(From Piers Anthony’s Macroscope (1969), 224)
First we must honor the book sacrificed in the making of this post: the spine of my Picador 1977 edition of Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship (1976) needs some drastic surgery (glue) after I attempted to scan its dark interior….
As of late I’ve been fascinated by pseudo-knowledge in science fiction and speculative fiction–the scholarly afterward in The Iron Dream (1972), the real medical citations in The Hospital Ship (1976), the invented medical citations in Doctor Rat (1976), and “diagrammatic” SF covers filled with maps or anthropological diagrams.
Whatever form it takes, pseudo-knowledge—perhaps derived from our world or even “real” knowledge in our world modified and inserted into another imaginary one—adds, at the most basic level, a veneer of veracity. The most obvious category, and the one I am least interested in, is scientifically accurate theories and technologies extrapolated from present knowledge or applied to future worlds. Consult, and perhaps financially support, Winchell Chung‘s amazing resource Atomic Rockets if that literary technique fascinates you.
To be clear, sometimes this knowledge is real but the ways in which it is applied or modified for the purposes of narrative are fictional. Science fiction is speculation not prediction. Speculation rooted in telling a good story. As readers, we must tackle the ways authors integrate the real into the imaginary and the purposes of doing so.
This post will focus on visual manifestations of pseudo-knowledge and the ways in which authors use the authority implicit in the table, diagram, chart, and form. This is far from an encyclopedic post and if there are any other charts, diagrams, forms, and tables that resonated with you I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
The future history often uses the timeline to graft a chronology on the stories and invents that will unfold. The first that came to mind was the Timeline for the Known Space sequence of stories by Larry Niven. I scanned this in from his collection Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven (1975).
One of multiple appendices in John Sladek’s The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970) lays out the dates, in his standard satirical fashion, that have only tangential relationship to the actual novel. The appendix fools with encyclopedic notions of gathering all relevant information. Here one is hard pressed to identify the relevancy…
There are many many more examples of the timeline… In Michael Bishop’s fix-up novel/short story collection Catacomb Years (1979), which I lent to my father, he charts out the future history of Atlanta and where each story falls.
Diagraming the Unknown
Sometimes the author, aware of the authority a chart or diagram implies, uses the technique to address what is unknown. In Christopher Priest’s masterful short story “The Real Time World” (1971), he subverts the authority of chart by having his unreliable narrator attempt to understand the world via a diagram. The bare scientific language, given emphasis by the scientific diagram, gives way to a gulf of uncertainty despite protestations that “In cold factual language: I’m a sane man in an insane society” (134).
John Sladek in The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970) uses the diagram to chart Bob’s slow realization that he is sentient although his entire being has been reduced to code. The most visually striking image is a map of the human face where the brain area remains “unexplored.” It even has a compass although distance and direction are meaningless in this geography….
Diagraming Your Own Stories
We continue with John Sladek, the master of the diagram. In the afterward to his collection Keep The Giraffe Burning (1977), supposedly inspired by the doodles of his friend (really a pseudonym he wrote under) “Ms. Cassandra Knye” (200), John Sladek ridicules readers who attempt to find some deeper meaning within the stories. Starting with the short story “Elephant with a Wooden Leg” (1975) Sladek proceeds to lay out a ridiculous series of visual connections between stories all the stories in the collection returning, full circle, to the elephant with one leg. I have reproduced a selection below:
Games and their component meanings
In Piers Anthony’s Macroscope (1969), which I have yet to read, numerous images are included in the text that diagram games played between the characters. I will leave them without analysis as I have little knowledge of the novel….
One tantalizing image of a mysterious satellite from John Varley’s Titan (1979)….
(From John Varley’s Titan (1979), one of three preliminary maps and graphics by Connor Freff Cochran)
The novel that inspired my post holds a special place in my heart: John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968). This New Wave masterpiece, famous for its immersive world building, was my first exposure to experimental SF (or that I was cognizant of). The novel deploys a rigorous structure divided by heading: “context”, “the happening world”, “tracking with closeups”, and “continuity.”
A handful of the “context” sections contain text divided into tables. Although far from more flashy visuals we’ve discussed, they are effective attempts to instill the sense of information overload central to Brunner’s overpopulated future.
Another wonderful example of visual as context can be found in Martin Bax’s Ballard-esque The Hospital Ship (1976). I’m almost finished reading the story and will discuss his jarring post-modern techniques at greater length in a proper review…. Here Bax includes an invented form that characters filled out upon entering the Hospital Ship. As Bax himself was a doctor, the overlap between real and imaginary medical practices creates a fascinating tapestry. Yes, this is an invented form but it takes on the guise of real medical practice.
Bonus: The Diagram in Action
And finally, let us conclude with Michael Butterworth’s short story “Circularisation of Condensed Conventional Straight-Line Word-Image Structures” (1969). The story does not function without its diagrams. Appeared in New Worlds, 192 (July 1969) ed. Langdon Jones. Full issue available online here.
For more articles consult the INDEX
For more explorations of cover art consult the INDEX