American Spy takes us on a journey through the stories we heard about the CIA from the 70s and 80s, tales of destabilization and violence and ideological fanaticism. This sort of content fits the general pattern of spy novels, which aren’t my thing, but I couldn’t put it down because of all the other issues Wilkinson raises…
- The narrator is an African-American woman who can speak French and whose father rose high in the NYPD. She’s trying to navigate the expectations put on her by her father (lift her fellow people, etc.) with her own distrust of what the CIA is trying to do in developing nations.
- She doesn’t necessarily work for the CIA – she is actually an FBI agent who is feeling frustrated with the Bureau, mostly because her boss slow walks her progress (and holds her to a ridiculous double standard), and thus when someone in the CIA offers her a project to help depose the president of Burkina Faso (Thomas Sankara, a real-life figure) she jumps on it.
- The illegal nature of this sort of activity is made clear, as she thinks she has her agency’s permission, only to find out that the project actually has no official connections to the US Government.
- The novel is written as a diary to her two children, who it turns out are Sankara’s sons. She was sent to Africa to seduce him, and didn’t succeed until she felt completely ambivalent about her mission. She has sex with him shortly before he was assassinated, by his former comrade who had been bought off by the CIA.
- What the CIA did in Africa in the 70s and 80s is hard to stomach…
- A serious theme throughout is the idea of passing. A couple of the characters discuss Larsen’s novel, and throughout the narrator talks about the difficulties of being a member of law enforcement while also being a member of a group brutalized and oppressed by those same forces.
- Multiple characters pass, in multiple ways. The performative nature of survival has rarely been described so compellingly.
Wilkinson’s novel reminded me of the bad old days of the CIA, when destabilization – killing in the name of anti-communism – and making no distinction between communists and their motives – in fact blurring those distinctions intentionally, a campaign of disinformation that blows away the clumsy efforts of the trumpkins – brought about the kinds of pain and misery that are only gradually being revealed. It is worth the read for a lot of reasons, but the different look at that decade and the ways that various characters try to pass made it incredibly enjoyable.
…is my guess anyway – as much as punk and rap look terrifying to those on the outside (and they can inspire fascist followers, no doubt) – the community of folks who feel as if they’re part of the same tribe is undeniable. Jazz doesn’t allow us to grind against each other in the same ways…
While you may see a sort of frightful hellhole of young skinny disaffected white guys, I see an amazing band that is unafraid of its audience, and relies solely on its music.
Not exactly po -tae – to/po – tah – to…
Although I love cyberpunk I was not familiar with Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita series until I saw the film with a friend. I then picked up the comic books, and…well, thoughts below:
- The genial cybernetic surgeon who works for the poor (Dr. Ido) and still swings a mean atomic-powered hammer at night is not something I saw coming…
- The morphing of “battle” and “angel” feels like another look at the Molly from the Neuromancer series…Kishiro seems to roll seamlessly between having characters comment on how cute she is and then having her disembowel or decapitate them. Or both.
- The search for a backstory hints at the economic separatism and destroyed world that the film emphasized, and while the enemy (impossibly rich and obsessed with occupying the top rungs of the economic ladder) is sort of an easy one, the idea of a fall from the heaven of economic security only to be reinstated in a worthy body posits a world in which violence gets directed downwards over and over again…
- The image is fascinating to me, and I think speaks to how little I know of Japanese culture – why a tiny very young woman? Why does Kishiro invert the stereotype so broadly? Why do the “evil” cyborgs fall in love with her, and what are the implications of that?
- Because I’m comfortable with sci-fi and western culture, these questions feel appropriate (and they may not be) – I can endlessly talk about how using Molly as the bodyguard (with a cybernetically-enhanced body that is still captured constantly in all sorts of powerfully disruptive ways) and Case – and Bobby Newmark – as the emotional core shreds science fiction conventions. I have no idea if Kishiro is doing the same thing, but it sure feels like it…
- I am very glad she has some serious plasma weaponry – the film seemed to emphasize her fighting style in ways that felt too used to Hollywood mano-on-mano narratives…
- Finally, the pen-and-ink, sketched out art speaks to manga in my less-than-literate-in-Japanese culture mind…
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…
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 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…
Contemporary sci-fi is hard to keep up with, and I’ve not tried to read the latest and greatest in any dutiful sense for a few years. This means that I often miss great series, and the Kovacs trilogy by Richard K Morgan is one.
Broken Angels takes place in a much different space than does Altered Carbon, and is a scifi war novel, leaping away from Altered Carbon’s cyberpunk, hard-boiled world. It’s also way darker and grimmer, and fits Morgan’s world view as expressed in a couple of interviews (here and here).
Other thoughts below:
- Morgan definitely has something to say about extropianism, and he’s not a fan. The tech utopians who believe in it feel a very specific brand of willfully blind to me, and seem to believe that they can write out the potential for uber-fascism that is its foundation and create a future world that is completely rational and free (and a meritocracy to boot).
- In contrast, the world of this series posits a highly-layered, incredibly un-egalitarian system in which those who can attain virtual immortality due so in order to accumulate so much wealth that they can treat the rest of the world as their playground.
- That response makes sense, of course – in a chaotic world in which some are always oppressing the majority (and paths leading one out of the downtrodden masses often involve doing hideous work for the elite) one sure way to protect your children is to accumulate inordinate (and insane) amounts of wealth. If you can stay alive forever by simply resleeving after your body wears out, why would you not want to be able to protect yourself through wealth even more fiercely?
- He also explores the effects of trauma (and hyper-trauma) on the process of constantly putting people into new bodies – in this series entire methods have been developed to try to heal the trauma of someone who was put through physical extremes in a previous body, methods that range from intense empathy to psychosurgery.
- Re-sleeving doesn’t eliminate the trauma, a concept that I’m not sure the extropians have considered.
- Morgan stomps on the fascination with military hardware that dominates lots of cyberpunk and/or science fiction military worlds. Kovacs at one point kills over a hundred soldiers (who themselves are witnessing a horrendous execution by torture) because he hijacks their own hardware and decides that they have to die. He clearly feels no remorse over this – he just kills them all, the logical extension of having all this power.
- Cyberpunk grew into a genre that scifi military folks geek over (something we see a bit in the Star Wars fandom), and Morgan is reclaiming it as a more Gibsonian landscape, one in which layers of oppression are resisted, albeit with costs to the resistors.
- Morgan also argues that technological advances will always be configured in power. The example that comes to mind most clearly from this series is the nano-organism that Kovacs’s team finds deployed in the area of the Martian technology that they are trying to use as a way of becoming rich. The nano-organism quickly develops the capacity to survive nearly anything the squad can throw at it, and they have no option but to escape it.
- It can, however, be shut down with the simple insertion of a backdoor code. Its creators can turn off this incredibly powerful machine/biological entity with a simple key. Without that key it is unstoppable.
- Machine Learning and AI are clearly our best bad plans.
- Oh yeah, did I mention that there’s lots of alien technology, far in advance of human? And that soldiers’ DNA is spliced with wolves to help instill in them a desire to be part of a pack? Or that he sees world-building species as coming solely from predators (it’s harder to survive as a species as a predator, so it takes more intelligence as well as ruthlessness). Morgan’s extrapolations are fascinating, and in and of themselves make this series a powerful read.
I’m always interested in views of our dystopian future, especially when they involve robots, so I watched I am Mother recently. My thoughts below:
- I’m not always good at identifying how a film will end (my wife guessed the ending of Sixth Sense way before I did) so I’m probably a bad source, but I at times had trouble seeing which way the plot would go. (SPOILER ALERT) It certainly didn’t end as I expected, with the spunky-but-conflicted humans blowing up all the robots.
- I also kept wondering just how aware the director was of what felt to me like plot holes – as becomes evident at the end of the film he is (and was), but my guess is that the misdirections that felt unfollowed were designed to lead us astray as to what the ending would be.
- One of my major obsessions with robots is how they are represented in terms of power and control – this film messes with those ideas, as the killer droids seem to not be all that interested in killing unless they are ordered to do so (despite their fearsome appearance). I’m not exactly sure in this filmic world who does that ordering…and the hints are that Mother’s desire to save us from ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing…
- Mother seems too eerily drawn to be the perfect mom, and I’m guessing that’s designed to show that her coding is done from a robot’s perspective, with all coding errors done on the side of appearing as human as possible.
- It’s not exactly the sort of the Asimovian cyborg gets elected president because he’s perfect story, but there are hints that the robots truly do know better…
My quick tour of Lucia Berlin’s prose is complete as I have now finished A Manual for Cleaning Women, and I’m struck (again) by the intense clarity and pain that she invokes solely through language. My thoughts follow…
- Every single story is amazing, and can stand on its own. One of the most fascinating parts of her work in my mind though is how seemingly seamlessly (although not unjarringly) she moves through a whole series of approaches that should feel annoyingly crafty and calculated – telling the same story through a different narrative lens, revisiting scenes (a narrative device she will use in Evening in Paradise as well) and adding characters, leading us as readers to believe (against all evidence) that this time the story will end well (only to be gut-punched again at the end).
- Spoiler – these devices all work. I’m not sure I’ve read fiction that had me verged on the edge of tears so often…
- Part of the way she accomplishes this is through the casual ways she moves through class, ethnic, and gender lines. These stories move from remote mining towns in New Mexico and fishing villages off the coast of Chiapas (I think) to the hoipolloi of Santiago and El Paso to the ghettos of Oakland.
- Her narrators move with her, along those same usual suspect lines, with gender and class predominating – stories get told from the perspective of a white male civil rights attorney who defends a reasonable facsimile of Berlin as well as a teenage girlfriend of a drug-runner who has snuck across the US border from Mexico, with a whole range of voices in between.
- The voices form a chorus in the best Greek tradition, even as they speak from their own reality.
- They also stomp all over the border between classes, as Berlin herself worked in a wide range of jobs and can speak coherently and movingly about a dozen of them.
- I’m not going to try to write about each story – I hope to get thoughts down about them all later – but I can’t help but think about the ways in which her language grounds me in human experience that somehow doesn’t ignore subjectivity. I usually prefer reading prose (I’m better at reading poetry that is unstinting) that while acutely aware of the misery around us is either surreal or farcical enough to feel sort of light (I’m thinking of folks like George Saunders and Karen Russell, both of whom I love as writers as well). Her prose is never light; even when she’s funny the humor is thoroughly entombed in a graveyard.
- It’s not that her prose can’t be beautiful in any number of ways that we often think of as literary aesthetical gorgeousness – it’s just that she is hyper-empathetic and constantly aware of the sheer fuckery that most people go through as they try to combat what often seem to be intensely difficult mountains to climb.
- In Berlin’s world the panopticon is as fiercely internal as external – cultural forces and biologies combine to create pressures that crush all of us, albeit sometimes in subtle ways.