Monday, 15 April 2013

A Style In Treason

James Blish's speculative hard science fiction (sf) addresses the questions: how can human beings live indefinitely, control gravity, travel faster than light (FTL), colonize other planets and communicate instantaneously or telepathically? Also, in particular works: what is life and should society be stable or dynamic?

(Incidentally, They Shall Have Stars prefigures The Star Dwellers:

("...there was no logical reason to rule [life] out even on the Sun - some animated flame no one would recognize as life..." (Year 2018!, London, 1964, p. 138))

Despite its interstellar setting, "A Style In Treason" concentrates not on hard sf but on colourful images and descriptions and exotic settings. It was written as a pastiche of Jack Vance who wrote the kind of sf in which technological advances like FTL are merely assumed, not carefully rationalized. The FTL drive in "A Style In Treason" is called the Imaginary Drive as an auctorial comment on the implausibility of this standard sf prop.

A battle is described as:

" a raid by the twenty-fifth century upon the thirteenth, as imagined by someone in the twentieth - a truly dreamlike sensation." (Anywhen, New York, 1970, p. 43)

- thus not intended to be taken seriously as either sociological or technological extrapolation. The battle includes ornithopters, wing-flapping aircraft, which are also to be found in Dune.

Sometimes, when reading a fictional narrative, we do not yet fully understand the context or motivations of the characters' actions but expect to understand more fully later. If this expectation is not fulfilled, then either we feel cheated or we accept that the narrative had other merits in any case. I am not sure that it is necessary to understand the convoluted intrigues of the self-described "Traitors." I remarked to Blish that I did not understand how a system based on treason could work and he replied that he did not understand it either. A further novel would have been written.

Textually, there is a contradiction between internal and external evidence. Internally, the text states:

"Neither the [faster than light] ultraphone nor the Imaginary Drive permitted the extension of human hegemony over a radius of more than ten light-years..." (ibid., p. 27)

- but explains that "...a roughly uniform interstellar economy...," in which the traitors "...act as brokers..." enforces a rule that is not widely recognized as such.

Externally, the characters in The Quincunx Of Time receive on their instantaneous Dirac transmitter a message describing the civilizations of "A Style In Treason" and addressing an audience within one of those civilizations. The Dirac transmitter is used to extend human hegemony across galaxies. Indeed, the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds had been federated two and a half millennia before the Traitors' Guild period.

However, the use of the Dirac is deliberately limited and the Traitors' Guild system is based on deception so no doubt it would have been possible to devise some way to fit these ostensibly incompatible narratives into a single timeline.

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