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…
The Water Dancer features Hiram Walker, the bi-racial son of a slave owner, who becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He navigates a landscape fraught with complicated family relationships and a declining (because of poor land management practices) Virginia, all dominated by the horror of slavery.
Coates portrays the idea of being conducted on the UR as one that involves transversing time and space through the power of memory and family. Hiram does not invoke the Africa that he doesn’t know (which I kept cringing at the thought of) but instead calls on the emotions he has worked through in moving from slave to free, and uses images of the people associated with those emotional traces in his memory to power his own ability to use water to create time/space bridges.
It’s hard for me to *not* read this novel in the light of Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. Whitehead’s depiction is far more grounded in engineering and materiality, even as the novel fits neatly into the magical realism genre, while Coates’s reading becomes a spiritual rendition that has the actual capacity to carry escaped slaves to salvation.
Coates also sees a place for heroic and effective (if fanatical – think John Brown) whites; in Whitehead’s version, blacks have to save themselves because depending upon white people in any way is probably foolhardy.
Slaves and owners are called The Tasking and The Quality in this novel, a nod of sorts to 19th c. language. At first this threw me off, but gradually I understood that this language emphasizes just how little actual labor the Quality does, and the ways that even trying to soften language does not absolve the original sin of slavery. The attempts at euphemism and defanging fail in this novel, as the constant sense of threat and the presence of violence are overwhelming.
Harriet Tubman also makes a guest appearance, which triggers my fan-boi mode…
Coates’s approach in this novel – using the idiom of other novels of the time, depicting the brutality of slavery all the way down to the labels we use to characterize each other (labels that are used as disguises), and the activist approach to helping those who are on the run – feels more historically-detailed and grounded than I perhaps expected. I hope that he and many other writers continue to examine the role this institution – driven by a “peculiar and powerful interest” – has in resulting in the trials of the present. They keep reminding us to pay the price that Lincoln describes in his second inaugural address:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) keeps trying to give me hope for the future, and not in a blind or cheesy way. His latest novel, Walkway, is a sort-of utopia that looks at a possible future that Doctorow calls post-scarcity to see what shape our society might take. Even though it’s realistic – lots of brutal military oppression happens by the 1% – it has a happy ending of sorts that doesn’t feel entirely impossible.
That’s it – that’s about as hopeful as I get these days…
Walkway argues that the key to surviving in a way that doesn’t involve trying to scrape crumbs from the elite’s tables is to simply walk away – become attached to no material possessions.
An entire culture has formed based on this concept, and in true Doctorow fashion he pokes holes at it from all sides…
…including the far left as well as the far right…
His vision is such a beautiful one – he assumes that folks in walkaway culture will work to the best of their abilities, even if that means that some don’t work at all, and since we have all of our Maslowian needs met there is a significant segment of humanity who simply do not care about status, or seeking it.
Thus, walkaway culture can become a thing as a sort of response to what Doctorow calls default culture, because we are officially post-scarcity, and we don’t need an economic system to fulfill our basic needs.
Post-scarcity becomes evident by the ways in which the walkaways create the things they need – they’re all printed, even food – and the fact that these machines and the raw materials are always available.
I also enjoyed the tech resistance – people fighting back despite huge odds is something that you usually see in far less intelligent novels…
The idea that some people become so wealthy that they are ‘zotto’ (which I’m assuming means zillionaires) is a feature-not-bug that also prompted walkaways. Zottos are the ones who finance the military attacks on walkaways, because in the novel’s logic if there’s no one’s labor to exploit than zottos will disappear, and they know it.
I also enjoyed the characters in this novel. Doctorow paints with some pretty broad brushes, but he manages to represent all kinds of people without stereotypical.
Walkaway, like Ecotopia before it, is a place I could live. Thank you Cory Doctorow for seeing a way out of our current morass…
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 have a love-hate relationship with zombie texts in general. Night of the Living Dead was a brilliant start to the genre, and set a high bar for subsequent texts, but zombie films, television series, and graphic novels have been up-and-down since (unlike zombie novels, which in general have remained excellent). It feels like it many ways the zombie has been milked of all its substance and had its conventions and expectations shattered (thank you Colson Whitehead for Zone One!), and I sometimes wonder why we need more of them.
Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016) is one of the highlights. In the best zombie film tradition it speaks directly to a specific anxiety – class – while also arguing that there are no safe spaces – survival is mostly about luck. For instance, several of the characters I assumed would make it did not, and the fact that those who do make it barely do so (in a beautiful homage to the ending of NOTLD) brought me to the edge of my seat.
In another honorable tradition of the genre, the film takes advantage of being a zombie movie to call out directly big corporations and the wannabe alpha males who run them (as well as some of the corporate lackeys who enable those folks). Several potential survivors die because they listen (against their better judgment it appears) to the COO who is a coward, and a pharmaceutical developed by one of the companies that the hedge fund manager who is perhaps the main character invests in is the cause of the outbreak.
Fatherhood is also a theme, as we get to see two fathers in direct action trying to save their families. Finally, the film also made me laugh several times, again in the best zombie tradition.
I wish I understood South Korean culture well enough to know the subtleties of the class conflicts that this film describes, but it doesn’t take much knowledge besides that of what global capitalism is doing to understand the broad picture. I’m fairly certain that there’s also a comment in here about the ways that capital has co-opted the idea of freedom, but that’s another, much larger discussion.
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.
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.
Woken Furiesis the third novel in the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy called Altered Carbon. I have written about Altered Carbon and Broken Angels elsewhere in this blog, and what Morgan is trying to do is pretty interesting. I especially find fascinating how tightly these three novels stick to a very specific world-building project, one that could be limiting in a scifi novel that describes how humans have expanded far beyond even our own solar system.
Each of these follows the Neuromancer blueprint in a lot of ways – utterly cynical characters, many of whom are fairly hardcore criminal types, bleak landscapes, extreme differences between those at the top and those at the bottom of the economic system. His language also gets minimalist and devastatingly short in ways that would make Gibson proud, I think.
He extends the genre neatly in a couple of ways though – the planet that is the basis of all this has been settled by a group of folks who come from outside the WASPy land Gibson portrayed, even with his attempts to invoke Haitian gods and other cultures. Even at its best the Sprawl trilogy always seemed to present as a white guy exoticizing another culture, and Morgan doesn’t have that problem – these novels all feature someone deeply immersed.
He keeps Gibson’s fascination with class, though, and ups the ante by creating a world in which the elite can essentially forever by simply resleeving their core being in a new body when the old one wears out.
As in any good scifi the tech of course is fascinating, but I find the politics even moreso. Briefly, the planets are ruled by a group called the Protectorate, whose main goal is economic (and thus political) stability. They have recruited and trained a group of super-soldiers – called Envoys – troops who are both technologically- and psychologically-advanced. This army descends on any planet that cannot maintain stability – i.e., control its population – and imposes order.
Kovacs has split off from the Envoys and is a renegade of sorts. He doesn’t fight for the good in some political or ideological sense; instead, he is in this to make as much money as he can.
Or so he says – in this novel he uses the revolutionaries, who used to be his comrades, to help save one of his former comrades, and he also dives very deeply into their ideology.
Morgan’s use of dialogue is pretty cool here – we hear from all sides – the rich, the revolutionaries, and the folks from the Envoy who want to keep things status quo – and we essentially get to make up our own minds about the rights and wrongs of the ideological sides. I can see folks of very different political bents seeing these novels as justifying their own arguments.
In the end, the Other takes charge. As we discovered in Broken Angels, there was a space-faring race of Martians who have superseded humans everywhere we have since gone, and on the planet on which this novel is set (Harlan’s World) they created and left a planet-wide set of defensive satellites. These satellites use what the locals call angelfire to destroy anything that flies too fast or appears to threaten the satellite defense in any way. It has forced interesting paths in technological development on the planet (most travel is by ship, for instance, because of the likelihood that a plane will get destroyed), but it also serves as a constant reminder that these Martians were far advanced in comparison to us.
And they also had enemies capable of attacking them…
The novel turns at the end as the companera who Kovacs was rescuing turns out to be able to call on the Martian satellites to attack those who had them captured. A whole new world opens up at the end…
There are also interesting connections in this novel between data, imprinting, and ghosts, implications I hope to explore at another time.
Morgan’s trilogy is intense and thoughtful in ways that scifi military-centered novels often are not. The fact that the alien is both extinct and far more powerful than we can imagine also has consequences for how we as humans think of ourselves as both fleeing oppression and colonizers, and Morgan’s world becomes strangely utopic at the end, perhaps, as those who are fighting oppression might have a new weapon in the forever war of which we seem to have become a part…
I have been in awe of Louise Erdrich’s fiction since I read The Plague of Doves. Future Home of the Living Godconfirms 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.
Nell Zink’s Doxology is a longitudinal study of punk rockers from lower Manhattan in the 80s who manage to coax out fairly middle class lives while trying to be true to the indie ethic that dominated that scene. I spent some time in memory lane while reading this one, but it is far more Franzenian social realism than it is High Fidelity or Bright Lights Big City.
Pam and Daniel are an idealized couple, but even my awareness of that didn’t make them less likable. They mesh in interesting and fun ways, and they share a world view without either one crushing the vision (and emotional freedom) of the other.
Zink’s command of dialogue, especially between these two, led to some very funny exchanges of the sort that show the sort of mutual respect and understanding that I hope everyone finds in their relationships (whatever shape those take).
Joe is fascinating – he’s this child of nature who treads lightly through the world until he mysteriously becomes a mega-star, until a girlfriend (who loves him in her own sort of selfish way) shoots him with heroin one time and watches him die out of sheer incompetence.
That girlfriend then becomes a professional grieving rock star widow, and while I think we’re supposed to hate her even Zink’s narrator can’t do that…
Speaking of the narrator, this one is wise and funny and an astute observer of the indie music scene. Jes’ sayin’.
Pam’s relationship with her parents is interesting, as she essentially runs away and doesn’t contact them for years until she and Daniel decide they need to get Flora out of New York after 9/11. Flora then moves in with her grandparents and becomes a child of two cities, New York and Manhattan, and knits the two families back together even while she goes her own way.
This novel is definitely centered on something that’s not very punk rock – child-rearing. My guess is that that centering device, along with the title, speaks to the not-very-monolithic nature of the indie music movement, just as Joe’s becoming a star in EDM (rather than as a punk or post-punk musician) is another perspective on the branches that grew from that scene…
My reference to Franzen is not an accident. I guess that Franzen was one of Zink’s early adopters, and his advocacy helped get her published.
This novel felt Franzenian in its longitudinal study approach, but what felt different was the competence of the characters, and their abilities to dig themselves out of holes in ways that Franzen’s characters never seem able to do.
I think Doxology is pretty brilliant, and I enjoyed the recreation of the music scene in lower Manhattan at a time when some pretty amazing bands were playing there. The narrative move to post-9/11 New York lent some gravity to the novel in a way that helped it leap from a self-indulgent reminiscence of the underground-yet-sorta-privileged music scene to the weirdness that resulted from an attack on our own soil. Even for people who knew the damage our benevolent and not-so-benevolent imperialism has done (and continues to do), 9/11 caused us to rethink our own attitudes, and to reconsider our place in the world.
I’m pretty certain that we’ve taken the wrong lessons from it, but that’s a post for another day.