Friday, July 31, 2009

Seeking a Signal Amid the Noise

Seeking a Signal Amid the NoiseI am not a huge fan of science fiction, generally speaking, but I do have a few favorite authors to whom I return time and again. And I like very much what the best SF can do, namely, position itself as what the theorist Darko Suvin once called the “literature of cognitive estrangement.”

In Suvin’s definition -- outlined in his influential Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) -- “cognitive” refers to the “science” half of science fiction, the half that concerns SF’s focus on logic and reason, while “estrangement” refers to the “fiction” making, that is, the creation of a new world that is different from the one in which the reader lives. That’s what defines the genre, says Suvin -- what makes a book “science fiction” and not something else. A work of SF presents us a new world, but does so in a way that still pays heed to rational, scientifically-sound explanations.

What happens then (Suvin goes on to explain) is that the reader does get to “escape” his or her world, in a way, while reading, but on finishing the fiction is then encouraged to return to his or her world with a questioning attitude. Thus you get SF books that function as cogent commentaries on various aspects of our reality. Some of these comment specifically on the pursuit of scientific knowledge and understanding, but some also give us things to think about with regard to the many other disciplines by which we try to understand our reality such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, poltics, and so forth.

Like I say, I have a few favorite SF authors and books, and the ones I like always do more than simply provide an “escape” but force me to take that next step and think about the world in which I live in a different way.

A couple of days ago I was reading Otis filling out one of those “memes” which included listing “15 Books I’ve read that, for whatever reason, stand out in my mind.” Otis’ list has about three SF titles on it, and I think if I were to fill out such a list mine would also include a few SF books, though not the same ones.

My list would include Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), a time-travel book about slavery that some (including Suvin, I’d guess) might argue isn’t technically SF but fantasy. It would also include Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s brilliant, witty satire on crass commercialism called The Space Merchants (1952).

'Time Out of Joint' by Philip K. Dick (1959)I’d additionally be tempted to include Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959), which starts out as a very realistic -- even somewhat mundane -- narrative about a not-so-inspiring hero whose main talent is an uncanny ability to solve the daily puzzle in his local newspaper. Then, about halfway through the novel, we -- along with the hero -- come to realize nothing is what it seems. (I'll say no more, but think The Truman Show or other, similar stories that were undoubtedly influenced by this novel.) Simply an amazing book, really, that like the other two “for whatever reason” tends to “stand out in my mind.”

There’s a fourth SF book I’d definitely include on the list, one by the Polish author Stansilaw Lem titled His Master’s Voice (1968). Lem is best known for a book called Solaris (1961) from which a couple of films have been made. I also recommend that book, as well as the 1972 film by the Russian director, Andrei Tartovsky. But the Lem novel I keep going back to is His Master’s Voice.

I took His Master’s Voice to Vegas this summer, actually, and was rereading it beside the pool on those days off from helping cover the World Series of Poker for PokerNews. And, in fact, the point of this here post was to suggest at least one of the ways Lem’s book -- set in the Nevada desert, in fact -- might be said to relate to the experience of playing poker.

'His Master's Voice' by Stanislaw Lem (1968)His Master’s Voice is presented as an autobiography by a mathematician named Peter Hogarth, a person who becomes involved in a governmental program called “His Master’s Voice” (abbreviated as HMV), the object of which is to try to decipher what is thought to be a message from space, delivered in the form of a neutrino emission. The set-up perhaps calls to mind those various “SETI” (“Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”) projects in which people use computing power and other means to try to glean out some sort of communication coming to us via the skies.

It is the presence of what seems to be some sort of pattern in the emission that leads many to believe that some entity has sent it as a message -- “that behind the object of investigation there indeed stands a Someone” -- and the HMV project is created to figure out just what the message says. The novel takes some surprising twists, with the message alternatively being understood as instructions for the creation of a new, previously unknown life form as well as a recipe for a weapon of mass destruction. Ultimately, the book -- which is very academic in tone and almost reads like a philosophy text at times -- ends up making a lot of profound observations about the ways humans interact with one another, particularly the ways we “communicate” (or fail to).

I guess the aspect of His Master’s Voice that most directly makes me think of poker has to do with this effort to seek out patterns -- a “signal” amid the “noise” -- and interpret them in ways that make sense to us. At the poker table, we watch an opponent’s behaviors and actions, we make note of betting decisions and amounts, and we build some sort of understanding of what “message” that player is sending to us.

The fact is, though -- and Hogarth (the narrator) kind of insists on this point throughout the book -- any “message” is going to be imperfectly delivered and imperfectly understood. Hogarth often stops and points out how “one’s personal experience in life is fundamentally unconveyable. Nontransmittable.” He acknowledges repeatedly that his memoir is riddled with gaps and references to things that are “unconveyable.” And Hogarth also knows that even what he does manage to convey will likely be understood differently than he intends. Thus is the HMV project also doomed to fail, in Hogarth’s view.

So, too, are our efforts to read others’ messages at the poker table always imperfect, unfinished, taken from inadequate sample sizes. We may still profit from them, but we can’t ever really come away with an utterly absolute, unequivocal understanding of the meaning of others’ “messages.”

Indeed, I am aware that it is very likely you’ve arrived at the end of this post still searching for its “message.” Take from it what you will, but do at least take these book recommendations as part of whatever communication it is I’m trying to deliver.

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