Stars, Orbits, Crossed Trajectories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is even a ghost of sorts in the book.

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

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

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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2016

Tardiness comes in direct proportion to chaos. The year ended and all was in flux.

However, reading goes on.

I did not finish nearly as many books in 2016 as I tried to. At least, not other people’s books.  I did finish drafts of two of my own.  My desk, at the moment, is clear, and maybe I can do a better job in 2017 of keeping abreast here.

A good deal of my science fiction reading was pretty much for the reading group I host at Left Bank Books. That group affords me opportunity and motivation to read novels I might not otherwise get to.  So I reread Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination for the first time in three decades, but I also read The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time ever. I do not regret the delay. It is a mature novel, with a great deal my younger self may well have missed.  As to the former, it came very close to not holding up.  I had forgotten (if I ever realized it this way) just how brutal a novel it is, and not just in the character of Gully Foyle. Bester’s achievement way back in the Fifties remains remarkable for its unyielding insistence on a fragmented, painful, chaotic, and historically consistent future.

I also reacquainted myself with Tiptree, in the form of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. It seems fitting in this period of reassessment and revolution, when the face of science fiction is—has—changed and brought forth a volatile reaction to that change.  Tiptree was doing much of what is being so rancorously challenged within the field today, but as she was a singular voice and not a “trend” she provoked different challenges then while becoming accepted generally as a brilliant writer and a jewel in the crown of SF stars.

I also reread (for the first time since it came out) Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, which I reviewed in the previous post.  I was much too inexperienced a reader the first time to appreciate everything Silverberg was doing, so I probably forgot the book as soon as I finished it.

It is true that some books must be “grown into”—I am currently rereading Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble On Triton for the book group and realizing that, while I read it eagerly the first time, I probably missed almost everything important about. Likewise with another reread, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is ostensibly a novel about colonialism.  I say “ostensibly” but that does not mean it isn’t.  It very much is about colonialism, all three of the novellas which comprise the whole.  But it is as much about how we colonize ourselves, sometimes to our loss, as it is about colonizing foreign soil, in this case another world with a native population that strives to adapt but may have found in the end their only options were extinction or counter-colonization.  As always, Wolfe’s subtlety is rigorously slippery, his points less direct,  corrosive of expectation.

Titan Books has rereleased Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Chronicles, a story cycle that is the very definition of indirect.  Moorcock took as his template the Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, et al—and displaced them into a near future chaos in the form of his “hero” Jerry Cornelius, who wants to save the world only to resurrect his dead sister so they can be together.  The prose are rife with Sixties hip, but not so overwhelmingly anachronistic that the novels aren’t just as readable now as they were then.  The response to them is perhaps necessarily altered and certainly the themes play out differently. Moorcock may have been the grown-up in the room at the advent of New Wave.  He did go on to write some marvelously rich books after these.

I finished Ann Leckie’s delightfully subversive Ancillary trilogy.  I need to do a full review soon.  Treat yourself.

A smattering of other SF titles I can recommend whole-heartedly:  Lavi Tidhar’s Central Station; Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants; Carter Sholz’s Gypsy; Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.

And Nisi Shawl’s wonderful Everfair.  An alternate history steampunk done the way steampunk ought to be done.  I owe it a full review, but let me say here that this is one of the best first novels I’ve read in a long time.

I read two China Mieville books this year, one very good.  This Census Taker I have to count as a failure.  It has good writing fascinating bits, but failed to come together the way I’ve come to expect from Mieville.  The other, newer one, is The Last Days of New Paris, which is excellent.  This pair allowed me to understand that one of the primary passions Mieville indulges in his work is cities.  His best work portrays a city as a complete character.  This Census Taker lacked that.

Of the non science fiction read this year, I did Moby-Dick with my other reading group.  I resisted doing this book.  I’ve never liked it.  I find it turgid, convoluted, often opaque.  There is also a darkness to it that can be suffocating. Over several months we tackled it, dissected it, ran through various analyses.  I conclude that it is a superb work, fully deserving of its reputation.  It is A great American novel if not The American Novel, because America is its subject, though it takes place on a whaling ship far at sea.  It is not a flattering picture, though, displaying throughout the contradictions, hypocrisies, and shortcomings of the then young nation which continue to plague us.  It does this brilliantly.

I still don’t like it.  I find little pleasure in the actual reading.  That, as they say, is my problem.

A colleague and coworker, Kea Wilson, published her first novel, We Eat Our Own. I commend it.  I reviewed it here.

A novel that straddles the genre boundaries somewhat that caused some controversy upon its initial publication is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.  This is a post-Arthurian quest story with much to say about memory and community and the price of vengeance.

This was a big year for nonfiction.

Robert Gleick’s new tome, Time Travel: A History is an exceptional soliloquy on the concept, science, and cultural use of time travel, beginning with Wells and covering both the scientific realm and the popular fiction realm, showing how they have played off each other and how the idea has evolved and worked through our modern view of the universe and our own lives.  Previously in the year I’d read his magnificent biography of Richard Feynman, Genius.  Gleick is a great explainer and a fine craftsman.

As well, Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons About Physics.  They are brief, they are accessible, they are to be enjoyed.  And, along the same lines, Void by James Owen Weatherall, about the physics of empty space.  It’s far more fascinating than it might sound.

I can recommend Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, which is a history of the world from the viewpoint of the Orient.  The shift in perspective is enlightening.  Along the same lines I read Charles Mann’s 1491, which was eye-opening and thought-provoking—and in some ways quite humbling.

I also read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land, especially in the wake of what I think I can safely call the most surprising election result in recent history. This book is a study of the right-wing culture that has developed in many startlingly contradictory ways.  I believe this would be worth reading for anyone trying to make sense of the people who continually vote in ways that seem to make no sense—and also for those who do vote that way just so they might understand what it is about their movement that seems so incomprehensible to many of their fellow citizens.

I read a few short of 50 books in 2016 cover to cover.  I will be reviewing some of them in the future.

Here’s hoping for a good year of reading to come.

 

 

 

Defending Angels

It is arguable that we live in a post-colonial age. We no longer see major powers moving into previously independent places and usurping the land and the people and declaring them to now be part of some empire. Not the way we did in the 18th and 19th centuries. (We wink at smaller-scale examples of roughly the same thing, but while Ukraine may be prey to Russia, we don’t see Russia trying to occupy New Zealand.) The scramble for Africa was the last eruption of such hubris. And there are now plenty of studies indicating that it was never a profitable enterprise anyway, that every power that indulged its imperialist urge did so at great expense that was never recouped, not in the long run. At best, such endeavors paid for the re-formation of both the imperial power and its colonies into more modern forms independent of each other.  At worst, it was pillage that benefited a few individuals and large companies and resulted in short-term wealth-building and long-term grief for everyone involved.

Yet the impulse drove relocations of population, experiments in applied bureaucratic overreach, and an ongoing debate over the ethics of intrusion.  One could argue that the Aztec civilization was a horrible construct with human sacrifice at its aesthetic center and the world is well rid of it.  On the other hand, it is equally true that the Spaniards who toppled it had no right to do so and unleashed a different sort of ugliness on the indigenous populations. Every European power that followed them into the so-called New World bears the same weight of shame for the wanton destruction of things they could not understand.  If here and there something positive came out of it, that something was by accident and had no real part of the initial decision to Go There.

With what we now know—ethically, scientifically, behaviorally—if given the chance to do it again, would we?  And if we decided to go ahead anyway, would we do anything differently or would we still be dominated by a subconscious obsession to exploit for resources to fuel a growing population trapped within an economic system that seems custom made to produce the necessary excuses to do what we want with whatever we find?

We seem forever to be doing things that go sour on us and then having to clean up the mess and apologize and figure out how to prevent a repeat performance. The problem with that is, one situation is not so exactly like another that the lessons do not come with big loopholes and the opportunity for rationalizing our hubristic avarice.

In short, we never learn.

At least, not in aggregate.  We understand this as well and so a good part of our political theorizing is geared toward a place wherein the individual moral insight can be effectively balanced against the rock-stupid momentum of the group; and in which the common wisdom of historical experience as exemplified by the group can temper the less enlightened passions of the individual.  In other words, to find the point at which we can allow for the individual who is correct to trump the so-called “will of the people” and conversely where that common will can morally check the individual who may only be thinking of him or herself, the group be damned.

Underneath, threaded into, and informing Marguerite Reed’s Philip K. Dick Award nominated novel, Archangel, we find this ongoing debate carried on at several levels.

Ubastis is a world seemingly ideal for large-scale human settlement.  Two waves of advance “scouts” grounded to do extensive surveys, impact studies, and established trial settlements. It became clear that this was a vital ecosphere and that, compatibility aside, questions of too much too soon drove the negotiations that prevented a rush to fill it with human excess.  Dr. Vashti Loren, widow of the spiritual and moral leader of these two waves, is one of the principle advisors on the ad hoc committee overseeing Ubasti, which exists as a kind of protectorate.  The rest of human polity is hungry for it to be opened for a larger human presence, which the people who live there know will mean the ruin of a unique biome. Vashti becomes the focus of all the efforts to forestall such open colonization.  As the widow of a slain “hero” she carries great weight.

She is also a problematic figure in this culture.  She is a genetically unmodified human in a larger culture where modification has become so widespread that “Natches” are special. That she is a protector of an “unmodified” ecosphere is only the first layer of what becomes a deeply meaningful representation of not only human moral responsibility but also human potential in an alien cosmos.

Reed gives us a civilization where aggression is being gene-modified out of individual humans, even though wars are ostensibly still fought, uprisings happen, and certain strain of bloodlust remains a given in controlled contexts. That Vashti is wholly unmodified adds to the irony that she also hunts native species as part of her job as an exobiologist and as a kind of PR component to assuage outworlders who are curious, acquisitive, and need persuading that Ubastis requires the time to be understood before the exploitation full-scale human settlement will bring. She takes outworld visitors on sdafari to hunt the local big game.

Her deceased husband, Lasse, was murdered by a renegade “soldier”—a Beast, a BioEngineered ASault Tactician, a member of a clone experiment in super soldiers—as a result of trying to prevent poaching.  The Interests trying to discard the treaty that keeps Ubastis inviolate have all along been probing at the defenses, trying to engineer excuses for open incursions.  Vashti kills the Beast.  That action calls into question her sanity, but she effectively defends herself from charges that would see her “re-educated.”

What she did not know was the deeper game her husband was playing to bring about a future independent Ubastis—and that it involved the Beasts, the lot of which have been presumably destroyed as too dangerous. Vashti begins to learn what her husband never told her when she is confronted with a Beast that has been smuggled onto Ubastis by the governor’s wife.  She vows to kill it, but that impulse itself gradually morphs into powerfully conflicted responsibilities, the details of which comprise the plot of this densely-detailed and finely-realized novel.

Vashti. The name has history. She was the Queen of a Persian ruler who requested she appear naked before a banquet he was holding in honor of other kings.  A “higher politics” was obviously going on and his demand of his wife was obviously part of the impression he was trying to make on his fellow kings.  Vashti refused.  Harriet Beecher Stowe later declared that Vashti’s refusal was the first blow for women’s rights.  She followed her own code.  Her husband’s request was deeply inappropriate even in that culture.  Vashti stood by her own values.

Make of that what you will.  Reed’s Vashti is a woman dedicated to a set of principles which are sorely tested in the course of the novel.  Watching her come to terms with political, ecological, and moral realities and steer a course between the shoals of competing colonial, imperial, and personal demands makes for a compelling read.  She is a superbly realized, flawed character, and the questions she raises, wrestles with, and reacts to lend themselves to consideration long after the last page.

This is excellent science fiction.  It takes the abstract, the conjectural, and the epistemology of human systems and moral dictates and makes them personal, the stakes high, and answers often problematic, leaving us with a great deal to think about.

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.

 

Crossovers

Cross-genre experimentation often produces interesting failures, less often brilliant chimeras.  The novelty seems to open up possibilities.  Steampunk has been one of the most successful in recent years, but it seems to be wearing thin as too much of it tends to be old-fashioned occult or mystery, rather Sherlockian (or more Wilkie Collins) in essence with a thread of SFnal gadget-geekery running throughout.  Often it’s just a new suit of clothes disguising an old set of bones.

One of the things that has rarely been successful but is perhaps the oldest of these mix-and-match tropes is the attempt to blend science fiction and fantasy.  Try as we might, it usually ends up being demonstrably one or the other merely borrowing the trappings of its often unwilling partner.  Roger Zelazny was perhaps the most sucessful at it, but he managed it by bravura sleight-of-hand, or wordcraft, rather than through genuine alchemical mergers.  What we generally find are stories that set the fantasy conceits at odds with science, in a kind of battleground plot where one or the other must prove superior or “right” in some epistemological sense.  Poul Anderson wrote one called Operation Chaos (and a few sequels) that attempted it by a clever deployment of magical “universes” as essential parallel universes of higher or lower energy states, but in the end it was science fiction in the way it treated the conceits.  The thematic utility of fantasy was sublimated to the SFnal conceptualizing.

The problem is that fantasy, dealing as it does with physical propositions of how the universe operates which run counter to our understanding of the same concepts, develops thematic conceits which have very little if anything to do with the concerns found in science fiction.  They are, at base, about different things.  Attempting to assert tyhat those two worlds (nevfer mind world views) can plausibly coexist and have anything to say together which cannot be said better by one or the other usually ends up as special pleading or simply a fashion statement.

(Example?  The big one is Star Wars, despite Lucas’s belated attempt to shoehorn any kind of science fictional justifications into Episodes 1,2, and 3, which is a full court quest fantasy dressed up like science fiction.  The machinery, the technology, the science never avails against magic, which is portrayed as both physically superior and in fact the true moral battleground.  It’s a fantasy, not a blending of the two.)

All that said, it was only a matter of time before a genuinely successful hybrid would appear. Artists keep working at something long enough, eventually that which one generation says cannot be done, will be done.

Quite happily, I discovered this success in a thoroughly enjoyable novel by Charlie Jane Anders All The Birds In The Sky .    9780765379948

Briefly, Laurence and Patricia are outcasts. Their parents, who are shown as almost polar opposites of each other, fail to “get” them, and their attempts to “correct” what they see as bad trends or unhealthy characteristics end badly around. Likewise at school, where they meet and become friends out of desperation (they’ll actually talk to each other), their lives are simply untenable because their peers also do not understand them.  It becomes, at one point, life-threatening for them to hang out together.

Added to this is the appearance of a trained assassin from a secret society who has identified them as the nexus of eventual social collapse and global catastrophe.  His Order does not permit the killing of minors, though, so he is limited to ruining their lives and attempting to keep them apart.

What is special about them is…

Patricia is an emergent witch.  She discovers early on that she can speak to animals, but it may be an hallucination (it’s not).  Her older sister, who spies on her, makes matters worse by secretly recording Patricia in some of her more extreme attempts at revisiting her chance discovery of “powers” and releasing it on social media.

Laurence is an emergent technical genius who sets about building a self-aware AI in the closet of his room.  His parents, who are in most ways failures, see his obsession with staying indoors, reading obsessively, and attempting to gain admission to a science school as unhealthy and insist on outdoors programs and forced social interaction.  They have no clue that everything is against this.

Patricia and Laurence are eventually driven apart and grow up to make lives in their separate spheres, both successfully.  They re-encounter each other and fall into an alliance concerned with saving the Earth, which is in the late stages of environmental collapse.  Each in their own way must address this problem and here is where it gets interesting.

As if all the rest isn’t already interesting enough.  Anders has painted fulsome portraits of the outsiders we all knew (or, in some instances, were) with sympathy and understanding that avoids pity and makes for pleasurable character study.  Laurence and Patricia could easily have become archetypes, and certainly in some ways they are, but here they are simply people we may well know, and even wish to know.  And the relationship she builds between them is complex and resonant and satisfying in surprising ways.  In a novel already repleat with strengths, this is a major achievement.

How she makes the merger of magic and science work is also by way of character.  Laurence and Patricia are both in dialogue with the universe.  They use different languages, elicit different responses, but in the end it turns out to be the same universe.  Anders suggests that we still don’t have a firm grasp of how manifold and multifaceted that universe is, but in the end it is all a conversation. Multilingual, to be sure, and compiled of palimpsests sometimes hard to identify.  What is required is an appreciation of the wider concept.

What makes this a successful blending—merging, really—of usually antipathetic concepts is that dialogue and the acknowledgment in the end that both views make for a greater understanding.  The solutions—if any are to be found—come from the combined strengths of the divergent views.  Laurence and Patricia, depending on each other, coming to know that here there is genuine friendship, love, acceptance, and a willingness to understand the other side, make for better answers than they do apart.

I do not wish to spoil the myriad of dialectical twists and turns salted throughout.  Anders has not given us a set solutions, but as series of antiphonal arguments leading to a place where a wider view may be achieved.  Throughout she plays with the tropes, the themes, the assumptions, connects them to human concerns, and manages something greater than the sum of its traditionally antagonistic parts.

Highly recommended.

 

In Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or does he?

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

Motives and Revelations

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

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

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

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

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

“Assuming He exists.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what is lost.

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

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

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

Taste and Quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would never consider them Great Art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consensus emerged.  It was not prescribed.

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

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

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