Sunday, 31 July 2011

Ian Watson, The Martian Inca (1977)

A Russian probe, bringing a sample of Martian soil back to Earth, crashes in Peru. Andromeda Strain-style, the local population are infected and many die; although some are transformed into as-it-were reincarnations of the ancient Inca population. Meanwhile, an American manned flight to Mars is about to land on the Red planet. But, look -- to quote Nietzsche (I think it was), 'enough of my yakkin'. Here's a review of the novel not by some random sf blogger, but by an actual science fiction novelist, indeed, a writer of a stature comparable to Watson himself.  Stanislaw Lem, no less. Wouldn't you rather read that?
As a rule I do not review SF books, for they are as a rule bad. To take notice of this kind of book seems to me justified only if it raises the culturally relevant question why in this genre bad books are written even by intelligent and scientifically or fictionally talented writers.

A promising English author, Ian Watson, has tackled in his novel The Martian Inca a classical topic, the first contact between aliens and human beings. In The Martian Inca two different story-lines run parallel: that of the first American manned landing on Mars, and that of the curious events surrounding a Soviet space probe back from Mars. Having crashed in Bolivia, it infects human beings with a Martian life-form, so that they undergo a strange psychic change. A Bolivian Indian turns into a reincarnated Inca, bent on recreating his vanished empire by leading a revolution against the new masters of Bolivia. At the same time, as the result of a similar change, two American scientists on Mars become transformed into clairvoyants; but their newly acquired talents serve for nothing, for they are killed in a Martian sandstorm.

As is only proper for SF, Watson's book provides a causal explanation for these extraordinary events. According to his imaginary hypothesis, on Mars there are micro-organisms similar to our viruses. Infected humans at first become dangerously ill, and then the very structure of their thinking processes is irreversibly changed. The metamorphosis of a scientist resembles the sea-change wrought in a primitive Indian insofar as the result in both cases is a mystical experience that opens up extra-sensory contact with the essence of all things. The viruses from Mars have no civilization of their own, because it was in no way necessary for them to enter upon this difficult path of technological progress. They do not need any science, technology or civilization, because they are intelligent in a scientifically non-terrestrial way. They are about to know the world by a process that requires no sensory organs, no language, and no tools. These supposedly very primitive viruses are therefore vastly superior to human beings. The human beings infected by them gain an uncanny insight into the drama of existence, the mystery of life, and if these shortcut insights were of no use to them, it was because they were members of a species that has lost the chance at reason. The message of this novel may be reduced to this bland statement that human civilization is a deplorable aberration, having got stuck in the dead-end of materialism and rationalism. There was, indeed, a chance of a true path even on Earth, in the Far East, where mysticism once flowered; but this chance was lost, and the path destroyed by the aggressive civilization of consumerism.

I believe this message of Ian Watson's novel to be wrong. The mystic message of the East towards life and its deeper meaning may well help this or that individual, but this oriental wisdom is totally without merit as a program for civilization. The literary form of Watson's book is modern, but its content is wrong and misleading. There never was a Holy Grail in the East, a final truth, of a revelation in the sources of passive mysticism that we have lost and now must weep over. True, this way of thinking is fashionable in modern times, so that many people, in particular among the younger generation, mistake this passing fad for the Philosopher's Stone.

The idea from which Watson starts is truly simplistic, for it implicitly assumes that in the universe there is a royal--i.e. simple, harmless, and easy-- road to reason, a way of general salvation, perfectability, and blessing, and that we ourselves have blocked this way. Such a royal road does not exist. We have only the choice between primitive vegetating and a dangerous technological progress. However, the intelligence of people on our planet is at present quite insufficient to recognize the prospective import of this watershed and to make a conscious choice. The drama of existence does not allow shortcut solutions, since there exists no single valid truth that would make happy all intelligent beings for all times. There are just hard facts and fairy-tale-like myths; even in literature, including SF, there is no other alternative. It is a pity that even highly talented, well-read, and intelligent writers of the younger generation, such as Ian Watson, fail to recognize the difference between the delusion of mysticism and what is really the case. He has erroneously yoked his considerable erudition to the wrong purpose of passing off a shallow fairy-tale for the lost redemption of our civilization. His novel tells much more about the confusion that currently holds captive even the brightest young people than about the real state of things on Earth and in the heavens, from which Mars shines down upon us as a challenge. About the genuine mysteries of the universe that we have yet to solve in the years to come, Watson's novel tells us nothing. He has wasted a good--in the sense of well-written--novel on a worthless cause. Only if Ian Watson comes to this insight himself may we expect from him a mature SF work.
So there you have it. Lem admired the way Watson wrote, but disagreed with what he took to be the Eastern mumbo-jumbo mendacity of Watson's theme. This, it seems to me, is unfair. 'Spiritualism', broadly conceived, is only one of the ways the novel's thematic manifests itself, aesthetically speaking. Indeed, I can't shift the sense that Lem has, on a basic level, misunderstood this novel. It's a text that posits the virus as a superior mode of life to multicelluar forms like us, something that goes beyond human categories like 'spirituality' or 'mysticism' altogether, I'd say.

The Inca half of the narrative is interesting; but for some reason the Mars missions held my attention more fully. The astronaut characters are well delineated, including (whatever Lem says) both 'spiritualists' and materialists; the descriptive prose is very nicely handled ('Next day was a fine Martian day: still, clear and bright, the sky a delicate pink verging on lilac at the zenith'). There's only one moment of plot-creakiness, when Watson has to get past the fact that his astronauts are, of course, sealed away from the contaminating dust in their spacesuits -- a pocket of air below the surface makes a mechanical digger chew through one spaceman's boot. But then the weird virus does its thing, and we get a lot of rather brilliant Watsonian pontificating: 'You must excuse me, but sex and thought are rather similar, that's all! Did you know, thinking's a permanent orgasm inside the head?' [162]. Silverman, one of the astronauts, has an insight into the nature of the cosmos, viz.'Mind's a hyperstructure': which is to say, 'you can only explain how electrons behave by using six-space multidimensional space. But the electrons and the atoms all still appear to exist inside one single three-dimensional world.' The hyperstructural element of consciousness renders reality in modular form:
What happens when the brain 'sees' the world? A topological model of filtered reality is produced in the n-space within, by interacting, interfering, electrochemical wavefronts. What happens when I see the forms that constrain and sustain the thought-system? The n-space within bifurcates in a shape catastrophe, like a cell dividing ... [167]
There's lots of stuff like this, that ought to have been much more boring than it actually is. Light only exists when we see it; but for the universe to exist at all it must include its own perception, or consciousness -- 'the Sun is merely a mode of light by which it sees. The Sun is its own organ of vision.' What interests me, though, is the way Watson inflects this not through Eastern mysticism so much as Western intertextuality. Halfway through Silverman has a vivid dream, and the dream he has is: another Ian Watson story. More, in a rather pleasing serendipitous symmetry, it's the place I started from when I launched into my belated Ian Watson reading in the first place.
'I had this dream last night about how I invented a time machine ... the only way I could travel forward in time was by travelling backwards, accumulating time potential on the way. This was my big discovery. Real mad professor stuff ... to jump forward twenty years required crawling backwards downhill for twenty years first of all. I could built a reversing chamber all right, which would take me backwards at a snail's pace. That is to say, at the pace of real life, but lived backwards. So here was I shut up in this metal box with a single window to look out of, no bigger than a suitcase -- When I got back to the past I was cramped and crazy! But it was the only way back then, that I could push the button and make the quantum jump through time twenty years ahead of my starting point. And that's when I woke up, damn it! [89]
I can't work out if this is (in effect) the first appearance of this story: 'The Very Slow Time Machine' first appeared in Christopher Priest's edited collection Anticipations in 1978; so perhaps it was written in story-form after this novel, or perhaps Watson already had it, kicking around. I'm interested that this novel reads the story (as it were) as being about the dialectic of claustrophobia and epiphany, in an evolutionary-advance sense. It also provides the spurious-physics explanation for how that machine works (apparently time is disposed into quanta that 'depend on the total age of the Universe. They get larger the older the Universe is'. But mostly I liked the idea that the whole of Watson's 1978 story is actually a dream that occurs within a completely different Ian Watson 1977 story.


Nick Smale said...

I'm pleased to see that Watson is amongst the authors whose work is being re-released by Gollancz as part of their SF Gateway e-book project...

Adam Roberts said...

Indeed! I've just written a round-up post (it'll appear tomorrow) noting that fact.

umberto rossi said...

It's not the first time that Lem misunderstands a sf novel... I can't understand why he's so highly rated as a critic, when misunderstanding of the dull variety seems to be his specialty (while he's such a good novelist, on the other hand...).

umberto rossi said...

Can't it be that Watson developed the story from that bit in the novel?