Charlie’s Homecoming

Human beings have written books for thousands of years. Initially only priests and other functionaries knew how to read and write: mostly propaganda, fantasy and book-keeping. Eventually the skill of reading spread, and with gentlemen like Gutenberg the distribution of writing, too, became easier. There were more people, too, and thus the amount of written word exploded.

The point I want to make here is that the explosion hasn’t stopped. Blogs — like, hey, this one! — mean more and more people can spew out their personal cranial worms. Literacy and a growing willingness to consider less and less matters unworthy, horrid and sinful means there’s more appetite for text. Much of what is written is forgotten, but as the chaff of yesterday is forgotten it can be reinvented tomorrow to grease the wheels for the occasional gems that will last. And, remember, the production of those gems hasn’t ceased yet. I’m willing to bet that more classics of greater and subtler worth are waiting in the future than have been written yet; all those Homers and Shakespeares that in the past were lost tilling fields or killing men will have a better chance to spill their words out in the glorious future. (And why no, you’re not allowed to say Homer wouldn’t get published today. Book-publishing is a mutable field of many permutations, and it’s not a monopoly.)

(The only category that’s narrowing is the one of “firsts”; but it is less important than many suppose. Go digging at any book supposed to be the first something, and you’ll usually discover it’s more the first popular or the first successful something. And “first cyberpunk” isn’t an old achievement; and Frankenstein was, really, written yesterday.)

Now, the central point of this post: pick up any book that tells of life four, five or something like that centuries from now. Search it for an aside about the literature of (its) past.

Almost inevitably that literature will be something that seems to have ceased right about now. Shakespeare and Milton are referenced; but no writer of comparable quoteworthy talent seems to have risen since right about now. Science fictional characters may reflect wryly on the naivete of the Foundation or the Starship Troopers, but nothing appears to have been written about the matter since — no new speculation, no new masterworks, nothing worthy of note!

Occasionally there’s a cheap fix to this problem: four or five “past” works are cited, as is one of “the latter days”; but that more highlights than solves the problem, and invites disbelieving thoughts about the improbable temporal clumping of memorable literary excellence. Worse still if all the “classics” are from the short span of the twentieth century! (Then again there’s the question of whether this is a problem or not, and isn’t sci-fi about examining the Now and not the Future, after all — but this seems to me like saying yer mirror can be cracked alright since what it’s supposed to reflect is whole. Possibly I’m just being a prick; possibly I have a point here.)

Now; either this yawning literature gap reflects a profoundly pessimistic view of the future of books, or then this is a question of convenience and not worldbuilding: if you want to refer to things the reader knows, you have to refer ones that exist. And since there’s no knowing the books written after right about now — well. (Also, why waste perfectly good snark on something that isn’t real? That amuses neither the writer nor the reader as much as a real target would.) Still, it would be so sweet to stumble to a discussion between two characters, concerning science fiction — and have them quote nothing but books of the twenty-second century and later, because the future’s where the mass of all written word will be, barring a Global Godzilla Catastrophe in 2012! Like this —

“Ah yes, robots. You mean like Takawa’s Light of the Gate Within? Or those horrible clanking things in the Voice of Olympos Mons? You know, from the Martian Renaissance.”

“No, nothing that scary. The usual retro stuff — plenty of chrome, steela and black rubber. And not in the configurations you suppose. More like real old stuff, like Wayhouse and Wataki and Hand of Four Fingers.

“You mean Hand of Five Fingers, don’t you?”

“Bah, no. Five is a remix, I think by Wu or someone —”

“Wu, yeah. Good old class of 2444.”

“— of Four Fingers by Nara, which was a big classic two centuries before Wu’s time. Wu rewrote it because it was really distractingly silly and wrong about the Sun and a lot of other stuff by his time. Four Fingers actually had robots that talked, you know, LIKE THIS. A ROBOT MUST OBEY ORDERS UNTIL SPOKEN TO, and stuff. Like stuff that would’ve been old in Asimov’s time.”

“Who?”

“Just… just some… some girl, contemporary of Verne. Or Shakespeare. Wrote about robots that were metal inside, too; real primitive fantasy stuff. No plastics nowhere. I can’t keep that whole pre-technological lot straight.”

I know; that’s worse than the usual referencing of the real, but it would make me sort of happy. Then again I prefer For Want of a Nail over Fatherland, and sometimes even the Appendices of the Lord of the Rings over the actual story; some of us just are weird in this way, and get lost in the scenery when they’re supposed to watch the play.

Oh, one more thing.

The title of this post — Charlie’s Homecoming — is from John Scalzi’s the Ghost Brigades, where it is “one of the last books before the Colonial era began, and one of the last books, therefore, to be able to imagine a universe other than what it was — one where the alien species humanity would meet greeted them with a welcome instead of a weapon”. Scalzi doesn’t (as far as I can remember) tell anything else about the book; but the mention, towards the end of a very nice passage about aged sci-fi, quite made my day, and inspired this post.

6 Responses to “Charlie’s Homecoming”

  1. drew bishop Says:

    i’m reading that book right now. i had read all the books he had previously mentioned and had never heard of charlie’s homecoming and decided to look it up. i found your post.

  2. Jeff Leach Says:

    ditto

  3. Alex Says:

    I also looked for that book and found you. I like the Scalzi style. I Audibled his last book in series form and liked it so much I bought his entire library. Redshirts is awesome.

  4. jonesy Says:

    Clicked thru enough links to find Michelle’s iceberg. Nice.

    Anyway, cheers to someone who gets it – future sci-fi books. I’ve read an number of books wherein future artists are mentioned, and some reference books, but you’re right, no sci-fi stories. Guess writers don’t wish to muddy things or lead a reader to fruitless speculation.

  5. Cory Says:

    Check out John Barnes. He does a great job citing future-past references making his characters’ points, particularly in the Million Open Doors series. Also offers very thoughtful alternate futures with great characters and closely reasoned plots. There are probably many more citations in the current literature, most of whidh I happily skip cuz I’m an old fart type of reader….I’m pretty sure that Asimov, Heinlein, and all the rest of the progenitors of SF didn’t bother to make up future SF classics, just because that wasn’t the point of their stories, duh.

  6. John Logue Says:

    Hard to blame science fiction authors for not being successful at “writing” a or about a book within a book. I guess you’re saying they should try, but it’s hard enough writing the actual book in the first place, let alone another story with a discernibly different voice.

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