure of some medi-ocre writer, nor the failure of an entire novel, but the failure of an aspect of a novel of considerable merit.
Dare I say it?
I guess I must.
There is a whiff of colonialism here—not political colonialism, not economic colonialism, not white man’s burden bullshit, but the sense that Sir Arthur C. Clarke, for all his years as an inhabitant of Sri Lanka, remained in it, but not quite of it.
Michael Moorcock more or less openly wrestles with this in “The Cairene Purse,” a long novella in the collection The Best Of Michael Moorcock, published by Tachyon. Indeed his first person protagonist does so in a story that takes place in a more or less near future Egypt, and has more or less resolved it in favor of total immersion even as the story begins.
Moorcock is a born and bred Londoner now living not in North Africa but in Texas, but he has spent quite a bit of time in the Magreb, and openly but knowingly loves it. He is also a politically savvy, historically knowledgeable, and forthrightly but subtly anarchistically inclined Brit, who understands, knows well, and casts a jaundiced but not entirely unsympathetic eye on the British colonial mentality in its several variations.
Here his medium-rank career UN official embarks on an odyssey and personal vision quest in search of his sister, who has disappeared into the depths, in several senses, of Moorcock’s future Egypt, and takes the reader along with him through many levels, both “native” and “neo-colonial,” of a future Third World culture deeply connected to its millennial past but not fossilized by it. Here we meet the Blimpish sort of British colonial mentality, or rather the insulated and isolated remnants thereof, but also the mystical Lawrence of Arabia sort seeking total immersion in the culture of the Other, and all of it narrated by a consciousness not only partaking in somewhat circumscribed aspects of both, but informed by a judicious sense of irony about the whole and its parts.
Indeed, in a way, that’s what “The Cairene Purse” is centrally about, even though Moorcock does inject a science fictional McGuffin for plot purposes and perhaps, in the real world, where the outlets for novellas outside of SF are few and far between, in order to make it more publishable.
Moorcock’s point of view, that of his point of view character, is immersed in his future Egypt, but not unanalytical of it. One wonders what he would do with the story of an expatriate science fiction writer living for decades in Sri Lanka. Moorcock, like McDonald, is able to immerse himself and the reader in his fictional Third World future, but unlike McDonald, maintains a subtle ironic distance.
In the same collection, we find “London Bone,” in which Moorcock does much the same thing with his beloved London, but does it through the first person viewpoint of a roguish protagonist with no sense of analytical irony at all, proof that Michael Moorcock knows just what he’s about in this mode, and capable of shading the possible subtle differences within it.
He’s also written some more or less straight historical fiction in somewhat similar style. This leads to a reflection on the similarities, at least in terms of necessary research and literary methods, of speculative and historical fiction, exemplified by Brian D’Amato’s In the Courts of the Sun, which incorporates both in the same novel on a rigorous and utterly convincing level, albeit with flaws as huge as its genius virtues.
An otherwise great novel severely damaged by amateurish mistakes and cynical commercial strategy.
In the Courts of the Sun is both rigorous near-future science fiction, rigorous almost to a fault, and meticulously researched historical fiction, or perhaps better, historical fantasy, set in the deep Mayan past. No contradiction, because the same Jed Delanda is the protagonist and first person narrator in both time-streams.
Well, sort of.
And sort of not.
Jed, of Mayan descent, is an adept of the ancient Mayan “Sacrifice Game,” more a kind of divination game than chess or go. The ancient Mayans had a very complex yet very accurate calendar that dealt with vast eons of time; that much is historical fact. The Mayans and the Aztecs, among others, viewed their well-developed astronomy as inseparable from divinatory astrology; that too is historical fact. Whether the Sacrifice Game actually existed, or might even persist somewhere today, may be another matter, but this is fiction, and D’Amato makes it quite plausible.
Before I go any further, I must confess, if that is the word, that I am something of an expert on the later Aztec civilization, due to the research I did for my own historical novel Mexica. This on the one hand may be germane to my analysis of what D’Amato has accomplished, and on the other hand makes me marvel at it in no little awe all the more.
Ancient Mayan codices predict the end of the world in our era on a very specific date shortly approaching, and some kind of lesser disaster to foreshadow it. When an enormous plague caused by radioactive terrorism at Disney World, retrospectively predicted by the Mayans in symbolic detail, kills many thousands and renders vast areas around it toxic to life, the end of the world prediction gets taken very seriously.
Jed, with his knowledge of the Sacrifice Game, is recruited by a secret project to time-travel back to the deep past in Mayan Guatemala and Mexico to play the Game there with greater adepts—perfect masters, as it were—learn just what is going to happen on the appointed date in 2012, and send back the information, so that hopefully, somehow, it can be prevented.
Well, sort of. It’s not exactly time travel. Nothing material can be sent back, but D’Amato does a very good rubber science quantum physics justification of the ability to send Jed’s immaterial consciousness pattern back in time to the targeted brain of a Mayan ruler who is going to secretly survive his own required ritual sacrifice by sending a double down the pyramid.
There is a glitch in the process and Jed gets downloaded into the brain of the double instead. The historical stream of the action takes off from there as he escapes, as his consciousness and that of his unwilling host battle each other for control, and finally merge, more or less, via a long, beautifully detailed, and, discounting the fantasy aspects, meticulously and even obsessively accurately researched vision quest through the ancient Mayan civilization.
I am peculiarly qualified to appreciate this achievement because of what I had to do to write Mexica, a straight historical set in the later period of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. I thought I did quite a good job, and many Mexicans agreed, but D’Amato carries it an order of magnitude further, and in this aspect I must bow to a master. The historical details, the religion, the arts, the whole enchilada, he even writes dialog in ancient Mayan!
And as I indicated, D’Amato does much the same thing for the near-future science fiction thread, the rubber physics, the absolutely realistic details of the evacuation of much of Florida, and so forth. And Jed DeLanda is a fully rounded, realistically flawed, interesting, and sympathetic character in both incarnations.
That’s how great In the Courts of the Sun is.
But, as I said, it is severely damaged by amateurish mistakes and cynical commercial strategy.
In the Courts of the Sun is the first volume of a projected and perhaps even already written trilogy. And the date of the projected end of the world is in 2012. Meaning it will have passed before the whole trilogy can be published, maybe even about the time the paperback of In the Courts of the Sun is published. Huge mistake! Orwell at least gave himself decades before the title would become obsolete with 1984. D’Amato doesn’t even give himself time for the whole trilogy to be published in paperback.
Worse still, this long novel ends with a minor climax in which only the basically uninteresting identity of the Disney World terrorist is revealed, not even the nature of the end of the world event to come in a later volume. And the way the trilogy would seem to be structured, the latter almost has to be at the end of the final volume, because it would seem to have to be the final dénouement of the whole three-volume narrative structure.
Tension may not last long, though, since the third book is due out right around the time the world is scheduled to end.
It’s hard for me to fathom how both the author and the publisher could have missed a howler like this. But there is another flaw of a deeper literary and characterological nature which, hopefully, D’Amato may already plan to deal with in subsequent installments, or if not, should think about if he ends up reading this.
The only way the Jed in Mayan times can send back what he has learned then to 2012 is to arrange to have it and himself buried in a pre-arranged site and archeologically retrieved. More direly existentially still, the process that sends his consciousness back in time has an unfortunate consequence to the host’s brain—it induces the onset of brain cancer that will kill that host body within months.
That is, kill that past iteration of Jed DeLanda. And that Jed DeLanda, having the memories of his future iteration, knows it. Yet he hardly seems to ponder it, his own imminent death hardly seems to matter to him at all, except in terms of setting a time limit on the mission.
Yet the Jed who is to die is not the Jed who will live in the future. And they both know it. Surely this is an existential question that should haunt both of them. Why does not the Jed in the past hate the Jed in the future for sending him back to this shortened life span and gristly death sentence? Where are the Jed in the future’s moral qualms about condemning his literal alter ego to such a fate?
In a tale where such deep and ultimate questions are raised by the facts of the storyline and set-up, surely they not only deserve psychological, moral, and philosophical exploration far deeper than anything in In the Courts of the Sun, but should be part of the thematic core of the overall work itself.
Finally, this great but severely flawed novel—a novel that despite its flaws, is a significant achievement not only of science fiction and historical fiction, but of the successful and seamless melding of the two with no contradictions—reveals what historical fiction, particularly historical fiction set in the deep past, and science fiction, particularly science fiction extrapolating from a civilization not the writer’s own, share in terms of what research and empathetic imagination is needed.
Unlike D’Amato, I’ve never combined the two modes in the same novel, but I have written them separately. And considering what I have done, what Ian McDonald has done, and what Brian D’Amato has done, I think I can extract a rough overall recipe for what is required.
You have to do as much research as you can, using whatever materials may be available, to immerse yourself in the known physical, historical, philosophical, and quotidian details of the Other Culture as best you can. This is a species of extended academic exercise the techniques for which can be taught and learned.
But then you have to be able to do what I call “Method Writing” in the Stanislavski sense. You have to assume the consciousness style of a character or characters within that Other Culture and tell the story from the inside.
How to this, I doubt anyone can teach.
Except to repeat the old saw that travel broadens the mind, and extend it into the contemporary realms of the virtual; fiction, music, cuisine, language, to travel within the realms of as many Other Cultures as you can by whatever means available; directly, or via media, on every level possible, from the lofty heights to the rhythms of the gutter, so that while they may remain different from your own, your mind is opened to the infinite multiplexity of human cultures and styles, real and to be imagined, so that nothing different remains alien.
Travel in this extended sense indeed broadens the mind.
It also renders it deeper.