Eyes More Rigorous Than Mine: Or, the Pilot Paradox
The first short story I sold was science fiction, within the subgenre of postapocalyptic science fiction. It’s probably still floating around on the internet, and even if it’s not, the miracle of the Wayback Machine means you can find its photonic fossil cached somewhere. For those who’re interested and reading this (all none of you), the story was called From Quonset to Cadillac, and was published by Underground Voices. Incidentally I continue to remain in monthly contact with the publisher of Underground Voices, all these years later.
Around the time I wrote Quonset I was on a very big SF kick. I read everything from the Golden Age Gernsbackian (sic?) tales of space dirigibles to cyberpunkian (sic?) stories about wetware causing the owners of implanted prostheses to go crazy.
Still—even though I read and continue to read, write, and consume SF films and TV shows—there’s a feeling I don’t belong here.
Many times, especially when reading hard SF, I start to get the chills, feel the same estranged misery I felt the time my test scores landed me in the gifted program in high school. I didn’t want to spend my free time working on logic puzzles among strange, pallid and socially awkward children, even though I was one myself. Neither did I want to work on chess openings or collect entomological samples for the classroom case, really just a glorified tacklebox. I wanted to be on the playground, in the sunshine, with the normal kids, playing football and scraping my knees. I was creative, and did well on standardized tests, but felt dyslexic and perplexed by math. Looking at the Periodic Table was daunting, and seeing a molecular compound with its superscripted numbers and letters made me feel like an analphabetic primitive struggling with some cipher left behind by Däniken-esque ancient aliens.
I don’t mind rigor in SF, but too much of it makes me feel like I’m back in bio lab, afraid I’m going to slice the frog wrong. Or maybe drop a beaker to the ground where it shatters, drawing the eyes of the other students and earning a withering stare from the teacher.
I enjoy synthesizing the main points from popular science books and articles written by laymen. But my eyes glaze over at a dead prosed, peer-reviewed article in which tiny font footnotes take up more space than the main body of the article.
I guess I’m just not a very serious person. Even when I want to learn more and contemplate getting started—struggling with quantum mechanics or molecular biology—the task just becomes too daunting, onerous, and I usually beg off. There’s always too much to assimilate and I quail before the much smarter people already grappling with the subject. I can’t find an entrepot, a foothold.
And still, this feeling of being ill-at-ease, not quite at home—unequipped in fact to handle the machinery you’re attempting to wield—is not always a liability. It is actually very much a part of the legacy of science fiction, and the very grist of which much of its corpus is composed.
Think about a lot of Philip K. Dick’s work. Sure, the movies feature the steroidal Schwarzenegger snapping necks, or megastar Tom Cruise assuredly artfully dodging a world full of obstacles. But in the books Dick’s protagonists are many times small men and humble women. In the stories, they tend to be Willy Loman-esque, weary and harried by bosses or spouses who henpeck and belittle them, like Quad’s wife in We Can Remember It For You, Wholesale, bagging him about his obsession with Mars.
Their pleasures are Walter Mitty-ish flights of fancy, or daydreams to give them some relief from their doldrums. Even though they were born in the time they inhabit, they still feel displaced in some future, looking for a place to ride out a storm they don’t want any part of.
The aesthetic feel of Blade Runner doesn’t really reflect Dick’s world, but the look in Decker’s eyes—slightly perplexed, saddened—does convey that sense of dislocation. Of being confused by the future.
But wait a minute, you say (assuming you exist), why should those in the future feel overwhelmed by what for them is the present?
Well, don’t you feel overwhelmed by all of the technological progress you’ve witnessed in your lifetime? Doesn’t the present many times feel like some kind of dystopian future, ruled by an unseen-yet-omnipresent force that uses most of a very morally quiescent population to serve its ends?
And isn’t that countervailed by the disappointment felt over how the future you dreamed about—hoverboards and Jetson-esque glass-bubbled aircraft—hasn’t materialized? And the little anachronistic bits of the past that remain are either sadly nostalgic mementos (like the Civil War curios in Man in the High Castle) or just yesterday’s technology, which is today’s for you simply because you’re too broke to get an electric car.
How to make sense of a world where we now have 40,000 generations of lab-grown bacteria to study also being the world where we can’t get our Civic’s engine to turn over? That frustration, helplessness, sense of smallness and inadequacy in the face of a world owned by the powerful and self-assured creates its own elegiac music, turns the future (dystopian or utopian) into a weird kind of extended tone poem.
Also, while it’s a bit bathetic being Kilgore Trout, proposing the implausible because you lack the background or constitution to perform due diligence, there’s real joy still to be had in creating SF that can be picked apart by better minds. Besides, there are all sorts of things scientifically wrong with, say, Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running or Duncan Jones’s Moon, but that doesn’t keep me (or millions of others) from cherishing these SF movies. Hell, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the very gold standard of the genre, knowingly bent the rules regarding message lag in order to make the film more watchable.
Or maybe I’m just trying to justify the massive lacunae in my education or the lack of rigor in my own work?
Sure I can give you basic summation of how Newtonian physics function, and how Einstein’s work scaffolds on that. But I can’t even begin to fathom the mathematical equations done by astronomists that let them know Einstein’s theories were necessary to supplement and many times supplant Newton’s. Ditto for those early heliocentrists who knew their calculations weren’t adding up, but needed additional info on the subject of elliptical orbits to replace the theoretical crystalline shrouds (quintessence) in which heavenly bodies were supposedly contained.
If the world were inhabited only by people like me since the beginning of time, I’m pretty sure not a single innovation would have been made. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that we’d still be stabbing small animals with sticks and art would consist of ochre and vermillion bison painted on limestone cave walls. And when you stop to consider that a lot of hard science comes from SF—even terms like “terraform” and “cyberspace”—my flaw in this respect may be a fatal one. Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve to write about what I don’t understand. Sometimes I feel like there’s nothing else worth writing about.
Did you ever see Farscape? The characters aren’t as finely drawn as those in Firefly, but the exobiology of the various alien species is really a cut above anything in Joss Whedon’s ill-fated masterpiece of a show.
There’s one creature in particular called Pilot who incidentally belongs to a species also called pilots. He (or she or it) has some arthropodal features, as well as a mollusk-like exoskeleton. For all that, though, there’s something human in the large, sad eyes, and something disarming about the creature’s thin, reedy voice.
Whenever something seems to go wrong aboard Moya, the crew’s ship, Pilot is usually consulted by the crew seeking immediate answers. And most of the time he has them, using his multiple segmented limbs to work the controls until that breach in the hatch is sealed or that faulty wire is repaired.
There’s one episode, though, early in the first season, where Pilot hoses it bad. Aeryn, a Sebacean (roughly convergent with homo sapiens) asks Pilot why he made a mistake. She had thought him super-sentient, an infallible living creature on the verge of being a machine, a HAL without the homicidal streak.
Pilot, dropping his eyes, confesses that he was slaved to Moya, forcibly joined to the ship (which is sentient and organic) and made to do her bidding. This symbiotic coupling (actually parasitic, as it costs him several hundred years of life) is irreversible once it takes place. Not only that, but Pilot is forced to constantly study the science of the ship— like its energy supply, its FTL capabilities (called “starbursting” on the show), memorizing schematics in order to more easily perform repairs. In essence, Pilot has to plan for all contingencies, even the unforeseeable ones, and know everything about everything.
It's an impossible task, and one which constantly overwhelms him and fills him with shame at his own intellectual inadequacy. Sort of like the shame I feel when playing anyone in chess online who has a rating of over 1200. Or the feeling I get when reading over the curriculum vitae of the late, great Arthur C. Clarke and comparing my own paucity of accomplishments to the superabundance of his.
But here’s the thing to remember: everyone, from the universal man/natural philosopher Wolfgang Goethe to Clarke himself somehow also probably felt themselves inadequate, not quite up to facing the challenges or understanding the mysteries of the universe. Even the smartest scientist in the world is basically nothing more than a Pilot slaved to the master, Moya, driving this whole engine to a destination we don’t know and of which we’re likely not to partake as a species.
Every step toward specialization takes you one step away from generalization, and vice versa.
Thomas Edison said he didn’t understand a damn word of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Fair enough, but could Einstein tinker like Edison, roll up his sleeves, use a vacuum to preserve not only fruit, but his last living breath?
It takes all kinds, as the saying goes. And I’m frankly too flighty to give much attention to any one subject for too long a period of time.
But if I were going to be a scientist, or a natural philosopher as they called them back in the day, I’d have been Thales of Miletus. The story goes that he spent so much time looking up at the stars that he accidentally walked until he fell down a well shaft. I think, however, that while he was down there during an eclipse he noticed the play of the shadow bands and it started giving him ideas.
Maybe, then, I shouldn’t so sorely lament my fate of wandering in the dark.
Maybe, like that one scientist (I think it was Fritz Haber), I should let “failure be my daily bread,” and just learn to love the taste, so that if and when success actually comes, it comes as a sweet surprise.
Let’s hope I get the chance to shriek Eureka! at least once, not at some invention (I’m too dumb for that) but at least upon completing a genuinely great SF story that could stand the scrutiny of eyes more rigorous than mine.