Monday, January 26, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: A Review

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a novel about endings both big and small. It begins with the last moments of Arthur Leander, a Hollywood actor who suffers a fatal heart attack during a production of King Lear and then goes from there to describe the end of the entire world. The “Georgian Flu” wipes out 99% of the human race, as well as many of the characters prior to that collapse. Although the novel orbits around the world created by near total end of the human race, it also circles back to the lives of characters before the Flu, hopping back and forth through time with such regularity it’s impossible to say that the novel is truly “post-apocalyptic.” Much of the novel seems to take place pre-apocalypse. Strange coincidences and relationships unify these narratives as does the sense the novel is concerned with the theme of endings. While the beginning of the book might be considered the beginning of the end, it’s purpose is the same as later sections, to describe a thing and how it ceased to be. Throughout the text, Mandel describes all the things that no longer exist after the collapse, the weird nostalgia the characters feel for such diverse phenomena as cell phones, airplane travel, and corporate jargon. As Faulkner said, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past."

Sunset over Santa Fe by Morgan Crooks, 2013

So while the world dies within the first dozen or so pages of the story, it’s never truly gone. Once the general outlines of the collapse are clear, the galloping epidemic, the panic and collapse, the novel whips ahead to a couple of decades later as the world begins to ‘soften,’ as one character describes it. The nightmarish early years post-epidemic have gradually changed into a slow reemergence of life and routine. Towns are beginning to reform, and a band of actors and musicians travels between them to provide entertainment and a glimpse of the vanished world already dimming in the memories of the survivors. One of these actors, Kirsten, a young girl on the same stage Arthur Leander died on carries with her mementoes of that night. The Traveling Symphony, as the troupe calls itself, performs King Lear in a town they’ve come to think of as safe and friendly, only gradually understanding that the town they knew is gone, taken over by a violent cult. The  troupe flees from the town, pursued by members of the cult. Kirsten becomes separated, lost in the decaying wilderness of lower Michigan.

Then the reader is hurled back in time to pick up the thread of the dead actor’s first wife. This pattern plays out over the rest of the novel, jumping through the decades, alluding to the life and works of Shakespeare, and the influence of a comic book drawn and published by the first wife, that Kirsten now carries with her. All of these elements are bound together, forming a tapestry of post-apocalypse’s society, and the glimmers of a new civilization.

In a novel that skips back and forth through time, the question emerges - to what purpose? How do these temporal dislocations add meaning to the overall story? What is the plot when so much of it basically functions as tangential flashbacks of the characters in the post-apocalyptic setting?  For the most part, the thread connecting these narratives is not one of revelation as much as thematic. This is a novel that begins with the end and ends with a sort of new beginning. What exists between those two points is a collage of the various ways relationships, art projects, and entire civilizations come to termination. There is an entire section of the book simply entitled “The Terminal.”

Of course, Station Eleven is not the only book to be set in a post-apocalypse or even the only book to describe the end of the world coming through the action of a flu. Obvious parallels exist between this novel and The Stand, Steven King’s epic tale about the clash of good and evil in a post-Superflu America and probably my favorite novel from him. However, where King paints in technicolor and bold, obvious contrasts, Mandel prefers shades and subdued drama. The tone is similar to the slow depressing grind of Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road” but nowhere near as disturbing and bereft of hope. Mandel’s apocalypse is oddly mellow considering how much of the population dies in the first few pages. One final comparison I might draw is one between this novel and the graphic novel The Watchmen by Alan Moore. Like Watchmen, the existence of a side-text, the privately published comic book “Station Eleven” and “Doctor Eleven,” forms an odd counterpoint to the rest of the narrative. Also similar to that text, the scattershot nature of the narrative, where each character has such an equal share of the story. It’s hard, meaningless even, to describe one or another as ‘being the main character.’ Mandel gives us multiple points of entry into her story, producing many loose threads that only slowly cohere. I doubt Mandel would subscribe to the notion that, “everything happens for a reason,” but she does seem intent on describing why the world exists the way it does, how somethings survive and others disappear.

Mandel recently gave an interview for NPR, which I immediately thought highly appropriate. Station Eleven feels like the sort of science fiction that a NPR host could get behind. It’s hard not to hear Ira Glass’ voice in the hyper-aware sentence fragments and in the way Mandel's literate, slightly elegiac tone comes across as less the thing itself than a report of the thing. Although we learn that the remaining humans after the collapse suffer unbelievable trauma during the chaotic and blood-splattered years following the Georgia Flu, we don’t really see much of this. Kirsten, for example, simply doesn’t remember anything that happened for a year after the collapse. This gives the story a certain bloodless journalistic quality, as though the descriptions of the atrocities carries a parental advisory.

Is that too harsh? I actually found myself enjoying this book a great deal and the multi-faceted, sober approach to the material was refreshing after reading other post-apocalyptic novels. Certain sections, like the slow slide into a new society described by Clark as he waited for rescue trapped in a fly-over regional airport were positively riveting. But don’t enter into this novel under mistaken pretense. The tagline painted onto the lead caravan of the Traveling Symphony is “Survival is insufficient,” and that pretty much sums up the spirit of this novel - not a document of struggle and adversity and trauma but rather an accounting of the things that remain after such events. Even as much is lost, Mandel suggests what remains becomes just as precious, that there is no amount of ephemera that can’t serve some purpose. That forgetting is what kills people, not the actual dying.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian, by Andy Weir, is a blistering fast read, a compulsive thriller, and at nearly 400 pages, one of the longest books I’ve ever read basically without pause. I dare you to read this in anything more than three days. Chances are if you get past the first chapter of Mark Watney’s misadventures on the Red Planet you’ll be reading this straight through until the end.

"The Martian 2014" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

For me, the addictive quality here is placing a hazily drawn but charming pragmatist in a series of life-threatening mishaps and watching him figure out to survive. I’ve read it described as Cast Away meets Apollo 13, and that’s not a bad way of thinking about it. The tone is strictly realistic. Don’t pick up this novel expecting any of the stuff that happens in Hollywood movies about Mars to happen in this story. Really, it’s a very simple tale, well-told, about a man marooned on Mars. Watney is portrayed as a geeky, hyper-competent engineer with a strong survival instinct. He cracks jokes, uses math to solve problems, and rages against disco. He’s basically like every engineer I’ve ever met. The conflicts of the novel grow organically from the problems Watney encounters and his attempts to solve them. 

Is that enough? Well, enjoying a book is a subjective experience. For me, looking for a quick read right before a long weekend at Arisia, The Martian was the perfect prescription. It is a slight book, easy to read, hard to put down. I think understood in that context, the slender ambitions of the book are forgivable. This is a book you read to be entertained in an immediate, visceral level. And on that level, it succeeds masterfully.

Weir was smart to focus on these survival aspects and down-play Watney’s past, his connections with his crew-mates, and the larger questions of exploring Mars. The evidence from non-Watney chapters suggests the author wasn’t ready to broaden his vision for this story much beyond the question of whether this one astronaut would be rescued - the secondary characters are very flat and the conflicts between people back home and in the Hermes spacecraft returning home are very much on the level of office politics. Which is fine. These sections aren’t the point; they exist in service of the point.

A part of me reading this book, however, grew nostalgic for Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson was able to describe the gritty struggle for survival in the early years of Martian colonization but he could also reach for higher themes. The ancient wastes of Robinson’s Mars evoked a timeless canvas for Man’s struggles. There was poetry to his Mars, and terrible beauty.

Weir’s Mars is an empty theater for hilarious and profane rants.

The thing that most bugged me most about this novel, though, was the potential for larger conflicts. Weir touches about the sacrifices that individuals, nations, and arguably the planet, need to make in order to save one lost American, but he doesn’t dwell on the subject. I kept asking myself if it was realistic for so many missions and resources to be shelved or repurposed to save one man, and if, in the grand sum, that was the correct decision. I’m not suggesting it wasn’t morally justifiable but I think a single voice raised in earnest opposition, to express the view point of the gimlet-eyed realist, would have made the Earthbound sections more interesting. It would have at least given the book an interesting human antagonist, a voice for nature.

With a movie coming out this Fall, directed by Ridley Scott, now is the time to read this book. Watney’s part will be played by Matt Damon who will bring his own baggage to the role. It’s not to say that Scott will ruin the book or Damon is a bad casting choice or anything, I would just suggest that the pleasures of this book are distinctly those of a ‘fast read,’ and before Hollywood colonizes Weir’s story, it might be better to enjoy The Martian on its own terms.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

After Arisia!

This was my fifth Arisia and as such, kind of a milestone. Five years seeing all of my friends, going to panels, and having great conversations about the genres I love.

So, I had high expectations for 2015 - expectations that were met. 

Waiting to start the "True Detective" panel.

First off, the three panels I was on, each of them very different from the other. Friday night I got to talk about Speculative Fiction in 2014 with writer Gillian Williams and online book-reviewer Tegan Mannino. I was still shaking out the cobwebs, so to speak, from teaching in the afternoon but I felt happy that I was able to talk about the five or so novels I most cared about from last year, and the dozen or so short stories I most enjoyed. Plus, I collected so many other novels to check out this year that I missed or flat-out never heard of. I will be putting this panel on the must-join for next year. 

Saturday I had my True Detective Panel with Shira Lipkin, John P. Murphy and Steve Sawicki. Everyone was very chill on this panel, very intent on discussing this one tv show, investigating just want made it, despite its flaws, so compelling. I have to say this was probably the longest I’ve had a chance to talk about this show, which, as I mentioned last week, was a major touchstone for last year. A lot of the conversation had to do with the nihilism of Rust Cole’s character and whether or not the show is a genre show. I personally think it is not. It is not intended to be a genre show, it’s intended to be exactly what the title suggests - a True Detective story. While I’m not sure I think those elements are exactly ‘window dressing,’ I was okay leaving them as allusions to a certain type of story. In the end, I don’t think I really had my views of the show changed at all, but I was struck by how much one show can be seen completely differently by four people and still be enjoyed.

Mondays are always hard, but I felt good about how this convention ended. I had a great time talking shop in the Running Good Games panel: any time I get to talk up systems like Mouseguard, Dungeon World, I feel like I’m starting a day ahead. The questions by the audience, in particular, really made this panel special for me. Someone asked about how to run one-shots and that just launched into a great discussion of how to match systems with players and jump into the action of a story. Great stuff.

Then I went to my reading. In addition to hearing Keith R.A. DeCandido and Kevin Schneyer I got to read two stories: Belongings and War-Zones. I love public reading, don’t get to do it enough, and felt like I finally had a story - Belongings - that really came together for me when read aloud. I could really get into doing a lot more of these. 

Of course that wasn’t everything in Arisia. I saw a bunch of panels and went to the Belly-dance show to see my wife perform along with her dance partner Wendee Abramo. I may be a tad biased but I thought their performance was fantastic. The ladies put on a haunting, creepy performance inspired by a character from the most recent American Horror Story season. 

The things that really stick out to me now a few days later are the conversations. I caught a dinner with my good friends Alex LaHureau, Matthew McComb, Rachel Wentz, and Melanie Griffiths on Friday and caught up about our favorite topics - gaming and Arisia lore. Really this convention has been around so long, it’s history could be the subject of a convention.

Sunday night, while watching the Masquerade, I hung out with Wendee Abramo and Dan Toland, ate some Chinese takeout and generally tried to sum up what was amazing about the convention. 

In terms of panels, I saw a bunch from the head-liners NK Jemisin and Lee Moyers and was really impressed with both. Their “The Map and The Story,” panel in particular got me thinking about the role and purpose of cartography in books. I enjoy maps, find them essential for certain fantasy series, but I thought Jemisin’s point that a poorly-executed map can often spoil the events of the story a valuable one. Hopefully I’ll keep that advice in mind if I should ever be called upon to draw a map for a story.

Jemisin was in the “Erasure is not Equality” panel Saturday morning with Daniel José Older (who’s an amazing author), Matt Oshiro, Nisi Shawl, and Victor Raymond. The topic was the tendency of certain speculative fiction works to omit people of color in invented worlds. The quote that stuck with me came from Jemisin who pointed out that a writer that can speak in the perspective of an alien from another world but can’t empathize enough with a person from another culture on this planet to include them in the story should probably stop writing. 

Also saw Dan’s panel on “How Not To Be Awful,” or ways to avoid being a jerk to new fans. I thought the discussion touched upon a few things I’ve been concerned about recently - namely how can fandom become more welcoming to newcomers. This is not a natural inclination in myself or probably many people who’ve been into geeky interests since the beginning. But the fact is, geek culture is now mainstream culture, movies involving comics, science fiction, and fantasy are bringing in more fans everyday, and really its time for fandom to find ways to welcome this trend, not fear it.

New this year: free arcade games!!!

And that’s about it. Arisia 2015 left me with a lot to think about, many amazing memories, and the crazy desire to repeat the whole thing next year. See you then!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

True Detective's Lingering Spell

True Detective is already filming its second season as I write this. It will air on HBO sometime in the summer. I am looking forward to the second season of this show, although I see a lot of wisdom in my wife’s view which is that it can’t possibly be as good as the first season.

The first season of True Detective had a lot going for it. Somehow the show creators, Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukugawa, were able to cast two leads with incandescent chemistry and stage presence - Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. To have these talents wrangled together into the same concise project produced something that I haven’t seen since the Wire - a sincere and harrowing look at the underbelly of America. I was obsessed with this show, from pretty much the first maraca rattles of the opening song (Far from Any Road by the Handsome Family) to the final moments of the last episode, the drifting upwards into the infinite spill of cold distant stars.

I spend the better part of this year tracking down stories, novels, inspirations and influences on this show, attempting to figure out for myself what it was that so captured my imagination. Here and there I would be reminded that not everyone experience this show in quite the same way. Lots of people were disappointed by the ending, expecting, I presume that Rust and Marty would flip out of this dimension and have to gator wrestle a tentacled Yellow King on the shores of Lake Hali. Personally, I never thought this show was going to do much with the Chambers references and the Thomas Ligotti inspired monologues.

A lot of weight was put on this show, probably too much to clearly see what this show was and wasn’t. But really, it’s right there in the title - “True Detective.” This is a show derived from one of the most ephemeral and low-brow of literatures - the true crime paperback. The essential pulpiness and disposability of this art form is lifted up from the mire of obscurity, given an impressive frame by Fukugawa’s exquisite cinematagraphy, and credibility by HBO curation. But at the end of the day, True Detective was still pulp fiction.

And that’s where I run into trouble. I get that some reviewers didn’t like this show or wanted more from it. There are enormous plot-holes in the story, strange red-herrings that don’t serve much purposes in the grand scheme of things. So why did I like it so much? If I’m being honest, I’d say that this show cast a spell on me and found a way past my critical faculties to reach some visceral center of what I was looking for in a television show. The music, the weird fiction references, the characters and the macabre story all felt personally crafted to one specific target audience - me. Now, I fully recognize that plenty of other people also heard the strange dog-whistle of this show, but that doesn’t have anything to do with my enjoyment of it.

What I do have trouble figuring out is how people could mistake this show for something that it clearly is not. This was not ever going to be an epic by Tarkovsky or some lost Hitchcock thriller. Just because it doesn’t live up to those high ideals, though, doesn’t mean it's worthless. Art doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It may have raised expectations a little high, but at the end of the day it was what it said it was. A story. About detectives. Solving a crime.

Nevertheless I find myself in the awkward position of trying to defend something that I can’t fully understand my reasons for enjoying. I have my suspicions though.

The first reason I like this show was it was truly weird. True Detective effectively illustrated what is strange and alienating about living in this country. I’ve only been to Louisiana a couple of times but I felt it captured my experience with the slow sinking dread of the delta. I felt this show was an expertly constructed excursion into pure dread. Again, all of that window dressing that Andrew Romanon of the Daily Mail referred to. Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker mentioned being unmoved by such literary games, perceiving an inner hollowness to the project that she saw bore out by the ending. I agree with the observation but disagree that a “central hollowness,” is necessarily a defect. The central insistence of weird fiction, of horror fiction in general, is the essential meaningless of reality. That we all exist, briefly, on the skim of reality, that the rituals and social constructions within which we life our lives are ultimately nothing more than crude incantations used to ward off uncomfortable truths. That is both the ultimate purpose behind both Rust Cole’s monologues and Marty Hart’s philandering. To show that the world they inhabit is fading away, “like a memory of a town.” Several reviewers have pointed out the similarity of True Detective’s murder mystery to the plot of a fourth season X-Files show “Home,” where inbred mutants survive in a murderous enclave outside of a peaceful Pennsylvania town. This is the same vestige of an older, weirder more isolated America True Detective describes in its 1995 flashbacks. Before the Internet and the Cold War and even World War II, this was a country of small communities and large secrets. With every image of Louisiana farm land slipping into the Gulf of Mexico, the show makes its point that something vanished from this country, never to return to be replaced by computers, video surveillance, and metafiction. I enjoyed this look back into the past of this country, that there was a great hidden evil in this country that seeps into every room, person and story, an essential hollowness. This is not something that I enjoy in every book I read or every television I watch, but when I’m in a particular mood, a show like this represented a perfect distillation of that dread as I can imagine.

The second reason I liked this show was its unflinching look at the cost of mystical belief, of the old mystical mode of American thinking. Ultimately the cult that Rusty Cole is attempting to track down, and the religion that he spend time criticizing are one and the same. Some people survive by pulling blinders over their eyes so they can survive safe from a full awareness of their hypocrisy. Marty represents this to a certain sense. That he is both hired to be a protector of the weak while simultaneously leveraging his power versus the weak is instructive. Men (and women) who deceive themselves will deceive others and vice versa. True Detective wove into the central insight of many works this year that we are living world where a few cults of mystical thinking are causing unbelievable suffering and bloodshed on the basis of this irrational superstition. It doesn’t matter what religion you are holding up as a greater understanding, Cole’s point is that it is all just fairy tale. His viewpoint, although insufferable, is largely correct within the context of the story. There is a better, more objective way of viewing the world, one that is not as prone to self-defeating self-deceptions.

I admit that approach to the show does fall down a little bit in the last episode.

I enjoyed the last episode. The principal point of the overall story, two guys tracking down a killer, was resolved. I found myself unconvinced, however, that Rust Cole in the final moments would become such an optimist. It didn’t bother me overly but it seemed like being stabbed was a poor motivation to overturn his anti-natalist viewpoint for some affirmation of the power of starlight to defeat the universe of darkness above them. I also grow annoyed at the red-herrings and the loss of opportunity that some plot threads represent. One that particularly bothers me is the scene of Audrey, Marty’s goth daughter, acting out scenes that parallel the disturbing crimes he is investigating. To me I never took this to be anything more than a symptom of Marty’s poisoning of his family, the one thing that he felt was important. But maybe that’s part of the problem, the central failing of this show, its narrow focus.

Not a lot of time was spent developing the female characters of this show with quite the same diligence as Marty and Rust. I believe, having read Pizzolatto’s other work, and watched Fukugawa’s other movies, that they are not ignorant of the lop-sided gender politics of their story. However, it is clear that they made a judgement to focus on their male protagonists. Where this story could have been much broader and more powerful, in fully investing in Maggie’s character or by looking into the lives of some of Childress’ victims. It’s that narrowness of perspective that ultimately prevents it from reaching the upper pantheon of television classics.

Within the constraints of its own story, I still feel as though this show was very entertaining and powerful. It wasn’t the best television series I saw this year, it was just the one that had the biggest impact on me.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Trends in Speculative Fiction in 2014

I tried an experiment in 2014. I sought to read enough of speculative fiction published this year (as opposed to three decades ago as was my habit) that I would be able to understand it for myself rather than be told about it at the end of the year. This post is an effort to summarize what I found in short and long fiction in 2014, the themes that I saw repeated and the trends I saw embraced. I’ll start with a topic that seemed to echo from one end of speculative fiction to the other: Lovecraft.

H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy is a complicated subject in speculative fiction. Like many others, I owe a tremendous debt to Lovecraft’s legacy, one that I’m often flummoxed how to acknowledge. I have enjoyed his works, drawn inspiration from his mythologies, and been influenced by his vision of a vast and indifferent universe. The problem is Lovecraft, even in terms of his contemporaries, was an unreformed, unrepentant bigot. What’s worse, his personal biases seeped into his writing in obvious and frankly embarrassing ways. This is unfortunate because the value of his work is nearing a kind of event horizon where little of it can escape the crushing gravity of his own inadequacies as a writer and a human being. 

Yet there is still a risk in pointing that out, in challenging the status quo. Even with work widely acknowledged as flawed, Lovecraft still maintains a formidable grip upon the imaginations of the 21st century. When Daniel José Older questioned the appropriateness of receiving a bust of Lovecraft as an award, a firestorm of controversy erupted lasting right to the end of the year. Although careful to distance themselves from Lovecraft's racism, his defenders acted as though the effort to address his well-documented beliefs is somehow akin to throwing paint on the Mona Lisa.

Personally, I think Lovecraft deserves to be challenged. Although the universe Lovecraft described was indifferent to human existence, we cannot profess ignorance of the flaws in his. Several of the works I most enjoyed this year took H.P on, both as a person, and as an enduring influence within our genre as a whole. For example, Helen Bell’s “Lovecraft” (Clarkesworld) explored the eponymous author as an awkward and alienated suitor. In particular I liked how Bell paid coy homage to Lovecraft’s discomfort with the female body, to carve a more subtle and personal sort of body horror. This wasn’t a rejection so much as a very elegant literary hijacking. In a similar fashion, Ruthanna Emyrs’ “Litany of the Earth” (TOR) embraces an alternate perspective on the denizens of the notorious fishing village of Innsmouth. In Emyrs' telling,  Dagon worshippers were one more misunderstood ethnic group swept up as possible subversives during World War II, now reluctant to help the government that did so little for them. Into this stew, I’d also mention Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent Southern Reach trilogy, which hot-wired the wonder and alienation of weird fiction and drove it off in a new direction.

There is plenty of room for something new in speculative fiction. In a year that finally saw the thudding and empty conclusion to the Hobbit Trilogy, and the increased popularity of the Game of Thrones series (which although nuanced is still essentially a Euro-centric fantasy) and innumerable urban zombie nightmares, there is a small but growing audience for wider perspectives on the world. Rather than portraying the constant grim struggle between different ideologies or the clash of cultures there are works that serve a project physicist Michio Kaku termed "building a truly global society," the idea that the insights of science and the valued perspectives of peoples across the planet could be brought together into one common space. Science Fiction, and by extension speculative fiction as a whole, would continue to have relevance if they can add to this project. There are any number of works this year that show how science fiction, fantasy, and weird fiction could remain relevant in a world slowly growing more interconnected. One such work was the Crossed Genres’ “Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History,” edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older. The litanies of African Ogres and enchanted ouds showed how even the rusty and hermetically sealed world of fantasy literature is beginning to stretch out, embracing a vision of the world where the traditions of many cultures can be discussed and revered. I will also point to Chinese Speculative Fiction such as the “Three Body Problem,” by Liu Cixin now available in English translations. These are all great, titanic efforts to narrow the distance between the people of this planet eager to dream of other possibilities.

Within Speculative Fiction itself, the ongoing struggle is between utopian and dystopian visions of the future. Because as much as that vision beckons, what our culture seems increasingly swept into is a dystopian mindset.  I think this country and much of the Western world seems trapped in a constant habit of flinching from change that should be welcome. The world continues to grow painfully, fitfully but steadily less violent, more open, and better accessible to the very poorest. These trends should be the source of a renewed sense of optimism. Instead, we are focused on the wars and invasions, epidemics and migrations. There is a cost to this. If the only vision we rely on are those of the most pessimistic, then we run the risk of falling into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would point to works as divergent as William Gibson’s “The Peripheral,” Claire North’s “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August,” and the excellent Hieroglyph anthology as stories intent on looking at the complexities of a better future.

One encouraging aspect of this look at a new optimism is a turn away from the “Singularity-will-fix-all-of-this,” conceit of many recent novels, to a more honest appraisal of where the world is right now. Many of the works I read this year were written from the near future perspective. To me, living in a time where the future threatens to erupt at any moment, this seems a natural choice. Smart phones and tablets have become ubiquitous. The more outrageous iterations of the nostalgic heroic future have been cast aside. Rather than grinding out more tales with sci fi tropes like faster-than-life travel, time travel, and rampant nano-magic, many have focused on what is possible within the next hundred years. Kim Stanley Robinson, one of my own inspirations, expressed this vision in the beautifully realized Mars Trilogy and 2312, but many others have either explicitly written in the style of “Mundane Science Fiction,” after a manifesto written by Geoff Ryman or been inspired by it. Part of William Gibson’s "The Peripheral" looked at this aspect of low-rent futures. I’d also suggest that Andy Weir’s "The Martian,” with its relentless adherence to physics, chemistry, and the cold calculations of human survival is an example of science fiction brought back down to, well, Mars at the very least. 

Update: Various stylistic corrections.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin: A Review

The Three Body Problem is a science fiction novel written in Chinese by Liu Cixin. It was translated into English by Ken Liu, who I praised in my "What I Read" post a week ago for his talent in fully developing a clever idea (The Clockwork Soldier). The pairing between Ken and Cixin is an inspired because in someways Liu Cixin writes how Ken Liu does, using easily digestible ideas to build up to  enormous conceptual undertakings.

The Three Body problem is a sprawling novel, embracing the story of a Chinese physicist in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution in China (Ye Wenjie), a nanomaterials researcher (Wang Miao), a big city cop (Da Shi) investigating a series of murders of high-profile scientists and  the first possible contact with an alien race. The setting is lightly futuristic, with technology and politics perhaps a decade hence. Liu Cixin presents the events of this novel, particularly the first contact, with his own spin. Saying much more would spoil the fun of discovery, but it can be mentioned that the learning about the alien race and their motivations for contacting the physicist are only a small part of the plot.

I freely admit I picked up this novel to satisfy my curiosity about Chinese science fiction. It comes highly recommended and, as I said, the translator brings his own considerable talents to the table. I assumed that I would get an interesting perspective on a  few well-worn staples of speculative fiction, and that would be counterbalanced by the muffled pleasures of any translation. In other words, I was keeping my expectations firmly in check. What I found, however, was a novel as timely and dense as a Stephenson thriller but with about half as much filler. This is no novelty read. Liu Cixin writes with dramatic energy and conceptual honesty. His characters are well-drawn, compelling, and entertaining. His aliens are at once familiar and yet very jarring. He also makes deft use of the motif of virtual reality to provide the aliens’ point-of-view, but to also foreshadow the more immediate threat, the human reaction to their existence.

This volume might mark a surge of such cross-cultural projects bringing more of what is going on in Chinese speculative fiction into wider prominence. I studied in China in 1997 and have kept a degree of contact with the language ever since. Chinese culture and Mandarin as a whole are truly world treasures and in a better, more seamlessly global world, they would be more widely known and appreciated. With China’s rise as a world power, Beijing has made more of a deliberate effort to exercise this most benign of soft powers. Whether or not The Three-Body Problem is the product of that, Cixin embraces a matter-of-fact inclusiveness. The heroes and, for most part, villains of the piece are Chinese but the rest of the world is no where near as invisible or impotent as would be the case in a certain class of American thriller. In my humble opinion, China would do well to find other examples of other authors like Liu Cixin in projecting its image abroad. Liu's viewpoint is at once humanist and warm, but also cautious and pragmatic. There are worse attributes to embrace.

Both author and translator write an afterward and Ken Liu puts considerable effort to describe his philosophy behind his translation. Having translated a Chinese story myself, the difficulty of Chinese is not so much the difference of vocabulary, grammar, symbols, and use of imagery as the basic invisible assumptions one body of literature makes about the world versus another. The concerns of a Chinese novelist are not always the same concerns of a Western novelist. Also, the Chinese experience of the 20th century was a very different one than the typical Upstate New York kid. Big, society shattering events happened during Chairman Mao’s reign and after. A novel such as Three Body Problem can mention these events, and even supply helpful footnotes, but the impact of one of these events is almost certainly more immediate to people actually affected by it.

The question in reading any work of translation is how much is from the original text and how much is the translator. Liu very consciously pulled back from a completely natural English translation. Some essential character of Cixin’s Mandarin remains in the pithy dialogue and elegantly pleated descriptions, but other places the prose seems to veer back to the conventional prose of every other English SF book. Is that Ken Liu’s influence or Liu Cixin?

One of those big ambiguities is the character of Da Shi. In the book he appears as a cynical, world-weary Shanghai cop who fills in the main character about some details about the assassinations of scientists from around the world. Liu Cixin keeps his backstory minimal, and his role in the story opaque. As mentioned, he enters the story in a more or less sensible way but remains an active participant in events of a truly world-shaking nature, blithely insulting scientists and world leaders along the way. I’m not sure this is handled in a believable manner but he’s such an entertaining character I didn’t really mind. It’s almost like he fulfills some basic conceptual requirement for this type of story - if there’s a scientist of course there has to be a hard-boiled cop. I want say this is a Chinese thing but then again almost the exactly formula was used in Leviathan Rising by Corey. So there you go.

The other two volumes of this series (known as the Remembrance of Earth’s Past) are available - the final volume also translated by Ken Liu. What makes this book stand out is that the fantasy is presented alongside realistic science in a way that illuminates both. If this is what Chinese science fiction is like, I can’t wait to read more.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: A Review

I prize the ability of fiction to create worlds. When a few dozen words can conjure forth an entire countryside, I’m hooked.  Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer is just such a book. I really can’t throw enough praise at this book. While I placed it second last week in my best-of list, I think that is really a question of degrees. Annihilation burrows into one of my favorite sub-genres of literature, weird fiction, and consumes it from the inside out. This novel incorporates more than a century’s worth of great works from authors such as Machen, Burrows, Dick, and Lovecraft but never slumps into recitation. Annihilation is a clear and original statement, a manifesto of the terrible power of the unknown. Better still, Annihilation is merely the first in a series called the Southern Reach Trilogy. For a book that is deliberately and mischievously obtuse, the fact each book was released within months of each other is an act of unanticipated altruism.

The set-up of the novel establishes, in miniature, the themes for the rest of the book. Four women, known only by their professions - psychologist, surveyor, anthropologist, and biologist - enter a mysterious area on the coast of North America called Area X. The biologist tells us a quasi-governmental agency called the Southern Reach sent them there to investigate the flora, fauna, and terrain of this isolated, possibly contaminated zone. There used to be five in their team, but the fifth, the linguist, was removed at the last possible moment for unspecified reasons. Lots of things are left unspecified in Annihilation. The method by which the expedition members entered Area X. The method they will use to return to the outside world. The length of their stay in the zone and what they can expect to find within it. Each team member carries a small black badge on their belts, which they are told will glow red in the presence of some unspecified threat. If the badge glows red, they have been encouraged to flee. They have been told they are the twelfth expedition to Area X and that some of the other expeditions have ended badly. They know they have secrets. They know they are in terrible danger.

Annihilation is a very small novel containing the almost limitless vista of terra incognito. What the reader senses is that the story told in THIS novel is only one of countless POSSIBLE Stories within Area X, that each of the previous expeditions had very different experiences. There is the old line about horror stories that the monster the reader pictures in his or her mind is always more terrifying than the one described on page. In a similar way, the narrative here suggests a far more terrible and amazing world hovering just outside of the narrator’s line-of-sight.

The book is about not just a mystery but the attraction of a mystery. The unknown is a physical force in this novel, driving the characters forward and compelling them towards ever more harrowing revelations. Lovecraft, an obvious influence for VanderMeer, once described ignorance as a necessary blessing, a shield from the insanity a too perfect understanding of the universe would cause. VanderMeer seems to suggest insanity might not be a bad option.

The imagery of Annihilation, the sparse, clear prose VanderMeer uses, really sold this novel for me. Characterization is done one deliberate step at a time, the motivations of the narrator, the facts she withholds, coming slowly into focus. This tiny little book brings an entire world into being, a weird one filled with troubling details and frustrating redactions, much like our own. I could see this world, almost remember it, like I had been there once. VanderMeer’s spare, matter-of-fact prose doesn’t require hallucinations or extreme events, but builds up a steady, almost palpable layer of dread. Discovery in Annihilation unearths more reasons for terror.

I’m not sure if this counts as a SPOILER or not, but my biggest issue with this novel is that I’m unclear just what could come next. I haven’t even scanned the summaries of the other two volumes but I have to imagine they are going to approach Area X from other directions, other characters. The ending of Annihilation is not a completely shut door, but the margin for sequels is slim. Which brings us to the real question of any story taking on themes of mystery and enigma post-LOST. What starts out as intriguing and dangerous, overtime becomes familiar and annoying. A great deal of the weirdness of LOST was described during the course of the series. The problem was the answers were so slow in coming that even the writers seemed to lose interest in them. I’m hoping that the concision of the first book is carried forward in the second and third. Loose threads I can deal with, boredom I can’t.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Everyday Extremes

There is something about extremes that fascinates me. Not just the extremes that wind up on Discovery channel shows or MSNBC specials, but the absolute limits present for any human endeavor. We like to think that those margins exist out there somewhere, probably very far away affecting the lives of people we will never meet. But sometimes the extreme is the difference of a few miles per hour.

Saturday, I went out into the snow storm that briefly struck Eastern Massachusetts, on the way to guide some friends to my house. Even though the snow had fallen for less than an hour, enough of it covered the roads to create a frictionless layer of slippery snow. The hill leading up to my house is not really steep, but this kind of snow caused my friend’s car to literally slide back down the hill.

So anyway, I carefully go down the hill, all the way into second gear, never letting the speedometer creep above 10 miles per hour. I’ve lived long enough in the northeast to know you don’t mess around with snow, but I hoped a back way up to my street would spread out the ascent over a few mild slopes. I headed towards my friends where they are waiting at the bottom of the hill, hiting the brakes to slow down on the last gentle grade. I don’t slow down. The car continues to slide, very slowly, towards the intersection. I stomp up and down on the pedal, but the car continues to leisurely glide into the path of an oncoming snowplow. I crank the wheel to the left, hit the gas, and somehow avoid the collision.

Do you see what I’m trying to describe here? I was less than a block from my house driving only slightly faster than I typically jog and I nearly wound up in a serious, possibly fatal accident. That is how close the life-threatening extremes can be. I guess a person could talk about fate, or perhaps my own personality flaws that lead me to drive at 10 miles per hour as opposed to nine, but the fact is, life-threatening situations can exist literally at all times.

I have a pet theory that every job, or pursuit has an extreme component or aspect to it. That even jobs as mundane as being a dancer or a librarian or a chemist have some path that leads to a situation like my evening slide. This idea probably started as a reaction to Derek Lowe’s much loved blog “In the Pipeline,” especially those posts he categorizes under the label “Things I Won’t Work With.” If you haven’t ever checked out this blog, I recommend that you do so, it’s very entertaining. And disquieting. Lowe’s takes obvious glee in describing chemicals such as azides and hexamethylenetetramine which represent almost ludicrous amounts of peril. I think what interests me about these posts is that they describe the point in any endeavor where simply creating the next chain of hydrocarbons has a good chance to blow up your lab. Take his post on peroxide peroxides for example. First describing the rapidly increasing peril of working with higher concentrations of that stuff in your medicine cabinet, Lowe then goes on to describe the chemistry maniacs who attach another oxygen bond to make H2O3, which he describes as “frisky.”

In talking with my wife, who works as a training specialist for a local pharmaceutical company, just learning how to clean certain machinery can be hazardous. When enormous bioreactors - think huge metal keys filled with genetically modified hamster ova - have to be cleaned out between batches, someone needs to go into the chamber, repelling into the slippery steel cave to perform a visual inspection. This is not something you can learn how to do from a manual. You have to gear up and go spelunking. This was a memorable example of a normal human activity, learning to how to clean something, raised to a level of complexity and risk I normally associate with sending payloads into orbit. 

I’m also reminded of a metallurgist friend who once described the dangers of high pressure cold-welding. The larger welding space is often filled with a nonreactive, noble gases like argon. Argon represents a significant danger as it is heavy enough to displace the oxygen within a person’s lungs, suffocating some one before anyone is aware the worker is in danger. Something about the idea of being killed because a gas is too heavy intrigues me, as it suggests death by pure math.

Not really in the same ball-park, but certainly interesting, is the idea of extreme cooking. Consider lava cooking which is pretty much what you think it is. You prepare a chicken or a ham, by wrapping it in palm fronds and then burying it inside lava as it flows through your Hawaiin beach front property. The heat, while intense, doesn’t simply carbonize the meat but bakes it thoroughly, keeping the juices locked inside. Of course, to eat said lava chicken, you need to wait until the lava has cooled, and break out the shovels.

What I mean by the extreme, is something that my dad once told me when I was much younger. In an effort to explain what interested him as an artist, he mentioned the idea of the frontier and the edge. What my dad was trying to point to was the idea that an artist’s role was finding the outside edge of what is commonly held as reality. There is in every moment, in every discrete component of reality an edge, the part removed from our common everyday experience. And in finding this unusual frontier, this dangerous extreme, we have a better sense of what it means to actually be alive.

It just so happens that that edge can lie halfway down a hill you’ve driven down every day for the past six years.

Update: Many corrections to style and typos.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Reaction to Peter Watts' "Echopraxia"

Peter Watts’ Echopraxia is a side-sequel to his previous hard sf horror novel Blindsight. Daniel Bruks, a biologist in the Eastern Oregonian desert, gets stuck in the middle of a war between a fugitive vampire and a cult of rewired post-humans called Bicamerals, ultimately kidnapped by them as they head towards the sun. The goal of post-human and vampire alike is to investigate a possible alien intelligence gaining strength there, to determine if it poses a threat, or offers a weapon for the two sides as they struggle for advantage. Bruks' goal is simple survival.

Reading Watts is a simultaneously bracing and discouraging experience. Bracing because his depiction of the future and the oddities who inhabit it continue to get better and better, his plots more complicated and more involving, his characters less like sock-puppets for his ideas and more like actual human beings (or whatevers).

Discouraging because Watts uses his considerable gifts, artistic and academic, in the service of a singularly depressing set of ideas gaining percolating up from fields as diverse as physics, neurology, and nihilistic philosophy. Echopraxia suggests that the future belongs to predatory intellects, forces far more powerful than man, incapable of truly being understood by human beings.

I’ve noticed a mixed reaction to the novel mainly centered on the opacity of the characters’ actions. In particular, the hard sf vampire Valerie seems to be almost unbelievably over-powered compared to the other characters, even outwitting finally the hive-mind bicamerals. And in regards to the hive-mind, the overall reaction seems to be that we don’t get a real sense of what they do, other than a few sort of beyond future tech exploits. Personally I’m not sure, given the constraints of what Watts is describing that much can be done, dramatically speaking, with the inexplicable and near omnipotent Bicamerals than was done. When your plot includes walking and talking deux ex machina, you keep them off stage as much as possible.

Besides, one senses Watts is far more interested in his vampires anyway. Not so much for the science, which he more or less described completely in Blindsight’s afterward, but for the deeper questions of causality.

The power of the vampire is the ability to perfectly mirror the minds of sentient beings without being encumbered by such low utility cognitive processes like empathy and creativity. With a vampire it is all calculation and reaction. And Watts suggests that being so keyed into the chain of cause and effect allows a vampire to use even small gestures to program the humans around her. Social engineering raised to the level of symphonic manipulation.

It is through Valerie’s sustained and involved machinations that Watts’ true target emerges: free will. Personally after being lead step-by-step through the logic behind the essential pointlessness of cognitive self-awareness in Blindsight, the idea that deluded beings such as we might not have a say in our own actions is a much smaller conceptiual leap. I don’t think Watts sees it like this. His starting place is to point out free will seems so important to us is because we have evolved to cling firmly to that notion.

A deconstruction of consciousness and free will has been bubbling gradually to the surface of the pop culture for some time. "True Detective’s" Rust Cole, by voicing Thomas Ligotti's nihilism, pointed to this cage. The same actor, Matthew McConaughey gave the rationalist’s viewpoint in Christopher Nolan’s "Interstellar," memorably describing love as a biologic imperative.

The best and clearest exploration of that idea I’ve read this year comes from Watts, however. I say best because I feel as though with Watts, we get a true accounting for the ramifications of saying that consciousness is an illusion, and that free will a reflection of an individual’s imperfect understanding of the world. I say clearest because Watts seems to relish revealing the underpinnings of his speculation through copious (perhaps exhausting) footnotes and author notes. Much more so than I can do here, Watts illustrates the theoretical underpinnings of this brand of neuroscience. I personally enjoy these sections immensely because I feel as though the science and ideas Watts distills in his narrative would be rather difficult to shoehorn into his narrative, and somewhat independent of it.

Watts embraces an intensely atheistic moralism, almost a fundamentalism of a certain type of gimlet-eyed realism. He is not immune from gee-whiz technology's allure, but he is also somehow dismissive of the whole endeavor. Ultimately, he suggests the ability of mankind to affect positively or negatively the world around us is on the wane, perhaps to the advantage of the universe as a whole.
An underlying question that Watts seeks to explore in this novel and perhaps elaborate upon in a future work, is the notion of faith or God within the context of pure rationalism. Again, this seems like a strange step backwards. If consciousness is an illusion, free will a joke, why would God be any different? The difference is that Watts, expressing a pure mechanistic view of the universe, with every action the result of a previous event, runs into a prime-mover question. What caused all of this to be? Run the clock backward and you can, theoretically, trace all trajectories and explosions to the one moment where the universe sprang to fiery life. But what about before?

Watts isn’t really throwing himself into the “wand shaking, weird hat” (paraphrasing Watts) side of the faith/science divide and for that matter, neither am I. What he is doing is expressing the consequences of developing that degree of skepticism. In that back of Echopraxia Watts describes the emerging field of digital physics, which seeks to resolve the mysteries of the natural world by postulating all physical phenomena are the result of some kind of underlying calculation. This could be a literal "the-cosmos-is-a-computer,” or some variety of the holographic universe theory, or even the newest favorite of listicles from Buzzfeed to Slate: that the universe is actually a simulation created far in the future. The problem of such notions is that they pull farther away from the predictive power of classical science. Whether you imagine the universe as the result of some infinitely long mathematical function or the procedurally generated reality of the Matrix, you are left in an uncomfortable bind. If the universe is artificial, how can we say we know anything about it? What if the reason stars around distant galaxies don’t behave like we expect them to isn’t because of dark matter or dark energy but just because the constants of the universe are written different over there. That the universe is context-specific.

I disturbing thought, almost as disturbing as Watts final point which is, even when shown the truth behind consciousness and free will, the average baseline (Watts’ term, not mine) clings ever more vigorously to whatever logic-proof system assures them of their own ability to make choices. At most, convinced of a lack of personal agency, a person might act in an amoral fashion for a time before returning to familiar ethical patterns.

Update: A few stylistic changes to improve clarity.