Change, some say, is a defining subject of sf. Changes in the world; changes in people. Geoff Ryman's short story 'Have Not Have', published in 2001, begins with a change, like this:
Mae lived in the last village in the world to go online. After that, everyone else went on Air.
Opening lines don't come much stronger than that. What follows it is also good. The story of Chung Mae, fashion expert for a village in the (fictional) country of Karzistan, is sharply observed. Mae makes occasional trips to the city and brings back news about who is wearing what this season; the village ladies might order a best dress from her, for example, and Mae will ensure that it gets made. In 'Have Not Have', Mae has to deal with a particularly big order: obtain six dresses for the year's graduating school class.
On one trip into town, she sees a public information broadcast about Air. Air is the next step up from the net, a way of establishing a direct brain-to-content connection for everyone, around the world, at once. The broadcaster assures the audience that this is entirely safe, and that it will will once and for all allow the have-nots of the world to compete on even terms with the haves.
Mae buys some of the dresses, and makes the others, in time for graduation, but the real surprise (shades of Buffy
's 'The Prom', here) is that at the ceremony the village gives her a certificate, too, for all she does for them. The story ends--before the test, before the change actually reaches the village--with Mae giving an impassioned speech about the motives of those who would introduce Air:
"I'm sure that it is a good thing. I am sure the people who do this think they do a good thing. They worry about us, like we were children." Her eyes were like two hearts, pumping furiously. "We don't have time for TV or computers. We face sun, rain, wind, sickness, and each other. It is good that they want to help us." She wanted to shake her certificate, she wished it was one of them, who had upended everything. "But how dare they? How dare they call us have-nots?" (p.19)
'Have Not Have' is available online here
; as the title of the page indicates, the story is now the first chapter of a full novel, Air
(for which a UK edition is shamefully not available until next summer
). It's about Mae and her village and how they adapt to the coming of Air. 'Have Not Have' is worth reading for itself, but the novel picks up every idea in the piece, and takes it further.Air
is nominally set in 2019, but the issues in it feel contemporary. Mind you, all science fiction is about the present; that much is trivially true. No writer can escape the confines of their culture; anything anyone writes will, to a greater or lesser extent, embody or react against the values of their place and time. But Air
embraces the world that we know above a world that might be for almost its entire length. In this, it is perhaps a pin-up book for Mundane SF
, a movement Ryman has promoted in interviews
Still, it's not the only way of doing things. Genre's prism can refract the light of present days at a multitude of angles, angles that are often a function of how far from us a story is set. Most oblique are far-distant futurities in which life is saturated by the inevitability of Clarke's Third Law. These often have the air of fantasy: magical, defying true comprehension, even if there is an underlying rational explanation. Wells introduced the form in The Time Machine
; arguably Gene Wolfe is the writer who has given it fullest expression.
Coming closer, the worlds of the medium term--a few hundred or thousand years from us now--require more internal consistency but not necessarily more external consistency. Humans, particularly in the orphan futures of space operas, will remain much the same, but it is accepted that our society may have undergone radical shifts. The thread linking us to the future can be tenuous--a dramatic upheaval can be retrospectively placed a century or two from now and be convincing--but it must be there.
Most acute is the problem of the short term: the immediate decades, that we can see on the horizon but not quite comprehend. No future, no matter how detailed, no matter how richly conceived, can truly equal the degrees of freedom inherent in the modern world, or capture the many changes that are happening around us; so how can near-future novels like Air
really be believable?
Some writers accept that new technologies do not arrive in an orderly succession but appear all at once, jammed on top of one another, jostling for position, and try to weave them together. Remarkable and powerful novels have been produced by this approach; clearly the best recent example is Ian McDonald's excellent, sprawling, River of Gods
, reviewed by Dan here
.River of Gods
almost certainly does not predict the future, but it does try to make one plausible, and it mostly succeeds. The worldbuilding is incredibly dense; McDonald takes two dozen common and not-so-common sfnal ideas, throws them into the pot together with a couple of handfuls of common and not-so-common characters, and stirs to see what will happen.
Ungendered people. Climate change and climatic engineering. Possible alien contact. Artificial intelligence. Political revolution. Economic change. Social change. Robots. Somatic stem cell therapy. Cellular automata. Zero-point energy. Parallel worlds ... it's dense, full-blooded science fiction, and there's no chance to catch your breath. The first hundred pages or so, jumping between characters and ideas every ten, inspire acute future shock. This is a world
and you're soaking in it, right from page one.
The breathtaking diversity of the novel is part of the point. It's a book about big change, about the difference between the macroscale and the microscale. And, of course, it's intimately about India, about a place that is already
, before leaping forty-three years into the future, almost an alien culture. A place that's already a melting-pot, already a focus for change. The opening of the book shows just how different this is to the isolation of Mae's village; where Ryman sets the scene briskly, McDonald sets about a rich, slow soak.
The body turns in the stream. Where the new bridge crosses the Ganga in five concrete strides, garlands of sticks and plastic snag around the footings; rafts of river flotsam. For a moment the body might join them, a dark hunch in the black stream. The smooth flow of water hauls it, spins it around, shies it feet first through the arch of steel and traffic. Overhead trucks roar across the high spans. Day and night, convoys bright with chrome work, gaudy with gods, storm the bridge into the city, blaring filmi music from their roof speakers. The shallow water shivers. (p.1)
There are other approaches to writing about the near-term, of course. William Gibson's answer, with Pattern Recognition
, was to sidestep science fiction entirely, and consider only 'the spinning of a given moment's scenarios'. Some writers invoke Clarke's Third Law early; the world is now understood as fantasy, they might say, get used to it. Christopher Rowe's excellent novellette 'The Voluntary State
' is of this type. One writer has confronted the problem of the moment of maximum change head on: Charles Stross, with Accelerando
. Probably the classic strategy, though, is to apply one innovation to the world, and track the ripples. The risk is that this will ring slightly false; because, as I said, technologies typically don't arrive one by one. Air
is certainly a novel of this type, but the slight twist--everywhere else, things are already different--means that it works. Ryman gets to have his cake and eat it. "I wonder what have we done to the world," comments one of the more knowledgeable characters. "Three billion of us live in a world with lights, camera, action; the other four billion can't get clean water, let alone bandwidth." (p.235)
John Clute's blurb on the back cover asserts that 'reading the first sentence of Geoff Ryman's brilliant new novel is like passing through a Tipping Point.' I'd put it slightly otherwise: reading Air
(or being a character in it) is like sitting on the edge of the tipping point, looking in. And in this, of course, it's no more than an exaggeration of the gap that already exists, and is widening daily, between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'.
The Test of Air, of course, goes wrong. The village is not prepared, since they barely understand what's going to happen. Neither does the reader fully understand--at the time of the Test, all that is clear is that Air is causing confusion, and pain, and at least one death. Later there is some explanation giving, involving, of course, quantum mechanics and higher dimensions and so forth. One of the small joys of the book is the way in which such abstract concepts as Air, or pharmacology, are translated by Mae into things she can understand. Some of the descriptions that result are deft and beautiful.
"What does the drug do?" Mae asked.
"It reduces emotional synergy." Fatimah shrugged. The only words she had were big ones. Either she didn't want to or couldn't say clearly what it did.
But Mae knew. She could feel it. "It scatters me like leaves," she said. (p.211)
After the Test, Mae is the most strongly affected of the villagers, but for most, in the immediate aftermath life goes on much as it always has. One of her neighbours offers her husband, Joe, a loan of money. Joe is delighted, but Mae sees it for what it is: an attempt to trap their family into debt, so that they will lose their independence. Some of the villagers resent Mae's independence and business acumen, largely because they lack it themselves. At the same time, the old-style net comes to the village, in the form of digital TV. Only one household, the Wings, can afford a TV, and an evening watching kung-fu movies quickly becomes a regular past-time for the village men.
It's impossible to really convey how alive
the village feels. There's a map in the front of the book, showing about two dozen households. In the course of the novel, I think Mae visits almost all of them, and the majority of them more than once; and each family seems perfectly real. As he has demonstrated elsewhere, most notably in 253
, Ryman can create a character in very few words indeed. The true brilliance, however, lies in the fact that the families do not exist in a vacuum. They interact with one another; village life goes on in the background of the story. I don't know if this is intentional on Ryman's part, but it seemed to me a sort of model for the concept of a 'global village'; even without bandwidth, everyone is connected to everyone else. Everyone is part of the web. You could see this as the opposite of River of Gods
presents a model for the whole world, rather than a description of it.
One day, Mae realises that as a result of her experiences during the test, she still has a connection to Air, at least sometimes. She recognises the great threat it poses to her village, but also the great promise; and so she sets about learning how to use the Wing TV, and teaching the other villagers the same. At times, her struggle seems futile. Some of the villagers are merely uninterested; others are actively hostile. One or two fear that Mae is trying to take over (loaning knowledge in the same way that some of the villagers take control by loaning money) and set out to establish themselves in the Air, too. Alliances bend and break and re-form. Eventually, with some help from the government, Mae sets up her own website, offering native fashion at reasonable prices. She even becomes a brief global news sensation, featured in an article in the New York Times
But again, we
never see it, because Mae never sees it. Our perspective is hers, not the West's. Though ultimately the novel is optimistic, or at least pragmatic, about the impacts of new technology in countries such as Karzistan, it is not patronising, and I hope it is not unrealistic. Mae and some of the other village women (and it is almost exclusively the women that rise to the challenge in this novel) may create their own presence on the web, but it is theirs
. They use the technology to help their ways--and of course not everything can be preserved, and some things are lost, but in the end, the novel seems to say, it is something that can be done in a worthwhile way, can be assimilated.
Maybe, at the end, Air
tips over just a little too far into didacticism; maybe it's just a little to eager to explain itself and its meaning. It's a forgiveable sin, though, in a book that manages to create as vivid a sense of a little-considered part of the world as anything I've read. Interestingly, the end, which approaches the final advent of Air, also becomes more mystical, almost magical--you can feel the edge of the tipping point approach, and the world is already not quite the same as it was.
In River of Gods
, for most of the novel, there is a drought. When the storm finally breaks, when the monsoon finally comes, it is at the moment when all the novel's disparate ideas and stories come together, in a great torrent of Future, and wash away old assumptions and ancient rules. In Air
, there is a climatic flood that symbolises the same thing; and though its coming is marked by fear and uncertainty, in the end the novel's understanding of change is positive, and shares much with River of Gods
. Change, these novels say, is unpredictable, elemental ... but essential.
Kwan's mother would have said, There are four principal spirits, called Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. In times of change they become unbalanced. The Eloi despised the Chinese with their paltry system of opposition: yin and yang. The Eloi had layers of struggle and synthesis.
Earth was female and solid, and nourishing and dark and fertile as the womb. It was the lowest layer.
Water was the force of time that carried everything forward. It flowed, making the earth turn, the air spin. Water was the engine of the world. Water was change.
Air was the spirit, high in heaven. Between Earth and Air was Fire.
Fire was people. Fire was their desires, the things that made them move. Fire and Water were change; Air and Earth were what continued. (p.362)