Survival, Strategy, and Shakespeare

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.

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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.

Sword, Double-Edged, Metaphorical Steel

I finished reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword weeks ago and have been turning it over in my mind ever since trying to decide on the best way to talk about it.  As sequel to her surprisingly popular Ancillary Justice, it is exceptional and unexpected.  Yes, it carries forward the story of Breq, the lone surviving aspect of what was once a vast AI, a ship possessing a cadre of ancillaries which formed the extensible components of its intelligence.  Yes, it continues on with an examination of the universe she established and the civil war that is in the process of breaking out.  Yes, we find a continuation of many of the narrative devices and their concomitant concerns.

No, it does not actually go where one might expect such a sequel to go.

This begs the question of expectations, however, which also has to do with whether or not art is obligated to meet specific expectations.  Surprise, after all, is supposed to be one of the chief pleasures of art.  The surprise of the new, of discovery, of revelation.

That Leckie’s sequel does not bend to the predictable is a good thing.  That it then takes us to another level of questioning not only the premise of the work but of our own civilization is a bonus.  That it does this so well is triumph.

Which brings me to my entreé into this review, because going where one might not expect is part of the overall pleasure of this series, which has at least one more novel to come, but clearly offers possibilities for satellite works if not direct continuations.

One of Leckie’s tactics has been to replace the male pronoun with the female throughout.  A simple change, designating all people as “she” and “her” rather than “he” and “his” without venturing upon the complications of actual gender transformations.  A simple change…but with apparently complex consequences for readers.

You wouldn’t think, among self-identified science fictions readers, such a modification would have significant effects.  We should all be used to shifts in perspective.  Writing about the alien, after all, is what a good deal of SF is all about.  We have even grown accustomed to the idea of the familiar being alien, so much so that tales of possession, of cyborgs, of cloning, of genetic modification, even of next-stage evolution are part and parcel of the idiom with which we’ve been dealing for decades.  Yet somehow, it seems, the idea of a human possessed by an alien or an alien masquerading as a human is far more decodeable for some than of the human in all its familiarity being alien.

We write from the basis of the culture with which we are most familiar.  More importantly, we read on the basis of that culture.  For or against or across, our culture, whether we like it or not, supplies the language, the metaphors, the analogies, the foundations of how we perceive all that we encounter.  Science fiction has been one of the most consistent forms of turning that foundation upside down and inside out in the pursuit of its primary effects—cognitive dissonance among them.

So it’s fascinating when a work does something that upsets even the well-traveled carts of the experienced SF reader and leaves confusion in its wake.

Confusion is an effect as well.  Often inadvertent and unintended, it’s a breakdown in the connection between Our World and the world of the text.  James Joyce is probably the one who used this (and both benefited and suffered from it by turns) to greatest effect, and although Ulysses is not science fiction per se, it nevertheless shares many æsthetic conceits with SF.

But Joyce dug deep and deployed many a device to skin the world and show us what lies beneath the comforting patina of “civilization” and his constructs are complex and sometimes labyrinthine.  In contrast, and by virtue of this language called SF, Leckie made a simple surface change and skinned us.

Upon first encountering the device in Ancillary Justice I was at first confused.  But once I realized that confusion came from my subconscious desire to easily and readily “visualize” each and every character without having to bother with “character,” I was delighted.  The device brought me face to face with my own biases and showed me just how dependent I was on a simple biological binary.

But not quite so simple.  As I read on I realized that this reliance on male-female identification markers allowed a certain laziness to creep in to my experience of the world, not because male and female are in any way divisive so much as that they substitute for a suite of often unexamined expectations that come under the headings “normal” and “special.”  Leckie’s substitution of one standard pronoun for another erased those too-easy sets of assumptions and forced one to read everyone as “normal” unless otherwise designated by characterization.

Once I recognized what was happening in my own reception of the proffered device, I was delighted, and subsequently read more carefully, amused at each instance where my default assumptions were overturned and I was forced time and again to deal with each character as unique.  I accepted the text from that point on as a challenge to the norm and have since found occasion to be dismayed and delighted by other reactions which, in their turn, baffle.

Apparently, for some, the initial confusion never abates.  That persistent “she” throughout causes annoyance without ever becoming a normative aspect of the culture depicted.  The reader finds it difficult to either shed the bias being challenged or accept that this is simply a mirror image of a culture norm we already live with with the addition of a special category.  Leckie includes that special category, of course, as an aspect of outside cultures that still retain separate male-female designations, and her main characters must check themselves in such encounters so they do not cause offense by getting the designation wrong.  The very confusion and annoyance complained of by some readers is right there, part of the background of the story.

Because, whether we choose to admit it or not, in our culture, “she” and “her” are special category labels having little to do with the purposes of biology and everything to do with the sociology of biology.  The male pronoun is normative, the default.  One need never remark on someone’s maleness in conversation to comment on a distinction which may or may not be important.  But the introduction of the female pronoun prompts a repositioning of mental stance, a reassessment, however unconscious, that “allows for” a difference our culture says is important regardless of context.

On its simplest level, we expect a binary representation of what is human—the norm and the other. Encountering Leckie’s work, the other is obscured almost to the point of nonexistence, and our expectation that one half of the population should be designated in some way special by virtue of biology is frustrated.  We’re forced to see each and every character as a person, period.

It can, indeed, be a bit annoying, especially when other markers are absent or obscured.  One finds oneself making assumptions about which is male and which female which one suspects are all wrong.  This becomes even more interesting with the inclusion of ancillaries, which are mere biological extensions of an artificial intelligence, sex characteristics rendered irrelevant by this fact.  In Ancillary Sword we find a fully human crew aspiring to behave like ancillaries as a sign of distinction, which sort of adds a third gender into an already obscured mix.

Naturally, sleeping arrangements become problematic.

All of which plays elegantly into the matter at hand in this second novel, which proves to be not only theoretically fascinating but serendipitously topical.  Ancillary Sword is a social justice story.

In the aftermath of the events in the first novel, Breq is made a fleet captain by the Lord of the Radch and charged with securing one of the systems still connected through a functioning gate.  The nature of the civil war beginning to unfold is in itself a twisted bit of political legerdemain—the Lord of the Radch, thousands of years old, is herself a distributed intelligence who has become divided over a policy question involving an alien race.  She is now at war with herself, each side feeling she is the legitimate repository of right action.  The entirety of the Radch (which in many ways reminds one of Austria-Hungary at its peak) is caught between the factions of what once was the embodiment of its identity.  Breq allies herself—itself, since Breq still feels not human, but a surviving ancillary-cum-ship—with the faction that seems to represent a measure of sanity in terms of the realpolitick at hand.  It’s a conditional alliance, to be sure, because Breq has little regard anymore for the Lord of the Radch in any context.

Arriving at the system, Breq finds a world with many problems buried beneath a surface that shimmers with the sophistication and wealth of all that the Radch is supposed to be.  The system itself was annexed in relatively recent history and there are communities of other cultures that were imported as workers.  What soon becomes clear is this is a plantation system and the overlords have become so entrenched in their privilege they do not seem to be remotely aware of the oppression they oversee.

Leckie adroitly sets privilege in opposition not only to right but also as a dangerous distraction in a potential war with an alien race.  Revealing the deeply-imbedded dysfunction is necessary to preparing the system for larger problems ahead, but it is also something Breq, who has seen firsthand what petty power plays over position and privilege can cost, simply will not tolerate.  Overturning an entire system of behavior, though, cannot be done by simple fiat and the subversion Breq employs to undo it is as trenchantly relevant to present politics as it is satisfying drama.

What proves equally satisfying is at the end discovering that the simple device deployed with a pronoun proves as necessary to the revelation—for the reader—of the nature of oppression because it establishes a norm of equity difficult to imagine shorn of the biases we bring to the story.  Because that pronoun challenges us and taunts us to continually pay attention to how we’re reacting and what justifications we use to ignore what may be similar problems within our own society.  It’s a lesson in labels and how potent they can be, especially when unexamined and unchallenged.  Leckie is using the female pronoun to establish a norm we honestly do not embrace and against that norm shows us the asymmetry with which we live quite willingly, powerless to change not because of the force of social pressure but because we often just can’t see a reason to.

Now, that’s what science fiction does at its finest.

Roundup 2014

Time for a year in review.  I am bound to say, though, that my reading once more has been disappointingly thin.

When I am working on a novel, time for leisure reading necessarily goes down. Reading for research goes up, but that rarely requires me to finish an entire book.  I look at my reading list for the year and the only titles I ever include are those I’ve completed, so on such years I appear to be under-achieving.

That said, I completed 42 titles this year. (To be sure, I’ve probably read, by volume, closer to 90, but most of those I did not finish.  For instance, I am still plodding my way through Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.  I’ll likely have to start it over.)

There were several that were rereads for me.  Unusual in that I seldom if ever reread a book. I don’t read fast enough to feel good about covering old ground when there’s so much new to be trod.  But I started up a reading group at Left Bank Books—Great Novels of the 22nd Century—and I’ve been choosing classics to discuss, so among the rereads were: Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin (I wanted to show people that he could write, write well, and write economically about something other than the War of the Roses, although to my surprise I found many of the same themes playing out in this, his first novel); Slow River by Nicola Griffith (her Nebula winner and still, I’m happy to say, a powerful, poignant novel); Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh, one of the best interstellar warfare novels ever penned and very much an inspiration in my own work (for one thing, one has seldom found such solid treatment of working class issues in such a novel); Burning Chrome by William Gibson, which just made me wish he still did short fiction; Timescape by Gregory Benford, one of the best time travel novels ever written, although I’m bound to say it felt socially dated, though not fatally so; Nova by Samuel R. Delany, a lyrical, multilayered congeries of mixed mythos in an exuberantly realized interstellar setting; A Case of Conscience by James Blish; Gateway by Frederik Pohl; and now Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey.

While some of these provided me with revelatory experiences (I missed that the first time through! and I never thought about it this way before) the chief benefit of this exercise for me was in seeing how these books have informed what came after.  Over the past three-plus decades since it’s original publication, Timescape reads like a novel which escaped much of social consciousness progress even of its own time.  Not egregiously so, but there is only one female scientist in the story and she is very much in the supporting cast category.  Certain political strands feel thin.  None of this is a detraction from the primary story or from the fact that Benford is one of our better stylists (which really makes me wonder who was doing what in his recent collaboration with Larry Niven, which I found virtually unreadable because of simple clunkiness in the prose) and paid attention to character more than many of his contemporaries—or, I should say, realized such attention better.  On the page, his people feel real, whole, fleshed out.

The time travel device in the novel leads directly into one of the best books I read this past year, Gibson’s new one, The Peripheral, just recently reviewed here.  Along with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and a handful of others, this enters my personal canon as one of the finest time travel works ever written, even though the plot seems deceptively commercial.

The most telling revelation of my rereads has been in finding my own reactions to the texts so different.  I remember my initial response to many of these as being quite different.  True, I missed many very good things in retrospect, but also I forgave a lot more than I do now.  There are books I come across today which I find off-putting which I know 20 or 30 or 40 years ago I would have raved about.  Much of this comes down to simple artistry.

Or perhaps not so simple.  I found it interesting that my more positive response to Delany’s Nova for its elegance and its precision left others a bit cold.  One brings a history of reading to a book which largely determines how one’s expectations will be satisfied…or disappointed.

I did reread James Schmitz’s Demon Breed.  Not for the reading group—it is sadly unavailable—but to refresh my memory for another project, and I still found it to be an exhilarating book, well ahead of it’s day in its basic assumptions about gender roles.  This is one I have now read four times since first discovering it as an Ace Special way back in 1969 and each time I’ve found it holds up extremely well and attests to an underappreciated genius.

Knowing now more clearly that elegance of execution is vitally important to me, my patience for certain kinds of writing has diminished.  I mentioned the Niven/Benford collaboration which I found impossible to get through, although it crackled with ideas.  What I have learned (for myself) is that the entire argument over style versus substance is a straw man.  It assumes they are not the same thing.  Quite the contrary, they are inextricably entwined.  Very simply, style emerges from a clear grasp of substance.  A sentence works at several levels, revealing information of different kinds in the way it presents its contents to the reader.  A lack of substance will show in a stylistic failure.  Too often we erroneously hear “style” as code for “decorative.”  Not at all.  The style is all important to the conveying of mood, of character, of setting, of theme.  But style cannot impose any of these things—the style is a result of the writer having a solid knowledge of what needs to be conveyed and an attention to how the sentence should be written in order to convey it.

Which is why I say style is an emergent property.  Almost no one gets to this level without a lot of practice, over time.  Which is also why most writers become clearer—“better”—as they go on.  They’re learning what matters, paring their words down, and revealing more.

For example, two novels I read this year which could not be more different serve to show how that experience and growing clarity result in unique styles.  Jim Harrison’s Brown Dog (which is a collection of linked novellas about the title character) and Richard Powers’ Orfeo.  On the page, the writing could not be more different.  Brown Dog is a semi-literate, often-itinerant aging naif who tells his story in what appears to be simple-minded affectlessness.  Things happen, he’s bounced around by events, lands (inexplicably) on his feet (wobbling often) and while clever is so guileless that one begins to believe in guardian angels.  The style reflects this.  Read carefully, though, and a world is revealed in each passing sentence.  Powers, on the other hand, reads like a musician scoring a great symphonic cycle.  The language is rich, evocative, challenging—and yet absolutely transparent, consistent with the story.  It can only be what it is in the telling of this particular tale of a failed composer who at the end of his life finds himself on the run and becoming an icon of his own life, with one more song to write and perform.  Each sentence reveals a different world, just as clearly, just as uniquely.

Style comes largely, therefore, from perspective.  Perspective informed a pair of books I read about the genre in which I labor, science fiction.  I finally read Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree, which is an excellent history-qua-analysis of science fiction.  Because I had it to hand, I then read Margaret Atwood’s collection of essays about her experience of SF, In Other Worlds.  I wrote a longish examination of my gleanings from these two very different-yet-similar works, but let me just say that in them is revealed the font and consequence of perspective.  Atwood, for all her professed appreciation of science fiction, does not “get it” while Aldiss, who breathed it in like air in his youth, does, leading them both to unique understandings.

Another “paired reading” I did this year was Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsy novels, Gaudy Night and Whose Body?  It was fascinating because the latter is the first Wimsy novel and the former is late in the cycle.  What I found fascinating was the growth of the character.  The late Wimsy is very different from the early and yet are clearly the same man.  (Another instance where style is essential to the content, the revelation of such growth.)

One of the most interestingly-written novels I found was Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit, which can be said to be all about style, and yet nothing about style.  It is written in first-person plural, an ever-present “we” as the story is told from a collective point of view which nevertheless reveals individual character.  The “wives” form an amalgam of experience in opposition to, judgment of, and distance from the events that formed the core of their subsequent lives as they followed their scientist and engineer husbands to Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb.  A stunningly gutsy thing to do for a first novel, marvelously successful.

I finished the immense Heinlein biography with volume 2 of the late William Patterson’s work on one of the major figures in science fiction.

There was also Thomas Pynchon’s newest, The Bleeding Edge, which exhibits many of Pynchon’s trademark stylistic acrobatics in what may be one of his most accessible convolutions on the American obsession with conspiracy.  Often one encounters a Pynchon novel rather than reads it and you come away with a sense of having toured a vast foreign country, appreciating many things, but knowing you haven’t grasped it, possibly not even its most salient features, but glad you made the trip.  Not this one.  It felt whole, penetrable, complete, and possessed a satisfying conclusion.

One of the most pleasant pair of readings this year was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its sequel, Ancillary Sword.  Ambitious and superbly realized, set in an interstellar milieu with fascinating aspects and a unique approach to empire, both books tell their tales from the viewpoint of an ancillary—basically a human-made-robot extension of a much larger AI, a ship mind (borrowing a bit perhaps from Iain M. Banks) that is destroyed in the first book with a single ancillary survivor.  Breq remembers being a ship, being one facet among hundreds, having access to vast data resources, but now much function as a single consciousness in a lone body.  Leckie is indulging an examination of the nature of empire, of morality, of political expedience, and what it means to be a part of something and also what it means to be outside of that something.  What I found most gratifying was that the second volume, while picking up the story a heartbeat after the first book, was a very different kind of book, about…well, not about something completely different, but about a completely different aspect of this enormous subject she’s chosen to tackle.  Serendipitously, a timely book as well, dealing as it does (effectively) with social justice and minority oppression.  I find myself looking very much forward to the third book.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.  I reviewed this as well and have nothing to add to that.

I don’t think I read, cover to cover, a bad book.  I’ve largely gotten over the compulsion to finish any book I start.  If it’s bad, it isn’t worth the time.  I readily admit I may and probably am wrong about many books that strike me this way.  I’ll talk about them if I find something instructive in my negative reaction, but otherwise I’ll just put it down to taste.

A good number of the nonfiction books I read this year concern the Napoleonic Era because of one of the novels I’m working on.  One I can recommend whole-heartedly is Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, a biography of Alexandre Dumas’s father, a creole who became general under Napoleon.

I am hoping to read more next year.  I have a to-be-read pile on the verge of daunting.  Working in a bookstore as I now do is also a problem because every day I see another book or two I want to read.  When? I ask myself.  It’s not always sufficient to dissuade me.  As I said, I read slowly these days.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book in one sitting.  That said, though, I think I’m getting more out of them now than I used to.  An illusion, maybe, but…

Have a safe, bookfilled 2015.

Time and Motion

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.

Author William Gibson. (by Michael O'Shea)

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.

Ends, Beginnings, Rebirths, Beliefs: Two Works of Science Fiction and a Fantasy

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?Case Of Conscience

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.

DawnLilith 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.

On Enduring Interest

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.   TheInterestings.r

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.

On Heinlein and Expectations

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.

Music of the Fears

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.

Role Inversions: Ancillary Justice

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.

Inside Outside: Two Views of Science Fiction

Histories and analyses of science fiction are often fragmentary. Like histories of rock’n’roll, there are just too many different facets to be meaningfully comprehensive. That is not to say there aren’t excellent works that manage to deal with essential elements of science fiction, only that inevitably something will be left out or overlooked or, now and then, misunderstood.

I recently read two books about the subject that represent the poles of such analyses—those done from the inside and those done from the outside—and between them a clarity emerges about the fundamental misunderstandings that abound about the nature of science fiction.

Brian W. Aldiss’s almost majestic Billion Year Spree was published in 1973, a good year to attempt an overview like this, which covers precursor works as well as traces the development of the specific qualities of the genre through the 19th Century and then treats the major corpus of what we have come to recognize as science fiction from the 20th Century. Aldiss is very smart, very savvy, and his wit is equal to his intelligence in putting things in perspective. It is in this book that the idea that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first genuine science fiction novel was presented. Most dedicated readers of science fiction may be acquainted with this proposition, which has gone viral within the field, but may not have read Aldiss’s arguments in support. They are worth the time.

The second book is very recent. Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, which does not purport to be an overview like Aldiss’s work. Instead it is a very personal history with opinions and judgments. It covers Atwood’s association with science fiction and showcases her take on it as a genre. In some ways it resembles a memoir. On the question of what the first SF work was, Atwood is much less rigorous and far more concerned with SF as myth than Aldiss, so we find allusions to Gilgamesh and several other works along the way, which she does not specifically name as the primogenitor.

Which makes perfect sense by the end of the book because—and she pretends to nothing else—she doesn’t know. She doesn’t seem to know what science fiction is as practiced by those who work mainly within the field, nor does she seem to understand the nature of the particular pleasure of SF for the dedicated fan. And as I say, she never claims to.

This would normally not even be an issue but for the fact that Atwood has been committing science fiction for some time now. But it’s not her primary interest, as represented by a long and successful career writing and publishing what is generally regarded as mainstream literary fiction and commentary upon it. It’s not her sandbox, even though she is clearly attracted to it and likes to come over and play.

The different focus of her appreciation of science fiction highlights aspects of the longrunning and disputatious relationship between the so-called literary establishment and the declassé realms of genre fiction. Especially after having read Aldiss on science fiction, the bases of mutual incomprehension across the fictive divide becomes clearer.

Aldiss establishes his premises early:

No true understanding of science fiction is possible until its origin and development are understood. In this respect, almost everyone who has written on science fiction has been (I believe) in error—for reasons of aggrandisement or ignorance. To speak of science fiction as beginning with the plays of Aristophanes or some Mycenean fragment concerning a flight to the Sun on a goose’s back is to confuse the central function of the genre; to speak of it as beginning in a pulp magazine in 1926 is equally misleading.

In chapter one he then sets out his operating definition:

Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.

Contrast this to Atwood’s opening stab at definitions:

Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy…I realized that I couldn’t make a stand at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction means anymore. Is this term a corral with real fences or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi-accurate or at least lucrative way?
…sci fic includes, as a matter of course, spaceships and Mad Scientists, and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong…

Then later, this:

In a public discussion with Ursula K. Le Guin in the fall of 2010…I found that what she means by “science fiction” is speculative fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classifies under “fantasy.”
…In short, what Le Guin means by “science fiction” is what I mean by “speculative fiction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.”

There are harbingers in this which emerge meaningfully later in the book.

My own definition of science fiction is less specific than Aldiss’s and far more rigorous than Atwood’s—science fiction is at heart epistemological fiction: it is concerned with how knowledge (and subsequently technology) forces change on humans. You might argue that any good spy novel would meet that criteria, and certainly many spy novels (and movies) contain large dollops of science fiction, but only as collateral concerns. The change in a spy novel is earnestly resisted and often successfully so—the status quo is all important. Science fiction usually starts with (the authorial) belief that any status quo is an illusion and goes from there. Again, any surrealist novel might meet that definition, but I said epistemological, which is the tell-tale, because we’re talking about knowledge and knowing and acting, which is a communal experience, across society. And so the Federation of Star Trek qualifies as an epistemological proposition while the Isle of Avalon does not. And of course the second important condition—force—is essential in this regard. If there is a classical myth at the heart of SF it is Pandora’s Box. Open that lid—which is an act of will—and then deal with the consequences of uncontrollable environmental change.

I take it as read that there are other definitions of science fiction. This one is mine. It has the virtue of being completely independent of tropes—those spaceships and Mad Scientists of which Atwood speaks. Which brings something like Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi into the fold quite plausibly while leaving something like Allen Drury’s Throne of Saturn out.

Aldiss proceeds in chapter one to make his case for Frankenstein and he does so adroitly. For SF to be true to itself, a change must be apparent that can be prompted and shaped no other way than by the conceit of the Sfnal idea. Dr. Frankenstein has learned how to reanimate dead tissue. The change this causes in him is to be faced quite unmetaphorically with the responsibility of being a god.

What separates this effectively from a straightforward horror novel is the utter humanity of Victor Frankenstein and the absence of any hint of either the divine or the demonic. What unfolds is a human drama anyone would face under similar circumstances. Frankenstein is not “mad” but becomes so. The Creature is not supernatural, it’s a construct. The questions of soul and moral responsibility permeate the drama—unresolved and unresolvable. Frankenstein has made a change in the world and has to figure out how to deal with it. He fails, but it’s the wrestling with it that brings the book into the fold of science fiction, because the change is both external and personal and depicted as humanly possible.

The rest of the novel is a Gothic—namely, it partakes of the tropes that define the Gothic: lonely castles, empty landscapes, isolation, darkness, and a kind of vastness that seems ponderously empty (but may not be). In that respect, Aldiss is correct about SF being in the tradition of the Gothic. It deals with vastness, isolation, the alien as landscape—and moral conundrum.

Atwood seems to think it’s all about utopias, which is why she seems unable to locate a definable beginning to the genre. There is a palpable reluctance throughout her book to deal with the subject directly, in a way that addresses the particular history of the stories that comprise the principle body of what we call science fiction, as if by searching around the perimeter she might find the point where it can all be subsumed into the larger, primary literary history of the last couple of millennia.

Aldiss talks throughout Billion Year Spree about the writers who informed the genre ever since it split off into its own distinct digs in 1926 with the founding of Amazing Stories by Hugo Gernsback, who Atwood barely mentions in passing. In Aldiss we have complete discussion of Gernsback, of Edgar Rice Burroughs, of E.E. “Doc” Smith, Leigh Brackett, A.E. Van Vogt, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov—names which are oddly absent from the Atwood even though it is hardly possible to discuss SF meaningfully in their absence.

The writers they do cover, both of them, are Aldous Huxley, Jonathan Swift, George Orwell. Aldiss talks about them as what they are—literary writers who found useful tools in the SF toolbox, but who in most ways barely acknowledged the existence of the genre. (In Swift’s case, obviously so, since the genre did not exist in his day. But this itself is telling, since Swift is excluded by Aldiss as a precursor SF writer while Atwood sees him as primary.) Aldiss is remarking on how the same observations led to writers of quite different dispositions to do work recognizable to the main body of SF in its own day. To be sure, such writers are often used by the genre in a kind of reflexive self-defense, as if to say “See, serious writers do it, too!” But while Aldiss shows how these are basically one-offs, Atwood seems to think these writers represent the central goal of the genre—that all SF writers might be aspiring to the level of Huxley and Orwell. Perhaps in matters of craft and even art, but not necessarily in terms of theme or subject.

Atwood begins the biographical parts of her association with the genre in an understandable but curious place—in comics. (She also read H. Rider Haggard as a child, which left a distinct impression on her.) The trouble seems to be that she did not move from comics to the major magazines, and so what she shows is an attempt to make whole the literary connections between the superhero motifs of the 30s and 40s and classical myth. A valid and fruitful analysis, certainly, but it leaves one of the principle distinguishing features of the science fiction of the same period unaddressed—technology. Greek myths care not a fig for how Zeus generates his lightning bolts. They are super natural, beyond such understanding, as befits the divine. Science fiction is all over those bolts and how they are made—and, consequently why.

I would argue that while he did not create the first SF, Homer gave us the first SF character in Odysseus. In his own way, he was a technophile and a geek. He did not believe the gods were utterly inscrutable and unchallengeable and spent the length of the Odyssey figuring out how to beat them. He was a clever man, a man of reason, who clearly believed there was something to be understood about everything.

The mistake many literary critics make in their regard toward science fiction is in consistently assuming SF is all about its gadgets—i.e. its tropes—when it is really about the people who make them, understand them, use them, and all those who are changed by them.

Aldiss clearly understands this. He rarely argues for less science and tech, only for better human depictions. Because SF is about the world those tools are allowing us to make.

The question that springs to mind while reading Atwood’s examination is whether or not she ever read anything “of the canon,” so to speak—like Sturgeon or Herbert or Niven or Brin or Cherryh or even Butler—or if, having read it, she simply found it not worth discussing in the same breath as her token SF writer, Le Guin, and the others she selects to dissect, like Marge Piercy. Even in the case of Piercy, the work she chooses to examine is the one that can be read differently, Woman On The Edge Of Time, rather than the less ambiguous He, She, and It. In the closing paragraph of her examination on Piercy’s time travel-cum-woman-under-pressure novel, Atwood says:

Woman On The Edge Of Time is like a long inner dialogue in which Piercy answers her own questions about how a revised American society would work. The curious thing about serious utopias, as opposed to the satirical or entertainment variety, is that their authors never seem to write more than one of them; perhaps because they are products, finally, of the moral rather than the literary sense.

Even in praise, there seems to be a reservation about the work in question. Not literary, then, but a moral work. In this regard, Aldiss would seem to agree with her:

The great utopias have better claim to our attention, for utopianism or its opposite, dystopianism, is present in every vision of the future—there is little point in inventing a future state unless it provides a contrast with our present one. This is not to claim that the great utopias are science fiction. Their intentions are moral or political…
The idea of utopianists, like our town-planners, is to produce something that is orderly and functions well.

One of the chief drawbacks of utopias is this achievement of function. Basically, the whole point of them is to end history. They are “nowhere” because once attained there is theoretically no further need for people to change. In fact, they must not change, lest they destroy the perfection. As Aldiss goes on to say:

The trouble with utopias is that they are too orderly. They rule out the irrational in man, and the irrational is the great discovery of the last hundred years. They may be fantasy, but they reject fantasy as part of man—and this is a criticism that applies to most of the eighteenth-century literature…

Given this, one wonders what it is that Atwood is attempting in implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—treating SF as utopianism without a nod toward the thing at its core, namely the embrace of inexorable change. Because change is the driving fascination in science fiction and for it to have any valence in the imagination or utility in its constructs, it must present as something other than metaphor. Let me give you two quotes from a pair of SF writers, one of whom seems to be Atwood’s choice of exceptional ability:

Science fiction is a tool to help you think; and like anything that really helps you think, by definition is doesn’t do the thinking for you. It’s a tool to help you think about the present—a present that is always changing, a present in which change itself assures there is always a range of options for actions, actions presupposing different commitments, different beliefs, different efforts (of different qualities, different quantities) different conflicts, different processes, different joys. It doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. It presents alternative possible images of futures, and presents them in a way that allows you to question them as you read along in an interesting, moving, and exciting story.
Samuel R. Delany, The Necessity of Tomorrows

If science fiction has a major gift to offer literature, I think it is just this: the capacity to face an open universe. Physically open, psychically open. No doors shut.
What science, from physics to astronomy to history and psychology, has given us is the open universe: a cosmos that is not a simple, fixed hierarchy but an immensely complex process in time. All the doors stand open, from the prehuman past through the incredible present to the terrible and hopeful future. All connections are possible. All alternatives are thinkable. It is not a comfortable, reassuring place. It’s a very large house, a very drafty house. But it’s the house we live in…and science fiction seems to be the modern literary art which is capable of living in that huge and drafty house, and feeling at home there, and playing games up and down the stairs, from basement to attic.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Escape Routes

Taken together, these point to the disconnect with traditional literary forms, traditional literary expectations. Science fiction contains utopias, certainly (and dystopias, clearly) but it is not in the main about them. Nor is it about some desired escape from the present into an alternative world that may offer some kind of release for a mind at odds with itself, which seems to be the basis of so much neurotic fiction. The focus is on the wrong point here. It is about living in a changed milieu.

The problem with utopias was summed up concisely by Virginia Woolf “There are no Mrs. Brown’s in Utopia.” Like all superlatives, counterexamples can be found, but in the main this is a self-consistent criticism of the form which Atwood seems intent on using as her functional definition of science fiction. There is no room for ordinary people in Thomas More’s Utopia—if they are ordinary, they aren’t people, they’re memes. If they aren’t ordinary, Utopia doesn’t stand a chance of surviving.

And most ordinary people, when you get down to it, are not ordinary.

Which seems to be the major concern of most literary fiction—ordinary people. Which, by a tortuous logic of taxonomic reassessment, means, since Atwood seems to believe SF is principally utopian, that science fiction cannot deal with ordinary people and therefore, though she does not come right out and say this, cannot be considered relevant to mainstream literary concerns.

Welcome back to the ghetto.

In a blatantly dismissive review of Atwood’s own Oryx and Crake, Sven Birkerts asserted that SF can never be [true] literature because it “privileges premise over character.” In other words, the world at hand is more important than the people in it—which, of course, would make it utopian.

Henry James famously claimed “Landscape is character.” (Of course, he then criticized H.G. Wells for dealing more with “things” than characters—in other words, his landscapes.)

Birkerts and Atwood are on the same page, it seems, though Atwood is striving to come to terms with a form she clearly likes, even while misapprehending it. Perhaps had she found a stack of Astounding Stories instead of H. Rider Haggard and comics in the attic as a child she might have understood where the divergence happened and SF split off from two millennia of myth-driven fantasy. Novelty can overwhelm truth-seeking and a great deal of SF falls into the pit of self-involved gizmo geekery, but at those times when the work rises out of that pit to deal with the future and science and their immanence within the human soul it is unfair to not see its true worth. It’s like comparing Sherlock Holmes to the Hardy Boys and dismissing Holmes because he comes from the same stock.

It’s interesting that Atwood chooses Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time as her example, because Piercy worked a further subversion, perhaps unwittingly so, in the scenario she examines. Connie is regarded by everyone around her as insane. But she knows she isn’t, she’s dealing with a real situation, the future. But the world she lives in, the given world, her context, insists of denying the reality of that future and treating her involvement with it as symptom rather than legitimate experience. The parallel to the way in which the science fiction writer and his or her work is treated by those who see themselves as the keepers of context is remarkable. This is a metaphor which Atwood overlooks. The question of whether or not Piercy is writing what Atwood thinks she is or has understood the nature of the form she’s indulging is open.

The misunderstanding is simple but with complex consequences. Most genre fiction—mystery, western, war, spies, even romance—takes advantage of altered context to set mood or establish a range of possible action. Done well, these shifts target different thematic concerns and aim at specific moral (or telec) points. But in all but science fiction (and to a lesser extent the related genre of fantasy) the context would seem to be more attitudinal than material. Except in westerns, but we tend to treat the context of the western as “our” world insofar as it is historical and therefore, legitimately or not, we see it as familiar. The differences fade into background and the metaphor run out of our sight, almost as window dressing.

Science fiction dramatically reverses this relationship.

Which makes it a very uncomfortable place, especially for the writer who has spent his or her career writing from character rather than from landscape through character. Instead of seeing the world as a consequence of character, in science fiction the world is a character and must be dealt with concretely, as if to say “Here’s your new reality (context), now learn to live in it.”

It is precisely that discomfort that is the drug of choice for the reader of SF.

Attempts to corral it into a more familiar tradition run up against what must often seem like a perverse and intractable exoticism on the part of the writers.

Of the two books at hand, the Aldiss is the more taxonomically useful as well as æsthetically relevant. Aldiss, after all, is a science fiction writer. He has lived within the genre, knows it to its marrow, and, while critical of its excesses and irrelevancies, clearly loves it for itself, redheaded stepchild though it may be to others.

Which is not to say the Atwood is a failure. She is just as clearly fond of science fiction and has done considerable grappling with its conventions and conceits. But for her, it feels as if SF was an important love affair that last a summer or a year and then ended, leaving her with good memories and an impression of something missed, a road not taken. Nothing she regrets but it might have been nice for it to have lasted longer. She doesn’t know it the way Aldiss does, but she doesn’t fear it the way some of her colleagues have in the past and may still. So while her observations may seem coincidental, there’s worthy insight, if only of the tourist variety. Taken together, the two books give one a view of SF both from the inside and from the outside and the distinctions are telling.

Way back in my youth, when rock’n’roll had muscled its way into the serious attention of people who, not too many years earlier, once derided it as loud, obnoxious “kid’s stuff” I found an album by Andre Kostelanetz, who led an orchestra that specialized in symphonic renditions of popular music. He would take Sinatra or Como or Crosby or film themes or light jazz and turn them into quasi-classical pieces. This album was his take on the band Chicago. I remember listening to it bemused. It was interesting and it was “accurate” but it lacked some vitality that I at first couldn’t define. But then I realized that he had stripped everything out of it that said “rock’n’roll” and all that remained was the melody, the chord changes, and the form, but none of the guts. He’d taken music that could, in its original, get you churned up, excited, and agitated in a particular way and converted it into something palatable for the inspection of people who did not understand rock music but may have been curious about it. Unfortunately, he missed the point and the result was “interesting.”

I often feel that way about attempts at science fiction by people who do not understand it.

More importantly, however, is the dialogue between those who get it and those who don’t and in this respect Atwood has written a very useful book with considerable care and insight. It is, ultimately, less about science fiction than about her attempts to alchemically transform it into something familiar to her own early impressions of magical and dissociative fictive experiences. This is underscored by the Aldiss, which is about the heart and soul of science fiction. Reading them in tandem clarifies the ongoing misapprehensions and perhaps shows us how and why SF seems to be infecting much of today’s literary fiction. There must be a good reason why someone like Atwood now writes it, even if she doesn’t seem entirely to embrace it for itself.

 

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