Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Sandkings, Enemy Mine and The Fountains of Paradise

Three interesting works won both Hugo and Nebula in 1980 for work published in 1979.

The second paragraph of the third section of “Sandkings”, by George R.R. Martin, the Best Novelette winner, is:
On the fifth day, he saw his first mobile, a lone white.
I have a feeling that I actually read “Sandkings” when it was first published in Omni in 1979, borrowed from a colleague of my parents' at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies. At twelve, I didn't really know what to make of it. At 53, it's a brutal story of what it means for a flawed man to become a god. The narcissistic protagonist acquires four colonies of sandkings, creatures which build their own civilisations in his terrarium, worshipping him. He treats them badly, and they change and grow to match his personality. His attempts to liberate himself from the problem that he has created end in disaster. It's not a nice story but it's very well crafted; we are fascinated by the awfulness of the central character.

Of course, now we know that George R.R. Martin is fascinated by flawed characters. Looking back on Game of Thrones, it's remarkable how memorable the out-and-out villains are - Tywin, Cersei and Joffrey; Ramsay Bolton; Daenerys at the end. And his good characters certainly also have flaws, and are tempted to apotheosis (this is Daenerys' downfall). The world of the sandkings is convincingly like ours, just a little worse, perhaps.

Also on both ballots for Best Novelette that year was “Options”, by John Varley. The other Hugo finalists were “Fireflood”, by Vonda N. McIntyre; “Homecoming”, by Barry B. Longyear; “The Locusts”, by Larry Niven & Steve Barnes; and “Palely Loitering”, by Christopher Priest. The other Nebula finalists were “The Angel of Death”, by Michael Shea; “Camps”, by Jack Dann; “The Pathways of Desire”, by Ursula K. Le Guin; and “The Ways of Love”, by Poul Anderson. I have read the first of these but can't remember if I have read any of the others. I suspect the voters got it right.

You can get Sandkings in a lot of places, including:
Turning to Best Novella, the second paragraph of the third section of Enemy Mine is:
After we finished, we sat inside and admired our work for about an hour, until it dawned on us that we had just worked ourselves out of jobs.
This is what I wrote about Enemy Mine in 2002:
"Enemy Mine" by Barry B. Longyear won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella presented in 1980; it also won the Locus Poll for Best Novella and on the strength of this early promise the author also won the John W. Campbell Award that year. ... "Enemy Mine" was later filmed by Wolfgang Petersen, starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gosset Jr; the film is not universally loved (least of all by the author of the original story) but has some vocal defenders. Longyear published a revised and expanded version in The Enemy Papers, 1998.

[Adding: only one other author has since managed Longyear's feat of winning the Campbell/Astounding award and a Hugo for a written fiction category in the same year. This was Rebecca Roanhorse in 2018.]

Isaac Asimov's personal marketing of "Enemy Mine" in order to secure the first ever Hugo or Nebulas for a story published in IASFM attracted the scorn of Dave Langford in an early Ansible: "The success of Barry B Longyear with his 'Enemy Mine' in Hugo and Nebula is an indication of the new Isaac Astral award-grubbing technique: millions of copies of the story were sent to SFWA members with glowing recommendations from the Doctor." Whatever one may feel about Asimov's efforts, I suspect that the voters got it right. The only other novella of the year with a respectable run of reprints in anthologies (four times since original publication, compared to eleven for "Enemy Mine") is Hugo nominee "The Moon Goddess and the Son", by Donald Kingsbury; I don't recall ever reading it. The only other novella to feature on both Hugo and Nebula shortlists for the awards made in 1980 was "The Battle of the Abaco Reefs" by Hilbert Schenk, which I also have not read and which seems not to have been republished since, er, 1980.

[Adding for completeness: as noted, "The Battle of the Abaco Reefs" by Hilbert Schenk was on both ballots; it still has not been republished since 1980. The other Hugo finalists were “Ker-Plop”, by Ted Reynolds; “The Moon Goddess and the Son”, by Donald Kingsbury; and “Songhouse”, by Orson Scott Card. The other Nebula finalists were “Fireship”, by Joan D. Vinge; “Mars Masked”, by Frederik Pohl; “The Story Writer”, by Richard Wilson; and “The Tale of Gorgik”, by Samuel R. Delany.]

"Enemy Mine" is yet another story about a human vs alien war. The aliens this time are not the hive-minds of Ender's Game, The Forever War or Starship Troopers, but the classic sf reptilian humanoids which I think I first saw in "Frontier in Space", a Doctor Who story of the Jon Pertwee era, and most recently encountered in Harry Turtledove's awful Worldwar / Colonization alternate history series. (Actually I read Ken MacLeod's Cosmonaut Keep even more recently, but his intelligent saurs are from Earth and friendly rather than being hostile alien lizards.) Longyear's local inspiration here is certainly Gene L. Coon's 1967 Star Trek episode "Arena", which was inspired by Frederic Brown's 1944 short story with the same title, but replaced Brown's spherical alien with a reptilian Gorn.

Unlike in either version of "Arena", however, the human and alien are not doomed to fight to the death. Instead, they are forced to combine forces against their harsh environment. Again, this seems likely to have a source from a late 1960s screenplay, this time the 1968 John Boorman film Hell in the Pacific, which starred Lee Marvin and Toshirō Mifune as two WW2 pilots, one American and one Japanese, crashed on a Pacific island, who have to co-operate to survive. (Oddly enough there may be a precedent in another 1940s sf story, A.E. van Vogt's "Co-operate - or else!", collected in The War Against The Rull. Information on this point welcomed. [Note added January 2003: I tracked down The War Against The Rull and it seems rather different - the human and his unlikely partner are very different in size and ability, and united in their desire to evade the very present Rull, rather than equally matched and marooned far from anywhere.])

So far, so clichéd. The special twist to "Enemy Mine" is that Jeriba Shigan, the alien Drac, who it turns out is hermaphrodite and pregnant, dies giving birth to a child, who is then brought up by Willis Davidge, the human, until they are both rescued. Meanwhile the interstellar war has ended in an uneasy peace. The two are returned to their respective home civilisations, but Davidge has learnt too much respect for the Drac culture to fit in back home; he journeys to the Drac planet to rescue the child, Zammis, and they settle down together building a community for inter-species understanding on the planet where Davidge first met Jeriga Shigan and where Zammis was born.

I guess that the reason "Enemy Mine" is not generally regarded as a piece of classic sf is simply that the aliens are not alien enough. Even before I had come across Hell in the Pacific as a possible source, it was pretty obvious to me that the situation of the two characters is basically a WW2 setting, and that the Drac culture is based on Western perceptions of contemporary human East Asia (the respect for ancestors, hierachical society, etc). When you set them beside other extraterrestrials of 1979, such as George R.R. Martin's "Sandkings" or most of all Ridley Scott's Alien, it becomes clear that the Drac are just Asians in rubber suits.

Ironically I find "Enemy Mine" most successful when it is most human. Davidge's confusion about how to treat the newborn alien must resonate with any human parent who has looked down at a small pink loud thing in their arms and wondered what on earth to do with it. And the central message of the story, that the other guys are probably not evil, only different, is unfortunately at least as relevant today as it was during the fading years of Jimmy Carter's presidency when it was first published.
Looking back on it now, I missed the huge other theme of the story: the exploration of gender and gender roles through the Drac and through Davidge's adaptation to their society. It's actually quite important to examine the extent to which gender is socially constructed, and Enemy Mine comes at it from an unusually macho angle, with no named or visible human women in the story. (Davidge mentions his mother a couple of times.)

Finally, Best Novel. The second paragraph of the third chapter of The Fountains of Paradise is:
Tomorrow had come at last, and now the whole court was gathered in the Pleasure Gardens , beneath awnings of brightly coloured cloth. The King himself was cooled by large fans, waved by supplicants who had bribed the chamberlain for this risky privilege. It was an honour which might lead to riches, or to death.
In 2003, I wrote at length about The Fountains of Paradise:
The Fountains of Paradise won the Hugo and Nebula awards made in 1980, competing in both cases against John Varley's Titan (which won the Locus poll), Frederik Pohl's Jem, and Thomas M. Disch's On Wings of Song, which are all (rather surprisingly) now out of print. [Update: Titan and On Wings of Song are now available electronically; Jem is not.] One of the other Hugo nominees was Patricia McKillip's Harper in the Wind, of which I know nothing; it seems to get rave reviews but is not standard Hugo winning material.

[For completeness: the other Nebula finalists were Juniper Time, by Kate Wilhelm, and The Road to Corlay, by Richard Cowper.]

The first great achievement of Clarke's career was the invention of the concept of geostationary satellites, which became reality less than twenty years after his essay on "Extraterrestrial Relays" appeared in Wireless World. Since then, Clarke had achieved a unique worldwide profile as a science fiction writer, thanks to 2001: A Space Odyssey and his participation in the Apollo moon landing broadcasts. In the late 1970s, in this, the third book in a series of three for which he had reputedly received the largest advance ever paid to a science fiction author, he developed a grand scale extension of a mere satellite: the space elevator, skyhook, or beanstalk, a tower thousands of kilometres in height, fixed to the earth's surface, that can be used to ship freight and people to orbit at a fraction of the cost of a rocket.

Great minds think alike. The book came out within months of a similarly themed book by Charles Sheffield, The Web Between the Worlds. They make an interesting pair. Sheffield's book has everything - young hero overcoming a disability; attractive girl with drug-addict mother; obsessed millionnaire in orbit with his mad scientist sidekick; oh yes, and the actual construction of the space elevator itself, built in space but attached to the Earth by an implausibly risky manoeuvre. Clarke's book is much less rushed. He gives us the idea of the orbital elevator and the story of its construction, against a rich background that adds to the main theme rather than distracting.

One aspect of that richness, which I haven't seen anyone else pick up on, is the very name of the central character, Vannevar Morgan. "Vannevar" is clearly Clarke's homage to Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), not just a famous inventor in his own right but the man who successfully linked state and science during WW2 under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and who these days is often mentioned as a spiritual godfather of hypertext due to his 1945 essay As We May Think (published the same year as Clarke's own "Extra-Terrestrial Relays"). I am sure that "Morgan" is also intended as a tribute, but to whom? One attractive possibility is Garrett A. Morgan (1877-1963), African-American inventor of the gas mask and the traffic light. But given the circumstances, it seems more likely that the reference is to a man who, like Vannevar Bush, was appointed by FDR to head a massive project of state investment in applied science (though with more of an engineering bent), Arthur E. Morgan (1878-1975), the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, who (like Vannevar Morgan in the novel) was eventually relieved of his responsibilities for largely political reasons.

Clarke's characterisation is not always his strong point (indeed Vannevar Morgan remains rather a cipher who seems to have regretted losing his childhood kite more than his girlfriend), but this book contains some of the most interesting personalities in his oeuvre. Johan Olivier de Alwis Sri Rajasinghe, the viewpoint character of the first few chapters set in the near-future time of the bridge's construction, is a former senior UN official retired to the island of Taprobane (the slightly altered Sri Lanka where the book is set). A few months ago I found myself on a boat in Helsinki harbour listening to two retired senior UN officials exchanging notes on islands they were sizing up as retreats for their old age, so I can attest that Rajasinghe is at least partly based on reality. But he also of course represents Clarke's own aspirations for a peaceful retirement and dignified acceptance of old age on the island he loves. The author had just entered his seventh decade, and had just lost his "only perfect friend of a lifetime" (to whom the book is dedicated) in a motorbike accident, so his reflections on mortality are understandable. It is comforting to reflect that, almost a quarter of a cenury on, he apparently enjoys the same comforts he had imagined for Rajasinghe. [Update: one of the UN officials who I was listening to that evening in Helsinki was Cedric Thornberry, who died in 2014, and whose daughter is a prominent Labour Party politician in the UK. The other is still alive.]

Rather more intriguing, though sketched in less detail, is the brilliant mathematician Choam Goldberg, who when we first encounter him has joined a Buddhist monastery and been renamed the Venerable Parakarma. The epigraph to the book as a whole is a quotation from Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, "Politics and religion are obsolete; the time has come for science and spirituality." Goldberg/Parakarma looks at first like he may turn out to be an embodiment of the author's often expressed desire to explore both science and spirituality. But in fact it becomes clear that he represents (to use a phrase introduced to science fiction in 1977) "the dark side of the force". He becomes obsessed with protecting the monastery against Morgan's plans to build the space elevator on its mountain, even after suffering a spiritual crisis and leaving the order; he then sabotages a weather-generating satellite in order to try and wreck one of Morgan's publicity stunts, but with the unexpected result that the change in wind direction floods the monastery's mountain top with the butterflies whose arrival has long been prophesied to inevitably mean the monks' departure.

Most memorable of all - I think the most intriguing artificial intelligence in Clarke's fiction, including HAL - is the Starglider. Many of Clarke's novels have as main or subsidiary theme humanity's contact with an elder, more spiritually developed race. In The Fountains of Paradise the means of contact is the alien probe Starglider, which decades before the time the main part of the novel is set has swept through the solar system and used the brute force of scientific logic to disprove Thomas Aquinas and thus abolish religion, generating Clarke's favourite humanist utopia setting before the story even begins. Of course it is absurd to imagine that the world's religions, Buddhism apart, would ever "vanish in a puff of logic" (as Douglas Adams put it in 1978), but this is a point where we readers have to suspend our disbelief and enjoy Starglider's dissection of its (voiceless) opponents.

There's much more to write about here - Mars, the historical tale of Kalidasa, the role of sunspots - but due to work and other commitments it's taken me six months to get this far and I want to move on. The longest and most interesting review of this book on the Web is by Barrington J. Bayley - I completely disagree with him on the issues of the butterflies and Starglider, but he goes to the nub of the matter - the most important character in this book is the one that doesn't speak at all, the space elevator itself, and the plot of the book is its struggle with nature, and its eventual consumption of its creator's life. Certainly the space elevator has been taken up by more than a dozen other authors since Clarke and Sheffield set the pace in 1979.
Returning to the book after almost 18 years, I was struck by how short and readable it actually is. But, as with Enemy Mine, I was also struck by how few women characters there are. There is one notable woman journalist, and an engineer who dies horribly, but apart from that it's an all-male setup. I also noticed more this time how the arc of the story points towards Morgan's death in harness from a very early stage.

You can get Enemy Mine here, and The Fountains of Paradise here.

For completeness: the Hugo for Best Short Story that year went to “The Way of Cross and Dragon”, also by George R. R. Martin, and the Nebula to “giANTS”, by Edward Bryant. Both stories were on both ballots, as was “Unaccompanied Sonata”, by Orson Scott Card. The other Hugo finalists were “Can These Bones Live?”, by Ted Reynolds and “Daisy, In the Sun”, by Connie Willis. The other Nebula finalists were “The Extraordinary Voyages of Amélie Bertrand”, by Joanna Russ; “Red as Blood”, by Tanith Lee; and “Vernalfest Morning”, by Michael Bishop. That was also the year of Alien.

Next in this series is the only double-winner of the following year, “Grotto of the Dancing Deer”, by Clifford D. Simak.
Tags: bookblog 2021, sf: hugos, sf: nebulas, writer: arthur c clarke, writer: george rr martin
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