Visceral Coding

Few things generate sustained anxiety as much as genetic engineering. Both positive and negative, for the possibilities and the dread. Since Watson and Crick revealed the double helix of DNA, the science has proceeded apace, and we now live in an era wherein “programming” can refer to both computers and our genes.

Jennifer Doudna is a name to conjour with in this transformational time. In 2020 she won the Nobel Prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR cas9. CRISPR has become the label in media stories for a process of “editing” genes with the use of a form of RNA. (Almost no one outside the biochemistry and medical community seems to no what it stands for: Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeaters.) Basically minute segments of code in a strand of RNA that repeat and can be used to, effectively, insert modified segments of code into a gene sequence.

What began as “pure” research into the methods by which bacteria defend against viruses became a revolutionary method of dealing with all manner of genetic circumstances, including potential treatments and vaccines for the most recent scourge, COVID-19.

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Doudna (pronounced DOWD-na), Code Breaker, is also a history of the sometimes chaotic, sometimes life-affirming, often unexpected world of scientific research and its interface with the rest of the world.

Isaacson has given us not only a biography of a remarkable individual, but a look at the often surprising world of research and development. The image of the scientist, austere and removed, still to some extent dominates our imagination. It comes as a surprise (and occasionally something of a betrayal) when we are forced to recognize that scientists are human, just like the rest of us, with all the flaws and foibles to which “ordinary” people are prone. One aspect of the public conception of The Scientist I think requires adjustment is the fact that scientists continue to grow, to mature, to evolve. Too often, it seems that once the Ph.D. is earned, the scientist becomes a static icon, unchanging, and is expected to Know All or at least is frozen into an unchanging assemblage of stereotypes. On some level, this seems to offer comfort—one of the things people tend to be bothered by is an admission of not knowing. Worse still, is a change of mind, which is inevitable in the light of new evidence. But ordinary people can do both. A scientist is not supposed to.

This has led to unrealistic expectations, loss of trust, and the unfortunate “gaming” of science (never mind truth) in public policy. Primarily, this is from a profound lack of understanding on the part of the public. For another, it emerges from the misuse of science as a political talking-point.

Isaacson does an excellent job of taking the reader through the various aspects of a discovery, its initial reception, its development, its transition from pure research to useful tool, and the social and political impact along the way. And along with this, he explains just what that science is.

Jennifer Doudna is central to the unraveling of genetic codes and the inner workings of the templates of life. Basically, she became a nexus for many strands of research, each adding to the overall picture. Her work with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier ultimately earned them a shared Nobel Prize.

What they have developed is a tool by which the template for biological forms can be modified. Edited. This offers the possibility eventually of correcting genetic “errors’ that produce diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and many others. The drive to “decode” the human genome contained the hope and ambition to one day be able to deal with these things, which are different from pathogenic illnesses. But even in the case of viral and bacterial infections, the ability to address illnesses from at a genetic level offers exciting possibilities—and in fact has been vital to the handling of the COVID-19 outbreaks. The speed and facility with which the scientific and health community have been able to respond is in important ways attributable to Jennifer Doudna’s work.

There is drama, intrigue, fascinating people, and the makings of a good thriller in certain aspects of this story. But the most important thing is the profound humanization of a complex community and the people in and from it. Scientists are not fundamentally different from anyone else. Their interests may seem esoteric and the degree of concentration they bring to their passions may seem other-worldly at times, but in truth what they have is a deeply useless set of tools and the willingness to abide by the rules those tools require for sound use. What must be understood, and often is obscured by the dizzying aspects of the science itself, is their humanity and how they represent, often, the best possibilities of all of us. (Of course there are those who are not as good at what they do as they should be, those who are more concerned with fame or wealth than the work itself, those who are flawed in unfortunate ways—just like any other group of people in any other area of activity—but we should look to the best for our examples and not allow the worst to color our perceptions of the people doing amazing work.)

Finally, understanding something is the best way to stop being afraid of it. At the end of the day, that is the real gift scientists give us—they work to understand things previously hidden and unknown and thereby help the rest of us to stop being afraid.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the Pursuit of Taxonomy

There are some discussions about literary forms which are of use primarily to the academic, the author, and the dedicated taxonimist obsessed with lists and categories and the minutiae that separate one column from another. For the average reader—including deep readers, serious in their immersions into literature—most of this is beside the point, sometimes just a distraction, and occasionally a serious annoyance. Most simply do not care “what” something is—where it slots in on any spreadsheet of literary types—as long as the book at hand works and provides the pleasures they seek.

For the former group, though, these things can matter quite a lot. Tracing the lineage of a form or where a given writer drew inspiration or the cross-referencing of varied texts is a species of archaeology that can enrich understandings of the evolution of literature. Movements, iconoclasts, even the politics of certain writers and groups of writers, the impact specific works have had on whole fields…all this is both real and fascinating for a particular area of study. It should be there for those inclined to ask the kinds of questions addressed. For the writer, such distinctions are relevant for a variety of reasons, starting with the kind of work to be done and how to do it and going on to considerations of market and further to the sorts of broad conversations engaged across published texts. Knowing the deep roots of what one writes can solve problems, make the work itself richer, and give direction to later work.

As for the taxonomist…this kind of thing is part and parcel of bibliographic study. As our archives grow, this becomes more important, lest things are lost. Or misunderstood.

But as I say, for the general reader, all that matters is that the book provides what it has promised. In the main, the obligation of the writer is to provide entertainment, an experience that satisfies whatever requirements the reader may seek to fulfill. As far as the reader is concerned, as long as what is found on the page serves that goal, what goes into creating that page is irrelevant. And like a good magic act, it should not intrude. Granted, there are some readers who enjoy deciphering texts to see how they work, those who feel good about being able to perceive the scaffolding, trace the connections, and catch all the well-incorporated quotes, references, sources, and links. (And too many lit classes based on the assumption that this is the important part of reading.)

Achieving that seemingly effortless immersion, though, is far from simple and work well done requires a knowledge of those behind-the-scenes apparatuses. The architect has to know the skeleton of the building that supports the surface that everyone then sees and uses.

There is interest for the lay reader as well. Not all readers are disinterested. The how of things has an appeal. But for the most part, understanding how something works and what it is intended to accomplish and the way it achieves its goals is primarily in service to the ongoing endeavor to continue to create works that do certain things.

So let me state up front that distinctions between forms and what makes them distinct will make no difference in the case of a given work if people enjoy it. Regarding this current essay, what makes science fiction science fiction will matter little to readers who are loving what they are reading. The ride is all. The play of ideas, the novelty of landscape, the exoticism of the distortions within the story that produce a pleasurable experience are all that count. If you have no interest in how the centipede walks, this is perhaps not worth your time.

As well, most of us have been tortured by lit classes in which the examination, over-directed and flensed of the joy a given text is intended to supply, becomes a kind of reductio ad absurdum in the hands of amateur taxonomists who seem to think the only value to be found in a story is its derivation from and relationship to deep-rooted myths and symbolic board-gaming. “What do you think the author intended/meant by this?” Such questions are certainly valid. I do not suggest they have no place in the creation and reception of a story, only that they are questions that form anchors between the actual creation of the work and, at the other end, the analysis of such creations by those fascinated in all the inner structures that make it a culturally-relevant artifact. For those between the anchors, the resonance of an insider’s familiarity can add a special frisson to the experience, but if the work is done well it is the least important quality.

To be done well, though, would seem to require at least a passing familiarity with those structures. When watching a magician work, the point is to be fascinated and entertained by the effect. Knowing how a trick is done may add an extra layer, but the fact remains that for the purposes of the performance, only the magician needs to know. For it to work well, the magician needs to not only know but fully understand what all that backstage apparatus does. The degree of such understanding can determine the quality of the performance.

So we come to this question of, essentially, genre distinctions. Few other forms seem to have such spill-over for the audience as does science fiction and fantasy. (In music, I can think of debates over distinctions, or at least points of departure—is rock’n’roll blues or was there a split at some point allowing them to be distinct modes? Broadway musicals and opera share certain commonalities, but they are not the same things. Is Ragtime jazz? Valid questions, all of which can be dismissed in the face of “I don’t care, I like it.” But for the creators, such distinctions are much more relevant.)

My own sentiment is that science fiction and fantasy are distinct. There’s overlap of form, motif, and occasionally aesthetic effect, but functionally they are concerned with different things. That it took a good part of the 20th Century to sort this all out, with a great deal of hybrid work being produced that tended to confuse the two (science fantasy? Really? I know what it’s supposed to me, but personally the concept, if not specific works, offends me) but by now, with the actual manifestation of the worlds being proposed in so much of that literature providing ample real world bases by which to assess the function of the two forms, it should be clear that the science fiction discourse has followed a different path than fantasy. At the end of the day, they are not different versions of the same thing.

This is often obscured by examples of the actual work.

My working assumption of science fiction (hereafter simply SF) is that, first and foremost, it is what I call epistemological fiction. This is what grounds it in science. The accuracy of the science in a given story, while certainly desirable, is not critical. Rather, it is the philosophical framework that science comes out of that matters.

The philosophy of science, according to the Oxford Guide to Philosophy, “can be divided into two broad areas: the epistemology of science and the metaphysics of science. The epistemology of science discusses the justifications and objectivity of scientific knowledge. The metaphysics of science discusses philosophically puzzling aspects of the reality uncovered by science.” SF has, generally speaking, indulged the metaphysical aspect for effect, but structurally, as essentially problem-solving fiction, it is the epistemology that has provided the framework. It is the struggle of character to come to terms with a reality understood or amendable to understanding by the tools and criteria of science that underlies the SF endeavor. Characters seeking justifications—explanations—for the problems set for them by the world they move through drive the thematic and plot concerns of SF. The assumption that the world, in such instances, is in fact knowable, manipulable, and therefore “real” in the sense understood by science gives SF the unique effect readers seek.

The broadest distinction that can be made, therefore, from fantasy is simple: fantasy is not at all concerned with such understanding.

No one cares how Gandalf taps into whatever powers he may wield. No one cares how the rings of power work or how Sauron survived death. No one, frankly, cares why that tree blossomed just because a particular man allowed himself to be crowned king. (This is straight out of Arthurian myth, that the health of the country is dependent on the health of the king. Again, no one cares how that mechanism functions.) No one cares about the material justifications of the fantasy milieu because that is not the concern of such stories. Fantasy has other interests.

It is legitimate to ask why such understanding is even important, important enough to draw such broad distinctions between the two genres.

One of the principle benefits of fiction is its utility in permitting the empathetic connection with other lives through vicarious immersion—in character, in landscape, in intellectual and emotional play through alternate scenarios. The mental and emotional scope of the fictive experience allows for a kind of acclimation to situations and intimate experiences with people we will never otherwise encounter.

Until, sometimes, we do.

This is, of course, a byproduct of the primary utility of fiction, which is to entertain. The degree to which one is entertained, however, depends on an ability to empathize and subsume our self into the fictive experience, and this ability increases with exposure. And with that increase, the byproduct becomes more and more central—not by displacing the primary function but by merging with it, so that such increase becomes one with our apprehension of “entertainment.” (Which is why we become bored, over time, with work that once fascinated and delighted when we grow out of it.) At some point we enter a realm of discernment in which the critical understanding of those underlying structures may become important to our pleasure in a given text. At such points certain forms may fade in interest while others become more important, providing the sought-after effects. Distinctions come into play in new and significant ways.

Realizing this may prompt one to ask why.

For the purposes of this essay, the question clarified for me over repeated encounters with the proposition that SF and Fantasy are the same thing. Except in the most superficial ways, they are not, and their differences have to do with the nature of the aforementioned concerns over epistemology. That both forms may utilize the same archetypes from time to time does not alter the fact that those archetypes are used differently because they are based on different assumptions regarding their place in their primary milieus. (Correlation is not Causation.) For one example, the Scientist (as archetype) is not the same as the Wizard (as another archetype). While they are often apprehended as variations of the same thing, their grounding in very different philosophical assumptions could not be more foreign to each other. The world that finds the Scientist plausible, useful, and affective is not the same world in which the Wizard is an essential icon. The Scientist is the lens through which the world may be brought into focus; the Wizard is the conduit of raw power by which the world is maintained. The Scientist is representative of potential change, progress, and understanding; the Wizard is representative of stasis and the infantilization of entire civilizations that are not permitted to evolve beyond him. The Scientist represents expanding knowledge and the capacity to live with it because she understands that knowledge is infinite and nonexclusive; the Wizard perceives knowledge as a finite resource that must be preserved, tended, and kept out of the hands of those not fated to understand it (as he is). The Scientist is a liberator (knowledge wants to be free); the Wizard is a custodian (there are some things man is not meant to know).

We could go on. Both deal with arcana, but the Scientist sees it as part of her work to demystify, while the Wizard seeks a “worthy” apprentice who can be trusted to guard the secret wisdom. I simplify, of course, because both archetypes, to be useful in fiction, must still be human, and humans are polymorphous. My point, though, is that our starting assumptions determine deployment.

(The Wizard generally has no place in our world other than as a point of chaos which must be dealt with. Interestingly, one could put a Scientist in the Wizard’s world to completely different effect, but in both instances, the Wizard would lose relevance.)

Inasmuch as some critics argue that SF is Fantasy (or, less frequently, that Fantasy is SF), it seems the point of departure concerns myths and those aforementioned archetypes.

The archetype in SF is primarily the Scientist, a form nascent throughout history but not truly realized until the 18th Century, and certainly not much featured in our major stories even then. Certainly there is Daedalus and in very rough outline Odysseus is a kind of scientist. A handful scattered here and there, but usually cast in warnings to Not Go There. Faust is the last of the great warnings against science, or at least the “dabbling in things best left alone” motif of science. The difficulty is that for a good deal of that time science was conflated with magic by way of alchemy and as such confined to the secret society mode wherein knowledge was not to be shared and used only at great peril. This aspect attached to the first genuine scientist to be depicted in a major work of fiction, Frankenstein, even as most other elements involved in the story are recognizably material science. It took the rest of the 19th Century for the Scientist to emerge unfettered as a positive archetype and with the 20th Century took his/her place as one of the dominant archetypes of our evolving cultural mythos.

However, with the spread of science and its apprehension as a communal endeavor, one which benefited from greater and greater general participation, the whole embodied mythos began to split off from what had been the dominant form of cultural mythic reservoirs. Science, at base, is democratic.

When I claim that the Scientist is the central archetype in SF, I do not mean that a Ph.D. lab-coated grandee working in a study on arcane problems is the model. I am saying the Scientist as a very human mode of a particular kind of exploration and understanding of the world. A three-year-old playing with blocks is being a scientist. In SF, any character that progresses through a story with the basic assumption that the universe can be understood through the power of intellectual examination is being a scientist, be that character a soldier, a merchant, a pilot, or any of the myriad other forms present in SF (and in most other literature).

Of course other archetypes are present in SF, but more and more they must conform to the presence of the Scientist.

What gave birth to this, as in much else in the modern world, was the Enlightenment. In essence, the Enlightenment declared tradition a quaint holdover from eras wherein most people lived as if nothing would ever change. The components of transformational progress had been assembling for a long time. With the Enlightenment they had reached sufficient complexity, valence, and momentum to dispel the general assumptions of the past and send civilization forward on the wavefront of fundamental discovery that proved far more than mere novelty.

Which gives us the cultural assumption on which SF is based—change is the only constant.

But with change comes a multitude of problematic consequences which have resulted in a world in continual churn in ways it had never experienced before. In both scale and sentiment, what followed the Enlightenment was unprecedented. While change had always attended the ruling precincts throughout history, rarely had it affected the general population in so fundamental a way. (If there is an American story that records this sense of displacement among the general population perfectly, it would be Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, one of the first stories of note to exemplify cognitive dissonance, which would become another primary ingredient of SF.)

The reaction to the Enlightenment—the Romantic Movement—gave credibility to the subsequent disdain for the kind of materialist focus which informed science. One can see it as the social oyster bed of modern Fantasy. It privileged the raw, unstructured encounter of the soul with nature, rebelling against intellectualism that demanded analysis and understanding of underlying principles in favor of a kind of naked immersion in reifying sensation. Wagner would eventually epitomize the primary focus of such sentiments, with the heavy reliance on myth and the idealized past, which would by mid-20th Century become the core aesthetic motif of Fantasy. (Even a work like C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy shows the continuum from SF to Fantasy book by book. While Out of the Silent Planet is largely if not wholly SF, by the time we arrive at That Hideous Strength we are wholly in the Fantasy mode, complete with a modern resurrection of Camelot in the form of Ransom-as-Arthur.)

Lewis’s work provides an example of one of the chief distinctions separating SF from Fantasy, one seldom remarked. In the final volume of his Space Trilogy, it becomes clear that this is a work thoroughly anti-bureaucratic. Not anti-bureaucratic in the specific, as in a critique and comparison of bureaucratic examples, but as an ideology opposed to bureaucracy in total.

(Certainly there are SF stories in which bureaucracy is cast as a Bad Thing, an enemy, and the hero’s quest is to block or destroy it, but for the most part even the hero in an SF story cannot function without benefit of the bureaucratic support structure that would have provided all the tools necessary for the hero to know how to fight a bureaucracy, and in the end a different bureaucracy arises, one which presumably works better.)

I have noted in the past that another, though dubious, distinction between Fantasy and SF is in the fact that when asked to name a primary text that more or less encompasses the genre, no such text seems to exist for SF, but there is one for Fantasy. I stipulate that other, older examples may serve as well if not better, but I suggest that The Lord of the Rings serves as a primary exemplar for Fantasy. In its epic sweep it gathered together and subsumed so much previous work and cast a shadow that reaches even to the present. Works are written either accepting this as the principle mode or in opposition to it, but this would appear to be the hallmark. No such work can be found in SF because it is not and has never been reducible to such a mode.

But the purposes of comparison, let us take as an example of SF Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I use that one for the expedient reason that both these works were on the same nomination ballet for Best Series in 1966, the only time till recently a Hugo Award was given for series. We can assume that at the time the nominations were made, an attempt to put forward broadly encompassing examples of what was considered best in SF was being made and Asimov’s was the work chosen. It won that award.

Firstly, the two works are nothing alike, which is to be expected. But the distinguishing features of the two are instructive. Starting with the aforementioned observation that Fantasy is anti-bureaucratic, consider that in LotR, it is the bureaucracies that are at the center of every calamity. Never mind the principle antagonists, take for example the Steward of Gondor, who is about as hide-bound a bureaucrat as one could want, and of course he has made a mess of things and has to go. Aragorn must take over, but in truth, what kind of preparation has he had for running things? He has spent most of the past several decades avoiding any kind of responsibility of an administrative nature and lived as a Ranger. This is an implicit virtue for him. Gandalf’s “order” is nowhere to be seen other than in the form of Saruman, who turns out to be basically an arms merchant. The elves, who might take some kind of lead in the struggle, have given it all up as a bad idea and are leaving, so whatever management skills they might have are about to be absent. The actual heroes of the tale are from the one place in Middle Earth that apparently has no government at all. This, in the great prose and sweep of the book, is put forward to be enough for everything to work fine in the aftermath of the war against Sauron, who is clearly a rather masterful politician (the rings he talked everyone into accepting, the alliances presumably built, etc) and administrator. Granted, he is loosely modeled on Hitler and his aggression reflective of Nazi Germany, which was seen then as the chief example of bureaucratic and technological overreach. At the end, there is only Aragorn, with no hint of an administrative machine. Quite intentionally, as the suggestion running throughout is the ability of peoples to manage themselves without such things.

Move to the Foundation stories and there is no instance in which bureaucracy is not only present but essential, and no one is arguing otherwise. The conflicts are over how things are to be administered, not whether or not they should be. The Empire, the Foundation, and the Second Foundation are each other variations on bureaucratic systems shown throughout the stories to be necessary to civilization. The crisis at the heart of the cycle is the collapse of the Empire, which leaves chaos in its wake. The solution is the expansion of the Foundation, which asserts new and more appropriate forms of administration. And the hidden Second Foundation, a collective of mathematicians, is concerned with the overall administration of the collapse-recovery. The one character that might be construed as anti-bureaucratic is the Mule, who has a singular gift and is shown ultimately as a incapable—a monarch against a collective.

Other significant features distinguishing the forms: The Scientist and the Wizard are completely on display for comparison—Hari Seldon and Gandalf. Seldon works with knowledge that, while difficult, requires no special powers to use, and which is open to all. Gandalf is a member of an arcane order of specially empowered custodians of knowledge kept secret. Gandalf recruits others to work with him, but does not (cannot) share his power, while Seldon recruits otherwise ordinary people to use what he freely offers. Seldon works within a system, Gandalf is above systems (or outside, which functionally within the story is the same thing). The universes depicted are quite different, based on distinct assumptions. There is no one achievement that solves the problems in the Foundation, but a series of adroit adaptations and situational responses collectively leading to less chaos, while in Middle Earth everything depends on Aragorn accepting his place as king (the flowering of the tree symbolizes exactly this) and the destruction of an artifact the purpose of which is to empower the ultimate in evil bureaucracy.

As noted, however, Foundation, while displaying the conditions and requirements of a science fiction work, is not in any way The Exemplary Text, but is only one example of myriad. This is because SF is not concerned with the kind of mythic reification which informs most Fantasy. SF has little use for myth, seeing it usually as a set of prejudices which require examination and, frankly, constraint. SF, as one aspect of the “science” intrinsic to the form, is constructed for the purpose of analyzing and understanding the world, rather than imposing preconceptions designed to validate illusions of destiny. Middle Earth only “works” when all the destiny-driven elements are in their proper place. If they fall out of harmony, things enter an entropic slide. In SF, there is no such condition of harmony.

I take it as stipulated that there are exceptions on both sides of the divide, but they are usually curiously clunky things the chief effect of which is a kind of off-balanced drunkard’s walk that is often accidentally appealing. I mentioned cognitive dissonance in relation to Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, which I regard as a prototypical Fantasy of the kind that recognizes the divide. In the story, Rip, harried by his wife, picks up his rifle to go hunting, encounters what are clearly elves (fairies, leprechauns, “little people”) who invite him to a game of Nine Pins. He is drawn into their party, he drinks too much, and falls asleep, to awaken 20 years later and find the world has changed. The place where he had slept is a kind of bubble attached to the “real” world wherein the rules of time are different. This is a Fantasy realm. As depicted, though, it is apart from and not of “this” world. It is not, in the story, somewhere Rip can return. Fast forward to the novel Little, Big by John Crowley and we see the same idea of an adjunct universe wherein the fading world of Faerie can be found, a bubble universe that keeps shrinking as the modern world encroaches. (Crowley has addressed the transition from the Old World of magic and alchemy to the New World of science and technology often, most especially in his excellent Aegypt Cycle.) The overlap between the two realms is inconsistent, fading, and clearly definitive. In a sense, such stories are a recognition of the changes that followed in the wake of the Enlightenment, and as such are profoundly nostalgic. (Nostalgia imbues subtext in much Fantasy; what else are the Gray Havens but a dream of nostalgia?)

I have taken time to delineate the differences between SF and Fantasy in response to what have become cyclic attempts to define them as somehow the Same Thing. On the surface, and by the most facile of definitional characteristics, they seem to share a great deal and therefore may appear essentially the same. But essentially, in their constructions and presumptions and primary concerns, they are not. They operate differently because their assumptions about the world are apposite—the world as a material realm as well as the structures humans build to operate in the world.

What distinguishes SF from other forms is the way in which the conceits of the setting—the world, if you will—necessitate an examination in order to fully enter into the fictive experience. The differences in that world set it apart from our own in specific ways, ways which permit a distinct reading experience. The way in which this is done sets up an expectation that everything encountered is accessible with the proper tools. In some cases, it is the world we believe we are moving into from the present. In other cases it is a world we might have inhabited given certain alternate choices in our past. But in either case it is a world comprehensible as a habitable place possible by virtue of the mechanisms derived from the philosophical stance called Science. Science itself does not have to be visible on the page, nor does it necessarily have to be science as we presently know it. It only has to be framed in such a way as to validate our present understanding of the universe available to us derived from the practice called Science.

Which brings us back to my initial criteria: SF is epistemological fiction. The narrative power is in the character’s encounter with that new world.

And what about myth? Fantasy is derived from our conception of myth as ur-story, a fundamental narrative that runs through everything. It takes as given that myth is wired into existence as experienced by sapient beings—us—and represents a reservoir of validation and reification that, properly encountered, gives us our identity. While the narrative frames of myth are powerful and SF can certainly utilize them for effect, myth in SF is simply another part of the world that is to be examined and understood. SF, like science, is not concerned with repeating the dictates of a distant shaping force—that is where notions of Destiny and Fate come from—but in putting them on the workbench and taking them apart to see how (and if) they work. (The first step in freeing ourselves from the expectations of unquestioned tradition.) The universe in which such forces are accepted as real outside social structures is not the universe of science or SF. In that way, SF is not about finding new myths for a modern age, but about constantly reevaluating the age and aggressively keeping our options open.

Which is why there is not and probably cannot be a primary SF text. Reassessment like that does not permit things to “settle” into the kind of stasis where one set of meanings above all others can emerge. SF, therefore, is an assertively destabilizing practice. Unlike Fantasy which constantly seeks equilibrium and, ideally, stasis. (Whether this is achieved is unimportant, only that this is the goal.)

Therefore, Science Fiction and Fantasy are distinct practices which overlap in certain aesthetic effects but in the end seek different literary goals and offer, for the careful reader, distinct pleasures.


Richard Powers has been skirting the edges of genre for years. He has exhibited the talent of consistently defying category while producing work that can, with a slight shift of perspective, be read as solidly within certain categories.

The question has always been—what category?

He has written about atomic physics, A.I., terrorism, biodiversity, virtual reality, genetic engineering, all convincingly and with a commitment to consequence found primarily in science fiction of the first water.

Now he has put science fiction itself front and center in a new novel that powerfully blends the soul of a family with the science of cosmology, neurology, and ecology and the sense of wonder that comes from imagining new worlds. Bewilderment is a profound examination of colliding worlds, both personal, global, and epistemological.

Bewilderment: A Novel: Powers, Richard: 9780393881141: Books

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist. His work requires him to imaginatively hypothesize about extrasolar planetary ecologies as part of the search for new worlds. He is plugged into the community involved with finding and identifying exoplanets and advocating for further research.

His son, Robin, nine going on ten, is, broadly speaking, a special needs kid who is both brilliant and troubled. They share a love of ecologies and a commitment to the natural world enhanced by Theo’s late wife, Alyssa, who had been a dedicated eco-warrior running a non-profit and advancing legislation in an attempt to save the ecosystem. Her ghost haunts them both, inspires them, and in some ways tortures them, especially Theo, who feels he has never risen to the level of commitment she felt.

The story is set in an alternate reality in a United States that is sliding toward autocracy, threatening Theo’s work and, ultimately, Robin’s chance for the stability he needs to be effective pursuing his passions.

All the elements of a dystopian thriller are in place, but that is not where Powers takes us. The apparatus of government is left in place and the characters struggle with it in familiar (though uncomfortable) ways. There is no revolution being planned or carried out, at least not on the page. But it sets the stage for an ongoing background dialogue about the nature of science in conflict with ideologies.

The primary story is Theo trying to provide the best possible life for Robin and it is as heartfelt and affecting as one could want. Theo is in many ways out of his depth, treading water, and fighting to keep an unsympathetic world at bay while he works to get Robin through to a place where he can function in that world.

The science fiction comes in unexpectedly and wonderfully in Theo and Robin’s relationship. Theo is a longtime fan. He mentions that he still has over 2000 science fiction paperbacks and that he was inspired to pursue science (like so many scientists and engineers) by reading SF. But the best part is how he and Robin, as part of their nightly ritual before bedtime, will go visit a planet. Theo constructs one and they travel to it. These sections are beautifully-imagined and clearly drawn from decades of science fiction. This alone justifies the genre as among the most human forms of creation.

This is not the only aspect of the novel which depends on the tools of science fiction. There is an experimental neuroscience program, there is work on a new orbital telescope (to be positioned near Saturn) to enable unprecedented views of exoplanets, there is a whole worldview in play involving a defense of science and imagination.

Powers is an artist and the work at hand reads as an eloquent study of people in conflict with the world and their own souls. It revolves around the gravity well of love and the ties of the past even as we strive to progress.

Genre has long appeared to be a sort of antithesis to what some regard as “genuine” literature, despite examples of works which function comfortably within genre conventions which no one takes as any kind of handicap. Writers like Richard Powers demonstrate the absurdity of such balkanization. But he also shows the importance of taking your starting assumptions seriously, unlike those writers who, intentionally or otherwise, lock themselves into a category of their own creation by a lack of attention to the aspects of their projects which they seem to feel do not require as much (or any) respect.

Bewilderment is a literary novel that also happens to be science fiction. And a love story. And a political drama. By paying equal attention to each element and treating them seriously, he shows both that what is otherwise “mere” genre can achieve powerful, vital humanistic effect that centers on the journey of the mind and heart through a world contoured by dreams, hopes, and the realities of an imagination unafraid to go to new worlds.

Out of the Mists

The common assumption put forward by several decades of anthropology and associated fields concerning that vast fog known as Prehistory runs as follows: humans, after emerging from the crapshoot of evolution, roved the savannah in small bands, gathering and hunting and painfully inching their way toward a point where they began to make tools (other than spear points and such). Then came a long period of migration, scattered attempts at settlement, until, a critical population mass achieved, agriculture was developed, and very quickly came the abandonment of hunter-gatherer society, leading to regular towns, art, and gradually more impressive engineering feats to serve the expanding agro-economy. At some further point, all this became the foundation of nascent states, after which the whole thing rolled into the “historic” era (marked by the advent of record-keeping) and kings and empires and slavery, and so forth.

This is more or less the way it was presented to me back in school, and, I suspect, still pretty much the popular conception of prehistory.

The problem with this is that we are talking about roughly 200,000 years of that undifferentiated, featureless, unchanging landscape. Taken at face value, it says that human beings conducted themselves as essentially immutably “innocent” creatures, either incapable or uninterested in doing anything more with themselves or their environment until they learned to plow a field and write things down. If, as the evidence suggests, modern homo sapiens had been roaming around the planet for two hundred millennia, with all that “modern” implies, this begs the question of what “we” were doing all that time and why, all of a sudden, about 10,000 years ago, we started living entirely differently.

Put that way, there is no reasonable answer. It is on its face an absurd assumption.

One that is not supported by any of the evidence we actually have.

So why cling to the narrative?

In The Dawn Of Everything: A New History Of Humanity, authors David Graeber and David Wengrow explore exactly that question and in so doing turn over multiple apple carts, debunk many myths, and shake up the common assumptions about that vast and murky period. They begin with a look at Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the question of equality.

When we first embarked on this book, our intention was to seek new answers to questions about the origins of social inequality. It didn’t take long before we realized this simply wasn’t a very good approach. Framing human history in this way—which necessarily means assuming humanity once existed in an idyllic state, and that a specific point can be identified at which everything started to go wrong—made it almost impossible to ask any of the questions we felt were were genuinely interesting.

They proceed then to reexamine as many assumptions as possible with the space of reasonably-sized book to show that Rousseau’s apparent point in his Discourse On The Origins Of Inequality is a bit of a cheat—unless Rousseau was being absurd to a purpose. For instance, Graeber and Wengrow remind us (assuming we ever knew) that the so-called “indigenous critique” of European civilization that informed much of Enlightenment thinking was not an invention of the philosophes but a genuine critique delivered by Native Americans after they had witnessed firsthand European civilization (often as captives/slaves, sometimes a diplomats). The sources were credited by the philosophes themselves as being from Native Americans, but later historians chose to ignore this to the point where it was forgotten and the natives were relegated to that pool of prehistoric humanity too “simple” to understand complex culture and socio-political structures.

From that point on, Graeber and Wengrow take nothing at face value and conduct a thorough reevaluation. If human beings have been phsyiologically “modern” for 200,000 years, it is ridiculous to assume they did not conduct themselves with as much sophistication and complexity as we do. Often, as it turns out, with strikingly different results.

The scope of the book is global. Between them, they cover archaeological finds from Central America to Turkey to Japan and points in between and carefully examine what is thee to be seen and what it means in relation to our understanding of how communities function. It is an eye-opening tour.

Much here is speculative. What makes prehistory difficult is the lack of, well, history. Written history. All we have are the remnants. But with a clear eye, those remnants are quite expressive. One thing that emerges consistently is that our previous assumptions are wrong.

From the end of the last ice age till now, we have enough to trace humanity’s presence and draw conclusions about its progress. But for the most part we still cling to the simplistic story of “primitive” societies living subsistence existences until the point where it become possible to form what subsequently became great states—Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Indus Cultures. The implication being that once we reached that level we never looked back and marched forward into the present building roughly the same kinds of civilizations. And that at some point we collectively began to realize that we had become in thrall to despotisms and began what we know as the battle for equality. We seldom question the progression.

But, Graeber and Wengrow ask, why don’t we question it? Because even within historic times, it just isn’t the case, at least not universally.

If anything is clear by now it’s this. Where we once assumed ‘civilization’ and ‘state’ to be conjoined entities that came down to us as a historical package (take it or leave it forever), what history now demonstrates is that these terms actually refer to complex amalgams of elements which have entirely different origins and which are currently in the process of drifting apart. Seen this way, to rethink the basic premises of social evolution is to rethink the very idea of politics itself.

What is revealed by their analysis is that the smooth trajectory of assumed historical progress is an oversimplified, biased gloss from too few perspectives. The reality—that which can be demonstrated with evidence and that which can then be surmised by constructive deduction—is far more complicated, complex, and frankly compelling. Part of the telos of those simplistic constructions is that all that has gone before inevitably led to now—to us. We are as we must be by decree of historic processes which are inevitable.

The truth is, what we are now is only one possibility of what we might have become.

And this is the meat and bone of Graeber and Wengrow’s argument—that to justify ourselves as we are it is better to paint the ancient past as a homogenous, almost featureless whole. Had people twenty, thirty, or fifty thousand years ago not been the pastoral simpletons we’ve presented them to be, then where are the great kingdoms and empires, the technologies, the earthworks, the cities that would mark them as complex thinkers? While to a certain extent that is a not unimportant question, it overlooks examples that have left traces, even up to the present period, that fail to fit the expectations engendered by such a view. The decay of time certainly has something to do with the paucity of physical evidence, but what we do have is not so insignificant that the standard narrative has any claim to remain unchallenged.

While a good portion of The Dawn Of Everything is speculative, enough evidence and solid analysis is presented to more than justify such speculations, at the very least insofar as a challenge to our assumptions and a reconsideration of modern expectations. Quite a bit of non-Western critique was suppressed or ignored to help in building a picture of the past that supported the hegemony of the West’s self-importance. (Quite a lot of what became the political revolution of United States came from indigenous sources, accepted wholesale by the philosophes and then subsequently forgotten. The thinking was sophisticated, philosophically trenchant, and necessary to challenge what had become a standard view of the West’s view of itself.)

David Graeber passed away in 2020, at the age of 59. More volumes were to follow this one, according to his collaborator David Wengrow. One assumes many of the critiques that will inevitably emerge regarding this first book would be addressed in those books that follow—for instance, this—because clearly there was insufficient room in one volume to cover all the material avbailable. We may see more, but what they produced here is one of those books designed to upset apple carts. There is no inevitability in history, tempting though such narratives are. In order to free ourselves of the chains of a presumed inevitable present, we must go back and reexamine the past and find those “missing” parts that demonstrate the possibilities and the promises of other roads. This is what we have in this book.

2020 and Reading for Purpose

In a year that felt more like some surreal historical melodrama that ought to be safely turned into a documentary rather than something to cling to the future like a belly-full of bad booze, what we read may have been one of the most important choices we were able to make. Our lives constrained by a pandemic, we may have lived more vicariously than ever before, but we also dealt with the world as a landscape of impending doom in ways that perhaps our parents and grandparents may have in different ways, but was unique in the manner of it collision with reality and ignorance.

I think it fair to say that never before has so much information, understanding, and intellectual resource been so available to so many and yet rejected in turn to such a degree as to challenge one’s sanity. It seemed like the more we knew, the more concrete things we could say about so many things, the more too many people flat-out denied those very things that might have made the world a better place. Watching and listening to the news day to day was an agony of frustration.

So we—some of us—turned to reading for answers as well as escape. Answers to try to make sense of things, escape to give us the spiritual resources to cope with what we learned and what we saw.

I read, cover to cover, 63 books in 2020.

What science fiction I read was related mainly to the reading group I host. I read a lot of history, political philosophy, mysteries. I did not quite finish a rather excellent biography of John Maynard Keynes, which has proven to be a timely work that throws light on the history that brought us to where we are now. Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace should, I suggest, be read with Binyamin Appelbaum’s The Economists’ Hour. Between them they illuminate the 20th century struggle with finding our way through the morass of slogans, competing theories, political opportunists, and national identities that seem to rely on the 19th Century concepts of poverty, property, and progress to justify a kind of fearful reluctance to simply adapt.

Along with these, Shawn Otto’s The War On Science is history of the anti-intellectualism in America that has dogged us since the beginning and has resulted now in a precarious moment in which the knowledge we derive from sound scientific practice has never been more necessary to our survival while living in a time when more people refuse to acknowledge anything outside their own concepts and prejudices. Along with this, a somewhat more theoretical but complimentary work is Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oseskes.

It would seem that our greatest enemy remains ignorance. Demagogues and con artists have become far more adept at manipulating and defrauding us in greater numbers than ever before and the only defense is our ability to reason, to sort through and measure and recognize nonsense, especially when it seems enriching, empowering, and edifying. Everything has taken on an urgency that strips us of time and room to judge, to assess, to think through. Decisions must be made now, while the offer lasts, don’t be late, get yours now.

In this struggle, the only thing that we can personally do is equip ourselves with the wide gaze of grounded perspective. History, economics, philosophy. They can appear daunting. But you only have to pick a book and start. It accrues. In time, something seemingly so removed from our present experience as Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, about King Phillip’s War, which set the pattern for the European conquest of America, takes on currency in the here and now. Speaking of Jill Lepore, her newest, If Then, about the forgotten Simulmatics Incorporated and its effect on American (and global) politics is an eye-opening expose of how we managed to corrupt our political systems with introduction of demographic analysis, ad-agency thinking, and datamining.

Economics, history…what about philosophy?

Outside specialized texts, I believe one cannot do better than good science fiction. Mary Robinette Kowal’s latest in her Lady Astronaut series, Relentless Moon, offers some surprising relevancy to the present as well as a terrific yarn set in an alternate history. Annalee Newitz’s Future of Another Timeline is a rumination on choice as well as a good time-travel story. Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller examines near-future global changes and the consequences of corporate capitalism disguised cleverly as a quest/revenge/rescue narrative.

I’ve been reading aloud to my partner for a while now. We did John Scalzi’s most recent trilogy, starting with The Collapsing Empire. His approach is in some ways perhaps “irreverent” but once you get past that surface facility, it’s a first-class trilogy.

Possibly the most beautiful writing I encountered this year was Robert MacFarlane’s Underland. He’s a naturalist/explorer whose previous work has been concerned with climbing mountains and related landscapes. In this he went down. In a magnificent rumination on ecologies and the underground, both natural and artificial, he has written beautifully about a world we ignore to our peril.

Alex Ross, music critic for the New York Times, whose previous book The Rest Is Noise, about music and 20th Century history, is wonderful, has published his intricate study of Wager and the impact he had on, well, everything. Wagnerism in some senses is an expression of the often-unacknowledged influence of art on politics and identity. Ross examines how Wagner became the focal point for movements and countermovements up till the present with his outsized presence in film scores. An aspect of history that deserves a bit more attention.

I have my to-be-read pile already building for 2021. It includes several books that I hope will help me ride the unpredictable currents of our ongoing struggle with the world. But never more strongly do I feel that the encounter with other minds through the agency of the written word is one of our best tools for managing and emerging from darkness. We have such a wealth of resource. I look around at the world and cannot help but feel that if more people simply read more and more widely, things would begin to resolve. Never before have we had it thrown in our faces with such force the costs of ignorance.

Here is wishing you all a safe and aspirational year. Read on, read well.

Cities, Colonies, Past, Present

We dream of colonizing the stars. Or being colonized. Or simply contacting other sentient beings. We look up on a clear night and reject the ancient notion that we are all alone. We understand too much to accept that.

But some of us still insist on it and that insistence could constrain our ability to recognize realities.

Charlie Jane Anders has chosen to pursue that particular human blindness as the basis for the situation in her new novel, The City In The Middle Of The Night. Humans live on a world arrived at after long journey from Earth in a ship that is fast becoming the substance of myth. The Mothership is gone, or at least no longer responding to the humans on the surface, and generations have passed as the colony has bifurcated into two urban concentrations of strikingly different organizational style, with a lot of unaffiliated people strewn across the narrow landscape between them.

Xiosphant is a cloistered, suffocating city with rigid customs and a strict curfew. It is a walled, ceilinged city within which citizens are directed according timetables and a class structure that reminds one of the fever dreams of old East Bloc nightmares.  The other city, Argelo, is more like an open-air bazaar, a libertarian paradise only with the real consequences such a free-for-all would create.

Both cities are gradually heading for collapse. Resources are running out, the ability to repair old machinery is disappearing, and the environment itself is becoming more antagonistic.

That environment…

I mentioned both cities exist on a narrow landscape. That is because the planet, January, is tidally-locked, and only a thin band between dayside and nightside is habitable.  A brutal environment dominates on either side of this band. In the Night, the cold is lethal, and the Day will burn.

Anders gives us the landscape, the implications, and the inevitable social details layered together with an enviable seamlessness that sinks the  reader into the world. The attention to detail never competes with the story and especially not with the characters of the two viewpoint voices.

Sophie and Mouth could not appear more different. Sophie is painfully shy, a country girl come to the city of Xiosphant to attend school. Smart but almost pathologically afraid of the world, she falls in love with her roommate, Bianca, who is everything Sophie is not—bright, glamorous, daring, ambitious. And politically daring, bringing Sophie into a world of rebelliousness which turns out to be more talk than action.  Mouth, on the other hand, is a nomad, attached to a group of smugglers running between Argelo and Xiosphant, trafficking in unlicensed oddities and sought-after luxuries, anything that can be slipped by the over-regulated barriers of the encased city. Mouth is violent, taciturn, seemingly weary of the world in ways that make her appear an old, cynical survivor.

Neither of them are what they appear to be and, more, neither of them are that different. Both outsiders, both needing others to create places for them in which to feel relevant, neither of them really able to fit into their respective societies. In the end, “fitting in” is just a way of saying “self desertion.” As the story proceeds, they eventually reverse roles, Mouth becoming fearful and withdrawn, Sophie turning outward.

But outward in an unexpected way.

Sophie is arrested for a crime she did not commit but claims responsibility for in order to protect Bianca. Instead of incarceration, though, the police choose to expel her from the city, where by all rights she should die. Instead she meets one of the Crocodiles and learns that the world, January, is not at all what she and everyone else believes it to be.

When the colonists arrived, they found life forms.  But instead of recognizing them as coequal sapients, the humans decided they were animals, to be hunted and feared and in some cases eradicated. The humans could not go into the Night to discover the cities.  There was no shared language, nothing to suggest the possibility of coexistence. Sophie and Mouth had both come of age believing humans to be the only self-aware, tool-making creatures on the planet, and Sophie discovers suddenly that this is all a lie.,

Or an undiscovered truth.

Sophie and Bianca end up having to flee Xiosphant. Mouth is part of the group that helps them do so, because Mouth uses Bianca for something her companions know nothing about and feels obligated. Because revolution is coming to Xiosphant.

On the journey, Sophie and Mouth form an unexpected bond which becomes crucial as the reality of January reveals itself.

What Anders uses here is the historical reality of human beings assuming. Imperialists assume they are superior, people assume other species are theirs to use, civilizations assume they are always and everywhere the best. Humans arrive at January—named for Janus, the two-faced god—assuming they will dominate. Like Roanoke, like Providence Island, like Easter Island, like numberless other places humans arrived to conquer and dominate and instead had their insignificance proven to them by time, resource, terrain, disease, and their own politics, the ambitions of those first settlers have become a desperate hanging-on, fingernails shredding.

But the addition of an ecological disaster, one created inadvertently by these interlopers, has imperiled the indigenes, and some way must be found to communicate.

This is exceptional world-building and great storytelling. Anders portrays how the same characteristics that can make people exceptional are the same ones that can undo us. She seems to be warning us throughout that the danger going forward is in the assumptions we decide to bring with us and leave unquestioned.



2018 and Reading Lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A smattering of other SF works:

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

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

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

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


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





Reaching For Stars

Let me get straight to the point:  Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, The Calculating Stars, is one of the best alternate histories I have read since…

It is 1952. Dewey is president. Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, are on vacation in the Poconos. They both work for the newly-formed National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Nathaniel is the chief engineer and has a reputation for putting up America’s first satellites. Elma is a mathematician, a superb one. She is also a former WASP pilot, which fact figures prominently in all that follows.

In the midst of their idyllic vacation, a meteor slams into the Atlantic just off the east coast. It destroys Washington D.C. and wreaks havoc up and down the seaboard. Elma and Nathaniel manage to get out and to her plane and west until a fighter squardon challenges them, learns who they are, and escorts them to Wright-Patterson Air Base, the only fully operational military base within range. There they learn the extent of the immediate losses.


Quickly, the government scrambles to get up and running. The only surviving member of the Cabinet is the Secretary of Agriculture, who becomes Acting President until an election can be held. This, too, is very important.

While the pieces are being picked up and some kind of order restored, Elma is asked to calculate the size of the meteor so her husband can go into the meetings with the paranoid military and convince them this was nothing to do with the Soviets. She crunches the numbers and discovers to her shock and dismay that this was an extinction-level event. In 50 or 60 years, the Earth will be too hot for survival.

Kowal lays all this out meticulously. The science has the resonance of reality.  So do the politics, the culture, the economics. In fact, this is a very well thought-out scenario. For Elma, Nathaniel, the Acting President it means one thing:  humanity has got to get off the planet.

Which kicks the space program into high gear in the early 1950s.

The novel is soaked in telling details. And while it offers plenty of science and rocket-geek delight, it is also a story of challenging culture and social norms and overcoming personal difficulties in the face of all that the 1950s—our 1950s—was about to be. Kowal brings the culture into play with a seamless grace that produces a “well, of course that had to change” which occasionally leaves a residue of embarrassment.  Embarrassment at how we know things were and even how they still are.

We talk about Wake Up Calls when faced with growing or entrenched social problems, matters of injustice, the unexamined givens of the world. Kowal delivers the ultimate Wake Up Call.

And then shows us just how resistant people can be to making absolutely necessary changes if they challenge how we believe the world ought to be.  She puts ought to be on trial in a compelling narrative that seems to be all about building the future writers like Heinlein and Clarke expected. They neglected a few of the underlying pitfalls of trying to do so.

As well, we are treated to a protagonist completely human, flawed and excellent in her abilities and craft and sensibilities. Elma York is composed of the stuff we want to cheer and she carries us along with a convincing humanity that includes a heart as large and full one could wish for.  Her relationship with Nathaniel is wonderfully portrayed.

But it is Elma’s constant checking of privilege as she works to bring women into the astronaut corps and has to face the fact that she had often been blind to things sometimes right in front of her. Living up to her own values becomes a process well worth following.

This the first book in a new series. If it continues with the same verve and attention to detail and sheer passion, we may be looking at a landmark work.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good reading to you all.

Profits, Patents, and Pirates

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which also means that she has become a target.

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

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

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

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

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