The immense void of space

“Galactic-empire fiction has always been an important branch of space opera: action-packed, adolescent, cheerfully anachronistic, deriving its world structure very loosely from information and myth about caste-ridden, sensual, and violent empires in their decadent phases. Yet it offers rich possibilities for expression of the vast, the sublime, and the exotically multicultural or multi- specific. The purpose of this essay is to examine how two expert and inventive contemporary writers of galactic-empire sf have taken up these opportunities and produced fiction that reflects, and reflects on, our contemporary situation-what is now conventionally labeled the postmodern condition…”

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“To elaborate the characteristics of Iain M. Banks’s and Dan Simmons’s galactic-empire fiction […] we have inclusiveness, which launches these novels in a procedure of critique by overload rather than by irony. We have hedonism, virtually unaccompanied by the utopian impulse, riven and twisted with sado-masochism. We have complicated relations with textuality and intertextuality-a topic which may be opened in a preliminary way by positing a space in which the textualist and the cornucopian happily coexist (this is the space in which Gravity’s Rainbow and Foucault’s Pendulum-not to mention Ulysses-already confabulate, like some exotic, overcrowded intergalactic barroom). We have decentered subjects, self- unknowing, overlapping, pastiched, or simply crowded in multitudes, but, on the other hand, a violent sense of the dark reaches of the personality.

“It seems plausible that this fiction is the result of the operations of a postmodern imaginary on the materials of traditional galactic-empire sf; this imaginary operates mainly by excess, overload, and exacerbation. If the sketch offered in the rest of this essay is valid, then it is by pushing the earlier, adventurous, and exuberant fiction to the limits, piling invention on invention, juxtaposing spaces that are hard to relate, that this more recent galactic-empire fiction expresses the postmodern condition. What is the significance of the version of the post- modern that results? It can be suggested that there is an anxiety, an intense unease, in this excess, overload, and exacerbation. For all its richness, this fiction seems a long way from any sense of the postmodern as liberatory.”

Inclusiveness and the Extravagant Multiverse.

“The immense void of space is a temptation to the Western imagination: it seems to ask to be traversed, filed, settled, populated, ordered-and not only spatially but also temporally. Hence, perhaps, the popularity of sf about galactic empires, their gargantuan conflicts, heroes backlit to colossal dimensions by the stars or by starships exploding, in the casual disasters of those gargantuan conflicts, intrigues, and cruelties which are given grandeur by their scale, if nothing else. And if these empires are set in a future that is far from now, the consequence is that, being much older than us, they can be seen as archaic, based on exotic fantasies of hierarchy and power dimly related to Rome or Byzantium. In this way time as well as space is fantastically filled. Recent renditions of the galactic-empire novel have included Dan Simmons’s HYPERION novels and Iain M. Banks’s sf. These novels do exhibit the horror vacui to which I alluded above: space is full of planets, worlds, spaceships on the scale of worlds, empires. And all these are filled with societies and secret societies or sects, customs or perversions, classes or species, histories or games or histories as games, and conspiracies and apo-calypses (revelations and total disasters).

“The dynamic is proliferation and inclusion, though-as will be seen when the complications of spatiality in these novels are more closely examined-there is also an undertow of fragmentation and confusion. Previous sf is shamelessly pillaged and knowingly outdone, even if it might seem antagonistic (for instance, Simmons includes, outdoes, and affects contempt for Gibson’s cyberspace). Humanity is imagined to be able to do anything, though humans have no agency, and when individual characters are set before us, it is their lack of agency that is most poignant. Humans have the option of pleasure and exertion-self-expression, a range of activities, adventures, and excite- ments-but not of political choice. They are vessels of experience, like travelers with no home to return to. They exist to have their experiences so that we can read about them: this is the inescapable fate of characters in fiction, it might be pointed out, but this fate is given a particular edge in this context, where the characters are so often adventurous, enviably adept, and powerful in various clear-cut ways. Another way of framing this comment is to say that the characters live in the aesthetic rather than the political or the technological. They don’t choose or work; they experience, enjoy, suffer. These novels may reflect the late twentieth-century relations of politics and culture to the degree that, for instance, politics in the late twentieth century is presented as an entertainment and thereby aestheticized. Characters may lack agency, events may not be assimilable to that meaningful social movement through time that used to be called History, but both characters and events certainly have style.”

Christopher Palmer, “Galactic Empires and the Contemporary Extravaganza: Dan Simmons and Iain M. Banks”,Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 73-90.

Image: Retro Spacecraft: How to use Maxon’s Cinema 4D to create a science-fiction spacecraft in the style of Chris Foss. By Adam Benton.

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