Imperial Relevancy

Confession.

I read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War when it came out. I enjoyed it. I then read Agent To The Stars and likewise enjoyed it. I bought a copy of Lock In and…

Lots of reasons one fails to continue reading a book or an author, many of them having nothing to do with either.  As a kind of funhouse mirror response to the long line of homages to Starship TroopersOld Man’s War was fine, more interesting than most, and written in a manner that allowed easy enjoyment. I laughed out loud at Agent To The Stars and again, the voice was pleasurable.  I can’t say there was any valid reason to not keep reading Scalzi.  Other than the growing pile of to-be-reads, research for my own projects, reading I need to do for the day-job, and, well, life itself.  I have many books to hand that deserve a read and are languishing because I am mortal.

When the first volume of his new trilogy came along, I bought it, with the full intention of getting back to a writer I felt I ought to pay more attention to.  And then, it sat there. The next volume was released and finally the third. I bought them all, in hardcover, and when the last book arrived, I determined to read them straight through. Why not? I hadn’t done that in some time, read a trilogy in one go.

I’m glad I did. The pleasures of the whole work justify the time.

The Collapsing Empire is, firstly, a lot of fun.  The characters are nicely-drawn humans of wide ranging eccentricities, proclivities, and ambitions. Following them is rewarding, because even when they do something expected, the way they do it and the outcomes are not.

The setting is not unfamiliar, but Scalzi’s perspective is refreshingly realistic. The Interdependency is an interstellar community which relies on the Flow to move from one system to another. The Flow is a kind of extra-dimensional bypass. We are told repeatedly that analogies to rivers and so forth are inaccurate and also that no one actually knows what the Flow really is, but humans use it like a river system.  For a thousand years, the Interdependency has operated over numerous systems, its make-up based on an imperial hierarchy joined to a church and a collection of noble houses each with a monopoly.  The Emperox (an intentionally nongendered term for an old idea in a new form) has been from the same House since the Interdependency was established, the House of Wu, which holds the monopoly on shipbuilding and access to the Flow Shoals, the points of entry into the Flow.

It is clear from the outset that this system has found stability.  Throughout one thing is evident—this is a post-scarcity polity.  There are no poor, although there are discontented, the truly obdurate of which get sent to End, a world at the edge of the Interdependency where over time the malcontents have been deposited. Which has resulted in a local culture of anti-authoritarian rebelliousness that results in repeated cycles of revolution and the overthrow of the local Duke.

End also is the only human habitable planet in all of the Interdependency, the rest of which exists on stations and in surface colonies that have been dug out of worlds inimical to human life.

At some point prior to the creation of the Interdependency, these systems were cut off from Earth by a collapse of the Flow stream connecting them. Earth is legend. Within Interdependency memory, however, another system, Dalasysla, suffered the same fate. The possibility of such collapses is known, but other than those two it has never happened. The Interdependency has continued on as if it never would.

The story opens with exactly that happening. The Flow stream to End is starting to collapse.

At about the same time, the Emperox Atavio VI has died and a new emperox is being elevated, Cardenia, Atavio’s daughter by a former lover. She should never have become emperox. Atavio’s son, Rennered, was supposed to ascend to the throne, but he died in a racing accident.

Cardenia is an academic, raised away from the Court. No one knows much about her in terms of what kind of ruler she might make. But the forms are followed. Not that it matters.  Rennered was supposed to marry Nadashe Nohamapetan, of the House of Nohamapetan,  a house almost the equal of the House of Wu, thus joining the two most powerful houses together. The next heir would then be of both houses.  It is decided that Cardenia will simply marry Nadashe’s brother, Amit.

Cardenia has other ideas. But regardless what was supposed to happen, everything is derailed when on her coronation day a bomb goes off, nearly killing her, but successfully killing her best friend, who was to be her closest adviser.

She then learns two things that alter the course of her rule. One, she is introduced to the Memory Room, a chamber accessible only by the emperox where the personas of all past emperoxes are stored and where she can literally sit down and have a conversation with them.  There she learns the other thing—that her father, Atavio VI, knew the Flow was collapsing. His chief Flow physicist told him. Atavio VI then sent him off to End to continue his research, to verify and make absolutely certain about his findings in a place well away from the chaos of the Court. Which he does. And now the Flow stream to End is beginning to collapse, so he has to get the finished data back to Hub and the Court at Xi’an and the emperox, so some kind of planning might proceed to meet the inevitable isolation about to shut down the entire Interdependency. As another rebellion is happening on End, this one involving the Nohamapetans, he smuggles his son out with the data, sending him to the imperial court on Xi’an.

The stage now set, Scalzi takes us on a thoroughly engrossing ride through conspiracy, technological revelation, palace intrigue, and the discovery of history within a thoroughly imagined and well-constructed world(s).

The parallels to current-world issues could not be more obvious. Factions form over the question of the collapse. Some believe it won’t happen, others believe it won’t happen anytime soon, still others believe it won’t be a collapse so much as a realignment (and this latter group intend to take full advantage of that).  The work to convince enough of the right people that change is coming and the need to act is pressing envelopes Cardenia’s young reign.

Cardenia for her part proves herself up to the task of being emperox, surprising almost everyone. She is not a habitué of the Court, no one knows her, expectations are low.  That gives her an edge, which she uses.  It’s a pleasure watching her grow into the role.  She takes the name of a predecessor who faced similar difficulties, Grayland I, and forms some unexpected alliances that—

The pleasure is in the reading.

What is interesting here is the use of an old form cast in a new arrangement. It’s a valid question, though—why an empire? Why, therefore, an emperor?  Or in this case an emperox.

Empire evokes two broad images, one technical, the other romantic.

The technical side is one of practicality. Empires are, by and large, not practical. The extent of the territory, the problems of ruling a multiplicity of cultures and nationalities, and then the inevitable problems of security make them lumbering, inefficient, doomed-to-collapse bureaucratic fossils. On the relatively modest surface of a planet, it has proven to be untenable over any length of time (unless it is in name only and managed with a high degree of local autonomy, but even then…), the problems explode exponentially over interstellar distances. The idea that a political unit can be managed from a central location over many light years is, well, fantastic.

Which is why empires appear more in fantasy than science fiction.

But there is a long history of empires in science fiction and it is obvious that their creators were more than a little aware of the problems. In one of the most famous examples, Asimov’s Empire, it’s fairly obvious that “the emperor” is an isolated figurehead with no real command of the galactic polity of which he is the titular head. The bureaucracy functions as if he were utterly irrelevant.  Likewise in Poul Anderson’s Terran Empire, wherein the emperor is barely (if at all) mentioned.  The whole is not a homogeneous unit and the idea of empire is problematic.

Indeed, it is the British model that applies, if at all.  But even then, the cracks inherent in the structure virtually guarantee eventual dissolution.   So why “empire?”

That brings us to the romantic model, by which I do not mean anything more than a fabulation of the past superimposed upon a construct for the sake of nostalgia. The idea that somehow the past was more adventurous, perhaps simpler, and the issues more clear-cut. That heroics could be recognized and performed with less ambiguity. That the politics of the day were less tangled and knotty difficulties could be solved by the hack of a sharp blade.  And that monarchies were somehow “easier” than the squabbly morass of democracy.  Escapism, certainly, but you see the model used in fantasy all the time and for good reason.  And EMPIRE has such a ring to it!

And it allows for a kind of homogeneity across vast stretches of territory (and ethnicity) that enables a certain kind of narrative.

But if the point is to react against that system, it can also be…limiting.

Scalzi avoids that by redefining—or, at least, renegotiating the basic nature of empire. Here, more than anything else, it’s a business arrangement, with a large dollop of enlightened self-interest, and a mission statement which is considerably more practical than the usual. For one thing, there seems to be no expansion in this empire. The borders (boundaries) are set, presumably by the nature of the Flow, and there is no hint of conquest. Trade is controlled through monopolies and mutual support is guaranteed by the interdependent nature of the system.

This is more empire as corporation than anything mythic, with the emperox as CEO. (Which permits, in the end, a privileged viewpoint, from a single vantage.)

And the nature of that corporation? Stasis. Keep things running smoothly.  The added wrinkle here is that all the disparate nations/systems are bound to the system because none of them are self-sufficient. Being cut off is a death sentence.

Maybe.

With the revelation that the Flow streams are collapsing, Cardenia/Grayland II is now in a struggle to find a way to save as many people as possible while fending off attempts by the Nohamapetans to displace her and move the capitol to End.  Which, while End actually is a place where humans can survive on the surface of a planet, is by no means a reasonable solution for the billions of Interdependency citizens. End will not support them all or even a significant fraction of them without suffering degradation and eventual environmental collapse.

Of course, the Nohamapetans could not care less. They’re looking out for themselves, their clients, their privilege.

Scalzi has constructed a very neat allegory.  And then set it at arm’s length, because this is a far future space adventure after all, and the Flow isn’t really the Climate…

As if that were not enough, he then adds in the history behind the Interdependency, which has surprises of its own and contributes to the search for solutions in unexpected but perfectly logical ways.  (It may be no surprise to learn that the problem of the collapsing streams is not, after all, a “natural” phenomenon, but one humans inflicted on themselves, for reasons which are also not surprising.)

There are moments when it feels at the point of being too big a story for three rather efficiently-packed novels.  That Scalzi pulls it off so well is a compliment to his skill.  That he manages it so entertainingly is, well, admirable.  He has taken what is a model almost as old as the genre, turned it around, twisted it, and produced what is, essentially, a critique of that model.  We know these things don’t work the way they should, yet we also know that humans (silly humans!) will try them anyway, and that they inevitably collapse.

If there is another interstellar empire to which this bears meaningful comparison, it would be the one in Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is also an ecological tale.  The empire there is a multi-faceted monstrosity based on trade, with a byzantine religion underpinning imperial fiat.  Herbert showed us the flaws in empire by taking it apart and revealing to us the fragile assumptions behind it.

One additional observation before closing.  We read this trilogy together, aloud. It lends itself to that very well, and perhaps benefits from it by allowing some of these characters vocal expression that adds to the overall substance on display.

Time permitting, I will have to go back and see what I’ve missed between Old Man’s War and this.

Recommended.

 

 

Defending Angels

It is arguable that we live in a post-colonial age. We no longer see major powers moving into previously independent places and usurping the land and the people and declaring them to now be part of some empire. Not the way we did in the 18th and 19th centuries. (We wink at smaller-scale examples of roughly the same thing, but while Ukraine may be prey to Russia, we don’t see Russia trying to occupy New Zealand.) The scramble for Africa was the last eruption of such hubris. And there are now plenty of studies indicating that it was never a profitable enterprise anyway, that every power that indulged its imperialist urge did so at great expense that was never recouped, not in the long run. At best, such endeavors paid for the re-formation of both the imperial power and its colonies into more modern forms independent of each other.  At worst, it was pillage that benefited a few individuals and large companies and resulted in short-term wealth-building and long-term grief for everyone involved.

Yet the impulse drove relocations of population, experiments in applied bureaucratic overreach, and an ongoing debate over the ethics of intrusion.  One could argue that the Aztec civilization was a horrible construct with human sacrifice at its aesthetic center and the world is well rid of it.  On the other hand, it is equally true that the Spaniards who toppled it had no right to do so and unleashed a different sort of ugliness on the indigenous populations. Every European power that followed them into the so-called New World bears the same weight of shame for the wanton destruction of things they could not understand.  If here and there something positive came out of it, that something was by accident and had no real part of the initial decision to Go There.

With what we now know—ethically, scientifically, behaviorally—if given the chance to do it again, would we?  And if we decided to go ahead anyway, would we do anything differently or would we still be dominated by a subconscious obsession to exploit for resources to fuel a growing population trapped within an economic system that seems custom made to produce the necessary excuses to do what we want with whatever we find?

We seem forever to be doing things that go sour on us and then having to clean up the mess and apologize and figure out how to prevent a repeat performance. The problem with that is, one situation is not so exactly like another that the lessons do not come with big loopholes and the opportunity for rationalizing our hubristic avarice.

In short, we never learn.

At least, not in aggregate.  We understand this as well and so a good part of our political theorizing is geared toward a place wherein the individual moral insight can be effectively balanced against the rock-stupid momentum of the group; and in which the common wisdom of historical experience as exemplified by the group can temper the less enlightened passions of the individual.  In other words, to find the point at which we can allow for the individual who is correct to trump the so-called “will of the people” and conversely where that common will can morally check the individual who may only be thinking of him or herself, the group be damned.

Underneath, threaded into, and informing Marguerite Reed’s Philip K. Dick Award nominated novel, Archangel, we find this ongoing debate carried on at several levels.

Ubastis is a world seemingly ideal for large-scale human settlement.  Two waves of advance “scouts” grounded to do extensive surveys, impact studies, and established trial settlements. It became clear that this was a vital ecosphere and that, compatibility aside, questions of too much too soon drove the negotiations that prevented a rush to fill it with human excess.  Dr. Vashti Loren, widow of the spiritual and moral leader of these two waves, is one of the principle advisors on the ad hoc committee overseeing Ubasti, which exists as a kind of protectorate.  The rest of human polity is hungry for it to be opened for a larger human presence, which the people who live there know will mean the ruin of a unique biome. Vashti becomes the focus of all the efforts to forestall such open colonization.  As the widow of a slain “hero” she carries great weight.

She is also a problematic figure in this culture.  She is a genetically unmodified human in a larger culture where modification has become so widespread that “Natches” are special. That she is a protector of an “unmodified” ecosphere is only the first layer of what becomes a deeply meaningful representation of not only human moral responsibility but also human potential in an alien cosmos.

Reed gives us a civilization where aggression is being gene-modified out of individual humans, even though wars are ostensibly still fought, uprisings happen, and certain strain of bloodlust remains a given in controlled contexts. That Vashti is wholly unmodified adds to the irony that she also hunts native species as part of her job as an exobiologist and as a kind of PR component to assuage outworlders who are curious, acquisitive, and need persuading that Ubastis requires the time to be understood before the exploitation full-scale human settlement will bring. She takes outworld visitors on sdafari to hunt the local big game.

Her deceased husband, Lasse, was murdered by a renegade “soldier”—a Beast, a BioEngineered ASault Tactician, a member of a clone experiment in super soldiers—as a result of trying to prevent poaching.  The Interests trying to discard the treaty that keeps Ubastis inviolate have all along been probing at the defenses, trying to engineer excuses for open incursions.  Vashti kills the Beast.  That action calls into question her sanity, but she effectively defends herself from charges that would see her “re-educated.”

What she did not know was the deeper game her husband was playing to bring about a future independent Ubastis—and that it involved the Beasts, the lot of which have been presumably destroyed as too dangerous. Vashti begins to learn what her husband never told her when she is confronted with a Beast that has been smuggled onto Ubastis by the governor’s wife.  She vows to kill it, but that impulse itself gradually morphs into powerfully conflicted responsibilities, the details of which comprise the plot of this densely-detailed and finely-realized novel.

Vashti. The name has history. She was the Queen of a Persian ruler who requested she appear naked before a banquet he was holding in honor of other kings.  A “higher politics” was obviously going on and his demand of his wife was obviously part of the impression he was trying to make on his fellow kings.  Vashti refused.  Harriet Beecher Stowe later declared that Vashti’s refusal was the first blow for women’s rights.  She followed her own code.  Her husband’s request was deeply inappropriate even in that culture.  Vashti stood by her own values.

Make of that what you will.  Reed’s Vashti is a woman dedicated to a set of principles which are sorely tested in the course of the novel.  Watching her come to terms with political, ecological, and moral realities and steer a course between the shoals of competing colonial, imperial, and personal demands makes for a compelling read.  She is a superbly realized, flawed character, and the questions she raises, wrestles with, and reacts to lend themselves to consideration long after the last page.

This is excellent science fiction.  It takes the abstract, the conjectural, and the epistemology of human systems and moral dictates and makes them personal, the stakes high, and answers often problematic, leaving us with a great deal to think about.

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.

 

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.