Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Phillip Mann's Wulfsyarn

Or, The Ghost in the Machine

[Phillip Mann: Wulfsyarn: A Mosaic (1990)]

Rather poignant, that "New Zealand Author" label, don't you think? Sounds more like a government health warning than a recommendation ...

Wulfsyarn is the first of Mann's books I read, and I still find it one of his most perplexing. The basic notion is simple enough: Wulf, a cybernetic autoscribe, is recording the story of John Wilberfoss, disgraced captain of the ship Nightingale, which disappeared on its maiden voyage. When it was found again there was no-one on board but its captain, and he was - to all intents and purposes - mad.

Lily, the robot nurse, and Wulf, the secretary to the abbot of the Pacifico Monastery, are trying to coax Wilberfoss back to health and sanity in order to find out what happened to him and all the others, human and extraterrestrial, who were on board the immense hospital ship at the time.

The problem (as usual in these cases) is that one becomes more and more interested in Wulf and his perceptions of the (for want of a better word) "human" world, and less and less interested in Wilberfoss's various dilemmas and crises of faith as the story continues.

Or at least that's how I felt the first time I read it. Rereading it with more knowledge of Mann's specific interests and concerns: the ecology of alien lifeforms, the dark effects of human lack of self-knowledge, I began to see the form of the book more clearly. It is, in essence, an updated version of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, complete with the crew of dead comrades, the death of the albatross (in this case the alien parasitic creature called Quelle [German for "source"], together with its host, the silly young shepherd Sandy), the "Nightmare death-in-life", and then the eventual return home. Wilberfoss's "crime" seems more and more attenuated and difficult to define as the narrative proceeds - but (like the Mariner's) it stems from some kind of arrogance and sense of self-sufficiency which inspires him to flout the laws of nature.

The actual blame for the destruction of the ship lies far more with the Quelle than with Wilberfoss - but it's really the consequence of a series of coincidences and mischances (the Quelle's decision to infect the ship's bio-crystalline computers with its own self-hatred and self-doubt; the sudden windstorm which confuses the ship's sensors on the alien planet just long enough to accomplish the destruction of every other living thing on board; and (finally) the noble self-sacrifice of the windborne alien, the Chi-da, which Wilberfoss has met and made friends with on the planet when the damaged ship is unable to reach escape velocity). About this last event Wulf makes a telling point:

I am struck by the fact that Wilberfoss, at all points in his life, had visions. The visions were an objective expression of his passions. Perhaps they have real existence in another world. Perhaps the human mind has access to this other world. I do not. Among Wilberfoss's visions I included his beloved Chi-da. I have come to the opinion that if I had been down there on that grey world with Wilberfoss, then I would not have seen any creature which covered the sky like a banner of rippling red silk. [286-87]

Did any of it happen at all? Where is the boundary between "real" and "visionary" events in Wilberfoss's story? It is, after all, literally "a tale told by an idiot" - or at any rate by the self-destructive, psychologically-damaged sole survivor of a cataclysmic disaster. It's natural both for him to blame himself, and to look for clues to what went wrong in his own nature (especially in this case, when the ship's bio-crystalline mind was organically linked to and modelled on that of its commander).

Wulf goes on to say of this benevolent Other, the Chi-da, at the end of his "mosaic", his reconstruction of Wilberfoss's story: "he did not kill it. You cannot kill such things. He allowed it fulfilment, at the last." [287]

[Noel O'Hare, "An Alien at My Table." NZ Listener (August 20, 1994): 38-40.]

I hope the Listener doesn't mind my reproducing this Jane Ussher photograph from the feature-article on Phillip Mann they published back in the Nineties. If so, I apologise. Some interesting things came up in Noel O'Hare's interview, which is why I cut it out and kept it at the time.

"If I'm not careful, I could let the characters becomes too forceful," he says. Mann has a reputation for doing really good aliens. The most unlikely creatures populate his pages: the Hooded parasol, a floating canopy that kills its prey by smell; Diphilus, a jelly ball of illogic logic that devastates computers: the Hammer, a weta-like alien with a deep sense of humour; Wulf, a mechanical autoscribe and analyst of human psychology .. the alien parade goes on. [39]

It's interesting that O'Hare includes Wulf among this "parade" of aliens. I'm not sure that's the point Mann means to make with him. He is, after all, a robot - albeit a "semi-sentient" biocrystalline brain has been implanted in him along the way. Is that the same thing as these other organic, albeit wildly exotic, species?

Mann lives his work, and is possessed by the tale he is telling. "When I sit down to write, I very quickly go into a bit of a trance. I slide into that world very easily, and what I'm doing is totally real to me." [39]

Perhaps that's one reason why it's very hard to distinguish visionary experience and "real" events in the SF landscapes he creates - particularly in Wulfsyarn. This deliberate confusion of levels, somewhat bewildering (I suspect) to fans of (so-called) hardcore science fiction, seems inspired as much by ideology as the demands of the story (if one can draw so facile a distinction between the two, that is):

"I don't have a platform, a political point of view. I'm inconsistent. I'll contradict myself, but sweeping through everything is a worry about what happens if you destroy things, what happens if we destroy this wonderful bloody world." [40]

Mann's "novels of ideas" (to use O'Hare's phrase) are, nevertheless, novels - and ought to be judged and assessed as such:
" ... The rules that govern the writing of a science-fiction novel are exactly the same as for any other literature. Absolutely.

"I don't think science fiction's easier. It's often harder, because you have to maintain the reader's confidence in your ability to stay up there like a balloon. You're floating there and you don't have normal everyday life to support you." [40]

Which brings me to my next point.

I guess that New Zealand readers still know Samuel Butler primarily as the author of Erewhon (1872) and Erewhon Revisited (1901), and those as much for their New Zealand setting as for their - somewhat laboured - dystopian satire. He was also a considerable Classical scholar, and turned his hand to a translation of Homer (as well as writing a number of books and essays elaborating his theory that the author of the Odyssey - at least - was, in fact, a woman).

Here's a passage from his version of the Iliad (Bk XVIII: ll.368 and following):

Meanwhile Thetis came to the house of Vulcan, imperishable, star-bespangled, fairest of the abodes in heaven, a house of bronze wrought by the lame god's own hands. She found him busy with his bellows, sweating and hard at work, for he was making twenty tripods that were to stand by the wall of his house, and he set wheels of gold under them all that they might go of their own selves to the assemblies of the gods, and come back again - marvels indeed to see. They were finished all but the ears of cunning workmanship which yet remained to be fixed to them: these he was now fixing, and he was hammering at the rivets.

- Homer. The Iliad & The Odyssey. Trans. Samuel Butler. 1898. Great Books of the Western World, 4. Ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins. 1952. Chicago: William Benton, Publisher / Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1989.

This passage, from the long description of the forging by the lame god Hephaestus of a new set of armour for Achilles, seems exceptionally interesting to me (especially given Mann's description of Wulf, the autoscribe: "I am told in shape I resemble a helmet of the type used by the Greek warriors at the battle of Troy. If that helps you visualise me, all well and good. But you must also realize that I am four and a half feet high from my base to the top of my crest." [12], though I doubt any direct reference was intended).

While it may not be the very earliest allusion in literature to something resembling the modern conception of a robot (that honour should probably go to the stone rowers destroyed in a fit of pique by the immortality-seeking hero of The Epic of Gilgamesh), it's fascinating to see how far back the idea does in fact go.

These twenty wheeled tripods, whose sole function is (apparently) "to go of their own selves to the assemblies of the gods, and come back again," in fact resemble modern Mars rovers and factory automatons far more than the original "robots" of the Čapek brothers' 1920's play (R.U.R. - Rossum's Universal Robots - to be exact).

One could go on to trace the idea of semi- (or wholly) sentient artificial life-form through the medieval Golem legend, through Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), the life-like animated doll Olimpia in E. T. A Hoffmann's "The Sandman" (1816), through the surgically altered beastmen in H. G. Wells's Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), through Maria's evil android alter-ego in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), all the way up to Data (in Star Trek) and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator. But what makes them so perennially fascinating to us? Why do we keep on returning to this topos: the "android theme" (for want of a better term)?

I suppose that Descartes and Cartesian rationalism has to take at least part of the responsibility (or the blame). For Descartes (as I understand him, at any rate), what you do is the only valid source of information on what you are. Thus, there can be no useful discussion of essence separate from function. His famous apothegm "I think, therefore I am," is therefore intended to define humanity in terms of its capacity for rational thought.

The Wikipedia article on Descartes has (characteristically) a great deal more to say on the subject. I quote:

Descartes ... suggested that the body works like a machine, that it has the material properties of extension and motion, and that it follows the laws of physics. The mind (or soul), on the other hand, was described as a nonmaterial entity that lacks extension and motion, and does not follow the laws of physics. Descartes argued that only humans have minds, and that the mind interacts with the body at the pineal gland. This form of dualism or duality proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence the otherwise rational mind, such as when people act out of passion.

This body-machine gives us (in a sense) our robot: Cartesianism made apparent (I was about to say, made flesh - made metal, rather). But where, then, is the soul in such an entity? Even a machine must (after all) have some kind of mind to guide it if it is to exhibit independent choice. Can it also, then, be subject to human passions? Hence Wulf's somewhat awkwardly-phrased disavowals of pure "objectivity", in the opening pages of his story:

... I want to warn you that though parts of this book will seem objective, even one might say God-given, they are not. My serviced and elaborated brain, almost I want to say my mind, like a colour filter placed over a camera lens, has given the entire work a peculiar cast of thought. As I have discovered, it is one of the paradoxes of biography that in straining to reveal my man, I have unavoidably revealed myself. So be it. [9]

The robot, then, is a kind of metaphor for interrogating reality. If something intangible can survive the process of manufacture, can manifest itself in a non-human intelligence, might that not offer us some clues about the nature of things as they are, not simply as we perceive them? For Descartes (like the cylons in Battlestar Galactica this meant, above all, one possible way of gathering clues about the identity (or existence?) of God.

Descartes suggested that the pineal gland is "the seat of the soul" ... although [he] realized that both humans and animals have pineal glands, he believed that only humans have minds. This led him to the belief that animals cannot feel pain, and Descartes' practice of vivisection (the dissection of live animals) became widely used throughout Europe until the Enlightenment. Cartesian dualism set the agenda for philosophical discussion of the mind-body problem for many years after Descartes' death.

Wulf puts it somewhat differently:

Wilberfoss's only comment when he read my manuscript was that he was surprised at how human I sounded. I think he meant it as a compliment. Let me turn it on its head .... it is not difficult to sound like a human. But being a human is not easy. I know., I have watched the struggle. I have heard humans affirming lies and denying truths. I have seen people choose hell over heaven and rejoice in the fact. [15]

"How human I sounded." Wilberfoss's compliment brings me to another locus classicus for the cybernetic intelligence: the Turing machine.

Alan Turing is well-known, of course, as the mathematician who was hounded to death by the British establishment after the Second World War because it was thought that, despite his undoubted brilliance, his homosexuality made him an automatic security risk. The "Turing machine" began as a hypothetical device capable of infinite numbers of calculations in finite time which he postulated to get him around a problem in mathematical logic. This initial concept grew, partly as a result of his work on the code-breaking machines at Bletchley Park during the war, into something like a blueprint for the modern binary computer.

One extension of this idea was the (so-called) Turing Test (pretty familiar territory to all readers of classical, golden-age science fiction, but maybe not so well-known to everyone else). In essence, the Turing test says that if you can't tell the difference between a real person and an intelligent machine after conducting a fairly extensive conversation with both of them through a text-only medium such as a computer screen and keyboard, then there is no difference. The perfect simulation is the thing itself (you can see why this notion has so delighted SF writers and readers down the years).

Certainly this is the territory within which Wulf is operating in the opening chapters of Mann's novel. As he himself puts it:

I know a great deal about human love from observation. I know for example that love and vanity can have a close relationship in the human psyche though superficially they are frequently seen as opposed. [14]

Is there any real difference in practice between Wulf's observations and "real" people's practice, though? Like Max Beerbohm's happy hypocrite, has he not become the thing he set out to counterfeit? Certainly he and his fellow automaton Lily have shown greater love to Wilberfoss than any of his fellow humans appear to have been capable of, given their automatic assumption that, as its captain, he was solely responsible for the loss of the Nightingale and its crew.

These are deep waters. Wulfsyarn is a fascinating meditation on the nature of the "human" and the "alien" (whether cybernetic or organic), and - above all - the maddening perversity of the former:

People sometimes miss the point. "Aliens are always ways of talking about us. Okay, they might be a bit strange, but really, if you look at them closely, they're us in their passions, in their complex situations." [O'Hare interview, 39]

[Phillip Mann: The Eye of the Queen (1981)]

That, I think, is as far as Wulfsyarn can take us in this particular direction. It's not the limit of Mann's thinking on the subject, however. His first science fiction novel The Eye of the Queen (1981) still probably remains his most philosophically dense.

His hero's final choice to be absorbed into an alien "queen" in order to reemerge - through the complex processes of her digestion - as an altered form of intelligence has a kind of extremist fervour about it which appears to have died down a little in his subsequent, more nuanced (arguably less passionate) works.

The Master of Paxwax series, too, belies its resemblance to other intergalactic empire sagas such as Asimov's Foundation or (above all) Frank Herbert's Dune series, by ending with a neat volte-face where the aliens end up triumphant over the apparently all-powerful - but actually enslaved by their own limited, technological viewpoint - imperialist human "Families."

I don't have space here to go on to talk about his next vast project, the four-volume alternative history A Land Fit for Heroes (1993-1996). Some have seen that as turning away from this fruitful territory of the questions raised by the alien and the robot in favour of a more limited ecological agenda, but that, I think, would be a misreading.

In any case, check the shelves for copies of his books next time you're in a bookshop. I'm sure you won't regret any time you spend on them. My only criticism of Phillip Mann is that he doesn't write - or publish - quickly enough. I for one would love to have a new novel (or set of novels) to pore over.


Giovanni Tiso said...

That New Zealand Author sticker is indeed a classic!

Unknown said...

I never liked "Wulfsyarn" -- it's my least favourite of Phillip's books. I told him so and he just smiled and changed the subject; but nevertheless we have discussed it several times over the years. I felt it was structurally flawed in the sense that we know how it ends as soon as it starts. Where's the dramatic tension? Of course you could say that about "Eye Of The Queen" as well and I love that book. OK -- I contradict myself. Like Whitman, I am large and I contain multitudes.

Nevertheless "Wulfsyarn" always felt thin to me. The characters didn't live and breathe in the way they do in his other novels.

I agree with your comment that he doesn't publish quickly enough. It's not his fault though (he has a lot of unpublished material on hand). He was a casualty of the mid-list author meltdown of a few years ago. And the situation wasn't helped when Gollancz re-published "Eye Of The Queen" without telling him and without paying him any royalties. He has recently managed to have the rights to his backlist revert to his control and hopefully a new publisher will take them up and, with luck, publish his new work as well.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I guess the question is with Wulfsyarn whether you get anything at the end to match all the build-up and expectation. I do feel that Wulf and Lily are interesting characters - Jon Wilberfoss and Medoc (especially) much less so. One could certainly argue that he let the "novel of ideas" dominate him too much in this one, but I do find the ideas themselves very interesting ones. I like it more and more the more often I read it (this is the third time, I think): not really one of my favourites, either, but I think I prefer it to the Paxwax saga (for instance).

Great to hear that there are more books to come