Another Literary Writer Discovers Speculative Fiction

To quote John Hurt at the end of Spaceballs:

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I’ve written before about “literary” writers who refuse to accept that if they write a book about genetic engineering or post-apocalyptic dystopias or clones that they’re writing science fiction. As much as that honks me off, I can sort of understand it. Artists hate to be pigeonholed (ask Robert Fripp about progressive rock!) and if they’re well known for non-genre works they want to stay in that lane. They’re still wrong, but I get it. Now I’m just trying to figure if I prefer it to sheer ignorance.

Ian McEwan is nothing if not a literary icon – author of more than a dozen novels, one of which, Amsterdam, won the Man Booker Prize while another, Atonement, became an Oscar-winning film. He is literary with a capital “L,” no doubt about it. Now he’s decided come and play in the genre sandbox. Nothing wrong with that – all are welcome! – but he’s being kind of a putz about it.

McEwan’s new book, Machines Like Me, is blurbed like this:

Machines Like Me occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral dilemma. Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control.

Machines

Sounds interesting! Alternate history, robots, and warnings about “the power to invent things beyond our control” are all interesting areas for sci-fi to explore. And the cover model looks like he came right off a Kraftwerk album! Problem is, McEwan appears to think he’s the first person to address such topics. From a lengthy (and interesting) interview recently in The Guardian:

McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. ‘There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’

I’m with McEwan on the power of literature to examine ethical dilemmas inherent in things like artificial intelligence or robotics, but, I mean, science fiction has been dealing with that since almost the beginning. As Gautham Shenoy at Factor Daily puts it:

If nothing, this displays spectacular ignorance on the part of this Booker Prize-winning author because, as far as metaphors go, that is what the novel widely considered to be the first modern science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is about. A fact that becomes all too ironical when McEwan describes Machines Like Me as an ‘anti-Frankenstein novel’. And as far as the larger themes that McEwan claims to tackle in his novel, they could well describe almost the entire body of work of Hollywood’s favourite science fiction author, Philip K. Dick, the fictionalizing philosopher. For the longest time, science fiction has always been about exploring the ‘human dilemma’ as McEwan puts it, and the question of the human-ness of androids has been explored to no end, not least in Annallee Newitz’s Autonomous, in recent times amongst many others. Not to mention that what Mr. McEwan seeks to do now is what a whole phase of science fiction did decades years ago – a movement now referred as the ‘New Wave of SF’ from the 1960/70s which saw science fiction, as a genre, move towards ‘literary merit’ and the ‘softer’ side of science was all about exploring the human condition, typified by scores of science fiction authors including Thomas M. Disch, John Brunner, Joanna Russ, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, Theodore Sturgeon, Frtiz Liber, Samuel R. Delaney, Brian Aldiss, Michal Moorcock, Alfred Bester, and of course, Philip K. Dick.

McEwan may have a new perspective on the issue of humanity and the machines we create, but it’s presumptuous to think he’s the first person to grapple with those issues in fiction. Shenoy quotes the great Iain (M.) Banks as calling such drop ins by literary folks, claiming to be breaking new ground, as “comically arrogant . . . to fail to do the basic research.” That sounds about right. I mean, how do you know you have something new to say if you don’t know what those who came before you have already said?

I suppose it’s a step forward for a big literary star like McEwan to not hide the ball on playing in the sci-fi sandbox. But on the other hand, it’s at least one step back (if not two) if he thinks he’s the first one whose ever been in there.

Oh, well. At least the book looks “pretty good.”

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Whither West Virginia?

Writing alternate history is a tricky business. There’s a long way between weed-fueled gab sessions about what would have happened if the American Revolution failed or whatever and writing a story in a believable world that’s diverged from our own in a particular way. Who can really tell what that one change will make?

The conceit of Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines is pretty intriguing: Abraham Lincoln is assassinated just prior to his first inauguration, rather than at the end of the Civil War. That leads to the “Crittenden Compromise,” a group of amendments to the Constitution that permanently protects slavery. Over the years several states emancipate, so that by the time the book takes place in the “modern” era slavery still exists in the “hard four” – Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Carolinas (united for reasons never explained).

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The story itself involves Victor, a runaway slave who becomes an undercover bounty hunter for the US Marshals tracking down other runaways. That means infiltrating the modern equivalent of the Underground Railroad, which is still trying to shuttle escaped slaves to Canada. It’s told entirely from his point of view, which gets deep down into his head as he deals with issues of guilt, anger, cynicism and a bunch else. It’s a pretty good character study that loses its feet a little bit when the narrative heads south (literally) and concludes with some of those twists you don’t see coming that characterize detective stories.

Naturally, most of the world we see is through Victor’s eyes and there are some interesting nuggets about what a 21st-century United States with slavery looks like (spoiler – it’s not a non-racist utopia in the rest of the country), but for the most part it looks like history mostly marched on as we know it. There were, apparently, two world wars, for example (FDR used arms manufacturing contracts as a carrot to get a couple of states to abolish slavery), which doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it’s not necessarily wrong either.

On the other hand, there are some things that maybe don’t quite make sense in a world where the United States never abolished slavery and avoided the Civil War. Would a nation isolated by the rest of the world played any role, much less the same one, in the world wars? Winters gives us a Vietnam analog with a failed attempt by Texas to secede in the 1960s, presumably in recognition of the fact that the Cold War probably doesn’t happen. In her review of the book at Tor, Alex Brown writes:

]The details are extraordinary, although some of the larger questions are left untouched. The biggest omission for me was the lack of world building in the West. Outside a couple of references to Texas, the entire western half of the US is never even mentioned, yet in the real world slavery had a huge impact on the West (says the woman who wrote her MA US History thesis on Black life in the West). Southerners traveling overland often sold some of their slaves to finance their journey. Those left behind were devastated by broken homes, and after the Civil War thousands of freed slaves took out ads looking for their families; most were never reunited. Countless slaves worked in the gold mines, cattle ranches, and citrus orchards in California in the 1840s and 1850s, while even more were cowboys on the plains. Dozens of Black-founded towns are scattered across the West, and, of course, one of the worst race riots in American history took place in Tulsa in 1921. Alt-history or no, you don’t get the modern United States—including its scientific advancements and racism—without the development of the West, and you don’t get the West without Black people.

Which is what makes me wonder about West Virginia in the world Winters created. Here’s a map (helpfully available online and in the front of the ebook preview for those of us who absorbed the audiobook) of the United States of Underground Airlines:

UndergroundMap

As you can see, West Virginia is there, just like it is in the real world. The problem is that West Virginia was literally born in the Civil War. Given the timeline for the book Lincoln was killed before  Virginia voted to secede, which prompted the crisis that eventually spawned West Virginia. Without that, there’d be no West Virginia. That’s not to say there weren’t divides between the folks living west of the mountains and the Tidewater plantation owners that dominated antebellum Virginia politics – there was a pretty good reason to spin the western part of the state off on its own. But given how difficult it is to carve a new state from an existing one, it’s unlikely it ever would have happened but for the breach that was the Civil War.

None of that has anything to do with the story Underground Airlines is telling, of course, but it is an example of how alternate history worlds sometimes raise questions in the peripheral vision that will catch the attention of a few readers, but blow by most. I’m not sure what that means in the long run, but this West Virginian is ready to “repeat to yourself that it’s just a [book], you should really just relax” and just enjoy.

Favorite Reads of 2018

Since it’s getting down to the wire – I’m not down with “Best of” lists that show up in October – I figured now was the time to give a shout out to my favorite books from 2018. Two important notes: (1) these are favorites, not necessarily bests or whatever; I just loved them, and (2) the key phrase is “that I read in 2018,” so it includes books from before 2018. With that said, here we go (in no particular order) . . .

Nemesis Games (2015)

Nemesis

I’ve basically been keeping one book ahead of where the TV version of The Expanse is, but with the next season on Amazon taking parts from both the fourth (Cibola Burn) and fifth (this one) books, I figured I had to get a little more down the road with this series. I read Cibola Burn this year, too, and while I got the criticisms some people had with it, I didn’t think it was this bad. In comparison to Nemesis Games, however, it was a wet patch on the road. To say “things change” in Nemesis Games is to severely undersell it. That the writing hive mind that is James S.A. Corey managed to explode the cast, sending them off in different directions before pulling them back together, is no small feat, either.

Saga, Vol. 9 (2018)

Saga9

Oh, boy, that last twist. The good news is that after nine volumes Saga continues to be inventive, thrilling, thoughtful, and capable of numerous gut punches. The bad news is that writer Bryan K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples are taking “at least” a year off from the series before getting back to work on it. Part of me thinks that’s a good idea, but part of me worries if this shunts Saga into the realm of great, unfinished stories. Given the way this one ended, I sure hope not.

If you’re not reading Saga yet, here’s why I think you should.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)

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Many people know that, in the run up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by one of his Southern colleagues with a cane, providing the perfect metaphor for the turmoil that would soon rip the nation apart. What most folks don’t know is that, while Sumner’s beating stood out for its brutality, it was merely different in degree, rather than in kind, from numerous other incidents of Congressional violence. One Congressman even died in a duel (not on the House floor, to be fair). Not just a colorful “you were there” history, The Field of Blood looks back at another time when the political norms broke down and things sound frighteningly familiar to modern ears.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)

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Pure fun. Well, pure darkly humorous fun, at the very least. Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil. To get it back, he’s have to deal in bulk, gathering 100 souls for the devil to replace his own, all while running a demonic travelling circus right out of the darker portions of Ray Bradbury’s psyche. This was probably the most fun I had with a book this year, partly because of what I’d just read before (see below), but also because there’s a sharp, dark wit that runs all the way through it.

Shattered Earth trilogy (2015-2017)

Broken

N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy – The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – made history early this year when it won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, an unprecedented achievement. Is it that good? Absolutely. The Fifth Season, in particular, is a structural high-wire act that shouldn’t work, but completely does and leaves the reader knowing precisely why it was done. The other two books don’t quite reach that level, but the overall arc of the story and the characters that drive it is brilliant. Pretty heavy (I needed Johannes Cabal . . . to brighten me up a bit), but completely worth it.

I’ve written before about these books here and here.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)

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I wrote a review of this one here, so I won’t say much more. If you want to get really pissed off about what “justice” looks like in this country (and you should), this is the book for you.

Neuromancer  (1984)

Neuromancer

Yeah, I know, very late to the party on this one. My college roommate read it and, for some reason, I let it get away from me. Does it hold up? Pretty much, although it’s clearly a product of its time. As a foundational text for cyberpunk it’s something every sci-fi fan and writer should check out. That it continues to tell a gripping story while introducing a lot of ideas we now take for granted is icing on the cake.

Children of Time (2015)

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I gushed about this one right after I read it, so check out the details here. Suffice to say, any book that can make you care about the macro evolutionary development of sentient spiders is an achievement.

Dystopia Versus Utopia

I think I was first exposed to dystopia in fifth grade. Not that my fifth grade teacher was some kind of demon or sadist, mind you. But it was around that time that I read for the first time, in quick succession, 1984, Brave New World, and Anthem (not to mention discovered its musical adaptation). There’s something seductive and compelling about dystopias, warnings about how things can go so very wrong. I’ve dived back into them a lot over the years, on the screen and on the page.

I’ve had less experience with utopias. I’ve never read the Thomas More work that gave birth to the name, if not the concept. I did read Plato’s Republic in college, but it’s hard to look at that as really being utopic to modern eyes. The other utopian novel I really remember reading is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Written in 1888, it’s about a guy who sleeps for more than a century and awakes to find it a socialist paradise. Given what had actually happened by the time 2000 rolled around, it was a hilariously out of date prediction.

But I started thinking more about utopias as works of fiction recently after I read Island.

Island

It’s Aldous Huxley’s last novel and a kind of rejoinder to Brave New World. It covers a lot of the same big ideas as the earlier dystopian novel, but in an (allegedly) positive way. There’s a chart in the Wikipedia entry for the book that does a good job of boiling down the comparison:

IslandChart

Whatever the charms of Pala, the fictional southeast Asian island nation that provides the backdrop for Island, it’s not a very engaging work of fiction. Nominally it’s about a Brit, Will, who washes ashore there (intentionally, it seems) and experiences all the island’s many facets while recovering from his injuries. Said facets are a blend Buddhism, western liberalism, and (to at least one person’s eyes) Scientology and make sense in a lot of ways. Still, Will just basically drifts from place to place and while some individual scenes are well executed (there’s a very expected death later on that’s really touching), there isn’t much of a story.

I think this might be a problem inherent to utopian stories. Dystopias are about struggle, usually individuals standing up to some kind of overwhelming force. It’s easy to empathize with those characters, to buy into their struggle. Likewise, it’s easy to see where the antagonists in such stories are coming from. Written well, they think they’re doing the right thing, too. It’s the basis of good conflict, which is what drama is all about. In utopias, by contrast, everyone is pretty much happy. There’s not much conflict and, thus, not much drama. The narrative can be interesting, maybe even occasionally compelling, but it’s hardly something that sucks you in as a reader.

Another issue with utopias is that they can often seem kind of dystopic, depending on your point of view. I mentioned Plato’s Republic earlier, in which he sketches out his version of an ideal society – one that is anti-democratic, requires a rigid class system, and squishes individuals for the benefit of the state – that sounds more like a dystopia to me. Huxley’s Pala sounds like a pretty nice place – tropical weather, mind expanding drugs, all the sex you can have, creative alternatives to criminal justice – but it’s not perfect. For one thing there are mynah birds constantly harping out slogans (“Attention! Here and now, boys!”) that would be aggravating to no end. For another, all this apparently comes from the top down, mandated via a government overhaul that happened a generation or two back. There’s no indication what happens when somebody dissents from this version of the perfect life, how that’s handled. The only naysayers are the soon-to-be ruler and his European mother who are so out of touch that it’s clear Huxley doesn’t want you to take them seriously.

But the thing that struck me the most as dystopic in Island comes near the end, when the main character is talking with a local child about Oedipus Rex. They have the play in Pala, but it has a happy ending, wherein two children from Pala enter the play and convince everyone not to kill or maim themselves because none of this is their fault. To the problem of Oedipus being married to his mother, they simply advice stop being married to her. It all reeks of one of those stories modified by a totalitarian regime to show Dear Leader giving wisdom to historical figures and changing history. It’s also bizarrely simple minded in terms of a “solution” to the problem.

In the end, what makes it most difficult for me to get into utopias is that they are, at bottom, dreams that we know will never come true. Dystopias, by contrast, always seem prescient and just over the horizon (the good ones, at least). It’s not for nothing the More’s term means “no place.” Huxley basically concedes this in Island, as the book ends with the island’s new ruler (the one with the European mother) joining forces with the neighboring nation’s strongman to begin a quest to “modernize” Pala. Even in fiction, such places can’t last long.

UtopiaDystopia

Weekly Read: Saturn Run

As I think I’ve said before, one of my least favorite criticism of a book or movie is that it “has no plot.” Unless we’re talking about some really experimental stuff, every story has a plot because in every story SOMETHING happens. It might not be huge, it might not be life changing, but it’s something. What folks mean when they say that, I’ve decided, is not that “nothing happens,” but that “nothing happens that I care about.” In other words, the events of the story just wash over you and leave no residue.

It would be wrong to say nothing happens in Saturn Run, a collaboration between novelist John Sandford and Ctein (the first a long-time writer of thrillers, the second an artist, apparently). Quite a bit happens, given the setup and all, but I can safely say that nothing happens that I cared about, at least until the last quarter of the book or so. By that point, I couldn’t be roused to give much of a shit.

The setup is fairly standard – an alien ship appears in our solar system, is discovered by accident, and we humans head out to make first contact. What Saturn Run adds to the mix is a race to get there run by American and Chinese spacecraft, each taking different routes using different tech to make it to Saturn first. We spend almost all of the first three quarters of the book on the American ship (including its dealings with the American government back here on Earth), which wins the race. It’s reward? Being the first to a kind of interstellar truck stop full of fuel, science, and tech. Actual aliens are nowhere to be found.

The journey to get there is long and shot through with lots of technical data dumps, but precious little of concern actually happens. Partly this is down to the characters, who basically just function as pieces to move around as the plot requires. The closest thing to a main character, Sandy, begins as a skirt-chasing surfer waiting to inherit family money, only for us to learn he’s actually a kick ass solder suffering from PTSD; but he goes back to surfer mode on the trip while acting as the official expedition cinematographer (at which he’s also kick ass). None of this ultimately matters, since he has no motivation and we don’t care why he does anything he does.

In fact, it’s hard to care about anything that happens. For instance, before the American ship (named after Richard Nixon, a clever nod to his dealings with China) leaves Earth orbit there is a test of its system for dealing with excess heat built up by its drive system. The test goes wrong, but there’s no drama in this. The chief engineer explains calmly that this kind of thing happens, it’s why you test first, and it’s just a problem to be solved (and it is). This is a great attitude to have in the real world, but it sucks when it comes to fiction. If every problem gets solved without much consequence, why should I care about them? Same goes for the mysterious failure of half the drive system once they’re underway, which doesn’t matter because the ship already has enough momentum to get to Saturn before the Chinese.

Even when stuff happens to people there isn’t really much to it. The engineer? She dies mid trip due to another accident, just after she and Sandy have started sleeping together. Thanks to spiffy drugs and just the way this book is written this basically has no impact on anybody. It doesn’t even impact the ship in general, as her second chair engineer steps up and does a fine job. That kind of sums up this book in a nutshell to me – if a main character dies and nobody in the book cares, why should I? And don’t even get me started about the cat.

Things improve once the Chinese arrive on the scene, but not enough. For one thing, all of a sudden we begin to get POV scenes from the Chinese involving character’s we’ve never met through the rest of the book. I should care about them why? Kept at a distance they could have been vague bad guys with shady motivations, but we get enough into their heads to know what’s going on without any emotional investment to go along with it. The book builds some goodwill toward the end as it powers to a fairly cynical conclusion, but it weaves at the last moment and destroys that, too.

It’s entirely possible that I’m not the target audience for Saturn Run. It’s hard science fiction in the most literal sense – the space travel and what happens at Saturn are based on extrapolations from known science and are pretty realistic. There are no warp drives or teleporters here. In fact, there’s a half-hour afterword on the audiobook version diving deeply into the science involved. That I skipped it indicates that this book was never for me in the first place.

But there’s no reason why hard sci-fi, focused on known science and clever, plausible problem solving, can’t also be compelling drama. If you only care about the engineering challenges and how they’re met, this is the book for you. If you want characters that matter to you going through situations that have consequences that matter, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

SaturnRun

The Second Book Problem

The old saw goes that, with notable exceptions, sequels never live up to their predecessors. This is a particular issue when it comes to trilogies, as the middle installment often suffers from what some writers and critics call the “second book problem.” What is this, exactly? I think it breaks down into two separate issues.

The first issue is peculiar to speculative fiction, although I could see it coming up in other areas. That is the simple fact that the first volume of a sci-fi or fantasy trilogy is going to have to do some heavy lifting on world building – Is the story set in our world or a completely different one? Are we playing by the physical rules we know (with certain extrapolations) or is scientific accuracy out the window? Are the characters human or not? All of that can (probably should) produce a sense of wonder and awe in the reader as the world unfolds. The initial introduction to Westeros or the Culture or post-apocalyptic Canada should leave the reader a little bit shocked.

That’s gone by the time the second book rolls around. Certainly, a writer should deepen and make more interesting the world in which their story is being told in a second volume, but it’s difficult to capture the initial “wow” factor a second time around. Kings that once ruled the world on the backs of flying, fire-breathing dragons? Awesome shit! The genealogy of those kings, as important as that may be? Not so much.

The second issue is that, just like the middle point of any story, the second part of a trilogy can have a plot that seems to drag a bit. The initial flush of excites as the plot unwinds in the first volume is gone, but the satisfying conclusion of the entire tale in the final volume is still a ways off. At best there’s a lot of clever table setting and some interesting side plots; at worst, there’s a lot of wheel spinning.

“Wait a sec,” you might be thinking, “didn’t you write a trilogy? Aren’t you writing another one? Do you think you’ve solved the second book problem, smart guy?”

TEH Cover (540x810)

Probably not, but that’s ultimately a question for readers to answer. I tried to make The Endless Hills work as a middle volume by broadening the number of characters to provide a wider view of the conflict that flamed to life in The Water Road. I hope that helped with the second issue, but I’m not so certain about the first.

What seems true, however, is that even really excellent writers still fall victim to the second book problem. The hottest writer in fantasy right now is N.K. Jemisin, whose brilliant The Fifth Season I noted a couple of months back. The third book of that trilogy, The Stone Sky (which I’m now deep in the middle of), just won a Hugo, making Jemisin the first writer to win the award three years (and three books) in a row. Still and all, The Obelisk Gate, the second book in the trilogy, can’t help but sag a bit. The world, which gets a lot of depth and shading, isn’t “holy shit!” anymore and one character’s story falls into the “table setting” genre pretty well. It’s still amazingly good (did I mention three Hugos in a row?), but it shows that even someone as talented as Jemisin isn’t immune from second book syndrome.

Jemisin_ObeliskGate_TP

So what makes the exceptions to the rule stand out? Maybe it’s because the next installment was a step down or maybe there’s enough new and different in the second installment to keep the freshness alive. Or, maybe, when a trilogy or series is all said and done we tend to brush over the criticisms of the middle parts the way we kind of brush over the middle parts themselves. It may be inherent to the trilogy format itself. I’m not sure, which is kind of a problem for a writer. Like most things, keeping the issue in mind and trying to deal with it is probably the best course, and keeping in mind that it bedevils just about everyone.

Ideas Will Always Be Free Range

I have a file on my computer that’s full of “what if?” ideas that occur to me from time to time. Most of them will never find their way into an actual story – there’s a fair gulf between “cool idea” and “cool story.” In light of that, it can be cool to see one of those ideas show up on the big screen completely independent of your having it.

The Australian film OtherLife is based on a nifty “what if” question – what if, via a process involving programmable biotech (don’t call it drugs) dropped into a person’s eye, that person could experience rich and full “memories” of experiences in the blink of an eye? Think of the ability to cram an entire vacation into a few seconds! Actually, that sounds kind of shitty and easily manipulated, but it’s still a cool idea.

Otherlife

In the film the tech’s creator, Ren, is having problems with the system as it gets ready to go public. To help the company with funding, her partner wants to explore a Government-proposed use of the tech – to make criminals experience a long time of confinement without actually having to incarcerate them. Ren is furious (since her motives are purely altruistic and personal) and balks at the idea, of course. Things spiral out from there to a not all that interesting conclusion.

Mostly because that idea – of incarceration by memory – is a really interesting one. You may have guessed by now that’s the one that I wrote down in my “what if?” file years ago. But the film isn’t really interested in exploring the ideas behind that setup, instead using it to jump start the plot and put Ren through a very weird experience. It’s interesting enough to watch, but doesn’t really stick with you for very long, putting thrills and twists ahead of deep thought and head scratching.

Newbie writers sometimes worry about either not having an “original” idea or that if they discuss their own idea in public it will get “stolen.” Fact is, neither of those things is a problem. Ideas are only the beginning. It’s what you do with them that matters, how the characters you create are affected by them. OtherLife takes the “memories of punishment” idea and does one thing with it. If I ever get back to it I’ll do something very different. The world’s big enough for both (and more!) and all the richer for it, too.

Which is funny, because watching Otherlife gave me another neat idea! It has to do with people disappearing and then reappearing and what that does to them and those around them. It’s now sitting in my “what if?” file, quietly tucked away. Maybe one day it’ll become something worth developing.

Weekly Listen: Ones and Zeroes: Volume 0

At the end of my review of 3rDegree’s Ones and Zeroes: Volume 1, I wrote:

It’s a mess of awfully good music wrapped around an interesting idea. And the best thing? It’s only the first part!

Now that I’ve gotten familiar with the band’s follow up, I’m not so sure about that anymore.

The “first part” bit, I mean. The enthusiasm was completely warranted. But where does Volume 0 fit in to the chronology? It came second, after all, but it’s hardly a sequel. So it is a prequel? Not really. Is it better to listen to them in order of release or numerical order? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it doesn’t really matter, for a very unexpected reason – Volume 0 doesn’t really have anything to do with Volume 1. Conceptually, at least.

Hear me out.

Volume 1 tells, essentially, a single story about the impact of a fictional (gods, I hope) megacorp, Valhalla Biotech, that peddles various “life extension” technology. There was a through line running from stem to stern of the album, summed up by refrain “tell me what it means to be human.” This was helped along by the sometimes chilling asides from various Valhalla products and spokespersons.

Volume 0, by contrasts, covers a lot of different ground. “Olympia” deals with artificial beings who aren’t content to be submissive. “Perfect Babies” channels Brave New World and Gattaca and their (timely and relevant) fears of designer offspring. The epic “Click Away!” dives into the echo chamber of the Internet. Unlike Volume 1, there’s no connective tissue pulling these all together (the Valhalla announcements are absent, for example).

To put it another way, Volume 1 is a Black Mirror episode; Volume 0 is an entire season.

This isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, it’s probably a good idea not to just do a copy of Volume 1, since it’s hard to bottle lightning twice. Still, aside from the opening overture and a few riffs in the closing “Ones and Zeroes” there isn’t really a link between to the two albums. They’re separate things that stand on their own merits.

And Volume 0 has plenty of merits. Lyrically, the best tracks (“Olympia” and “Logical Conclusion,” in particular) create perfect little worlds, short stories of immediate impact and thougtfulness. The rest throw out interesting ideas and slip in some zingers for good measure (has a meaner chorus ever been sung other than “the future doesn’t need you at all?”).

Musically, 3rDegree continue to refine a sound that doesn’t really resemble anybody else. Bassist Robert James Pashman once told me that 3rDegree was (I’m seriously paraphrasing) “too straight forward for the prog crowd, but too weird for the mainstream.” That’s still true, although they’ve been embraced by the prog world in the past few years (and produced an epic in return!). But they’re at their best when the hooks and melodies come to the fore, to be supported by some interesting backing stuff and arrangements. That’s all backed up by playing that’s intricate and muscular, but rarely flashy. It takes a few listens to really get at what’s going on, which is always a good sign. I particularly dig that there’s lots of bass synth on this album.

One of the reasons I had to keep giving Volume 0 listens is because I had a hard time thinking about what to say about it. Here’s the thing – with each album since they got back together, 3rDegree have been stepping up their game in big ways. Volume 0, though, doesn’t feel like a big step forward. It feels like a consolidation, a restatement of what they’re about. That’s not in any way a bad thing.

What I’m saying is that Volume 0 is a great album. It’s musically and lyrically rich, filled with catchy tunes and great playing. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from 3rDegree at this point, right? They’re a band in top form and cranking out another excellent offering just isn’t a surprise at this point. So why don’t you have your copy yet?

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On American Dystopia and the Great White North

Dystopian fiction can be tricky. Assuming you’re setting it on Earth, you either need to have the whole world go to hell, which isn’t all that probable, or the shit show is more localized, in which case you have to address how the rest of the world interacts with the place where the story is set. I’ve been set to thinking about this a bit thanks to two recent bits of television.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is as localized as dystopia can get. It’s told entirely from the point of view of the titular handmaid, June, and doesn’t concern itself at all with the outside world. Gilead is what she experiences; nothing more.

The TV adaptation probably couldn’t have worked if it maintained that rigorous POV, so it wisely broadened its world from the get go. In the first season, therefore, we learned that June’s husband and her best friend managed to escape to Canada, where there’s a growing population of expats from the area that used to be New England. But we don’t really know what that means in a global socio-political sense.

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That was evident in the recent episode “Smart Power,” where Commander Fred and his wife, Serena, take a diplomatic trip to the Great White North. They’re received professionally, if coolly, in the manner you’d expect for delegates from a nation with which the Canadians have at least some normal relations. But do they? We don’t really know. Things are complicated when an American agents of some kind offers Serena a new life in Hawaii, one where she actually gets to control her destiny.

All this is a bit confused because we don’t really know how Gilead relates to the rest of the world – or what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead (once some info leaks out during the Commander’s visit, we quickly find out, at least partly). How big is Gilead? We know it’s centered in New England, but what of the rest of the United States? Does Canada recognize it as an independent nation? If so, why? What does the United States look like?

None of these were really important in the book, since it was June’s story above all else. But by broadening the focus (something that had to happen for the TV series to continue), these questions become relevant and I’m not certain the show’s brain trust really has the answers.

The recent HBO adaptation of Farhernheit 451 suffered even more acutely from this problem. It makes explicit the story’s setting (Cleveland) and, via an implausible update that involves the works of humanity encoded into DNA, sets up an endgame where Montag has to help someone escape to Canada to rendezvous with some scientists. We’re never told if that’s just because that’s where they are or because Canada is the safe area we always assume it to be.

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This is particularly important to Farhernheit 451 given its semi-hopeful ending of an underground group dedicated to actually memorizing great works of literature to ensure they don’t disappear.* That still happens, but it’s now supplemented with the DNA thing. But if Canada is a safe haven, if it exists outside of the dystopia the United States has become – then why the need to preserve all knowledge? Isn’t it safe elsewhere in the world?

To a certain extent this is an issue with any speculative fiction worldbuilding. Writers need to have some idea what happens beyond the bounds of their stories, since those things should influence those stories in some ways. But it’s compounded dystopian fiction set in the “real” world because readers and viewers presume the world is as it is in real life, unless we’re told otherwise. That can lead to confusion, or at least some disappointments.

* Kudos to the writers for updating the preserved works to include writers who are women and people of color (and even some women of color!). However, the impact is a bit muted since only the minority characters are memorizing the work of minority authors.

Weekly Read: Head On

One of the cool things about writing speculative fiction is building a world out of a neat “what if?” idea and playing around in it. John Scalzi did that with Lock In. Set in a world where a chunk of the population has succumb to Haden’s Syndrome – a disease that leaves them “locked in” their body, unable to move but with functional brains – Lock In used a fairly standard buddy cop storyline to play out the ramifications. The story was secondary to learning how the main character, FBI agent (and intentionally ungendered) Chris Shane, and their fellow Hadens interacted with each other and the rest of the world. I couldn’t even tell you what the central mystery was and still really liked it.

Head On is a sequel to Lock In, but it’s dubbed a “standalone followup.” Having read Lock In certainly helps understand the background of the story, but newbies should be able to jump right in, and maybe they should. With my feet firmly on the ground in the world of Head On right from the jump the story came to the fore and, sadly, it wasn’t that interesting.

The milieu for it is, though. Head On revolves around an ultraviolent sport called hilketa (SP?), in which specially crafted versions of the threeps (aka “3P0” – get it?) batter each other with the objective of ripping a particular player’s head off and using it to score a goal. It’s like rugby or gridiron football without any of the problems with head injuries, since there aren’t actual humans on the field playing the game.

Nonetheless, when one hilketa player dies during a preseason game, it swings Shane and his (non-Haden) partner into action to untangle a convoluted web of deceit and murder. Diving into that mystery allows Scalzi to explore some interesting things. The most mundane may be the impact of big money and expansion in sports, but there’s also more world-specific questions like what “performance enhancing” drugs mean for people who play a sport without their body. Most compelling is how all this is impacted by the United States government’s withdrawal of financial support for Hadens (helped, it’s more than implied, by corporations pushing the edges of the law too far). Also, there’s a cat with an interesting bauble on its collar.

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Sort of like this one, but a different color. And friendlier. And without a galaxy ’round its neck. But otherwise . . .

But I find these background things, or sideways highlights of the Hadens world, much more interesting than the actual detective story. Shane and their partner are your typical fictional cops – always pushing boundaries, but always getting the bad person, so it’s OK. This time, particularly, that none of the several lawyers in the book are even decent people, much less competent. I was particularly disappointed that Scalzi reuses the stereotype of the public defender as an out of their depth idiot, rather than a dedicated, smart, hard working advocate stuck in a system that criminal underfunds them. To his credit, the actual solution to the mystery of the hilketa player’s death is sadly plausible for 21st Century America.

Oddly, part of what I think kept me from fully engaging with Head On is that it’s so short. The version I listened to (in keeping with the ungendered main character, there are separate audiobook versions read by Will Wheaton and Amber Benson – I listened to Wheaton’s) was barely seven-and-a-half hours long. The book moves at a brisk pace – the trademark Scalzi smart assess are present in all their glory (a good thing!) – and doesn’t really make room for anything that doesn’t drive the plot along. The decision to “lock in” the point of view on Chris, I think, limits things a bit too much. I think if I’d known more about the other people in this world I’d have cared more about the mystery in which they were wrapped up.

If that sounds negative, I don’t really mean it to be. Head On is a quick, interesting, fun read, but I don’t think it does much to improve on its predecessor. My hope is that in a future book Scalzi breaks from the crime story mold and tells some other stories about Hadens. He could bring Shane along for the ride, although it would probably help if they were knocked down a few pegs (in addition to being an FBI agent Shane is the son of a fabulously wealthy ex-NBA superstar – he’s got power and money, in other words). Regardless, I’ll probably check that one out, too.

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