This novel happens in a world torn apart by geological instability, with surface upheavals nearly wiping out all life at irregular intervals, and humanity desperately trying to find ways to survive. That doesn’t mean that this is a Star Trek prime directive type of world with all of us working together because we are human, goshdangit. Power gets incremented into social structures in familiar but horrifying ways.
- As is clear from the overview, this novel resonated with me mostly due to the way it describes how power becomes institutionalized. No one is obviously evil – instead, folks like the guardians are simply doing what they were trained to do. They might even believe that their actions are world-saving, although we seem far beyond that…
- It builds a world that had me looking for reference points that simply weren’t there. After I stopped looking the enormity of what Jemisin is doing became clearer – she’s interested in power, especially as it manifests itself socially, and she’s utilized the structures inherent in the world to look at how connections with the primal forces of our geology have the potential to shape how we relate with each other.
- The sell-by date on the planet also neatly contrasts with the Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, life-will-find-a-way happy dance. Yeah, maybe, but only if the enormous power that resides in the molten rock that exists just below us as we hurtle through the deathly cold of space says sure, for a while…
- I also tagged this as ‘gestalt’ because of the ways that the oregenes function. They can essentially draw upon the energy inherent in rock (and the environment around them) to do all sorts of stuff, and their function in this novel is purportedly to prevent the types of geological upheaval that will wipe out life. The utilization of this kind of mind power functions differently than the obsession with magery and sorcery that becomes an easy out in a lot of fantasy, and Jemisin is doing some interesting stuff. I look forward to the rest of the series…
In addition to the deep diving I’m doing for my second read of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, I read the second novel in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Authority. I’m enjoying this series a lot…and, as always, thoughts:
- The gradual dissolution of government authority, with the increased anxiety felt by Control, is a nice subversion of the scientists losing control of the project trope that often runs through science fiction. There is no control, at all, and the fact that the government tries to impose it even though the scientists there (who are trying to be team players) are telling them that there is no such thing neatly tweaks a tired theme.
- I’m glad to see the biologist back, and particularly glad that she escaped. Here’s hoping that the dive into the portal at the end is as cool as it sounds.
- The idea that an ecological disaster is underplayed by authority fits the standard sort of pr by crisis approach, I think. It’s the sort of vague, tepid, ultimately ridiculous response that stands in for our own response to climate change. When our kids are underwater we will probably grow very concerned and write stern letters to the people in charge.
John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War pays homage to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers while also tweaking its basic premises. Because of some of the features of the novel I think that Scalzi is trying to make Heinlein safe for those who might have liked the premise but hated the fascism. Thoughts below:
- The surprise Scalzi’s characters feel at the body-swap felt a bit disingenuous, and I get a bit weary of the constant “all-people-are-smart-asses.” That being said, it’s an interesting take on finding foot soldiers for colonial wars, especially ones that are said to be absolutely necessary to fight (as Scalzi does in this novel)…
- He’s directly speaking to Starship Troopers, of course, but I think that he’s taking a science-based, almost liberal (in the U.S. sense) view, like a liberal hawk – the universe is a dangerous place, we need to fight wars, but our diversity is our strength, yadayadayadayada…
- In that sense then he returns to what feels like a WWII, Ernie Pyle-style GI stories. Scalzi’s combatants are cynical and hard-bitten, but always ready to make a joke even as they die (and uber-competent despite the casualty rates). They fit all the characteristics that folks wanted desperately to apply to American soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen during WWII. By incorporating this persona, I think, Scalzi wants to invoke the spirit of the good war that many think WWII was.
- This war is Darwinian in a lot of ways – it occurs in a world in which races compete unless they have a direct reason not to, i.e., they do not need the same resources to survive. He doesn’t make the enemy evil, necessarily, and in fact humans come the closest to committing what we might think of as war crimes, but the feel is that survival-of-the-fittest trope that dominated early economic interpretations of Darwin. In that sense, the inevitability of the expansion of folks leads to constant war – if we humans don’t take these planets then other species will. Sounds more than vaguely capitalist.
- It also posits one line for technological development – there is a curve of known science/technology research, and species fit on it at some point. The balance is upset when one species gets knowledge it should not have yet, according to the laws of the inevitability of tech development I guess.
- In some ways this is the most frustrating part of this novel – rather than think about different ways in which tech can develop (there are dozens of examples, but the Expanse series is what comes to mind first), Scalzi simply has all of us moving in the same lines.
- I was also frustrated with the obvious characterizations – the loudmouth braggart dies immediately, the former senator who think that the Colonial Defense Force hasn’t tried diplomacy dies horribly while trying diplomacy, etc. Lots of folks die, actually, and we still get just one viewpoint, that of the protagonist, who affects that world-weary, cynical, I-do-this-not-because-I-have-to-but-from-a-sense-of-duty narrator.
- I kept thinking that some plot or characterization would tweak this novel’s direction, but the big twist (the ghost brigade) was just more of the same…
- I didn’t realize that there was such a market for throw-back 60s sci-fi novels with covers that featured humans eye-rolling at outlandish alien hijinks…
- Finally, the religion that Scalzi creates in the species that most directly competes with humans implied the sort of overwhelmingly anthropocentric view of the world that I think Scalzi is trying not to portray. He wants humans to be the good guys, but these folks aren’t evil (as I mentioned) – they think they’re doing us a favor by ‘redeeming’ us and helping us reincarnate as them. In my mind the connections to Western, Christian imperialism and colonialism are too close…
- I really wish this novel had been in conversation with Forever War and Battlestar Galactica as well as Starship Troopers. Scalzi approaches questions of identity in ways that could be interesting, but he ends them with simple declarations that despite enhancements all of these old men and women (in new, corporate-developed bodies) are actually, deeply human. Even the ghost brigades are human, so human in fact that the regrown DNA-imprinted soldier who our narrator runs into falls in love with him just like his wife (whose DNA it has used) did back on earth.
- The corporate control elements are interesting as well, and perhaps the rest of the series interrogates them…
I have often found the theories of cultural anxiety and cultural work developed by John Cawelti and Jane Tompkins (respectively) to be useful ways to look at narratives. Tompkins’s and Cawelti’s desires to understand the cultural relevance of all types of narrative helped formulate my own thoughts about why some texts resonate in cultures while others do not, and their abilities to locate texts – even ones considered to be high canon and thus impervious to cultural ‘taint’ – in their immediate surroundings and to identify the reasons why fiction and narrative are cultural meaning-making exercises enabled me to better understand why some pop culture artifacts sell a lot of copies and others sit in their own subcultures.
Plus, Tompkins introduced me to Hawthorne’s what feels like misogynistic disgust for those ‘scribbling women’ (author Jenny McPhee writing for bookslut has a particularly useful look at Hawthorne’s dickitude in her review of Phillip Gura’s Truth’s Ragged Edge). That in and of itself made the argument worth hearing.
I am diving in to the Malazan series written by Ian Esslemont, finishing the first one in the series – Night of Knives – a couple of days ago. Thoughts:
- Esslemont takes a bit of a risk in this novel, especially in the light of Erikson’s series, as he chronicles just one night. It only follows two points of view, which helps, and it tells the story of the night that Kellanved and Dancer ascend, but compared to Erikson’s novels which encompass long arduous journeys and long distances it covers very little space or time.
- It has the feel of a Malazan novel, or at least it does not betray the world. It offers a few more clues to motivation than does the Erikson series…
- In particular, it gives reasons for ascension that have nothing to do with religious purity or anything else of that oeuvre – the Emperor and Dancer ascend for reasons of power, nothing more, nothing less.
- It also gave me a far different reading of Malazan, as I was trying to put the Malazan quest for empire in a context that I understood (either Rome or the USA, with implications of establishing order). There is little attempt for justice here, no just war, no desire to bring law and its rule to other folks. For the most part (and there are exceptions) Kellanved and Dancer seek empire in order to dominate and perhaps wipe out other threats from other, often non-human powers.
- Esslemont gives more narrative intervention than does Erikson, which I sort of appreciate, since I spent most of the time in the other series confused. Still, I kept reading, so that confusion clearly had a purpose…
Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy, and, having read this, I am excited about the rest. This novel reads like a fever dream in a sense, with an emotionally repressed narrator who is a biologist, and who narrates the entire novel in the first person. We have no idea if she’s reliable or not, although the only details I question are who shot first in the murder she commits (in the novel it’s self-defense).
- The title speaks to annihilation of self that happens as the various expeditions of humans penetrate Area X, a location that felt both Pacific NW and Gulf Coast (it’s Gulf Coast, as Vandermeer demonstrates by thanking the folks at St. Mark’s National Seashore in Florida). This area that seems to be some sort of biological infestation (perhaps extraterrestrial, perhaps not) is slowly expanding, and humans are trying to stop this expansion, but no group that enters the territory emerges unscathed.
- Several amazing passages – the first:
The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?
While this is an interesting thought in and of itself, I found it particularly useful in the context of the novel. The maps are all drawn up from natural contours – narrative description serves as our way to understand Area X from a human perspective, one that grows increasingly confused as the narrator proceeds (her husband, for instance, might or might not have disappeared to an island north, an island that is outside the boundaries of Area X, or isn’t).
- The second focuses on the words written on the walls of what the narrator calls The Tower (it is called a Tunnel by the other members of her expedition, and that feels more like I what I think of when I think of tunnels based on the description). They are written by what she calls the Crawler, which is some sort of shimmery powerful being that has incorporated parts of much of this area, including the former lighthouse keeper. A sample:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner… The narrator posits that these words serve as some sort of “core,
irreplaceable substance” that creates The Tower, although – fittingly in this novel – she has no idea how that process works (passage on p. 159)
My guess here is that this indecipherable creature goes beyond some sort of scripter but serves as a means of coalescing all known grammar and languages in a larger sense in one structure that humans can recognize. The fact that the party has different names for it – tunnel and tower, two seemingly incompatible labels – argues for this view.
- Another set of words in The Tower:
That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated shall walk the world in a bliss of not-knowing” – as close as this novel gets to invoking zombies…
- And the final set, reminding us of the title:
“Was I in the end stages of some prolonged form of annihilation?” (306)
The annihilation is of self, of course, but it’s also of notions like identity, ethnocentrism, and perhaps human dominance of the natural world.
I probably will not have time to finish Quadrilateral Cowboy, which makes me a bit sad, so I decided to post on it before my memories of the game fade. It was released in 2016 by Blendo Games, and feels like a beautiful blend of an alternate cyberpunk universe, the one that Gibson might have written post Pattern Recognition.
My thoughts on it follow:
- The game is 2D, sort of, and these screen shots show, and I have not played a game where my avatar looks so unusual. Blendo Games, which is really just Brendan Chung, has developed some off-the-wall shtuff, but this one has an aesthetic that is about as close to what I imagine the dataverse looked like to those of us who survived cyberpunk in the 1980s as is possible. The game goes out of his way to show the player-character when at least I was least suspecting it, through blocky shadows and sudden reflections in mirrors.
- The game’s landscape also felt very dataversian in its complete lack of other people, except for those in your hacker hangout. I robbed houses, stole courier packets from trains, and entered ventilation ducts, and all the time I saw no one. When I died, I was killed by a stationary sentry gun set in the ceiling, or by running out of air on one mission in space.
- Even the houses of the folks whose stuff I took were clean, corporately-sterile, with no sign of habitation aside from furniture that looked as if it could still be in its plastic wrap.
- Even though the player can die, there is no other violence. I was excited to get a gun, even if I couldn’t pick it up and shoot it like a hand cannon, only to find out that it shot bean bags that could be used to trip levers. Damn – no body count here.
- Chung has said in interviews (consult the wikipedia page for direct sources) that he wanted to make a game that helped people understand what it takes to be a hacker without having to code. I picked up on that, and I found that I had to think about the puzzles in very different ways than other games required me to think. I don’t usually enjoy puzzle solving games, but this one had me hooked because the puzzles were ingenious but somehow useful.
- Perhaps they felt useful because we as hackers got paid. By who was never made clear.
- I did feel a bit off put by the linearity of the narrative. The game is absolutely not a sandbox – there’s no place to go, a function I am guessing of both the lack of programmers to add more space and an adherence to the dataverse, full of heavily protected data in the cyberpunk ecosystem.
- This linearity reminded me a bit of the game I’m trying to finish now, What Remains of Edith Finch, which is just as linear from a narrative standpoint but restricted in different ways.
- At some point I will need to think about what these sorts of borderless boundaries mean for game worlds…
- As a fan of the Sprawl trilogy, I enjoyed how this game invoked the Gibsonian conception of cyberspace. It felt intensively machine-drawn, with clean shadows and no dirt whatsoever (even in the air ducts the player crawls around in).
- Again, it felt all very intentionally machine-drawn, a beautiful contrast to the nastiness of the outside world in Gibson’s Sprawl. It almost felt as if the machines that drew it were trying to either make humans feel comfortable or ignoring them completely.
- The only messy spaces were ones players share with their fellow hackers, all of whom look vaguely Japanese and none of whom really interacted with the player-character.
- And the player-character is definitely in the machine – you simply appear and disappear as if you hooked a ride in a Star Trek transporter.
- Unfortunately, there were no malevolent AIs. Even the corporations we rob didn’t seem evil, just sort of negligent for leaving all these holes in their security. I’m not sure what styles of security the game is designed to present for circumvention – it’s clearly set in 1980, as a banner tells us early on, but there are space stations that we have to hack as well.
- The aesthetic also felt vaguely as if I was an analog remnant of an increasingly digital world, but that might be other work of mine bleeding into this one.