2018 and Reading Lists

I saw a great many lists in social media this past year. “One Hundred Books to Read Before You Die,” “Only a Genius Has Read 10 of These,” “The Best SF Books Ever.” Clickbait, certainly, but some of them were amusing and even added some titles to my Must Find list.

By and large, such things are amusing at best, rarely instructional, and often mind-numbingly dumb. Especially those derived from on-line polls, where instead  A Book, whole series end up included, and no one is vetting for obvious errors.  (Shakespeare did not write novels.) Not to say lists aren’t useful. One was published—as a real paper book—this year that I find really interesting.  1000 Books To Read Before You Die, by James Mustich. Part of a series of books with the same general idea. What sets this apart is that the books included really are remarkable and the list comes with excellent precis and commentary about why you should read them, plus ancillary articles on the authors and their other work. In other words, this would be a good text to use to create course work for literature. (Before you ask, I’ve read around 250 of them.  There are many I’ve never even heard of. Anyone working their way through this would be very well read by the end.)

All this prompted me to wonder—again—why we read in the first place. Harold Bloom has probably addressed this question as much if not more than anyone else and he warned that we should never presume to read for Self Improvement (at least not in a moral sense) mainly because, I assume, we can point to some rather well-versed monsters who clearly benefited not at all from extensive reading. But then he will argue that self-improvement is one of the chief by-products of deep reading. He sees it as a side-effect, though, because—again, I assume—you have to develop to a certain degree before you can decode what books offer. To me, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question because the two go along in lockstep so often.

But self-improvement comes to people who rarely read and others who read widely and extensively and find no lessons or edification in it and in the end I suppose it’s what you read as much as how well you read it.

As a practical note, since this has come to my attention as a Real Thing, no one—no one—should presume to be a writer unless they love reading and do a lot of it. I’ve encountered several people with pretensions to write novels who never read anything. Firstly, what motivates them if they don’t like books? Fame? Money? Secondly, they have no grasp of the mechanics, much less the purpose, of writing a novel. I have seen the attempts. They do not get it. At all. But arrogantly assume it’s no big deal. This wouldn’t be a problem but for the ease of self-publishing. Before you think to commit something to paper (or electrons) find out what it is you’re attempting. Read, lest you inflict on others your vacuous incapacity for empathy, art, meaning….or, I assume, the hard work.

Mr. Bloom aside, I do believe deep, regular, and diverse reading improves. The exposure to ideas alone has an effect. Reading requires that we open parts of ourselves to new understandings. There have been numerous studies to indicate that the capacity for empathy alone is enlarged through engagement with characters not of our own group and being vulnerable to change is certainly an aspect of engagement.

I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember.  Books have simply always been there. I can’t imagine a world without them could possibly be worth living in. If that’s a species of chauvinism, so be it.

2018 was a good year for self-improvement, if any was to be had.

I became acquainted for the first time with MFK Fisher. I’ve known of her for decades, but I don’t read food writing. She was more than that and in the course of researching a novel, I read her Map of Another Town, which is about her time in Provençe in the mid-20th Century. Loving portraits of two towns, one of them Aix-en-Provençe, which was the town I wanted to research. Other than a sense of atmosphere and smidgen of history, it did not give me what I wanted, but perhaps what I needed. She was a fine, fine writer, and I recommend it.

As well, in the same vein, I read Maria Fairweather’s biography of Madame De Staël, which, along with the much older Herrold biography, gave me pretty much all I needed in terms of when and where and with whom.

Memoir is another genre I do not read often, but I found a delightful one.  Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey. It recounts the author’s year when his father audited his course on Homer’s work. Moving, thorough, with some surprise revelations about Homer as well as the frustrations of paths not chosen.

This was also a year for reading things I should have read decades ago. In this case, That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis. Ostensibly the third volume of his so-called Space Trilogy, which began with Out of the Silent Planet (recommended unreservedly) and continued with Perelandra (cannot recommend). I kept bouncing off this third volume, probably because I’d had such a disappointing experience with the second, but I sat myself down this year and plowed through. I’m glad I did. The book is about the struggle between genuine progress and sham progress and how, because the latter can look so appealing, we hand over our moral capacity to people who have no comprehension of what it means to be humanly caring. There are some marvelous scenes in it, and although I didn’t find the underlying True King stuff to my taste (as with much of Lewis, he tried to make everything about the Return of some pure King ala Christ) it was a fine examination of how we lose things without knowing why.

Others in the vein were all rereads. I reread Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, and Pat Cadigan’a Dirty Work. I do not reread, mainly because I read slowly and I have so much to yet read that taking the time to reread seems…

Well, I’m wrong about that.  I don’t know if it’s going to change, but I read Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugo Awards, which is wonderful, a great trip through a history of science fiction that I recall a good part of as a series of encounters with new books. This really is worth a read, because she not only goes over the books that made the ballot (including the Nebula ballot, when that began) but discusses what else was published at the time that might have made the lists instead. It’s surprising and informative and a pleasure, but the talk about how many times she and others reread a given book made me squirm rather self-consciously.

But this reading out loud thing we’ve embarked on has been a joy. We have indulged primarily in Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries series and have dramatized our way through all but two of them now. They are fun, a bit daring, well-researched, and easy to read aloud—unless you’re trying to do the accents properly, which is impossible but I try. Set in Australia in the 1920s, Miss Phryne Fisher is a very modern woman with a knack for solving crimes. We saw the tv series first, which is a delight of adaptation.

One set of books I wish we had done this way is Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, published in four brief volumes by Tor.com. They are told from the viewpoint of a security robot/cyborg who/that has hacked its own governor module. It is independent, can make its own decisions. What does it do? Downloads entertainment media to watch. Of course, it gets drawn into protecting a group of humans which leads into investigating corporate malfeasance which leads into more nasty stuff, which is all an annoying distraction from its programs. These are terrific and I was sorry to put the last one down.

In my humble opinion we are possibly in the midst of a new vitality in science fiction. I’m seeing fantasy writers suddenly turning out SF—and very good SF—a reverse of the situation for the last few decades.  Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut novels, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky are excellent. Good SF, a great central character, an alternate history scenario that makes perfect sense, and done with rigor and humor to leaven the grim main storyline.

My friend Daryl Gregory published Spoonbenders last year and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone looking for the indefinable. I’ve been telling people that it’s a combination of the X-Files and The Sting. Daryl writes humor with the best of them, which can be especially effective nestled within a serious plot.

Other speculative fiction delights:  Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (one of the better locked-room mysteries, nested within a fascinating SFnal conceit); The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin’s tour-de-force which kicked off a few years of drama within the SF/F community; The Strange Bird by Jeff Vandermeer; Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor; and the short but affecting Time Was by Ian McDonald.

One of the best SF novels I had the immense pleasure of reading was John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other, which is an examination of utopic constructs. Set on the moon, it follows the vicissitudes of a feminist enclave vying for independence on a believably fraught luna colonized by a number of competing systems. The social and personal dynamics are complex and delicately portrayed. I thought it one of the finest novels of its kind I’ve ever read.

Not science fiction per se but inescapably SFnal was Alec Nevala-Lee’s excellent biography of John W. Campbell Jr. Astounding. For anyone wishing to understand the formative years of this thing called science fiction (and here I mean what we mean when we point at something—say, Star Trek or Arrival—and say the words, not the academically problematic ur texts that might establish prior examples and possible launch points), this is a must-read. Many myths and legends surround this man, this magazine, these writers, and Nevala-Lee does a surpassing fine job of revealing the facts and placing all these people in context.

I also read, for the first time, Malka Older’s Infomocracy.  I will read the rest of the trilogy based on this novel, which is a page-turning political exegesis on alternative democratic systems and their possible pitfalls.

Finally, Charlie Jane Ander’s forthcoming The City In The Middle of the Night. Excellent. It releases in February.  This is a major novel by a major talent. I’ll do a fuller review later.

A smattering of other SF works:

Netherspace by Lane & Foster; The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith; Tomorrow by Damian Dibben; The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp; The Million by Karl Schroeder; Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele; Noumenon by Marina Lostetter.  All recommended.

I read Charles C. Mann’s Wizard and Prophet, which is a science biography of Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, the two men who pretty much defined the conflict between two schools of thought about environment and sustainability in the 20th Century. Borlaug was the developer of super grains, applying technological approaches to increased yields to feed more people, while Vogt was an ardent believer in austerity and cutting back and reducing populations. What might have been achieved had these two men somehow found it possible to work together we will never know. Vogt identified Borlaug as an enemy almost from the minute they met and history has been as it is.

Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is a weighty argument on behalf of the Enlightenment as a foundation for going forward. It is a hopeful book, anodyne for the fraught political times in which we live, if a bit more optimistic than might be creditable. Set it against Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography and realities balance the optimism.

I’m finding a forceful new set of voices in support of scientific rationalism and a concern over facts muscling its way back onto the main stage of public discourse. We have labored in a soup of vacuous postmodern hand-waving for the last four decades so that now the very moral relativism decried by the Right as liberal softheadedness is now used by the Right to claim victory against Reason and Progress. Perhaps this move from fantasy back to science fiction is an indicator that people are growing tired of mystical pabulum and want something concrete to hold onto.

Maybe.

In any case,  these are some of the books that caught my attention this year. We’ll see what 2019 brings.

 

 

 

 

The Bother of Voices and Love’s Trials

Telepathy. One of the several traditional tropes of science fiction.  The 19th Century saw stories featuring psychic powers, including some mind-reading, and the idea marched along into the 20th Century and even gained a brief bit of potential legitimacy with the work of Joseph Banks Rhine who attempted to substantiate claims of second sight, mental communication, and so forth and set the template for “scientific” study of suspected mental powers.

While his methodology ultimately proved flawed and the research became tainted, the idea never faded from science fiction (and even informed some very real Cold War research) and marched forward to the present.

Connie Willis has now entered the lists with Crosstalk. Briddey Flannigan works for Commspan, a phone company that sees itself in direct competition with Apple. They are sweating the new roll-out of a phone they have yet to develop. Sweating it because Apple is about to roll their new iPhone out and it may mean the end of Commspan.

While this high-tension, company-wide migraine headache is developing, Briddey falls in love with Trent Worth, one of the senior staff on the development team. He has convinced her to get an EED, surgery that somehow allows two people to sense directly their emotional commitment to each other.

The problem for Briddey is that she wants to keep it a secret—from her coworkers, certainly, but mainly from her family, which is comprised of some of the most meddlesome people in fiction, from Aunt Oona with her obsession with Ireland and matchmaking all the younger women to “foine Irish lads,” to Maeve, the youngest, who is meddlesome only insofar as she wants to keep her hyperalert obsessive mother out of her life.

Running around trying to get done what the two lovers want to get done without anyone knowing about it drives the first third of the book. Her family suspects and tries to talk her out of even thinking about it. One coworker, software engineer and resident eccentric C. B. Schwarz, also tries to warn her off of having the procedure, and his is the most bizarre intervention—until later, when the full set of ramifications become clear.

This is trademark Willis screwball comedy.  She has been working this field successfully for decades and she can be very, very good at it.

Now enters the questions of personal taste that bedevil any reviewer.  I have almost without exception loved everything I have ever read by Willis. I found Crosstalk difficult to enjoy.

To begin with, it depends on a premise I have never found enjoyable, that of the unspoken or unaccepted truth—that someone wishes to be left alone. Briddey knows her family so well, she knows exactly how they will react and cannot abide it, and yet she will not tell them. Will not set boundaries, will not hang up, will not, after presumably years of this, explain herself. I have never found it convincing, the argument that This Is Family, You Can’t Do That.  Nonsense. With family it should not only be doable, it may be a requirement for it to remain a family. The same with her coworkers, who have even less right to know private things about than her family presumes, and yet her chief mode of coping is avoidance rather than a firm statement.

This is common in popular fiction.  Most sitcoms could not exist without it.  The inability of human beings to tell each other what they want, what they will tolerate, what they intend is the font from which a wealth of bad-joke, strained humor, idiot plotting flows. While it is true there are people who fall into this kind of behavior, in real life it is not funny, and can lead to tragedy.  It is also threadbare.

So why would someone as reliably brilliant as Connie Willis employ it?

Well, she is making a point about communications. Communications overload, information saturation, and the problems of ever more easy access to each other. “Getting away from it all” is becoming a grail quest in an ever more harried and detail rich world that seems obsessed with providing more of the same. I remember the speech from Inherit The Wind where Henry Drummond tells the jury “progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says ‘Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.'”  Briddey and Trent work for a telecommunications company that is trying to bind people ever closer together and make it less likely to be “out of touch.”

Meanwhile C. B. Schwarz, down in the basement of the corporation, wants to introduce apps to their phones that will reestablish distance. Call interrupts, voluntary blackouts, and other things that will make it harder for people to call each other.

In Briddey’s family poor Maeve is tormented by a mother who wants ever more access to the private world of her daughter because she’s convinced the child is developing in some horrible, unnatural way, which drives Maeve crazy and prompts her to be creative in her methods for blocking her mother.

On all sides, Briddey is hemmed in by examples of ungoverned communications access.

So why would she for a minute consider having an operation, no matter how benign, that will give Trent the kind of access that seems the antithesis of what she would prefer in her life so far?

Trent is smooth, handsome, everyone thinks he’s a great catch (except Briddey’s Aunt Oona), and she falls for him hard. Perhaps she believes that with him there will be refuge from all the rest. (There is a moment when she fantasizes about shutting the door in the faces of her meddling family to be alone with her husband.)

And there is C. B. Schwarz relentlessly telling her that the operation is a bad idea.

Naturally, there are complications. What was supposed to be an enhanced empathic connection blossoms into full-blown telepathy.  Only it’s not Trent with whom she is communicating but C. B.

In classic screwball style, this becomes a massive juggling act to keep all the parties in separate boxes until reality can be sorted out.

Which leads to my second problem with the premise.  Telepathy.

As portrayed here, this is not even a subtle form, but the old idea of conversational telepathy, where it is reduced to speech, only without the need of vocal chords or even proximity.  For Briddey, it’s one more set of intrusions, only this time she can’t even close the door on them, at least not at first.

To save this from the clichéd, Willis introduces corporate nastiness of a particularly cold-blooded kind. She is continuing to make a larger point with it and I will not spoil it here. Along the way, though, she trots out a number of theories about telepathy and disassembles them adroitly, even hauling Dr. Rhine out for a renewed drubbing. The bottom line, though, is that the necessary safeguards to maintain sanity require a level of screening that make telepathy all but useless—except for the purposes of dramatizing how Too Much can be made even worse.  (We are after all playing with direct interface with computers, which could arguably lead to a kind of telepathy, though that’s not what it’s being developed for.)

The problem with telepathy is the same one with telekinesis:  cool idea, but what good is it from an evolutionary standpoint?  It would, in fact, be a burden to survival in that it would be the worst kind of distraction.  As for telekinesis, why would we evolve muscle and bone capable of moving things if we could do it with our brains? Well, in fact, we do move things with our brains, by sending instructions to our bodies. That was the route evolution took, not the one where some latent supermind ability developed unknown to its owners just waiting for a modern era wherein exhibiting such abilities would not automatically get one killed by the frightened people without it.

But even if we posit an ability to read minds, what kind of Sapir-Whorf contortion do we have to make to assume it would use language instead of whole-package data-dumps?

(In fairness, Willis does give us more of that as the story progresses, but there is still a certain formality to it all, constrained by the need to have bodies in a room speaking to each other, even in a supposedly self-created mental space.)

But of course, that would not serve the purposes of the romantic comedy Willis has given us.  And it is.  A romantic comedy.

I am not the audience for this novel. Having said that, however, I can stand back and appreciate the masterful juggling going on here. Willis is telling us about the ramifications and pitfalls of too much communications.  In a world where technologies to enhance communication are extremely marketable, a bit of caution regarding how much we want and with whom is not amiss. And even an ability to read minds would not guarantee safety from the intentions of some of those minds.

 

Below Dragons, There Be

Empire City suffers under circumstance unprecedented in history.

Or does it?

Depending on how one takes one’s metaphors, it may be that the pair of dragons, which rose one day out of the sea to take up a circling position above the metropolis, occasionally spitting fire down at random targets, is just another form of an old problem, one going back to Ur or Sodom and Gomorrah or Rome or London or Sarajevo, each in their own way suffering calamity that subsequently defined them.  Dragons come in many forms—earthquakes, vulcanism, sacking, a blitz, snipers. As buildings burn, collapse, streets are torn up, and safety becomes a once-long-ago idea, what the people in those cities do determines whether the city survives or fades into myth.

Individuals are often remembered. Gilgamesh, Lot, Nero, Churchill—

Duncan Ripple, Swanny Dahlberg, Abby.

Who?

One day in the future, they will be remembered as the heroes of Empire City. They, the last of Late Capitalism’s Royalty, who forged an alliance that saw the end of the terrible reign of the dragons. Two of them scions of great families who did not flee their tormented city even after fifty years of fire and death, one a girl out of Nowhere who found and met her destiny as a dragonslayer. Because of their selfless efforts, Empire City could be reborn.

If this sounds unlikely, hagiographic hype, well, it is.  And yet, reading Chandler Klang Smith’s novel, The Sky Is Yours, one wonders at all those other epic personalities to whom we attribute greatness. Some we know well whether or not they deserved their reputations (and even how mixed said reputation may be) while others are sketches, idolons of the past, forms into which we pour the substance of our own aspirations toward greatness. The realities may have been just as epically different.

Duncan Ripple, a former reality tv star (his childhood up through adolescence), as a consequence of which carrying a bloated sense of his own greatness, has reached majority and is on his way to meet his future bride, Swanny. Swanny has spent most of her life being groomed by her mother, whose shark’s instincts, business savvy, and stainless steel sense of purpose focus all her considerable powers for just this event, which will bind two of the largest family concerns together. Swanny, however, is a devoted Romantic, her ideas about marriage drawn from countless over-the-top and somewhat purplish novels. She is also dying from a genetic disorder, one symptom of which is teeth that never stop coming in (hence the need for an on-staff dentist).

Dunk, as he styles himself, is flying to the Dahlberg Estate to commence the process, paying no attention to anything but himself (as usual), and runs into the sweeping tail of one of the dragons.  His HowFly tries with programmed valor to save itself (and him) but ends up crashing into the island of refuse outside Empire City where lives Abby, the Girl, brought there by The Lady years before to escape what the Lady called People Machines, to raise Abby (who does not actually know her real name) apart from all the artifice and decay of the ancient metropolis. Abby is an Innocent when Dunk slams into her island. She rescues him, nurses him back to life, and then provides him with the first real sexual experience of his to-date superficial, televised, and facile existence. She becomes a surreal Enkidu to his decidedly problematic Gilgamesh.

When Dunk is rescued by his uncle, a wheel-chair-bound sybarite who almost made history by attempting to kill the dragons (who nearly killed him), he drags Abby back with him where ensues the opening rounds of disruption about his Destiny, Fate, personal ambition, desire, and all the miscalculations endemic to Planned Futures. The meeting with his intended goes badly, the families end up in stressed relations, and the marriage may (or may not) be off.

Except Swanny does marry Dunk, although Dunk has no intention of actually giving up Abby, who the rest of the family intends to send off to an asylum.

Then things go very strange.

There is ample plot to satisfy any desire for the delight of improbable twists, and the situations evolve into life lessons, the world (the city, at least) is brought closer to the brink. This is a detailed portrait of how things simply will not hold without a center, especially after a point of no return is reached, and the pathos of those who still hope that things can be turned around. The landscape is entropic in the extreme, locked in a moment of tumble, and the characters flail about for anchors that will not remain in place.

Klang Smith shows herself to be a masterful juggler.  There should be no way for all the components at play here to cohere, and yet they do.  They do with a surprising and pleasurable grace and at times the writing is nearing transcendence.  This is allegory, metaphor, and potboiler mingled artfully to make an elegant mockery of expectation and resolution. Who these people are and who they become as they spin around each other just as the dragons circle overhead suggests, finally, that superficiality requires substance to survive, and that try as some might to remain shallow, depths are there to fall into whether we like it or not.

Dunk’s reality show was called Late Capitalism’s Royalty and there is much here that does not even attempt to be subtle about the economics of greed, the consequences of avarice, and the futility of treating systems like religion. Empire City is a place in constant economic collapse.  The dragons can be seen to represent the inevitability of forces beyond the Market to disrupt, depress, or destroy any attempt to enforce the conformity of Success.

It is Abby finally who brings the whole into focus and elevates the entire thing above the level of mere dystopic indulgence.  Abby, trash-heap naif, loyal, speaker to animals, honest sensualist, who only wants to know where she came from and what her name really is, who represents the human spirit unafraid to go where love takes it.  Others try, begin to overcome the expectations of their upbringing, make the attempt at enlightenment, heroism, freedom.  Abby simply is.

Klang Smith has taken the trappings of what has become the standard æsthetic of dystopian novels and added enough satire, insight, and possibility to the mix to make the book less about starting over and more about genuine rebirth.  Weird, funny, gruesome, a collapsing wavefront of chaos harnessed finally by an inevitability that leaves us options.  The Sky May Well Be Ours.

2017

Looking at my list, I read, cover-to-cover, 51 books in 2017. That doesn’t seem like much to me, but knowing there are people, even people I know, who haven’t read one book in that time, it’s probably in the top something-or-other of national averages. At 63, I’m not sure I care anymore. It never was about quantity, as I’ve told myself time and again, but there are so many good books and I want to read them all!

We have engaged another study group this year. Rousseau. When we agreed to join, we thought we were doing just one of his works, his Second Discourse on Inequality. Come to find out, our guiding light wants to cover all the major Rousseau. Next up is Emile. I haven’t read Emile since high school. I remember little about it, other than it served to enrich a later reading of C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen. Very well. Rousseau it is.

But in 2017, I felt torn between two kinds of reading. Reading to escape—because, really, look at the world—and reading to understand how to deal with reality.

A third category was the books for my science fiction group at Left Bank Books. Twelve titles, mostly selected by me, but voted on now by the whole group. My intention in this group is to read a mix of new(wish) and classic. This year we’ll be doing our first nonfiction title.

It’s given me a chance to reread some of my favorites. In almost every instance, I’ve found a practically new novel. For instance, Delany’s Trouble On Triton. I no longer recall clearly how I felt about it when I read it back in the Seventies, but this time through it was fascinating in that Delany opted to tell the story through the eyes of a person incapable of any kind of satisfaction in what in many ways is practically a paradise (never mind the little war going on). He wrote it as a kind of response to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and it works quite well as that, flipping the relationship on its head at almost every point. Bron Helstrom is not a misunderstood everyman in a society unwilling to accommodate his uniqueness. Rather, he is a perpetually ill-fitting square peg that refuses, constitutionally, to be accommodated, even by a society that has no qualms trying to help him “fit.”

We also read Joan Vinge’s magisterial Snow Queen. I confess this was the first time I managed to get all the way through. While some of it is a bit dated, I found it a magnificent piece of world-building.

Then there was Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee.  On the surface, this is an intense military SF novel, but it works with religious motifs, time and calendars, and the whole notion of long games and ghosts. The details of the world-building are impressive and the motivations for the conflicts are unusual to say the least. There is an element of Mayan cosmology buried beneath the surface, transformed into the kind of Otherness that gives the best science fiction its appeal.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer is an odd novel. Compared to some of his work, which I find utterly unclassifiable (in the best sense), Borne is much more accessible, even though it presents as bizarre a world as any Vandermeer has ever offered. I came to the conclusion that this is a take on Alice Through The Looking Glass, done with an utterly different set of cultural expectations.

We read Keith Roberts’ Pavane, Chabon’s  The Yiddish Policeman’s Union Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, Use Of Weapons b y Iain M. Banks, Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, all of which generated excellent discussion.

Along with the other newer SF I read this past year, I conclude that the genre has never been healthier, more fascinating and inventive. The quality of imagination and craft have combined to produce some of the best work ever done.

Likewise in science writing, as exemplified by Carlo Rovelli, whose Reality Is Not What It Seems impressed me with its clarity and concision. (I’d been wondering what happened to string theory the last few years and this book told me.)

The Book That Changed America by Randall Fuller is more history than science. It details the initial encounter with Darwin in America and examines its impact. Both its initial welcome by people who saw in it a sound argument against slavery and then its later rejection as the assault on biblical fealty it became.

Sidharta Mukerjee’s The Gene is likewise marvelously accessible, a history and examination of the Thing That Makes Us Us.

In the same vein, but much more exhaustive in its historicity, was David Wooton’s The Invention of Science, a chronicle of how science came into being. He demonstrates that it was not the revelation popular myth suggests, but a long accumulation of understandings that depended utterly on the social context in which they emerged. (For instance, we have no science as practice without the printing press.) Reviewing first appearances of words and concepts, the book shows how culture had to change before the possibility of the modern concept of science could even begin to take hold. Just realizing that prior to Columbus there was no common understanding of the concept of “discovery.”

Just as enlightening were Charles C. Mann’s pair of New World histories, 1491 and  1493, which combined tear away most of the preconceptions about the world Europe destroyed when it crossed the Atlantic.

I read some excellent novels outside genre—Jacqueline Winspear’s well done Maisy Dobbs series (three of them), The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler, Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, the first Miss Fisher mystery, and travel writer William Least Heat-Moon’s first foray into fiction, Celestial Mechanics. But primarily, I read nonfiction and SF.  It was that kind of a year.

As a bookseller, I noticed a sharp rise in the purchase of science books. Overall book sales were generally higher than in past years.  People are reading things which seem to offer a more solid grasp of reality. Perhaps this is in reaction to the state of the world or just the state of the country.  People seem to want To Know, in very concrete ways, if their selections are indicative. I see less escapism, and when I do see it, it is not the sort that would leave the psyché unchanged.

I already have half a dozen titles read for this year. It will be interesting to see how all this evolves by December.

Good reading to you all.

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 essentially 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 that those two worlds (never 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 polar opposites of each other, fail to “get” them, and their attempts to “correct” what they see as bad trends or unhealthy characteristics in their children 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 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 to save 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 satisfying 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 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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