Of all the things imagined surviving past a global apocalypse, Shakespeare may be an obvious choice but not one often noted in the scores of stories and novels devoted to the idea of starting over.
That is, after all, the chief impulse behind such stories, that the slate is wiped clean and humanity has a chance to begin again. A few works have gone further, most notably Nevil Schute’s On The Beach, to wipe humanity completely off the stage, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But for the most part, someone must trod upon that newly set stage to continue the story, and who better to serve notice that this is exactly what such stories are about than Shakespeare. “All the world’s a stage…”
Shakespeare haunts Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven like Banquo’s ghost from beginning to end. The novel begins with the death of Lear—more precisely, the actor portraying Lear on stage in a theater in Toronto the very day a devastating virus explodes across the planet, going to kill 90% or more of the human race. It’s never quite clear if Arthur Leander is a victim of the flu or a heart attack, but his demise signals the beginning of the end for all that is familiar, and establishes the primacy of irony that runs through the novel.
Mandel has kept her focus on a fairly tight and circumstantial circle of people to tell her story. Arthur Leander, actor and a bit of a patriarch, anchors the narrative. In some sense his life is Shakespearean—as a young man he escapes from an island which holds all that anyone could ever want, and his retelling of it takes on the glow of a mythic place people imagine as an impossible paradise. The island, while wonderful in many ways, is not where he wants to spend the rest of his life. He returns to foreign shores to seek his identity and becomes a mask of himself, an actor. As he becomes famous he keeps returning, at least in memory and often in epistle, to that island. He marries a woman who came from there, an artist who ends up working for a transnational corporation but privately draws a comic about a lost outpost in space, Station Eleven, that in many ways resembles Prospero’s island. This is Miranda, the most stable of his three wives, all of whom are in some sense “rescues.” But Miranda is of them all the most real, the most important. As Prospero’s daughter, she is the foil to the worst of her father’s machinations.
As Leander is dying, the play is in the middle of act 4, scene 6, of King Lear, and the audience knows something is wrong when he delivers a line out of sequence. But it’s a telling line for what is to follow. “Down from the waist they are centaurs,” he says but then does not finish it and instead says “The wren goes to’t,” which is from earlier in the scene when Lear is comparing the progeny of adultery to his “lawfully got daughters” in their treatment of their father. It’s a confused reordering but pertinent given what is later revealed. The first quote, complete, reads: “Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulfurous pit— burning, scalding, stench, consumption!”
Given Arthur Leander’s penchant throughout his career of drifting from one woman to another, ending finally with three bad marriages and apparently about to embark on a fourth, this may be nothing more than the fevered remorse of momentary self-analysis, but it serves too as a metaphor for all the misplaced confidence our civilization instills in its devices, which look so dependable and yet…the remorse is poorly placed. Arthur Leander seems much like his namesake, an idealist, in love, swimming a narrow strait every night to be with his love who loses his way and drowns.
Like Lear, his apparent mistrust of women is also wrongly placed, as it would be women who ultimately save not only his memory but that which is important to him.
But really this isn’t about women, not in this context, but about the matrix of civilization.
Twenty years after the collapse, we join a company of players, the Traveling Symphony, which makes the rounds near Lake Michigan, playing music and performing plays. Shakespeare has proved the most popular with their small audiences, made up of survivors who have settled in odd places—abandoned airports, old motels, campgrounds—and are relearning how to live without electricity or running water or antibiotics. The Georgian Flu that killed so many left too few to maintain all the complex systems. Civilization is retrenching at an 18th Century level, but the artifacts of that globe-spanning civilization are all around.
One of the principle members of the Traveling Symphony is Kirsten, who as a child was in that final performance of Lear by Arthur Leander. While she remembers almost nothing from that time, she collects celebrity magazine articles and other trivia about him. She also has in her possession two issues of the comic book Leander’s first wife, Miranda, self-published. Station Eleven will become a bizarre point of connection with another character who takes an even stranger path after the collapse.
At this point I’ll stop describing the plot. Metaphors abound, the book is rich in irony. Shakespeare would recognize the various perversities and tragedies as Mandel flashes back over Leander’s life and those who surrounded or intersected with him, some of whom survive. (There is a fascinating thread involving a paparazzi who appears in the first scene as a newly-minted paramedic who tries to administer CPR to Leander on stage.) Mandel establishes her connections and the lay-lines of the chronicle very well and very plausibly. The individual stories are affecting and compelling.
Rather I would like to talk about how this differs from what many readers may expect from such a novel, namely in its choice of conceit concerning the central idea, namely that well-trod path of starting over.
Many worthwhile novels have been written in this vein. I mentioned On The Beach, but a quick list of others includes Alas Babylon, Earth Abides, A Canticle For Leibowitz, The Postman, The Stand, The Long Tomorrow, Davy…the list is long because it’s such a tempting fantasy, the idea that we can dispense in a stroke with the contemporary world with all its problems and its uncooperative aspects and its stubborn, entrenched people and their privileges and start over. It’s a desert island fantasy writ large.
Much of the canon is about how human ingenuity, exemplified by a plucky group of very smart survivors, manage to rebuild some semblance of the civilization just lost—only without all the pesky problems, like neurotic people or politicians and usually there are no taxes in sight. The science fiction approach is on the wresting from the ruin worthwhile components of civilization and setting the stage for doing things right, however one might conceive of right. Perhaps H.G. Wells was the first to put this view forward in his Shape of Things to Come with his corps of engineers that rebuilds a high-tech civilization in the burnt-out remnants of the old.
The ones that stay with you, though, accept that this is fantasy and that reality never affords opportunity for such neat solutions. That a collapse like this will be exactly that—a collapse, an end. Some stories assume humanity can’t survive this final doom. Most acknowledge that a few will but nothing will be preserved in any recognizable form.
For some this may seem like a thoroughgoing calamity. For others, justice served. Mandel—like Walter Miller, like Leigh Brackett, like, recently, Robert Charles Wilson in his Julian Comstock—recognizes that it is simply something that may happen. The question then is “What now?”
So her story is about how that first 20 years might look for a small group of people who are predisposed to preserving stories.
There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the Earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled where they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels…most people had settle somewhere, because the gasoline had all gone stale by Year Three and you can’t keep walking forever. After six months of traveling from town to town—the word town used loosely; some of the these places were four or five families living together in a former truck stop…
The landscape is peppered with the remnants of what came before and a new generation is growing up having never experienced any of it when it worked, only hearing stories of what it had once been like. One can already see the rough shapes of future myth and lore emerging from the tales the older folks are telling the youngsters.
But over and through all this Mandel is telling stories about how people come to be where they end up and how they take meaning from that. They all have escaped, in one way or another, from Prospero’s island, only to find themselves, like Viola, washed up on a foreign shore, another island, and having to improvise a new identity to fit a life they never expected to live.
That there is no technological answer to anything in Station Eleven should be no surprise. Mandel’s purposes aren’t there. She’s not actually rescuing anything. Nor is she rebuilding. If anything she’s portraying a kind of evolution. Start here, with these elements, and run them through those changes. Where do we end up?
Subsequently she has written a very good novel which happens to be science fiction (as opposed, perhaps, to science fiction which happens to be a good novel) and has laid out a number of intriguing questions for our contemplation.
Shakespeare, for instance, understood irony and tragedy, perhaps from the Greeks who first perfected the form, who built on myths. What kind of myths might emerge from a tradition based first on Shakespeare?
One of the purposes of stories like this is to dramatize in stark relief something that goes on all the time, namely the replacement of one world with another. We tend not to experience that way because the changes happen sporadically, cumulatively, resulting in one day appreciating the quaintness of a past that no longer pertains. But there is no sudden shock of change since the break points are small and myriad and feel “natural.” Post apocalyptic stories are about that very change, except overnight and all at once. They all ask the same question, though—if you were washed up on an island, cut off from the world you always knew, what would you wish to find washed up with you? And what do you think you might be able to rescue from a past you frankly might know very little about, even though you inhabited it as a citizen in good standing?
Of course, while you were fretting about that, life would, as it does, happen, and you would have to deal with it, as always.
Mandel avoids the trap of prescription. She has no idea how things will turn out. But she displays a sharp understanding of how people respond to shock. That and a Shakespearean sense of irony elevates Station Eleven several rungs above the average.
William Gibson is, if nothing else, a careful writer. You can feel it in the progress of any one of his novels and in the short stories. Careful in his choice of topic, placement of characters, deployment of dialogue, style. He sets each sentence in place with a jeweler’s eye to best effect. The results often seem spare, even when they are not, and have invited comparisons to noir writers, minimalists, modernists. Entering upon a Gibson novel is a step across a deceptively simple threshold into a finely-detailed maze that suggests multiple paths but inevitably leads to a conclusion that, in hindsight, was already determined had we but noticed just how sophisticated a writer it is with whom we’re dealing.
His last set of novels, the Bigend Trilogy, was not even science fiction, though they felt like it. The application of a science-fictional perception of how the world works produced a dazzling bit of dissonance in which the ground itself became familiar through alienation. He does that, shows us something we should be utterly familiar with as if it were an alien artifact. As a result, the shock of recognition at the end contains a thick cord of nostalgia and a sense of loss mingled with new discovery. The chief discovery, of course, is the realization just how close we are to what we think of as The Future. Through this effect, he renders the future as both less alien and stranger at the same time.
Which is something he indulges fully in the opening chapters of his new novel, The Peripheral.
For a while you don’t know that the two points of view are not in the same world. It’s a masterpiece of misdirection achieved through the intermediary of a game.
Flynn Fisher’s brother is ex-special ops military, living in an old airstream in a town in the middle of a mid-21st century rural America that is clearly struggling with the unstable economy. To make extra money, he often moonlights as a beta tester on new games. The novel opens when he brings Flynn in to sub for him one night while he goes off to confront a radical religious group he hates, known as Luke 4:5. (The verse reads: Then leading him to a height, the devil showed him in a moment of time all the kingdoms of the world. Even here, Gibson is playing at metaphors pertinent to the novel in its entirety.) Flynn used to do this sort of work herself but quit when the games became more and more violent. He assures her this isn’t like that, she’ll be running a security drone of some kind keeping paparazzi away from a high-rise luxury apartment. He’ll pay her well, as he’s being likewise well-paid. Just one night, maybe two. She agrees.
The simulation seems to take place in a city she sort of recognizes and may be London, but it’s all different from the London she knows. It’s as her brother claimed, flying interference, until the second night when the woman living there is murdered most horrifically and Flynn is a witness. Thinking it’s still a game, she wants nothing more to do with it.
Meanwhile, Wilf Netherton, a publicist living in London, is working with a performance artist who has been tasked as a negotiator to a colony of self-modified humans living on an artificial island of reformed debris. Wilf’s job is to keep her on task, which can be very difficult as she is very much a rebel and can go in unexpected directions without any warning. As she confronts those with whom she is supposed to negotiate, something goes wrong and she ends up killing the leader. Another murder.
Netherton’s associate, an operative in government intelligence, must divorce herself from the fiasco and cut ties with Netherton. He goes to ground with a friend of his, a member of a powerful family of Russian descent, who has a unique hobby—he operates a “stub” in history.
At this point we realize that Flynn and Netherton are not simply divided by class and place but by time itself. Netherton’s London is 70 years in Flynn’s future and is the London wherein Flynn witnessed the murder of the woman, who turns out to be the sister of the performance artist who just committed a second murder. For her part, Flynn is in their past, a past Netherton’s friend has been playing with via a form of time travel that is based on the transfer of information.
And we are now fully in the grip of one of the cleverest time travel stories in recent memory. Nothing physical travels, only information. Gibson has taken a page from Benford’s classic Timescape and wrought changes upon it. Flynn and Netherton “meet” once a police inspector of Netherton’s time becomes involved and starts running the stub Netherton’s friend has set up. She needs a witness to the murder before she can act. Flynn is that witness. What follows is well-imagined set of antagonistic countermeasures that affect both worlds economically.
And that may be one of the most interesting subtexts. Flynn finds herself the titular head of the American branch of a corporation which till then only existed as a device to explain the game she thought she was beta testing. As such, she becomes enormously wealthy out necessity—she is under attack by the forces allied to the murderer in the future. Politicians and corporations change hands, the economy is distorted, the world severed from its previous course, and everything is changed.
Gibson is indulging one of his favorite ideas, that information is possibly the most potent force. Data has consequences.
Flynn is one of Gibson’s best creations since Molly Millions. Smart, gutsy, practical, and loyal to family and friends, she adapts quickly to the staggering reality into which she and hers have stumbled. She manages in both time zones admirably but not implausibly. As counterpart, Netherton is an interesting case study of a man who hates the times in which he lives, is by far too intelligent to ignore it, and subsequently suffers a number of self-destructive flaws which he gradually comes to terms with as his interactions with Flynn progress.
At the heart of the novel is a question of causality, certainly, but also one of responsibility. The pivotal point in history that separates Flynn’s world from Netherton’s is an event euphemistically called The Jackpot. It’s a joke, of course, and a twisted one at that, as it was only a jackpot for a few who survived and became, ultimately, even wealthier than they had been. The label refers to a collection of factors leading the deaths of billions and the loss of an entire era due to humanity’s inability to stop itself from doing all the things that guaranteed such an outcome. It’s a cynical insight and not a particularly difficult one to achieve, but Gibson, as usual, portrays it with a dry assessment of how it will actually play out and how it will look to those who come after. His conclusion seems to be, “Well, we really aren’t all in this together.”
The apparent simplicity of the narrative is another mask for the games Gibson plays. It doesn’t feel like a profound or dense work. Only afterward, in the assessment phase, do we begin to understand how much he says, how solid are his insights, and how rich are his conceits. Gibson creates a surface over which the reader may glide easily. But it’s a transparent surface and when you look down, there, below you, is a chasm of meaning, awaiting inspection, offered in a moment of time.
In recent months I have read two classic novels which, curiously enough, deal with matters of a religious nature. I’ve decided to review them together for a number of reasons, one of which is both are part of the syllabus for my monthly reading group at Left Bank Books. Another reason for the review now is that I have finally, and not without some reluctance, seen one of the new generation of Biblical epics recently released, Noah, with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. There are points of interest in this deeply flawed film which I will touch on after dealing with the novels.
The first novel is James Blish’s superb A Case Of Conscience, published originally in 1953 as a novelette and later expanded to novel-length and published in 1958 (the same year, coincidentally, that Pope John XXIII was elected to his chair). The questions posed by the story are simple enough even if the answers are nearly impossible: what does Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, have to say about extraterrestrial with regards to the matter of souls? Depending on the proposed answer, what responsibilities does the Christian have toward them? And, finally, what is to be done/considered if such extraterrestrials appear to have no taint of original sin?
These questions may seem naïve today, even irrelevant (although not sufficiently so to make a newer take on the matter a more than relevant work, namely Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow), but Blish’s treatment was anything but naïve in that he bound it up with questions of very nondenominational morality and respect.
To begin with, this is a First Contact novel, even though the “contact” has been an established fact for quite some time as the story opens. That said, contact has barely begun, and that is the anchor for the drama. Because the ability of the two species, human and Lithian, to speak to each other aside, the story is sunk in the problem of cultures and their mutual incomprehension. Blish is dealing with assumptions based on a telec understanding of the universe. Because the guiding principles of his faith are telec, Father Ruiz-Sanchez grapples with whether or not to condone further interaction between his people and the Lithians. In the end, he reacts rather than deliberates and argues for quarantine, stripping the Lithians of any say in the matter and laying bare the flaw in Ruiz-Sanchez’s own stated system of ethics. Namely, if Ruiz-Sanchez is, as he claims to be, committed to a system devoted to the saving of souls, then shutting out all contact with creatures who may need saving would be fundamentally immoral. The problem for him is whether the Lithians have souls, since they appear to lack any evidence of having “fallen.” They live amicably among themselves, show no judgmentalism, solve problems by consensus without struggling against individual venality, do not appear to know what lying is, have no discernible crime, in fact exhibit none of the traits or conditions of being in a state of sin. It’s as if, rather than being morally and ethically advanced, they in fact have no need to be, since they have none of the cultural dysfunctions requiring advancing along such lines. To Ruiz-Sanchez, they are born wholly developed in a moral sense. This, of course, runs counter to his beliefs in the nature of the universe. Ruiz-Sanchez betrays, usually in subtle ways, a perverse devotion to dysfunction. For instance, Earth is portrayed as having solved many of its fundamental economic problems and has adopted (by inference) rational systems that seem to promote equity, yet Ruiz-Sanchez feels that such evidence of progress demonstrates a failure because it moves humanity further away from an assumed ideal which may have no basis in reality. In short, people are living better lives, at least materially, but are abandoning belief systems which have no use for them. Better, perhaps, that progress never have occurred so that people would need the Church and the beliefs Ruiz-Sanchez feels matter.
It is understandable that the Lithians trouble Ruiz-Sanchez. Almost everything about them is a rebuke to the way he has always believed things work. Biologically, there is a complete disconnect with the human system of nuclear families, and by extension both patriarchy and the question of inherited sin. Their very reasonableness is testimony to the fact that such a state of mind and cultural condition not only can exist but does exist. At one point, in debating with his colleagues over the issue of quarantine, he says “This has been willed where what is willed must be.” This is from Dante’s Inferno, lines 91 to 93, in which Virgil says to Charon: “Charon, bite back your spleen:/this has been willed where what is willed must be,/ and is not yours to ask what it may mean.” By this statement, Ruiz-Sanchez seeks to shut down questioning, his own surely but also his colleagues. In this, he betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Dante, but no matter. The line is taken as a divine justification. Lithia, in this view, must exist as it does because it does. I am that I am, as it were. For Ruiz-Sanchez this is also his justification for requesting the quarantine. It would be fatal in two ways for intercourse to continue. One, primarily, this Eden he thinks he has found will be eventually corrupted by interaction with humanity, for we embody the serpent, after all, which would be a form of blasphemy. Two, it might well develop that the Lithians’ ability to function as they do will turn out to be no more than an evolutionary inevitability—which would make humanity’s condition equally so. Ruiz-Sanchez already claims the exemption for humans from evolution that was dominant in theological thought prior to our present day (although not among Jesuits, making Ruiz-Sanchez a bit of a puzzle). Ruiz-Sanchez is at base terrified that the Lithians are proof that the Church got it wrong.
Ruiz-Sanchez is a puzzle, as I say, because he’s not much of a Jesuit. Possibly a Dominican. Blish seems not to have had a very solid grasp of Catholicism, but he was dealing is large symbols here and parsing the vagaries of the multiplicity of protestant sects would muddy his point, perhaps. His choice of the Society of Jesus makes a rough sense because of their history in the sciences and in exploration. What is really on display is the breakdown of intellect in the face of the personally unacceptable.
This is apparent in Ruiz-Sanchez’s choice of reading material. He’s reading Finnegan’s Wake at the beginning, a curious choice, especially for Blish as he had quite vocal problems with the kind of stream-of-conscious narrative Joyce produced in what amounts to a linguist parlor trick that strips away the pretensions of the intellect by questioning the very precepts of language itself. But it is an inspired choice in this instance. Ruiz-Sanchez is wrestling with it, trying to make moral sense of it, which is almost impossible. In this context, Finnegan’s Wake is the universe as it is, and it forces the reader to accept that whatever “sense” comes out of it is of the reader’s own making. It is a sustained refutation of a telec universe, which is anathema to Ruiz-Sanchez.
The ending of the novel is a famously achieved moral serendipity. Because Blish kept the narrative inside Ruiz-Sanchez’s head throughout, perception is everything, and that may ultimately be the point of the novel.
Which brings us to the next novel, also a First Contact work albeit one that reverses many of the tropes in Blish. Octavia Butler’s Dawn is also a story wherein aliens are first encountered and a world is destroyed. In this case, though, the aliens have found us and the world destroyed is Earth, by our own hand.
In some ways this is an anachronistic novel. Dawn was published in 1987, a few years before the Soviet Empire came apart. It is sometimes easy to forget how convinced many people were that a nuclear holocaust was going to put paid to the entire human enterprise. But no matter, Butler dealt with it as an event in the story’s past and did not dwell on its particulars. Any extinction event will do. She was not interested in judging that or examining the why of it, only in what it established for what follows.
The Oankali, one of the more fascinating and successful nonhuman creations in science fiction, found Earth devastated, with few survivors. As part of their own program of survival/colonization, they rescued these survivors, healed them where possible, and kept them aboard their immense ship for 250 years while the Earth recovered.
Lilith Iyapo is Awakened into a situation she cannot deal with, a lone human in a room dealing with aliens that terrify her with their strangeness. It transpires that they have plans for her, that part of their own program is the reseeding of worlds like Earth with recovered local species and some of their own. Humanity, she comes to understand, will be Different. She rejects this again and again, seeing it as a defilement of what it means to be human, even though, relentlessly and with inconceivable patience, the Oankali show her and teach her that it will be, in some ways, better. Certainly better for the people of Earth, but better for Lilith personally.
She is to be a leader, a teacher. She becomes part of an Oankali family. She finally accepts them for what they are, though she never fully understands them or accepts their plans, but over time she takes up the responsibilities immediately in front of her, namely to shepherd reAwakend humans and prepare them for resettlement.
Butler brilliantly folds several biblical motifs into this story. It is very much a Moses story. Lilith does become a teacher, she does lead, but she herself, at the end, is not permitted to “cross over into the promised land.” Her own people do not accept her, see her instead as a race traitor. She becomes an irredeemable outsider. This is also a Noah story. The world has been destroyed, what has been salvaged must be returned to start again, and Lilith is in some ways Noah, head of a human race given a second chance.
But it is also right out of Revelations. A new heaven and a new Earth and the handful of appointed shall inherit…
Because it is a new heaven for these people, who stubbornly reject the idea that aliens have saved them and that they are on board a ship. They reject everything Lilith tells them, their minds recoiling at the totality of the new universe. It would be a new universe for them, one which now includes aliens right there in front of them.
If there is a flaw in the novel, here it is. Butler created a masterpiece of psychology here, a study of humanity under stress, and her portraits are amazing in their precision and economy. However, none of them have any of the traits of those who would eagerly welcome the prospect of meeting aliens and living in a new milieu. And certainly there are people like that. The odds are Lilith should have found at least one or two allies who were well beyond her in acceptance. Instead, almost all the people she deals with are in this aspect profoundly mundane. This, however, is a quibble.
Strikingly, for a story so grounded and informed by religious motifs, there is no real mention of anything religious. It is significant by its absence. It is as if Butler decided “if you can’t see the symbolism yourself, spelling it out will cause you to miss all the other points in the book.” One could also read this as a tacit acceptance on the part of all these people that religion failed them and they’re done with it. Nothing has happened in a fashion they would have been raised to expect.
The Oankali have determined the cause of humanity’s epic failure. Two traits which combined disastrously, as they explain to Lilith: exceptional intelligence and a commitment to hierarchical structures. Hierarchical thinking and the cleverness to build weapons of mass destruction led inevitably to the annihilation of the human race and the poisoning of the planet. In order to survive, the Oankali tell her, this must be changed, and therefore humans will be changed. The Oankali are masters of genetic manipulation—their ship itself is a living thing—and they inform her quite clearly that this must be done. This becomes the point of greatest contention—for Lilith this is a loss of what it means to Be Human, even though clinging to that is what destroyed humanity and nearly the planet itself. Butler simply puts this out there. The Oankali explain themselves, Lilith rejects it even as she comes to accept them. Her experiences trying to teach and lead the first group of newly Awakened survivors would seem to support the Oankali position. And yet…and yet…
The question of self-determination comes into this throughout. Sensibly, Butler never actually examines it, only leaves it present as an emotional issue, while she shows the other trait within humans that is significant and necessary—adaptability. Humans always change under pressure, always have. This time the pressure seems less circumstantial and so an opportunity for people to reject the necessity of change can be placed center-stage.
In both novels we see the primacy of moral determination in the face of the unanticipated. The very nature of the universe is turned upside down and the givens of the past no longer suit. In the end, circumstance determines far more than we may allow ourselves to admit, and the narratives by which we live must change to allow us to move forward.
Which brings me to the film, Noah. When this movie came out there was a spasm of objection from certain quarters over its revisionist take on the Biblical tale. Upon seeing the film, which is in many ways a fairly silly movie, I can see where it would bother a certain mindset, but also how that mindset would blind the viewer to some of the interesting aspects of it that make it not so easily dismissed.
The Creation myth is reduced to its elements, the Fall is handled almost as a fantasy tale, and the aftermath of Cain killing Abel is the real basis of all that follows. The children of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, become caretakers of the world while the children of Cain build “a great industrial civilization” and set about conquering, killing, and polluting everything. The story is transformed into an eco-fable, one in which the punishment inflicted is in response to mines, murders, and misuses of the “gifts” of creation. The Sons of Cain are depicted as warmongering, patriarchal butchers, nascent NRA members, and proto-imperialists. while Noah and his are shown as gentle nurturers, Noah himself much in the Dr. Doolittle vein. The landscape is a stark contrast between the urban ruin of the Cainites and the meadowy greenscapes in Noah’s care.
An interesting moment occurs, among several “interesting moments,” when the King of the Cainites, Tubal-Cain (which one might feel references surgical birth control, but in fact he is mentioned in Genesis and credited as being a master metal worker), explains to Noah’s son Ham that he and his people have the same religious mythography, but they believe The Creator adandoned them, turned his back on mankind, and left them to survive and fend for themselves without his help.
Had there been more of this, the film might have achieved some kind of philosophical sophistication, but as it was Aronofsky, in spite of clever touches and good dialogue (and a stunning visual æsthetic), reduced it to a side-bar of the Lord of the Rings. All the components were there to show how the story might be relevant to the present, and yet the message was muffled in the extravagant imagery and an attempt to extract an ur-myth from the Hebrew iconography. It’s a better film than many of its critics, on both sides, credit, but it’s failures of reach make it less potent than it might have been.
One thing I found compelling is the portrayal of Noah in the course of building the ark and trying to keep his family together as a man suffering, essentially, PTSD. He becomes convinced that what the Creator wants is for all humanity to die out and he intends to kill his son’s firstborn should it turn out to be a girl. Aronofsky folds the story of Abraham and Isaac into this rather neatly and also manages to extract a better lesson—Noah cannot kill the girls (they turn out to be twins) and feels he has failed the Creator. But his daughter-in-law, played well by Emma Watson, teaches him that it had always been in his hands because why else would the Creator have chosen him to do all this if not that he, Noah, had the ability and the responsibility to decide. A rather mature lesson to take from all the slaughter grandly depicted.
All three works offer end of the world scenarios of one kind or another and all three portray moral decision-making that ultimately comes down to what humans do with what is in front of them, for their own benefit and for the benefit of others. All three place that power squarely on human shoulders and suggest, in their various ways, that solutions are never to be found outside ourselves. And even if such solutions occasionally can be found, it remains for us to do something with the consequences.
There’s a kind of novel that usually I avoid. You know the kind I mean—a miasmic dunking in the minutiae of neurotic characters who do very little out of the ordinary, suffer, come together, break apart, and end up in an ambiguous condition wherein presumably some sort of enlightenment has been achieved. Turgid not because the writing of such tomes is necessarily bad but, really, it’s just like real life only artistically rendered, and who wants to spend four or five hundred pages with people and their problems that in most respects seem just like ours?
For similar reasons we do not seek to know everyone we could, because there are people we really would rather not.
But then there are people we want to know, people we do know, people who are necessary and wonderful to our lives, people who have impacted us in ways that have made us who we are. No, we didn’t choose them, it doesn’t work that way, but we can’t deny their significance after the connection and the absorption and the time spent loving and worrying and hating and assessing and comparing and competing and being with.
Which is also the reason for novels like those described above and also the reason we don’t want to read them all or even most of them, and would find the effort unrewarding if we tried. Because they don’t all matter to us. They may matter to someone, but not to us. Not now, maybe not ever.
Except the ones that do.
Meg Woltizer’s The Interestings is, as it turns out, one that mattered to me.
The thing is, like the choices we seem to make in friendships, the reasons why don’t lend themselves well to explication. You meet, you chat, you spend time, you become friends or lovers or, sometimes, enemies, and the chemistry involved in the passions that come about is a dynamic thing, a flux that mutates almost too quickly to recognize at any given moment. So you’re reduced, then, to describing how you met, what you said, where you went, who you have in common, and things that happened.
It’s no wonder that so many novels like this become finely-written lists. The catalogue of event (or nonevent) should tell something about why these people, these stories are important. To be be fair, they do. Because we find recognition in event, resonance in detail, reification in experience. Unfortunately, it’s such an individual thing that what for one reader is revelatory for another is a prolonged yawn.
The thing that sets some of these novels apart is always the quality and precision of the significant observation. The writer says, obliquely, “did you see this? did you notice how that happened?” and in the evocation of interaction gets inside and behind our desire for novelty and shows us how just being with people contains more novelty than we can manage.
This is not a simple thing. This is finding the universal in brunch, the sublime in moving into an apartment, the profound in a white lie. Usually, all those things are only and ever what they appear to be, at least for other people. In the hands of a master observer, however, they can be everything.
Once that level of access is achieved and established, imagine how powerful become the really big events of a life.
Which brings me to the novel at hand, a novel of the sort that ordinarily would hold no interest. It begins with the coming together of a group of people at a summer camp for the arts in the mid 1970s who continue on as lifelong friends. They are precocious, talented, some would say gifted, and self-consciously style themselves as The Interestings. They expect, even as they mug and mock themselves about it, Great Things for themselves. One is a cartoonist-cum-animator who actually does achieve material (and even moral) greatness, but he is dogged by a sense of failing to be the kind of person he wants to be. The rest, in their various ways, succeed at different things or fail and stop trying. One explosively ruins the life that might have been lived, another follows a sidetrack for almost too long, the others are blocked or betrayed by life, and one never seems to get off first base and yet becomes the anchor for the others in ways she wholly fails to appreciate for decades.
Envy is almost a character itself. And regret.
But also great love and generosity and all the reassessments associated with very full lives, even when those lives are not what we wanted or are simply underappreciated.
Wolitzer follows them through their various trajectories, weaving them in and out and around each other as they live through the age of Reagan and AIDS and into 9/11 and the world that made, and even when global events intrude upon the narrative she keeps it personal. Her observations of the calamities, large and small, and joys that comprise life are laser-sharp and true in the way good art should be. And although these people are not anyone we know, the effect is that we do know them, because they are just like us.
Here’s the curious part. As I said at the beginning, this is the sort of novel that would ordinarily bore me, because nothing much happens in it. These people bounce off each other, lie to each other, hug each other, fuck each other, live with, by, and through each other, and it is just life, and I have my own, thank you very much, and I know these things, have lived these things. Yet I found myself compelled to keep reading and responding in surprising ways and in the end finding an appreciation even for what I thought I already knew for which I am grateful.
Most of the rest of the novels like this, which I will likely never read, and those few before now which I have read, are not this book—just as all the people I am not friends with are not likely to ever be my friend. Most of them, fine people though they may be, are not here and do not speak to me.
This book spoke to me.
Perhaps because what Wolitzer is examining here is exactly that—speaking. Or, more generally, friendship. What makes it visceral is how she portrays the continual and constant assessment people indulge regarding this most nebulous and yet absolutely necessary human practice, that of taking inside and giving of ourselves the promises and pleasures of being a friend. As one character explains, they could have been anyone, it was chance that threw them together in that camp, and if chance had sent them to another camp then it would have been a completely different set of people for whom all this would have been important. But the fact is, it was this camp and these people, and you live with what’s in front of you. Because it doesn’t matter so much what chance has handed you but what you then do with it, and when it comes to friendship what matters is what happened before you consciously reassess how you met. Wolitzer understands this with granular intensity and gives portraits of friendships that work.
Ancillary issues permeate the book, as in life, and politics, economics, sex, art, illness all appear to complicate, distract, and force decisions upon the players. As a demonstration of answering the question “What do you do with what you have?” the novel is honest and unflinching. The events that contour the narrative are often unexpected and the choices made are organic to the portraits of complicated, compelling people.
So while I may well continue to define a certain kind of novel as a type that I don’t care for, I find that I can do so without feeling either shortchanged or hypocritical. I don’t have to like them all or even most of them. I found the one, by chance, that I do like.
William Patterson Jr. finished and delivered the second volume of his copious biography of Robert A. Heinlein not long before he passed away of a heart attack. He was too young. After reading his opus, he may well have had another book about Heinlein in him which we will now not see.
I base that on the fact that while volume 2—The Man Who Learned Better: 1948 to 1988—is filled with the minutiae of a crowded life, there seems little in-depth analysis and assessment of Heinlein’s work. Given the few and scattered remarks about the shortcomings of other books of criticism published during Heinlein’s lifetime, one might reasonably expect such an assessment from a writer of evident skill and insight. It is not out of the realm of probability that he may have intended such analyses for a third volume devoted exclusively to such an assessment.
To be sure, there are brief passages about several of the books of a critical nature that are useful. (Detailing the travails of writing a given work, while fascinating to anyone interested in Heinlein’s life, is no substitute for a thorough study of the work in question. This is not intended as a criticism of what is in the book, only that the wealth of information spurs a desire for more, especially when presented with tantalizing explanations of some problematic works that alter past perceptions.) For instance, in discussing one of Heinlein’s most poorly understood later period novels, I Will Fear No Evil, Patterson reveals that Heinlein’s ambition in writing it was as response to postmodernism, taking apparently as inspiration John Barth’s Giles, Goat Boy and work by Philip Roth. If true—and I have no reason to doubt him, as Heinlein himself discussed this in his own correspondence—this casts a very different light on what has become the Heinlein novel even ardent fans seem to dislike, often hate.
Although Heinlein rarely discussed his process with the story that became I Will Fear No Evil, …[i]t was as if he was working on crafting a New Wave kind of story that worked as story—the kind of thing for fiction that Frank Lloyd Wright had done with the Bauhaus when he designed Fallingwater in 1935…
He had Nabokov on his mind as well as the New Wave movement (this would have been right in the middle of it) and postmodernism, as well as reacting against the enshrinement going on in fandom of Campbellian Golden Age conventions. He wanted to shake everyone up.
If in fact that was the nature of the work, it becomes clear why the book seemed to have no “natural” audience and served to confuse people more than reinforce Heinlein’s reputation as the “dean of space age fiction.” The core readership of science fiction—fandom—would have loathed the postmodernist ambiguities while mainstream critics still treated science fiction as a fad and a not very good one at that. Had someone told the New York Times reviewers that the book was a postmodern allegory, they would have (perhaps silently) laughed in dismay.
At this point a deeper analysis of the book might have been in order.
But Patterson was not doing literary analysis, he was chronicling a fascinating life.
Heinlein has long been the largest head on the Mount Rushmore of science fiction. The myths about him, from his first sale to his unhindered success to his idolization of redheads to his supposed fascism, have stood in for any real knowledge about him, seasoned here and there with personal anecdotes. In fact, Heinlein was almost pathologically private and resented anyone poking into his personal life. He had a public persona, which he apparently enjoyed using, based on certain aspects of his character which those who saw only that took to be the whole man. In later years his critics viewed him as hopelessly anachronistic, conservative to the point of feudalistic, a reactionary, and, despite sales figures, marginal to the field. The service Patterson has done, besides the obvious demythologizing (especially in the first volume), is the extensive contextualizing of the man, the filling in of event, and the examination of how surfaces hide as much as reflect what lies behind what the public sees.
Heinlein was nothing if not experimental. Often, because he was conducting his experiments at the times he did, the experiments were misperceived and misunderstood. One can sympathize with his repeated desire not to have his work “analyzed” in an academic sense because he felt it would rob readers of seeing for themselves. He likely disliked the idea of seeing his own motives and character analyzed through the lens of his work, something which happens often, especially in academic works. He did not wish to be “psychologized” by people who may well not “get” what he was trying to do in the first place.
He was very much about control in this regard.
As in much of the rest of his life. His detractors occasionally riff on the idea that he was in some ways a fraud, that his desire for control was only to mask a deep sense of incompetence or even incomprehension. This is an unfortunately shallow reading. Consider: Heinlein’s one ambition as a youth was to have a Navy career. He worked himself into physical breakdown to get through Annapolis only to find out a short time into what he thought would be a lifetime calling that his own health was sabotaging him. He had to leave the Navy because his body failed him. The one thing he truly wanted to do was denied him.
Some people might give up and sell siding for the rest of their lives. Heinlein tried many things. He ran for political office, he tried mining, pursued his education, finally coming to writing. Even after early success at that, he continued trying to serve his country and ran a research lab.
That he may have felt some ambivalence about the thing that eventually became his most successful endeavor might be understood given all this. Rather than hiding incompetence, it is perhaps more accurate to say that he lived with continued fear that some new malady or accident might put an end to this as well. It is not inconceivable that he expected, however minutely, that the bottom would fall out in the next step or two. Reading about the speed with which he turned out clearly superior novels, it is not hard to imagine a nagging imp of doubt that he might not be able to do this next week for reasons completely out of his control
Misrepresentation and fraud have nothing to do with this.
What is most interesting in all this is seeing the bell curve of influence with each new book. Heinlein’s work was audacious when written, groundbreaking when published, influential throughout the period when other writers reacted to it, and then reassigned as exemplary of some shortcoming on the author’s part as the culture caught up with it and passed it by. In hindsight, the flaws are myriad, some profound, but I can think of no other science fiction writer to suffer such extremes of regard, especially within their lifetime.
What becomes apparent in reading the 1000 plus pages of Patterson’s work is that the one thing Heinlein intended with each book was to start a discussion. What so many seem to have taken as pronouncements from on high, Heinlein intended as the opening gambit in a long conversation. Instead of engaging in the argument, too many people made him their personal guru, something he consistently rejected, and when they realized finally that some of the things Heinlein said were problematic or downright inflammatory, they turned on him. He wanted to be Socrates, not Aristotle as remade by the Church. He wanted people to disagree, to engage.
How else to explain the wild variations of philosophy between works like Starship Troopers and Stranger In A Strange Land, Beyond This Horizon and Farnham’s Freehold, Methusaleh’s Children and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress?
On the other hand, he seemed often to work in a vacuum of his own making. He bridled at the confines of expected SF forms, yet he did not avail himself of relationships with the mainstream literary establishment he longed to be part of. He wanted to write work that transcended genre boundaries—and read extensively outside the field—and yet he rarely seemed to engage in the cultural discourse going on outside the SF “ghetto.” He and Virginia, his third wife, were usually politically isolated, even while trying to fully interact with the ongoing political dynamic. Heinlein’s politics were more of the “curse on both your houses” variety than anything categorizably useful. He claimed affinity with libertarianism, yet had no real respect for much that passed for political philosophy under that banner. Neither fish nor fowl, it came to others to try to define him, and he gave them little assistance. The country moved in directions with which he disagreed, but his reactions gave no support to others who thought the same way and wanted to do this or that to change it. He lived by a definition of liberal that was being quickly left behind by those working under that label. His consistent message through his fiction was “Think for yourself” and yet it came across more and more as “if you don’t think like me you’re an idiot.” Those looking for ready-made answers in his work could only see the latter.
Narratively, volume 2 is packed too tightly to be as good a read as the first book. No doubt this is a result of trying to keep it usefully in hand in combination with the increased wealth of information available about this forty year period. But it nevertheless offers a fascinating look at a genuine iconoclast within his context, and for that it is a very worthy book.
Finally, as much as detractors would like to make Heinlein an irrelevancy, the very obsessiveness with which many of them attend his deconstruction suggests that while one may disagree over him profoundly, he is not easily ignored or dismissed. Whatever else, he did succeed in getting a conversation going. Sometimes it’s actually about what he considered important.
One of the most powerful yet ineffable experiences we are occasionally granted is the moment when music opens us up and sets our brains afire with the possible. Music, being abstract in the extreme, is difficult to slot into the kind of “safe” categories to which we relegate much else. Stories certainly have subtext and can expand our appreciation of the world, but they are still “just” stories and all that mind-altering power can be rendered ineffective by dint of the filters used to shunt it aside. Paintings and sculptures likewise can be “seen” as purely representational—or ignored when such designation is impossible. Even when we appreciate what we see or read, the power of taking the work in as merely a reflection of a reality we think we understand can have the result of diverting any real impact.
Not so with music. Once we open ourselves to the emotional realities of the sounds and let them have their way with our psychés, it becomes difficult if not impossible to shove a piece into a conventional box. You either take it as it is or ignore it. A great deal of pop music is written with this fact in mind, that people want to be coddled, “entertained,” and humored—not moved.
Because when music moves us it is not in easily definable ways. We experience, when we allow it, heady mixtures of emotional responses that have no convenient hole for the pigeon. We are altered for the time we experience it—sometimes altered for hours or days afterward. Less often, we are altered for life. We can, after such an experience, never hear music the same way again, and sometimes life itself becomes different.
Richard Powers understands this as well as it may be possible. In his new novel, Orfeo, he unleashes the revelations music can bring:
Young Peter props up on his elbows, ambushed by a memory from the future. The shuffled half scale gathers mass; it sucks up other melodies into its gravity. Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. At two minutes, a trapdoor opens underneath the boy. The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole. Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hand in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.
Music has that power. (For an excellent examination of the various effects of music, I recommend Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.) Music can transform us in the listening. Occasionally such transformations remain after the music is over.
It was not wrong of people in the 1950s to look askance at rock’n’roll and think it subversive—it was, but in no way that could be detailed. It was in exactly the same way any new musical form is subversive. In the same way that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused riots during its premier or Wagner altered the politico-æstehtic personality of an entire people. Music both seeps in and charges through the front door of our minds and, if we are listening, changes the way we apprehend the world.
In Orfeo, however, Powers gives us a portrait of how music informs a life with its power to rearrange priorities by setting Peter Els on a quest to find the music of life itself. And in so doing inadvertently make himself the object of a nationwide manhunt as a terrorist. This unlikely combination would seem absurd, but Powers handles them deftly, with a logic that matches our present world where people going off to do things by themselves for their own arcane reasons can seem threatening and cause for mass public alarm. The passions that drive Peter Els are both universal and singular and make him the ideal protagonist for what becomes a lifelong quest for an unseizable transcendence.
For he wants simultaneously to be free and to be important. The two things may well be mutually exclusive, but he is driven to find the essence of what has driven him through a life that, on its face, appears to be a failure.
Powers knows music. Throughout the novel he exhibits an enviable command of its history and its theory and, most importantly, its effect. Anyone who has been in the grip of music that has touched the inmost part of us will recognize Peter Els’ obsession. This is one of the finest prose explorations of that bright nonspace of luminous shadows and delicate splinters of emotion that is the mystery of the musical experience.
Set within a story about the present and all its fears and insubstantial alienations, its cluttered paths of chance and chaos, and the difficulty of being one’s self in the midst of panicked conformism, a time when it may be more important than ever before to acknowledge the possibility of becoming more, of embracing other, of refusing limits imposed out of fear of losing something we may not even have.
Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice, has been garnering award nominations all year, and recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The book has been up for a Philip K. Dick Award, a Tiptree, it’s on the Nebula and Hugo ballots. With this much critical reception, it would be easy to default to hype in praising the novel as one of the best space operas in recent years, during a period when the form has experience a bit of a renaissance, with examples that have elevated it out of its own clichés and into a new level of æsthetic opulence promised by the masterpieces of the past and now achieved by contemporary craftsmen.
Well, occasionally the hype is not misleading. Ancillary Justice is a fine piece of worldbuilding, as good as anything done by Asimov or Anderson, Banks or McLeod, Cherryh or Sargent. Set many millennia in the future, past a time when our present might have any relevance to the politics or sociology on offer, Leckie gives us an expanding human empire based on a kind of administrative ubiquity resulting from a sophisticated distributed consciousness that might be described as post-singularity. The concept of identity itself is radically altered and yet laid out almost as an off-hand by-the-way underlying the Radch. She successfully pulls this at times mind boggling idea off with deceptive grace by never letting any of her characters be in the least surprised by the reality in which they move.
Not content with that, other layers cover over the basic otherness depicted by introducing Houses—family associations of the kind we have seen from Rome through the Italian Renaissance and exemplified in science fiction in the competing houses of Dune—as the corporeal manifestation of distributed access (and privilege). Debt and honor dictate rank, unofficially (but in some ways more inviolably than the simpler meritocracy also on offer), and the entire thing is bound up in a quasi-religious culture that seems based as much on Spinoza’s theses of god-in-nature as any barely discernible concept of super or extra-natural deism.
In fact, as we read we are kept aware of our tourist status in this universe. We’re fascinated, we want to know more, but deep down we know we may never fully grasp what is going on. Our presence would be tolerated, accommodated, the outsider who needs a bit of assistance making his/her way through the labyrinths of long-established cultural modes.
As rich as all this is—and it is heady stuff, narcotic almost—Leckie then tells us the story of a fragment of a ship mind that is all that remains of what had been a huge aggregate intelligence, destroyed in a crisis of political in-fighting, the scope and details of which form the basis of the plot as the surviving fragment, embodied in human form and constantly aware of how much it has lost, undertakes an almost impossible task to avenge its own demise.
On one level, Ancillary Justice is a kind of ghost story. The specter doing the haunting is quite literally the left behind essence of the murder victim. But there are ghosts aplenty if one chooses to read it that way, and the only people who are not in some way discorporate entities are the actual citizens who live under this strange polity.
To add to the dissonant rigor of the novel, Leckie has opted to give us a topsy-turvy gender arrangement. Not that males and females are not definably so, but the dominant pronoun used throughout is the feminine. The default identification is female and balance is upset when the protagonist is forced by local custom to make a distinction and make it in the locally preferred way, lest offense be given.
I will not go into the plot here. For me, the plot was one of the least interesting aspects, though I hasten to add that the plot is as serpentine and complex as any other element of this novel. I will say that it hinges on an observation about political expedience with which we find ourselves faced today, namely the question of what to do when unity of purpose slips away and internal confidence ceases to be a given. As with almost everything else, Leckie puts this notion forward with deceptive simplicity, and in a way that hones the bitter edge of the Damocletian paradox at the heart of the story.
Finally, we see all this through the eyes of a hero that begins the novel as self-consciously Not Human and by the end is the most human of all those with whom she interacts in the course of the story.
This is the first volume of a trilogy (at least) and I am very much looking forward to seeing how the various mysteries of this fractal universe unfold.