The Relevance of Science Fiction

Kingsley Amis, in his book on science fiction, named Frederik Pohl as possibly the best practitioner of the craft. For some inside the field, it was a curious choice, but over time it has become difficult to deny. Pohl had one of the longest careers in SF, working at one time or another in just about every aspect of the genre—writer, agent, editor, certainly promoter. His novel Gateway is still one of the most memorably and poignant reads and his work as editor of Galaxy and If brought many superb writers in.

He was also one of the great collaborators. He worked with Jack Williamson, Thomas T. Thomas, Isaac Asimov, Lester Del Rey. But perhaps his best collaborations were with Cyril Kornbluth.

Especially The Space Merchants.

Much has been written about the so-called “predictive” qualities of science fiction. Those familiar with the field weary of this. The whole point of science fiction is speculation based on what we currently know. The anticipation of technologies is not meant to be specific, even though the first magazine dedicated to it (Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing and Wonder Stories) quite explicitly intended to showcase gadgetry. By the time SF had grown into what we see today, this notion was viewed with chagrin and some impatience. Yes, spaceships are cool. Yes, mile-high buildings would be amazing. Yes, aliens and that they imply.

But the point is to set up a different arrangement of conditions based on the idea of social, technological, and material change and then see how this affects people.

So we open a novel like The Space Merchants and almost at once, from our perspective, find the gimickry of the setting amusing and/or embarrassing, because it was written in the 1950s and it shows. This is supposed to be about the 21st Century, after all. And what we find is something made up of parts of The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, Brave New World, a touch of Captains Courageous, and The Manchurian Candidate. Advertising agencies run the world. It is an overpopulated planet, highly stratified, resources uncomfortably limited, with a propaganda machine run on brainwashing, narcotics, and a gleeful refusal to see anything wrong with any of it.

I will not here describe the plot, which is pretty much spy thriller-esque and moves the story along nicely. What matters here is the prediction. Not of the specifics of the scenario—that is exaggerated, pushed to an almost absurd extreme in service to the theme of the book, which is among those perhaps best characterized as in the “If This Goes On” variety.

Coming out of World War II, one of the underlying motivations informing politics and economics was a desire to make sure it never happened again. The world had beaten itself to a pulp. The political and social components of that disaster were much debated and quite naturally there was concern that it could happen again.

A number of things coincided to provide an apparent way through. First, the emergence of behavioral science, which sought to explain why people do what they do. Secondly, the joining of Madison Avenue advertising culture with politics (Eisenhower’s campaign was run by ad agencies while his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, rejected them out of hand). Thirdly, the apparent victory of capitalism as the solution to all material problems (thrown into stark contrast by a similar attempt at dominance by the soviet blocs). America came out of the war not only whole but in the de facto role of world savior.

To some extent, The Space Merchants is commentary on the embrace of capitalism as a kind of religion. That runs through the novel as a nerve-jangling given. The world built by ad agencies depends on the blind allegiance of consumers, which expresses itself in categorical denials of any other possible solution to what have, in the novel, become patently unmanageable global problems.

But not quite catastrophically unmanageable. It still seems to those in the upper layers to be fixable. Just push things a little more—for instance, by opening the planet Venus for colonization.

Reading it today creates a buzz of recognition. If one ignores the trappings of the scenario—the pedal-driven cabs, the “contract” marriages, the cheesy ad campaigns—one can see the lineaments of a future we have ourselves come to inhabit. The details are different but the essential gestalt is very much as Pohl and Kornbluth suggested it might be. Blind devotion to a capitalism that is more religion than tool, the easy acceptance of a class system that relegates people to poverty, the fervent belief that looming disasters are nothing of the kind and we don’t have to actually do anything about them.

Jill Lepore’s latest book, If Then, chronicles the rise in the Fifties of the factors which can easily be discerned in the background assumptions of The Space Merchants. The way in which, out of a desire to control the future and avoid ever having to deal with the kind of things that resulted in WWII, we have placed our hopes and energies in systems that have, frustratingly, become the stuff of 1950s cautionary tales. Looking out our collective windows, we see essentially the country, if not the world, run by Ad Men.

I do not wish to be too dire here. The resonances are far from one-to-one. But the work done in The Space Merchants suggests where the whole idea of predictive SF may come from. As always, it has little to do with the “stuff” and everything to do with people.

Recurrence and Renewal

William Gibson’s new novel, Agency, is a sequel to his superb The Peripheral, which is arguably one of the best of three or four time travel novels ever written.  Here he continues with several of the same characters, still exploring the peculiarities of the Stubs, and it is clear now that the matter at hand is alternate solutions to a set of problems faced in the present world.

Wilf Netherton, Ainsley Lowbeer, Ash, and Rainey intervene in a new stub that is on the brink of nuclear war. As the narrative unfolds, it become evident that this is not Our World. The 2016 presidential election did not go the way ours did, for one thing.

But the changes seem minor as far as they go.

At a certain point, though, none of these distinctions matter, because Gibson has tapped into the truth that we all live in our own stubs. Reality is comprised of an enormous amount of shared background, but details vary across a variety of platforms—social, economic, cultural, educational, political, informational, geographical, and temperamental.

By separating them out as if they were physically distinct realities, Gibson permits an examination of the elements that comprise distinctive characteristics—with the possibility of corrective interference. In the case of the first novel, the stub was based on aspects of rural, post-agrarian southern culture. In this new novel, it is very much West Coast venture capitalist techie.

Verity has just been hired by a company called Tulpagenics to beta test an interactive piece of eyewear. Immediately, Gibson is playing a long game through naming. Verity, which is linked to truth, to verify, to, ultimately, reality, and Tulpa, a concept of spiritualism coming from the Tibetan sprulpa, meaning “emanation” or “manifestation.”

It seems simple enough. Verity, though, apparently has been chosen because she has been successfully avoiding media attention after her breakup with a billionaire entrepreneur named Stetson, who generally drew the attention of all the popular sources of celebrity quasi-news. Verity has been sleeping on the couch of a friend named Joe-Eddy, who in his own way is a highly resourceful independent…something. Her ability to stay invisible seems important to Tulpagenics for this field test.

The glasses, though…she becomes quickly acquainted with Eunice, who turns out to be an AI program of fairly unique characteristics. They begin to build rapport. In fact, Eunice becomes so important to Verity that—

Enter Wilf Netherton, Ainsley Lowbeer, and Connor from the last novel. The stubs, using the same sort of informational technology Lowbeer and Netherton avail themselves of, can interact. To remind, Connor is a veteran given purpose in The Peripheral as an operative who then becomes the chief of security (bodyguard) of his friend-elected-president, Leon. Connor is remarkable at remote operations—drones—and is enlisted here to assist Verity and Eunice to avoid capture and death at the behest of the parent company of Tulpagenics, Cursion.  (Cursion roughly means “running, to run.”)

This stub is edging close to nuclear war. Lowbeer and company are intent on bringing it back from that edge. Eunice may be instrumental to that. It is hinted at—strongly—that while the stubs are not part of the “main” continuum, events in them have an effect. Of course, there’s some question raised as to whether the London of 2136 is the main continuum, but that’s a question to be answered (perhaps) later.

Gibson’s narrative approach is fascinating. A series of otherwise ordinary-seeming actions around key moments of invention that accumulate to a climax that, in hindsight, feels right and inevitable but still comes as a surprise. Occasionally it seems that if you take any given paragraph out and examine it, there’s not much in it, but the wavefront generated in context is inexorable.  He has always presented as a “simple” writer, but this is a serious misjudgment.  And the long game he always indulges impresses in ways we least expect.

But one thing he is completely engaged with is the idea of emergent properties of intelligence. In Neuromancer the end-game was the creation-emergence of a fully autonomous A.I. In each of his fictive creations, there is this fascination and examination of what might loosely be termed Singularites (they aren’t, but the road leading to them feels the same), and in this current work he’s playing across continua while dealing with the same suite of notions about A.I. and pivot points and paradigm shifts.

It’s not that he’s writing about the same idea. It’s that the idea is so massively encompassing that one can almost say everything is about it.

In this formulation, the Singularity can be used to label any moment where enough different threads and forces converge to leverage a pronounced conceptual change. Before this moment, we knew the world one way. After it, we see things differently.

He achieved this revelation to great effect in his previous trilogy, which was not science fiction so much as science fiction-al.  It was entirely set in our present world, with only changes in emphasis about the technology and the ways in which it manifests and is manipulated, yielding a portrait of a paradigm shift in process.  He seems to be plowing the same fields in this present work, only from a determinedly SFnal position, that of a species of time travel which is based on the communication of information across continua. The effect, interestingly, is similar to what one might experience traveling from one segment of our global society to another, with the attendant culture shocks and privileged dispositions in play.

In this, Gibson shows himself to be one of the sharpest observers we have, whose work is subversively relevant. He understands how all this “development” impacts and has a genius for dramatizing emergent properties while spinning a fascinating yarn.

 

 

Sleepless In Present Time

Nancy Kress is one of those writers who comes up in conversations about good science fiction who elicits knowing nods and smiles of appreciation, sometimes even among people who may not have read anything. The name is known and she has written material that influences.

In particular, a novel which can be regarded as a classic.

The word gets over-used and misapplied, but in the sense of meaning something of on-going value, with a tendency to remain relevant to present issues, and a reliably fascinating read, Beggars In Spain qualifies.

Let’s get the mechanics out of the way first. With regards to elegant sentences, smooth plotting, well-drawn characters, and thematic cohesion, this is as good as it gets in any genre. Published in 1993, the only thing that has “dated” is the actual timeframe in which it is set. This is a problem of most near-future SF. But here it intrudes so lightly that one may mentally move the frame forward. After a while, it ceases even to be a distraction.

As for the substance of the novel…

This is an excellent example of the kind of science fiction which is sometimes described as ideal—make one change and follow the consequences, rigorously and tenaciously. One change. One major speculative change.

I emphasize that “speculative” change because there are the usual kinds of speculations one expects in good SF. Changes in technology, changes in certain political arrangements, and so forth. This is the future, after all, it would be odd if something ordinary weren’t different. So we have a new kind of power source, Y energy, and therefore new distribution systems for it. Details.

The Change that matters, however, is singular and presented with an enviable plausibility. Gene editing has reached the point of on-demand modifications. What some people—ambitious people, hopeful people, people with means—-opt for it to create children who do not require sleep.

The Sleepless, as they become known, are in this respect a variant with possibilities of becoming a separate species. But the immediate result is a growing resentment among “Sleepers” who realize quickly the pronounced competitive advantage the Sleepless will have. All things being equal, they will outperform the unmodified simply by virtue of an extra eight hours per day to work.

There are people who require far less sleep than most of us (some as little as an hour or two per twenty-four hour cycle) and then there is the terrible disorder Fatal Familial Insomnia, which deprives its victims of sleep completely, leading to a number of unfortunate consequences and, eventually, death. Sleep is essential. We have learned even since Kress first published this novel in 1993 how complex and essential sleep is to our health, but she posits the condition in such a way that one can ignore these downsides, at least for the purposes of the story. It is a genetic modification, which comes with other unintended “benefits” which figure into the plot.

What they chiefly lose, though, are dreams.

Which she introduces into the story in a fine development that adds to the overall thought experiment.

But the question running throughout is both philosophical and sociological. By creating the Sleepless, Kress opens the subject of prejudice and, while never actually using the word, eugenics in ways that allow for an examination of the process as it manifests.

The Sleepless are born into privilege. It’s an elective in vitro procedure, very expensive, so naturally only the wealthy will be able to afford it. This introduces the class nature of it and the first one to whom we are introduced—Leisha—is the result of her father’s desire to give her the advantages he imagines for her, so she can be even more successful than he is.  In a nice twist, Leisha becomes enamored of law—not in its economic sense but in its application for justice. She becomes the focus of the various arguments pro and con over the Sleepless and a champion for tolerance—on both sides.

Asd the debate heats up over the Sleepless, the economy is changing, leaving devastation behind in many places. This is not at all ahistorical.  This happens. It’s happening now.  But with the advent of the Sleepless, there is a source of blame and a cause for rally. The hoped-for accommodation expressed by some on both sides of this genetic divide, while not ineffective, becomes compromised in the on-rush of sadly predictable politics.

And then there is a further step taken with the potential to divide even the Sleepless against each other.

This is a finely-wrought, complex narrative about the ramifications of technological changed and social reaction to that change. Into the mix, Kress throws a couple of well-chewed economic arguments with which we are all familiar, in questions of “deserving” and socialism and boot-strap judgments that attempt to organize our ethical choices according to work, ability, and social responsibility.  Kress is very good at arguing from both sides, lending plausibility to positions we can see as both tragically forceful and straw-man positions. As one reads, one knows it would play out this way.

The Sleepless are, in the larger sense, an example of what might be seen as unfair advantage in the hands of the few who can afford it. In reality, it could be anything: better access to information systems, travel options most do not have, entrée to persons or organizations barred to most, an unshared network, or simply technological enhancements.  Gaining and maintaining personal advantage in a competitive world is a constant and has always been, initially, a benefit of the privileged. By making it a genetic modification, Kress removes the illusion that what the Sleepless can do anyone can if only they had the opportunity. A certain equilibrium is maintained in our world by the surface tension of the assumption that, one day, we’ll all have “that” tool.

The only winning scenario in this is Change. Things will be different and those who can accept that and learn to live with it tend to have an advantage over those who can’t. Of course, it is never quite that simple, and the richness of Kress’s story is in the demonstration throughout of how not simple it is.

 

 

Insane Ants

Roadside Picnic is a classic of science fiction. Published in 1972, it is one of the few Russian SF novels to receive exposure in the United States in teh aftermath of a chaotic period in the Cold War, published in translation in 1977. The Strugatsky Brothers, Boris and Arkady, were quite popular in Russia, but for most readers here, Roadside Picnic was pretty much the only familiar title.

Deservedly so. Well-crafted, unexpected, richly characterized, it holds up well, and in most respects avoids the often fatal “dating” that can occur with older science fiction.

In some ways, it feels like a precursor to Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. There has been a Visit. Aliens arrived, apparently in many places around the Earth. And then left, leaving behind Zones in which mysterious objects, peculiar bubbles in which physics seem not to work as expected, and traps. Time moves inconsistently within them in certain spots. While there are no physical barriers to the Zones, it becomes clear where the boundaries are, and the response of most governments is to build research institutes, establish police cordons, try to contain what emerges from them. The response of the various societies is likewise expected—scavengers, black and gray markets, and mythologies spring up.

Most of the novel centers on Redrick “Red” Schuhart, a Stalker, one of the freelance scavengers who enter the local Zone to retrieve some of what has been left behind. It’s a dangerous job and the list of those who died, often horribly, grows as the ranks of Stalkers diminish. It’s illegal what he does, but Red has been hired by the Institute and places his expertise at the service of the scientists trying to make sense of the Zones. He never completely goes legitimate, though, maintaining his ties to the black marketeers.

The swag retrieved is often inexplicable. So-called “empties,” containers that sometimes are found filled with fluid or some other matter, but usually hold nothing; rings of various sizes; small needles that have some kind of piezoelectric properties. Researchers have managed to learn a few things from them, but mostly the market scoops them up as much for the novelty as anything they might do.

Redrick goes back and forth through the story, from legitimate to pirate. He has an ethical center, but it’s difficult to know how it applies in a situation that amounts to a one-way conversation. Because the aliens never come back. They might, one day. And some believe they’ve left coded clues behind to tell people where they went and how to follow. The mythology around the Zones and the Visit grows more complex, the need to find explanations where no feedback ever occurs fueling the imaginations of those wanting to know.

In the end, Redrick succumbs to the various psychic pitfalls of the Zone. Unable to leave, unwilling to surrender himself completely to it, never quite achieving the presumed degree of “success” that would allow him to pursue a different path, and finally bound by a legacy over which he has little say and no control, his life becomes a negotiation, with himself, with the authorities, with the unknown and apparently unknowable beings who put all this stuff here.

The question running through the novel is: why? Why did They show up, leave, and what is all this stuff they left behind?

An explanation is offered by one of the scientists in an offhand conversation in a bar. He imagines a picnic, just off the road, where a number of people spend the day and then leave. Their trash remains behind. They may never come back. And are completely unaware of the animals and insects who then come out to examine their discards.

This is not offered as the explanation, only a possibility. In the absence of any kind of substantive evidence or contact or anything, it is simply one idea among many. There is a void around the advent of the Zones and people cannot abide a void. The need to have some explanation creates one. Many.

But it also sets up a situation in which obsessing over that apparently unanswerable question causes a slow-motion psychic trauma. One thing human beings seem unable to tolerate, at least so-called civilized people, is being ignored. The notion that we, on our own planet, are insignificant contains the germ of psychosis. The Strugatsky’s masterfully reveal this. The wavefront of our own sense of self crashing against the shores of a land that will not recognize us can become an obsession only leading to a kind of insanity.

It may be that in this relatively slim, in many ways modest, science fiction novel, we see examined one of the central problems of cultural identity. We enter the Zone to fetch the baubles at the risk of losing our balance, our confidence, our sense of place…eventually, our sanity. Because human beings seem to be able to tolerate many things, even abuse. But we cannot stand being ignored.

 

Resonance of the Modern Era: Erasmus, Luther, and the Common Apocalypse

One of the last books I read in 2019 is Michael Massing’s Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind.  An odd choice, perhaps, but I have my reasons.

At over 800 pages, the book is a thoroughly detailed dual biography as well as history of the period. Luther and Erasmus aside, the period itself is worthy of study because it is, arguably, the beginning of the modern era, if for no other reason than the fact that this was the time wherein the apparent monolithic edifice of Catholic Europe—The West—began to fragment into what we now regard as normal, with its proliferation of contending ideologies, both religious and secular, the rise of the nation-state, and first irreparable chink in the armor of divinely-sanctioned autocracy. During this time was not only the first explorations and colonies in the so-called New World, but also the first inarguable advances of science in the face of tradition, and the beginnings of new economic models that today power the enterprise of the planet. Between 1492 and the end of the 16th Century, the usual arrangements and assumptions changed, evolved, died, reformed, and transmogrified almost beyond recognition, leading to the Thirty Years War which pretty well ended everything that went before, even though certain forms persisted almost to the 19th Century (and a handful to the 20th).

It could be interesting to see what might have become of all that ferment without the two chief instigators of the tectonic shifts in intellectual and religious attitudes that were the driving forces behind it. Without Luther, the Church of Rome might have remained the single religious institution of Europe.  Without Erasmus, Luther might have remained a minor irritant in the body religious. And without the two of them, the various enclaves that sprang up to nurture the nascent philosophies and sciences of the period might have had nothing around which to cohere.

Both men began their careers as monks. Erasmus, however, was an intellectual, a lover of language and old books, who wanted an opportunity to visit other centers of intellectual ferment and do his own work. He managed to gain permission to leave his Augustinian cloister and travel. He studied in Paris, which he loathed because the environs were dirty, the food terrible, and his health never robust.

Wanting never again to be trapped inside a monastic life, he knew he had to make some kind of an income, and he took his first forays into writing and publishing.

Through his writings and his interest in primary texts and languages, he began the serious work of reassessing the Bible, which at that time was a dangerous idea. The Vulgate dominated Christian worship and while certain scholars within the Church understood that it was somewhat corrupted from its original incarnations, it had become wired into the complex system by centuries of use and tradition. What Erasmus’ instigated was a new undertaking that would change fundamental understandings of what the Bible actual said. We still do this today. It’s called Textual Criticism and it is a very rich field of essential linguistic archaeology. Not only what the words may actually mean, but also—and this was the dangerous part—who wrote them and when were they included.

Erasmus produced one of the first fresh translations from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts still extant and available and published them with extensive glosses explaining his methods and the provenance of what he had found. It is perhaps an understatement to say that this caused controversy.

As well, though, his work spurred the development of a new interest in ancient languages. Europe had already been subjected to the discovery of work thought lost, works by the Greeks and Romans. With the Spanish Reconquista, a flood of ancient works came over the Pyrenees and proliferated. Scholars had long been trying to make Aristotle and Plato conform to current Christian thought, and Aristotle had even been somewhat rehabilitated into a Good Pagan because his work proved so useful in scholastic pursuits. Now Erasmus demonstrated the utility of learning those languages in perhaps finding clearer meanings in Scripture, and whole new centers of learning coalesced. For the span of most of his life, Erasmus was a superstar academic.

Enter Luther, who early on discovered in Erasmus nourishment to feed his own questing urges. During the first part of his career, he was an ardent Erasmian and embraced the idea of studying Scripture through the lens of the languages in which it was written originally. His interest coincided with his desire to purge the Church of corruption, in this instance in the form of the Indulgence.

(An aside. The Indulgence, a device devised by the Roman Church to gather funds in exchange for, ostensibly, shortening or even bypassing time spent in Purgatory, was the match that lit the fuse of the Reformation, and yet I have had many conversations with Catholics who had no idea what they were and when explained to them thought it was ridiculous, even as one can still, I believe, buy one today. )

Many Germans felt the Indulgence was a scam of sorts, one perpetrated mainly on them by the Church. The salesmen were apparently overly aggressive in those territories. Luther was expressing a common perception when he railed against them.  He took it upon himself to challenge the Church. He had not been the first to challenge Church authority, especially Papal authority, but until him those who had managed to successfully raise such challenges to the point of creating movements for possible reform had all been arrested and put to death. Prior to Luther, the most prominent had been Jan Hus, whose memory still informed an underground pool of dissent in Bohemia.

What made Luther more dangerous was the sudden availability of the new translations by Erasmus and the very idea of returning to sources to find Biblical justifications for—

Well, for anything. Luther embraced the language studies with vigor, brought scholars to Wittenberg, and began his own forensic study of Scripture. At which point he began to question Papal authority for an entire slate of practices for which he could find no Biblical support.

What began then as a fairly simple protest against a kind of extortion quickly developed into a general movement against Papal overreach, pitting, essentially, the Bible against 1200 years of bureaucratic tradition. Luther quickly became the center of a storm that had been building for decades if not centuries and found himself unexpectedly at the head of a Reform Movement.

He wrote at a furious pace, an outpouring of opinion and preachment that did not slow for years. It was made more effective by a growing hometown printing industry that put just about everything it could get its hands on out in broadsheets, pamphlets, and books. It ceased being something that could be contained within the boundaries of the Church by the very public exposure the presses provided.

At this point it is impossible not to see the parallels to the present. The printers were the social media of their day. There were no libel or slander laws to speak of and there was no public filter other than the Church, whose historic method was silence.  What began as academic studies by Erasmus (and others in his mold) now exploded into highly politicized position statements demanding action.

Early in this, Luther and Erasmus held each other in mutual regard. Luther praised Erasmus for opening the field. He yearned for Erasmus’ support.

For his part, Erasmus wanted as little to do with overt reform as possible. He was aware of the physical dangers of too firm a statement. Erasmus hated being attacked while Luther relished it. Erasmus wanted to do his studies and be left alone while Luther wanted to slay dragons. The two men could not have been more different temperamentally, yet they were intellectually bound.

This did not last. Luther wanted allies. He wanted support. He had no use for fence-sitters. The longer Erasmus tried to remain above the fray, the less patience Luther had with him. The strains began to show.

The break came over the central tenet of Luther’s new gospel: grace. Luther decided that the only path to salvation was faith.  Works meant nothing. One could not work one’s way into God’s grace any more than one could buy into heaven. And people had no say in it whatsoever. They had to simply have faith and then hope.  Eventually, this position led him to dismiss the idea of free will, and on that Erasmus could not concur. The divide opened on that point and the rest of 16th Century history turned on to which camp who belonged.

Massing does a superb job of showing the consequences of all this on the ground, among the worst of which was the Peasant’s War, an early labor strike that turned into a general rebellion, and resulted in tens of thousands of dead.

Luther, as time passed, revealed himself as a ferociously impatient man who could not handle criticism or find common ground in debate.  Once he realized his power, he became less and less tolerant of differences. He hounded competitors into exile, browbeat his subordinates, castigated the authorities, and responded to attack with a vitriol that seems the opposite of “christian spirit.”  When the Peasant’s War erupted, he sided with the authorities and advocated in writing that all good Christians must, given the opportunity, kill those in rebellion.  He thought he could by sheer force of will impose his ideal state of Christian piety on the world.

But the revolution he began got away from him, as such things usually do. Others picked up his ideas, decided, often, that he was too lax, and imposed their own brand on the new breakaway movements, like John Calvin. As he grew older, there was a “Thank you, Herr Luther, for starting all this, but we’ll take it from here.”

Erasmus, for his part, tried desperately to maintain his independence in a world that was rapidly becoming partisan in the extreme. Popes and monarchs pressured him to take a stand on the question of Luther. He was a scholar, he argued, and he was afraid for his life.

Massing follows their paths and traces the results of their various interactions with religious leaders, their communities, and, from time to time, each other. The two men never met yet between them they set the parameters of the next four centuries of cultural realignment.

At the beginning of this I said that it was an odd choice but I have my reasons.  I was educated in a Lutheran primary school, from third to eighth grade. For a time I considered myself a Lutheran, but it didn’t last. One could say that I had a fey streak of Erasmian sentiment that eventually drew me into the academic side of religious study, which eventually eroded my loyalties and dissolved any investment I had in the subject. Luther’s adamant stand on faith alone I found unsupportable. But what initially drove a wedge between Lutheranism and me was the deep illogic and the social consequences of such a position.

What Massing’s book brings to light is the problem central to all the various sects of what came to be known as Protestantism in the 16th and 17th Centuries and lingers to this day as an inescapably innate requirement in so many of them—the need, the demand, not so much for faith, but for conformity.  John Calvin brought this to the issue as clearly as anyone and his strain of Protestantism informed so many later churches.  None of them could much abide what we now call diversity and certainly privately-held convictions and personal faith was suspect. In reaction to horrific revolts and purges that followed the advent of the New Gospel, the Catholic Church became just as conformist. And when Henry VIII assumed control of the Church of England, there was the same insistence on conformity.

Here, in the first couple of decades of what certainly was a necessary schism, we see the seeds of what grew into monsters of social constraint and intellectual rigidity.

And yet, Erasmus, with his insistence of learning and logic and the willingness to alter one’s ideas in the face of new information, began the other half of that revolution, the one that eventually produced the liberal West with its valuing of knowledge and education and its openness to the new.  The revolution that built a world wherein people could hold differing opinions and not be killed for them. Erasmus faded during the 16th Century, during the rise of the Protestant churches, but in the long run superseded the intolerance endemic to the reformers inspired by Luther. Because of Erasmus we have Galileo and Newton, Kant and Locke and Mill. It could be argued that because of Erasmus we have a civilization.

Despite their profound doctrinal differences, the two men shared many of the prejudices of their day—neither could tolerate the Jews and in Luther’s vitriolic attacks on them we can see the basis for the later horrors of antisemitism emergent in the German state.  Both also shared a conviction that things had to change. Erasmus wanted change from within the prevailing systems and remained a Roman Catholic all his life. Luther quickly came to believe change would only come by tearing things apart. Erasmus feared the results of such a tearing and he was validated by what happened when 1200 years of social continuity through the Church was broken. Like smashing a dam, a torrent of pent-up resentment, much of which had little to do with religion, made a desolation.

Ironically, Luther, watching it all unfold, railed against the anti-intellectualism he saw spreading.  It was all too resonant of what we have around us today.

To know where we are, we have to go back and see where we began.  This is a good place to start.

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.

2018 and Reading Lists

I saw a great many lists in social media this past year. “One Hundred Books to Read Before You Die,” “Only a Genius Has Read 10 of These,” “The Best SF Books Ever.” Clickbait, certainly, but some of them were amusing and even added some titles to my Must Find list.

By and large, such things are amusing at best, rarely instructional, and often mind-numbingly dumb. Especially those derived from on-line polls, where instead  A Book, whole series end up included, and no one is vetting for obvious errors.  (Shakespeare did not write novels.) Not to say lists aren’t useful. One was published—as a real paper book—this year that I find really interesting.  1000 Books To Read Before You Die, by James Mustich. Part of a series of books with the same general idea. What sets this apart is that the books included really are remarkable and the list comes with excellent precis and commentary about why you should read them, plus ancillary articles on the authors and their other work. In other words, this would be a good text to use to create course work for literature. (Before you ask, I’ve read around 250 of them.  There are many I’ve never even heard of. Anyone working their way through this would be very well read by the end.)

All this prompted me to wonder—again—why we read in the first place. Harold Bloom has probably addressed this question as much if not more than anyone else and he warned that we should never presume to read for Self Improvement (at least not in a moral sense) mainly because, I assume, we can point to some rather well-versed monsters who clearly benefited not at all from extensive reading. But then he will argue that self-improvement is one of the chief by-products of deep reading. He sees it as a side-effect, though, because—again, I assume—you have to develop to a certain degree before you can decode what books offer. To me, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question because the two go along in lockstep so often.

But self-improvement comes to people who rarely read and others who read widely and extensively and find no lessons or edification in it and in the end I suppose it’s what you read as much as how well you read it.

As a practical note, since this has come to my attention as a Real Thing, no one—no one—should presume to be a writer unless they love reading and do a lot of it. I’ve encountered several people with pretensions to write novels who never read anything. Firstly, what motivates them if they don’t like books? Fame? Money? Secondly, they have no grasp of the mechanics, much less the purpose, of writing a novel. I have seen the attempts. They do not get it. At all. But arrogantly assume it’s no big deal. This wouldn’t be a problem but for the ease of self-publishing. Before you think to commit something to paper (or electrons) find out what it is you’re attempting. Read, lest you inflict on others your vacuous incapacity for empathy, art, meaning….or, I assume, the hard work.

Mr. Bloom aside, I do believe deep, regular, and diverse reading improves. The exposure to ideas alone has an effect. Reading requires that we open parts of ourselves to new understandings. There have been numerous studies to indicate that the capacity for empathy alone is enlarged through engagement with characters not of our own group and being vulnerable to change is certainly an aspect of engagement.

I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember.  Books have simply always been there. I can’t imagine a world without them could possibly be worth living in. If that’s a species of chauvinism, so be it.

2018 was a good year for self-improvement, if any was to be had.

I became acquainted for the first time with MFK Fisher. I’ve known of her for decades, but I don’t read food writing. She was more than that and in the course of researching a novel, I read her Map of Another Town, which is about her time in Provençe in the mid-20th Century. Loving portraits of two towns, one of them Aix-en-Provençe, which was the town I wanted to research. Other than a sense of atmosphere and smidgen of history, it did not give me what I wanted, but perhaps what I needed. She was a fine, fine writer, and I recommend it.

As well, in the same vein, I read Maria Fairweather’s biography of Madame De Staël, which, along with the much older Herrold biography, gave me pretty much all I needed in terms of when and where and with whom.

Memoir is another genre I do not read often, but I found a delightful one.  Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey. It recounts the author’s year when his father audited his course on Homer’s work. Moving, thorough, with some surprise revelations about Homer as well as the frustrations of paths not chosen.

This was also a year for reading things I should have read decades ago. In this case, That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis. Ostensibly the third volume of his so-called Space Trilogy, which began with Out of the Silent Planet (recommended unreservedly) and continued with Perelandra (cannot recommend). I kept bouncing off this third volume, probably because I’d had such a disappointing experience with the second, but I sat myself down this year and plowed through. I’m glad I did. The book is about the struggle between genuine progress and sham progress and how, because the latter can look so appealing, we hand over our moral capacity to people who have no comprehension of what it means to be humanly caring. There are some marvelous scenes in it, and although I didn’t find the underlying True King stuff to my taste (as with much of Lewis, he tried to make everything about the Return of some pure King ala Christ) it was a fine examination of how we lose things without knowing why.

Others in the vein were all rereads. I reread Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet, and Pat Cadigan’a Dirty Work. I do not reread, mainly because I read slowly and I have so much to yet read that taking the time to reread seems…

Well, I’m wrong about that.  I don’t know if it’s going to change, but I read Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugo Awards, which is wonderful, a great trip through a history of science fiction that I recall a good part of as a series of encounters with new books. This really is worth a read, because she not only goes over the books that made the ballot (including the Nebula ballot, when that began) but discusses what else was published at the time that might have made the lists instead. It’s surprising and informative and a pleasure, but the talk about how many times she and others reread a given book made me squirm rather self-consciously.

But this reading out loud thing we’ve embarked on has been a joy. We have indulged primarily in Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries series and have dramatized our way through all but two of them now. They are fun, a bit daring, well-researched, and easy to read aloud—unless you’re trying to do the accents properly, which is impossible but I try. Set in Australia in the 1920s, Miss Phryne Fisher is a very modern woman with a knack for solving crimes. We saw the tv series first, which is a delight of adaptation.

One set of books I wish we had done this way is Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, published in four brief volumes by Tor.com. They are told from the viewpoint of a security robot/cyborg who/that has hacked its own governor module. It is independent, can make its own decisions. What does it do? Downloads entertainment media to watch. Of course, it gets drawn into protecting a group of humans which leads into investigating corporate malfeasance which leads into more nasty stuff, which is all an annoying distraction from its programs. These are terrific and I was sorry to put the last one down.

In my humble opinion we are possibly in the midst of a new vitality in science fiction. I’m seeing fantasy writers suddenly turning out SF—and very good SF—a reverse of the situation for the last few decades.  Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut novels, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky are excellent. Good SF, a great central character, an alternate history scenario that makes perfect sense, and done with rigor and humor to leaven the grim main storyline.

My friend Daryl Gregory published Spoonbenders last year and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone looking for the indefinable. I’ve been telling people that it’s a combination of the X-Files and The Sting. Daryl writes humor with the best of them, which can be especially effective nestled within a serious plot.

Other speculative fiction delights:  Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (one of the better locked-room mysteries, nested within a fascinating SFnal conceit); The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin’s tour-de-force which kicked off a few years of drama within the SF/F community; The Strange Bird by Jeff Vandermeer; Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor; and the short but affecting Time Was by Ian McDonald.

One of the best SF novels I had the immense pleasure of reading was John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other, which is an examination of utopic constructs. Set on the moon, it follows the vicissitudes of a feminist enclave vying for independence on a believably fraught luna colonized by a number of competing systems. The social and personal dynamics are complex and delicately portrayed. I thought it one of the finest novels of its kind I’ve ever read.

Not science fiction per se but inescapably SFnal was Alec Nevala-Lee’s excellent biography of John W. Campbell Jr. Astounding. For anyone wishing to understand the formative years of this thing called science fiction (and here I mean what we mean when we point at something—say, Star Trek or Arrival—and say the words, not the academically problematic ur texts that might establish prior examples and possible launch points), this is a must-read. Many myths and legends surround this man, this magazine, these writers, and Nevala-Lee does a surpassing fine job of revealing the facts and placing all these people in context.

I also read, for the first time, Malka Older’s Infomocracy.  I will read the rest of the trilogy based on this novel, which is a page-turning political exegesis on alternative democratic systems and their possible pitfalls.

Finally, Charlie Jane Ander’s forthcoming The City In The Middle of the Night. Excellent. It releases in February.  This is a major novel by a major talent. I’ll do a fuller review later.

A smattering of other SF works:

Netherspace by Lane & Foster; The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith; Tomorrow by Damian Dibben; The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp; The Million by Karl Schroeder; Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele; Noumenon by Marina Lostetter.  All recommended.

I read Charles C. Mann’s Wizard and Prophet, which is a science biography of Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, the two men who pretty much defined the conflict between two schools of thought about environment and sustainability in the 20th Century. Borlaug was the developer of super grains, applying technological approaches to increased yields to feed more people, while Vogt was an ardent believer in austerity and cutting back and reducing populations. What might have been achieved had these two men somehow found it possible to work together we will never know. Vogt identified Borlaug as an enemy almost from the minute they met and history has been as it is.

Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is a weighty argument on behalf of the Enlightenment as a foundation for going forward. It is a hopeful book, anodyne for the fraught political times in which we live, if a bit more optimistic than might be creditable. Set it against Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography and realities balance the optimism.

I’m finding a forceful new set of voices in support of scientific rationalism and a concern over facts muscling its way back onto the main stage of public discourse. We have labored in a soup of vacuous postmodern hand-waving for the last four decades so that now the very moral relativism decried by the Right as liberal softheadedness is now used by the Right to claim victory against Reason and Progress. Perhaps this move from fantasy back to science fiction is an indicator that people are growing tired of mystical pabulum and want something concrete to hold onto.

Maybe.

In any case,  these are some of the books that caught my attention this year. We’ll see what 2019 brings.

 

 

 

 

2017

Looking at my list, I read, cover-to-cover, 51 books in 2017. That doesn’t seem like much to me, but knowing there are people, even people I know, who haven’t read one book in that time, it’s probably in the top something-or-other of national averages. At 63, I’m not sure I care anymore. It never was about quantity, as I’ve told myself time and again, but there are so many good books and I want to read them all!

We have engaged another study group this year. Rousseau. When we agreed to join, we thought we were doing just one of his works, his Second Discourse on Inequality. Come to find out, our guiding light wants to cover all the major Rousseau. Next up is Emile. I haven’t read Emile since high school. I remember little about it, other than it served to enrich a later reading of C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen. Very well. Rousseau it is.

But in 2017, I felt torn between two kinds of reading. Reading to escape—because, really, look at the world—and reading to understand how to deal with reality.

A third category was the books for my science fiction group at Left Bank Books. Twelve titles, mostly selected by me, but voted on now by the whole group. My intention in this group is to read a mix of new(wish) and classic. This year we’ll be doing our first nonfiction title.

It’s given me a chance to reread some of my favorites. In almost every instance, I’ve found a practically new novel. For instance, Delany’s Trouble On Triton. I no longer recall clearly how I felt about it when I read it back in the Seventies, but this time through it was fascinating in that Delany opted to tell the story through the eyes of a person incapable of any kind of satisfaction in what in many ways is practically a paradise (never mind the little war going on). He wrote it as a kind of response to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and it works quite well as that, flipping the relationship on its head at almost every point. Bron Helstrom is not a misunderstood everyman in a society unwilling to accommodate his uniqueness. Rather, he is a perpetually ill-fitting square peg that refuses, constitutionally, to be accommodated, even by a society that has no qualms trying to help him “fit.”

We also read Joan Vinge’s magisterial Snow Queen. I confess this was the first time I managed to get all the way through. While some of it is a bit dated, I found it a magnificent piece of world-building.

Then there was Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee.  On the surface, this is an intense military SF novel, but it works with religious motifs, time and calendars, and the whole notion of long games and ghosts. The details of the world-building are impressive and the motivations for the conflicts are unusual to say the least. There is an element of Mayan cosmology buried beneath the surface, transformed into the kind of Otherness that gives the best science fiction its appeal.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer is an odd novel. Compared to some of his work, which I find utterly unclassifiable (in the best sense), Borne is much more accessible, even though it presents as bizarre a world as any Vandermeer has ever offered. I came to the conclusion that this is a take on Alice Through The Looking Glass, done with an utterly different set of cultural expectations.

We read Keith Roberts’ Pavane, Chabon’s  The Yiddish Policeman’s Union Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, Use Of Weapons b y Iain M. Banks, Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, all of which generated excellent discussion.

Along with the other newer SF I read this past year, I conclude that the genre has never been healthier, more fascinating and inventive. The quality of imagination and craft have combined to produce some of the best work ever done.

Likewise in science writing, as exemplified by Carlo Rovelli, whose Reality Is Not What It Seems impressed me with its clarity and concision. (I’d been wondering what happened to string theory the last few years and this book told me.)

The Book That Changed America by Randall Fuller is more history than science. It details the initial encounter with Darwin in America and examines its impact. Both its initial welcome by people who saw in it a sound argument against slavery and then its later rejection as the assault on biblical fealty it became.

Sidharta Mukerjee’s The Gene is likewise marvelously accessible, a history and examination of the Thing That Makes Us Us.

In the same vein, but much more exhaustive in its historicity, was David Wooton’s The Invention of Science, a chronicle of how science came into being. He demonstrates that it was not the revelation popular myth suggests, but a long accumulation of understandings that depended utterly on the social context in which they emerged. (For instance, we have no science as practice without the printing press.) Reviewing first appearances of words and concepts, the book shows how culture had to change before the possibility of the modern concept of science could even begin to take hold. Just realizing that prior to Columbus there was no common understanding of the concept of “discovery.”

Just as enlightening were Charles C. Mann’s pair of New World histories, 1491 and  1493, which combined tear away most of the preconceptions about the world Europe destroyed when it crossed the Atlantic.

I read some excellent novels outside genre—Jacqueline Winspear’s well done Maisy Dobbs series (three of them), The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler, Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, the first Miss Fisher mystery, and travel writer William Least Heat-Moon’s first foray into fiction, Celestial Mechanics. But primarily, I read nonfiction and SF.  It was that kind of a year.

As a bookseller, I noticed a sharp rise in the purchase of science books. Overall book sales were generally higher than in past years.  People are reading things which seem to offer a more solid grasp of reality. Perhaps this is in reaction to the state of the world or just the state of the country.  People seem to want To Know, in very concrete ways, if their selections are indicative. I see less escapism, and when I do see it, it is not the sort that would leave the psyché unchanged.

I already have half a dozen titles read for this year. It will be interesting to see how all this evolves by December.

Good reading to you all.

Profits, Patents, and Pirates

Annalee Newitz,  cofounder and editor-in-chief of io9, has written a novel that has all the signs of being a major touchpoint in science fiction. Where in previous generations, physics or information technology have been at the heart of seminal works, speculations on nanotech or colonization tools, ecology or libertarian excursions in ruminations about personal power, Autonomous bases its meditations on questions of ownership and resource allocation in a future where both are matters of patent law.

If this seems like improbable grounds in which to grow a gripping, nail-biting action plot, reconsider. Wars are fought over exactly these two issues all the time. In fact, it would be difficult to name a war that wasn’t unleashed over both factors. Even those which might be described by other metrics, their prosecution still depended on these things.

We live in an age wherein most of the time we hear about such conflicts as courtroom exercises, involving lawyers and academics.  Even so, to assume this is dull matter for exciting drama is to admit to a paucity of both imagination and understanding of the world around us.

Captain Jack Chen is a pirate with a personal submarine and a working knowledge of pharmacology. She “liberates” drugs and see them distributed through networks that get them to people who ordinarily can’t afford them, who need them, and who are denied the benefits of longer life, healthier bodies and minds, and opportunities contingent on just those things simply because of where they live, the class in which they’re stuck, and the politics in which they’re trapped. Captain Jack is an idealist who has learned the hard way to behave pragmatically and extra-legally in order to live with herself.  As a young graduate student, she became politically active and established a group of radicals to challenge Big Pharma.  When they tried to put their ideas into action, Jack was caught, tried, sent to prison.  Her career was effectively over.

Many decades later, she plies a trade as pirate, reverse-engineering expensive drugs and seeing them made available through a variety of outlets.  For the most part, she’s a well-known nuisance.

But then she makes available a work-enhancement drug called Zacuity that quickly turns into a nightmare.  Not only is it addictive, it supplants the will to regulate concentration and application, leaving its victims remorselessly pursuing single tasks to the point of starvation and death. Taking a closer look at the drug, she finds the problem: it’s not that she made a mistake in the reverse engineering, but that she did not—the drug is designed this way.  Which means the company, one of the massively huge pharmaceuticals, unleashed this intentionally.

Which also means that she has become a target.

A human-robot team are set on her trail, orders to kill her as a patent terrorist.  The chase is on.  Jack wants to undo the damage she inadvertently caused, but she has to do it before they find her, or no one will know about the potential catastrophe about to be unleashed.

Beyond all this, which Newitz handles with smooth assurance and uncommon good sense, the novel is about what is or is not justifiable in a society where property has taken on new levels of sophistry in its applications via indenturing, robotics, AI, debt obligations, and the prerogatives of patent-holders in matters of life and death.

This is the 22nd Century.  Robotics and AI have developed to the point of self-awareness, or at least the kind of apparent consciousness that is definitionally indistinguishable from organic, “natural” consciousness.  There are degrees, of course, but functionally, in society, there always have been when it comes to role allocation.  Does an artificially constructed intelligence possess any rights to self-determination? And how do you distinguish between one emergent form of intelligence and another in pursuit of a justifiable legal framework of slavery?

Newitz clearly has her own opinion, but it doesn’t hi-jack the given world of the novel to grind axes.  She simply presents a perfectly plausible set of social and technological conditions and show us the interactions—some of them inevitably outré, but logical—and lets the reader react.  While the surface story is concerned with patent law and the abuses of big business and future pharmaceuticals, underneath, humming along like a finely-tuned Socratic dialogue, are these questions of personal ownership and the ethics of recognition.  Of course, in the end, it’s all the same argument, but so much is slipped in as subtext, virally delivered in the form of a first-rate story, that we might not realize it till well after the final, recognizably polymorphic scene.

Autonomous is the kind of novel science fiction is most adept at producing—the thoughtful, philosophically-attuned thriller that leaves you with plenty to mull over once your adrenalin stops pumping.

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.