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:
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.
I’m always interested in views of our dystopian future, especially when they involve robots, so I watched I am Mother recently. My thoughts below:
- I’m not always good at identifying how a film will end (my wife guessed the ending of Sixth Sense way before I did) so I’m probably a bad source, but I at times had trouble seeing which way the plot would go. (SPOILER ALERT) It certainly didn’t end as I expected, with the spunky-but-conflicted humans blowing up all the robots.
- I also kept wondering just how aware the director was of what felt to me like plot holes – as becomes evident at the end of the film he is (and was), but my guess is that the misdirections that felt unfollowed were designed to lead us astray as to what the ending would be.
- One of my major obsessions with robots is how they are represented in terms of power and control – this film messes with those ideas, as the killer droids seem to not be all that interested in killing unless they are ordered to do so (despite their fearsome appearance). I’m not exactly sure in this filmic world who does that ordering…and the hints are that Mother’s desire to save us from ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing…
- Mother seems too eerily drawn to be the perfect mom, and I’m guessing that’s designed to show that her coding is done from a robot’s perspective, with all coding errors done on the side of appearing as human as possible.
- It’s not exactly the sort of the Asimovian cyborg gets elected president because he’s perfect story, but there are hints that the robots truly do know better…
Storm of Locusts is the second novel in Roanhorse’s Sixth World series – I blogged about the first one, Trail of Lightning, here, and I found it an interesting take on fantasy from an author of Pueblo and African-American heritage.
- The fantasy genre has been shaken a bunch lately, and one of the ways that it has moved on from its obsession with young white men enacting their own vision quests is to feature heroes from a wide range of identity perspectives.
- This move has produced some amazing work, and I’ve enjoyed texts like Lauren Berkes’s Zoo City and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death from Africa, and N.K. Jemisin’s mind-blowing gods and mortals series. They haven’t necessarily expanded fantasy so much as they have blown it apart, and these authors in particular have created worlds that are completely different from ours and yet resonate in ways that make me sort of shudder.
- Roanhorse’s perspective is an interesting one as well, and I find Maggie Hoskins to be a powerful character, one who is a monster hunter for the tribe. Writing the novel from her perspective causes it to lurch into urban fantasy territory, not one of my favorite genres, but I’m a sucker for anything set in the southwestern deserts of the U.S., and I’m particularly fascinated by the cultural world she sets this series in.
- In this novel we get a bit more of a picture of what’s left after global warming has made cities like Flagstaff coastal (!), and it’s not pretty – the Dine are the only functioning civilization that we see (although there are some Mormon enclaves that have survived and seem to not be complete dystopias).
- Part of Roanhorse’s argument appears to be that a Native culture like the Navajo are better suited to this new world, and that’s an argument that has some merit.
- Part of the delicate balance that series like this have is the need to walk a very careful line between meeting generic expectations – even if the genre has changed dramatically – and integrating new voices and perspectives. The identity questions that Roanhorse uproots are powerful ones, and yet she still incorporates some of the traditions of fantasy – the seeking of allies, the violence-in-the-name-of-the-good, the quest.
- Even the hunt for monsters meets the new generic expectations, as they are enormously powerful and yet she is still able to defeat them, with help.
- The problems with cultural appropriation are also real – they are brought to the fore by a Dine writer here, and Roanhorse has responded.
- One of the most powerful anxieties that Saad Bee Hozho identifies is this one – why should Dine culture, a living, breathing, constantly entity, be turned into myth and legend? Why didn’t Roanhorse use her own people (Pueblo) as a backdrop?
- And it’s not like this sort of appropriation hasn’t been going on for a long time…at least Roanhorse is Native American.
Michiko Kakutani has been a harbinger of good literature for a long time, and The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump gives her a chance to connect the ways in which traditional notions of argument have failed in the digital age. More thoughts below:
- The argument she traces convincingly in this book is the idea that Trump is the best player in this game, not a paradigm-breaker himself. Trump gets mentioned in her subtitle, but she’s more concerned about the ways that our notions of truth have changed, not how Trump himself uses them. The fact that he’s not desperately trying to stay out of jail as a failed grifter is a symptom of the age, not a sign that he’s, uh, got talent.
- She uses her amazing knowledge of literature and philosophy to trace the evolution of the distrust of being able to make objective statements about truth to the rise of Trump. She clearly hates Trump and what he’s done to discourse in the U.S., but she sees the long dark night of the soul that we face in this country (and in social media-saturated platforms) and describes it clearly and devastatingly.
- For instance, some of her most powerful critiques are not directed at the Breitbarts of the world but instead at leftists who jumped fully on board the postmodern train and contributed to what she sees as the source of much of the destruction of our ability to come to any conclusions about what is true in any specific situation.
- In some ways she’s almost too good of a writer – I had to willfully slow myself down as I read the book, because her prose is achingly beautiful at times.
- It made me think about my own relationship with the postmodernists. I think I was lucky – I came to them after their heyday, and as someone a bit older with a bit more experience of the world. While some of their methodologies were enormously useful – Foucault’s identification of power, Derrida’s Swiss Army knife tool of deconstruction, Spivak’s look at the subaltern, and Said’s look at the creation of oppressive tropes of representation in both high and low art are some that I found productive – in general the falling off the cliff that folks like Lyotard promoted made me queasy.
- The lived experience they spoke from seemed pretty ungrounded from the reality that I saw, and seemed to pretend that material conditions could be somehow transcended.
- That said, I think one of the most interesting dances in this is watching Kakutani’s sense of fair play at work. She is, after all, the critic who wrote one of the funniest and spot-on critiques of Norman Mailer’s stupifyingly binary oeuvre I’ve ever read, one in which she accurately depicts the enormity of the high art ego, and yet she highly values the cultural impact of social realism and high art in its novelistic form. The search for objective truth usually privileges canonical texts, and can thus miss places where resistance to entrenched power occurs if those places are located outside the canon.
- She tries to acknowledge these lines, but it’s a tricky walk to make.
I watched Altered Carbon before I even knew about the books, and I enjoyed the series (so much that I blogged about it here). The book was even more interesting, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
- For me it was hard to read this without recalling Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, and at least the first book in the series compares favorably. The AI-hotel that defended itself and its clients was actually better done in the teevee show, but the concept is still pretty cool, and the generic expectations of cyberpunk are built upon neatly, without too much rehashing.
- In particular I thought that this novel caught the tone of exhaustion and desperation that permeates Gibson’s work. Kovacs (the detective who has been resleeved, and who might or might not be a war criminal and/or rebel) seems to be constantly on the verge of figuring out just what *this-all-means*, but if that knowledge is possible to attain he doesn’t get there, and the frustration is palpable.
- I thought the novel’s ending was far better than the way that the show ended, but its complexity would have been hard to capture in a visual medium.
- The most interesting idea of course is the immortality that the rich have gained. Morgan very clearly makes the case that the rich alone have the power to keep endless quantities of sleeves available, and they use that power to accumulate fabulous amounts of wealth.
- They also have to find increasingly exotic ways to become sexually excited, leading to the murders that drive the plot narrative.
- I hope that Morgan explores the identity issues more thoroughly as the series proceeds.
- On the one hand, Morgan’s comments on the results of immortality are fairly straightforward – people become increasingly horrible, and the accumulation of wealth by the 1 percent becomes increasingly striated.
- On the other hand, though, the identity questions become tangled, and Morgan doesn’t hesitate to bring God into all of this (there is a constant movement of Catholics against the resleeving of people throughout the novel). Making those questions of identity transparent leads beyond questions of good and evil, capitalist vs. communist.
- Instead, the implications of having these godlike powers become a meditation on the path to get there, given the many options that humans have already taken (and the environmental destruction that has led the rich to live on Mars, and leave Earth to those who can’t afford to leave).
- Kovacs himself has a relationship with some sort of cult movement, as he often remembers his home planet and its much stricter cultural mores. It’s also clearly the home of at best a founding father of sort, since it’s called Hansen’s World (or something like that).