Sleeping Dragons

Kazuo Ishiguro works a consistent theme. Even in his earliest novels, he explores the manner in which people refuse to acknowledge the reality through which they move. Many of his characters display a kind of aphasia, an inability to grasp the issues surrounding them, the motives of people, even those they are close to, or what is unfolding before their eyes. In a way, they are peculiarly narcissistic. I say peculiar because quite often their sense of themselves is the last thing they seem concerned with, even when others are.

At times this has led him to experiment with tactics of evasion that result in novels that resist our attempts to connect, even to access what is going on, but we read them anyway because he cloaks the experiments with plots and devices that hold our interest, but which we suspect are little more than extensions of the evasions at the core of his characters’ lives.

In a few instances, he has his characters actually go out in search of the mystery that seems to enshroud their worlds, though usually they look in the wrong places or simply fail to comprehend what they discover.

Such is the motive behind Axl and Beatrice as they leave their small village in the heart of a post-Arthurian England to find their long-absent and possibly estranged son and perhaps get to the bottom of the cloying fog suffocating memory. Their journey takes them to the source of a strange amnesia in The Buried Giant.

The landscape is mythic. This is a land occupied by Britons and Saxons. It is a land that has only recently been host to the epic struggles of King Arthur, Merlin, his knights, and the aspirations of Camelot. If there is any doubt how real Ishiguro intends us to treat this, he dispels such doubt by having Axl and Beatrice encounter the aging Sir Gawain, one of the few survivors of those days.

There is much of the Quixote in this Gawain, although his skills are impressive. Age alone has blunted his abilities. Ostensibly, he is still on a quest. Not the Grail. No, that is never mentioned. Rather he claims to be on a mission to slay the she-dragon Querig.

Joining them is a young Saxon warrior, Wistan, and a boy he has rescued from a village where because of a wound the boy suffered from ogres the villagers intend to kill him for fear that he will become an ogre.  As, indeed, he is destined to—but not in the way superstition would have it.

Wistan for his part is also on a mission.  He, too, is on the hunt for Querig. But for him Querig’s demise is but a means to an end, and a terrible end at that. He and Gawain come into conflict over it eventually and thereby we learn both the source of the Mist, which robs people of their memory, and a truth about King Arthur not recorded in the myths.

Through all this, even as it would seem rich material for a dense fantasy about knights and dragons and kings and ogres, Ishiguro’s focus is on Axl and Beatrice and the nature and quality of commitment and forgiveness.  For in the mists of poorly-glimpsed memory there are terrible things between them and as they progress on their journey to find their son Axl begins to have second thoughts, not at all sure he wants to remember, afraid that perhaps he had been the cause of great pain and sorrow.  Ishiguro is concerned here primarily—and almost exclusively—with the nature of time, memory, and forgiveness and the many ways they are the same essential thing.

In that sense, the controversy he stirred when the novel appeared by claiming that he was not writing a fantasy—that he did not want to be seen as plowing the same fields as George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss—was unfortunate. He spoke truly.  This is not a fantasy in the sense of contemporary sword & sorcery or secondary-world fantasies.  He is not doing the same thing as Martin, although he may have borrowed a subtheme or two from Tolkein. His disclaimer was taken as a derogation of fantasy, yet one can see from the text that he is fond of those elements of the book taken directly from the long tradition of English fantasy.

If there is a fantasy element here worthy of the name it is in his portrayal of the end of a mythology and the terminus of one world as it transforms into another.  The Buried Giant is about remembering as much as it is about things forgotten.  The changes soon to be wrought by the conclusion of Wistan’s quest and Gawain’s final stand have to do with how history turns and what is taken after a time of interregnum during which things lost are grasped, reshaped, and put to new uses.

But it is always about what is between people and how we use memory and its infelicities.

As in other Ishiguro novels, there is much that annoys.  His characters talk.  And talk and talk and talk and often it is about nothing until we realize that it is all tactic.  Dissimulation as replacement for substantive communication—until finally the act of avoidance itself becomes the point and the things hidden are revealed by inference. Axl and Beatrice as blind and trying to perceive the elephant they explore with tentative fingers. That it is to a purpose, however, makes it no less frustrating, but it would be a mistake to see this as anything other than absolutely intended.

The point of the quest–for all of them–becomes evident when at last they find Querig and it turns out not to be what they had all expected.  And we then see how myth sometimes is more useful than reality.

Smartness

James Gleick’s biography of physicist Richard Feynman ought to be part of all high school science classes. Not only does he chronicle the life of one of the preeminent scientists of the 20th Century, not only does he portray the chief puzzle of physics in that century clearly, he manages to convey the substance of the work in enviably accessible prose without once “dumbing down” any of it. All this while using remarkably few equations and those usually only in description of what they do, not in the numbers and symbols themselves. One comes away from the book—Genius: The Life And Science of Richard Feynman—feeling that this would not be such a difficult subject, or at least feeling that it would be as much a human endeavor as art or music or engineering or accounting.

Science is encased in an opaque mythography that seems designed to make people feel inferior. In the main, this is a consequence of language.  At one time, the language of science was abstruse in the extreme. Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story poking fun at the tortured convolutions of scientific jargon.

I say at one time. An effort has been made in recent decades to make it clearer. It occurred to some that the density and deliberate complexifying of scientific papers itself had done unintended damage to the field by making it inaccessible to the very people it is ultimately intended to benefit.  We might not have such frustrating debates going on today in the social and political realms over climate or vaccination had scientists themselves, as part of in-group cultural arcana, kept the lay public at such a distance by making what they do appear simultaneously elitist and impenetrable.

Feynman himself rejected such practices throughout his career.  He never assumed people—average people—couldn’t understand.  Just say it plain.  If you could not explain it clearly, he believed, then you yourself did not understand it. He was constantly railing against “stupid questions.”  Questions either too vague, too big, or too beside the point for any kind of reasonable answer.

But he wanted the questions. He wanted to see that spark of interest, and if he saw a glimmering he would try to fan it into flame. His enthusiasm was infectious.

Richard Feynman became one of the most important questioners in 20th Century science. Partly this was due to his idiosyncratic approach to problem-solving. For example, he rarely ever finished reading a paper by someone else.  He would read just enough to understand the problem and then work it out for himself. He didn’t want the solutions handed to him, he wanted the challenge and, evidently, deep pleasure of doing it himself. Of course, in that way he also found errors, logical inconsistencies, even fraud on occasion.  He was a prodigious calculator, often able to do complex  equations in his head. He intimidated and fascinated in equal measure.

What some mistook for slapdash, undisciplined thinking was rather underpinned by a vigorously compulsive commitment to fact and, ultimately, truth. The rigor of his work ultimately proved the equal or superior to many if not most of his contemporaries. He insisted that the universe make sense and, crucially, he was unafraid of admitting he did not know something.

He lost the love of his life while working on the atomic bomb, a perhaps unfortunate pairing of profound experiences which, while he seldom talked about either, perhaps informed his seemingly random path through post WWII physics.  He was late in receiving a Nobel Prize, partly by his inability to find the “right problem” to work on.But in the course of his search, the work he did informed and solidified work done by many others.

Feynman may have been a genius.  In a scintillating chapter, Gleick examines the subject of genius itself, partly to address the peculiar circumstance that we seem no longer to have any geniuses. This, he suggests, is a byproduct of the fact that we have so many and in a wide range of fields.  What we seem to lack is the singular personality to which the label readily appends. We have no public space anymore for an Einstein.

Or a Feynman.  But that does not mean we do not have them…or that we do not need them. Now perhaps more than ever.

Gleick has humanized Feynman in this, although in Feynman’s case that may never have been needed.  He was known for playing bongos, he was a raconteur, he spoke in a thick New York accent, and he came across often as a kind of rural wit, plainspoken and commonsensical to the core.  Yet his major work was in one of the most difficult and demanding aspects of modern science and he was a major presence. Appearances too often supplant substance.

Knowing this, Gleick also humanized the subject Feynman devoted his life to, making the science accessible and, to a surprisingly large extent, comprehensible to the nonspecialist.

In an era in which “hero” is too often applied to the physical—athletes, models, soldiers, actors—and may itself be a term corrupted by overuse and inconsistent application, it might serve us well to draw back and consider how little attention is paid to thinking and the solving of problems.  The process alone is contributory and ought not be beholden to budget committees or P&L charts or mere application review. That there are people who spend their time unraveling the mysteries of the universe, not in some mystical sense of gurus on mountaintops but in the sense of an Einstein figuring out why the universe is the way it is, should be a source of inspiration.  In the final analysis, it is likely that people like Richard Feynman give us more as a culture and a civilization than all the pseudo-philosophical mouthings of all the gurus that have ever lived.  That one can pull a device out of one’s pocket, almost anywhere on the planet, and look up any or all of those gurus is a consequence of people like Feynman figuring out the nature of the real unseen, the quantum level of reality, which, as Feynman would have insisted, is Reality.

 

Dextrous Brilliance

Most of us doubtless have gaps in our reading histories. Books we ought to have read simply because. Long delayed for a variety of reasons, sometimes forgotten, and occasionally remembered in awkward conversations including a surprised “What do you mean, you haven’t read that?”  Shuffle of mental feet, chagrin, a shrug. Never got around to it.

I have finally gotten around to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.

There is a danger in so late an experience. One cannot escape, depending on one’s circles, commentary, opinion, even spoilers. Over time a book like this acquires the stature and dimension of the impossibly fine. I remember finally, after hearing about it for over a decade, seeing Citizen Kane. The hype perhaps poisoned the experience. As fine a piece of film making as I can admit it to be, I have yet to watch it without falling asleep. So it is with some trepidation that I approach works long missed and oft told about.

Occasionally one finds the hype lacking. No one ever managed to convey to me just how good this book is. The Left Hand of Darkness, had Le Guin written nothing else afterward—and she did, oh, yes, she did!—would have fixed her importance and justified her reputation. I have rarely had so many moments of having to step back from the page in order to absorb and appreciate what I had just read.

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness…Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.

How apt, I thought, reflecting on our present social and political climate, of the layered and interminable arguments over culture and religion and rightness. (It is, perhaps, the most obvious metaphor that she places the light on the left.)

Le Guin manages to sum intent and meaning and value and hand us back an open-ended equation. The story is that of an envoy from an interstellar association, Le Guin’s Ekumen, to a long isolated former colony of humans, Gethen, also known as Winter. The isolation has been so long that space travel is forgotten and evolution (or perhaps an intentional genetic experiment) has created a different biology for these humans—they are neither male nor female, and yet are both, sex emerging only during kemmer, then sublimating after. One person can be father and mother to several children. As a consequence, their sense of identity is not sex-linked.

Yet they are human. Into this, Genly Ai, what we would see as a “normal” man,  must navigate, learn, and offer and, hopefully, facilitate admission to and alliance with the Ekumen. Among people who find it nearly impossible to believe that he is what he claims. Of course, there is the ship in which he arrived and, more, his evident biological distinction.

As he lives among the people of one of the larger nation-states (which itself is a less concrete concept on Winter than we might be used to) he is taken in hand by the prime minister of Karhide, Lord Estraven. The soul of the novel is their relationship, which swaps ends throughout, from trust and distrust, alliance, treason, and finally friendship. Their relationship is the personal, visceral manifestation of the multi-layered metaphor for civilization Le Guin offers throughout.

There is politicking, intrigue, danger. There is marvel and revelation and epiphany. It is a complete experience (although, in terms of fiction and drama, there is no sex, even as it is a topic much present as a kind of harmonic overtone, and this is curiously satisfying) and is one of the single best examples of why science fiction is absolutely capable of being Literary. I do not wish to detail the plot. Here, plot serves to prepare us for the Key Moment, the sudden understanding, the revelatory nexus. Le Guin is giving us a lesson in perception and preconception.

This is something science fiction can do extremely well, especially in the hands of a master, the Conceptual Turn. We believe we see one thing when, it transpires, we did not see it clearly if at all until the mirror falls and we gaze upon a clarifying distortion. Here, is a question of dialogue. But it is further a question of where we stand when dialogue begins. An further still, a question of whether we will turn to the light or to the dark when we choose where to stand. And so on. Genly Ai and Lord Estraven learn how to talk to each other throughout the book and while it might seem this is not very exciting stuff, it is riveting because we recognize them even as they swap places and the familiar becomes the alien, and finally the alien becomes ourself. This is a novel that reads us as we read it.

I am glad for all those times I failed to pick this book up.  I do not believe I had the wit to see it. I may not now, but I do have the wit to understand that there is much here I do not yet understand, and the confidence to be content with that, because I know it will be there to find when I am ready. At the end, we see—hopefully—that we are all strangers to each other and the value we offer is in the learning. That the precise degree with which we fear the alien is equal to the degree of ignorance we indulge about ourselves.

 

Crossovers

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

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

The problem is that fantasy, dealing as it does with physical propositions of how the universe operates which run counter to our understanding of the same concepts, develops thematic conceits which have very little if anything to do with the concerns found in science fiction.  They are, at base, about different things.  Attempting to assert that those two worlds (never mind world views) can plausibly coexist and have anything to say together which cannot be said better by one or the other usually ends up as special pleading or simply a fashion statement.

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

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

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

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

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

What is special about them is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

 

Emerson

Okay, this is hard.  Very hard.

Keith Emerson is dead.  Apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 71.

That in itself is difficult to square with the pictures in my mind of the epic artist of the heyday of one of the greatest musical outfits of the 20th Century.

It’s tempting to get into the justifications for Keith Emerson’s place as a composer and performer, what his music meant for rock, for classical, for a generation of people who found in his work an uncompromising dedication to a particular aesthetic and a level of quality found in few pop acts. Indeed, to even use that term—pop act—seems to diminish the breadth of the ambition he displayed throughout his career.

Post Sgt Pepper’s, rock music—what then without much hesitation or embarrassment was termed pop music, in the sense of it being “populist” as opposed to “elitist” and embodying an idea that popularity and depth were not mutually exclusive—went into a decade-long period of experiment and innovative “reaching” unparalleled since Romantic music shouldered aside Baroque, or when Be-bop and Cool displaced Swing in jazz.  The “three-chords-and-bridge” format that had dominated rock’n’roll, built often around fatuously insipid lyric content and attempts to mask the underlying restiveness with whitebread presentations, gave way to genuine musical innovation and serious compositional challenges. Strumming guitars and 4/4 backbeat proved insufficient in this ecology, even while they served as the basis for forays into multiple key changes and experimental time signatures.  Blues transmogrified into psychedelia and hard rock and a multiplicity of forms that took on meanings apart from their origins even while labels failed to define what was being attempted.

Keith Emerson began as an aspiring jazz pianist and emerged as every bit the “classicist” composers like Copland, Barber, or Bernstein were.  First in The Nice, which began life as a backing band, and then in Emerson, Lake & Palmer he put out music that tore at expectations and demanded an attention to content unusual in the rock idiom.  Sitting through any of the first five albums from ELP, you simply did not know where Emerson was taking you, but it was expansive, exciting, challenging, and in many ways other-worldly.  For me, this was the soundtrack of the future I wanted to inhabit, the sound that went with the science fiction I was reading.

More, though, it was also a bridge with a past I imagine a great many of his fans did not know, a musical archive encoded in the templates of a new music.  There was Bartok, Sibelius, Bach, Copland, Bernstein.  There, too, were echoes of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Jellyroll Morton, Dave Brubeck.  Emerson took the past, blent it into a melange of sound aimed at the part of the mind that hungered for the future.

The first concert I ever attended was The Nice. 1967.  I’d heard those albums, that keyboard sound, and then found out about the show, and the first and only time I ever snuck out of my house I went and saw this guy in leather pants and knee-high boots playing multiple keyboards (no synthesizers at the time) and while I have since forgotten the details the impression was amazing.  It sank into my brain and remained, so a few years later, when I finally came upon the wealth that has since been called Progressive Rock it was with instant recognition.

I’ve seen ELP six times.

I could go on about what it is in the music that is so important, but I’ll leave that for other, better equipped commentators.  The subsequent backlash against ELP and all of progressive rock that came into vogue with the advent of Punk and then New Wave is only so much mosquito-noise of people with no patience, no sense of history, and who believe the only function of music is biokinetic.  ELP is pompous and overblown?  Well, so was Beethoven, much of Tchaikovsky, and certainly Mozart was arrogant.  Yet the music does not fade, does not desiccate or dissolve with repeated listenings. Rather, if attention is paid, there is always more.  Such music is not pompous but expansive and it requires a willingness to leave a certain provincialism behind, something many people are unwilling to do or uncomfortable in experiencing.

Keith Emerson opened the possibilities for taking the idioms of rock music and applying them to greater effect and leaving behind work that could be considered in the same breath as Brahms or Grieg or, certainly the composer who most reminds me of Emerson, Aaron Copland.  Emerson was the composer at the center of my life’s musical aesthetic.

He damaged his right hand decades ago.  He suffered a degenerative nerve condition as a result.  There had been operations, he had worked hard to overcome it, but in recent years videos of his performances showed an increasing difficulty in playing.  The last I had seen, he was learning how to conduct since playing was becoming perhaps problematic.  Any look at him performing, though, shows us a man in love with the physical act of making music.  That he might not be able to do that must have weighed heavily.  He was always all about the music. Take that away and you lose what he was.

No one can presume to know what he felt in his last days.  But by all means, go back and listen—really listen—to the music he left behind.  Genius is too slippery and rarefied a term, but for me it applies.  He created a space for amazing sounds and he should be celebrated even as he is mourned.

I’m going to go listen to Tarkus now.  That tough armadillo has left us.  But the music…the music is forever.

In Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

 

 

…Behind Door Number…

After viewing Ex Machina I sat in a bit of a daze wondering what it was I’d just seen.  Stylish, well-acted, the now-expected seamless special effects, and a story with pretensions to significance.

The next day, I spoke to a good friend about it, who has also written about its flaws, and came to the conclusion that the film is not at all what it seems to want to be. In fact, it may be the perfect demonstration of style over substance.

It would be easy to see the film as a misogynistic attempt to intellectualize adolescent cluelessness, and certainly there is that in it, but perhaps that doesn’t go far enough.  Misanthropic may be more accurate.  It has nothing good to say about anyone or anything.  The chopper pilot may be innocent, he’s just doing his job, but once Caleb lands and approaches the isolated superhouse of his employer, Nathan, sympathy for anything human vanishes and we’re treated to a narrow, pseudo-socratic disquisition on how stupid people can be, even with high I.Q.s and a lot of money.

But it is smooth, it is elegantly filmed, and the acting is convincing, and the soul-searching seems genuine, and the robot is so enticing. It feels superior. It says smart things, makes fascinating assertions, but all in the least engaging manner possible.  Instead of actually dealing with the presumptive subject—strong A.I.—we are treated to a reboot of Frankenstein as The Dating Game.  Bachelor Number One, how do you answer these simple questions from Bachelorette Number nth, and do you get to date her when the show is over?

Nathan is the typically clichéd billionaire genius who, instead of trying to learn how to connect with actual people, builds himself a fortress of solitude and sets about building himself a companion. Of course, since he doesn’t understand people as individuals, he keeps making sexbots that fail to meet his expectations. Partly, he excuses this (to himself) by claiming that he’s only pushing the envelope on A.I. instead of searching for a perfect fuck.

No, he never actually says that, but consider the machines.  All women, all one stereotype or another of gorgeous, and he has fitted them out with sensate genitalia. Since until he ropes Caleb into the equation it’s only him interacting with them, why do this if your claim is an interest in their cognitive and self-awareness abilities?  And the almost throwaway line where he reveals Ava’s sexual capabilities is about as arrogant and dismissive as can be.  He wants to create self-aware machine intelligence than can mimic human but talks about them like a new car model with the latest features.

Okay, so Nathan is an asshole.  Dramatically, he’s supposed to be, he’s Victor Frankenstein, whose arrogance foreshadows his doom. In this instance, the one bit of psychological nuance which could have elevated this story above the level of Weird Science (which, in the end, was a more sophisticated film than this one, despite the comedic aspects) his arrogance leads him to assume a specific “type” for women in general and he manages to create one that lives up to his expectations—she stabs him in the back and runs off.

This, in case anyone missed it, is called sexism: the complete failure to understand how one’s expectations shape circumstances to guarantee a thorough and complete misunderstanding of women as people, and then using that to dictate the terms of all interactions with females.  (Note, one does not have to be a male in order to do this, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

But what about Caleb? He’s a presumptive innocent. Why is he left to starve to death, locked in the prison Nathan has built below ground?

Perhaps not so “innocent.”  He is inserted into the storyline to act, ultimately, as Ava’s rescuer, but he is incapable of rescuing himself from the same set of expectations that Nathan exhibits.  He doesn’t want to set her free, which is kind of undefined given the context, but to have her for himself.  Nathan allows that her “design” was more or less aimed at him, so he could not help but respond in the most predictable fashion, which makes Caleb at best an adolescent who can’t tell the difference between what is and is not human, even when the difference is revealed to him at the outset.  But he’s more than just a toy.  He’s a rival.  He’s a thief.  He’s a liar.

Learning from these two examples, it might not be a surprise that Ava has turned out the way she has.

But “she” would have had to have been programmed to manipulate someone other than Nathan, who, we assume, she cannot manipulate because he knows exactly what she is.  Which then suggests that such programming is inevitable in the simulation of Woman.  That she can’t help but be this way from the first instance of her base code, which means that Woman is an essential something that emerges regardless of circumstance.  But if that’s so, then why is the essential woman inevitably a sexually manipulative sociopath?  Because that’s what Ava is.  The only possible way she could have become that is by way of her initial programming, which is Nathan’s—the technobabble about using his search engine’s datamining as the source of her programming is facile; he would have to select and edit or she would simply be a collection of data with little or no organizing principle—which then would be what he has predetermined defines Woman.

Ava does not even attempt to help her predecessors.

The single facet of all this that puts the lie to Nathan’s superficial explanation as to why he made Ava female is that he could have made Ava Alvin.  Or made Ava ten.  Or—and this would have pushed this rat’s maze of a film out of the simplistic—made Ava homosexual or even transgendered.  Push Ava out of the sex toy model she was clearly designed to be so that interaction with Nathan would produce the personally unexpected.

Even that would be a bit conservative.  There are people who are asexual.  Humans do not all fall into binaries.  Nathan is being disingenuous.  At best, he wanted Caleb to trigger in Ava a desire to choose—between him and Nathan or between either of them and an unknown.  Maybe the chopper pilot.  Or one of the other sexbots.

Or the gray box Nathan insists would have no reason for interaction. The final cop-out.  People interact all the time without knowing each other’s gender.  The initial basis of human interaction itself is not sex but Other.

Instead, we are given a treatise on the challenged expectations of a narcissist with the means to externalize his narcissism and what happens when a competitor narcissist enters the bubble to supplant him.  Had the film been more honest about this, it might have been worth the time spent watching two adult adolescents compete over the rights to a masturbatory fantasy.  Ava could, at a minimum, have schooled them on being adults.

There are moments that stop right at the edge of really interesting, but they are subverted constantly by all the testosterone soaking the scenery.

But it looks so good.  It is done in the serious manner we might wish all science fiction were done in, and there is where the final failure is most apparent.  Because obviously the makers wanted it to be taken seriously.  It’s just that they managed to feed right into the pitfalls of both a Turing test exegesis and the presumed realities of gender relations based on search engine dynamics.  They missed the trees for the forest and painted a sexual fantasy that reinforces stereotypes and says almost nothing about intelligence worth discussing—artificial or human.

 

The Problems With Going Farther

Kim Stanley Robinson has built a body of work which, after the polish and sophistication of the surface ceases dazzling, is solidly in the tradition of What If fiction which is supposedly the hallmark of science fiction. Large-scale What If, to be sure, which allows for the examination of development of the minutiae of his subjects in exhaustive detail.  One of the chief pleasures of a Robinson novel is exactly this level of detail.  The bolts are all there, the seams spliced with precision, the pieces and parts fit together as they should.

Or as they should if the scenarios depicted were actually undertaken.  At least, that’s the idea, to provide a level of verisimilitude sufficient for a vicariously “authentic” experience of…

What would have happened in Europe had the Black Death not stopped when it did?  What would it be like to really terraform Mars?  What happens when population keeps expanding and technology keeps trying to keep pace?

All good, solid speculative material for a clever SF writer.  And Robinson is nothing if not clever.

And honest.

Which is where the discomfort comes in.  Because Robinson is not in the business in his work of offering feel-good plausibilities about our bright, shiny futures.  He’s attempting to tell us what it probably really will be like.

So in his new novel, Aurora, he’s telling the story of a generation ship after it’s long voyage to a new star system for the purposes of colonization—and how it fails.

We follow the story of Freya from late childhood and early adolescence to adulthood.  She is the daughter of Devi, who is essentially the chief engineer of Ship, and like any child in a family with high expectations is a rebellious girl.  Devi tries to impress upon her the fragility of the ship, the delicate balances that must be maintained if they are to arrive at their destination alive and able to function as colonists—balances which are tumbling down even as Devi, working with the A.I. on board, strives with Herculean resolve and remarkable cleverness to hold everything together till they get there.

Devi never sees the promised land, dying of cancer before “landfall”—at which point the mantle of wisdom falls to Freya, who is not prepared (but then, as Robinson shows, who could be?), but does her best as a kind of mother figure.

The detail of the novel is depressingly well-wrought.  Robinson gives us a solid view of the problems such an enterprise must overcome to be even remotely successful, and given those it is remarkable, within the story, that they suycceed in crossing the gulf and finding the target planets.  This is sheer Achievement.

But the fact is, we are part and parcel of an ecosystem—Earth—which is unique in so many small ways that to presume an ability to simply put down on another planet and expect to succeed at survival is the very definition of hubris.  What Robinson is showing us is the extreme unlikeliness of Star Trek. Not that it couldn’t be done, but not without considerably more understanding of not only alien ecologies but our own genetics and the problems of millennia of adaptive suitability.

And then there are the political problems.

Robinson is not necessarily a pessimist, but he is a skeptic, and his counsel is that we just don’t quite grasp the magnitude of difficulties many of our imagined—and preferred—futures entail.  Freya ends up heading a return voyage to Earth, where the remaining crew encounter social and political situations they could not foresee.  Even coming home, after so long a time, is fraught with the unexpected and the inconveniences of human fecklessness and failure to comprehend.

Once they do return, for a short while they are celebrities.  But when it becomes clear that more ships are going to be built and sent out, Freya finds herself the unexpected advocate of stopping these, in her view, fatal missions.

There are no comfortable conclusions, no easy answers, only a set of circumstances carefully laid out and shown as one potential consequence of our outbound urges.  The science and extrapolations are salutary—it is never a good idea to go into something blind, especially something new and untried.  Robinson is showing us a suite of problems.

But he’s also showing us people at their most human and resolute.

Aurora is in many ways an anti-interstellar adventure.  It says “If you try this, you may find these problems, and it won’t be like you thought.  You might want to rethink the attempt.”

On the other hand, these people do go, they make the voyage, and then they bring the ship back.  By any measure, this is a success—just not the one they expected.

So it’s a mixed bag and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.  And along the way, we get to see a remarkable thing, an adventure into the Unknown.  A first-rate What If, and after all, that’s the utility (if there need be one) of good science fiction like this, to wind up the mechanism and let it run to show us the possibilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or does he?

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

Easy Habits and the Consequences of Belief

At first glance, the two books could not be more different. Subject, tone, everything seems different. Not at odds so much as…nonoverlapping.

Which is ironic, since both deal, in their separate ways, with that very idea, the separation of areas of knowing.

Probably because I read them so close together I recognized their shared concerns as clearly as I did. Whatever the reason, it struck me as obvious in so many ways that I began to recall all the other books over the last few years that could be likewise gathered within this same subset, all on distinct topics and yet all based on, to some degree, an analysis of the same human propensity to disregard evidence when it contradicts belief.

Let me begin with the more general of the two.

Jerry A. Coyne is an evolutionary biologist.  Compared to others with public profiles, he has published few books.  Three, to be precise.  His latest, Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, is a direct challenge to Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria.”  Gould’s premise is that science and religion should not conflict with each other because they are concerned with entirely separate realms of knowing—hence the nonoverlapping part—and except for certain agenda-driven partisans, there is no reason for them to be in conflict.  Coyne sees this as accommodationism, which he thoroughly discredits in his book.

My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe.  “Knowledge” acquired by religion is at odds not only with scientific knowledge, but also with knowledge professed by other religions.  In the end, religion’s methods, unlike those of science, are useless for understanding reality.

Coyne identifies Accommodationism as an attempt not to stir the hornet’s nest, because scientists are often dependent on politically sensitive funding.  Science, especially Big Science dealing with questions of origins, is expensive and the days of the independently wealthy scientist are largely gone.  Rocking the boat by annoying those who hold the purse strings would seem ill-advised.

The conclusions, he goes on to argue, of scientific inquiry continually poke holes in those claims by religion that still assert authority over secular matters.

But more than that, such deferral to authority erodes our critical capacity and can lead to false conclusions and bad judgments, all because we accept the hegemony of “faith.”

…a word defined in the New Testament as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  The philosopher Walter Kaufmann characterized it as “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

The sticking point for many would be that “reasonable person” proviso, for surely, as Coyne concedes—often—there are many reasonable people who nevertheless espouse a religious faith.  What are we to make of that?  Is the basis for the assessment of “reasonable” perhaps too ill-defined or is the scope of “belief” too broad?

Coyne takes us through the process, giving a thorough explication of why science and religion are incompatible if not a convincing argument for the down-side of belief for belief’s sake.  He tells an anecdote early in the book about how he yearly teaches undergraduates a course in evolution, which the majority do very well at, but admit, after earning their A, to not believing a word of what he taught.  Because it contradicts their religious belief.

It is this that Coyne sees as the dangerous aspect of faith as promulgated through religion, the a priori rejection of evidence in favor of a set of usually unexamined beliefs.  He takes us through a catalogue of negative manifestations, from the rejection of medicines to the acts of terrorists to the rejection of solid science (like climate change), that have their underlying justifications in religion.

Coyne, an admitted atheist, puts all this forward while taking pains to admit the personal comfort to be found in religion by many people.  From a certain point of view he tends to go the extra kilometer to be fair.  Of course, going through the comments on various review sites, those predisposed to reject such arguments accuse him of profound bias if not outright malicious intent.  One cannot help but wonder if they bothered to read the book, all or even in part.

The book makes its case clearly and concisely.  It avoids the polemic outrage to be found in other tomes by big name atheists by sticking largely to evidentiary concerns and philosophical arguments.

But, one may ask, so what?  Religion and science are two realms in which most people would assume they have no stake. Castles in the air, esoteric arguments about things that have no impact on our daily lives.  Most people seem to keep a religion much the same way they have a pet and certainly in the West the majority live secular lives and only rarely feel compelled to apply their religious convictions to anything.  As for science, as long as the technology we depend on works, all the rest is so much theoretical handwaving.  It makes no difference if we have almost no understanding of quantum mechanics and certainly evolution is just tenure-building nonsense having to do with million-year-old bones and what kind of textbooks the school district might use next year.  Nothing to do with us in our daily lives. So what if people rely more on faith and belief in making their daily judgments than on evidence-based science?  We operate more on heuristics defended by aphorism than by reason and applied understanding, or so Daniel Kahneman tells us in his excellent study, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and we by and large get along perfectly well that way.

How does this argument concern me?

Johann Hari’s new book, Chasing The Scream, has an answer to that.  Of sorts, if we but make the epistemological leap.

Hari is writing about the drug war. It is, for him, as much a personal examination as a journalistic one, as he admits to having family and friends who are addicts.  He begins with a simple question.

I scribble down some questions that had puzzled me for years.  Why did the drug war start, and why does it continue?  Why can some people use drugs without any problems, while others can’t?  What really causes addiction?  What happens if you choose a radically different policy?

Okay, three questions.  Still, simple, basic questions, to which any reasonable person might reasonably expect a reasonable answer.

Yet we spend billions, bully small countries, destroy thousands if not millions of lives, all in pursuit of policies which rest on an appalling lack of informed justification.  By the end of the book you come to see that there are no answers to those simjple questions which in any way validate our continuing on with things as they are.  As they have been for a hundred years.

Hari goes back to beginning of the war, before drugs were illegal, and takes use through the history.  Back to Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who fueled the drug war for the twin purposes of maintaining his agency and exorcizing demons that had possessed him since childhood, even in the face of substantive research and sound arguments denying his approach to the problem had any merit and more than ample evidence—Prohibition—that it would lead to catastrophe, not only on a national but on a global level.  Hari details Anslingers battle to destroy Billie Holiday and his use of intimidation and police tactics and, subsequently, U.S. foreign policy to assure the continued crusade to eradicate drugs and destroy addicts.

Not because of any evidence Anslinger understood that led him to think this was the only if not the best way, but because he believed it in spite of growing mountains of evidence that this was a wrongheaded approach.  He suppressed evidence, hounded physicians who dared present alternative models to the drug problem, intimidated politicians—except those who could secure him funding—and strenuously denied the validity of any evidence that  contradicted his belief.

He believed.

As many did and still do.  It is this that trumps hard evidence.

Even as a young adolescent I thought the argument for our drug policies was lacking.  I thought at the time that I just didn’t understand.  Never having been in the least interested in drugs and knowing few if any who were involved with anything more serious than marijuana, it seemed not to concern me.  Later, I did a short stint as a volunteer drug counselor, but the work was far more than I could handle at the time.  I trusted the people in charge knew what they were doing and certainly the gang violence associated with drugs seemed to make a persuasive case that this was a worthwhile and often desperate fight.

But as the years went by and the war continued, I began to notice bits of research here and there and how certain politicians contradicted themselves and how the prison population, especially in the wake of Nixon’s near militarization of the police community and the drug war ethos, was growing and in very worrisome ways.  I began to seriously rethink my position with Reagan’s zero tolerance policies and the mandatory sentencing guidelines he established through Ed Meese, one of the notable Puritans of the modern age.  Even so, I had the nagging suspicion that maybe I was just missing something.  Certainly I didn’t approve of drug addiction, but I more and more came to believe that these people needed help, not punishment.  We understand that process very well with alcohol, why is it different with narcotics?

And besides, there are plenty of people who receive perfectly legal prescription narcotics and never become addicts.

The number of holes in the picture kept growing.  I no longer trusted stated drug policy, but I didn’t understand the instransigence of people over reform.

Hari’s book lays it out very clearly.  Money is high on the list.  We fund too many of the wrong people at too high a level for them to be easily weaned from the teat.  Foreign policy is also tied to this, especially in these days of international terrorism which has a strong drug component.  But the factor that ties this in to Jerry A. Coyne’s book is the one Hari covers only glancingly.

Belief.

It is easier to rely on what we have always believed than to look at evidence that requires us to change our mind.

Many aspects of our lives are covered by this observation, but where problems arise are those with political and social ramifications.  The persistent beliefs about the poor, about minorities, about people with different beliefs, even when evidence is provided which significantly challenges such beliefs and suggests strongly that not only are they wrong but that we would be better off discarding them, we cling to them.

Hence my conflation of these two books and the suggestion that they share a common idea.

Not that I argue that all beliefs are wrong.  What is wrong is the intractable nature of unquestioned belief.  The only reason the drug war continues is that it has considerable popular support and the only reason it has that is that many people cannot bring themselves to change their minds about it in the face of not only evidence but what we euphemistically call common sense.

But that can be said of so many things which directly and indirectly impact our lives.

Perhaps it is a stretch and perhaps I argue out of my own biases, but it seems to me the most valuable tool we can have in our intellectual toolbox is the ability to say “well, I believe that but I might be wrong.”  Faith cannot maintain, however, among people who are able to say that and apply it to anything and everything.  Science is built on exactly that principle—all knowledge is conditional—but belief, as exemplified by religion, thrives by the absence of that principle.  It says some knowledge is absolute, not to be questioned.

In the contemplation of matters of theological concern, this perhaps offers consolation, comfort, a certain utility, to be sure.  But it is easy for unquestioning acceptance of arguments from authority to become habit and then apply it to anything that our prejudices suggest we may wish to avoid examining.  Drug addiction is an unfortunate affliction and it may be uncomfortable for people to see it for what it is—a disease, like alcoholism.  That discomfort makes room for assertions from authority offered by people who claim to be working on our behalf.  Our unwillingness to ask evidentiary questions is a cozy environment for demagogues and despots.

When you ask “What does this have to do with me?” you might be surprised at the consequences of avoidance and the price of unquestioning trust.  Why should we learn science and how to apply the discipline of examining evidence?  So we don’t hurt ourselves out of the easy habit of belief.