Asymptotic identities and contradictory infinities – more of why I love sf/f
None of which I knew when I read Bayley’s story. I was an American high school student whose exposure to sci fi had been dictated by what was available in libraries of various small towns and the pages of U.S. magazines such as Galaxy or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
“The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor” is a novella about a man living in a future where many technologies we would think of as impossible are commonplace. He is flying a personal craft at the velocity of c raised to the 186th power while fiddling with an invention of his own which he hopes will lead to the solution to a problem his society hasn’t yet tackled. He is accompanied by a sort of hitchhiker named Watson-Smythe who is trying to find an artist named Corngold.
Naylor’s invention is a thespitron: a device that constructs stories from all of the possible elements of fiction. Not just stories, it creates virtual worlds inhabited by beings that may be independently intelligent. The problem Naylor is hoping to solve with his experiments is navigation. In Naylor’s time it has been discovered that reality is far bigger than believed in the 20th century: the width of what we think of as the entire universe is simply a unit of measure for this reality. With those distances, the speeds at which advanced civilizations can move, and the fact that reality itself is expanding and changing while they’re zipping around at these impossible speeds means that no form of navigation is reliable. The very fabric of space changes between one’s origin and destination, so from time to time ships become lost.
Naylor has a theory that reality isn’t defined by matter, but by abstract concepts and relationships. He’s convinced if he can truly understand the nature of identity, how objects and beings relate to each other, such as in the structure of stories, that he can create a formula or algorithm to reliable rediscover any unique object one has observed before.
Which is all very cerebral and surreal compared to Watson-Smythe’s quest to find the artist. They do find the artist, his ship seemingly stranded on the edge of a vast stretch of unreality they call a matterless lake. At which point it’s revealed that Watson-Smythe is a government agent out to arrest Corngold, and that Corngold’s model is actually a victim of rape and kidnapping.
What happens next is in some ways far too predictable. When I first read it as a teen-ager I was rather angry that I saw what was going to go horribly wrong before it did, and couldn’t believe an interstellar spy would be stupid enough to fall for it. Even the dippy overly philosophical inventor, Naylor, should have seen it coming, I felt. I was also confused as to why the model/kidnap victim/rape victim seemed completely passive and apparently too afraid, even when essentially a cop arrives ready to rescue her, to do anything against her captor.
Re-reading it more recently, I was even more irritated when I realize that the author gives literally zero lines of dialog to the only woman in the story. Even while she is being abused in front of the officer who supposedly is there to arrest her assailant, the author tells us what she does, but doesn’t let her speak. It’s not that the author says she’s mute. No, the author says that she “responds noncommitally.”
Despite being frustrated with the story, I found a lot of it fascinating. The far future technology, which includes the ability to synthesize any matter one can name from a sort of quantum blob and back again when no longer needed, reminded me a lot of the Culture series by Iain Banks. So when I was reading up on Barrington J. Bayley, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Banks was one of the younger authors who listed Bayley as an influence on his work.
I was also not terribly surprised to find Bayley’s work described as gloomy and downbeat, which this story certainly was. While looking through the list of novels and short stories Bayley had published during his life, I was a bit surprised at how few titles I recognized. I think that this story is the only one of his that I’ve ever read.
While it isn’t a very satisfying read, I can’t say that it’s a bad story. It kept my attention and made me keep turning pages wondering how it would end. Admittedly, part of that was trying to figure out how the author would pull an interesting ending out of this mix of weird characterization and convoluted philosophy and mess of a plot. The story made me want answers, and it made me think about what clues I might have missed.
Is Bayley intentionally making the characters do stupid, and predictable things, to make a point about the reality of Naylor’s world and the unreality of his invention’s constructed worlds? I’m not sure. The intentions of the New Wave writers were to experiment by breaking the established rules of writing and try to find a new way to tell and experience stories. I do have to agree with Donald Wolheim’s comment in the introduction of this story in the anthology: this story crams more science fiction concepts and ideas into it’s novella length than many whole series of novels contain.
And maybe that piling up of ideas without a clear cut answer to any of the questions the central character raises is the point. Sci fi is supposed to be the genre of ideas, after all. And this tales serves up a whole lot!