Cargill’s Sea of Rust lives in a couple of genres, as both an apocalyptic scifi novel and a gritty war text. In the first incarnation, it’s a worthy descendant of the robots-destroy-us-all genre, while in the second it fits with stories of small platoons trying to accomplish desperate missions. The fact that I cared about this platoon despite the fact that it consisted of robots (and robots who had committed war crimes against humans) is an interesting one…
- We follow BRITTLE, a caregiver type robot who has developed into a stone cold killer in order to survive in the new world. She’s a scavenger of sorts, putting robots down so that she can take their parts.
- Cargill talks a lot about the ways in which robots might develop some sort of conscience, and in ways he makes robot emotional states very close to those of humans.
- I think that makes sense, and speaks to the ways in which our technology will both outstrip us and be unable to avoid the same sorts of deep, hard-wiring that we gave them (even if it takes different forms).
- In this novel, the first principle is that killing makes sense and is the first principle, with controlling others a close second.
- The world isn’t total anarchy – there are two mainframes that survived the war with the humans intact, and they’re trying to bring order to the world by making all robots part of the larger network.
- Needless to say, lots of robots don’t want anything to do with this…
There was a belief for a while that cyberpunk was dead, with Gwyneth Jones its perhaps last practitioner. After all, the epiphany that William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy invoked shook up scifi in all the right ways, and produced a subgenre that moved the main genre away from its fascination with deep space and its flirtation with post-apocalypses to an engagement with the reality that networked computers and the systems that connect them. But the implications of what Gibson (and Sterling and Cadigan and all the rest) had played out, and the resulting weak revisions of the original cyberpunk vision were at best boring.
At the time I hoped that the death of cyberpunk was not true, but there wasn’t a lot of forward movement in the genre. Since then, it’s been reawakened and re-envisioned. I’ve already posted a couple of times about Richard K. Morgan’s Kovac series, and Morgan’s update of the genre is compelling and fascinating, with Kovacs’s first-person narrative simultaneously infuriating, energizing, and powerful.
Even acknowledging the power of that series, I’m particularly happy to have stumbled upon Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods, an interesting new take on the movement. Drayden adds a whole new realm of inquiry to the genre in part by locating the material action in South Africa while maintaining cyberpunk’s reliance on far-flung systems. The fact that cyberpunk can go global (following Gibson’s good-guy Rastafarians in space and Morgan’s intentional opening up of the ethnic make up of human attempts to explore the universe) is a heartening one.
More thoughts below the fold:
Contemporary sci-fi is hard to keep up with, and I’ve not tried to read the latest and greatest in any dutiful sense for a few years. This means that I often miss great series, and the Kovacs trilogy by Richard K Morgan is one.
Broken Angels takes place in a much different space than does Altered Carbon, and is a scifi war novel, leaping away from Altered Carbon’s cyberpunk, hard-boiled world. It’s also way darker and grimmer, and fits Morgan’s world view as expressed in a couple of interviews (here and here).
Other thoughts below:
- Morgan definitely has something to say about extropianism, and he’s not a fan. The tech utopians who believe in it feel a very specific brand of willfully blind to me, and seem to believe that they can write out the potential for uber-fascism that is its foundation and create a future world that is completely rational and free (and a meritocracy to boot).
- In contrast, the world of this series posits a highly-layered, incredibly un-egalitarian system in which those who can attain virtual immortality due so in order to accumulate so much wealth that they can treat the rest of the world as their playground.
- That response makes sense, of course – in a chaotic world in which some are always oppressing the majority (and paths leading one out of the downtrodden masses often involve doing hideous work for the elite) one sure way to protect your children is to accumulate inordinate (and insane) amounts of wealth. If you can stay alive forever by simply resleeving after your body wears out, why would you not want to be able to protect yourself through wealth even more fiercely?
- He also explores the effects of trauma (and hyper-trauma) on the process of constantly putting people into new bodies – in this series entire methods have been developed to try to heal the trauma of someone who was put through physical extremes in a previous body, methods that range from intense empathy to psychosurgery.
- Re-sleeving doesn’t eliminate the trauma, a concept that I’m not sure the extropians have considered.
- Morgan stomps on the fascination with military hardware that dominates lots of cyberpunk and/or science fiction military worlds. Kovacs at one point kills over a hundred soldiers (who themselves are witnessing a horrendous execution by torture) because he hijacks their own hardware and decides that they have to die. He clearly feels no remorse over this – he just kills them all, the logical extension of having all this power.
- Cyberpunk grew into a genre that scifi military folks geek over (something we see a bit in the Star Wars fandom), and Morgan is reclaiming it as a more Gibsonian landscape, one in which layers of oppression are resisted, albeit with costs to the resistors.
- Morgan also argues that technological advances will always be configured in power. The example that comes to mind most clearly from this series is the nano-organism that Kovacs’s team finds deployed in the area of the Martian technology that they are trying to use as a way of becoming rich. The nano-organism quickly develops the capacity to survive nearly anything the squad can throw at it, and they have no option but to escape it.
- It can, however, be shut down with the simple insertion of a backdoor code. Its creators can turn off this incredibly powerful machine/biological entity with a simple key. Without that key it is unstoppable.
- Machine Learning and AI are clearly our best bad plans.
- Oh yeah, did I mention that there’s lots of alien technology, far in advance of human? And that soldiers’ DNA is spliced with wolves to help instill in them a desire to be part of a pack? Or that he sees world-building species as coming solely from predators (it’s harder to survive as a species as a predator, so it takes more intelligence as well as ruthlessness). Morgan’s extrapolations are fascinating, and in and of themselves make this series a powerful read.
The Castlevania animated series on Netflix was a hoot. You might be surprised to know that I have some thoughts…
- The animation felt very old school, which makes sense since the series is based on the legendary game, which dates back to 1986 and pixels. The series riffs off the Belmont family’s obsession with killing vampires, and features (sorry for the spoiler) the death of Dracula.
- It doesn’t move as fast as modern series – we spend almost an entire episode, for instance, in the Belmont family archives, watching as Sylpha (mage/scholar for those keeping score at home) learns the spells that will transport Dracula’s movable castle to their location.
- The setting is all quasi-legendary, and as always I wonder why the creatures of hell have to wait for Dracula to want revenge for the death of his human wife at the hands of a corrupt bishop to start wreaking havoc on the villagers, who seem pretty poorly equipped to handle any of this.
- There’s a lot of looking in this for a pure church, and that search for purity and its origin drives the narrative. Even Dracula couldn’t help searching for the return of the purity of his love for his wife, and it’s the world-destroying anger that unleashes his search for revenge.
- Belmont plays the last son of a storied family character to the hilt, complete with drinking far too much (and getting beaten up by townspeople) when he’s not actively engaged.
- His story is an interesting take on the hero legend – his flaws are not the stuff of legend, and his skills are more of the super-hero variety. I’m guessing that this portrayal points to a mesh point (a liminal space worth investigating) between the heroes of games and the heroes of, oh, say 10,000 faces.
- The gore in this series is epic. It’s billed as for adults only, and that makes perfect sense. We see people (and monsters) get killed in all sorts of horrible ways, and the spilling of blood by the animators takes on the aesthetics of the poetry of kung fu movies.
- For all that gore, there is absolutely zero sex. We know that Belmont and Sylpha will hook up by the end, but it’s a chaste, subtle pairing, one in which we never even see them kiss. Not pairing sex and violence feels pretty un-American, and I’m okay with that.
The Shape of Water burst on the scene shortly before the re-issue of Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, but Ingalls beat del Toro to the story by 35 years as this novel features a housewife in a marriage that seems stagnant who falls for a sensitive male of another species. Water is definitely involved.
- Making the protagonist Mrs. Caliban is just one of the many brilliant moves in this novel. Ingalls calls attention directly to gender roles and expectations with the title, and by positioning the canon’s wimpiest monster opposite Larry (the monster in this novel) being someone who can kill – he does so out of self-defense, and does so brutally – reverses Prospero’s cultural dominance in favor of a monster who actually becomes the sort of ideal partner that Dorothy wishes she had.
- While Prospero tames Caliban, demonstrating masculine and English superiority over all types of Others, Dorothy falls in love in an almost traditional way with her monster. Their relationship is not one of master-servant (a trope for marriage that seems to fall apart while we watch among Dorothy’s social circle) but rather a contemporary good marriage, with a true partnership between equals rather than a series of passive-aggressive territory contests of the sort that middle class marriages degenerate into in the world of this novel.
- Larry seems more perplexed by the insanity of Dorothy’s world than she does by his. Of course we get to see her world and not his, but the ever-shifting alliances of marriages in Dorothy’s circle are hard to fathom, and become almost labyrinth-like. There simply are no good marriages, as men cheat, women cheat, and the ideal of the American household falls completely apart.
- The larger context that Ingalls works from is suburbia, and her portrayal of it makes middle-class citizens of the USA seem more savage than poor Larry…
- And by the way, this novel contains inter-species sex…don’t say you weren’t warned.
My quick tour of Lucia Berlin’s prose is complete as I have now finished A Manual for Cleaning Women, and I’m struck (again) by the intense clarity and pain that she invokes solely through language. My thoughts follow…
- Every single story is amazing, and can stand on its own. One of the most fascinating parts of her work in my mind though is how seemingly seamlessly (although not unjarringly) she moves through a whole series of approaches that should feel annoyingly crafty and calculated – telling the same story through a different narrative lens, revisiting scenes (a narrative device she will use in Evening in Paradise as well) and adding characters, leading us as readers to believe (against all evidence) that this time the story will end well (only to be gut-punched again at the end).
- Spoiler – these devices all work. I’m not sure I’ve read fiction that had me verged on the edge of tears so often…
- Part of the way she accomplishes this is through the casual ways she moves through class, ethnic, and gender lines. These stories move from remote mining towns in New Mexico and fishing villages off the coast of Chiapas (I think) to the hoipolloi of Santiago and El Paso to the ghettos of Oakland.
- Her narrators move with her, along those same usual suspect lines, with gender and class predominating – stories get told from the perspective of a white male civil rights attorney who defends a reasonable facsimile of Berlin as well as a teenage girlfriend of a drug-runner who has snuck across the US border from Mexico, with a whole range of voices in between.
- The voices form a chorus in the best Greek tradition, even as they speak from their own reality.
- They also stomp all over the border between classes, as Berlin herself worked in a wide range of jobs and can speak coherently and movingly about a dozen of them.
- I’m not going to try to write about each story – I hope to get thoughts down about them all later – but I can’t help but think about the ways in which her language grounds me in human experience that somehow doesn’t ignore subjectivity. I usually prefer reading prose (I’m better at reading poetry that is unstinting) that while acutely aware of the misery around us is either surreal or farcical enough to feel sort of light (I’m thinking of folks like George Saunders and Karen Russell, both of whom I love as writers as well). Her prose is never light; even when she’s funny the humor is thoroughly entombed in a graveyard.
- It’s not that her prose can’t be beautiful in any number of ways that we often think of as literary aesthetical gorgeousness – it’s just that she is hyper-empathetic and constantly aware of the sheer fuckery that most people go through as they try to combat what often seem to be intensely difficult mountains to climb.
- In Berlin’s world the panopticon is as fiercely internal as external – cultural forces and biologies combine to create pressures that crush all of us, albeit sometimes in subtle ways.
I’ve stumbled onto Lucia Berlin’s fiction late, and I read these in the wrong order, but I’m glad I did. Evening in Paradise is a collection of short stories that made me go ‘whoa’ multiple times. Thoughts below:
- The title story is emblematic of Berlin’s prose, in my mind, as it describes a few years in a family headed by a long-suffering partner and a recovering addict. They live in a paradisaical fishing village off the coast of Mexico, one that feels both timeless and rooted in contemporaneity.
- When a former dealer finds them, the addict falls back into using, and even when the dealer ODs and the partner essentially buries him at sea the story ends with a sense that the devil is right around the corner.
- This sort of ending is typical of Berlin’s prose – at the end of several of these stories she leaves us feeling like, yay, everything will work out, and then with one huge narrative stroke she undermines what we think will be the ending.
- These stories are semi-auto-biographical, I guess, although Berlin has said that she is far more interested in them feeling real than being true. I understand that that’s a fairly common writerly caveat, but based on the craziness of Berlin’s life that stretch can go a lot farther, I’m guessing…
- I often struggle with how to characterize what I think Berlin fictionalizes incredibly well – the moment of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” when you realize that your optimistic, perhaps naive view of the ways that you can overcome trauma fail you, and you have to figure out what to do, often returning to well-worn and not necessarily helpful behaviors. There as many responses as there are people of course – for me I always feel unable to focus visually when my views of the world collide – and I think these stories describe a huge chunk of them.
- They are so full of these moments that I often read while holding my breath, and even if the characters plow through marks are left.
- This novel is social realism at its finest, perhaps because so much of it coincides with the author’s lived experience.