Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

March 8, 2017 at 1:26 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments
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Too Like the Lightning coverWhen Strange Horizons asked me to contribute to their 2016 Best of the Year wrap-up, I immediately knew my entry would have to discuss Too Like the Lightning, my favorite novel not only of 2016 but of the last decade. The natural question to ask me, then, one I certainly asked myself, is if it’s so great, why haven’t I actually written a review of it? Well, for a variety of reasons I haven’t reviewed much of anything in a while, so with the sequel arriving today it seemed like a great time to both reread Too Like the Lightning and actually write about it this time.

The novel takes place in a future where humanity has flying cars, a moon base, and robots that make full time jobs strictly optional. Humanity is also enjoying lasting world peace, having given up geographic nation states, organized religion, and even gendered pronouns. Our window into this world, the narrator Mycroft Canner, seems like an example of the best this future has to offer. Intelligent, erudite, diligent, sensitive, empathetic, and humble, he works as a sort of freelance analyst for world governments. However, Mycroft is not the paragon of this society but rather its monster, a criminal so feared and reviled that his name scares even adults. Secretly rehabilitated, Mycroft is now a Servicer, a convict doing forced labor. Most Servicers do menial tasks, but the world’s leaders recognize Mycroft’s gifts make him uniquely qualified to help protect the world that hates him. Silence of the Lambs made a cliche out of the scary captive criminal, but far from scary, Mycroft seems sensitive and even kind. You might then assume this is yet another novel where sympathy is stirred up for the narrator by making him the target of unjust accusations and hatred, but there’s something a great deal more subtle happening with Mycroft’s character.

The novel’s plot consists of two strands that at first seem unrelated. In one, Mycroft investigates the theft of a manuscript from a newspaper office, a seemingly simple crime that turns out to threaten both the stability of the political system as well as the computer systems that operate the world’s flying cars. The other storyline, which at first seems like a non-sequitur for a futuristic science fiction novel, concerns Mycroft’s efforts to keep secret a boy named Bridger who can perform miracles.

To understand what’s going on here, perhaps we should start by considering Mycroft’s own words as he opens his account:

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Five Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.

This is not a mere preface or framing device. Throughout the narrative, Mycroft not only frequently speaks directly to the reader, he even allows a hypothetical reader to make italicized responses. He also is explicit that he is not just relating events but arguing a point. The “transformation” he describes is one Mycroft thinks is widely misunderstood and he aims to correct that understanding. This is a book much concerned with philosophy, and throughout the story Mycroft time for asides about and even quotations from eighteenth century thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, De Sade, and others as he tries to show how their ideas have shaped his world. As the presence of miracles in the narrative suggests, it is also concerned with religion. Since religious gatherings and discussion are thought to produce hatred and discord, every person is assigned a professional spiritual adviser who helps them search for truth, a truth they are then forbidden to discuss with anyone except that adviser. This is justified by the assumption that religion is a subjective matter of faith, but a boy who can produce miracles on demand threatens to turn at least part of the religious experience into observable truth.

Even though Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers would be comfortable with this future’s religious skepticism, there’s another aspect to the novel’s future society that has greatly departed from eighteenth century precedents. Referencing gender is taboo, and only “they” is permitted as a third person singular. And so it is used in Mycroft’s story…in the dialogue, that is. In his actual narration, as part of his invocation of the eighteenth century, Mycroft insists on using gendered pronouns despite many objections from his hypothetical reader. Here is the first of many passages in which he discusses this decision:

He nodded.

She nodded back.

Does it distress you, reader, how I remind you of their sexes in each sentence? ‘Hers’ and ‘his’? Does it make you see them naked in each other’s arms, and fill even this plain scene with wanton sensuality? Linguists will tell you the ancients were less sensitive to gendered language than we are, that we react to it because it’s rare, but that in ages that heard ‘he’ and ‘she’ in every sentence they grew stale, as the glimpse of an ankle holds no sensuality when skirts grow short. I don’t believe it. I think gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors as it is to us, but they admitted the place of sex in every thought and gesture, while our prudish era, hiding behind the neutered ‘they’, pretends that we do not assume any two people who lock eyes may have fornicated in their minds if not their flesh. You protest: My mind is not as dirty as thine, Mycroft. My distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place. Would that you were right, good reader. Would that ‘he’ and ‘she’ and their electric power were unknown in my day. Alas, it is from these very words that the transformation came which I am commanded to describe, so I must use them to describe it. I am sorry, reader. I cannot offer wine without the poison of the alcohol within.

Yet even this explanation is not complete. You see, Mycroft does not use the gendered pronoun that matches the biology of the character in question. Rather, he assigns genders to his characters based on his idiosyncratic notion of how to apply eighteenth century gender roles to his futuristic milieu. Mostly this is left implicit, but from time to time Mycroft mentions as an aside a character’s biological gender, then rejects it and explains why. He even engages in debates with his hypothetical reader about borderline cases. I found the resulting effect quite remarkable. Mycroft socially constructs gender right there in front of us, in defiance of biology and at times strenuous imagined objections of his readership. By the end of the novel, I knew what gender Mycroft had assigned each character and this colored my perception of them, yet I couldn’t remember who was biologically what without flipping through the book for minutes to find if there was one spot where Mycroft happens to mention it. Often he never does.

This has been much remarked on by those writing about Too Like the Lightning, but largely lost in the debate is that Mycroft was making still more interesting claims. First, he is asserting that banishing something from polite conversation doesn’t make it go away, and that his society’s supposed victory over gender bias and religion may be far less thorough than claimed. Further, he is describing a transformation, and he says that gender is essential to understanding that transformation. That some readers have glossed over this is understandable, because unfortunately the novel is only the first half of Mycroft’s text and the transformation he alludes to has yet to take place. We won’t see whether he can justify his claim that the ideas of the eighteenth century generally and its gender roles in particular are somehow essential to understanding what’s happened to his society until the sequel, Seven Surrenders, which not coincidentally has been released the very day I’m posting this.

There’s another important element in that second excerpt that also has not attracted enough attention in the discussions of the novel I’ve read, and that is that Mycroft has been commanded to write this text. This shouldn’t be a surprise, for Mycroft is, after all, a convict laborer. The book is prefaced by many messages indicating the many censorship gates his text has passed on its away to publication: “Certified nonproselytory by the four-hive commission on religion in literature”, for example, and “Raté D par la comission européenne des medias dangereux”. Further, Mycroft occasionally describes several characters in the story as being sources for scenes in which he is not present and, even more occasionally, mentions a few as having read what he’s writing and asked that this or that detail be changed.

These metatextual flourishes are fun but become quite relevant to our understanding of the story when we consider the setting. Enjoying as it does world peace, voluntary citizenship, spiritual advisers that sound a lot like therapists, and little need for labor, Too Like the Lightning‘s future has been described as utopian. Yet there are many aspects to it that seem quite sinister. A few of these are obvious, such as the complete censorship of nearly all religious speech. Many science fiction readers won’t shed many tears for religious speech, though, which is why some may overlook more subtle warning signs. How exactly were the world’s powerful existing religions extinguished? Is it really true that seven “Hives” drawn mostly from European traditions are sufficient to categorize all the world’s cultures? Why is it that the leaders of these supposedly rival Hives are nearly all related by blood or marriage and seem to be on better terms with each other than they are with their people? Why do essentially no ordinary people even appear as named characters in the book? Why is it that in this supposedly tolerant and benevolent future, the ordinary people that do appear are violent xenophobes?

The answer to all these questions could, of course, be that Ada Palmer simply didn’t think things through. Interviews she has given suggest that in fact she has, but we need not resort to appeals to her authority. Here I benefited greatly from rereading the novel, for when looking at these issues from the beginning, all sorts of throwaway remarks by Mycroft or other characters add to the impression that there’s quite a bit rotten in this particular Denmark. For example, in exactly one brief anecdote we learn that the hive system was created by the world’s rich, the postnational Davos set (though that label is of course not used), and that it was imposed on the rest through propaganda and probably warfare. Another example is the way the current rulers of the allegedly democratic Hives got where they are through family connections with the previous generation of rulers and frequently make comments that assume their own children should have ready access “to the high offices”.

But the biggest reason why it’s hard to see the future as anything but wonderful and the governments as anything but beneficent is the way Mycroft describes the Hives and their leaders. He is effusive in his praise for their wisdom, intelligence, charisma, and even beauty. He frequently stops to comment on how enlightened his culture’s system of religious repression is, how much of an improvement Hives were compared to nations, and so on. It’s very easy to assume that Mycroft loves this society, and therefore Ada Palmer loves this society, and that you as the reader are supposed to love it too. But in fact none of these conclusions follow. Again and again it is emphasized that although the novel was written by Ada Palmer, historian and science fiction author, the text was written by Mycroft Canner, arch-criminal in captivity, writing at the command of some of the very leaders he is extolling. While a full analysis must wait until Seven Surrenders or perhaps even the following two books, it seemed increasingly likely as I reread the novel that Mycroft is an insidiously unreliable narrator. I wouldn’t put it past him (and Ada Palmer) to outright lie about some fact or other, but more likely his unreliability consists of his shaping the narrative to the desires of those forcing him to write it and, he even mentions, at times literally reading over his shoulder. So of course he describes them as the good and the beautiful, born to be the just rulers of this world. Mycroft’s true feelings might be evident from the fact he asks us to apply the wisdom of the eighteenth century, yet when it comes to the ruling order he leaves this as an exercise for the reader. The reason why should be obvious: far from the wise rulers Mycroft portrays, to any of the eighteenth century thinkers he valorizes, the elite that rule the Hives would clearly be an ancien régime, a bunch of nepotistic aristocrats fighting vainly against the tide of history to preserve their petty power and dignity.

A novel this gloriously complex has many influences, but for me it’s hard to look past one obvious one: Gene Wolfe, particularly his Book of the New Sun. This is not to say that Palmer is simply rehashing Wolfe’s work; quite the contrary, she’s taking aspects of his work and carrying them in new directions. Book of the New Sun is a masterpiece but it’s hard to recommend because of it’s unlikable narrator, its questionable treatment of female characters, and, most of all, its uncompromising refusal to give the reader any assistance in understanding what’s going on in a first reading. Too Like the Lightning doesn’t have Book of the New Sun‘s beautiful language or dreamlike atmosphere, but it does have a delightfully unreliable narrator, a subtle and complex story that rewards close reading and even rereading, and a constantly thoughtful deployment of philosophical ideas drawn from sources the reader is unlikely to be familiar with. Yet it takes these aspects and puts them in a novel with a likable narrator, a thoroughly modern (albeit unusual) approach to gender, and a surface narrative that doesn’t leave the reader at sea. I love Gene Wolfe’s fiction, but it’s long since time for someone to step up and beat him at his own game. Too Like the Lightning is a first wonderful step in that direction, but the job’s not finished. Apparently this too is a four book series, so a full verdict may have to wait, but today I’m going to eagerly start reading Seven Surrenders to find out whether lightning can strike twice.

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Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

April 15, 2016 at 11:01 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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luna-new-moon.jpgUnfortunately I haven’t had time lately to review books I’ve been reading on this blog, but I’m still alive and, as ever, hoping to get back to writing more here in the future. In the meantime, Strange Horizons has published my review of Ian McDonald’s Luna: New Moon.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

October 22, 2015 at 11:48 am | Posted in 4 stars, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
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Aurora coverKim Stanley Robinson is one of the great authors of the modern era of science fiction, but he’s also a polarizing one. I’ve known people for whom reading his Mars Trilogy was literally a life-changing experience, but I’ve known just as many who bounced off it. He’s quite unusual in that he writes hard science fiction in the old mode, not only unafraid of exposition but embracing it, yet he also has a strong literary interest in the interior life of his characters and the style with which he tells a story. It feels unusual to say this so far into a writer’s career, but Aurora might be his best novel as well as the best place for a reader new to his work to start.

I say “might be” only because I haven’t read enough of his novels to be certain. I did manage to finish his Mars Trilogy, but only on my second attempt. I liked 2312 a great deal more, but it was paced strangely and largely centered on a character I found annoying. I read Aurora because I heard several early reviews to the effect that “I wasn’t a huge fan of his earlier books, but this is great!” I am often comically off-the-mark in my impressions of a novel before I read it, but in this case I finished the novel thinking: I wasn’t a huge fan of his earlier books, this was great!

Aurora is the story of a generation starship that, as the novel begins, is seven generations into its voyage and decelerating toward its planned colony site at Tau Ceti. Everything is going as well as can be expected, but over two hundred years little problems have been building into large problems, complicated by the fact that some parts of the ship are not–or are no longer–redundant enough to be shut down for maintenance without endangering the people on board. Devi is an engineer whose skill as a problem-solver means she spends her days traveling between the starship’s various biomes investigating soil chemistry, mineral buildup, equipment malfunctions, and all of the other little problems that by themselves aren’t fatal but, taken together, constitute a threat to the ship.

Most authors would have made Devi their main character. She’s smart, an inspiring leader, and a supremely talented engineer. She’s the classic SF “competent man” protagonist, except she’s neither a man nor the protagonist. The narrative instead centers on Freya, Devi’s daughter who is “slow at things”, finds math class to be excruciating, and ends up doing menial, unskilled work. Worst of all, she knows that she’s not like other kids and especially not like her mother, who is a genius engineer but not a good enough actor to conceal her disappointment. At first Freya is just a sympathetic figure whose utility to the actual story seems limited to happening to be in the same room when her mother is discussing important matters. The passive protagonist, who goes around like a movie camera seeing things happen on behalf of the reader, is a familiar device from countless science fiction novels, but Freya develops from these humble beginnings into an influential leader. Whereas Devi is a leader who goes around telling people how to solve their problems, Freya becomes a leader who listens to people talk about their problems. It sounds a bit cheesy when summarized, and the book makes it clear that part of the respect given to Freya is due to her mother, but Robinson made me believe that Freya could make this unusual path work and come to influence people who are theoretically far smarter than she is.

A protagonist living in the shadow of a far more accomplished family member is not a new theme for Robinson. In 2312, one of the two main characters, Swan, was the granddaughter of someone famous throughout the solar system. Swan was energetic but obnoxious, traveling all over the solar system and pissing off other characters (and many readers) but not really accomplishing anything. Freya travels a great deal as well, but she’s agreeable and sympathetic to both other characters and the reader. She’s far less frenetic than Swan yet has much more of an impact on the actual story than Swan ever did.

But although Freya is clearly the protagonist of the first half of the novel, by the end it’s hard not to feel as though the ship itself is the main character, and not in the figurative sense people say that Mars is the main character of the Mars Trilogy. The ship is operated by a quantum computer running an artificial intelligence. This isn’t a wisecracking AI out of Iain M. Banks; it’s not obvious whether it is even self-aware. Worried that the human crew won’t be able to cope with the ship’s increasing problems, Devi does her best to make the ship more intelligent. She gives the ship a challenge: write a story about the journey. The result is Aurora, and the way in which the story is told provides a window into the evolving intellect of the ship AI. From what I can tell (and this is the only technical aspect of the story I am even slightly qualified to assess) Robinson’s portrayal of AI is grounded more in his intuition than science. For example, the “halting problem” has a very precise scientific meaning but whenever the narration mentions it, it does so metaphorically, and even when discussing metaphors: “A quick literature review suggests the similarities in metaphors are arbitrary, even random. They could be called metaphorical similarities, but no AI likes tautological formulations because the halting problem can be severe, become a so-called Ouroboros problem, or a whirlpool with no escape: aha, a metaphor.” But even when I started to get annoyed by the imprecise usage of technical terms from computer science, the character always disarmed my objections. There isn’t any groundbreaking thinking here about AI, but there’s a great character, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Some people may still bounce off the novel because the beginning is somewhat slow as Robinson shows the reader the ship and the society living on it through Freya’s eyes. The pace quickens, however, and by the time the ship arrives at Tau Ceti about a quarter of the way through the novel the story begins a crescendo of tension and conflict that sustains it for the rest of the book. For most of its journey, the ship’s humans lived in a peaceful communitarian society on the ship. It wasn’t perfect, but it had many of the features of the post-capitalist utopias that have figured prominently in Robinson’s past work. Arrival at Tau Ceti puts a severe and ultimately stress on the political system and sets up the social and technical challenges that the characters spend the rest of the novel trying to solve.

Aurora is very much a hard science fiction novel, as was Robinson’s 2312 and his famous Mars Trilogy. Although he himself is not a scientist, Robinson has worked hard to take the old idea of a generation starship and try to envision how it would work. Most generation ship stories of the past have explored fascinating but unlikely scenarios of technological collapse: what if the passengers forget they are on a ship? Robinson is willing to let his ship’s passengers enjoy a fairly stable and well-ordered society for most of their journey, but he carefully scrutinizes the ship itself. Not how any individual piece of the ship works–most of the ship’s constituent pieces, like its propulsion, quantum computers, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology printers, are all handwaved into existence–but instead how the various pieces work together in an almost entirely closed system. The printers can create things, but where do the raw materials come from? Can material get “stuck” in a way that can’t be reclaimed? Can anything be repaired? Based on what ecologists have learned about island species, how big does a population have to be to be stable? He has much to say about these questions that will be new even to science fiction veterans.

It may not be fair to either book, but since I recently read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, the urge to contrast them is irresistible. Both novels tell stories that span many years, both depict humans struggling to survive in the difficult environment of space, and both have a coda that certainly makes a point but which they probably would have been better off without.Seveneves is much longer, has many more characters, and has more intricate detail. For its part, Aurora has characters who feel like real people, far more convincing science, and a much more reasonably-sized point-scoring coda. And while it’s probably foolish to try to predict this sort of thing, Aurora‘s core ideas about interstellar travel strike me as significant enough they will be part of the conversation for decades.

Describing those core ideas necessarily involves spoilers, so the spoiler-averse should head out now and come back when they’ve read the book.

The novel makes two arguments against the feasibility of generation ships. The first is that the greater speed with which bacteria evolves means that if a few thousand humans are isolated, the bacteria inside the humans will change, causing the people to sicken and eventually die out. The second argument is about extrasolar planets and first stated by Euan, dying on Aurora: “…they’re either going to be alive or dead, right? If they’ve got water and orbit in the habitable zone, they’ll be alive. Alive and poisonous…Then on the dead worlds, those’ll be dry, and too cold, or too hot. So they’ll be useless unless they have water, and if they have water they’ll probably be alive.”

It’s hard as a layman to evaluate the strength of the scientific claims being made here. Robinson is very convincing when he establishes that island devolution presents a problem, but less so when he implies that there’s no solution. This is a novel, after all, that has hand-waved its way to .1c interstellar travel and strong AI. The “live worlds are poison” problem is less impressive. While a microbe from a completely different world and ecosystem could be a sort of interstellar smallpox, it seems more likely it would simply be unable to interact with human amino acids and vice versa. Even granting the discovery within the novel, the characters conclude that “all live worlds are poison” from a single data point. That’s like trying to make statements about all planetary systems based solely on observations of our solar system, something which astronomers did in fact do out of necessity, but the moment we started being able to observe planets in other star systems, those theories crumbled.

The best argument the novel makes against generation starships is ethical: maybe the initial crew volunteers, but their children don’t. The children will see the grandeur and vastness of Terran civilization dwindling behind them but remain trapped in a relatively tiny starship for their entire lives. If anything Robinson underplays this argument, which I found completely convincing, because in his story no one seems to pay much attention to the Earth they’ve left behind. There is a feed of information, 8.5 gigabytes per day, but other than Devi people seem to just think it an odd curiosity. My take is that a few thousand people linked in this way would be totally dominated by Earth’s culture and would be avidly consuming Terran entertainment, and that entertainment would prevent them from forgetting the opportunities they were being denied.

In a very strange move, Robinson undercuts his best arguments by allowing a workable cryosleep to be discovered. The consent of children is not a barrier to exploration when generation ships become sleeper ships, nor is island devolution an issue if the bacteria are quiesced along with their host. The book’s principal characters remain adamantly opposed to exploration despite benefiting from the technology themselves. I assume Robinson was willing to do this because for him there are even more convincing arguments available, but they aren’t clearly stated in the book. In interviews, however, he has commented that dreams of interstellar colonization make people willing to allow Earth to be ruined, that people countenance irreparable harm to the planet and therefore the species because they think there are alternatives that are not, in fact, viable. That’s fair enough, but probably better refuted by drawing attention to the grave difficulties of constructing a durable spaceship of the scale required and achieving the required levels of propulsion, all problems glossed over in Aurora.

Each reader will have to come to their own conclusions about this, but I don’t want to end this review without a reminder that Aurora stakes out its position on all this by means of a story that is often exciting and nearly always fascinating. It may not perfect, but I would be shocked if it’s not on my nomination list for the Hugo awards in a few months.

The Echo by James Smythe

April 1, 2014 at 1:47 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

The Echo coverIn what I’m pretty sure is a first for me, Strange Horizons has posted my second review for them in two months, this time of The Echo, James Smythe’s sequel to The Explorer.

The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke

February 18, 2014 at 12:51 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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The Cusanus Game coverLast week Strange Horizons published my review of Wolfgang Jeschke’s 2005 novel The Cusanus Game, recently translated into English for the first time.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

February 15, 2014 at 9:57 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Ancillary Justice coverIf you’re at all plugged into the online genre community, you’ve probably heard of, if not already read, Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice. By the time it was published in October of last year, advance copies had already netted rapturous reviews from book bloggers and other authors. For those who need a little background, it’s a space opera set in an interstellar empire whose military starships are piloted by powerful artificial intelligences. Beginning years after one of these ships, the Justice of Toren, was lost under mysterious circumstances, the novel is narrated by Breq, a tiny fragment of the Toren‘s AI, as it attempts to get revenge on the person responsible for the loss of the ship. The narrator is an “ancillary”, a human corpse implanted with mechanisms that allow the AI to control it like a robot. Ancillaries are operated by remote, but a small piece of the overall AI is stored locally, allowing Breq to survive, albeit in much diminished form, even though its ship did not.

I almost always arrive late to trendy books like this and some sort of contrarian impulse tends to lower my expectations, but the combination of enthusiastic acclaim and an interesting premise meant I couldn’t stay away forever. Once I started reading, I’m happy to say it didn’t take long for the book to win me over.

The narrator was simultaneously a little disappointing and a pleasant surprise. As an AI in a human body, Breq turns out to be a relatively familiar sort of character, and one not nearly as inhibited by getting cut off from the main unit as I would have preferred. But in flashbacks we spend a lot of time with “Justice of Toren One Esk”, a subunit within the overall Justice of Toren AI, and all of that material is handled quite well. As someone with a computer science background, it’s rare to read a treatment of computers in general and AI in particular that doesn’t require a lot of eye-rolling, and I was pleased to find that, within its speculative parameters, One Esk was quite believable.

What really impressed me, though, was the Radchaii empire. Space empires passed from trope to cliché long before most of us were even born, but it’s rare to see one that feels as if the author actually spent more than a few minutes thinking about how empires function. The Radchaii and its emperor are oppressive, but many of those in its ranks are good people, and even the emperor’s theoretically absolute power turns out to be limited in certain ways. Most importantly, although the empire has survived for countless centuries, it hasn’t done so unchanged. Over the years, demography and economics have taken their toll, and a society that was implacable in its youth is starting to come apart. Just like historical Rome, ever the model for space empires everywhere, there are factions clamoring for a return to the old virtues and others who want to change the empire to adapt to its new circumstances. The novel illustrates this for us in the character of Seivarden, an officer who served on the Justice of Toren a thousand years before the start of the narrative and then ended up in stasis, emerging to find the same empire led by the same emperor is nevertheless a very different world. Leckie clearly put a lot of time into working out her setting, sprinkling in a variety of intriguing details without feeling obligated to explain everything.

So if much of the hype is justified, does that mean someone has finally written the perfect science fiction novel? Well, no. There are some rough edges here. As already mentioned, Breq is surprisingly bland. For much of the novel, the narrative alternates between Breq’s present-day quest and a set of linked flashbacks to the events leading up to the Justice of Toren‘s demise. This structure positions the revelation of the Justice of Toren‘s fate it an appropriate place and allows us to contrast the cut-off Breq from the days when all the ancillaries were functioning normally, but as is common with split narratives frequently one thread is much more interesting than the other. In this case, it’s usually the flashback, because although far more interesting in theory, the quest for revenge involves a lot of sitting around and waiting as Breq slowly pursues a macguffin that ultimately doesn’t feel very essential to the story. I really like the way the climax of the novel is really a conversation and doesn’t hinge on which character is a better shot, so the fact that Breq spends most of the novel acquiring a particularly shiny gun is, in retrospect, just a little unfortunate.

There’s also a bit too much reliance on coincidence. I could, just barely, accept Breq stumbling upon its old comrade Seivarden at the beginning, or else accept Breq and Seivarden just happening to meet another of Breq’s old comrades when they cross the border back into the empire. But both in the same story?

Finally, while in most respects the details about artificial intelligence were handled unusually well, and this isn’t a hard science fiction novel and probably shouldn’t be judged on those terms, the concept of ancillaries seems absurd. This is a technological civilization that can make massive AI-driven starships, but they can’t make conventional robots for their AIs to drive around? And when ancillaries become politically untenable, they have to use human foot soldiers? Sorry, I’m not buying that, no matter how nifty the moral and political questions ancillaries as described introduce into the story.

But those are relatively small quibbles. Just in terms of its story, Ancillary Justice is a fun space opera, and there’s a lot more to it than just that story. Much has been made, and deservedly so, of the narrator’s inability to distinguish gender and the consequent use of the female pronoun as a default for both men and women. Unfortunately, I think knowing about it ahead of time defused much of the effect for me. Also, the book is a little fuzzy on exactly where this ambiguity comes from: is it because One Esk is an AI? Is it a Sapir-Whorf consequence of the Radchaii language’s lack of gendered pronouns? Is it cultural? One suspects that even today, we have surveillance systems that are probably better at distinguishing biological gender than humans, so it’s odd that One Esk can’t do it.

Beyond that interrogation of gender, there’s not a lot new in Ancillary Justice, but its real value is in its smooth synthesis of concepts from throughout the genre. A lot of comparisons have been made to Iain M. Banks, but the Radchaai empire is no utopian Culture even if it does use large AIs in its warships. The better comparison, I think, is to Glen Cook’s still tragically underread novel The Dragon Never Sleeps. Both novels are about a crisis in a powerful empire whose military power is based on AI starships. Both novels examine how over centuries even the most durable of political systems will drift and change. Both novels question whether the security that an empire provides its citizens is worth the brutality required to police it, and if it’s ethical to destroy such an empire when countless millions will suffer in the subsequent anarchy.

The Dragon Never Sleeps provides a fascinating answer to the ethical questions central to both novels, and for me Kez Maefele is a much more interesting character than Breq. For its part, while Ancillary Justice doesn’t really provide answers to the ethical and political questions it poses, it’s better written and much better edited. It’s also less weird, which is a bit of a knock against it for me, but certainly makes it more accessible. It’s also not over, for while it ends on a reasonably conclusive moment, the setup for the sequel Ann Leckie is said to be writing is obvious and there’s reason to hope that future books will build on this excellent foundation.

Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

October 17, 2013 at 1:39 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Neptune's Brood coverWhen it rains, it pours. Hot on the heels of my review here on this blog of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 comes my review of another hard science fiction novel, Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood, over on Strange Horizons. They actually make an interesting pair, as they both are focused on worldbuilding almost to a fault, but where 2312 surrounds its world with stylish storytelling, Neptune’s Brood pares down in search of clarity.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

October 14, 2013 at 2:12 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 6 Comments
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2312 coverIt’s easy to understand why 2312 was nominated for the 2013 Best Novel Hugo. Its wonderfully detailed vision of humanity spread across the solar system doesn’t compromise any scientific rigor but still recalls the the genre’s lost, lamented models of colonization from before authors understood the implications of the rocket equation. It manages to do this without ever feeling stodgy or old-fashioned, and its two primary protagonists are impressively realized characters, a rarity in this sort of diamond-hard science fiction.

But it’s also easy to understand why it didn’t win. All the great details of the setting don’t ever congeal into a consistent world, the plot staggers from one spectacular set piece to another without regard for pacing or political verisimilitude, and however well-drawn the protagonists, one is frequently infuriating and both are almost entirely passive.

The first of the viewpoint characters is Swan, an artist who is the granddaughter of Alex, the leading political figure on Mercury and an extremely influential person in the solar system at large until her death just before the book begins. With humans now enjoying lifespans lasting around two hundred years, Swan is vaguely middle-aged at one hundred and eleven, but in many ways she acts like an adolescent, chafing under the weight of her grandmother’s legacy, living the life of a dilettante, taking foolish risks even though, or perhaps because, they infuriate her friends and family, and in general doing her best to avoid being saddled with any genuine responsibility for anything. Contrasting Swan is the other principal protagonist, Wahram, a diplomat from Titan and a member of Alex’s pan-solar political faction who is trying to pick up the pieces of their movement after her death. Somewhat older than Swan, Wahram is even-tempered to a fault, treasuring his routine and feeling anxious whenever it’s disrupted, a man who very much appreciates art but who doesn’t create it himself.

This two nuanced characters are built from, of all things, a pun. Swan, from Mercury, is mercurial, you see. She’s quick to anger, lashing out at her friends even when she knows their intentions are good, and when faced with a setback she runs and hides both psychologically and, when possible, physically. Wahram, from Saturn, is, yes, saturnine. He’s steady, measured, polite, and mature. The two meet because of their shared connection to Alex and because Wahram admires Swan’s art, and in a weaker novel they would fall in love at once. Instead, throughout the story they have an on-again, off-again association that only slowly becomes romantic. Opposites attracting is a bit of a cliche, but it makes some sense here. Wahram’s presence serves to curb Swan’s wilder impulses while Swan’s spontaneity helps expose Wahram to new things.

The big problem here is that although the congenial Wahram is a very likable person, the sort of protagonist who can easily hold the reader’s sympathies, Swan’s childish immaturity makes her very difficult to put up with in what is otherwise a very serious novel. That this is intentional–the other characters frequently remark on how annoying she can be and even Wahram admits that perhaps she is best dealt with in small doses–doesn’t change the fact that her sections take up about half the novel and the reader doesn’t have Wahram’s option of going somewhere else for a few months when she gets too hard to take. Or rather, the reader can put down the book, but whether they’ll actually pick up the book again is another question.

Mileage will vary on this and there’s no law that says all protagonists have to be responsible and adult, but Swan’s immaturity makes her proximity to the novel’s actual plot feel forced. That Swan knows the movers and shakers of the solar system via her grandmother is believable; that anyone would listen to what she has to say is not. And yet somehow Swan ends up being present for plenty of important and even secret discussions (this despite other characters’ oft-repeated concerns that Swan can’t be trusted, concerns Swan agrees with and through her actions justifies). Perhaps even more unbelievably, she always seems well-supplied and well-funded, something usually not even remarked upon by the narrative but occasionally explained by vague reference to Alex’s faction. The only consolation is that Swan rarely if ever actually influences the events unfolding around her, but then, neither does Wahram, contributing to a corrosive feeling that these characters are overlaid on top of the plot without actually touching it.

The story is basically a whodunit, with the it being a series of terrorist attacks in diverse parts of the solar system. A detective named Inspector Genette, already investigating Alex’s death, sets out to find and stop whoever is responsible. Genette would be the protagonist if this was a typical novel, but instead Wahram and Swan just happen to be in the right places at the right times to be bystanders while Genette unravels the mystery. But maybe it’s just as well, because the mystery isn’t all that interesting. It’s politically motivated, and for reasons I’ll get to in a moment the politics of the novel don’t make much sense. To patch a few gaps in the mystery narrative, a third viewpoint character, a Terran named Kiran, is introduced some way through the story and none-too-plausibly injected into the world of Venutian organized crime. Kiran is, like Wahram and Swan, almost completely passive, but unfortunately he’s also much less successfully characterized, never developing into anything more than a wide-eyed yokel.

Somewhat out of left field, the mystery turns out to hinge on “qubes”, quantum computers running AIs who can easily pass the Turing Test. Alex’s faction is halfheartedly anti-qube, using them but not trusting them, and meanwhile some other mysterious party has taken to implanting qubes in human-looking bodies. Inspector Genette is convinced that a human-looking qube is a clear and present danger to humanity in a qualitatively different way than one housed in a traditional server, or even the one that Swan on a typically contrarian impulse decided long ago to implant in her own skull. The novel doesn’t seem to consider this fear of an android qube menace a controversial position and seems to expect the reader to accept it immediately. Genette is completely convinced of it, after all, other characters question how to deal with these qubes but not the premise that they must be dealt with, and Genette is after all the only character who displays real intelligence or even agency. Except that it’s nonsense, a perplexing and perhaps even poisonous sort of nonsense. What difference does it make what an AI looks like? There’s a case to be made that a quantum AI might have intellectual capabilities that make it far more dangerous than a mere human, but surely a malicious, super-smart AI is dangerous no matter how it is housed? The Terminator was frightening because it could pass for human, yes, but viewed dispassionately was it actually more frightening than Skynet?

The real subtext of the Terminator, Cylons, and Blade Runner replicants is of course the fear of insidious infiltration by something other than us, something that doesn’t share our values. Science fiction should expose this fear for what is and question it (as Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream… do), not propagate it. That this doesn’t seem to happen in 2312 is particularly strange since Robinson stakes out a strong progressive position on sexuality. Wahram is coded male and Swan is coded female, but it turns out that Wahram is an “androgyn” and Swan is a “gynandromorph”, which basically means they’re a little of each. In their society this is totally unremarkable, and it turns out that due to some longevity benefits nearly everyone in space was altered during gestation to become intersex to some degree. I’m not totally sold on how this is handled; Wahram and Swan can be read as “male” and “female” a little too easily, as if the near-abolition of gender hasn’t had much of an impact. But this is a stylistic choice in service to the idea that gender is socially constructed and not some unshakable biological reality. Well and good, but what are we to make of Genette’s uncriticized fixation on the appearance of quantum artificial intelligences? It is perhaps telling that the novel’s otherwise comprehensive vision of the future features a related lacunae: a nearly complete absence of any sort of virtual reality, despite the presence of a number of characters (first among them the claustrophobic Swan) who would enormously benefit from altering either wholly or in part their perception of reality.

In any case, the reason to read 2312 is definitely not the plot and probably not even the characters, it’s the setting. Robinson’s achievements here are large and impressive in a way that is unfortunately difficult to capture in a review. From its opening scenes on Mercury, the story takes the reader on a grand tour of the solar system, visiting nearly every planet and many asteroids before ending, appropriately enough, near Pluto and Charon. The standout here is the moving city of Terminator that glides along rails, always staying just ahead of the sun because the rails behind it are expanding in the intense heat of the Mercurial dawn, but there are many other fascinating creations, too many to list here.

To better articulate this setting, the novel is written in the style of Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, a style known to genre readers mostly from John Brunner’s brilliant Stand on Zanzibar. Interleaved with chapters of a fairly conventional narrative are “lists” and “extracts” chapters, which pretty much contain what one might expect: lists of information and short, unsourced extracts from non-fiction contemporary with the story. From this description it might sound like a pretentious way to infodump, and, well, to an extent that’s true, but both the lists and extracts are chosen and arranged for literary effect. It’s perhaps not quite as crucial here as in Stand on Zanzibar since Robinson’s world feels less alien than Brunner’s despite its greater chronological distance. This is mainly a function of the far greater stylistic risks Brunner took, inventing dozens of slang terms and immersing the reader without context. Despite the similar structure, 2312 is written in a far less dazzling but much more accessible style.

Although it’s the main reason to read the novel and, indeed, sufficient reason to recommend it to anyone interested in a spacefaring future, the setting isn’t totally convincing. The principal problem is that Robinson dodges the fundamental question facing modern science fiction set in the solar system: why does anyone bother when it’s so expensive? Occasionally there is a halfhearted suggestion that people wanted to get away from the environmentally wrecked and hopelessly balkanized Earth, either to live free of its baggage or to preserve ecological niches in asteroid terraria, but anyone rich enough to contemplate hollowing out an asteroid or colonizing Mars can easily do both of these things on Earth itself and not expose themselves to the tremendous inconvenience and danger of space travel. In particular, the residents of the asteroid terraria are nearly without exception obsessed with ecology, which makes one wonder why they wouldn’t be happier living amid the real thing on Earth. It also seems reasonable to think that a civilization successfully terraforming Venus and Mars ought to be able to reverse a mere hundred years of greenhouse heating on Earth.

The actual settlement of the solar system is all in the past by the year 2312, of course, but without knowing the reason people could afford to go into space, it’s hard to understand how the economy works. Much of Earth’s food is grown in terraria, we learn, while people and raw materials from Earth are taken to space relatively cheaply on space elevators. Tiny micro-habitats near the sun focus light on otherwise energy-starved moons of the outer system, where again various raw materials can be mined. The picture never becomes clear, however. Wahram and Swan float around the solar system and never seem to worry about paying for anything. Perhaps they’re rich (rich in what?), but then it turns out they have to work to earn their passage from planet to planet on asteroids. And the work they do is…menial labor in fields. Now it’s believable, perhaps, that even in 2312 the humans of an overpopulated and impoverished Earth would be cheaper to hire for unskilled manual labor than robots. But in space, where not just a few but hundreds of asteroids have been hollowed out using self-replicating mining robots, why are jetsetting rich people like Swan and Wahram working in fields? There’s a weird utopian aesthetic at work, a hybrid of Jeffersonian gentleman farmers with agricultural communes. Robinson seems to see space as new New World free of the national and ethnic baggage of Earth, but doesn’t actually seem justified by the technological details we’re shown. The old New World was a nice place for poor people to move to, after all, but it didn’t allow a reset of ethnicity or the destruction of capitalism, so why would the new New World be any different?

One might reasonably expect this space-as-frontier setting to involve a lot of Wild West gunfights, but warfare apparently doesn’t fit in with the aesthetic either. This issue is at least explicitly raised, and we are told that space is too dangerous to fight in. This seems like a wild overestimation of human nature. Inspector Genette posits a slightly more plausible theory, saying the terrorist attacks are far more dangerous than they seem because until now people have somehow not realized that violence in space is possible, and once that taboo is broken there will be no way to return to peace. There is some precedent for this in political history: once violence is used successfully to create or prevent political change, a precedent is set that’s extremely difficult to shake. But again it’s difficult to imagine humans living in space for two centuries without having long since rediscovered a capacity for violence. This is not a world like Banks’s Culture where scarcity has been defeated. Energy, material, and labor are all scarce to differing degrees in different places, there is no interplanetary government to monopolize force, and successful first strikes seem far too plausible for mutually assured destruction to hold things in balance.

Nevertheless, apparently no one fights over resources, though no explanation is provided for how they are allocated. Most space habitats participate in something called the Mondragon accord, explicitly named after the Basque Mondragon cooperative but otherwise never explained. Genette works for a sort of interplanetary Interpol which for most of the novel seems to have even less power than our Interpol. Yet toward the end of the novel, Genette finishes the investigation by appropriating the largest spaceship in the solar system from an uninvolved third party, then compensates them by seizing one of Pluto’s smaller moons without so much as invoking eminent domain.

In another novel, some handwaving about economics and politics might be understandable, but much of 2312 is spent musing on how much better life is in space and how terrible things still are on Earth. Earth hasn’t changed all that much from today, so we are clearly meant to read criticism of Earth as criticism of the economics and politics of the present day. That’s fair enough, yet it feels cheap for 2312 to whine about the inequities of our world when it never adequately develops the economic and political alternatives it posits in the rest of the solar system.

I suspect that in the long run its various deficiencies will prevent 2312 from being remembered as anything more than a minor work by a major author, but despite its idiosyncrasies Robinson’s vision of what a settled solar system might look like feels five to ten years ahead of the rest of the genre, so for now it’s required reading for anyone interested in hard science fiction in general and space travel in particular.

Subject to Interpretation: the 2013 Hugo Nominated Short Stories

August 1, 2013 at 3:17 am | Posted in Science Fiction, Short Stories | 8 Comments
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It’s mere hours from the Hugo voting deadline, but I didn’t want to let this year pass without writing something about the Hugo awards. The short story ballot proved an irresistible topic, since for procedural reasons that need not detain us, only three short stories were nominated. Despite much hand-wringing over the years about narrow Hugo voter pool, the short story ballot often has a surprising variety to it. In one sense that’s not the case this year, as all three stories feel very modern (there’s no Analog-style story, for example) and they all represent what might be called the sociological strand of science fiction. But despite their surface similarities the stories provide a remarkable contrast in a specific quality, interpretive freedom, that I’ve been thinking about lately.

The best place to start is probably the story in the middle of the spectrum, Aliette de Bodard’s story “Immersion”. Published in Clarkesworld, it’s been nominated for nearly every relevant award and won the Locus and the Nebula. Each new success for the story has been the occasion of some soul-searching on my part, because every time I read this story (and I’ve gone back to it three times now) I really don’t like it. Oh, it’s well-enough written, sure, but as the title implies, the speculative key to the story is the immerser concept, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. Quy spends the story showing us that immersers enforce conformity in an foreign culture. Yet Longevity Station seems to be something of a tourist trap. Galactic tourists are there to see the local culture, and they wear immersers that will allow them to understand native idiom, customs, gestures, and so forth. Why would a man running a restaurant that sells native food to tourists want to look Galactic? Basically, I can understand if immersers force the Galactic culture on non-Galactics who feel obligated to use them because because Galactic culture is perceived as higher status than native culture. And I can understand if Galactics use immersers to, you know, immerse in an “exotic” culture without having to actually understand it. But I don’t understand how these two seemingly contradictory things are said to be happening at the same time, in the same place, in the story.

It’s not that there’s no way to rationalize this. The restaurant could be intentionally inauthentic, or alternatively might present an exaggerated, stereotyped conception of native culture. But the story doesn’t seem to acknowledge this issue at all. Instead, it announces that you can’t take “a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms”, an uncontroversial stance but one that seems to undercut what happens to Agnes. If culture is not an algorithm, why is the immerser capable of completely destroying her mind? Or maybe Galactic culture (but not the rich, authentic native culture) is reducible to an algorithm? But then why doesn’t the immerser make Agnes a fully functional Galactic-cultured person? The implication is that turning your back on your authentic identity destroys your very soul, leaving you an empty husk. That’s certainly alarming and even poignant, but it’s not, you know, true. Maybe people immersed in an foreign culture sometimes feel like they’re losing their soul, but whatever it is that actually happens is something far more subtle. It would be good to read a story about that, and it even turns out there’s one on the ballot, but this is not that story.

To judge from the Internet, I am in the minority on all this, to put it mildly. Now maybe I should dismiss this with the usual handwaving about how there’s just no accounting for taste, but while reading other reviews I noticed an interesting difference in concerns. As an example of the story’s enthusiasts, here’s Jonathan McCalmont’s endorsement of the story for the Hugo in its entirety:

“Immersion” is a perfect example of what 21st Century science fiction should be doing. Set on an alien world where the natives use technology to make their perceptions and reactions more hospitable to tourists, the story uses a science fictional conceit to explore the psychological legacy of Western colonialism. Elegant, concise and imbued with slow-burning rage, “Immersion” articulates what it is like to grow up in a culture that has internalised the racial prejudices of its colonial oppressors to the point where people hate not only their own skin but their own culture too.

For someone who feels similar to me, here’s an excerpt from Martin Petto’s sharply negative review of the story:

It is a complacent and overly familiar treatment of technology and one that is reflected in the glibness of the plot. Agnes is saved from mental incarceration simply by Quy saying “you have to take it off”. Doctors have been unable to do anything for Agnes but have not had Quy’s internal self-knowledge and personal connection. So spiritualism is prioritised over science and all sorts of bullshit short, sharp shock theories of the treatment of addiction are validated.

What’s interesting about these two quotes is that if we leave aside Jonathan’s prescriptive first sentence, I don’t think they disagree. I can’t speak for Martin, but certainly I can’t find a lot to disagree with in Jonathan’s summary of the story’s positives. He’s praising the story for what it is saying. Elsewhere Martin mentions he is fine with what the story is saying, but he doesn’t like the way it says it. Jonathan is of course not writing an expansive review, but his entire treatment of technology in the story is an offhand reference to it as a “conceit”. Martin’s review is like my own comments above in that it’s centered on the function of technology within the story.

At the risk of overanalyzing this, I’ll go farther and say that Jonathan appears to be praising the story for its ability to allow its (frequently, though not exclusively) privileged readers to empathize with the position of a minority culture. The business about space stations and immersers is just a means to producing a psychological effect. Martin acknowledges the psychological effect but complains that the story uses shallow and unnecessarily technophobic means to achieve it. My own concerns amount to the objection that the story’s speculative details don’t actually add up to the picture it’s painting, likely because the author was more interested in the psychological effect Jonathan praises than the way she was getting there.

At this point, it would be traditional for me to argue that my own reading of the story is the right one. Science fiction should be about science, why introduce immersers as a technology if you don’t work out what they would really mean, just write a fantasy story if the only role genre plays is filing the serial numbers off Earth cultures to get people to drop their preconceptions, etc. I’m sure you’ve heard those arguments before. But I don’t actually think Jonathan and the people who like this story are wrong, they’re just interested in different things than I am. Or really, they are most interested in different things, since I still care about what the story says and they still care about how it says it. The point is, even though there’s only one story, there’s (at least) two valid readings of it.

That’s not an uncommon observation, but usually having made it, people stop. Every reader is different, every reading is valid, and isn’t that wonderful? But this year’s Hugo ballot is instructive, I think. Stories aren’t a completely blank slate for the reader and they do not support an unlimited number of valid readings. Some stories are more open to interpretation than others, and this is mostly due to the artistic choices of the author.

“Mono No Aware” by Ken Liu originally appeared in the anthology The Future is Japanese but has been reprinted by Lightspeed magazine. Liu is best known for his award-winning “Paper Menagerie”, a story that I found impressively manipulative. “Mono No Aware” is not quite as extreme in this respect, but again Liu demonstrates very strong control over the reader’s reactions. In terms of plot, there’s nothing much new here. Asteroid catastrophes are well-trodden ground at this point, and the starship’s crisis ends up being yet another rehash of “The Cold Equations”. “Paper Menagerie” was criticized in some quarters for not being sufficiently speculative to be considered for speculative fiction awards. As if in answer to these criticisms, “Mono No Aware” has loads of speculative content…but it’s the same tropes we’ve all seen a thousand times, so once again the story stands or falls on the main character’s emotional journey as a mostly assimilated Asian immigrant. And stand it does, because Liu has a deft and nuanced touch with his main character. Compared to the shrill and enraged “Immersion”, “Mono No Aware” is thoughtful and melancholy. If Hiroto loses contact with his Japanese origins he won’t become a soulless zombie, “Mono No Aware” admits, but it would be a sad thing. And it’s not blind to the possibility he already has largely lost contact with his heritage, given how young he was when he was put on board an American spaceship. His memories of Japan, the real Japan, are just a child’s. Teaching American kids Go and reminiscing with his girlfriend about manga aren’t much of a substitute.

It probably hasn’t escaped you that my reaction to “Mono No Aware” sounds suspiciously similar to Jonathan McCalmont’s reaction to “Immersion”. Why, if I was more interested in the technology than the psychology of “Immersion”, can I turn around and praise “Mono No Aware” despite its boring and unoriginal speculative content? I think that Liu’s choice (conscious or not) to make his setting drab and familiar lets it fade into the background. By itself, the asteroid and starship material don’t help the story in any way, but they don’t hurt it either. Bodard’s comparatively more ambitious efforts focused my attention on immersers and away from the characters and how they felt. I wouldn’t go so far as saying there’s only one reading of “Mono No Aware” (with any science fiction story there is always someone, somewhere, who is mad about the science) but I think Liu leaves his readers much less room to maneuver. He wants us to think about a few ideas and experience a certain mental state (mono no aware, actually), and he doesn’t want us distracted by anything else.

If “Mono No Aware” allows the reader less interpretive freedom than “Immersion”, Kij Johnson’s “Mantis Wives” (also published by Clarkesworld) goes way, way in the opposite direction. “This is an interesting idea, but it isn’t actually a story,” was how Nicholas Whyte dismissed it, and he probably speaks for a lot of people. I had to go to the dictionary on this one. “An account of incidents or events,” is how Merriam-Webster defines the word “story”. It’s still not cut and dry but I think “The Mantis Wives” is, just barely, an account of incidents.

What we can say for sure is that whatever it is, “The Mantis Wives” takes place almost entirely in the reader’s mind. The text presents its framing concept and then runs through a set of very short vignettes, balancing the alienating elements of mantis biology with words that are only appropriate to human relationships (chiefly “wife” and “husband”, but also “man” and “woman”). It is left to the reader’s mind to perform the allegorical gymnastics required to get any meaning out of the story at all. It would be an overstatement to say that no two readers will end up with the same reading, but this story comes as close as possible at this length to realizing that cliché.

Reading the preceding paragraph without having read the story, one might conclude “The Mantis Wives” is diffuse, but in fact it’s the most tightly focused story on the ballot. Where “Mono No Aware” employed a bland, over-familiar setting and plot to keep attention on its narrator, “The Mantis Wives” excises setting and plot altogether. As readers we get the exact words, and only those words, that Johnson wants us to think about. But that’s as far as she goes. No matter what we might say about the death of the author, everyone reading “Immersion” and “Mono No Aware” will understand what the authors wanted to say, whether or not they agree with what they said or how they said it. Without employing supplementary information from outside the text, I don’t think it’s possible to reconstruct an authorial message from “The Mantis Wives”, and maybe not even then. Perhaps that’s the result of a miscalculation on Johnson’s part; that often happens when writers afraid of being preachy try to present what they think is the minimum information necessary to force readers to a conclusion. I think it’s more likely that she considers the story a success if it the reader thinks about its material, whatever their conclusions.

Despite having only two stories to choose from after ruling out “Immersion”, I had a tough time deciding what to put at the top of my ballot. I’m certainly sympathetic to the “not a story” complaint about “Mantis Wives”. Many times on this blog I’ve complained that supposedly award-worthy stories are too insubstantial to be worth reading at all. “Mood piece” has probably been my favorite insult. I understand, I would say proudly, that other readers think reading a few thousand words just to feel a hint of some emotion is worthwhile, but I want stories with characters, plot, and ideas!

Applying that criteria again seems like it would to put me with Nicholas and rank “Mantis Wives”, which everyone will agree had no characters or plot, under even “Immersion”. Yet…yet…it does strike a mood, sure, but more importantly, the ideas are there. Not developed all that far, certainly, but that’s inevitable at the story’s very short length. But the precision of the language impressed me, and the fact it ended up being more thought-provoking than many novels. “Mono No Aware”, by contrast, has characters, plot, and ideas…but for all that it’s really a mood piece. And I liked it anyway! All I can say to explain it is that Liu’s evocation of the mixed feelings of assimilated immigrants, both here and in “Paper Menagerie”, is a lot more interesting to me (and therefore satisfying) than your run-of-the-mill mood piece award nominee.

In the end, I decided to rank “Mantis Wives” first, on the probably silly grounds that it feels like more of a step forward for its author. “Mono No Aware” seems similar to, and perhaps a little weaker than, “Paper Menagerie”, whereas “Mantis Wives” seems like a distillation of Johnson’s previous experimental allegories like “Ponies” and “Spar” into the bare essentials. It’s not as gut-wrenching as those earlier efforts, but what it loses in shock value it makes up in elegance and subtlety. I call my reasoning silly, incidentally, not just because it involves factors outside of the stories themselves, but also because I haven’t read enough of either author’s work to be all that authoritative. At the very least, I’ll take a note to get Kij Johnson’s collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees closer to the top of my virtual to-read pile.

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks

May 27, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments
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Hydrogen Sonata coverThe Hydrogen Sonata is the ninth (and sadly, almost certainly the last) novel in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Readers who haven’t read any Culture books might infer from that fact they should start elsewhere, perhaps with the first book, if they want to try this popular and influential series. In fact, despite sharing a setting, each Culture novel stands alone and really one can start anywhere and be fine. Conventional wisdom says Player of Games is the best place to start, and that from there readers should move on to Use of Weapons. Usually people say they are more accessible, especially Player of Games, but really if accessibility is the only concern then one might as well start with the first book, Consider Phlebas. The reason why I wholly endorse starting with Player of Games and Use of Weapons is that I think they’re head and shoulders better than every other novel in the series, making them not only the best place to start but also a surprisingly good place to stop. But a detailed discussion of their particular qualities will have to wait for another day; having provided guidance to readers new to the series, I can in clear conscience spend the rest of this review discussing The Hydrogen Sonata in the broader context of the series.

The setup this time is that the venerable Gzilt civilization has been winding down for some time and is now mere weeks from Subliming, a process by which a civilization irrevocably transfers its individuals out of our universe and into a new and incomprehensible plane of existence. But as they prepare for their society-wide death and rebirth, a message sent to the Gzilt by a long transcended civilization is intercepted and destroyed. Vyr Cossont is sent to the Culture to discover the message and the dangerous truth behind it, a revelation that could change the course of her entire people.

That’s a barebones plot summary of The Hydrogen Sonata, the sort you might find on the back of the novel or on its Amazon page. It’s conventional in such writing to avoid even vague references to the ending, but if it weren’t, the summary would be made much more accurate by appending the sentence, “But, in fact, nothing comes of it.”

Nothing coming of it is a surprisingly common ending for Culture novels, starting all the way back in Consider Phlebas and showing up in Excession, Look to Windward, and especially in the penultimate novel Surface Detail. When I finished reading Surface Detail, I was frustrated by the way all of its many viewpoint characters turned out to be irrelevant to the outcome. If anything, Hydrogen Sonata doubles down on this concept. I would have expected this to be even more frustrating, but it forced me to start thinking harder about why Banks insists on writing stories this way. It’s far from the best Culture novel, but I think it might be the one that best captures what Banks has been trying to do with the series for at least two decades. In light of that, and it being the last book, it seems appropriate to discuss the entire series in addition to just The Hydrogen Sonata.

In a recent post, Andrew Rilstone argued that the Star Trek universe is a general purpose “story-making machine” in ways the Doctor Who universe is not. The accuracy of that proposition, hotly debated in the comments on his blog, need not detain us here, but I mention it because I think the Culture universe is a story-making machine…but a very narrow one. You can, of course, tell any sort of story within the Culture setting, but it would contribute nothing more than scenery to, say, a detective story, a comedy of manners, or even a generic SF space opera story. The Culture as an idea has special relevance to two particular themes: the ethics of intervention and the search for meaning in an atheist universe. Even when Banks tries to use the setting to talk about something else, like the idea one might create afterlives in virtual reality for uploaded minds, the presence of the Culture warps the story back toward its two core ideas.

All of which is to say, while each Culture book is independent from the others and theoretically unique in its concerns, they all tend to be talking about the same things. But if they’re all about the same thing, why does nearly every reader agree that Player of Games and Use of Weapons are at least very good while opinions vary wildly about the merits of the other seven novels? There must be something that sets them apart, yet in many respects all nine Culture novels have similar qualities. Banks’ facility for witty dialogue, his excruciating character names, and his believable if not profound characterization are all remarkably consistent across nine novels and twenty-five years, and if anything the prose is more polished in Banks’ later work. I believe that while every Culture novel discusses intervention, after the first three there was a significant shift. To explain that shift, I have to start with the observation that in addition to having two themes, the Culture setting presents Banks with two problems.

The first is that if Culture Minds are nigh-invulnerable, nigh-infallible, and nigh-omnipotent, what do they need humans for? From the start, Banks acknowledges this problem, explaining in the 1994 “Notes on the Culture” that humans have a status “somewhere between pets and parasites”. The trouble is that as readers we enjoy hearing about the exploits of people at least recognizable as humanish if not actually human. It’s a common observation that the Culture is too utopian for Banks to find enough conflict to tell stories there, forcing him out to the fringes, but it’s actually more troublesome that the protagonists are at best pets. If it’s hard to tell stories about happy people, it’s even harder to tell stories about happy dogs.

Banks begins by resorting to special cases. In Consider Phlebas, he posits a planet from which both Culture Minds and Idirians are barred but the human-equivalent protagonist is allowed to land. In the next novel, Player of Games, the idea is that a human is needed to enter an alien culture’s game tournament. But already this approach was showing worrying cracks. Why not just claim a Mind’s avatar is a human? It’s not like Special Circumstances isn’t willing to lie for the cause, and surely they could put one over the the Empire of Azad? In the “present day” storyline of Use of Weapons, the Culture needs not Zakalwe’s talents per se but his special relationship to a foreign politician, but he formed that relationship on one of his many Special Circumstances missions. The whole narrative falls apart if Zakalwe isn’t valuable as an agent.

Now we must pause to note that as a flaw goes, this isn’t serious. After all, despite these nitpicks Player of Games is very good and someday I will argue that Use of Weapons is a genuinely great novel. Yet though a small issue, if it’s a minor itch in the back of some readers’ mind while they spend a few days reading one of the early Culture books, one imagines that it may well have become magnified in the mind of the author, immersed for months and years in the creation of the novels.

And so in Excession, the narrative focus shifted and while there were humanish characters involved in the story, the story’s conflict is both caused and resolved by Minds. Excession is popular among Banks fans because it foregrounds the Minds and lets them chew the scenery, blowing things up and cracking wise. But it pays a heavy price for what might only slightly unfairly be called fan service. It rapidly becomes obvious that the longer Minds remain on stage and in the spotlight, the harder it is to take them seriously as vast intellects far beyond the ken of humanity. No matter how we might try to forget it, when the Minds move their massive starships, they move them at the behest of the author of the novel, a mere human somewhere between pet and parasite. When they speak, he is throwing his voice to speak on their behalf. It’s not impossible for this to work, but like all illusions, it works best in small doses.

Perhaps Banks concluded the same thing, for in the rest of the Culture series he lets human protagonists come back to the fore. In Inversions, he just dodges the utility question and again leaves himself open to nitpicking. If two human operatives disagree on how best to intervene, why are they running parallel operations instead of having a Mind settle the question for them? In Look to Windward, Matter, and Surface Detail human Culture agents don’t contribute much and even people from outside the Culture find themselves mere cogs in the games of their betters if not totally irrelevant.

Unfortunately, while marginalizing the human characters makes logical sense, it goes a long way toward undermining reader satisfaction in the stories being told. If these people can’t contribute, why did we just spend the novel watching them stumble around the story happening around them? Many great novels have been written in which the protagonists are utterly passive, of course, but the Culture novels are space operas that spend a lot of time on action and adventure. We expect that action and adventure to produce an important outcome, as in Player of Games, or failing that, to produce genuine insight into character, as in Use of Weapons. In most of the later Culture novels, nothing much comes of it.

But the Culture novels aren’t merely action adventures, they’re novels of ideas. If I’m right about the Culture setting’s affinity for the two ideas I mentioned earlier, a great Culture novel must have fascinating things to say about one of them, if not both. That brings us to the other problem Banks has encountered with the Culture setting: in the real world, the politics of intervention shifted dramatically over the course of the series. I haven’t heard Banks describe a specific influence for his conception of Contact, but given the Culture is intended as a perfected left-wing society it’s reasonable to suppose he was looking to a left-wing antecedent, the Communist International. Of course, as soon as the novels were published readers began drawing connections closer to home: the anti-Communist agents of the Western governments, in particular the United States.

Whichever model he had in mind, Banks took the idea of a powerful state interfering in a weak one, an idea opposed both by the right (when they thought Comintern agents were sabotaging capitalist economies) and the left (which saw the quagmires of the Cold War as a rebranding of colonialism), and presented the strongest possible argument in its favor. Unlike the United States or the Soviet Union, the Culture’s superintelligent Minds really do know better than the “savages” they are manipulating, and the values they promote are difficult to argue with. How could anyone object to such wise assistance? Right out of the gate, Consider Phlebas gives us a protagonist who does object and starts exploring the consequences. Player of Games and Use of Weapons go considerably farther down this road, and their development of this theme is much of the reason they are still worth reading two decades later.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union brought about a new, supposedly unipolar world in which intervention became inextricably linked with American hegemony, Banks no longer seemed comfortable telling stories about perfected intervention. When in 1996 Excession depicted a less advanced race, the Affront, unknowingly being used as a chess piece in internal Culture politics, it was the first crack in the idea that Culture Minds are nearly perfect. Look to Windward, dedicated “to the Gulf War veterans”, takes this further with its meditations on costly mistakes made in the Culture’s war against in the Idirians and, especially, the Chelgarian civil war, a tragedy resulting from a botched Culture intervention. Matter repositions the Culture as just one of a delicately balanced group of great powers, each supporting less advanced civilizations who themselves have their own spheres of influence including still less advanced cultures. And in Surface Detail, the Culture is for political reasons carefully neutral in the novel’s central conflict despite clearly favoring the anti-Hell side (and working covertly on its behalf).

The effect of all this is to considerably walk back from the first three novels’ picture of the Culture as only just short of all-knowing and all-capable. It goes some way towards preventing readers from taking the Culture as an endorsement of the American neo-conservatives Banks loathes, but it does so by reducing the distance between the Culture as an entity and present countries, particularly America. The Minds are no longer just talking like humans, they’re making the exact same sorts of mistakes humans make.

It’s not that people shouldn’t write stories about misguided or failed interventions. Quite the opposite, it’s obvious those are enormously relevant and important scenarios to think through. But is the Culture the right tool to examine questions of foreign policy and national guilt? No, I would argue, because somehow after nine novels it’s still not clear how exactly the Culture decides to do anything. Supposedly it is a democracy, but we never see the sausages actually getting made, and the impression is always that the Minds decide among themselves what to do without much concern for their lovable pets and parasites. So it’s all and well and good for a Culture citizen to wring their hands and feel a distant and diffuse sense of guilt over the Chelgarians or the conduct of the Idirian War, but is there anything one person, or even one Mind, can do differently? Should they become activists and try to convince their fellow citizens to their own way of thinking? Should the system be reformed? It’s hard to say when we never understand the system in the first place.

For anyone who’s familiar with Thucydides even in summary, contrast the Culture’s botched inventions against his description of the Athenian democracy’s calamitous invasion of Sicily. Sure, that failed intervention has the advantage of having actually happened, but more importantly, we are shown the series of decisions that led to the disaster, allowing us to discuss in concrete terms whether Athens failed in spite of its democracy or because of it. No similar judgment is possible with the Culture. Characters inside and outside the Culture complain about Special Circumstances and say there needs to be more control, but is control even possible in the Culture’s system? The only real civic action we ever hear about is secession.

Another way of putting this is that the Culture series supports stories about the experience of utopia but not the politics of it. This isn’t an inevitable outgrowth of the setting itself, but it’s the way Banks writes it. With a few quick asides, he establishes but never fleshes out the Culture’s fusion of democracy with anarchic consensus, then never challenges the effectiveness of this non-government even while writing stories that are increasingly critical of its outcomes. If we conclude, as is extremely tempting, that the government he’s really criticizing is not that of the Culture but those of the present day, then we give up on the idea of the Culture as an ideal utopia and it becomes just another Earth-analogue space government.

Beyond intervention, there is the series’ other great theme, the search for individual meaning. This isn’t actually as separate as it sounds, because from the beginning Banks’ best answer to the question of what people should do when all their needs are met is that they should help other people. People outside the Culture, that is, since by definition Culture citizens don’t need anything.

That’s not to say it’s his only answer. The series gives the impression that the vast majority of Culture citizens fill their days with varying combinations of sex, drugs, thrill-seeking, and creative expression. It’s for this reason, by the way, that I always hesitate when people say the Culture is a communist utopia. The Culture citizen does not own everything in common with their fellow citizens; they merely can afford to own whatever they want. This strikes me as, if not a capitalist utopia then at least a consumerist utopia. Freed of scarcity, most Culture citizens happily gorge themselves on their preferred mode of consumption no matter how expensive.

But although this is generally the part of the Culture people are thinking of when they say that, unlike most speculative fiction settings, it would be a wonderful place to live, Banks carefully rations exposure to this side of the Culture and most of his protagonists have an eye-rolling disregard for the intoxicated masses. If life isn’t just about gratifying one’s own desires, what then? If we aren’t to turn inward, then we must turn outward, but toward what? The divine is a popular answer in our world, but the Culture (presumably following the author’s own preferences) has little time for religion. Another outward option is to serve the inanimate world, but while the Culture are described as fervent environmentalists, in practice this never comes to the foreground in the novels, nor does Banks seem to have ever put much effort into making their beliefs on this subject consistent (they oppose planetary terraforming as wilderness-destroying, Banks says in the Notes, right after describing how comets and asteroids are strip-mined to create enormous orbitals).

That basically leaves helping other people as the only option left, and this is where the series’ loss of faith in intervention comes into play. If intervening in other cultures is too risky for even Culture Minds to manage, what’s left for the thoughtful Culture citizen?

For the answer to that, we should turn, finally, to the ninth entry in the Culture series, the novel you surely assumed I had forgotten I was reviewing, The Hydrogen Sonata. I’ve described my theories about the series’ trends in such exhaustive detail not because Hydrogen Sonata breaks with them, but because it takes them to their logical conclusion.

The plot concerns, as usual, a Culture intervention in another civilization’s affairs. Or rather, a theoretical intervention, because after much posturing and scurrying around, nothing comes of it. The not-all-that-momentous secret from the beginning of the Culture is discovered, but then not disclosed. The Gzilt head off to wherever it is they’re going, just like they’ve been planning to do for centuries. Previous Culture novels have ended in whimpering anti-climaxes, but this one is on another level. The matter is decided in an Excession-style Mind conference, with the rhetorical equivalent of unenthusiastic shrugs and mumbling without eye contact. The tepid debate is won by the following argument: “If we do nothing then any disaster that befalls the Gzilt over the next few hours is entirely theirs. If we intervene we become at least complicit.”

This argument is so ghastly that I don’t want to think Banks means to endorse it, but all the allegedly super-intelligent Minds agree with it, even the previously skeptical Caconym. What can be said objectively is that everything possible is done to leech the decision of any drama. It’s as if Watchmen ended with Veidt saying, “Look, this is a weird situation and it’s hard to say what’s best, but the path of least resistance is just to keep lying about this. Right? I don’t know. What do you guys think?” To which, of course, Rorschach would respond, “Well, I’ve bitterly opposed it until now, but I find I can’t be bothered to argue for my position. So yeah, I guess so. Whatever.” Many past Culture novels have ended with some or all of their characters’ efforts proving meaningless, but at least the characters themselves cared right up to the end. Now Banks has made the obvious refinement and allowed the characters themselves to perceive and acknowledge the unimportance of their actions.

The novel pays a heavy price in reader engagement for this anti-climax, but in return, it has a clarity to its ideology that was missing from the previous five novels. Against the ultimately intervention-friendly depiction of the first three books, Hydrogen Sonata portrays intervention as a ridiculous, self-centered exercise that gratifies the egos of the Culture Minds in idle moments but is at best without effect and at worst destructive. I’m not convinced, but if a story makes its case honestly I don’t penalize it if I disagree.

But rejecting intervention means the series needs a new answer to the search for meaning. As a correspondent of Adam Roberts (quoted in the comments of his Hydrogen Sonata review) points out, the novel’s diverse cast try to find meaning from an equally diverse set of sources: truth, glory, duty, and art. No previous Culture novel has given the question such a thorough examination, but none of the answers turn out to be at all convincing. Characters motivated by social concepts, like the Gzilt politicians and its military factions, achieve nothing in their struggles. Characters who pursue experience or art, like QiRia and the sand sculpting drone, have become anti-social almost to the point of mental illness. Art earns the strongest rebuke, despite being the answer one might expect a novelist like Banks to prefer, in the form of the titular Hydrogen Sonata, a piece of music Vyr tries to play even though no one, least of all herself, wants to hear it. Only a few musicians have ever managed to play it through correctly, yet a Mind’s avatar plays it perfectly on the first try, tearing down any sense of nobility in Vyr’s struggle for struggle’s sake.

In that same review, Roberts complains that the martial, religious Gzilt don’t seem to represent the highest possible stage of societal development. But Banks is clear on this point: societies don’t Sublime because they have become smarter, wiser, or more ethical than other cultures. They Sublime because they can’t think of anything better to do. Apparently after millennia of experimentation, civilizations finally exhaust all possible sources of meaning and, in desperation, they Sublime in the blind hope of finding something better in a realm they can’t hope to understand until they get there.

This civilizational lifecycle wasn’t clearly illustrated in previous Culture novels, but the same idea has always been lurking unspoken in Banks’ speculation about human lifespan in the Culture. Humans, we were told, generally live about four hundred years. While there are some exceptions, it’s usually at that point that people for some reason decide four centuries of drugs, parties, art, and meddling in other cultures is enough and they choose to die. People who “stabilize” biologically and never age are regarded as defective in some way. In the Notes, Banks justifies this with some platitudes about death being natural and giving shape to life, but it’s always struck me as dubious. Natural human lifespans are definitely too short, Banks is arguing, but surely four hundred years ought to be enough for anyone. Until medical advances allow the hypothesis to be tested we won’t know, but this seems predicated on a misunderstanding of human nature.

Regardless, the underlying philosophy here seems to be that the search for meaning in life is hopeless. There is no real reason for living, and that having at last satiated our inborn drives for pleasure, friendship, and expression, there is nothing better for us to do than die. If Banks believes this to be true of individuals, we shouldn’t be surprised to see this same logic repeated at the civilizational level, right down to the Culture being viewed as vaguely immature because it seems uninterested in Subliming (because, we can assume, its preoccupation with intervention is tying it to reality).

And so with Hydrogen Sonata the Culture series ends much as it started in Consider Phlebas: mired in bleak despair. From the standpoint of ideas, Hydrogen Sonata strikes me as the most articulate of the last six Culture novels and the only one that presents a viable argument against the worldview of the first three. Unfortunately, being loyal to these ideas necessarily undercuts then novel’s effectiveness as a story and the narrative is correspondingly weaker. Of the last six Culture novels, I’d say Hydrogen Sonata was the worst as a story, yet it’s the one I’m most likely to reread at some point in the future.

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