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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 enjoyment. 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 croissants. 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 watching Fred 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 line. 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 we only knew. 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 think SF. 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 petty -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 original sin. 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, Verna. I 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 temper. 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 white. 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 popcultural con 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 doing it. 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 anything. 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 shallow and 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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