A Double Shadow, Part I

I recently re-read a book that I first encountered in 1978 or 1979, at the age of fifteen.  It is the science fiction novel A Double Shadow, by Frederick Turner.  I had got to thinking about it for some reason or other, and decided to see if I could find it, which I did on Amazon.  It is often instructive to come back to something one originally has read long ago, and this was certainly the case here.  I remembered a few vague images and the ending of the book only, and upon re-reading it I realized that I must have understood very little of the book—almost nothing, in fact—when I read it at fifteen.  At forty-eight, I find it fascinating and even important, and I will try to describe why.  There’s a lot to discuss, and so I don’t want to cram it all into one single post.  This discussion, therefore, will continue over one or more posts beyond this.  I think the novel is easily worth a more extended discussion of this sort.

I don’t expect many readers will be familiar with it (although I could be wrong), so without giving too many details of the plot away, I’ll first describe it.  The novel takes place on a terraformed Mars of the distant future.  The narrative takes place within the framing device of narration by the book’s unnamed “author”.  This author is a poet living on Mars in the 24th Century during the early stages of the terraforming of the red planet.  He describes the envy and jealousy he has of the tough, manly, hyper-competent terraformers themselves, particularly one named Raphael Mendel.  The narrator learns that he has in fact been cuckolded by Mendel and that his wife is pregnant with Mendel’s child, who will be the first human born on Mars.  Bitterly describing this and declaiming his hatred for Mars and everything on it, the narrator proceeds to write the narrative that follows this prologue, declaring it his gift to Mars as the planet’s first work of art.  At points throughout the rest of the novel, the “author”, in much the manner of omniscient narrators in 19th Century novels, pops in to comment on the action.

The narrative itself takes place 900 years after the time of the fictional author, and thus 1300 years from now, in the 33rd Century.  Mars has been terraformed and is inhabited by genetically altered humans who are suited for the planet.  Because of the low gravity and their modified genes, they are able to strap on artificial wings and literally fly.  They exist in three genders, male, female, and hermaphrodite.  The ostensible narrative follows two couples involved in a “status war”—a sort of aesthetic competition for prestige (more on that later).  The couples are an incestuous pair of siblings, one a female (Cleopatra) and the other a hermaphrodite, the appropriately-named Narcissus (though hermaphroditic, Narcissus is mainly referred to as “he” in the novel, and is portrayed as being predominantly masculine at most times); and a more conventional husband and wife pair, Michael and Snow.  Narcissus, perceiving a casual remark between Michael and Snow as an insult to his sister-lover Cleopatra, challenges the other couple to a status war.  The playing-out of this is the material of the novel.

The plot is really incidental to the novel, though it does build to a definite and quasi-tragic conclusion.  The future setting, which is described in meticulous detail, is also to some extent incidental.  Despite this, I must give Turner credit for excellent research and scientifically accurate detail on what a terraformed Mars would be like—he does a better job than many regular science fiction writers do in such areas.  In any case, the mainspring of the novel is neither plot nor characterization (though both of these are done very well) but philosophy and the ideas underlying these.

In the future of the novel, man has devised a computer, the Vision, which is in all essential respects totally omnipotent and omniscient—a cybernetic God, if you will.  All humans on all worlds are connected through their brains directly to the Vision from the moment of conception.  By means of the Vision, literally anything is possible.  No one dies unless he or she voluntarily commits suicide—a common event viewed as an artistic statement—or by accident, in which latter case he or she is easily brought back to life.  Everyone has an “idiot guardian” connected to their minds through the Vision that prevents fatal accidents and which repairs any accidents (fatal or otherwise) that may occur.

An infinite number of parallel dimensions are available, so that a small city may actually house millions distributed across various parallel versions of the city that hyper-dimensionally overlap.  Transport from one dimension to the other, or to any location in the universe is possible by instant matter transference courtesy of the Vision.  Everyone may tap into the Vision mentally and thus learn, know, or see anything anywhere in the past, present, or future.  The only restrictions placed on this are that people who make excessive use of the Vision are declared mad and exiled to particular places reserved for them.  Since the Vision can make anything, anywhere, any time, there is no economy, as such, nor money nor poverty, etc.  There is no government, either—various goddesses from various mythologies have become literally actualized and reside upon the Martian mountain known at the time the novel was written as Nix Olympica (now Olympus Mons).  These (generally) benevolent deities help people with any problems or issues they have, and generally adjudicate any necessary planetary matters.  The universe of the novel, in short, is one in which man’s domination of Nature is absolute.

This, then, sets the groundwork for the novel.  In a universe in which man is truly all-powerful—in which he has created God through his own technology, and in which anything is at his disposal—in such a universe, where is meaning to be found?

It is made explicit in the novel that in the Martian society of the 33rd Century, morality does not exist.  Since anyone can have anything, there is no poverty nor oppression; robbery is possible, but one could always regain anything lost; murder is impossible; sex is uncoupled from any necessary end but pleasure; and in general there is nothing that cannot be remedied, undone, or provided for by the Vision.  Thus, the sole basis for Martian society is the purely aesthetic.  Nothing is seen as meaningful, everything is arbitrary; and thus the only goal is to use this arbitrariness to make of one’s life a sort of performance art for real.

Thus, for example, suicide, as mentioned above, is viewed as artistic in that a person comments upon his life by taking it, thereby actualizing full individuality and validating one’s life by ending it.  Of course, everyone’s consciousness is stored by the Vision, so no one really “dies”—their “spirit” can always be contacted, and they may be resurrected later by the goddesses of Mars, or by others.  Likewise, the main driver of the plot—a “status war”—is a complicated ritual in which the involved individuals  make choices and take actions as a way of showing their lives and aesthetic choices to be more beautiful or aesthetically pleasing than those of their opponents.  Narcissus and Cleopatra are wild and reckless, using the Vision to the very edge of madness, and have a reputation for spontaneous and seemingly absurd or dangerous actions.  Michael and Snow have eschewed use of the Vision (beyond the basic ways in which everyone uses it—for transport, protection, sustenance, etc.) on the grounds that limiting themselves intellectually and psychologically is more “authentic” in a sort of aesthetic simplicity than would be taking advantage of everything available to them.  Thus the status war pits the two aesthetic visions against each other, and each couple is motivated to act within their visions in such a way as to one-up or upstage the other, thereby demonstrating the aesthetic superiority of their own aesthetic view.

I think this summary of the novel and the setting and philosophical backdrop of the action sets the stage for discussing it.  That’s what I’ll do starting in the next post.

Posted on 14/08/2011, in book reviews, books, ethics, philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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