Music and Popular Trends

Anyone who knows me for any length of time eventually learns of my sometimes intransigent tastes in music. (Not only music, but whereas other art forms prompt conversations about form and substance that remain largely theoretical, analytical, and impersonal, when it comes to music, especially popular music, things can get a bit touchy.)  I have a minor musical background, I play (or play AT) keyboard and guitar, and in my youth I had fantasies of being a rock star.

I grew up with a wide range of influences, although in the end it was a pretty static assembly. My parents had about fifty records. A wide mix, ranging from Strauss waltzes and Grieg, to Chet Atkins, Bobby Darin, movie soundtracks, Peggy Lee, one odd Tennessee Ernie Ford record, and Les Paul. A few other oddments, including some Gershwin, Nat King Cole, and a couple of jazz records I do not remember clearly. But there were also music programs on television then the like of which we rarely see anymore and I was raised with a huge variety. My father was, in his engineering way, a stickler for technique.

That last is important.

When I came of an age to start finding my own music, it lead me into some strange byways. When everyone else was going insane with the Beatles, I was listening to Walter Carlos.  When the Rolling Stones were the rebellion of choice, I’d stumbled on The Nice. And finally, when I had a budget, the first albums I purchased were Santana, Chicago, and…


Fishing in the waters of new rock music, I had no idea who was in, who was out, what the roots of some of this music might be.  I only knew what caught my attention and made me feel good. I heard a Yes tune late one night on our local independent FM station and I never got over it.

Before I understood there were divisions and lines being drawn between various musical styles, I had a very eclectic collection anchored by what became known as Progressive Rock.  Along with James Taylor,  America, Cream, and the other assorted sonic adventures, you would find, by the mid Seventies, in my collection not only every Yes album then available but also ELP, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Renaissance, and a smattering of others, all of whom by the end of the decade were being heaped with derision in the music press and by a growing crowd of discontents who pursued Punk, Disco, or New Wave, declaring that Prog was pretentious snob music.

I never heard anything but grandeur and emotional transcendence.  Later, after the ash had settled and the music scene had burned to the ground and been rebuilt in dozens of smaller abodes, I realized that what I was hearing in Prog was a modern attempt to capture what one heard in Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Sibelius. I wholly approved.

But it became a sore point over time when the inevitable conversations about “good”music became more and more balkanized over what I eventually decided was a kind of reverse snobbishness if not outright anti-intellectual protest against sophistication, skill, and imagination.  I heard the same kinds of criticisms from people who took regular potshots at science fiction.

But till now I never paid that much attention to the history. The What Happened aspect.

David Weigel’s new book, The Show That Never Ends, is a solid history of a form that, most people forget, dominated popular music for almost a decade.  Emerson, Lake, & Palmer were at one time the biggest act on the planet.  Yes, which almost never broke the Top 40 charts, filled arenas.

And then, seemingly overnight, everyone was listening to The Cars, The Sex Pistols, The Police, almost anything Other Than music with the kind of intricacy usually associated with either jazz or classical.

So what did happen?

Weigel writes unsentimentally but with sympathy about how  combination of audience exhaustion, music industry economics, and ultimately the self-destruction of some of the key artists and their own  creative exhaustion led to a melange of unsatisfactory products. Self-indulgence, musically and otherwise, introversion, and the jangling disconnect between market demands and pursuit of vision ended up making a bit of a mess that resulted in…

Well, oddly, not the end of progressive rock, because it is still with us, even in new manifestations, and many of the mainstays of the first wave progressives are now respected elder statesmen whose contributions to music are finally being acknowledged.  It is obvious in hindsight that many of the bands who pushed Prog aside in the Eighties and Nineties could not have done the kind of music they did without the tools invented by those Old Pretentious Guys.

When it comes to that music, Weigel displays an admirable understanding of it as composition.  He talks about the construction of these works and what set them apart theoretically from other forms.  It is a pleasure to read his descriptions of how many of the pieces that form the bedrock of progressive rock came about and what makes them fascinating to listen to.

One element of the “downfall” of Prog Weigel does not touch on, though it is there in the narrative if you care to tease it out, was the unsustainability of one of the effects of some of these acts.  Look at Yes, look at early Genesis, look even at ELP, and part of the glamor, the attraction, was that they had built a world. It was almost a literary act, the creation of a whole suite of aesthetic components that offered the illusion that one could enter into it, as if into Narnia, and live there. For a few hours on a concert night, the illusion could be powerful, and the dedicated album art and the philosophizing one read in interviews all added to the illusion.

But in the end it was not really possible, and in the morning there was the real world, and disappointment gradually encroached.  It wasn’t “just” a good concert, but a promise that could not be fulfilled.

For some, maybe many. You had in the end to be an “insider” to get it and finally the huge soap bubble simply could not be sustained.

Ultimately, though, this was the kind of stretching that popular music needed even if the beneficiaries of it did not continue to write and play in that idiom, and as pure music some of it is, indeed, transcendent.

Now that so many of these folks are beginning to pass from the scene, revisiting their contributions, reassessing their output as music rather than as some kind of cultural statement, would seem in order. Weigel’s book would be a good place to start.



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.

Star Wars and Reality

Back in 1977, Samuel R. Delany—perhaps one of the best science fiction writers of the 20th Century, certainly conceptually in the top 10 of any honest assessment—wrote a review of the first Star Wars film for Cosmos magazine. In it he pointed out that the universe George Lucas had given us was essentially caucasian, largely midwestern, and predominantly male. While Princess Leia was without a doubt one of the more subversive cinema creations in SF—definitely not a princess, kick-ass, occasionally crude, with all the can-do anyone could possibly want from men with the Right Stuff—she was the only female in the movie other than the tragically short-lived Aunt Ru and the odd extra in the command center on the rebel base.

To quote from his review:

“Sometime, somewhere, somebody is going to write a review of Star Wars that begins: ‘In Lucas’s future, the black races and the yellow races have apparently died out and a sort of mid-Western American (with a few South Westerners who seem to specialize in being war ship pilots) has taken over the universe. By and large, women have also been bred out of the human race and, save for the odd gutsy princess or the isolated and cowed aunt, humanity seems to be breeding quite nicely without them…’

“When these various reviews surface, somebody will no doubt object (and we’ll recognize the voice; it’s the same one who said, earlier, ‘…it’s got a good, solid story!’) with a shout: ‘But that’s not the point. This is entertainment!’

“Well, entertainment is a complex business. And we are talking about an aspect of the film that isn’t particularly entertaining. When you travel across three whole worlds and all the humans you see are so scrupiously caucasian and male, Lucas’s future begins to seem a little dull. And the variation and invention suddenly turn out to be only the province of the set director and special effects crew.

“How does one put in some variety, some human variety? The same way you put in your barrage of allusions to other films, i.e., you just do it and don’t make a big thing.

“To take the tiniest example: wouldn’t that future have been more interesting if, say, three-quarters of the rebel pilots just happened to have been Oriental women—rather than just the guys who didn’t make it onto the Minnisota Ag. football team. It would even be more interesting to the guys at Minnisota Ag. This is science fiction after all.


“In the film world in the present, the token woman, token black, or what-have-you, is clearly propaganda, and even the people who are supposed to like that particular piece of it smile their smiles with rather more tightly pursed lips than is comfortable. In a science fiction film, however, the variety of human types should be as fascinating and luminous in itself as the variety of color in the set designer’s paint box. Not to make use of that variety, in all possible combinations, seems an imaginative failure of at least the same order as not coming up with as interesting sets as possible.”

–Samuel R. Delany’s review of Star Wars in Cosmos, 1977

In the wake of The Force Awakens he noted that at the time of the above-quote review, he received almost 2 lbs of hate mail.  Even then, the splenetic refusal to countenance any intrusion of reality into this realm was seen as a violation not to be tolerated by a perversely-attuned minority.  (I find it interesting that he apparently received  no mail in support of his viewpoint.)

No, you cannot use all the weird aliens to excuse the absence of a diverse human presence, because everyone knows they are completely fictional and represent nothing other than window-dressing required to make this a space epic. The film was made by and for human consumption and should speak to us. If you make a film in the given world, be it contemporary or a historical piece, you cast it according to the story you’re telling and are constrained by history, location, and so forth as to how it looks, but this is science fiction and ought to reflect “humanity” in all its variety, because we decide what the story is and what the parameters are.

The whiteness of the original Star Wars is a failure of imagination. Maybe not a conscious one, but the fact that the default failed to include a panorama of humanity is a worse indictment of assumed cultural limits than had it been an overt bit of propagandistic racist fantasy.

The fact is, not many of us noticed back in the day.

Now that the new generation of Star Wars films is indulging that overlooked variety, we all may, however briefly, feel a twinge at the oversight way back when.

Samuel L. Jackson’s casting as one of the putative heads of the Jedi Order was bearable to certain people because, like Leia, he was only one example and as a singular instance could be excused or even ignored. And of course the Natalie Portman character was another Leia, and she was only one. This has always been done in instances like this—only one. Avoid the suggestion that this might be common or acceptable across the whole spectrum of a culture. We can have the one-off female competent, self-made, boss, what have you. The one-off minority as well.

But when more than half the humans you see on the screen are not white…

So some folks are bleating and writing nasty things and all but demanding that All Those People Be Banished because they disturb the unexamined pool of privileged self-deluded unearned superiority lying at the center of their being, their sense of Who They Are.  (Note, most of this complaining is done in camouflage, cloaked as a gripe about supposed SJW intrusions.)

The rest of us feel our instance of embarrassed realization and then move on to the next level of enjoying what is now on the screen with a kind of “Well, of course” reaction.

We saw a similar reaction from certain quarters to Ann Leckie’s apparently unsettling pronoun shift in her Ancillary novels, as well as commensurate screels of pain as women and minorities swept SF awards in the last few years. The kind of thing one might expect from sports fans when their team losses—or simply doesn’t show.

The initial reassessment—for most of us, I hope—settles into a new standard of acceptance, we sit back, strap in, and enjoy the ride with a new vantage available. For some, the unease never seems to abate.

In this, it would seem that reactions to the human diversification in the Star Wars universe tracks real-world reactions to being confronted with racial and gender disparities. Most people wince a little, take a moment or two to accommodate a revised paradigm, and then move on to the important aspects of what is on the screen. This is both good and bad—good, because it suggests people are generally adaptable and willing to expand their sphere of appreciation to include previously overlooked or excluded groups and “normalize” their presence; bad, because such normalization can result in a false conclusion that such exclusions or oversights are “fixed” and we need not worry about them anymore.

A process which has brought us to our current awkward point in the history of human justice.

But we’re talking about Star Wars here and with that in mind I want to examine the cutting conclusion Delany made in his original review of the first movie—that the white palette in which it was painted was, in the end, dull, a failure of imagination. Bad science fiction.

There is a subcategory of SF which deals with apocalyptic scenarios and for many decades one of the chief features has been the downfall of Western Civilization, often in the face of a newly-dominant Eastern polity. For that, read White losing to Non-white. You can choose your starting point. Maybe Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column. But the literature is filled with it. The plucky resistance is almost always white, generally some form of American. Now, it’s not fair to blame any given example for the consequences of the whole, but this trend has informed a larger dialogue that has to do with unexamined cultural and racial assumptions. While in any given example arguments for the soundness of the premise can be made, collectively they make a powerful argument that White equals Good and Not White equals either helpless, evil, or stupid, probably all three together.

One of the most powerful images in these new Star Wars films is that the Bad Guys are all white. If that isn’t clear just from the maskless humans on-screen, the storm troopers have always been white, and one of the more subversive messages throughout the film series has been the idea that the storm troopers are clones—not just white (symbolically—the uniforms subsume any secondary racial variances Fett may have exhibited, the ultimate colonial dominance) but all the same down to their DNA. And that this model fails.

Snoke? Who can say? Post-syphilitic, corrupted madman, with pale eyes and the sallow skin of the very ill. All the rest of the leadership of the First Order is white.

They abandoned the clone model for storm troopers and opted for direct brainwashing, apparently, which fails, apparently. But the only storm trooper who claims his own identity and leaves to join the rebellion is…not white.
There is, especially in this new film, an aggressive advocacy that the usual heroes are not the ones we’re looking for. And Luke Skywalker’s deconstruction of the Jedi as not only a useless but dangerous legend during his session with Rey ought to have driven the message home.

But I would like to address the criticism that, essentially, past iterations of Star Wars have displayed a marked lack of imagination in key respects. Personally, I find them fun on a twelve-year-old level. Compared to films like Blade Runner or the more recent Arrival, this franchise is intellectually and even thematically weak tea. I’ve always contended that they are not, in any significant sense, science fiction at all, but fantasy decked out in SF accoutrements. Even so, the pretense of science fiction seems to have forced the films to be, from time to time, quite subversive of the classic fantasy, starting right off the bat with Leia, who is anything but a damsel. In the first three films she continually defied the stereotypes and refused to be a victim.

But that self-possession has now been expanded to become a norm of this universe, so none of the women, who are now everywhere, adhere to stereotypes, and this is when the wolves of conformity and privilege begin to howl. We have always had examples of the lone exception and they have even been applauded, but when we see what had been an exception normalized, then the assumptions of privilege come under threat.

And they come under threat because they have usually gone unchallenged. It may be the surprise at being shown this side of things that causes the unfortunate reaction, but if we’re talking about science fiction, even the pretense of it, this should be a welcome revelation rather than motive to retreat into the ordinary safety of unrecognized exclusion. You don’t want to be made aware of the problems associated with being a thinking, feeling human being living in the world? Then why are you even a fan, however tepidly, of science fiction? Because SF has always been about dislodging assumptions in the real world via the fulcrum of the SFnal world deployed.

Granted, for the most part it has been a relatively safe way to confront such things, because the field of revelation is usually not ours. It’s the future, out in space, on another world, and in this case in a galaxy far, far away. But that’s never been why it possessed power, because the whole point was to imagine a different reality, one we could conceivably enter.

The question then becomes, if that’s the cool part, why would it bother anyone that some of the most discardable aspects of our given world would be dispensed in a speculative milieu where we might, presumably, do better? Why would anyone want that world to be a preserve for the petty absurdities of this world? And if that’s what you’re looking for, well, then perhaps you don’t understand the nature of the thing you profess to love so much that you would turn it into a gated community with covenants to keep Those People out. Or merely in Their Place.

Do I think we will no longer have racism in the future? No. But I can imagine.

Because if our imagined dreams someday come true, we will meet real aliens, and in that moment we will have to understand that we’re all human and the minor variations among us will be one of our greatest strengths. To continue to insist that those variations are somehow unacceptable to express as human and normal in a film made today and are important enough to become outraged at their portrayal shows a profound lack of imagination.

Strange Inversions

Jeff Vandermeer has been mining the hills of what for a time was called New Weird for years. His Veniss Underground stories are exemplars of the power of the oblique, the odd, the displaced, the exotic in service to demonstrating one of the principle delights of science fiction, namely that setting is character. His newest novel is another example of how landscape transforms imagination and redirects the focus of our self-reflection.

The City—unnamed, unlocated, but somehow American for all its desolate ambiguity—has been reduced to the condition of decimated near-abandonment. We are told the entire world has undergone a series of collapses and that this city is representative of most of it. Those remaining pick over what is left, and there would seem to be plenty.  But there is a constant danger, the looming presence of Mord, a giant bear that can fly. It tortures the landscape and the survivors, eats indiscriminately, slams about remaking the skyline according to no discernible plan. Mord is just a great big bear with no table manners.  And that uncanny ability to fly.

Rachel is a seasoned scavenger who finds it useful to shadow Mord. One never knows what good salvage one might find in his wake. The risks have been worth it in the past. As the novel opens, though, she has made a find that will reshape everything she thought she understood about the world she inhabits.  It is an odd bit of biotech, a blob attached to Mord’s hide, just large enough to find and still fit inside her pocket. It is, in its indefinable way, attractive.  She describes it sometimes as a vase that occasionally has wings. She calls it Borne and brings it back to her domicile, the Balcony Cliffs, where she lives a not altogether unpleasant life with her lover, Wick, who is some kind of biotech engineer. Wick immediately dislikes Borne, wants to take it to dismantle to see how it works, but Rachel refuses. This creates the first real conflict between them, which grows worse as Wick begins to see Borne as a threat.

Because Borne is changing.  Growing, certainly, but also acquiring new traits. Rachel discovers one day that it can talk. She hides this fact from Wick. As Borne continues to grow and change, she continues to try to hide its capacities from Wick, but Wick is not fooled.

Into this comes new threats. There are factions in the City, vying for power, control, advantage, in a game that feels purposeful but ultimately has little point. There is Mord, of course, raw power, incontestable, frightening.  There is also the Magician, another human who may or may not have been a colleague of Wick’s back when he worked for the Company, whose facility still stands, still functions, and had much to do with the destruction that befell the city. There is the Company itself, which continues to exert an influence albeit of an almost subterranean kind.  Once it had been the power in the city, but since the general collapse, both locally and globally, it persists because at least it seems to possess structure.

And Wick, after a fashion, because he is a node of stability in the chaos.  He makes things people will trade for, that people need, although his ability to do so is diminishing because the resources he needs, which Rachel is so adept at finding, are dwindling. As they do and his production shrinks, their danger increases.

Borne is a fey factor, an unknown in all this, and Rachel finds her attachment to it both comforting and unnerving. Her attachment to Wick is of a different kind and, for all the stress on it, more secure than she comprehends.

It is a curiously compelling story.  It reveals, offers insight, confers meaning, even when it is unclear what underlies all the struggle. Rachel’s inability to give Borne up resonates, as does Wick’s well-reasoned suspicions of it. The disturbing changes in Borne unsettle in a perversely familiar way. And Mord just scares us with his unpredictable rages and the offshoots of his savage personality which appear to do murder to what remains of order and humanity in this landscape, which as we continue on, feels ever more like somewhere we’ve been before, if only we could remember…

Borne as creation bothers us and intrigues us and somehow we understand that it—he—is not really our enemy.  This is confirmed in the novel, but that confirmation is not what brings this to the forefront of our myth-responsive memory.  Borne takes in everything—literally eats reality—and excretes nothing. Just grows. But he should, because we sense what Borne is. Borne is incomplete.  Borne requires…

Comparisons are never one to one, rough at best, but then originality is not served by direct corollaries.  Something that is “just like” something else may have novelty but it does little to feed the desire of new truths and fresh perspectives. Nevertheless, they are potent when done well, and this is done well.

Wick—in this instance, an obscure form of Wizard—is in some sense the creator of all that Rachel moves through.  He worked for the Company until he was expelled, and when we learn finally all that he may have created his place becomes clear in Rachel’s universe.  He protects her more than she knows because he is responsible for so much, in a way a master narrator. He cannot ultimately protect her from herself, and that is where the elements of this marvelous piece of clock-work aligning and arranging come together.

As borrowings go, Alice Through the Looking Glass will suffice. There’s even a mirror. But that landscape—collapsing, reforming, surprising, terrible and amazing—is what we find when our illusions are outgrown as we persist in living within the precincts of an imagination that will not yield to new possibilities and the stronger forms of mature dreams.  The child must be reborn into a bolder reality, and if in that reality bears cannot actually fly, well, there are other wonders to sustain us.


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.




Feeling His Mind Going

Robert Silverberg is, on occasion, a deceptive writer. He exhibits a style and approach which seem almost basic. Clear, almost bare-bones sentences, conveying their cargo of information efficiently in service to plots that move along at a steady pace, gradually building to a point that, once made, is obvious. You set the book (or short story or, his preferred form, novella) aside with a satisfied sense of having enjoyed a work of unpretentious refinement, but not entirely sure why.

Later the full impact hits you, like a waterfall in a low-g environment. You find yourself awash in the world he showed you. Walking down the street in the aftermath can seem disorienting because—

Well, that’s what good science fiction does, causes your perspective to shift. Silverberg’s work provides that shift very reliably, but instead of a slambang grandiloquent epiphany he does it gradually, slowly, almost geologically over the course of a story that in many respects is quite ordinary.

Take Dying Inside. What is it, after all, but a novel about a life of failed promise? We have read many of these in literature, stories about gifted, talented people who simply never quite make it. Philip Roth comes to mind with his expositions and exegeses on mediocrities who realize that they are. In fact, Roth could very well have written this novel had he the capacity to step outside the bounds of the expected the way SF requires.

The difference is the substance of the problem. Where on the one hand we have stories of people who through private demons and personal flaws cannot rise to their own occasions, here we have a very real manifestation of a vanishing ability gradually marking the limits of what a man can achieve through his personal “gift.”

Unlike any of the mediocrities in mainstream literature, some of whom become distracted, others of whom misunderstand the nature of their talents or fail to recognize the limits of their abilities, still others who simply misunderstand the world around them, David Selig does not have that excuse. He can see, directly, what the world around him is like, what it’s doing, what it thinks of itself and of him, and what it intends to do about itself. David Selig is a telepath.  He can, literally, read minds. While other characters in this mold try to “read” the street, Selig neither has to try nor interpret.  He can climb inside the minds of those around him and know. There is no reason he should not be a billionaire or the master of a great state or a fine artist.

But he is not and this is where Silverberg’s particular skill tells. Selig is getting by writing papers for desperate college students. He has had a number of rather ignominious jobs, once as a minor editor in a publishing house where he meets, falls in love with, and loses the one great love of his life because he himself cannot deal honestly with his own ability.  He scrapes by. He has an advantage any of us might envy and yet…

Instead of taking advantage to really establish himself in life, he lives on the fringes, in the shadows. He inhabits an apartment in a multifamily building in a decaying neighborhood and lives a cash-and-carry existence. He skims on the surface, avoiding his older sister who keeps trying to jumpstart some kind of latelife relationship with the little brother she hates (because she knows what he can do) and avoiding—

Well, avoiding anything that reminds him of the salient feature of his present existence, which is that he is slowly losing his ability.

Like a form of Alzheimer’s, his telepathy is fading. He has good days and bad days, reception is often muddled, it is becoming an uncertain talent, and he has no idea why. It could be age, it could be nutrition, it could be a real disease. At times he affects an attitude of not caring, of actually wishing it would vanish. Life might be easier not knowing what the people he has to deal with are thinking, feeling, being. But there is an undercurrent of desperation throughout, something he keeps at a distance because it would be devastating to deal with face on.

Which, of course, is the way he treats life in general.

The deceptiveness of the novel is in its top to bottom symmetries.  Selig lives on the fringes because he doesn’t want to get involved.  He doesn’t want to get involved because when he does he gets far more involved than is humanly sustainable. He survives by manipulating people with his gift, but he doesn’t manipulate them to any real advantage because he doesn’t want to get involved. Nor does he want to be the monster he suspects he may be.  He tries to be outside, above it all, because he is terrified that he is not. He can’t be truly detached because he needs other people to survive, but he won’t embrace them, either, because he doesn’t want them to know what he is. The layers go down and down, onion-like, and in the end there may be no center, and he doesn’t want to find that out, either, so it’s possible his vanishing ability is self-sabotage.

He holds humanity in contempt because, finally, he holds himself in contempt. Wanting them to accept him he won’t allow it because what would that say about him that such pathetic creatures might think well of him?

As you read, go through his life in finely-wrought flashbacks, watch his “progress” and endure his growing failure, the novel moves through you, easily.  This is a quiet tragedy, yet so strange because we can see any number of places where Selig might have changed something, anything, so he would be in a better place, and in that it is the equal of any well-conceived character drama, but then there’s this added detail that makes it all so much stranger, so much greater, so much deeper once we let it work through us.

It is as if Silverberg is showing us that of all the advantages telepathy might give us, the most likely one would be the ability to be even lonelier than we are. Access to such intimacy would not open us to richer human interactions. Quite the contrary, it would cause us to shun intimacy. Because, possibly, the real pleasure of intimacy is in the surprise, the unexpected, the mutuality of discovery.  Telepathy would be like skipping to the end of the book.

We would still be left with the task of reading—and understanding—the rest of the book.

There have been many attempts in science fiction to portray telepathy.  This is one of the more successful.  In so doing, it reveals much about human nature that, as we read, we come to realize is better discovered through our common means and abilities.

As Selig’s talent continues to fade and he is forced to deal with people more and more without the intercession of preknowledge, we see a human being trying to do what we all try to—reach out, understand, touch another soul.  Telepathic or not, it seems we are all stuck with one thing—who we really are.

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.


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.


In Review

2015 is done and I have read what I read.  It was a year fraught with turmoil in science fiction, a year prompting reassessments, a year when required reading competed with reading for pleasure, and the time constraints of working on a new novel (two, in fact) impeded chipping away at my to-be-read pile, which mounds higher.

As in the past, I count only books I have read cover to cover here.  If I added in total pages of unfinished reading, I’m probably up with my usual volume (somewhere around 90 books), but that would be a cheat.  That said, I read 50 books in 2015.

One thing I concluded, both from what I read and the upheaval in the background about what is or is not worthy science fiction, is that the decades long pseudowar between mainstream and genre is over.  Skirmishes will continue to be fought here and there, certain elements will refuse to yield or concede, but by and large the evidence suggests that, on the part of the literary writers at least SF has made its point. A couple of examples:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is science fiction.  In fact, after talking it over for nearly a year since I read it, it seems to me to be Heinleinesque.  Better written, the characters less exemplars than real people, but in basic conceit and plot, this is a Heinlein novel. It has all the elements—survivors, a plucky heroine, a global catastrophe forcing those who remain to learn quickly a whole suite of new skills, and an ongoing discussion throughout about what is of value and ought to be preserved.  It is a superbly written work and that alone made the identification difficult.  Heinlein, at his best, could be as good as anyone in any genre, but to see the form raised to this level shows both his virtues and his weaknesses.  The population of the Earth is reduced buy a superflu.  The novel flashes back and forth around the life of a kind of patriarch whose biological and artistic progeny struggle in a post-technological world to both survive and preserve the best of that former world.  The novel prompts questions, challenges preconceptions, and draws us in.  It was not marketed as science fiction and it has continued to sell very well.  It is science fiction and no one has batted an eye.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.  An ecological thriller, an examination of a different kind of breakdown, a different kind of survival, peopled by characters as real as can be.  In a decade this will be historical fiction, probably, but it is SF and also mainstream and also uncategorizable.  Exceptional.

Straddling the boundary is Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, which is a curiosity.  It proceeds like a straightforward “survey mission” novel—specialists set down upon an alien world and struggling to unravel its mysteries before said world kills them.  Only in this case the “alien” world in a patch of reclaimed wilderness somewhere along the eastern seaboard, probably north Florida, that is undergoing some strange transformations due to an experiment gone wrong.  There are touches of zombie fiction, government conspiracy, and even Lovecraftian uber-malignancy evoked, but the story, as told by The Biologist, feels more meta than any of those suggest.  the landscape works to inform the soul-wrenching recognitions and evolutions within the Biologist as she works to understand what is going on in the aptly named Area X.  Vandermeer has created a work bordering on genius here by virtue of externalizing and foregrounding mystical revelation as ecological transmutation, but as you read you can’t tease the meta passages from the plot in any clear way, so the experience, when you give yourself over to it, is wholly immersive.

So what I’m seeing—in many more titles still on my TBR pile—is the embrace of science fiction by what was formerly an ambivalent cadre of artists who are using it to ends traditionally ignored by main-body SF.

In the other direction, the infusion of literary concerns, which necessarily drag real-world issues in with them, into genre writing has prompted a squeal of protest from those who wish to keep their starships pure, their aliens obvious, and their weapons decisive.  “Good writing” is still a poorly understood quality by too many in the genres (by no means a problem exclusive to SF, but because of the nature of SF a problem which yields far more obvious failures) and the clinging to an aesthetic attributed to the so-called Golden Age and exemplified by writers probably more often revered than actually read (and therefore misperceived in intent) has exacerbated the old antagonisms and a final flaring up of fires dying to ash.  The clunky sentence is a hallmark of much of this, more likely as consequence rather than intent, and the cliched scenario becomes more obviously so as the whole point of what we mean by “literary” in its most useful mode is overlooked or, perhaps, willfully ignored in a fit of defensive refusal to pay attention to what matters, namely the truth of human experience and the profitable examination of, for want of a better word, the Soul.

Where the cross-fertilization of mainstream and genre has been successfully accomplished, we’ve been seeing novels and stories of marvelous effect.  We have been seeing them all along and in the past such examples were readily offered as proof that SF wass “just as good” as anything published as mainstream.  I’ve always felt that being “just ad good” was selling our potential short, but the work has to rise to the challenge, and there always have been such works.

Among such that I read this past year were a few from that rich past, mainly for the reading group I host at work.  The Two of Them by Joanna Russ; Extra(Ordinary) People, also by Russ; The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis; Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock; The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell; and Engine Summer by John Crowley.  In retrospect, there have always been writers writing in the full embrace of science fiction but without any of the stylistic constraints of its pulp origins, and such works remain trenchant and readable and offer surprising commentary still on current questions.

The Sparrow was a highlight. I have known since its publicatin that it was sort of a riff on James Blish’s classic, A Case Of Conscience, but it so much more. Russell’s elegant reversal of the moral question elevates this novel to the top tiers of useful literary works. I have not yet read its sequel, but I am looking forward to it after this treat.

I also reread Harlan Ellison’s Shatterday for the reading group. It’s been a good long while since I did so and I was not disappopinted, although I read many of the stories through a more cynical eye. The opening tale, Jeffty Is Five, remains, for me, one of the most gutwrenching short stories of all time.

Another highpoint this past year was James Morrow’s new novel, Galapagos Regained, a neatly unclassifiable work of speculative history.  I gave it a lengthy review here and recommend a look. This is a superbly done work that deserves more attention than it has received.

I also read Morrow’s amusing novella, The Madonna and the Starship, which runs a delightful gamne via Fifties television and alien visitors who come to bestow an award and offer assistance in exterminating the irrational on Earth.  Morrow is acerbic even as he is funny.

Among the most interesting new works of science fiction I red this year is The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translation by Ken Liu.  This is the first part of a trilogy about alien invasion and resistance as written from a Chinese perspective.  It is an exceptional translation.  It won the Hugo Award, the first, I believe, translation to do so, and certainly the first Asian novel to win.  There is high-end physics, nasty politics, murder, and the conundrums of committed action. The cultural quirks made it even more interesting.

Like almost everyone, it seems, I read The Martian by Andrew Weir. This was great fun and well executed.  My quibble, along with many others, was with the opening gambit to explain the marooning of the astronaut, but I’m content to see it as a mere dramatic choice.  It didn’t preent me from enjoying the rest of the book, which, in the words of the screen adaptation, “scienced the shit out all this” and did so in an accessible and entertaining manner which I applaud.  I couldn’t help seeing it as a newer version of an older film, Robinson Crusoe On Mars, and naturally this one works a bit better.  Hell, we know more, there’s no excuse for bad science, and Mr. Weir that.  He wrote a realistic piece of speculation and followed through admirably.

Another novel that gave a far more “realistic” view of an old, favorite SF trope, is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora.  There is much to love about this book, but it is not lovable.  It’s a clear-eyed look at what an interstellar generation ship would actually be like.  And it is bleak, in terms of the traditions of SF.  Suffice it to say without giving away too much that Robinson fully incorporates entropy into his formula with predictably gloomy results, but for all that it is a thoroughly engaging work.

At the other end of the “hard” SF spectrum is Charles Gannon’s Fire With Fire.  Future interstellar expansion brings humanity into contact with our neighbors.  The resulting tensions drive the novel.  I reviewed it here.

Science fiction is a broad, broad field and has room for a magnificently wide range even on the same subjects.  It even has room, as I noted above, for exceptional style.  One of the most enjoyable reads for me, on that note, was Ian McDonald’s new novel, Luna.  There will be comparisons made to Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  Look for an upcoming review where I will argue that the comparison, while in some ways valid, is superficial.  Anyone who has not read McDonald, treat yourself.  This would be a good one with which to begin.

In a completely different area of the playground, there is Daryl Gregory’s AfterParty, which I found excellent.  It’s about drug abuse and the workings of delusion and murder.  Anything I might say here would spoil it.  Go.  Find it.  Imbibe.

The bulk of my reading, after that and a few other titles, has been scattered.  I found a brand new history of the Group f64, which was the first dedicated group of photographers to push the pure art of the straight photograph.  Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, several others, in the 20s and 30s established the ground upon which all photography came to be viewed for the rest of the 20th century and even, arguably, into today. Mary Street Alinder, who has previously written a biography of Ansel Adams, did a superb job chronicling this group of prickly independent artist.

I read a history of a superhero, Wonder Woman, and discovered that the story of her creation was even stranger than the character herself.

A new work by journalist Johann Hari, Chasing The Scream, opened my eyes to the thorny issue of the Drug War.

In the wake of seeing the film Interstellar and beginning work on my own novel about (partly) interstellar travel, I dove into Kip Thorne’s Black Holes & Time Warps and had my mind bent in some ways I didn’t think it could be bent.  This has prompted a reengagement with science on this level which is proving difficult, tedious, and yet rewarding.  My mind no longer has the plasticity it once enjoyed.  On the other hand, experience has proven a benefit in that I seem to be absorbing and comprehending at a much deeper level.  We shall see.

Quite a bit of history, much of it unfinished.  In a separate reading group, I’m going through Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and reading in the history of the French Revolution, the Republic, its fall, all partly to complete the third novel of my trilogy, but also because the literature available is so rich and surprising that it has become its own pleasure.  It would seem now I’m about to embark on early American history again, anchored by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.

There was a new Mary Russell novel this past year, Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King.  I discovered a Dan Simmons novel about Holmes which I’d overlooked when it came out, The Fifth Heart, in which he is paired with Henry James, one more in a long line of novels and stories concerning Holmes’ unlikely interaction with historical figures.  Simmons is a terrific writer, but even he tended toward the tedious in this one.  He needs to learn to leave his research in his files.  But it was a unique take on Holmes and he even managed to elicit my sympathy toward James, a writer I find problematic at best, insufferable at worst, and annoying the rest of the time.

So much for the highlights.  Let me end by noting that the Best American series has finally realized that science fiction and fantasy are a real thing and launched one of their annual collections to cover it.  This after both Best Of infographics and comics.  Better late than never, I suppose.  The series editor is John Joseph Adams—difficult to imagine better hands—and this first volume was edited by Joe Hill, which I found interesting to say the least.  Mr. Hill is a horror writer.  Certainly many of the stories have a strong horror element, but over all this is a collection full of marvels, from the writing to the ideas.  I’ll try to keep track of this one in future.

So while not numerically great, 2015 was filled with many very excellent books.  I’m looking forward to 2016.  My stack awaits.

Happy New Year.



Moral Crisis and The Reality of God: Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow

Sometimes it is very much worth the wait before reading certain books.  Too early an exposure and the substance could be misapprehended, misinterpreted, misconstrued, or simply missed. Such, I feel, is the case with Mary Doria Russell’s superb The Sparrow, which came out in 1996. I bought a copy shortly after it appeared in paperback and it has remained, unread, on my shelf since. Until this month. Why?

I don’t know, really. I started it a few times and something in the opening pages either left me unengaged or daunted. Whatever the reason, it waited till this year, and perhaps that was as it should be.

I knew enough about the novel to tell people that it is a natural successor to James Blish’s excellent novella, A Case of Conscience, which has many of the same elements. A Jesuit as member of a first contact mission to an alien world and the moral conundrum arising from certain inevitable questions.  Interestingly, I find that both novels hinge on an evolutionary question going directly to matters of fundamental morality.  Blish suggested powerfully that our entire conception of god and its concomitant moral structures may be simply a consequence of how we evolved.  That the sociology resulting from our biology allowed for certain cross-generational assumptions which a different biological system simply wouldn’t produce.

Russell’s concept is less pat than Blish, since in many respects the biology involved is similar enough to ours to muddy those particular waters. She adds another component to the mix, though, that results in a basic difference of moral priority.  In fact, in the end there’s a question of whether or not morality is relevant at all, overwhelmed by opportunity and expedience.

What we have in The Sparrow is deliciously layered examination of cultural assumptions that continues to play even after the book is finished and the afterimages begin cycling through our minds.  She set a series of logical land mines throughout that set each other off with the inevitability of a Socratic dialogue.

Father Emilio Sandoz, Jesuit and linguist, a child of the slums who has through a series of fortunate accidents become more than his beginnings would ever have suggested possible, is on hand when the first evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered at the large radio array of Arecibo. After analysis, the signals resolve into music. Odd, alien music that is nevertheless compelling, a siren’s call to erstwhile explorers.  There is no question upon hearing this music for Sandoz. We must go.

The mechanism by which they travel to Alpha Centauri is grounded in solid extrapolation of how space technologies may proliferate in the near future.  Asteroid mining is a going activity and it is a matter mainly of financing to turn an abandoned asteroid into a starship.  The Catholic Church, through the offices of the Jesuits, opts to send a mission.  They ask no one’s permission, in fact pretty much tell no one that they’re going.  The U.N. is debating sending a mission and later they do, but this one—the Stella Maris—is the first.

I don’t wish to spoil the plot, which, even without the substantial subtext would be a page-turner.  The careful revelation of detail through which Russell presents her thesis is important to its impact, and that subtext is the whole purpose.  Suffice it to say that the mission fails.  Emilio Sandoz returns to Earth, a broken man, the only survivor of the party of eight.

When I say “a broken man” I mean in every sense of the phrase.  His hands are a wreck, he has numerous physical problems, including scurvy, and his mind is all but gone from the trauma of the mission itself and its costs and from the fact that he was forced to make the return voyage all alone, a long journey through a deeper dark night of the soul than one might ordinarily encounter.  Upon return, he is to be brought before an inquest, established by his own order, to find out the facts of the mission and determine their meaning.

Sandoz doesn’t want to cooperate.  He doesn’t want to relive the events that ended in such failure nor does he want to infect anyone else with the knowledge that has caused him to renounce his faith.

Though not exactly. This is one of the interesting aspects of the layered game Russell plays throughout. It’s an open question, even at the end, whether Sandoz has in fact lost his faith.  He seems to wish it, certainly, angry and bitter he is at a god by which he feels betrayed.  But Sandoz is a brilliant man.  He exemplifies what has become axiomatic about Jesuits and maintains his faith by dint of reason supported by a passionate belief in justice.  No simple “believer” and having emerged from a hellish childhood to become one of the best linguists not only in his order but anywhere, it takes enormous challenge for him to question his commitment to a god which more facile minds would characterize as bizarrely cruel.  Even at the close of the novel he is wrestling with the nature of god.

At the center of the novel is a particular formulation of the question of evil which goes to what might be termed beneficial expedience.  The alien race to which he goes as linguist and missionary lives in apparent harmony with itself and its environment.  A complex harmony, mirrored in the songs that are the first knowledge humankind receives of them.  There is much about them that is admirable but also puzzling—until they realize that what they at first thought to be a single species is in fact two intelligent species and their evolved cohabitation of their world requires of them certain accommodations that for humans would be odious.

There is the question of judgment—not our world, not even our evolutionary history, how are we to judge?  But any concept of a god as source of moral law must necessarily exhibit certain basic consistencies, regardless.  There is the question of expedience—if something works not only for the individual but for the planet as a whole, again, who are we to question?

But finally, Sandoz comes face to face with the human example as baseline for any kind of moral assessment and asks: “What do we have to show as in any way superior, when the condition of our species is questionable at best?”

Russell sets a serious moral trap in this novel, leading us step by step to the point where we must look at our own condition and ask how our own apprehension of moral law plays out.  Does it enforce any kind of justice?  Does it bring us into harmony among ourselves and our environment?  Does the dogma by which our moral adjutants dispense advice and guidance actually serve the function for which it is claimed?

Like a good Jesuit, Sandoz is still asking these questions at the end of his ordeal, and a terrible ordeal it is.  On a certain level, he is brought to the condition of all colonized and oppressed peoples and made to know what it is like to have everything he believes and assumes overwritten by a more powerful circumstance.  By the end he has suffered every indignity. Every single one that arises from basic injustice.

And yet the system which puts him through this is not by its own metrics oppressive—merely an embellished example of evolutionary imperative.  By comparison, Sandoz wonders if the horrors of our own condition are not the results of a fundamental rejection of evolutionary imperatives, the imposition of a wholly artificial system presumed to be based on moral assessment but really little more than a gloss on power relations having little to do with anything “natural.”

In turn, one can then ask the same thing about the aliens and their relationships.  If, which seems to be one of the unspoken assumptions by which Sandoz operates as a moral agent, sapience is the deciding factor in applying standards of justice and equity, then how can the two species on Rakhat maintain the self-evidently immoral system they do?  By the same token, if equality is of such value to us as a basis for our moral decisions, how then can we maintain the cultural systems we do?

There is, Socratically, a dialogue at play throughout the novel, and a rigorous one at that.  Each of the eight humans who go to Rakhat as well as the priests conducting the inquest represent choices and judgments based on different apprehensions of the god question.  Each stands for a different set of conditions calling into question our basic assumptions about civilization and moral action.  Often it’s subtle, but sometimes powerfully visceral.  We realize that this is a novel which, practically from page one, takes every assertion of right and wrong and expedience and morality and says “Sure, but” in the very next passage.

Finally, it is an examination of the limits of accommodation.

The earlier novel, A Case of Conscience, asked a few of these questions, but it shied away from many others.  Nor did it offer such a full range of mirrored arguments.  Its conclusion was in many ways annoyingly ambiguous and turned on a question of epistemology which was less personal, less visceral than what Father Sandoz is forced to face.  But there remains a line between them which is not insignificant, which is that we must ask if any conception of god is not in the end purely a matter of intellectual expedience that cannot stand up to exposure to truly different cultures and biologies.  If, basically, in the end such conceptions are, like anything else, merely systems designed to see us through to the next level of understanding.  They do change.  The Jesuits themselves changed from their beginnings as an order dedicated to the authority of the pope and an enemy of developing knowledge to an order of the best educators and some of the finest scientists on the planet.  Whether admitted or not, their conception of god changed.  Sandoz is dealing with the question of how resilient any such conception is.

Or was Spinoza right and that god is simply nature and morality is ours to construct and adapt and modify?  Sandoz seems at times a closet Spinozan, but as flexible as he often is, he finds his limits and snaps.

Or does he?

I’m not sure I possessed the stuff to appreciate this novel when it came out.  I may not now, but I can at least see, sometimes vaguely perhaps, Russell’s intent.  In any case, it was certainly worth the wait.