Sunday, December 16, 2007

S is also for Linebarger

Re-reading the Book of Skulls makes me nostalgic for the landscapes of the Old Country.

There are very few of the tremendous vertical cacti here, the saguaros, though I
see a few, fifty or sixty feet tall, some way back from the path. What we have
instead, thousands of them, is a weird thing about six feet high, with a gnarled
grey wooden trunk and a lot of long dangling clusters of spines and green bumpy
things. The chainfruit cholla, Ned calls it, and warns us to keep far away from
it. The spines are sharp. So we avoid it; but there’s another cholla here, the
teddybear cholla, that’s not so easy to avoid. The teddybear is a bummer. Little
stubby plants a foot or two high, covered with thousands of fuzzy straw-coloured
spines: you look the wrong way, and the spines jump up and bite you. I swear
they do. My boots are covered with prickles. The teddybear breaks easily and
chunks come loose and roll away; they lie scattered everywhere, a lot of them
right in the path. Ned says that each chunk will take root eventually and become
a new plant. We have to watch our steps all the time for fear of coming down on
one. You can’t just kick a teddybear chunk aside if it sin your way, either. I
tried that and the cactus stuck to my boot, and I reached down to pull it off,
only to get it stuck to my fingertips next. A hundred needles jabbing me at
once. Like fire. I yelled. Most uncool screams. Ned had to pry it away, using
two twigs as handles. My fingers still burn. Dark, tiny points are buried in the
flesh. I wonder if they’ll get infected. There’s plenty of other cactus here,
too- barrel cactus, prickly pear, six or seven more that not even Ned can put
names to. And leafy trees with thorns, mesquite, acacia. All the plants here are
hostile. Don’t touch me, they say.

This landscape has all the inimical gooshiness of Belzagor, with the added benefit- or liability- of being real. I miss cactus. All the trees here look the same to me.

There should be more meat to this series of transitions, but here goes:

* The characters in Book of Skulls want to live forever, and do desperate things in the attempt. The people in the book who are immortal- if they really are- are strange and mystical and not like other men because they have vastly more life experience.

* The characters in Glasshouse, by Charles Stross, really do live forever. But when everybody is special, nobody is, and they all seem to be the kind of shallow Gen-X perennial adolescents that you can’t heave a rock in Newtown without hitting. When they get too close to gaining some sort of value from their life experience, they have memory enemas.

* One of the nifty things about Glasshouse was how the narrator is a veteran of a military organization called the ‘Linebarger Cats’. I assumed this was probably a tribute to Paul Linebarger, friend of Chiang Kai-Shek, expert in psychological warfare, and author of science fiction under the name Cordwainer Smith. Latter on, the ‘Cordwainer something-or-others’- I can’t remember what exactly, and I’ve taken the book back to the library, mea culpa- is given as another name used by the Linebarger Cats, making the identification obvious.

The science fiction of Cordwainer Smith is rife with cats, but I like to think the ‘Linebarger Cats’ of Glasshouse are echoes of the cats in The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal:

He coded these cats. He coded them with messages just as monstrous as the messages which had made the men-women of Arachosia into monsters. This is what he coded:
Do not breed true.
Invent new chemistry.
You will serve man.
Become civilized.
Learn speech.
You will serve man.
When man calls you will serve man.
Go back, and come forth.
Serve man.

These instructions were no mere verbal instructions. They were imprints on the actual molecular structure of the animals. They were changes in the genetic and biological coding which went with these cats. And then Suzdal committed his offence against the laws of mankind. He had a chronopathic device on board the ship. A time distorter, usually to be used for a moment or a second or two to bring the ship away from utter destruction. …
Suzdal remained calm. He coded the genetic cats. He loaded them into life-bombs. He adjusted the controls of his chronopathic machine illegally, so that instead of reaching one second for a ship of eighty thousand tons, they reached two million years for a load of less than four kilos. He flung the cats into the nameless moon of
And he flung them back in time. …
The cats came. Their ships glittered in the naked sky above Arachosia. Their little combat craft attacked. The cats who had not existed a moment before, but who had then had two million years in which to follow a destiny printed into their brains, printed down their spinal cords, etched into the chemistry of their bodies and personalities. The cats had turned into people of a kind, with speech, intelligence, hope, and a mission. Their mission was to reach Suzdal, to rescue him, to obey him, and to damage Arachosia.The cat ships screamed their battle warnings.
“This is the day of the year of the promised age. And now come cats!”

I don’t know if it was entirely wise of Stross to remind me of Smith. I still have to read a lot more of Stross’ stuff, but his worlds seem to be geeky Greg Egan-like places inhabited by people who are mentally just like us, worlds drained of mystery and the terror of the dark places between the stars by uber-technology.* The people in Smith’s universe are not quite people like us. They’re people, but you can imagine them being people from a different time. And the Instrumentality tried to make the universe into a place drained of mystery and terror, but gave it away.

I haven’t managed to get to Kingdoms of the Wall yet, it seems.
Nor have I dragged in, as planned, Star Maker, Roadside Picnic, or Orbitsville.

S is just one of those letters.

* Or not.


Dr. Clam said...

Or Venus Plus X. Sigh. It's lonely out here in the blogosphere.

ma said...

...sigh...cactus huh? We have a very healthy specimen next to the front are always welcome to visit it. Kris and Joe have theirs in little pots so they can carry it with them.

Unknown said...

Stross is vast and contains multitudes. I didn't like Glasshouse as much as I like his other works, but I'm rereading it now, so we'll see. In the meantime, you might really enjoy some of his other books.