Them bulging foreheads

“You can’t write that story. I can’t write that story. Nobody can.” — John W. Campbell

Robert Reed is one of my favorite authors. His An Exaltation of Larks, a time-travel story with a very interesting psychological twist, is kind of a lead-up to his latest Sister Alice [okay, the common thread here is cosmology]. I thorougly enjoyed Lark, but his latest work was less than satisfying.

Sister Alice traces the journeys of a young man, some tens of millions of years hence, a member of a family of immortals. At the start of the book he’s only fifty or sixty years old, while most of the rest of his family are thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of years old. Naturally, his relatives are are all smart, and they have god-like abilities that beggar the imagination. The young man’s journey is strange and frantic (and involves saving a galaxy, which is the kind of planet-bashing space opera that I still love).

Unfortunately, this kind of story is very hard to write. How do you realistically portray a superman? How is it that their motivations and actions will be comprehensible? There are tricks you can use (e.g., limit a character’s situational knowledge or use other artificial handicaps, e.g., the “Prime Directive” in Star Trek), but figuring out what someone ten or a billion times smarter than you is going to do is hard, even if it is just a story and you have a long time to think about it as you write it.

Robert Reed tries to do this for four hundred pages, and while the stories about his godlike people and their problems is interesting at first, after a while it begins to pall. Many characters are millions of years old and have brains (literally) the size of planets (all nicely tucked away into weakly-interacting dark matter that follows them around like puppy-dogs, so they can still comfortably sit around a dinner table and have a conversation). Yet their motivations and solutions are quite unbelievable, approaching stupid, petty, and ultimately predictable and boring.

Larry Niven ran into this problem in Protector (he hid a lot of information from the reader). A.E. Van Vogt ran into it in Slan (and the story shows its age). Vernor Vinge neatly side-steps the issue in his Singularity work. I guess all you can really do is wave your hands wildly and say “Just because!” and “You won’t understand” a lot, which is kind of what John W. Campbell was trying to say forty years ago.

Dealing directly with supermen is probably going to be weird. Really good treatments are probably not going to be enjoyable (more along the lines of Finnegans Wake than an average SF potboiler). Supermen might be more alien than aliens, since they’re human, we expect them to behave reasonably. But think: Zen masters sometimes whop you upside the head, leaving you dazed and confused and maybe hurt, but they have concrete reasons for it. Aliens would be strange, but mega-geniuses would be the true oddballs.

On the other hand, the Greeks got away with it in their mythology; the Gods on Olympus had all kinds of human traits, and folks ate it up for millennia.

I just wish Reed would finish his Beyond the Veil of Stars books…

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