Ernst Jünger,
The Glass Bees
(1957; New York Review, 2000)

The name Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) is not one that springs readily to the mind of the average genre science fiction reader. His 1957 SF novel The Glass Bees has just now been republished in the New York Review of Books' "Classics" series, and it is a measure of the book's continued worth and relevance that this edition warrants an introduction by one of the most powerful and innovative voices in modern SF, Bruce Sterling.

The novel's first person narrator is Captain Richard, a man down on his luck. What he tells us is his own story, of his life in a world of robots, micro-miniaturisation and an entertainment industry that is expert in the art of blurring the distinction between the real and the illusory (or what would today be termed the "virtual"). In particular he relates his thoughts and feelings surrounding and during his single meeting with the leading robotics industrialist of the day, Zapparoni.

Throughout the ages analogies have been drawn between, on the one hand, current technology, and, on the other, the world and humankind's place within it. Thus Greek philosophers drew on the craft of pottery, and those of the 18th century saw more than simple analogy in the mechanical automata displayed at the royal courts of Europe. Captain Richards, while visiting Zapparoni's house is granted an insight into (one could almost say a vision of), the power of the currently prevailing technology. He, like the philosophers of old, is deeply affected by the experience, relating his thoughts in a peculiar rambling (almost hypertextual) style.

One sign that a book deserves classic status is that it has the ability to reach and influence readers of two or more generations. Another is that no generation can say they have interpreted the work fully, so that each may re-interpret such a novel differently to those that went before. Certainly The Glass Bees succeeds by both these criteria. At the time it was written (incredibly, 1957), Zapparoni was the only person whose ideas the reader might possibly see mirrored in and confirmed by the virtuoso displays of technology. The Captain, feeling that his world has become one in which "even the molecules were controlled," shares such eloquent thoughts as these with us:

"Technical perfection strives towards the calculable, human perfection towards the incalculable. Perfect mechanisms -- around which, therefore, stands an uncanny but fascinating halo of brilliance -- evoke both fear and a titanic pride which will be humbled not by insight but only by catastrophe."

Today, just as when the novel was first published, Zapparoni and his world view is brought alive to the reader, but now other names are evoked by the Captain's tale: Bill Gates and perhaps Edward Wilson (genetic determinism), among many others.

Finally, yet another attribute that marks a classic novel is that it can often be hear said of it that "I'm re-reading..." instead of simply "I'm reading...." Unsurprisingly then, The Glass Bees does not give up its secret all at once, demanding that the reader's imagination be actively engaged on the first and subsequent readings.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]



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