Sunday, January 07, 2007

Man in his Time

Brian Aldiss turned 80 last year, and BBC Radio 7 just broadcast one of his short stories from the 1960s. Aldiss was part of the 'New Wave' of 60s science fiction, the time when the genre really grew up and became interesting.

'Man in his Time', the story in question, eerily evokes the consequences of a peculiar kind of time travel. The protagonist (called Westermark), an astronaut recently returned from Mars, has since his return been living 3 minutes in the future. Thus people hear him answer questions they haven't yet asked, and see him react to things that won't happen for three minutes. Those three minutes separate him from his wife, his children and the rest of the human race. Westermark, however, seems half in love with his separation. He finds the world perpetually new, as the objects of perception seem to glow from within.

The introduction calls the story an exploration of the consequences of space travel. I mention this because it begs a question: what is science fiction for (other than simple enjoyment)? To put it another way, if finally astronauts reach Mars, and they do not find themselves living three minutes ahead of Earth people, does Aldiss' story become worthless? How do we approach a story like 'Man in his Time' as literature, rather than futurology?

Put it another way: what does the story do? It explores a different state of consciousness. It makes us see the world in an unsettling new way. It makes us aware of consciousness itself in a new way. Against a rationalistic scientific background, it makes a Romantic vision. Westermark sees a transformed world -transformed by his changed consciousness of it. Wordsworth in space, sort of. This might sound flippant, but sf has a visionary strain. Think of Philip K Dick or JG Ballard.

Which leads me to my last point. Science fiction may be the first literature in the west to free itself from our Judeo-Christian heritage - some of it at least. Even the work of the most radical modernists - Eliot, Beckett, Brecht, Strindberg - becomes unintelligible without that heritage. They occupy the empty space left by the decay of Christianity, and they never escape it. Our Judeo-Christian heritage forms the background to all western literature of the last thousand years. 'Man in his Time' gives a glimpse of a new Eden, forever just out of reach three minutes into the future. It does this without reference to any of the religious baggage of Christianity. In fact it does it, astonishingly, on the back of the space race. The most hackneyed material of pulp science fiction - the conquest of space - itself becomes the food for visionary imagination.


Anonymous said...

These are interesting and important questions, and I'm not just saying this because Theophrastus asked me to post a comment on this blog, honest.

My opinion is that the nature of time and the nature of consciousness are intimately connected. Practices such as meditation and the effects of certain hallucinogenic drugs seem to cause a person's perception of time to change and their experience of consciousness to become more acute and immediate, ultimately leading to the realisation of "higher" (altered?) states.

The influence of philosophies and religions which espouse such practices on science fiction literature is well known and documented (e.g. Aldiss's own 'Barefoot in the Head'), and science fiction can form a useful medium for conveying such concepts, but ultimately, IMHO, the only way to progress "on the path" is to engage with a tried and tested tradition and practice it. Selecting the "right" tradition is of course never easy, and also depends on the temprament of the person in question.

On a seperate note, it would be useful to have a reference to the story in question, I have read quite a lot of Aldiss, but don't recall reading this one.

I hope this thread continues and that someone with a fresh insight adds their two cents.

Theophrastus said...


Very good comment, but disagree on one point. You say sf is 'a useful medium for conveying such concepts.' I don't think literature exists to convey concepts but experience(s). The distinction is important, IMO, because otherwise lit just becomes a didactic tool. The value, to me, of Aldiss' story (like the value of some bits of Wordsworth) is it lets you taste a different state of consciousness. Not wishing to get hooked on old Wordy, but he in particular seems to have had something very like the kind of experience you get in meditation, only he got them from being in nature. I can point out one passage in particular where this is so, if you like.

Sf and meditation/spirituality runs easily into the same problems as literature and theology - you risk turning lit into a series of exemplars of theological or spiritual ideas - lit becomes the 'handmaiden' of one or the other. How dull if this happens!

Just want to add that an implicit point of this post is that the question 'what is sf for' is identical to the question 'what is lit for'. Perhaps not such a controversial point these days, but I don't see why Aldiss or Dick or Ballard or any number of other sf writers shouldn't be treated with any less seriousness than mainstream lit. They outdo almost all contemporary mainstream lit for sheer imagination.

Chris said...

I am wary of questions such as 'what is science fiction for...' as they contain such blatant prior assumptions. :)

Science fiction seems to explore a domain of possibilities constrained solely by a requirement for internal consistency. Science and technology provide inspiration for the field, but become incidental in its fringes.

I am concerned that in its frenzy to free itself from religious baggage, science fiction is now tending to stray into specifically atheistic belief systems - thus ensnaring it in an entirely new metaphysical baggage.

But then, I have an abiding interest in salvaging religion, so my perspective is perhaps skewed. :)

No time to edit this comment into coherence - but time enough to congratulate you for dipping your toes in the virtual water!

Have fun!

Theophrastus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Yelena said...

Interesting to know.