Recently, I had the misfortune to read a book which I enjoyed far less than I had hoped (The Necropolis Railway). Happily, I’ve now had the opposite experience, a book I picked up with a view to reading something light to refresh my palate after an Anthony Powell turned out in fact to be a clever and witty satire which was far more rewarding than I had anticipated.
The novel in question is Super-State, by Brian Aldiss. Nominally science fiction, it is in fact a satire of humanity itself, a book which I suspect could only have been written by a man in his late 70s with its mix of laughing despair at what is mockingly referred to in several places in the novel as The Human Condition (the capitals are his).
Super-State is set around 40 years from now, though the exact date is not important and no particular attempt is made at credible world-building of the sort many sf fans are fond of. Rather the shift to the future allows an ironic commentary on how little the world has progressed, how despite advances in technology people are much the same and how although the dream of a united European super-state has been realised all that achievement has accomplished is to move Europeans from hating each other to hating non-Europeans.
The novel has a plot, though it is hardly central. Europe is building up to a possible war with a new Chinese breakaway Islamic state (not as unlikely a scenario as it sounds actually), meanwhile humanity’s first manned mission to the outer planets is en route to the Jovian moon Europa. A range of figures, first introduced at a society wedding which opens the novel, live their lives in the midst of the build up to war while an unknown hacker group called the Insanatics interrupt broadcast adverts with doleful messages about humanity’s basic lack of rationality. Similarly, the crew of the spaceship Roddenberry, wonderfully described as “a tiny needle in the lethal immaculacy of space”, send updates back to Earth of their hopes of discovering life on Europa and their increasingly failing food supplies.
All of the above makes this sound after all as if it is a plot driven novel, it is not. The plot barely features, it is merely a backdrop, potentially momentous events (war, first planetfall on a Jovian moon, possible discovery of extraterrestrial life, a massive natural disaster) are happening but most people either largely ignore them or exploit for their own immediate ends.
As noted above, this is not really a science fiction novel (though there is an interesting albeit brief defence of science fiction as a genre). The only real science ficional element is the inclusion of androids, robot servitors who work as labourers or casual workers (while European gunboats sink vessels full of refugees seeking to reach European shores, due to fears of immigrants). Occasionally we are shown conversations between groups of androids in private, these conversations acting as a Greek chorus commenting on the main activities of the novel. The androids believe themselves to be the pinnacle of creation, to be rational, to be superior to the humans they serve. However, when one group discuss taking over the world their plan falters when they realise they do not know how to get out of the cupboard they have been locked in for the day. The androids are like humanity itself, believing the story to be about them, when in fact there is no story at all.
“‘At the shop today I saw a small crying thing being carried.’
‘It will grow into a human.’
‘Why was it crying?’
‘The theory is that it knows it will have to grow into a human.'”
The androids are absurd, their understanding painfully limited (on considering a funeral: “‘Then why did they bury him in the ground?’ ‘They have a theory he will get better there.'”) and yet their commentary does have a certain unwitting resonance. In a real sense they are us, their limitations a mirror held up to our own absurd sense of importance. What they are definitely not is an attempt at a realistic depiction of future artificial intelligence, this is not that sort of novel (though I can recommend that sort of novel, should anyone wish me to…).
In a sense it is a novel of vignettes, characters interrelate – one character will be a relative of another or have romantic intentions to another, the characters are connected by family, lust and politics, some characters manage meaningful (to them, not to the world) connections to each other, but there is intentionally no sense of a greater pattern. Things happen, some good, some bad, and people make their lives and impose meaning among and upon those events. Some characters fall in love and some then die pointlessly. Good and bad fortune are spread indiscriminately. A practical joke can backfire and kill a man, a war can become a farce when waged and yet still be deadly for all that.
The Europe of Aldiss’s future is a familiar one. Mass immigration is actively feared, though now the response is military in nature. Wars are threatened against small and far away states, while commentators condemn militarism and others point to attacks carried out on European soil as clear justification for hostilities (who is right? Who knows?). Political leaders are accused of pursuing war for their own political and economic interests. A scandal leaks about the sinking of a refugee ship with 4,000 people aboard, but besides a few media commentators nobody is interested. A novelist writes romantic fictions with absurdly over-sacharine prose, she sells in the millions. A learned broadcaster makes programs about humanity, its history and its failings but at home has disowned his own children. Hypocrisy is rife, business and politics continue, the world is as it ever was for all the scenery provided by the technology has changed.
The writing is skilful, light and generally sardonic in tone. The book is littered with small asides which comment wrly on the whole (a general notes “‘Even, mm, truth can be subversive in wartime'”). Characters are broadly, but effectively, sketched (“Daniel Potts who, in his early sixties, had a countenance somewhat resembling a disappointed walnut,”). Characterisation does not aim at realism, most characters are lightly drawn and held up for satirical effect, although certain characters are given greater depth where seriousness helps deliver the point being made through them.
Some satirical strands run through the book, such as the Europe-wide implementation of social algebraic coding, a nobel-prize winning new form of mathematically derived social science intended at ironing out income disparities within Europe. Early in the novel we see its unintended consequences on the ground, with families being paid for not drinking too much and government issued serious literature sent out to families (with each European country getting to select a different book for distribution each month, and with many choices inevitably causing vast offence to the legions of those waiting to be offended). Later we see the social algebraic codist himself, working now on mathematics to improve ethical behaviour, until his funding is cut due to the need to pay for the war. Again, small asides feature (speaking of the social algebraic coding: “This enlightened move was slowly but surely abolishing gross inequalities between rich and poor within the super-state, with the exception of Switzerland”).
The media is satirised, we receive thought for the day broadcasts of breathtaking banality, a reporter goes out after every major event to ask passers by in the street for their (utterly uninformed) views on the matter at hand. Each Insanatics broadcast is inserted into an advert and we hear a small part of each such advert, for products that no one could have any genuine need for. We are talking to ourselves and into the void, but it is far from clear that we are listening to each other while pretty clear that nobody else is around to listen.
In the end, it is a hard novel to describe, in an admirably concise 230 pages Aldiss covers politics, the military, the media, immigration, the European Union, the illusion of romantic love, the value of art, the absurdity of our notions of importance as a species, the absurdity of our notions of personal importance, many things, certainly more than I have covered here. He hits his targets well, the book is often funny, it offers no solutions and indeed strongly implies that there are none to be found. We are absurd, we are not really conscious or wise despite our beliefs to the contrary, we are painfully limited and only dimly aware of our limitations. But we are, at least, funny. At the end we have to laugh, even though it is laughter in the dark.
While writing this blog entry, I came across a comment by Aldiss on this novel taken from an online interview, he said:
“As for writing style — that is something that gets forged by practice. Diversification is the name of the game. In [my latest novel] Super-State, I have taken what for me is a new approach to story-telling. That is to say, I have subsumed the narrative into disparate episodes, some serious and many witty or satirical. By this means, I am able to convey a bigger overall picture, and ask “What’s happening in the world?” This is what concerns me at present, with so much change in process. Science fiction is the new old business of holding a mirror to nature!”
And that is what I think this book is about. Aldiss is holding a mirror up to our nature, and while the image we see is ludicrous, it is not unfortunately distorted.