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The Best of Sci Fi

From the Shelf

By Jerald R. Gerst

MAYBE science fiction isn't what it used to be. Or maybe I'm not what I used to be. Or maybe Kurt Vonnegut has spoiled all other science fiction (if that's really what it is he writes) for me. In any case, the "best" of last year's "SF" didn't particularly move me.

It's always painful to watch on old idol topple. This time it was embarrassing as well. Isaac Asimov's contribution to the anthology was an agonizingly moralistic little tale entitled "Segregationist." It's all about this surgeon who is a robot, you see, and he's trying to convince a VIP who's qualified to receive an artificial heart to accept a fiber heart instead of a metal one because he doesn't like to see "mongrelization" between humans and robots--except that you aren't suppose to know until the end that he's a robot. That's because the story is supposed to be loaded with IRONY and SOCIAL RELEVANCE.

Hari Seldon was an old man when I first met him in Foundation. He was an interesting guy (only the most brilliant mathematician in the history of the Galactic empire), and I always wondered what he'd done with himself before he set up the Foundations. I guess now that Asimov is never going to get around to telling me.

Some of the other stories are better than Asimov's pitiful offering; some are worse. In "Budget Planet," Robert Sheckley has god speaking with a Yiddish accent. I'm not an especially reverent man, but I was grossed out, K. M. O'Donnell wrote a tedious novella called "Final War" which, he ways, is about "neither war nor death." He goes on to say that it is, in fact, about "the polarization of existences re-enacted on several levels over and again and if that makes no sense, I suppose human life makes no sense either." O'Donnell is, unfortunately for himself, correct on both counts.

"Appointment on Prila" by Bob Shaw; "Lost Ground" by David I. Masson; "Golden Acres" by Kit Reed; and "Criminal in Utopia" by Mack Reynolds are clever and well-written, but that's about all.

Brian Aldiss has apparently been dropping acid since I last read him, and, more importantly, he happens to be turning his visions (somehow, a nicer word than hallucinations) into excellent prose. In "The Serpent of Kundalini" he turns a literary trick I have never seen before; he sketches a symbol so vividly that the concept behind it is assimilated long before it is explicitly stated. The symbol is a sort of paper-bag human frame crumpling at various points in the story, and the concept is that of an alternative not take, one of our potential selves that begins to die once we have made the relevant decision against it. Nice; but not the science fiction I once knew.

IT'S DIFFICULT to say what happened to the science fiction I knew and loved and why it happened. Very few of the top SF writers now concern themselves with galactic empires, and struggles between human life and other life forms, and with the infinite shapes and forms that a human social system may take and what--in the logical extreme--those different social systems can mean to the individuals in them.

Science fiction writers are now digging farther back into the mind itself. They're trying to decide if human life is relevant to the universe, if so, how and why, and where human consciousness is going from where it's at.

The choice they seem to have made was inevitable; the hoary zeitgeist would have permitted nothing else. We have had now, for perhaps the past twenty or thirty years, a cosmic choice to make. And because we were thinking about the Cold War, and Third World nationalism, and civil rights, and black power and Vietnam, we really didn't notice that we were making a far more important decision than any our "problems" and "crises" were demanding us to make.

We had the choice of pushing on out toward the stars, much as the "classic" science fiction writers had depicted us. Or we could, as a species of intelligent beings, tool up for--well, something else. Maybe it is, as one of the reviewers of "2001--A Space Odyssey" seems to think, a Teilhard du Chardin-like leap of consciousness, a transfiguration into an all-pervasive incorporeal intelligence. Perhaps it is something not nearly so romantic; maybe just learning to like and respect each other and beginning to live on this planet at peace with ourselves.

Whatever it is, the choice has been made, and there's really no turning back. And I don't really know just why I'm sad that it must be as it will be. Maybe I'm just a romantic; maybe I only want to see the space-pilot analog to Ivanhoe; maybe I love the dreams of my childhood too much. There's just no telling. The only certain thing is that--whether we go to Mars or not--the choice has been made. You can see it in our literature; you can see it reflected in the increasing use of drugs; you can see it in self-conscious (and, perhaps, selfish) catharsis for guilt and boredom like the occupation of University Hall. We have chosen like the streets of our own minds over the highways to the stars.

Why have we made the choice we have? Again, there's really no telling. But it just might be that we have discovered that the civilization we have built to shield us from pain and uncertainty, to protect, preserve--yea enshrine--our comfort, has really done little more than steadily isolate us from the natural order that, as organic beings, we were once so much a part of. We are trying to recover what our apeman forbears had, even though it was interwoven with terror and ignorance, a feeling of belonging, a sense of unity with it all.

But when we ultimately become whatever it is we now are to be, when we finally arrive wherever it is we now are going, I have the feeling that we will then--and only then--realize the futility of Paul McCartney's wail as it echoes tinnily on the edge of our collective consciousness:

Jo-Jo was a man who thought he was loner, but he knew it wouldn't last.

Jo-Jo left his home in Tuscon, Arizona for some California grass.

Get back; Get back; Get back to where you once belonged.

Get back; Get back; Get back to where you once belonged.

(Get on back, Jo-Jo.)

It's no good; you can't go back. But then I suppose neither can I.

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