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.
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.
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).
I’ve found few fantasy series worthy of a re-read, but Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen is one, and after finishing The Crippled God, I’m now done.
- Erikson (and Esslemont) take several non-fantasy-conventional approaches in this series, and the use of the undead is just one. I’m still trying to puzzle out what it means, but the undead in this series are not mindless zombies intent on eating human brains or ghosts incapable of affecting the real world or even super-ninja warriors spurred on by the Night King – they have agency of a sort, and have agendas in the real world, ones sort of based on their previous lives.
- They also can cross the border of the land of the dead, not all the time or without consequence, but they can, and the rules by which they do so seem to be ones that they can bend or even create.
- There’s much more talk about Burn and the idea that this world might all be just a dream in this novel, or at least I recognized it in this one. That’s not a dodge on Erikson’s part, I think, but a look at where dreams and conscious lives being and end, and an attempt to think about fantasy in the context of other cultures where the dream world is not a wholly separate land, one to be analyzed for what it says about the conscious world rather than a realm all of its own.
- As is apparent, I’m fascinated by how the idea of borders work, in all sorts of texts and not just this one, and border crossings are a key element of the MBOTF world. In some ways this novel lives in liminal spaces, ones that are mostly uninhabitable – the Glass Desert, Raraku the Holy Desert, and all the warrens and holds are just some examples.
- These landscapes have in most cases been destroyed by conflicts among sentient races, devastating ecosystems that used to be balanced, and although this series does not preach about the evils of climate change and global ecosystem destruction it shows the consequences of such.
- The central conflict – if the Otataral dragon regains her place in the world then magic will be gone forever – strikes me as a look at fantasy as a genre, especially its assumptions. One of the joys of fantasy is in the way that brilliant wizards can outfight legions of warriors with the power of their minds alone – even in a series like A Wizard of Earthsea that features almost no battles one of the best things about Ged is his ability to use the intellectual powers he can call upon.
- The MBOTF has powerful wizards, of course, but the fact that magic may no longer exist and that that lack is not necessarily a bad thing is a fundamental rewrite of a central premise of fantasy – LET THERE BE MAGIC.
- It’s also a premise that ASOIAF takes on, in a bit different format, and if I re-read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant I’m guessing I will see some of the same aims.
- This makes me think that I need to look at generic anxieties in the same way I look at cultural anxieties…
I was directed to Schweitzer’s collection of reviews, essays, and presentations while researching an article on the Malazan world and just war theory, and I thought I’d talk about it below:
- At times this collection was frustrating. He writes off any sort of literary theory that comes after the New Critics, and he dismisses it in what I always find the laziest way – it’s too hard, it’s not well-written, it eliminates the author, and so on. There are many reasons to find fault with the deconstructionists, Foucauldians, and the rest who revolutionized the way that literary criticism works, but these are not the ways to do so.
- He also diminishes a lot of the underlying issues of race and gender that mark these texts, in ways that seem very Gernsbackian.
- Even then, however, the reasons why I think I enjoyed this become clear, as one of the essays in this collection directly critiques Gernsback’s contributions to the field because of Gernsback’s well-known multiple faults…and he does this compellingly and disruptively (critiquing Gernsback can still draw fire from true scifi fanatics).
- Those critiques aside, I plowed through this and enjoyed a lot of it. I understand, I think, that he’s a writer who is too busy writing stories, etc, a publisher who is keeping generic short fiction alive, an editor who works with and encourages a lot of other writers, an agent who makes sure that we still have access to older texts, and a collector who wears out estate sales in order to find hidden gems that need to be preserved to spend a lot of time digesting contemporary theory.
- Taking the time to work through the potential benefits these theories offer by providing different types of lenses probably isn’t in the cards…
- His memory is amazing, nearly wikipedian in its breadth *and* depth. The number of texts that he refers to is mind-boggling, and I’m saying that as someone who spends way too much time reading myself.
- I’m also fascinated by the patterns he draws – he not only reads pulp and/or genre fiction, but he digests it, sees patterns between both stories by the same author and between that author and others.
- Finally, he’s definitely not only interested in texts from the genre. He casually mentions Marquez, Kafka, and McCarthy, drawing interesting parallels, and he has clearly read a lot of the high canon and thought seriously about it…