In The Topeka School, Lerner uses the fractured narrative technique that he has used in his other novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. His use of his own life experiences as a foundation for meditations on the intersections between fiction and fact is a technique that I’ve had to grow accustomed to, and the ways that he uses it to track cultural narrative threads feels more useful the deeper I get into his prose.
That depth might also be because he’s getting better at connecting the fiction he produces with larger cultural issues outside himself, connections that are very apparent in this novel. This novel doesn’t ever feel self-indulgent (and that’s a critique I’m too quick to attach to a text), and the social implications are part of the reason why.
- The Topeka School actually exists, and formed a key part of Lerner’s childhood. The contrast between it – a center developed to help people recover from trauma and better understand themselves – could be played off in contrast to a Topeka that has bred the Westboro Baptist Church.
- Lerner’s novel does not simply work the binary – thoughtful development of who we are = good, grifters posing as bomb-throwing religious fundamentalists = bad – though. He layers the two world-view together, showing how they combine to encompass all aspects of a specific cultural moment, and uses several points of view to illuminate how these worlds intersect.
- The threads that this novel plucks speak clearly to some of our current cultural issues. In particular, the narrator who is a champion debater plays the debate game in the traditional way – in-depth knowledge of a subject used to produce compelling arguments while also crushing counter-arguments posed by the opposing side.
- The new style is called The Spread (I’m guessing that Lerner adds the capitalization, if indeed this is a term in the debate world). In it, the debater spews as many arguments as they can, adopting a beats-per-minute approach in the hope that the opponent simply cannot address all the arguments proposed in the time allotted, thus losing by technicality.
- Of course, this style aligns horribly efficiently with the way that argument works on social media, an argumentative style that I often see on Twitter – ‘research’ becomes finding a video by who-knows-who that supports your point, creating a hit-and-skip-off-the-surface style that keeps always adding new, barely-related points to a discussion rather than pursuing one specific train of thought until a satisfactory conclusion can be arrived at.
- Yep, it’s the opposite of Platonic, which may or may not be the point. It’s clearly effective in a sense – expertise becomes completely devalued, and the idea of research-by-google gains value that is completely out of proportion to what that ‘research’ provides in addressing real problems.
- Lerner makes clear what’s at stake by this shift to The Spread in his last narrative view, one in which a young couple participates in an anti-ICE protest in Brooklyn, and he finishes the novel with the narrator telling us how perhaps the only way to combat The Spread is with our bodies.
Lerner’s work is both subtle and not, sophisticated and graceful while being sledgehammer clear. I still have not read his poetry – so many poets to read, some of whom I should probably talk about on here – but his novels manage to be thoughtful, intellectual, and page-turning, with characters that even though (or perhaps because?) they are very close to life are ones that I care about. The fractured narrative – holding up a mirror so closely to reality that the reflection itself is distorting – allows me as a reader to see my own experiences and how they are distorted in ways that have impacts far beyond the fun house.
Peter Watts is one smart dude, and Maelstrom, the second novel in the Rifter series, shows off those chops. In it, a pissed-off Lenie Clarke emerges from the ocean floor after the company’s attempts to kill her and the rest of Beebe Station with a massive underwater earthquake, and she’s a viral weapon with the potential to kill off humanity. She doesn’t, at least not yet…
- This novel is cyberpunk, in a lot of ways. It’s darker than dark, and it incorporates a lot of information science and network technology in ways that Gibson couldn’t dream about (as the legend has it, he wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter).
- And, as the legend of Lenie Clarke spreads and she looks for the father she thought abused her (another tribute to corporate evil, since that memory was implanted in her and is completely false), a fashion meme takes hold that has lots of people dressing in rifter chic, all black and sleek and like something from the bottom of the ocean. Very Pattern Recognition.
- This novel makes its bloodshed happen on a massive scale, with very little acknowledgment of individuals. What that approach buys for Watts is the ability to step out of the doomed-fallen-angel-stalking-the-wasteland genre and into more Bacigalupi territory, as the individual stories matter, but they are dwarfed by the impending apocalypse that we have brought on ourselves (through corporate greed and governmental obeisance, mainly).
- Watts locates humans in the material world (and terrestrial ecosystem) that we in the industrialized world try to pretend we have stepped out of. For instance, a passage like
You’re like any other mammal, Doctor. Your sense of reality is anchored in the present. You’ll naturally inflate the near term and sell the long term short, tomorrow’s disaster will always feel less real than today’s inconvenience.highlights his approach – as mammals, there is a certain amount of hard-wiring that we simply cannot avoid, at least without a lot of work. The inability to override our instincts has led us here…and here is not a fun place to be.
- Watts also extrapolates what it will take for individuals to be able to do things like implement massive quarantines (especially since we no longer have access to the type of cultural horrors that enable folks to be genocidal), and he invents chemical emotion enhancers and soothers that enable individuals to do things like sic heavily-armored drones on humans trying to escape quarantine zones.
- Two in particular are frightening – Guilt Trip makes people not go apeshit and simply order firebombing by drone of entire areas, while Absolution helps them get over the guilt they might feel by sinking ships full of refugees trying to land.
- The Behemoth and Maelstrom of the titles are essentially biological entities that have combined to bring the worst of both viruses and computer surveillance to create the world-destroying weapon that Clarke carries the key to. They are cybernetic but organically-developed, and I think they represent Watts’s worst case scenario of where our tampering is leading.
I wish I could write Watts off as an alarmist, and perhaps this is not the best series to read during a pandemic, but I’ve thinking a lot lately about the need for hope or courage (and perhaps they’re not mutually exclusive). I think what Watts is doing is finding the courage to predict where we might be headed, and that may well be courage that we all need in the relatively near future.
In A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (@ArkadyMartine) channels the Byzantine empire in what in some ways is an old-fashioned space opera. I’m not being disparaging – this novel was intense and fun in a whole bunch of ways, and the world that Martine creates is fascinating.
- Martine’s love of language fuels this novel’s world-building. Communications in the Teixcalaanli empire is built on poetry, with poetic forms and content serving both as a means of connecting between ministries of the government *and* as a way for rebels to pass coded messages.
- Part of what makes ambassadors from Lsel Station want to become ambassadors to Teixcalaanli is that they fall in love with the poetry of the empire, identifying the sort of cross-cultural appeal of empire that leads to strengthening of imperial identities while simultaneously weakening it.
- The power – and fundamental instability – of empire drives this novel as well. Th flowery language that she uses to describe folks within the Emperor’s circle (and the Emperor themselves, of course) serves as a camouflage for just how human even these amazingly brilliant people are.
- And, despite all this imperial power, this story also describes a moment of rebellion that almost results in the collapse of this specific imperial reign.
- Martine’s portrayal of the labyrinth of politics feels like all of my adolescent fascination with an empire barely in touch with all its far-flung parts. There are complicated deals that mark the empire’s borders, and the fact that this all happens in space obviously adds another layer of complexity.
- The technological innovation that justifies the title is called an imago machine, a small device attached to the cerebellum that enables an construct version of a person to exist inside the living person’s head.
- This device was created by the inhabitants of the space station, with its firm limits on the number of people it can support. It serves as a way to pass down institutional knowledge, and of course the psychological complications are intense.
A Memory of Empire does what makes good science fiction powerful – it extrapolates into the future while trying to understand current trends and even problems. Martine’s prose style is so different from the typical science fiction that at times I could have been reading a Jane Austen novel (that’s a huge compliment), and I found this approach offsetting enough to keep me just on the edge of the novel’s world. I hope that Martine writes another novel in this world…
Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries is a ridiculously fun read, and Rogue Protocol was no different (the Goodreads entry is here). I’m getting caught up on the series (I have Exit Strategy left to go, and I reviewed Artificial Condition here ), and I’m gradually realizing that what felt upon first read to be a sort of lightweight series about rogue cybernetic units is actually a far deeper critique of current society and our direction as we keep looking towards the stars than I realized. The observations that Wells makes about robots and sentience extend into critiques of corporate power and the constant conflict between (in the words of a Drive-by Truckers song) “the ones who have so much make the ones who don’t go mad” as we travel into the universe are a very direct extrapolation of what our future could look like.
- Murderbot itself is an interesting creation. In some ways it feels like it was created by the engineer at the end of Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum,” the one who had a diet pill-induced hallucination about a perfect scifi future that demonstrated the fascist direction of lots of early scifi. He watches endless hours of bad soap operas and daytime teevee to purge himself of that dream, and Murderbot’s love of all that ridiculous media seems to be in direct conversation with Gibson.
- The gradual development of what we might think of as a conscience at first annoyed me – it felt a bit like wish fulfillment on Wells’s part. After thinking about it though I can see how what Wells might be doing is trying to reimagine how a cyborg – given very clear protocols, as are all AIs and, in this world, SecUnits – can work around the deeply-ingrained coding that they are given.
- Maybe this is an example of what Andrew Feenberg calls margins of maneuverability…
- The evolution of AI in this world is especially interesting, as Wells posits a world in which more than one robot starts to think for itself. In each novel we are getting another robot or two who has jumped their coding in some fundamental way, and while they may be aided by Murderbot they are also coming to conclusions that are far different than we might otherwise suspect.
- Seeing AIs move towards becoming more humane (or human in ways that feature dignity and inherent worth rather than murder) reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s story about the election of a robot president, a far different direction than the murderous AIs that we usually see…
- I keep wanting to use they/them pronouns for Murderbot. I can’t remember if Wells comments on this…
As we continue to imagine our collective future, and wonder about how we fit into the grand schemes of the galaxy, my hope is that more AIs and cybernetic units will take the Murderbot path and try to take a different path than that taken by us biological humans.
Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade went far beyond what I expected from a genre standpoint. I like lots of the military sci-fi – John Scalzi is a good example, and Robert Heinlein wrote the ur-text – so I assumed that Hurley’s text would be similar: aliens to fight, valorization of the honest grunt who does the killing, etc.
I was wrong. Hurley is in conversation with folks China Mieville (politically) and Joe Haldeman (military weariness, ineffectiveness of military solutions), science fiction writers who look at war from a first principle rather than a just war perspective. She sees the world as one in which we constantly need to fight for our rights, and she also acknowledges how power is stacked against those without wealth.
More thoughts below:
- The novel makes the alternate vision – humans who settled on Mars and have created an egalitarian, holistic, ecologically-sustainable way of life – the Other.
- Hell, we’re not sure the Martians exist at all…
- The theme – corporations will tear our very bodies apart (and hopefully put them back together correctly) in order to assert their power – is genius.
- What’s also brilliant is how every time our narrator’s body is torn apart and she understands the time line she comes back better prepared to resist.
- The ways that the corporations at the end of the novel start to lose power, despite the promise of citizenship and the threat of constant surveillance, felt honestly hopeful, and not like some sort of tacked-on, yay-the-people-might-win-this-time bromide.
- I’m still in awe of the scenes with the interrogator and the captured revolutionary – Hurley channels Arthur Koestler in some ways, but gives agency to the captive in ways that make me smile.
- I’m looking forward to thinking more about the implications of time travel in here. The novel treats time travel as something fraught with both danger and possibility, and not of the go-back-in-time-and-kill-Hitler variety.
- It’s also an example of how corporate power cannot control some things – such as the laws of physics.
TLB is a powerful, powerful novel, and Hurley is talented. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work…
I try to read everything I can by Ted Chiang, and his latest collection of short stories and novellas – Exhalation – didn’t disappoint. More thoughts below:
- Man it feels good to read Chiang right now, I guess as sort of a Smart Stories in the Time of Pandemic (apologies to Marquez) piece of literature. His universe is one in which rational yet human actors work through the possibilities presented by current problems. Issues get resolved (for the most part; he doesn’t necessarily idealize us humans) through dialogue and trial and error, with no bloodshed involved.
- I don’t think a single human character was harmed in the making of Exhalation.
- His stories also feel carefully constructed to work in and of themselves. For instance, there are a couple that are only two or three pages long. There are two that are far longer.
- He doesn’t seem to write a story and think, yep, that’s the perfect length for a story in The New Yorker.
- Instead, the world of the story plays itself out in the situation at an almost perfect length.
- I could talk about all of these stories, probably forever, but the one that really sticks in my mind (maybe because I’ve read it twice) is “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.” In it, the protagonist (Ana) raises what starts as a digital pet over twenty years, as part of a community of both pets and their owners.
- It moves from having no body to being able to inhabit several different shells.
- In the story, Ana has trained as an animal care-taker but has to leave that job when her zoo goes under. She then works for a software company that produces digients, the digital pets. As such, she works with one of the prototypes and gets to raise it even after the company runs out of revenue.
- The assumption in the story is that it takes time to raise these AIs, and that we can’t train them as if they are drones or robots but that instead we need to understand that they are mostly rational actors who will learn as they learn.
- And yet we can influence how and what they learn.
- Finally, his last insight is that perhaps corporate profitability cycles are not the best environment to do serious, thoughtful software development.
- We go through an entire lifecycle of these pets in the story (thus the title), and we learn about ways that communities form, that software companies go bankrupt, that other companies emerge, that strange offshoots of human behavior evolve, and, well, and a lot…
Chiang is one of those authors who I feel a bit jealous of you if you haven’t read them already. What you are about to experience is a sense of someone totally comfortable with just how much he doesn’t know, and whose intense curiosity about the world and desire for hopefulness despite all of our flaws shines through. The first time reading Chiang is a marvelous experience, and I wish you well…
Sally Rooney’s Normal People felt like anything but, and I’m guessing that that’s at least part of the point. She tells the story of two on-again, off-again lovers from the west side of Ireland, young people who grew up together, went to college together, and develop a passive-agressive relationship that is both infuriating and compelling.
I have thoughts:
- I do not fully understand the geographical and cultural differences of the regions of Ireland, but the west’s reputation for pastoral beauty and economic wasteland seems to still be a thing. Connell is from the working class, and he knows Marianne because his mom (who is an amazing character) cleans her family’s house. They go to the same high school, where they have very different experiences.
- They of course fall for each other, but not in any way we might expect.
- They also both go to Dublin for college, and end up at Trinity (upper-crust, which Connell can only afford via scholarship). This journey is traumatic for Connell, and he’s not helped by his lack of social skills, brilliance at literature – having no job prospects when he gets done – and obsession with Marianne.
- They both circle each other, thinking that they are just fuck buddies when it is clear that they need each other in ways that might be fundamentally unhealthy but are nonetheless real.
- Marianne’s relationships are destructive as hell, and Connell manages to attract someone who seems like an honest-to-goodness good person (don’t worry, he drives her away).
- The self-marginalization of class is tricky here – Connell clearly sees no way forward of his own (and he might just be a dreamy kid who can’t see himself in a business environment), while Marianne is wandering through Dublin spending her family’s money, getting decent scores on her exams, but again not having much sense of a future. Her family is incredibly abusive, as her brother definitely threatens her and might actually hit her, and she seems to have internalized that violence.
- The dialogue is brilliant for its understatedness. They both sort of laconically go back and forth in what feels like a simulation of respectfulness – there is never any anger or even passion, as instead they constantly stop their conversations just short of the point where they might actually say something important.
- The title at first felt ironic, but now I think it’s more illusory and wistful. These two want to be normal people (I think epitomized by Connell’s mom), but they just can’t manage it.
- I’m pretty sure they even think they can save each other, but Rooney doesn’t give them that at the end…
I will read Rooney again, mostly because her dialogue feels absolutely spot-on for two teenagers who are desperately trying to hide what they feel are the demons that make them not-so-normal. For what it’s worth, they mostly fail at that…
Tade Thompson’s first novel in this trilogy features an alien psychic/cellular invasion, sensitives, healing domes, the Nigerian secret service, the zenosphere, and dreams that invade the biological world. Yep, that’s a lot, and it’s pretty amazing.
- I won’t spoil this for you, but the alien invasion is unlike any I’ve read about. In that sense the novel feels almost Dhalgrenesque, as the narrative goes through multiple entry points, and loops back in on itself. Unlike in Delany’s novel, however, Thompson also provides readers with locators, often chronological. I never felt lost, like I constantly did (intentionally I’m guessing) in Dhalgren.
- The other obvious reference is Pat Cadigan, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that she served as a reader (or in some other capacity) in Thompson’s acknowledgments. This novel moves in that same mindsphere that Cadigan explores, although it expands far beyond where she went.
- Kaaro, our protagonist, is an interesting cat – he was recruited by the Nigerian secret service to help them better understand the alien invader, one that we find out has landed three times already, with catastrophic results. He can use his powers to disrupt and even cause other people to hurt themselves, so in a sense they serve as a superpower.
- They don’t really feel like that, however,
- Thompson’s use/creation of the zenosphere is compelling. The alien presence (one that has its own backstory, which we learn bits about later in the novel) opens new potential for humanity in ways that are often thought of in cyberspace as digitally-based. This one is completely biological, and thus both far different (it requires special brain capabilities that might or might not be centered in the redone structure of the brain itself) and very similar (most humans who travel in the zenosphere use avatars, which can have sex) to those now-standard mindscapes popularized by The Matrix.
Needless to say I am greatly looking forward to the rest of the series. Novels like this posit alternatives to the way we live now (with apologies to Evelyn Waugh) that hopefully can lead us to better futures.
Jo Walton’s Necessity trilogy continues to delight me. The Philosopher Kings is book two in the series, and it starts twenty years after the final debate in The Just City, the one in which Athene, angry because she lost the argument and her Just City – based on Plato’s Republic – breaks up the experiment because the Republic was not working out as she imagined.
- Walton’s fiction experiments in interesting ways with all kinds of big ideas, and the factions that result from the end of the last debate (and Athene’s taking of all but two of the Workers with her) provide a glimpse at the drive to set forth and find lands of our own that motivated the continuous development of colonies that was ancient Greece.
- This set of colonies is imbued (burdened?) with the foreknowledge of what is to come, since in the original plan Athene simply plucked anyone who had thought of her out of their current time and plopped them as a Master in the Just City.
- Her portrayal of the gods is fascinating – she fully invests in the ancient Greek idea that gods have immense powers and yet are more fully realized humans. They can be capricious, loving, horrible, intensely empathetic, and a bunch more, and seeing how those characteristics play out in the mundane world is pretty cool.
- The consequences of time travel come into play here as well. The inhabitants do not want to destroy what is come because of what they know, and this concept gets really confusing with the advent of Christianity, since Christians still want to be saved and go to heaven.
- Walton does not give up what Hades is actually like in this configuration…no cheating I guess…
- There is far less dialogue in here, and a lot more action (of the traditional variety – I think dialogue is action, but I’m a nerd). I missed the dialogue, but I also miss Simmea.
- Oddly enough, she inhabits nearly the entire novel through Apollo’s love for her.
- As the inhabitants of the Just City leave to form new colonies, they come back for one thing – art. The potency and power of art in this type of city (which Walton sets up in direct contrast to Plato’s oft-expressed concerns about art’s power to invoke emotion in people) drives people to war.
- Some would say that anything drives people to war…
- I am really curious what the next novel will do with the notions of citizenship that Walton is just starting to explore at the end of this novel. In my reading of The Republic determining who is a citizen (and the whys and hows) causes a bunch of problems.
- I am also wondering about economics and material necessity. This series intensely examines what we think of when we think of the soul, and it gives us some looks at the material conditions that people face. As the material reality of the next landscape manifests itself perhaps we will see more of the economics of The Republic (esp. since Walton has effectively eliminated both slaves and Workers/robots).
On to Book Three…
The Just City is part of her Thessaly trilogy, and the first novel I have read by her since Among Others. It’s the story of Athena’s attempt to see if Plato’s idea of the just city (taken from The Republic) would work in actuality. It sort of does, and sort of doesn’t, but I’ll let you read to find out.
Jo Walton’s first book, Among Others, featured a young girl who could talk with faeries. My review is here, and I’m not all that proud of it, but posterity is posterity after all.
I thought much more highly of this book, even if it’s not necessarily my cup of tea. My thoughts are below:
- The novel proper features three points of view – Simmea, Maia, and Apollo in mortal form. Simmea is the daughter of Egyptian farmers, purchased from slavers for the purpose of populating the just city at the age of ten. Maia was transported from Victorian England, mostly because she expressed an admiration for both Athena and Plato. Apollo has discovered that mortals understand some things, like agape, better than he does, and so he takes mortal form in order to better know what he is missing.
- The island that she chooses to locate the city on is Atlantis, chosen by Athena because it will disappear into the sea in a few millennia and thus not leave awkward-to-explain ruins behind.
- The only violence we see in the novel happens before the island is founded. Walton clearly believes that at a minimum the just city provides a way to resolve differences peacefully. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a goddess who can destroy any ships that might get near.
- Sokrates shows up, and is his usual irritating self, but her portrayal of him is very sympathetic, and what he adds to the city is a necessary voice that asks questions that need asked. He’s both funny (especially when he mocks Plato) and empathetic, which are qualities that I hope the original Sokrates had.
- The two downfalls of the city are probably the ones that an astute reader of The Republic might guess – agape and slavery. Walton complicates the slavery issue by having a time traveling Athena bring “workers,” robots from about our time (rather than human slaves as existed in The Republic), but Sokrates helps discover that they have a language and some sentience, and the city has to account for them.
- Agape is just as hard, as The Republic assumes a breeding program designed at making sure that all children are raised communally, and that they all love the city itself. Apollo is the one who blows this, mostly, but Walton clearly sees agape (versus eros) as something that Plato did not account for.
- There’s a lot more great stuff going on in here, but I will save further reviews for the next two novels.