Subject to Interpretation: the 2013 Hugo Nominated Short Stories

August 1, 2013 at 3:17 am | Posted in Science Fiction, Short Stories | 8 Comments

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

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.

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

May 14, 2013 at 12:38 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Mad Scientist's Daughter coverI’ve got a little catching up to do here. First, on Friday my review of Cassandra Rose Clarke’s robot romance The Mad Scientist’s Daughter went up on Strange Horizons. Of the books I’ve reviewed for Strange Horizons, this was not my favorite. In fact, of the novels I’ve reviewed for Strange Horizons whose titles end in daughter…still not my favorite. I didn’t get around to discussing the novel’s title in the review, but other people have covered the daughter title phenomenon more thoroughly than I could hope to do myself.

In other news, Speculative Fiction 2012 is now available in both physical and digital formats. It’s a for-charity anthology intended to bring together the year’s best book reviews, essays and commentary from genre blogs. Notable writers include Adam Roberts, Abigail Nussbaum, Daniel Abraham, Niall Harrison, N.K. Jemisin, Paul Kincaid, Joe Abercrombie, and many more. Among the much less notable writers is, ahem, me. Seeing my name in such amazing company is inspiring, but I promise fame won’t change this blog. You can expect the same overlong posts, buggy WordPress layout, and months of unexplained silences in the future.

The Bel Dame Apocrypha by Kameron Hurley

January 25, 2013 at 1:51 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

God's War coverThere is no better introduction to the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy than the beginning of the first novel, God’s War.

Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.

Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.
     — God’s War

From now on, I expect that first sentence will be mentioned whenever people talk about great science fiction opening lines. But while as a sentence it’s less shocking than the one that opens Steel Beach and with its proper nouns harder to remember than that of Neuromancer, I think it’s actually better than either of them. It’s not a stunt line, or rather not just a stunt line. It shocks and it strikes a grim opening note, but it also has real symbolic significance. Just this first sentence tells us something about Nyx’s relationship to motherhood, and by extension the traditional roles of women.

The two lines that follow continue to relate events in a way that tells us more about Nyx, though there’s a clever bait-and-switch. From these lines we conclude that Nyx is desperate and reckless, but in fact she has lost that money on purpose. Nyx is a bounty hunter, and we soon see that showing up drunk at the fight and losing that money was a ploy to seduce Jaks, and that seducing Jaks was, in turn, a ploy to help locate Nyx’s real target. So far, this sort of reversal is a common technique for beginning a novel. I call it clever because Nyx really is reckless and typically more than a little desperate. Getting drunk and blowing her money gambling on a boxing match is very much in character for her, even if in this particular instance she has an ulterior motive. Although the novel doesn’t ever make this explicit, it’s reasonable to conclude that she could have secretly followed Jaks or found some other way to ingratiate herself, but she chose this method because it’s what she wanted to be doing anyway.

When the book was on the last steps of its very long road to publication, Kameron Hurley’s concise summary of what made God’s War distinctive was: “Bugs. Blood. Brutal Women.” Again, it’s hard to outdo Hurley here, but each of those three elements deserves to be unpacked from soundbyte-level brevity and examined.

“Bugs” is a reference to the setting. The planet Umayma was colonized by humans many centuries before the trilogy (“Umayma” means “Little mother” in Arabic), but before anyone could live there it had to be terraformed. This was done not with machines but with genetically engineered insects. Unfortunately, some combination of a war amongst the human colonists and the inevitable fact that things don’t go according to plan meant that although parts of Umayma became habitable, it never became a garden world. Worse, humans have lost the scientific knowledge that allowed them to cross the stars and create climate-altering insects. Worst of all, the insects themselves are still around and almost completely out of control. The fact that the small minority of humans who remain able to exert some measure of control over nearby insects are called magicians is enough to indicate that Umayma has fallen, but its fall (to borrow Gibson’s famous line) is unevenly distributed. On one hand, they retain capabilities our society can only dream of, such as regrowing lost limbs, but in other areas they have dropped to our level and even below. Complicating matters is the fact that, since colonization, a tiny minority of people have developed the ability to shapeshift into animals. Some limits are placed on this, but the process has only a distant relationship to the conservation of energy. That alone is probably enough to disqualify the trilogy for the not-really-all-that-coveted label of “hard SF”, but despite the depth of speculative thought given to the world, as a matter of orientation the Bel Dame Apocrypha isn’t hard SF anyway. That is to say, although the setting is fascinating and plenty of thought has gone into it, in the end it always remains a complement to the characters and story, not an end in and of itself. I know that’s coming perilously close to saying these books are too good to be considered hard SF, but hopefully you understand what I mean.

Hurley - InfidelAs an example, let’s speculate as to why the author chose insects as the almost exclusive manifestation of the world’s biotechnology. Is there some speculative reason we can derive on graph paper for why insects are a better choice for manipulating the climate than bacteria or, say, marsupials? Maybe, but it seems much more likely insects were chosen for the estranging effect they have on most readers. In the antiseptic environment of the modern first world, insects are seen as inherently dirty. If a visitor to your home sees several cockroaches crawling around your floor, they won’t be comforted if you assure them you’ve thoroughly cleaned the cockroaches. A world whose high technology is embodied by insects is one that strikes most of us as irredeemably unpleasant. As literary effects go, it feels just a little cheap because it’s something that only takes place in the reader’s mind (Nyx and her contemporaries don’t have a visceral dislike for bugs). But that doesn’t mean it’s not enormously effective.

So given the use of bugs only makes the world seem unpleasant to us, we must ask: is it actually an unpleasant place to live? The answer to that question (“yes”) brings us to the second part of Hurley’s summary: blood. You might assume that means a lot of people get killed in the course of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, and you’d be right. As a bounty hunter, Nyx is sometimes tasked to bring her targets back alive, but more often she is told to just bring their heads for identification. Moreover, she operates on the Wild West fringes of her society, near borders and among criminals, places where laws are only occasionally enforced and order is kept only through the frequent application of deadly violence. And unlike some tough-protagonist books, she’s not even close to the only one spilling blood. Nyx’s enemies are even more willing to kill people who get in their way than she is, and that’s saying quite a bit. This isn’t one of those trilogies where everyone lives through to the end. Characters die. Most characters, in fact, die. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this is the sort of trilogy where the more sympathetic a character is, the more likely they are to die. Nice folks finish last, if not everywhere than certainly in the sorts of places where Nyx operates.

But the huge body count surrounding Nyx’s misadventures is only the tip of the iceberg. As God’s War opens, Nyx’s homeland of Nasheen has been at war with neighboring Chenja for centuries. Whereas the horrible wars of our twentieth century drenched the world in blood but burned themselves out after a few years, a combination of culture and technology has allowed the war between Nasheen and Chenja to sit in a nightmarish steady state. Nearly the entire male population on both sides is drafted into the war and very few return. Yet both countries manage to replenish their populations through a combination of traditional (polygamy) and technological (artificial births, surrogate mothers) measures. Farah Mendlesohn criticized continuous bloodshed on this scale as impossible, and I am sympathetic to this argument. In our world such a conflict would indeed be impossible and ordinarily I am all for nitpicking novels to death over matters of sociology (despite my own complete lack of qualifications in the field), but in this case both the technology and the social mores were so different from any Earth precedents I was willing to give it a pass. In particular, the demographic and statistical details about how both Nasheen and Chenja produced children were left vague enough that I didn’t have a problem filling in the gaps with details I considered appropriate.

Hurley - RaptureThe war is in part responsible for the last, and most remarked upon, piece of Hurley’s equation, brutal women. With virtually no men present in civilian life, every occupation low or high in Nasheen is filled almost exclusively by women. These circumstances have caused a reversal of some of the standard gender stereotypes. Women are considered responsible but also dangerous, prone to drinking and getting into fights. Men are seen as precious and needing protection, almost universally referred to as “boys”, and are viciously ostracized if they are believed to have shirked their social duty to go to the front. I’ve read a number of stories that reverse roles in this way, but this is the first I’ve read where I had the sense that the difference arose naturally from the circumstances and not through authorial fiat. In particular, roles are not simply mirror-reversed. Most importantly, women are still mothers in this society and that still informs their thinking, even if this is complicated by Nasheen’s assembly line approach to childbirth. The bel dames alluded to in the trilogy’s name, for example, are a group that serves a function in Nasheen for which there’s no direct equivalent in our world. Bel dames are government bounty hunters, always women, who are responsible for tracking down deserters, almost always men. They have a license to kill that puts them almost completely above the law, and over the years they’ve developed into an organization whose aims no longer always align with those of the Queen they theoretically serve. Nyx was once a bel dame, still acts like she’s above the law even though she’s not any longer, and sometimes hopes to become a bel dam again. But there’s a tension in Nyx’s feelings about bel dames, and not just because she’s made so many enemies among them. Nyx’s brothers all died in the war, and Nyx’s most important formative experience was getting blown up almost beyond the reach of her nation’s miraculous medical science while trying to protect “her boys”. For someone with Nyx’s skills and background, being a bel dame seems like the highest station she can achieve in life, yet killing “boys” for the crime of trying to stay alive gives even the confident Nyx more than a little cognitive dissonance.

In this area and in many others, the trilogy presents a dissonance that it doesn’t resolve. Or, alternatively, it presents a dissonance but then leaves the resolution for it up to the reader. Are we to see the bel dames as strong women who don’t let anyone push them around, as monsters created but only barely controlled by their government, as victims of a system that denies poor young women a better life than hunting the system’s other victims in the desert, or some combination of all those? As an intelligent and thoughtful, yet also hands-off, piece of fiction, the Bel Dame Apocrypha can support many different kinds of readings. The choice is up to the reader, but I think it’s an illuminating exercise to consider how well the trilogy stands up to these different perspectives.

The most obvious is the surface reading, the gritty, action-packed adventure story. As an adventure–actually I should say three adventures, because although the books share most of their characters and should definitely be read in order, each tells a self-contained story. As three adventures, then, the books are good but not great, full of tense action and vivid characters who I’m going to barely mention in this review despite its length…but also some weaknesses. God’s War has an peculiarly disjointed narrative, with a strange time jump near the beginning and a plot that has a few too many reverses for its own good. Infidel is the strongest of the three, presenting a more cohesive story and sending its characters in new and interesting directions, but it’s not as effective as it could be because Nyx’s core motive is hidden from the reader until the end, a dangerous tactic that here undermines the reading experience because Nyx’s actions feel arbitrary (even though they’re not). Rapture seen on its own is probably the weakest story, ornamenting its desert travelogue with two new characters that don’t seem to go anywhere (Kage and Ahmed) and coming to a conclusion that doesn’t feel all that conclusive. Yet in terms of developing the trilogy’s setting, ideas, and themes Rapture is essential to the whole. It’s that whole that interests me, which is why I’m reviewing the trilogy together and not as the three separate books the way approaching them as merely adventures would have demanded.

Many would say that the books should be read as a character study of their protagonist, Nyx. I think I got halfway through God’s War before I really started to enjoy it, and that was mainly because it took me that long to really get my head around Nyx as a character. Where typical protagonists are distinguished by their ability to either fight or think their way out of virtually any problem (or both, which almost always makes for a dull story), Nyx surmounts most obstacles through endurance. Don’t get me wrong, she tries to fight her way out of problems, but she’s a bad shot in a world where many people have guns, she has no facility with her world’s Clarke’s law magic, she’s got emotional scars that prevent her from having (or at least keeping) any close friends, despite sometimes scoring big bounties she doesn’t manage her finances well enough to keep any of it, she often walks into traps, frequently gets captured, and the list goes on. This is all very interesting, I said to myself as I read, but how am I supposed to sympathize with a character who has low aspirations she’s barely able to accomplish? But Nyx won me over with her grim determination, her toughness, her desire to free herself from the scars of her past and her inability to actually manage it.

Until I really understood her, though, Rhys was the character who kept me interested. Whereas Nyx is brutal but strong, Rhys (at least in the first book) is good but weak. He takes up with Nyx because she can protect him from the rest of Nasheen, but there’s no one who can protect him from Nyx. Although he’s too meek to hold his own with Nyx in a conversation, he nevertheless represents a way of life she’s lost forever, if she ever had it: education, piety, morality, and idealism are all things Nyx has sacrificed to survive the war. They are as fascinating a pair as any characters I can recall not because they are opposites but because everything each of them does reminds the other of what they can’t ever become.

Initially, the most notable thing about Rhys is his religion, and from the titles of the individual books you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a trilogy that was somehow about religion, but…this trilogy is not really about religion. The setting is thousands of years in our future, and while religions are the one sort of human institution that can actually last millennia, they don’t do so without changing. Nasheen and Chenja practice something that has evolved out of Islam while other cultures on Umayma follow the descendants of other faiths, but nothing is quite like we know it today. I was very interested in this idea when I first started reading God’s War, but religion is left largely out of focus and in the background.

  “Tell me,” Solome said, leaning in slightly now, suddenly a bit more animated. “This sixth prayer of yours, what is its purpose? No other followers of your book have a midnight prayer.”
  “The midnight prayer–” Rhys began, but Nyx had had enough talk of religion.
  “Tell me more about Nikoderm and her love of violence,” Nyx said.
     — God’s War

I suspect that Kameron Hurley expected Nyx would be speaking on behalf of the reader when she cuts off Rhys and steers the conversation away from religion and toward matters directly relevant to the plot, but at this point a third of the way into God’s War I was much more interested in hearing about the religion. For the rest of the book I waited to hear more about the sixth prayer, but it was not to be. Rhys is an impressive portrait of one sort of religious experience, and in Infidel there is a moment that provides one the most devastating dramatizations of the problem of evil I’ve ever encountered and worth reading for that alone (and worth avoiding, too, if you dislike watching very bad things happening to a likable character), but the trilogy is content to present these things without comment. There’s a huge difference between this and The Sparrow or Flowers for Algernon, where questions of faith are central concerns of the story. The one point the trilogy makes about religion, a point that is implied in the worldbuilding but never stated directly, is that religion is an outgrowth of culture and not vice versa. To restate that with specifics, Nasheen isn’t run by women because there are few male priests in its religion. Instead, there are few male priests in its religion because Nasheen is run by women. Some people have claimed that God’s War endorses the idea that violence is inherent to Islam, but not only does the setting imply this is impossible for any religion, the story really doesn’t have enough religious characters to make any claims about Islam in particular or religion in general. Of the main cast, only Rhys is truly devout, and he is, of course, a pacifist. Well, all right, he’s someone who wishes he was a pacifist…that’s almost the same thing! A few other characters are reflexively religious, but really, if there is a criticism to be made it’s that given how religious their societies are it’s a little odd that so few of the characters seem to care about it at all. Having Rhys as the sole window into religious life on Umayma means that as an exploration of religion the trilogy is interesting but very much incomplete.

Perhaps the most common way to read the Bel Dame Apocrypha is as feminist science fiction. The trilogy has gotten a lot of attention for this, and God’s War was even shortlisted for the Tiptree award. I had read a lot of these reactions before I starting reading and that may have been why it took me so long to become comfortable with Nyx as a protagonist. She’s anything but a perfect role model and Nasheen is anything but the perfect society. In his original review of God’s War, Niall Harrison said the novel was “in dialogue with the tradition of feminist utopian writing”. I suppose he had in mind Nasheen as a sort of reaction to stories like Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, since in Nasheen rule by women has resulted in just as screwed up a state as when men are in charge. The feminist reading is valid and the trilogy does construct its world based on modern feminist conclusions about gender essentialism (that is to say, the lack thereof), but there’s also an aspect that distances it further from utopian fiction: we never get the sense that Nasheen was planned with feminist ideas in mind. The relevant history is left vague, but the impression I got was that there was a scramble for power after which successive queens slowly made Nasheen into a matriarchy to shore up their own positions. The traditional utopia, feminist or otherwise, is planned according to allegedly enlightened principles, and therefore implies that if we readers would just become a little more enlightened ourselves, we too could have a perfect society. The world of Umayma, on the other hand, is the ruins of planned society, and not only is it a pretty miserable place, it’s been getting steadily worse since it was founded. In this sort of setting, a literally conservative worldview makes sense, and indeed Nyx doesn’t fight to change the world for the better, she fights to stop people who she assumes would make it worse.

The fight to make a better world, even the dream that such a thing is possible, is relegated to Inaya and the shifters. This is at least as problematic as the X-men movies deploying a heavy-handed homosexuality metaphor where it doesn’t really work. Homosexuals can’t kill people with lasers from their eyes, and if they could then it would be much more reasonable to be afraid of them. In the case of shifters, the persecuted minorities in our world can’t turn into animals with militarily valuable abilities. What makes it even more annoying is that the presence of shifters creates a tidy, unambiguous social justice problem off on the margins of a world with enormous challenges in gender relations that no one (except Raine, whose motives are suspect) seems to be trying to do anything much about. It’s a shame, because other than this and the unnecessary deployment of metaphysical novelty in Rapture‘s conclusion to her story, Inaya travels what for me is without question the trilogy’s most interesting character arc, moving from a denial of her nature to an unwavering crusade to liberate others like her. She also makes a conscious choice to put her cause over her family, presenting an interesting contrast to the other characters: Nyx more or less involuntarily gives up any hope of having a family, Anneke manages to go off and live the life of a stay-at-home mother, and, most tragically, Rhys defines himself by his family only to have it abandon him. Once again, the trilogy lets us draw our own conclusions about their choices.

But there is still another reading of these books, one which seems less remarked upon than it deserves, and that is to view the trilogy as an examination of the effects of war. The war is the source of every problem, in the background of each character, and central to each novel’s plot. We may not see the full spectrum of religious engagement, nor even a complete examination of gender relations (this would have demanded more time be spent in male-dominated societies and, especially, the divided Mhoria, not to mention a clearer discussion of how Nasheen came to be the way it is), but we do get a comprehensive look at the war from every conceivable viewpoint. Characters run the gamut from veterans to deserters, pacifists to mercenaries, government agents to rebels, plus those whose family members were all those things. We see how the war has affected not just Nasheen but also Chenja and even neutral Tirhan and Ras Tieg.

Yet, and take a moment to consider just how incredible this is, over three books we never see the war. The closest we come to seeing any fighting are nearby biological weapon detonations, and though at one point Nyx finds herself in the middle of a raid, she and her team stay inside and keep their heads down. The war is not shown, and yet the characters we meet, the events that happen to them, and the societies they live in are all the creation of the war. The war is like a black hole, invisible but made obvious by its effects on everything around it.

”Vietnam War films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended…The magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.” — Francis Swofford, Jarhead, as quoted in the New York Times

I don’t think Swofford is right that it’s impossible to depict war without glorifying it, but it’s definitely the case that the pleasing emotions of war (the excitement of battle, the feeling of power, the exultation of victory) are easy to convey in fiction while the negative emotions (pain, grief, despair) are considerably more challenging. Perversely, it’s those negative emotions (along with boredom) that dominate war as it is actually experienced. The Bel Dame Apocrypha could be said to accidentally glorify Nyx’s bounty hunting this way, but its all-consuming yet always off-stage approach to war helps convey war as it truly is: a vast engine of human misery that no one remembers how to turn off. In both God’s War and Rapture, Nyx stops elements that want to use what are essentially weapons of mass destruction to upset the balance of power, even though it’s that same balance of power that is prolonging the war. In God’s War, she justifies it by saying that peace through the obliteration of Chenja isn’t a peace worth having. It’s not at all clear that, seen from a utilitarian perspective, she’s right about this. In Infidel the thinking seems to be that adding a stronger weapon will just escalate the carnage further without solving the conflict, but really the carnage seems surely to be near the limits of what is possible for the societies involved to bear already. But Nyx is a bounty hunter, not a deep thinker. No matter what sort of ethics one favors, it’s hard to see any logical argument for continuing the war. Yet continue it does, in defiance of reason, senselessly continuing for centuries the way World War I continued for years. It might seem as though I’m wrong to praise the trilogy for this when earlier I answered the charge that the war was implausible by saying the details are vague, but this is why I depicts the effects of war, not war itself.

By Rapture, for reasons that are (to repeat myself) left somewhat vague, the incentives have finally shifted to the point where a truce has become possible. Here again we don’t learn anything about peace or how it can be accomplished. Instead, through the war’s absence (this time its true absence), we see what the war has done, for without the war Nasheen’s social order almost immediately falls apart. What will a whole generation worth of men do in a society that sees them as good for only fighting? And if their focus turns inward instead of outward, can anything prevent them from throwing down Nasheen’s oppressive matriarchy and replacing it with a government that swings, like those of Nasheen’s neighbors, too far in the other direction?

As always, the trilogy doesn’t present answers to these questions. But if the questions were easily answered, they wouldn’t be interesting or thought-provoking. It’s a big genre, and there are plenty of novels out there that claim to have all the answers. Those stories, though, are the opposite of thought-provoking. Thought-revoking, perhaps. Whatever you think, this is the real answer, they say, so stop thinking. Or, worse, what you already believe is absolutely right, they say, and people who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, they’re villains. Too often science fiction is portrayed as the genre that presents answers when it is most effective as the genre that asks questions. What truly distinguishes the Bel Dame Apocrypha is that it asks excellent questions.

Year Zero by Rob Reid

January 9, 2013 at 11:30 pm | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Yero Zero coverMy review of Rob Reid’s Year Zero was published by Strange Horizons today. I know it’s been three months since I posted anything, but think of that as some unintentional time off. I’m planning to celebrate being back in action by going twice as long without posting anything. Just kidding. I think. You never know with these things. What I’m actually trying to do right now is elaborate the one sentence review of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha I wrote for Strange Horizons’ 2012 in review article into a review with many, many sentences.

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

October 17, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments

There have been many responses written to Paul Kincaid’s exhaustion article, but I cannot help but feel that out of all of them Sun of Suns may be the most decisive. Mind you, it was written in 2006, but I read it for the first time recently and can’t help viewing the book in light of the recent discussions. Different people have taken Kincaid’s essay in very different directions, but the original assertion was that (in “best of the year”-anthologized short stories, at least) science fiction authors have lost confidence, conviction, passion, and even their identity as members of a genre distinct from, or at least within, the broad sweep of fantastic literature.

Sun of Suns is full to bursting with all these things. The first in a four book series, it introduces the setting of Virga, a planet-sized enclosure filled with air, water vapor, and floating rocks. The implications of this for its human inhabitants are complex. Light is provided by artificial fusion reactor “suns”, but even the brightest of these generates many orders of magnitude less light and heat than a genuine star. Distance from a sun or even the shadow cast by a city can render a volume of air too cold and dark to inhabit. Gravity must be created through artificial means as well, since with most people not living near the edges, Virga can’t be approximated as a point mass. To get close to the Earth-gravity to which the human body is adapted, Virga’s people must spin their houses, their ships, their villages, and their cities. It is clear that Schroeder has put an enormous amount of thought into how all this would work, and the result is a setting that has more sense of wonder than anything I’ve read in years. As the story progresses the reader is treated to cities of countless linked wheels, three-dimensional “lakes” of globular water, and floating icebergs that fall off the frozen edge of the world and plunge inward toward the core. It is impossible to imagine the author relating these details with anything other than a big smile on his face, and it’s a smile that I think most people with an interest in science fiction will find infectious. I can’t speak for the whole genre, naturally, but I can’t recall ever encountering a setting that felt so new and yet so confidently realized. I’m usually an energetic nitpicker, but I found nothing that in any way shook my belief. I’m not a physicist, so I can’t tell you whether it all is worked out perfectly, but boy does it ever feel like it’s been worked out perfectly.

Sun of Suns strikes me, therefore, like an exemplar of the sort of thing Kincaid is asking for in science fiction. It’s true that Virga is convincing as an object without there being a plausible route by which humanity would come to build such a thing, and if we must label Schroeder, we should probably label him a Singularity author. The society within Virga is deliberately constrained to a pre-Singularity state, a sort of Bizarro version of Vinge’s Slow Zone, but the greater universe outside appears to be populated by a mix of Vingean transcended intelligence and Iain M. Banks decadent humans. The fact I’m invoking other authors here may make it seem like I’m backing away from my assertions of novelty, but the outside is not visited in this novel, only hinted at, with the understanding that genre readers will fill in the blanks until more is learned later in the series. This is, to my mind, an appropriate use of genre tropes. The other Schroeder novel I’ve read, Lady of Mazes, was a very impressive rendering of a far future society, so I think if he does take the story outside Virga the setting will still be in good hands. In any case, despite the association with the Singularity, what Kincaid dislikes about Singularity fiction isn’t present. The comprehensibility of the world is not rejected, nor is there a resort to the language of fantasy or theology. The part of the universe in focus in Sun of Suns is fully rendered.

But if Sun of Suns is an exemplar of Kincaid’s aesthetic, it’s also a criticism of it, because while the setting is fantastic, the same can’t be said for the story. Right from the beginning I took a strong dislike to the protagonist, Hayden Griffin. Griffin is orphaned at the beginning of the book when the navy of the oppressive Slipstream attacks and destroys the sun being built by Griffin’s parents. Had it been completed, the sun would have given Griffin’s home community Aerie its own source of light and freed it from dependence on Slipstream, but instead Aerie is incorporated into Slipstream’s growing empire. Intent on revenge against the admiral who led the attack, Griffin becomes a servant in the admiral’s household and waits for an opportunity to murder him. In another story he might do so and earn some sort of freedom for his homeland, but almost from the very beginning it is clear this isn’t that sort of story. Instead, it’s the sort of story in which the world and people in it are painted in shades of gray. That’s all to the good…except Griffin is so naive he takes nearly half the novel to even begin to realize this. In some other respects Griffin is your typical protagonist “nice guy” but ultimately he’s not very bright, not particularly good at anything, and however tragic his backstory, it spurs him to pursue an idiotic revenge for much of the novel and then ceases having any effect on him.

The story’s other thread concerns Admiral Fanning, the man Griffin considers responsible for the deaths of his parents, and his scheming wife Venera, who has somehow constructed a personal intelligence network and stumbled on a foreign plot to destroy Slipstream. Admiral Fanning turns out to be a generic good guy who happens to work for a morally suspect regime. His wife is an incarnation of Lady Macbeth, unethical and ambitious, but her efforts to save Slipstream drive the story nearly from beginning to end. All right, but why should I care about Slipstream? Griffin’s “Aerie good, Slipstream bad” ideology is eventually portrayed as the product of naivete, but in fact no defense of Slipstream is even attempted. I can only assume this was an effort at Martin-style political realism on Schroeder’s part, but unlike in Martin’s fantasy the characters here aren’t compelling enough for me to care about the political order just because the characters care about it, nor is there the idea that a good guy needs to seize the reins to end the anarchy-fueled humanitarian disaster. Also unlike Martin, as the story progresses the politics fade further and further into the background as even Griffin decides he’d rather his homeland be ruled by the devil he knows than the devil he doesn’t.

The second half of the story has some well-executed set piece battles for Admiral Fanning’s fleet to fight and lots of exploration of the wonderful Virga setting, but I found less and less reason to care about what was going on. Griffin’s sudden romance with that most exhausted of science fiction tropes, the smart beautiful exotic savvy woman inexplicably attracted to the protagonist who is none of those things, was the final straw for me. I finished the novel sure I was done with the series, though the process of writing this review has seen my conviction waver. Well, I’m thinking, the second book is in the same amazing setting and but it’s a different story with mostly different characters. And I did like Lady of Mazes. Maybe it’s worth another go.

Maybe. But Sun of Suns is a reminder that while we’d all love it if every science fiction book was full of startling new vistas, for a novel to be successful it still needs decent prose, characterization, and an interesting plot. The author’s conviction in their invented future isn’t sufficient, and ultimately I’m not sure I agree it’s even necessary. If I have to choose between a novel with good fundamentals and one exercising the unique virtues of science fiction, I’d rather read something with the former. In his essay Kincaid was talking about short stories, and at the short story length, I consider what I’ve described as the fundamentals to be less important (relatively) than the story’s ideas. Well-written short stories that don’t really amount to anything are a dime a dozen, and at the short length there’s no room for depth in characters or plot, which means that a compelling idea (or three) can plausibly be said to be the mark of a great short story. Having to put up with characters I don’t care about for 300 pages instead of 10 completely changes the equation. Sun of Suns doesn’t refute Kincaid, but it’s a warning against applying his argument to long form fiction.

Redshirts by John Scalzi

September 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas begins by asking what it would be like to be one of the low ranking bit players in Star Trek. Ensign Andrew Dahl arrives at the Universal Union flagship Intrepid expecting to work on the front lines of xenobiology, but he finds himself on the front lines of a different sort of conflict. It turns out that serving on the Intrepid, particularly on away missions, is essentially a death warrant…unless you are a senior officer. The crew has reacted by doing everything possible to avoid going on away missions, leaving the duty to new recruits like Dahl.

Has there been any show mocked more thoroughly than Star Trek? Over the decades it’s fought a losing war on two fronts, assailed from the mainstream for being geeky (things like pointy ears and funny uniforms) and attacked by geeks for not being geeky enough (things like technobabble and…yes…the red shirt phenomenon). In its opening section Redshirts makes a few of the usual “not geeky enough” complaints, but after dipping a toe into the waters of parody it turns and walks away from the pool. If he set out to do it, I think Scalzi could probably write a funny novel-length parody of Star Trek, or even of science fiction in general, but that’s not his objective here. It’s probably to his credit that he has higher aspirations than beating a horse that, if not dead, has already endured more than its fair share of beatings. Unfortunately, Scalzi’s ambition rather exceeds his execution. I’m reminded of his Hugo-nominated short story, which started out as a serviceable parody but needlessly lurched into trying to Say Something.

Redshirts at least manages the transition better. The early stages where Ensign Dahl begins questioning what is going on around him are the best part of the novel. Questioning the standard account of the world around you has become a cliche in YA, where the adults are always lying about it, but it ought to be more common in adult science fiction. Actual science, you know, that process by which we learn about the world around us, is surprisingly rare in science fiction, so it was nice to see Dahl using scientific methods (well, someone else does the heavy lifting, but Dahl is at least persuaded by those methods) to discover the truth of his world. I won’t spoil the answers he finds even though they arrive less than halfway through the novel because, as I said, the process of getting to them is the best part of the book. In fact, it’s the only part of the book I liked.

That the answers come around the middle of the book signposts a part of the problem: the answers are clear but not really all that satisfying. If they were satisfying, Scalzi would have left them to the end. Instead, Dahl discovers the truth of the world, and then spends the rest of the book wrestling unconvincingly with the consequences. This part of the book wants to be about taking control of your own fate, but Dahl comes up with a solution to his problems which, in fact, makes even less sense than the television-logic the book elsewhere criticizes. But even then it’s still not over: the story is then doused in unconvincing melodrama that only intensifies as the novel enters its titular three codas.

Rather than nitpick the specifics of the story, I will note that the metafictional maneuver Scalzi makes is a well-worn path in fiction. It may be new to many of his readers, since Scalzi is a popular writer and popular fiction generally stays away from metafiction. But popular fiction stays away from metafiction for good reason: it is inherently unsatisfying, and the more you think about it the less satisfying it is. Great writers can get away with this because the reader is too busy admiring the great writing or the insights into the human conditions, and perhaps also because their readers tend to be other writers and (ahem) reviewers who enjoy literary pyrotechnics even if they come at the expense of plot and character.

In a way Scalzi may actually be a great writer, but it’s a way that hurts his fiction. Over his many years of blogging he’s cultivated a very distinctive voice that has made it one of the most popular genre sites on the Internet. This voice is clearly audible not just in his blog posts but also in the mouths of his characters…all his characters. It had been more than three years since I’d read a Scalzi novel when I started the opening scene of Redshirts and the “witty banter” was, well, bracing. Because Scalzi’s debut novel Old Man’s War was a military adventure story, it was easier to forgive the failings of the dialogue and characterization. Here the book is depending on the reader’s connection with the characters to sell the melodrama, but for me at least there was no connection. In fact, looking back at my review of Old Man’s War (the contents of which, needless to say, I had completely forgotten) virtually all of my complaints there can be repackaged for this review. The main character of Redshirts has a really interesting backstory: he went to seminary on an alien world, spent years immersed in their culture, became essentially a pastor in this alien church, and then got kicked off world due to political instability. That sounds like it might be a great novel right there! But alas this backstory is mentioned once or twice and then ignored, and despite it Andrew Dahl is a completely bog standard good guy protagonist. Oh, at one point there is a gesture made toward Dahl’s religious inclinations leading him to use the aforementioned scientific reasoning to question the world when others do not, a bizarre idea that would be simultaneously offensive to the story’s religious and non-religious readers were there any sense that the author actually believed it, but it’s immediately dropped.

And that’s another element of Old Man’s War that continues to lurk years later in Scalzi’s writing: his habit of pointing out some interesting feature of the world or the protagonist’s situation…and then ignoring it. This may be an idiosyncratic reaction but I find this to be a really irritating authorial tic. Scalzi seems to want to assure us that, yes, he is clever and self-aware enough to have noticed this or that issue, but he’s not going to bother to actually write anything about it. The worst instance of this in Redshirts is when the protagonist raises a moral objection to the way the more experienced crew avoids away missions and dispatches new recruits who don’t know any better to their death. This is a real can of worms, because while it is intuitively obvious it is an Immoral Thing these characters are doing, what would be the more ethical alternative? Lottery? A utilitarian calculation of each crew member’s remaining potential utility? Well, no solutions are in fact proposed and absolutely nothing is done about it. The protagonist has a moment of righteous anger and then the whole thing is dropped.

Toward the end of the novel Scalzi has a character mention some similar books and movies. If this was an attempt to pre-empt comparisons, if failed, because I hadn’t read or seen any of those he mentioned except Last Action Hero, a movie which isn’t much like Redshirts in that it succeeded or failed as an adventure piece, not something dramatic or thought-provoking. Instead, what came to mind for me was Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners”, which is also a metafictional story about what it’s like to be a character on a geeky television show. Unlike Redshirts, it has dazzling prose, believable characters, and the metafiction doesn’t fall apart upon examination. Also unlike Redshirts, it’s nearly impenetrable on first reading and thus is probably inaccessible to a lot of readers, but anyone interested can find a link on Kelly Link’s site (and my own explication here).

Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge

May 27, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

It’s no surprise that Vernor Vinge decided to revisit the Zones of Thought setting of A Fire Upon the Deep for his next novel, A Deepness in the Sky, published seven years later in 1999. What was surprising was that A Deepness in the Sky was a Pham Nuwen-oriented prequel set entirely in the Slow Zone. I remember feeling slightly disappointed and even a little perplexed by this. I really liked the Zones of Thought setting, but a story set in the Slow Zone is in basically the same setting as every non-FTL SF space opera. Admittedly that’s not a crowded genre, exactly, and certainly my disappointment quickly faded when I read and enjoyed the actual book, but it still seemed like an odd choice.

Fast forward to the end of last year, when after leaving the setting on the shelf for a decade, Vinge published Children of the Sky, a true sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep…that is nevertheless set entirely in the Slow Zone.

Now that I am older and theoretically wiser than I was in 1999, I recognize that the same Singularity theory that made the Beyond and the Transcend so interesting in A Fire Upon the Deep also ties Vinge’s hands. It is sometimes forgotten that he made the allusion to black holes not because, or not merely because, he thought technological process would become faster and faster, the way something falls faster and faster into a black hole. The real analogy was with the black hole’s event horizon, for Vinge thought that it is impossible to predict what will happen once superintelligence was achieved. To then go and tell stories about it would be fatally inconsistent with his thinking.

With the benefit of having recently reread A Fire Upon the Deep, I could see an additional plus to a sequel that focused solely on the Tines’ World: the Tines strand of Fire‘s two-sided story was considerably stronger and had more interesting things to say even if it lacked some of the glitz and special effects of the space opera portion.

Children of the Sky is a sequel, then, but although Ravna is now the main character it is really a sequel to the setting and concerns of the Tines’ World portion of A Fire Upon the Deep. Though Ravna casts plenty of nervous glances skyward and there is a lot of foreshadowing in the direction of a rematch with the Blight, this is left for a further sequel and this novel remains firmly on the ground. Given that I really enjoyed the Tines in A Fire Upon the Deep, I still had every reason to expect to enjoy the novel.

But I did not. One of the things I liked about A Fire Upon the Deep that allowed me to overlook its flaws was the flood of new and interesting ideas. Children keeps the Tines concept more or less unchanged. Oh, it fills in some detail about the massive group minds in the tropics that were alluded to but not explained in its predecessor, but although there are hints that the tropical Tines aren’t the mindless savages the temperate Tines believe their hive lifestyle requires, nothing ever comes of it. Perhaps this too is being saved for a later sequel.

What does change are the characters, but alas, with results that ill-serve most of the sympathetic (and some of the unsympathetic) Tine characters. Woodcarver becomes foolish thanks to a breeding miscalculation, Pilgrim is assimilated into society enough that he’s now just a generic nice guy, and the most intriguing character of all, the mad scientist/naive schoolteacher hybrid Flenser Tyrathect, is left languishing on the story’s sidelines. Stepping into the spotlight is a boring villain and a cipher called Tycoon. Tycoon appears to have been intended as a vehicle for extending the first novel’s concept of the fluidity of Tine identity, but because he spends the entire novel being easily manipulated by the real villain (who is even more dull), it’s hard to see him as anything more than a naif.

One reason the Tine characters aren’t very compelling this time around is the narrative focuses almost entirely on the human characters. Here Vinge has the germ of an interesting idea: everyone but Ravna was a child during the High Lab disaster that unleashed the Blight at the beginning of the first book, and they have only her explanation about what happened, an explanation that positions their parents as the idiots whose recklessness caused a galactic cataclysm. Dissatisfied with the implications Ravna’s historical narrative has for their own identity as well as the slow, measured pace she has adopted for technological uplift on Tines’ World, conspirators create conditions for a coup d’etat to drive Ravna from her position of power over human society. Behind all this is the question that A Fire Upon the Deep also asked: how do you decide who to trust in a world where information is perfectly malleable and even dangerous?

That’s an interesting question, but the way Children answers it varies from dull to dreadful. Right from the beginning, the narrative leaves no room for doubt that Ravna is right about everything. Her intentions are completely good, her policies are optimal, and if she’s ever done anything wrong in her life, it’s that as a truth-loving scientist she’s not cynical enough to play politics. Her political opponent, who I will not name because his identity is carefully concealed for the first portion of the book (though it will be blazingly obvious to most readers), presents a wise and caring face to the world but in fact turns out to be both foolish and monstrously evil. Why he behaves like this is never explained. At the beginning of the story, every human character from Ravna to his fiancee to his friends and acquaintances are convinced that he’s literally the most reasonable and responsible human on the planet. But it turns out they were wrong. Not just a little wrong, but completely wrong. Somehow no one else saw his true nature even though everyone has known him since he was a small child. Apparently he was not only just born evil, he was born with the capacity to completely conceal it from everyone around him. Late in the story, a sympathetic character wins an argument with Ravna and the other good guys with the following completely serious observation: “So far no one has overestimated [character name]’s capacity for evil.” No responses are even presented, the narrative just moves on, accepting her conclusion as self-evident. His capacity for evil, as far as this story is concerned, is more or less unbounded and cannot be overestimated.

Now in a wild space opera like A Fire Upon the Deep, this sort of cartoon psychology might be a little annoying, but cardboard villains are par for the course in adventure stories. But unlike its predecessor Children of the Sky is not a space opera, it’s an intrigue story that’s full of plotting, characters speculating about other characters’ motivations and whose side they’re on, and so forth. The lack of any sense of psychological realism makes much of this incomprehensible. It also deprives the novel of even the slightest shade of gray. Ravna is Right, her enemies are Evil, and the humans and Tines who don’t realize this are Wrong and will be Very Sorry when they are shown the error in their ways. The only room for discussion is how best wake them up to these facts. Some of this might be defended as an attempt by Vinge to ground the third person narrative within Ravna’s subjective frame of reference. The young pack member within Woodcarver who causes her to doubt Ravna’s intentions, for example, is referred to by the narrative as The Puppy from Hell without any qualifiers linking the label to Ravna’s internal thoughts, so even though the story uses other viewpoints to relate plenty of scenes Ravna isn’t present for and never learns of, perhaps we’re to understand the entire story as being somehow told from her point of view? But then you see that the puppy’s name, surely a detail we can assume is an objective fact and not a subjective element of the narrative, turns out to be, I kid you not, “Sht”, and you realize that, no, the author is just doing everything he can to stack the deck.

As is usually the case with such narratives, this deck-stacking has the effect of draining events of anything that might complicate the story’s simplistic world and thus make it genuinely interesting. Earlier I said Ravna is unseated by a coup d’etat because that’s how the narrative presents it, but what really happens is there is a transition to democracy. Is this a bad thing? Of course, Vinge tells us, because this allows a demagogue to take power. Any doubts can be put to bed because this demagogue turns out to be history’s greatest monster, and the fact he fooled the electorate means they need a return to Ravna’s benevolent despotism. Never mind that Ravna herself was among those fooled. Her response to all this is to go and, in a scene which I reread searching in vain for signs it was some sort of parody, read ebooks about how to manipulate electorates so she can outwit him. This is a society of about a hundred literate and educated adults, incidentally, without any of the bureaucracy that diffuses responsibility in modern governments.

I can imagine some arguments justifying the book’s politics. Maybe losing their parents has left the Children too emotionally unstable to be trusted with democracy. Maybe the dislocation of being stranded on a low technology world after living in the Beyond has them unmoored. Maybe they aren’t sufficiently educated to understand the technological path toward high technology. The novel doesn’t really make any of these arguments, and it is wise not to do so, because Ravna doesn’t come off looking too great as an alternative. As an adult she might have been better able to withstand having her parents killed by the Blight, but she was probably more impacted by the loss of her entire civilization. Like the Children she was a product of a high technology civilization and had to learn everything they’re using on Tines’ World from the same tutorials they used, and when it comes to technological adaptation being older is if anything a disadvantage (a theme Vinge thoroughly explored in Rainbows End).

One gets the feeling that Vinge passed up the chance to tell a psychologically interesting story because he was more interested in the psychology of the reader. All of Children of the Sky‘s biggest failings stem from the author’s desire to maximize the narrative impact at the expense of nuance. The reader is encouraged to empathize with Ravna, who is not only the protagonist but the only one who shares the reader’s knowledge of the space portions of A Fire Upon the Deep. The other holdover characters from Fire who might share this allegiance are given comparatively little time. Ravna (and the reader) know what’s true, and therefore she knows the right thing to do, but almost everyone doubts her and believes the lies told about her. Toward the end of the story, when they finally realize how wrong they were, they beg Ravna to save them. This is a powerful narrative template, one that Vinge has deployed far more successfully once before already with Pham Nuwen in A Deepness in the Sky and to a lesser extent also in A Fire Upon the Deep.

Over the years Vinge’s writing has had its ups and downs and hasn’t always fulfilled the potential of his ideas, but this is the first time he’s written a book that seemed almost devoid of new ideas at all. He didn’t win his awards and get close to the genre’s A-list because of his mastery of character or even plot, and without the lift from new ideas that was so powerful in his best work, Children of the Sky never gets off the ground.

Climate Change and Science Fiction

March 1, 2012 at 2:12 am | Posted in Essays, Science Fiction | 3 Comments

On the Strange Horizons blog Niall Harrison surveyed books of genre criticism and found their treatment of climate change lacking. Mark Charon Newton responded with the following thesis:

I wondered if there was little criticism because there simply isn’t much Science Fiction being written about the real effects of climate change in the first place? That there isn’t much to really interest Science Fiction writers?

He goes on to argue that climate change is too slow, too incremental…too boring for science fiction. In his response, Niall argued this sells science fiction short, and I agree with him (as did Mark, in the comments). But I do think Mark was right that science fiction writers don’t seem all that interested in climate change, and I think the limited ambition of Niall’s response to this specific point (well, Night Shade has published three climate change books recently) illustrates the issue. Obviously there are science fiction novels that involve climate change, but we need only compare with other tropes to see how muted the genre is on the subject. Zombies, anyone? Yes, most zombie fiction is probably best considered fantasy, but there are plenty of science fictional approaches to zombie fiction at the moment. How about spaceships? Pretty common, yes? And yet for decades it has been obvious that manned space travel of the sort envisioned in the heady early days of the space program quite distant from the present, and science has very little to say about zombies no matter how much authors might wave their hands about viruses or genetic engineering. In comparison, climate change is not just an important area of cutting edge science with large implications for the near future, it’s constantly in the newspapers and on television as people debate the extent of it and what ought to be done.

As always in these genre discussions, there’s a frustrating lack of empirical data to work with, so whether or not you find the above paragraph persuasive, concede for the moment that climate change is underrepresented. Why might that be? Is it just because the process is too slow and subtle? That doesn’t help, I suppose, but I’m willing to go a lot farther and assert that concern about climate change is philosophically alien to most science fiction authors and readers. Before I go into the reasons why, I will disclaim that this is going to entail the sort of unprovable, sweeping generalizations that tend to piss people off, especially those who feel said generalizations leave them out. The SF community is diverse (at least in some dimensions) and I’m not saying there aren’t people who love SF and are enormously concerned about climate change. I’m saying a subset of the community would prefer to read and write about something else. How large and influential the cultural subset I’m describing is (and whether it exists at all) something you’ll have to decide for yourself when I’m finished.

Here’s the short version of my argument: Science fiction is the literature of change, but the modern environmental movement is fundamentally conservative.

I expect the second clause requires some explanation, as I’m using “conservative” differently than the political definition in America or Britain. When he founded the American conservative magazine National Review, William F Buckley’s lighthearted description of its mission was to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” I’m not enough of a historian to say whether that was a good description of his movement in 1955, but it certainly has little to do with today’s American political conservatism, which has fundamentally revolutionary impulses. It’s a fantastic description, however, of the modern environmental movement, and in particular its campaign against carbon emissions. I would summarize the core climate change activism argument as follows: “Human civilization is emitting more and more carbon dioxide and, if this goes on, the result will be calamity. We must take swift measures to reverse this trend, and though the lack of fully developed substitutive technologies means this reversal will cause significant economic pain, the alternatives are considerably worse.”

Even though science fiction ought to be home court for any “If this goes on…” setting, I think there are many reasons why many in the science fiction community, even if they accept the conclusions of climate science, would prefer not to dwell on this argument:

  • SF doesn’t have a strong naturalistic tradition. Yes, Dune is the most popular SF book ever, but vast numbers of SF books take place entirely within wholly artificial environments. Nature has, from the start, been something largely relegated to fantasy, where Lord of the Rings planted a strong ecological note deep within the genre’s subconscious. Unfortunately, fantasy is so conservative that it only rarely deals with the industrial revolution, much less climate change, but it does frequently put forward restoring balance to nature as an important goal, an idea that goes all the way back to the ancient polytheistic traditions. Science fiction, for its part, has from the start almost always rejected balance in favor of change.

  • Environmentalism tends to be pessimistic about technology. Technological change created the means for our vast increases in carbon emissions, the ubiquitous technology of our daily lives requires energy usage we can’t sustain without carbon emitting power, and for a variety of reasons (some good, some bad) most environmentalists are deeply hostile to geo-engineering approaches to halting global warming, insisting on emissions reductions as the only answer. Dune, for all the power of its ecological content, looks very favorably on geo-engineering, and to a lesser degree so do the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars books. On the other side, Iain M. Banks was channeling the conservative nature of the environmentalist movement when he posited that in his enlightened far future, terraforming will be forbidden as an ecological crime, but unlike other elements of the Culture setting this idea doesn’t seem to have proved influential.

  • Carbon emission arguments, whether by coincidence or some sort of psychological deep structure, strongly resemble religious arguments: “Certain things you like doing are, in fact, bad. If you continue in your wicked ways, nothing obviously bad will happen to you immediately. Maybe not even in your lifetime. But eventually the price must be paid. The details are complicated, but scholars far wiser than you have ascertained these truths. If I do not convince you, then you should read their writings, for not only does your sin imperil you, it endangers the entire community, and therefore we must urge you to help us spread these important truths to others. If people will not voluntarily comply, they must be compelled for their own good.” It has often been observed that science fiction has, at best, a distant relationship with religion, and while this is sometimes overstated it has been and remains true that most science fiction will at best avoid it. While the personal right to religion is widely accepted, if a character in a modern SF novel strongly believes that society should reflect the sin/punishment axis they are almost certainly a villain, or indoctrinated by a dystopian society.

  • Climate science, at least in applied form, is the science of constraints. Science fiction is the literature of possibilities. Much as some might wish otherwise, SF is usually happy to ignore science when its constraints are getting in the way of a good story. The obvious analogue is relativity, a theory far older than climate change science and one universally believed among the SF community. Needless to say, relatively is depicted more frequently in the breach than the observance.

Those are all reasons why climate change might not resonate with some readers. Beyond those, there are also reasons particular to writers:

  • Climate change is perhaps the broadest collective action problem ever encountered and, as such, the responsibility for both the problem and any eventual solution is inevitably diffuse, spread across both enormous populations and time. This is just a refinement of Mark Charon Newton’s original point, but while Niall is right that SF can still depict the effect of climate change on individuals, but if we want novels that are “about” climate change instead of novels that incorporate a changed climate into the matte painting behind the characters, it would help if there was a way for a protagonist to defeat it. Or even affect it in any measurable way. By making climate change the central “enemy” of a novel, the author renders the protagonists helpless. It’s true that literary fiction has produced a long line of helpless main characters, but popular fiction has always preferred active protagonists who are able to at least try to change their circumstances. Science fiction is widely considered a populist genre no matter how vibrant its literary wing has become, and American science fiction in particular tends to be strongly individualist and distrusting of collective authority. Even leftist science fiction routinely sets up dystopian rightist governments for its protagonists to fight.

  • Climate science is changing far more rapidly than virtually any other branch of science (considering science, here, as distinct from technology). For rhetorical reasons, the popular literature of climate change emphasizes the science as “settled”, and indeed the idea that global warming is happening and it will be very, very bad if it continues is pretty settled. But bad in what way, for whom, when? These are enormously complicated questions to answer and scientists do not agree. Popularizers tend to wield worst-case scenarios, so the moment some scientist publishes a scenario worse than the one they’ve been trumpeting, they switch to the new one. This makes plausible extrapolation difficult. When I reviewed Rob Ziegler’s Seed for Strange Horizons, one problem I had with the book was I didn’t find its depicted climate plausible, to the point I at first assumed the author had intentionally invented an unrealistic climate. An interview he gave convinced me that, no, he believed it was quite plausible. Was he right and I wrong? I spent some time researching the question since I was reviewing the book, but ultimately I’m not a climate scientist. Unfortunately, in writing the appearance of implausibility is just as dangerous to writers as the real thing.

  • Finally and perhaps most importantly, fairly or not climate change remains controversial, particularly in the United States. On any controversial issue, writing with an activist stance alienates those on the other side. Readers are hard enough for most writers to find as it is. Ambitious writers have an enormous incentive to smooth over any edge even a relatively small minority of readers might consider rough.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable, as demonstrated by the success of The Windup Girl, but I think it’s going to be a while before we see climate change crowding out spaceships and dystopias in genre bestseller lists.

A Fire Upon the Deep

January 30, 2012 at 12:25 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments

It’s by no means his first novel, but although in the end Vernor Vinge will probably be best remembered for coining the term Singularity, his reputation as a fiction author is founded on A Fire Upon the Deep, his first book in the Zones of Thought setting published twenty years ago in 1992.

Vinge posits a universe in which the physics of relativity vary according to one’s proximity to the galactic core. The Earth is in the “Slow Zone” where nothing moves faster than the speed of light, placing harsh limits on travel and computational complexity. In the “Unthinking Depths” even closer to the core, even computation of the sort performed by the human brain becomes impossible. But in the “Beyond” on the fringe of the galaxy, starships can cross between stars in days while weak AI, nanotechnology, and antigravity all become feasible. It’s only in the “Transcend” between galaxies, however, that the limits on computational complexity allow for the creation of the superintelligence discussed in Singularity theory. While the Beyond is home to many human and alien civilizations, the Transcend is an almost divine place, populated by, well, transcendent entities that are the creation or sometimes descendants of civilizations from the Beyond. It’s the realm of gods, alluring but extremely dangerous.

The story begins when a human civilization in the Beyond discover a long-forgotten ancient archive just across the border in the Transcend and end up accidentally releasing a malevolent superintelligence, a demon instead of a god. Whereas typical Transcend entities mostly ignore the Beyond and evolve so quickly they are gone in less than ten years, what the humans found is a “Blight” that is not only obsessed with dominating all life the Transcend and the Beyond, but one obsessed in a stable, long-lasting way.

From there the story plays out in two arenas. A single family, the lone survivors of the ill-fated investigators, flees the Blight down into the slower depths of the Beyond, almost into the Slow Zone, eventually crash landing on an uncharted planet populated by aliens with only medieval technology. Meanwhile, in the middle Beyond, a human librarian named Ravna teams up with two plantlike aliens and Pham Nuwen, a human who is some sort of reconstruction of a Slow Zone interstellar trader, on a desperate mission to recover the crashed ship in hopes that their escape preserved some weapon the embattled civilizations of the Beyond can use against the seemingly unstoppable Blight.

One might think that the story taking place on the backwater alien world would be dull compared to the epic space opera of the story’s other strand, but in fact this turns out to be the more interesting of the two. The aliens, eventually called Tines, are pack intelligences whose single mind is comprised of several individuals whose thoughts are linked by constant sonic communication. Although psychologically the Tines are similar to humans in desires and motivations, this difference in their nature has a number of interesting effects that make them seem convincingly alien no matter how familiar their thoughts might be. For example, two packs can’t come closer than a few meters to each other before the crosstalk of their thoughts makes it hard for either to think, meaning Tines live in a sort of physical isolation, almost never drawing close to anyone else. More significantly, while individual members have limited lifespans, each overall pack can take in new members to replace those that die and thus can theoretically live forever, though each change in members alters pack’s personality to some degree. Traditional Tine societies have allowed this process to occur more or less at random, but the ship fleeing the Blight crashes near the frontier kingdom led by Woodcarver, who has spent centuries working toward a rational approach to self-improvement. Woodcarver’s rationalism makes her ready to accept the opportunity for technological change offered by the arrival of a starship, but perhaps even more ready are the followers of Flenser, her former student. Flenser, feeling that while Woodcarver had the right idea her ethics were slowing her down, created a society that worships mental discipline and cultivates it through the most ruthless of means. If his followers can control the starship’s technology, they’ll have the means to dominate their world.

I’ve spent more time than usual describing the novel’s setting because the setting is a lot more interesting than most. Both the Zones of Thought space civilization and the Tines’ pack psychology could easily serve as the foundation for an entire novel by themselves, so taken together they provide a formidable array of situations and ideas, formidable enough to carry a novel with mediocre characters and plot. And so it proves, for although Vinge’s writing in Fire Upon the Deep is much improved from his earlier week, it was the novel’s ideas that won it enough votes to tie for the 1992 Hugo for Best Novel.

That’s not to say the plot and the characters are bad, exactly. The book’s “good guys” are pleasant-enough company, with the exception of Pham Nuwen, who displays none of the charisma the narrative imputes to his character (and which Vinge would more convincingly render in 1999’s sort-of prequel Deepness in the Sky). Vinge takes his characters to interesting places, forcing them to try to work out who they can trust and how far while under the greatest possible stress, but their reactions to the unprecedented events of the narrative (the destruction of multiple stellar civilizations for the Beyonders, the arrival of aliens for the Tines) are often less than convincing. As for the plot, it’s a widescreen adventure yarn that’s a good deal less exhilarating than it ought to be due to some awkward pacing and an ending that needed some better setup to be truly satisfying. It’s a good novel, but its parts are greater than their sum.

One of these great parts is the principal antagonist, Lord Steel, who at first seems to be a laughably cardboard villain. Like a Nazi in an Indiana Jones movie, he’s willing to kill anyone who gets between him and the power offered by the crashed starship, and do it in the name of a poisonous ideology. Although the Flenserist philosophy’s rejection of empathy and worship of cold-blooded rationality could have been used to satirize or otherwise comment on the excesses of techno-futurism, Vinge never seriously explores their ideas. Lord Steel is just a Bad Guy, the sort of Bad Guy who is fully aware and totally comfortable with the fact he is a Bad Guy, which is disappointing and fairly boring.

Except Vinge takes boring Lord Steel and throughout the novel puts him in situations that force him to play against type. Lord Steel wants nothing more out of life than to be the boring Bad Guy, but the only way he can harness the power of offworld technology for world domination is by convincing a young human boy he’s actually a good guy. Rather than twirling his metaphorical mustache, he has to endure hugs and act as a surrogate parent for both the human boy and a young Tine. Worst of all, he has to do this under the gaze of his feared master, Flenser…kind of. If Flenser was really present, he’d be in charge and Steel would be comfortable in the familiar role of chief minion, but Flenser is only kind of present. Trapped by traditionalist enemies before the novel began, Flenser took the radical step of breaking his six member pack into three pairs that were forced into three other packs. Avoiding detection, one of these packs, originally a schoolteacher named Tyrathect, returned to Flenser’s stronghold as the starship crashed. But the others did not survive, which means Lord Steel is still in charge, struggling to play the part of gentle father figure while someone who is two thirds schoolteacher and one third history’s greatest monster watches and critiques his performance.

The Lord Steel character is a fun element in what is overall a fun and idea-filled book, but I suspect readers who prefer character-driven narratives or stylish prose will find the novel unsatisfying. Judged on its ideas, it still stands out from the science fiction crowd, and (no doubt in part due to Vinge’s computer science background) has held up surprisingly well for a twenty-year old book. It’s been too long since I’ve read Deepness in the Sky to compare them, but Fire is easily the best of Vinge’s other novels, including the recent sequel, which will soon be reviewed in this space.

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