I will not be able to do justice to Berlant’s Cruel Optimism for a number of reasons, so this post serves mostly to document key elements and a couple of my reactions to them. Suffice it to say that Berlant’s argument tries to understand the frantic nature of contemporary story-telling, and it attempts this understanding in a profound, brilliant, and human way.
- She analyzes texts that are located in the world of art, and takes a cultural studies approach of sorts, to argue that the socio-economic promise of the 1980s is unmaintainable and some of our best art responds to the insecurities generated from this reality.
- Thus the title, eh? Cruel Optimism is the sort that happens when what we are optimistic about stuff that cannot happen.
- She focuses on the ways that we are constantly in a state of hyper-tension between the wealth we have and the desires we have to live lives of meaning and the inevitability and impossibility of reconciling these two norms.
- She argues that we feel all of this before we understand it cognitively, and those feelings become traumatic, although not in the ways that we usually think of that word, as an opposite of chronic.
- In fact, in her definition trauma becomes chronic, in ways that are immensely uncomfortable…
I recently read Newitz’s Autonomy, and I wondered how she could so accurately describe the paths that our technological development might follow. Having read Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans will Survive a Mass Extinction, I now understand, because as a science writer and editor of io9, she has been in this conversation for a long time and knows a lot about scientific trends. She extrapolated some fascinating ideas based on that knowledge…
More thoughts below:
- Newitz’s approach is far different from most who write about our future destruction – she thinks humans, as agile, problem-solving, incredibly smart creatures, should survive. She does not ignore the problems we cause – she links us to cyanobacteria as the only organisms to negatively impact the planet enough to bring about a mass extinction – but she thinks that ultimately we are worthy of moving onto the next step in our development.
- As if any of this is linear, of course…
- In the book she charts both mass extinctions from the planet’s geological history *and* stories of how humans have scattered, adapted, and remembered, and thus survived.
- Her description of the ways that Jews have survived is particularly interesting, as she talks about the importance of culture, narrative, and story.
- Her view is remarkably non-anthropocentric – by positing humans in what she argues (with help from a bunch of scientists) is the beginning of the next large mass extinction, she identifies our place in the universe as a little smaller and more fitting than how we ordinarily think of ourselves.
- The last section of the book is probably too short, but it was fascinating as she discussed how humans will probably adapt (breathe methane, have skin that can survive acid rains on other planets, and so on) and the immediate technological developments we will pursue (algae-derived energy, space elevators, and so on).
- She doesn’t simply talk about all this from her own “research” as that is defined now – glorified Google searches. Instead, she shows us what powerful science writing is by incorporating interviews (that she’s done) and research from the scientific communities involved in this discussion – disaster preparation as well as well energy derivation and space exploration.
- As someone who occasionally thinks that maybe a meteor strike wouldn’t be a bad idea, I appreciate her rational, pragmatic, and organized look at ways that we might actually survive (and heavens forbid learn from) the coming destruction we are doing to the planet…
Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others was not an easy read. These stories made me work, albeit not in the ways I work when reading the Malazan or Song of Ice and Fire series (so. many. characters). Chiang’s stories (and they’re more like novellas) are dense with ideas and science and math, in ways that made me think about both the genre of science fiction and the ideas themselves…
More thoughts below:
- I thought that the first story – “Tower of Babylon” – sounded familiar, and I’m guessing that I read it in the late, lamented Omni many many years ago. I find it interesting that it still sounded fresh…
- His stories break generic expectations neatly – very little violence, not much in terms of space opera, and way more discussion of God than ever appears in science fiction.
- I will read some interviews to confirm, but I’m guessing this approach is intentional. In particular, the alien story is perfect – we never find out why they’re here, and they leave suddenly, without either offering us new technology or destroying our civilization. It’s not Independence Day.
- The fascination with math is pretty cool – his stories don’t speak down to us about the ways in which math is both foundational and dynamic. He has a character in his ubermensch story (“Understand”) rework our mathematical understandings of how the body works to make himself hyper-efficient, for instance, and fer crissakes this collection even features a story entitled “Division by Zero” in which a mathematician drives herself sort of crazy by working out permutations to prove almost anything through math.
- Heh – I just wish I was better at math…
- His emphasis on questions of identity in the future is fascinating as well. The last story in this collection – “Liking What You See: A Documentary” posits the creation of a type of gene therapy that invokes a form of the inability to recognize faces – prosopagnosia, for those keeping score at home – in children so that they grow up less concerned with physical beauty. The story takes the form of a documentary transcript, and it features all different kinds of viewpoints as folks try to understand the ramifications of doing this.
- Spoiler alert – I think Chiang himself comes out on the side of trying to make us less beauty-conscious.
- Finally, the idea of there being one god is omnipresent in this collection as well. The story that deals most directly with our religious connection to a supreme being is called “Hell is the Absence of God,” and it features angels as natural disasters who appear on earth for not-very-clear reasons and by doing so create fissures and storms and all kinds of destructive events.
- The story is particularly fascinating in that it never shows hell as being a bad place *except* for the absence of a supreme being – at one point we are told that you can look down into and see people just existing down there, with no fire or brimstone. As the title suggests, hell is simply a lack, and the implication is that heaven is a cipher, a construct of an imagined type of human happiness that actually may be just that, a creation of the cultural mind…
- The dilemmas the characters face then are all centered on what to do with this knowledge, exacerbated by the fact that the few people who have actually seen heaven’s light while on earth instantly went blind, and can now only talk about how transcendent that experience was.
- And living a devout life does not guarantee you getting into heaven…so there’s that…
- I’m glad I revisited these stories, and I look forward to reading his next collection.
See You Yesterday is one of a series of scifi films made by African-American directors (thank you Jordan Peele and Spike Lee!), and this one felt true to black lived experience.
- I was surprised by the ending (which I’m trying not to spoil). I assumed this film was going to go in the usual “save the brother” direction, but it didn’t…
- The speed with which this film went from a nerdy celebration of time travel as a concept and young people – especially of color – as scientists to nuanced discussion of the impossibility of righting historical wrongs by traveling back in time was sort of breath-taking.
- And not inappropriate – we don’t get beat over the head with explanations of the problems of going back in time, which also means that a) the director trusted us and b) we have all seen enough about the concept of time travel to understand the basic problems.
- The cameo by Michael J. Fox as the young people’s supportive science teacher was well-done…
- The existence of an independent set of retail opportunities (street vendors, folks selling both electronics and geek squad type help out of their garage) always makes me smile…
- Watching this film I couldn’t but think of Wells and his Morlocks. He got the class issues right – race, not so much…
- Finally, for a first-time director Bristol sure got a lot of stuff right…
I knew of Newitz from their (Newitz uses the pronouns they and their) non-fiction work at io9, and while Autonomy definitely shows connections to that stuff it’s also a cut above. More thoughts below:
- This novel is compared to Gibson (again), but I’m not sure that comparison works. Gibson’s prose is incandescent at times, so much so that it threatens to overwhelm the narrative. Autonomy, on the other hand, feels intensively and carefully crafted, more late-term, Pattern Recognition Gibson than the earlier author who coined terms like the consensual hallucination that is cyberspace and wrote of skies that were the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
- I appreciate Newitz’s care in crafting her world – at times Gibson’s Sprawl universe veered out of control with his attempts to depict the undepictable, while Autonomy takes care to tell its story convincingly and naturally. I think I understand what Gibson was trying to do – showing the connections between wetware and the cybernetic systems that are evolving around and in it had not been done yet in science fiction, and his prose explodes from the page in its attempts to look at intersections that were just starting to be imagined…
- I’m trying to use the word “naturally” intentionally here. One of the joys of this novel is the ways that in Newitz’s world ideas that are barely scifi in contemporary times are now (in the now of the universe of the story) commonplace. She populates her world with lots of tamed viruses and bacterium that create all sorts of products that we use (concrete, for instance, or drinking mugs) and that biodegrade as soon as they’re not needed.
- This universe is constantly full of amazing stuff, none of which is labelled as amazing. Because these magical creations have all become natural I’m all the more intrigued.
- More important for Newitz (as is evident from the title) is the idea of personal sovereignty and autonomy. They wind up the ideas of what autonomy means to specific individuals and let it go, and the results are interesting studies in class. This world features the idea that humans can be indentured servants to all kinds of forces (mostly the rich), and much like robots they strive to gain whatever independence they can.
- The emotional states needed to become autonomous are also a trope, and the military cyborg that helps the pharma cop (and that’s what he is, as very little interaction with actual law enforcement is required thank you very much) is given a human brain to help it with facial recognition and understanding emotional states.
- As a blow to our human egos, that’s all the brain does – it doesn’t provide any other cybernetic control. Software does the rest, even as that software practices its own form of machine learning.
- Newitz also doesn’t make anyone directly evil. The corporate cop who kills “terrorists” got his start trying to help those captured in the indentured servitude racket, and finally got out due to the burn out caused by trying to fight a corrupt system. He’s portrayed even by his enemies as a property zealot, not a fascist. Our Robin Hood, Jack, has decided to sell copies of drugs to make money to finance her more Robin Hood-worthy pursuits, but that selling out causes her to make a copy of a drug that kills people by addicting them to work.
- Newitz definitely has a fondness for hacker undergrounds that fight big corporate powers, but she also doesn’t romanticize them, and part of the critique offered by this novel lies in its willingness to test the depths of what selling out means.
- Finally, and there’s lots more going on here, the deadly addictive drug that the pirates release and then and try to reel in the damage on is deadly because it causes people to only want to do their jobs, relentlessly, obsessively, and until bad things inevitably happen.
- Newitz’s critique of the culture of work in the US seems spot-on…
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:
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.
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).
A Brief History of Seven Killings is the first Marlon James novel I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. It features multiple points of view as it wends its way through the attempt to kill Bob Marley (because he was thought to favor the socialist-leaning PNP in the upcoming election) in 1976 and then revisits the story of the subsequent rise of Jamaican drug lords in the crack days of New York in the 1980s.
- In the “Acknowledgements” section James identifies both Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Marguerite Duras’s The North China Lover as models for what he essentially thought was a huge mess of “anecdotes” and other “source materials.” I haven’t read Duras, but the multiple viewpoints of As I Lay Dying (as well as the invocation of different dialects) felt like the perfect starting point for ABHOSK.
- The viewpoint that seems closest to James is Nina Burgess, a Jamaican women who works her way to the States in as honest a fashion as she can. She has multiple names throughout the novel as she assumes identities, and she gets to finish the novel by getting a call from someone who I think is her mom (although I’m not sure of that by any means).
- She’s closest, I’m guessing, because she works multiple jobs after becoming the lover of a white American mechanical engineer who worked in Jamaica for a company mining bauxite. She ends up as a nurse, and I’m guessing that James is honoring that work in a fashion.
- She also has a tremendously complicated relationship with her home country, one which at the end has her being chastised by a young Jamaican woman sitting with her husband (who is in a coma after a gang war), imbibing the food and culture of Jamaica in a restaurant close to her home in Queens, throwing up that food after hearing of Josey Wales’s horrible death, ending with that mysterious phone call.
- I’m guessing James feels similarly.
- The folks who run Jamaica politically are rarely seen – instead, James presents the viewpoint of those who run sections of the various ghettos. One man, Papa-Lo, gets killed as he tries to bring peace; another man, Josie Wales, gets killed after his attempts to bring order fall apart when he murders everyone in a crack house. Both, I think, had gotten tired of the constant ways that their efforts failed.
- There is a lot more to talk about here, of course – a couple of white folks show up, a couple of characters are gay, the weirdness of Lester Bangs and all those Rolling Stone writers also appears as they become entranced by reggae and then find out that the scene that produces it is a brutal one.
- And the Singer (Marley, in the only way he’s referenced in the novel), gets lionized and idealized in a way that, as the Rolling Stone writer says as he’s being “corrected” about the story he’s publishing in The New Yorker, makes me “think even more highly of the fucker.”
- As we piece together our sense of American identity through the vast, often nearly indecipherable melange of immigrant voices – and their reasons for coming here – novels like this one will help us better understand the promise and perils of moving to the United States and trying to make connections here.
- Although the dialect may be off-putting, this was an amazing read, one that I am guessing will live in my mind for a while.
When I first read The Circle, it was 2014 and although Gamergate and worse had happened I refused to believe that social media and the alpha tech primadonnas could extend influence much beyond the confines of the diggerati. Re-reading it after the 2016 election reminds me that I’m a moron…
- Frustration with the cult of the tech alpha male in our culture seems to wax and wane, but Eggers clearly is more than frustrated. The three-headed monster that created the Circle neatly identifies what I think passes for the three sides of the tech alpha male – a sort of blind optimism about the perfectibility of humans (through technology, often developed by the alpha male’s company), financial smarts and a sort of willful ignorance about the dangers of monopoly capitalism, and sheer technical virtuosity.
- The fact that they’re all white guys is of course perfect.
- Eggers skips right over the usual binary – techno-optimism vs. techno-pessimism – and portrays those who want to uphold values like privacy as doomed. Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer gets particularly rough treatment…
- It’s hard not to read this as a sort of political thriller, one that ends badly.
- This novel ain’t subtle, all the way down to Stenton (financial guy) and his love of the voracious shark that eats the world and covers it in fecal material that is simply grey ash. The fact that the shark is transparent is another nice touch.
- I’m guessing that Eggers thinks this conversation is too important to be subtle about.
- The way that most of us so quickly immerse ourselves in the intensely anxious world of social media approval-seeking frightens me for the future, and makes Eggers’s vision particularly relevant.
- At the same time, Mae is so relentlessly caught up in the social prestige of being a bigwig at the Circle that I hope when she wakes up in twenty years that there is still a world.
- Every time I think Goodreads will offer me interesting conversation about a novel, I’m wrong. One of these days I will stop being surprised.