Not in the wildest stoner prognostications of Carl Sagan, nor the fetid dreams of any sci-fi writer ever before or since, has there been anything like the The Reefs of Space. Not the book, which is fairly standard, but the titular reefs themselves. In Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson’s novel, the Universe is not a dead thing. It’s not a void, nor a vacuum. Rather, it’s a sea, rich in basic elements prepared to fuse together and create life over millennia of time. Just beyond the reaches of our solar system, there are the reefs of space: massive, planet-sized systems made of tiny creatures, all of which generate energy by fusing hydrogen atoms in the same facile way a plant might photosynthesize. Autonomous worlds of life, crawling with space animals capable of surviving in the abyss. And the larger creatures float through space like whales through the sea. And among the gnarled caves of crystal and metal, strange space fruit (edible) and glowing, pliable vines. Fairyland, in a word.
This thing is big. It means that the planets are not lonely oases in a dead desert of emptiness. It means that they are island in an infinite ocean of life — strange life, which we had never suspected.
The idea is so arcane that it’s almost avant-garde. This living Universe seems to come from a pre-science fiction mind, a mind steeped in magic and mythology — the same kind of mind that might see the world as flat and ending right at its edges, giving way to an abyss of unimaginable monsters. Certainly, it has a kind of logic to it, just as shooting men to the moon from a giant gun had a kind of logic to it in Jules Verne’s From Earth To The Moon, because that was the limit of imaginable technology in Verne’s time. The thing which is remarkable about The Reefs of Space is that it’s not particularly arcane (1963), nor limited by the technology of its time; rather, it comes from an era of real life whizz-bang rocket ships and global space-conquering dreams. Unlike most sixties science fiction, which is usually forward-thinking, optimistic, countercultural, and rich with technolust, The Reefs of Space takes a giant, dreamy step backwards. With its spaceborne creatures, its phosphorescent caves of floating minerals and cool green clouds of life, it’s a story displaced from its time, an ancient cosmology all its own.
Which reminds me why I love science fiction in the first place, because it privileges the idea over everything else. It’s one of the few genres where style, even story, is totally irrelevant to the value of a novel. A dishpan writer can be relatively, if not totally, successful on the value of their ideas alone — they need not be remotely good at what they do! The science fiction shelf is the permanent home of the hack writer, but it’s also where all the best ideas are. And those phenomena, in my opinion, are related.
Of course, I seek out and appreciate great writing, but if I’m stuck with staid dialogue and rasping monsters, it’s never a total loss. It’s science fiction’s openness to scores of half-brained, wild-fancied writers that allows it to be such a consistently provocative genre — and so abundant with the kinds of thought-images that end up in your dreams, and which perhaps exist independently of plot or style. I haven’t mentioned the plot of the Reefs of Space (and won’t), for example, because it doesn’t matter; the lovely vision of the reef itself suffices. This isn’t to say that Pohl and Williamson are hacks, but that they come from a long and distinguished tradition of hackery, and largely write to it. They know that for a kernel of idea to be implanted into the overmind of popular culture, a lowly paperback is the best mode of transmission.
For in my stack of paperbacks, between endless pages of stuffy exposition, I have androids, floating ecosystems in space, secret drugs, tyrannical computers, and body-snatchers. I have one million years of the future, sentient clouds, and talking newts. I have entire worlds of fatuous and romantic ideas, ideas which are as independent from the establishment — and sometimes, as in the case of Reefs, independent from their time — as they are unencumbered by its literary norms. And they are out, wild and free in the world, plugged into the minds of sixties schoolboys (and 2009-era science fiction bloggers) for perpetuity.
NEXT BOOK: ROBERT A. HEINLEIN’S CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY