The origins of science fiction are a favourite topic of historians of the field, with the first claimed work being pushed back from the twentieth century to Mary Shelley, or to the middle ages, or even to the Greeks or Romans. Few push further back; the foundations of Western culture are far enough. To my mind, this ancestral material is better considered as the dust out of which a star is formed—ideas bumping up against each other, a gradual accretion of fictional tools. It was only under the gravitational pull of the scientific method, of the growing excitement of science and technology, that SF could become established as a genre of its own. The public controversy around Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) and titles such as Popular Science Monthly (founded in 1872) through to The Romance of Modern Electricity (1906) have a place here. The moment of ignition, on such a reading, is in the period of Verne and Wells. At that moment, the field begins to generate its own light and heat. The invention of the term "scientifiction" could be considered the point where the dust clouds clear and the new genre star shines out into the universe. Around the core, a community of readers builds up (dare I suggest the analogy of planets?) and with the progress of generations, there are readers and writers who have known no other light but that of the genre. Nevertheless, as a star has an evolution in its burning cycles, SF has grown and changed. The simplest elements of scientifiction have largely been consumed by transformative events such as the New Wave. Today readers argue whether the trans-uranian elements (slipstream, interstitial, etc) are really part of the field, whether some of the looping auroras (later Atwood or Gibson, for example) are important to the genre or simply attempts to escape its gravity. And yet, the core is still there, settling into iron, stable, satisfying familiar audiences.
The Push, published by NewCon Press and nominated for the BSFA short fiction award for 2009, is an excellent recent example of the satisfaction available to the genre reader. "It is core genre stuff" (p. 9), as Eric Brown says in the introduction. The opening paragraphs show this beautifully. The first phrases of the volume are
When I was very young—this was before interstellar travel—popular culture used to call the place a spacecraft was controlled from the bridge. (p. 11)
Immediately, the genre reader is unpacking ideas: interstellar travel exists (existed) in the book's setting; the narrator is a link from our world (pre-interstellar, a recognisable popular culture) to that of the book; spacecraft don't meet those popular culture ideas. It also sets up an expectation that the narrator is going to describe how interstellar travel came to be, how we are to be transformed.
The next several lines describe a "traditional" scenario of the Star Wars and Star Trek type before positing a grungier view. Rather than "interesting metal creations", this setting has "a battered ball of rock ... a mined-out castoff from the Belt, its heart spongy with corridors and caves" called Wednesday Addams and piloted by "a bandy-legged little Australian rasta" who "was going to be paying the mortgage on its fusion engines and Push motors for a very long time" (p. 11). Here we have the first mention of the Push of the title, but it is left aside as our narrator engages with the planet Reith, which he hasn't seen for seventy years. It gradually becomes clear he was one of Reith's discoverers, and has been called back to deal with a problem no-one else seems able to face. As his co-founder describes the trouble to him, the narrator, eventually named as Neil Hanson, tries to work out whether he can run away again.
Hanson is rich, clever, irresponsible. He has spent a lifetime "playing," and all his games have made him richer, but he has put almost as much effort into running away. Now his past has caught up with him, and he has to come to terms with it. This is one of fiction's basic plots and Dave Hutchinson makes good use of the scaffolding it provides. Hanson is, as the first paragraph suggests, uniquely placed to describe how "the Push" extended humanity's reach; how he and his colleagues' rush to exploit interstellar travel for their own benefit lead to controls on the technology and on colonisation; how Reith has become unique as a human colony on a life-rich world and what this means when one of those species appears to make the leap to sentience.
Along the way, Hutchinson sketches the dimensions of "Human Space". Although the term is only used in the last pages of the story, the genre reader often starts to think in such a fashion—and familiarity with the shape of human colonisation stories unconciously fills in the background. For example, the United Nations Space Agency rules forbid colonisation of planets with any higher life forms. The narrator can say "[t]heir own colonies were awful howling wildernesses that no one in their right mind would want to live on. Ditto Mars, which after three centuries of terraforming still sucked" (p. 77), and we know what he means. The grim worlds of The Centauri Device (1975), the struggle to shape Mars in works from Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (1992-1996) or Alastair Reynolds's Great Wall of Mars (2000) or a thousand others leap to mind. We know how difficult such enterprises are. Of course, this is good storytelling at this length, using the reader's imagination to fill out beyond the limits of a 96-page binding.
Staying light on the imagery of space, of space travel with the Push, even of the physiognomy of the planet Reith, leaves room for psychological insight into the narrator, which is highlighted by the subjects Hanson engages with and by his language. Lines such as "I wanted no part of a ruck with the Agency" (p. 75) and "JJ was a total jerk" (p. 81) reinforce Hanson's immaturity. With the time dilation effects of relativistic travel, Hanson is effectively about 40 years old. He does not recognise how carefully he is being handled by Raul, his fellow founder, who has remained on Reith and grown up, grown old. Hanson is confident he still has a handle on Raul, an edge that will let him get around anything that Raul plans. It is only in the penultimate paragraph of the book that he begins to realise how he was manipulated into responsibility.
The last few pages skip outward, to show how the people of Reith handled the problem at the core of the story, and leap forward to open up a range of futures. We've got some idea of how most of these futures would work, too.
At a time where the real world seems rather difficult, more experimental material loses some of its attractions.1950s critics such as William Atheling, Jr. spent vast effort on arguing the value of good sentence and paragraph structure in SF; he would be delighted by the quality of the writing and the way the language reflects the story. Perhaps the way Hutchinson eschews our turn of the century technology gives it a slightly old-fashioned feel, but it also avoids getting caught up in a narrow vision of the future which can soon show itself to be laughably wrong—in a decade or two, perhaps using a mobile phone will seem as unlikely as whipping out a slide rule. The end result is pleasant company, and a familiar type of story. The Push is in tight orbit around our star: close to its comforting warmth, and offering the satisfaction of its light.