On the Shoulders of Giants

What follows is a critical essay originally published in Spectra Pulse magazine in 2008. I am reprinting it here today in memory of Ray Bradbury.


Until recently, science fiction has been deeper than it is wide. Its foundations are narrow. The cornerstone of the genre is Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, who in 1818–at the age of 21–anonymously published a book so visionary and entertaining that its title character has entered the language as adjective, verb, and noun.

Later writers set foundations in their own ways, works forming a basis for the modern architecture of  the genre. Among them are the ABC of science fiction–Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke.

Each of these writers have at times treated on similar themes. In the idea that by examining their work and comparing it to a stationary object, we can obtain a kind of motion parallax view of the evolution of the genre, I have chosen to examine a classic story by each author.

Now I’m going to ruin them for you, so if you haven’t read “Nightfall” (Isaac Asimov, 1941), “The Nine Billion Names of God” (Arthur C. Clarke, 1953), and “All Summer in a Day” (Ray Bradbury, 1959), go do so and please come right back.

Ready? Comfy? We’ll do ‘em in order of publication.

In “Nightfall,” due to a trick of orbital mechanics, a world with six suns experiences darkness only once every 2,049 years. While technologically advanced, the inhabitants have no artificial sources of light besides fire. They have an ingrained, compulsive fear of the dark, so profound that fifteen lightless minutes can drive them mad.

The story structure is problematic. The narrative essentially consists of three characters awaiting the end of the world, while two of them explain the premise to a third. The construction is clumsy. The narrative arc is nearly nonexistent, the point of view wanders, and there are certain logical flaws. The prose is rife with howlers like: Eyes held each other as though the whole matter were a personal affair of respective willpowers.

It does thirteen thousand words of work for perhaps three thousand words worth of story, because Asimov felt he had to do all that work to tell that story, to set up that his closing line, which is a masterpiece. It is a naive work of art and flawed. And yet.

For all the naiveté of its construction, “Nightfall” betrays psychological and thematic sophistication.  Asimov gets denial, and demonstrates it through his protagonist. The journalist Theremon 762 is a skeptic. He does not believe that night will fall, and if it does, he does not believe that the populace will be driven mad. We are rational beings, he believes. We can endure a little dark.

Whatever the unlikely conjugal relations between eyeballs it may posit, the sentence quoted above contains a telling phrase: as though the whole matter were a personal affair of respective willpowers.

The protagonist, Theremon 762, believes that will alone can hold back madness.

He’s wrong.

Through the metaphor of light and darkness, Asimov explores tension between superstition and science and brings us to a conclusion exactly Lovecraftian: neither faith nor analysis can save his characters; the universe is bleak and crowded with uncaring stars; and the story devolves unrelentingly to its final, chilling line: The long night had come again.

“The Nine Billion Names of God” is scarcely more structurally sound. It is nearly without conflict, consisting almost entirely of expository dialogue. (However, the story contains fantastic idea-nuggets. For example, the motor-driven prayer wheels–of course! There are motor-driven prayer wheels. How wonderful. Of course.)

This is another story of the triumph of superstition over science. More, it’s a story of the subversion of science to the ends of superstition. In it, Clarke has Tibetan monks purchase a powerful (by the standards of 1953) computer. In an ingenious repurposing of Émile Borel’s million Shakespearean monkeys, they mean to calculate the nine billion names of God.

Unlike Asimov, Clarke doesn’t need to sit us down and patiently explain his world, his logic, and consider each of our objections and dismiss it with a detailed argument. Because earlier foundations–shortcuts–are in place, he can tell us: the monks believe this, the scientists do not, the monks subvert the scientists into ending the world, because when God is named, its work is done.

This story too is an extended setup for a killer last line. In this case: Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

It doesn’t matter how awkward the story that comes before is. That line breathes quiet, calculated horror.

Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” shows a different level of craft than the other two. For one thing, Bradbury’s prose is elegant and controlled, evocative and hushed. Listen:

…they always awoke to the tatting drum, the endless shaking down of clear bead necklaces upon the roof, the walk, the gardens, the forests, and their dreams were gone.

“All Summer in a Day” is the tale of a Venus upon which it always rains, except for an hour every seven years. It’s a story about the cruelty of children, the horror of their unthinking behavior–and it is also a story about the conflict between reason and superstition.

Like the others, it uses light and darkness as a metaphor. The darkness in Bradbury’s story is the darkness of an alien world, of rain. It is the default state, rather than a threat to the existing scientific rational world, and it is broken only briefly. But that sun changes everything.

Those children are cruel to one who knows the truth. When they are enlightened (literally) it’s too late to undo the terrible thing they’ve done. But they have changed. They try.

“All Summer in a Day” ends: They unlocked the door, even more slowly, and let Margot out.

It’s fascinating–and I think a sign of the development of craft in the genre–that while Asimov and Clarke are presenting an argument, a kind of technical essay leading up to a punchline, what Bradbury is doing is telling an actual story, in which the interesting–and heartbreaking–bit is what happens after the catastrophe. In Bradbury’s treatment, exposition exists as an underpinning to the story rather than the story standing as an excuse for the exposition.

Bradbury is trusting us to get it. Part of the reason he can trust is because the setup has been done. The foundations are down there.

(Actually, I find it very interesting that in all four of these stories, including the ones by pioneers of modern science fiction–superstition wins out over science, at least briefly. And only in Bradbury’s does science make even a slight comeback.)

And so into the future. Science fiction writers seem to be telling stories better these days: more skillfully, more craftily. But it’s in part because somebody else went in and did it first, established the conventions, dug the cellar and mortared the stones.

What is the next revolution? Well, we’ll know it when we see it, and until then, we’ll keep looking. I suspect it may be the merging of genre science fiction into the mainstream, and a broadening in the voices telling the stories, but that’s just a guess.

Historically, science fiction has valorized the idea of newness, innovation, having the new idea upon which the story is hung. It’s part of our mythology. But Asimov was writing Singularity stories (“The Last Question”) in 1956. A new idea is harder to find than it was fifty years ago.

But that’s okay. Shelley’s Modern Prometheus is thematically similar to the Asimov, the Bradbury, and the Clarke. It’s a story about light and darkness, fire and ice, vision and blindness. It’s a story about the conflict between science and superstition.

And it still needed to be retold when they retold it, and it needs to be retold now.

Not that this is all we’re doing, but we’re still telling stories about the intersection of the science and superstition. We are still attempting to construct a humane pattern in a bleak, arbitrary, inexorable universe. We are still using light and darkness as metaphors. We’re building on those foundations–Asimov’s particular scientific rigor, Bradbury’s nuance and luminous prose, Clarke’s barrage of perfect jewel-like ideas.

But we’re doing it from a wider set of perspectives. From a genre populated by middle-aged, heterosexual, white males with engineering degrees, science fiction has opened, and continues opening. When different voices tell the same story, as we have seen above, the story changes.

There is nothing new under the sun. Or in the darkness between suns, for that matter.

But the angle from which one views them matters. Because that’s how you get parallax, and parallax is how you measure where things really are.

Posted: Wednesday, June 6th, 2012 @ 3:56 pm
Categories: Uncategorized.
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3 Responses to “On the Shoulders of Giants”

  1. SF Tidbits for 6/7/12 (+ Ray Bradbury Tributes Galore) - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog Says:

    [...] Elizabeth Bear [...]

  2. wade davis Says:

    wade davis…

    [...]» Blog Archive » On the Shoulders of Giants[...]…

  3. Kris Says:

    Rest in peace, will miss him so much!