In Times Long Past…

In the afterword to Nicola Griffith’s new novella, Spear, she runs down the lists of source material and permutations around the Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Or, more precisely, those around Percival, who in many tellings is the more important figure. The king is all very fine, of course, but it was Percival who found the Grail. In some versions, it is Percival who returns Excalibur to the Lake. In still others…

The point being that such stories, myths and legends, are all repurposed tales that meet multiple needs and adapt to the times in which they are (re)told. Tracing them to a single point of origin is not only virtually impossible, but is irrelevant. The purpose of myth is reification.

Among others. But on that point, reification is always tied to the present. Which lends myth its ever-ancient timelessness and relevance.

Which is always one of the fascinating things about it, that timeless-timely utility.

It’s also what makes a good retelling immediately exciting and accessible.

Most (if not all) myths begin in some version of “A hero will be born.” The story then is “from where” “to whom” and “then what?” Perseus is emblematic, and possibly the most visible in significance. The Greeks may not have begun the genre, but they certainly perfected it, and for a long time pretty much owned it. All the Great Heroes of the Aegean and Adriatic region have remarkable beginnings. Often a cave is involved. Some education in the wilderness. Then the confrontation that defines their purpose. They are, essentially, Of Nature, since everything about them is from Outside, “inside” being more or less whatever passed for civilization. (For our purposes, the primal exemplar of this outsider could be Enkidu from the Gilgamesh story.)

The utility of myth cycles is in their adaptability. Repurposing a story to reveal, reify, revise, or otherwise reestablish the scope of meaning is what gives them power across time. The nature of the actors can change, roles might be swapped around, identities modified or even completely recast.

And in some instances, the central hero is changed. Focus moves from one to another, giving us a shift in perspective, a realignment. Something new, something not considered before. And yet, the story remains essentially the same, at least in regards to the events and the goals.

The Arthurian cycle is endlessly adaptable this way. Who is the hero? Arthur? Merlin? Lancelot? Guinevere?

Percival?

All of them, depending on which example you look at, fit the role of Outsider. But the one that is most ideally crafted for that part is Percival.

In Spear, Nicola Griffith gives us a Percival who is perfectly outside. In this iteration, she is Peretur, of “mixed” parentage, raised in the essential cave, schooled by a wise adept, nurtured to become the hero the world needs.

She comes of age, chooses a path, and sets forth from the hidden place of her childhood to journey to Arturus’s court at Caer Leon to join the circle of Companions to the king. She decides, chooses, does battle, grows confident…

This is a hero to cheer for. Her first victory is in learning her true name. Her next is establishing for herself what she is. And then making a place for herself in the world. A place of her choosing.

Quest is also a major element of most myths. Going, struggling to find, fulfilling vows, remaking the world along the way. In this new retelling of this story, there is a quest, though it is not what most of the participants believe it to be. In this way, Griffith shows how the defining character of the goal is not a specific thing but a fulfillment of purpose, and grail at the end is self-knowledge.

Spear is marvelous reworking of the Arthurian tale. The components are given different origins, different explanations, the settings are deftly placed in what we know of the “real” world, and the nature of what may have been the place and people from which the cycle emerged are treated with the kind of demythologizing care of the historian. There is a texture to this, a fabric of authenticity that gives entree to the world. In the end, such reassessments only add to the power and charm of the story. In so doing, Griffith offers us a variation that reifies overlooked or hidden aspects of what makes the legend important. For us.

Along the way, she gives us a damn good adventure.

In the afterword, there is a tantalizing discussion of sources, variations, and a brief history of the cycles over time. It establishes the long practice of repurposing of which Spear is only the newest example. Which is all well and good, but the best thing about this one is that is opens the possibilities of the story to offer meaning to a wider audience. It is not a tale aimed at Just These People, but for many more not usually considered. Griffith discusses that as well.

Spear is a successful recasting. Even the nature of the Quest at the heart of centuries of Grail stories is given a new raison detre, bringing is from the cosmic to the personal in a touching reveal utterly consistent with Griffith’s purposes and the traditions of the story cycle.

All this aside, it is first and foremost a thoroughly delightful and satisfying work.

Visceral Coding

Few things generate sustained anxiety as much as genetic engineering. Both positive and negative, for the possibilities and the dread. Since Watson and Crick revealed the double helix of DNA, the science has proceeded apace, and we now live in an era wherein “programming” can refer to both computers and our genes.

Jennifer Doudna is a name to conjour with in this transformational time. In 2020 she won the Nobel Prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR cas9. CRISPR has become the label in media stories for a process of “editing” genes with the use of a form of RNA. (Almost no one outside the biochemistry and medical community seems to no what it stands for: Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeaters.) Basically minute segments of code in a strand of RNA that repeat and can be used to, effectively, insert modified segments of code into a gene sequence.

What began as “pure” research into the methods by which bacteria defend against viruses became a revolutionary method of dealing with all manner of genetic circumstances, including potential treatments and vaccines for the most recent scourge, COVID-19.

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Doudna (pronounced DOWD-na), Code Breaker, is also a history of the sometimes chaotic, sometimes life-affirming, often unexpected world of scientific research and its interface with the rest of the world.

Isaacson has given us not only a biography of a remarkable individual, but a look at the often surprising world of research and development. The image of the scientist, austere and removed, still to some extent dominates our imagination. It comes as a surprise (and occasionally something of a betrayal) when we are forced to recognize that scientists are human, just like the rest of us, with all the flaws and foibles to which “ordinary” people are prone. One aspect of the public conception of The Scientist I think requires adjustment is the fact that scientists continue to grow, to mature, to evolve. Too often, it seems that once the Ph.D. is earned, the scientist becomes a static icon, unchanging, and is expected to Know All or at least is frozen into an unchanging assemblage of stereotypes. On some level, this seems to offer comfort—one of the things people tend to be bothered by is an admission of not knowing. Worse still, is a change of mind, which is inevitable in the light of new evidence. But ordinary people can do both. A scientist is not supposed to.

This has led to unrealistic expectations, loss of trust, and the unfortunate “gaming” of science (never mind truth) in public policy. Primarily, this is from a profound lack of understanding on the part of the public. For another, it emerges from the misuse of science as a political talking-point.

Isaacson does an excellent job of taking the reader through the various aspects of a discovery, its initial reception, its development, its transition from pure research to useful tool, and the social and political impact along the way. And along with this, he explains just what that science is.

Jennifer Doudna is central to the unraveling of genetic codes and the inner workings of the templates of life. Basically, she became a nexus for many strands of research, each adding to the overall picture. Her work with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier ultimately earned them a shared Nobel Prize.

What they have developed is a tool by which the template for biological forms can be modified. Edited. This offers the possibility eventually of correcting genetic “errors’ that produce diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and many others. The drive to “decode” the human genome contained the hope and ambition to one day be able to deal with these things, which are different from pathogenic illnesses. But even in the case of viral and bacterial infections, the ability to address illnesses from at a genetic level offers exciting possibilities—and in fact has been vital to the handling of the COVID-19 outbreaks. The speed and facility with which the scientific and health community have been able to respond is in important ways attributable to Jennifer Doudna’s work.

There is drama, intrigue, fascinating people, and the makings of a good thriller in certain aspects of this story. But the most important thing is the profound humanization of a complex community and the people in and from it. Scientists are not fundamentally different from anyone else. Their interests may seem esoteric and the degree of concentration they bring to their passions may seem other-worldly at times, but in truth what they have is a deeply useless set of tools and the willingness to abide by the rules those tools require for sound use. What must be understood, and often is obscured by the dizzying aspects of the science itself, is their humanity and how they represent, often, the best possibilities of all of us. (Of course there are those who are not as good at what they do as they should be, those who are more concerned with fame or wealth than the work itself, those who are flawed in unfortunate ways—just like any other group of people in any other area of activity—but we should look to the best for our examples and not allow the worst to color our perceptions of the people doing amazing work.)

Finally, understanding something is the best way to stop being afraid of it. At the end of the day, that is the real gift scientists give us—they work to understand things previously hidden and unknown and thereby help the rest of us to stop being afraid.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the Pursuit of Taxonomy

There are some discussions about literary forms which are of use primarily to the academic, the author, and the dedicated taxonimist obsessed with lists and categories and the minutiae that separate one column from another. For the average reader—including deep readers, serious in their immersions into literature—most of this is beside the point, sometimes just a distraction, and occasionally a serious annoyance. Most simply do not care “what” something is—where it slots in on any spreadsheet of literary types—as long as the book at hand works and provides the pleasures they seek.

For the former group, though, these things can matter quite a lot. Tracing the lineage of a form or where a given writer drew inspiration or the cross-referencing of varied texts is a species of archaeology that can enrich understandings of the evolution of literature. Movements, iconoclasts, even the politics of certain writers and groups of writers, the impact specific works have had on whole fields…all this is both real and fascinating for a particular area of study. It should be there for those inclined to ask the kinds of questions addressed. For the writer, such distinctions are relevant for a variety of reasons, starting with the kind of work to be done and how to do it and going on to considerations of market and further to the sorts of broad conversations engaged across published texts. Knowing the deep roots of what one writes can solve problems, make the work itself richer, and give direction to later work.

As for the taxonomist…this kind of thing is part and parcel of bibliographic study. As our archives grow, this becomes more important, lest things are lost. Or misunderstood.

But as I say, for the general reader, all that matters is that the book provides what it has promised. In the main, the obligation of the writer is to provide entertainment, an experience that satisfies whatever requirements the reader may seek to fulfill. As far as the reader is concerned, as long as what is found on the page serves that goal, what goes into creating that page is irrelevant. And like a good magic act, it should not intrude. Granted, there are some readers who enjoy deciphering texts to see how they work, those who feel good about being able to perceive the scaffolding, trace the connections, and catch all the well-incorporated quotes, references, sources, and links. (And too many lit classes based on the assumption that this is the important part of reading.)

Achieving that seemingly effortless immersion, though, is far from simple and work well done requires a knowledge of those behind-the-scenes apparatuses. The architect has to know the skeleton of the building that supports the surface that everyone then sees and uses.

There is interest for the lay reader as well. Not all readers are disinterested. The how of things has an appeal. But for the most part, understanding how something works and what it is intended to accomplish and the way it achieves its goals is primarily in service to the ongoing endeavor to continue to create works that do certain things.

So let me state up front that distinctions between forms and what makes them distinct will make no difference in the case of a given work if people enjoy it. Regarding this current essay, what makes science fiction science fiction will matter little to readers who are loving what they are reading. The ride is all. The play of ideas, the novelty of landscape, the exoticism of the distortions within the story that produce a pleasurable experience are all that count. If you have no interest in how the centipede walks, this is perhaps not worth your time.

As well, most of us have been tortured by lit classes in which the examination, over-directed and flensed of the joy a given text is intended to supply, becomes a kind of reductio ad absurdum in the hands of amateur taxonomists who seem to think the only value to be found in a story is its derivation from and relationship to deep-rooted myths and symbolic board-gaming. “What do you think the author intended/meant by this?” Such questions are certainly valid. I do not suggest they have no place in the creation and reception of a story, only that they are questions that form anchors between the actual creation of the work and, at the other end, the analysis of such creations by those fascinated in all the inner structures that make it a culturally-relevant artifact. For those between the anchors, the resonance of an insider’s familiarity can add a special frisson to the experience, but if the work is done well it is the least important quality.

To be done well, though, would seem to require at least a passing familiarity with those structures. When watching a magician work, the point is to be fascinated and entertained by the effect. Knowing how a trick is done may add an extra layer, but the fact remains that for the purposes of the performance, only the magician needs to know. For it to work well, the magician needs to not only know but fully understand what all that backstage apparatus does. The degree of such understanding can determine the quality of the performance.

So we come to this question of, essentially, genre distinctions. Few other forms seem to have such spill-over for the audience as does science fiction and fantasy. (In music, I can think of debates over distinctions, or at least points of departure—is rock’n’roll blues or was there a split at some point allowing them to be distinct modes? Broadway musicals and opera share certain commonalities, but they are not the same things. Is Ragtime jazz? Valid questions, all of which can be dismissed in the face of “I don’t care, I like it.” But for the creators, such distinctions are much more relevant.)

My own sentiment is that science fiction and fantasy are distinct. There’s overlap of form, motif, and occasionally aesthetic effect, but functionally they are concerned with different things. That it took a good part of the 20th Century to sort this all out, with a great deal of hybrid work being produced that tended to confuse the two (science fantasy? Really? I know what it’s supposed to me, but personally the concept, if not specific works, offends me) but by now, with the actual manifestation of the worlds being proposed in so much of that literature providing ample real world bases by which to assess the function of the two forms, it should be clear that the science fiction discourse has followed a different path than fantasy. At the end of the day, they are not different versions of the same thing.

This is often obscured by examples of the actual work.

My working assumption of science fiction (hereafter simply SF) is that, first and foremost, it is what I call epistemological fiction. This is what grounds it in science. The accuracy of the science in a given story, while certainly desirable, is not critical. Rather, it is the philosophical framework that science comes out of that matters.

The philosophy of science, according to the Oxford Guide to Philosophy, “can be divided into two broad areas: the epistemology of science and the metaphysics of science. The epistemology of science discusses the justifications and objectivity of scientific knowledge. The metaphysics of science discusses philosophically puzzling aspects of the reality uncovered by science.” SF has, generally speaking, indulged the metaphysical aspect for effect, but structurally, as essentially problem-solving fiction, it is the epistemology that has provided the framework. It is the struggle of character to come to terms with a reality understood or amendable to understanding by the tools and criteria of science that underlies the SF endeavor. Characters seeking justifications—explanations—for the problems set for them by the world they move through drive the thematic and plot concerns of SF. The assumption that the world, in such instances, is in fact knowable, manipulable, and therefore “real” in the sense understood by science gives SF the unique effect readers seek.

The broadest distinction that can be made, therefore, from fantasy is simple: fantasy is not at all concerned with such understanding.

No one cares how Gandalf taps into whatever powers he may wield. No one cares how the rings of power work or how Sauron survived death. No one, frankly, cares why that tree blossomed just because a particular man allowed himself to be crowned king. (This is straight out of Arthurian myth, that the health of the country is dependent on the health of the king. Again, no one cares how that mechanism functions.) No one cares about the material justifications of the fantasy milieu because that is not the concern of such stories. Fantasy has other interests.

It is legitimate to ask why such understanding is even important, important enough to draw such broad distinctions between the two genres.

One of the principle benefits of fiction is its utility in permitting the empathetic connection with other lives through vicarious immersion—in character, in landscape, in intellectual and emotional play through alternate scenarios. The mental and emotional scope of the fictive experience allows for a kind of acclimation to situations and intimate experiences with people we will never otherwise encounter.

Until, sometimes, we do.

This is, of course, a byproduct of the primary utility of fiction, which is to entertain. The degree to which one is entertained, however, depends on an ability to empathize and subsume our self into the fictive experience, and this ability increases with exposure. And with that increase, the byproduct becomes more and more central—not by displacing the primary function but by merging with it, so that such increase becomes one with our apprehension of “entertainment.” (Which is why we become bored, over time, with work that once fascinated and delighted when we grow out of it.) At some point we enter a realm of discernment in which the critical understanding of those underlying structures may become important to our pleasure in a given text. At such points certain forms may fade in interest while others become more important, providing the sought-after effects. Distinctions come into play in new and significant ways.

Realizing this may prompt one to ask why.

For the purposes of this essay, the question clarified for me over repeated encounters with the proposition that SF and Fantasy are the same thing. Except in the most superficial ways, they are not, and their differences have to do with the nature of the aforementioned concerns over epistemology. That both forms may utilize the same archetypes from time to time does not alter the fact that those archetypes are used differently because they are based on different assumptions regarding their place in their primary milieus. (Correlation is not Causation.) For one example, the Scientist (as archetype) is not the same as the Wizard (as another archetype). While they are often apprehended as variations of the same thing, their grounding in very different philosophical assumptions could not be more foreign to each other. The world that finds the Scientist plausible, useful, and affective is not the same world in which the Wizard is an essential icon. The Scientist is the lens through which the world may be brought into focus; the Wizard is the conduit of raw power by which the world is maintained. The Scientist is representative of potential change, progress, and understanding; the Wizard is representative of stasis and the infantilization of entire civilizations that are not permitted to evolve beyond him. The Scientist represents expanding knowledge and the capacity to live with it because she understands that knowledge is infinite and nonexclusive; the Wizard perceives knowledge as a finite resource that must be preserved, tended, and kept out of the hands of those not fated to understand it (as he is). The Scientist is a liberator (knowledge wants to be free); the Wizard is a custodian (there are some things man is not meant to know).

We could go on. Both deal with arcana, but the Scientist sees it as part of her work to demystify, while the Wizard seeks a “worthy” apprentice who can be trusted to guard the secret wisdom. I simplify, of course, because both archetypes, to be useful in fiction, must still be human, and humans are polymorphous. My point, though, is that our starting assumptions determine deployment.

(The Wizard generally has no place in our world other than as a point of chaos which must be dealt with. Interestingly, one could put a Scientist in the Wizard’s world to completely different effect, but in both instances, the Wizard would lose relevance.)

Inasmuch as some critics argue that SF is Fantasy (or, less frequently, that Fantasy is SF), it seems the point of departure concerns myths and those aforementioned archetypes.

The archetype in SF is primarily the Scientist, a form nascent throughout history but not truly realized until the 18th Century, and certainly not much featured in our major stories even then. Certainly there is Daedalus and in very rough outline Odysseus is a kind of scientist. A handful scattered here and there, but usually cast in warnings to Not Go There. Faust is the last of the great warnings against science, or at least the “dabbling in things best left alone” motif of science. The difficulty is that for a good deal of that time science was conflated with magic by way of alchemy and as such confined to the secret society mode wherein knowledge was not to be shared and used only at great peril. This aspect attached to the first genuine scientist to be depicted in a major work of fiction, Frankenstein, even as most other elements involved in the story are recognizably material science. It took the rest of the 19th Century for the Scientist to emerge unfettered as a positive archetype and with the 20th Century took his/her place as one of the dominant archetypes of our evolving cultural mythos.

However, with the spread of science and its apprehension as a communal endeavor, one which benefited from greater and greater general participation, the whole embodied mythos began to split off from what had been the dominant form of cultural mythic reservoirs. Science, at base, is democratic.

When I claim that the Scientist is the central archetype in SF, I do not mean that a Ph.D. lab-coated grandee working in a study on arcane problems is the model. I am saying the Scientist as a very human mode of a particular kind of exploration and understanding of the world. A three-year-old playing with blocks is being a scientist. In SF, any character that progresses through a story with the basic assumption that the universe can be understood through the power of intellectual examination is being a scientist, be that character a soldier, a merchant, a pilot, or any of the myriad other forms present in SF (and in most other literature).

Of course other archetypes are present in SF, but more and more they must conform to the presence of the Scientist.

What gave birth to this, as in much else in the modern world, was the Enlightenment. In essence, the Enlightenment declared tradition a quaint holdover from eras wherein most people lived as if nothing would ever change. The components of transformational progress had been assembling for a long time. With the Enlightenment they had reached sufficient complexity, valence, and momentum to dispel the general assumptions of the past and send civilization forward on the wavefront of fundamental discovery that proved far more than mere novelty.

Which gives us the cultural assumption on which SF is based—change is the only constant.

But with change comes a multitude of problematic consequences which have resulted in a world in continual churn in ways it had never experienced before. In both scale and sentiment, what followed the Enlightenment was unprecedented. While change had always attended the ruling precincts throughout history, rarely had it affected the general population in so fundamental a way. (If there is an American story that records this sense of displacement among the general population perfectly, it would be Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, one of the first stories of note to exemplify cognitive dissonance, which would become another primary ingredient of SF.)

The reaction to the Enlightenment—the Romantic Movement—gave credibility to the subsequent disdain for the kind of materialist focus which informed science. One can see it as the social oyster bed of modern Fantasy. It privileged the raw, unstructured encounter of the soul with nature, rebelling against intellectualism that demanded analysis and understanding of underlying principles in favor of a kind of naked immersion in reifying sensation. Wagner would eventually epitomize the primary focus of such sentiments, with the heavy reliance on myth and the idealized past, which would by mid-20th Century become the core aesthetic motif of Fantasy. (Even a work like C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy shows the continuum from SF to Fantasy book by book. While Out of the Silent Planet is largely if not wholly SF, by the time we arrive at That Hideous Strength we are wholly in the Fantasy mode, complete with a modern resurrection of Camelot in the form of Ransom-as-Arthur.)

Lewis’s work provides an example of one of the chief distinctions separating SF from Fantasy, one seldom remarked. In the final volume of his Space Trilogy, it becomes clear that this is a work thoroughly anti-bureaucratic. Not anti-bureaucratic in the specific, as in a critique and comparison of bureaucratic examples, but as an ideology opposed to bureaucracy in total.

(Certainly there are SF stories in which bureaucracy is cast as a Bad Thing, an enemy, and the hero’s quest is to block or destroy it, but for the most part even the hero in an SF story cannot function without benefit of the bureaucratic support structure that would have provided all the tools necessary for the hero to know how to fight a bureaucracy, and in the end a different bureaucracy arises, one which presumably works better.)

I have noted in the past that another, though dubious, distinction between Fantasy and SF is in the fact that when asked to name a primary text that more or less encompasses the genre, no such text seems to exist for SF, but there is one for Fantasy. I stipulate that other, older examples may serve as well if not better, but I suggest that The Lord of the Rings serves as a primary exemplar for Fantasy. In its epic sweep it gathered together and subsumed so much previous work and cast a shadow that reaches even to the present. Works are written either accepting this as the principle mode or in opposition to it, but this would appear to be the hallmark. No such work can be found in SF because it is not and has never been reducible to such a mode.

But the purposes of comparison, let us take as an example of SF Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I use that one for the expedient reason that both these works were on the same nomination ballet for Best Series in 1966, the only time till recently a Hugo Award was given for series. We can assume that at the time the nominations were made, an attempt to put forward broadly encompassing examples of what was considered best in SF was being made and Asimov’s was the work chosen. It won that award.

Firstly, the two works are nothing alike, which is to be expected. But the distinguishing features of the two are instructive. Starting with the aforementioned observation that Fantasy is anti-bureaucratic, consider that in LotR, it is the bureaucracies that are at the center of every calamity. Never mind the principle antagonists, take for example the Steward of Gondor, who is about as hide-bound a bureaucrat as one could want, and of course he has made a mess of things and has to go. Aragorn must take over, but in truth, what kind of preparation has he had for running things? He has spent most of the past several decades avoiding any kind of responsibility of an administrative nature and lived as a Ranger. This is an implicit virtue for him. Gandalf’s “order” is nowhere to be seen other than in the form of Saruman, who turns out to be basically an arms merchant. The elves, who might take some kind of lead in the struggle, have given it all up as a bad idea and are leaving, so whatever management skills they might have are about to be absent. The actual heroes of the tale are from the one place in Middle Earth that apparently has no government at all. This, in the great prose and sweep of the book, is put forward to be enough for everything to work fine in the aftermath of the war against Sauron, who is clearly a rather masterful politician (the rings he talked everyone into accepting, the alliances presumably built, etc) and administrator. Granted, he is loosely modeled on Hitler and his aggression reflective of Nazi Germany, which was seen then as the chief example of bureaucratic and technological overreach. At the end, there is only Aragorn, with no hint of an administrative machine. Quite intentionally, as the suggestion running throughout is the ability of peoples to manage themselves without such things.

Move to the Foundation stories and there is no instance in which bureaucracy is not only present but essential, and no one is arguing otherwise. The conflicts are over how things are to be administered, not whether or not they should be. The Empire, the Foundation, and the Second Foundation are each other variations on bureaucratic systems shown throughout the stories to be necessary to civilization. The crisis at the heart of the cycle is the collapse of the Empire, which leaves chaos in its wake. The solution is the expansion of the Foundation, which asserts new and more appropriate forms of administration. And the hidden Second Foundation, a collective of mathematicians, is concerned with the overall administration of the collapse-recovery. The one character that might be construed as anti-bureaucratic is the Mule, who has a singular gift and is shown ultimately as a incapable—a monarch against a collective.

Other significant features distinguishing the forms: The Scientist and the Wizard are completely on display for comparison—Hari Seldon and Gandalf. Seldon works with knowledge that, while difficult, requires no special powers to use, and which is open to all. Gandalf is a member of an arcane order of specially empowered custodians of knowledge kept secret. Gandalf recruits others to work with him, but does not (cannot) share his power, while Seldon recruits otherwise ordinary people to use what he freely offers. Seldon works within a system, Gandalf is above systems (or outside, which functionally within the story is the same thing). The universes depicted are quite different, based on distinct assumptions. There is no one achievement that solves the problems in the Foundation, but a series of adroit adaptations and situational responses collectively leading to less chaos, while in Middle Earth everything depends on Aragorn accepting his place as king (the flowering of the tree symbolizes exactly this) and the destruction of an artifact the purpose of which is to empower the ultimate in evil bureaucracy.

As noted, however, Foundation, while displaying the conditions and requirements of a science fiction work, is not in any way The Exemplary Text, but is only one example of myriad. This is because SF is not concerned with the kind of mythic reification which informs most Fantasy. SF has little use for myth, seeing it usually as a set of prejudices which require examination and, frankly, constraint. SF, as one aspect of the “science” intrinsic to the form, is constructed for the purpose of analyzing and understanding the world, rather than imposing preconceptions designed to validate illusions of destiny. Middle Earth only “works” when all the destiny-driven elements are in their proper place. If they fall out of harmony, things enter an entropic slide. In SF, there is no such condition of harmony.

I take it as stipulated that there are exceptions on both sides of the divide, but they are usually curiously clunky things the chief effect of which is a kind of off-balanced drunkard’s walk that is often accidentally appealing. I mentioned cognitive dissonance in relation to Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, which I regard as a prototypical Fantasy of the kind that recognizes the divide. In the story, Rip, harried by his wife, picks up his rifle to go hunting, encounters what are clearly elves (fairies, leprechauns, “little people”) who invite him to a game of Nine Pins. He is drawn into their party, he drinks too much, and falls asleep, to awaken 20 years later and find the world has changed. The place where he had slept is a kind of bubble attached to the “real” world wherein the rules of time are different. This is a Fantasy realm. As depicted, though, it is apart from and not of “this” world. It is not, in the story, somewhere Rip can return. Fast forward to the novel Little, Big by John Crowley and we see the same idea of an adjunct universe wherein the fading world of Faerie can be found, a bubble universe that keeps shrinking as the modern world encroaches. (Crowley has addressed the transition from the Old World of magic and alchemy to the New World of science and technology often, most especially in his excellent Aegypt Cycle.) The overlap between the two realms is inconsistent, fading, and clearly definitive. In a sense, such stories are a recognition of the changes that followed in the wake of the Enlightenment, and as such are profoundly nostalgic. (Nostalgia imbues subtext in much Fantasy; what else are the Gray Havens but a dream of nostalgia?)

I have taken time to delineate the differences between SF and Fantasy in response to what have become cyclic attempts to define them as somehow the Same Thing. On the surface, and by the most facile of definitional characteristics, they seem to share a great deal and therefore may appear essentially the same. But essentially, in their constructions and presumptions and primary concerns, they are not. They operate differently because their assumptions about the world are apposite—the world as a material realm as well as the structures humans build to operate in the world.

What distinguishes SF from other forms is the way in which the conceits of the setting—the world, if you will—necessitate an examination in order to fully enter into the fictive experience. The differences in that world set it apart from our own in specific ways, ways which permit a distinct reading experience. The way in which this is done sets up an expectation that everything encountered is accessible with the proper tools. In some cases, it is the world we believe we are moving into from the present. In other cases it is a world we might have inhabited given certain alternate choices in our past. But in either case it is a world comprehensible as a habitable place possible by virtue of the mechanisms derived from the philosophical stance called Science. Science itself does not have to be visible on the page, nor does it necessarily have to be science as we presently know it. It only has to be framed in such a way as to validate our present understanding of the universe available to us derived from the practice called Science.

Which brings us back to my initial criteria: SF is epistemological fiction. The narrative power is in the character’s encounter with that new world.

And what about myth? Fantasy is derived from our conception of myth as ur-story, a fundamental narrative that runs through everything. It takes as given that myth is wired into existence as experienced by sapient beings—us—and represents a reservoir of validation and reification that, properly encountered, gives us our identity. While the narrative frames of myth are powerful and SF can certainly utilize them for effect, myth in SF is simply another part of the world that is to be examined and understood. SF, like science, is not concerned with repeating the dictates of a distant shaping force—that is where notions of Destiny and Fate come from—but in putting them on the workbench and taking them apart to see how (and if) they work. (The first step in freeing ourselves from the expectations of unquestioned tradition.) The universe in which such forces are accepted as real outside social structures is not the universe of science or SF. In that way, SF is not about finding new myths for a modern age, but about constantly reevaluating the age and aggressively keeping our options open.

Which is why there is not and probably cannot be a primary SF text. Reassessment like that does not permit things to “settle” into the kind of stasis where one set of meanings above all others can emerge. SF, therefore, is an assertively destabilizing practice. Unlike Fantasy which constantly seeks equilibrium and, ideally, stasis. (Whether this is achieved is unimportant, only that this is the goal.)

Therefore, Science Fiction and Fantasy are distinct practices which overlap in certain aesthetic effects but in the end seek different literary goals and offer, for the careful reader, distinct pleasures.

Bridges, Circles, the Pleasure of Continuing On

As I’ve gotten older, my reading has taken turns I would never have expected. My preferred genre is science fiction, and yet I find the number of SF books I read per year shrinking. Perhaps I’m getting more selective—and it is getting more difficult to choose, what with the wealth of new possibilities—but the total number of books I read per year has not shrunk much. 

I’ve been reading more nonfiction. (I’m a writer, I have to do a certain amount of investigation of the world, of history, of science, so…) But also my consumption of mysteries has increased.

In particular, mystery series.

Decades ago, I would have been working through science fiction series. I cut my teeth on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, Doc Smith’s Lensmen, Asimov’s Foundation novels, the Dorsai, Pern, even L. Sprague DeCamp’s Krishna books. But then I limited it to trilogies and finally, over the past couple of decades, my preference has been for stand-alones in science fiction. I love the field no less than ever, but I don’t have the patience for series anymore.

Mysteries are another matter. In the last couple of decades I have found myself waiting for the next novel in any number of mystery series. Nero Wolfe started it. As a teenager, I was not so interested in sticking with them, but I had read a few. Recently…

Among my favorites are Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels; Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisy Dobbs; Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher; Martin Walker’s Chief Bruno; a handful of others.

Especially Christopher Fowler’s marvelous Bryant & May series.

As eclectic goes, these are difficult to beat, and as each novel arrives, it seems more and more that Fowler has an end game in mind.

Arthur Bryant and John May are the oldest still-working detectives in the London police system. They should long since have retired, but you realize quickly that they simply have nothing else to do. May, the more grounded of the pair, has pretty much run through what passes for a normal life, and has not been particularly successful at it. Bryant is anything but ordinary and has a dedication to his city that amazes and mystifies those with whom he works. He is a historian, an out-of-box thinker, tenacious, eccentric, and genuinely cares nothing for what other people think of him.

They are the chief detectives in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, an oddball division set up during World War II with a strange remit that lands them in cases that sometimes border on the occult, sometimes conspiracy, sometimes have roots going back centuries.

And the regular police department—the Met—and forces in the Home Office want very much to see them gone. They are unclassifiable. They are occasionally an embarrassment. What keeps them open is a combination of Bryant’s (unnamed) connections in government and their well-above-average success rate.

Bryant and May are circling around 80 and you know this can’t go on much longer, but with each novel their reprieve—for their careers, for the odd assemblage of people who make up the rest of the Unit, for the sheer pleasure of seeing the Suits at Whitehall thwarted—gives another chance to take us through a London by way of criminal investigation not to be found in any other series of which I am aware.

Rabbits are regularly pulled out of aging hats by the end of the novels to lead to one more bizarre outing. The byplay between the partners is delightful, Bryant’s network of informants are among the strangest and most diverse to be found, there is humor, weirdness, and the villains are always unexpected. 

The new one, London Bridge Is Falling Down, opens up a new level in the history of the Unit itself and offers a set of resolutions I did not expect. The remit so often mentioned throughout the series gets a new look and the revelations are more than satisfying. Fowler shows us an aspect of the aftershocks of the War that we have come to expect but in ways that make it fresh and with consequences for the characters that are surprising and terrible. The long story of the Unit is on display, the roots and branches are the target of the crimes, and the resolutions…

There is in this current volume a level of pathos long hinted at and now realized, a sense of inevitability that, while consistent with the  arc of the series, points up the power of fiction to draw us into relationships that genuinely matter.

Among the many pleasures of Bryant and May’s adventures is the pointed critique of bureaucracy, useless officials, and politics-at-the-expense-of-results which all plague our modern era. This should not be mistaken for a blanket condemnation of such systems, for a parallel consideration is how such systems remain necessary even to the rebels and outliers if they wish to be effective. Bryant’s constant complaining about the modern world is not about the basic idea of it but about the ham-fisted way in which so much of it manifests. He does not object to technology as such, only in its apparent ability to separate people from each other. He refuses to Google, preferring to find someone who knows something and talk to them. As lonely as he seems to be—as opposed to the more socially-adept May—he is the one insisting on the human connection, while his partner, who connects often, just as often fails at such connections.

Bryant solves cases obliquely, with apparent side-trips into historical cul-d-sacs and by ways regular police find pointless and, frankly, embarrassing. Among Bryant’s confidantes is a white witch, who manages to regularly point Arthur in a useful direction. 

May, on the other hand, who is fastidious, fashionable, and facile with the very modernizations that seem to frustrate his partner, is the one who grounds the Unit in the world of forms and protocols. He is a traditional cop. 

It is amazing the two of them get along at all.

But as with other long-running series, the heart of it is the friendship. They are partners. Time has joined them in ways neither understands or would wish to change.

London Bridge Is Falling Down takes them back to their early years in unexpected and tragic ways. Things done back then now come out in the open in ways neither could have foreseen. Following the trail of a hapless functionary who thinks he has found a way to extricate himself from the mess that his life has become leads from body to body and the only way to make sense of it all is to go back to the beginnings.

Fowler has brought us around a long circle through the series. One hopes it is not yet closed. Bryant and May ought really to live forever.

Bewildered

Richard Powers has been skirting the edges of genre for years. He has exhibited the talent of consistently defying category while producing work that can, with a slight shift of perspective, be read as solidly within certain categories.

The question has always been—what category?

He has written about atomic physics, A.I., terrorism, biodiversity, virtual reality, genetic engineering, all convincingly and with a commitment to consequence found primarily in science fiction of the first water.

Now he has put science fiction itself front and center in a new novel that powerfully blends the soul of a family with the science of cosmology, neurology, and ecology and the sense of wonder that comes from imagining new worlds. Bewilderment is a profound examination of colliding worlds, both personal, global, and epistemological.

Bewilderment: A Novel: Powers, Richard: 9780393881141: Amazon.com: Books

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist. His work requires him to imaginatively hypothesize about extrasolar planetary ecologies as part of the search for new worlds. He is plugged into the community involved with finding and identifying exoplanets and advocating for further research.

His son, Robin, nine going on ten, is, broadly speaking, a special needs kid who is both brilliant and troubled. They share a love of ecologies and a commitment to the natural world enhanced by Theo’s late wife, Alyssa, who had been a dedicated eco-warrior running a non-profit and advancing legislation in an attempt to save the ecosystem. Her ghost haunts them both, inspires them, and in some ways tortures them, especially Theo, who feels he has never risen to the level of commitment she felt.

The story is set in an alternate reality in a United States that is sliding toward autocracy, threatening Theo’s work and, ultimately, Robin’s chance for the stability he needs to be effective pursuing his passions.

All the elements of a dystopian thriller are in place, but that is not where Powers takes us. The apparatus of government is left in place and the characters struggle with it in familiar (though uncomfortable) ways. There is no revolution being planned or carried out, at least not on the page. But it sets the stage for an ongoing background dialogue about the nature of science in conflict with ideologies.

The primary story is Theo trying to provide the best possible life for Robin and it is as heartfelt and affecting as one could want. Theo is in many ways out of his depth, treading water, and fighting to keep an unsympathetic world at bay while he works to get Robin through to a place where he can function in that world.

The science fiction comes in unexpectedly and wonderfully in Theo and Robin’s relationship. Theo is a longtime fan. He mentions that he still has over 2000 science fiction paperbacks and that he was inspired to pursue science (like so many scientists and engineers) by reading SF. But the best part is how he and Robin, as part of their nightly ritual before bedtime, will go visit a planet. Theo constructs one and they travel to it. These sections are beautifully-imagined and clearly drawn from decades of science fiction. This alone justifies the genre as among the most human forms of creation.

This is not the only aspect of the novel which depends on the tools of science fiction. There is an experimental neuroscience program, there is work on a new orbital telescope (to be positioned near Saturn) to enable unprecedented views of exoplanets, there is a whole worldview in play involving a defense of science and imagination.

Powers is an artist and the work at hand reads as an eloquent study of people in conflict with the world and their own souls. It revolves around the gravity well of love and the ties of the past even as we strive to progress.

Genre has long appeared to be a sort of antithesis to what some regard as “genuine” literature, despite examples of works which function comfortably within genre conventions which no one takes as any kind of handicap. Writers like Richard Powers demonstrate the absurdity of such balkanization. But he also shows the importance of taking your starting assumptions seriously, unlike those writers who, intentionally or otherwise, lock themselves into a category of their own creation by a lack of attention to the aspects of their projects which they seem to feel do not require as much (or any) respect.

Bewilderment is a literary novel that also happens to be science fiction. And a love story. And a political drama. By paying equal attention to each element and treating them seriously, he shows both that what is otherwise “mere” genre can achieve powerful, vital humanistic effect that centers on the journey of the mind and heart through a world contoured by dreams, hopes, and the realities of an imagination unafraid to go to new worlds.

Bones Of Time

What are we talking about when we talk about science fiction? A genre defined by its trappings, its tropes? Or a mode of exploration of a kind of telec reification that only came into being with the advent of what we now recognize as science? A form of Gothic? An inversion of the historical drama? A subset of fantasy?

Or all of the above?

When encountering a writer like Jack Vance, it may be understandable that definitions (or at least taxonomies) fail to clarify how this can be the same as work by Gregory Benford. Aside from certain obvious aesthetic differences, there is the problem of, for want of a better term, scientific verisimilitude.

At a certain point, in conversation with anyone who does not “get” science fiction, it comes down to an ineffable quality that, while sharing much with all other forms of fiction, sets the experience apart, both aesthetically and culturally, and the only answer to the question “What is it about this stuff that appeals to you so much?” is: it lights up the imagination like nothing else.

(“I like it.” Why? “Why do you like Regency Romance? Or Gothics? Or murder mysteries? Something about them appeals and opens you up to an emotional and aesthetic experience you find no where else.”)

Before I continue I want to state that this is about Gregory Benford, not Jack Vance, whose work I mention as an example of the range to be found within the expanding pond called Science Fiction. It is about his new novel, Shadows Of Eternity.

Amazon.com: Shadows of Eternity: 9781534443624: Benford, Gregory: Books

This novel gave me an experience I have not had in some time, or at least only in some dilute form, embedded within texts that privileged other aspects of the fictive practice, that I almost forgot about it, namely the pleasure of didactic prose in service to the larger qualities of a science fiction novel. Shadows Of Eternity is done in the form we know as Hard SF, which only means that considerable attention is paid in the text to the presumed scientific justifications for the actions. In that, it is exemplary.

I say “presumed scientific justifications” because for the most part their accuracy is secondary for most readers, and many examples over the decades have proven unreliable in that. This is a novel, not a textbook, and the primary concern is to convince the reader in the moment that what is happening conforms, or can conform, to legitimate scientific understanding. “Getting it right” is edifying, both for the reader and, in a different way, the writer. Acknowledging that accuracy to a certain number of decimal points is less important than the Idea of accuracy is like saying that a reader of a novel set in the reign of Henry II does not, in the end, care if every single historical detail is correct as long as it feels correct and cannot be contradicted by a cursory glance at a history of the period.

That said, getting it right is a point of pride and, possibly, an ethical requirement, depending on the kind of story being told.

This gets tricky when writing about the far future and exotic physics and technological developments that might come about. We are talking about speculation, after all, which is one of the principle pleasures of science fiction. In practice, the might-be of a given story must be consistent with the have beens and probably ares of the currently known.

What does this have to do with storytelling?

Well, if you go down that road—Hard SF—then, just as in any other genre, it is incumbent on the writer to include material that produces a satisfying sense of realism in which the characters move. Only in this case, that material is of a bit more rarefied nature, namely the science behind the world being examined.

One of the criticisms of SF in this has been that the story often seems to grind to a halt while some bit of arcane scientific exposition takes place. This kind of thing bores a certain kind of reader. So be it. But why should this demote the work on the scale of worthy literary practice? (One of the earliest franchise efforts in the James Bond cosmos post-Fleming spent, in my opinion, an inordinate amount of time on Bond’s sartorial choices, as well as minutiae of cars, food, and other fashion bits. I could not have cared less, but I acknowledge that there were and are readers for whom this was a distinct pleasure. Trivial, you say? Then in the case of historical novels in which paragraphs are deployed in describing family lineages, treaties, court etiquette, or the mechanics of travel. But all that bears on the story? Of course it does.) It seems not to occur to critics and certain readers that these expository bits are among the reasons for the readers to pick this author and not that. One should judge how well it is done, not whether it is there.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that, in science fiction, the World is as much a character as any motile actor.

(Which of course is why it is legitimate to explicitly link science fiction to Gothic.)

Literary tastes in recent decades have caused many writers to bury their didacticism more and more. The underpinnings intrude less and less, often resulting in a cinematic effect. (I note that some writers still deliver the fascinating expository bits, but rendered cleverly so that they can be ignored. I’m talking here now of work in which ignoring those passages is anathema to the author’s intent.) Partly, this can be gotten away with because of the last seventy years of science fiction film and television, which for large audience provides the visual shorthand for what is happening in a novel. Partly, also, this is possible because of the explicitly didactic work done in novels and short stories over and beyond the same period, so a basic “grammar” is now in place. And partly because a lot of work simply does not rely on that level of foundational support—the stories are not about the changes in the world but about the same old sturm und drang one could find in just about every other genre.

Benford’s new novel is, in some ways, an echo of SF from long ago. Reading it, I felt a cozy sense of nostalgia produced by the form and the tactics used. I found myself pleasantly remembering Clarke, Clement, Gunn, as well as Pohl, Chad Oliver, and even Simak. This is a mode of SF that seems of late to be disappearing, the dialectic. For decades, especially in the magazines, writers spoke to each other through stories, one responding to another and creating a chain reaction of alternative “takes” on ideas. This formed a dense fabric of historical conceptualizing. (Hence Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was “answered” by Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, which spark John Steakly’s Armor as well as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and so on. True, this happens in other genres, but it is not nearly so clear or connected.)

Shadows Of Eternity is part of this. Benford took a page (or more) from Poul Anderson by using Anderson’s flying aliens, the Ythri. (He borrowed a couple of other concepts from Anderson as well, one notion going all the way back to Anderson’s very early novel Brain Wave.) Yes, this is a form of homage, but it is more as well. Benford’s Ythri are his own. What Anderson created, Benford built on and made richer.

The core of the novel, though, is an examination of time. Deep time. (Benford wrote a nonfiction study of this subject.) The fact that the universe is old, so vastly old that when we begin peering into the abysses we will risk being swallowed up in the antiquity of it. Rachel arrives on the moon to join the staff of the Library, which is what has evolved from the early SETI attempts. The signals from old civilizations have been discovered and it is the task of the Library to curate and somehow translate them. Some of these signals turned out to be entire AI templates, and the Library now houses Minds.

Though technically qualified, Rachel understands that this will not set her apart. She must demonstrate qualities that she is unsure she possesses. But she blusters her way through, becomes a Trainee, and begins delving into these Minds.

As the novel proceeds, Rachel grows into someone she never expected to become. Confidence accrues, a taste for the edge emerges, and Rachel develops into—

She comes into her own with the arrival of visiting aliens—the Ythri—and becomes, often in spite of herself, the primary liaison with them. The Ythri have come through a wormhole and want to find their way back.

Benford sets before us puzzles and takes us through solutions and along the way does something the best science fiction has always sought to do—opens the vistas of what may be Out There for us and gives us a glimpse of the possibilities.

And those expository bits, filled with the how-to and what-is-it and where-did-this-come-from that science offers? Those set the stage for a conceptual apprehension that renders the view coherent enough for us to feel the awe of understanding what we’re looking at. This is what was meant by “Gosh, wow!” and Sense of Wonder.

The other thing to notice is not what is there, but what is not there—Bad Guys. There’s no war, no evil overlords, none of that. There are irritating people, foolish people, annoying situations, and a great deal of genuinely unnerving discoveries, but this is a world that presents as recognizable. The conflicts are, in some ways, quite ordinary, but set as they are in this interesting future, the ordinariness only becomes part of the puzzles that challenge Rachel.

Finally, Benford writes well. His descriptions can fascinate. The universe he sees, in reality and in his imagination, is vibrant and wonderfilled. This is science fiction for the explorer lurking inside us.

Out of the Mists

The common assumption put forward by several decades of anthropology and associated fields concerning that vast fog known as Prehistory runs as follows: humans, after emerging from the crapshoot of evolution, roved the savannah in small bands, gathering and hunting and painfully inching their way toward a point where they began to make tools (other than spear points and such). Then came a long period of migration, scattered attempts at settlement, until, a critical population mass achieved, agriculture was developed, and very quickly came the abandonment of hunter-gatherer society, leading to regular towns, art, and gradually more impressive engineering feats to serve the expanding agro-economy. At some further point, all this became the foundation of nascent states, after which the whole thing rolled into the “historic” era (marked by the advent of record-keeping) and kings and empires and slavery, and so forth.

This is more or less the way it was presented to me back in school, and, I suspect, still pretty much the popular conception of prehistory.

The problem with this is that we are talking about roughly 200,000 years of that undifferentiated, featureless, unchanging landscape. Taken at face value, it says that human beings conducted themselves as essentially immutably “innocent” creatures, either incapable or uninterested in doing anything more with themselves or their environment until they learned to plow a field and write things down. If, as the evidence suggests, modern homo sapiens had been roaming around the planet for two hundred millennia, with all that “modern” implies, this begs the question of what “we” were doing all that time and why, all of a sudden, about 10,000 years ago, we started living entirely differently.

Put that way, there is no reasonable answer. It is on its face an absurd assumption.

One that is not supported by any of the evidence we actually have.

So why cling to the narrative?

In The Dawn Of Everything: A New History Of Humanity, authors David Graeber and David Wengrow explore exactly that question and in so doing turn over multiple apple carts, debunk many myths, and shake up the common assumptions about that vast and murky period. They begin with a look at Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the question of equality.

When we first embarked on this book, our intention was to seek new answers to questions about the origins of social inequality. It didn’t take long before we realized this simply wasn’t a very good approach. Framing human history in this way—which necessarily means assuming humanity once existed in an idyllic state, and that a specific point can be identified at which everything started to go wrong—made it almost impossible to ask any of the questions we felt were were genuinely interesting.

They proceed then to reexamine as many assumptions as possible with the space of reasonably-sized book to show that Rousseau’s apparent point in his Discourse On The Origins Of Inequality is a bit of a cheat—unless Rousseau was being absurd to a purpose. For instance, Graeber and Wengrow remind us (assuming we ever knew) that the so-called “indigenous critique” of European civilization that informed much of Enlightenment thinking was not an invention of the philosophes but a genuine critique delivered by Native Americans after they had witnessed firsthand European civilization (often as captives/slaves, sometimes a diplomats). The sources were credited by the philosophes themselves as being from Native Americans, but later historians chose to ignore this to the point where it was forgotten and the natives were relegated to that pool of prehistoric humanity too “simple” to understand complex culture and socio-political structures.

From that point on, Graeber and Wengrow take nothing at face value and conduct a thorough reevaluation. If human beings have been phsyiologically “modern” for 200,000 years, it is ridiculous to assume they did not conduct themselves with as much sophistication and complexity as we do. Often, as it turns out, with strikingly different results.

The scope of the book is global. Between them, they cover archaeological finds from Central America to Turkey to Japan and points in between and carefully examine what is thee to be seen and what it means in relation to our understanding of how communities function. It is an eye-opening tour.

Much here is speculative. What makes prehistory difficult is the lack of, well, history. Written history. All we have are the remnants. But with a clear eye, those remnants are quite expressive. One thing that emerges consistently is that our previous assumptions are wrong.

From the end of the last ice age till now, we have enough to trace humanity’s presence and draw conclusions about its progress. But for the most part we still cling to the simplistic story of “primitive” societies living subsistence existences until the point where it become possible to form what subsequently became great states—Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Indus Cultures. The implication being that once we reached that level we never looked back and marched forward into the present building roughly the same kinds of civilizations. And that at some point we collectively began to realize that we had become in thrall to despotisms and began what we know as the battle for equality. We seldom question the progression.

But, Graeber and Wengrow ask, why don’t we question it? Because even within historic times, it just isn’t the case, at least not universally.

If anything is clear by now it’s this. Where we once assumed ‘civilization’ and ‘state’ to be conjoined entities that came down to us as a historical package (take it or leave it forever), what history now demonstrates is that these terms actually refer to complex amalgams of elements which have entirely different origins and which are currently in the process of drifting apart. Seen this way, to rethink the basic premises of social evolution is to rethink the very idea of politics itself.

What is revealed by their analysis is that the smooth trajectory of assumed historical progress is an oversimplified, biased gloss from too few perspectives. The reality—that which can be demonstrated with evidence and that which can then be surmised by constructive deduction—is far more complicated, complex, and frankly compelling. Part of the telos of those simplistic constructions is that all that has gone before inevitably led to now—to us. We are as we must be by decree of historic processes which are inevitable.

The truth is, what we are now is only one possibility of what we might have become.

And this is the meat and bone of Graeber and Wengrow’s argument—that to justify ourselves as we are it is better to paint the ancient past as a homogenous, almost featureless whole. Had people twenty, thirty, or fifty thousand years ago not been the pastoral simpletons we’ve presented them to be, then where are the great kingdoms and empires, the technologies, the earthworks, the cities that would mark them as complex thinkers? While to a certain extent that is a not unimportant question, it overlooks examples that have left traces, even up to the present period, that fail to fit the expectations engendered by such a view. The decay of time certainly has something to do with the paucity of physical evidence, but what we do have is not so insignificant that the standard narrative has any claim to remain unchallenged.

While a good portion of The Dawn Of Everything is speculative, enough evidence and solid analysis is presented to more than justify such speculations, at the very least insofar as a challenge to our assumptions and a reconsideration of modern expectations. Quite a bit of non-Western critique was suppressed or ignored to help in building a picture of the past that supported the hegemony of the West’s self-importance. (Quite a lot of what became the political revolution of United States came from indigenous sources, accepted wholesale by the philosophes and then subsequently forgotten. The thinking was sophisticated, philosophically trenchant, and necessary to challenge what had become a standard view of the West’s view of itself.)

David Graeber passed away in 2020, at the age of 59. More volumes were to follow this one, according to his collaborator David Wengrow. One assumes many of the critiques that will inevitably emerge regarding this first book would be addressed in those books that follow—for instance, this—because clearly there was insufficient room in one volume to cover all the material avbailable. We may see more, but what they produced here is one of those books designed to upset apple carts. There is no inevitability in history, tempting though such narratives are. In order to free ourselves of the chains of a presumed inevitable present, we must go back and reexamine the past and find those “missing” parts that demonstrate the possibilities and the promises of other roads. This is what we have in this book.

Why Read

In light of the last few years, the question bites. Indulge me in a venting plea.

In my experience, limited though it is, I have found that the better read a person is, the more likely they will be to cope with reality, to defend against the twisting delights of both conspiracy theory and pseudoscience, and to be less vulnerable to charlatanry.

Not always. Some deceptions come wrapped in marvelous packages that can appeal to the puzzle-solver in us all and present as aesthetically compelling. In my own life I have followed white rabbits in tweed down a number of holes, some part of me convinced that truth lay in some hidden recess along the way.

I have been relegated to many sidelines since childhood because of reading, sidelines which at the time seemed harsh and unfair, but in retrospect were actually relatively safe places. Time and space are necessary for a mind to develop. Exposure to stimulating material does not work its magic immediately, sometimes not even soon, but eventually all those books and stories and articles result in a set of pathways and memories and organizing concepts that allow for the skills to deal with what may otherwise be just confusion.

No, let me be more definite—“may” has little to do with it. People who read, in my experience, are generally more present, more conscious, more adaptable than people who only watch and subsequently go through life skimming a surface which too often becomes a mirror and allows them to ignore what is beneath. In fact, those surface presentations often depend on not knowing what underlies them, may actively resist analysis, and with few exceptions deceive by suggesting there is nothing more.

Not all. But it is also true that those not intended to deceive largely depend on an audience that reads to reveal their full meaning.

There are many studies about the physiological and cognitive benefits of reading, especially fiction. Here’s one. There is an increases in synaptic structure associated with regular reading. Memory improves. Your brain responds by providing better tools.

Then, of course, you have to apply the tools. For me, this makes fiction and, in a similar way, history indispensable. Reading other kinds of books, while important in many ways, can leave you unaware of irony, of conflict, or paradox, all of which are fundamental to the so-called Human Condition. We read novels to grapple with the contradictions of being human. We read fiction because in doing so we learn the value of Other Minds attempting to do this thing we all own as a birthright—-living.

Occasionally we see a nod to this in popular entertainment. In the tv series Castle, Detective Becket is presented as an exceptional and gifted detective. In the first episode we hear from one of her colleagues that he likes “a simple Jack killed Jill over Bill” rather than the “freaky” ones. Becket responds, “Oh, but the freaky ones require more.” And then she challenges them: “Don’t you guys read?” As the series progresses we can see that she just brings more to the game and in that first episode the difference is made explicit.

We undervalue reading, often while making a big deal about it. Writers become celebrities, usually once one or more of their books is made into a film. And their fans may well read everything they publish, but that’s not beneficial reading. Like anything else, if you do not expand your horizons, complicate your diet, move out of your comfort zone, you end up trapped in a self-referential, reaffirming loop that grows nothing.

We must read so our apprehension of the world is less frightening, amenable to recognition, and manageable. So that people are not so alien and culture not so forbidding. Certainly someone can read a great deal and still be unable to decipher the world, but I believe such people to be a minority, and most of us benefit from the increased clarity that comes from an ongoing encounter with Other Minds.

The greatest benefit comes from a catholic indulgence: read widely, daily—fiction, science, history, philosophy, memoir—because at some point you will find it all reinforcing, that insights gained in one place can be enriched and enlivened by another source. And somewhere along the way, we may find that we are no longer easily fooled.

The most valuable ability of late would seem to be this, the awareness to not be fooled.

I make no prediction that a sudden upsurge of deep reading would solve our problems. Humans can be contradictory, perverse creatures. But it seems obvious that an illiterate populace is an easily-tricked, easily swayed populace. Given that those who are invested in people watching their shallow offerings rather than go off somewhere to read are generally those who would sell us shiny bits that delight and fail, it would be a good strategy to take up books and stop being led like myopic sheep.

But I have a rather more personal reason for urging people to set aside whatever prejudices they acquired in primary and secondary schools that turned them against reading-for-pleasure. When I set a book aside, as one must, and go out into the world, I would like to have meaningful contact with other people, and ignorance is a depressing barrier to that.

Why read? To be more. To hopefully be yourself. And possibly to be free.

Scandal In Romania

Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Nick and Nora Charles, Charles and Kate Sheridan, and in one unexpected offering Clark Gable and Carole Lombard—all have one thing in common: they are all detective marriages. Husband and wife teams, solving crimes, bringing their own domestic wrinkles to the task. Agatha Christie even wrote one, Tommy & Tuppence, as did Elizabeth Peters. The couple that solves crime together is more common than might first be suspected. And all of them have the unexpected about them, aspects of their relationship that would seem to make it unlikely, unstable, or unmanageable. And yet, they work.

The hallmark of these couples, of course, is the combined ability to solve murders, but that is only an aspect of what may be the chief attraction—for them and for the reader. Along with all the other (presumed) pleasures of the relationship, the intellectual rises to the top as an aspect of love. Unspoken though it may be in many instances, these are people drawn to each other by their shared appreciation for thinking.

And acting on the results.

Odd as many of them may seem, perhaps the least likely is the marriage of a young Mary Russell to her mentor/colleague, Sherlock Holmes.

When I encountered the first volume of Laurie R. King’s series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, I read the description and thought: And just how does that work? Sherlock Holmes is the most dedicated bachelor in detective fiction. Many writers have attempted to explain that, even work on the assumed “romance” between Holmes and Irene Adler, and have mined the subtext of his condition for decades, sometimes to good effect.

But married?

In a display of elegant reimagining, solid logic, and excellent prose, King convinces us that her version of the Holmes Story is the true tale underlying the gloss of fiction created by Dr. Watson. In the first twenty pages a new reality is established, making these novels feel more like revealed history than fanciful speculations. As it has turned out, she established a premise that has resulted in 18 novels (give or take) and some shorter works, each one adding to the Holmes mythos and providing terrific entertainment along the way.

The series proceeds chronologically and follows history closely. From time to time we have the added pleasure of seeing a fictional character enter the story as if part of actual history (the rescue of Kim, for example—yes, Kipling’s Kim) and the new one—Castle Shade—more or less continues in that vein.

Almost literally. After wrapping up a twisted affair in the Riviera, Holmes and Russell are summoned to Romania at the request of Queen Marie. They arrive at Castle Bran where they are presented with the problem (in the form of threats against the queen’s daughter) and tasked with finding those responsible.

We are in the thick of atmospheric evocations. Castle Bran is reputedly that castle—Dracula’s. The vampire haunts the novel. Both Russell and Holmes are grounded materialists, so obviously ghosts, devils, vampires and so forth are not the perpetrators. But they are tools.

Politics play a role—this is 1925 and Romania is slowly recovering from the shocks of World War I—as does folklore. Holmes and Russell must move carefully through a landscape fraught with the kind of peril born out of superstition and the frayed sensibilities of a people still trying to find their way into a new world without losing too much of the old.

King deftly portrays the country, the culture, the politics, and the history and moves her characters through this landscape on this most delicate quest. As in past novels, King displays a deep understanding of history, and her attention to detail is everything one would expect from a Sherlock Holmes novel.

But as I said, the pleasure of this novel and all the others in the series is in the dynamic between Russell and Holmes and it remains compelling and convincing. The biggest difference between Mary Russell and her husband is age and therefore experience, but they are intellectually matched and derive a significant part of their delight in each other from that fact.

King has humanized Holmes, perhaps more believably than most other attempts, which have generally focused on the uncommon intelligence and observational skills of the detective, so much so that many incarnations have rendered the character all but a machine. The original stories show a more rounded person, someone who it must be remembered could be extraordinarily kind. Whatever the reason—fascination with the exotic if nothing else—Holmes has been too often portrayed as some kind of intellectual freak. Conan Doyle, if he had any message beyond telling a good yarn, was that the chief distinction between Holmes and his fellow humans was his willingness to Pay Attention. Yet the message received seems to have been “thank heavens there’s only one of him, no one could be like that!” King has spent time in this series, it seems, undoing the various boxes into which Holmes has been placed. (There have been a number of stories presenting the idea that Holmes was, in fact, an alien, which explained his unique powers. Fun stories, to be sure, but again that trend of removing Holmes from the realm of the human.) King’s Holmes begins as someone who had fled London, tired of The Game, but who started his career much younger than the man in Dr. Watson’s tales (a nod perhaps to Aesop, who was said to have dressed as an old man in order to be taken seriously by those who would never accept wisdom from a young man?) and was interested in his bees, his solitude, and perhaps rejuvenating himself after near burn-out. The opportunity of training a protege in the form of a young girl who invades his quiet gives him a chance to…

Well, that would seem to be an ongoing journey, for both of them. Russell/Holmes is very much a spring-autumn romance—and there is romance, albeit understated and plausibly private (these are written in first-person by Mary)—but they have found each other as rough equals and by implication natural companions.

All that is well and good, but the best part of these novels is Mary herself, who is one of the finest sleuths to be found. Tough-minded, resilient, a scholar first, detective and occasionally reluctant spy, it is from her we learn all this, her voice that takes us through the adventures, and Holmes often takes a backseat to Mary’s navigation.

And the mysteries are fine. Just the sorts of unlikely, bizarre, exotic tangles one should expect from a Sherlock Holmes tale. But again, rendered in terms of human capacity and interest. In any event, so far each book has left me happily looking forward to the next. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes have together reinvigorated what had come close to being overdone and overworked.

Seeking Meaning In Sand

I have not yet seen the new film version of Dune. I may write about it after I do, although it is not the entire story. What I am interested in here is the ongoing obsession with the novel. This will be the third cinematic iteration. Famously, there are two uncompleted versions, one by Jodowrosky and another by Ridley Scott. We know how far the former came because there is a fascinating documentary about it, but as for Scott’s version there are mainly rumors and statements that he wanted to do one. Personally, I would have been interested to see that one—I very much like Ridley Scott’s palette: even those of his films that don’t quite work for other reasons I find wonderful to look at—and in some ways he has perhaps played around the edges of it through his Alien franchise. (The first film starts on a world that might have been Arakkis, the second is evocative of Gede Prime, the others keep returning to desert worlds, in theme if not setting. And Ripley becomes a kind of ghola as she is resurrected again and again.)

What is it about the original novel that compels the ongoing obsession, not only of filmmakers, but of fans? (There would be no funding for the films if the audience were not so large and committed. That speaks to the book.)

The history of the novel is something of a publishing legend, like other groundbreaking books. Multiple rejections, ultimate publication, often in a limited way, and a growing audience over years. Dune was famously rejected something like 27 times before finally being taken up by a publisher better known for automobile manuals.

It was, however, serialized in one of the top science fiction magazines, Analog, so dedicated SF readers were the first to encounter it, and doubtless formed the primary audience. I remember reading the ACE paperback from the late Sixties. Its impact on me was almost too large to detail.

I was used to science fiction novels being under 200 pages—average then was 160. From the Golden Age forward you rarely found one more than 250 pages. Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein was an outlier at 408 in its first hardcover incarnation. So here I find this massive book more like the so called classics I’d been reading—Dickens, Dumas, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—crammed into the cover of a mass market paperback which included a glossary and indexes, explanatory material (every bit as fictional as the main narrative). It felt important. I was 14, it was dense, I struggled through it. (It led to a profound teaching moment in how to read which I’ve written about elsewhere.) I could feel my horizons expand, even though at the basic level of story it was no more or less fascinating than most other good science fiction novels I had read. But it opened possibilities for narrative depth.

A handful of other novels came out around that time that exploded the confines of the thriller-format SF had been kept to—John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up; Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand Of Darkness; and the coming rage for trilogies (many of which were single narratives published economically in three volumes). By the mid-Seventies publishing had changed to accommodate a new idea of what an SF novel could be, including expanded length to include what has become known as World Building (a technique which in some instances supplanted more important aspects of fiction). Not all by itself, but certainly as a point of history, Dune helped make this possible by creating a market for fuller expositions and more detailed construction. This alone might make it significant.

But that alone would not have made it a perennial seller, almost constantly in print ever since. If Frank Herbert had written nothing else, Dune would have made his career.

It was followed up by two more—Dune Messiah and Children of Dune—completing a cycle. That first trilogy stands as a unified work. The second two books are plot-driven indulgences, but not superfluous. The second trilogy…publishing had discovered by then that science fiction could be best-selling fiction and a frenzy of large advances and high-profile publications mark the late Seventies and early Eighties. Herbert’s publisher enabled him to indulge himself with a second trilogy that often leaves people puzzled. But it kept the spotlight on the primary work.

David Lynch’s movie enlarged the audience again. That film, by a director with a certain reputation for examining the macabre oddnesses of humanity, is a spectacular curiosity. It is a mixed bag of brilliance and weird choices.

Then came a modestly-budgeted miniseries on the SyFy Channel, which went on to include the second two novels. It did a much better job of telling Herbert’s story. The chief complaints seem to be the results of that budget (and that Sting did not reprise the role of Feyd Rautha). It gets dismissed too readily, as if the world were waiting for the “real” cinema treatment.

Which we now, by all accounts, have.

As I say, I have not seen it yet. I want to address the book and its seeming tenacity.

One of the things Herbert did was lace his tale with wise-sounding profundities in the form of aphorisms and epigrams. Each chapter starts with a quote from some serious work by the presumed chronicler of the hero’s life. They sound like quotes from works like the I Ching or SunTzu’s Art of War. This was not a new trick when Herbert did it, but he was particularly adept at it in this book. It is a far future in which, presumably, philosophy has transformed along with everything else. The quasi-feudal politics and economics are given a veneer of newness this way, as if to signal that while it looks like something one would find in the 12th Century, it is not quite the same thing, but you have to take the author’s word for it, because it is the future. The quotes set an aesthetic tone that, among other things, allows us to assume something else is going on instead of just the same old historical thing. In science fiction, veneers matter—they work like orchestrations in a symphony, selecting the right instrument for the right phrase, coloring it. (Veneers should never be mistaken for the story or the theme, which is something unobservant critics do all the time.)

Seriousness established, every significant decision becomes inhabited by purpose, meaning, resonance, and a justification that raises the level of what we read almost to that of destiny, certainly of mythmaking. With this, the writing itself need not be spectacular, just functional.

There are passages in Dune that are breathtaking in what they describe. The ecological aspects of the novel, while in some ways absurd in terms of actual science, take on the same immanence as anything the actors possess. In a way, Dune is one of the first terraforming novels, embracing the idea that human action can transform an entire world. (A couple of years later, we see much more of this, often more pointedly, as in works like Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest—again, the novel opens up a field of possibilities, or at least prepares an audience for more of the same.)

But the characters are hard to relate to—this is a story about archetypes and aristocrats in conflict with emperors and churches. The ordinary people get lost amid the giant legs of the SF manifestations of Greek Heroes. We read this novel for the plot and world and the political revelations. We become engaged because this is in important ways a Lawrence of Arabia story—one toxically mixed with Faust. We read it because we are aware that gods and deserts change the world.

We read it because, as well, we are enamored of the idea of Enlightenment in a Pill.

Herbert was always working in the fields of mind-altering drugs—possibly his best and most relatable novel in this vein is The Santarroga Barrier—and with Melange, the Spice, he created the ultimate in mind-expanding temptations. Its use gives humanity (and others) the universe. Time and space can be brought to heel with it. Visions, prophecies, and clarity are on offer. But it is the ultimate Faustian bargain, for its loss will destroy everything.

It is aptly named. Melange, a mixture of often incongruous elements. A mess, if you will, but messes can evoke wonder, even seem beautiful.

At the heart of this Faustian conundrum are the Fremen, patterned after the Bedu of the Middle East. They are trapped on a world with profoundly limited resources and must be kept that way for the benefit of the rest of the universe. Not quite slaves, but certainly not masters of their own world. Freeing them courts disaster—because part of that freedom entails remaking their world, making it wet. Water, though, is poison to the giant worms that produce the Spice.

Trap after trap after trap populates the novel. Disaster looms. The plot compels.

And of course the relevance to our reality could not be plainer. The teetering sets of balances, all of them with ethical pitfalls, allow Dune to remain trenchant, relevant, challenging. Added to this is the clear connection to the Greek tragedians (especially in the second trilogy—I suggest boning up on Aeschylus and Euripedes before trying them) which gives the book its ongoing frustration of clear, ethical resolution. (And cleverly he took the possibility of building machines that might aid people in their problem-solving off the table, by outlawing thinking machines. It’s all on us and what we bring to the game.)

A final thread woven through the book that seems to make it constantly popular is that it is a coming-of-age story that contains a biting critique of privilege. Whatever Paul might want to be for himself, he is born into a web of expectations that impose their demands from all sides, making any choice he might make impossible outside of a constructed destiny. The adolescent struggling to make sense of the world and find a way to live in it, thinking if only he were god and could command everything to be rational or at least amenable. Paul’s tragedy is that he in fact can become god—and then discovering that this is no solution, either.

How well this new movie deals with all this, I look forward to seeing. For the moment I simply wanted to examine some of the reasons this novel continues to find audiences and why so many filmmakers are drawn to it. The elements it contains transcend the limitations from which it suffers. But whatever the case, this is a novel that allows readers to find meaning—whether that meaning is in the novel or not.