Call it nausea, call it existential pain, call it a pscyhosis of modern civilization, call it post-modern nihilism—whatever it’s nomenclature, people today are facing crises of existence in quantities unlike any previous generation. And we all run in the direction we see fit trying to find meaning or escape—from the immediacy of suicide to the classic stand-by of religion, the acceptance of fatalism to the restlessness of denial and uncertainty. Approaching from the perspective humanity is bent on self-destruction, Norman Spinrad’s 1972 novella “Riding the Torch” tackles the crisis in fine, science fictional form. And yes, sucking void is something you will want to do too, even if just for a moment.
“Riding the Torch” is the story of Jofe D'mahl. A senso producer (films that interact directly with the mind), he is one of the chief entertainers aboard the generation torchship Brigadoon. Ego to the brim and the ship’s main socialite, he has no time for the voidsuckers—the sullen men and women who go beyond the massive ship’s hydrogen umbra to seek out new planets for its passengers to settle. Goaded into taking one such trip after a voidsucker news bulletin upstages his latest senso, however, D’mahl has the experience of his life. Cut off from all technology and social affairs of the Brigadoon, he is offered a new perspective on existence. Problem is, he also comes upon knowledge that unhinges his mindset regarding the Brigadoon’s mission.
My summary of the plot weak by comparison, Spinrad endows the blasé synopsis above with a sense of dark beauty, intelligence, and artistry that transcends its genre outlay. D’mahl is a dynamic character that can be off-putting for his social antics yet understood at a human level. The ship comes to life in terms of stance—the design of its levels, the tapping technology that allows a person to vicariously exist inside someoneelse’s head, and the attitude of the passengers. For all the elements inherent to the idea, the void is likewise described in gripping terms—a hermitage moving near the speed of light in the infinite abyss of space, as it were. (The harrowed, sunken-eyed look of the voidsuckers—those who have tasted existential pain—is classic.) The two senso films embedded in the main storyline complement and draw out the philosophical ideas at work in literary fashion. And lastly, the underlying thematic question is handled with such verve as to be considered both artistic and relevant. Not an empty romp in space, Spinrad has an agenda in “Riding the Torch,” and he sees to it that it’s filled.
Like the generational starship of Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop, “Riding the Torch” can be a metaphor for human existence, the ship a stand-in for Earth. In the novella’s case, the main character is forced to confront the question: in the face of humanity’s tendency toward self-destruction, what is there to live for? Even if the Brigadoon does find an inhabitable planet for humanity to colonize, what will be the fate of the generations who come to inhabit it? In answering these questions Spinrad transitions his ‘hero’ from one end of a spectrum to another. Social immersion wherein the moment to moment joys of interaction and entertainment provide life’s fuel form one end, while on the other is the ability of contemplation in isolation to make one feel at one with the great beyond. A contrast of the pleasures and delights of future civilization (the entertainments, the parties, the lights, the sensory interaction) to the stripped down, ascetic value of existence in a wisdom-inducing void, it is a reflective spectrum.
Exiting the spectrum, Spinrad forces D’mahl into self-interrogation in coming to terms with his experiences and to choose an end. The ‘correct answer’ presented brilliantly via an irreverent senso film starring god and the devil, his decision manages to satisfy both ends while retaining its humanity (and is, in fact, reminiscent of the conclusion of another Aldiss offering, the Helliconia series). The Brigadoon’s great trek through space does have a purpose, but it’s nothing trite or anything the politically correct would dredge up—thankfully.
In the end, “Riding the Torch” is a novella that takes humanity to task, questioning what is to be done if its current behavior persists. Presented from the perspective of a film director living aboard a luxurious generational torchship, he faces a major challenge to his mindset toward existence and is forced to synthesize it within the larger human context: how does one stare down the existential barrel of a gun each and every day and still wake up? Written in dynamic prose that imaginatively describes life aboard ship and in the great void of the universe, Spinrad caps matters by presenting the climax of the argument via a wonderfully imagined film production that speaks to the human spirit. The novella may lack the realism the literati seek, but the elements all converge on the same philosophical point—trumped by the fact the story offers a nice metaphor for Earth’s own situation.