Science, Fiction, and Pynchon: Three Great Tastes That Go Together?

Illustration for article titled Science, Fiction, and Pynchon: Three Great Tastes That Go Together?

When describing Thomas Pynchon, words that usually come to mind are 'difficult', 'long', and probably 'difficult' again. And that's a shame, because he's a phenomenal writer, one with a surprisingly savvy take on the world and how it's run.


Pynchon is one of those writers whose monstrous reputations precede them (Neil Stephenson is another). His rejection of nearly all publicity- he's never been allowed a photograph of his to go public (although he has lent his voice to The Simpsons) only adds to the impenetrable mystique. And yet, his work is political, complex, and often is teeming with sci-fi. A fomer Naval engineer, Pynchon has a technical knowledge of machinery that few writers beyond the Tom Clancy/Clive Cussler lot posses. More importantly, Pynchon discusses why technology exists in the first place, and man's (usually doomed) relationship with it.

His eight published works (seven novels, one short story collection) are all over the place- World War II, drugged out 70's Los Angeles, 18th century London- and not all his works have involve science fiction, but his best ones do. True, they're all so dense that looking at the individual wikis set up for each one has serious practical use. An easy way to look at Pynchon's work is through the theme of entropy- the concept that all things dissolve over time- it's no coincidence that he started writing his first published work shortly reading Asimov's "The Last Question". When looked at through that lens, Pynchon's work regarding technology and cyborgs suddenly make a whole lot more sense.


Take his first novel, the confounding, frustrating, but ultimately beautiful V.. Most of the book deals with long lost loves, the superficiality of the counterculture, genocide and a myriad of other topics. He also runs into SHOCK and SHROUD. They sound like a robotic Abbott and Costello, but in reality V.'s SHOCK (Synthetic Human Object, Casualty Kinematics) and SHROUD (Synthetic Human, Radiation Output Determined) are human models created to see how much damage and radiation a human can take, making them half test dummies and half harbingers of the apocalypse. SHOCK has vinyl skin, a wig for hair, and dentures "worn today by 19 per cent of the the American population". It can think and talk, but Pynchon never lets the reader forget its inhumanity. When Benny Profane (as close to a protagonist as V gets) starts talking to SHROUD, Pynchon keeps quote marks away from SHROUD's lines, making him slightly more than a line on a page and slightly less than human. It's a neat trick that works well with SHROUD's apocalyptic words, where it describes itself as an empty vessel, which for Pynchon might as well be the future.

And what do Profane and and this Frankenstein-esque creature have to say to each other? Not much. Their interaction lasts about a page, and consists mostly of the stuff that happens at first contact-

"What's it like," he said.

Better then you have it.


What yourself. Me and SHOCK are what you and everybody will be someday. (The skull seemed to be grinning at Profane.)

"There are other ways besides fallout and road accidents."

But those are most likely. If somebody else doesn't do it to you, you'll do it yourselves.

"You don't even have a soul. How can you talk."

Since when did you ever have one? What are you doing, getting religion? All I am is a a dry run. They take readings off my dosimeters. Who is to say whether I'm here so the people can radiation in me is because they have to measure. Which way does it go?

Mazel tov. (Maybe the hint of a smile?)

In Asimov's "The Last Question", characters ask what will happen when all energy in the universe is depleted, when entropy reaches totality. Pynchon brings that question to the forefront of his work and his characters lives. Whether talking to robots, listening to music in jazz clubs, or living in South Africa in the 20's, entropy is inescapable.

Now, this all is fiction, and SHOCK and SHROUD have to do with science, but does that necessarily mean V. is science-fiction? Yes and no, I'd argue. While most of the book takes place in a non-sci-fi atmosphere, Pynchon constantly works science into V.. The concept of entropy is central to it, and Pynchon sees entropy leading society towards total mechanization. Line of graffiti become circuit breakers, eyes become positive and negative charges. There's nothing particularly futuristic about this, and that's the point- the cold mechanical future isn't just coming for Pynchon, it's here.

Of course, that's just Pynchon's first book. While he's never written an out-and-out sci-fi novel, the idea of otherworldly technology touches much of his work. Information theory and perpetual motion machines play heavily into The Crying of Lot 49, and his depictions of V-1 and V-2 rockets flying overhead in Gravity's Rainbow (the book's title comes from their trajectory) make them seem foreign to the idea of humanity, not to mention that book's look at Freudian techniques.


The question, to me at least, is if these elements are enough to qualify Pynchon as "sci-fi". Sure, it would be easy enough to say he uses elements of science fiction in his work, but that seems like a cop out that doesn't define anything. Are brief technological interludes, with heavy scientific themes, enough to make a book science-fiction?

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Of course, Pynchon's recent ginormous novel "Against the Day," with its zeppelins and 19th- and early 20th-century mega-science, is pure steampunk.