The library in Gatesville, the small Texas town that I grew up in, had a limited selection of books. It didn’t take me long to work my way through the science fiction section, and a foray into mysteries only sufficed to curb my reading appetite for one summer. Having completed the arbitrary categories that the librarians had set, I was forced to wander the stacks of “General Fiction” in search of a fix that could not be satisfied by a romance or a western or a novel of adultery in a small New England towns. This way I discovered Stephen King (there not being a “Horror” section in the late 70s) and Kurt Vonnegut. But going through every book and reading the inside flap was a time consuming task and, being ever the lazy person that I was, I quickly found a better way to discover these books: the card catalog.
I remember it was in the card catalog that I repeatedly ran up against the phrase “What if?” as being a clear indicator of my interest in a book, which quickly culminated in the discovery of a book whose entire premise was based on “What if?” What if Lincoln had never been assassinated? What if Columbus hadn’t discovered America? What if the South had won the war? From this I formulated my personal definition of SF: if it couldn’t intrigue me through the use of a simple “What if?” question, I doubted whether the novel could sustain my interest through 200 or more pages. (Later I was to discover that the Science Fiction Book Club had used “What if?” to attract thousands of readers long before I made my personal discovery. Synchronicity or faulty childhood memories? Whatever. Neither detract from the worth of the actual question.)
- What if a man’s brain was transferred to a woman’s body? I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein.
- What if a man was forced to relive his life over and over again? Replay by Ken Grimwood.
- What if a dragon was miles long and stories tall, dormant and people lived on and around it? “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter” and “The Father of Stones” by Lucius Shepard.
- What if the first manned spaceflight to Mars was staged by a Hollywood film company? Voyage to the Red Planet by Terry Bisson.
Look at NASA…please! If there isn’t a more frightening indication of the impact of space on today’s culture, I’ll become a monk in space. Can you even see NASA from where you are, or is it hidden behind the lifestyles, the crime reports, the utter banality of “human interest” stories in the news? When you do hear about NASA it is either because they are requesting more money, having their budget cut by Congress, or they’ve delayed the shuttle launch yet again. Is today’s apathy with space caused by NASA’s incompentence, or vice versa? Either way, the future looks grim.
Grim tidings bring modest proposals. Bisson’s proposal in Voyage to the Red Planet may be hidden by a standard SF adventure plot, but it is as cutting as Swift’s ever was. When the government has to sell off various departments (like NASA) to corporations to pay back the national debt, when movie stars become a new royalty, that’s where you’ll find Bisson, pillorying the temples with a humor and irreverence that’s a joy to read. In every chapter Bisson drops a casual remark that seems innocuous at first, but sits like a dormant virus until you immune system yells “Uncle” and then unleashes its full fury making you double- and triple-up in laughter.
The plot and writing reminded me of late 60s/early 70s Philip K. Dick, except jazzed up and in tune with the 90s. Like Dick’s novels, even though Voyage to the Red Planet is set in the future, its topic is the present. Today, Bisson says, we are in danger from greedy corporations threatening to gobble up each other in a gigantic Ouroboros-orgy, we are in danger of creating a new aristocracy with its own rules and classes, we are in danger of losing our perspective on what is important and what isn’t. What Bisson isn’t saying, though, is that the future or the present is filled with doom. If we can doctor ourselves with a little humor and stop taking everything so damned seriously, perhaps there will be some hope for us all.
Amen. And God bless us every one.
[Originally published in NOVA Express, v3 n3, Winter 1991]