Friday, March 18, 2011

The Cost of Human Expansion

Everything has its price. There are the monetary costs that drive the economy (one could argue that physical harm/cost is economic). There are the moral and ethical costs from the results of one's choices. There are the emotional and mental costs centered on friendship, loss, and love. All three interact and relate to each other to influence and govern the actions of individual humans and by extension, their governments and corporations. In Moon and Nova, the characters must struggle with these costs in their lives as well as both make difficult decisions and cope with those made by others.

In Nova, the primary "costs" covered are economic and ethical. As humanity expanded from Earth over the centuries, people settled on new and distant worlds from the Sol System. As a result, these different planets not only developed different cultures, but also different principles and corporations. As Lorq's father explains to him, "the cost of transportation" is the key limiting factor in expansion and consequently the resources that govern that cost are the foundation of galactic economy. Furthermore, that cost is what drove innovation and competition between the Von Rays and the Reds and their respective companies.

As economic costs mount, and the prospects for dramatically lowering that cost rise (as in the case with Nova), additional monetary and added ethical and emotional costs are incurred to grease the gears of the economy. These ethical costs are epitomized by Dan's blindness as Lorq brought him to the nova which eventually left the former blind, deaf, and finally suicidal. Conversely, Prince Red pays dearly because of the financial and emotional (as in his own mental health) costs derived from his vengeful investment in defeating the Von Rays (Lorq in particular). Nova thus shows that despite given essentially the same circumstances and resources, humans can act and pay their metaphorical dues in wildly different ways. There is always a price to be paid for success or wealth and Lorq and Prince both have to cope with these issues. While Lorq lets these past failures force him to steel his resolve, change tactics, and improve his own abilities and understanding, Prince simply lets his fuel his fury, leading him to embrace hubris, make miscalculations, and eventually rush into the book's fatal conclusion. Samuel R. Delany is wise in understanding this foundation of the human condition: man can be irrational but more importantly, he can learn from his mistakes and try again.

Similarly in Moon, there is a more pronounced connection between the advancement of humanity and the economic, emotional, and ethical costs incurred. In a future where clean energy is abundant because of clean fusion power derived from lunar-mined Helium-3, mankind has entered a new golden age with low pollution, lower costs of living, and general economic and technological improvements brought on by solving the "energy problem". However, to ensure the clean energy supply, Lunar Industries employs (otherwise unknowing) clones of Sam Bell to man the "Sarang" mining station. Thus, economic costs of energy lead to those for the production of the clones, the corresponding ethical costs of human cloning, and then the emotional costs incurred by these clones as they suddenly become aware of how the world has/is changing. Unfortunately for these clones, Lunar Industries can only see the red and black of economic cost and thus seem unaware at best, maliciously uncaring at worst, of the trauma the "Sams" go through during their short, three-year lives.

Consequently, there is an unfortunate parallel between Moon and Nova. In short, both Lunar Industries and Prince Red only see economic costs which lead to questionable ethics in the former and self-induced madness in the latter. Both pieces serve as a warning to those of us who push the technological envelope as though we may do things faster and better now, we cannot fall into the ethical abyss, allow a "cultural stagnation," or lose our individual humanity to madness and obsession.

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Nova" and Historical Consciousness

Samuel Delany’s novel "Nova" is packed with political, social and cultural insights that appear timeless; the human beings of the 32nd century have achieved enormous philosophical and technological progress, but they interact with one another in a way that is still recognizable and comprehensible by the human beings of today. Delany paints a portrait of history that, in the words of Kyrin (The Black Cockatoo’s pseudo-historian and the narrator of much of the novel) is “a great web that spreads across the galaxy, as far as man.” (174) For Kyrin, the history of his era cannot be taken as a linear progression, with direct notions of cause and effect, beginning and end: it must be seen as a fabric, with ripples whose initial cause is often difficult to ascertain. This non-teleological view of history helps Kyrin justify the writing of a novel, in an age where novels are viewed as hopelessly obsolete. Even in an era where sensory syrynxes can convincingly replicate realities and tell stories, a medium from ancient past continues to offer an important means of constructing meaning.

Kyrin’s commentary provides Delany with a means of justifying the anachronisms and ancient allusions that pervade the text. Much of the story’s plot is derived from the legend of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The race for Illyrion is crafted from fragments of English pirate novels and other glamorous narratives of colonialist exploration. The blind prophet Dan seems to be a blatant reference to the blind prophet Tiresius, who makes multiple appearances in Homer, Sophocles and Dante. Even the format of Delany’s historical commentary seems drawn from elsewhere: Kyrin’s certain disconcerting similarities to the historical commentary that pervades books III and IV of “War and Peace.” When described in this manner, Nova seems like no more than an amalgamation of others’ ideas. As experienced, Nova presents itself as an incredibly original text, seamlessly fusing tropes from the past and commentary on the present with a narrative set in the world of the future.

The universe of Nova is one where faster than light travel is possible, but humans still believe in tarot card readings: after Mouse denounces the credibility of Tarot, Kyrin tells him that “…the idea that all these symbols, filtered down through five thousand years of mythology, are basically meaningless and have no bearing on man’s mind and actions, strikes a little bell of nihilism ringing.” (123) To Kyrin, the weight of tradition is something that should not be absolutely authoritative, but should never be ignored entirely; concepts that are long-lived have lasted for a reason.

The major thematic elements of the novel, when combined with Kyrin’s explicit explanations of 32nd century historiography, helps convince the reader that ideas that may seem dated often have enduring meaning. Even novels, which Kyrin characterizes as “…always a historical projection of its own time” (128), can produce traditions that echo throughout space. Within Nova, Delany underlines the importance of both science fiction and ancient history: the past and future are often not far from the present.