Deep in the human mind, the concept of dying is synonymous with that of leaving the earth. To escape its gravity means to transcend the grave, and a man upon finding himself on another planet has really no way of proving to himself that he is not dead – that the naive old myth has not come true.
What is science fiction? I have no ready caption for the allegedly imaginative, no-holds-barred nonsense that so rarely broaches the literary (this film, based on a vastly inferior book, is a rare example, although it is more about spirituality) because science fiction, much as science, likes to wallow in its vague fame. It may as a genre constantly reinvent itself, yet its reinventions leave its forebears unworshipped and unappreciated – but let us be fair. If science, which has produced so many wonders and made our lives substantially easier and healthier, still knows a fraction of a drachma of a billionth of anything at all about our universe, a literary movement that glorifies the progression of human knowledge cannot aspire to anything greater. Expecting more out of intergalactic internecine is a waste of hope. What we can say without fear of perjury is that a consistent swath of human readers (to distinguish them from the beasts and blobs that haunt those silvery fables) loves deceiving itself with the lure of science fiction, a regrettable phase through which some of us as children pass quickly and unscathed. They think that the reinventions of the wheel of time are profound in their look at human motives, when there is more profundity in one tractate by Duns Scotus than in a fictional universe of a thousand splendid, or not-so-splendid suns. Which brings us to this unusual tale.
The hero of our story, not immediately revealed, is a certain Emery Lancelot Boke, a latter-day knight in a new kind of armor. His mission – we are never informed whether this was a lifelong dream or an unsimple twist of fate – is to visit another planet and report to Earth on his findings. We learn all of this a few pages into our story because we are initially warned how little this whole business really matters, at least to our omniscient narrator:
Finally, I utterly spurn and reject so-called science fiction. I have looked into it, and found it as boring as the mystery-story magazines – the same sort of dismally pedestrian writing with oodles of dialogue and loads of commutational humor. The clichés are, of course, disguised; essentially, they are the same throughout all cheap reading matter, whether it spans the universe or the living room. They are like those 'assorted' cookies that differ from one another only in shape and shade, whereby their shrewd makers ensnare the salivating consumer in a mad Pavlovian world where, at no extra cost, variations in simple visual values influence and gradually replace flavor, which thus goes the way of talent and truth. So the good guy grins, and the villain sneers, and a noble heart sports a slangy speech. Star tsars, directors of Galactic Unions, are practically replicas of those peppy, red-haired executives in earthy earth jobs, that illustrate with their little crinkles the human interest stories of the well-thumbed slicks in beauty parlors. Invaders of Denebola and Spica, Virgo's finest, bear names beginning with Mac; cold scientists are usually found under Steins; some of them share with the supergalactic gals such abstract labels as Biola or Vala. Inhabitants of foreign planets, 'intelligent' beings, humanoid or of various mythic makes, have one remarkable trait in common: their intimate structure is never depicted. In a supreme concession to biped propriety, not only do centaurs wear loincloths; they wear them about their forelegs.
Our narrator may be more or less omniscient, but he is not God; he is not even a deity among men, as far as we can determine. No, he is the ancestor of Mr. Boke, who has long since enjoyed the simplicity of the name Lance to the complications of the Round Table's namesake. What can an ancestor tell us about a descendant? The same quantity, one supposes, predicted daily by science fiction pundits and science reality adherents about what will, may, should, and must occur in a world they have misperceived since the beginning of time. Yes, that's right, they haven't gotten it; the only major change in the last few decades is technology's tailwind, which has man reaching for stars that may not quite be what his manmade telescope tells him they are.
Lance – officially a mononym free of extraneous names – has bidden his parents farewell, and "the hope of seeing him again in life is about equal to the hope of seeing him in eternity." Someone might whisper to these parents, good folk, that what he is undertaking will make him an immortal part of immortal science, but they do not listen, wisely. Despite our endless evolution, they are firmly of the species that cannot forsake their young, that must know until the end of their (very mortal) days what has become of their beloved son.
There is such an intolerable silence in Lance's room, with its battered books, and the spotty white shelves, and the old shoes, and the relatively new tennis racquet in its preposterously secure press, and a penny on the closet floor – and all this begins to undergo a prismatic dissolution, but then you tighten the screw and everything is again in focus. And presently the Bokes return to their balcony. Has he reached his goal – and if so, does he see us?
The interplanetary sighting we may take as figurative, or we may ignore as the dregs of panic, but neither agenda need be endorsed at this time. Surely his parents wish for a safe ascent and, of course, descent, even if they must imagine both on the basis of their earthly experience, which means they can hardly imagine it at all. "Will the mind of the explorer survive the shock?" says our narrator, who does not hasten to reveal the knowledge he may possess. Then there is the narrator's own ascent, of sorts:
When I was a boy of seven or eight, I used to dream a vaguely recurrent dream set in a certain environment, which I have never been able to recognize and identify in any rational manner, though I have seen many strange lands ... The nuisance of that dream was that for some reason I could not walk around the view to meet it on equal terms. There lurked in the mist a mass of something – mineral matter or the like – oppressively and quite meaninglessly shaped, and, in the course of my dream, I kept filling some kind of receptacle (translated as 'pail') with smaller shapes (translated as 'pebbles'), and my nose was bleeding but I was too impatient and excited to do anything about it. And every time I had that dream, suddenly somebody would start screaming behind me, and I awoke screaming too, thus prolonging the initial anonymous shriek, with its initial note of rising exultation, but with no meaning attached to it any more – if there had been a meaning.
What on earth or beyond has the narrator imagined for himself? One might do well to keep in mind that the dream recounted is a boy's dream, one easily engorged with impressions of the gigantic summer sky in its awful transparency. If we look closely we can even see the moon's gaunt silhouette hovering, suggesting a point of departure, a beginning to the endlessness that is our universe, and I think we should leave matters at that.
Given Nabokov's demolition of the science fiction genre in Lance and other places, some reviewers have graciously refrained from belaboring the point about Lance's pointlessness – and if that's not clear enough, there's little we can do for you. Other critics, however, have claimed that Nabokov, at several junctures amidst his works, employs standard science-fiction techniques such as "invisibility" and "telekinesis" (please repeat the end of the last sentence, after the dash). That the story is unique in Nabokov's oeuvre cannot be denied; that what it depicts has anything at all to do with science or the giddy blackness of the unknown may open another discussion altogether. What type of discussion? A hint is dropped, a single word to be more specific, that implies that what we are reading is what we want to imagine as "the pleasure of direct and divine knowledge," even if "the mere act of imagining the matter is fraught with hideous risks." What risks, you may ask? That all our dreams are not dreams but the future in reverse.