The Greatship (Robert Reed)

Since I was a small child, I have read science fiction, and lots of it. For decades, I’ve read all types, from H.G. Wells through 1930s pulp through 1950s “golden age” through 1970s trippy through modern (the latter in all its broad range from “hard” to “socially conscious”, i.e., culturally leftist stories lacking the “science” in “science fiction”). I suspect science fiction has materially shaped my own world view. I don’t know why I like science fiction, particularly—perhaps just taste, like some people like Westerns or detective stories, or maybe it’s the wide-open possibilities that science fiction tends to envision.

At the same time, though, I’ve always realized that none of the science fiction I’ve read is GOOD. I mean, it can be, and often is, interesting and enjoyable, even compelling, but it’s not good as literature, in the sense of aesthetic excellence. But I’ve never realized why. Reading Robert Reed’s collection of stories, “The Greatship,” has finally made me realize why. It’s because science fiction invariably evidences no understanding of actual human nature. It’s the meringue of writings—it tastes sweet, but its pleasure is short-lasting and hollow, because it does not reflect how actual people really act. It does not reflect reality, so it is inherently unsatisfying.

Robert Reed is a prolific author. Many of his stories revolve around the “Greatship,” a gas-giant-sized spaceship of extremely ancient but unknown alien origin, which entered the Milky Way empty. In this universe, our galaxy has thousands of intelligent spacefaring species, among them humans. By random chance, humans came upon it first and therefore own it—but they take on all types of paying passengers, and intend to ride the Greatship on what amounts to a lengthy pleasure cruise. The other key element of this universe is that all intelligent species are close to immortal. They have “bioceramic” brains that can withstand anything short of focused fusion plasmas, and bodies that swiftly completely regrow from any injury short of brain destruction.

This is a clever and interesting setup. Many of the other specifics in Reed’s Greatship stories are similarly clever, especially in their invention of alien species that are truly alien. But where this universe totally fails is as a reflection of human nature, and presumably alien nature, other than in its most basic and crudest elements. Plenty of intelligent beings in these stories lie, steal and murder in order to achieve personal gain—otherwise, there’d be no plot. Money, both in general and as measure of relative standing, is still very important, again largely in service of plot. But beyond these behaviors, Reed evinces no understanding of human beings, and that means the stories are clever, but lack any aesthetic excellence.

For example, the humans in the stories are frequently thousands of years old, some considerably older. Yet for most of them, their time is spent talking to friends, gossiping, shopping, engaging in extreme tourism, and hanging out. Very few have any occupation; even fewer need to work at an occupation. At the same time, it’s explicitly stated that a spouse or close friend may randomly disappear for decades, as people today would disappear for a day or two, without causing any consternation. None of this makes any sense. The reality is that all humans seek meaning in their lives and have certain constants, including the need for continual contact with those with whom they have real personal relationships. But not these humans, which makes them totally unbelievable.

History teaches us that any group of bored rich people get up to a wide range of potentially troublesome behavior, grouped roughly into two buckets. Either they become jaded and alienated, and behave badly among themselves (see, e.g., “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”), or they aggressively seek meaning and transcendence in their lives (see, e.g., zillions of real people who range from Muhammad to St. Francis to Rasputin to Patty Hearst). What they most definitely don’t do for any lengthy period of time is act like upper-middle-class American suburbanites on an eternal Saturday afternoon. It is not in our nature.

For another example, Reed posits that the entire galaxy is bound by extremely rigid rules of property, universally voluntarily recognized by thousands of radically different sentient species (even though there is no faster-than-light travel). (This is the mechanism by which humans are deemed to own the Greatship—prior in time is higher in right, at least in allocation of property between species, and humans got there first.) This is so unlikely, even if only humans were at issue, as to by itself remove this book from the realm of “literature,” and place it in the category of “clever stories requiring total suspension of disbelief.” Similarly, the entire galaxy, all species, in total contradiction to the biological imperatives that must have impelled any successful species, have collectively decided to sharply, but each individually purely voluntarily, limit reproduction in order to prevent overpopulation. Uh-huh.

Aside from this jarring set of unrealities about people, “The Greatship” is also an exemplar of another tendency in both much modern science fiction and in modern technology leaders (Ray Kurzweil, I’m looking at you). The universe it portrays is a religion substitute. In Reed’s universe, and in Kurzweil’s, we are all promised redemption and apotheosis, but through technology and our own efforts. Neither works nor grace, merely faster computers. Such religion substitutes even have heretics, in the form of the few crazy people who are traditionally religious (and those religions are portrayed in a way that makes it clear the author has only the most simplistic understanding of actual human religions). Instead of believing in God, we are told to believe in some version of the Singularity, upon the arrival of which we will be as gods. This is a belief with an ancient pedigree, of course, falsely gussied up as something new. It’s so trite, though, as to further undermine any claim to aesthetic virtue in such works.

Finally, Reed’s work is also infected with many of the silly tropes so common in modern science fiction. Captains of warships are invariably women—always in one of two types that have never existed in any quantity in real life and never will, the hardbitten warrior woman and the hardbitten lesbian warrior woman. Every being exercises total sexual autonomy and fluidity. Children are functionally non-existent. And so on, tediously and jarringly, bouncing the reader out of absorption in the story, and putting the final nail in the aesthetic coffin.

None of these problems are confined to Reed, of course—I’m just beating up on him as an exemplar of most modern science fiction. Stephen Baxter is no different. Technically, Reed’s writing is good. I enjoyed his stories for what they are—clever, creative, and interesting thought experiments. But Dostoevsky or Austen, it’s not. It’s not even up to the level of fifth-rate novelists like Alice Walker or Barbara Kingsolver. That doesn’t make it not worth reading, though. I plan to read Reed’s two Greatship novels. I’m just glad I figured out what it is that makes science fiction what it is, and is not.


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