“The City on the Edge of Forever” succeeded as a Star Trek episode for a number of reasons, not the least of which was an acknowledgement of its own implausibility. When Kirk and Spock find themselves transported to the past by the Guardian of Forever, they know that there is no guarantee that they’ll find the missing Dr. McCoy. But they do have one tiny sliver of hope: “There may be some logic to the belief that time is fluid, like a river,” Spock says, “with currents, eddies, backwash.” “Then the same currents that swept McCoy to a particular time and place might sweep us there, too.” replies Captain Kirk. “Unless that is true, Captain,” Spock says, “we have very little hope.”
But, of course, it is true, and the story takes off from there, with the viewers needing only to accept Spock’s intuition about the fluidity of time in order to enjoy what follows. Harlan Ellison uses the device of a mirror to reflect the reality of time’s passage in the episode–not the first time he used such a device. The Kyben used a similar time mirror in “Demon With A Glass Hand” to chase Trent back to the Los Angeles of 1964 and discover why all the people of Earth a thousand years in the future suddenly disappeared. The mirror effect was simulated even earlier by the lightning of swords, in the first of Ellison’s scripts for The Outer Limits, called “Soldier,” the story of two soldiers from the future locked in mortal combat on Earth of the present day, with no apparent way to get back to their own time. “Soldier” was not as fine a script as “Demon With A Glass Hand,” but all the elements were in place for the plot line of The Terminator twenty years later. They were so firmly in place, in fact, that Ellison forced James Cameron to put an “Acknowledgement is Made to the Works of Harlan Ellison” disclaimer up on the screen at the end of that movie. Or else, what? I wonder. Ellison takes a dim view of plagiarism, and he is fierce in protecting his rights as a writer, and the rights of others like him. What I find most fascinating about the first Terminator movie is the admission Kyle Reese makes to the police about the discovery of the time displacement equipment: “Connor sent me to intercept, and we blew the whole place. Nobody goes home; nobody else comes through. It’s just him and me.” There we have the puzzle-box story that Ellison was so fond of in its best-expressed form. The Terminator should have been–and was–a complete story in itself, a circle that opens up in the future with John Connor handing the photograph of his mother to Kyle Reese, and closes when she allows that very photograph to be taken of her before she heads to Mexico in front of the approaching storm. The other Terminator movies and the TV series shouldn’t even exist, and they would not, if Cameron had not ignored the logic of the first movie.
But this is getting ahead of myself a good bit. And it would be stretching an interpretation very far to say that Ellison anticipated the coming of cybernetic machines. He didn’t. He knew about the potential of such machines and wrote about it, but here, he merely provided a plausible way to get them into our world, our timeline, which was contribution enough. Yet, Ellison was also the first writer I encountered who created a dystopian world in his cycle of stories called “A Boy and His Dog,” the novella of which I read in the early 70s. I found it cold and depressing but, looking back on it, the experience of reading it was a useful counterweight to the cheerfulness of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and his irrepressible Martian, Michael Valentine Smith.
Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land and Citizen of the Galaxy were almost all the Heinlein books I needed for a long time, which is, frankly, a crazy admission, because that means I passed over The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and three or four other novels of his that I should have read. I also read–and am perhaps the only person in the world to enjoy–Friday, a very late novel, and one not representative of Heinlein at his best, according to his most ardent fans. The only excuse I can offer for not reading more of him was that I wanted to sample science fiction by women, especially Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Alas, I read that one too early; I was not ready for the socio-political dimension of her work, or her exploration of sexuality. A kinder, gentler introduction to such matters was Vonda N. McIntyre’s novel Dreamsnake (1978). Like “Flowers For Algernon” earlier, Dreamsnake began as a novella called “Of Mist, Grass, and Sand.” I read the novella after the novel, and found McIntyre’s story of a snake healer in a post-apocalyptic world very interesting. I also found Snake the healer’s relationship with Gabriel, son of the governor to whom she turns for help, to be the the most refreshing sexual relationship I had ever encountered in print. It may have been the shorter story, “Of Mist, Grass, and Sand,” that propelled me to read a few more short stories in this period, but of those that I read, the one I consider the most beautiful, the most moving, and the most memorable is Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man,” the culmination, in my opinion, of everything Asimov had been trying to do in all of his robot stories for so many years. He never wrote better or more earnestly than here, never had a more carefully worked out structure. If, in fact, as I believe, the story of NDR–Andrew–in his long journey to become human was a kind of gift to America on its 200th birthday, we could have received no finer gift. In acknowledging Andrew’s humanity, the judge’s words, “There is no right to deny freedom to any individual advanced enough to understand the concept and desire the state” ring in my ears even today with a dignity and eloquence that I find unmatched in modern prose, save for Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
As the years went by, however, I found myself more attracted to “quest” stories than to tales of individuals, although I’m not always happy with “quest” in that description. There are times when the word doesn’t fit. The made-up term “epic ensemble” comes closer to describing what I have in mind: the story on the largest, boldest scale a writer can imagine. That takes in a novel like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), about the aftermath of a comet strike upon Earth; and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), which, in its description of Earth’s occupation by the Overlords, who guide humanity to a cosmic destiny that neither of them fully understand, I regard as the greatest science fiction novel ever written. Few single novels written since Clarke’s have come close to matching his scale, but I shall mention two multi-volume works that I believe are worthy descendants of that masterpiece: Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, and Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, all four of which were written by Dan Simmons in the 1980s and 90s and are set 700 years in the future; and the Spin novels of Robert Charles Wilson (2005-2011). Simmons weaves together all the tropes he can to tell his long story of humans in conflict with a decadent government and culture: the Chaucerian frame tale; the medieval romance, and the idea of cybernetic organisms at war with each other. Spin involves the activities of an inscrutable collective intelligence that humans call the Hypotheticals which encapsulates the Earth within a membrane that slows down time upon Earth: 3.7 years pass outside for every second lived on Earth itself, meaning that life on the planet will soon go extinct unless humanity can figure out what the Hypotheticals are doing. What I love about Simmons’ books is his way of making new technology hearken back to the old: there are magic carpets in his universe, and dammed if they don’t work; and the farcasters go right back to the Guardian of Forever in Star Trek. What I love about Spin might surprise you: the scale is epic enough, but what’s really dazzling to me is the tense relationship between the genius Jason Lawton, investigator of the Hypotheticals, and his demanding father, E.D., who runs the Perihelion Corporation where they both work. Wilson’s dialogue between the two of them and his depiction of the needs and wants of both father and son is almost perfect work. It’s as close to a real-life relationship as fiction can come, and it made reading the first novel in Wilson’s series the most satisfying experience I’d had in many a year.
While I respect, then, the artistry of the short form, science fiction speaks most clearly and persuasively to me in its longer form. It is only in the longer form that I get a full sense of life itself and the passage of years. Yet science fiction, I’ve found, offers a bonus that other genres of fiction often do not: a sense of our place not only in the life we are living here and now but a sense of our place, small as it may be, in the cosmos as a whole. Consider Jan’s words to Karellen, as he reports to that Overlord on the end of Earth:
“Everything we ever achieved has gone up there into the stars. Perhaps that’s what the old religions were trying to say. But they got it all wrong: they thought mankind was so important, yet we’re only one race in–do you know how many? Yet now we’ve become something you could never be.”
Science fiction is not a substitute for religion, but it is often useful as a corrective to religion’s excesses and hubris. Clarke was pointing toward a day, partially fulfilled in our time, when much of what we have achieved has, indeed, gone up into the stars. Our instruments–our rockets, our satellites, our telescopes–have gone first, and we ourselves will follow. Perhaps we will not follow as soon as any of us would hope, but we will follow. When that part of the day comes, perhaps the exodus will be like the pilgrims stepping across the Arch at the end of Spin towards a new world. If star travel happens that way, science fiction will have fully flowered from its roots in the stories of travelers headed toward the unknown but open West of this continent. Yet, I think that we are likely to struggle, try too hard, attempt too much, and stumble. But we will be striving all the same. In the end, the language from which we draw the final courage to take the steps toward Mars and beyond will be echoes once again of the words we heard from the Galaxy Being almost fifty years ago: “You must reach out.”