2022

I have been remiss in not doing these annual reviews more regularly. I have no excuse. Other words get in the way sometimes. 

But this, one year into my “official” retirement, I have no excuse not to do. So.

I read, cover-to-cover, 89 books in 2022. Compared to 48 in 2021. I try to make it through 70 to 80 a year, but some years…well. A handful in ’21 were doorstops, but really, I have no excuse for not getting through the nearly 100 books I read only partly. 

Of the 89 this past year, 40 were some species of science fiction. That’s up in percentage from the past few years. A handful were rereads, like Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Neveryon, Heinlein’s Space Cadet, Laumer and Dickson’s Planet Run, Greg Bear’s Heads. As I’ve noted before, I rarely reread. I read slowly, compared to some, and I have too many books on my TBR pile to choose to go over something I’ve already been through. This past year, I’m finding that to be a mistake.  (I started this a few years back with Charles Dickens. I’d read most of his work in high school, came away hating it, and deciding that I needed to revisit that impression. It has been…instructive.) 

Planet Run by Keith Laumer and Gordon R. Dickson is an anomaly for me. It’s what a friend of mine calls a “shitkicker”—and adventure with not much else going for it but the adrenaline. A crusty old spacer is hauled out of retirement to participate in the planetary equivalent of the Oklahoma Land Rush. He’s seasoned, wizened, world-weary, but gets saddled with the wet-behind-the-ears son of the politician who has blackmailed him into doing this. Bad guys abound, betrayal happens, it would have made an excellent Bruce Willis film anytime in the past 20 years. I read it first at 13 and there is something about it that just does it for me. I’ve read it four or five times since and it is always fun. Nothing deep, nothing timeless (or maybe there is), nothing one couldn’t find in a good Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour (it is basically a western). But it still makes me smile. It is one of the few books I loved as a kid that does not make me cringe to read now.

The Bear…well, Greg Bear passed away November 19th, 2022, from complications from heart surgery. I still have a few unread Bear novels on my shelf, but I read his Queen of Angels for the first time and realized that there are 5 books in that universe, including Heads, which proved to be as wickedly clever this time as the first time. The jabs at Scientology are impossible to miss, but it’s not satire. Queen of Angels was fascinating and a book one wonders if it would be  fêted today. It hues close to a few stereotypes that, while I felt he subverted, might nevertheless be read as problematic today. At its heart are questions of nurture vs nature psychology and the costs of potential intervention—therapy of a more intrusive type.

Of the SF read for the first time, then, right off the top was Gregory Benford’s Shadows of Eternity, which produced a curiously nostalgic reaction for me. Benford “borrowed” an alien species from Poul Anderson and wrote a very different sort of first contact novel that took me aesthetically right back to the Eighties, even as the approach to character and extrapolations of technology are very much of the moment.

I heartily recommend Stina Leicht’s Persephone Station, first in a series (?) that gives as an all-female crew (and supporting cast) in another “shitkicker” that has no lack of adrenaline and ample speculation involving corporations and indigenous rights and a neat Magnificent Seven riff. 

Andy Weir’s Artemis could have come from an outline left behind by Heinlein. Enormous fun, set entirely on the moon, action, problem-solving, and—again—corporate shenanigans. 

I read Ken McLeod’s trilogy beginning with Cosmonaut Keep, continuing with Dark Light and Engine City, which is a large-scale space opera somewhat in the mode of Iain M. Banks an involving interspecies intrigue, vast machinations, and ending on an ambivalent note where what problems have been plaguing the characters seem to be solved but not exactly resolved. He handles the whole time dilation question rather well and manages to tell family sagas and personal relationships against the background of centuries.  (It’s tricky to do these kinds of sagas which center on families without it becoming A Family Saga, with all the kind of homey baking bread sentimentality one usually encounters.)

I want to make special note of Nicola Griffith’s Spear, which is a compact and compelling retelling of the Arthurian—or, rather, the Percival legend—done from an unexpected point of view. Firstly, the writing is, as we expect from Griffith, first-rate. Secondly, she delivers a feminist twist which is only that in retrospect. As always, the story comes first. But story and character are bound up in the double helix of narrative. Griffith is doing some of the best history-based fiction around. The sequel to Hild is coming out soon and we should be prepared for a treat. 

Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace is the sequel to her marvelously complex debut, A Memory Called Empire. It picks up where the first left off and enriches the universe she has built, quite well. This is the kind of immersive world-building long-valued in SF/F, particularly effective because of the juxtaposition of cultures which throws the aspects of each into relief. Martine’s main character is herself something of an outsider, groping for Place in a milieu of which she has too little experience. 

Another epic work in SF I think very important is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry For The Future. This is in many ways not a science fiction novel—in fact, it could be argued that a good chunk of it is textbook—but it is speculative, in that none of the specific events detailed have happened but the world is very much ours. It presents a scenario in which the world finally tackles climate change. In that so many things work and come together to positive effect I suppose render the novel SF, but…

Becky Chambers’ new series, Monk and Robot, continues with A Prayer for the Crown Shy, part of the tor.com series of novellas. All I can say is that Chambers is one of my favorites authors. She writes about community is ways I find remarkable and refreshing in science fiction. 

Two novels about radically altered futures I found compelling. Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star, which is reminiscent (in structure) of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s  The Unraveling. Both novels offer views of future social arrangements quite removed from our own and both present backgrounds of unexpected breadth. The writing in both is amazing and the ideas will linger.

To my great pleasure, John Crowley published a new one, Flint and Mirror, which indulges his penchant for presenting magic as a potential more than a reality and offering a view on the borderlands. This one is a historical, about the Irish Problem at the time of Elizabeth I. Unexpected. 

I continued with Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisy Dobbs series. I haven’t decided yet whether she’s doing history with embedded mystery or the reverse, but the novels have been tracking Miss Dobbs chronologically as the world heads for WWII. The last two so far, war is upon Britain and Maisy finds herself doing more security work than private investigation. We have grown up with these people now, so to speak, and the world Winspear is investigating is marvelously evoked.

Not intending to, really, but I did  a partial reread of the Ian Fleming James Bond novels. I indulged in a marathon review of the movies and wrote commentary and decided some comparison to the original novels and stories was in order. I was surprised both by how well-written many of them were and at the same time how shallow. I recall as a teenager plowing through them with relish. This time it was an academic review that yielded a few surprises, but on the whole I came away feeling I never have to look at them again.

I read Emily St. John Mandel’s new one, Sea of Tranquility. Whatever she might say, this is straight up science fiction, with time travel and an apparent time paradox. Given another fifty pages, she might have made it a very good SF novel. As it stands, it was enjoyable but derivative and relied too much on the good will of the reader. It was reminiscent of several older works by SF writers, most especially Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories. My best guess is, her point is to suggest that we all live in closed loops. (She might try to remember next time that gravity is different in other places and that someone who grew up on the moon might have a very difficult time standing up on Earth. Such details, which may seem fussy to literary writers, can make or break a narrative in science fiction.)

I finally read a Paul J. McAuley trilogy I had been meaning to for years, starting with Child of the River. In many ways it reminded of Gene Wolfe’s magisterial Book of the New Sun. Out in the hinterlands of galactic space, an artificial world with a long history that has evolved into a mythic background and a kind of avatar of a past race come to fulfill, etc etc. The adventures and worldbuilding are exceptional, but it ended with the feeling that another book would have been in order to satisfactorily wrap things up.

One last SF recommendation is Annalee Newitz’s new one, Terraformers, which draws on her strengths in anthropology and ecology and tells the story of the denizens of a world that has been remade by a corporation intending to lease it out to rich vacationers. The beings who did the actual work, however, presumably designed to die off when their utility is at an end, are still there and a struggle begins to claim rights. High finance, environmentalism, indigenous issues, and all the related politics combine in a rich, fascinating novel of generational evolution.

I’ve been dipping back into the past and catching up, filling in gaps. A couple of Clifford Simak novels, a reread of Ian Wallace’s Croyd (which is remarkably weird), early Le Guin (Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile), and….

David Copperfield. Yes, the Dickens. I read this one aloud to my partner and came away with a modified view of Dickens. At least in this novel, what to a modern sensibilty comes across as verbosity, is actually very careful scene-setting and social explication. The 19th Century did not offer  movies and the stage was not universally available. I found very little that might be excised from the narrative. It all mattered.

I read Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley, which is a heavy history of the 1930s, from the onset of the Depression to the start of World War II. Brendon takes a global view and examines each major political aspect—America, Europe, Britain, Asia—and gives a narrative of the runaway cart that took the globe to war. The parallels to the present are clear, but also deceptive. Yes, there are movements and conditions, but the failure of solutions then should not be taken as inevitabilities now.

I read Walter Isaacson’s Code Breaker, the biography/history of Jennifer Doudna, the geneticist who has given us CRISPR and whose work was part of the technological foundation thst produce the COVID vaccine is apparently record time. Isaacson, as usual, does an excellent job of making the science accessible. The people, though, shine in this lucid view of modern science.

As is my usual habit, I read some odd bits of history. For my writing, I rarely do project-specific research. Instead, I cast a wide net and gather a variety of details until suddenly they become useful. To that end, I read the following: The Future of the Past by Alexander Stille; There Are Places In The World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli; Utopia Drive by Erik Reece; Freethinkers and Strange Gods by Susan Jacoby; A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; Worldly Goods by Lisa Jardine; Beyond Measure by James Vincent.

And the rather impressive History of Philosophy by A.C. Grayling. 

I can recommend all of the above whole-heartedly. 

I also read Sherlockian novels that surprised me. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, him, the former basketball player) is a serious Sherlockian and did two novels centered on Mycroft. I recommend them. Sherlock is in them, of course, but not yet out of university. They are surprisingly good. Or perhaps not so surprising, Maybe the word is uniquely good. There have been pastiches and homages to Holmes and most of them are forgettable if enjoyable. These two I feel contribute meaningfully to the mythos.

Along those lines, the Victorian Age has become almost a genre in itself, and I read my first Langdon St. Ives book by James Blaylock. I’m still unsure what to make of it, but I was impressed. We shall see if I continue the series.

There are a number I have left out. Not that they were bad, but I’m not sure what to say about them here. I discovered some new-to-me authors that I recommend—Sarah Gailey, Daniel Marcus, Nadia Afifi. 

I finally read a classic I had long avoided. High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it. In many ways it is an ugly story. Children captured by pirates, who turn out to be quite not what anyone would expect. It seems to me to be a study of what happens when childhood fantasy collides with the fantasized reality. In that way, it is well done and evocative.  What it says about human nature and the condition of childhood is complex and layered.

I may have further thoughts later. For now, this review has gone on long enough.

I’m looking forward yo 2023.

Good reading to you all.

Of Time and Depths of Contemplation

Sea of Tranquility is Emily St. John Mandel’s sixth novel. Once again, she is indulging in a science fiction scenario, which she also did in what may be her most famous work, Station Eleven. She denied she was writing science fiction, but the novel has been adapted into a streaming series to good effect and is undeniably post-apocalyptic SF. (The reasons literary authors like Mandel find it necessary to disclaim that their work is SF are many and varied and could serve as an interesting study. Suffice it to say that it is a tradition now and originated in the simple reality of market share. That would no longer seem to be valid, given the bankability of SF these days, so we are left musing over sensibilities and pretensions.)

Like Margaret Atwood before her, Mandel seems now to have come to terms with her relationship to science fiction and has produced a work that cannot be plausibly read as anything else. The question then is, how good is it?

As science fiction, it is unremarkable, but not bad. We have now a couple of generations of writers from all genres who have grown up in an aesthetic universe informed by Star Trek, Star Wars, the Terminator, and now the excellent work being done in limited series. It’s bound to rub off, despite the efforts of MFA programs that often regard SF as less than acceptable.

And this leads to the slightly at-variance receptions of readers to such work. For the SF fan, a work like this says nothing new about the universe. For the literary reader largely unfamiliar with SF, it may seem refreshingly outré. Depends on one’s reading history.

The basic set-up in Sea of Tranquility can be traced back to something like Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories, which have as their basic ethic—their Prime Directive, if you will—the mandate to guard the timeline to keep history from changing. There is an organization, agents are recruited, various points in time are investigated, aberrations hunted down and “corrected.” We can see the idea in Isaac Asimov’s End of Eternity and in many other works by numerous writers, all of which are concerned with the ramifications of time travel. (Two of the most famous examples come from Robert A. Heinlein—By His Bootstraps and All You Zombies. Heinlein used time travel a number of times, to mixed results. The problems to be grappled with are a rich font of philosophical—not to mention physical—speculation. Presently, the new series based on William Gibson’s superb novel, The Peripheral, is thoroughly exploring the ramifications of time travel.)

The protagonist of Sea of Tranquility, Gaspery Roberts, lives on the moon, in a decaying colony, and leads a relatively aimless life until events bring him to the attention of the institute for which his sister works. She—and they—are essentially the Time Patrol. Gaspery volunteers to help them investigate an anomaly they have discovered, an apparent “hole” in time, which may answer the question, Are We Living In A Simulation?

This is a current—though minor—matter of interest in philosophy and, to some extent, physics. One might reasonably ask, what difference would it make? But there is a certain question of maleability involved, which leads to the ethical issues in keeping the timeline “pristine.”

Mandel then constructs a loop to tell the story of the anomaly and how it involves Gaspery.

The essence of the novel comes down to choices. Everyone’s, really. The engine that drives the novel is Choice. Gaspery’s, certainly, as he becomes a rogue actor, but in every instance throughout the book Mandel examines the consequences of choice. By tying it to the universe at large, through the conceit of time travel (and, secondarily, by asking whether this is all a simulation) she connects it to the fabric of the world itself.

In this, she steps outside the familiar precincts of the purely literary novel, in which choice is certainly important, but only as it affects the people involved with each other. It never alters the stuff of reality. There is seldom this binding of philosophy to physics. That’s the realm of science fiction.

The question then, is Mandel successful in this endeavor?

On the whole, yes. She tells a compelling story. The characters are engaging, their situations distinct and intriguing, and the throughlines are followed scrupulously. Costs are levied and paid, solutions are frustratingly short of desire, and the settings nicely drawn. The central questions are foregrounded (as one would expect from a science fiction novel) and tied to questions beyond the internal concerns of the characters. The world itself is brought into play in interesting ways. It is on a number of levels satisfying.

It is not state-of-the art science fiction, but it does not seem Mandel is trying for that. She’s going for reliably suggestive. That it is derivative (of so much one would not expect her to be familiar with) is not here a detractor. Some of the speculation of what the future may be like is too conservative, but not so much that the story is derailed by incongruities. The major speculations are kept off-stage—mentioned but not examined (there are interstellar colonies, for instance)—and she avoids the pitfall of too much technical detail.

It is the confluence of her characters, coming together in an unexpected way, that keeps us reading. She even suggests an answer to the Big Question, but leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusion.

We are in many ways tied to people and history unpredictably. There are orbits and the mechanics thereof dictating the path of our hearts. In these matters, Mandel has given us a contemplation of surprising moment.

People, Problems, Politics, and Possibilities

I remember as a child I once asked my dad where all the smoke from the smokestacks went. Into the air, obviously, but after that? I don’t remember exactly what he answered, but it was reassuring, something about how it just got diluted until it sort of wasn’t there anymore. Years later we would have debates about pollution and climate change and it was clear that he simply could not grasp how, the Earth being so big, that we mere mortals could possibly have the kind of impact environmentalists were claiming. It was frustrating and oddly appealing, because reassurance works that way.

One of his arguments rested on the production of CO2 and methane by the Earth itself, among other particulates such as my be spewed out by volcanoes, and how meager our own output was by comparison. Like other such arguments, its legitimacy rested on those factors left out, like accumulation over time. Some of the first work done on what we now call Anthropogenic Climate Change was down in the first half of the 19th Century. The problem was already apparent to some, but of course the question then was, so what? We have to stay warm, we need energy to build things, how are we supposed to do this thing called civilization if we don’t burn things? While this begs many questions (what is it you want to do? how do think “civilization” should manifest? just how much “progress” do we actually need in certain directions?) the fact is no one could construct solar panels in 1850.

And all the other localized signs that spoke to the hindbrain and the skin that told us nothing was changing. Winters were still cold (depending on where you were) summers still tolerable, water seemed plentiful, and so on. Everything is fine in my neighborhood, why the alarmist talk?

Now more of us are aware that self-deception has played a seriously negative role. Yes, politicians and industrialists have reasons to deceive us about these things, but the fact is many of us have been for decades inclined to believe everything would be fine.

With more frequent hurricanes, droughts, floods, and receding glaciers and our collective eyes on all of it almost obsessively (via media, documentaries, book after book) it has become impossible to calmly ignore the reality. And now we are here, a couple of degrees of global temperature away from the stuff of apocalyptic science fiction. Even the big corporations, while still often trying to underplay the crisis, are investing more and more in renewables and alternatives.  (I’m convinced we’re not farther along that road because the corporations took too long to figure out how to bill consumers profitably.)

Now that the ice sheets are receding and the oceans rising and the number of devastating storms is rising, before panic and collapse set in, what is there to be done?

Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry For The Future, offers a set of possibilities.

Robinson has been writing ecologically-concerned science fiction all his career. The Mars Trilogy is nothing if not a study in potential human impact on an environment. It is clear from even a cursory perusal of his work that he knows from whence he speaks. What humans are doing, what we will do, what we will have in the wake of our collective doing inform the basis of almost all his work. And in a field that has often offered but seldom achieved viable glimpses of the future, his work carries an efficacy difficult to discredit.

The Ministry of the Future follows the work of a department established by the United Nations sometime in the near future (there’s overlap with the present) whose task becomes to speak for the citizens yet to be. Which eventually includes wildlife in an attempt to include all life in a concept of Citizen in order for them to be granted legal standing. The director of the ministry, Mary Murphy, is Irish, and reminds one a bit of Samantha Powers. She has talented people, many of them visionaries, some of them capable of surprising solutions not always legal.

In the wake of one of the worst ecological disasters in history—a heat wave that descends on India and ends up killing twenty million people—the mission of the Ministry acquires an urgency and a momentum that carries through the rest of the novel. Along the way we see solid analyses and examples of the consequences of climate change and glimpses of the costs of doing nothing.

But as well we see on offer solutions. Robinson pairs gloom and doom with possibilities and potentials in a series of elegant portrayals of what can be done. In this, he covers a wide range of the various aspects of the situation with skill and authority, from geo-engineering to economic revisions to migration policy and the kind of international coalition-building that will be essential. His projections of where we may be politically in thirty or forty years are compelling, suggesting the power of SF to predict the future has some legitimacy.

Though these are just possibilities. Grounded in real science and technology and in a pragmatic “read” of human political tendencies. Some of the factors he examines are less tractable and in some instances brutal. But given the Givens, as it were, he gives us a plausible picture of the next few decades and what it is possible to do. Whatever may actually happen will be different, but within the 560 pages of this novel are a suite of approaches that rise to the inspirational.

Regardless of what may happen, one thing emerges from the novel that is inarguable—any solution will necessarily be a collective endeavor.

As well, Robinson skillfully gives a personal story. Mary encounters the lone survivor of the India heatwave and over the course of the novel a relationship evolves that is one of the most heartfelt and poignant to be found. Through this, the personal challenges of the world as it will change emerges. He keeps the larger story firmly grounded in the personal throughout.

One comes away with the conviction that not only can we solve this problem, but that we will become better for having met the challenge, and afterward we might actually have world worthy of the best in us.

Fatal Prose?

The year of the fatwa, an acquaintance of ours hurried to a Walden Books store that still had copies of the book. He had called around to find them, only to be told time and again that they had been packed up and returned. This one outlet had not yet sent them back and he asked—demanded, really—that they not, he would come in and buy them all. I’m not sure why they believed him, but he told us afterward that as soon as he walked into the store all the employees showed stark terror. He was dark, black hair, what you might call Mediterranean. He looked to them, apparently, Arabic.

They had ten copies and he did in fact buy them all. He gave us one, which we still have. It’s a First Edition, second printing.

Until this global scandal and the media coverage attendant upon it, I had never heard of Salman Rushdie. This, I learned, was his fourth novel. Prior to this he was among the literary writers praised by academies, taught in creative writing courses, and of little interest to me as I was at that time pouring all my energies into trying to become a published writer of science fiction. What Rushdie wrote, I discovered, was from the literary borderlands known as magic realism, which put him in company with Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Manuel Puig and, to some degree, Carlos Castenada.

I read The Satanic Verses from a kind of voyeuristic viewpoint—what is there here that might earn a death sentence for the author? There was a sensationalist aspect to it all that was related to books that had been banned or challenged, books that had stirred public outcry or denunciation. The celebrity of the circumstance drew in readers and I confess that I wondered very briefly if this were as serious as it seemed. But bookstores, especially the chains, were yanking the book from shelves out of fear of reprisals, so if this was a promotional gimmick it was backfiring horribly. My suspicions along those lines did not last long and as details emerged, it became clear that the Ayaltollah Khomeini had indeed decreed a reward for Rushdie’s death for blasphemy.

Part of the privilege of living in America, at least until recently, is the security of greeting that kind of news with complete dismay. You don’t kill someone for blasphemy. What does that even mean? (As the Religious Right has gained more prominence in public awareness, we may be learning that.) It’s a novel, for goodness sake! Fiction!

And at some point you wonder, just how thin-skinned can they be?

After reading the novel, I was still baffled. The title and the events referred to by it are part of the lore and tradition involved. As far as I could learn, Rushdie misrepresented none of it. I honestly could not see cause for an accusation of blasphemy, but then, I am not Muslim and my own relationship with the traditions in which I was raised has been problematic since adolescence. I thought it was a good example of its kind but nothing special.

But there is a section of the novel that I thought did make sense in terms of insult, and that is the parts concerning the Imam. This character is clearly based on Khomeini, a cleric living in exile who is given a chance to return to his country and overthrow the oppressive government. It is not a flattering portrait.

‘We will make a revolution,’ the Imam proclaims…’that is a revolt not only against a tyrant, but against history.’ For there is an enemy beyond Ayesha, and it is History herself. History is the blood-wine that must no longer be drunk. History the intoxicant, the creation and possession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies—progress, science, rights—against which the Imam has set his face.

And then a bit later:

‘Death to the tyranny of the Empress Ayesha, of calendars, of America, of time! We seek eternity, the timelessness, of God. His still waters, not her flowing wines.’ Burn the books and trust the Book; shred the papers and hear the Word…

I thought then and still do that this is what drew the ire of the clerics. It was personal and had nothing to do with any presumed blasphemy. But then, it also demonstrates how the personal had become political, in that the thing desired, according to this, was to stop anything and everything that might detract from the exaltation of a stasis anchored by a changeless devotion.

Rushdie had to go into hiding. He lost access to much of his life. He lost his wife.

Khomeini died, but the fatwa remains, reaffirmed in 2006 (on Valentine’s Day, curiously enough) that the vow to kill him is permanent.

It is still difficult for us to accept that a work of fiction could result in a death sentence, but then we have that privilege here. Though it’s not like books aren’t regularly challenged and sometimes it seems those in the forefront of condemnations might work themselves into a killing frenzy. Words are powerful and we need to remember that.

For that reason, we should cherish them and protect them, because in that power we find the capacity to conceive the world and acquire wisdom and grow. Words that cause discomfort, that stop us in our self-satisfied tracks and make us look at the world in different ways are among the best tools we have to find justice. If what we read causes the kind of dismay that only offers condemnation as a response, it may be our preconceptions and prejudices that need examination. We will never know what we can become if we arbitrarily silence the diversity of other voices.

Collisions of cultures can often result in incomprehension. As an aside, I had occasion once to discuss this issue with a Muslim, who told me she supported the fatwa because of the blasphemy. I attempted to learn what about the book was so blasphemous. Instead, I received a jeremiad on its obscenity. Now, there is talk of sex in the novel, but to my mind it is far from graphic, but she insisted, especially given the depiction of oral sex in the first chapter.

“What oral sex?” I asked, completely baffled then.

The first chapter depicts the aftermath of an airliner bombing—probably Lockerby—which has dropped the two principle characters into freefall. Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, who are bound in odd ways through the rest of the book and exhibit spiritual (and physical) mutability in very clever and insightful ways, tumble through the air and fall into a rotation around each other, head to toe, as they fall. When I read it the first time, I immediately saw it as a physical metaphor of Yin and Yang, and as the book proceeded this was clearly intended.

“What is that?” my communicant asked. She had never heard of it. The cultural literacy that might have made the scene make sense to her that way was absent. Instead, she drew the inference that they were in a 69 position, fellating each other.*

Later, I couldn’t help but wonder, what am I missing because of a lack of cultural knowledge? It’s easy to slip into judgmental mindsets without noticing that such blindnesses go both ways. Expecting everyone, everywhere, to possess the same set of cultural awarenesses is another form of privilege that fails to serve.

Burning the books would leave us bereft of the kind of global and cross-cultural familiarity that is essential to understanding each other.

But then, such knowledge leads to choices, and for a certain mindset, choices are the ultimate blasphemy. (I am mindful of the spasmadic rejection of education and information in the aftermath of 9-11 that swept this country, that any attempt to understand, to contextualize, to become aware was seen as somehow treasonous.)

Now finally someone has managed to assault Mr. Rushdie and damaged him horribly. The kind of unquestioning commitment to narrow causes is also something we often are unable to comprehend, although that may be changing even here. It still leaves us with a puzzled dismay. Why? On the one hand, it’s just a book. (Killing Rushdie will not change that, the book will not magically disappear should he die, and in fact this event will cause even more people to buy it and read it, so by what logic is this even construed as effective?) Then again, it is that the ideas in the book—in any book—cause so much fear that the choice seems to be to yield and learn or lash out and destroy, and the latter is preferable somehow.

This is something many of us have experience with, people so terrified of ideas that they will move heaven and earth to keep such things at bay. Books are being challenged and removed from libraries all the time. It’s never enough that we allow people to make such choices for themselves, some demand their fears be enforced on everyone.

So let me leave my own statement on the “virtue” of absolutist positions here:

Nothing is so sacred that it justifies killing someone because they express a different opinion about it. Nothing. The concept of blasphemy is only fear in ritual garb. We must overcome terror in the face of new ideas.

____________________________________________________________

*When I asked her how her initial reading held up through the rest of the novel, she admitted she had not read past that first chapter. On that basis she was willing to accept that Rushdie’s death was justified.

Reflections In Stone and Story

John Crowley opens doors for readers to walk through into worlds that rest on the faint border between the Real and the Perceived. In his most famous novel, Little, Big, doors are explicitly present, and going through them defines the universe. The act of stepping through makes present what is otherwise only felt.

Doors—entrances—are offered as opportunities, both for the reader and for the characters.
Often they are narrow and only shadows can be glimpsed through them. To know, one must step through.

Stepping into a Crowley novel…one finds a complete world, unexpected and fascinating.

While his reputation is as a fantasy writer, he has produced equally immersive literary mainstream novels, albeit with historical settings—The Translator, Four Freedoms, Lord Byron’s Novel—and there is ample historical connection in his best fantasies. His facility for blending history and fantasy is impressive.

His newest does this magnificently. Flint and Mirror takes on the subject of Ireland and England.

Hugh O’Neill, ostensible heir to the throne of High King of Eire, is gotten out of Ireland as a boy to spare him from the purges of his uncle, who has claimed the title The O’Neill and is murdering competitors. Young Hugh finds himself in the Court of Queen Elizabeth I, ward of an English lord, companion to his son. Advisor to the queen Dr. John Dee sees an opportunity to bind the boy to Elizabeth by way of an onyx mirror. Dee makes of it a kind of communicator through which the Queen may influence the boy.

Dr. Dee is a pivotal figure for Crowley. Dee (1527 to 1609?) was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and occultist and an advisor to Elizabeth I. He advocated colonizing the New World and he encouraged the idea of Empire. At one time he possessed the largest library in England. Dee is a fulcrum in Crowley’s sweeping Aegypt Cycle (The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things) which represents his examination of the End Of Magic. Dee fills a similar role here, representing the last practitioner of an ancient art that bridges the worlds of humans, angels, and myth.

Hugh has another advisor, though, an Irish poet, Mahon, who shows him the buried heritage of the Irish past and opens the door for him to glimpse the ancient spirits of old kings. Hugh acquires a shard of flint, which serves a similar purpose for him as Elizabeth’s mirror, and with these two objects he embarks on a quest of bridge the two kingdoms and secure Irish liberty.

Eventually, Hugh rises to the position of The O’Neill and even wields the authority (if not the title) of the High King. His wars with the English represent one of the points in that fraught history where Ireland might have thrown off the English yoke.

Crowley’s history is impeccable. He tracks events as close as may be to what happened, adding the layer of competing magics to illuminate questions of belief and destiny and show how the old yields to the new. Hugh creates a disciplined army that, for a time, was a match for the English forces. Ultimately, though, Ireland depended too much on Spanish intervention, and when that proved insufficient and eventually impossible, the effort collapsed.

What part did magic play? Inspirational, certainly. Materially? What comes through with almost tragic clarity is the consequence of its failure, and in this Flint and Mirror is a study in transitional systems. Belief systems, mostly, but the question lands heavily on history as a resource in the present.
Resource, organization, calculation. These things always seem to overwhelm dependence on tradition, destiny, reliance on belief at the expense of pragmatic assessment, and here it is no different. But the additional matter of an overturned investment in folklore and the efficacy of occult resurgence is most poignant. The fact that Hugh and his contemporaries were also in a struggle to retain their Catholicism in the face of English Protestantism complicates Hugh’s attempt to rely on a mythic tradition predating Christianity.

The questions of transition and tradition are spread throughout the novel, deftly serving the narrative without becoming pedantic. This period of Irish history mirrors the unfortunate life of Dr. Dee, who, after leaving England to find a better position in Poland, returned to a country that no longer had much use for him. His house plundered, his sinecure rescinded, and a new king who was afraid of the occult left him in his final years much reduced, cared for by a daughter, and nearly forgotten. We cannot even be certain of the year he died as the records were occluded and even his gravestone stolen.

In the end, though, nothing remains as it began, and the empire Dr. Dee urged his Queen and his country to pursue no longer exists anymore than does the Eire of Hugh O’Neill.

Bewildered

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

The question has always been—what category?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scandal In Romania

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

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

And acting on the results.

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

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

But married?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 and Reading for Purpose

In a year that felt more like some surreal historical melodrama that ought to be safely turned into a documentary rather than something to cling to the future like a belly-full of bad booze, what we read may have been one of the most important choices we were able to make. Our lives constrained by a pandemic, we may have lived more vicariously than ever before, but we also dealt with the world as a landscape of impending doom in ways that perhaps our parents and grandparents may have in different ways, but was unique in the manner of it collision with reality and ignorance.

I think it fair to say that never before has so much information, understanding, and intellectual resource been so available to so many and yet rejected in turn to such a degree as to challenge one’s sanity. It seemed like the more we knew, the more concrete things we could say about so many things, the more too many people flat-out denied those very things that might have made the world a better place. Watching and listening to the news day to day was an agony of frustration.

So we—some of us—turned to reading for answers as well as escape. Answers to try to make sense of things, escape to give us the spiritual resources to cope with what we learned and what we saw.

I read, cover to cover, 63 books in 2020.

What science fiction I read was related mainly to the reading group I host. I read a lot of history, political philosophy, mysteries. I did not quite finish a rather excellent biography of John Maynard Keynes, which has proven to be a timely work that throws light on the history that brought us to where we are now. Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace should, I suggest, be read with Binyamin Appelbaum’s The Economists’ Hour. Between them they illuminate the 20th century struggle with finding our way through the morass of slogans, competing theories, political opportunists, and national identities that seem to rely on the 19th Century concepts of poverty, property, and progress to justify a kind of fearful reluctance to simply adapt.

Along with these, Shawn Otto’s The War On Science is history of the anti-intellectualism in America that has dogged us since the beginning and has resulted now in a precarious moment in which the knowledge we derive from sound scientific practice has never been more necessary to our survival while living in a time when more people refuse to acknowledge anything outside their own concepts and prejudices. Along with this, a somewhat more theoretical but complimentary work is Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oseskes.

It would seem that our greatest enemy remains ignorance. Demagogues and con artists have become far more adept at manipulating and defrauding us in greater numbers than ever before and the only defense is our ability to reason, to sort through and measure and recognize nonsense, especially when it seems enriching, empowering, and edifying. Everything has taken on an urgency that strips us of time and room to judge, to assess, to think through. Decisions must be made now, while the offer lasts, don’t be late, get yours now.

In this struggle, the only thing that we can personally do is equip ourselves with the wide gaze of grounded perspective. History, economics, philosophy. They can appear daunting. But you only have to pick a book and start. It accrues. In time, something seemingly so removed from our present experience as Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, about King Phillip’s War, which set the pattern for the European conquest of America, takes on currency in the here and now. Speaking of Jill Lepore, her newest, If Then, about the forgotten Simulmatics Incorporated and its effect on American (and global) politics is an eye-opening expose of how we managed to corrupt our political systems with introduction of demographic analysis, ad-agency thinking, and datamining.

Economics, history…what about philosophy?

Outside specialized texts, I believe one cannot do better than good science fiction. Mary Robinette Kowal’s latest in her Lady Astronaut series, Relentless Moon, offers some surprising relevancy to the present as well as a terrific yarn set in an alternate history. Annalee Newitz’s Future of Another Timeline is a rumination on choice as well as a good time-travel story. Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller examines near-future global changes and the consequences of corporate capitalism disguised cleverly as a quest/revenge/rescue narrative.

I’ve been reading aloud to my partner for a while now. We did John Scalzi’s most recent trilogy, starting with The Collapsing Empire. His approach is in some ways perhaps “irreverent” but once you get past that surface facility, it’s a first-class trilogy.

Possibly the most beautiful writing I encountered this year was Robert MacFarlane’s Underland. He’s a naturalist/explorer whose previous work has been concerned with climbing mountains and related landscapes. In this he went down. In a magnificent rumination on ecologies and the underground, both natural and artificial, he has written beautifully about a world we ignore to our peril.

Alex Ross, music critic for the New York Times, whose previous book The Rest Is Noise, about music and 20th Century history, is wonderful, has published his intricate study of Wager and the impact he had on, well, everything. Wagnerism in some senses is an expression of the often-unacknowledged influence of art on politics and identity. Ross examines how Wagner became the focal point for movements and countermovements up till the present with his outsized presence in film scores. An aspect of history that deserves a bit more attention.

I have my to-be-read pile already building for 2021. It includes several books that I hope will help me ride the unpredictable currents of our ongoing struggle with the world. But never more strongly do I feel that the encounter with other minds through the agency of the written word is one of our best tools for managing and emerging from darkness. We have such a wealth of resource. I look around at the world and cannot help but feel that if more people simply read more and more widely, things would begin to resolve. Never before have we had it thrown in our faces with such force the costs of ignorance.

Here is wishing you all a safe and aspirational year. Read on, read well.

Hild, A World, A Novel

(This is a repost, done to correct  problem in the original)

 

It is completely fitting that science fiction writers should write historical fiction.  Both forms deal with the same background—alien worlds.

Because we live in a story-saturated era where access to the ages is easily had with a visit to the library, the local bookstore, the internet, movies, it is easy to assume we know—that we understand—the past, with the same cordial familiarity we experience our own personal history.  That people lived differently “back then” seems more a matter of fashion and technology, not a question of thought process or philosophy or world view.*  People lacked central heating and air conditioning, cars, television, telephones, indoor plumbing, antibiotics…but they lived essentially the same way.

Well, one could make a case that they did,  but you have to ask the question “In what ways did they live the same way?”  Therein lies the heart of good historical analysis and extrapolation.

Because while we can connect with people of the past in many very broad ways—they were human, they loved, they hated, they were greedy and generous, they were driven by passions, they dreamed—the specifics can school us in the range of the possible.  What does it mean to be human?

Far more than we might imagine.

But that’s where the novelist comes in, the writer who takes the time to grapple with those myriad distinctions and give us a look into those differences that are still, regardless of how remote they seem from our personal understanding of “human,”  part of who we are, at least potentially.

I mention science fiction at the beginning because at a certain level, if we’re dealing with something deeper than costume drama or plot-driven adventure fiction, the exercise of finding, comprehending, and actualizing on the page an entire period from the past—Republican Rome, Hellenic Greece, the Mesopotamia  of the Sumerians, the Kingdom of Chin, or post Roman England—is much the same as building a world out of logic and broad-based knowledgeable extrapolation.  In some instances, extrapolation is all-important because the fact is we simply do not know enough to more or less copy a record into a fictional setting.  Instead, we have to take the tantalizing scraps of what remain of that world and supply the connective tissue by imagining what must, what probably, what could have been there.  And in the process we discover a new world.

If done well, that newness becomes a mirror for us to perceive what we have overlooked in ourselves.  (Which is what good fiction ought to do anyway, but in the well-constructed historical it is a special kind of revelation.)

Seventh Century England is rich with the unknown, the ambiguous, the seductively out-of-reach.  It existed between one deceptively homogeneous era and another, between the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire.  More, it held some of the last vestiges of the once vast Celtic Empire.  It was a land where shadow-pasts vied for hegemony over the mythic substrate defining meaning for the warlords, petty kings, and mystics serving them. Pagan religions found themselves competing with this new Christianity, which had been around a while but was finally beginning to make significant headway among the competing kingdoms, looking for the leverage it needed to make itself an “official” religion with the authority to shove the others aside.

Into this came a woman who eventually mattered enough, given the overwhelming patriarchal structure of the day, to deserve a mention from the Venerable Bede (who saw women much as most men of his time did, necessary creatures in need of guidance and by dint of their sex lesser beings).  In Book 4 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People we’re told of St. Hilda, who was by any measure of the era (and even ours) astonishing.  “Her prudence was so great…that even kings and princes asked and received her advice.”

A good novel starts with a good question and in this case it would be: Who was this woman and how did she get to this place?

A question to which Nicola Griffith impressively supplies an answer in her new novel, Hild, (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux).

Hild, later St. Hilda of Whitby, lived from 614 to 680.  She was a second daughter of minor nobility whose father died, leaving the family at the mercy of rival kingdoms.  Later she founded an abbey, where she remained the rest of her life, and was a teacher of prelates and princes.

Note that.  Seventh Century, at a time and in a place where women were little more than property, Hild could not only read but commanded respect.  That alone would make her fit subject for a big historical novel.  Certainly she would serve as the basis for a cathartic life-lesson to modern audiences about the innate power of women and the need to find and act upon one’s own identity.

But Griffith avoids this in some ways too easy path to sympathy for her character and does what superb history should—provides context and shows her character in situ, living as she would have.  Hild had her own problems to face and they are not ours.  Through the course of 560 pages of well-chosen and seemingly hand-polished words, Hild is given to us as a person, fully realized, of her own time.  This is a different world and these people did not see it as we do.

The success of a novel is in its ability to bring the reader entirely in and hold them, enmeshed, for the duration.  Griffith’s past novels have demonstrated that she can achieve this in both science fiction (Ammonite, Slow River) and noir thriller (The Blue Place, Stay, Always).  But in some ways those novels presented less of a challenge in their immersive requirements—they were closer to home, nearer to our own world, and allowed for reader assumptions to come into play.  (This is deceptive, of course, and is more a question of laziness on the part of the reader than on any artistic shortcuts a writer might take.)  Hild represents an order of magnitude greater risk on Griffith’s part, a kind of dance through a mine field of possible failures that could cause reader disconnect or, worse, a betrayal of her characters.  It is a great pleasure to note that she made no such missteps, got all the way to other side, world intact, with a character very much herself.

This is what historical fiction ought to do.  Take you and put you in a world that is quantitatively and qualitatively different and still engage your sympathies.  As we follow Hild from birth, through her education (under the guidance of her mother, who is herself remarkable) and into a young adulthood in which she comes into possession of some authority, we find ourselves shifting out of our comfort zones with respect to the givens of the world.

Hild is the first book of a trilogy, which will cover Hild’s whole life.  If the next two books are done with as much care, diligence, and grace as this, we are all in for a remarkable experience.

And out of the richly-wrought tapestry of difference, we really do find a connection across the centuries.  Just not where one might ordinarily look for one.

______________________________________________________

*World view is itself a phrase fraught with change, for to have one requires we have some notion of The World, and that has changed constantly over time.  What world?  How big?  Who is in it?  Look at the changes in the past five centuries, which some historians identify as the modern era.  We have gone from a flat earth at the center of a solar system which defined the limits of space to an uneven sphere orbiting an insignificant middle range star of a small galaxy that is one out of billions and billions of galaxies, with no evident limit to what comprises the universe.

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.