Cinema Versus ‘Theme Parks’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You just have to speak the language.

Of Stars and Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shifting Ground, Changing Paths, Constructed Worlds

We talk a great deal about World Building in science fiction and fantasy, but more often than not I suspect it refers to the equivalent of interior design and decoration. If the motifs of costume and manners conforms to a general tableaux of architecture, climate, and the suggestion of a history a bit more than two months old, with none of the corners out of place, it is hailed as an example of world building. In fact, it may well be nothing more than sticking antlers on the dog, painting the castle mauve, and handing out swords to characters who would be otherwise right at home in any particular middle period Court one cared to name, and reviving institutions we are well rid of and renaming them or layering them with mystical significance or “bloodline” gravitas.

World building worthy of the description requires more, and some understanding of how a holism evolves. (I find it noteworthy that when discussing this, one rarely hears it applied to something like Star Trek, which, for all its flaws, it one of the most successfully sustained examples of world building ever put forth. Perhaps because the path to it seems obvious and it’s really just the end result of a suite of logical assumptions instead of a complete substitution of what we recognize as “our” world? Hm.) Which is why Dune, for all its ecological problems, is a viable example of the art. All its parts are necessary to create the political, social, economic, environmental, and historical verisimilitude of a complete world that is not, for all the suggestive borrowings from it, our own. Or, for another example, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (or his later Book of the Long Sun); or for a more sustained example, C. J. Cherryh’s magisterial Union-Alliance novels, which cover centuries of history, hundreds of light years of territory, and dozens of cultures, each recognizably its own…

N. K. Jemisin has given us world building at the highest level in her Broken Earth trilogy.

The Earth of The Fifth Season is similar to but quite unlike our own. It could very easily be in a distance past, but more likely an equally distance future, one in which the ever-shifting plates on which the continents ride have brought all these landmasses back together in a new supercontinent. She suggests that such compaction has created a situation in which geologic forces are concentrated and history has been subsequently sorted out by Seasons, noted for periods of extreme geological convulsion. It’s not like we have nothing like this now—we speak of Ice Ages, warm periods, and have broken down the pre-human periods into large parenthetical Ages distinguished by flora, fauna, and, yes, continental configuration (though that is a relatively recent inclusion), but we don’t talk about them as part of our daily cultural vocabulary. In this world (let’s say the far future) tectonics dominates the mythology.

Like any time in human history, people are sharply divided into groups as well, only in this case the attributes dividing them are a bit less arbitrary. There are classes of people born with extraordinary abilities. Frightening abilities. The Orogenes possess the capacity to channel the energy of local geology. They are dangerous. When working this ability, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is in full play and consequences manifest unless their efforts are very carefully controlled. Of course, such control requires discipline and learning. Which requires a social system.

Which requires a civilization.

And so we have Yumenes, capital of the empire that more or less manages the continent—which is ironically called the Stillness. Yumenes, among other things, maintains the roads. This fact denotes an attention to detail and how the small things, the things too often taken for granted, matter sometimes far more than the grand histories we tell about ourselves or past Selves.

Not only the roads we see, though, but all roads, especially the roads that connect people. As we read we feel the history underlying all of this, and sense of the cohesion. It is that cohesion that makes this place real. What is more, it makes it real and alien, because this history is not ours. We recognize its validity in the consequences of that history.

This is the story of Essun. And Syenite. And Damaya. And how they—she—become a pivot point along a fault line that changes the world.

Syenite belongs to an elite order of Orogenes, protected and wielded by Yumenes to maintain the integrity of the empire. Literally. And while she enjoys certain privileges and a position of some power, she is still, at the end of it, a slave. She has no real choice but to serve in this order. The alternative is one of a variety of deaths.

What she expected to be an ordinary life along traditional lines within the order changes when she is paired with a man of immensely more ability than she exhibits and she travels with him on what should have been a simple mission to clear a harbor of coral. What she learns, what she sees, what she begins to become alters her path and puts her on the road to a revolution.

Jemisin has built in layers, carefully accruing history and myth and the physical realities in which these people move in such a way as to give us the full experience of another world. From the configuration of the government and the ruling classes down to the street slang hurled at the unwanted and frightening to the intricate network of relationships between communities and individuals, the Stillness—anything but still!—is a walkable, breathable world with stories to tell about people just like us—only different.

It is not the tectonics of the land that matter, but the drift among the people, the shifts in history, the maddening subduction of memory—and how finally they are all the same thing when combined.

Strange Inversions

Jeff Vandermeer has been mining the hills of what for a time was called New Weird for years. His Veniss Underground stories are exemplars of the power of the oblique, the odd, the displaced, the exotic in service to demonstrating one of the principle delights of science fiction, namely that setting is character. His newest novel is another example of how landscape transforms imagination and redirects the focus of our self-reflection.

The City—unnamed, unlocated, but somehow American for all its desolate ambiguity—has been reduced to the condition of decimated near-abandonment. We are told the entire world has undergone a series of collapses and that this city is representative of most of it. Those remaining pick over what is left, and there would seem to be plenty.  But there is a constant danger, the looming presence of Mord, a giant bear that can fly. It tortures the landscape and the survivors, eats indiscriminately, slams about remaking the skyline according to no discernible plan. Mord is just a great big bear with no table manners.  And that uncanny ability to fly.

Rachel is a seasoned scavenger who finds it useful to shadow Mord. One never knows what good salvage one might find in his wake. The risks have been worth it in the past. As the novel opens, though, she has made a find that will reshape everything she thought she understood about the world she inhabits.  It is an odd bit of biotech, a blob attached to Mord’s hide, just large enough to find and still fit inside her pocket. It is, in its indefinable way, attractive.  She describes it sometimes as a vase that occasionally has wings. She calls it Borne and brings it back to her domicile, the Balcony Cliffs, where she lives a not altogether unpleasant life with her lover, Wick, who is some kind of biotech engineer. Wick immediately dislikes Borne, wants to take it to dismantle to see how it works, but Rachel refuses. This creates the first real conflict between them, which grows worse as Wick begins to see Borne as a threat.

Because Borne is changing.  Growing, certainly, but also acquiring new traits. Rachel discovers one day that it can talk. She hides this fact from Wick. As Borne continues to grow and change, she continues to try to hide its capacities from Wick, but Wick is not fooled.

Into this comes new threats. There are factions in the City, vying for power, control, advantage, in a game that feels purposeful but ultimately has little point. There is Mord, of course, raw power, incontestable, frightening.  There is also the Magician, another human who may or may not have been a colleague of Wick’s back when he worked for the Company, whose facility still stands, still functions, and had much to do with the destruction that befell the city. There is the Company itself, which continues to exert an influence albeit of an almost subterranean kind.  Once it had been the power in the city, but since the general collapse, both locally and globally, it persists because at least it seems to possess structure.

And Wick, after a fashion, because he is a node of stability in the chaos.  He makes things people will trade for, that people need, although his ability to do so is diminishing because the resources he needs, which Rachel is so adept at finding, are dwindling. As they do and his production shrinks, their danger increases.

Borne is a fey factor, an unknown in all this, and Rachel finds her attachment to it both comforting and unnerving. Her attachment to Wick is of a different kind and, for all the stress on it, more secure than she comprehends.

It is a curiously compelling story.  It reveals, offers insight, confers meaning, even when it is unclear what underlies all the struggle. Rachel’s inability to give Borne up resonates, as does Wick’s well-reasoned suspicions of it. The disturbing changes in Borne unsettle in a perversely familiar way. And Mord just scares us with his unpredictable rages and the offshoots of his savage personality which appear to do murder to what remains of order and humanity in this landscape, which as we continue on, feels ever more like somewhere we’ve been before, if only we could remember…

Borne as creation bothers us and intrigues us and somehow we understand that it—he—is not really our enemy.  This is confirmed in the novel, but that confirmation is not what brings this to the forefront of our myth-responsive memory.  Borne takes in everything—literally eats reality—and excretes nothing. Just grows. But he should, because we sense what Borne is. Borne is incomplete.  Borne requires…

Comparisons are never one to one, rough at best, but then originality is not served by direct corollaries.  Something that is “just like” something else may have novelty but it does little to feed the desire of new truths and fresh perspectives. Nevertheless, they are potent when done well, and this is done well.

Wick—in this instance, an obscure form of Wizard—is in some sense the creator of all that Rachel moves through.  He worked for the Company until he was expelled, and when we learn finally all that he may have created his place becomes clear in Rachel’s universe.  He protects her more than she knows because he is responsible for so much, in a way a master narrator. He cannot ultimately protect her from herself, and that is where the elements of this marvelous piece of clock-work aligning and arranging come together.

As borrowings go, Alice Through the Looking Glass will suffice. There’s even a mirror. But that landscape—collapsing, reforming, surprising, terrible and amazing—is what we find when our illusions are outgrown as we persist in living within the precincts of an imagination that will not yield to new possibilities and the stronger forms of mature dreams.  The child must be reborn into a bolder reality, and if in that reality bears cannot actually fly, well, there are other wonders to sustain us.

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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Sleeping Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

Now A Word From Paradise Island

Of all the unlikely confluences you might stumble over in life, here’s a set: what do Margaret Sanger, lie detectors, and superheroes have in common?

If you answered “Wonder Woman!” you would be correct.  And if you could answer that before Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman came out, you would be in rare company knowing that.  lepore_wonder_woman_cover

Wonder Woman was the creation of one William Moulton Marston, of the Massachussetts Marstons. If that familial pedigree escapes you, don’t feel bad, you didn’t miss it in history class.  The Marstons had come down a ways from their 19th Century heights, enough so that William was forced to apply for grants to finish his degree at Harvard in 1915 in psychology (Ph.D. earned in 1921).

Psychology was still a relatively “new” science and Harvard was in the vanguard.  Marston attached himself to the recently founded Harvard Psychological Laboratory and eventually ended up running it.  But only for a short while.  And that career curve would follow him the rest of his life.

Marston emerges in the pages of Lepore’s book as a brilliant man-child who just couldn’t seem to make a success that lasted of anything.  It becomes evident as his story unfolds that he simply confused personal fame with genuine success and made a series of bad calls with regards to where and how to apply his energies.  He was a self-promoter but when it came to backing up his claims he was lacking in substance.  He “invented” the lie detector and established it as a viable methodology and then ruined its use in court for decades through sloppy application and shoddy research.  Not only that, but the court case which apparently set the precedent for the exclusion of lie detector results from court rooms cast a pall on him personally, a circumstance he never quite recovered from.  If not for the three women he eventually lived with, it seems likely he would have been indigent.

That is where the story takes a turn toward the culturally amazing.  Marston was a hardcore feminist, of the “old school” that marched and advocated and disrupted (although being a man this rarely led to any inconvenience for him).  He seems to have been genuinely dedicated to the idea of equality for women and also a devotee of free love, a parallel movement to the equal rights movement that led to considerable discord among feminists.  He met and eventually married Elizabeth Holloway, who shared his philosophy.  She earned a law degree from Boston University and of the two possessed the discipline to apply herself to her chosen tasks, a trait Marston apparently lacked.  Eventually, Holloway (who kept her maiden name) was the principle breadwinner in the house, which grew to include Marjorie WIlkes Huntley, a woman he met while doing work for the Army under Robert Yerkes, and then later Olive Byrne, who was Margaret Sanger’s niece.

At a time when “alternate lifestyles” could land you in prison, this was, to say the least, unorthodox.  Marston apparently possessed enormous personal charmisma and none of the women ever left him.  After his death, the three more or less remained together almost until death.  Byrne and Holloway each bore two of Marston’s four children, but Byrne claimed to be a widowed cousin and refused to tell her own children that she was their mother.

How did all this produce one of the most well-known superheroes of all time?

Lepore, who obtained access to archives and letters never before made public, has detailed this remarkable story with clarity, humor, and insight.  Wonder Woman is probably one of the most rigorously constructed superheroes of the Golden Age of comics.  Marston did not see her as entertainment but as a tool for social propaganda, namely to advance the cause of equal rights for women.  In fact, Marston thought women should be in charge.  His Wonder Woman was no one’s servant and the first couple of years of her publication reads like an indictment of everything broken in society’s attitude toward women.

DC Comics was in a bit of a bind.  They were by and large uncomfortable with the feminist “messaging” but Wonder Woman, almost from the first issue, was one of the three most popular superheroes of all time, right behind Batman and Superman.  They were making too much money to just kill her off.  But once Marston lost control of the comic (due to illness, first polio then cancer) the editor put in charge seemed to do everything he could to declaw this difficult woman.  That she survived to once again be the powerful symbol of womanhood is remarkable, but it also goes some way to explain the bizarre manifestation of the Seventies TV show.  Comparing the Lynda Carter characterization to the forthcoming Gal Gadot realization shows a marked difference in attitude and approach.

TCDWOWO EC007 Wonder Woman Gal GadotThe holdovers from the Silver Age era in Carter’s look, while “true” to the traditional Wonder Woman, nevertheless supported the highly sexualized aspect of the character, while the new look shows the underlying mythology that was originally loaded into the construct, that of a warrior, and Amazon, something out of the bloodier, martial past of the ancient Greeks.

Lepore’s book examines the period as much as the principles and shows us the problematic world in which suffrage, feminism, and tradition often came into conflict.  The urgency to “put Wonder Woman in her place” especially after WWII played out in the comics in often tragicomic ways.  Wonder Woman becomes a full-fledged member of the Justice League only to be made the secretary.

Some of this may seem silly to modern readers.  Why couldn’t people just get over their prejudices?  Wasn’t it obvious, etc etc.?  Maybe.  And maybe that it was obvious was part of the problem.  Justice often conflicts with privilege, ethics with desire, and change is never welcome to the fearful.

Marston himself, as a human being, seems by turns charming and repulsive.  Art rarely emerges from pristine sources, unalloyed with the questionable.  But then, Marston probably did not see himself as an artist or Wonder Woman as a work of art. He had causes to pursue, beliefs to validate, and…well, bills to pay.

Lest anyone believe that Wonder Woman was all Marston’s invention, though, Lepore makes it abundantly clear that the women around him contributed just as much if not more and served in many ways as models upon which he based the character.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a fascinating look at a time in America and an aspect of culture that for too long was underappreciated.  It is a serious and thorough examination of popular mythology and from whence many of our modern concepts came.  In these times when women are once more required to defend their rights and the very idea of equality, it might be useful to see how and in what ways this struggle has been going on for a long time and under some of the most unexpected banners in some of the most unusual ways.

Survival, Strategy, and Shakespeare

Of all the things imagined surviving past a global apocalypse, Shakespeare may be an obvious choice but not one often noted in the scores of stories and novels devoted to the idea of starting over.

That is, after all, the chief impulse behind such stories, that the slate is wiped clean and humanity has a chance to begin again.  A few works have gone further, most notably Nevil Schute’s On The Beach, to wipe humanity completely off the stage, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  But for the most part, someone must trod upon that newly set stage to continue the story, and who better to serve notice that this is exactly what such stories are about than Shakespeare.  “All the world’s a stage…”

Shakespeare haunts Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven like Banquo’s ghost from beginning to end. The novel begins with the death of Lear—more precisely, the actor portraying Lear on stage in a theater in Toronto the very day a devastating virus explodes across the planet, going to kill 90% or more of the human race.  It’s never quite clear if Arthur Leander is a victim of the flu or a heart attack, but his demise signals the beginning of the end for all that is familiar, and establishes the primacy of irony that runs through the novel.

StationElevenHCUS2

Mandel has kept her focus on a fairly tight and circumstantial circle of people to tell her story. Arthur Leander, actor and a bit of a patriarch, anchors the narrative.  In some sense his life is Shakespearean—as a young man he escapes from an island which holds all that anyone could ever want, and his retelling of it takes on the glow of a mythic place people imagine as an impossible paradise.  The island, while wonderful in many ways, is not where he wants to spend the rest of his life.  He returns to foreign shores to seek his identity and becomes a mask of himself, an actor.  As he becomes famous he keeps returning, at least in memory and often in epistle, to that island.  He marries a woman who came from there, an artist who ends up working for a transnational corporation but privately draws a comic about a lost outpost in space, Station Eleven, that in many ways resembles Prospero’s island.  This is Miranda, the most stable of his three wives, all of whom are in some sense “rescues.”  But Miranda is of them all the most real, the most important.  As Prospero’s daughter, she is the foil to the worst of her father’s machinations.

As Leander is dying, the play is in the middle of act 4, scene 6, of King Lear, and the audience knows something is wrong when he delivers a line out of sequence.  But it’s a telling line for what is to follow.  “Down from the waist they are centaurs,” he says but then does not finish it and instead says “The wren goes to’t,” which is from earlier in the scene when Lear is comparing the progeny of adultery to his “lawfully got daughters” in their treatment of their father.  It’s a confused reordering but pertinent given what is later revealed.  The first quote, complete, reads: “Down from the waist they are centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit; beneath is all the fiends’. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulfurous pit— burning, scalding, stench, consumption!”

Given Arthur Leander’s penchant throughout his career of drifting from one woman to another, ending finally with three bad marriages and apparently about to embark on a fourth, this may be nothing more than the fevered remorse of momentary self-analysis, but it serves too as a metaphor for all the misplaced confidence our civilization instills in its devices, which look so dependable and yet…the remorse is poorly placed.  Arthur Leander seems much like his namesake, an idealist, in love, swimming a narrow strait every night to be with his love who loses his way and drowns.

Like Lear, his apparent mistrust of women is also wrongly placed, as it would be women who ultimately save not only his memory but that which is important to him.

But really this isn’t about women, not in this context, but about the matrix of civilization.

Twenty years after the collapse, we join a company of players, the Traveling Symphony, which makes the rounds near Lake Michigan, playing music and performing plays.  Shakespeare has proved the most popular with their small audiences, made up of survivors who have settled in odd places—abandoned airports, old motels, campgrounds—and are relearning how to live without electricity or running water or antibiotics.  The Georgian Flu that killed so many left too few to maintain all the complex systems.  Civilization is retrenching at an 18th Century level, but the artifacts of that globe-spanning civilization are all around.

One of the principle members of the Traveling Symphony is Kirsten, who as a child was in that final performance of Lear by Arthur Leander.  While she remembers almost nothing from that time, she collects celebrity magazine articles and other trivia about him.  She also has in her possession two issues of the comic book Leander’s first wife, Miranda, self-published.  Station Eleven will become a bizarre point of connection with another character who takes an even stranger path after the collapse.

At this point I’ll stop describing the plot.  Metaphors abound, the book is rich in irony. Shakespeare would recognize the various perversities and tragedies as Mandel flashes back over Leander’s life and those who surrounded or intersected with him, some of whom survive.  (There is a fascinating thread involving a paparazzi who appears in the first scene as a newly-minted paramedic who tries to administer CPR to Leander on stage.)  Mandel establishes her connections and the lay-lines of the chronicle very well and very plausibly.  The individual stories are affecting and compelling.

Rather I would like to talk about how this differs from what many readers may expect from such a novel, namely in its choice of conceit concerning the central idea, namely that well-trod path of starting over.

Many worthwhile novels have been written in this vein.  I mentioned On The Beach, but a quick list of others includes Alas Babylon, Earth Abides, A Canticle For Leibowitz, The Postman, The Stand, The Long Tomorrow, Davy…the list is long because it’s such a tempting fantasy, the idea that we can dispense in a stroke with the contemporary world with all its problems and its uncooperative aspects and its stubborn, entrenched people and their privileges and start over.  It’s a desert island fantasy writ large.

Much of the canon is about how human ingenuity, exemplified by a plucky group of very smart survivors, manage to rebuild some semblance of the civilization just lost—only without all the pesky problems, like neurotic people or politicians and usually there are no taxes in sight.  The science fiction approach is on the wresting from the ruin worthwhile components of civilization and setting the stage for doing things right, however one might conceive of right.  Perhaps H.G. Wells was the first to put this view forward in his Shape of Things to Come with his corps of engineers that rebuilds a high-tech civilization in the burnt-out remnants of the old.

The ones that stay with you, though, accept that this is fantasy and that reality never affords opportunity for such neat solutions.  That a collapse like this will be exactly that—a collapse, an end.  Some stories assume humanity can’t survive this final doom.  Most acknowledge that a few will but nothing will be preserved in any recognizable form.

For some this may seem like a thoroughgoing calamity.  For others, justice served.  Mandel—like Walter Miller, like Leigh Brackett, like, recently, Robert Charles Wilson in his Julian Comstock—recognizes that it is simply something that may happen. The question then is “What now?”

So her story is about how that first 20 years might look for a small group of people who are predisposed to preserving stories.

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the Earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled where they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels…most people had settle somewhere, because the gasoline had all gone stale by Year Three and you can’t keep walking forever.  After six months of traveling from town to town—the word town used loosely; some of the these places were four or five families living together in a former truck stop…

The landscape is peppered with the remnants of what came before and a new generation is growing up having never experienced any of it when it worked, only hearing stories of what it had once been like.  One can already see the rough shapes of future myth and lore emerging from the tales the older folks are telling the youngsters.

But over and through all this Mandel is telling stories about how people come to be where they end up and how they take meaning from that.  They all have escaped, in one way or another, from Prospero’s island, only to find themselves, like Viola, washed up on a foreign shore, another island, and having to improvise a new identity to fit a life they never expected to live.

That there is no technological answer to anything in Station Eleven should be no surprise. Mandel’s purposes aren’t there.  She’s not actually rescuing anything.  Nor is she rebuilding.  If anything she’s portraying a kind of evolution.  Start here, with these elements, and run them through those changes.  Where do we end up?

Subsequently she has written a very good novel which happens to be science fiction (as opposed, perhaps, to science fiction which happens to be a good novel) and has laid out a number of intriguing questions for our contemplation.

Shakespeare, for instance, understood irony and tragedy, perhaps from the Greeks who first perfected the form, who built on myths.  What kind of myths might emerge from a tradition based first on Shakespeare?

One of the purposes of stories like this is to dramatize in stark relief something that goes on all the time, namely the replacement of one world with another.  We tend not to experience that way because the changes happen sporadically, cumulatively, resulting in one day appreciating the quaintness of a past that no longer pertains.  But there is no sudden shock of change since the break points are small and myriad and feel “natural.”  Post apocalyptic stories are about that very change, except overnight and all at once.  They all ask the same question, though—if you were washed up on an island, cut off from the world you always knew, what would you wish to find washed up with you?  And what do you think you might be able to rescue from a past you frankly might know very little about, even though you inhabited it as a citizen in good standing?

Of course, while you were fretting about that, life would, as it does, happen, and you would have to deal with it, as always.

Mandel avoids the trap of prescription.  She has no idea how things will turn out.  But she displays a sharp understanding of how people respond to shock.  That and a Shakespearean sense of irony elevates Station Eleven several rungs above the average.

Ends, Beginnings, Rebirths, Beliefs: Two Works of Science Fiction and a Fantasy

In recent months I have read two classic novels which, curiously enough, deal with matters of a religious nature.  I’ve decided to review them together for a number of reasons, one of which is both are part of the syllabus for my monthly reading group at Left Bank Books. Another reason for the review now is that I have finally, and not without some reluctance, seen one of the new generation of Biblical epics recently released, Noah, with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly.  There are points of interest in this deeply flawed film which I will touch on after dealing with the novels.

The first novel is James Blish’s superb A Case Of Conscience, published originally in 1953 as a novelette and later expanded to novel-length and published in 1958 (the same year, coincidentally, that Pope John XXIII was elected to his chair).  The questions posed by the story are simple enough even if the answers are nearly impossible: what does Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, have to say about extraterrestrial with regards to the matter of souls? Depending on the proposed answer, what responsibilities does the Christian have toward them? And, finally, what is to be done/considered if such extraterrestrials appear to have no taint of original sin?Case Of Conscience

These questions may seem naïve today, even irrelevant (although not sufficiently so to make a newer take on the matter a more than relevant work, namely Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow), but Blish’s treatment was anything but naïve in that he bound it up with questions of very nondenominational morality and respect.

To begin with, this is a First Contact novel, even though the “contact” has been an established fact for quite some time as the story opens.  That said, contact has barely begun, and that is the anchor for the drama. Because the ability of the two species, human and Lithian, to speak to each other aside, the story is sunk in the problem of cultures and their mutual incomprehension.  Blish is dealing with assumptions based on a telec understanding of the universe.  Because the guiding principles of his faith are telec, Father Ruiz-Sanchez grapples with whether or not to condone further interaction between his people and the Lithians.  In the end, he reacts rather than deliberates and argues for quarantine, stripping the Lithians of any say in the matter and laying bare the flaw in Ruiz-Sanchez’s own stated system of ethics.  Namely, if Ruiz-Sanchez is, as he claims to be, committed to a system devoted to the saving of souls, then shutting out all contact with creatures who may need saving would be fundamentally immoral.  The problem for him is whether the Lithians have souls, since they appear to lack any evidence of having “fallen.”  They live amicably among themselves, show no judgmentalism, solve problems by consensus without struggling against individual venality, do not appear to know what lying is, have no discernible crime, in fact exhibit none of the traits or conditions of being in a state of sin.  It’s as if, rather than being morally and ethically advanced, they in fact have no need to be, since they have none of the cultural dysfunctions requiring advancing along such lines.  To Ruiz-Sanchez, they are born wholly developed in a moral sense.  This, of course, runs counter to his beliefs in the nature of the universe.  Ruiz-Sanchez betrays, usually in subtle ways, a perverse devotion to dysfunction.  For instance, Earth is portrayed as having solved many of its fundamental economic problems and has adopted (by inference) rational systems that seem to promote equity, yet Ruiz-Sanchez feels that such evidence of progress demonstrates a failure because it moves humanity further away from an assumed ideal which may have no basis in reality.  In short, people are living better lives, at least materially, but are abandoning belief systems which have no use for them.  Better, perhaps, that progress never have occurred so that people would need the Church and the beliefs Ruiz-Sanchez feels matter.

It is understandable that the Lithians trouble Ruiz-Sanchez.  Almost everything about them is a rebuke to the way he has always believed things work.  Biologically, there is a complete disconnect with the human system of nuclear families, and by extension both patriarchy and the question of inherited sin. Their very reasonableness is testimony to the fact that such a state of mind and cultural condition not only can exist but does exist.  At one point, in debating with his colleagues over the issue of quarantine, he says “This has been willed where what is willed must be.”  This is from Dante’s Inferno, lines 91 to 93, in which Virgil says to Charon: “Charon, bite back your spleen:/this has been willed where what is willed must be,/ and is not yours to ask what it may mean.”  By this statement, Ruiz-Sanchez seeks to shut down questioning, his own surely but also his colleagues.  In this, he betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Dante, but no matter.  The line is taken as a divine justification.  Lithia, in this view, must exist as it does because it does.  I am that I am, as it were.  For Ruiz-Sanchez this is also his justification for requesting the quarantine.  It would be fatal in two ways for intercourse to continue.  One, primarily, this Eden he thinks he has found will be eventually corrupted by interaction with humanity, for we embody the serpent, after all, which would be a form of blasphemy.  Two, it might well develop that the Lithians’ ability to function as they do will turn out to be no more than an evolutionary inevitability—which would make humanity’s condition equally so.  Ruiz-Sanchez already claims the exemption for humans from evolution that was dominant in theological thought prior to our present day (although not among Jesuits, making Ruiz-Sanchez a bit of a puzzle).  Ruiz-Sanchez is at base terrified that the Lithians are proof that the Church got it wrong.

Ruiz-Sanchez is a puzzle, as I say, because he’s not much of a Jesuit.  Possibly a Dominican.  Blish seems not to have had a very solid grasp of Catholicism, but he was dealing is large symbols here and parsing the vagaries of the multiplicity of protestant sects would muddy his point, perhaps.  His choice of the Society of Jesus makes a rough sense because of their history in the sciences and in exploration.  What is really on display is the breakdown of intellect in the face of the personally unacceptable.

This is apparent in Ruiz-Sanchez’s choice of reading material.  He’s reading Finnegan’s Wake at the beginning, a curious choice, especially for Blish as he had quite vocal problems with the kind of stream-of-conscious narrative Joyce produced in what amounts to a linguist parlor trick that strips away the pretensions of the intellect by questioning the very precepts of language itself.  But it is an inspired choice in this instance.  Ruiz-Sanchez is wrestling with it, trying to make moral sense of it, which is almost impossible.  In this context, Finnegan’s Wake is the universe as it is, and it forces the reader to accept that whatever “sense” comes out of it is of the reader’s own making.  It is a sustained refutation of a telec universe, which is anathema to Ruiz-Sanchez.

The ending of the novel is a famously achieved moral serendipity.  Because Blish kept the narrative inside Ruiz-Sanchez’s head throughout, perception is everything, and that may ultimately be the point of the novel.

Which brings us to the next novel, also a First Contact work albeit one that reverses many of the tropes in Blish.  Octavia Butler’s Dawn is also a story wherein aliens are first encountered and a world is destroyed.  In this case, though, the aliens have found us and the world destroyed is Earth, by our own hand.

In some ways this is an anachronistic novel.  Dawn was published in 1987, a few years before the Soviet Empire came apart.  It is sometimes easy to forget how convinced many people were that a nuclear holocaust was going to put paid to the entire human enterprise.  But no matter, Butler dealt with it as an event in the story’s past and did not dwell on its particulars.  Any extinction event will do.  She was not interested in judging that or examining the why of it, only in what it established for what follows.

The Oankali, one of the more fascinating and successful nonhuman creations in science fiction, found Earth devastated, with few survivors.  As part of their own program of survival/colonization, they rescued these survivors, healed them where possible, and kept them aboard their immense ship for 250 years while the Earth recovered.

DawnLilith Iyapo is Awakened into a situation she cannot deal with, a lone human in a room dealing with aliens that terrify her with their strangeness.  It transpires that they have plans for her, that part of their own program is the reseeding of worlds like Earth with recovered local species and some of their own.  Humanity, she comes to understand, will be Different.  She rejects this again and again, seeing it as a defilement of what it means to be human, even though, relentlessly and with inconceivable patience, the Oankali show her and teach her that it will be, in some ways, better.  Certainly better for the people of Earth, but better for Lilith personally.

She is to be a leader, a teacher.  She becomes part of an Oankali family.  She finally accepts them for what they are, though she never fully understands them or accepts their plans, but over time she takes up the responsibilities immediately in front of her, namely to shepherd reAwakend humans and prepare them for resettlement.

Butler brilliantly folds several biblical motifs into this story.  It is very much a Moses story.  Lilith does become a teacher, she does lead, but she herself, at the end, is not permitted to “cross over into the promised land.”  Her own people do not accept her, see her instead as a race traitor.  She becomes an irredeemable outsider.  This is also a Noah story.  The world has been destroyed, what has been salvaged must be returned to start again, and Lilith is in some ways Noah, head of a human race given a second chance.

But it is also right out of Revelations.  A new heaven and a new Earth and the handful of appointed shall inherit…

Because it is a new heaven for these people, who stubbornly reject the idea that aliens have saved them and that they are on board a ship.  They reject everything Lilith tells them, their minds recoiling at the totality of the new universe.  It would be a new universe for them, one which now includes aliens right there in front of them.

If there is a flaw in the novel, here it is.  Butler created a masterpiece of psychology here, a study of humanity under stress, and her portraits are amazing in their precision and economy.  However, none of them have any of the traits of those who would eagerly welcome the prospect of meeting aliens and living in a new milieu. And certainly there are people like that.  The odds are Lilith should have found at least one or two allies who were well beyond her in acceptance.  Instead, almost all the people she deals with are in this aspect profoundly mundane.  This, however, is a quibble.

Strikingly, for a story so grounded and informed by religious motifs, there is no real mention of anything religious.  It is significant by its absence.  It is as if Butler decided “if you can’t see the symbolism yourself, spelling it out will cause you to miss all the other points in the book.”  One could also read this as a tacit acceptance on the part of all these people that religion failed them and they’re done with it.  Nothing has happened in a fashion they would have been raised to expect.

The Oankali have determined the cause of humanity’s epic failure.  Two traits which combined disastrously, as they explain to Lilith:  exceptional intelligence and a commitment to hierarchical structures.  Hierarchical thinking and the cleverness to build weapons of mass destruction led inevitably to the annihilation of the human race and the poisoning of the planet.  In order to survive, the Oankali tell her, this must be changed, and therefore humans will be changed.  The Oankali are masters of genetic manipulation—their ship itself is a living thing—and they inform her quite clearly that this must be done.  This becomes the point of greatest contention—for Lilith this is a loss of what it means to Be Human, even though clinging to that is what destroyed humanity and nearly the planet itself.  Butler simply puts this out there.  The Oankali explain themselves, Lilith rejects it even as she comes to accept them.  Her experiences trying to teach and lead the first group of newly Awakened survivors would seem to support the Oankali position.  And yet…and yet…

The question of self-determination comes into this throughout.  Sensibly, Butler never actually examines it, only leaves it present as an emotional issue, while she shows the other trait within humans that is significant and necessary—adaptability.  Humans always change under pressure, always have.  This time  the pressure seems less circumstantial and so an opportunity for people to reject the necessity of change can be placed center-stage.

In both novels we see the primacy of moral determination in the face of the unanticipated.  The very nature of the universe is turned upside down and the givens of the past no longer suit.  In the end, circumstance determines far more than we may allow ourselves to admit, and the narratives by which we live must change to allow us to move forward.

Which brings me to the film, Noah.  When this movie came out there was a spasm of objection from certain quarters over its revisionist take on the Biblical tale.  Upon seeing the film, which is in many ways a fairly silly movie, I can see where it would bother a certain mindset, but also how that mindset would blind the viewer to some of the interesting aspects of it that make it not so easily dismissed.

The Creation myth is reduced to its elements, the Fall is handled almost as a fantasy tale, and the aftermath of Cain killing Abel is the real basis of all that follows.  The children of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, become caretakers of the world while the children of Cain build “a great industrial civilization” and set about conquering, killing, and polluting everything.  The story is transformed into an eco-fable, one in which the punishment inflicted is in response to mines, murders, and misuses of the “gifts” of creation.  The Sons of Cain are depicted as warmongering, patriarchal butchers, nascent NRA members, and proto-imperialists. while Noah and his are shown as gentle nurturers, Noah himself much in the Dr. Doolittle vein.  The landscape is a stark contrast between the urban ruin of the Cainites and the meadowy greenscapes in Noah’s care.

An interesting moment occurs, among several “interesting moments,” when the King of the Cainites, Tubal-Cain (which one might feel references surgical birth control, but in fact he is mentioned in Genesis and  credited as being a master metal worker), explains to Noah’s son Ham that he and his people have the same religious mythography, but they believe The Creator adandoned them, turned his back on mankind, and left them to survive and fend for themselves without his help.

Had there been more of this, the film might have achieved some kind of philosophical sophistication, but as it was Aronofsky, in spite of clever touches and good dialogue (and a stunning visual æsthetic), reduced it to a side-bar of the Lord of the Rings.  All the components were there to show how the story might be relevant to the present, and yet the message was muffled in the extravagant imagery and an attempt to extract an ur-myth from the Hebrew iconography.  It’s a better film than many of its critics, on both sides, credit, but it’s failures of reach make it less potent than it might have been.

One thing I found compelling is the portrayal of Noah in the course of building the ark and trying to keep his family together as a man suffering, essentially, PTSD.  He becomes convinced that what the Creator wants is for all humanity to die out and he intends to kill his son’s firstborn should it turn out to be a girl.  Aronofsky folds the story of Abraham and Isaac into this rather neatly and also manages to extract a better lesson—Noah cannot kill the girls (they turn out to be twins) and feels he has failed the Creator.  But his daughter-in-law, played well by Emma Watson, teaches him that it had always been in his hands because why else would the Creator have chosen him to do all this if not that he, Noah, had the ability and the responsibility to decide.  A rather mature lesson to take from all the slaughter grandly depicted.

All three works offer end of the world scenarios of one kind or another and all three portray moral decision-making that ultimately comes down to what humans do with what is in front of them, for their own benefit and for the benefit of others.  All three place that power squarely on human shoulders and suggest, in their various ways, that solutions are never to be found outside ourselves.  And even if such solutions occasionally can be found, it remains for us to do something with the consequences.