Sunday 23 April 2023

A Canticle For Hopepunk

From early days in the genre, novels were often built out of previously-published short stories. The result was called “A fix-up.” Stories that had been popular in pulp magazines sometimes helped convince publishers that there was an appetite for a more expansive and expensive book-length version.
Vast sweeps of history can show
the ramifications of policy decisions.
(Image via Goodreads)

These fix-ups also came with their own synergy between form and function. Interlinked stories working on similar themes turned out to be a form of science fiction that was well-suited for galaxy-spanning tales and large sweeps of future history. Many of the books traditionally considered to be classics of the genre fit this mold, such as Foundation, City, and The Martian Chronicles.

With the rise of cheap paperback novels in the 1960s, and the decline of pulp magazines, the great science fiction tradition of fix-ups has been in significant decline. Which is why it’s refreshing to read Annalee Newitz’ latest novel. Although not technically a fix-up, The Terraformers uses a style and structure that is reminiscent of many of these works.

In fact, the novel could be read as a response — a mirror image even — of Walter Miller Jr.’s Hugo-winner A Canticle For Leibowitz. But while Miller is focused on history’s cycles of creation and destruction, Newitz’ book explores tensions between freedom and corporate serfdom.

Like Miller’s fix-up novel, Terraformers is split into three sections that are set in similar locations but separated in time by centuries.

Each book’s first section focuses on an individual in a sparsely-populated world making the discovery of an underground facility filled with hidden knowledge. It’s this section of Terraformers that provides the book’s two most memorable and compelling characters; an ecological systems analyst named Destry and Whistle, the intelligent flying moose she rides.

In both novels, the second section involves two institutions in conflict over the control of technology. While Miller had secular scientists and the church battling over access to knowledge, Newitz shows democratic egalitarian governance struggling against hierarchical capitalists over transportation technology.

We are on #TeamWhistle.
(Photo by Olav Rokne)
Though both novels end with a revolution, Newitz’s work is less fatalistic. Terraformers seems to suggest that although there will always be those who seek to dominate others through wealth, through hierarchy, and through coercion, the majority of people will work towards community and good governance. 

The classic fix-up novels that focused on a sweep of history shared many similar flaws; compelling characters are given short shrift, transitions between historical eras can be jarring, and some portions drag. In mirroring the strengths of these works, The Terraformers is also burdened with many of the same problems.

Large-scale sweep-of-history stories might make it difficult to put the focus on individual characters, but they do provide the opportunity to relay the long-term consequences of policy decisions. In the hands of politically astute writers like Newitz and Miller, this medium can provide insightful commentary on human nature.

There is also something of Clifford D. Simak’s fix-up novel City in the DNA of The Terraformers, as uplifted animals debate the merits and the legacy of humanity. Newitz introduces us to talking wolves, cats, and earthworms, whose views on the conduct of homo sapiens is not always glowing. This occasionally gives the book a fable-like quality that some readers appreciated, but others found a wee bit twee.

With their third novel, Newitz offers readers a good example of a classic science fictional form that has been much neglected over the past few decades. As with the best fix-ups, it is more than the sum of its parts.

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