Below Dragons, There Be

Empire City suffers under circumstance unprecedented in history.

Or does it?

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

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

Duncan Ripple, Swanny Dahlberg, Abby.

Who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then things go very strange.

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

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

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

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

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

Shifting Ground, Changing Paths, Constructed Worlds

We talk a great deal about World Building in science fiction and fantasy, but more often than not I suspect it refers to the equivalent of interior design and decoration. If the motifs of costume and manners conforms to a general tableaux of architecture, climate, and the suggestion of a history a bit more than two months old, with none of the corners out of place, it is hailed as an example of world building. In fact, it may well be nothing more than sticking antlers on the dog, painting the castle mauve, and handing out swords to characters who would be otherwise right at home in any particular middle period Court one cared to name, and reviving institutions we are well rid of and renaming them or layering them with mystical significance or “bloodline” gravitas.

World building worthy of the description requires more, and some understanding of how a holism evolves. (I find it noteworthy that when discussing this, one rarely hears it applied to something like Star Trek, which, for all its flaws, it one of the most successfully sustained examples of world building ever put forth. Perhaps because the path to it seems obvious and it’s really just the end result of a suite of logical assumptions instead of a complete substitution of what we recognize as “our” world? Hm.) Which is why Dune, for all its ecological problems, is a viable example of the art. All its parts are necessary to create the political, social, economic, environmental, and historical verisimilitude of a complete world that is not, for all the suggestive borrowings from it, our own. Or, for another example, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (or his later Book of the Long Sun); or for a more sustained example, C. J. Cherryh’s magisterial Union-Alliance novels, which cover centuries of history, hundreds of light years of territory, and dozens of cultures, each recognizably its own…

N. K. Jemisin has given us world building at the highest level in her Broken Earth trilogy.

The Earth of The Fifth Season is similar to but quite unlike our own. It could very easily be in a distance past, but more likely an equally distance future, one in which the ever-shifting plates on which the continents ride have brought all these landmasses back together in a new supercontinent. She suggests that such compaction has created a situation in which geologic forces are concentrated and history has been subsequently sorted out by Seasons, noted for periods of extreme geological convulsion. It’s not like we have nothing like this now—we speak of Ice Ages, warm periods, and have broken down the pre-human periods into large parenthetical Ages distinguished by flora, fauna, and, yes, continental configuration (though that is a relatively recent inclusion), but we don’t talk about them as part of our daily cultural vocabulary. In this world (let’s say the far future) tectonics dominates the mythology.

Like any time in human history, people are sharply divided into groups as well, only in this case the attributes dividing them are a bit less arbitrary. There are classes of people born with extraordinary abilities. Frightening abilities. The Orogenes possess the capacity to channel the energy of local geology. They are dangerous. When working this ability, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is in full play and consequences manifest unless their efforts are very carefully controlled. Of course, such control requires discipline and learning. Which requires a social system.

Which requires a civilization.

And so we have Yumenes, capital of the empire that more or less manages the continent—which is ironically called the Stillness. Yumenes, among other things, maintains the roads. This fact denotes an attention to detail and how the small things, the things too often taken for granted, matter sometimes far more than the grand histories we tell about ourselves or past Selves.

Not only the roads we see, though, but all roads, especially the roads that connect people. As we read we feel the history underlying all of this, and sense of the cohesion. It is that cohesion that makes this place real. What is more, it makes it real and alien, because this history is not ours. We recognize its validity in the consequences of that history.

This is the story of Essun. And Syenite. And Damaya. And how they—she—become a pivot point along a fault line that changes the world.

Syenite belongs to an elite order of Orogenes, protected and wielded by Yumenes to maintain the integrity of the empire. Literally. And while she enjoys certain privileges and a position of some power, she is still, at the end of it, a slave. She has no real choice but to serve in this order. The alternative is one of a variety of deaths.

What she expected to be an ordinary life along traditional lines within the order changes when she is paired with a man of immensely more ability than she exhibits and she travels with him on what should have been a simple mission to clear a harbor of coral. What she learns, what she sees, what she begins to become alters her path and puts her on the road to a revolution.

Jemisin has built in layers, carefully accruing history and myth and the physical realities in which these people move in such a way as to give us the full experience of another world. From the configuration of the government and the ruling classes down to the street slang hurled at the unwanted and frightening to the intricate network of relationships between communities and individuals, the Stillness—anything but still!—is a walkable, breathable world with stories to tell about people just like us—only different.

It is not the tectonics of the land that matter, but the drift among the people, the shifts in history, the maddening subduction of memory—and how finally they are all the same thing when combined.

2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good reading to you all.

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.

Sleeping Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossovers

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

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

The problem is that fantasy, dealing as it does with physical propositions of how the universe operates which run counter to our understanding of the same concepts, develops thematic conceits which have very little if anything to do with the concerns found in science fiction.  They are, at base, about different things.  Attempting to assert that those two worlds (never mind world views) can plausibly coexist and have anything to say together which cannot be said better by one or the other usually ends up as special pleading or simply a fashion statement.

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

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

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

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

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

What is special about them is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

 

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.

 

 

…Behind Door Number…

After viewing Ex Machina I sat in a bit of a daze wondering what it was I’d just seen.  Stylish, well-acted, the now-expected seamless special effects, and a story with pretensions to significance.

The next day, I spoke to a good friend about it, who has also written about its flaws, and came to the conclusion that the film is not at all what it seems to want to be. In fact, it may be the perfect demonstration of style over substance.

It would be easy to see the film as a misogynistic attempt to intellectualize adolescent cluelessness, and certainly there is that in it, but perhaps that doesn’t go far enough.  Misanthropic may be more accurate.  It has nothing good to say about anyone or anything.  The chopper pilot may be innocent, he’s just doing his job, but once Caleb lands and approaches the isolated superhouse of his employer, Nathan, sympathy for anything human vanishes and we’re treated to a narrow, pseudo-socratic disquisition on how stupid people can be, even with high I.Q.s and a lot of money.

But it is smooth, it is elegantly filmed, and the acting is convincing, and the soul-searching seems genuine, and the robot is so enticing. It feels superior. It says smart things, makes fascinating assertions, but all in the least engaging manner possible.  Instead of actually dealing with the presumptive subject—strong A.I.—we are treated to a reboot of Frankenstein as The Dating Game.  Bachelor Number One, how do you answer these simple questions from Bachelorette Number nth, and do you get to date her when the show is over?

Nathan is the typically clichéd billionaire genius who, instead of trying to learn how to connect with actual people, builds himself a fortress of solitude and sets about building himself a companion. Of course, since he doesn’t understand people as individuals, he keeps making sexbots that fail to meet his expectations. Partly, he excuses this (to himself) by claiming that he’s only pushing the envelope on A.I. instead of searching for a perfect fuck.

No, he never actually says that, but consider the machines.  All women, all one stereotype or another of gorgeous, and he has fitted them out with sensate genitalia. Since until he ropes Caleb into the equation it’s only him interacting with them, why do this if your claim is an interest in their cognitive and self-awareness abilities?  And the almost throwaway line where he reveals Ava’s sexual capabilities is about as arrogant and dismissive as can be.  He wants to create self-aware machine intelligence than can mimic human but talks about them like a new car model with the latest features.

Okay, so Nathan is an asshole.  Dramatically, he’s supposed to be, he’s Victor Frankenstein, whose arrogance foreshadows his doom. In this instance, the one bit of psychological nuance which could have elevated this story above the level of Weird Science (which, in the end, was a more sophisticated film than this one, despite the comedic aspects) his arrogance leads him to assume a specific “type” for women in general and he manages to create one that lives up to his expectations—she stabs him in the back and runs off.

This, in case anyone missed it, is called sexism: the complete failure to understand how one’s expectations shape circumstances to guarantee a thorough and complete misunderstanding of women as people, and then using that to dictate the terms of all interactions with females.  (Note, one does not have to be a male in order to do this, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

But what about Caleb? He’s a presumptive innocent. Why is he left to starve to death, locked in the prison Nathan has built below ground?

Perhaps not so “innocent.”  He is inserted into the storyline to act, ultimately, as Ava’s rescuer, but he is incapable of rescuing himself from the same set of expectations that Nathan exhibits.  He doesn’t want to set her free, which is kind of undefined given the context, but to have her for himself.  Nathan allows that her “design” was more or less aimed at him, so he could not help but respond in the most predictable fashion, which makes Caleb at best an adolescent who can’t tell the difference between what is and is not human, even when the difference is revealed to him at the outset.  But he’s more than just a toy.  He’s a rival.  He’s a thief.  He’s a liar.

Learning from these two examples, it might not be a surprise that Ava has turned out the way she has.

But “she” would have had to have been programmed to manipulate someone other than Nathan, who, we assume, she cannot manipulate because he knows exactly what she is.  Which then suggests that such programming is inevitable in the simulation of Woman.  That she can’t help but be this way from the first instance of her base code, which means that Woman is an essential something that emerges regardless of circumstance.  But if that’s so, then why is the essential woman inevitably a sexually manipulative sociopath?  Because that’s what Ava is.  The only possible way she could have become that is by way of her initial programming, which is Nathan’s—the technobabble about using his search engine’s datamining as the source of her programming is facile; he would have to select and edit or she would simply be a collection of data with little or no organizing principle—which then would be what he has predetermined defines Woman.

Ava does not even attempt to help her predecessors.

The single facet of all this that puts the lie to Nathan’s superficial explanation as to why he made Ava female is that he could have made Ava Alvin.  Or made Ava ten.  Or—and this would have pushed this rat’s maze of a film out of the simplistic—made Ava homosexual or even transgendered.  Push Ava out of the sex toy model she was clearly designed to be so that interaction with Nathan would produce the personally unexpected.

Even that would be a bit conservative.  There are people who are asexual.  Humans do not all fall into binaries.  Nathan is being disingenuous.  At best, he wanted Caleb to trigger in Ava a desire to choose—between him and Nathan or between either of them and an unknown.  Maybe the chopper pilot.  Or one of the other sexbots.

Or the gray box Nathan insists would have no reason for interaction. The final cop-out.  People interact all the time without knowing each other’s gender.  The initial basis of human interaction itself is not sex but Other.

Instead, we are given a treatise on the challenged expectations of a narcissist with the means to externalize his narcissism and what happens when a competitor narcissist enters the bubble to supplant him.  Had the film been more honest about this, it might have been worth the time spent watching two adult adolescents compete over the rights to a masturbatory fantasy.  Ava could, at a minimum, have schooled them on being adults.

There are moments that stop right at the edge of really interesting, but they are subverted constantly by all the testosterone soaking the scenery.

But it looks so good.  It is done in the serious manner we might wish all science fiction were done in, and there is where the final failure is most apparent.  Because obviously the makers wanted it to be taken seriously.  It’s just that they managed to feed right into the pitfalls of both a Turing test exegesis and the presumed realities of gender relations based on search engine dynamics.  They missed the trees for the forest and painted a sexual fantasy that reinforces stereotypes and says almost nothing about intelligence worth discussing—artificial or human.

 

Now A Word From Paradise Island

Of all the unlikely confluences you might stumble over in life, here’s a set: what do Margaret Sanger, lie detectors, and superheroes have in common?

If you answered “Wonder Woman!” you would be correct.  And if you could answer that before Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman came out, you would be in rare company knowing that.  lepore_wonder_woman_cover

Wonder Woman was the creation of one William Moulton Marston, of the Massachussetts Marstons. If that familial pedigree escapes you, don’t feel bad, you didn’t miss it in history class.  The Marstons had come down a ways from their 19th Century heights, enough so that William was forced to apply for grants to finish his degree at Harvard in 1915 in psychology (Ph.D. earned in 1921).

Psychology was still a relatively “new” science and Harvard was in the vanguard.  Marston attached himself to the recently founded Harvard Psychological Laboratory and eventually ended up running it.  But only for a short while.  And that career curve would follow him the rest of his life.

Marston emerges in the pages of Lepore’s book as a brilliant man-child who just couldn’t seem to make a success that lasted of anything.  It becomes evident as his story unfolds that he simply confused personal fame with genuine success and made a series of bad calls with regards to where and how to apply his energies.  He was a self-promoter but when it came to backing up his claims he was lacking in substance.  He “invented” the lie detector and established it as a viable methodology and then ruined its use in court for decades through sloppy application and shoddy research.  Not only that, but the court case which apparently set the precedent for the exclusion of lie detector results from court rooms cast a pall on him personally, a circumstance he never quite recovered from.  If not for the three women he eventually lived with, it seems likely he would have been indigent.

That is where the story takes a turn toward the culturally amazing.  Marston was a hardcore feminist, of the “old school” that marched and advocated and disrupted (although being a man this rarely led to any inconvenience for him).  He seems to have been genuinely dedicated to the idea of equality for women and also a devotee of free love, a parallel movement to the equal rights movement that led to considerable discord among feminists.  He met and eventually married Elizabeth Holloway, who shared his philosophy.  She earned a law degree from Boston University and of the two possessed the discipline to apply herself to her chosen tasks, a trait Marston apparently lacked.  Eventually, Holloway (who kept her maiden name) was the principle breadwinner in the house, which grew to include Marjorie WIlkes Huntley, a woman he met while doing work for the Army under Robert Yerkes, and then later Olive Byrne, who was Margaret Sanger’s niece.

At a time when “alternate lifestyles” could land you in prison, this was, to say the least, unorthodox.  Marston apparently possessed enormous personal charmisma and none of the women ever left him.  After his death, the three more or less remained together almost until death.  Byrne and Holloway each bore two of Marston’s four children, but Byrne claimed to be a widowed cousin and refused to tell her own children that she was their mother.

How did all this produce one of the most well-known superheroes of all time?

Lepore, who obtained access to archives and letters never before made public, has detailed this remarkable story with clarity, humor, and insight.  Wonder Woman is probably one of the most rigorously constructed superheroes of the Golden Age of comics.  Marston did not see her as entertainment but as a tool for social propaganda, namely to advance the cause of equal rights for women.  In fact, Marston thought women should be in charge.  His Wonder Woman was no one’s servant and the first couple of years of her publication reads like an indictment of everything broken in society’s attitude toward women.

DC Comics was in a bit of a bind.  They were by and large uncomfortable with the feminist “messaging” but Wonder Woman, almost from the first issue, was one of the three most popular superheroes of all time, right behind Batman and Superman.  They were making too much money to just kill her off.  But once Marston lost control of the comic (due to illness, first polio then cancer) the editor put in charge seemed to do everything he could to declaw this difficult woman.  That she survived to once again be the powerful symbol of womanhood is remarkable, but it also goes some way to explain the bizarre manifestation of the Seventies TV show.  Comparing the Lynda Carter characterization to the forthcoming Gal Gadot realization shows a marked difference in attitude and approach.

TCDWOWO EC007 Wonder Woman Gal GadotThe holdovers from the Silver Age era in Carter’s look, while “true” to the traditional Wonder Woman, nevertheless supported the highly sexualized aspect of the character, while the new look shows the underlying mythology that was originally loaded into the construct, that of a warrior, and Amazon, something out of the bloodier, martial past of the ancient Greeks.

Lepore’s book examines the period as much as the principles and shows us the problematic world in which suffrage, feminism, and tradition often came into conflict.  The urgency to “put Wonder Woman in her place” especially after WWII played out in the comics in often tragicomic ways.  Wonder Woman becomes a full-fledged member of the Justice League only to be made the secretary.

Some of this may seem silly to modern readers.  Why couldn’t people just get over their prejudices?  Wasn’t it obvious, etc etc.?  Maybe.  And maybe that it was obvious was part of the problem.  Justice often conflicts with privilege, ethics with desire, and change is never welcome to the fearful.

Marston himself, as a human being, seems by turns charming and repulsive.  Art rarely emerges from pristine sources, unalloyed with the questionable.  But then, Marston probably did not see himself as an artist or Wonder Woman as a work of art. He had causes to pursue, beliefs to validate, and…well, bills to pay.

Lest anyone believe that Wonder Woman was all Marston’s invention, though, Lepore makes it abundantly clear that the women around him contributed just as much if not more and served in many ways as models upon which he based the character.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a fascinating look at a time in America and an aspect of culture that for too long was underappreciated.  It is a serious and thorough examination of popular mythology and from whence many of our modern concepts came.  In these times when women are once more required to defend their rights and the very idea of equality, it might be useful to see how and in what ways this struggle has been going on for a long time and under some of the most unexpected banners in some of the most unusual ways.