Wednesday, 7 June 2017

THE TOUGHEST STORY WRITTEN BY POUL ANDERSON, by Sean M. Brooks

This essay had its origins in a comment by Dr. Paul Shackley in a blog piece he wrote called "Space, Time and Experience" (POUL ANDERSON APPRECIATION blog, Sunday, May 14, 2017): "If a fictional character has qualitatively different sensory experiences and/or thought processes, then how does the author convey these qualitative differences to his readers?"  The story by Poul Anderson which best fitted what Dr. Shackley said was "Night Piece" (to be found in the Anderson pocket paperback collection THE GODS LAUGHED, TOR, 1982).  It's my belief that "Night Piece" is the toughest story to understand of all the works of Poul Anderson.  And I meant that as a compliment, not a criticism, because Anderson strove in that story to give us some idea of what a truly alien, superior, non human mind might be like.

Unusually for him, Poul Anderson attached some fairly lengthy prefatory remarks to "Night Piece": "It's quite unlike anything else I've done.  But that's precisely why I'm fond of it."   Instead of writing "Night Piece" in a straight forward narrative fashion, Anderson experimented with very different methods, as he wrote: "I have no pretensions to being a Kafka or Capek, but it did seem to me it would be interesting to use, or attempt to use, some of their techniques."  Lastly: "Therefore "Night Piece" is at least three concurrent stories, two of them symbolic. I'm not likely to do anything of this sort very often--some of those archetypes scared the hell out of me--but I hope that I succeeded in getting across a small part of  that which I was trying to get across" (all quotes in this paragraph taken from pages 33-34 of THE GODS LAUGHED, to be mostly cited hereafter as "TGL"). 

The unnamed POV character was a scientist studying ESP phenomena, such as telepathy, and had been  working at his laboratory on an "ESP amplifier," a device apparently designed to sense the radiations from the minds of beings with ESP abilities.  This POV character had also hypothesized that another "intelligent" race had evolved on Earth alongside mankind with abilities so different from ours that normally human beings would not sense that other race's existence.  And, somehow, this amplifier had "sensitized" his mind so much that he had stumbled onto the plane of existence inhabited by Superior, at that simplest level of activity sometimes engaged in by Superior most like those familiar to mankind, conflict or strife.

I need to backtrack and give some explanation of how a race alien to and superior to mankind could  have evolved alongside ours on Earth.  The POV character, after briefly reviewing what unicellular life forms, plants, animals, and human beings had in common, such as tropisms, instincts, and varying degrees of intelligence, said of the human race: "Man, of course, has made this [conscious intelligence] his particular strength.  He also has quite a bit of instincts, some reflexes, and maybe a few tropisms" (TGL, pages 45-46).  This scientist then wondered WHAT would make such an alien race truly different from, or superior to ours: "To surpass us, should Superior try to out-human humanity?  Shouldn't he rather possess only a modicum of reasoning ability by our standards, very weak instincts, a few reflexes, and no tropisms?  But his speciality, his characteristic mode, would be something we can't imagine.  We may have a bare touch of it, as the apes and dogs have a touch of  logical reasoning power.  But we can no more imagine its full development than a dog could follow Einstein's equations" (TGL, page 46).

This scientist's wife asked what could be the unique speciality of a superior race which had evolved alongside mankind.  Her husband replied, "Conceivably in the ESP field--Now I'm letting my hobby horse run away with me again.  (Damn it, though--I am starting to get reproducible results.)  Whatever it is, it's something much more powerful than logic or imagination.  And as futile for us to speculate about as for the dog to ponder Einstein" (TGL, page 46).

I admit to finding the idea that an "intelligent" race could have a speciality, a characteristic mode of acting or "thinking" far beyond anything we can imagine to be puzzling.  How could such an alien race have "only a modicum of reasoning ability" and still be superior to ours?  How could such a race even be able to use this speciality and characteristic mode without also having the intelligence needed to know HOW to use it?  Would a mere "modicum of reasoning ability" truly be enough for Superior?

Another quote from "Night Piece," from pages 46-47 of THE GODS LAUGHED: "But, assuming Superior does exist....hm.  Do mice know men exist?  All a mouse knows is that the world contains good things like houses and cheese, bad things like weatherstripping and traps, without any orderly pattern that his instincts could adapt him to.  He sees men, sure, but how can he know they're a different order of life, responsible for all the strangeness in his world?  In the same way, we may have co-existed with Superior for a million years, and never known it.  The part of him we can detect may be an accepted feature of our universe, like the earth's magnetic field, or an unexplained feature like occasional lights in the sky; or he may be quite undetectable.  His activities would never impinge on ours, except once in a while by sheerest accident--and then another "miracle" is recorded that science never does find an explanation for."

The scientist's wife then asked whether these beings could have come from another planet.  He replied: "I doubt that.  They probably evolved here right along with us.  All life on earth has an equally ancient lineage. I've no idea what the common ancestor of man and Superior could have been.  Perhaps as recent as some half-ape in the Pliocene, perhaps as far back as some amphibian in the Carboniferous.  We took one path, they took another, and never shall the twain meet" (TGL, page 47).

Getting back to a point I mentioned earlier, how did this POV character, the scientist, stumble onto the Superior mode of existence?  Again quoting from "Night Piece": "He wasn't sure how he had blundered onto the Superior plane of existence, or, rather, how his mind or his rudimentary ESP or whatever-it-was had suddenly begun reacting to the behavior-mode of that race.  He only knew, with the flat sureness of  immediate experience that it had happened."  The next paragraph reads: "His logical mind, unaffected as yet, searched in a distant and dreamy fashion for a rationale.  The amplifier alone could hardly be responsible.  But maybe the remembrance of his speculative fable had provided the additional impetus necessary?" (TGL, page 47). 

Before grappling with how a Superior mode of existence might affect a human mind, I need to define more clearly what Superior's plane had in common with that of mankind.  The scientist had happened to stumble into accessing Superior's mode of acting at the point where it was most like that of mankind: "The activities of Superior were always and forever incomprehensible to him, but he could describe their general tendency.  Violence, cruelty, destruction.  Which didn't make sense!  No species could survive that used its powers only for such ends."  The scientist reasoned further: "Therefore, Superior did not.  Most of the time, he/she/it? was just being Superior, and  as such was completely beyond human perception.  Occasionally, though, there was conflict.  By analogy, mankind--all animals--behaved constructively on the whole--but sometimes engaged in strife.  Superior?  Well, of course Superior didn't have wars in the human sense of the word.  Conflicts of some kind, anyhow, where an issue was decided not by reason or compromise but by force.  And the force employed was (to give it a name) of an ESP nature" (TGL, pages 51 and 52).   

Poul Anderson mentioned in his prefatory comments to "Night Piece" : "I have no pretensions to being a Kafka or a Capek, but it did seem to me it would be interesting to use, or attempt to use, some of their techniques."  Which means I have to briefly discuss what kind of writer Franz Kafka was, what it was in his works that Anderson took over to use in writing "Night Piece."  In the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA'S  article on Franz Kafka I found this: "The characters in these works [of Kafka] fail to establish communication with others, they follow a hidden logic that flouts normal, everyday logic; their world erupts in grotesque incidents and violence.  Each character is only an anguished voice, vainly questing for information and understanding of the world and for a way to believe in his own identity and purpose" (ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, MICROPAEDIA, volume 6, page 678 [Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2002])

After the POV character in "Night Piece" was "sensitized" to Superior's mode or plane of existence, the scientist suffered strange torments and grotesque experiences of a truly Kafkaesque kind.  He first experienced Superior as alien sounding footsteps coalescing into this description: "The footsteps picked up. They weren't loud, which was just as well, for they seemed less human each second he listened.  There was a slithering quality to them: not wet, but dry, a scaly dryness that went slithering over dirty concrete. He didn't even know how many feet there were.  More than two, surely.  Perhaps so many that they weren't feet at all, but one supple length.  And the head rose, weaving about in curves that rippled and rustled--becoming less sinuous as the hood swelled until the sidewide figure eight upon it stood forth plain; a thin little tongue flickered as if frantic; but there was an immortal patience in the eyes, which were lidless" (TGL, page 37).  This should not be understood as being an actual description of Superior--rather, it was how the POV character strove to understand what he was experiencing in comprehensible metaphors.

One of the methods used by Kafka in his works is for his characters to lose contact with others, to fail in establishing communication with them.  Anderson first showed this as happening to his POV character's reaction to a police officer finding him: "For a moment he considered asking the policeman's help.  The fellow looked so substantial and blue.  His big jowly face was not unkind.  But of course the policeman could not help. He can take me home, if I so request.  Or put me in jail if I act oddly enough.  Or call a doctor if I fall boneless at his feet.  But what's the use?  There is no cure for being in an ocean" (TGL, page 40).    

An explanation of what made Kafka's works "Kafkaesque" and how it applies to "Night Piece" is necessary: "Many of Kafka's fables contain an inscrutable, baffling mixture of the normal and the fantastic, though occasionally the strangeness may be understood as the outcome of a literary or verbal device, as when the delusions of a pathological state are given the status of reality, or the metaphor of a common figure of speech is taken literally" (ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, MICROPAEDIA, volume 6, page 678).

The unnamed POV character stumbled into the Superior mode or plane of existence in that aspect most comprehensible to men: strife or conflict.  But this character could only "understand" Superior's plane of existence in an "inscrutable, baffling mixture of the normal and the fantastic."  Two beings of this Superior race were at fierce conflict with each other and one of the ways the human character perceived this strife was as a mountain: "Across many wild miles he saw the mountain rise from the waters.  Black and enormous it was lifted; water cascaded off its flanks, fire and sulfur boiled from its throat.  Shock followed shock, flinging him to and fro, over and under.  He felt, rather than saw; the whole sea bottom lifting beneath him" (TGL, page 49).

In his daze the POV character had sought refuge in a bar, and, after it closed he walked to a bus: "Habit had taken him over the street to the bus.  He stopped in front of the doors.  What was he doing here?  The thing was an iron box.  No, he must not enter the box.  The hollow people sat there in rows, waiting for him.  He must tear down the mountain instead" (TGL, page 50). Here we see another of this mix of the normal and the fantastic characteristic of Kafka's writings: ordinary things like walking across a street to a bus and perceiving it as a menacing iron box filled with "hollow people."

How did the scientist/POV character finally escape from perceiving what was to him Superior's intolerable plane of existence?  He had blundered into that mode partly because of both his speculations and the ESP amplifier he had been working on "sensitizing" him to that alien, non human mode of existing.  The means he found of saving his sanity and returning to the human plane of thought/existing was, oddly, to keep STILL.  As Anderson wrote: "Of course.  Consider the pattern.  Forward and backward, you are still moving within the currents.  But if you remain still--" (TGL, page 54).  But to do this "keeping still" would cause the POV character intolerable anguish.  However, he managed to get through this pain and entered the bus, thus snapping out of perceiving Superior's plane of existing. 

In one sense, the ending of Anderson's "Night Piece" is not characteristic of Kafka's style of writing, because the POV character SURVIVED.  In stories and novels like "The Judgment," "The Metamorphosis,"  THE TRIAL, AMERICA, THE CASTLE, etc., Kafka's POV characters die miserably and in anguish.  Poul Anderson chose not to have his POV character suffer a similar fate.  My view is that either kind of ending is legitimate, depending on many factors, such as the differences in authors characters and the logical ways the plots of the stories they were writing determining the most artistically satisfying endings for their tales.

Poul Anderson's "Night Piece" is not only the single most difficult to understand of his stories but also one of the toughest to  write about.  Because of both his use of Kafka's methods/techniques and striving to show us how a truly alien and superior "intelligent" species could have evolved alongside the human race on our Earth.  The very idea is difficult to understand for many reasons.  One being HOW two such races could co-exist with each other on the same planet without mankind eventually and unequivocally discovering such a species.  Even if Superior's mode of existing was based on him having powers or abilities impossible for men to naturally perceive, wouldn't both races need many of the same kinds of RESOURCES to merely live?  Wouldn't members of the Superior species need to EAT, for example?  How would human and Superior farmers be able to practice agriculture without getting in each other's way?  Or has Superior somehow transcended the need for food, clothing, shelter, etc?   I do not believe it is possible for an intelligent race with physical BODIES to somehow skip the need for such things.  Or could I be wrong?

I want to go back to a point made by Poul Anderson in his prefatory remarks about this story: "Therefore Night Piece is at least three concurrent stories, two of them symbolic" (TGL, page 34).  I argue that the non-symbolic story can be found largely in the POV character's discussion with his wife on WHAT would make Superior a race superior to mankind.  And the first symbolic story would be how the POV character reacted to blundering into Superior's mode of acting and existing.  And the second symbolic story is how the human character perceived Superior's mode of acting, with all the pain and anguish that gave him.

One last point should be discussed: Poul Anderson cited Karel Capek as one of the two authors whose works helped to inspire him in writing "Night Piece."  I focused on Franz Kafka's influence because I believe it was largely that writer's work whose mark is most clearly seen in "Night Piece."  That is why I have not thought it necessary to discuss Capek's possible influence on "Night Piece," aside from me noting here that he too wrote science fiction.

12 comments:

  1. This article is welcome both because it illuminates a difficult story and because it is very different from recent posts.

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    1. Kaor, Paul!

      Thanks for the nice comment. Much appreciated! This essay of mine has to be one of the toughest, if not the MOST difficult, of any articles I wrote on works written by Poul Anderson. And I'm not entirely sure I succeeded in satisfactorily explicating the meaning of "Night Piece."

      I do believe "Night Piece" gives us a better glimpse into what a truly ALIEN non human mind might be like than what most SF authors have written. Which makes Poul Anderson's effort here all the MORE to be commended, because he strove to go beyond the limitations he and all other human SF writers had to labor under.

      My struggles to read, understand, and write about "Night Piece" has as one of its consequences me getting interested in Franz Kafka's works. One of the articles I read about him recommended that readers should start first with his short stories. So I might soon get a collection of his shorter works.

      One last point: I made a mistake in the 20th, next to last paragraph. In the sentence beginning "And the first symbolic symbolic story would be how the POV character..." I forgot to write "character" after "POV." Could you insert that word?

      Sean

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    2. Kaor, Paul!

      Many thanks! And I hope other readers will leave comments of their own about both "Night Piece" and my essay. Maybe some will point out errors and omissions I made.

      Sean

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  2. Does anyone out there know how Capek is specifically relevant?

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  3. Kaor, Sean!

    Thank you for taking the time and trouble to write this. I don't have much to add, since I don't fully understand "Night Piece" either.

    Best Regards,
    Nicholas D. Rosen

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    1. Kaor, Nicholas and Paul!

      Nicholas: many thanks for your nice comment! Oh, I certainly agree with you on how difficult it is to understand "Night Piece." And it's alarming, the idea we might be co-habiting Earth alongside an alien race possibly as strange and incomprehensible as Superior.

      I'm STILL pondering my essay and wondering if I should reread "Night Piece" yet again!

      Paul, could you revise part of a line in my fourth paragraph I'm dissatisfied with? This is how I would revise it: "This scientist then wondered WHAT would make such an alien race truly different from, or superior to ours:..." Sorry to be a bother!

      Sean

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    2. Kaor, Paul!

      Many thanks! As you can tell, I still have "Night Piece" and my essay on my mind! I wish I had thought of writing a letter more or less like my "Toughest" essay to PA. And I wonder how he would have responded.

      Sean

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    3. Kaor, Paul!

      Apologies for nitpicking yet again: could you revise the second sentence of paragraph 20 by removing the apostrophe from "POV" and placing it with "character"? Also, after the "WHAT" in the same sentence, could you revise it like this: "...would make Superior a race superior to mankind." The last part of my original text looks garbled to me.

      Apologies for bothering you. But I'm still thinking about and reading this essay I wrote. I've actually been wondering if real ESP researchers might stumble across a race like Superior. Assuming it exists, of course!

      Sean

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    4. Kaor, Paul!

      Many thanks! I know I should have made these corrections myself before sending the essay to you.

      I admit "Night Piece" is STILL on my mind! Esp. bits like the POV character's suggestion that an accepted feature of the Earth's environment might be that part of Superior we can sense or perceive.

      Sean

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