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Big Dumb Objects and Cosmic Enigmas:
The Love Affair between Space Fiction and the Transcendental
by Peter Nicholls

Author biography About the author  Links Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years

Originally presented as a speech on Monday 23 June 1997 at the combined Science Fiction Research Association / J. Lloyd Eaton conference held on the Queen Mary, Long Beach, California. First published in one of the proceedings volumes for that conference, Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction (Greenwood Press, 2000) edited by Gary Westfahl. Published on the Ansible Editions website by kind permission of Gary Westfahl. The essay was substantially rewritten for The New York Review of Science Fiction in 2009, and it is the later version that is included in Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years. – David Langford

This essay is a meditation on the nature of hard sf, consciously built upon my own responses to science fiction from childhood on (including my published criticism), and is characteristically (for me) narrated in more of a spiral than a straight line. It is focused on a recent reading of 20 hard sf classics, listed below. I do not analyze these books in detail, I merely refer to them, and use them as a catalyst for thought about the hard sf genre. My chain of reasoning does not take the form of arguing a thesis through the careful marshalling of supportive evidence – that would take an entire book – but is an exegesis of subjective responses, delivered in the hope that its readers will take it not as dogmatism, but as a sequence of suggestions offered in the hope of locating a consensus agreement. I am writing for people who already know science fiction well, as if to say, “Here’s what I think. You people have read the books I’m talking about. Don’t you think there’s something in what I’m saying? Because, if there is, there’s a bunch of simplistic critical essays written over the past fifty years that may require being torn up.” The paper was written for oral delivery to a well informed audience of academics and sf writers, and I have decided to keep at least some of the informalities that oral delivery traditionally includes, though academic criticism generally does not.

This paper is basically a rethinking of ideas I’ve been developing about science fiction ever since I began publishing sf criticism in 1958. I once started but never finished writing a book called Infinity, Eternity and the Pulp Magazines, commissioned by Penguin Books, which was to be a critical history of science fiction. I completed only four chapters. (Chapters One and Two were published in condensed form as “Science Fiction and the Mainstream: Part 1: The Demolition of Pigeon Holes” and “Science Fiction and the Mainstream: Part 2: The Great Tradition of Proto Science Fiction”.) This essay, “Big Dumb Objects ...”, could equally well have been called “Infinity, Eternity and the Pulp Magazines”, for the following reason.

Not everyone, even if they are writers or academics, is familiar with the word “bathos”. Not “pathos” but “bathos”, with a B. “Bathos” means, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a “ludicrous descent from the elevated to the commonplace” (192) and according to me “a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous”. I attempted to include in my title the bathos I found (and continue to find) to be science fiction’s tragic if lovable flaw by linking the elevated terms “infinity and eternity” with the dismissive term “pulp magazines”. The phrase “Big Dumb Objects” has deliberate bathos also, with its focus on the word “dumb”. and is therefore equally appropriate.

I’ll get back to bathos and big dumb objects later, but their mention here is parenthetical only. My point is that in my book – Chapter Two to be precise – I wrote something that was specifically about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but was intended to be a truth about science fiction generally. I wrote that “we find a tension between the writer’s respect for and understanding of orderly scientific thought (the classical) and his love for the phenomena which do not submit to this order (the romantic)” (35).

There is in science fiction, even or especially in so-called hard science fiction, something which in other contexts we tend to think of as unscientific, be it called sense of wonder, the sublime, the transcendent, or the romantic: all terms I will be using below. And one rather mechanical way of creating this effect is for the storyteller to imagine something very, very big and mysterious, like the spaceship Rama, or like Larry Niven’s Ringworld. That is, there is a mysterious something in science fiction that often has its locus classicus in the Big Dumb Object. I’m on a hunt for this mysterious something, but I fear it may be like Lewis Carroll’s Snark and turn out to be a Boojum. Recall the last stanza of that great poem The Hunting of the Snark:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and silently vanished away –
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

(I have a first edition [1893] of which I am inordinately proud. As a good example of what I elsewhere call “recursive sf”, there is ample evidence in several works I discuss here that their authors were well aware of Carroll’s poem. Especially Gregory Benford.)

The next expedition I mounted against my personal Snark was in the entry “Conceptual Breakthrough” in the first edition of my book The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which was left largely unaltered in the second edition of 1993. It attracted a great deal of attention, with the phrase passing into general usage, even getting its own little entry in Gary K. Wolfe’s book Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy. At this point in my thinking I was seeking the Snark in one of sf’s most important tropes, the point in an sf story where a paradigm shift is revealed, an altered perception, a questioning of apparent certainties that now appear – usually to the thoughtful hero – inadequate. Many Snark traces were found, but the Snark itself proved elusive. In a satisfyingly postmodernist way it was, however, becoming clear that my search for a Snark was directly parallel to the Snark searches mounted by sf itself. It could be argued that sf’s basic plot device is the Snark hunt, and – metaphorically – that is the line I pursued in a subsequent “conceptual breakthrough” essay entitled “Doors and Breakthroughs”. To locate a Snark you have to walk through the correct Door, and that is what science fiction (and indeed fantasy) is astonishingly often about.

All these matters were in the forefront of my mind when I came to revise The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, a task in which my primary responsibility was to rewrite and rethink all those entries dealing with the themes of science fiction. This brings us to April Fool’s Day, 1992, that being a day in which practical jokes are traditionally carried out. On that day I was exhausted writing theme entries, and my brain was hurting. So I decided to write an April Fool’s entry. I would pretend that a phrase that I’d always liked, originated by the critic Roz Kaveney but not in general use, was actually a known critical term. I would write an entry called “Big Dumb Objects” in a poker-faced style, suggesting an even more absurd critical term to be used in its place, “megalotropic sf”.

But the joke was on me, because as I came to write, I realized that the subject – which was vast, enigmatic alien artefacts, many examples below – was not only genuinely interesting, but at the heart of what attracted people to science fiction. And even stranger, I realized that no matter what literary shortcomings you found in Big Dumb Object sf – and believe me, there are plenty – such stories were usually good to read. Why?

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It came to me that Big Dumb Objects were part of the larger endeavor I had written about before, the attempt to pinpoint the area of sf that most particularly resonated with the readership: the Snark. Science fiction’s soul. The key entries in the 1993 Encyclopedia relating to this larger theme, all written by me, are “Big Dumb Objects”, “Conceptual Breakthrough,” and “Sense of Wonder”.

“Sense of Wonder” was another new entry specially written for the 1993 edition. It had worried me that this useful phrase had become a joke in the science fiction community, often contracted to a sort of whimsical Brooklynese term, “sensawunna”, as if it were a childish phrase whose nuances were long gone, now contracted into a useless romantic stereotype. Darko Suvin contemptuously commented in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction that “[sense of wonder] is another superannuated slogan of much sf criticism due for a deserved retirement” (83). My immediate response to Suvin’s remark was to see it as a comment about social class: there are two kinds of sf critics, the sophisticated academics and the blue- collar workers. The latter group, who use superannuated phrases like “sense of wonder” that aren’t good enough for polite company – me and Sam Moskowitz and James Blish and Damon Knight to name but four – are, so to speak, the rednecks.

Still, I knew what Suvin meant. “Sense of wonder” is all too often a rote phrase used by critics unable to find finer or more precise ways of explaining a potent sf effect that is curiously resistant to analysis. I myself had once, rather helplessly, while reviewing Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero back in 1972, tried to explain “sense of wonder” by quoting William Wordsworth’s famous lines in “Tintern Abbey”, when he refers to “a sense sublime, / of something far more deeply interfused, / whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air, / and the blue sky, and in the mind of man.” Looking back, I was borrowing from Wordsworth to make a rather important statement. I was saying that our feeling about Anderson’s ever-accelerating spaceship which, through a relativistic time contraction effect, outlived the whole universe and was present at the birth of a new cosmic egg, was equivalent to the feeling described by the nineteenth-century romantics as “sublime”. And by implication, I was saying that hard science fiction, usually described in rational terms like “adhering to known scientific principles”, was, when analyzed, not wholly classical or Apollonian as the adherence to reason rather than fantasy would suggest, but actually partook of the romantic and the Dionysian. Which brings me to Brian Aldiss.

Aldiss’s celebrated definition of science fiction, in Billion Year Spree (1973), includes the phrase “characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode” (8). People who take issue with this usually concentrate on Aldiss’s claim in support of this remark that science fiction effectively began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. I’d prefer to pick up on that word Gothic more generally, for what is the Gothic if not an apotheosis of the romantic movement, a kind of writing that focuses on mystery not knowledge, on moonlight rather than sunlight.

So, I again approach this old obsession of mine, and I do so by going back to some of the Big Dumb Object classics of sf. There’s nothing obscure about the books I selected. Many of them were award winners. This is what I recently re-read:

Big Dumb Objects (or Enigmatic Alien Artifacts) are so called by me for obvious reasons, the most important being the pun on “dumb” (unable to communicate and sometimes silly). They are normally found in space or on alien planets, are normally opaque to human knowledge and senses, and are normally very big. Niven’s Ringworld is a belt-shaped section of a Dyson Sphere, almost 200 million miles across; Shaw’s Orbitsville is a complete Dyson sphere with a diameter of 320 million kilometres, much the same as that of Niven’s. Earlier BDOs were often not nearly so big, like Clarke’s monolith, or his alien spacecraft Rama which is a cylinder 20 kilometres across and 50 kilometres long, only a bit bigger than James Blish’s flying New York which was not alien but human, but in other respects fits BDO parameters. New York was quite a small BDO, since it contained only Manhattan, having left Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens behind. Bear’s BDO in Eon is the biggest, being an infinitely long tunnel. Varley’s BDO in Titan is middle-sized, being 4,000 kilometres across, but unlike the other BDOs is organic and self-aware. Benford has a habitable warped space-time construct (or “esty” as he calls it) called the Wedge, located perilously close to the black hole at the heart of our galaxy. I’m sure I need give no further explanation about what a Big Dumb Object is beyond citing these examples. It is not of itself an especially sophisticated concept. It often takes, however, sophisticated forms, or grotesque ones. One of my favorite BDOs is mentioned almost in passing in David Zindell’s Neverness (1988), “the swarm of the ten thousand moon-brains of the Solid State Entity” (103). Big, but in this case not so dumb.

Big Dumb Objects, as I said, are normally found in space, and space is what I’ll turn to now. The conference for which this essay was written had two discussion strands, “space” and “time”. I am not the only person to point out that space and time cannot be separated so readily and conveniently in the world of physics; indeed they are linked in the phrase space-time continuum. The two are connected, and movement in one will automatically bring about movement in the other. The simplest relationship is velocity, which is space divided by time, but in the light of relativistic physics the relationship is more profound. The greater the velocity in relation to a stationary observer – not that any observer in the real universe is ever truly stationary – the greater the contraction of the time experienced by the moving object or person as compared to the time experienced by the observer. I won’t go into the math here, but it’s not too difficult. It gets more difficult, of course, when you bring quantum physics into it and start considering wormholes and black holes, where space and time are theorized to behave very strangely indeed.

Voyages in space become voyages in time in the majority of the BDO novels I have cited: in the Benford and Bear books par excellence, and in the Blish and Anderson books which climax in time travel into and past the end of our own cosmos. Indeed, the “Cities in Flight” series climaxes with a book entitled The Triumph of Time, though most of the series is devoted to exploration in space. But leaving this nitpicking aside – though it is a fundamental nit to pick, and it makes a nonsense of any arbitrary distinction between time and space – let’s look at the metaphoric function of space in sf, especially in the books I’ve cited.

Space has many functions, of course. It is, as the celebrated cliché has it, the last frontier, which ties in with what one does in frontiers of all kinds – meeting the “other”. The meeting of humanity with the other is now generally accepted as one of the great themes of science fiction, as is spelled out in Wolfe’s excellent critical study The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (1979). Space is the usual venue for such confrontations, and is ideal for the purpose. I’ve always liked the pulp phrase “deep space”. which is even better than ordinary shallow space as a place for meeting the unknown.

Another point about space is that it makes us feel very small. It does that even on Earth. When I take the dog for his walk at 1 a.m. every morning, I have plenty of time while he stops and sniffs and pisses on bushes. I use this time to gaze at the stars, which have not yet been eliminated from the visible sky in Melbourne by light pollution. I don’t know about you, but they make me giddy and small, and I feel that if I look long enough, I might fall upwards towards them, lost in immensity. It is a simple earthbound version of the sublime, and the effect will be much stronger again when we’re up there in deep space, or so the sf writers tell us.

But here’s a point that’s not often made: one thing about the sublime is that it is dehumanizing. It makes us feel small and unimportant and indeed hardly there at all. This feeling of our vulnerability and littleness, in the face of cosmic vastness and indifference, is one of the root feelings of space fiction, a sort of default feeling that almost all space fiction at some point approaches. When you hit space fiction’s “enter” key, that’s where the cursor goes. I have a word limit here, and I won’t therefore bother to cite any typical passages of this sort, but the aficionados all know that they are there.

From this perspective, the Big Dumb Object is merely a coalescence of the space metaphor in the form of matter, as if the BDO is a warped section of space (this is one definition of all matter). Big Dumb Objects, like space, make us feel vulnerable and threatened and lost. Observe the feelings of the explorers of Clarke’s spacecraft Rama, or the psychological repercussions of the discovery of the infinite tunnel at Thistledown in Bear’s Eon, or the way in which the characters in Varley’s Titan cease even talking to each other after months of walking through this vast, alien pocket universe. In Shaw’s Orbitsville the notion of the continuing upward evolution of humanity is destroyed at a stroke by the seemingly infinite living space on the inner surface of the Dyson Sphere, equal in surface area to five billion Earths. With lebensraum for all, huge amounts of it, territorial disputes disappear. The premium on aggression is gone. Very soon, Shaw conjectures, we would become the equivalent of peaceful herbivores, with no need to evolve further, no carnivores to prey on us. This is the downside of Big Dumb Objects – they may make us less than we are, and it is a natural human instinct to be fond of our present selves, no matter how unpleasantly aggressive we may be. (In passing one might observe this to be the entire and only theme of Robert Reed’s cosmic, campus sf nightmare, An Exaltation of Larks.) We don’t want to become vegetables.

But other big Dumb Objects might make us more rather than less. Their challenge, the adrenaline rush of attempting to pierce their enigmas, may help us transcend ourselves. The other great theme of space fiction often, and Big Dumb Objects usually, is transcendence. Now, “transcendence” is an odd word, and it should be treated very cautiously. All too often it is used to mean entering a realm of marshmallow religiose feeling. Transcendence is not necessarily a good thing, though it may be something we yearn for, especially if we have had the prior experience in deep space of being made to feel very little and unimportant. It is also a ticklish literary concept – do not attempt without adult supervision, so to speak – in that it is by definition a state beyond our human state, and cannot therefore be described in ordinary human words. Many readers have winced repeatedly at the way sf writers capable of perfectly good straightforward, journeyman prose tend to fall into florid poetics of the most excruciatingly embarrassing kind when trying to imagine what transcendence might feel like. Just about every writer mentioned to date has been unable to avoid the trap, except perhaps Niven, whose versions of transcendence tend to be quite down-to-earth, like humans turning into great big wrinkled muscular dangerous Paks. Poetry, it is fair to say, probably would not come easily to Niven, who has the good sense nearly all the time to avoid it. Not all of his colleagues have been so tactful. Anyway, it is a notoriously difficult crux in science fiction, and one has sometimes to admire the effort to achieve a portrayal of the transcendent state even as we wince at the result. Because in my view, though transcendence itself may not be a realistic concept, the yearning for it is a very real feeling indeed. Transcendence is a theme to be treated carefully, but not necessarily to be avoided. Indeed, it is yet another of those themes that form a cluster at the romantic pole of the classical-romantic tension I mentioned earlier as characterizing so much hard sf.

You might take it for granted that transcendence is a legitimate theme for sf, but not everyone does. I’d like to speak for a moment about my colleague John Clute, who edited with me the 1993 edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. John and I differ on this particular issue, as a very close reading of the Encyclopedia might show, though our judgments coincide about 90% of the time when considering science fiction overall. Like all interesting critics, Clute is at his most gripping when he’s on a roll. It’s rather like listening to a Dizzy Gillespie variation on some familiar theme, trumpet notes that threaten to re-format your brain, and in Clute’s case with polysyllabic grace notes as well. Anyway, one of John’s most celebrated riffs was the one he played when he reviewed a book that is relevant here, The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei and Cory Panshin (1989). The review, which appeared in the July, 1991 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, is what we call in the trade “a killer”. At the end of a thunderously orchestrated jeremiad, Clute says it is unbelievable that two grown writers could be “so unutterably callow about the reified wet-dream they think of as transcendence, but which others might call fetish” (5).

That the idea of transcendence is a fetish, the result of a cargo-cult mentality, is a familiar item in Clute’s criticism. Clute argues that in science fiction many of us – including William Gibson, see the “hacking the wilderness for Cargo” remark in the “Gibson” entry in our Encyclopedia – have just this Melanesian mentality. The cargo cults in the Melanesian islands resulted from occasional swift glimpses of white people, which caused the aboriginal peoples to build up a cult in which the whites were strange gods bearing arbitrary gifts in their cargo ships. (Another example of transcendence as a pathetic wet dream.) For me as an outlying island dweller, just like the English and (metaphorically) the Canadians, it is natural to yearn for “cargo” (a US monopoly), as all Australians do, and there’s no necessary loss of dignity in doing so.

After all, though the magical qualities of “cargo” were a Melanesian illusion, the idea that they needed cargo was perhaps not. When we glimpse an advanced “other”, or its artefacts, we want them. The meeting of the Melanesians with the whites was in real Earth history cognate with the meeting of humanity with advanced aliens so familiar in science fiction, and it arguably applies to the poor white distant relatives of the wealthy white superpower as well. Contact with the alien explorers and traders did, as it turned out, transform the Melanesian peoples, a kind of transcendence I suppose, though some of the results were terrible. My point is that the desire for transformation, for transcendence, might in many cases be pointless or destructive, but it is a real and even inevitable feeling when first contact is made. It is perhaps a fetish, but a fetish with a reason. Many of us will agree that for the Panshins to call Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom transcendent is absurd, and that in the world at large the term transcendence all too often is the precursor to a vague orgasmic mysticism that is indeed rather contemptible. The reality of transcendence may be an issue elsewhere, but here the central and à propos issue is that humanity’s in-built yearning to become better and cleverer and, yes, “other” is a reality. This may be the crux upon which Clute and I disagree.

However, he is quite right in supposing that in some science fiction the transcendence theme is cheap, sentimental, or merely silly. For example, I can barely tolerate Varley’s Gaean trilogy because of the lurid, strip-show, red-light-district colour he sprays over the theme of humans transcending themselves and becoming gods. I find it appallingly adolescent. Of course the sf theme of transformation and transcendence is by no means restricted to space fiction, and one of its best examples is by another of the authors I’ve been reading, Greg Bear, whose Blood Music (1985), biological in theme and mainly set on Earth, has human-bacterium hybrids growing into gods, or a god, of a sort. (In parenthesis I note as a general truth that earthbound transcendence in science fiction tends to be associated with the biological sciences, whereas transcendence in space fiction tends to be connected with physics. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an example. Indeed godlike transcendence has always been one of Clarke’s major themes.)

You may be getting rather confused out there by the number of abstract ingredients (big dumb objects, conceptual breakthrough, sense of wonder, transcendence, cargo) I am stirring into the stew, especially if you are picking up on the implied internal contradictions in some of what I’ve been saying. I have argued that humans want to transcend themselves, and I have also argued that humans value what they are. Indeed we are constitutionally incapable of wholly rejecting what we are, or even rejecting what made us what we are. In the very best Big Dumb Object space fiction – I might specifically mention Benford’s books here, and Bear fits in too – this tension between the humanness we possess and love, and the “otherness” or “transcendence” we may aspire to, is the engine that drives the story. A thing I like about Benford’s fiction is that no matter how over-the-top he goes, he knows what he’s doing. He’s doing it on purpose. His Bishop family is primitive and squabbling and tribal precisely because this reductionism to the basics of humanity shows so well the tension I speak of, when seen in the very complex and technologically advanced context that Benford gives it.

So we are reaching a more sophisticated view of what space fiction in general and BDO fiction in particular tends to be about. It is about being dwarfed by space and hugeness, about attempting to maintain our own humanity, warts and all, in the light of this vastness, while at the same time yearning to be better or other than what we are. And this is not a theme that is intrinsically scientific at all, which makes it all the odder that it is in the hardest and most scientific sf that we tend to find the purest examples. I believe that what drives some of us to be scientists in the first place is an unusual openness to the sort of experience – or perhaps I should say the sort of feeling – that I’m clumsily trying to pin down.

I’ve observed that the central science to be found in this kind of sf is cosmology. This is the case with every book I have so far mentioned, though stronger in some of them. It is in cosmology that the most exotic perspectives on space and time and even humanity are to be found. In my more aggressively simplifying mode I’ve even been tempted to define “hard sf” exactly thus: “fiction whose plot depends wholly or in large part on cosmological ideas”. I think that definition would catch a very high percentage of the hard sf classics, but I’m sure nitpickers could produce lots of exceptions, too. But even when we note the exceptions – I noted a partial exception myself, Blood Music, a little way back – one can still argue that cosmological sf is the default to which hard sf continually returns, and that hard sf’s natural milieu is space.

Most hard sf sees humanity in a perspective that dwarfs it, while at the same time being passionately humanocentric. Tom Godwin’s story “The Cold Equations” is famously of this kind. The sublime, or at least the vast indifference that is out there in the universe, ranged against the ridiculous that is us, creates bathos almost automatically (and thus brings my meditation full circle). It is, however, a very special kind of bathos, because it is characteristically known and self-conscious, and not just the stumbling incompetent bathos we expect and find in hack writers. Benford makes a virtue of bathos of this kind. He knows how silly and limited and ignorant the Bishop family look up against everything they confront, from vicious “mechs” to enigmatic space-going artefacts to twists in the space-time continuum, but that is the very point. The other point, of course, is that they survive.

While bathos is the literary failing of a great deal of hard sf, I am now asserting, it is also inevitable, and by some writers including Benford even welcomed. There’s a certain valor, even nobility, in hard sf’s readiness to confront the in-built bathos of the Big Dumb Object syndrome, while knowing that the grandeur of, say, a Ringworld is bound to be severely compromised by the all-too twentieth-century human impulses to be found in a good bit of the characterization. Clarke’s Rama is a wonderful creation and I’m fond of the book where it appears, but there is true absurdity in the fact that Rama is explored by characters whose complexity and lifestyle is not too far removed from what we find in the Hardy Boys or Biggles or boy’s fiction generally. The bathos of Varley’s Titan series is not only dirty where Clarke is squeaky clean, it is somehow more extreme; the books linger on our sex drives, our weaknesses, our addictive personalities, with special reference to alcohol and cocaine, our inability to get rid of appalling kinds of childhood imprinting, to the degree that one is sometimes unsure whether one is reading true sf, or a manual of 1970s psychobabble. It is a series that has dated quite rapidly, perhaps for this reason. It is also the most cynical of the series I looked at, for transcendence itself turns out to be a kind of fraud. The planetary intelligence that is Gaea is just as screwed up as the rest of us. Being a god is no guarantee of adult behavior.

I began by saying that I had recently re-read twenty or so classics of hard science fiction, and I listed them. What I didn’t say then is that it was a rather disappointing experience. To read through hard sf novels a second time is – and when you think about it must be – a very different experience from reading them the first time around. One sees them now in a changed cultural context, and though their dominant icons may have been fresh at the time, they may now have become stereotypes of popular culture. The main problem is the sense of wonder: the feeling you get when confronted by the truly awe-inspiring in sf does not occur so poignantly the second time round. Rather like the way we are said to become inured to violence by watching too many tv series or even news broadcasts, we become inured to wonder when we’ve seen the same wonder at least once before. Disneyland is normally disappointing at the second visit too. In the case of sf – as sometimes with Disneyland – the gigantic can come to seem trivial, vast cathedrals of enigma painted onto cardboard backdrops. And because the Big Dumb Objects themselves, be they gargantuan space habitats or infinite tunnels to godhead, have been absorbed before, the second time round one concentrates much more on the characters themselves, and in many books they are poorly or stereotypically rendered.

I am well aware that American academics and literary critics are in general more polite than English and Australian ones, more tactfully sensitive to the feelings of authors, and more apt to believe that everything in life is so different from everything else that one cannot properly compare two distinct things or make judgment calls at all. It is an irritating characteristic to judgmental people like me, but lovable too. The extreme case is the sf news magazine Locus, whose review columns I cannot recall ever to have claimed a book was a bad book in the twenty years I have been reading them. Books merely have different degrees of goodness. My own view is that one cannot adequately admire what is good unless one is well aware of what is less good. If one does not acknowledge the second or third rate as being so, then there is no spectrum to position texts on.

I issue this warning because my re-reading of these classics of hard sf leads me to come out with some mild judgment calls of my own, and worse, I am not going to back them up with detailed recourse to the actual texts because I don’t have time. Or space if it comes to that. So you’ll have to accept them as dogmatic opinion, though it is I hope informed opinion.

The writers that emerged least harmed by reading them a second or third time were Benford and Niven. I feel I owe Larry Niven an apology for the fairly brutal review I wrote of Ringworld in the second issue of Foundation back in 1972. I compared it unfavorably with Tau Zero. I remember Poul Anderson, Tau Zero’s author, was surprised enough to write me a polite letter chastising me, which considering the source was a pretty effective chastisement. Ringworld stands up well – better as a matter of fact – on a subsequent reading, perhaps because, despite its dramatic setting, it is not primarily a sense-of-wonder book at all, though you think it is going to be. It is a detective story. It is about a human trying to make sense of the inexplicable, and in a dogged sort of way it communicates this quandary very well.

The authors that suffered the most were Clarke, Anderson, and Varley, in part for reasons I’ve alluded to already. I’ll only add here with mixed praise that Varley is brassy and readable and loud. The bathos in Anderson’s book is especially noteworthy, with events of impressive cosmic significance going on outside the window, so to speak, but trivial quarrels and couplings going on in the drawing room inside. Bob Shaw was always a modest author. Orbitsville is characteristically packed with rich ideas transmitted through a lucid but unexceptional pulp mode of narrative, and the novel is too short to do much with these ideas, though it is fine as far as it goes. At his not infrequent best, I have found Bob Shaw, whose recent death saddened me very much, to be a thoughtful, honest and above all underrated author of hard sf. Bear is a brave and ambitious writer, but I felt much more conscious, reading the Eon trilogy again, of the yawning gulf between the comparatively commonplace nature of the human consciousnesses into which we look (rather Californian consciousnesses I thought) and the truly incredible events and settings which these consciousnesses observe. The most ambitious of all is Benford, whose Galactic Center series not only deals with space, time, big dumb objects, human evolution and devolution, but scrutinizes also the nature of consciousness, both human and alien, and the interplay between consciousness and the cosmos. Given the almost ridiculously wide-ranging scope of all this, it is hardly surprising that he occasionally stumbles, but the six-book series will stand, I think, as one of the more remarkable achievements of the hard sf saga. Most important of all is that of all the writers I’ve mentioned, Benford is the most conscious of the bathos trap, and most cleverly exploits it, though I must say I winced at the intentional (and also Californian) lack of sublimity when the first person the Bishop family meet when they reach the novel’s galactic-center Big Dumb Object is a bureaucratic customs official. Talk about anti-climax. James Blish was one of the most intelligent and scrupulous sf writers of his generation, but his sometimes laborious prose could not quite embrace the flexibility that his cognitive ingenuity seemed to demand. Paul McAuley and Charles Sheffield are more recent writers, both more than competent, but of the two I find McAuley the more ambitious and the less wooden when it comes to characterization, and the vastness of his cosmogonic sweep (which is carried through a series of books, especially Eternal Light) is occasionally breathtaking.

In my “sense of wonder” entry in the Encyclopedia, I wrote about the curious disjunction between sense-of-wonder catalysts and the truly pulpy matrix in which they are often embedded, a famous example being the last line of A.E. van Vogt’s The Weapon Makers (1943), which goes, “This much we have learned; here is the race that shall rule the sevagram” (130). It is a deservedly well remembered, wonderful last line, in its sudden evocation of a perspective that retrospectively alters the whole meaning of the book. I referred to this sort of discovery, perhaps crudely, as “finding a diamond in a dung heap”. The entry ends: “As we become older and at least in our own eyes more sophisticated, we are of course less likely to seek diamonds in dung-heaps. Perhaps younger readers find them more readily because, while they recognize a diamond when they see one, they haven’t yet learned to recognize a dung heap. In this respect the ‘sense of wonder’ is a phenomenon of youth” (1085). I would add now that diamonds do not necessarily remain diamonds for ever. It is a case of the observer altering the experiment. The sense of wonder or sublimity one feels when encountering the diamond the first time does not work so well the second time, and less well again the third. The problem is not with the writer but the reader, and since as we grow older we are less likely to find truly new ideas in the science fiction literature we love, we are more likely to perceive diamonds as mere rhinestones, and less likely to feel the sense of wonder. This does not make the diamond any less real in itself, but its magic works better on some than others.

In conclusion I want to make it quite clear that not a single one of the books I listed at the outset could fairly be called a dung-heap. They are classics of space fiction, and deservedly so, despite the reservations I have expressed. What I hope to have established is that writers of hard science fiction are as a group probably more not less romantic than their soft-sf colleagues; that this romance is intrinsic in the very metaphors that deep space produces, taking their sources from space itself through enigmatic alien artefacts to the furthest reaches of cosmological speculation; that we do not only read hard sf for the scientific extrapolation, the “classical” elements; that some day I may wish to carry on this meditation to the point of claiming that these romantic elements are, philosophically speaking, religious; and finally, that for me at least this sort of science fiction is the true heart and center of why I began to read science fiction in the first place. My pervasive skepticism, which sometimes wearies me as much as it wearies the readers of my criticism, does not I hope quite conceal a temperament as romantic as any of those I have been describing. As I approach the age of sixty the stars at night (and the science fiction I continue to read) still animate a sense of wonder whose sap has not yet dried up.

Works Cited

Author biography About the author  Links Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years