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.
I’m becoming a huge Kameron Hurley fan, although The Stars Are Legion comes from a much different genre than The Light Brigade, my first foray into Hurley’s prose. TLB was recognizable as military sci-fi, a different but generically familiar take on the type of prose that was popularized by Heinlein, critiqued by Haldeman, and extended by Scalzi. The Stars Are Legion owes more to William F. Burroughs than to these.
- The idea of world ships isn’t new, of course. Hurley’s take is fascinating though, and as fresh as what Erickson and Esslemont are doing in the world of fantasy. These ships have been launched from the central core and are clinging to the extreme range of heat and light produced by the star around which they orbit, and we are plunged into the midst of their existential crises, as they are dying, slowly, providing the narrative impetus for the activity of the protagonists, Zan and Jaryd – they are trying to save their world.
- From an ideological standpoint, this novel fits with what I think Ibrahim X. Kendi argues is anti-sexist work. The world ships that make up Legion are populated entirely by biological females, but that doesn’t mean that the inhabitants aren’t capable of the full range of human behaviors.
- The only difference is that the world ship uses them – all of them – as ever-wombs, parthogenetically having them produce whatever the ship needs through their wombs. This difference is sex-based, not gender, and the difference helps to make these anti-sexist in my mind (although I’m guessing that lots of readers will not like this feature).
- We never find out why there are only women on this ship – the novel’s lack of interest in origin stories argues that perhaps our obsessive need to know these things is not all that useful…
- The most distressing of these behaviors is the inability to give up tribal behavior. Zan has a vision that will help the planets of Legion move on to another world, but she is continuously thwarted by those around her who can only think of saving their immediate surroundings.
- The world itself is fascinating – it has multiple layers, as these world ships have obviously been in existence for so long that whatever initial ties bound the crews together have been completely forgotten. While not all layers are inhabited, the ones that are have formed absolutely unique worlds-within-the-larger-world, and they only know of the other layers through legend and myth.
- The idea of sustainability on a world ship takes on its own life, moving past just sustaining the world and into how to regenerate it. Since the world’s brain functions as a massive (I’m assuming) distributed AI, it reacts to the increasing stratification of the world in a bunch of fascinating and often sort of disturbingly visceral ways.
- For instance, Zan is recycled (many times), and it becomes clear that the world needs the uniqueness of her vision for some reason, since most who get recycled retain nothing of their original selves – the ship uses their organic material to meet another need. The fact that her own family/tribe doesn’t help her remember her purpose speaks to the limits of humans (even in this far-departed form) and is Hurley’s comment on the near-impossibility of seeing beyond our noses.
Hurley’s take on hard science fiction is fascinating, and a welcome departure from the more mainstream approaches (I’m looking at you The Expanse). In my mind these novels are more than just what-ifs – they are active attempts to imagine the impossible and look thousands of years into the future. As dystopian as this novel sometimes feels (multiple worlds are dying, after all), Hurley wants to look at ways that we can move into the galaxy that don’t involve multiple years of cryogenic freezing or needlecasts or hyperspeed travel – she wants to think about what happens if we have to leave but travel at a pace that is far closer to what we know is possible according to the laws of physics. Lots of our core beliefs about ourselves will need to be rethought if we make it that far, and we will need thinkers like Hurley to help us do this.
Kendi’s How to be an AntiRacist is part memoir, part black studies, and part call-to-action book, and I read it far more quickly than I had anticipated. He personalizes the struggle that both our society and he have gone and are going through, and he ends by describing his vision for an antiracist world. That vision is a beautiful thing.
- I always think I’m pretty well-versed in the history of the United States, but I learned a couple of things.
- Harriet Tubman actually led a raid on South Carolina slave plantations – the raid was conducted by the 54th Massachusetts (yes, that 54th).
- William Tecumseh Sherman actually asked black leaders in Atlanta what they wanted to do – be assimilated or have their own land – and when they said have their own land he made that happen: 40 acres and a government mule.
- Among the many insights I took away from this book is that calling something racist in a pejorative fashion does not do what Kendi advocates for, which is treating it as disease caused by policies, not a character flaw in an individual. I’m very guilty of the latter, and I need to get better about it.
- Kendi also very carefully looks at the ways in which intersectionality plays into this conversation, looking at the usual suspects of class and gender as well. He devotes individual chapters to each, and adds biology and ethnicity as well.
- Many, many great quotes – here are a couple:
To be antiracist is to focus on ending the racism that shapes the mirages, not to ignore the mirages that shape people’s lives.
But before we can treat, we must believe. Believe all is not lost for you and me and our society. Believe in the possibility that we can strive to be antiracist from this day forward. Believe in the possibility that we can transform our societies to be antiracist from this day forward. Racist power is not godly. Racist policies are not indestructible. Racial inequities are not inevitable. Racist ideas are not natural to the human mind.
- As I said, those are just a couple.
- His approach is remarkably inclusive, even if it involves a lot of intentionality and hard work. The ways that he sees racism and all the other -isms being inflicted upon people shows that it affects all of us, except perhaps the very wealthy.
Kendi’s vision is a beautiful one, and perhaps more importantly offers us a way forward. This planet and its people are too beautiful to throw away, and Kendi offers us a way to salve some of biggest schisms that we have, heal our wounds, and move forward. As he notes, as humans we spent over 200,000 years noting color but not pinning it to specific characteristics in a pseudo-scientific fashion. Moving past the divisions caused by the false construct of race (which Kendi argues is actually a construct of power) is both doable and critical.
I came to Morgan’s work through his Altered Carbon series, which I enjoyed when I watched the Netflix series. They do interesting work with class and ethnicity, and I was intrigued by the ways that Morgan continues that work in the A Land Fit for Heroes trilogy.
The Steel Remains is the first of these, and, uh, whoa…he covers a lot of ground, and even adds sexual identification to the fantasy conversation. This novel felt like a worthy successor to Delany’s Tales from Neveryon series, and I have immediately plunged into the rest of the trilogy.
- His work with race will take far more room than I have in a blog post, but I will sketch out my thoughts quickly…
- Unlike Tolkien, and most subsequent fantasy, he doesn’t create a racial hierarchy running from orc to human to elf. As many folks have talked about, Tolkien often associates characteristics with racial identity, asking his characters conform to racial lines.
- Of course there are counter-examples (and I’ll leave those out so this post doesn’t jump its boundaries), but Tolkien’s world is very medieval western Europe.
- Morgan associates characteristics in this racially-determined way as well, but he leaves us a lot of hints that those components of racial identity actually belong to culture rather than race.
- There are legions of examples, but the fact that the immortal race of humanoids called the Kiriath are master engineers (and black, and don’t fight with axes) stems from their culture rather than from any imbued racial characteristics.
- In fact, the “racial” attributes of various characters are usually anything but…
- Morgan also doesn’t assume that elves – essentially idealized humans – or orcs – sub-idealized humans, often dark-skinned – reside at the top of a hierarchy in which they present as the best humans can be (in a very English, western-European sense).
- His races aren’t even all that separate – I’m only partly into the second novel, but our hero seems to be trans-racial in some ways, capable of becoming a dwenda (a race capable of bending the laws of space and time), which in some ways functions as an ur-race.
- We are not even sure that the dwenda aren’t just mutated or evolved humans (I’m not using evolved as a value judgment here, instead hopefully using it more scientifically as a way to talk about adapting to an environment).
- And the dwenda are definitely *not* good – no spoilers, but they do some pretty horrific stuff…
- He also is not shy about the sexual identity of a couple of the novel’s protagonists. He hasn’t quite jumped into the non-binary realm, but not only is his male protagonist proudly gay, he is also trans-race in his sexual identity.
- Morgan also spends more time than I was comfortable with investigating the culture’s attitudes towards the cis-gendered gay male’s reception in his culture. He has folks direct a lot of casual homophobia at him, and goes beyond that by having Gil’s first true love executed horribly for the crime of being both gay and lower class.
As I noted in the beginning of this, I have a lot more to think about in this series. Fortunately, I still have two books to go.
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…
Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans might be the novel most dedicated to social realism that I’ve read in a while. It tells multiple stories from multiple perspectives of folks who grow up in inner California, the part of California that lots of people don’t really exists.
- The main narrative thread follows the Guerraoui family – dad, mom, two sisters – as they flee from oppressive Morocco to the US. We find in a flashback that dad feared that he would be arrested by the regime – at least one of his fellow student activists was – and so they fled without having much choice.
- We mostly closely follow Nora, the youngest sister, who is a composer and her dad’s favorite, as she tries to deal with both her grief and her guilt at dad leaving her a large life insurance policy that ignored mom and other daughter.
- Dad had all kinds of things going on – successful restaurant, businessperson despite his ambivalence towards capitalism – but he also had an affair that his daughter had to come to grips with.
- The white folks of the town had an ambiguous relationship with their Moroccan refugee neighbors, as we might imagine. For instance, one of them – who went to high school with Nora – falls in love with her, and has to reconcile that with the shit he had to do as a Marine in Iraq.
- The narrative energy comes from the investigation into the dad’s death – at first it seems accidental, but things arrive and someone gets convicted – but the story is never over-hyped. The investigation doesn’t tear the town apart or set neighbor against neighbor in any dramatic, Save the Titans fashion.
- Instead, it reveals the ways that racism is inherent in the American social fabric, and the constant struggles that individuals have in trying to understand their own places in the world.
Lalami’s novel is most effective in its breadth, I think. It doesn’t ask a lot of characters in some ways – they don’t have to reconcile or redeem themselves in any hyperactive way. The gradual realizations that they come to – the underpinnings of their own belief systems, interspersed with the cultural narratives and social norms that helped them formulate those systems, do more than enough work in concretizing barriers in how we get along.
Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours investigates the life of a crooked real estate developer, who as we are told many times is a bad man. I think the novel functions as an investigation because her narrator functions like a detective, most closely focused on those closest to Victor (the real estate developer/father/adulterer/extortionist/cheat) while gathering snippets from other people who have been connected to him, even if those connections are peripheral at best.
- The gradual reveal that this investigation functions as worked – I did not see it coming at all, and it was just as crushing as it should have been. I found myself saying nonononononononono to the character who screws up, only to watch her still make that mistake.
- I rarely comment on cover art, but holy cow it’s good on this one, as the photo of a storage unit door, in brilliant orange, is the sole image, and works as a beautiful cipher for Victor’s lack of positive impact on his world.
- I admit to feeling a bit of triumph in a non-objective reader way about the way that Victor is treated after he dies. Even the grave digger (who ordinarily gives all the folks he buries, ones who had no family to claim them, some at least minimal type of respect) hurries through burying him in order to avoid an oncoming storm.
- Attenberg relies on several tropes in ways that might feel simplistic, but the insight her narrator provides us on her characters made them seem less obtrusive.
- I wonder again if that’s a function of the slow reveal. If we had simply been introduced to the grandma-who-sacrifices-to-save-the-two-children or the husband-just-like-my-father early on, I’m not sure their gradual disintegration would have been as impactful.
- There’s also a couple of subtle critiques of masculinity, real estate developers, and a couple of side swipes at Trump in this. The type of business person that Victor is – one who doesn’t bother with the idea that business is healthy competition but constantly works to tilt the playing field his direction – matches our President, despite the beliefs of his adoring cult.
- It’s also I think a particularly masculine view of how to do business, one that I was lucky enough to not see but that still leaves its stench.
- The other critique is that this type of mindset filters its way into men’s personal lives (although the cause-and-effect is far more complicated), thus allowing Victor to commit crimes against his wife as well.
- And the strategies that the various women in his life have to deal still lets us understand that they have to have strategies to deal with him – he forces the action, and they have to respond.
- There are snippets from several folks, times when the narrator tells us what they’re thinking: a bartender, the aforementioned grave digger, the doctor who knows the autopsy, a cab driver, and so on. The negligible impact that Victor’s presence has on these people struck me – while he thought he was a master of the universe, in fact, Attenberg’s narrator seems to be saying, he actually plays a very small part int he functioning of the universe.
This review shows why I look forward to reading more of Attenberg’s prose – I talk far more about Victor than his actual presence in the novel would seem to dictate. The casual way her narrator functions, telling us the back story almost as we become ready for it, made sense to me, and mimicked a type of social realism that neatly characterizes the way that I think many of us live our lives in late capitalism, in a sort of daze of self-importance and perceived agency that probably doesn’t actually exist. In a time of late capitalism, Victor is the triumphant model, having affairs with much younger women and snorting cocaine at age 73, even while those around him try to understand his impact on their lives.
I did not read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation when it first came out – I think that the experiences she was relating (I had read her pieces in the Texas Monthly when I lived in Dallas) felt too close to reality, even if it wasn’t my lived experience, and the fact that my generation of Xers had rejected the drugs of the Boomers only to become addicted to our own – ones that were produced by the pharmaceutical companies to boot – was too maddening.
I’m sorry I didn’t, and the fact that I picked this up after Wurtzel died probably lessens its impact on me. Still, I found it maddening and powerful, even if I’m not quite sure what to think about her mission in general.
- I admire Wurtzel’s desire to show the chaos that someone with depression can be very comfortable plunging themselves into. In a straightforward narrative that’s a difficult task, and she does this by being unsparing of herself in her prose.
- That unsparing quality is offset by her manic need to get this story told, an effort that keeps her writing I guess, in an effort to document.
- I’m guessing that my concerns about not understanding her mission don’t take into account something she talks about a lot – the critically desperate need she has to try to communicate just what it’s like to be in her head.
- I keep struggling with wanting to judge her. She asks – almost begs – for that judgment, from us as readers as well as those in her life. In fact, the way that she begins the memoir (she publishes this when she’s 27, and the first scene in the book happens when she’s 25) demonstrates her willingness to not let this fall into a pattern that we’re familiar with – the redemption story.
- She doesn’t let us believe that there’s a happy ending, although she pulls that punch a bit with her epilogue and afterwords in which she sounds like the calm, smart, well-read journalist she is in her other writing.
- Her desire to show just how unlikable someone suffering from major depression is confirms her sentiment, and she is amazed at the people who stay with her no matter what, even when she accuses them unfairly of doing horrible things to her.
- I was also fascinated by her traverses across class borders – she’s almost a tourist in the drug culture, all the while hanging out in one of the elite establishments in the country (Harvard) and fully utilizing what sound like amazing facilities. And yet she has to get her drugs from somewhere, and she ends up writing a lot about cultures that are far from the mainstream, and writing about them as a traveler not a tourist.
I realize that I keep falling into the same traps that I’m sure lots of us fall into – I want to extrapolate from her life and find ways to help those who are mentally ill in all manifestations. My guess is that this book directly contradicts my desire, and that the amount of impact we can have is limited, unless, of course, we want to take on the larger social and cultural issues that are driving people even more to madness. I’m thankful she wrote this, as gathering lived experience from those whose experience is far different than mine is critical to understanding our fellow humans.
I have been in awe of Louise Erdrich’s fiction since I read The Plague of Doves. Future Home of the Living God confirms in my mind that she’s one of the greatest novelists in the United States. She of course doesn’t need my approval, but the variety of voices she brings to the task of novel writing is astounding, and helps us I think better understand who we are as our society grows increasingly diverse.
- This novel starts in an almost slapstick fashion, with our narrator energetically and sort of chaotically seeking out her “real” mom. It quickly changes tone, as the environment starts to go more quickly into collapse and evolution starts running backwards. As the cool kids say, shit gets real.
- Cedar (the narrator) might want to find out her roots, but as the novel reveals those roots are more complicated than she has imagined, and the reservation is not some sort of pristine Dances with Wolves prelapsarian wilderness but is instead as multicultural as the rest of the country.
- Hell, several of the tribe members have converted to Catholicism (albeit in a very interesting way, complete with a vengeful saint who feels as much product of the material world as more typical Catholic saint). Like much of the rest of the United States in this novel they are becoming increasingly fundamentalist as the world falls apart.
- Double hell, her step-father is a version of Proust, only way better.
- Their definition of fundamentalism, however, is pretty different, and definitely not totalitarian.
- The ways in which clearly no one fully understands what’s going on with the world is a smart feature. Too often dystopian novels try to explain to us what happened, setting up a sort of narrator-explaining vibe that makes the novel feel more like a rant and less like an exercise in building a world of hellish consequences.
- The movement back and forth between Minneapolis and the reservation in North Dakota also neatly sets up a whole bunch of unexpected turns. This definitely was not a sort of Thunderheart, run-to-the-reservation-for-safety scenario. Despite the fact that they are more fully developed as humans than the rest of the nation, the members of the Ojibwe nation can no better protect the pregnant protagonist than can her erstwhile boyfriend (who admittedly is tortured to reveal her location).
- The fact that so much of the background in this novel is set by rumor is a beautiful thing. The assumption that dystopia means complete oppression, with romantic midnight runs through barbed wire and lots of neo-Nazi punching, seems a tad overdone, and Erdrich does not fall into that trap.
- Erdrich always lots of heartbreaking vignettes to her novels, and in this one the scene that made me gasp described a bunch of tribe members as they saw what they realized might be their last snowfall. It wasn’t their last snowfall because they were dying – it was the last snowfall to ever be recorded in North Dakota. Yikes.
More Erdrich novels please…
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…