Future Infernal

Samuel R. Delany Jr. has been publishing science fiction since 1962, with the novel The Jewels of Aptor, which can be read as either post-apocalyptic SF or as a quest fantasy. The complexity and range of his work consistently expanded until it reached an apparent apotheosis in the 1974 novel Dhalgren, a massive work that supports comparisons to Joyce, Pynchon, and Gaddis.

The novel immediately following Dhalgren, while strikingly different, is a similarly impressive advance over previous examples of a given format and exhibits no retreat from the ambitious expansion of possibility which has characterized each entry of Delany’s œuvre.

In an essay, Delany writes:  “I feel the science-fictional enterprise is richer than the enterprise of mundane fiction.  It is richer through its extended repertoire of sentences, its consequent greater range of possible incident, and through its more varied field of rhetorical and syntagmatic organization.”  from the Triton Journal.

In the recently released volume one of his journals, we find this series of observations:

“Mainstream fiction today is onanistic and defeatist.  SF is the literature that posits man is changing.  Mainstream is the literature that posits he cannot change.   Science fiction is the only heroic fiction left today; it’s the only fiction today that admits there is a solution to its problems.   Mainstream fiction is like looking in a mirror; SF is like looking through a door.  SF has liberated the content of fiction the way Proust and Joyce liberated language.”

This last was written in the early Sixties and reflects the state of the art at that time.  And yet, when observing contemporary fiction, clearly something of a reaction to the state of the art at that time has manifested in the growing use of science fiction in what we call mainstream literature—indeed, how much outright SF is now being published as mainstream.

When considering the advent of a novel like Trouble On Triton (published originally as simply Triton as one of Frederik Pohl’s selections at Bantam Books) when it came out in 1976, the above observations cast a revealing light on what Delany was doing and gives us an idea of how radical it was to both mainstream readers and science fiction readers.Because the novel is an exercise is parried expectations.

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What I mean by that is, upon first encountering the novel it would appear to be a story about a future war waged between Earth and the outer settlements of the solar system, specifically artificial habitats both free in space or in enclosed environments on th many moons of the gas giants. We are in a future that has seen widespread expansion of human presence throughout the solar system.  Tensions are mounting and diplomacy is failing.  War would appear to be inevitable.

What we find instead is a story told from inside the head of Bron Helstrom, an inhabitant of a sprawling city on Triton, the moon of Neptune, who is from the start almost wholly absorbed in his own status as “a reasonably happy man” trying to find his way in the vibrantly polymorphous society in which he has chosen to live.  The narrative is carried by the minutiae of Bron’s problems, ambitions, insecurities, and attempts at codification that are at turns compellingly familiar, frustrating, thoroughly alien, and ultimately revealing of the problems of boundaries in a milieu that seems to offer almost none to any behavior. By the time we realize that it is Bron’s perceptions and what amounts to his petty concerns that comprise the main focus of the narrative, we’re caught within the web of a new social structure based on technological and cultural assumptions continually in a state of flux.  It is that state of flux—the continual calling-into-question of assumptions based on common experience—that is the principle æsthetic aim of the novel.  It is, in essence, about finding our way in one of the possible futures toward which we may be heading.

Which is nothing new in science fiction.  Utopias abound.  In fact, the subtitle of Delany’s novel addresses exactly that body of work:  An Ambiguous Heterotopia.

Delany was in dialogue with another novel, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, An Ambiguous Utopia  In that work, the limits of the presumptive utopian enterprise are examined with reference to the impact on the individual who may not fit well with programmatic solutions.  Delany turned this inside out by giving us an examination of the impact on an individual of an almost complete absence of such solutions who may well need them in order to have any reliable sense of self.

“Heterotopia” is a term from Foucault, meaning essentially  “Other Place” or “Place Of Differences”—as opposed to Utopia, which basically means No Place.  The society in which Bron bounces from one thing to another in search of a state of being is very much a place of differences.  In many ways, it is a libertarian paradise.  “What should I do?” is at every turn answered with “What do you want to do?”

Which is a problem for Bron, who, as the novel develops, needs the structure of expectations, boundaries, an accepted standard imposed.  From the first two sentences the potential problem is revealed.  “He had been living at the men’s co-op (Serpent’s House) six months now.  This one had been working out well.”

Delany has written critically of how the nature of a science fictional sentence is distinct in its intent and impact from a “normal” sentence.  For instance, he uses the sentence from Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon—“The door dilated”—as an example of how such sentences pry apart expectations and illuminate far more than the action described.  That in those three words the implications of what the entire world beyond that door may be like.  The more you examine it the more you realize you are not in literary Kansas anymore.  Similarly, his opening image in Trouble On Triton serves multiple purposes., some of them very science-fictional.  Men’s co-op suggests a social structure at odds with our present set of givens. The follow-up sentence tell us there are others like it because he had been living in this one for six months and it was “working out well,” which says he’s been in others and they didn’t.  “Serpent’s House” flags the unreliability of the situation—serpents are traditionally linked with deception—but also with the possible mythic foundations of what may follow.  But on a personal level, it signals at once that Bron is looking for something that, in fact, “works well” and he has moved—possibly many times—in order to find it.  As events unfold, we learn how very true these initial surmises are.

And yet the two sentences seem otherwise innocuous.  Introductory furniture.

We learn that Bron is an immigrant.  He was born on Mars and lived there into adulthood.  He was employed as a male prostitute, a career he has exchanged for the more esoteric one of metalogician.  Metalogic is a discipline of solution-finding, problem-solving, anticipatory management.  Bron’s coworkers think he is very good at it, which becomes an interesting point along the way because he personally would seem unsuited to such a disciplined “seat of the pants” approach to life.

It would be a simpler reading to see Bron as a mediocre man trying to find satisfaction in a society of high-achieving, multi-expressive near-geniuses, but in truth Bron is in many ways not medicore.  But he constantly compares himself to others and not in a healthy competitive way.  His obsession with people as “types” and the ongoing discourse throughout the book about how people fall into them shows a desperate need to know where he stands in a society that seems thoroughly uninterested in that kind of question.

Bron is walled off in a continual diagnostic loop that never resolves.  He moves from place to place, changes externalities all the time, and always comes back to the same ground state of dissatisfaction. Which actually makes him ideal for his chosen profession even though he is incapable of internalizing its benefits.

He meets The Spike, a writer/actor who produces microtheater, seeming spontaneous (though highly choreographed) mini-events.  Bron is drawn into one, becomes enthralled by her, and pursues her for the length of the novel as if she is somehow a solution to his personal dilemmas.

During this, war does break out with Earth.  There is a battle which catches everyone on Triton by surprise—the artificial gravity is cut for a fraction of a second—and in the chaos following Bron briefly emerges from his cocoon.  He joins, more or less as a tourist, a diplomatic mission to Earth.  While there he is arrested and tortured and, when the authorities realize that he doesn’t actually know anything, is tossed back to his group, a few of whom have died under similar circumstances.  On returning to Triton, the war ramps up and—

Earth loses.

Bron becomes even more obsessed with “solving” himself.

What makes this novel fascinating as science fiction is the play of environment and psychology that depicts a potentially unique approach to self-analysis and the problem of personal acculturation. Bron applies techniques of analyses that are certainly based in neurotic self-sabotage, but he is also attempting to recast himself constantly in a new image.  He is not trapped within the limits of his society but trapped by its apparent limitlessness.  There are no walls against which he is beating to escape.  It is that there are, in essence, no walls and he wants there to be.  But he doesn’t seem to have even the language in this future place to define what it is he seeks.

We have here what so many critics of SF have long argued that the form cannot support—a deeply nuanced character study of the psychology of alienation in a society wherein the standards for belonging are so loosely defined that the nature of such alienation itself constitutes a pathological conundrum.

Along the way, Delany gives as a master class on malleability, which is one of the chief pleasures of science fiction.

The world, the politics, the analyses of economics and the scientific bases of the technologies, all are laid in with a masterful skill.  This is a Different Place.  That, too, is one of the chief pleasures of the form.

Bron is a prismatic character. It might seem odd and perverse to pick such a flawed and emotionally dysfunctional lens through which to examine this world, but what better way to truly look at something than by way of someone who is out of harmony with it all and even lacks sympathy with its putative benefits.

Trouble On Triton (and I believe is was shortened to Triton on original publication to avoid confusion with the earlier novel by Alan E.Nourse, Trouble On Titan—SF was a much smaller world then) is both strikingly different than its predecessor, Dhalgren, but within its scope is every bit as challenging.  The Wesleyen Press edition includes an essay by Kathy Acker who makes the case for this novel being another in Delany’s riffs on the myth of Orpheus.  I have a different read on that.  If there is a mythic character underlying this, I believe it is Hephaestus.  He was often an outsider, his own group threw him out a time or two, and he was a metalurgist, someone all about the malleability of form.

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Feeling His Mind Going

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cannibale Verité

Stories live inside stories. Like Matryoshki dolls, they nest inside each other. The walls are permeable, the delineations indistinct, and viscera moves from one to another to another, and so, osmotically, verisimilitude emerges with reference and resonance. We recognize the truth of stories because they remind. Even when we’ve never heard that particular story before, the lexical and symbolic soup, sometimes called culture, we swim in makes certain elements part and parcel of what we recognize as truth.

Fiction depends on this mantle of story sediment. The better a writer understands the essential reality of the material, the more potent the experience is for the reader. The more we identify with character, connect with setting, and surrender to the flow of the narrative, the more substantive is the story and the truer it feels.

It’s a risky thing for a writer to make the nesting itself part of the story, to show the workings of narrative baldly, like pulling away the curtains on the machinery of the narrative and make it one of the surface elements. Like a magician explaining the trick as it is being performed, the only thing that can save the experience from the failure of banality is if the exposition of form enhances the total experience.

For example, Kea Wilson’s new novel, We Eat Our Own, from the first line exposes its inner workings and makes us complicit in the construction of the experience. The second-person present tense is like a set of instructions. She not only is telling the character what is happening but she is showing us how the inevitable accrues and acquires momentum.

Frightening momentum, in this case.

A young actor, struggling, in 1979, accepts a role in a film being shot in the Columbian rainforest. It’s an Italian horror film, being made by a director with a long list of credits and a certain reputation. This is his first film done on location. Our actor is a last-minute addition because the first American actor they hired would not even get on the plane after reading the script. The director needs an American, preferably an unknown.

In a fine stroke, Wilson keeps the actor’s name from us, eventually referring to him only by his character name. Already we are descending into the caverns of nested narratives. Like Dante who got lost in a dark wood and found his way into Hell, our actor takes the part and gets lost in a dense forest. And because of the way Wilson has chosen to tell her story, not only are we privy to the hell into which he descends, we know how he’s going and are powerless to prevent it.  In fact, we don’t want to prevent it, because we are hungry to know what he does when he realizes where he is.

It’s not all told this way. There are third person stretches, past tense, present tense, and a heady dance of omniscient viewpoint throughout. All of which serves to bring us, layer by layer, into the central theme that carries through the novel like humidity or mosquitoes. Wilson is exploring the way in which we feed on each other. Indeed, how we depend on a kind of food chain of the soul in order to know not only who we are but what we ought to do and where we need to be. For some, those who have a tenuous grasp on self-knowledge to begin with, the cannibalism can take on aspects of gluttony, draped in byzantine rituals designed to keep us blind to our own dysfunctions.

Like our actor, who asked repeatedly to be shown pages, a script, told what his character is supposed to be doing and, most importantly, why—but is repeatedly refused, and in fact looked upon with annoyance because he needs to know. He doesn’t.  But it’s not just his part in this bizarre movie (which involves cannibalism, of course) of which he is ignorant. He has no clue about much of anything.

The assembled production company, cut off from civilization (because a phone line has yet to be run to the town outside of which they’re shooting), stumbles and reels through the whims and impulses of the director, who seems to have a clear idea what he wants but won’t tell anyone what it is. (At one point, during a trial, being asked to defend his film and the risks he took with his people, he demands”Did it frighten you?”)

Into the mix we discover a group of young revolutionaries set up nearby.  They are involved in kidnapping and extortion and have an arrangement with a drug cartel. They need money to fund their grandiose dreams of overthrowing the government and instituting a Marxist state. Maybe.

More layers, more stories, all intersecting, bleeding through each other, fertilizing, polluting, transforming.  Reading Wilson’s prose is like listening to freeform jazz, where everything reaches a point of apparent chaos and then, with startling precision, comes together to create a very precise, rich effect.

Fake deaths, real deaths, soul death, murder, suicide, and the headlong pursuit of a path chosen because, in the end, it seemed like the path available, work hand in glove with the revealed structure of the book to drag us into it in such a way that recognizing an essential aspect of human nature—or our nature—is impossible to avoid.  Wilson shows us the costs of not knowing and the painful necessity of making choices n the face of too little information and too much expectation. Of ourselves and others.

I said this is a new novel.  It is also, impressively, a first novel.  It does not feel like a first novel. It feels like the mature work of someone who understands human nature and sees how the structures we inhabit prompt choices often tragic and surreal.

In the end, that question lingers:  did it frighten you?

It’s about humans on the edge, making art and chaos.

Yes, it did.

Sleeping Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dextrous Brilliance

Most of us doubtless have gaps in our reading histories. Books we ought to have read simply because. Long delayed for a variety of reasons, sometimes forgotten, and occasionally remembered in awkward conversations including a surprised “What do you mean, you haven’t read that?”  Shuffle of mental feet, chagrin, a shrug. Never got around to it.

I have finally gotten around to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.

There is a danger in so late an experience. One cannot escape, depending on one’s circles, commentary, opinion, even spoilers. Over time a book like this acquires the stature and dimension of the impossibly fine. I remember finally, after hearing about it for over a decade, seeing Citizen Kane. The hype perhaps poisoned the experience. As fine a piece of film making as I can admit it to be, I have yet to watch it without falling asleep. So it is with some trepidation that I approach works long missed and oft told about.

Occasionally one finds the hype lacking. No one ever managed to convey to me just how good this book is. The Left Hand of Darkness, had Le Guin written nothing else afterward—and she did, oh, yes, she did!—would have fixed her importance and justified her reputation. I have rarely had so many moments of having to step back from the page in order to absorb and appreciate what I had just read.

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness…Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.

How apt, I thought, reflecting on our present social and political climate, of the layered and interminable arguments over culture and religion and rightness. (It is, perhaps, the most obvious metaphor that she places the light on the left.)

Le Guin manages to sum intent and meaning and value and hand us back an open-ended equation. The story is that of an envoy from an interstellar association, Le Guin’s Ekumen, to a long isolated former colony of humans, Gethen, also known as Winter. The isolation has been so long that space travel is forgotten and evolution (or perhaps an intentional genetic experiment) has created a different biology for these humans—they are neither male nor female, and yet are both, sex emerging only during kemmer, then sublimating after. One person can be father and mother to several children. As a consequence, their sense of identity is not sex-linked.

Yet they are human. Into this, Genly Ai, what we would see as a “normal” man,  must navigate, learn, and offer and, hopefully, facilitate admission to and alliance with the Ekumen. Among people who find it nearly impossible to believe that he is what he claims. Of course, there is the ship in which he arrived and, more, his evident biological distinction.

As he lives among the people of one of the larger nation-states (which itself is a less concrete concept on Winter than we might be used to) he is taken in hand by the prime minister of Karhide, Lord Estraven. The soul of the novel is their relationship, which swaps ends throughout, from trust and distrust, alliance, treason, and finally friendship. Their relationship is the personal, visceral manifestation of the multi-layered metaphor for civilization Le Guin offers throughout.

There is politicking, intrigue, danger. There is marvel and revelation and epiphany. It is a complete experience (although, in terms of fiction and drama, there is no sex, even as it is a topic much present as a kind of harmonic overtone, and this is curiously satisfying) and is one of the single best examples of why science fiction is absolutely capable of being Literary. I do not wish to detail the plot. Here, plot serves to prepare us for the Key Moment, the sudden understanding, the revelatory nexus. Le Guin is giving us a lesson in perception and preconception.

This is something science fiction can do extremely well, especially in the hands of a master, the Conceptual Turn. We believe we see one thing when, it transpires, we did not see it clearly if at all until the mirror falls and we gaze upon a clarifying distortion. Here, is a question of dialogue. But it is further a question of where we stand when dialogue begins. An further still, a question of whether we will turn to the light or to the dark when we choose where to stand. And so on. Genly Ai and Lord Estraven learn how to talk to each other throughout the book and while it might seem this is not very exciting stuff, it is riveting because we recognize them even as they swap places and the familiar becomes the alien, and finally the alien becomes ourself. This is a novel that reads us as we read it.

I am glad for all those times I failed to pick this book up.  I do not believe I had the wit to see it. I may not now, but I do have the wit to understand that there is much here I do not yet understand, and the confidence to be content with that, because I know it will be there to find when I am ready. At the end, we see—hopefully—that we are all strangers to each other and the value we offer is in the learning. That the precise degree with which we fear the alien is equal to the degree of ignorance we indulge about ourselves.

 

In Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or does he?

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

Motives and Revelations

There is a remarkable scene—one of many—in James Morrow’s new novel, Galapagos Regained, wherein the final straw is broken for Charles Darwin and we are shown the moment he decided to back his radical new view of nature and its processes. Wholly fictional, no doubt, yet based on reality, Darwin has come to London to confront a young woman who has betrayed his trust while working in his household. The confrontation with the fictional Chloe Bathhurst is not the one that matters.  Rather, it is the confrontation Darwin is having with the edifice of a loving god.  His daughter is dying—tuberculosis—and the scientist in him knows there is nothing to be done, that an indifferent nature cares nothing for her goodness, her innocence, and any human claim on justice and fairness is but the empty babblings of a minor species only recently transcendent upon the ancient stage of life.  Darwin is angry and resentful.  The transgressions which resulted in his dismissing Miss Bathhurst are insignificant now against this greater, vaster crime which, he believes, has no actual perpetrator.  The only thing he can do, he decides, is to give her his blessing in pursuit of her own goal, which pursuit got her fired from his service.

Morrow-785x510

She was fired for attempting to steal the sketch he had written concerning the transmutation of species, a precursor work to his epic On The Origin of Species.  She did this in order to procure a means to free her errant father from debtors prison by using the work as the basis for winning the Shelley Prize, for which competition has been ongoing for some time in Oxford.  The purpose of the prize to reward anyone who can prove or disprove the existence of God.  Chloe, during her employ as Darwin’s zookeeper, became aware of his theory and thought it ideal to present and win the prize.

Darwin refused.  When she elected then to steal the notes and present it on her own, she was caught and dismissed.  Darwin was at the time unaware that she had already made a copy of the paper and thought he had caught her in the act.

Now, in the lobby of a London playhouse, where Chloe had once been employed as an actress, Darwin, aware that she in fact had stolen his treatise, is sanctioning her quest.

“Don’t overestimate my sympathy.  Had I two thousand surplus pounds, I would cover your father’s debts, then arrange for you to tell the world you no longer believe in transmutationism.  That said, I must allow as how a part of me wants you to claim the prize, for it happens that my relationship with God—“

“Assuming He exists.”

“Assuming He exists, our relationship is in such disarray that I should be glad to see Him thrown down…Get thee to South America, Miss Bathhurst.  Find your inverse Eden.  Who am I to judge your overweening ambition?  We’re a damned desperate species, the lot of us, adrift on a wretched raft, scanning the horizon with bloodshot eyes and hollow expectations.  Go to the Encantadas.  Go with my blessing.”

Because this is what Chloe has determined to do.  Go to the Galapagos Islands to gather specimens to support the argument for transmutation of species.  The Shelley Society fronts her the money to do so, she enlists her card-sharp brother in the expedition, they find a ship, and set sail.  The Society had already bankrolled an expedition to Turkey for the purpose of finding the remnants of Noah’s Ark, so this was only fair.

Accompanying her ship is Reverend Malcolm Chadwick, anglican minister and formerly one of the judges of the Shelley contest—on the side of the deity.  He steps down from that post at the request of Bishop Wilberforce and sent on this new mission to oversee what Chloe will do.  He departs with uneasy conscience, made so by the second part of Bishop Wilberforce’s plot, which sends another minister in another ship with the intention to go to the Encantadas and set in motion the ultimate destruction by slaughter of all the animals on the islands, thus to deprive the forces of atheism their troublesome evidence.  Chadwick finds this idea appalling, but he is faithful and says nothing.  He joins Chloe’s expedition, which becomes Odyssean in its complications and obstacles.

The novel proceeds from one adventure to another until Chloe herself, stricken ill in the Amazon basin, undergoes a kind of religious conversion, and decides she is wrong in her conviction that there is no god.  Morrow then expands on the struggle she engages with her fellow travelers and her own considerable intelligence.

What we are treated to in this novel is a thorough examination of human motivation in the face of shifting paradigms.  It may be clear where his sympathies lie, but he is too good a writer to load the dice in favor of his preferred viewpoint.  He gives his characters their own and follows them where they would naturally lead.  He never denigrates faith, only the fickleness of our intentions in the face of conflicting desires and awkward choices.  Tempting as it may have been in the end to simply declare a winner, Morrow instead takes a more difficult and fulfilling tack by portraying the times in which this debate flared into full flame with the advent of a solid theory of evolution.

Chloe Bathhurst herself is an admirable character.  An actress, adept as a quick study, she proves herself intellectually versatile and equal to any challenge.  As well, those who both aid and oppose her are equally well-drawn and Morrow deftly clarifies their motives.

Along the way, he gives a field demonstration in observation and interpretation, showing us the process whereby new understanding takes us over and how revelation can be a problematic gift.

Morrow is one of our best writers plowing the ground of controversy.  He never takes the simplistic road.  The pleasure in reading one of his novels is that of being allowed free range of the imagination in pursuit of specific truths stripped of dogma.  In fact, he disassembles dogma in the course of his yarns, a fact that is often not apparent while we’re in the grip of his artifice.

An artifice made warm by the complete humanness of his characters.  One his best creations is Chloe Bathhurst.  In her, several clichés and canards are undone, as well as many perhaps uncomfortable but rewarding questions asked.  She exemplifies the first rule of the explorer—never be afraid to go and see for yourself.  Do so and you’ll be amazed at what is revealed.

And what is lost.

The title parodies Milton’s Paradise Regained, from which perhaps Morrow took a bit of inspiration:

I, when no other durst, sole undertook
The dismal expedition to find out
And ruine Adam, and the exploit perform’d
Successfully; a calmer voyage now
Will waft me; and the way found prosperous once
Induces best to hope of like success.

Perhaps not so much to “ruin Adam” as to give us a view into a vaster garden, older and truer, and less a burden to our capacity for wonder.

Taste and Quality

Obliquely, this is about a current debate within science fiction. However, the lineaments of the argument pertain to literature as a whole.  I offer no solutions or answers here, only questions and a few observations.  Make of it what you will.

Reading experience is a personal thing. What one gets out of a novel or story is like what one gets out of any experience and being required to defend preferences is a dubious demand that ultimately runs aground on the shoals of taste.  I once attended a course on wine and the presenter put it this way: “How do you know you’re drinking a good wine? Because you like it.”  Obviously, this is too blanket a statement to be completely true, but he made his point.  If you’re enjoying something it is no one’s place to tell you you’re wrong to do so based on presumed “objective” criteria.  That $200.00 bottle of Sassicaia may fail to stack up against the $20.00 Coppola Claret as far as your own palate is concerned and no one can tell you your judgment is wrong based on the completely personal metric of “I like it/I don’t like it.”

However, that doesn’t mean standards of quality are arbitrary or that differences are indeterminate.  Such are the vagaries and abilities of human discernment that we can tell when something is “better” or at least of high quality even when we personally may not like it.

For instance, I can tell that Jonathan Franzen is a very good writer even though I have less than no interest in reading his fiction.  I can see that Moby-Dick is a Great Novel even while it tends to bore me.  I acknowledge the towering pre-eminence of Henry James and find him an unpalatable drudge at the same time.

On the other end of the spectrum, I can see how Dan Brown is a propulsive and compelling story-teller even while I find him intellectually vacuous and æsthetically tedious.

My own personal list of what may be described as guilty pleasures includes Ian Fleming, Edgar Rice Burroughs (but only the John Carter novels; never could get into Tarzan), and a score of others over the years who caught my attention, appealed for a time, and have since fallen by the wayside, leaving me with fond memories and no desire to revisit.  A lot of the old Ace Doubles were made up of short novels of dubious merit that were nevertheless great fun for a teenager on a lonely afternoon.

I would never consider them Great Art.

Taste is the final arbiter.  But using it to determine quality—rather than allowing quality to determine taste—is doomed because taste changes.  Works you might strenuously defend at one time in your life can over time suffer as your taste and discernment evolve.  It’s sad in one way because it would be a fine thing to be able to summon up the same reactions experienced on one of those lonely afternoons, aged 16, and poring through the deathless excitement of a pulp adventure you might, given your enthusiasm, mistake for Great Writing.

I try always to make a distinction between things I like and things I think are Good.  Often they’re the same thing, but not always, and like other judgments humans make tend to become confused with each other.  Hence, debate over merit can take on the aspects of an argument on that day at the base of the Tower of Babel when people stopped understanding each other.

But if that’s all true, then how do we ever figure out which standards are valid and which bogus?  I mean, if it’s ALL subjective, how can any measure of quality ever rise to set the bar?

Fortunately, while personal experience is significant, collective experience also pertains. History, if you will, has taught us, and because art is as much a conversation as a statement we learn what works best and creates the most powerful effects over time. Having Something To Say that does not desiccate over time is a good place to start, which is why Homer still speaks to us 2500 years after his first utterances.  We derive our ability to discern qualities from our culture, which includes those around us informing our daily experiences.  In terms of literature, the feedback that goes into developing our personal values is a bit more specific and focused, but we have inexhaustible examples and a wealth of possible instruction.  We do not develop our tastes in a vacuum.

Honest disagreement over the specific qualities of certain works is part of the process by which our tastes develop. I might make a claim for Borges being the finest example of the short story and you might counter with de Maupassant—or Alice Munro. Nothing is being denigrated in this. The conversation will likely be edifying.

That’s a conversation, though.  When it comes to granting awards, other factors intrude, and suddenly instead of exemplary comparisons, now we have competition, and that can be a degrading affair unless standards are clear and processes fairly established.  Unlike a conversation, however, quality necessarily takes a back seat to simple preference.

Or not so simple, perhaps. Because any competition is going to assume at least a minimum of quality that may be universally acknowledged. So we’re right back to trying to make objective determinations of what constitutes quality.

If it seems that this could turn circular, well, obviously. But I would suggest it only becomes so when an unadmitted partisanship becomes a key factor in the process.

This can be anything, from personal acquaintance with the artist to political factors having nothing to do with the work in hand. Being unadmitted, perhaps even unrecognized, such considerations can be impossible to filter out, and for others very difficult to argue against. They can become a slow poison destroying the value of the awards. Partisanship—the kind that is not simple advocacy on behalf of a favored artist but is instead ideologically based, more against certain things rather than for something—can deafen, blind, reduce our sensibilities to a muted insistence on a certain kind of sensation that can be serviced by nothing else. It can render judgment problematic because it requires factors be met having little to do with the work.

Paradoxically, art movements, which are by definition partisan, have spurred innovation if only by reaction and have added to the wealth of æsthetic discourse. One can claim that such movements are destructive and indeed most seem to be by intent. Iconoclasm thrives on destroying that which is accepted as a standard and the most vital movements have been born of the urge to tilt at windmills, to try to bring down the perceived giants.  We gauge the success of such movements by remembering them and seeing how their influence survives in contemporary terms.

Those which did not influence or survive are legion. Perhaps the kindest thing to be said of most of them was they lacked any solid grasp of their own intent. Many, it seems, misunderstood the very purpose of art, or, worse, any comprehension of truth and meaning. More likely, they failed to distinguish between genuine art and base propaganda.

How to tell the difference between something with real merit and something which is merely self-serving?  All heuristics are suspect, but a clear signal that other than pure artistic intent is at play is the advent of the Manifesto.  Most are hopelessly locked in their time and the most innocent of them are cries against constraint.  But often there’s an embarrassing vulgarity to them, a demand for attention, as insistence that the work being pushed by the manifesto has merit if only people would see it.

Not all manifestos are signs of artistic vacuity, but those that front for worthwhile work usually fade quickly from service, supplanted by the work itself, and are soon forgotten.  Mercifully.  We are then left with the work, which is its own best advocate.  In hindsight it could be argued that such work would have emerged from the froth all on its own, without the need of a “movement” to advance its cause.  Unfortunately, art requires advocates, beginning with the simplest form of a purchase.  In crowded fields overfull of example, the likelihood of a lone artist succeeding on his or her own, without advocacy, is slim.

Advocacy for an individual artist, by a cadre of supporters, can make or break a career.  And this would of course be a natural development of widespread appreciation.  It’s organic.

Advocacy for a perceived type of art begins to suffer from the introduction of agendas having less to do with the artists than with a commitment to the aforementioned windmill-tilting.

The next phase is advocacy of a proscriptive nature—sorting out what belongs and doesn’t belong, measuring according to a prescribed set of protocols, and has little to do with individual works and much to do with the æsthetic and political prejudices of the movement.  The quality of a given work is less important at this stage than whether it “fits” the parameters set by the movement’s architects.  Taste plays a smaller and smaller role as the movement meets opposition or fails to advance its agenda. With the demotion of taste comes the dessication of quality.  The evocative ability of art, its facility to communicate things outside the confines of the manifesto-driven movement eventually becomes a kind of enemy.  We’re into the realm of cookie-cutter art, paint-by-numbers approaches, template-driven.  Themes are no longer explored but enforced, preferred message becomes inextricable from execution, and the essential worth of art is lost through disregard of anything that might challenge the prejudice of the movement.

This is a self-immolating process.  Such movements burn out from eventual lack of both material and artists, because the winnowing becomes obsessional, and soon no one is doing “pure” work according to the demands of the arbiters of group taste.

As it should be.  Anything worthwhile created during the life of the movement ends up salvaged and repurposed by other artists.  The dross is soon forgotten.  The concerns of these groups become the subject of art history discussions.  The dismissal of works in particular because “well, he’s a Marxist” or “she was only an apologist for capitalism”—factors which, if the chief feature of a given work might very well render it ephemeral, but in many instances have little to do with content—prompts head-scratching and amusement well after the fury of controversy around them.

Given this, it may seem only reasonable that an artist have nothing to do with a movement.  The work is what matters, not the fashions surrounding it.  Done well and honestly, it will succeed or fail on its own, or so we assume.

But that depends on those ineffable and impossible-to-codify realities of quality and taste.  Certainly on the part of the artist but also, and critically, on the part of the audience.

Here I enter an area difficult to designate.  The instant one demands a concrete description of what constitutes quality, the very point of the question is lost.  Again, we have heuristics bolstered by example.  Why, for instance, is Moby-Dick now regarded as a work of genius, by some even as the great American novel, when in its day it sold so poorly and its author almost died in complete obscurity?  Have we become smarter, more perceptive? Has our taste changed?  What is it about that novel which caused a later generation than Melville’s contemporaries to so thoroughly rehabilitate and resurrect it?  Conversely, why is someone like Jacqueline Susanne virtually unremarked today after having been a huge presence five decades ago?

I have gone on at some length without bringing up many examples, because taste and quality are so difficult to assess.  What one “likes” and what one may regard as “good” are often two different things, as I said before, and has as much to do with our expectations on a given day of the week as with anything deeply-considered and well-examined. My purpose in raising these questions—and that’s what I’ve been doing—has to do with a current struggle centering on the validity of awards as signs of intrinsic worth.

The best that can be said of awards as guideposts to quality is that if a group of people, presumably in possession of unique perspectives and tastes, can agree upon a given work as worthy of special note, then it is likely a sign that the work so judged possesses what we call Quality.  In other words, it is an excellent, indeed exceptional, example of its form.  I’ve served on a committee for a major award and over the course of months the conversations among the judges proved educational for all of us and eventually shed the chafe and left a handful of works under consideration that represented what we considered examples of the best that year of the kind of work we sought to award.

I never once found us engaged in a conversation about the politics of the work.  Not once.

Nor did we ever have a discussion about the need to advance the cause of a particular type of work.  Arguments over form were entirely about how the choice of one over another served the work in question.  When we were finished, it never occurred to me that a set of honest judges would engage in either of those topics as a valid metric for determining a “winner.”  No one said, “Well it’s space opera and space opera has gotten too many awards (or not enough)” and no one said, “The socialism in this work is not something I can support (or, conversely, because of the political content the faults of the work should be overlooked for the good of the cause).”  Those kinds of conversations never happened.  It was the work—did the prose support the premise, did the characters feel real, did the plot unfold logically, were we moved by the story of these people.

Consensus emerged.  It was not prescribed.

This is not to say other metrics have no value, but they can be the basis of their own awards.  (The Prometheus Award is candidly given to work of a political viewpoint, libertarianism.  It would be absurd for a group to try to hijack it based on the argument that socialism is underrepresented by it.)  But even then, there is this knotty question of quality.

Here’s the thorny question for advocates of predetermined viewpoints: if an artist does the work honestly, truthfully, it is likely that the confines of manifesto-driven movements will become oppressive and that artist will do work that, eventually, no longer fits within those limits.  To complain that the resulting work is “bad” because it no longer adheres to the expectations of that group is as wrongheaded as declaring a work “good” because it does tow the proper line.

Because that line has nothing to do with quality.  It may go to taste.  It certainly has little to do with truth.

Roundup 2014

Time for a year in review.  I am bound to say, though, that my reading once more has been disappointingly thin.

When I am working on a novel, time for leisure reading necessarily goes down. Reading for research goes up, but that rarely requires me to finish an entire book.  I look at my reading list for the year and the only titles I ever include are those I’ve completed, so on such years I appear to be under-achieving.

That said, I completed 42 titles this year. (To be sure, I’ve probably read, by volume, closer to 90, but most of those I did not finish.  For instance, I am still plodding my way through Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.  I’ll likely have to start it over.)

There were several that were rereads for me.  Unusual in that I seldom if ever reread a book. I don’t read fast enough to feel good about covering old ground when there’s so much new to be trod.  But I started up a reading group at Left Bank Books—Great Novels of the 22nd Century—and I’ve been choosing classics to discuss, so among the rereads were: Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin (I wanted to show people that he could write, write well, and write economically about something other than the War of the Roses, although to my surprise I found many of the same themes playing out in this, his first novel); Slow River by Nicola Griffith (her Nebula winner and still, I’m happy to say, a powerful, poignant novel); Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh, one of the best interstellar warfare novels ever penned and very much an inspiration in my own work (for one thing, one has seldom found such solid treatment of working class issues in such a novel); Burning Chrome by William Gibson, which just made me wish he still did short fiction; Timescape by Gregory Benford, one of the best time travel novels ever written, although I’m bound to say it felt socially dated, though not fatally so; Nova by Samuel R. Delany, a lyrical, multilayered congeries of mixed mythos in an exuberantly realized interstellar setting; A Case of Conscience by James Blish; Gateway by Frederik Pohl; and now Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey.

While some of these provided me with revelatory experiences (I missed that the first time through! and I never thought about it this way before) the chief benefit of this exercise for me was in seeing how these books have informed what came after.  Over the past three-plus decades since it’s original publication, Timescape reads like a novel which escaped much of social consciousness progress even of its own time.  Not egregiously so, but there is only one female scientist in the story and she is very much in the supporting cast category.  Certain political strands feel thin.  None of this is a detraction from the primary story or from the fact that Benford is one of our better stylists (which really makes me wonder who was doing what in his recent collaboration with Larry Niven, which I found virtually unreadable because of simple clunkiness in the prose) and paid attention to character more than many of his contemporaries—or, I should say, realized such attention better.  On the page, his people feel real, whole, fleshed out.

The time travel device in the novel leads directly into one of the best books I read this past year, Gibson’s new one, The Peripheral, just recently reviewed here.  Along with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and a handful of others, this enters my personal canon as one of the finest time travel works ever written, even though the plot seems deceptively commercial.

The most telling revelation of my rereads has been in finding my own reactions to the texts so different.  I remember my initial response to many of these as being quite different.  True, I missed many very good things in retrospect, but also I forgave a lot more than I do now.  There are books I come across today which I find off-putting which I know 20 or 30 or 40 years ago I would have raved about.  Much of this comes down to simple artistry.

Or perhaps not so simple.  I found it interesting that my more positive response to Delany’s Nova for its elegance and its precision left others a bit cold.  One brings a history of reading to a book which largely determines how one’s expectations will be satisfied…or disappointed.

I did reread James Schmitz’s Demon Breed.  Not for the reading group—it is sadly unavailable—but to refresh my memory for another project, and I still found it to be an exhilarating book, well ahead of it’s day in its basic assumptions about gender roles.  This is one I have now read four times since first discovering it as an Ace Special way back in 1969 and each time I’ve found it holds up extremely well and attests to an underappreciated genius.

Knowing now more clearly that elegance of execution is vitally important to me, my patience for certain kinds of writing has diminished.  I mentioned the Niven/Benford collaboration which I found impossible to get through, although it crackled with ideas.  What I have learned (for myself) is that the entire argument over style versus substance is a straw man.  It assumes they are not the same thing.  Quite the contrary, they are inextricably entwined.  Very simply, style emerges from a clear grasp of substance.  A sentence works at several levels, revealing information of different kinds in the way it presents its contents to the reader.  A lack of substance will show in a stylistic failure.  Too often we erroneously hear “style” as code for “decorative.”  Not at all.  The style is all important to the conveying of mood, of character, of setting, of theme.  But style cannot impose any of these things—the style is a result of the writer having a solid knowledge of what needs to be conveyed and an attention to how the sentence should be written in order to convey it.

Which is why I say style is an emergent property.  Almost no one gets to this level without a lot of practice, over time.  Which is also why most writers become clearer—“better”—as they go on.  They’re learning what matters, paring their words down, and revealing more.

For example, two novels I read this year which could not be more different serve to show how that experience and growing clarity result in unique styles.  Jim Harrison’s Brown Dog (which is a collection of linked novellas about the title character) and Richard Powers’ Orfeo.  On the page, the writing could not be more different.  Brown Dog is a semi-literate, often-itinerant aging naif who tells his story in what appears to be simple-minded affectlessness.  Things happen, he’s bounced around by events, lands (inexplicably) on his feet (wobbling often) and while clever is so guileless that one begins to believe in guardian angels.  The style reflects this.  Read carefully, though, and a world is revealed in each passing sentence.  Powers, on the other hand, reads like a musician scoring a great symphonic cycle.  The language is rich, evocative, challenging—and yet absolutely transparent, consistent with the story.  It can only be what it is in the telling of this particular tale of a failed composer who at the end of his life finds himself on the run and becoming an icon of his own life, with one more song to write and perform.  Each sentence reveals a different world, just as clearly, just as uniquely.

Style comes largely, therefore, from perspective.  Perspective informed a pair of books I read about the genre in which I labor, science fiction.  I finally read Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree, which is an excellent history-qua-analysis of science fiction.  Because I had it to hand, I then read Margaret Atwood’s collection of essays about her experience of SF, In Other Worlds.  I wrote a longish examination of my gleanings from these two very different-yet-similar works, but let me just say that in them is revealed the font and consequence of perspective.  Atwood, for all her professed appreciation of science fiction, does not “get it” while Aldiss, who breathed it in like air in his youth, does, leading them both to unique understandings.

Another “paired reading” I did this year was Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsy novels, Gaudy Night and Whose Body?  It was fascinating because the latter is the first Wimsy novel and the former is late in the cycle.  What I found fascinating was the growth of the character.  The late Wimsy is very different from the early and yet are clearly the same man.  (Another instance where style is essential to the content, the revelation of such growth.)

One of the most interestingly-written novels I found was Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit, which can be said to be all about style, and yet nothing about style.  It is written in first-person plural, an ever-present “we” as the story is told from a collective point of view which nevertheless reveals individual character.  The “wives” form an amalgam of experience in opposition to, judgment of, and distance from the events that formed the core of their subsequent lives as they followed their scientist and engineer husbands to Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb.  A stunningly gutsy thing to do for a first novel, marvelously successful.

I finished the immense Heinlein biography with volume 2 of the late William Patterson’s work on one of the major figures in science fiction.

There was also Thomas Pynchon’s newest, The Bleeding Edge, which exhibits many of Pynchon’s trademark stylistic acrobatics in what may be one of his most accessible convolutions on the American obsession with conspiracy.  Often one encounters a Pynchon novel rather than reads it and you come away with a sense of having toured a vast foreign country, appreciating many things, but knowing you haven’t grasped it, possibly not even its most salient features, but glad you made the trip.  Not this one.  It felt whole, penetrable, complete, and possessed a satisfying conclusion.

One of the most pleasant pair of readings this year was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its sequel, Ancillary Sword.  Ambitious and superbly realized, set in an interstellar milieu with fascinating aspects and a unique approach to empire, both books tell their tales from the viewpoint of an ancillary—basically a human-made-robot extension of a much larger AI, a ship mind (borrowing a bit perhaps from Iain M. Banks) that is destroyed in the first book with a single ancillary survivor.  Breq remembers being a ship, being one facet among hundreds, having access to vast data resources, but now much function as a single consciousness in a lone body.  Leckie is indulging an examination of the nature of empire, of morality, of political expedience, and what it means to be a part of something and also what it means to be outside of that something.  What I found most gratifying was that the second volume, while picking up the story a heartbeat after the first book, was a very different kind of book, about…well, not about something completely different, but about a completely different aspect of this enormous subject she’s chosen to tackle.  Serendipitously, a timely book as well, dealing as it does (effectively) with social justice and minority oppression.  I find myself looking very much forward to the third book.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.  I reviewed this as well and have nothing to add to that.

I don’t think I read, cover to cover, a bad book.  I’ve largely gotten over the compulsion to finish any book I start.  If it’s bad, it isn’t worth the time.  I readily admit I may and probably am wrong about many books that strike me this way.  I’ll talk about them if I find something instructive in my negative reaction, but otherwise I’ll just put it down to taste.

A good number of the nonfiction books I read this year concern the Napoleonic Era because of one of the novels I’m working on.  One I can recommend whole-heartedly is Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, a biography of Alexandre Dumas’s father, a creole who became general under Napoleon.

I am hoping to read more next year.  I have a to-be-read pile on the verge of daunting.  Working in a bookstore as I now do is also a problem because every day I see another book or two I want to read.  When? I ask myself.  It’s not always sufficient to dissuade me.  As I said, I read slowly these days.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book in one sitting.  That said, though, I think I’m getting more out of them now than I used to.  An illusion, maybe, but…

Have a safe, bookfilled 2015.