Sword, Double-Edged, Metaphorical Steel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naturally, sleeping arrangements become problematic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Enduring Interest

There’s a kind of novel that usually I avoid. You know the kind I mean—a miasmic dunking in the minutiae of neurotic characters who do very little out of the ordinary, suffer, come together, break apart, and end up in an ambiguous condition wherein presumably some sort of enlightenment has been achieved. Turgid not because the writing of such tomes is necessarily bad but, really, it’s just like real life only artistically rendered, and who wants to spend four or five hundred pages with people and their problems that in most respects seem just like ours?

For similar reasons we do not seek to know everyone we could, because there are people we really would rather not.

But then there are people we want to know, people we do know, people who are necessary and wonderful to our lives, people who have impacted us in ways that have made us who we are. No, we didn’t choose them, it doesn’t work that way, but we can’t deny their significance after the connection and the absorption and the time spent loving and worrying and hating and assessing and comparing and competing and being with.

Which is also the reason for novels like those described above and also the reason we don’t want to read them all or even most of them, and would find the effort unrewarding if we tried.  Because they don’t all matter to us.  They may matter to someone, but not to us. Not now, maybe not ever.

Except the ones that do.

Meg Woltizer’s The Interestings is, as it turns out, one that mattered to me.   TheInterestings.r

The thing is, like the choices we seem to make in friendships, the reasons why don’t lend themselves well to explication.  You meet, you chat, you spend time, you become friends or lovers or, sometimes, enemies, and the chemistry involved in the passions that come about is a dynamic thing, a flux that mutates almost too quickly to recognize at any given moment.  So you’re reduced, then, to describing how you met, what you said, where you went, who you have in common, and things that happened. 

It’s no wonder that so many novels like this become finely-written lists.  The catalogue of event (or nonevent) should tell something about why these people, these stories are important.  To be be fair, they do.  Because we find recognition in event, resonance in detail, reification in experience.  Unfortunately, it’s such an individual thing that what for one reader is revelatory for another is a prolonged yawn.

The thing that sets some of these novels apart is always the quality and precision of the significant observation.  The writer says, obliquely, “did you see this? did you notice how that happened?” and in the evocation of interaction gets inside and behind our desire for novelty and shows us how just being with people contains more novelty than we can manage.

This is not a simple thing. This is finding the universal in brunch, the sublime in moving into an apartment, the profound in a white lie.  Usually, all those things are only and ever what they appear to be, at least for other people.  In the hands of a master observer, however, they can be everything.

Once that level of access is achieved and established, imagine how powerful become the really big events of a life.

Which brings me to the novel at hand, a novel of the sort that ordinarily would hold no interest.  It begins with the coming together of a group of people at a summer camp for the arts in the mid 1970s who continue on as lifelong friends.  They are precocious, talented, some would say gifted, and self-consciously style themselves as The Interestings.  They expect, even as they mug and mock themselves about it, Great Things for themselves.  One is a cartoonist-cum-animator who actually does achieve material (and even moral) greatness, but he is dogged by a sense of failing to be the kind of person he wants to be.  The rest, in their various ways, succeed at different things or fail and stop trying. One explosively ruins the life that might have been lived, another follows a sidetrack for almost too long, the others are blocked or betrayed by life, and one never seems to get off first base and yet becomes the anchor for the others in ways she wholly fails to appreciate for decades.

Envy is almost a character itself.  And regret.

But also great love and generosity and all the reassessments associated with very full lives, even when those lives are not what we wanted or are simply underappreciated.

Wolitzer follows them through their various trajectories, weaving them in and out and around each other as they live through the age of Reagan and AIDS and into 9/11 and the world that made, and even when global events intrude upon the narrative she keeps it personal.  Her observations of the calamities, large and small, and joys that comprise life are laser-sharp and true in the way good art should be.  And although these people are not anyone we know, the effect is that we do know them, because they are just like us.

Here’s the curious part.  As I said at the beginning, this is the sort of novel that would ordinarily bore me, because nothing much happens in it.  These people bounce off each other, lie to each other, hug each other, fuck each other, live with, by, and through each other, and it is just life, and I have my own, thank you very much, and I know these things, have lived these things.  Yet I found myself compelled to keep reading and responding in surprising ways and in the end finding an appreciation even for what I thought I already knew for which I am grateful.

Most of the rest of the novels like this, which I will likely never read, and those few before now which I have read, are not this book—just as all the people I am not friends with are not likely to ever be my friend.  Most of them, fine people though they may be, are not here and do not speak to me.

This book spoke to me.

Perhaps because what Wolitzer is examining here is exactly that—speaking.  Or, more generally, friendship.  What makes it visceral is how she portrays the continual and constant assessment people indulge regarding this most nebulous and yet absolutely necessary human practice, that of taking inside and giving of ourselves the promises and pleasures of being a friend.  As one character explains, they could have been anyone, it was chance that threw them together in that camp, and if chance had sent them to another camp then it would have been a completely different set of people for whom all this would have been important.  But the fact is, it was this camp and these people, and you live with what’s in front of you.  Because it doesn’t matter so much what chance has handed you but what you then do with it, and when it comes to friendship what matters is what happened before you consciously reassess how you met.  Wolitzer understands this with granular intensity and gives portraits of friendships that work.

Ancillary issues permeate the book, as in life, and politics, economics, sex, art, illness all appear to complicate, distract, and force decisions upon the players.  As a demonstration of answering the question “What do you do with what you have?” the novel is honest and unflinching.  The events that contour the narrative are often unexpected and the choices made are organic to the portraits of complicated, compelling people.

So while I may well continue to define a certain kind of novel as a type that I don’t care for, I find that I can do so without feeling either shortchanged or hypocritical.  I don’t have to like them all or even most of them.  I found the one, by chance, that I do like.

Music of the Fears

One of the most powerful yet ineffable experiences we are occasionally granted is the moment when music opens us up and sets our brains afire with the possible.  Music, being abstract in the extreme, is difficult to slot into the kind of “safe” categories to which we relegate much else.  Stories certainly have subtext and can expand our appreciation of the world, but they are still “just” stories and all that mind-altering power can be rendered ineffective by dint of the filters used to shunt it aside.  Paintings and sculptures likewise can be “seen” as purely representational—or ignored when such designation is impossible.  Even when we appreciate what we see or read, the power of taking the work in as merely a reflection of a reality we think we understand can have the result of diverting any real impact.

Not so with music.  Once we open ourselves to the emotional realities of the sounds and let them have their way with our psychés, it becomes difficult if not impossible to shove a piece into a conventional box.  You either take it as it is or ignore it.  A great deal of pop music is written with this fact in mind, that people want to be coddled, “entertained,” and humored—not moved.

Because when music moves us it is not in easily definable ways.  We experience, when we allow it, heady mixtures of emotional responses that have no convenient hole for the pigeon.  We are altered for the time we experience it—sometimes altered for hours or days afterward.  Less often, we are altered for life.  We can, after such an experience, never hear music the same way again, and sometimes life itself becomes different.

Richard Powers understands this as well as it may be possible. In his new novel, Orfeo, he unleashes the revelations music can bring:

Young Peter props up on his elbows, ambushed by a memory from the future. The shuffled half scale gathers mass; it sucks up other melodies into its gravity. Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. At two minutes, a trapdoor opens underneath the boy. The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole. Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hand in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.

Music has that power.   (For an excellent examination of the various effects of music, I recommend Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.)  Music can transform us in the listening.  Occasionally such transformations remain after the music is over.

It was not wrong of people in the 1950s to look askance at rock’n’roll and think it subversive—it was, but in no way that could be detailed.  It was in exactly the same way any new musical form is subversive.  In the same way that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused riots during its premier or Wagner altered the politico-æstehtic personality of an entire people.  Music both seeps in and charges through the front door of our minds and, if we are listening, changes the way we apprehend the world.

In Orfeo, however, Powers gives us a portrait of how music informs a life with its power to rearrange priorities by setting Peter Els on a quest to find the music of life itself.  And in so doing inadvertently make himself the object of a nationwide manhunt as a terrorist.  This unlikely combination would seem absurd, but Powers handles them deftly, with a logic that matches our present world where people going off to do things by themselves for their own arcane reasons can seem threatening and cause for mass public alarm.  The passions that drive Peter Els are both universal and singular and make him the ideal protagonist for what becomes a lifelong quest for an unseizable transcendence.

For he wants simultaneously to be free and to be important.  The two things may well be mutually exclusive, but he is driven to find the essence of what has driven him through a life that, on its face, appears to be a failure.

Powers knows music.  Throughout the novel he exhibits an enviable command of its history and its theory and, most importantly, its effect.  Anyone who has been in the grip of music that has touched the inmost part of us will recognize Peter Els’ obsession.  This is one of the finest prose explorations of that bright nonspace of luminous shadows and delicate splinters of emotion that is the mystery of the musical experience.

Set within a story about the present and all its fears and insubstantial alienations, its cluttered paths of chance and chaos, and the difficulty of being one’s self in the midst of panicked conformism, a time when it may be more important than ever before to acknowledge the possibility of becoming more, of embracing other, of refusing limits imposed out of fear of losing something we may not even have.

Turning The Wheel: Principle At War In Iain M. Banks Consider Phlebas

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

“Consider Phlebas…”  The phrase focuses attention and sets expectations.  As the novel progresses, we are primed to consider.

And yet, it seems to be little more than a big, yawping space opera, set during a war, with a lot of zipping about, fighting, explosions, deaths, intrigue.  All of that, to be sure.  What is there to consider?

Iain M. Banks loaded the dice before the first page by taking his title from an enigmatic stanza of a famously complex modern masterpiece.  He has claimed in interview that he “just liked the sound of it” and had to use it as a title in something.  An easy, dismissive answer to a question that begs for something more.

Consider Phlebas opens with an escape.  In the midst of combat, a self-aware ship fashions a new Mind, a self-contained assemblage of massive intellectual potential, and shoots it out to make a getaway before it can be captured.  The Mind is too young, unprepared, empty of experience, but it knows this, making it a remarkable construct.  It executes a dangerous, almost hopeless maneuver that puts it—temporarily—out of reach, buried within the catacombs of a dead world that once was home to a civilization not terribly different than our own that failed to survive past its nuclear age.  The planet is now a shrine, maintained by an enigmatic alien race which is as shapeless as water.  The Mind finds sanctuary, but it has also trapped itself.

The next scene introduces Phlebas—in this case, a Changer named Horza—who is about to drown in a dungeon as punishment for espionage.  He is chained to a wall while waste water is dumped into the chamber, gradually filling the space.  He will die, ignominiously, wretchedly, tastelessly.

And indeed, he once was handsome and young, but in his present physical state he is an old man, having Changed himself for the purposes of his mission.  Caught, he will not even die as himself, at least not physically.

The problem, though, as he keeps being forced to confront after his last-minute rescue by the hands of his alien masters, is who exactly he is.  He is Bora Horza Gobuchul, a Changer, member of a species of human having the ability to imitate others by physically—and to a fair extent emotionally and intellectually—altering to become Someone Else.

Horza has allied himself with the Idirans in a war against The Culture.  Here we find paradox.  The Culture is an empire in that it covers vast stretches of (interstellar) territory and claims many races as members.  It is tolerant in the extreme, vital, but in many ways essentially human.  While there are many variations of human, there is a recognized standard, of which the Changers claim consanguinity.  The Idirans on the other hand are definitely Not Human.  Tripoidal, somewhat reptilian, they are also religious zealots.  They seem congenitally incapable of recognizing the validity of different viewpoints on the question of Truth and have been engaging crusades of absorption (or annihilation) for some time before running into The Culture and finding themselves in a serious fight.

The Idirans consider all other races inferior—including their allies.

Yet Horza fights for them.  Or, as he puts it, he is fighting on their side against The Culture, which he sees as the true enemy of humanity.

Because The Culture also includes machine intelligences as equal partners.  For Horza, this is the line crossed that has set him in opposition.  He cannot see machines as being in any way equal to biological life.  They can only ever be either subservient—or masters.

So Horza indulges the classic choice—the enemy of my enemy, etc—without seeing the irony of his own position other than in the most superficial ways.  He knows he could never accept the Idirans as master, he utterly rejects their religious purity, and yet if they beat The Culture they will continue conquering less capable polities, absorbing or eliminating apostates, until one day they will force the Changers to choose.  Horza does an ethical dance with himself to permit his alliance for the immediate goal of stopping The Culture, which is also growing and absorbing new territory.

Though in a completely different way.

But more than that, The Culture itself is in a profound ethical quandary about the war.  The Culture hasn’t fought a war in so long that it has to reinvent its capacity to do so.  The decision to go to war against the Idirans has been highly unpopular with most of its citizens, and even those prosecuting it have serious doubts about their right to do so.  The Culture has to consider the possibility that this will change it into something it does not wish to be in order to win.  As well, there’s no clear idea what “winning” means.  This is not how The Culture does business.

the Idirans seem to be the only ones in the mix with a clear, confident idea of what they are and why they’re doing this.  But as it is revealed, they had to change in order to become imperialists.  The evangelical urge was once a new thing, turning from an inward-facing, contemplative people, to crusaders.

Oh, you who turn the wheel and look to windward…

Horza is rescued only to find himself set adrift in a spacesuit during an assault by a Culture ship on his rescue ship.  He faces drowning in vacuum.  His rescue by a privateer is the most improbable of events, but as it turns out not quite as unlikely as it might seem.  Ships like the Clear Air Turbulence shadow the forces in these huge engagements, looking for opportunities for salvage or cover for smuggling.   Hence, Horza finds himself on board a freelance, unaligned ship with a crew of misfits looking for the next big score.  They are just competent enough to almost succeed at something.  They’re very good at getting into situations for which they end up being unprepared.

Horza decides to use them—by changing himself gradually into their captain—to accomplish the mission he had been given before being shucked out an airlock: recover the Culture Mind that has hidden itself on that off-limits world.

The bulk of the plot involves this mission and Horza’s manipulations to achieve it.

Into this two players are added that complicate the ethical issues—Balveda, an agent of The Culture’s Special Circumstances department; and Unaha Closp, a maintenance drone, a self-aware machine, both of whom get trapped on board the ship during an escape Horza engineers.  Balveda has been tracking Horza all along and is caught by him as he fully manifests as the captain of the Clear Air Turbulence.  Closp is doing maintenance on the ship and is unable to leave when Horza makes his escape.

Of the two, the drone is the more important complicating factor.  It forces Horza continually to engage it as an equal, something Horza is loathe to do.  It exhibits character, personality, resilience, and competence.  It is, as we get to know it, impossible to see as “just a machine.”  Which, of course, is the whole point.  This is the key to Horza’s entire objection to The Culture.  A self-aware “device” that refuses to be treated as a lesser being.  In what way, its presence asks, am I any different than a biological form?  In fact, it demonstrates an appreciation of choice and life that is categorically denied by Horza’s employers.

Balveda, while of secondary importance in this equation, is nevertheless absolutely necessary.  She represents The Culture’s willingness to deal with any situation that threatens to impair exactly the kind of status Unaha Closp demands.  Her department, Special  Circumstance, is itself the embodiment of an understanding of the impossibility of creating a one-size-fits-all moral program.  There will always be conditions that do not allow for cut-and-paste solutions.  At the same time, The Culture realizes that dealing with questions such as the Idirans present has the potential to distort what The Culture is at its core.  Hence, Special Circumstances, a division of Contact, put out there as a kind of moral buffer.  Or at least a cultural one.  Balveda and her colleagues are the immune system of The Culture.

What Banks built in this universe is a subversive ethical microscope, subsumed into the fabric of what appears to be little more than an epic space opera.

In fact, though, Consider Phlebas, like most of The Culture novels, is subversive of the form itself.  Anti-space operas, because the outcomes are never as clear cut and triumphal as the great space operas of the past.  On the contrary, clarity is only found in an appreciation of the irony at the heart of a Banks Culture novel.  Horza himself subverts his own purposes at almost every turn.  He defends something he does not believe in, fights something that might give him purpose, and like the Phoenician is drowned in a sea of bad options and murky choices.

And who is the hero?  A space opera, by long tradition, requires a hero, one character we can point to and show clear-eyed purpose and to whom some degree of success accrues.  Who is that here?

Unaha Closp.  Of them all, the drone exhibits all the traits of the hero.  The very thing Horza identifies as inimical to everything he believes in is the one that comes through every time, acts consistently on its convictions, and perseveres as well as survives.  Banks seems to be saying that principle is not determined by form.  Biology can lay no exclusionary claim to it—in fact, by example, biology has the hardest time with it.  But the prejudice of the flesh, so to speak, precludes genuine tolerance, and principle is sacrificed when options are reduced to two—the ideal or the beneficiary.

The underlying ethos of The Culture, though, is a denial that choices are ever only reducable to just two.  That if that’s what we believe, then something has been overlooked.

On the off-chance, though, that time or resource refuse an opportunity to find third or fourth choices, it would be useful to have a Special Circumstances to deal with the contradictions and conflicts.

Great Causes often come down to one or both parties making the statement that no one has the right to impose principle or form on someone else.  It can be confusing when terms like freedom get tossed into the mix.  Freedom from what?  To do what?  To be what?  The universe would appear to be too mutable to admit unitary definitions of freedom or rights or even morality.  The Culture, Banks suggests, understands this fundamental fact.  They work to preserve a space in which people can decide for themselves, and intervene when the decision produces evangelical movements.  The question then is, what if the evangelicals are right?  Well, that would be a very special circumstance indeed.

Horza makes his way by engaging mutability as an innate talent and, he must at some point realize, a self-claimed right to be anyone or anything he can imitate.  But he can’t imitate everything.  Perhaps this is the basis of his metric as to what is or is not acceptably his equal.  He can’t become a machine.

And yet, he does.  A tool, a cog, a machine in a larger mechanism.  He forgets ultimately who he was.  Maybe who he is.  He clings to his prejudices as a way of maintaining some sense of identity.  If he cannot say exactly who or what he is anymore, at least he can say what he is not.  One cannot help but see his choices as driven by a desire to find some cause that will give him solid shape.  Unfortunately, while he’s searching, everything around him shifts, and he drowns in a sea of change.

Light Fallen

I’ve read three books in tandem which are connected by subtle yet strong filaments.  Choosing which one to begin with has been a bit vexatious, but in the end I’ve decided to do them in order of reading.

The first is an older book, handed me by a friend who thought I would find it very much worth my while.  I did, not, possibly, for the reasons he may have thought I would.  But it grounds a topic in which we’ve been engaged in occasionally vigorous debate for some time and adds a layer to it which I had not expected.

William Irwin Thompson’s  The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light  is about myth.  It is also about history.  It is also about grinding axes and challenging paradigms.  The subtitle declares: Mythology, Sexuality & the Origins of Culture.  This is a lot to cover in a mere 270-some pages, but Mr. Thompson tackles his subject with vigor and wrestles it almost into submission.

His thesis is twofold.  The first, that Myth is not something dead and in the past, but a living thing, an aggregate form of vital memes, if you will, which recover any lost force by their simple evocation, even as satire or to be dismissed.  Paying attention to myth, even as a laboratory study, brings it into play and informs our daily lives.

Which means that myth does not have a period.  It is ever-present, timeless, and most subtle in its influence.

His other thesis, which goes hand in hand with this, is that culture as we know it is derived entirely from the tension within us concerning sex.  Not sex as biology, although that is inextricably part of it, but sex as identifier and motivator. That the argument we’ve been having since, apparently, desire took on mythic power within us over what sex means, how it should be engaged, where it takes us has determined the shapes of our various cultural institutions, pursuits, and explications.

It all went somehow terribly wrong, however, when sex was conjoined with religious tropism and homo sapiens sapiens shifted from a goddess-centered basis to a god-centered one and elevated the male above the female.  The result has been the segregation of the female, the isolation of the feminine, and the restriction of intracultural movement based on the necessity to maintain what amounts to a master-slave paradigm in male-female relationships.

Throughout all this “fallen” power play, ancient myths concerning origins and the latent meanings of mutual apprehensions between men and women (and misapprehensions) have continued to inform the dialogue, often twisted into contortions barely recognizable one generation to the next but still in force.

There is much here to consider.  Thompson suggests the rise of the great monotheisms is a direct result of a kind of cultural lobotomy in which the Father-God figure must be made to account for All, subjugating if not eliminating the female force necessary for even simple continuation.  The necessity of women to propagate the species, in this view, is accommodated with reluctance and they are, as they have been, shoved into cramped confines and designated foul and evil and unclean in their turn, even as they are still desired.  The desire transforms the real into the ideal and takes on the aspects of a former goddess worship still latent in mythic tropes.

Certainly there is obvious force to this view.

The book is marred by two problems.  I mentioned the grinding of axes. Time was published originally in 1981 and, mostly in the first third, but sprinkled throughout, is an unmasked loathing of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.  He takes especial aim at E.O. Wilson for promulgating certain reductive explanations for prehistoric cultural evolution based wholly on biological determinants.  Thompson’s prejudice is clear that he wants even early homo sapiens to be special in its cultural manifestations and he derides attempts at exclusively materialist explanations.  The fact that E.O,. Wilson himself has moved away from these earlier “purely” biological considerations one hopes would result in an updating.

But interestingly, part of Thompson’s rejection of such early modeling comes from an apparent belief in Race Memory.  Not, as I might find plausible, race memory as deeply-entrenched memes, but apparently as some undiscovered aspect of our genome.  He never quite comes out claims that such race memory is encoded in our DNA, but he leaves little room for alternative views.

Hence, he asserts, the genuine power of myth, since it is carried not only culturally, but quasi-biologically, as race memory.  Which we ignore at our peril.

He does not once mention Joseph Campbell, whose work on the power of myth I think goes farther than most in explicating how myth informs our lives, how myth is essentially meaning encoded in ideas carried in the fabric of civilization.  He does, however, credit Marija Gimbutas, whose work on goddess cultures extending back before the rise of Sumer and the constellation of civilizations commonly recognized as the “birth” of civilization was attacked by serious allegations of fraud in order to undermine her legitimacy and negate her thesis that early civilizations were certainly more gender equal if not outright female dominated.  (Just a comment on the so-called “birth” of civilization: it has been long remarked that ancient Sumeria appeared to “come out of nowhere”, a full-blown culture with art and some form of science.  But clearly common sense would tell us that such a “birth” had to be preceded by a long pregnancy, one which must have contained all the components of what emerged.  The “coming out of nowhere” trope, which sounds impressive on its face, would seem to be cultural equivalent of the virgin birth myth that has informed so many civilizations and myth cycles since…)

My complaint, if there is any, is that he undervalues the work of geneticists, biologists, and sociometricians, seeking apparently to find a causation that cannot be reduced to a series of pragmatic choices taken in a dramatically changing ecosystem or evolutionary responses to local conditions.  Fair enough, and as far as it goes, I agree.  Imagination, wherever and whenever it sprang into being, fits badly into the kind of steady-state hypothesizing of the harder sciences when it comes to how human society has evolved.  But to dismiss them as irrelevant in the face of an unverifiable and untestable proposition like Race Memory is to indulge in much the same kind of reductionist polemic that has handed us the autocratic theologies of “recorded history.”

Once Thompson moves out of the speculative field of, say, 8,000 B.C.E. and older and into the period wherein we have records, his attack on cherished paradigms acquires heft and momentum and the charm of the outsider.  (His mention, however, of Erich von Daniken threatens to undo the quite solid examination of the nature of “ancient” civilizations.)  It is easy enough to see, if we choose to step out of our own prejudices, how the march of civilization has been one of privileging male concerns and desires over the female and diminishing any attempt at egalitarianism in the name of power acquisition.  The justification of the powerful is and probably has always been that they are powerful, and therefore it is “natural” that they command.  Alternative scenarios suffer derision or oxygen deprivation until a civilization is old enough that the initial thrill and charm of conquest and dominance fades and more abstruse concerns acquire potency.

But the value of The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light  may be in its relentless evocation of institutional religion as a negation of the spiritual, as if to say that since we gave up any kind of natural and sane attitude toward sexuality and ignored the latent meaning in our mythologies we have been engaged in an ongoing and evermore destructive program to capture god in a bottle and settle once and for all what it is we are and should be.  When one looks around at the religious contention today, it is difficult if not impossible to say it is not all about men being in charge and women being property.  Here and there, from time to time, we hear a faint voice of reason crying out that this is a truly stupid thing to kill each other over.

Veering Into The Present

An attractive pitfall of popular history is the Pivotal Moment.  The writer centers on an event or an idea that signals a shift in the course of history, leading somewhere other than where it had been heading.  The Donation of Constantine, the First Crusade,  the invention of moveable type, Galileo’s confrontation with the Church, Newton’s codification of the law of gravity, things like that.  The point being made is that these events are so tectonic that Everything Changes.

The pitfall is not so much that they are wrong but that they are taken as solely responsible, isolated moments, forks in the road.  It is easy to ignore or forget everything else around them.  Focusing only on the Emperor Constantine can suggest that without him, Christianity might not have become the official religion of Rome and thus history might have taken a different course.  (Personally, I think Constantine’s moving the capital of the empire east was far more significant as something he alone could have done, or caused to be done.)  It overlooks the fact that Christianity had become a tremendous movement by then.  Had Constantine been of a mind to resist it, he might have delayed its ascension for another emperor, but it would have become what it did in any event.  Constantine was being politically astute.  (After all, he left Rome to the Church even as he moved the center of imperial power to the new city of Constantinople.  It’s telling that he chose to isolate them geographically.)  The Crusades were important as expressions of political currents leading to a contraction of Rome’s vision of itself and certainly set the stage for subsequent events in the Levant, but not even the death of Richard the Lionheart changed all that much in even British history.

Newton might be arguably more important, at least for the calculus, but such things were in the wind.  Leibniz, rival and competitor to Newton, invented a calculus, and while the debate goes on as to who was first and which was better, such a mathematical tool was going to emerge.

Picking pivotal events, therefore, is a challenge.  Placing them in context is a duty and one it is often tempting to underplay.  It makes a better story if the singular event is the hero, as it were.  But it can sometimes make for bad history.

Stephen Greenblatt avoids that problem admirably in The Swerve: How The World Became Modern.  Even though the title is a bit hyperbolic and suggests the kind of history more consistent with a tabloid approach, what one finds within it first-rate history written for a general audience about a rather arcane subject:  the way ideas can change entire cultures.

The story is about the discovery of a manuscript, De Natura Rerum, an epic poem by the Roman Lucretius (99 B.C.E. to 55 B.C.E.), an acolyte of Epicurean philosophy who died just before Rome became an Empire instead of a Republic.  De Natura Rerum—“On the Nature of Things”—is a a surprising work in that it espouses ideas which we think of now as wholly modern.  That the universe is composed of atoms, that time and space are unbounded, that life evolves, that matter is all there is.  If one squints, one sees the foundational ideas of contemporary physics in all this.  Physics and cosmology.

But it continued on to suggest that pleasure is the highest moral purpose, that doing that in life that increases one’s pleasure and the pleasure of those around us, is the primary aim of a moral life.

It’s easy to see how this might run afoul the kind of moral philosophy that has dominated Western culture since before the rise of Christianity.  But Lucretius was not advocating hedonism, but the more constrained program of Epicurus, the 4th Century B.C.E.  Greek philosopher who advocated philosophy based on the two standards of ataraxia and aponia, namely peace and freedom from fear (ataraxia) and the absence of pain (aponia).  To do this, one must lead a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends and occupying the mind with constructive and pleasing contemplations and treating the body to that which brings pleasure.  Though the name has been linked to self-indulgence, hedonistic abandon, and all the ills of unrestrained pleasure-seeking, what Epicurus had in mind was something very different, and defined by moderation.  The kind of self-indulgence we assume attends such a life he did not see as peaceful, pleasurable, or free from pain.

He also believed that when we die, nothing survives.  The soul is an aspect of our physical existence like anything else and fades to nothing once the container ceases to function.

Lucretius wrote a poem of purportedly great beauty in support of this philosophy.

It is a common misapprehension that the Greco-Roman world of that time would have embraced all this eagerly.  The fact is, Christianity rather easily took root in the Roman Empire because it bore much in common with ordinary Roman morality.  Epicurus was almost as disdained under the Caesars as his ideas were later despised under the popes.  Christianity succeeded largely because of its commonalities with pagan culture, a culture which found Epicurean ideas almost as off-putting as any later devout Catholic might.

A culture which fully embraced the spiritual side of attitudes toward the material world that relegated this life to a condition of transient, burdensome necessity, pain, and suffering which must be borne with the faith and dignity of an acolyte who seeks a better existence in an afterlife, fully convinced that nothing in this realm matters.  A culture that had no use for the idea of atoms, that believed the universe to be bound tightly in a very local set of spheres, and with a time limit on its existence that was easily comprehensible—a few thousands of years.  People wanted the comfort of believing existence to be closely bound, finite, with a way out.

Lucretius’ poem faded from memory.  Rome’s collapse was as much a result of neglect as of catastrophe, and by the 9th century, much of the written legacy was sequestered in monasteries, scattered, mouldering, often ignored, certainly unstudied.  It required that civilization rise back to a certain material level before interest in ideas, old manuscripts, and the past could matter.

Enter Poggio Bracciolini, Florentine, scholar, humanist.

Humanist meant something a bit different in the 14th and 15th centuries than it does today, but it is possible to see the connection.  Poggio was one of that group of avid collectors who scoured the monastic libraries for old books.  Most of them were copies of even older books, the remnants of a vast ancient world epitomized by the Library of Alexandria, most of which seemed to offer glimpses into a Golden Age.  Aristotle had long been seen as the basis for rationalizing certain troublesome aspects of Christian theology.  The flood of recovered books from the Reconquista has been both benefit to a slowly recovering European civilization and troublesome bane to a Church that saw itself as the final arbiter of what it was proper to know, to consider, to believe.

Poggio worked for a succession of popes.  In his “spare” time, he hunted manuscripts, and helped return them to circulation.  He found Lucretius’ tome in Germany, a 9th century copy.  According to Greenblatt, he may not even have realized what it was.  He’d only heard it mentioned with respect and some reverence in other ancient manuscripts.

The Swerve reveals the events surrounding the poem’s creation, loss, rediscovery, and subsequent dissemination throughout a culture that was on the verge of becoming something other than what it had been.  The ideas embraced in the eloquent lines are ideas with which we are more than familiar today.  Indeed, they are common coin in debates on the right and the good and resonate in the foundations of modern science.  Greenblatt suggests that it was this book—its reintroduction to a wide audience—that caused the veer into what has become a secular civilization.

He is careful, however, to contextualize his assertions.  Something like this, it seems, would have had to be invented if it hadn’t been found.  Its arrival at the onset of the Renaissance was fortuitous.  Coming along when it did—when science was beginning to coalesce out of the mish-mash of alchemy and reactions to Aristotelianism, when people like Bruno, Galileo, Newton, and many others were present to respond—hastened events, gave focus to certain schools of thought, fed the furnace that was recasting conceptualizations of nature and the universe.  It lent the weight of a more complete philosophical conception to the fragmented components of what would one day become the modern world.

It is perhaps surprising (and somewhat disillusioning) that the arguments spawned by De Natura Rerum are still being waged today.  Reading Greenblatt’s examination of the central ideas of the poem and the subsequent responses to it is itself a lesson in historical context, because we can look around and find exactly the same kinds of debates—and sometimes bitter battles—going on around us.

But it is also encouraging.  Ideas survive.  People keep them alive, even over centuries, millennia.  Greenblatt is, in his own way, continuing that fragile, necessary, and yet astonishingly powerful tradition, passing on to the future what is important not only for today but what has been important all along.

Primary Influences

Reading and writing are inextricably linked, but it’s a lopsided relationship.  One can be a voracious reader without ever feeling the need to write, but being a writer by necessity demands voracious reading.  There are some who seem to believe they can write without having to read extensively (or at all!) but I imagine this is a self-correcting delusion.  It may be a more obvious problem in this age of self-publishing ease, when one’s shortcomings can make unfortunate and sometimes wide spread public displays, but the simple absence of any kind of artistic æsthetic on which to base the work is fatal to the endeavor.

Besides, what would be the point other than a profound narcissism.  Part of the fantasy of “being a writer” is to join a fraternity whose past membership has provided the delight you hope to offer, a delight you have presumably found in reading.

I imagine that for some writers, the desire grows gradually, a cumulative response emerging after many books.  Specific texts are less important than the experience itself.  For others, there’s a turning point, a moment when the reading experience in a given work sparks the “I want to do this!” response that grows, if nurtured, into a lifelong obsession.

I can pinpoint my own turning point.

foundation covers

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire was the book that decided me.  I bought it at the corner drug store in 1968.  Mr. Leukens had a spinner rack from which I’d been obtaining paperbacks for almost a year by then.  I can say quite honestly and without embarrassment that it was the cover that caught my attention.  That Don Punchatz rendering radiated “significance” in a way other covers failed to achieve.

I’d been reading science fiction in one form or another for as long as I could remember.  Comic books, mostly, but once I’d obtained my library card, the occasional SF novel came home with me.  A lot of them seemed…well, stodgy compared to the movies.  I admit to being disappointed with science fiction that was set in more or less the present day.  I was a kid, after all, I was after the gosh wow! more than the cerebral pleasures that are the chief attribute of the form, at least in those days.  I wanted Forbidden Planet and John Carter not stuff stuck on Earth.

Asimov I knew from another novel, Pebble In The Sky, which I had read earlier in the year.  I still wasn’t connecting authors with preferred experiences, at least not as a guide to find more of the same.  Partly this was because I had no reliable way of getting more by a given author.  Leukens Pharmacy was my primary source and the fact is he had no control over what ended up in that spinner rack.  It was hit or miss.

That month, the only one of the trilogy available was the second volume.  (I didn’t even know what “trilogies” were yet.)

Gradually, I came to regard Avon as the imprint that provided me with the kind of material I most wanted.  Along with the Foundation books, I got a lot of Robert Silverberg, B.N. Ball, James Blish, and later they published the Science Fiction Hall of Fame collections.  Their books had a particular “feel” and quality that seemed lacking (or at least different) from other imprints.  (So in a peculiar way I was initially more aware of publishers and editors than authors.)

Asimov sold the first Foundation story to John W. Campbell in 1941 and went on to write all the stories that comprised these three books by the early 1950s.  I read them out of order.  The middle book first, then the first one, finally, after months of searching, the last one.  The covers above are from a slightly later edition, but basically the same ones I eagerly sought and devoured.

They were everything, at the time, that I wanted from science fiction.

But what was that?

I was 13, almost 14.  My reading had been chaotic though wide and I had a smattering of history (not nearly enough to form any cogent opinions of events) and I had the sense that a lot of fiction, especially in the movies, was disconnected from all that went before whenever the events of the story took place.  Right off the bat, Asimov offered a simple, elegant way to imply a concrete history by the epigrams of his fictional Encyclopedia Galactica (an obvious but nevertheless effective play on Encyclopedia Britanica and American).  That “scholarship” existed on which the chronicler of these wholly fictional and fantastic events could draw provided a basis of  “authenticity” that completely sucked this reader in.

What followed was a self-consciously analytical treatment on the way history might work.  The premise is Cartesian—if one knows enough about enough, then one can make reliable predictions.  The sheer control offered by Seldon was profoundly seductive.

And then, of course, there was the Empire, spanning the entire galaxy, thousands of worlds, a massive civilization bound together by hyperdrive and the Imperial center on Trantor.  Trantor itself was such a startling idea, an entire planet completely covered by a single city.

Gaal Dornick’s arrival on Trantor, on later reflection, was the arrival of any young man from a more rural part of America to New York via Grand Central Station, and the awe of such a massive construct.  (Samuel R. Delany rather elegantly recapitulated this in the opening scenes of his Atlantis: Three Tales with the actual New York.)  In a way, Dornick’s reaction is very like the reaction of a new reader who suddenly “gets” it.

Considerations of cost and the unlikelihood of achieving any fraction of the kind of homogeneity, political or otherwise, never entered into it.  Asimov had loosely based his Galactic Empire on the Roman Empire and that itself was a highly improbable collection of provinces under a single banner.  If you could accept the one (which had actually existed) you could accept the other, especially since as the story opens the Empire is beginning to crumble.  By this device, Asimov acknowledged the latent impossibility of a “galactic empire” by letting us watch its demise from sheer social and political entropy.

New things are born from the ruins of the old, and the rest of the series is about these new things.  What I found so appealing was the inherent historicity of the Foundation stories.

Of course, the idea of mathematically predicting future events with the kind of precision suggested in these stories is fantastic at best.  The notion behind it is not fanciful, there is something to the dynamics of large groups in motion that lends itself to patterning.  Asimov simply worked a variation on actuarial math and raised to dizzying heights.  It is a criticism of which he was well aware, one I already agreed with since I’d begun with the middle volume—the one in which The Mule appears to completely overturn everything Seldon had constructed.  The fey element, the unpredictable, the unaccountable.  Asimov subverted his own premise.

But that opened the narrative up to a more sinister thread, one which has also been geared into history: the secret society, the hidden group which from time to time people believe to be the real rulers.  In this, Asimov was still playing with the plausibilities of accepted historical narrative.

It was easy then to accept that Asimov was writing about the collapse of the Roman Empire—and the perfectly agreeable desire to shorten the inevitable “dark age” following the fall of such a huge and apparently monolithic construct.  But as one grows older and continues the kind of necessarily broad and voracious reading essential to being a writer of any worth, such simple comparisons erode.  The falls of empires probably always follow certain patterns, but in the details they differ.  I now suspect Asimov, if he was being intentional in his subtexts at all, was writing about the vanity of empire rather than of any particular one, and the costs of such things to those who become dependent.  Asimov was a refugee, born in Russia.  Perhaps too young to remember anything of his early childhood there, no doubt he heard the stories, and of course there was World War One, the first death blow of a European Order that went back a millennia at least.  By the time Hitler was trying to establish a new Roman Empire (at least in terms of territory if not intent), it was obvious that the old regimes were done for, and the future was about to be in the hands of the bureaucrats, apparatchits, and opportunists in a way never before seen.  In such a world, the idea of preservation itself might be seen as the only worthwhile enterprise—the preservation of knowledge, which would make Seldon’s Encyclopedists the first moral actors in a post Imperial age.

I think Asimov was writing about the world he lived in rather than either the Roman Empire (or Republic) or the Galactic Empire.  Naturally, insofar as science fiction is always really about the present, viewed through the distorting lens of a future tense.  But more than that, because he was establishing priorities.  Empires rise and fall—the Foundation itself becomes an empire (much as America did after WWII, if not in fact at least in influence) and all empires become pieces on a larger chess board in a game played by those behind the scenes—but what matters is the continuity of knowledge and access to it for all those people who must survive the changes in political fashion.

I couldn’t possibly have recognized all this when I first read these books.  Some of my peers, and certainly many of the adults around me then, dismissed them as they did all SF as “mere” entertainment, idle speculation, and, at worst, a waste of time.  But for me, what may or may not have been latent in the text was sufficiently present to inspire.  The seriousness with which Asimov approached his subject was very different in tone and effect from, say, Doc Smith.  Insofar as I have ever been scholarly, the Foundation series spoke to me on that level, and triggered the response that led me to start writing my own stories.

It’s telling that in Asimov’s autobiography, In Memory Still Green, he claims that he had no idea what he intended to do after writing and selling that first Foundation story.  But he had put a hook at the end of it which demanded a second story, thinking himself clever that he had in some way trapped Campbell into having to buy the sequel in order to answer the question, without quite realizing that he then had to deliver.  He goes on to claim that he never could work from an outline, not then and not later.  Maybe not on paper, but there was an outline in his head somewhere that provided a reliable template.

Of all the SF I read back then, I find few I can reread with any pleasure.  This is one of them.  It still enthralls me.  I can still see the vast deeps between the stars and the terrible force of history unfolding and enfolding across time the matrices in which we nevertheless decide for ourselves what we want and struggle to accomplish.

That, at least, is my story.

Culture’s End (The Ends of Culture)

Once in a while, work comes along that, while not doing anything apparently new, turns a settled form inside out and frees possibilities.   In writing, this generally means that, in the wake of such work, the things it is possible to say and the ways in which they are said broaden.  Branchings occur, reactions, new growth, inspiration ripples along.

Iain M. Banks triggered—at least for me—a renewal of an old science fiction mainstay, the Space Opera.  Practically from the beginning of the modern form in the 1920s, interstellar adventures have been woven into the DNA of the genre, replete with strange planets, exotic aliens, and occasional examinations of political systems, albeit not on a very sophisticated level.  Everything from the Roman Empire to a kind of United Nations model has been used, sometimes to unintentionally silly effect.  Given the suppositions on hand, it is not a small task to plausibly imagine such a universe.  Some of the best works have ignored the details, lest unwanted hilarity result, suspension of disbelief sabotaged by, of all things, the wallpaper.

Space Opera lost some of its cachet in the Seventies in the wake of Star Trek, which combined much of the long history of the form in a single popular television show, and made it difficult to write anything that didn’t look like Star Trek.  In written SF, Space Opera receded in prominence.  Then in the early Eighties, with Neuromancer by William Gibson, Cyberpunk muscled its way into prominence and one of those moments of expansion occurred.  For the next two decades, it seemed,  reaction to Cyberpunk dominated the field.

But in 1987 a novel was published in England (a year later in America) that signaled the coming resurgence of good ol’ fashioned Space Opera.

Consider Phlebas was a thick, densely-detailed, elegantly-penned adventure that seemed to have come from the mind of a literary writer who had no real idea there had ever been such a thing as Space Opera.  But that was impossible, since it handled the conventions of the form with such grace and sympathy as to suggest a lifelong devoteé.  Iain Banks simply didn’t write from a traditional æsthetic, even when it seemed he did.

One of the most interesting choices he made in the novel was putting his major invention—the Culture—in both a background position and as an antagonist.  One might be forgiven if, from reading just this book, one thought the Culture was a throw-away idea, never to appear again.  Because the other civilizations depicted, several of which are at war, are so vividly and thoroughly imagined that any one or five of them might have served as the solid foundation for a series of breathtaking novels.

To be clear, what the Culture subsequently became, in novel after novel (and a handful of short stories) was not a hero’s preserve.  The Culture seems often like the Good Guy, but just as often they are a meddlesome, arrogant, dangerous collection of diplomatic bullies.  What Banks constructed with the Culture is a kind of Swiss Army Knife of an interstellar empire.  It is what it needs to be in any given circumstance.  And like any real government, expedience is its chief operating mode.

But.  And this is a large exception.  Because the Culture actually has no material needs—it is what we’ve come to term a “post scarcity civilization”—its political motivations are a bit more abstract.  The Culture has a moral compass, one which it seems to ignore as often as it follows, and has, in complete contradiction to the famous and also often ignored Prime Directive of Star Trek, no compunction about interfering with another civilization at all.  In this way, Banks created the perfect sociopolitical tool to examine what might be termed Moral Expedience.

Rather than confirm the essential uselessness of Space Opera, Banks made it relevant by making cases for right action within a vast and complicated set of interlocking political, social, and ethical systems.  Philosophy 101, in many cases, but deftly handled and often pointedly specific in its potential relevancies.

By further expanding the players to include wholly autonomous machine intelligences—ships that owned themselves and acted according to their own interests, AI advisers, habitats both awake and involved—he opened the dialogue on the question of rights as a, if you’ll forgive the seeming contradiction, concrete abstraction.

If one of the primary attractions of science fiction is the examination of the question “How, then, shall we live?” then one could do much worse than Iain M. Banks as a complete buffet of fascinating riffs, postulates, improvisations, and dialogues on exactly that question—which, at its heart, is the primary concern of what shall be done with virtually unlimited power?

All this would imply a dry, discursive study, plodding expositions, info-dumps that slow the action (what there may be) to a near halt.  That would be a mistake.  Banks’ skill has been to lay all this depth and contemplative meat, bone, and gristle into exceptional adventures with high stakes and finely-drawn characters.  Everything in a Banks novel is profoundly personal.

Space Opera has enjoyed a come-back since that first Culture novel came out.  Banks is now one of many well-respected practioners of the form.  It may be that the field was ready to revisit it anyway.  But without Banks, it may be wondered how satisfying such a visit might have been.

As we shall be wondering when there are no more Culture novels.

Iain M. Banks has announced his last novel (not a Culture novel) because he has terminal cancer.  The 59-year-old writer of eleven Culture books and sixteen other novels says he has perhaps a year to live and his new novel, as yet unreleased, will be his last.

An appreciation of Banks’ Culture stories is only the half of it.  He has enjoyed the enviable ability to write so-called “mainstream” works under “Iain Banks” all along.  His first novel, The Wasp Factory was an experimental work that bordered on SF, reminiscent of both J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.  He has written thrillers, literary novels, satires.  Since 1984 his work has made a significant impression in the U.K. and has gained a large following in the United States.

He is only 59.  If there is any justice, he will be long remembered as a pivotal voice in Western Letters.  Treat yourself.  Go read one of his novels.  Then read another.  Repeat.


One of the most perverse aspects of American culture is the contradiction between our self-professed guiding ethos and what many of us actually do.  This is the country of the self-made, the independent thinker, the individualist.  We build elaborate mythologies extolling the virtues and victories of our heroes, who are all of a piece, wholly their own creatures, dependent on no one and nothing to be what they are.  Daniel Boone to Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the self-sufficient American is our national role model.

Yet a look at our actual history shows that we as a people are surpassing great joiners.  We attach ourselves to collectives, to movements, to institutions, and borrow ideologies from them, speaking with a group voice and shunning those whose independence of thought causes them to criticize whatever party our fellows have joined that gives them a sense of worth.  We have been known as the most religious country on Earth, per capita, and any close look at the religious movements that have swept this country over more than two centuries shows a deep approval of support for such causes even at the expense (sometimes especially at the expense) of those who are genuinely independent in thought and action.  Americans often readily bury their freedom of conscience in support of all manner of mass social incarnations, be they labor unions, political parties, or churches.

For a nation founded on an idea of letting people be who they wish to be, America has a questionable track record, with periods of tolerance punctuated by spasms of intolerance, but always with an apparent acceptance of a preference for belonging that runs counter to our professed pride of independence.  This also runs counter to the related “virtue” we like to boast of being hard-nosed skeptics.  To be sure, many of us are, and most of us exercise a degree of skepticism at least in certain areas of our lives, but again we are inconsistent, especially, it seems, when it comes to religions.

Lawrence Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollwood, & the Prison of Belief, delves into one of the most quintessentially American religions of the 20th Century.  Generated in the 1950s out of the imagination of one man, it has grown to international proportions, and along the way has been subject to as much if not more controversy than any other movement of comparable size, in some ways akin to Mormonism.  (In significant ways, Scientology and Mormonism share a great deal—both creations of single individuals who then went on to uproot a community of followers, creating an insular ideology that separated members from the wider world, based on cosmologies invented almost from whole cloth, establishing themselves in the minds of their adherents with such visceral force that no amount of fact seems capable of dislodging faith in the central tenets, fact in both instances far more easily produced and demonstrated than in most other religions.)

Going Clear

Many books have been written about Scientology, the majority by or about former members whose objectivity may be doubted.  This is not, on the inside, a religion that seems content to allow its membership the kind of options we expect from more mainstream faiths.  You may join the Baptists, stay awhile, and then, if it doesn’t suit, leave.  According to most accounts by ex-Scientologists, there is no apparent regard for such an option, and those who do leave are rarely left alone.  (By contrast, when a Mormon repudiates the faith, the opposite tends to happen—they are closed out and shunned.)

Wright has no axes to grind.  He is an investigative journalist telling a story.  He did exhaustive research, covered as much material as he could, found many people to talk to, both in and out of the church, and has produced what may be to date one of the most evenhanded treatments of the subject yet published.  The evolution of the movement, from the imagination of its founder, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, is charted clearly, as is the growth of the church from the size of a club to a cult to a major religion boasting millions of members.   One of his guiding questions, however, has to do with volition:

If Scientology is based on a lie…what does it say about the many people who believe in its doctrine…?

Throughout the book, this question hovers in the background.  We see people from all walks of life encounter Scientology and then surrender themselves to it, sometimes for life, sometimes for a few years, for a myriad of reasons.  Wrights finds people who swear by the efficacy of the doctrines, who use it to be better people.  He seems to find just as many who have apparently few other options for self-discovery and actualization.  After long enough, it becomes difficult if not impossible to conceive of life outside the church.

The ones that cause the deepest stirrings of concern are those born into it, at least those born into it within the deepest circles, the Sea Org and administration.  They grow up never knowing enough, if anything, about the outside world to be able to function anywhere but within the church.

There are orders of renunciates the world over, retiring groups who close themselves off from the world at large.  Their existence calls into question criticism of Scientology for doing essentially the same thing.  However, as the story of the interior world Hubbard created unfolds, we see a disturbing absence of all the aspects of free will, free choice that we take for granted.  Yes, strictly speaking, these people joined on their own and stay by choice.

But so, too, did the followers of Jim Jones or David Koresh.  A close look at Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church reveals a similar break from the standards of free association we associate with the exercise of rights.  Coercion takes many forms and the most effective are those that manage to convince people to place the chains on themselves.

And yet…and yet…

The doctrines created—invented—by Hubbard come straight out of science fiction.  Hubbard was a pulp writer in the 1930s, he wrote fantastic fiction (as in content not necessarily quality), he was a colleague of Heinlein, de Camp, others who established the idioms of what we know today as science fiction.  When you read the ideas that informed Hubbard’s central mythos for the church, it is straight out of science fiction, but of an earlier era where some of the constraints of science, even in passing,  did not pertain.  It is difficult to take any of it seriously.  Much of it flies in the face of physical fact (the universe is 14 billion years old, not 4 quadrillion) and defies the logic of evolution.  It combines elements of pop psychology with Antlantean mythology with flights of fancy that would be ridiculed today by savvy readers if the attempt were made to foist it onto them.  How can anyone swallow this stuff, we may ask, incredulous at the apparent gullibility of adherents.

But, then, the same could be said of the basic doctrines of any religion.  Joseph Smith was a con artist and his frauds were documented, yet people virtually worship him as the avatar of their theological universe.  Fact has little bearing on the need to join and believe exhibited by so many people.  Cordons sanitaire are drawn around the primary ideologies of any religion, exempting them from even the most mundane of critical analysis.

Few have been so closely guarded as those of Scientology.

What is striking, though, is the apparent ease with which such movements attract followers in a place where supposedly the defining cultural motifs all promote the idea of not being gulled, not being fooled, not be led unquestioningly.  Wright has no answers to such dilemmas.  What he has given us, however, is a clear-eyed look at method and process and, it may be hoped, a possible antitode to self-imposed slavery.