Weekly Read – Quick Hits

While I was off doing NaNo and writing a book last month I was also consuming a few (that’s much easier). Here’s some thoughts about the ones I finished . . .

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie broke out in 2013 with Ancillary Justice, a Hugo-winning sci-fi epic that I really enjoyed. She takes odd approaches to characters and settings that make the stories more interesting. I wasn’t as thrilled with the sequel, Ancillary Sword, but when I heard she wrote a fantasy novel, I had to check it out. As I expected, it’s got quite a different feel to it – the main character is, honestly, a rock. OK, so it’s a god embodied in a rock, but still. The rock god stuff works better than the human story until the two begin to intertwine. The ending really knocked my socks off, even though I predicted it. My usual is to love the openings of books and be let down by the finish – this was just the opposite.

A word on the audio version – if  you sometimes listen and sometimes read, I’d definitely recommend reading this one. The narrator for the audiobook (who also did the Ancillary novels) is horrible, imposing difficult to understand dialects on just about every character and turning the main non-rock character into a whining child.

RavenTower

The Terror by Dan Simmons

In high school when I started The Grapes of Wrath I had to take a break after the first chapter and go get a drink – Steinbeck’s description of the Dustbowl was so vivid I was literally parched. Long stretches of The Terror are like that, too, but with bitter cold in the place of thirst. Simmons takes the unknown fate of a doomed Arctic expedition and spins a tale that’s both historical fiction and bleak horror. Yes, there’s a monster involved, but the real evil lies in the hearts of men, naturally. It’s a little too long and doesn’t stick the landing (a hard right turn into native mythology), but there are some superbly vivid and disturbing set pieces along the way that make it worthwhile.

TheTerror

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. It’s got a great setup – in an alternate 1950s (Dewey really did defeat Truman, for some unexplained reason) a meteorite slams into the East Coast near D.C., killing millions and wrecking the economy. But it gets worse – the main character, a “calculator” at this world’s version of NASA figures out that the impact will cause climate issues that will render the planet uninhabitable. This jumpstarts the space program and leads to said main character becoming the first woman in space (this is not a spoiler – this is essentially a prequel to a short story written about this character years ago). The story is interesting enough, but it’s frustratingly narrow, since the POV is focused only on the main character. One suspects there’s so much else going on in this world as it comes to grips with the situation that would be interesting to explore. Also, while I thought it was great that the main character’s husband was perfectly loving and supportive, the repeated rocketry-punned sex stuff got really old really quick.

CalculatingStars

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

This is almost like the flip side of The Calculating Stars. In this book, the asteroid hasn’t hit Earth yet, but it’s coming and, as a result, everything’s gone to shit. The main character is a young cop in New Hampshire trying to convince anyone who will listen that the “hanger” found in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom is a real murder, not just yet another suicide. The investigation plays out against the background of impending calamity and what it does to society and the human psyche. That was by far the most interesting part of the book, which unfortunately was mostly pushed back in favor of a fairly lackluster mystery. As with The Calculating Stars, the POV being limited to the main character means we get fascinating glimpses of the wider world, but never really get to engage with it.

LastPolice

I’d recommend any of these, depending on what kind of story tickles your particular fancy. Obviously I really liked the first two, while the others were just OK. Still, they’re both award winners, so who am I to say?

Weekly Read: The New and Improved Romie Futch

This spring the wife and I spent a long weekend in the other Charleston (South Carolina) and, naturally, found our way to a bookstore. There, in a display of local authors, I was drawn to one of the wildest covers I’d seen in a while:

RomieFutch

The concept seemed as intriguing as the artwork, so I put it on my “to read” list. Having now finally digested the saga of Romie Futch I can say the whole book lives up to the wild premise of that cover.

Romie is a man in a mid-life mess, with an unsatisfying job as a taxidermist, some issues with substance abuse, and carrying a huge, blazing torch for his ex-wife. He sees a potential way out of his rut in a medical experiment in which he (and several other similarly down-on-their-luck middle-aged dudes) has volumes of knowledge downloaded directly into his brain, turning him into a super loquacious narrator.

Armed with his newfound data dump, Romie tries to get his life on track. That largely involves occasional blackouts and other issues related to his upgrades, continued pining for his ex-wife, renewed interest in taxidermy as post-modern art, and the pursuit of an enormous mutated wild boar dubbed Hogzilla. No prizes for figuring out where the cover image came from then.

But that’s not really the point. The joy of this book is in the character of Romie and those he meets as he tries to get his life straight. Author Julia Elliott has lots of fun with Romie’s newfound vocabulary – the scene where he and several other test subjects sit down and talk for the first time, each unable to keep up with the stream of 5-dollar words coming out of their mouths, is hilarious. It helps set the tone for the rest of the book, too, as everything is always on the verge of just being too much – too many words, too many character quirks – but Elliott always keeps it from going too far. Romie may not have the best life, but it’s an amusing one to be a part of for a while (another highlight – his inner verbal monologue imagining his pregnant ex-wife being knocked up by her fiancé’s young hipster relation).

Along the way, Elliott is able to explore a lot of different areas of modern (and near-future) life. The whole book has a decaying Southern Gothic vibe to it, wherein all politicians are corrupt and big corporations wield power without any real oversight. There’s definitely a strain of anti-science through the book, as the only real knowledge pushers are doing it for malevolent ends (so far as we know – more on that later). It’s deeply cynical and the satire is pretty sharp in spots.

That being said, it does feel like there are some missed opportunities here and there. Romie’s pursuit of Hogzilla is much more satisfying than just about anything to do with the medical experiments performed on him. Since our point of view is Romie’s we never get a broader picture of what the point of the experiment was or who was really behind it. When it comes to wrapping up that part of the story the book feels at its most perfunctory, like Elliott knew she had to do something with it but wasn’t quite sure what. It’s a minor quibble, since this is a book where the journey is well worth taking, even if the destination isn’t quite what you hoped for.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite character trait of Romie’s – that he’s a progressive rock fan! It starts out early with references to Yes and The Moody Blues, but gets so esoteric as to include a reference to Henry Cow bassoonist (you read that right) Lindsay Cooper. Romie has a particular affinity for King Crimson (not the Belew years, apparently, as the songs he name drops later all come from the band’s earlier days). To say I could see a bit of myself in him is an understatement.

The bottom line is that I enjoyed this book a whole bunch. Whatever shortcoming it might have with some of the plot is more than made up for by the characters and the way they’re written. Weird and highly recommended – just like King Crimson.

Weekly Read: Great North Road

There was a time when how long an “album” could be was confined to the limits of vinyl. Somewhere between 35 and 50 minutes was the best you could do, and the higher limits were only available with compromising sound quality (hence why all the old Zappa/Mothers albums are so short per side), unless you were making a double. Regardless, it set expectations for what an “album” should be.

Then along came CDs and all that changed. The apocryphal story goes that the amount of music a CD could hold was designed so it could contain all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so about 79 minutes worth of music. Not surprising then that artists in the 1990s and 2000s took full advantage of the extended time, sometimes with great effect (Mike Keneally) and sometimes with an overabundance of filler (I’m looking at you Flower Kings). Equally unsurprising that, as we push on towards the 2020s, album lengths have generally returned to that 45-50 minute zone, even though with digital download formats they could be nearly endless.

Which is to say that in a world of vinyl-length novels, Great North Road is a jam-packed, full-length CD (my understanding is that author Peter Hamilton is known for lengthy books). Sadly, like many of those early Flower King albums, it doesn’t benefit from the additional time it takes up.

Which is a shame, because there are some very cool things happening in Great North Road. The title itself is a bit of a hint, as “North” is actually the family name of a huge clan of clones that has more money than God at this point. The family fortune was made on supplying a petroleum replacement (in the audiobook it sounds like “bi-oil,” but I have no idea how it’s actually spelled) sourced from the planet St. Libra. Said planet is reached through a Stargate kind of gateway located in (of all places) Newcastle, England. There are other worlds, other portals, and an existential threat called the Zanth (again, no idea how it’s spelled) that lingers over everything.

Into all this comes the murder of a North in Newcastle, which kicks off the book’s parallel plots. One is terrestrial, as a Newcastle cop tries to solve the murder. The other takes place mostly on St. Libra, where a military expedition is mounted to find if there is, perhaps, sentient alien life on St. Libra after all. The focus of that plot thread is Angela, who’s lengthy backstory is revealed as the book progresses. She, and her backstory in particular, is the most interesting part of the book, since it allows Hamilton to explore some other worlds and the societies that have developed on them. The way Angela’s past informs her present and dovetails into the St. Libra plot is really well done, even if that plot line is largely an extended riff on the “expedition is caught in the middle of nowhere with an angry monster” trope.

There’s no such compelling narrative to the plot happening in Newcastle, however. While the two do connect in the end, you’re left wondering if the Newcastle stuff could be confined to a lengthy prologue. The investigation just goes on too long with lots of extraneous details (the narratives of the way detectives navigate Newcastle’s highways makes me think of the SNL skit “The Californians”). Sid, the main detective, is a decent enough character, but he never really comes to life.

There are other annoyances – all the woman are beautiful, the Newcastle banter is really repetitive, things really wrap up a bit to neatly – that come and go, but given the length of the narrative they pop up a lot. It makes the narrative more of a slog than you’d expect for an interstellar adventure in which clones and a monster somewhat reminiscent of Hyperion’s shrike should be.

So all in all, there’s a really good, interesting book to be exhumed from Great North Road, but the effort leads to a solid shrugging of the shoulders by the end.

GreatNorthRoad

All Stories Are About Characters

There’s this scrappy little independent film out in theaters now, Avengers: Endgame, that you might have heard about. Without going deeply into spoilers, let’s just say that it involves what the Doctor might call some “timey wimey” nonsense. Thus I was kind of pleased when I saw this article by Michal Schick pop through my Google stream:

Endgame1

I figured this would be a good reminder of what I call the MST3K philosophy: “repeat to yourself this is just a [movie], you should really just relax.” After all, there’s been considerable ink spilled on what the time travel stuff in Endgame means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whether it “works,” and all that kind of stuff. It’s interesting, but there’s a certain amount of diminishing returns the further you dive in.

So imagine my surprise when Schick went a different direction:

Endgame2

This is a good and overlooked point when it comes to superhero stuff. Many superheroes tend to have a sheen of the scientific about them, an explanation for why they have superpowers – Spider Man is who he is because he was bitten by a radioactive spider, Superman is who he is because he’s from another planet and the rays of our sun give him powers. But let’s be honest – that’s all bullshit. It’s not as if the scientific explanations really hold up to scrutiny or are based on extrapolations of known science. They sound cool and that’s enough.

With that recognition, however, we’re clearly in the realm of fantasy rather than science fiction. That means that when there’s time travel in Endgame it’s not trying to be scientifically rigorous. Instead, it’s a kind of “just so” setup, something you have to just accept as part of that world. It may be internally inconsistent and that’s worth criticizing, but bagging on the film for not getting time travel in general “right” is missing the point.

After agreeing with the article up to this point, I took a hard turn into disagreement. After noting, correctly, that often the quick and dirty classification of things as fantasy or sci-fi depends on what they look like (the good example they use is “blasters and ray guns” equal sci-fi, while “magic wands” doing basically the same thing equal fantasy), it goes all wrong:

Far, far more important to genre are the interests and values of the story itself.

Does the story prioritize character (fantasy) or does it highlight and interrogate plot and concept (science fiction)? Do the story’s values live in the realm of emotion and experience (F), or intellect and ideology (SF)? Is the creator working with the primary interests of fantasy or science fiction, not to design their world, but to define it?

No, no, no. “Emotion and experience” are part and parcel of any story, regardless of the genre. Science fiction may be particularly susceptible to stories where the tech is more important than the people using it, but if there’s no emotional connection to those characters you might as well just read a technical manual. I’ve written about this before, but I think it does sci-fi a disservice to think it’s not about characters.

To me, the admittedly hazy line between sci-fi and fantasy comes from how the author treats the world in which the story is being told, not the characters. Worlds that look more like ours and where the element of the fantastic has some real connection to ours fall on the sci-fi side of the line, while a world whose differences from ours just are tends to fall under the fantasy umbrella. Neither classification is a marker of quality, much less determinative of how the characters are developed and how readers connect with them.

That’s the most important part of telling a story, regardless of genre. People want to care about characters. They want “emotion and experience.”

Another Literary Writer Discovers Speculative Fiction

To quote John Hurt at the end of Spaceballs:

oh-no-not-again

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.”

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).

underground-airlines-1

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)

FieldofBlood

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)

JohannesCabal

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)

CadaverKing

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)

ChildrenofTime

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.