Cargill’s Sea of Rust lives in a couple of genres, as both an apocalyptic scifi novel and a gritty war text. In the first incarnation, it’s a worthy descendant of the robots-destroy-us-all genre, while in the second it fits with stories of small platoons trying to accomplish desperate missions. The fact that I cared about this platoon despite the fact that it consisted of robots (and robots who had committed war crimes against humans) is an interesting one…
- We follow BRITTLE, a caregiver type robot who has developed into a stone cold killer in order to survive in the new world. She’s a scavenger of sorts, putting robots down so that she can take their parts.
- Cargill talks a lot about the ways in which robots might develop some sort of conscience, and in ways he makes robot emotional states very close to those of humans.
- I think that makes sense, and speaks to the ways in which our technology will both outstrip us and be unable to avoid the same sorts of deep, hard-wiring that we gave them (even if it takes different forms).
- In this novel, the first principle is that killing makes sense and is the first principle, with controlling others a close second.
- The world isn’t total anarchy – there are two mainframes that survived the war with the humans intact, and they’re trying to bring order to the world by making all robots part of the larger network.
- Needless to say, lots of robots don’t want anything to do with this…
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…
When I first read The Circle, it was 2014 and although Gamergate and worse had happened I refused to believe that social media and the alpha tech primadonnas could extend influence much beyond the confines of the diggerati. Re-reading it after the 2016 election reminds me that I’m a moron…
- Frustration with the cult of the tech alpha male in our culture seems to wax and wane, but Eggers clearly is more than frustrated. The three-headed monster that created the Circle neatly identifies what I think passes for the three sides of the tech alpha male – a sort of blind optimism about the perfectibility of humans (through technology, often developed by the alpha male’s company), financial smarts and a sort of willful ignorance about the dangers of monopoly capitalism, and sheer technical virtuosity.
- The fact that they’re all white guys is of course perfect.
- Eggers skips right over the usual binary – techno-optimism vs. techno-pessimism – and portrays those who want to uphold values like privacy as doomed. Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer gets particularly rough treatment…
- It’s hard not to read this as a sort of political thriller, one that ends badly.
- This novel ain’t subtle, all the way down to Stenton (financial guy) and his love of the voracious shark that eats the world and covers it in fecal material that is simply grey ash. The fact that the shark is transparent is another nice touch.
- I’m guessing that Eggers thinks this conversation is too important to be subtle about.
- The way that most of us so quickly immerse ourselves in the intensely anxious world of social media approval-seeking frightens me for the future, and makes Eggers’s vision particularly relevant.
- At the same time, Mae is so relentlessly caught up in the social prestige of being a bigwig at the Circle that I hope when she wakes up in twenty years that there is still a world.
- Every time I think Goodreads will offer me interesting conversation about a novel, I’m wrong. One of these days I will stop being surprised.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve read Ecotopia, but every time I do I want to go live there…
- Bad stuff out of the way first – this is written in the mid-70s, and has all the systemic racism and sexism one would expect from the hippies, who were perhaps not as enlightened as they imagined themselves to be. It’s also very hetero, with sort of an implicit belief that being gay will not be a thing once we figure out the problems we have caused with the natural world.
- All of these are definitely problems, and they fit Callenbach’s hippieish, Jerry Rubin style “revolution.”
- That said, it’s also a non-stop look at possible ways to work ourselves out of the looming ecological disaster that we find ourselves facing. It creates a very Jeffersonian view of the ways we interact with the world – small farms and craftsmen, decentralized towns rather than large cities, and family units that are more flexible and larger and in which people take care of themselves.
- By non-stop I mean that Callenbach doesn’t spend much time developing characters. The reporter from the US who goes back to Ecotopia is a barely fleshed-out amalgam of all the hard-bitten reporter stereotypes, and his love interests – even the Ecotopia one – are not all that developed.
- Instead, Callenbach uses Weston (the reporter) as an excuse to wander around the nation of Ecotopia, finding out all of the ways that its citizens have addressed the environmental challenges they face (spoiler alert: there are a lot). We see solar power systems, water saving, careful selection and planning of tree harvests, and harmonious production of food. He doesn’t leave much out.
- Callenbach centers Ecotopia on the stable-state system, one which as the argument goes is obsessed with balance rather than competition. This theory has evolved since 1976, but Callenbach used it as a founding principle of Ecotopia, one that guided all decisions in the culture.
- Two examples stand out. In the first, Callenbach portrays Ecotopia as a place in which scientific research is conducted solely outside of huge government- and corporation-funded research labs. Instead, scientists form small bands determined to solve immediate problems, in essence blurring the line I think between what we call technology and science.
- His argument is that this type of scientific research is far more conducive to solving social problems than making a profit or being turned to military use (not that there’s no military in Ecotopia – they constantly fear invasion by the US). Stable-state science means that problems are addressed with both a more immediate focus and a long-term awareness of the potential problems that solutions might bring.
- The other example is taxes. Callenbach argues that for capitalism to function as part of a stable state organizations and businesses must be properly taxed, and those who are taxed must believe that the money will be used for purposes that have clear benefits. Both taxes and government expenditures are completely transparent in this culture.
- The cultural conditioning that he foresees also feels very Oregonian (or Pacific NW-based perhaps). The games that folks play, the ways in which they freely disagree with each other, the emotional intensity of their relationships – all of these are very non-midwestern (at the least) and would require a lot of education and training (and re-training).
- There’s lots more of course, some of which I don’t agree with. But the intentionality of living in Ecotopia, the focus on relationship building, seems to me to be a far better way of creating an equitable society than our current material possession obsessed culture.
I re-read The Plot Against America for a class I’m teaching (original post is here), and I’m a little surprised by how different my reaction is to it this time. Of course, I’m now reading it after the first open gathering of Nazis I can remember in the United States since Skokie in 1977. Full disclosure on that, by the way – a friend of mine’s dad perhaps went to not-so-peacefully demonstrate and maybe punch a Nazi. I’m pretty sure he succeeded.
- This is an interesting twist on genre, one that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time: it’s an autobiography used to make an alternate history more personal. One of the flaws of alternate histories is that authors face a dilemma – do I rewrite the personal history of well-known historical figures, or do I invent fictional personas to allow me to make this a story and not an alternate history textbook? Folks have taken all kinds of different approaches of course, but Roth’s decision to rewrite his own history into this narrative gives the novel a intense, adolescent-boy perspective that feels very on the ground.
- From a craft perspective, I’m still in a little bit of shock that Roth tells what happens before he finishes the autobiographical part of the novel. I’m guessing that holding us as readers in suspense until the end was too much, and made the autobiographical portion more important than the larger chronology.
- The picture isn’t of or in the novel, of course, but it does feature the man who defeated FDR and ushered this in, Charles Lindbergh. I don’t think I’ll forget finding out that Lindbergh, who I always viewed as an American hero, turned out to be a fascist sympathizer. Not quite Santa-is-not-real, but still not fun.
- Roth’s ending doesn’t feel as contrived on this read, either – Nazis capturing the Lindbergh baby and holding him ransom (although not presented in the novel as anything but, perhaps, the fever nightmare of Roth’s Aunt Evelyn) while Lindbergh won the election based on his masculinity and his ability to keep the US out of WWII feels way more real now.
- What truly struck me on my re-read, though, was that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I didn’t feel that way the first time, as I was trying to see if Roth was worth all the hype. I’m still not sure about that, but this novel and American Pastoral if nothing else made me rethink what I believe I know about fairly recent American history.
- Unfortunately, I know the motivating force for the page-turning frenzy this time: when I first read this the Charlottesville Nazi rally was still a month away, and Heather Heyer was still alive, and I couldn’t imagine a US president saying that there are very fine people on both sides, that a proto-fascist, homunculean piece of shit would be anywhere near a sitting president, let alone writing immigration policy speeches.
- Setting this novel in the time of WWII also let Roth avoid the problem of having to understand social media and its effects on our elections, an avoidance that I don’t blame him for undertaking.
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We never meets my stereotypes of Russian literature, or even Russian scifi, which is a good thing I think. Zamyatin was trying to do something much different, and he definitely attained that, despite my fantasies of all that beautiful, tragic, poetic eastern European literature, scribbled furiously by candlelight. Dreams of the world turning towards social justice as playwrights getting elected as presidents might also pop into my head…
- Although this was purportedly a re-read for me I barely remember reading it the first time. I’m guessing that I read it anticipating robots, and perhaps didn’t pay as much attention to other elements as I should have.
- Zamyatin’s efforts to portray the cognitive and psychological processes of someone who has carefully conditioned from birth to believe in the power of the Benefactor (as he’s named in this novel) and rationality above all else are impressive.
- They are also not believable. Clearly a belief in the power of propaganda was stronger before it was tried wholeheartedly.
- Zamyatin also makes clear his belief that a wholehearted devotion to rationality necessitates a distrust and fear of nature and natural processes, so much so that Zamyatin has his characters show disgust if their features aren’t bland, hairless, and minimal (nose, lips, ears, etc.).
- There are some folks who think that Zamyatin becomes one of the first authors to describe robots, but from my reading I think it’s more accurate to say that he creates cyborgs. Citizens of the One State undergo brain surgery and other implants in order to become perfected, and those surgeries make them cyborgs.
- The ultimate goal of the Integral, the space ship that our narrator is the lead engineer on, is to bring reason to populations that exist beyond earth. Zamyatin’s anxiety about imperialism is both Soviet (western aggression and imperialism being a raison d’etre for the Soviets own imperialist tendencies), and a reversal of the usual sort of joy that goes into space operas of the time.
- Zamyatin is writing the anti-scientistic novel. There is no celebration of the joys of science and technology – instead, it’s made clear that science has severed us from much of what makes us human.
- They even have to schedule sex, and nothing says romance like needing to be sure to attempt to procreate between fifteen and sixteen hundred hours.
I just finished re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) for a class I’m teaching this spring. When I read it the first time I hadn’t read any of Atwood’s other novels – esp. the MadAddam series – and the explosion of dystopias hadn’t yet happened, so the experience was definitely different this time. My copy (Anchor House 1998) even includes an interview with Atwood in which she explains what a dystopia is. I’m guessing she wouldn’t need to do that today.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the teevee series…
Thoughts on this reading:
- I got a better sense of Offred as a character this time. I’m guessing I read it too quickly the first time, trying to find out what happened. She’s not just dislocated from what she knows; the process of making her into a handmaid is so thorough that she only has brief hints of who she is.
- And it’s not until the Commander takes her to Jezebel’s that she truly starts to break through and take chances. The complete and utter terror that she feels (combined with guilt) was much more evident to me, as is her descent into despair (and the chances that she takes because of that).
- She also lets us know in her narration what a failure she feels like, again especially at the end of the novel.
- We don’t get a lot about the transition to the Gileadean regime. We hear about the day in which they assassinated most of the members of all three branches of government, and we hear about a constant war, but we don’t know much about that war, and it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on daily life (except for rationing, which might be caused by the Gileadeans inability to do anything right except sow terror).
- In the academic conference lecture and q/a session that serves as the epilogue, we find out that the Canadiens were reluctant to cross the Gilead regime, out of fear. That makes me wonder if the war wasn’t something out of 1984, where we have always been at war with Eastasia.
- The degradation of the natural land has definitely been a cause, though, as we find out that fishing stocks are down and droughts are more common.
- After all, that’s why they have the handmaids – birth rates have plummeted. Even having a baby is no guarantee – lots of children are either stillborn or deformed horribly.
- And undesirables get sent to the Colonies, where some unknown environmental catastrophe has happened and prisoners are sent (without protective gear) to attempt to do a clean-up.
- And the Gileads utilized religious and racial fears to justify the takeover – there is brief mention of the threat of an Islamic takeover, and the natural resource deprivations have made people afraid, the usual story.
- This is worthy of a bigger post, but it’s especially interesting to re-read this in the context of all the dystopias that have been written (and created) recently. The Hunger Games picks up on the deliberate oppression of women in these cultures; several series continue the conversation about roles and castes; and even Atwood’s own series looks at the ways in which environmental destruction causes the type of social disruption that makes authoritarian governments (esp. those promising to get back to godliness) seem like a return to what’s normal and safe.
- Even the fact that we don’t know much about the transition is a strategy that gets pick up in future dystopias. My guess is that the general sense of we’re sorta fucked that comes with the millennial worldview has been transmitted from Atwood, whose fierceness in writing this story in the early 80s (and deliberately invoking both Brave New World and 1984, dystopias that become canonical perhaps because they feature men is only offset by her determination to speculate seriously about the future.