2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can recommend all of the above whole-heartedly. 

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

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

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

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

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

I’m looking forward yo 2023.

Good reading to you all.

The Long and the Short and All Between

Of all the things that make up the borders and textures of our lives, how many do we ever consider doing without and what that might mean? Because anything we do in the least technological, there was a time when we didn’t. Often such times were so long ago we have no cultural (much less personal) memory. We live as if we have always lived a certan way, even when we know better.

Take measurement, for instance. There was surely a first time, when someone, somewhere, thought to mark down something to keep track of how many, how much, how long or short, and thus invented measurement. Since then, measuring has become part of the cultural air. We notice it when we use it, but rarely realize consciously just how ubiquitous it is. Basically, almost everything we do is measured.

“If we could not measure, then we could not observe the world around us; could not experiment and learn…it is a tool for social cohesion and control…[m]easurement has not only made the world we live in, it has made us too.”

Thus James Vincent establishes in the introduction to his history, Beyond Measure, the vital importance of what he then goes on to explore in his excellent overview.

There is a scene in one of the original Star Trek episodes where Nurse Chapel confronts her former paramour, who was presumed lost on an unexplored world and has somehow survived. But he has survived by becoming an android, a machine. He is challenged that he is no longer human and seeks to prove that he is and then runs down a list of possible tests, every single one of which involves measurement of some kind. Somehow being unable to offer a proof that does not involve mathematics of some kind suggests he has lost his essential humanness.

After coming to grips with the proofs offered in Mr. Vincent’s new book, one would be forced to ask “Well how else would he prove it other than by engaging in one of the most fundamentally human creations at hand?”

There is a resistance to accepting definitions of ourselves that involve technologies, as if artifice somehow detracts from our essence. But it is by virtue of those very things that we can recognize such distinctions and make judgments about what may or may not be human—or (especially) whether we should make such judgments.

Vincent explores the history of measurement as a social phenomenon, taking us into some unexpected byways, but with an emphasis on the struggle for standards. The bases on which reliable measures are determined are essential for trade, for the exchange of dependable information, for the very ability to communicate across borders, for, in short, harmony. He presents facts that suggest—strongly—that incommensurate measurements exacerbated if not caused revolutions, wars, the collapse of economies. Getting things “right” is a millennia-old struggle.

But that goal itself can often seem arbitrary. How does one “know” that an inch is an inch, a kilogram a kilogram, a mile a mile, or a light year what it is? Till the last couple of centuries, such questions were central, even if often ignored, but advances in finding presumably irreducible yardsticks, so to speak, have dominated official attempts to establish standards and have entered the quantum age. For the moment, at least, we have ultimate measures against which all other scales might be balanced—the speed of light at one end and Plank’s constant at the other.

We take measurement for granted, most of us, most of the time, but we could not function without it and its application at almost every level, in every niche, of social intercourse.

Beyond Measure is a fascinating read, and takes us into some places we might never know exist. It also prompts questions of limits that are sometimes uncomfortable. How much precision is enough? In the digital age, more so than ever before, this is becoming very personal. We have never really been able to escape from our fellow beings other than by comparison, but these days the metrics that delimit identity are becoming ever more detailed, and much of it would seem irrelevant. But we measure, compulsively, and out of the compulsion emerge possibilities for the kinds of conformity that can feel intrusive, undesirable. Turning our back on it is no solution. Acquainting ourselves better with the how and what and why of our cultural obsession is the reasonable approach. Knowing what to participate in, how, and perhaps recognizing our essential humanness in the numbers, that would seem the more effective—even desirable—approach. This book might be a good place to start.

Of Time and Depths of Contemplation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question then, is Mandel successful in this endeavor?

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

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

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

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

People, Problems, Politics, and Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fatal Prose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then a bit later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________________________

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

Reflections In Stone and Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equations and Kindness

Over the course of my “literary” life, I’ve encountered numerous divisions, prejudices, aversions, proclivities, and preferences. Most of them come down to taste—this school parts company from that one, fans of one writer cannot abide this other one, subject matter produces occasional extreme reactions. Then there is the endless sortings according to style or period or region. Genre can be a minefield of antagonisms, categorical dismissals, harsh critical responses, or simple disinterest. Taste, aesthetics, predilection—all personal, really, even when a case is made of a more substantial kind involving theory, academic attitudes, or even ethics, but by and large it comes down to a kind of triage: what do you want to spend your time on, that satisfies or fulfills?

In my youth, the most prominent division among those of us reading the so-called Classics was best exemplified by those who loved Jane Austen…and those who did not. I fell into the latter category. For years, Austen, for me, was a mannered, formalized, high-end kind of soap opera. I would hear people declare her genius and scratch my head. Many years later, having indulged my personal interest by way of thousands of novels and short stories in science fiction, I came back to Austen and discovered a vein of brilliance I had theretofore missed. While the “soap” aspect was certainly there, the fact is she was writing insightfully about systems. Social systems, mainly, but there were ancillary systems. She examined the social milieu of her day as sets of constraining protocols, barriers, and arrangements that dictated individual choice. 

I describe that in order to explain how most divisions among the wide range of literary forms are often arbitrary, petty, and at best only serve to point us in preferential directions—here be what you like. Read widely enough, we find what we like in places we thought devoid of our preferred pleasures, and hence the distinctions are…porous.

Most of them are harmless and serve at times as sources of productive discourse. One, however, has always dismayed me, because it extends beyond the literary to permeate many other aspects of our lives. What C.P. Snow labeled the Two Cultures—the division between art and science.

As if the two are incompatible, that somehow science is anti-art, and by extension anti-human. (It is one of the underlying dismissals by some of science fiction.) At some point since Newton, this idea has become more entrenched and has led to some arguably toxic consequences. 

In the 20th Century, many people recognized the negative aspects of this division and sought to bridge the divide. Notable among them were Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould, Rachel Carson, Lynn Margulis, Lisa Randall, and Michelle Thaller. The ability to write and convey science in language accessible by the lay public has become something apparently deserving of celebrity status, as in the case of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. 

While it is understandably difficult to convey the details of certain aspects of science, perhaps one of the problems has been that for too long it was just accepted that these things are too complex for the nonspecialist to grasp. It’s difficult to know because examples of excellent communication for the general public do seem to be rare. (Not as rare as it seems, but to know that one would have to be inclined to look, and if through life one is constantly told not only how hard science is but also, in some instances, how “inhuman” it is, the odds are good that one has been set up to be disinclined to pay attention.)

I think it is safe to say that never before has a public understanding of science been so important. After all, public policy, which has always required an understanding on some level of science, is now being directly impacted by such comprehension. 

So the so-called Popularizer has never been more important.

But in order for the message to reach people, it is fair to say it must be made relevant to our humanity.

Enter Carlo Rovelli.

Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist (his field is quantum gravity) who over the last several years has published a handful of exemplary books, beginning with Seven Brief Lesson On Physics which, in a very short space covers much of the important history and nature of modern physics. In each of his books, threaded through the explications of science, is a humanness that renders the work emotionally accessible.

His latest, however, is something different. There Are Places In The World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness is a collection of essays which share the theme of a scientist looking at the world at large and revealing the empathy through which the intellect sees. There are historical pieces about Newton and Einstein and revolution and geology, and political pieces touching on policy and the consequences of both understanding and ignorance, and travel pieces ranging from Africa to Scandinavia. Throughout it all, we see through the eyes of a scientist who loves and is delighted and laughs and is occasionally afraid—who is, basically, human.

The problem science presents for some people is the point at which it seems to throw up a wall and tells us no, you cannot do that, you cannot go there, you cannot have a particular way. Entropy is unsympathetic, and the apparently non-negotiable rejections of certain preferences can be off-putting. What Rovelli does is show us another door, because while science reveals a universe with certain restrictions, it shows us new possibilities all the time. It offers more options than we knew existed. 

But it is also important, if we are to increase our understanding of the world, to learn science as a human art.

That divide I spoke about, between art and science, is the most artificial of divisions. It grew out of the point at which philosophy seemed to lose relevance in the face of answers provided by science that fulfilled certain demands for useful answers. We forgot somewhere along the line that Aristotle was as much a scientist as a moral philosopher, and that he saw no meaningful distinction between the physical world and human ethics.

Rovelli talks about that and many other “points of departure” where some healing is in order, and perhaps a few new bridges. 

And he writes well. He observes very well. He conveys the essential humanness of science and somehow makes it a warmer thing to contemplate. There is hopefulness in his observations. Joy as well, and above all a kindness rarely encountered in any specialty.

Once we read this, I would recommend continuing with his other books. This is fun material as well as challenging and enlightening. Rovelli conveys an almost childish exuberance when talking about science and his own field. It is infectious and perhaps these days being caught up in the delight of exploring—which is, after all, where science begins—might just see us all through to a kinder place.

In Times Long Past…

In the afterword to Nicola Griffith’s new novella, Spear, she runs down the lists of source material and permutations around the Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Or, more precisely, those around Percival, who in many tellings is the more important figure. The king is all very fine, of course, but it was Percival who found the Grail. In some versions, it is Percival who returns Excalibur to the Lake. In still others…

The point being that such stories, myths and legends, are all repurposed tales that meet multiple needs and adapt to the times in which they are (re)told. Tracing them to a single point of origin is not only virtually impossible, but is irrelevant. The purpose of myth is reification.

Among others. But on that point, reification is always tied to the present. Which lends myth its ever-ancient timelessness and relevance.

Which is always one of the fascinating things about it, that timeless-timely utility.

It’s also what makes a good retelling immediately exciting and accessible.

Most (if not all) myths begin in some version of “A hero will be born.” The story then is “from where” “to whom” and “then what?” Perseus is emblematic, and possibly the most visible in significance. The Greeks may not have begun the genre, but they certainly perfected it, and for a long time pretty much owned it. All the Great Heroes of the Aegean and Adriatic region have remarkable beginnings. Often a cave is involved. Some education in the wilderness. Then the confrontation that defines their purpose. They are, essentially, Of Nature, since everything about them is from Outside, “inside” being more or less whatever passed for civilization. (For our purposes, the primal exemplar of this outsider could be Enkidu from the Gilgamesh story.)

The utility of myth cycles is in their adaptability. Repurposing a story to reveal, reify, revise, or otherwise reestablish the scope of meaning is what gives them power across time. The nature of the actors can change, roles might be swapped around, identities modified or even completely recast.

And in some instances, the central hero is changed. Focus moves from one to another, giving us a shift in perspective, a realignment. Something new, something not considered before. And yet, the story remains essentially the same, at least in regards to the events and the goals.

The Arthurian cycle is endlessly adaptable this way. Who is the hero? Arthur? Merlin? Lancelot? Guinevere?

Percival?

All of them, depending on which example you look at, fit the role of Outsider. But the one that is most ideally crafted for that part is Percival.

In Spear, Nicola Griffith gives us a Percival who is perfectly outside. In this iteration, she is Peretur, of “mixed” parentage, raised in the essential cave, schooled by a wise adept, nurtured to become the hero the world needs.

She comes of age, chooses a path, and sets forth from the hidden place of her childhood to journey to Arturus’s court at Caer Leon to join the circle of Companions to the king. She decides, chooses, does battle, grows confident…

This is a hero to cheer for. Her first victory is in learning her true name. Her next is establishing for herself what she is. And then making a place for herself in the world. A place of her choosing.

Quest is also a major element of most myths. Going, struggling to find, fulfilling vows, remaking the world along the way. In this new retelling of this story, there is a quest, though it is not what most of the participants believe it to be. In this way, Griffith shows how the defining character of the goal is not a specific thing but a fulfillment of purpose, and grail at the end is self-knowledge.

Spear is a marvelous reworking of the Arthurian tale. The components are given different origins, different explanations, the settings are deftly placed in what we know of the “real” world, and the nature of what may have been the place and people from which the cycle emerged are treated with the kind of demythologizing care of the historian. There is a texture to this, a fabric of authenticity that gives entree to the world. In the end, such reassessments only add to the power and charm of the story. In so doing, Griffith offers us a variation that reifies overlooked or hidden aspects of what makes the legend important. For us.

Along the way, she gives us a damn good adventure.

In the afterword, there is a tantalizing discussion of sources, variations, and a brief history of the cycles over time. It establishes the long practice of repurposing of which Spear is only the newest example. Which is all well and good, but the best thing about this one is that is opens the possibilities of the story to offer meaning to a wider audience. It is not a tale aimed at Just These People, but for many more not usually considered. Griffith discusses that as well.

Spear is a successful recasting. Even the nature of the Quest at the heart of centuries of Grail stories is given a new raison detre, bringing is from the cosmic to the personal in a touching reveal utterly consistent with Griffith’s purposes and the traditions of the story cycle.

All this aside, it is first and foremost a thoroughly delightful and satisfying work.

Visceral Coding

Few things generate sustained anxiety as much as genetic engineering. Both positive and negative, for the possibilities and the dread. Since Watson and Crick revealed the double helix of DNA, the science has proceeded apace, and we now live in an era wherein “programming” can refer to both computers and our genes.

Jennifer Doudna is a name to conjour with in this transformational time. In 2020 she won the Nobel Prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR cas9. CRISPR has become the label in media stories for a process of “editing” genes with the use of a form of RNA. (Almost no one outside the biochemistry and medical community seems to no what it stands for: Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeaters.) Basically minute segments of code in a strand of RNA that repeat and can be used to, effectively, insert modified segments of code into a gene sequence.

What began as “pure” research into the methods by which bacteria defend against viruses became a revolutionary method of dealing with all manner of genetic circumstances, including potential treatments and vaccines for the most recent scourge, COVID-19.

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Doudna (pronounced DOWD-na), Code Breaker, is also a history of the sometimes chaotic, sometimes life-affirming, often unexpected world of scientific research and its interface with the rest of the world.

Isaacson has given us not only a biography of a remarkable individual, but a look at the often surprising world of research and development. The image of the scientist, austere and removed, still to some extent dominates our imagination. It comes as a surprise (and occasionally something of a betrayal) when we are forced to recognize that scientists are human, just like the rest of us, with all the flaws and foibles to which “ordinary” people are prone. One aspect of the public conception of The Scientist I think requires adjustment is the fact that scientists continue to grow, to mature, to evolve. Too often, it seems that once the Ph.D. is earned, the scientist becomes a static icon, unchanging, and is expected to Know All or at least is frozen into an unchanging assemblage of stereotypes. On some level, this seems to offer comfort—one of the things people tend to be bothered by is an admission of not knowing. Worse still, is a change of mind, which is inevitable in the light of new evidence. But ordinary people can do both. A scientist is not supposed to.

This has led to unrealistic expectations, loss of trust, and the unfortunate “gaming” of science (never mind truth) in public policy. Primarily, this is from a profound lack of understanding on the part of the public. For another, it emerges from the misuse of science as a political talking-point.

Isaacson does an excellent job of taking the reader through the various aspects of a discovery, its initial reception, its development, its transition from pure research to useful tool, and the social and political impact along the way. And along with this, he explains just what that science is.

Jennifer Doudna is central to the unraveling of genetic codes and the inner workings of the templates of life. Basically, she became a nexus for many strands of research, each adding to the overall picture. Her work with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier ultimately earned them a shared Nobel Prize.

What they have developed is a tool by which the template for biological forms can be modified. Edited. This offers the possibility eventually of correcting genetic “errors’ that produce diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and many others. The drive to “decode” the human genome contained the hope and ambition to one day be able to deal with these things, which are different from pathogenic illnesses. But even in the case of viral and bacterial infections, the ability to address illnesses from at a genetic level offers exciting possibilities—and in fact has been vital to the handling of the COVID-19 outbreaks. The speed and facility with which the scientific and health community have been able to respond is in important ways attributable to Jennifer Doudna’s work.

There is drama, intrigue, fascinating people, and the makings of a good thriller in certain aspects of this story. But the most important thing is the profound humanization of a complex community and the people in and from it. Scientists are not fundamentally different from anyone else. Their interests may seem esoteric and the degree of concentration they bring to their passions may seem other-worldly at times, but in truth what they have is a deeply useless set of tools and the willingness to abide by the rules those tools require for sound use. What must be understood, and often is obscured by the dizzying aspects of the science itself, is their humanity and how they represent, often, the best possibilities of all of us. (Of course there are those who are not as good at what they do as they should be, those who are more concerned with fame or wealth than the work itself, those who are flawed in unfortunate ways—just like any other group of people in any other area of activity—but we should look to the best for our examples and not allow the worst to color our perceptions of the people doing amazing work.)

Finally, understanding something is the best way to stop being afraid of it. At the end of the day, that is the real gift scientists give us—they work to understand things previously hidden and unknown and thereby help the rest of us to stop being afraid.

Bridges, Circles, the Pleasure of Continuing On

As I’ve gotten older, my reading has taken turns I would never have expected. My preferred genre is science fiction, and yet I find the number of SF books I read per year shrinking. Perhaps I’m getting more selective—and it is getting more difficult to choose, what with the wealth of new possibilities—but the total number of books I read per year has not shrunk much. 

I’ve been reading more nonfiction. (I’m a writer, I have to do a certain amount of investigation of the world, of history, of science, so…) But also my consumption of mysteries has increased.

In particular, mystery series.

Decades ago, I would have been working through science fiction series. I cut my teeth on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, Doc Smith’s Lensmen, Asimov’s Foundation novels, the Dorsai, Pern, even L. Sprague DeCamp’s Krishna books. But then I limited it to trilogies and finally, over the past couple of decades, my preference has been for stand-alones in science fiction. I love the field no less than ever, but I don’t have the patience for series anymore.

Mysteries are another matter. In the last couple of decades I have found myself waiting for the next novel in any number of mystery series. Nero Wolfe started it. As a teenager, I was not so interested in sticking with them, but I had read a few. Recently…

Among my favorites are Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels; Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisy Dobbs; Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher; Martin Walker’s Chief Bruno; a handful of others.

Especially Christopher Fowler’s marvelous Bryant & May series.

As eclectic goes, these are difficult to beat, and as each novel arrives, it seems more and more that Fowler has an end game in mind.

Arthur Bryant and John May are the oldest still-working detectives in the London police system. They should long since have retired, but you realize quickly that they simply have nothing else to do. May, the more grounded of the pair, has pretty much run through what passes for a normal life, and has not been particularly successful at it. Bryant is anything but ordinary and has a dedication to his city that amazes and mystifies those with whom he works. He is a historian, an out-of-box thinker, tenacious, eccentric, and genuinely cares nothing for what other people think of him.

They are the chief detectives in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, an oddball division set up during World War II with a strange remit that lands them in cases that sometimes border on the occult, sometimes conspiracy, sometimes have roots going back centuries.

And the regular police department—the Met—and forces in the Home Office want very much to see them gone. They are unclassifiable. They are occasionally an embarrassment. What keeps them open is a combination of Bryant’s (unnamed) connections in government and their well-above-average success rate.

Bryant and May are circling around 80 and you know this can’t go on much longer, but with each novel their reprieve—for their careers, for the odd assemblage of people who make up the rest of the Unit, for the sheer pleasure of seeing the Suits at Whitehall thwarted—gives another chance to take us through a London by way of criminal investigation not to be found in any other series of which I am aware.

Rabbits are regularly pulled out of aging hats by the end of the novels to lead to one more bizarre outing. The byplay between the partners is delightful, Bryant’s network of informants are among the strangest and most diverse to be found, there is humor, weirdness, and the villains are always unexpected. 

The new one, London Bridge Is Falling Down, opens up a new level in the history of the Unit itself and offers a set of resolutions I did not expect. The remit so often mentioned throughout the series gets a new look and the revelations are more than satisfying. Fowler shows us an aspect of the aftershocks of the War that we have come to expect but in ways that make it fresh and with consequences for the characters that are surprising and terrible. The long story of the Unit is on display, the roots and branches are the target of the crimes, and the resolutions…

There is in this current volume a level of pathos long hinted at and now realized, a sense of inevitability that, while consistent with the  arc of the series, points up the power of fiction to draw us into relationships that genuinely matter.

Among the many pleasures of Bryant and May’s adventures is the pointed critique of bureaucracy, useless officials, and politics-at-the-expense-of-results which all plague our modern era. This should not be mistaken for a blanket condemnation of such systems, for a parallel consideration is how such systems remain necessary even to the rebels and outliers if they wish to be effective. Bryant’s constant complaining about the modern world is not about the basic idea of it but about the ham-fisted way in which so much of it manifests. He does not object to technology as such, only in its apparent ability to separate people from each other. He refuses to Google, preferring to find someone who knows something and talk to them. As lonely as he seems to be—as opposed to the more socially-adept May—he is the one insisting on the human connection, while his partner, who connects often, just as often fails at such connections.

Bryant solves cases obliquely, with apparent side-trips into historical cul-d-sacs and by ways regular police find pointless and, frankly, embarrassing. Among Bryant’s confidantes is a white witch, who manages to regularly point Arthur in a useful direction. 

May, on the other hand, who is fastidious, fashionable, and facile with the very modernizations that seem to frustrate his partner, is the one who grounds the Unit in the world of forms and protocols. He is a traditional cop. 

It is amazing the two of them get along at all.

But as with other long-running series, the heart of it is the friendship. They are partners. Time has joined them in ways neither understands or would wish to change.

London Bridge Is Falling Down takes them back to their early years in unexpected and tragic ways. Things done back then now come out in the open in ways neither could have foreseen. Following the trail of a hapless functionary who thinks he has found a way to extricate himself from the mess that his life has become leads from body to body and the only way to make sense of it all is to go back to the beginnings.

Fowler has brought us around a long circle through the series. One hopes it is not yet closed. Bryant and May ought really to live forever.