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Bruce Sterling. Updike's Version
CATSCAN 3 "Updike's Version"
John Updike has got to be the epitome of
everything that SF readers love to hate. Those slim,
clever, etiolated mainstream novels about well-to-do
_New Yorker_ subscribers, who sip white wine and
contemplate adultery . . . Novels stuffed like
Christmas geese with hi-falutin' literary values . . .
Mention Updike at a SFWA gig, and you get yawns,
shudders, shakings of the head . . His work affects
science fiction writers like cayenne pepper affects a
pack of bloodhounds.
Why? Because John Updike has everything SF
writers don't. He is, in some very real sense,
everything SF writers aren't.
Certain qualities exist, that novelists are
popularly supposed to possess. Gifts, abilities, that
win An Author respect, that cause folks to back off
and gape just a bit if they find one in a grocery
line. Qualities like: insight into modern culture. A
broad sympathy for the manifold quirks of human
nature. A sharp eye for the defining detail. A quick
ear for language. A mastery of prose.
John Updike possesses these things. He is
erudite. He has, for instance, actually read Isak
Dinesen, Wallace Stevens, Ciline, Jean Rhys, Gunter
Grass, Nabokov and Bellow. Not only has he read these
obscure and intimidating people, but he has publicly
discussed the experience with every sign of genuine
Updike is also enormously clever, clever to a
point that approaches genius through the sheer
irrepressible business of its dexterity. Updike's
paragraphs are so brittle, so neatly nested in their
comma'ed clauses, that they seem to burst under the
impact of the reader's gaze, like hyper-flaky
Updike sees how things look, notices how people
dress, hears how people talk. His eye for the telling
detail can make even golf and birdwatching, the
ultimate yawnable whitebread Anglo pastimes, more or
less interesting. (Okay--not very interesting,
granted. But interesting for the sheer grace of
Updike's narrative technique. Like
Astaire take out the garbage.)
It would be enlightening to compare John Updike
to some paragon of science fiction writing.
Unfortunately no such paladin offers himself, so we'll
have to make do with a composite.
What qualities make a great science fiction
writer? Let's look at it objectively, putting aside
all that comfortable bullshit about the virtues
authors are supposed to have. Let's look at the
science fiction writer as he is.
Modern culture, for instance. Our SF paladin is
not even sure it exists, except as a vaguely
oppressive force he's evaded since childhood. He lives
in his own one-man splinter culture, and has ever
since that crucial time in childhood--when he was sick
in bed for two years, or was held captive in the
Japanese prison camp, or lived in the Comoros Islands
with monstrous parents who were nuts on anthropology
or astronomy or Trotsky or religion.
He's pretty much okay now, though, our science
fiction author. He can feed himself and sign checks,
and he makes occasional supply trips into the cultural
anchorage of SF fandom, where he refreshes his soul by
looking at people far worse off than he is. But he
dresses funny, and mumbles to himself in the grocery
While standing there, he doesn't listen to the
other folks and make surreptitious authorly notes
about dialogue. Far from it: he's too full of unholy
fire to pay much attention to mere human beings. And
anyway, his characters generally talk about stuff like
neutrinos or Taoism.
His eyes are glazed, cut off at the optic nerve
while he watches brain-movies. Too many nights in too
many cheap con hotels have blunted his sense of
aesthetics; his characters live in geodomes or
efficiencies or yurts. They wear one-piece jumpsuits
because jumpsuits make people one monotonous color
from throat to foot, which allows our attention to
return to the neutrinos--of which, incidentally,
ninety percent of the universe consists, so that the
entire visible world of matter is a mere *froth*, if
But he's learned his craft, our science fiction
paladin. The real nutcases don't have enough mental
horsepower to go where he's gone. He works hard and he
thinks hard and he knows what he's doing. He's read
Kuttner and Kornbluth and Blish and Knight, and he
knows how to Develop an Idea entertainingly and
rigorously, and how to keep pages turning meanwhile,
and by Christ those are no easy things. So there, Mr.
John Updike with your highflown talk of aht and
beautieh. That may be okay for you Ivy League pinky-
lifters with your sissy bemoaning about the Crisis of
Culture . . . As if there was going to be a culture
after the millennial advent of (Biotech) (Cybernetics)
(Space Travel) (Robots) (Atomic Energy) (General
Semantics) (Dean Drive) (Dianetics) . . .
So--there's the difference. It exists, for
better or worse. None of this is lost on John Updike.
He knows about science fiction, not a hell of a lot,
but probably vastly more than most science fiction
writers know about John Updike. He recognizes that it
requires specialized expertise to write good SF, and
that there are vast rustling crowds of us on the other
side of the cultural spacewarp, writing for Ace Books
and _Amazing Stories_. Updike reads Vonnegut and Le
Guin and Calvino and Lem and Wells and Borges, and
would probably read anybody else whose prose didn't
cause him physical pain. And from this reading, he
knows that the worldview is different in SFville . . .
that writers think literature, and that SF writers
And he knows, too, that it's not T.S. Eliot's
world any more, if indeed it ever was T.S. Eliot's
world. He knows we live in a world that loves to think
SF, and has thought SF ever since Hiroshima, which was
the ne plus ultra of Millennial Technological Advents,
which really and truly did change the world forever.
So Updike has rolled up his pinstriped sleeves
and bent his formidable intelligence in our direction,
and lo we have a science fiction novel, _Roger's
Version_ by John Updike.
Of course it's not *called* a science fiction
novel. Updike has seen Le Guin and Lem and Vonnegut
crawl through the spacewarp into his world. He's seen
them wriggle out, somehow, barely, gasping and
stinking of rocket fuel. Updike has no reason to place
himself in a position they went to great pains to
escape. But _Roger's Version_ does feature a computer
on its cover, if not a rocketship or a babe in a
bubble helmet, and by heaven it is a science fiction
novel--and a very good one.
_Roger's Version_ is Updike's version of what SF
should be on about. It deals with SF's native
conceptual underpinnings: the impact of technology on
society. The book is about technolatry, about
millennial visionary thinking. This is SF-think as
examined by a classic devotee of lit-think.
It's all there, quite upfront and nakedly
science fictional. It puzzles mainstream commentators.
"It's as though Updike had challenged himself to
convert into the flow of his novel the most resistant
stuff he could think of," marvels the _Christian
Science Monitor_, alarmed to find a Real Novel that
actually deals straightforwardly with real ideas. "The
aggressiveness of Updike's imagination is often a
marvel," says _People_, a mag whose utter lack of
imagination is probably its premier selling point.
And look at this list of author's credits: Fred
Hoyle, Martin Gardner, Gerald Feinberg, Robert
Jastrow. Don't tell me Updike's taken the *science*
seriously. But he has--he's not the man to deny the
devil his due, especially after writing _Witches of
Eastwick_, which would have been called a fantasy
novel if it had been written badly by a nobody.
But enough of this high-flown abstraction--let's
get to grips with the book. There's these two guys,
see. There's Roger Lambert, a middle-aged professor of
theology, a white-wine-sipping adultery-contemplating
intellectual New Englander who probably isn't eighty
light-years removed from John Updike. Roger's a nasty
piece of business, mostly, lecherous, dishonest and
-minded, and obsessed with a kind of free-
floating Hawthornian Protestant guilt that has been
passed down for twenty generations up Boston way and
hasn't gotten a bit more specific in the meantime.
And then there's Roger Lambert's antagonist,
Dale Kohler. Dale's a young computer hacker with
pimples and an obnoxious cocksure attitude. If Dale
were just a little more hip about it, he'd be a
cyberpunk, but for thematic reasons Updike chose to
make Dale a born-again Christian. We never really
believe this, though, because Dale almost never talks
Jesus. He talks AND-OR circuits, and megabytes, and
Mandelbrot sets, with all the techspeak fluency Updike
can manage, which is considerable. Dale talks God on a
microchip, technological transcendence, and he was
last seen in Greg Bear's _Blood Music_ where his name
was different but his motive and character were
identical. Dale is a type. Not just a science
fictional type, but the type that *creates* science
fiction, who talks God for the same reason Philip K.
Dick talked God. Because it comes with the territory.
Oh yeah, and then we've got some women. They
don't amount to much. They're not people, exactly.
They're temptresses and symbols.
There's Roger Lambert's wife, Esther, for
instance. Esther ends up teaching Dale Kohler the
nature of sin, which utterly destroys Dale's annoying
moral certitude, and high time, too. Esther does this
by the simple expedient of adulterously fucking Dale's
brains out, repeatedly and in meticulously related
detail, until Dale collapses from sheer weight of
A good trick. But Esther breezes through this
inferno of deviate carnality, none the worse for the
experience; invigorated, if anything. Updike tells us
an old tale in this: that women *are* sexuality, vast
unplumbed cisterns of it, creatures of mystery, vamps
of the carnal abyss. I just can't bring myself to go
for this notion, even if the Bible tells me so. I know
that women don't believe this stuff.
Then there's Roger Lambert's niece,
suspect she represents the Future, or at least the
future of America. Verna's a sad case. She lives on
welfare with her illegitimate mulatto kid, a little
girl who is Futurity even more incarnate. Verna
listens to pop music, brain-damaging volumes of it.
She's cruel and stupid, and as corrupt as her limited
sophistication allows. She's careless of herself and
others, exults in her degradation, whores sometimes
when she needs the cocaine money. During the book's
crisis, she breaks her kid's leg in a reckless fit of
A woman reading this portrayal would be
naturally enraged, reacting under the assumption that
Updike intends us to believe in Verna as an actual
human being. But Verna, being a woman, isn't. Verna is
America, instead: dreadfully hurt and spiritually
degraded, cheapened, teasing, but full of vitality,
and not without some slim hope of redemption, if she
works hard and does what's best for her (as defined by
Roger Lambert). Also, Verna possesses the magic of
fertility, and nourishes the future, the little girl
Paula. Paula, interestingly, is every single thing
that Roger Lambert isn't, i.e. young, innocent,
trusting, beautiful, charming, lively, female and not
Roger sleeps with Verna. We've seen it coming
for some time. It is, of course, an act of adultery
and incest, compounded by Roger's complicity in child
abuse, quite a foul thing really, and narrated with a
certain gloating precision that fills one with real
unease. But it's Updike's symbolic gesture of cultural
rapprochement. "It's helped get me ready for death,"
Roger tells Verna afterward. Then: "Promise me you
won't sleep with Dale." And Verna laughs at the idea,
and tells him: "Dale's a non-turnon. He's not even
evil, like you." And gives Roger the kiss of peace.
So, Roger wins, sort of. He is, of course, aging
rapidly, and he knows his cultural values don't cut it
any more, that maybe they never cut it, and in any
case he is a civilized anachronism surrounded by a
spiracy of vile and rising noise. But
at least *Dale* doesn't win. Dale, who lacks moral
complexity and a proper grasp of the true morbidity of
the human condition, thinks God can be found in a
computer, and is properly nemesized for his hubris.
The future may be fucked, but at least Dale won't be
So it goes, in _Roger's Version_. It's a good
book, a disturbing book. It makes you think. And it's
got an edge on it, a certain grimness and virulence of
tone that some idiot would probably call "cyberpunk"
if Updike were not writing about the midlife crisis of
a theology professor.
_Roger's Version_ is one long debate, between
Updike's Protestantism and the techno-zeitgeist of the
'80s. With great skill, Updike parallels the arcanity
of cyberdom and the equally arcane roots of Christian
theology. It's good; it's clever and funny; it verges
on the profound. The far reaches of modern computer
science--chaos theory, fractals, simulationism,
statistical physics and so on--are indeed theological
in their implications. Some of their spokesmen have a
certain evangelical righteousness of tone that could
only alarm a cultural arbiter like John Updike. There
are indeed heretic gospels inside that machine, just
like there were gospels in a tab of LSD, only more so.
And it's a legitimate writerly task to inquire about
those gospels and wonder if they're any better than
the old one.
So John Updike has listened, listened very
carefully and learned a great deal, which he parades
deftly for his readership, in neatly tended flashes of
hard-science exposition. And he says: I've heard it
before, and I may not exactly believe in that Old
Rugged Cross, but I'm damned if I'll believe these
crazy hacker twerps with their jogging shoes.
There's a lot to learn from this book. It deals
with the entirety of our zeitgeist with a broad-scale
vision that we SF types too often fail to achieve.
It's an interesting debate, though not exactly fair:
it's muddied with hatred and smoldering jealousy, and
a very real resentment, and a kind of self-loathing
that's painful to watch.
And it's a cheat, because Dale's "science" has
no real intellectual validity. When you strip away the
layers of Updike's cyber-jargon, Dale's efforts are
only numerology, the rankest kind of dumb
superstition. "Science" it's not. It's not even good
theology. It's heretic voodoo, and its pre-arranged
failure within this book proves nothing about
Updike is wrong. He clings to a rotting cultural
fabric that he knows is based on falsehoods, and
rejects challenges to that fabric by declaring "well
you're another." But science, true science, does learn
from mistakes; theologians like Roger Lambert merely
further complicate their own mistaken premises.
I remain unconvinced, though not unmoved, by
Updike's object lesson. His book has hit hard at my
own thinking, which, like that of most SF writers, is
overly enamored of the millennial and transcendent. I
know that the twentieth century's efforts to kick
Updike's Judaeo-Christian WestCiv values have been
grim: Stalin's industrial terror, Cambodia's sickening
Luddite madness, the convulsions today in Islam . . .
it was all "Year Zero" stuff, attempts to sweep the
board clean, that merely swept away human sanity,
instead. Nor do I claim that the squalid consumerism
of today's "secular-Humanist" welfare states is a
proper vision for society.
But I can't endure the sheer snobbish falseness
of Updike's New England Protestantism. Never mind that
it's the legacy of American letters, that it's the
grand tradition of Hawthorne and Melville, that it's
what made America great. It's a shuck, ladies and
gentlemen. It won't wash. It doesn't own the future;
it won't even kiss the future goodbye on its way to
the graveyard. It doesn't own our minds any more.
We don't live in an age of answers, but an age
of ferment. And today that ferment is reflected
faithfully in a literature called science fiction.
SF may be crazy, it may be dangerous, it may be
cocksure, and it should learn better. But
in some very real way it is truer to itself, truer to
the world, than is the writing of John Updike.
This is what has drawn Updike, almost despite
himself, into science fiction's cultural territory.
For SF writers, his novel is a lesson and a challenge.
A lesson that must be learned and a challenge that
must be met.
Last-modified: Sat, 23 May 1998 08:07:51 GMT
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