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.
The Shape of Water burst on the scene shortly before the re-issue of Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, but Ingalls beat del Toro to the story by 35 years as this novel features a housewife in a marriage that seems stagnant who falls for a sensitive male of another species. Water is definitely involved.
- Making the protagonist Mrs. Caliban is just one of the many brilliant moves in this novel. Ingalls calls attention directly to gender roles and expectations with the title, and by positioning the canon’s wimpiest monster opposite Larry (the monster in this novel) being someone who can kill – he does so out of self-defense, and does so brutally – reverses Prospero’s cultural dominance in favor of a monster who actually becomes the sort of ideal partner that Dorothy wishes she had.
- While Prospero tames Caliban, demonstrating masculine and English superiority over all types of Others, Dorothy falls in love in an almost traditional way with her monster. Their relationship is not one of master-servant (a trope for marriage that seems to fall apart while we watch among Dorothy’s social circle) but rather a contemporary good marriage, with a true partnership between equals rather than a series of passive-aggressive territory contests of the sort that middle class marriages degenerate into in the world of this novel.
- Larry seems more perplexed by the insanity of Dorothy’s world than she does by his. Of course we get to see her world and not his, but the ever-shifting alliances of marriages in Dorothy’s circle are hard to fathom, and become almost labyrinth-like. There simply are no good marriages, as men cheat, women cheat, and the ideal of the American household falls completely apart.
- The larger context that Ingalls works from is suburbia, and her portrayal of it makes middle-class citizens of the USA seem more savage than poor Larry…
- And by the way, this novel contains inter-species sex…don’t say you weren’t warned.
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.
I’ve stumbled onto Lucia Berlin’s fiction late, and I read these in the wrong order, but I’m glad I did. Evening in Paradise is a collection of short stories that made me go ‘whoa’ multiple times. Thoughts below:
- The title story is emblematic of Berlin’s prose, in my mind, as it describes a few years in a family headed by a long-suffering partner and a recovering addict. They live in a paradisaical fishing village off the coast of Mexico, one that feels both timeless and rooted in contemporaneity.
- When a former dealer finds them, the addict falls back into using, and even when the dealer ODs and the partner essentially buries him at sea the story ends with a sense that the devil is right around the corner.
- This sort of ending is typical of Berlin’s prose – at the end of several of these stories she leaves us feeling like, yay, everything will work out, and then with one huge narrative stroke she undermines what we think will be the ending.
- These stories are semi-auto-biographical, I guess, although Berlin has said that she is far more interested in them feeling real than being true. I understand that that’s a fairly common writerly caveat, but based on the craziness of Berlin’s life that stretch can go a lot farther, I’m guessing…
- I often struggle with how to characterize what I think Berlin fictionalizes incredibly well – the moment of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” when you realize that your optimistic, perhaps naive view of the ways that you can overcome trauma fail you, and you have to figure out what to do, often returning to well-worn and not necessarily helpful behaviors. There as many responses as there are people of course – for me I always feel unable to focus visually when my views of the world collide – and I think these stories describe a huge chunk of them.
- They are so full of these moments that I often read while holding my breath, and even if the characters plow through marks are left.
- This novel is social realism at its finest, perhaps because so much of it coincides with the author’s lived experience.
Storm of Locusts is the second novel in Roanhorse’s Sixth World series – I blogged about the first one, Trail of Lightning, here, and I found it an interesting take on fantasy from an author of Pueblo and African-American heritage.
- The fantasy genre has been shaken a bunch lately, and one of the ways that it has moved on from its obsession with young white men enacting their own vision quests is to feature heroes from a wide range of identity perspectives.
- This move has produced some amazing work, and I’ve enjoyed texts like Lauren Berkes’s Zoo City and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death from Africa, and N.K. Jemisin’s mind-blowing gods and mortals series. They haven’t necessarily expanded fantasy so much as they have blown it apart, and these authors in particular have created worlds that are completely different from ours and yet resonate in ways that make me sort of shudder.
- Roanhorse’s perspective is an interesting one as well, and I find Maggie Hoskins to be a powerful character, one who is a monster hunter for the tribe. Writing the novel from her perspective causes it to lurch into urban fantasy territory, not one of my favorite genres, but I’m a sucker for anything set in the southwestern deserts of the U.S., and I’m particularly fascinated by the cultural world she sets this series in.
- In this novel we get a bit more of a picture of what’s left after global warming has made cities like Flagstaff coastal (!), and it’s not pretty – the Dine are the only functioning civilization that we see (although there are some Mormon enclaves that have survived and seem to not be complete dystopias).
- Part of Roanhorse’s argument appears to be that a Native culture like the Navajo are better suited to this new world, and that’s an argument that has some merit.
- Part of the delicate balance that series like this have is the need to walk a very careful line between meeting generic expectations – even if the genre has changed dramatically – and integrating new voices and perspectives. The identity questions that Roanhorse uproots are powerful ones, and yet she still incorporates some of the traditions of fantasy – the seeking of allies, the violence-in-the-name-of-the-good, the quest.
- Even the hunt for monsters meets the new generic expectations, as they are enormously powerful and yet she is still able to defeat them, with help.
- The problems with cultural appropriation are also real – they are brought to the fore by a Dine writer here, and Roanhorse has responded.
- One of the most powerful anxieties that Saad Bee Hozho identifies is this one – why should Dine culture, a living, breathing, constantly entity, be turned into myth and legend? Why didn’t Roanhorse use her own people (Pueblo) as a backdrop?
- And it’s not like this sort of appropriation hasn’t been going on for a long time…at least Roanhorse is Native American.
Michiko Kakutani has been a harbinger of good literature for a long time, and The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump gives her a chance to connect the ways in which traditional notions of argument have failed in the digital age. More thoughts below:
- The argument she traces convincingly in this book is the idea that Trump is the best player in this game, not a paradigm-breaker himself. Trump gets mentioned in her subtitle, but she’s more concerned about the ways that our notions of truth have changed, not how Trump himself uses them. The fact that he’s not desperately trying to stay out of jail as a failed grifter is a symptom of the age, not a sign that he’s, uh, got talent.
- She uses her amazing knowledge of literature and philosophy to trace the evolution of the distrust of being able to make objective statements about truth to the rise of Trump. She clearly hates Trump and what he’s done to discourse in the U.S., but she sees the long dark night of the soul that we face in this country (and in social media-saturated platforms) and describes it clearly and devastatingly.
- For instance, some of her most powerful critiques are not directed at the Breitbarts of the world but instead at leftists who jumped fully on board the postmodern train and contributed to what she sees as the source of much of the destruction of our ability to come to any conclusions about what is true in any specific situation.
- In some ways she’s almost too good of a writer – I had to willfully slow myself down as I read the book, because her prose is achingly beautiful at times.
- It made me think about my own relationship with the postmodernists. I think I was lucky – I came to them after their heyday, and as someone a bit older with a bit more experience of the world. While some of their methodologies were enormously useful – Foucault’s identification of power, Derrida’s Swiss Army knife tool of deconstruction, Spivak’s look at the subaltern, and Said’s look at the creation of oppressive tropes of representation in both high and low art are some that I found productive – in general the falling off the cliff that folks like Lyotard promoted made me queasy.
- The lived experience they spoke from seemed pretty ungrounded from the reality that I saw, and seemed to pretend that material conditions could be somehow transcended.
- That said, I think one of the most interesting dances in this is watching Kakutani’s sense of fair play at work. She is, after all, the critic who wrote one of the funniest and spot-on critiques of Norman Mailer’s stupifyingly binary oeuvre I’ve ever read, one in which she accurately depicts the enormity of the high art ego, and yet she highly values the cultural impact of social realism and high art in its novelistic form. The search for objective truth usually privileges canonical texts, and can thus miss places where resistance to entrenched power occurs if those places are located outside the canon.
- She tries to acknowledge these lines, but it’s a tricky walk to make.
I was directed to Schweitzer’s collection of reviews, essays, and presentations while researching an article on the Malazan world and just war theory, and I thought I’d talk about it below:
- At times this collection was frustrating. He writes off any sort of literary theory that comes after the New Critics, and he dismisses it in what I always find the laziest way – it’s too hard, it’s not well-written, it eliminates the author, and so on. There are many reasons to find fault with the deconstructionists, Foucauldians, and the rest who revolutionized the way that literary criticism works, but these are not the ways to do so.
- He also diminishes a lot of the underlying issues of race and gender that mark these texts, in ways that seem very Gernsbackian.
- Even then, however, the reasons why I think I enjoyed this become clear, as one of the essays in this collection directly critiques Gernsback’s contributions to the field because of Gernsback’s well-known multiple faults…and he does this compellingly and disruptively (critiquing Gernsback can still draw fire from true scifi fanatics).
- Those critiques aside, I plowed through this and enjoyed a lot of it. I understand, I think, that he’s a writer who is too busy writing stories, etc, a publisher who is keeping generic short fiction alive, an editor who works with and encourages a lot of other writers, an agent who makes sure that we still have access to older texts, and a collector who wears out estate sales in order to find hidden gems that need to be preserved to spend a lot of time digesting contemporary theory.
- Taking the time to work through the potential benefits these theories offer by providing different types of lenses probably isn’t in the cards…
- His memory is amazing, nearly wikipedian in its breadth *and* depth. The number of texts that he refers to is mind-boggling, and I’m saying that as someone who spends way too much time reading myself.
- I’m also fascinated by the patterns he draws – he not only reads pulp and/or genre fiction, but he digests it, sees patterns between both stories by the same author and between that author and others.
- Finally, he’s definitely not only interested in texts from the genre. He casually mentions Marquez, Kafka, and McCarthy, drawing interesting parallels, and he has clearly read a lot of the high canon and thought seriously about it…