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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myopeia of the Lit Club

“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”

I read that with perplexed bemusement. It was said in an interview by one Ian McEwan, who has published a novel about artificial intelligence and somehow feels he is the first to discover that this thing has serious implications for people to be expressed through literature. Thus he now joins a long line of literary snobs who have “borrowed” the trappings of science fiction even as they take a dump on the genre. I would say they misunderstand it, but that presumes they have read any. What seems more likely is they’ve seen some movies, talked to some people, maybe listened to a lecture or two about the genre, and then decided “Well, if these unwashed hacks can do this, I can do it ten times better and make it actual, you know, art.”

We’ve been subjected to this kind of elitism for decades. It has now become laughable. The only reason it irks now is when someone like McEwan doubles down and makes assertions about a field he clearly doesn’t know the first thing about. Not even Margaret Atwood, back when she was loudly asserting she did not write “scifi”, was so dismissive.

The literati have been abusing science fiction for as long as it has been an identifiable thing. Even before, really, if you count the drubbing Henry James gave H.G. Wells about how he was wasting his talents on irrelevancies. And to be perfectly fair, a great deal of what has been published under that label has been less than great.  But then, per Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is less than great.

(Theodore Sturgeon, Mr. McEwan—a science fiction writer you ought to check out. He wrote about love in more ways than one might believe possible. Possibly one of the best writers of the 20th Century, but he wrote in a genre that received the casual disregard of those who thought they knew what it was without having learned what it was.)

McEwan believes he has stumbled on something unique in his new book, Machines Like Us, namely the effects of true artificial intelligence on human beings and civilization. One of the earliest incarnations, however, that talk about the problem in something like modern terms is a story called A Logic Named Joe, published by Murray Leinster in 1946.

1946. Many notable examples of A.I./human interaction followed, one quite famous example being Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, published in 1968 by Philip K. Dick.  (If those of you in the Lit Club with Mr. McEwan don’t recognize that title, maybe you saw the movie somewhat based on it, Blade Runner.)  Many. Hal-9000 in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey; Mike the lunar computer in Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; all the machine intelligences populating Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels; D.F. Jones’ Colossus, published in 1966.

One could go on. So, nothing new. And to then suggest that none of these examples dealt with how such constructs might affect people and the world is to profess either an unwillingness to read them or an inability to understand what “affect” might mean in this case, or both. McEwan’s dismissive remarks suggest he thinks no science fiction writer has ever worked with the ethical and emotional ramifications.

I am annoyed by this for a number of reasons, not least of which is the assumption of wisdom and the myopic view represented.

I have always thought that people who are dismissive toward SF have a problem imagining the world as someday being fundamentally different. By that I mean, things will so change that they, if they were instantly transported into that future, will be unable to function. Things will be radically different, not only technologically but culturally and therefore even the givens of human interaction will seem alien.

That is the meat, bone, and gristle of science fiction and I would like someone to tell me how that it not “dealing with the effects of technology on human problems.”

Like others in this vein, McEwan fixes on some of the tropes—spaceships and so forth—without bothering about how this, too, might have an effect on the people involved.

Recently, the Guardian published an  article  that revealed many readers assuming science fiction is not “serious” when certain words appear. They dismiss it a priori with the inclusion of words like “airlock” or “trajectory” or “warp drive” or suchlike, because they automatically assume it’s for kids. Which explains why SF is so poorly regarded, but it does not explain what may be going on in the minds of these people.

Mention has been made of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. who very aggressively disavowed his relationship with science fiction. His interest was almost entirely financial. At the time he was publishing, having SF on the spine of a book almost guaranteed fewer sales, and he didn’t want critics telling people he wrote science fiction lest he lose market-share. (Personally, I think he wrote rather sloppily. I know it’s supposed to be satire and I don’t care. He did not write particularly good science fiction, probably because he was worried all the time that people might think it was.)  Margaret Atwood tried to distance herself from it at first, probably for the same reason, but then realized that we had entered a period where SF did not mean anything sales-wise. So she owned it. Emily St. John Mandel wrote a quite good post-apocalyptic novel, did due diligence with ramifications, and produced a laudable science fiction novel—only she doesn’t believe it is. Well, her privilege, but sorry, it is.

This last may be from the kind of ignorance foisted upon MFA students by so-called “masters” like McEwan. They live in the world dreamed-of by science fiction writers, the motifs surrounding them emerge from SF, the things they look forward to doing in the next 20, 30, 40 years will be more and more the stuff of Golden Age dreams found in fragments in yellowing issues of Astounding SF, Amazing, Galaxy, and Fantasy & Science Fiction, offered up by writers like Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Van Vogt, and yet believe when they write about that future they are among the first and that what they write is not exactly like what they have not read.

Not read because some people they admire have also not read it and having not read it presume to dismiss it.

The impact of changing technologies on human beings has been the driver of science fiction since the beginning. To not recognize that in such a way that one assumes one will be first to do it is purest ignorance. It means either you do not know what has gone before or what has gone before is work you do not understand.

Because that change you’re trying to talk about manifests in the best of that work as real and it is not change you know how to comprehend. It frightens in the worst way possible, that of being inconceivable. (“My poor Krel…they could hardly know what was killing them.”)

I am unlikely to read McEwan’s new novel, even though I was initially interested. Having read his ill-informed opinion of science fiction, I have a hard time imagining he will have done anything better than what was done decades ago. He will have reinvented certain wheels without realizing that the car to which they’ve long been attached has in fact left the garage and is in the process of acquiring an antigravity drive.

And if you don’t think that will have a very profound effect on people that will be thoroughly addressed by many writers you still probably won’t read…

 

The Downside of Expanded Participation?

It occurred to me the other day that there is a serious problem with the way audiences and films interact these days. It’s a relatively new problem, one that has grown up with social media, but it has roots in an older aspect of film production, namely the test screening. The idea being that before a general release, a film is shown to select audiences to gauge reactions and tweak the final cut before it is set free into the zeitgeist.  There’s logic to it, certainly, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with it because it’s an attempt to anticipate what should be an honest reaction to a work of art.  I try to imagine Rembrandt showing a painting to a client halfway or two-thirds finished and, depending on the reaction, going back to change it to conform to some inarticulate quibble on the part of someone who has no idea what should be on the canvas. Art, to a large extent, is a gamble, and test screenings are the equivalent of loading the dice or counting cards.

It’s understandable, of course, because a movie is not a painting done by one person, but a hugely expensive collaborative work with investors and questions of market share. But it still bothers me. (What if a test audience had complained that Bogey didn’t get Bergman at the end of Casablanca and the studio went back to change it to suit?)

Today there’s another phenomenon that is related to test audience but is even more invasively surreal. The pre-assessment by fans ahead of release. Sometimes years ahead.

This obsessive speculation has evolved into a form of semi-creative wheel-spinning that mimics a huge test audience, the key difference being that it is “testing” work not yet done. Fanfic seems to be part of this, but only as a minor, and apparently undervalued aspect. We have a large, active community engaged in predetermining what will, should, ought not, and might happen in forthcoming movies. Large enough and active enough that I believe it has affected how those movies are made, possibly unconsciously. The feedback loop is pernicious. The vindictiveness of the test audience can also be so severe as to impact decisions that have yet to be taken up.

The most visible way this has manifest—and this varies from franchise to franchise—is in the “look” of new films, especially in the effects, but also in the selection of cast, location, and choreography. Whether intentional or not, film makers pump things into next productions in an attempt to meet the expectations of this hypercritical superorganism.

This organism constructs alternate narratives, raises possible plot lines, critiques character development, and then, when the finished product fails on some level, engages in the kind of evisceration that cannot but give the creators pause to rethink, check themselves, question (often pointlessly) every choice made to that time.

I’m not sure this process happens at any conscious level, but it seems to mean the Doc Smith approach to bigger, splashier, louder, stranger films, at least in the Marvel and DC universes, and to a lesser extent the related products like Valerian or any given Bruce Willis vehicle of late, is a response to this incessant viral nattering. The anticipatory critical response must get through and affect the people in the main office.

Television has suffered less of this, it seems, because, at least in terms of story, these series suffer less from the kind of crippling second-guessing the motion pictures display.

Before all this near-instantaneous data back-and-forth, studios produced movies, people may have known they were being made, but little else got out to the general public until the trailers announcing upcoming releases. Based on those, you went or didn’t, and the movie was what it was, and you either liked it or didn’t. We were not treated to weekly box-office reports on news broadcasts. The films, with few exceptions, had a two-week first release run at the front line theaters, then moved down the hierarchy for one or two week engagements at smaller chains until they ended up at a tiny local theater, after which they vanished until popping up on tv at some point. You then went to the next and the next and the next. Choice was addressed by the fact that at any one time there might be a dozen new movies coming to the theaters a month. The film was what the producers made it. It was offered, you saw it, you took your response home, that was it.

A lot of the product was mediocre, but often reliably entertaining, and for the most part was made in a way that studios were not threatened with bankruptcy if they failed.  The really great ones came back from time to time or enjoyed extended runs in the theaters.

Fandom evolved and when the age of the internet dawned and the cable industry grew and the on-demand availability of movies was met by videotapes (later DVDs) and now streaming services, the products remained in front of self-selected audiences all the time.

This has changed the way these films are made. Not altogether to the bad, I hasten to add. I believe we’re passing through a kind of golden age of high quality films and certainly exceptional television.

But the budgets, the tendency to ignore better stories that lack the kind of epic myth-stuff of the major franchises, the endless bickering online and subsequently in conversations everywhere, and now this absurd war on what is, for wont of a better term, SJW content…

I can’t help it. Grow up.  So Doctor Who is a woman. Big deal. The character does not belong to you. Instead of chafing that some reification of idealized masculinity in being threatened, try just going with it and see where it takes you. That’s the whole purpose of storytelling! To be remade by narrative and offered a new view! To be challenged out of your day-to-day baseline assumptions!

Star Wars has been ruined by all the SJW crap! Really?

While I can see that discussion groups and this expanded dialogue can be fun and instructive, I think an unintended consequence has been to grant certain (very loud) people a sense of ownership over what is not theirs. The cacophony of anticipatory disappointment actually has a dampening effect on those of us who would simply like to be surprised and delighted all on our own.  There is utility in silence, purpose in the vacuum, a vacuum to be filled by a new film. Box office is (or can be) detrimentally affected by the chattering carps of disillusioned fan critics who are terrified of James Bond becoming black, of Thor being turned into a woman, of the Doctor showing us how gender prejudice applies in our own lives.

I’ve been disappointed with new manifestations of favorite characters in the past, don’t get me wrong. My response has been to turn to something else. Those characters don’t belong to me, I don’t have a right to expect their creators to do what I think they should, and I recognize that probably a whole lot of people are just fine with a new direction. Otherwise sales figures would push them to change it again. it’s the pettiest of sour grapes to try to preload a rejection in advance of actually seeing the product.

I have no numbers to back up my impression, but I think it worth considering that the “my life will end unless the next movie comes out exactly the way I want it” school of anticipatory criticism is having a distorting effect over time, both on the product and on the ability of audiences to simply encounter something “clean” and take a personal and unmitigated response away from it.

Just a thought.

Of Stars and Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Tor.com. They are told from the viewpoint of a security robot/cyborg who/that has hacked its own governor module. It is independent, can make its own decisions. What does it do? Downloads entertainment media to watch. Of course, it gets drawn into protecting a group of humans which leads into investigating corporate malfeasance which leads into more nasty stuff, which is all an annoying distraction from its programs. These are terrific and I was sorry to put the last one down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A smattering of other SF works:

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

 

 

 

 

The Bother of Voices and Love’s Trials

Telepathy. One of the several traditional tropes of science fiction.  The 19th Century saw stories featuring psychic powers, including some mind-reading, and the idea marched along into the 20th Century and even gained a brief bit of potential legitimacy with the work of Joseph Banks Rhine who attempted to substantiate claims of second sight, mental communication, and so forth and set the template for “scientific” study of suspected mental powers.

While his methodology ultimately proved flawed and the research became tainted, the idea never faded from science fiction (and even informed some very real Cold War research) and marched forward to the present.

Connie Willis has now entered the lists with Crosstalk. Briddey Flannigan works for Commspan, a phone company that sees itself in direct competition with Apple. They are sweating the new roll-out of a phone they have yet to develop. Sweating it because Apple is about to roll their new iPhone out and it may mean the end of Commspan.

While this high-tension, company-wide migraine headache is developing, Briddey falls in love with Trent Worth, one of the senior staff on the development team. He has convinced her to get an EED, surgery that somehow allows two people to sense directly their emotional commitment to each other.

The problem for Briddey is that she wants to keep it a secret—from her coworkers, certainly, but mainly from her family, which is comprised of some of the most meddlesome people in fiction, from Aunt Oona with her obsession with Ireland and matchmaking all the younger women to “foine Irish lads,” to Maeve, the youngest, who is meddlesome only insofar as she wants to keep her hyperalert obsessive mother out of her life.

Running around trying to get done what the two lovers want to get done without anyone knowing about it drives the first third of the book. Her family suspects and tries to talk her out of even thinking about it. One coworker, software engineer and resident eccentric C. B. Schwarz, also tries to warn her off of having the procedure, and his is the most bizarre intervention—until later, when the full set of ramifications become clear.

This is trademark Willis screwball comedy.  She has been working this field successfully for decades and she can be very, very good at it.

Now enters the questions of personal taste that bedevil any reviewer.  I have almost without exception loved everything I have ever read by Willis. I found Crosstalk difficult to enjoy.

To begin with, it depends on a premise I have never found enjoyable, that of the unspoken or unaccepted truth—that someone wishes to be left alone. Briddey knows her family so well, she knows exactly how they will react and cannot abide it, and yet she will not tell them. Will not set boundaries, will not hang up, will not, after presumably years of this, explain herself. I have never found it convincing, the argument that This Is Family, You Can’t Do That.  Nonsense. With family it should not only be doable, it may be a requirement for it to remain a family. The same with her coworkers, who have even less right to know private things about than her family presumes, and yet her chief mode of coping is avoidance rather than a firm statement.

This is common in popular fiction.  Most sitcoms could not exist without it.  The inability of human beings to tell each other what they want, what they will tolerate, what they intend is the font from which a wealth of bad-joke, strained humor, idiot plotting flows. While it is true there are people who fall into this kind of behavior, in real life it is not funny, and can lead to tragedy.  It is also threadbare.

So why would someone as reliably brilliant as Connie Willis employ it?

Well, she is making a point about communications. Communications overload, information saturation, and the problems of ever more easy access to each other. “Getting away from it all” is becoming a grail quest in an ever more harried and detail rich world that seems obsessed with providing more of the same. I remember the speech from Inherit The Wind where Henry Drummond tells the jury “progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says ‘Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.'”  Briddey and Trent work for a telecommunications company that is trying to bind people ever closer together and make it less likely to be “out of touch.”

Meanwhile C. B. Schwarz, down in the basement of the corporation, wants to introduce apps to their phones that will reestablish distance. Call interrupts, voluntary blackouts, and other things that will make it harder for people to call each other.

In Briddey’s family poor Maeve is tormented by a mother who wants ever more access to the private world of her daughter because she’s convinced the child is developing in some horrible, unnatural way, which drives Maeve crazy and prompts her to be creative in her methods for blocking her mother.

On all sides, Briddey is hemmed in by examples of ungoverned communications access.

So why would she for a minute consider having an operation, no matter how benign, that will give Trent the kind of access that seems the antithesis of what she would prefer in her life so far?

Trent is smooth, handsome, everyone thinks he’s a great catch (except Briddey’s Aunt Oona), and she falls for him hard. Perhaps she believes that with him there will be refuge from all the rest. (There is a moment when she fantasizes about shutting the door in the faces of her meddling family to be alone with her husband.)

And there is C. B. Schwarz relentlessly telling her that the operation is a bad idea.

Naturally, there are complications. What was supposed to be an enhanced empathic connection blossoms into full-blown telepathy.  Only it’s not Trent with whom she is communicating but C. B.

In classic screwball style, this becomes a massive juggling act to keep all the parties in separate boxes until reality can be sorted out.

Which leads to my second problem with the premise.  Telepathy.

As portrayed here, this is not even a subtle form, but the old idea of conversational telepathy, where it is reduced to speech, only without the need of vocal chords or even proximity.  For Briddey, it’s one more set of intrusions, only this time she can’t even close the door on them, at least not at first.

To save this from the clichéd, Willis introduces corporate nastiness of a particularly cold-blooded kind. She is continuing to make a larger point with it and I will not spoil it here. Along the way, though, she trots out a number of theories about telepathy and disassembles them adroitly, even hauling Dr. Rhine out for a renewed drubbing. The bottom line, though, is that the necessary safeguards to maintain sanity require a level of screening that make telepathy all but useless—except for the purposes of dramatizing how Too Much can be made even worse.  (We are after all playing with direct interface with computers, which could arguably lead to a kind of telepathy, though that’s not what it’s being developed for.)

The problem with telepathy is the same one with telekinesis:  cool idea, but what good is it from an evolutionary standpoint?  It would, in fact, be a burden to survival in that it would be the worst kind of distraction.  As for telekinesis, why would we evolve muscle and bone capable of moving things if we could do it with our brains? Well, in fact, we do move things with our brains, by sending instructions to our bodies. That was the route evolution took, not the one where some latent supermind ability developed unknown to its owners just waiting for a modern era wherein exhibiting such abilities would not automatically get one killed by the frightened people without it.

But even if we posit an ability to read minds, what kind of Sapir-Whorf contortion do we have to make to assume it would use language instead of whole-package data-dumps?

(In fairness, Willis does give us more of that as the story progresses, but there is still a certain formality to it all, constrained by the need to have bodies in a room speaking to each other, even in a supposedly self-created mental space.)

But of course, that would not serve the purposes of the romantic comedy Willis has given us.  And it is.  A romantic comedy.

I am not the audience for this novel. Having said that, however, I can stand back and appreciate the masterful juggling going on here. Willis is telling us about the ramifications and pitfalls of too much communications.  In a world where technologies to enhance communication are extremely marketable, a bit of caution regarding how much we want and with whom is not amiss. And even an ability to read minds would not guarantee safety from the intentions of some of those minds.

 

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.

CalculatingStars_comp_v7_final-220x338

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.

Below Dragons, There Be

Empire City suffers under circumstance unprecedented in history.

Or does it?

Depending on how one takes one’s metaphors, it may be that the pair of dragons, which rose one day out of the sea to take up a circling position above the metropolis, occasionally spitting fire down at random targets, is just another form of an old problem, one going back to Ur or Sodom and Gomorrah or Rome or London or Sarajevo, each in their own way suffering calamity that subsequently defined them.  Dragons come in many forms—earthquakes, vulcanism, sacking, a blitz, snipers. As buildings burn, collapse, streets are torn up, and safety becomes a once-long-ago idea, what the people in those cities do determines whether the city survives or fades into myth.

Individuals are often remembered. Gilgamesh, Lot, Nero, Churchill—

Duncan Ripple, Swanny Dahlberg, Abby.

Who?

One day in the future, they will be remembered as the heroes of Empire City. They, the last of Late Capitalism’s Royalty, who forged an alliance that saw the end of the terrible reign of the dragons. Two of them scions of great families who did not flee their tormented city even after fifty years of fire and death, one a girl out of Nowhere who found and met her destiny as a dragonslayer. Because of their selfless efforts, Empire City could be reborn.

If this sounds unlikely, hagiographic hype, well, it is.  And yet, reading Chandler Klang Smith’s novel, The Sky Is Yours, one wonders at all those other epic personalities to whom we attribute greatness. Some we know well whether or not they deserved their reputations (and even how mixed said reputation may be) while others are sketches, idolons of the past, forms into which we pour the substance of our own aspirations toward greatness. The realities may have been just as epically different.

Duncan Ripple, a former reality tv star (his childhood up through adolescence), as a consequence of which carrying a bloated sense of his own greatness, has reached majority and is on his way to meet his future bride, Swanny. Swanny has spent most of her life being groomed by her mother, whose shark’s instincts, business savvy, and stainless steel sense of purpose focus all her considerable powers for just this event, which will bind two of the largest family concerns together. Swanny, however, is a devoted Romantic, her ideas about marriage drawn from countless over-the-top and somewhat purplish novels. She is also dying from a genetic disorder, one symptom of which is teeth that never stop coming in (hence the need for an on-staff dentist).

Dunk, as he styles himself, is flying to the Dahlberg Estate to commence the process, paying no attention to anything but himself (as usual), and runs into the sweeping tail of one of the dragons.  His HowFly tries with programmed valor to save itself (and him) but ends up crashing into the island of refuse outside Empire City where lives Abby, the Girl, brought there by The Lady years before to escape what the Lady called People Machines, to raise Abby (who does not actually know her real name) apart from all the artifice and decay of the ancient metropolis. Abby is an Innocent when Dunk slams into her island. She rescues him, nurses him back to life, and then provides him with the first real sexual experience of his to-date superficial, televised, and facile existence. She becomes a surreal Enkidu to his decidedly problematic Gilgamesh.

When Dunk is rescued by his uncle, a wheel-chair-bound sybarite who almost made history by attempting to kill the dragons (who nearly killed him), he drags Abby back with him where ensues the opening rounds of disruption about his Destiny, Fate, personal ambition, desire, and all the miscalculations endemic to Planned Futures. The meeting with his intended goes badly, the families end up in stressed relations, and the marriage may (or may not) be off.

Except Swanny does marry Dunk, although Dunk has no intention of actually giving up Abby, who the rest of the family intends to send off to an asylum.

Then things go very strange.

There is ample plot to satisfy any desire for the delight of improbable twists, and the situations evolve into life lessons, the world (the city, at least) is brought closer to the brink. This is a detailed portrait of how things simply will not hold without a center, especially after a point of no return is reached, and the pathos of those who still hope that things can be turned around. The landscape is entropic in the extreme, locked in a moment of tumble, and the characters flail about for anchors that will not remain in place.

Klang Smith shows herself to be a masterful juggler.  There should be no way for all the components at play here to cohere, and yet they do.  They do with a surprising and pleasurable grace and at times the writing is nearing transcendence.  This is allegory, metaphor, and potboiler mingled artfully to make an elegant mockery of expectation and resolution. Who these people are and who they become as they spin around each other just as the dragons circle overhead suggests, finally, that superficiality requires substance to survive, and that try as some might to remain shallow, depths are there to fall into whether we like it or not.

Dunk’s reality show was called Late Capitalism’s Royalty and there is much here that does not even attempt to be subtle about the economics of greed, the consequences of avarice, and the futility of treating systems like religion. Empire City is a place in constant economic collapse.  The dragons can be seen to represent the inevitability of forces beyond the Market to disrupt, depress, or destroy any attempt to enforce the conformity of Success.

It is Abby finally who brings the whole into focus and elevates the entire thing above the level of mere dystopic indulgence.  Abby, trash-heap naif, loyal, speaker to animals, honest sensualist, who only wants to know where she came from and what her name really is, who represents the human spirit unafraid to go where love takes it.  Others try, begin to overcome the expectations of their upbringing, make the attempt at enlightenment, heroism, freedom.  Abby simply is.

Klang Smith has taken the trappings of what has become the standard æsthetic of dystopian novels and added enough satire, insight, and possibility to the mix to make the book less about starting over and more about genuine rebirth.  Weird, funny, gruesome, a collapsing wavefront of chaos harnessed finally by an inevitability that leaves us options.  The Sky May Well Be Ours.

Shifting Ground, Changing Paths, Constructed Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

Which requires a civilization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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