Tardiness comes in direct proportion to chaos. The year ended and all was in flux.
However, reading goes on.
I did not finish nearly as many books in 2016 as I tried to. At least, not other people’s books. I did finish drafts of two of my own. My desk, at the moment, is clear, and maybe I can do a better job in 2017 of keeping abreast here.
A good deal of my science fiction reading was pretty much for the reading group I host at Left Bank Books. That group affords me opportunity and motivation to read novels I might not otherwise get to. So I reread Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination for the first time in three decades, but I also read The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time ever. I do not regret the delay. It is a mature novel, with a great deal my younger self may well have missed. As to the former, it came very close to not holding up. I had forgotten (if I ever realized it this way) just how brutal a novel it is, and not just in the character of Gully Foyle. Bester’s achievement way back in the Fifties remains remarkable for its unyielding insistence on a fragmented, painful, chaotic, and historically consistent future.
I also reacquainted myself with Tiptree, in the form of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. It seems fitting in this period of reassessment and revolution, when the face of science fiction is—has—changed and brought forth a volatile reaction to that change. Tiptree was doing much of what is being so rancorously challenged within the field today, but as she was a singular voice and not a “trend” she provoked different challenges then while becoming accepted generally as a brilliant writer and a jewel in the crown of SF stars.
I also reread (for the first time since it came out) Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, which I reviewed in the previous post. I was much too inexperienced a reader the first time to appreciate everything Silverberg was doing, so I probably forgot the book as soon as I finished it.
It is true that some books must be “grown into”—I am currently rereading Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble On Triton for the book group and realizing that, while I read it eagerly the first time, I probably missed almost everything important about. Likewise with another reread, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is ostensibly a novel about colonialism. I say “ostensibly” but that does not mean it isn’t. It very much is about colonialism, all three of the novellas which comprise the whole. But it is as much about how we colonize ourselves, sometimes to our loss, as it is about colonizing foreign soil, in this case another world with a native population that strives to adapt but may have found in the end their only options were extinction or counter-colonization. As always, Wolfe’s subtlety is rigorously slippery, his points less direct, corrosive of expectation.
Titan Books has rereleased Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Chronicles, a story cycle that is the very definition of indirect. Moorcock took as his template the Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, et al—and displaced them into a near future chaos in the form of his “hero” Jerry Cornelius, who wants to save the world only to resurrect his dead sister so they can be together. The prose are rife with Sixties hip, but not so overwhelmingly anachronistic that the novels aren’t just as readable now as they were then. The response to them is perhaps necessarily altered and certainly the themes play out differently. Moorcock may have been the grown-up in the room at the advent of New Wave. He did go on to write some marvelously rich books after these.
I finished Ann Leckie’s delightfully subversive Ancillary trilogy. I need to do a full review soon. Treat yourself.
A smattering of other SF titles I can recommend whole-heartedly: Lavi Tidhar’s Central Station; Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants; Carter Sholz’s Gypsy; Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.
And Nisi Shawl’s wonderful Everfair. An alternate history steampunk done the way steampunk ought to be done. I owe it a full review, but let me say here that this is one of the best first novels I’ve read in a long time.
I read two China Mieville books this year, one very good. This Census Taker I have to count as a failure. It has good writing fascinating bits, but failed to come together the way I’ve come to expect from Mieville. The other, newer one, is The Last Days of New Paris, which is excellent. This pair allowed me to understand that one of the primary passions Mieville indulges in his work is cities. His best work portrays a city as a complete character. This Census Taker lacked that.
Of the non science fiction read this year, I did Moby-Dick with my other reading group. I resisted doing this book. I’ve never liked it. I find it turgid, convoluted, often opaque. There is also a darkness to it that can be suffocating. Over several months we tackled it, dissected it, ran through various analyses. I conclude that it is a superb work, fully deserving of its reputation. It is A great American novel if not The American Novel, because America is its subject, though it takes place on a whaling ship far at sea. It is not a flattering picture, though, displaying throughout the contradictions, hypocrisies, and shortcomings of the then young nation which continue to plague us. It does this brilliantly.
I still don’t like it. I find little pleasure in the actual reading. That, as they say, is my problem.
A colleague and coworker, Kea Wilson, published her first novel, We Eat Our Own. I commend it. I reviewed it here.
A novel that straddles the genre boundaries somewhat that caused some controversy upon its initial publication is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. This is a post-Arthurian quest story with much to say about memory and community and the price of vengeance.
This was a big year for nonfiction.
Robert Gleick’s new tome, Time Travel: A History is an exceptional soliloquy on the concept, science, and cultural use of time travel, beginning with Wells and covering both the scientific realm and the popular fiction realm, showing how they have played off each other and how the idea has evolved and worked through our modern view of the universe and our own lives. Previously in the year I’d read his magnificent biography of Richard Feynman, Genius. Gleick is a great explainer and a fine craftsman.
As well, Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons About Physics. They are brief, they are accessible, they are to be enjoyed. And, along the same lines, Void by James Owen Weatherall, about the physics of empty space. It’s far more fascinating than it might sound.
I can recommend Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, which is a history of the world from the viewpoint of the Orient. The shift in perspective is enlightening. Along the same lines I read Charles Mann’s 1491, which was eye-opening and thought-provoking—and in some ways quite humbling.
I also read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land, especially in the wake of what I think I can safely call the most surprising election result in recent history. This book is a study of the right-wing culture that has developed in many startlingly contradictory ways. I believe this would be worth reading for anyone trying to make sense of the people who continually vote in ways that seem to make no sense—and also for those who do vote that way just so they might understand what it is about their movement that seems so incomprehensible to many of their fellow citizens.
I read a few short of 50 books in 2016 cover to cover. I will be reviewing some of them in the future.
Here’s hoping for a good year of reading to come.
Robert Silverberg is, on occasion, a deceptive writer. He exhibits a style and approach which seem almost basic. Clear, almost bare-bones sentences, conveying their cargo of information efficiently in service to plots that move along at a steady pace, gradually building to a point that, once made, is obvious. You set the book (or short story or, his preferred form, novella) aside with a satisfied sense of having enjoyed a work of unpretentious refinement, but not entirely sure why.
Later the full impact hits you, like a waterfall in a low-g environment. You find yourself awash in the world he showed you. Walking down the street in the aftermath can seem disorienting because—
Well, that’s what good science fiction does, causes your perspective to shift. Silverberg’s work provides that shift very reliably, but instead of a slambang grandiloquent epiphany he does it gradually, slowly, almost geologically over the course of a story that in many respects is quite ordinary.
Take Dying Inside. What is it, after all, but a novel about a life of failed promise? We have read many of these in literature, stories about gifted, talented people who simply never quite make it. Philip Roth comes to mind with his expositions and exegeses on mediocrities who realize that they are. In fact, Roth could very well have written this novel had he the capacity to step outside the bounds of the expected the way SF requires.
The difference is the substance of the problem. Where on the one hand we have stories of people who through private demons and personal flaws cannot rise to their own occasions, here we have a very real manifestation of a vanishing ability gradually marking the limits of what a man can achieve through his personal “gift.”
Unlike any of the mediocrities in mainstream literature, some of whom become distracted, others of whom misunderstand the nature of their talents or fail to recognize the limits of their abilities, still others who simply misunderstand the world around them, David Selig does not have that excuse. He can see, directly, what the world around him is like, what it’s doing, what it thinks of itself and of him, and what it intends to do about itself. David Selig is a telepath. He can, literally, read minds. While other characters in this mold try to “read” the street, Selig neither has to try nor interpret. He can climb inside the minds of those around him and know. There is no reason he should not be a billionaire or the master of a great state or a fine artist.
But he is not and this is where Silverberg’s particular skill tells. Selig is getting by writing papers for desperate college students. He has had a number of rather ignominious jobs, once as a minor editor in a publishing house where he meets, falls in love with, and loses the one great love of his life because he himself cannot deal honestly with his own ability. He scrapes by. He has an advantage any of us might envy and yet…
Instead of taking advantage to really establish himself in life, he lives on the fringes, in the shadows. He inhabits an apartment in a multifamily building in a decaying neighborhood and lives a cash-and-carry existence. He skims on the surface, avoiding his older sister who keeps trying to jumpstart some kind of latelife relationship with the little brother she hates (because she knows what he can do) and avoiding—
Well, avoiding anything that reminds him of the salient feature of his present existence, which is that he is slowly losing his ability.
Like a form of Alzheimer’s, his telepathy is fading. He has good days and bad days, reception is often muddled, it is becoming an uncertain talent, and he has no idea why. It could be age, it could be nutrition, it could be a real disease. At times he affects an attitude of not caring, of actually wishing it would vanish. Life might be easier not knowing what the people he has to deal with are thinking, feeling, being. But there is an undercurrent of desperation throughout, something he keeps at a distance because it would be devastating to deal with face on.
Which, of course, is the way he treats life in general.
The deceptiveness of the novel is in its top to bottom symmetries. Selig lives on the fringes because he doesn’t want to get involved. He doesn’t want to get involved because when he does he gets far more involved than is humanly sustainable. He survives by manipulating people with his gift, but he doesn’t manipulate them to any real advantage because he doesn’t want to get involved. Nor does he want to be the monster he suspects he may be. He tries to be outside, above it all, because he is terrified that he is not. He can’t be truly detached because he needs other people to survive, but he won’t embrace them, either, because he doesn’t want them to know what he is. The layers go down and down, onion-like, and in the end there may be no center, and he doesn’t want to find that out, either, so it’s possible his vanishing ability is self-sabotage.
He holds humanity in contempt because, finally, he holds himself in contempt. Wanting them to accept him he won’t allow it because what would that say about him that such pathetic creatures might think well of him?
As you read, go through his life in finely-wrought flashbacks, watch his “progress” and endure his growing failure, the novel moves through you, easily. This is a quiet tragedy, yet so strange because we can see any number of places where Selig might have changed something, anything, so he would be in a better place, and in that it is the equal of any well-conceived character drama, but then there’s this added detail that makes it all so much stranger, so much greater, so much deeper once we let it work through us.
It is as if Silverberg is showing us that of all the advantages telepathy might give us, the most likely one would be the ability to be even lonelier than we are. Access to such intimacy would not open us to richer human interactions. Quite the contrary, it would cause us to shun intimacy. Because, possibly, the real pleasure of intimacy is in the surprise, the unexpected, the mutuality of discovery. Telepathy would be like skipping to the end of the book.
We would still be left with the task of reading—and understanding—the rest of the book.
There have been many attempts in science fiction to portray telepathy. This is one of the more successful. In so doing, it reveals much about human nature that, as we read, we come to realize is better discovered through our common means and abilities.
As Selig’s talent continues to fade and he is forced to deal with people more and more without the intercession of preknowledge, we see a human being trying to do what we all try to—reach out, understand, touch another soul. Telepathic or not, it seems we are all stuck with one thing—who we really are.
It is arguable that we live in a post-colonial age. We no longer see major powers moving into previously independent places and usurping the land and the people and declaring them to now be part of some empire. Not the way we did in the 18th and 19th centuries. (We wink at smaller-scale examples of roughly the same thing, but while Ukraine may be prey to Russia, we don’t see Russia trying to occupy New Zealand.) The scramble for Africa was the last eruption of such hubris. And there are now plenty of studies indicating that it was never a profitable enterprise anyway, that every power that indulged its imperialist urge did so at great expense that was never recouped, not in the long run. At best, such endeavors paid for the re-formation of both the imperial power and its colonies into more modern forms independent of each other. At worst, it was pillage that benefited a few individuals and large companies and resulted in short-term wealth-building and long-term grief for everyone involved.
Yet the impulse drove relocations of population, experiments in applied bureaucratic overreach, and an ongoing debate over the ethics of intrusion. One could argue that the Aztec civilization was a horrible construct with human sacrifice at its aesthetic center and the world is well rid of it. On the other hand, it is equally true that the Spaniards who toppled it had no right to do so and unleashed a different sort of ugliness on the indigenous populations. Every European power that followed them into the so-called New World bears the same weight of shame for the wanton destruction of things they could not understand. If here and there something positive came out of it, that something was by accident and had no real part of the initial decision to Go There.
With what we now know—ethically, scientifically, behaviorally—if given the chance to do it again, would we? And if we decided to go ahead anyway, would we do anything differently or would we still be dominated by a subconscious obsession to exploit for resources to fuel a growing population trapped within an economic system that seems custom made to produce the necessary excuses to do what we want with whatever we find?
We seem forever to be doing things that go sour on us and then having to clean up the mess and apologize and figure out how to prevent a repeat performance. The problem with that is, one situation is not so exactly like another that the lessons do not come with big loopholes and the opportunity for rationalizing our hubristic avarice.
In short, we never learn.
At least, not in aggregate. We understand this as well and so a good part of our political theorizing is geared toward a place wherein the individual moral insight can be effectively balanced against the rock-stupid momentum of the group; and in which the common wisdom of historical experience as exemplified by the group can temper the less enlightened passions of the individual. In other words, to find the point at which we can allow for the individual who is correct to trump the so-called “will of the people” and conversely where that common will can morally check the individual who may only be thinking of him or herself, the group be damned.
Underneath, threaded into, and informing Marguerite Reed’s Philip K. Dick Award nominated novel, Archangel, we find this ongoing debate carried on at several levels.
Ubastis is a world seemingly ideal for large-scale human settlement. Two waves of advance “scouts” grounded to do extensive surveys, impact studies, and established trial settlements. It became clear that this was a vital ecosphere and that, compatibility aside, questions of too much too soon drove the negotiations that prevented a rush to fill it with human excess. Dr. Vashti Loren, widow of the spiritual and moral leader of these two waves, is one of the principle advisors on the ad hoc committee overseeing Ubasti, which exists as a kind of protectorate. The rest of human polity is hungry for it to be opened for a larger human presence, which the people who live there know will mean the ruin of a unique biome. Vashti becomes the focus of all the efforts to forestall such open colonization. As the widow of a slain “hero” she carries great weight.
She is also a problematic figure in this culture. She is a genetically unmodified human in a larger culture where modification has become so widespread that “Natches” are special. That she is a protector of an “unmodified” ecosphere is only the first layer of what becomes a deeply meaningful representation of not only human moral responsibility but also human potential in an alien cosmos.
Reed gives us a civilization where aggression is being gene-modified out of individual humans, even though wars are ostensibly still fought, uprisings happen, and certain strain of bloodlust remains a given in controlled contexts. That Vashti is wholly unmodified adds to the irony that she also hunts native species as part of her job as an exobiologist and as a kind of PR component to assuage outworlders who are curious, acquisitive, and need persuading that Ubastis requires the time to be understood before the exploitation full-scale human settlement will bring. She takes outworld visitors on sdafari to hunt the local big game.
Her deceased husband, Lasse, was murdered by a renegade “soldier”—a Beast, a BioEngineered ASault Tactician, a member of a clone experiment in super soldiers—as a result of trying to prevent poaching. The Interests trying to discard the treaty that keeps Ubastis inviolate have all along been probing at the defenses, trying to engineer excuses for open incursions. Vashti kills the Beast. That action calls into question her sanity, but she effectively defends herself from charges that would see her “re-educated.”
What she did not know was the deeper game her husband was playing to bring about a future independent Ubastis—and that it involved the Beasts, the lot of which have been presumably destroyed as too dangerous. Vashti begins to learn what her husband never told her when she is confronted with a Beast that has been smuggled onto Ubastis by the governor’s wife. She vows to kill it, but that impulse itself gradually morphs into powerfully conflicted responsibilities, the details of which comprise the plot of this densely-detailed and finely-realized novel.
Vashti. The name has history. She was the Queen of a Persian ruler who requested she appear naked before a banquet he was holding in honor of other kings. A “higher politics” was obviously going on and his demand of his wife was obviously part of the impression he was trying to make on his fellow kings. Vashti refused. Harriet Beecher Stowe later declared that Vashti’s refusal was the first blow for women’s rights. She followed her own code. Her husband’s request was deeply inappropriate even in that culture. Vashti stood by her own values.
Make of that what you will. Reed’s Vashti is a woman dedicated to a set of principles which are sorely tested in the course of the novel. Watching her come to terms with political, ecological, and moral realities and steer a course between the shoals of competing colonial, imperial, and personal demands makes for a compelling read. She is a superbly realized, flawed character, and the questions she raises, wrestles with, and reacts to lend themselves to consideration long after the last page.
This is excellent science fiction. It takes the abstract, the conjectural, and the epistemology of human systems and moral dictates and makes them personal, the stakes high, and answers often problematic, leaving us with a great deal to think about.
After eight years, the ABC show Castle has ended. Despite a strong premise and a superb cast and excellent presentation, the show exemplified dramatic entropy of the most annoying kind and after an earlier announcement that one of its two main stars would not be returning for a ninth season, the decision was taken to kill it.
I watched all eight seasons. Initially, I loved it. How could I not? The title character was a writer—true, every wanna-be writer’s wet dream of a writer: successful, rich, sexually active, and cool—who manages to fall into a plum opportunity “riding along” with one of the best detective squads in the NYPD. Richard Castle, because of his social status (privilege) can manipulate his way via the mayor into this spot, despite Detective Kate Beckett’s strong and perfectly reasonable protests.
So far so good. He’s the loose cannon, the out-of-box thinker, she’s by-the-book and wicked smart. They combine into an ideal team.
There was the story arc of Beckett’s mother’s murder that bound multiple seasons together in an ongoing manhunt for the real power behind the murder, which they played out in just the right amount while doing some of the smartest police/detective drama on tv. The first three seasons were gems of the form.
But then the creep set in. For whatever reason, Castle himself started losing some of the savvy that made him special. He seemed often to have forgotten that he once knew these things. The daredevil kid grew more cautious and in some cases lost his nerve.
Worse, he became the most gullible smart person on television. He went from someone very grounded and aware of the world as it is to the ideal X-Files fan, believing in—or hoping to believe in—the dumbest, most debunked, infantile nonsense. As a foil to Beckett’s far more consistent logic and common sense it was amusing. But as it continued it just got tiresome.
And then they fell in love. Very plausibly, I might add, and it gave the show another boost. Why not? It was the sense of impending disaster that kept Beckett from allowing herself to see what was happening between them.
And then there was the mystery of her mother. That turned out to be a surprisingly plausible mcguffin. When they finally found the culprit, it made sense, and then later when Beckett was able to arrest him, it was very satisfying.
But then what? Marriage, more crimes, more of the same. In the logic of tv series, someone says “They need a Nemesis!” So a new one was invented. A power behind the power. Another layer.
Mishandled, though, with none of the deep logic of the original. Just a faceless entity who was doing…what? Aside from somehow being a bad guy, what exactly did this Locksat do that was so harmful to society? To what end other than to bedevil Our Heroes did he exist?
Still, when the writing was on and the crime of the week was good, the show still managed to appeal. And the byplay between Castle and Beckett was enjoyable. But you could see that it didn’t have long to go before it all ran out of steam.
Last night, May the 16, the series finale aired. Apparently there were two episodes filmed, depending upon renewal or cancellation. We got the cancellation episode.
It was dire. Never mind plot holes, the striongs that were being knotted to tie all the loose ends together were visible almost from the beginning. We discover who Locksat is and it’s so out of left field as to have no impact,no satisfying “AH HAH!” moment. The loony assassin is interesting, but he has no backstory to speak of. Beckett and Castle both accept too many things at face value and walk right into—
They were all tired and wanted to be done with it. The series has ended, we know what happens to Our Heroes, and there is finality. If not a decent closure.
Why the decision was taken somewhere around the middle to end of season three to start lobotomizing Richard Castle, I don’t know. It was funny occasionally but it just got painful. Beckett remained consistent, even when she got a little ditzy over Rick (but love will do that, so it wasn’t really implausible). There were a number of strong episodes in every season, even this last one, but overall…
It is not necessary for only one main character to be the smart one to make something like this work. Those first three seasons proved you could have intelligence in both characters. It didn’t even have to be the same kind, which was the point initially. But they had hit upon a formula and it seemed top work. And they rode it to the dismal end.
But it’s over now. Maybe they’ll spin off a show featuring Castle’s daughter, Alexis, and her new best friend as a pair of female P.I.s. That could work. But please, stop thinking that smart doesn’t sell. Stupid is just that and not very good drama.
Kazuo Ishiguro works a consistent theme. Even in his earliest novels, he explores the manner in which people refuse to acknowledge the reality through which they move. Many of his characters display a kind of aphasia, an inability to grasp the issues surrounding them, the motives of people, even those they are close to, or what is unfolding before their eyes. In a way, they are peculiarly narcissistic. I say peculiar because quite often their sense of themselves is the last thing they seem concerned with, even when others are.
At times this has led him to experiment with tactics of evasion that result in novels that resist our attempts to connect, even to access what is going on, but we read them anyway because he cloaks the experiments with plots and devices that hold our interest, but which we suspect are little more than extensions of the evasions at the core of his characters’ lives.
In a few instances, he has his characters actually go out in search of the mystery that seems to enshroud their worlds, though usually they look in the wrong places or simply fail to comprehend what they discover.
Such is the motive behind Axl and Beatrice as they leave their small village in the heart of a post-Arthurian England to find their long-absent and possibly estranged son and perhaps get to the bottom of the cloying fog suffocating memory. Their journey takes them to the source of a strange amnesia in The Buried Giant.
The landscape is mythic. This is a land occupied by Britons and Saxons. It is a land that has only recently been host to the epic struggles of King Arthur, Merlin, his knights, and the aspirations of Camelot. If there is any doubt how real Ishiguro intends us to treat this, he dispels such doubt by having Axl and Beatrice encounter the aging Sir Gawain, one of the few survivors of those days.
There is much of the Quixote in this Gawain, although his skills are impressive. Age alone has blunted his abilities. Ostensibly, he is still on a quest. Not the Grail. No, that is never mentioned. Rather he claims to be on a mission to slay the she-dragon Querig.
Joining them is a young Saxon warrior, Wistan, and a boy he has rescued from a village where because of a wound the boy suffered from ogres the villagers intend to kill him for fear that he will become an ogre. As, indeed, he is destined to—but not in the way superstition would have it.
Wistan for his part is also on a mission. He, too, is on the hunt for Querig. But for him Querig’s demise is but a means to an end, and a terrible end at that. He and Gawain come into conflict over it eventually and thereby we learn both the source of the Mist, which robs people of their memory, and a truth about King Arthur not recorded in the myths.
Through all this, even as it would seem rich material for a dense fantasy about knights and dragons and kings and ogres, Ishiguro’s focus is on Axl and Beatrice and the nature and quality of commitment and forgiveness. For in the mists of poorly-glimpsed memory there are terrible things between them and as they progress on their journey to find their son Axl begins to have second thoughts, not at all sure he wants to remember, afraid that perhaps he had been the cause of great pain and sorrow. Ishiguro is concerned here primarily—and almost exclusively—with the nature of time, memory, and forgiveness and the many ways they are the same essential thing.
In that sense, the controversy he stirred when the novel appeared by claiming that he was not writing a fantasy—that he did not want to be seen as plowing the same fields as George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss—was unfortunate. He spoke truly. This is not a fantasy in the sense of contemporary sword & sorcery or secondary-world fantasies. He is not doing the same thing as Martin, although he may have borrowed a subtheme or two from Tolkein. His disclaimer was taken as a derogation of fantasy, yet one can see from the text that he is fond of those elements of the book taken directly from the long tradition of English fantasy.
If there is a fantasy element here worthy of the name it is in his portrayal of the end of a mythology and the terminus of one world as it transforms into another. The Buried Giant is about remembering as much as it is about things forgotten. The changes soon to be wrought by the conclusion of Wistan’s quest and Gawain’s final stand have to do with how history turns and what is taken after a time of interregnum during which things lost are grasped, reshaped, and put to new uses.
But it is always about what is between people and how we use memory and its infelicities.
As in other Ishiguro novels, there is much that annoys. His characters talk. And talk and talk and talk and often it is about nothing until we realize that it is all tactic. Dissimulation as replacement for substantive communication—until finally the act of avoidance itself becomes the point and the things hidden are revealed by inference. Axl and Beatrice as blind and trying to perceive the elephant they explore with tentative fingers. That it is to a purpose, however, makes it no less frustrating, but it would be a mistake to see this as anything other than absolutely intended.
The point of the quest–for all of them–becomes evident when at last they find Querig and it turns out not to be what they had all expected. And we then see how myth sometimes is more useful than reality.
James Gleick’s biography of physicist Richard Feynman ought to be part of all high school science classes. Not only does he chronicle the life of one of the preeminent scientists of the 20th Century, not only does he portray the chief puzzle of physics in that century clearly, he manages to convey the substance of the work in enviably accessible prose without once “dumbing down” any of it. All this while using remarkably few equations and those usually only in description of what they do, not in the numbers and symbols themselves. One comes away from the book—Genius: The Life And Science of Richard Feynman—feeling that this would not be such a difficult subject, or at least feeling that it would be as much a human endeavor as art or music or engineering or accounting.
Science is encased in an opaque mythography that seems designed to make people feel inferior. In the main, this is a consequence of language. At one time, the language of science was abstruse in the extreme. Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story poking fun at the tortured convolutions of scientific jargon.
I say at one time. An effort has been made in recent decades to make it clearer. It occurred to some that the density and deliberate complexifying of scientific papers itself had done unintended damage to the field by making it inaccessible to the very people it is ultimately intended to benefit. We might not have such frustrating debates going on today in the social and political realms over climate or vaccination had scientists themselves, as part of in-group cultural arcana, kept the lay public at such a distance by making what they do appear simultaneously elitist and impenetrable.
Feynman himself rejected such practices throughout his career. He never assumed people—average people—couldn’t understand. Just say it plain. If you could not explain it clearly, he believed, then you yourself did not understand it. He was constantly railing against “stupid questions.” Questions either too vague, too big, or too beside the point for any kind of reasonable answer.
But he wanted the questions. He wanted to see that spark of interest, and if he saw a glimmering he would try to fan it into flame. His enthusiasm was infectious.
Richard Feynman became one of the most important questioners in 20th Century science. Partly this was due to his idiosyncratic approach to problem-solving. For example, he rarely ever finished reading a paper by someone else. He would read just enough to understand the problem and then work it out for himself. He didn’t want the solutions handed to him, he wanted the challenge and, evidently, deep pleasure of doing it himself. Of course, in that way he also found errors, logical inconsistencies, even fraud on occasion. He was a prodigious calculator, often able to do complex equations in his head. He intimidated and fascinated in equal measure.
What some mistook for slapdash, undisciplined thinking was rather underpinned by a vigorously compulsive commitment to fact and, ultimately, truth. The rigor of his work ultimately proved the equal or superior to many if not most of his contemporaries. He insisted that the universe make sense and, crucially, he was unafraid of admitting he did not know something.
He lost the love of his life while working on the atomic bomb, a perhaps unfortunate pairing of profound experiences which, while he seldom talked about either, perhaps informed his seemingly random path through post WWII physics. He was late in receiving a Nobel Prize, partly by his inability to find the “right problem” to work on.But in the course of his search, the work he did informed and solidified work done by many others.
Feynman may have been a genius. In a scintillating chapter, Gleick examines the subject of genius itself, partly to address the peculiar circumstance that we seem no longer to have any geniuses. This, he suggests, is a byproduct of the fact that we have so many and in a wide range of fields. What we seem to lack is the singular personality to which the label readily appends. We have no public space anymore for an Einstein.
Or a Feynman. But that does not mean we do not have them…or that we do not need them. Now perhaps more than ever.
Gleick has humanized Feynman in this, although in Feynman’s case that may never have been needed. He was known for playing bongos, he was a raconteur, he spoke in a thick New York accent, and he came across often as a kind of rural wit, plainspoken and commonsensical to the core. Yet his major work was in one of the most difficult and demanding aspects of modern science and he was a major presence. Appearances too often supplant substance.
Knowing this, Gleick also humanized the subject Feynman devoted his life to, making the science accessible and, to a surprisingly large extent, comprehensible to the nonspecialist.
In an era in which “hero” is too often applied to the physical—athletes, models, soldiers, actors—and may itself be a term corrupted by overuse and inconsistent application, it might serve us well to draw back and consider how little attention is paid to thinking and the solving of problems. The process alone is contributory and ought not be beholden to budget committees or P&L charts or mere application review. That there are people who spend their time unraveling the mysteries of the universe, not in some mystical sense of gurus on mountaintops but in the sense of an Einstein figuring out why the universe is the way it is, should be a source of inspiration. In the final analysis, it is likely that people like Richard Feynman give us more as a culture and a civilization than all the pseudo-philosophical mouthings of all the gurus that have ever lived. That one can pull a device out of one’s pocket, almost anywhere on the planet, and look up any or all of those gurus is a consequence of people like Feynman figuring out the nature of the real unseen, the quantum level of reality, which, as Feynman would have insisted, is Reality.
Cross-genre experimentation often produces interesting failures, less often brilliant chimeras. The novelty seems to open up possibilities. Steampunk has been one of the most successful in recent years, but it seems to be wearing thin as too much of it tends to be old-fashioned occult or mystery, rather Sherlockian (or more Wilkie Collins) in essence with a thread of SFnal gadget-geekery running throughout. Often it’s just a new suit of clothes disguising an old set of bones.
One of the things that has rarely been successful but is perhaps the oldest of these mix-and-match tropes is the attempt to blend science fiction and fantasy. Try as we might, it usually ends up being demonstrably one or the other merely borrowing the trappings of its often unwilling partner. Roger Zelazny was perhaps the most sucessful at it, but he managed it by bravura sleight-of-hand, or wordcraft, rather than through genuine alchemical mergers. What we generally find are stories that set the fantasy conceits at odds with science, in a kind of battleground plot where one or the other must prove superior or “right” in some epistemological sense. Poul Anderson wrote one called Operation Chaos (and a few sequels) that attempted it by a clever deployment of magical “universes” as essential parallel universes of higher or lower energy states, but in the end it was science fiction in the way it treated the conceits. The thematic utility of fantasy was sublimated to the SFnal conceptualizing.
The problem is that fantasy, dealing as it does with physical propositions of how the universe operates which run counter to our understanding of the same concepts, develops thematic conceits which have very little if anything to do with the concerns found in science fiction. They are, at base, about different things. Attempting to assert tyhat those two worlds (nevfer mind world views) can plausibly coexist and have anything to say together which cannot be said better by one or the other usually ends up as special pleading or simply a fashion statement.
(Example? The big one is Star Wars, despite Lucas’s belated attempt to shoehorn any kind of science fictional justifications into Episodes 1,2, and 3, which is a full court quest fantasy dressed up like science fiction. The machinery, the technology, the science never avails against magic, which is portrayed as both physically superior and in fact the true moral battleground. It’s a fantasy, not a blending of the two.)
All that said, it was only a matter of time before a genuinely successful hybrid would appear. Artists keep working at something long enough, eventually that which one generation says cannot be done, will be done.
Briefly, Laurence and Patricia are outcasts. Their parents, who are shown as almost polar opposites of each other, fail to “get” them, and their attempts to “correct” what they see as bad trends or unhealthy characteristics end badly around. Likewise at school, where they meet and become friends out of desperation (they’ll actually talk to each other), their lives are simply untenable because their peers also do not understand them. It becomes, at one point, life-threatening for them to hang out together.
Added to this is the appearance of a trained assassin from a secret society who has identified them as the nexus of eventual social collapse and global catastrophe. His Order does not permit the killing of minors, though, so he is limited to ruining their lives and attempting to keep them apart.
What is special about them is…
Patricia is an emergent witch. She discovers early on that she can speak to animals, but it may be an hallucination (it’s not). Her older sister, who spies on her, makes matters worse by secretly recording Patricia in some of her more extreme attempts at revisiting her chance discovery of “powers” and releasing it on social media.
Laurence is an emergent technical genius who sets about building a self-aware AI in the closet of his room. His parents, who are in most ways failures, see his obsession with staying indoors, reading obsessively, and attempting to gain admission to a science school as unhealthy and insist on outdoors programs and forced social interaction. They have no clue that everything is against this.
Patricia and Laurence are eventually driven apart and grow up to make lives in their separate spheres, both successfully. They re-encounter each other and fall into an alliance concerned with saving the Earth, which is in the late stages of environmental collapse. Each in their own way must address this problem and here is where it gets interesting.
As if all the rest isn’t already interesting enough. Anders has painted fulsome portraits of the outsiders we all knew (or, in some instances, were) with sympathy and understanding that avoids pity and makes for pleasurable character study. Laurence and Patricia could easily have become archetypes, and certainly in some ways they are, but here they are simply people we may well know, and even wish to know. And the relationship she builds between them is complex and resonant and satisfying in surprising ways. In a novel already repleat with strengths, this is a major achievement.
How she makes the merger of magic and science work is also by way of character. Laurence and Patricia are both in dialogue with the universe. They use different languages, elicit different responses, but in the end it turns out to be the same universe. Anders suggests that we still don’t have a firm grasp of how manifold and multifaceted that universe is, but in the end it is all a conversation. Multilingual, to be sure, and compiled of palimpsests sometimes hard to identify. What is required is an appreciation of the wider concept.
What makes this a successful blending—merging, really—of usually antipathetic concepts is that dialogue and the acknowledgment in the end that both views make for a greater understanding. The solutions—if any are to be found—come from the combined strengths of the divergent views. Laurence and Patricia, depending on each other, coming to know that here there is genuine friendship, love, acceptance, and a willingness to understand the other side, make for better answers than they do apart.
I do not wish to spoil the myriad of dialectical twists and turns salted throughout. Anders has not given us a set solutions, but as series of antiphonal arguments leading to a place where a wider view may be achieved. Throughout she plays with the tropes, the themes, the assumptions, connects them to human concerns, and manages something greater than the sum of its traditionally antagonistic parts.