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.
Tommy Orange’s There There feels drenched in the violence that Native Americans have experienced since the arrival of Europeans, and that immersion feels icky to someone like me who has benefited from white privilege.
That’s how it should be.
More thoughts below:
- This novel feels related in a familial way to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, in both the brutality of the narrative and its multiple-perspective form. One of the key differences is that Orange does not try to recreate language patterns like James does, and he can pull this off since his narrators are not often first-person.
- Another key difference is the mini-essay that Orange begins There There with, a meditation of sorts on the Indian head from US-issued coins. I’m assuming that the essay is as close to Orange’s voice as we will get, and it is apologetic (to the reader at least) for the material that it covers while also setting out clearly what the novel hopes to accomplish. The directness of this felt refreshing, especially since Orange argues that the best way to communicate the disruption and violence that the Indian community is subjected to is through a disrupted narrative, and yet he wants readers to not be discouraged from reading it by his approach.
- The storyline kept me reading as much as did the narrative approach. It clearly builds to a climax that is both tragic and seemingly inevitable. It also points to the smallness of the circle that is the Native American community after generations of degradation at the hands of white America, as at the powwow this convergence leads to long-separated family members suddenly recognizing each other, often in uncomfortable ways.
- Orange makes transparent his desire to broaden the perspective of what we think of as the Indian experience, introducing his audience to both the “Urban Indian” and the Native American who looks white. In this sense passing becomes a strange phenomenon – a couple of his characters are enrolled members of tribes, and yet they look white enough to find trouble in being accepted into the native community. Passing as white is not something that they desire.
- The references in this are polyglot in all the best ways. The novel’s title comes from a Gertrude Stein diss of Oakland – “there is no there there,” but it also could be a way that we try to comfort children through language. The novel itself references Plath and Stein, and also Erdrich and Alexie, but Orange is comfortable enough with pop culture to include films and music, including Native American rap…
- Orange’s interest in sound is clearly portrayed in this novel, both in the rhythm of his dialogues and the power in the powwow as well.
- As with many of these novels, it feels most clearly the absence or lack – Orange early on describes cities as doubly-fraught-with-tragedy spaces for Native Americans, since they both represent a place that is difficult to survive in and a landscape that used to be far different before whites arrived. The lack is a powerful metaphor, and one that dovetails jarringly with the fascination that canonical Western texts have with wide open spaces as lacking civilization (and thus better proving grounds for masculinity or for reclaiming some lost utopian primitive space).
- Read it. The novel makes the occasional difficulty in identifying which character is which well worth the trouble.
Homesick for Another World is a collection of Otessa Moshfegh’s short stories, and it works differently than her novels. Novels reward those who are patient, both writers and readers, the observer who identifies details and winnows important observations from those that do not contribute to the text’s mission. Short stories tend to be far more of an exercise in immediate gratification. In particular, short story characters can tend to be more outrageous since there is no time to develop them.
- Moshfegh does not cotton to this strategy – even in this format her characters don’t reveal much of themselves, and only sometimes.
- This approach makes them even less sympathetic in some ways, and forced me as a reader to do some work. Rather than pile characters into those categories that I often resort to – I like them, I don’t like them, I like them sometimes – I had to look more carefully at the brutalizations that they both inflicted and endured.
- I also had to look at the validity of my own reactions – is this a way to read fiction, as a judgment on characters? I try not to do that even in real life, so my guess is no…
- Her approach to these characters also meant that the narrative voice often felt arrogant in ways that I did not feel comfortable with. That discomfort is good – arrogance among the brutally unaware is a feature not a bug, I think…
- I also found myself reading for redemption, which I would argue is a common way for audiences in the US in particular to read. We want happy endings, and if the character is not a good person we want them to at least admit that they are indeed not a good person.
- This does not happen in Moshfegh’s work.
- So, are these arrogant, irredeemable characters worth reading about? Yes, absolutely, although I am struggling with the why. There are probably two reasons that are compelling…
- From a metafictional perspective, this type of character (and they run a wide range of genders) works to subvert what we expect in fiction, and Moshfegh offers a much wider variety than say Bukowski, whose characters all seem to be some version of himself.
- Character portraits of folks who are not historically evil but simply not very aware of the damage that they do are way harder to pull off and damaging to the general lack of self-consciousness and intentionality that we often think of as a critical element in fiction.
- We all want to be Emma, in some ways, capable of both growth and recognizing the need to grow. There are no Emmas in what Moshfegh is doing…
- Finally, the last three stories in this collection (yes, I’m a rules-follower and read them in order) were different – nostalgic in the title of the collection sense, rife with a sense of alienation that in my mind helps to establish the narrator’s credibility as a reliable source of all these types of personalities. Moshfegh’s ability to write in so many voices is uncanny, and kept me wondering what the hell was coming next…
- In that sense, this collection fits snugly with Eileen, a novel in which I kept waiting for the character to do something horrible, a tension that is never paid off directly but instead contributes to the general sense of daily horror that comes from this sense of having no reason to keep going forward (and yet we keep going forward anyway).
The New Me feels like the ultimate gig economy novel, a The Devil Wears Prada without the pretension, redemption, or hope. I enjoyed it, from the manic narrator and her constant wild mood swings to the step-back chapters that featured how those who work with or know Millie look at her from a third-person perspective.
- My expectations of Millie actually shrunk as the novel progressed. I felt certain that this would progress like a McInerney or Jamowitz or Easton Ellis, with characters who are ultimately lovable and redeemable by the end of the novel despite the stuff they have done and big city settings that feature young people trying to figure stuff out.
- Butler doesn’t do that – I won’t spoil it, but the novel ends far less redemptively or with the narrator having some newfound sense of intentionality than those novels did. The narrative voice moves to third-person even for Millie, and the frantic, desperate, and hopeless tone becomes one of calm resignation. The sense of having given up struck me, hard.
- I’m struggling trying to reconcile the narrative voice with these usual narrative arcs, or with my idea that gig economy texts need to somehow be either redemptive (the protagonist reconciles their place in a messed-up system by doing some sort of relatively good work, like Rob Lowe’s character in About Last Night gentrifying Chicago (but in a good way), or they fight the power as happens in a Cory Doctorow novel. I much prefer Cory Doctorow, by the way.
- Instead, Butler’s novel lets the anger and despair seethe below the surface, never letting either Millie’s intelligence or self-loathing completely go away.
- Butler seems to be compared to Otessa Moshfegh, but that comparison does neither a lot of good. I’ve read a lot of Moshfegh, and this is the first novel of Butler’s that I’ve read, and Moshfegh is much less willing to take responsibility for her characters, much less likely to inhabit them and make them autobiographical. Both methods work, I hasten to add, but the comparison seems misplaced to me.
- I also admire the way that Butler has Millie absorb the idea of the new me, as she is completely enmeshed in the language of self-improvement, occasionally awakening from her spiral to berate herself for not following the new methods of making herself better that she has pulled from the Intertoobz.
- The socialization of women into this culture feels to me like a critical element of imbibing us all in the joys of the gig economy.
- Finally, in my mind both Butler and Moshfegh (as well as many others of course) offer valid strategies for trying to understand contemporary lived experience. We seem aeons away from James Wood’s critique of Pynchon, DeLillo, and mostly Zadie Smith (see Wikipedia’s page on hysterical realism for a primer), and closer to the Beats (who both lived and foresaw where we were going), the frantic energy of the eighties, and a zeitgeist that feels real to me, one in which we try to create filters that enable us to make a modicum of sense of the constant bombardment that we have created and now face.
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’ve not read enough of McEwan’s work, something I’ll try to remedy after reading Machines Like Me. This is ostensibly a robot novel, and it has a lot to say about identity and the ways we look at our historical moment. More thoughts below:
- I’m currently reading Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, and it’s making me rethink how I think of historical fiction, and history in texts in general. In Machines Like Me, McEwan creates a novel that I think might well be called ahistorical, as he intensely winds the narrative up in historical events that are actually sort of the opposite of what actually happened.
- I had to keep looking up events to make sure that I remembered history correctly. For instance, in this version of the Falklands War, The Exocet missiles do far more damage to British ships than they actually did, and the British navy turns around and heads home rather than risk more losses. Thatcher is weakened politically, and starts a long decline that results in her resignation, a wee bit different than actual human events.
- Even the artificial people are a result of this novelistic approach – a breakthrough happens because Alan Turing (yep, that one) refuses the chemical castration that he actually took to reduce his sentence in real life, does his jail time, and comes out on the other side to become an entrepreneur whose genius combines with the work of a couple of Stanford labs to produce actual robots that are marketed to the general public.
- I won’t talk about it here, but the alternative history that McEwan creates fits neatly with the arguments in Berlant’s book, ones I hope to address in this blog before too long.
- McEwan hints at his narrator’s approach to history in this passage (one that neatly , in which the narrator listens to his girlfriend complain about her graduate work in history:
It was no longer proper to assume that anything at all had ever happened in the past. There were only historical documents to consider, and changing scholarly approaches to them, and our own shifting relationship to those approaches, all of which were determined by ideological context, by relations to power and wealth, to race, class, gender and sexual orientation (35)
- McEwan’s narrator both shows a familiarity with the work of historians, especially academic ones, and rejects them as being too politicized, neatly lining up with his view early in the novel that our technology is apolitical and ahistorical. He will probably change that opinion by the end of the novel.
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…