Seeking Meaning In Sand

I have not yet seen the new film version of Dune. I may write about it after I do, although it is not the entire story. What I am interested in here is the ongoing obsession with the novel. This will be the third cinematic iteration. Famously, there are two uncompleted versions, one by Jodowrosky and another by Ridley Scott. We know how far the former came because there is a fascinating documentary about it, but as for Scott’s version there are mainly rumors and statements that he wanted to do one. Personally, I would have been interested to see that one—I very much like Ridley Scott’s palette: even those of his films that don’t quite work for other reasons I find wonderful to look at—and in some ways he has perhaps played around the edges of it through his Alien franchise. (The first film starts on a world that might have been Arakkis, the second is evocative of Gede Prime, the others keep returning to desert worlds, in theme if not setting. And Ripley becomes a kind of ghola as she is resurrected again and again.)

What is it about the original novel that compels the ongoing obsession, not only of filmmakers, but of fans? (There would be no funding for the films if the audience were not so large and committed. That speaks to the book.)

The history of the novel is something of a publishing legend, like other groundbreaking books. Multiple rejections, ultimate publication, often in a limited way, and a growing audience over years. Dune was famously rejected something like 27 times before finally being taken up by a publisher better know for automobile manuals.

It was, however, serialized in one of the top science fiction magazines, Analog, so dedicated SF readers were the first to encounter it, and doubtless formed the primary audience. I remember reading the ACE paperback from the late Sixties. Its impact on me was almost too large to detail.

I was used to science fiction novels being under 200 pages—average then was 160. From the Golden Age forward you rarely found one more than 250 pages. Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein was an outlier at 408 in its first hardcover incarnation. So here I find this massive book more like the so called classics I’d been reading—Dickens, Dumas, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—crammed into the cover of a mass market paperback which included a glossary and indexes, explanatory material (every bit as fictional as the main narrative). It felt important. I was 14, it was dense, I struggled through it. (It led to a profound teaching moment in how to read which I’ve written about elsewhere.) I could feel my horizons expand, even though at the basic level of story it was no more or less fascinating than most other good science fiction novels I had read. But it opened possibilities for narrative depth.

A handful of other novels came out around that time that exploded the confines of the thriller-format SF had been kept to—John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up; Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistrress; Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand Of Darkness; and the coming rage for trilogies (many of which were single narratives published economically in three volumes). By the mid-Seventies publishing had changed to accommodate a new idea of what an SF novel could be, including expanded length to include what has become known as World Building (a technique which in some instances supplanted more important aspects of fiction). Not all by itself, but certainly as a point of history, Dune helped make this possible by creating a market for fuller expositions and more detailed construction. This alone might make it significant.

But that alone would not have made it a perennial seller, almost constantly in print ever since. If Frank Herbert had written nothing else, Dune would have made his career.

It was followed up by two more—Dune Messiah and Children of Dune—completing a cycle. That first trilogy stands as a unified work. The second two books are plot-driven indulgences, but not superfluous. The second trilogy…publishing had discovered by then that science fiction could be best-selling fiction and a frenzy of large advances and high-profile publications mark the late Seventies and early Eighties. Herbert’s publisher enabled him to indulge himself with a second trilogy that often leaves people puzzled. But it kept the spotlight on the primary work.

David Lynch’s movie enlarged the audience again. That film, by a director with a certain reputation for examining the macabre oddnesses of humanity, is a spectacular curiosity. It is a mixed bag of brilliance and weird choices.

Then came a modestly-budgeted miniseries on the SyFy Channel, which went on to include the second two novels. It did a much better job of telling Herbert’s story. The chief complaints seem to be the results of that budget (and that Sting did not reprise the role of Feyd Rautha). It gets dismissed too readily, as if the world were waiting for the “real” cinema treatment.

Which we now, by all accounts, have.

As I say, I have not seen it yet. I want to address the book and its seeming tenacity.

One of the things Herbert did was lace his tale with wise-sounding profundities in the form of aphorisms and epigrams. Each chapter starts with a quote from some serious work by the presumed chronicler of the hero’s life. They sound like quotes from works like the I Ching or SunTzu’s Art of War. This was not a new trick when Herbert did it, but he was particularly adept at it in this book. It is a far future in which, presumably, philosophy has transformed along with everything else. The quasi-feudal politics and economics are given a veneer of newness this way, as if to signal that while it looks like something one would find in the 12th Century, it is not quite the same thing, but you have to take the author’s word for it, because it is the future. The quotes set an aesthetic tone that, among other things, allows us to assume something else is going on instead of just the same old historical thing. In science fiction, veneers matter—they work like orchestrations in a symphony, selecting the right instrument for the right phrase, coloring it. (Veneers should never be mistaken for the story or the theme, which is something unobservant critics do all the time.)

Seriousness established, every significant decision becomes inhabited by purpose, meaning, resonance, and a justification that raises the level of what we read almost to that of destiny, certainly of mythmaking. With this, the writing itself need not be spectacular, just functional.

There are passages in Dune that are breathtaking in what they describe. The ecological aspects of the novel, while in some ways absurd in terms of actual science, take on the same immanence as anything the actors possess. In a way, Dune is one of the first terraforming novels, embracing the idea that human action can transform an entire world. (A couple of years later, we see much more of this, often more pointedly, as in works like Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest—again, the novel opens up a field of possibilities, or at least prepares an audience for more of the same.)

But the characters are hard to relate to—this is a story about archetypes and aristocrats in conflict with emperors and churches. The ordinary people get lost amid the giant legs of the SF manifestations of Greek Heroes. We read this novel for the plot and world and the political revelations. We become engaged because this is in important ways a Lawrence of Arabia story—one toxically mixed with Faust. We read it because we are aware that gods and deserts change the world.

We read it because, as well, we are enamored of the idea of Enlightenment in a Pill.

Herbert was always working in the fields of mind-altering drugs—possibly his best and most relatable novel in this vein is The Santarroga Barrier—and with Melange, the Spice, he created the ultimate in mind-expanding temptations. Its use gives humanity (and others) the universe. Time and space can be brought to heel with it. Visions, prophecies, and clarity are on offer. But it is the ultimate Faustian bargain, for its loss will destroy everything.

It is aptly named. Melange, a mixture of often incongruous elements. A mess, if you will, but messes can evoke wonder, even seem beautiful.

At the heart of this Faustian conundrum are the Fremen, patterned after the Bedu of the Middle East. They are trapped on a world with profoundly limited resources and must be kept that way for the benefit of the rest of the universe. Not quite slaves, but certainly not masters of their own world. Freeing them courts disaster—because part of that freedom entails remaking their world, making it wet. Water, though, is poison to the giant worms that produce the Spice.

Trap after trap after trap populates the novel. Disaster looms. The plot compels.

And of course the relevance to our reality could not be plainer. The teetering sets of balances, all of them with ethical pitfalls, allow Dune to remain trenchant, relevant, challenging. Added to this is the clear connection to the Greek tragedians (especially in the second trilogy—I suggest boning up on Aeschylus and Euripedes before trying them) which gives the book its ongoing frustration of clear, ethical resolution. (And cleverly he took the possibility of building machines that might aid people in their problem-solving off the table, by outlawing thinking machines. It’s all on us and what we bring to the game.)

A final thread woven through the book that seems to make it constantly popular is that it is a coming-of-age story that contains a biting critique of privilege. Whatever Paul might want to be for himself, he is born into a web of expectations that impose their demands from all sides, making any choice he might make impossible outside of a constructed destiny. The adolescent struggling to make sense of the world and find a way to live in it, thinking if only he were god and could command everything to be rational or at least amenable. Paul’s tragedy is that he in fact can become god—and then discovering that this is no solution, either.

How well this new movie deals with all this, I look forward to seeing. For the moment I simply wanted to examine some of the reasons this novel continues to find audiences and why so many filmmakers are drawn to it. The elements it contains transcend the limitations from which it suffers. But whatever the case, this is a novel that allows readers to find meaning—whether that meaning is in the novel or not.

2020 and Reading for Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economics, history…what about philosophy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hild, A World, A Novel

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

 

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

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

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

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

Far more than we might imagine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinema Versus ‘Theme Parks’

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema.  Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Martin Scorcese said that in an interview about Marvel superhero movies. The observation has sparked some controversy. A lot of people heard him trashing their favorite form of movie, others—including Francis Ford Coppola—found resonance with his statements.

The part of his statement I disagree with is the part that I hear every time someone from the literary world suggests science fiction is not “real” literature—because it doesn’t deal with humans experiencing authentic emotions in a meaningful context. In its own way, Mr. Scorcese has recast the classic dismissal of science fiction and fantasy in regards to film.

To which I would say, “Care to justify that in terms of cinema as a whole?” It can be argued, I think, that the gangster film on which Scorcese made his reputation is not a milieu about ordinary people having emotional experiences in common with their audience, but about a distinct subset of humanity that distorts itself into an extreme condition to pit itself against the world. Their experience are by definition, at least in cinema, going to be over-the-top, magnified, and at odds with the common. The backgrounds are likewise going to be exaggerated and often surreal, set-pieces to support encounters of violence and passions pared down by adrenaline to caricatures of ordinary daily experience. They “entertain” for precisely those factors that for two hours remove us from our mundane lives and give us entreé into lives we will (hopefully) never take part in. The point of them is to allow a vicarious experience completely out of the ordinary.

They are anchored to us by asking “How would we react in the same circumstances?” and honestly following the thread of answers to what connects these people to us.

But the characters themselves, while often despicable, are extraordinary.

As are the characters of the gunslinger, the private detective, the cop, the soldier, the knight, the barbarian, etc.

It is their extraordinariness that attracts us, holds our attention, and carries us along through unlikely adventures to, one hopes, a satisfying and cathartic conclusion.

How is that any different than what we see in Captain America? Iron Man? Thor?

Oh, they come from the worlds of science and fantasy and wield unusual abilities.

So, once again, because they appear to us in the context of science fictional settings and offer challenges outside historical experience, they are not legitimate cinema…

To an extent, Scorcese has a point. They do offer “theme park” rides. It takes a rather extraordinary film like Winter Soldier or, stepping to a different franchise, Wonder Woman to see the genuine human story beneath the glossy, glitzy, hyper-realized settings, but it’s there. And for those films that fail to deliver that human element, well, it’s not that they aren’t cinema, they’re just bad cinema.

But “cinema” has always indulged the exotic, the novel, the visually unique to achieve what may be argued to be its primary advantage as a medium. The full embrace of the exotic cannot be used to reclassify certain films as “not cinema” because they utilize exactly that potential.

No, this is another version of reaction to a genre distinction because you don’t get it.  It’s the reason several excellent SF films failed to find notice with the Academy for years because they were that “spacey kid stuff.” Now good SF is finally being recognized by the Academy, leaving the position of poorly-regarded declassé genre in need of a new resident, and in this instance Mssrs Scorcese and Coppola elect the big superhero franchises.

Let’s face it—there have always been superhero films. Dirty Harry is a species of superhero, as is Jason Bourne and James Bond. Chuck Norris and Steven Segal have made their share of superhero films. And when you think about it, just about any Western where the hero faces impossible odds and wins is a superhero film. One could go down the list and find just cause to name any number of historical or quasi-historical epics as members of that club. Robin Hood is a superhero. The Lone Gunman story is a species of superhero film. And these all draw from various mythologies that are readily accessible as superhero stories. Hercules, Cuchulain, Gilgamesh, Samson…

Of course these films are cinema. Just as science fiction is literature.

You just have to speak the language.

The Myopeia of the Lit Club

“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”

I read that with perplexed bemusement. It was said in an interview by one Ian McEwan, who has published a novel about artificial intelligence and somehow feels he is the first to discover that this thing has serious implications for people to be expressed through literature. Thus he now joins a long line of literary snobs who have “borrowed” the trappings of science fiction even as they take a dump on the genre. I would say they misunderstand it, but that presumes they have read any. What seems more likely is they’ve seen some movies, talked to some people, maybe listened to a lecture or two about the genre, and then decided “Well, if these unwashed hacks can do this, I can do it ten times better and make it actual, you know, art.”

We’ve been subjected to this kind of elitism for decades. It has now become laughable. The only reason it irks now is when someone like McEwan doubles down and makes assertions about a field he clearly doesn’t know the first thing about. Not even Margaret Atwood, back when she was loudly asserting she did not write “scifi”, was so dismissive.

The literati have been abusing science fiction for as long as it has been an identifiable thing. Even before, really, if you count the drubbing Henry James gave H.G. Wells about how he was wasting his talents on irrelevancies. And to be perfectly fair, a great deal of what has been published under that label has been less than great.  But then, per Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is less than great.

(Theodore Sturgeon, Mr. McEwan—a science fiction writer you ought to check out. He wrote about love in more ways than one might believe possible. Possibly one of the best writers of the 20th Century, but he wrote in a genre that received the casual disregard of those who thought they knew what it was without having learned what it was.)

McEwan believes he has stumbled on something unique in his new book, Machines Like Us, namely the effects of true artificial intelligence on human beings and civilization. One of the earliest incarnations, however, that talk about the problem in something like modern terms is a story called A Logic Named Joe, published by Murray Leinster in 1946.

1946. Many notable examples of A.I./human interaction followed, one quite famous example being Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, published in 1968 by Philip K. Dick.  (If those of you in the Lit Club with Mr. McEwan don’t recognize that title, maybe you saw the movie somewhat based on it, Blade Runner.)  Many. Hal-9000 in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey; Mike the lunar computer in Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; all the machine intelligences populating Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels; D.F. Jones’ Colossus, published in 1966.

One could go on. So, nothing new. And to then suggest that none of these examples dealt with how such constructs might affect people and the world is to profess either an unwillingness to read them or an inability to understand what “affect” might mean in this case, or both. McEwan’s dismissive remarks suggest he thinks no science fiction writer has ever worked with the ethical and emotional ramifications.

I am annoyed by this for a number of reasons, not least of which is the assumption of wisdom and the myopic view represented.

I have always thought that people who are dismissive toward SF have a problem imagining the world as someday being fundamentally different. By that I mean, things will so change that they, if they were instantly transported into that future, will be unable to function. Things will be radically different, not only technologically but culturally and therefore even the givens of human interaction will seem alien.

That is the meat, bone, and gristle of science fiction and I would like someone to tell me how that it not “dealing with the effects of technology on human problems.”

Like others in this vein, McEwan fixes on some of the tropes—spaceships and so forth—without bothering about how this, too, might have an effect on the people involved.

Recently, the Guardian published an  article  that revealed many readers assuming science fiction is not “serious” when certain words appear. They dismiss it a priori with the inclusion of words like “airlock” or “trajectory” or “warp drive” or suchlike, because they automatically assume it’s for kids. Which explains why SF is so poorly regarded, but it does not explain what may be going on in the minds of these people.

Mention has been made of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. who very aggressively disavowed his relationship with science fiction. His interest was almost entirely financial. At the time he was publishing, having SF on the spine of a book almost guaranteed fewer sales, and he didn’t want critics telling people he wrote science fiction lest he lose market-share. (Personally, I think he wrote rather sloppily. I know it’s supposed to be satire and I don’t care. He did not write particularly good science fiction, probably because he was worried all the time that people might think it was.)  Margaret Atwood tried to distance herself from it at first, probably for the same reason, but then realized that we had entered a period where SF did not mean anything sales-wise. So she owned it. Emily St. John Mandel wrote a quite good post-apocalyptic novel, did due diligence with ramifications, and produced a laudable science fiction novel—only she doesn’t believe it is. Well, her privilege, but sorry, it is.

This last may be from the kind of ignorance foisted upon MFA students by so-called “masters” like McEwan. They live in the world dreamed-of by science fiction writers, the motifs surrounding them emerge from SF, the things they look forward to doing in the next 20, 30, 40 years will be more and more the stuff of Golden Age dreams found in fragments in yellowing issues of Astounding SF, Amazing, Galaxy, and Fantasy & Science Fiction, offered up by writers like Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Van Vogt, and yet believe when they write about that future they are among the first and that what they write is not exactly like what they have not read.

Not read because some people they admire have also not read it and having not read it presume to dismiss it.

The impact of changing technologies on human beings has been the driver of science fiction since the beginning. To not recognize that in such a way that one assumes one will be first to do it is purest ignorance. It means either you do not know what has gone before or what has gone before is work you do not understand.

Because that change you’re trying to talk about manifests in the best of that work as real and it is not change you know how to comprehend. It frightens in the worst way possible, that of being inconceivable. (“My poor Krel…they could hardly know what was killing them.”)

I am unlikely to read McEwan’s new novel, even though I was initially interested. Having read his ill-informed opinion of science fiction, I have a hard time imagining he will have done anything better than what was done decades ago. He will have reinvented certain wheels without realizing that the car to which they’ve long been attached has in fact left the garage and is in the process of acquiring an antigravity drive.

And if you don’t think that will have a very profound effect on people that will be thoroughly addressed by many writers you still probably won’t read…

 

2018 and Reading Lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A smattering of other SF works:

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

 

 

 

 

Purity In Fiction (or, Jonathan Franzen’s Latest Attempt At…Something)

The most recent entry in the annals of attempted applied snobbery came recently from Jonathan Franzen, who, while certainly a gifted prose stylist, seems bent on making himself into the grumpiest white literary snob on the planet.

Disclaimer: I have read Mr. Franzen’s essays.  I have tried to read his fiction, but quite honestly found nothing much of particular interest. A cross, perhaps, between Dickens and Roth, with leanings toward Russo and Gardner. I admit to having been seriously put off by his antics back when Oprah Winfrey tried to draft him into her popular reading group series.

I also admit that I’ve never been quite sure what to make of all that. Till now.

He has offered Ten Rules For Novelist’s.  By the tenth you realize you are being lectured by someone who wishes to be regarded one way, suspects he may be regarded another way, but is afraid he is not being regarded at all, at least not as any kind of exemplar or Wise Head With Priceless Advice. His “rules” suffer from the curse of the “lit’rary.”  Distilled, it would seem he’s telling us that “if you don’t write like me, or try to write like me, you’re wasting your time and destroying the culture simultaneously.”

Others have weighed in on the problematic nature of these. It may seem self-serving to tilt at lawn ornaments with pretensions to windmill-ness, but frankly, I already know I’m not paid much attention to and nothing I say here will do anything for a career I do not have.

I am, however, much irked by this kind of thing. It’s disingenuous in it’s effect if not intent (how would I know how much of this he really believes?). By that I mean, it is not a set of rules to help aspiring writers, it is a set of reasons for not being a writer. Latent within these is the unspoken belief that, whoever you are, You Are Not Worthy.

Having said that, there are a couple of these I sort of agree with. Not, mind you, as proscriptions, but as matters of personal taste. Number 4, for instance: Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

I default to third-person because I tend to be a bit put off by first-person. To me, First Person is terribly artificial. No one goes through life narrating what they do. (Granted, all tenses, with regard to How People Actually Live, are artificial. Telling a story is an artifice, a Made Thing. Any “naturalness” to it all is part of the Art. It’s a seduction, convincing a reader to subsume his/her consciousness to the dictates of the narrative so that it feels natural.) Yes, once in a while, a story requires a different voice, even a different tense, because the writer is trying for a different effect. You make these choices for effect. You want the reader to go to a certain place in a specific way.

So while I agree with Rule # 4, I think Franzen phrased it in a way that tries to make it seem less of a matter of technique and more something that emerges from the zeitgeist. In other words, it’s a dodgy, deceptive way to say it.

There are too many little aphorisms and unexamined heuristics connected to writing that, if taken at face value, deter rather than aid the aspiring writer. We do not need more of them. For instance, Rule 1:  The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

Yeah…so? How is this a rule? An observation, yes, but in what way does this constitute necessary advice? And frankly, it’s not always true, nor is it even internally true. A “reader” is a stranger you hope to make a friend, of sorts, but they need convincing. Especially if you intend telling them hard truths, which seems to be what Mr. Franzen’s literary aim is. They will be, however briefly, a kind of adversary. And let’s face it, all art is initially a spectacle—requiring an audience, which is comprised of spectators. Many will stay for one game and never come back. They are not your friends. But they watched. As they read, they may shift often between these three conditions, and the adroit writer may wish them to do exactly that, because each state allows for different effects, which transfer aesthesis in different ways.  (And, really, James Joyce treated his potential audience not only as adversaries but occasionally as an angry mob with pitchforks—and by so doing created manifold aesthetic effects that are essential to the ongoing value of his works.)

Rather than go through them all, let me take the three “rules” I find most egregious. Numbers 2, 5, and 8.

Rule # 2: Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

I actually know what he’s trying to say here, but he said it in such a way as to betray the aristocratic self-image he wishes to convey and ends up doing disservice not only to a great deal of fictive output but reifies the academic nonsense about the nature of actually Writing For A Living.

What this is, firstly, is a variation on the Write What You Know, one of those aforementioned aphorisms that are less than useless. It seems to mean write only what you yourself have gone out into the world and experienced first-hand and even then be careful because you probably don’t know it as well as you think you do and in that case do another story about a writer suffering the self-doubt of the underappreciated. (Rules 5 and 8 underscore this, by the way.)

Secondly, it’s essentially claiming that writing, true writing, the pure quill, as it were, can only be done by the Elect. It’s a priesthood and defined by suffering and, often, by accidental success. I find it remarkable how many times we have been treated to lectures about the sordidness of writing for money from writers who have a Lot Of It. In other words, they are successful enough that they are offered platforms from which to tell the rest of us that we should just give it up.

Writing is, perhaps, a calling of sorts, but in its commission it is a craft and if one intends to do it as a vocation—which, in this instance, means having the opportunity to do as one’s primary activity—then you do it for pay. Otherwise, two things—you starve or no one ever hears of you because you choose not to starve and take a job that prevents you from writing all the time. (I can hear the rejoinder—“well, if no one wants to buy your work in sufficient quantity, then it must be inferior”—which both ignores the realities of the market and exhibits hypocrisy at the same time.)

Most of us never get the opportunity to make this our living.  We get paid poorly, distributed badly, and rarely get recognized outside our own little patch. To have someone whose books regularly debut on best seller lists tell us that writing for money is somehow disreputable and sullies our work is the height of snobbery.

Rule # 5: When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

What does that actually mean? When I do a great deal of research to make my work sing with verisimilitude and I find that my readers know enough to appreciate what I have done, it increases the value of that work.  Again, this is snobbery, based on the assumption that the True Novelist has the time and resources to do something the rest of us can’t do.

The only thing that a novelist can do that the hoi polloi can’t is tell a story that moves people. They can know or have access to everything the writer knows and has learned and yet the one thing they will still not be able to do is tell that writer’s story.*

But that rule offers a glimpse into the requirements of the priesthood. When you can go to the library and look up the secret handshake of the order, the value of joining that order—or, more pertinently, living in awe of that order—diminishes.

But people still might go to the temple for the pleasure of the spectacle. So make it good spectacle.

Rule # 5 is a bizarre kind of anti-intellectual classist elitism.  And a rule for what?  Hiding information from people so you can look more impressive?

Rule # 8:  It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

This is a kind of corollary to #5 and suffers the same flawed reasoning.

This is of a species with the whole “the novel is dead” nonsense someone brings up every so often. The last time it came up, it was obvious that the Novel being obited was the Great American Novel Written By A White Male.  It ignored women, nonwhite writers, and genre.

(Oh, genre! My ghod, what a smear upon the face of Great Literary Art!)

I said above that I have read Mr. Franzen’s essays.  I have dipped into his fiction. He is quite a good writer. I concede he can write a scene and turn out a fine sentence. In his fiction, he writes about things in a way that I can find no traction. He might be saying some things I would be moved by, but his approach leaves me cold. For this reader, he commits the one unforgivable sin—he is uninteresting.

He also seems to lead with an expectation that he will be disappointed. In us, in the universe, in himself. His essays exhibit a glumness that becomes, after a while, a drag on my psyche.

These rules suggest an answer.  He seems really to believe he should be regarded in ways that he fears he is not—and probably isn’t. The nonsense with Oprah led me to see him as pretentious and these rules have convinced me. The regard of the general public moved on in the latter half of the 20th Century as the balkanization of fiction categories multiplied and the position of Great Writer as Conscience of the Culture sort of dissipated.

But that doesn’t mean regard for novels diminished, nor does it mean the value of those novels has lessened, it only means that no one group can dictate the Standard Model of Significant Fiction anymore. The podium has, in fact, expanded, and the work that constitutes what is most worthy now includes things the Pure Writer seems to feel is beneath them.

____________________________________________________________________________________

*I just realized, rereading this (12/24/18) that this implicitly conflates “information” with Truth. which is a complete misapprehension of the nature of what a writer does. We do not merely convey information (the thing which, if everyone has access to it, becomes devalued) but process our encounter with reality and reconfigure it into some kind of truth-telling, which is, while perhaps dependent on information, not the same thing as simple information.

 

 

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.

Stars, Orbits, Crossed Trajectories

William Least Heat-Moon is renowned for his travel writing. Blue Highways, his first book, is a marvel of fine prose, careful observation, poignancy, and great storytelling.  It is deservedly considered a classic. Books that followed were no less fascinating, and each took an unexpected route to give us a look at life on various roads, some by water, others by history, always with an eye on the landscape.

Now he has turned his skills at close observation to fiction.  Celestial Mechanics is Heat-Moon’s first novel and it is as unexpected as any of his past works.

CelestialMechanics-Cover-Comp5-v4.indd

Silas Fortunato, thirty-three, has come home to inhabit a hundred acres inherited from a deceased aunt, and by happenstance encounters Dolores Heppernan, who goes by Dominique, arguing with an inn-keeper over a misplaced reservation. Silas gives her his room and so begins his pursuit to bind the fey Dominique to him. He is smitten. In an idiosyncratic courtship, he convinces Dominique to marry him and move to the Hundred, with its aging ramble of a house and the unimproved woodland around it.

Dominique is a real estate agent–this after having been many things. We’re never entirely sure what Silas was, but it had to do with academia, to be sure, for his is a deeply-read man with a fascination for Marcus Aurelius and aspirations to write a play.  No astrologer, he nevertheless puts great stock in the stars and even builds a platform for stargazing at the top of the house.

Rarely have two people been so mismatched. Heat-Moon understands something about obsessive love because he never explains what it is about Dominique that draws Silas.  He simply chooses her, devotes himself to her, and works mightily to make her happy to be his wife. For her part, almost from the start Dominique questions her own motives for agreeing to the marriage and starts looking, sporadically but with growing urgency, for a way out. To be fair, she does try to pull Silas into her view of life—tries to convince him to sell the Hundred for development, get a house in town, travel.  But Silas—the name means “Wood Dweller”—while willing to make great concessions to her, will not part with the property for any reason so venal as money.  He sees the land as a source of regeneration and hopes Dominique will eventually come to find peace there.

But Dominique is not interested in peace, not that kind, anyway.  She is in headlong pursuit of security of the kind that requires her to depend on no one else.  She wants wealth, travel, independence.  She wants no one to trap her, confine her, or limit her in any way.  While Silas never wanted to do that, the very stability he offers to her is an illusion, a trap, a set of walls.

The truth is, Dominique is on the run. From herself more than anything else.  She sees people as wanting nothing more than to define her and restrain her and her entire life has been a series of escapes.  She is smart, clever, but just enough to know how to manipulate the systems around her to keep from being caught by them.

Silas wants nothing more than to find and understand his place within the world Dominique seems determined not to yield to. Their relationship becomes a congeries of misunderstandings and evasions.

Into this one more person enters, Dominiques sister, Celeste, who is in the process of taking orders in a convent.  She hears of her sister’s marriage and the odd man to whom she has committed herself and now seems ill at ease with, and comes to visit.

It is clear to us that Silas married the wrong one.  Silas, though, has no such thoughts, and though we suspect Celeste does, she is conflicted about what to do.  She wants to stability and peace of the convent but she chafes under the restrictions on imagination within.

In certain ways, the novel proceeds along well-trod paths.  But Heat-Moon knows that the well-trod can surprise, that roads, pathways, trails, and highways can deceive if one does not look close enough at what there is along the way.  Here he gives us the unexpected enfolded in what seems familiar.  People, he shows us, are the least predictable of maps, and even when they seem to be going an obvious direction, the journey can still surprise.

There is even a ghost of sorts in the book.

But this is, as per Heat-Moon’s past offerings, a very layered story, and nothing is quite as neatly comprehensible as it may seem.  Dominique…well, Heat-Moon understands the power of names, as well he should.  Dominique, seeking to be self-contained, is her own passion.  Dolores means “sorrow” and is a not very sly reference to the Virgin Mary.  Dominique means “lord.” She seeks to be her own chosen apotheosis.  But she is stuck entirely in the flight to Egypt.  Celeste, not surprisingly, means “heavenly.”  But Celeste is looking for a very tangible, terrestrial salvation. Heat-Moon plays the full range of contradictions and potentials implied by all these meaning-laden labels and pulls the expected story inside-out.

What we end up with, then, is a road trip of souls.  William Least-Heat Moon has taken a story of people making choices incompatible with their own desires and natures and given us a travelogue of the spirit. The trajectories of these three people, each one trying to find their place in a cosmos crowded with distraction and uncertainty, reveal the geography of the self and the gravity of choice. In the end we’re offered a map of roads oft-traveled and too little remarked on the journey to hope.

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.