2016

Tardiness comes in direct proportion to chaos. The year ended and all was in flux.

However, reading goes on.

I did not finish nearly as many books in 2016 as I tried to. At least, not other people’s books.  I did finish drafts of two of my own.  My desk, at the moment, is clear, and maybe I can do a better job in 2017 of keeping abreast here.

A good deal of my science fiction reading was pretty much for the reading group I host at Left Bank Books. That group affords me opportunity and motivation to read novels I might not otherwise get to.  So I reread Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination for the first time in three decades, but I also read The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time ever. I do not regret the delay. It is a mature novel, with a great deal my younger self may well have missed.  As to the former, it came very close to not holding up.  I had forgotten (if I ever realized it this way) just how brutal a novel it is, and not just in the character of Gully Foyle. Bester’s achievement way back in the Fifties remains remarkable for its unyielding insistence on a fragmented, painful, chaotic, and historically consistent future.

I also reacquainted myself with Tiptree, in the form of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. It seems fitting in this period of reassessment and revolution, when the face of science fiction is—has—changed and brought forth a volatile reaction to that change.  Tiptree was doing much of what is being so rancorously challenged within the field today, but as she was a singular voice and not a “trend” she provoked different challenges then while becoming accepted generally as a brilliant writer and a jewel in the crown of SF stars.

I also reread (for the first time since it came out) Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, which I reviewed in the previous post.  I was much too inexperienced a reader the first time to appreciate everything Silverberg was doing, so I probably forgot the book as soon as I finished it.

It is true that some books must be “grown into”—I am currently rereading Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble On Triton for the book group and realizing that, while I read it eagerly the first time, I probably missed almost everything important about. Likewise with another reread, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is ostensibly a novel about colonialism.  I say “ostensibly” but that does not mean it isn’t.  It very much is about colonialism, all three of the novellas which comprise the whole.  But it is as much about how we colonize ourselves, sometimes to our loss, as it is about colonizing foreign soil, in this case another world with a native population that strives to adapt but may have found in the end their only options were extinction or counter-colonization.  As always, Wolfe’s subtlety is rigorously slippery, his points less direct,  corrosive of expectation.

Titan Books has rereleased Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Chronicles, a story cycle that is the very definition of indirect.  Moorcock took as his template the Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, et al—and displaced them into a near future chaos in the form of his “hero” Jerry Cornelius, who wants to save the world only to resurrect his dead sister so they can be together.  The prose are rife with Sixties hip, but not so overwhelmingly anachronistic that the novels aren’t just as readable now as they were then.  The response to them is perhaps necessarily altered and certainly the themes play out differently. Moorcock may have been the grown-up in the room at the advent of New Wave.  He did go on to write some marvelously rich books after these.

I finished Ann Leckie’s delightfully subversive Ancillary trilogy.  I need to do a full review soon.  Treat yourself.

A smattering of other SF titles I can recommend whole-heartedly:  Lavi Tidhar’s Central Station; Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants; Carter Sholz’s Gypsy; Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.

And Nisi Shawl’s wonderful Everfair.  An alternate history steampunk done the way steampunk ought to be done.  I owe it a full review, but let me say here that this is one of the best first novels I’ve read in a long time.

I read two China Mieville books this year, one very good.  This Census Taker I have to count as a failure.  It has good writing fascinating bits, but failed to come together the way I’ve come to expect from Mieville.  The other, newer one, is The Last Days of New Paris, which is excellent.  This pair allowed me to understand that one of the primary passions Mieville indulges in his work is cities.  His best work portrays a city as a complete character.  This Census Taker lacked that.

Of the non science fiction read this year, I did Moby-Dick with my other reading group.  I resisted doing this book.  I’ve never liked it.  I find it turgid, convoluted, often opaque.  There is also a darkness to it that can be suffocating. Over several months we tackled it, dissected it, ran through various analyses.  I conclude that it is a superb work, fully deserving of its reputation.  It is A great American novel if not The American Novel, because America is its subject, though it takes place on a whaling ship far at sea.  It is not a flattering picture, though, displaying throughout the contradictions, hypocrisies, and shortcomings of the then young nation which continue to plague us.  It does this brilliantly.

I still don’t like it.  I find little pleasure in the actual reading.  That, as they say, is my problem.

A colleague and coworker, Kea Wilson, published her first novel, We Eat Our Own. I commend it.  I reviewed it here.

A novel that straddles the genre boundaries somewhat that caused some controversy upon its initial publication is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.  This is a post-Arthurian quest story with much to say about memory and community and the price of vengeance.

This was a big year for nonfiction.

Robert Gleick’s new tome, Time Travel: A History is an exceptional soliloquy on the concept, science, and cultural use of time travel, beginning with Wells and covering both the scientific realm and the popular fiction realm, showing how they have played off each other and how the idea has evolved and worked through our modern view of the universe and our own lives.  Previously in the year I’d read his magnificent biography of Richard Feynman, Genius.  Gleick is a great explainer and a fine craftsman.

As well, Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons About Physics.  They are brief, they are accessible, they are to be enjoyed.  And, along the same lines, Void by James Owen Weatherall, about the physics of empty space.  It’s far more fascinating than it might sound.

I can recommend Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, which is a history of the world from the viewpoint of the Orient.  The shift in perspective is enlightening.  Along the same lines I read Charles Mann’s 1491, which was eye-opening and thought-provoking—and in some ways quite humbling.

I also read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land, especially in the wake of what I think I can safely call the most surprising election result in recent history. This book is a study of the right-wing culture that has developed in many startlingly contradictory ways.  I believe this would be worth reading for anyone trying to make sense of the people who continually vote in ways that seem to make no sense—and also for those who do vote that way just so they might understand what it is about their movement that seems so incomprehensible to many of their fellow citizens.

I read a few short of 50 books in 2016 cover to cover.  I will be reviewing some of them in the future.

Here’s hoping for a good year of reading to come.

 

 

 

Cannibale Verité

Stories live inside stories. Like Matryoshki dolls, they nest inside each other. The walls are permeable, the delineations indistinct, and viscera moves from one to another to another, and so, osmotically, verisimilitude emerges with reference and resonance. We recognize the truth of stories because they remind. Even when we’ve never heard that particular story before, the lexical and symbolic soup, sometimes called culture, we swim in makes certain elements part and parcel of what we recognize as truth.

Fiction depends on this mantle of story sediment. The better a writer understands the essential reality of the material, the more potent the experience is for the reader. The more we identify with character, connect with setting, and surrender to the flow of the narrative, the more substantive is the story and the truer it feels.

It’s a risky thing for a writer to make the nesting itself part of the story, to show the workings of narrative baldly, like pulling away the curtains on the machinery of the narrative and make it one of the surface elements. Like a magician explaining the trick as it is being performed, the only thing that can save the experience from the failure of banality is if the exposition of form enhances the total experience.

For example, Kea Wilson’s new novel, We Eat Our Own, from the first line exposes its inner workings and makes us complicit in the construction of the experience. The second-person present tense is like a set of instructions. She not only is telling the character what is happening but she is showing us how the inevitable accrues and acquires momentum.

Frightening momentum, in this case.

A young actor, struggling, in 1979, accepts a role in a film being shot in the Columbian rainforest. It’s an Italian horror film, being made by a director with a long list of credits and a certain reputation. This is his first film done on location. Our actor is a last-minute addition because the first American actor they hired would not even get on the plane after reading the script. The director needs an American, preferably an unknown.

In a fine stroke, Wilson keeps the actor’s name from us, eventually referring to him only by his character name. Already we are descending into the caverns of nested narratives. Like Dante who got lost in a dark wood and found his way into Hell, our actor takes the part and gets lost in a dense forest. And because of the way Wilson has chosen to tell her story, not only are we privy to the hell into which he descends, we know how he’s going and are powerless to prevent it.  In fact, we don’t want to prevent it, because we are hungry to know what he does when he realizes where he is.

It’s not all told this way. There are third person stretches, past tense, present tense, and a heady dance of omniscient viewpoint throughout. All of which serves to bring us, layer by layer, into the central theme that carries through the novel like humidity or mosquitoes. Wilson is exploring the way in which we feed on each other. Indeed, how we depend on a kind of food chain of the soul in order to know not only who we are but what we ought to do and where we need to be. For some, those who have a tenuous grasp on self-knowledge to begin with, the cannibalism can take on aspects of gluttony, draped in byzantine rituals designed to keep us blind to our own dysfunctions.

Like our actor, who asked repeatedly to be shown pages, a script, told what his character is supposed to be doing and, most importantly, why—but is repeatedly refused, and in fact looked upon with annoyance because he needs to know. He doesn’t.  But it’s not just his part in this bizarre movie (which involves cannibalism, of course) of which he is ignorant. He has no clue about much of anything.

The assembled production company, cut off from civilization (because a phone line has yet to be run to the town outside of which they’re shooting), stumbles and reels through the whims and impulses of the director, who seems to have a clear idea what he wants but won’t tell anyone what it is. (At one point, during a trial, being asked to defend his film and the risks he took with his people, he demands”Did it frighten you?”)

Into the mix we discover a group of young revolutionaries set up nearby.  They are involved in kidnapping and extortion and have an arrangement with a drug cartel. They need money to fund their grandiose dreams of overthrowing the government and instituting a Marxist state. Maybe.

More layers, more stories, all intersecting, bleeding through each other, fertilizing, polluting, transforming.  Reading Wilson’s prose is like listening to freeform jazz, where everything reaches a point of apparent chaos and then, with startling precision, comes together to create a very precise, rich effect.

Fake deaths, real deaths, soul death, murder, suicide, and the headlong pursuit of a path chosen because, in the end, it seemed like the path available, work hand in glove with the revealed structure of the book to drag us into it in such a way that recognizing an essential aspect of human nature—or our nature—is impossible to avoid.  Wilson shows us the costs of not knowing and the painful necessity of making choices n the face of too little information and too much expectation. Of ourselves and others.

I said this is a new novel.  It is also, impressively, a first novel.  It does not feel like a first novel. It feels like the mature work of someone who understands human nature and sees how the structures we inhabit prompt choices often tragic and surreal.

In the end, that question lingers:  did it frighten you?

It’s about humans on the edge, making art and chaos.

Yes, it did.

Sleeping Dragons

Kazuo Ishiguro works a consistent theme. Even in his earliest novels, he explores the manner in which people refuse to acknowledge the reality through which they move. Many of his characters display a kind of aphasia, an inability to grasp the issues surrounding them, the motives of people, even those they are close to, or what is unfolding before their eyes. In a way, they are peculiarly narcissistic. I say peculiar because quite often their sense of themselves is the last thing they seem concerned with, even when others are.

At times this has led him to experiment with tactics of evasion that result in novels that resist our attempts to connect, even to access what is going on, but we read them anyway because he cloaks the experiments with plots and devices that hold our interest, but which we suspect are little more than extensions of the evasions at the core of his characters’ lives.

In a few instances, he has his characters actually go out in search of the mystery that seems to enshroud their worlds, though usually they look in the wrong places or simply fail to comprehend what they discover.

Such is the motive behind Axl and Beatrice as they leave their small village in the heart of a post-Arthurian England to find their long-absent and possibly estranged son and perhaps get to the bottom of the cloying fog suffocating memory. Their journey takes them to the source of a strange amnesia in The Buried Giant.

The landscape is mythic. This is a land occupied by Britons and Saxons. It is a land that has only recently been host to the epic struggles of King Arthur, Merlin, his knights, and the aspirations of Camelot. If there is any doubt how real Ishiguro intends us to treat this, he dispels such doubt by having Axl and Beatrice encounter the aging Sir Gawain, one of the few survivors of those days.

There is much of the Quixote in this Gawain, although his skills are impressive. Age alone has blunted his abilities. Ostensibly, he is still on a quest. Not the Grail. No, that is never mentioned. Rather he claims to be on a mission to slay the she-dragon Querig.

Joining them is a young Saxon warrior, Wistan, and a boy he has rescued from a village where because of a wound the boy suffered from ogres the villagers intend to kill him for fear that he will become an ogre.  As, indeed, he is destined to—but not in the way superstition would have it.

Wistan for his part is also on a mission.  He, too, is on the hunt for Querig. But for him Querig’s demise is but a means to an end, and a terrible end at that. He and Gawain come into conflict over it eventually and thereby we learn both the source of the Mist, which robs people of their memory, and a truth about King Arthur not recorded in the myths.

Through all this, even as it would seem rich material for a dense fantasy about knights and dragons and kings and ogres, Ishiguro’s focus is on Axl and Beatrice and the nature and quality of commitment and forgiveness.  For in the mists of poorly-glimpsed memory there are terrible things between them and as they progress on their journey to find their son Axl begins to have second thoughts, not at all sure he wants to remember, afraid that perhaps he had been the cause of great pain and sorrow.  Ishiguro is concerned here primarily—and almost exclusively—with the nature of time, memory, and forgiveness and the many ways they are the same essential thing.

In that sense, the controversy he stirred when the novel appeared by claiming that he was not writing a fantasy—that he did not want to be seen as plowing the same fields as George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss—was unfortunate. He spoke truly.  This is not a fantasy in the sense of contemporary sword & sorcery or secondary-world fantasies.  He is not doing the same thing as Martin, although he may have borrowed a subtheme or two from Tolkein. His disclaimer was taken as a derogation of fantasy, yet one can see from the text that he is fond of those elements of the book taken directly from the long tradition of English fantasy.

If there is a fantasy element here worthy of the name it is in his portrayal of the end of a mythology and the terminus of one world as it transforms into another.  The Buried Giant is about remembering as much as it is about things forgotten.  The changes soon to be wrought by the conclusion of Wistan’s quest and Gawain’s final stand have to do with how history turns and what is taken after a time of interregnum during which things lost are grasped, reshaped, and put to new uses.

But it is always about what is between people and how we use memory and its infelicities.

As in other Ishiguro novels, there is much that annoys.  His characters talk.  And talk and talk and talk and often it is about nothing until we realize that it is all tactic.  Dissimulation as replacement for substantive communication—until finally the act of avoidance itself becomes the point and the things hidden are revealed by inference. Axl and Beatrice as blind and trying to perceive the elephant they explore with tentative fingers. That it is to a purpose, however, makes it no less frustrating, but it would be a mistake to see this as anything other than absolutely intended.

The point of the quest–for all of them–becomes evident when at last they find Querig and it turns out not to be what they had all expected.  And we then see how myth sometimes is more useful than reality.

Crossovers

Cross-genre experimentation often produces interesting failures, less often brilliant chimeras.  The novelty seems to open up possibilities.  Steampunk has been one of the most successful in recent years, but it seems to be wearing thin as too much of it tends to be old-fashioned occult or mystery, rather Sherlockian (or more Wilkie Collins) in essence with a thread of SFnal gadget-geekery running throughout.  Often it’s just a new suit of clothes disguising an old set of bones.

One of the things that has rarely been successful but is perhaps the oldest of these mix-and-match tropes is the attempt to blend science fiction and fantasy.  Try as we might, it usually ends up being demonstrably one or the other merely borrowing the trappings of its often unwilling partner.  Roger Zelazny was perhaps the most sucessful at it, but he managed it by bravura sleight-of-hand, or wordcraft, rather than through genuine alchemical mergers.  What we generally find are stories that set the fantasy conceits at odds with science, in a kind of battleground plot where one or the other must prove superior or “right” in some epistemological sense.  Poul Anderson wrote one called Operation Chaos (and a few sequels) that attempted it by a clever deployment of magical “universes” as essential parallel universes of higher or lower energy states, but in the end it was science fiction in the way it treated the conceits.  The thematic utility of fantasy was sublimated to the SFnal conceptualizing.

The problem is that fantasy, dealing as it does with physical propositions of how the universe operates which run counter to our understanding of the same concepts, develops thematic conceits which have very little if anything to do with the concerns found in science fiction.  They are, at base, about different things.  Attempting to assert tyhat those two worlds (nevfer mind world views) can plausibly coexist and have anything to say together which cannot be said better by one or the other usually ends up as special pleading or simply a fashion statement.

(Example?  The big one is Star Wars, despite Lucas’s belated attempt to shoehorn any kind of science fictional justifications into Episodes 1,2, and 3, which is a full court quest fantasy dressed up like science fiction.  The machinery, the technology, the science never avails against magic, which is portrayed as both physically superior and in fact the true moral battleground.  It’s a fantasy, not a blending of the two.)

All that said, it was only a matter of time before a genuinely successful hybrid would appear. Artists keep working at something long enough, eventually that which one generation says cannot be done, will be done.

Quite happily, I discovered this success in a thoroughly enjoyable novel by Charlie Jane Anders All The Birds In The Sky .    9780765379948

Briefly, Laurence and Patricia are outcasts. Their parents, who are shown as almost polar opposites of each other, fail to “get” them, and their attempts to “correct” what they see as bad trends or unhealthy characteristics end badly around. Likewise at school, where they meet and become friends out of desperation (they’ll actually talk to each other), their lives are simply untenable because their peers also do not understand them.  It becomes, at one point, life-threatening for them to hang out together.

Added to this is the appearance of a trained assassin from a secret society who has identified them as the nexus of eventual social collapse and global catastrophe.  His Order does not permit the killing of minors, though, so he is limited to ruining their lives and attempting to keep them apart.

What is special about them is…

Patricia is an emergent witch.  She discovers early on that she can speak to animals, but it may be an hallucination (it’s not).  Her older sister, who spies on her, makes matters worse by secretly recording Patricia in some of her more extreme attempts at revisiting her chance discovery of “powers” and releasing it on social media.

Laurence is an emergent technical genius who sets about building a self-aware AI in the closet of his room.  His parents, who are in most ways failures, see his obsession with staying indoors, reading obsessively, and attempting to gain admission to a science school as unhealthy and insist on outdoors programs and forced social interaction.  They have no clue that everything is against this.

Patricia and Laurence are eventually driven apart and grow up to make lives in their separate spheres, both successfully.  They re-encounter each other and fall into an alliance concerned with saving the Earth, which is in the late stages of environmental collapse.  Each in their own way must address this problem and here is where it gets interesting.

As if all the rest isn’t already interesting enough.  Anders has painted fulsome portraits of the outsiders we all knew (or, in some instances, were) with sympathy and understanding that avoids pity and makes for pleasurable character study.  Laurence and Patricia could easily have become archetypes, and certainly in some ways they are, but here they are simply people we may well know, and even wish to know.  And the relationship she builds between them is complex and resonant and satisfying in surprising ways.  In a novel already repleat with strengths, this is a major achievement.

How she makes the merger of magic and science work is also by way of character.  Laurence and Patricia are both in dialogue with the universe.  They use different languages, elicit different responses, but in the end it turns out to be the same universe.  Anders suggests that we still don’t have a firm grasp of how manifold and multifaceted that universe is, but in the end it is all a conversation. Multilingual, to be sure, and compiled of palimpsests sometimes hard to identify.  What is required is an appreciation of the wider concept.

What makes this a successful blending—merging, really—of usually antipathetic concepts is that dialogue and the acknowledgment in the end that both views make for a greater understanding.  The solutions—if any are to be found—come from the combined strengths of the divergent views.  Laurence and Patricia, depending on each other, coming to know that here there is genuine friendship, love, acceptance, and a willingness to understand the other side, make for better answers than they do apart.

I do not wish to spoil the myriad of dialectical twists and turns salted throughout.  Anders has not given us a set solutions, but as series of antiphonal arguments leading to a place where a wider view may be achieved.  Throughout she plays with the tropes, the themes, the assumptions, connects them to human concerns, and manages something greater than the sum of its traditionally antagonistic parts.

Highly recommended.

 

Taste and Quality

Obliquely, this is about a current debate within science fiction. However, the lineaments of the argument pertain to literature as a whole.  I offer no solutions or answers here, only questions and a few observations.  Make of it what you will.

Reading experience is a personal thing. What one gets out of a novel or story is like what one gets out of any experience and being required to defend preferences is a dubious demand that ultimately runs aground on the shoals of taste.  I once attended a course on wine and the presenter put it this way: “How do you know you’re drinking a good wine? Because you like it.”  Obviously, this is too blanket a statement to be completely true, but he made his point.  If you’re enjoying something it is no one’s place to tell you you’re wrong to do so based on presumed “objective” criteria.  That $200.00 bottle of Sassicaia may fail to stack up against the $20.00 Coppola Claret as far as your own palate is concerned and no one can tell you your judgment is wrong based on the completely personal metric of “I like it/I don’t like it.”

However, that doesn’t mean standards of quality are arbitrary or that differences are indeterminate.  Such are the vagaries and abilities of human discernment that we can tell when something is “better” or at least of high quality even when we personally may not like it.

For instance, I can tell that Jonathan Franzen is a very good writer even though I have less than no interest in reading his fiction.  I can see that Moby-Dick is a Great Novel even while it tends to bore me.  I acknowledge the towering pre-eminence of Henry James and find him an unpalatable drudge at the same time.

On the other end of the spectrum, I can see how Dan Brown is a propulsive and compelling story-teller even while I find him intellectually vacuous and æsthetically tedious.

My own personal list of what may be described as guilty pleasures includes Ian Fleming, Edgar Rice Burroughs (but only the John Carter novels; never could get into Tarzan), and a score of others over the years who caught my attention, appealed for a time, and have since fallen by the wayside, leaving me with fond memories and no desire to revisit.  A lot of the old Ace Doubles were made up of short novels of dubious merit that were nevertheless great fun for a teenager on a lonely afternoon.

I would never consider them Great Art.

Taste is the final arbiter.  But using it to determine quality—rather than allowing quality to determine taste—is doomed because taste changes.  Works you might strenuously defend at one time in your life can over time suffer as your taste and discernment evolve.  It’s sad in one way because it would be a fine thing to be able to summon up the same reactions experienced on one of those lonely afternoons, aged 16, and poring through the deathless excitement of a pulp adventure you might, given your enthusiasm, mistake for Great Writing.

I try always to make a distinction between things I like and things I think are Good.  Often they’re the same thing, but not always, and like other judgments humans make tend to become confused with each other.  Hence, debate over merit can take on the aspects of an argument on that day at the base of the Tower of Babel when people stopped understanding each other.

But if that’s all true, then how do we ever figure out which standards are valid and which bogus?  I mean, if it’s ALL subjective, how can any measure of quality ever rise to set the bar?

Fortunately, while personal experience is significant, collective experience also pertains. History, if you will, has taught us, and because art is as much a conversation as a statement we learn what works best and creates the most powerful effects over time. Having Something To Say that does not desiccate over time is a good place to start, which is why Homer still speaks to us 2500 years after his first utterances.  We derive our ability to discern qualities from our culture, which includes those around us informing our daily experiences.  In terms of literature, the feedback that goes into developing our personal values is a bit more specific and focused, but we have inexhaustible examples and a wealth of possible instruction.  We do not develop our tastes in a vacuum.

Honest disagreement over the specific qualities of certain works is part of the process by which our tastes develop. I might make a claim for Borges being the finest example of the short story and you might counter with de Maupassant—or Alice Munro. Nothing is being denigrated in this. The conversation will likely be edifying.

That’s a conversation, though.  When it comes to granting awards, other factors intrude, and suddenly instead of exemplary comparisons, now we have competition, and that can be a degrading affair unless standards are clear and processes fairly established.  Unlike a conversation, however, quality necessarily takes a back seat to simple preference.

Or not so simple, perhaps. Because any competition is going to assume at least a minimum of quality that may be universally acknowledged. So we’re right back to trying to make objective determinations of what constitutes quality.

If it seems that this could turn circular, well, obviously. But I would suggest it only becomes so when an unadmitted partisanship becomes a key factor in the process.

This can be anything, from personal acquaintance with the artist to political factors having nothing to do with the work in hand. Being unadmitted, perhaps even unrecognized, such considerations can be impossible to filter out, and for others very difficult to argue against. They can become a slow poison destroying the value of the awards. Partisanship—the kind that is not simple advocacy on behalf of a favored artist but is instead ideologically based, more against certain things rather than for something—can deafen, blind, reduce our sensibilities to a muted insistence on a certain kind of sensation that can be serviced by nothing else. It can render judgment problematic because it requires factors be met having little to do with the work.

Paradoxically, art movements, which are by definition partisan, have spurred innovation if only by reaction and have added to the wealth of æsthetic discourse. One can claim that such movements are destructive and indeed most seem to be by intent. Iconoclasm thrives on destroying that which is accepted as a standard and the most vital movements have been born of the urge to tilt at windmills, to try to bring down the perceived giants.  We gauge the success of such movements by remembering them and seeing how their influence survives in contemporary terms.

Those which did not influence or survive are legion. Perhaps the kindest thing to be said of most of them was they lacked any solid grasp of their own intent. Many, it seems, misunderstood the very purpose of art, or, worse, any comprehension of truth and meaning. More likely, they failed to distinguish between genuine art and base propaganda.

How to tell the difference between something with real merit and something which is merely self-serving?  All heuristics are suspect, but a clear signal that other than pure artistic intent is at play is the advent of the Manifesto.  Most are hopelessly locked in their time and the most innocent of them are cries against constraint.  But often there’s an embarrassing vulgarity to them, a demand for attention, as insistence that the work being pushed by the manifesto has merit if only people would see it.

Not all manifestos are signs of artistic vacuity, but those that front for worthwhile work usually fade quickly from service, supplanted by the work itself, and are soon forgotten.  Mercifully.  We are then left with the work, which is its own best advocate.  In hindsight it could be argued that such work would have emerged from the froth all on its own, without the need of a “movement” to advance its cause.  Unfortunately, art requires advocates, beginning with the simplest form of a purchase.  In crowded fields overfull of example, the likelihood of a lone artist succeeding on his or her own, without advocacy, is slim.

Advocacy for an individual artist, by a cadre of supporters, can make or break a career.  And this would of course be a natural development of widespread appreciation.  It’s organic.

Advocacy for a perceived type of art begins to suffer from the introduction of agendas having less to do with the artists than with a commitment to the aforementioned windmill-tilting.

The next phase is advocacy of a proscriptive nature—sorting out what belongs and doesn’t belong, measuring according to a prescribed set of protocols, and has little to do with individual works and much to do with the æsthetic and political prejudices of the movement.  The quality of a given work is less important at this stage than whether it “fits” the parameters set by the movement’s architects.  Taste plays a smaller and smaller role as the movement meets opposition or fails to advance its agenda. With the demotion of taste comes the dessication of quality.  The evocative ability of art, its facility to communicate things outside the confines of the manifesto-driven movement eventually becomes a kind of enemy.  We’re into the realm of cookie-cutter art, paint-by-numbers approaches, template-driven.  Themes are no longer explored but enforced, preferred message becomes inextricable from execution, and the essential worth of art is lost through disregard of anything that might challenge the prejudice of the movement.

This is a self-immolating process.  Such movements burn out from eventual lack of both material and artists, because the winnowing becomes obsessional, and soon no one is doing “pure” work according to the demands of the arbiters of group taste.

As it should be.  Anything worthwhile created during the life of the movement ends up salvaged and repurposed by other artists.  The dross is soon forgotten.  The concerns of these groups become the subject of art history discussions.  The dismissal of works in particular because “well, he’s a Marxist” or “she was only an apologist for capitalism”—factors which, if the chief feature of a given work might very well render it ephemeral, but in many instances have little to do with content—prompts head-scratching and amusement well after the fury of controversy around them.

Given this, it may seem only reasonable that an artist have nothing to do with a movement.  The work is what matters, not the fashions surrounding it.  Done well and honestly, it will succeed or fail on its own, or so we assume.

But that depends on those ineffable and impossible-to-codify realities of quality and taste.  Certainly on the part of the artist but also, and critically, on the part of the audience.

Here I enter an area difficult to designate.  The instant one demands a concrete description of what constitutes quality, the very point of the question is lost.  Again, we have heuristics bolstered by example.  Why, for instance, is Moby-Dick now regarded as a work of genius, by some even as the great American novel, when in its day it sold so poorly and its author almost died in complete obscurity?  Have we become smarter, more perceptive? Has our taste changed?  What is it about that novel which caused a later generation than Melville’s contemporaries to so thoroughly rehabilitate and resurrect it?  Conversely, why is someone like Jacqueline Susanne virtually unremarked today after having been a huge presence five decades ago?

I have gone on at some length without bringing up many examples, because taste and quality are so difficult to assess.  What one “likes” and what one may regard as “good” are often two different things, as I said before, and has as much to do with our expectations on a given day of the week as with anything deeply-considered and well-examined. My purpose in raising these questions—and that’s what I’ve been doing—has to do with a current struggle centering on the validity of awards as signs of intrinsic worth.

The best that can be said of awards as guideposts to quality is that if a group of people, presumably in possession of unique perspectives and tastes, can agree upon a given work as worthy of special note, then it is likely a sign that the work so judged possesses what we call Quality.  In other words, it is an excellent, indeed exceptional, example of its form.  I’ve served on a committee for a major award and over the course of months the conversations among the judges proved educational for all of us and eventually shed the chafe and left a handful of works under consideration that represented what we considered examples of the best that year of the kind of work we sought to award.

I never once found us engaged in a conversation about the politics of the work.  Not once.

Nor did we ever have a discussion about the need to advance the cause of a particular type of work.  Arguments over form were entirely about how the choice of one over another served the work in question.  When we were finished, it never occurred to me that a set of honest judges would engage in either of those topics as a valid metric for determining a “winner.”  No one said, “Well it’s space opera and space opera has gotten too many awards (or not enough)” and no one said, “The socialism in this work is not something I can support (or, conversely, because of the political content the faults of the work should be overlooked for the good of the cause).”  Those kinds of conversations never happened.  It was the work—did the prose support the premise, did the characters feel real, did the plot unfold logically, were we moved by the story of these people.

Consensus emerged.  It was not prescribed.

This is not to say other metrics have no value, but they can be the basis of their own awards.  (The Prometheus Award is candidly given to work of a political viewpoint, libertarianism.  It would be absurd for a group to try to hijack it based on the argument that socialism is underrepresented by it.)  But even then, there is this knotty question of quality.

Here’s the thorny question for advocates of predetermined viewpoints: if an artist does the work honestly, truthfully, it is likely that the confines of manifesto-driven movements will become oppressive and that artist will do work that, eventually, no longer fits within those limits.  To complain that the resulting work is “bad” because it no longer adheres to the expectations of that group is as wrongheaded as declaring a work “good” because it does tow the proper line.

Because that line has nothing to do with quality.  It may go to taste.  It certainly has little to do with truth.

Survival, Strategy, and Shakespeare

Of all the things imagined surviving past a global apocalypse, Shakespeare may be an obvious choice but not one often noted in the scores of stories and novels devoted to the idea of starting over.

That is, after all, the chief impulse behind such stories, that the slate is wiped clean and humanity has a chance to begin again.  A few works have gone further, most notably Nevil Schute’s On The Beach, to wipe humanity completely off the stage, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  But for the most part, someone must trod upon that newly set stage to continue the story, and who better to serve notice that this is exactly what such stories are about than Shakespeare.  “All the world’s a stage…”

Shakespeare haunts Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven like Banquo’s ghost from beginning to end. The novel begins with the death of Lear—more precisely, the actor portraying Lear on stage in a theater in Toronto the very day a devastating virus explodes across the planet, going to kill 90% or more of the human race.  It’s never quite clear if Arthur Leander is a victim of the flu or a heart attack, but his demise signals the beginning of the end for all that is familiar, and establishes the primacy of irony that runs through the novel.

StationElevenHCUS2

Mandel has kept her focus on a fairly tight and circumstantial circle of people to tell her story. Arthur Leander, actor and a bit of a patriarch, anchors the narrative.  In some sense his life is Shakespearean—as a young man he escapes from an island which holds all that anyone could ever want, and his retelling of it takes on the glow of a mythic place people imagine as an impossible paradise.  The island, while wonderful in many ways, is not where he wants to spend the rest of his life.  He returns to foreign shores to seek his identity and becomes a mask of himself, an actor.  As he becomes famous he keeps returning, at least in memory and often in epistle, to that island.  He marries a woman who came from there, an artist who ends up working for a transnational corporation but privately draws a comic about a lost outpost in space, Station Eleven, that in many ways resembles Prospero’s island.  This is Miranda, the most stable of his three wives, all of whom are in some sense “rescues.”  But Miranda is of them all the most real, the most important.  As Prospero’s daughter, she is the foil to the worst of her father’s machinations.

As Leander is dying, the play is in the middle of act 4, scene 6, of King Lear, and the audience knows something is wrong when he delivers a line out of sequence.  But it’s a telling line for what is to follow.  “Down from the waist they are centaurs,” he says but then does not finish it and instead says “The wren goes to’t,” which is from earlier in the scene when Lear is comparing the progeny of adultery to his “lawfully got daughters” in their treatment of their father.  It’s a confused reordering but pertinent given what is later revealed.  The first quote, complete, reads: “Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulfurous pit— burning, scalding, stench, consumption!”

Given Arthur Leander’s penchant throughout his career of drifting from one woman to another, ending finally with three bad marriages and apparently about to embark on a fourth, this may be nothing more than the fevered remorse of momentary self-analysis, but it serves too as a metaphor for all the misplaced confidence our civilization instills in its devices, which look so dependable and yet…the remorse is poorly placed.  Arthur Leander seems much like his namesake, an idealist, in love, swimming a narrow strait every night to be with his love who loses his way and drowns.

Like Lear, his apparent mistrust of women is also wrongly placed, as it would be women who ultimately save not only his memory but that which is important to him.

But really this isn’t about women, not in this context, but about the matrix of civilization.

Twenty years after the collapse, we join a company of players, the Traveling Symphony, which makes the rounds near Lake Michigan, playing music and performing plays.  Shakespeare has proved the most popular with their small audiences, made up of survivors who have settled in odd places—abandoned airports, old motels, campgrounds—and are relearning how to live without electricity or running water or antibiotics.  The Georgian Flu that killed so many left too few to maintain all the complex systems.  Civilization is retrenching at an 18th Century level, but the artifacts of that globe-spanning civilization are all around.

One of the principle members of the Traveling Symphony is Kirsten, who as a child was in that final performance of Lear by Arthur Leander.  While she remembers almost nothing from that time, she collects celebrity magazine articles and other trivia about him.  She also has in her possession two issues of the comic book Leander’s first wife, Miranda, self-published.  Station Eleven will become a bizarre point of connection with another character who takes an even stranger path after the collapse.

At this point I’ll stop describing the plot.  Metaphors abound, the book is rich in irony. Shakespeare would recognize the various perversities and tragedies as Mandel flashes back over Leander’s life and those who surrounded or intersected with him, some of whom survive.  (There is a fascinating thread involving a paparazzi who appears in the first scene as a newly-minted paramedic who tries to administer CPR to Leander on stage.)  Mandel establishes her connections and the lay-lines of the chronicle very well and very plausibly.  The individual stories are affecting and compelling.

Rather I would like to talk about how this differs from what many readers may expect from such a novel, namely in its choice of conceit concerning the central idea, namely that well-trod path of starting over.

Many worthwhile novels have been written in this vein.  I mentioned On The Beach, but a quick list of others includes Alas Babylon, Earth Abides, A Canticle For Leibowitz, The Postman, The Stand, The Long Tomorrow, Davy…the list is long because it’s such a tempting fantasy, the idea that we can dispense in a stroke with the contemporary world with all its problems and its uncooperative aspects and its stubborn, entrenched people and their privileges and start over.  It’s a desert island fantasy writ large.

Much of the canon is about how human ingenuity, exemplified by a plucky group of very smart survivors, manage to rebuild some semblance of the civilization just lost—only without all the pesky problems, like neurotic people or politicians and usually there are no taxes in sight.  The science fiction approach is on the wresting from the ruin worthwhile components of civilization and setting the stage for doing things right, however one might conceive of right.  Perhaps H.G. Wells was the first to put this view forward in his Shape of Things to Come with his corps of engineers that rebuilds a high-tech civilization in the burnt-out remnants of the old.

The ones that stay with you, though, accept that this is fantasy and that reality never affords opportunity for such neat solutions.  That a collapse like this will be exactly that—a collapse, an end.  Some stories assume humanity can’t survive this final doom.  Most acknowledge that a few will but nothing will be preserved in any recognizable form.

For some this may seem like a thoroughgoing calamity.  For others, justice served.  Mandel—like Walter Miller, like Leigh Brackett, like, recently, Robert Charles Wilson in his Julian Comstock—recognizes that it is simply something that may happen. The question then is “What now?”

So her story is about how that first 20 years might look for a small group of people who are predisposed to preserving stories.

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the Earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled where they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels…most people had settle somewhere, because the gasoline had all gone stale by Year Three and you can’t keep walking forever.  After six months of traveling from town to town—the word town used loosely; some of the these places were four or five families living together in a former truck stop…

The landscape is peppered with the remnants of what came before and a new generation is growing up having never experienced any of it when it worked, only hearing stories of what it had once been like.  One can already see the rough shapes of future myth and lore emerging from the tales the older folks are telling the youngsters.

But over and through all this Mandel is telling stories about how people come to be where they end up and how they take meaning from that.  They all have escaped, in one way or another, from Prospero’s island, only to find themselves, like Viola, washed up on a foreign shore, another island, and having to improvise a new identity to fit a life they never expected to live.

That there is no technological answer to anything in Station Eleven should be no surprise. Mandel’s purposes aren’t there.  She’s not actually rescuing anything.  Nor is she rebuilding.  If anything she’s portraying a kind of evolution.  Start here, with these elements, and run them through those changes.  Where do we end up?

Subsequently she has written a very good novel which happens to be science fiction (as opposed, perhaps, to science fiction which happens to be a good novel) and has laid out a number of intriguing questions for our contemplation.

Shakespeare, for instance, understood irony and tragedy, perhaps from the Greeks who first perfected the form, who built on myths.  What kind of myths might emerge from a tradition based first on Shakespeare?

One of the purposes of stories like this is to dramatize in stark relief something that goes on all the time, namely the replacement of one world with another.  We tend not to experience that way because the changes happen sporadically, cumulatively, resulting in one day appreciating the quaintness of a past that no longer pertains.  But there is no sudden shock of change since the break points are small and myriad and feel “natural.”  Post apocalyptic stories are about that very change, except overnight and all at once.  They all ask the same question, though—if you were washed up on an island, cut off from the world you always knew, what would you wish to find washed up with you?  And what do you think you might be able to rescue from a past you frankly might know very little about, even though you inhabited it as a citizen in good standing?

Of course, while you were fretting about that, life would, as it does, happen, and you would have to deal with it, as always.

Mandel avoids the trap of prescription.  She has no idea how things will turn out.  But she displays a sharp understanding of how people respond to shock.  That and a Shakespearean sense of irony elevates Station Eleven several rungs above the average.

Roundup 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a safe, bookfilled 2015.

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

In recent months I have read two classic novels which, curiously enough, deal with matters of a religious nature.  I’ve decided to review them together for a number of reasons, one of which is both are part of the syllabus for my monthly reading group at Left Bank Books. Another reason for the review now is that I have finally, and not without some reluctance, seen one of the new generation of Biblical epics recently released, Noah, with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly.  There are points of interest in this deeply flawed film which I will touch on after dealing with the novels.

The first novel is James Blish’s superb A Case Of Conscience, published originally in 1953 as a novelette and later expanded to novel-length and published in 1958 (the same year, coincidentally, that Pope John XXIII was elected to his chair).  The questions posed by the story are simple enough even if the answers are nearly impossible: what does Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, have to say about extraterrestrial with regards to the matter of souls? Depending on the proposed answer, what responsibilities does the Christian have toward them? And, finally, what is to be done/considered if such extraterrestrials appear to have no taint of original sin?Case Of Conscience

These questions may seem naïve today, even irrelevant (although not sufficiently so to make a newer take on the matter a more than relevant work, namely Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow), but Blish’s treatment was anything but naïve in that he bound it up with questions of very nondenominational morality and respect.

To begin with, this is a First Contact novel, even though the “contact” has been an established fact for quite some time as the story opens.  That said, contact has barely begun, and that is the anchor for the drama. Because the ability of the two species, human and Lithian, to speak to each other aside, the story is sunk in the problem of cultures and their mutual incomprehension.  Blish is dealing with assumptions based on a telec understanding of the universe.  Because the guiding principles of his faith are telec, Father Ruiz-Sanchez grapples with whether or not to condone further interaction between his people and the Lithians.  In the end, he reacts rather than deliberates and argues for quarantine, stripping the Lithians of any say in the matter and laying bare the flaw in Ruiz-Sanchez’s own stated system of ethics.  Namely, if Ruiz-Sanchez is, as he claims to be, committed to a system devoted to the saving of souls, then shutting out all contact with creatures who may need saving would be fundamentally immoral.  The problem for him is whether the Lithians have souls, since they appear to lack any evidence of having “fallen.”  They live amicably among themselves, show no judgmentalism, solve problems by consensus without struggling against individual venality, do not appear to know what lying is, have no discernible crime, in fact exhibit none of the traits or conditions of being in a state of sin.  It’s as if, rather than being morally and ethically advanced, they in fact have no need to be, since they have none of the cultural dysfunctions requiring advancing along such lines.  To Ruiz-Sanchez, they are born wholly developed in a moral sense.  This, of course, runs counter to his beliefs in the nature of the universe.  Ruiz-Sanchez betrays, usually in subtle ways, a perverse devotion to dysfunction.  For instance, Earth is portrayed as having solved many of its fundamental economic problems and has adopted (by inference) rational systems that seem to promote equity, yet Ruiz-Sanchez feels that such evidence of progress demonstrates a failure because it moves humanity further away from an assumed ideal which may have no basis in reality.  In short, people are living better lives, at least materially, but are abandoning belief systems which have no use for them.  Better, perhaps, that progress never have occurred so that people would need the Church and the beliefs Ruiz-Sanchez feels matter.

It is understandable that the Lithians trouble Ruiz-Sanchez.  Almost everything about them is a rebuke to the way he has always believed things work.  Biologically, there is a complete disconnect with the human system of nuclear families, and by extension both patriarchy and the question of inherited sin. Their very reasonableness is testimony to the fact that such a state of mind and cultural condition not only can exist but does exist.  At one point, in debating with his colleagues over the issue of quarantine, he says “This has been willed where what is willed must be.”  This is from Dante’s Inferno, lines 91 to 93, in which Virgil says to Charon: “Charon, bite back your spleen:/this has been willed where what is willed must be,/ and is not yours to ask what it may mean.”  By this statement, Ruiz-Sanchez seeks to shut down questioning, his own surely but also his colleagues.  In this, he betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Dante, but no matter.  The line is taken as a divine justification.  Lithia, in this view, must exist as it does because it does.  I am that I am, as it were.  For Ruiz-Sanchez this is also his justification for requesting the quarantine.  It would be fatal in two ways for intercourse to continue.  One, primarily, this Eden he thinks he has found will be eventually corrupted by interaction with humanity, for we embody the serpent, after all, which would be a form of blasphemy.  Two, it might well develop that the Lithians’ ability to function as they do will turn out to be no more than an evolutionary inevitability—which would make humanity’s condition equally so.  Ruiz-Sanchez already claims the exemption for humans from evolution that was dominant in theological thought prior to our present day (although not among Jesuits, making Ruiz-Sanchez a bit of a puzzle).  Ruiz-Sanchez is at base terrified that the Lithians are proof that the Church got it wrong.

Ruiz-Sanchez is a puzzle, as I say, because he’s not much of a Jesuit.  Possibly a Dominican.  Blish seems not to have had a very solid grasp of Catholicism, but he was dealing is large symbols here and parsing the vagaries of the multiplicity of protestant sects would muddy his point, perhaps.  His choice of the Society of Jesus makes a rough sense because of their history in the sciences and in exploration.  What is really on display is the breakdown of intellect in the face of the personally unacceptable.

This is apparent in Ruiz-Sanchez’s choice of reading material.  He’s reading Finnegan’s Wake at the beginning, a curious choice, especially for Blish as he had quite vocal problems with the kind of stream-of-conscious narrative Joyce produced in what amounts to a linguist parlor trick that strips away the pretensions of the intellect by questioning the very precepts of language itself.  But it is an inspired choice in this instance.  Ruiz-Sanchez is wrestling with it, trying to make moral sense of it, which is almost impossible.  In this context, Finnegan’s Wake is the universe as it is, and it forces the reader to accept that whatever “sense” comes out of it is of the reader’s own making.  It is a sustained refutation of a telec universe, which is anathema to Ruiz-Sanchez.

The ending of the novel is a famously achieved moral serendipity.  Because Blish kept the narrative inside Ruiz-Sanchez’s head throughout, perception is everything, and that may ultimately be the point of the novel.

Which brings us to the next novel, also a First Contact work albeit one that reverses many of the tropes in Blish.  Octavia Butler’s Dawn is also a story wherein aliens are first encountered and a world is destroyed.  In this case, though, the aliens have found us and the world destroyed is Earth, by our own hand.

In some ways this is an anachronistic novel.  Dawn was published in 1987, a few years before the Soviet Empire came apart.  It is sometimes easy to forget how convinced many people were that a nuclear holocaust was going to put paid to the entire human enterprise.  But no matter, Butler dealt with it as an event in the story’s past and did not dwell on its particulars.  Any extinction event will do.  She was not interested in judging that or examining the why of it, only in what it established for what follows.

The Oankali, one of the more fascinating and successful nonhuman creations in science fiction, found Earth devastated, with few survivors.  As part of their own program of survival/colonization, they rescued these survivors, healed them where possible, and kept them aboard their immense ship for 250 years while the Earth recovered.

DawnLilith Iyapo is Awakened into a situation she cannot deal with, a lone human in a room dealing with aliens that terrify her with their strangeness.  It transpires that they have plans for her, that part of their own program is the reseeding of worlds like Earth with recovered local species and some of their own.  Humanity, she comes to understand, will be Different.  She rejects this again and again, seeing it as a defilement of what it means to be human, even though, relentlessly and with inconceivable patience, the Oankali show her and teach her that it will be, in some ways, better.  Certainly better for the people of Earth, but better for Lilith personally.

She is to be a leader, a teacher.  She becomes part of an Oankali family.  She finally accepts them for what they are, though she never fully understands them or accepts their plans, but over time she takes up the responsibilities immediately in front of her, namely to shepherd reAwakend humans and prepare them for resettlement.

Butler brilliantly folds several biblical motifs into this story.  It is very much a Moses story.  Lilith does become a teacher, she does lead, but she herself, at the end, is not permitted to “cross over into the promised land.”  Her own people do not accept her, see her instead as a race traitor.  She becomes an irredeemable outsider.  This is also a Noah story.  The world has been destroyed, what has been salvaged must be returned to start again, and Lilith is in some ways Noah, head of a human race given a second chance.

But it is also right out of Revelations.  A new heaven and a new Earth and the handful of appointed shall inherit…

Because it is a new heaven for these people, who stubbornly reject the idea that aliens have saved them and that they are on board a ship.  They reject everything Lilith tells them, their minds recoiling at the totality of the new universe.  It would be a new universe for them, one which now includes aliens right there in front of them.

If there is a flaw in the novel, here it is.  Butler created a masterpiece of psychology here, a study of humanity under stress, and her portraits are amazing in their precision and economy.  However, none of them have any of the traits of those who would eagerly welcome the prospect of meeting aliens and living in a new milieu. And certainly there are people like that.  The odds are Lilith should have found at least one or two allies who were well beyond her in acceptance.  Instead, almost all the people she deals with are in this aspect profoundly mundane.  This, however, is a quibble.

Strikingly, for a story so grounded and informed by religious motifs, there is no real mention of anything religious.  It is significant by its absence.  It is as if Butler decided “if you can’t see the symbolism yourself, spelling it out will cause you to miss all the other points in the book.”  One could also read this as a tacit acceptance on the part of all these people that religion failed them and they’re done with it.  Nothing has happened in a fashion they would have been raised to expect.

The Oankali have determined the cause of humanity’s epic failure.  Two traits which combined disastrously, as they explain to Lilith:  exceptional intelligence and a commitment to hierarchical structures.  Hierarchical thinking and the cleverness to build weapons of mass destruction led inevitably to the annihilation of the human race and the poisoning of the planet.  In order to survive, the Oankali tell her, this must be changed, and therefore humans will be changed.  The Oankali are masters of genetic manipulation—their ship itself is a living thing—and they inform her quite clearly that this must be done.  This becomes the point of greatest contention—for Lilith this is a loss of what it means to Be Human, even though clinging to that is what destroyed humanity and nearly the planet itself.  Butler simply puts this out there.  The Oankali explain themselves, Lilith rejects it even as she comes to accept them.  Her experiences trying to teach and lead the first group of newly Awakened survivors would seem to support the Oankali position.  And yet…and yet…

The question of self-determination comes into this throughout.  Sensibly, Butler never actually examines it, only leaves it present as an emotional issue, while she shows the other trait within humans that is significant and necessary—adaptability.  Humans always change under pressure, always have.  This time  the pressure seems less circumstantial and so an opportunity for people to reject the necessity of change can be placed center-stage.

In both novels we see the primacy of moral determination in the face of the unanticipated.  The very nature of the universe is turned upside down and the givens of the past no longer suit.  In the end, circumstance determines far more than we may allow ourselves to admit, and the narratives by which we live must change to allow us to move forward.

Which brings me to the film, Noah.  When this movie came out there was a spasm of objection from certain quarters over its revisionist take on the Biblical tale.  Upon seeing the film, which is in many ways a fairly silly movie, I can see where it would bother a certain mindset, but also how that mindset would blind the viewer to some of the interesting aspects of it that make it not so easily dismissed.

The Creation myth is reduced to its elements, the Fall is handled almost as a fantasy tale, and the aftermath of Cain killing Abel is the real basis of all that follows.  The children of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, become caretakers of the world while the children of Cain build “a great industrial civilization” and set about conquering, killing, and polluting everything.  The story is transformed into an eco-fable, one in which the punishment inflicted is in response to mines, murders, and misuses of the “gifts” of creation.  The Sons of Cain are depicted as warmongering, patriarchal butchers, nascent NRA members, and proto-imperialists. while Noah and his are shown as gentle nurturers, Noah himself much in the Dr. Doolittle vein.  The landscape is a stark contrast between the urban ruin of the Cainites and the meadowy greenscapes in Noah’s care.

An interesting moment occurs, among several “interesting moments,” when the King of the Cainites, Tubal-Cain (which one might feel references surgical birth control, but in fact he is mentioned in Genesis and  credited as being a master metal worker), explains to Noah’s son Ham that he and his people have the same religious mythography, but they believe The Creator adandoned them, turned his back on mankind, and left them to survive and fend for themselves without his help.

Had there been more of this, the film might have achieved some kind of philosophical sophistication, but as it was Aronofsky, in spite of clever touches and good dialogue (and a stunning visual æsthetic), reduced it to a side-bar of the Lord of the Rings.  All the components were there to show how the story might be relevant to the present, and yet the message was muffled in the extravagant imagery and an attempt to extract an ur-myth from the Hebrew iconography.  It’s a better film than many of its critics, on both sides, credit, but it’s failures of reach make it less potent than it might have been.

One thing I found compelling is the portrayal of Noah in the course of building the ark and trying to keep his family together as a man suffering, essentially, PTSD.  He becomes convinced that what the Creator wants is for all humanity to die out and he intends to kill his son’s firstborn should it turn out to be a girl.  Aronofsky folds the story of Abraham and Isaac into this rather neatly and also manages to extract a better lesson—Noah cannot kill the girls (they turn out to be twins) and feels he has failed the Creator.  But his daughter-in-law, played well by Emma Watson, teaches him that it had always been in his hands because why else would the Creator have chosen him to do all this if not that he, Noah, had the ability and the responsibility to decide.  A rather mature lesson to take from all the slaughter grandly depicted.

All three works offer end of the world scenarios of one kind or another and all three portray moral decision-making that ultimately comes down to what humans do with what is in front of them, for their own benefit and for the benefit of others.  All three place that power squarely on human shoulders and suggest, in their various ways, that solutions are never to be found outside ourselves.  And even if such solutions occasionally can be found, it remains for us to do something with the consequences.

Music of the Fears

One of the most powerful yet ineffable experiences we are occasionally granted is the moment when music opens us up and sets our brains afire with the possible.  Music, being abstract in the extreme, is difficult to slot into the kind of “safe” categories to which we relegate much else.  Stories certainly have subtext and can expand our appreciation of the world, but they are still “just” stories and all that mind-altering power can be rendered ineffective by dint of the filters used to shunt it aside.  Paintings and sculptures likewise can be “seen” as purely representational—or ignored when such designation is impossible.  Even when we appreciate what we see or read, the power of taking the work in as merely a reflection of a reality we think we understand can have the result of diverting any real impact.

Not so with music.  Once we open ourselves to the emotional realities of the sounds and let them have their way with our psychés, it becomes difficult if not impossible to shove a piece into a conventional box.  You either take it as it is or ignore it.  A great deal of pop music is written with this fact in mind, that people want to be coddled, “entertained,” and humored—not moved.

Because when music moves us it is not in easily definable ways.  We experience, when we allow it, heady mixtures of emotional responses that have no convenient hole for the pigeon.  We are altered for the time we experience it—sometimes altered for hours or days afterward.  Less often, we are altered for life.  We can, after such an experience, never hear music the same way again, and sometimes life itself becomes different.

Richard Powers understands this as well as it may be possible. In his new novel, Orfeo, he unleashes the revelations music can bring:

Young Peter props up on his elbows, ambushed by a memory from the future. The shuffled half scale gathers mass; it sucks up other melodies into its gravity. Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. At two minutes, a trapdoor opens underneath the boy. The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole. Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hand in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.

Music has that power.   (For an excellent examination of the various effects of music, I recommend Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.)  Music can transform us in the listening.  Occasionally such transformations remain after the music is over.

It was not wrong of people in the 1950s to look askance at rock’n’roll and think it subversive—it was, but in no way that could be detailed.  It was in exactly the same way any new musical form is subversive.  In the same way that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused riots during its premier or Wagner altered the politico-æstehtic personality of an entire people.  Music both seeps in and charges through the front door of our minds and, if we are listening, changes the way we apprehend the world.

In Orfeo, however, Powers gives us a portrait of how music informs a life with its power to rearrange priorities by setting Peter Els on a quest to find the music of life itself.  And in so doing inadvertently make himself the object of a nationwide manhunt as a terrorist.  This unlikely combination would seem absurd, but Powers handles them deftly, with a logic that matches our present world where people going off to do things by themselves for their own arcane reasons can seem threatening and cause for mass public alarm.  The passions that drive Peter Els are both universal and singular and make him the ideal protagonist for what becomes a lifelong quest for an unseizable transcendence.

For he wants simultaneously to be free and to be important.  The two things may well be mutually exclusive, but he is driven to find the essence of what has driven him through a life that, on its face, appears to be a failure.

Powers knows music.  Throughout the novel he exhibits an enviable command of its history and its theory and, most importantly, its effect.  Anyone who has been in the grip of music that has touched the inmost part of us will recognize Peter Els’ obsession.  This is one of the finest prose explorations of that bright nonspace of luminous shadows and delicate splinters of emotion that is the mystery of the musical experience.

Set within a story about the present and all its fears and insubstantial alienations, its cluttered paths of chance and chaos, and the difficulty of being one’s self in the midst of panicked conformism, a time when it may be more important than ever before to acknowledge the possibility of becoming more, of embracing other, of refusing limits imposed out of fear of losing something we may not even have.

Inside Outside: Two Views of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aldiss establishes his premises early:

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

In chapter one he then sets out his operating definition:

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

Contrast this to Atwood’s opening stab at definitions:

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

Then later, this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back to the ghetto.

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

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

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

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

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

Science fiction dramatically reverses this relationship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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