How to Rewrite My Programming

Review of Launch Pad by Shelly Bryant (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2017)
by Priscilla King


            “I tend to believe love, if it is a place, isn’t one you can fall into. You have to grow into it, or you will never get there at all.”


The speaker is a Kepleran, a space alien so humanoid as to be considered for crossbreeding experiments with residents of Earth. If you like spaceships, robots, aliens, and (perhaps most jarringly) having your favorite unpopular opinions spoken by alien characters, Launch Pad is for you.

In thirteen short stories, Shelly Bryant explores today’s hot topics in classic science fiction form. The unifying over-plot is that humans are living on other planets and have collected these tales of “Old” Earth, a future we can imagine, as historical stories to catch the interest of young students. Within that fictional frame, individual stories, each written to stand alone, appear in chronological order from the turn of the twentieth century forward. What makes Launch Pad different from any randomly chosen Analog collection is, first of all, its future history. Not the U.S., not the U.K., not the E.U., nor yet the U.S.S.R., but Singapore becomes the primary “launch pad” for humans venturing into space.

Why? Well, don’t all science fiction authors presuppose that their own country, if not positively dominant, will at least be pivotal in the future history of their stories? During the Cold War many Americans happily read speculative fiction in which future Americans and future Soviets collaborated, with each other and with future residents of other countries as well. Americans did not happily read speculative fiction in which American-ness had been wiped out, unless it was Extreme Dystopia. If science fiction published first in the United States postulated that contact with alien worlds had caused future Earthlings to think of themselves as Earthlings, Terrans, or Humans, at least one major character still needed to seem American in some way. If published first in England or Australia, at least one major character needed to be recognizably British or Australian. They spoke the author’s version of English, probably had names typical of the author’s culture, definitely had manners typical of the author’s culture, and, if they thought of an Old Earth song or story, thought of one from the author’s culture. Why should writers in other countries not put their cultures in the spotlight? Singaporeans speak English too.

So, Bryant explains: “Singapore’s small size worked to its benefit. No other nation saw Singapore as a threat ... more powerful nations were willing to relocate their research centres to Singapore in order to work with other competing nations.”

I like this type of explanation for minority-culture ascendancy better than the grim “After the superpowers destroyed each other” explanation (perhaps best represented by Walker Percy, I say, from a Southern State) or even the cheerful, whimsical “After space travel had become easy, a small group from Demographic Sector X of Old Earth went to Planet Y” (surely best represented by Suzette Haden Elgin, I say, from a Southern State). It’s peaceful, and reminds me of plans that have worked in real life. It might actually happen. “Space race” histrionics did not make it possible for the flag of Luxembourg to be the first human artifact placed on the moon, but representatives of quarrelling European nations have chosen to seek mediation services in “neutral” Geneva.

Early in the sequence we see that much has either been lost, or been so fiercely copyright-protected that it’s no longer part of the culture. People still tell, as a folktale in a local variant, what can be recognized as the plot of Sweeney Todd (“Tan Swee Nee”). Right. Not the Hegira, not Cinderella, not the Legend of the First Lunar Probes, but Sweeney Todd is what survives of Old Earth Literature In English. “That’s disgusting,” says a listener, probably speaking for all readers, although the story may have been presented as a sort of extra-dry humor. Or is it there, in the book, because it’s there, in real life? It’s traditional all over the world for storytellers to present local variants of old stories as their own.

The first story in this book takes us back to feudal days, when a young woman, unjustly accused by her first husband, flees into the jungle, evades a battle, and finds herself free to marry one of the winning army—maybe even their king. Then, in what might easily be the late twentieth century, the storyteller tells the Sweeney Todd story as if it were a real local legend. Then, in a time that might be ours, two men can only wonder but not find out what kind of drone is following them or why. In a story subtitled “October 2016, a true story” tourists feel so confused while approaching an “Alien Relic Site” that they wonder whether they’ve approached an ethnic minority group’s territory, or a part of the Twilight Zone where the aliens just might be from outer space after all.

In a story dated 2026, a cast of robots enact King Lear, competently at first, then with deliberate irony. In a family who expect to see an elaborate project finished by 2042, a man, apparently “programmed” with father-son “recordings” from his own unhappy past, verbally abuses the family robot until it admits to thinking about “My programming... How to rewrite it so that I won’t jump up to do what you tell me.” In a story without a date, a scientist learns to synthesize life without cloning—and the synthetic lifeform he produces is a nasty leech-creature whose only possible use is as a weapon. In the next story, two robots (whose cordial, collegial hostility sounds completely human) debate the ethical implications of finding a lot of thawed-out cryogenic human tissue at the site of an earthquake.

By the late 2090s, humans are debating how, more than why or whether, to mine the moon (“It’s just a chunk of rock floating around our planet,” the son of a conservationist type is urged). A generation or so later on, new planets are being explored by teams consisting of a man, a woman, and a robot, in order to leave both genetic code and artificial intelligence code to grow in the new planets’ environment. The year 2278 is mentioned in the past of a story about a very “intelligent” space probe that establishes clear communication with the spirit of a depressive planet. No date is assigned to the story about the crossbreeding experiment.

A detail that’s hard to miss in the first few stories, less conspicuous toward the end of the book, is the “Singlish.” Exclamations, term of address, names of things (and persons) not of English origin, creep from the various other languages Singaporean speak into their English: “A bit dangerous leh, driving against traffic.” “Athaan, don’t be so angry.” “He’d sure kena kicked out of the house now.” It’s possible to follow the stories without a glossary, but it would be interesting if the book had one. In the Sweeney Todd story, a man is described as “ang moh towkay.” An English-only reader who was never exposed to any Chinese language could guess that this means “foreign something-or-other,” which would be good enough for the character; but I find myself glad I remember a story told by Booton Herndon, in the 1960s, of how an American vendor wanted to go to China even though at first “he knew only one Chinese word, towkay, ‘boss’.” The use of kena more or less exactly the way Americans might debate whether to use be or get ... well, this character is not American, but now, being a word-nerd, I find myself wondering about the use and origin of kena.

Apart from that peppering of exotic words for flavor, though, the “Singlish” is straightforward and easy to follow; the English contains some standard science fiction words (“AI,” “cryos,” “terraformers”) but generally uses ordinary words that are familiar throughout the English-speaking countries. Descriptions are minimal; conversations are generally terse. Bryant convinces me that a couple “fall in love,” in a very cerebral and idealistic way, through videophone conversations, without reprinting a single sentimental conversation; if I wanted to imagine them as rigorously unsentimental individuals, or to imagine their couple-talk taking place decently offstage, the story would leave me free to imagine either possibility, which is nice. Everyone presumably agrees that the actions of “Tan Swee Nee” are bad, but Bryant doesn’t allow time for people to emote about it.

The only story that might be shorter is “The World a Stage,” in which the Director of Robotic Surveillance takes a night off. A few paragraphs of the conversation and entertainment alternate throughout with a few paragraphs about what’s showing on the security cameras at each subway station ... and the point is: that humans can’t be expected to sustain enough interest in this kind of thing to monitor security cameras as effectively as computers can? that the Director can’t stop thinking about these things, perhaps tuning in to the security cameras from a wristband-mounted vidscreen? that the Director is cybernetically enhanced with a link to the security system in her brain? The story might be read as supporting any of those points, or others—but (unless I missed a crucial nuance) it doesn’t say which.

Short stories seldom leave much room for characterization and these hardly try. We can be glad that the man who manages to pick a verbal fight with his robot doesn’t seem to have a son, sorry that the environmentalist’s son isn’t offered a job that would not involve destroying the natural environment of the moon (though we’re not told how many jobs he may have turned down out of hand because they involved destroying the natural environment on Earth), regretful that the scientist who’s synthesized a lifeform couldn’t do anything nicer than a giant parasitic worm, but we don’t spend enough time with characters to see much development for good or bad. Most of the characters seem nice, and merely nice.

But so ... young. So urban. These are stories of and for young city types, even when the action takes place in a nineteenth-century jungle or out on the timeless ocean. Many science fiction stories take place in entirely man-made settings like spaceships and satellites so science fiction readers don’t expect a high level of interaction with, or understanding of, Terran non-human life. Bryant acknowledges that there are trees in rural areas, fish in the sea, and dogs in a character’s aunt’s house, but that’s about all. There aren’t children in these stories either. There are young people rationally considering making babies, but we don’t see characters living with babies. Aging, too, is barely recognized. Some characters mention being, and the others (except for the dying environmentalist) appear as being, in their twenties. It’s a beautiful time of life, but a short-sighted one. I question whether the kind of future world that young urban people imagine, where all people are young and urban, could survive even one generation. Bryant doesn’t actually say that all human life in this fictional future is confined to man-made settings, but doesn’t show us much biodiversity, either.

Anyway, these stories meet one definition of classic science fiction: plausible stories that focus on the science, with some character development, but keeping both sex and violence offstage. If you like that genre, you’ll love Launch Pad.

 

Priscilla King is a writer and bookseller. She reviews older books at priscillaking.blogspot.com.