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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Urban Character

After a number of extraordinary novels, one thing is clear about China Mieville’s work: he loves cities.

New Crobuzon, Embassytown, London, Beszel/Ul Qoma—each distinctive, layered, multifaceted, richly alive, and impossible to map as any living being’s soul, these remarkable urban spaces center, anchor, and frame the human (and not human) people who inhabit them. Consequently, the revelations of their interactions acquire architectonic depth fully evocative of the qualities of amazement, wonder, and dismay good science fiction should produce.

But each is unique, a character unto itself. Likewise in his new novel, The Last Days of New Paris, which gives us a Nazi occupied Paris that has swallowed its conquerors in the very decadence their ideology sought to suppress by supplanting it with their own.

In the early days of the occupation, a young American schooled the occult symbolist morphologies of Crowley and company infiltrates to find the enclave of French Surrealists holed up in city center. He finds them ensconced in a kind of internal exile, playing at resistance by ignoring the Nazis and pretending they are the gatekeepers and caretakers of the essential Paris.   Breton, Varo, Lamba, others. The American has brought a device–Americans have always been good at devices—which, in one frenetic evening, manages to capture the surrealist essence of these imagineers and store.  The “battery” is conceivably a tremendous weapon with which to fight the Nazis, but it is stolen, and then in at the end of a series of tragic inevitabilities, explodes, unleashing the transformative power it contains on the very fabric of Paris.

Which becomes a living, shifting, mutating landscape of surrealist manifs, blind alleys, cavernous enclaves, cul-d-sacs, and psychic traps and pitfalls.  The most effective fighters are those who navigate this landscape, understand at least what is happening if not how, and can tap into the indeterminate loyalties of the now living architecture.

The actions shifts between 1941 and 1950, a year in this universe wherein the Nazis are still in Paris and, presumably, in a large portion of Europe, and the war continues.  Events are building toward some kind of a climax, with the Nazis attempting the manufacture their own manifs.  They lack the necessary turn of mind, though, and all their attempts are stillborn or ruinously self-destructive.  But they doggedly continue until it seems hell itself feels threatened by their machinations.

The novel itself is riddled with Surrealist quotes, riffs, nods, and inspirations. This is an alternate history built on the notion that imagination and art can be as brutally decisive in waras any martial technology—but that the deployment of such visions must be done with care. The Nazis used symbols and a dark vision of æsthetic insistence to drive their machine. It can be argued that they failed because they did not fully understand either the power of imagery or the way in which human imagination will never be yolked to serve a purely nihilist aim. The humanitarian drives that confronted them and stopped them in our reality are kin to the bizarre visions which in Mieville’s skilled renderings shackled the Nazis to a fight that could not be finished, certainly not in their favor. The climax and denouement are equally decisive and inconclusive, as it should be.

But the tour through this externalized, foregrounded metaphor of a city is a brilliant odyssey through the power of human imagination.

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.

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.

 

 

Sword, Double-Edged, Metaphorical Steel

I finished reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword weeks ago and have been turning it over in my mind ever since trying to decide on the best way to talk about it.  As sequel to her surprisingly popular Ancillary Justice, it is exceptional and unexpected.  Yes, it carries forward the story of Breq, the lone surviving aspect of what was once a vast AI, a ship possessing a cadre of ancillaries which formed the extensible components of its intelligence.  Yes, it continues on with an examination of the universe she established and the civil war that is in the process of breaking out.  Yes, we find a continuation of many of the narrative devices and their concomitant concerns.

No, it does not actually go where one might expect such a sequel to go.

This begs the question of expectations, however, which also has to do with whether or not art is obligated to meet specific expectations.  Surprise, after all, is supposed to be one of the chief pleasures of art.  The surprise of the new, of discovery, of revelation.

That Leckie’s sequel does not bend to the predictable is a good thing.  That it then takes us to another level of questioning not only the premise of the work but of our own civilization is a bonus.  That it does this so well is triumph.

Which brings me to my entreé into this review, because going where one might not expect is part of the overall pleasure of this series, which has at least one more novel to come, but clearly offers possibilities for satellite works if not direct continuations.

One of Leckie’s tactics has been to replace the male pronoun with the female throughout.  A simple change, designating all people as “she” and “her” rather than “he” and “his” without venturing upon the complications of actual gender transformations.  A simple change…but with apparently complex consequences for readers.

You wouldn’t think, among self-identified science fictions readers, such a modification would have significant effects.  We should all be used to shifts in perspective.  Writing about the alien, after all, is what a good deal of SF is all about.  We have even grown accustomed to the idea of the familiar being alien, so much so that tales of possession, of cyborgs, of cloning, of genetic modification, even of next-stage evolution are part and parcel of the idiom with which we’ve been dealing for decades.  Yet somehow, it seems, the idea of a human possessed by an alien or an alien masquerading as a human is far more decodeable for some than of the human in all its familiarity being alien.

We write from the basis of the culture with which we are most familiar.  More importantly, we read on the basis of that culture.  For or against or across, our culture, whether we like it or not, supplies the language, the metaphors, the analogies, the foundations of how we perceive all that we encounter.  Science fiction has been one of the most consistent forms of turning that foundation upside down and inside out in the pursuit of its primary effects—cognitive dissonance among them.

So it’s fascinating when a work does something that upsets even the well-traveled carts of the experienced SF reader and leaves confusion in its wake.

Confusion is an effect as well.  Often inadvertent and unintended, it’s a breakdown in the connection between Our World and the world of the text.  James Joyce is probably the one who used this (and both benefited and suffered from it by turns) to greatest effect, and although Ulysses is not science fiction per se, it nevertheless shares many æsthetic conceits with SF.

But Joyce dug deep and deployed many a device to skin the world and show us what lies beneath the comforting patina of “civilization” and his constructs are complex and sometimes labyrinthine.  In contrast, and by virtue of this language called SF, Leckie made a simple surface change and skinned us.

Upon first encountering the device in Ancillary Justice I was at first confused.  But once I realized that confusion came from my subconscious desire to easily and readily “visualize” each and every character without having to bother with “character,” I was delighted.  The device brought me face to face with my own biases and showed me just how dependent I was on a simple biological binary.

But not quite so simple.  As I read on I realized that this reliance on male-female identification markers allowed a certain laziness to creep in to my experience of the world, not because male and female are in any way divisive so much as that they substitute for a suite of often unexamined expectations that come under the headings “normal” and “special.”  Leckie’s substitution of one standard pronoun for another erased those too-easy sets of assumptions and forced one to read everyone as “normal” unless otherwise designated by characterization.

Once I recognized what was happening in my own reception of the proffered device, I was delighted, and subsequently read more carefully, amused at each instance where my default assumptions were overturned and I was forced time and again to deal with each character as unique.  I accepted the text from that point on as a challenge to the norm and have since found occasion to be dismayed and delighted by other reactions which, in their turn, baffle.

Apparently, for some, the initial confusion never abates.  That persistent “she” throughout causes annoyance without ever becoming a normative aspect of the culture depicted.  The reader finds it difficult to either shed the bias being challenged or accept that this is simply a mirror image of a culture norm we already live with with the addition of a special category.  Leckie includes that special category, of course, as an aspect of outside cultures that still retain separate male-female designations, and her main characters must check themselves in such encounters so they do not cause offense by getting the designation wrong.  The very confusion and annoyance complained of by some readers is right there, part of the background of the story.

Because, whether we choose to admit it or not, in our culture, “she” and “her” are special category labels having little to do with the purposes of biology and everything to do with the sociology of biology.  The male pronoun is normative, the default.  One need never remark on someone’s maleness in conversation to comment on a distinction which may or may not be important.  But the introduction of the female pronoun prompts a repositioning of mental stance, a reassessment, however unconscious, that “allows for” a difference our culture says is important regardless of context.

On its simplest level, we expect a binary representation of what is human—the norm and the other. Encountering Leckie’s work, the other is obscured almost to the point of nonexistence, and our expectation that one half of the population should be designated in some way special by virtue of biology is frustrated.  We’re forced to see each and every character as a person, period.

It can, indeed, be a bit annoying, especially when other markers are absent or obscured.  One finds oneself making assumptions about which is male and which female which one suspects are all wrong.  This becomes even more interesting with the inclusion of ancillaries, which are mere biological extensions of an artificial intelligence, sex characteristics rendered irrelevant by this fact.  In Ancillary Sword we find a fully human crew aspiring to behave like ancillaries as a sign of distinction, which sort of adds a third gender into an already obscured mix.

Naturally, sleeping arrangements become problematic.

All of which plays elegantly into the matter at hand in this second novel, which proves to be not only theoretically fascinating but serendipitously topical.  Ancillary Sword is a social justice story.

In the aftermath of the events in the first novel, Breq is made a fleet captain by the Lord of the Radch and charged with securing one of the systems still connected through a functioning gate.  The nature of the civil war beginning to unfold is in itself a twisted bit of political legerdemain—the Lord of the Radch, thousands of years old, is herself a distributed intelligence who has become divided over a policy question involving an alien race.  She is now at war with herself, each side feeling she is the legitimate repository of right action.  The entirety of the Radch (which in many ways reminds one of Austria-Hungary at its peak) is caught between the factions of what once was the embodiment of its identity.  Breq allies herself—itself, since Breq still feels not human, but a surviving ancillary-cum-ship—with the faction that seems to represent a measure of sanity in terms of the realpolitick at hand.  It’s a conditional alliance, to be sure, because Breq has little regard anymore for the Lord of the Radch in any context.

Arriving at the system, Breq finds a world with many problems buried beneath a surface that shimmers with the sophistication and wealth of all that the Radch is supposed to be.  The system itself was annexed in relatively recent history and there are communities of other cultures that were imported as workers.  What soon becomes clear is this is a plantation system and the overlords have become so entrenched in their privilege they do not seem to be remotely aware of the oppression they oversee.

Leckie adroitly sets privilege in opposition not only to right but also as a dangerous distraction in a potential war with an alien race.  Revealing the deeply-imbedded dysfunction is necessary to preparing the system for larger problems ahead, but it is also something Breq, who has seen firsthand what petty power plays over position and privilege can cost, simply will not tolerate.  Overturning an entire system of behavior, though, cannot be done by simple fiat and the subversion Breq employs to undo it is as trenchantly relevant to present politics as it is satisfying drama.

What proves equally satisfying is at the end discovering that the simple device deployed with a pronoun proves as necessary to the revelation—for the reader—of the nature of oppression because it establishes a norm of equity difficult to imagine shorn of the biases we bring to the story.  Because that pronoun challenges us and taunts us to continually pay attention to how we’re reacting and what justifications we use to ignore what may be similar problems within our own society.  It’s a lesson in labels and how potent they can be, especially when unexamined and unchallenged.  Leckie is using the female pronoun to establish a norm we honestly do not embrace and against that norm shows us the asymmetry with which we live quite willingly, powerless to change not because of the force of social pressure but because we often just can’t see a reason to.

Now, that’s what science fiction does at its finest.

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.

Inside Outside: Two Views of Science Fiction

Histories and analyses of science fiction are often fragmentary. Like histories of rock’n’roll, there are just too many different facets to be meaningfully comprehensive. That is not to say there aren’t excellent works that manage to deal with essential elements of science fiction, only that inevitably something will be left out or overlooked or, now and then, misunderstood.

I recently read two books about the subject that represent the poles of such analyses—those done from the inside and those done from the outside—and between them a clarity emerges about the fundamental misunderstandings that abound about the nature of science fiction.

Brian W. Aldiss’s almost majestic Billion Year Spree was published in 1973, a good year to attempt an overview like this, which covers precursor works as well as traces the development of the specific qualities of the genre through the 19th Century and then treats the major corpus of what we have come to recognize as science fiction from the 20th Century. Aldiss is very smart, very savvy, and his wit is equal to his intelligence in putting things in perspective. It is in this book that the idea that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first genuine science fiction novel was presented. Most dedicated readers of science fiction may be acquainted with this proposition, which has gone viral within the field, but may not have read Aldiss’s arguments in support. They are worth the time.

The second book is very recent. Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, which does not purport to be an overview like Aldiss’s work. Instead it is a very personal history with opinions and judgments. It covers Atwood’s association with science fiction and showcases her take on it as a genre. In some ways it resembles a memoir. On the question of what the first SF work was, Atwood is much less rigorous and far more concerned with SF as myth than Aldiss, so we find allusions to Gilgamesh and several other works along the way, which she does not specifically name as the primogenitor.

Which makes perfect sense by the end of the book because—and she pretends to nothing else—she doesn’t know. She doesn’t seem to know what science fiction is as practiced by those who work mainly within the field, nor does she seem to understand the nature of the particular pleasure of SF for the dedicated fan. And as I say, she never claims to.

This would normally not even be an issue but for the fact that Atwood has been committing science fiction for some time now. But it’s not her primary interest, as represented by a long and successful career writing and publishing what is generally regarded as mainstream literary fiction and commentary upon it. It’s not her sandbox, even though she is clearly attracted to it and likes to come over and play.

The different focus of her appreciation of science fiction highlights aspects of the longrunning and disputatious relationship between the so-called literary establishment and the declassé realms of genre fiction. Especially after having read Aldiss on science fiction, the bases of mutual incomprehension across the fictive divide becomes clearer.

Aldiss establishes his premises early:

No true understanding of science fiction is possible until its origin and development are understood. In this respect, almost everyone who has written on science fiction has been (I believe) in error—for reasons of aggrandisement or ignorance. To speak of science fiction as beginning with the plays of Aristophanes or some Mycenean fragment concerning a flight to the Sun on a goose’s back is to confuse the central function of the genre; to speak of it as beginning in a pulp magazine in 1926 is equally misleading.

In chapter one he then sets out his operating definition:

Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.

Contrast this to Atwood’s opening stab at definitions:

Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy…I realized that I couldn’t make a stand at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction means anymore. Is this term a corral with real fences or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi-accurate or at least lucrative way?
…sci fic includes, as a matter of course, spaceships and Mad Scientists, and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong…

Then later, this:

In a public discussion with Ursula K. Le Guin in the fall of 2010…I found that what she means by “science fiction” is speculative fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classifies under “fantasy.”
…In short, what Le Guin means by “science fiction” is what I mean by “speculative fiction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.”

There are harbingers in this which emerge meaningfully later in the book.

My own definition of science fiction is less specific than Aldiss’s and far more rigorous than Atwood’s—science fiction is at heart epistemological fiction: it is concerned with how knowledge (and subsequently technology) forces change on humans. You might argue that any good spy novel would meet that criteria, and certainly many spy novels (and movies) contain large dollops of science fiction, but only as collateral concerns. The change in a spy novel is earnestly resisted and often successfully so—the status quo is all important. Science fiction usually starts with (the authorial) belief that any status quo is an illusion and goes from there. Again, any surrealist novel might meet that definition, but I said epistemological, which is the tell-tale, because we’re talking about knowledge and knowing and acting, which is a communal experience, across society. And so the Federation of Star Trek qualifies as an epistemological proposition while the Isle of Avalon does not. And of course the second important condition—force—is essential in this regard. If there is a classical myth at the heart of SF it is Pandora’s Box. Open that lid—which is an act of will—and then deal with the consequences of uncontrollable environmental change.

I take it as read that there are other definitions of science fiction. This one is mine. It has the virtue of being completely independent of tropes—those spaceships and Mad Scientists of which Atwood speaks. Which brings something like Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi into the fold quite plausibly while leaving something like Allen Drury’s Throne of Saturn out.

Aldiss proceeds in chapter one to make his case for Frankenstein and he does so adroitly. For SF to be true to itself, a change must be apparent that can be prompted and shaped no other way than by the conceit of the Sfnal idea. Dr. Frankenstein has learned how to reanimate dead tissue. The change this causes in him is to be faced quite unmetaphorically with the responsibility of being a god.

What separates this effectively from a straightforward horror novel is the utter humanity of Victor Frankenstein and the absence of any hint of either the divine or the demonic. What unfolds is a human drama anyone would face under similar circumstances. Frankenstein is not “mad” but becomes so. The Creature is not supernatural, it’s a construct. The questions of soul and moral responsibility permeate the drama—unresolved and unresolvable. Frankenstein has made a change in the world and has to figure out how to deal with it. He fails, but it’s the wrestling with it that brings the book into the fold of science fiction, because the change is both external and personal and depicted as humanly possible.

The rest of the novel is a Gothic—namely, it partakes of the tropes that define the Gothic: lonely castles, empty landscapes, isolation, darkness, and a kind of vastness that seems ponderously empty (but may not be). In that respect, Aldiss is correct about SF being in the tradition of the Gothic. It deals with vastness, isolation, the alien as landscape—and moral conundrum.

Atwood seems to think it’s all about utopias, which is why she seems unable to locate a definable beginning to the genre. There is a palpable reluctance throughout her book to deal with the subject directly, in a way that addresses the particular history of the stories that comprise the principle body of what we call science fiction, as if by searching around the perimeter she might find the point where it can all be subsumed into the larger, primary literary history of the last couple of millennia.

Aldiss talks throughout Billion Year Spree about the writers who informed the genre ever since it split off into its own distinct digs in 1926 with the founding of Amazing Stories by Hugo Gernsback, who Atwood barely mentions in passing. In Aldiss we have complete discussion of Gernsback, of Edgar Rice Burroughs, of E.E. “Doc” Smith, Leigh Brackett, A.E. Van Vogt, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov—names which are oddly absent from the Atwood even though it is hardly possible to discuss SF meaningfully in their absence.

The writers they do cover, both of them, are Aldous Huxley, Jonathan Swift, George Orwell. Aldiss talks about them as what they are—literary writers who found useful tools in the SF toolbox, but who in most ways barely acknowledged the existence of the genre. (In Swift’s case, obviously so, since the genre did not exist in his day. But this itself is telling, since Swift is excluded by Aldiss as a precursor SF writer while Atwood sees him as primary.) Aldiss is remarking on how the same observations led to writers of quite different dispositions to do work recognizable to the main body of SF in its own day. To be sure, such writers are often used by the genre in a kind of reflexive self-defense, as if to say “See, serious writers do it, too!” But while Aldiss shows how these are basically one-offs, Atwood seems to think these writers represent the central goal of the genre—that all SF writers might be aspiring to the level of Huxley and Orwell. Perhaps in matters of craft and even art, but not necessarily in terms of theme or subject.

Atwood begins the biographical parts of her association with the genre in an understandable but curious place—in comics. (She also read H. Rider Haggard as a child, which left a distinct impression on her.) The trouble seems to be that she did not move from comics to the major magazines, and so what she shows is an attempt to make whole the literary connections between the superhero motifs of the 30s and 40s and classical myth. A valid and fruitful analysis, certainly, but it leaves one of the principle distinguishing features of the science fiction of the same period unaddressed—technology. Greek myths care not a fig for how Zeus generates his lightning bolts. They are super natural, beyond such understanding, as befits the divine. Science fiction is all over those bolts and how they are made—and, consequently why.

I would argue that while he did not create the first SF, Homer gave us the first SF character in Odysseus. In his own way, he was a technophile and a geek. He did not believe the gods were utterly inscrutable and unchallengeable and spent the length of the Odyssey figuring out how to beat them. He was a clever man, a man of reason, who clearly believed there was something to be understood about everything.

The mistake many literary critics make in their regard toward science fiction is in consistently assuming SF is all about its gadgets—i.e. its tropes—when it is really about the people who make them, understand them, use them, and all those who are changed by them.

Aldiss clearly understands this. He rarely argues for less science and tech, only for better human depictions. Because SF is about the world those tools are allowing us to make.

The question that springs to mind while reading Atwood’s examination is whether or not she ever read anything “of the canon,” so to speak—like Sturgeon or Herbert or Niven or Brin or Cherryh or even Butler—or if, having read it, she simply found it not worth discussing in the same breath as her token SF writer, Le Guin, and the others she selects to dissect, like Marge Piercy. Even in the case of Piercy, the work she chooses to examine is the one that can be read differently, Woman On The Edge Of Time, rather than the less ambiguous He, She, and It. In the closing paragraph of her examination on Piercy’s time travel-cum-woman-under-pressure novel, Atwood says:

Woman On The Edge Of Time is like a long inner dialogue in which Piercy answers her own questions about how a revised American society would work. The curious thing about serious utopias, as opposed to the satirical or entertainment variety, is that their authors never seem to write more than one of them; perhaps because they are products, finally, of the moral rather than the literary sense.

Even in praise, there seems to be a reservation about the work in question. Not literary, then, but a moral work. In this regard, Aldiss would seem to agree with her:

The great utopias have better claim to our attention, for utopianism or its opposite, dystopianism, is present in every vision of the future—there is little point in inventing a future state unless it provides a contrast with our present one. This is not to claim that the great utopias are science fiction. Their intentions are moral or political…
The idea of utopianists, like our town-planners, is to produce something that is orderly and functions well.

One of the chief drawbacks of utopias is this achievement of function. Basically, the whole point of them is to end history. They are “nowhere” because once attained there is theoretically no further need for people to change. In fact, they must not change, lest they destroy the perfection. As Aldiss goes on to say:

The trouble with utopias is that they are too orderly. They rule out the irrational in man, and the irrational is the great discovery of the last hundred years. They may be fantasy, but they reject fantasy as part of man—and this is a criticism that applies to most of the eighteenth-century literature…

Given this, one wonders what it is that Atwood is attempting in implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—treating SF as utopianism without a nod toward the thing at its core, namely the embrace of inexorable change. Because change is the driving fascination in science fiction and for it to have any valence in the imagination or utility in its constructs, it must present as something other than metaphor. Let me give you two quotes from a pair of SF writers, one of whom seems to be Atwood’s choice of exceptional ability:

Science fiction is a tool to help you think; and like anything that really helps you think, by definition is doesn’t do the thinking for you. It’s a tool to help you think about the present—a present that is always changing, a present in which change itself assures there is always a range of options for actions, actions presupposing different commitments, different beliefs, different efforts (of different qualities, different quantities) different conflicts, different processes, different joys. It doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. It presents alternative possible images of futures, and presents them in a way that allows you to question them as you read along in an interesting, moving, and exciting story.
Samuel R. Delany, The Necessity of Tomorrows

If science fiction has a major gift to offer literature, I think it is just this: the capacity to face an open universe. Physically open, psychically open. No doors shut.
What science, from physics to astronomy to history and psychology, has given us is the open universe: a cosmos that is not a simple, fixed hierarchy but an immensely complex process in time. All the doors stand open, from the prehuman past through the incredible present to the terrible and hopeful future. All connections are possible. All alternatives are thinkable. It is not a comfortable, reassuring place. It’s a very large house, a very drafty house. But it’s the house we live in…and science fiction seems to be the modern literary art which is capable of living in that huge and drafty house, and feeling at home there, and playing games up and down the stairs, from basement to attic.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Escape Routes

Taken together, these point to the disconnect with traditional literary forms, traditional literary expectations. Science fiction contains utopias, certainly (and dystopias, clearly) but it is not in the main about them. Nor is it about some desired escape from the present into an alternative world that may offer some kind of release for a mind at odds with itself, which seems to be the basis of so much neurotic fiction. The focus is on the wrong point here. It is about living in a changed milieu.

The problem with utopias was summed up concisely by Virginia Woolf “There are no Mrs. Brown’s in Utopia.” Like all superlatives, counterexamples can be found, but in the main this is a self-consistent criticism of the form which Atwood seems intent on using as her functional definition of science fiction. There is no room for ordinary people in Thomas More’s Utopia—if they are ordinary, they aren’t people, they’re memes. If they aren’t ordinary, Utopia doesn’t stand a chance of surviving.

And most ordinary people, when you get down to it, are not ordinary.

Which seems to be the major concern of most literary fiction—ordinary people. Which, by a tortuous logic of taxonomic reassessment, means, since Atwood seems to believe SF is principally utopian, that science fiction cannot deal with ordinary people and therefore, though she does not come right out and say this, cannot be considered relevant to mainstream literary concerns.

Welcome back to the ghetto.

In a blatantly dismissive review of Atwood’s own Oryx and Crake, Sven Birkerts asserted that SF can never be [true] literature because it “privileges premise over character.” In other words, the world at hand is more important than the people in it—which, of course, would make it utopian.

Henry James famously claimed “Landscape is character.” (Of course, he then criticized H.G. Wells for dealing more with “things” than characters—in other words, his landscapes.)

Birkerts and Atwood are on the same page, it seems, though Atwood is striving to come to terms with a form she clearly likes, even while misapprehending it. Perhaps had she found a stack of Astounding Stories instead of H. Rider Haggard and comics in the attic as a child she might have understood where the divergence happened and SF split off from two millennia of myth-driven fantasy. Novelty can overwhelm truth-seeking and a great deal of SF falls into the pit of self-involved gizmo geekery, but at those times when the work rises out of that pit to deal with the future and science and their immanence within the human soul it is unfair to not see its true worth. It’s like comparing Sherlock Holmes to the Hardy Boys and dismissing Holmes because he comes from the same stock.

It’s interesting that Atwood chooses Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time as her example, because Piercy worked a further subversion, perhaps unwittingly so, in the scenario she examines. Connie is regarded by everyone around her as insane. But she knows she isn’t, she’s dealing with a real situation, the future. But the world she lives in, the given world, her context, insists of denying the reality of that future and treating her involvement with it as symptom rather than legitimate experience. The parallel to the way in which the science fiction writer and his or her work is treated by those who see themselves as the keepers of context is remarkable. This is a metaphor which Atwood overlooks. The question of whether or not Piercy is writing what Atwood thinks she is or has understood the nature of the form she’s indulging is open.

The misunderstanding is simple but with complex consequences. Most genre fiction—mystery, western, war, spies, even romance—takes advantage of altered context to set mood or establish a range of possible action. Done well, these shifts target different thematic concerns and aim at specific moral (or telec) points. But in all but science fiction (and to a lesser extent the related genre of fantasy) the context would seem to be more attitudinal than material. Except in westerns, but we tend to treat the context of the western as “our” world insofar as it is historical and therefore, legitimately or not, we see it as familiar. The differences fade into background and the metaphor run out of our sight, almost as window dressing.

Science fiction dramatically reverses this relationship.

Which makes it a very uncomfortable place, especially for the writer who has spent his or her career writing from character rather than from landscape through character. Instead of seeing the world as a consequence of character, in science fiction the world is a character and must be dealt with concretely, as if to say “Here’s your new reality (context), now learn to live in it.”

It is precisely that discomfort that is the drug of choice for the reader of SF.

Attempts to corral it into a more familiar tradition run up against what must often seem like a perverse and intractable exoticism on the part of the writers.

Of the two books at hand, the Aldiss is the more taxonomically useful as well as æsthetically relevant. Aldiss, after all, is a science fiction writer. He has lived within the genre, knows it to its marrow, and, while critical of its excesses and irrelevancies, clearly loves it for itself, redheaded stepchild though it may be to others.

Which is not to say the Atwood is a failure. She is just as clearly fond of science fiction and has done considerable grappling with its conventions and conceits. But for her, it feels as if SF was an important love affair that last a summer or a year and then ended, leaving her with good memories and an impression of something missed, a road not taken. Nothing she regrets but it might have been nice for it to have lasted longer. She doesn’t know it the way Aldiss does, but she doesn’t fear it the way some of her colleagues have in the past and may still. So while her observations may seem coincidental, there’s worthy insight, if only of the tourist variety. Taken together, the two books give one a view of SF both from the inside and from the outside and the distinctions are telling.

Way back in my youth, when rock’n’roll had muscled its way into the serious attention of people who, not too many years earlier, once derided it as loud, obnoxious “kid’s stuff” I found an album by Andre Kostelanetz, who led an orchestra that specialized in symphonic renditions of popular music. He would take Sinatra or Como or Crosby or film themes or light jazz and turn them into quasi-classical pieces. This album was his take on the band Chicago. I remember listening to it bemused. It was interesting and it was “accurate” but it lacked some vitality that I at first couldn’t define. But then I realized that he had stripped everything out of it that said “rock’n’roll” and all that remained was the melody, the chord changes, and the form, but none of the guts. He’d taken music that could, in its original, get you churned up, excited, and agitated in a particular way and converted it into something palatable for the inspection of people who did not understand rock music but may have been curious about it. Unfortunately, he missed the point and the result was “interesting.”

I often feel that way about attempts at science fiction by people who do not understand it.

More importantly, however, is the dialogue between those who get it and those who don’t and in this respect Atwood has written a very useful book with considerable care and insight. It is, ultimately, less about science fiction than about her attempts to alchemically transform it into something familiar to her own early impressions of magical and dissociative fictive experiences. This is underscored by the Aldiss, which is about the heart and soul of science fiction. Reading them in tandem clarifies the ongoing misapprehensions and perhaps shows us how and why SF seems to be infecting much of today’s literary fiction. There must be a good reason why someone like Atwood now writes it, even if she doesn’t seem entirely to embrace it for itself.

 

The Visceral and the Vast

One of the ongoing struggles with what might be called epic science fiction, of which “space opera” has been a mainstay for many decades, is finding the balance between the plausibly human and high-tech melodrama.  Science fiction was born out of a passion for innovation and event which often overwhelmed or even shut out attempts at telling human stories.  It was a genre of heroes, villains, and grand conflict.

In the wake of the New Wave movement of the 1960s, certain forms diminished in prominence for just this reason.  Writers wanted to connect with their characters, tells stories that mattered on more than an adrenalized level, do work that might attain to the standards of literature, which meant more modest scales, closer scrutiny of the human heart, and a muffling of melodrama.  The lesson, unwelcome as it sometimes seemed in certain quarters, was learned and work produced after the 1970s reflected a shift in focus from the grander to the ordinary, at least in the treatment of character.  But to manage that the scope of the work suffered constraint.  The vast scope that made so much science fiction so much fun diminished, occasionally to claustrophobic dimensions.

With the resurgence of space opera in the late 1980s, beginning with Iain M. Banks’ and his Culture stories, we have seen the gradual humanization of the form to terrific effect.  (To a large degree, C. J. Cherryh had been doing this all along, but she had occupied her own niche, as it were, for over a decade before space opera itself enjoyed a renaissance.)

Suddenly we had the wide stage of interstellar space, many different alien species, the concomitant politics, and the kind of characterization one might expect from any competent novelist in any genre.  Occasionally, we saw superior examinations of the human, utilizing the surgical theater of the future and great distance to open the characters up to unique experiences which reflected back new insights.

Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice , is the latest example of what is possible in this revitalized format.  In a way, she has even given us a bit of a metafiction in that the story is about reducing the vastness of form into a cramped human scale—and then letting us see the former scale from this new perspective.

Breq is all that remains of a huge starship, Justice of Toren, one of the proud ships of the immense fleet of the Radch, an expanding human empire.  The Justices are troop carriers, among other things, main components of invasion forces—which the Radch call “annexations”—doggedly increasing the human sphere in the galaxy.  An act of betrayal from the most unlikely source of all has caused the destruction of the ship except for this one component, an ancillary which now works toward revenge, a shadow of her former self.

To describe the betrayal would give too much away and one of the chief pleasures of this novel is the onion-layer unfolding of the levels of plot and counterplot.  Aliens are involved, codes of conduct, and a class structure that is quasi-aristocratic and mercantile at the same time.  In some ways it reminds one of France’s ancien regime.

Leckie has done a number of clever things throughout.  The class structure is taut but not impermeable, although its rules make advancement agonizingly difficult and fraught with traps.  She has turned gender on its head—the preferred pronoun is feminine: everyone is “she,” even the males.  It makes little difference until Breq finds herself having to deal with societies that are more rigidly structured along gender-role definitions.  The ancillaries themselves could be virtually sexless and maybe they are—they are one-time humans taken as prisoner, their personalities overwritten and replaced by the sentient AI complexes of the ships.

The ships are aware.  And through their ancillaries they are ubiquitous.  The ships also have complex emotions.  Although Leckie never says, it is likely the ships have feelings because of their ancillaries.  The interface goes both ways.

Loyalty is both to the Radch and to individuals within it.  Ships have their favorites.

And in this instance, a favorite has been made a pawn in a much larger game being played by the absolute ruler of the Radch herself.

This game leads to the destruction of Justice of Torren—at least as a starship.  Breq, its last surviving ancillary, maintains loyalty to the cause it adopted in the wake of the betrayal and intends doing something about it.  Breq complains occasionally of its truncated memory, its limited resources, its smallness especially in the face of what it has to do, but it becomes clear that Breq retains enough of its former self to do the one thing it thought it could never do again—be human.

Leckie plays ends—several of them—against middles—more than one, it seems—to great effect, and manages to convey it all through the limited perspective of a single character.  This is a remarkable achievement, especially set as the story is against such vast backgrounds.  The driving problem of the action turns on a bit of political philosophy which we deal with today: what happens when the government turns on itself over a difference of opinion about policy?  While this may sound trite, the repercussions are anything but, elevating the book one more level.

Ancillary Justice is itself a consequence of a turning inward or against over a question of direction, and it answers the challenge well.  There is nothing expected about this book.  It goes in seemingly familiar directions, to apparently familiar places, but then leads the reader to nowhere he or she has been before in quite this way.  A wholly subversive work in the best sense of the word.

A sequel is promised.

Knowing Who To Follow

Choosing the right character to carry the story is one of the essential jobs of constructing a solid narrative.  Often that character will seemingly do the work for the author in the telling of his or her story.  Everything follows from viewpoint.  If the wrong one is chosen, the work can still be finished, the story told, but it can be an arduous task and, except in the hands of the most skilled, the effort shows in the finished product.

From certain writers we expect the right choices as given.  It never occurs to us to question them the way we might question a less seasoned author.  Reputation is based on the repeated nailing of all the important factors.  Such respect can be so ingrained that when a mistake is encountered, a wrong choice made, and the narrative doesn’t flow as it feels it should, there’s a tendency to blame ourselves.  We’re not reading it with sufficient attention, we’re not getting all the cues, we have failed to pierce the caul of metaphor and see into the purpose of the work in hand.  We are deficient, not they.  If we are bored, it is because we are boring, never that the author to whom we grant such status has bored us.  We are philistines, unworthy of the temple secrets.

Sometimes, this is true.  There are such works that are so densely construed and meticulously articulated that they require superior attention, often more than a couple of readings, and demand that the reader bring something substantive to the text before page one is even begun.

There are also works which pretend to be like that.  They can be difficult, opaque, and on the surface pointless.  Often, rather than admit the possibility that the work is flawed, we may find ourselves inventing the nous and telos of such a work, doing ourselves what the writer actually failed to do, or at least failed to get right.  If nothing else, the elegance of the sentences, the lexicon and vocabulary alone, convince us that this work must be good.  We couldn’t write anything so self-evidently beautiful, concise, lush…artful.

Doubt is also an essential element in literature.  The writer doubts in the act of writing, because there are many choices that must be continually made, from the macro to the micro.  There are doubts the reader has as the story unfolds, questions to be asked and, we hope, answered.  But also the basic doubt—is this book worth our time?

The work must earn our trust, assuage our doubts.  Being kicked out of a narrative, something we’ve all experienced, even with the best work, is an aspect of unanswered doubt.  The writer loses us when the work fails to keep interest high and doubts low.

With some writers, those with Reputations, this process gets reversed, and a work that might otherwise be set aside had it been written by a lesser light then consumes us in a quest to find the flaw in ourselves that causes us the discomfort of entertaining the possibility that this work is not what it should be.

In a recent piece in Salon.com, Robert Lennon tackles this idea.  We are told certain works are worth our time because they are the epitome of what we should aspire to, both as writers and as readers.

A case in point—with regrets—is William Gass’s new novel, Middle C.  The prose are fine, there is a playfulness with language reminiscent of Pynchon and Gaddis and, occasionally, Fowles, and some passages are beautiful.  The whole does not live up to the potential of its components.

This is a difficult realization.  Gass is one of those with Reputation.  His essays are acknowledged masterpieces, his novel The Tunnel is considered a 20th Century classic.  Middle C  is his self-professed Last Novel.  The conceit that launches the narrative—a man who changes cultural identities in order to survive the coming catastrophe of World War II, and then continues to drag his family from one set of personae to another, trying to stay one step ahead of those who may force him to conform to moral conditions he cannot abide—is fascinating, and the stage is set beautifully.  Distantly reminiscent of Gaddis’s The Recognitions, fraud and imposture inform the lives of his family throughout.  The attempt to find a place while simultaneously seeking an identity with which they can comfortably live, set against the backdrop of a post-war America that seemed to change both its sense of self and its expectation with each passing fad should have produced an electric work of neon clarity.

Instead, the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, is so intent on passing unnoticed through everything and among everyone that he never becomes his own Self, but remains a potential buried within the layers of subterfuge and fraud he uses to get by.  If it was Joey’s intention to keep everyone out, Gass allows him to succeed, and we are left with a skilled cipher who never engages with anything.  His passion is music, but, presciently, one of his early instructors tells him flat out that he pretends to play well, that he does not let himself know the music, and so will remain a talented mediocrity.

Gass seems to have chosen the wrong character to follow.  We know everything we are going to know about Joseph Skizzen by page 50.

Now had he gone with Joey’s father, we might have had a narrative with some unadorned vigor.  Rudi Skizzen took chances, acted, moved, and seems to have possessed a moral center that, while manifesting in rather unexpected and abstruse ways, drove him.  Had Gass followed him when he abandoned his family to head for Canada…

But we don’t have that book.  We have the careful examination of the near wreckage of his family as they try to get by.  Not succeed.  They don’t try for that (except the sister, Debby, who embraces the plasticity of America and seems to become a Happy Suburbanite—not much a choice, perhaps, but wholly hers and made without apparent regret) but turn inward to self pity and a constant fear of being found out.

Joey Skizzen—Professor Joseph Skizzen—does not wish to be noticed.  When people notice you, he suggests, then you are expected to do something, to live up to their criteria.  This is well and good if you have a set of criteria of your own and work to live up to them,  but Joey’s phobia removes from him any desire, apparently, to have any expectations at all of himself.  He just wants to pass through, get by, be left alone.

The reader doubts, especially when confronted with a book by someone we are expected to appreciate, that his or her reactions have any merit when those reactions are negative.  At best, this leads to a bit of wasted time spent muscling through a novel searching for what we are told to expect.  At worst, we take our inability to gain intellectual purchase in the novel as proof that our intellect is wanting, that our taste is lacking, that we are ourselves the philistines at the gate.  It is hard to realize that sometimes even a great artist produces flawed and occasionally fatally flawed work.

I was reminded of another work while going through Middle C, namely James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, which also told the story of people trying to change identities and pass as other than they were and dealing in various moral frauds in order to achieve questionable short-term ends.  The difference was that in Cain’s work all of them had something to lose, all the way up to the end, which made the work a first-rate tragedy.  In Middle C all the loss happens early, nothing is regained, and instead of tragedy we find farce.

There are some fascinating passages in this book, and the ideas with which Gass is playing are rich.  But the path he followed seems to take the long way around and doesn’t go where the beginning would suggest it should.  No one ought to feel inadequate as a reader in the face of such a work.