The Long and the Short and All Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ministering To The Present…For The Future

Among the most attuned voices in the climate change discussion, outside of straight-up science, Kim Stanley Robinson has long held a commanding position as a legitimate observer. The power of fiction combined with clear-eyed assessments and a grasp of practical as well as philosophic morality is nowhere better demonstrated than in his long career addressing “real world” issues through the lens of science fiction. 

Go back to the Mars Trilogy, the core of the three novels is climate. The politics, the economics, the science, all anchor the characters to a set of questions demanding attention. Iy is possible to see that early work as a stand-in for what could be reclamation work here on Earth.

Over time, book after book, Robinson has focused on one major conceptual question—what is the optimal relationship between humans and their environment? Even his interstellar exegesis, Aurora, is about this. In a way, it’s a central question—for science fiction primarily, but really for any literature to greater or lesser values of relevant—mainly, what is it possible to do without a viable environment in which to do it?

In The Ministry For The Future, Robinson brings it all to the fore and gives a novel that is as much handbook as dramatic narrative. In many ways, this is a species of “thirty-minutes in the future” with all the immediacy of the current climate conference in Egypt. He sets it a decade or so hence. After a harrowing opening, the book settles into “how do we deal with this” mode and for all its didacticism it is engaging and often riveting—mainly because he never loses sight of the people directly involved.

And that opening is masterfully horrific. The first line sets the tone—”It was getting hotter.” We then watch a massive heat cell boil a large section of India. 

Quite literally boil. There is one survivor, Frank May, who is there as part of an international mission. We follow Frank through the rest of the book, the outraged, scarred activist, who finds himself in an unlikely relationship with Mary Murphy, the freshly-appointed head of an agency within the UN which gets dubbed in the press as the Ministry for the Future. The agency has the unique mandate of being a voice for the future and becomes pivotal in the challenges facing the world with climate change that is no longer deniable.

Between the two of them we are given entrée to both ends of the political and social dynamics of dealing with a global problem. Robinson shows us all the major components that must be dealt with, including a solidly-explicated look at the economics involved (a difficult topic to make interesting at the best of times, but vital and here, in Robinson’s hands, far more engaging than one might expect), and walks us through the multiple scenarios that might pull us back from the brink.

This is not the kind of miracle-working overnight fix one often gets in science fiction. (The problem with those is, scale aside, that while the science may be good, the sociology is usually hopelessly utopian.) This is a look at one possible road to a viable set of solutions and even here the roadblocks are enormous and the politics maddeningly frustrating. This is as much an explication of the challenges as any kind of anticipatory celebration of potential problem-solving.

And for all its didacticism, it remains a very readable novel. He never loses connection with the characters and he lets us care about them as the best fiction does. The science, the economics, the politics, all the elements requiring thorough explanations to make the drama meaningful are salted through the story in a manner that breathes life into the concerns and the people dealing with them. We find ourselves invested in what all these people are doing because we understand what they’re doing. In that sense, this is a celebration of humanity at its best. The catastrophes are of human origin and so the solutions are ours as well and Robinson is telling us—showing us—that we have this.

If we so choose.

People, Problems, Politics, and Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equations and Kindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Carlo Rovelli.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Read

In light of the last few years, the question bites. Indulge me in a venting plea.

In my experience, limited though it is, I have found that the better read a person is, the more likely they will be to cope with reality, to defend against the twisting delights of both conspiracy theory and pseudoscience, and to be less vulnerable to charlatanry.

Not always. Some deceptions come wrapped in marvelous packages that can appeal to the puzzle-solver in us all and present as aesthetically compelling. In my own life I have followed white rabbits in tweed down a number of holes, some part of me convinced that truth lay in some hidden recess along the way.

I have been relegated to many sidelines since childhood because of reading, sidelines which at the time seemed harsh and unfair, but in retrospect were actually relatively safe places. Time and space are necessary for a mind to develop. Exposure to stimulating material does not work its magic immediately, sometimes not even soon, but eventually all those books and stories and articles result in a set of pathways and memories and organizing concepts that allow for the skills to deal with what may otherwise be just confusion.

No, let me be more definite—“may” has little to do with it. People who read, in my experience, are generally more present, more conscious, more adaptable than people who only watch and subsequently go through life skimming a surface which too often becomes a mirror and allows them to ignore what is beneath. In fact, those surface presentations often depend on not knowing what underlies them, may actively resist analysis, and with few exceptions deceive by suggesting there is nothing more.

Not all. But it is also true that those not intended to deceive largely depend on an audience that reads to reveal their full meaning.

There are many studies about the physiological and cognitive benefits of reading, especially fiction. Here’s one. There is an increases in synaptic structure associated with regular reading. Memory improves. Your brain responds by providing better tools.

Then, of course, you have to apply the tools. For me, this makes fiction and, in a similar way, history indispensable. Reading other kinds of books, while important in many ways, can leave you unaware of irony, of conflict, or paradox, all of which are fundamental to the so-called Human Condition. We read novels to grapple with the contradictions of being human. We read fiction because in doing so we learn the value of Other Minds attempting to do this thing we all own as a birthright—-living.

Occasionally we see a nod to this in popular entertainment. In the tv series Castle, Detective Becket is presented as an exceptional and gifted detective. In the first episode we hear from one of her colleagues that he likes “a simple Jack killed Jill over Bill” rather than the “freaky” ones. Becket responds, “Oh, but the freaky ones require more.” And then she challenges them: “Don’t you guys read?” As the series progresses we can see that she just brings more to the game and in that first episode the difference is made explicit.

We undervalue reading, often while making a big deal about it. Writers become celebrities, usually once one or more of their books is made into a film. And their fans may well read everything they publish, but that’s not beneficial reading. Like anything else, if you do not expand your horizons, complicate your diet, move out of your comfort zone, you end up trapped in a self-referential, reaffirming loop that grows nothing.

We must read so our apprehension of the world is less frightening, amenable to recognition, and manageable. So that people are not so alien and culture not so forbidding. Certainly someone can read a great deal and still be unable to decipher the world, but I believe such people to be a minority, and most of us benefit from the increased clarity that comes from an ongoing encounter with Other Minds.

The greatest benefit comes from a catholic indulgence: read widely, daily—fiction, science, history, philosophy, memoir—because at some point you will find it all reinforcing, that insights gained in one place can be enriched and enlivened by another source. And somewhere along the way, we may find that we are no longer easily fooled.

The most valuable ability of late would seem to be this, the awareness to not be fooled.

I make no prediction that a sudden upsurge of deep reading would solve our problems. Humans can be contradictory, perverse creatures. But it seems obvious that an illiterate populace is an easily-tricked, easily swayed populace. Given that those who are invested in people watching their shallow offerings rather than go off somewhere to read are generally those who would sell us shiny bits that delight and fail, it would be a good strategy to take up books and stop being led like myopic sheep.

But I have a rather more personal reason for urging people to set aside whatever prejudices they acquired in primary and secondary schools that turned them against reading-for-pleasure. When I set a book aside, as one must, and go out into the world, I would like to have meaningful contact with other people, and ignorance is a depressing barrier to that.

Why read? To be more. To hopefully be yourself. And possibly to be free.

2020 and Reading for Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economics, history…what about philosophy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Stars and Stories

Late in Record of a Spaceborn Few, Isabel, an Archivist on one of the ships of the Exodus Fleet, is trying to impress something of importance on a young, puzzled, possibly frightened boy who doesn’t know what to do—about anything.  “Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once.”

We talk these days about narratives. Political narratives, social narratives, religious narratives. Sometimes it seems we forget something real is behind a narrative and mistake the narrative for the reality. Often, this leads to awkward disconnects and sometimes tragedy. Another young man in the novel follows the stories and ends up the focus of a story he never anticipated, with unfortunate consequences.

Which only highlights the accuracy of Isabel’s statement. We operate by stories.

Throughout the three novels Becky Chambers has thus far published, stories form the connections, the bridges, supply the purposes and meanings, and lead to recognitions and revelations that are ultimately remarkable for their deeply exposed humanness. She has created spaces that are lived in by a number of civilizations, all trying to find common ground (collectively known as the Galactic Commons) and jostling to maintain, evolve, and explore the multiple and multiplying stories arising from the intersections.

Record of a Spaceborn Few feels, on one level, like the main switchboard that makes the first two novels—A Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit—make sense, but that would suggest the first two novels lack something. No, rather they are, like this one, fully-realized narratives of sentient beings trying to understand what they’re doing and where they’re doing it while reaching for survival and joy. Record of a Spaceborn Few answers questions of origins: how did all these beings get where they are? But like the skilled artist she clearly is, Chambers never lectures us about history (unless it comes as part of a conversation about immediate issues for the people on stage in a given scene) but embeds us in the fractal substance of lived experience that only feels “real” if that history underlies the narrative.

There is a certain Dickensian sensibility at play in this novel. Overlapping, interconnecting lives which, taken singly, may appear mundane or uninteresting (they are anything but), but as the resonances, one to another, build, create a holistic impression of meaning and substance and produce a world we feel we could step into. Small details reiterate, compile, characters suffer, laugh, struggle. Outside, vast interstellar amalgams move with ponderous purpose, but breakfast needs to be put on the table, shopping done, and jobs completed. The larger questions of why and how remain a constant but fade often into a background that, by so often going unremarked, takes on more and more reality. Layers form, paths become overgrown, sometimes lost, connections, the ever-so-vital connections, threaten to break.

At first glance, there is an ordinariness to it all that runs counter to the usual expectations one might bring to a science fiction novel. Attention is rewarded, though. There is little that is ordinary in these lives, in this place.

Earth long since has been abandoned by the thirty-two ships of the Exodan Fleet, which ventured out to find new homes. While there are still people on Earth, and Mars is a going, vital world, and humanity still knows its origins, these people, descendants of those who pushed off into deep space, have found themselves in the midst of an almost crowded universe of alien civilizations. Instead of war, there is process. Help is offered because there is value to be found in the differences. But individuals still chafe to stand on their own and find a place in the larger collective.

With a quiet, almost stealthy approach, Chambers gives us people with stories to tell seeking stories to give meaning to their own lives. And in return, offer us insights and the recognition in the new and unexpected. These books require attention. The effect is cumulative. This is how a future lived like this may be, but even if all the larger details are fanciful and exotic, it is the way these people embrace what they find that connects us to them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

On Time and Attention

My word. It’s November and this is the first post I’ve made since…May. Shame on me.

It’s not that I haven’t read anything worthy of comment. On the contrary, I see several titles on my read list I had ever intention of reviewing here, but…

It has been an unpleasant year. The deaths have mounted. Friends.

In June, Harlan Ellison passed away. I’m told he died in his sleep, a remarkably peaceful exit for such an iconoclastic, enormous personality. I’ve met few others for whom it can be said that he made every second count. That he considered me a friend still humbles me.

Before Harlan, Vic Milan died. He was one of the first professional SF writers I ever met. We were roughly the same age.

Then in the last month or so two friends outside the field died. Both were younger than me.

I have no larger point here other than to say that attention to other things has been difficult to maintain. This blog, these reviews, originally began as a personal amusement and a significant amount of time this year has been swallowed up in not being amused.

We were invited to attend Harlan’s memorial in September. It was an expensive trip, not only because we had a bit over a week’s notice, but there was no way to not go. We had been to Los Angeles only once before, to our first world SF convention in 1984. This time we were going to be in the heart of Beverly Hills.

We spent four days in L.A., met with Susan and close friends that Friday evening at Mel’s Diner, and attended the memorial at the Writers Guild West Theater Saturday evening.

I’ve already written about Harlan and the unexpected friendship. I won’t add to it here except to mention the warmth of those attending.

It takes it out of you after a while. There’s a childhood conviction that heroes should not die. That the very stuff of being a hero includes immortality. The adult knows better but the 8-year-old bristles with injustice.

I’ve managed to begin writing short fiction again. That was more difficult—and remains hard—than I expected. It requires time and attention, both of which seem less available.

And then there are the books that need reading.

I read Jo Walton’s new An Informal History of the Hugo Awards and came away delighted, amazed, and a bit intimidated. At several points, she mentions how often she rereads. Some books she rereads annually.

I can name the novels I’ve reread easily because they number so few. I read slowly. In high school I became a speed reader. At one point I estimated I was reading close to 3000 words a minutes, which would be somewhere around seven or eight pages. I tore my way through the Classics that way at the public library and read scores of SF novels.

Most of which I have forgotten.  After a dozen years my retention crumbled. I intentionally slowed down. I read pretty much at a snail’s pace now, which meansd it might take a week or more to get through a decent-sized novel.

But even when I could read at a heady clip, I rarely reread. There were too many new books to get through.

I’ve missed the boat on that. The last few years I’ve been hosting a reading group and I’ve had to reread some of the novels and it has been an unexpected revelation. I still don’t know when I’ll ever have time to seriously tackle a thorough reread, but I hope to.

On the plus-side, I have on my desk James Mustich’s magesterial 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die.  It’s an impressive catalogue. I did a quick tally and it turns out I’ve read roughly a quarter of them already. If I add in books by the same authors as those mentioned, it edges up toward 300. To be fair to myself, there are at least 300 books listed that I have never heard of.

There’s no time. And often we lack the requisite attention. We must cherish those times when the two coincide. I have been fortunate in my associations and my encounters. People, books, music. It is a trap to bemoan what you can’t get to when there are things you can and have. I look around at my office at rows of books I have read bits of or never opened. There’s a sense of wealth, in a way, to owning books. There is a greater wealth in knowing people.

Some of them have left the scene. It doesn’t seem that long ago that they were such vibrant, striking impacts on the intellect. In the case of writers, they linger. You can know them again, even if they’re gone.  We can’t know everyone. We should perhaps be careful choosing friends, but I think too often we have no choice. Friendship happens, it’s not a conscious decision. Had we set out to meet and befriend those who became most important to us, likely we would have failed.

Or not. Some people are simply that open.

I’ve reached a point, though, where I have to make such choices, because I am, through the loss of friends, aware in ways I never was before how little time there is.

I’ll try to be a bit more attentive to this blog, though, because I think it is important to note the impacts of friends and words.

Read deeply. A good book always offers more than what is on the page.

 

Stars, Orbits, Crossed Trajectories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is even a ghost of sorts in the book.

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

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