book recommendation

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

image credit: NPR

image credit: NPR

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Normally, this feature has me rooting around in the dust heap of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and aughties to find something to review. I write here based on what I’ve finished reading in the past month or so, and since there is a lot more written in the past 50 years than the past one, more often than not there are a couple decades between publication of the book and the posting of the article on it. I’m excited to say that today, I bring you Ancillary Justice, published less than a year ago. I ran across it a little while ago, but the title seemed like something that would have David Caruso de-sunglassing on the cover, so I passed it by. It won the Hugo on August 17th, and the Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, and Nebula awards are all telling me I made a mistake. Any single one of those awards is enough to get me trust a book, and this one got all four of them. Another tidbit – at the Hugos, the entire Wheel of Time series was also on the shortlist. This beat out the Wheel of Time – not one of the books, all of them. On the one hand, that’s not surprising – I tried to read them. The first one was not that bad, but I had to put it down halfway through the second one, asking myself how many words were really necessary to describe the tapestries hanging on the chill stone of the castle hallways through which our protagonist was running for his life. Still, even if Wheel of Time is kind of bad, it occupies a gigantic cultural niche, and the power the entire series should hold over Hugo voters is impressive, but Ancillary Justice beat it, stupid name and all.

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image source: wiki

Yes Robert, it’s beautiful. Isn’t the world in peril or something?

First off, in the context of the book, the name is not that stupid. The premise of the book is as follows: a galactic empire called the Radch is a vast and expanding power, and it conquers through the use of ships and ancillaries. Ancillaries are ex-humans, drawn from the conquered populace, who are heavily modified and slaved to the ship AI, becoming appendages of the ship itself. It is effective (AI brain running targeting, hunting, thinking), it is cheap (feed them water and the minimum, no-frills nutrition, freeze them in the ship hold when they are not in use), and it is good propaganda (they are terrifying in much the same way zombies are – “that could be us” – and the enemies of the Radch call them corpse soldiers). There is a lot more going on in the plot, but to avoid spoiling it for you, I’ll just say that one of the ships, The Justice of Toren, is destroyed, and only a single ancillary escapes. Since she basically is the ship, albeit heavily reduced, she launches on a mission of vengeance (hence Ancillary Justice, slow clap).

Fairly basic plot, so what makes this such a darling of all the most famous SF awards? First off, the entire concept of ancillaries is really cool (and horrifying). The book chapters alternate between the vengeance-mission present and the pre-Toren destruction past, so we get to see the main character function as a distinct entity and as an ancillary. As an ancillary, there are 20 of her, all connected to and by the ship. A single ship possesses thousands (possibly millions) of ancillaries stored in its holds, but the active ones seem to be organized into action groups of 20. The author does a good job of recreating what it would feel like to be a 20-bodied hyperconsciousness, jumping back and forth among all the tasks (guard, administrator, detective, etc.) this group is performing simultaneously, all of them with a constant awareness in the backs of their minds of being in orbit overhead. All ancillaries are heavily modified, each implanted with advanced communications and optic suites, forcefield generators, and other technical goodies. They have, while connected, access to all the processing power and judgment of a ship AI – they are the AI. This creates an interesting problem for the main character when she is left alone – she constantly compares herself to “what [she] was,” that is, compares her existence in one tiny meatbrain to her much more powerful existence as a linked and devastating machine of war.

One thing that makes ancillaries so compelling is their believability. Sure, it seems completely out there right now, but this is the far-future. Let’s think about progress in terms of mere decades and centuries. 1914, one hundred years ago, was the first time anyone successfully completed an indirect blood transfusion, meaning that before that, for a transfusion to work, the donor had to be strapped in the hospital bed next to the recipient. Over the past century, we have developed the ability to transplant hearts, kidneys, eyes, and other organs, and in March of this year, scientists reported that they could use a blood sample from any human to create stem cells. We went, in 100 years, from just barely being able to move blood from one person to another to being able to use blood cells to regenerate any type of damaged cell in the human body. The terrifying thing is, we’re getting faster – just think of where technology was even in 2004 versus now.

The most advanced piece of consumer communications technology available in 2004.

In February, a man received a prosthetic hand that gave a sense of touch. Right now, I have a friend pursuing a biomedical engineering Ph.D, and his main job in the lab is studying monkeys who are hooked up to mechanical arms which they control with their neuronal impulses. Right now, we have man-made hands that transmit directly to nerves and mechanical arms that monkeys can control with their minds. Where will we be in 100 years? 500? 2000? Now, there is the problem of AI, which, like expedient interstellar travel, is kind of a holy grail for science. Accepting AI, it becomes completely feasible that machines and humans could be linked, and that the machine could be programmed as the dominant partner in the relationship. The possibilities are terrifying.

This is a little bit scary to watch. How much damage could that arm do?

Another point of interest in the book is that Radch society makes no real distinction between genders. Every Radch character uses “she” as the third person singular, and this creates a sense of ambiguity that emulates the ambiguity of gender in the Radch itself. It is an interesting choice, and it requires you to form your own opinions about the gender of the characters, which, in Radch society, doesn’t really matter anyway.

There are some weak points in the book. First off, the characters are a little bit flat. They are not unforgivably thin, but they could be more fleshed-out and believable. One of the main characters goes from a disloyal waste of space to an effective and dedicated companion through the mediation of one key event, and the switch was too fast for plausibility. The main character is simple, which could be forgiven due to her being the amputated consciousness of a machine, but the other characters are even less complex. They are by no means inadequate, but by comparison, I’m reading Light in August right now, in which each character has about three pages describing their life story before they actually do anything. The plotting could also be tighter. The book rides on a well put-together mystery plot which drives the reader forward, but it drags in some places, gets lost in exposition or description here and there.

Up to this point, Ann Leckie has built her career on writing and editing short stories. This is her first novel, and it is a great one. In an article of around 1400 words, I dedicate just 158 to weak points in the book. There is a lot more good here than bad. It explores the concept of identity and loss through the ancillary and the contradictions and problems inherent in empire through the history of the Radch. There are some issues, but they tumble away insignificantly in the face of the gale-force imagination with which Leckie infuses her work.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: On Failing Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren

 Dhalgren cover

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Dhalgren is a 1975 novel by Samuel R. Delany, arguably his most successful critically and most likely his most successful commercially, with over one million copies sold. It took me a while, even devouring SF like I do, to find Delany. This is a shame, as the man really knows his way around a sentence. He’s also fucking insane, or at least wrote a fucking insane novel. To give you an idea of the strangeness inherent in the book, one of the very first events is a guy (the main character) walking down a highway, seeing a naked woman running across a field, going to her, having sex with her, then later approaching her in a meadow as she metamorphoses into a tree. Freaked out by this, he sprints back out to the highway to hitch a ride and talks with a long-haul trucker about artichokes. The trucker drops him off at his destination, Bellona, and it does not get less strange.

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Yup.

Bellona is a midwestern U.S. city that has undergone a vague cataclysm. No one really understands what happened, but a lot of the city burned down, and a lot of people moved away. What’s left is an anarchic-in-the-bad-way-unless-you-are-kind-of-an-asshole type social structure where people are just trying to get by and don’t really understand the place in which they live, but are powerfully drawn to it. Weird things keep happening. Our amnesic protagonist, who ends up taking the name Kidd, sleeps on a rooftop a few blocks away from the river the first night, then wakes up and cannot see the river. He enters a building by one door and leaves by the same door, only it exits in a different place. The city is constantly encased in a roiling dome of ash, smoke, and cloud. The one time this really clears away, there are two moons in the sky. The place is just weird, and the evocation of this strangeness is what this novel does best: it is huge on atmosphere. Reading it, you are as wandering and confused as the main character. The grimness and foreboding of the place flows underneath every word, like dark water through the sewers underneath a city. Also, strangeness never stops.

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Bellona is kind of like this, with less sunlight.

Our fearless protagonist finds a notebook in the city, one in which all the right-hand pages are filled in as someone’s journal. Paper is at a premium, so he uses the left-hand pages to write poems as he moves through the city, but he also glances at what has been written, and these pages sometimes reveal a written version of thoughts Kidd has already had. For example, one of the narrator’s thoughts (assumed to be the internal thoughts of Kidd, but who knows) is him reflecting upon his amnesia:

It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.

First off, look at that writing. Secondly, when he starts reading the journal, he finds this written in it:

It is not that I have no future. Rather it continually fragments on the insubstantial and indistinct ephemera of now.

He is amnesic, so he knows even less than the reader if he is the original writer of the journal, and other than tenuous speculation, there is nothing to indicate a final answer. This novel builds mystery and leaves it there, strong and swirling in mist. William Gibson referred to the novel as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Good, because I am nowhere close. (While we’re talking about SF author reactions to Dhalgren, Philip K. Dick called it trash, and Harlan Ellison threw it across the room, never to return, at page 361. I am on page 349. Because it is so weird, it is very divisive in the community – some think it is incomprehensible pap, others think it is the best thing science fiction has ever done).

While we’re quoting, below is the first dozen or so lines of the book, to give you an idea if the style is something that appeals to you or not:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out for the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

So, I quit. Well, not really. This book is too much of a landmark, and there is way too much exciting stuff going on in it for me never to finish. It is really good, I just need some time. In the words of Led Zeppelin, “I can’t quit you babe, so I’m gonna put you down for a while.”

There’s a reason 73% of American high-school males go through a Led Zeppelin phase. Led Zeppelin is fucking great.

The problem is not that it’s a bad book. It is amazing. The problem is, it’s fudge. Fudge is good. Fudge is an impressive and rewarding concoction. Eating fudge is better than eating, say, a ham sandwich. But if you eat nothing but fudge, it becomes hard to chew, sensorially overwhelming, and the culprit behind severe digestive problems. I need to eat a few ham sandwiches before returning to my 879-page platter of fudge. Delany crafted a highly experimental novel with a lot of innovative features, but digestibility was not one of his goals.

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The worst/best dinner you’ll ever have.

Quitting a book is the sovereign right of any reader. As I get older, I do it more and more. As a youth, it always seemed like it was my failure if I put down a book. This attitude had me finishing a lot of really terrible, highly acclaimed stuff. Now, it’s clearer that it is more the author’s failure than mine. If the author is not delivering, you owe them nothing, and buckling to the social pressure of what a “good” book is and reading it even when you don’t like it gives you misery you don’t need and wastes time you don’t have. I love reading the Big Books, the ones in The Canon, and it’s fine to have social opinion be one of the determining factors of whether you finish a book, but it cannot serve as the sole support of a bad book (Obligatory: The Corrections was super terrible. “I am a well-educated, white, heterosexual, cisgender male, my life is so hard, won’t you follow me as I explain my psychological hangups? Also, I’m a giant asshole and made all my problems for myself.”). So my hatred of The Corrections is sloshing over the rim of parenthetical address. In it, the main character’s life is messed up because, as a tenure-track professor, he had sex with one of his students and got fired. He broke the rules and regulations of his workplace and got canned. He’s super bitter about it, but what the hell did he expect? Can you imagine reading Crime and Punishment if, instead of going through the psychological anguish of nihilism versus meaning, despair versus hope, and anxiety versus acceptance, all Raskolnikov did was bitch about how that dumb old lady he murdered ruined his life and how unfair it all was? That’s The Corrections.

Okay, back on track. Yes, I am taking a break, but Dhalgren is amazing. Hopefully, I will read the remaining 530 pages, and there will be a companion piece up here in a few months titled “On Finishing Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren,” but there doesn’t have to be. Read good books, don’t read bad ones, regardless of the opinions of others. When people read books based solely on reputation, bad writers profit and good readers suffer.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Alternate histories are a strong subgenre within SF. They have been around forever. If you really want to stretch it, technically Livy wrote a hypothetical consideration of what would have happened if Alexander the Great had moved West towards Rome instead of conquering the East. He says Rome would have won, but I mean, his name was Titus Livius Patavinus, so. In 1490, the chivalric novel Tirant lo Blanch postulated a history in which the Turks never took Constantinople. 1953’s Bring the Jubilee told a story in which the Confederacy won the Civil War. There is an absurd amount of alt-history books out there, but few are as famous as The Man in the High Castle.

This type of fiction starts out by finding a historical pressure point one, two, ten decades ago, flipping what happened, then exploring the ramifications of the strange new world thus created. Here, the pressure point is Giussepe Zangara’s attempt to assassinate President-elect FDR. In The Man in the High Castle, he is successful. His VP takes over, does a bad job, and is replaced by a Republican president who fails to surmount the Great Depression and maintains the USA’s isolationist policies. The end result of all this is that Russia is conquered in ’41, England cannot stand alone against Germany and falls, and then the complete destruction of the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor makes America easy pickings. At the start of the novel, Germany controls the east of the United States, Japan controls the west, and the mountain and southwestern states form an autonomous American buffer zone between the two.

Touching a pressure point in history, like touching a pressure point in the body, sets off reactions far from the initial point of contact. The Nazis, their ideology unchecked by defeat, continue in their insane belief in a master race. This obscene self-confidence coupled with German technological prowess leads to the colonization of other planets. It also leads to Nazis hunting Jewish people all over the world and shipping them back to Berlin, and Nazi scientists spearheading a vaguely-referenced experiment in Africa that leads to the extermination of most of its populace. Again – the center of SF is extrapolation, and PKD extrapolates the Nazi dynamic of world-changing scientific progress built on human misery and their inhumanity to their fellow man. Same pattern, wider oscillation. As a brief aside on German technological prowess, NASA probably would not be what it is today without Wernher von Braun, who created the rocket booster system that put Neil and Buzz on the moon. He did the same kind of rocketry work for the Nazis, only it was weaponized as the V-2 rocket. Von Braun has always maintained he just wanted to work on rockets and had to join the Nazis to do so, and is reported as saying, upon hearing the news of the first successful V-2 bombing of London, “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” This self-serving attitude and the avoidance of responsibility by wrapping himself in idealism (these rockets were built with slave labor) is beautifully satirized by Mort Sahl, the first modern stand-up comedian. The following joke is pretty much the whole reason for this aside, as it is one of the best I’ve ever heard: “I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London.”

Out west, the Japanese are comparatively benevolent colonizers. Throughout the Pacific states, the Japanese run things, but tend to be more lenient than their Nazi counterparts. Western Americans absorb much of the culture of their colonizers, including using the I Ching and adapting to Japanese systems of social advancement and behavior.

The first major plot concerns an intrigue between German and Japanese representatives to one-up each other. The Germans want to be the sole superpower in the world, and are covertly maneuvering against Japan. The Japanese are covertly maneuvering against Germany to defend themselves. The second major plot thread is that an author who lives in a fortress in the Rocky Mountain States (the High Castle) has written a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which is a piece of alternate history fiction that explores what might have happened if America had entered the war and the Nazis had been crushed. This book is very popular underground, and a couple of the characters decide to take a road trip to meet the man behind it.

Speaking of characters, most of these are cardboard-flat. In many of his books, PKD puts just enough in his characters to make them move around realistically, then lets them go. I still can’t decide if this means PKD is a master of simplicity, or if characterization is just not his strong suit.

There is a reason this is arguably PKD’s most acclaimed book. Sure, the characters might be stick figures, but the world they move around in is unsettlingly plausible and well-built. Americans grow up with “we are the greatest/we’re number one” hammered into their heads. Our President is regularly referred to (by us, anyway) as the leader of the free world. Even if you take Eddie Izzard’s joke about there being a lot of countries, none of whose mottos are “We’re #2!”, to heart, the USA still has an unparalleled level of power and influence in the modern world. Therefore, reading a book in which America is weak, colonized, subjugated by and dependent upon foreign powers creates a deeply personal sense of horror in the American psyche. The adeptness with which PKD constructs and directs this sense of horror makes this book well worth your time.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

This one is a bit of a stretch. There are no spaceships, no wars over nascent technology, no deadly viruses, and no door-opening dinosaurs. There are a whole bunch of drunks, smog, and Oldsmobile convertibles. Yessir, this book takes place in 1950s L.A., the world of doctor-endorsed cigarettes, movie stars, mansions, and extensive highway systems. It still fits here because this book and almost everything after it owes its existence to the pulps, a medium that infused SF with the life it needed to become the powerhouse it is today, where it seems half of all new TV shows and movies have at least some type of speculative element.

Pulps were magazines published on cheap, rough-looking wood pulp paper. They were about half the price of the more prestigious magazines, and they published detective stories, horror fiction, adventure fiction, and science fiction. It was something cheap to read on the train and then throw away. A lot of writers who went on to publish their own novels ate on the checks they won from these magazines. Raymond Chandler wrote for Black Mask, which specialized in mysteries. Chandler has a weird story, as far as writing goes. He was a top oil executive pre-Depression, but lost his job and decided to try his hand at writing. His first short story was accepted at 45, his first novel published at 51. It is an impressively late start for someone who created such an enduring legacy in American fiction. He took what James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett started and forged it into one of the most recognizable subgenres out there: the hard-boiled detective story. Their protagonists are hard-fighting, hard-drinking men with a cynical outlook on life and a questionable relationship with the rest of the human race. Their style is one of spare, densely descriptive prose. The atmosphere of the books (at least The Long Goodbye) is more oppressive and fully-built than most other novels – this type of fiction lives on style. A lot of that style is created by the cynical, fast-talking wisecracking of the main character, Philip Marlowe. Basically, Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart together created the American cultural memory of how men spoke in the 40s and 50s. In fact, Bogart delivered the defining film interpretation of Philip Marlowe in the movie version of Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep.

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If you have not seen Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart acting together, you do not know what American cinema is.

The words and delivery of the main character form so much of the atmosphere of this book that the analysis of the few choice quotes that follow is necessary for an understanding of the book.

I. Intro

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

This is the first paragraph of the novel. It introduces the principal mystery-driving character of a mystery story, so it is pretty important. This uses really simple language to convey a lot of information. First, the description of the character: young face, white hair, drunk as hell. A lot of descriptions work this way – Marlowe’s inner monologue always gives details about every new person in the story, and it is always a handful of key details that then leave you with more than enough to construct a full character. Hard-boiled detective fiction is the spiritual successor of of Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing. Also, the stylistic flourishes like “as if he had forgotten he had one” and “plastered to the hairline” are beautiful examples of Bogart talk, which, again, Chandler played a key role in inventing.

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The Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. There’s a line in the book saying that this is more attractive than women, so… different times, I guess?

II. Bogart Talk (BT henceforward)

These quotations are collected from all over the book, and the BT is strong in all of them.

And the next time I saw a polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, I would depart rapidly in several directions. There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.

Notice the information-dense recall of Terry Lennox (who has since caused Marlowe a heap of trouble): the “polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith,” followed by the darkly, impossibly humorous “depart rapidly in several directions,” capped off by the cynical and truthful commentary: “there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”

They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs.

This second quotation is less complex, but still a great distillation of BT. Cynical, removed, semi-humorous view of the world tinged by disgust at what is being observed, summed up by a weird simile. The jarring quality of the strange simile stretches it almost to tearing, but it doesn’t tear, and the result is stronger than a more measured comparison would be.

The fellow who decorated that room was not a man to let colors scare him.

Not much to say here, just perfect dismissiveness and darkly humorous cynicism

I kissed her some more. It was light, pleasant work.

Again, cynicism and humorous dismissal, the humor arising in large part from the extent of the dismissiveness. Sure, Marlowe’s pretty excited, he’s kissing a beautiful woman, but all he reports is the hilariously understated “It was light, pleasant work.”

III. Social Commentary

Sheriff Petersen just went right on getting re-elected, a living testimonial to the fact that you can hold an important public office forever in our country with no qualifications for it but a clean nose, a photogenic face, and a closed mouth. If on top of that you look good on a horse, you are unbeatable.

So, The Long Goodbye gets a lot of credit for being a vehicle for social commentary. Here is just the barest snippet, a beautiful dismemberment of the political process. Winning elections is all, all appearance, and no content. If you think Chandler or Marlowe is excessively cynical, just know that handsomeness has had a ridiculous influence on election results ever since Nixon and Kennedy. As a more recent example, I voted for Obama both times (it’s turned out kind of meh, but his stated platform was not explicitly evil, so). I remember being a lot more worried about Romney v. Obama than I was about McCain v. Obama. What created this dynamic? Obama is energetic and attractive, and McCain came off as an angry, wrinkled old man. Romney, on the other hand, was in roughly the same spot as Obama on the attractiveness spectrum. Policies aside, the man’s face is so chiselled it looks like he is currently on Mt. Rushmore. He ended up losing, but especially after that first debate, I was concerned he wouldn’t. Against an incumbent president. Because he was so pretty. Chandler knew and dismantled this failing of the American political system more than half a century ago, and it is only one of the smallest pieces of social commentary he weaves into this book.

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Walter Mondale didn’t stand a fucking chance.

IV. Philip Marlowe is a badass

A basic requirement of a hard-boiled protagonist is that he know his way with his gun, with his fists, with a chair, or with whatever blunt objects happen to be within reach. The assumed badassery of the character is key. That being said, Marlowe is not some two-bit punk. He does actually try to avoid violence as much as possible, and he shows quite a bit of sentimentality whenever events break through his wisecracking exterior. Anyway, observe:

I started to get up. I was still off balance when he hit me. He hooked me with a neat left and crossed it. Bells rang, but not for dinner. I sat down hard and shook my head.

So, this is describing when Marlowe was being questioned by police and made one angry on purpose to get him to hit him so he could gauge his threat level. The data gathered from this experiment indicated that this cop was more a boxer than a fighter, and that Marlowe would be able to take him to pieces if he hit him again. First off, inciting a punch to the face as a fact-finding mission is amazing. Secondly, the BT involved in “Bells rang, but not for dinner” to indicate that it was a hard hit, but only hard enough to make him shake his head, is a perfect incarnation of the form.

You’re a piker, Marlowe. You’re a peanut grifter. You’re so little it takes a magnifying glass to see you. I didn’t say anything at all.

Marlowe is being directly insulted here, but is cool and collected enough to take no offense, let the man keep talking, and say nothing at all. A key feature of the hard-boiled hero is self-control and a certain superiority to emotion-driven idiots. He controls his emotions. Until the man is done talking, that is.  At the end of the conversation, this guy who has been flaunting his wealth and calling Marlowe a nobody left his valuable cigarette case behind. Marlowe moves to return it, and then:

“I got a half dozen of them,” [the rich asshole] sneered.

When I was near enough to him I held it out. His hand reached for it casually. “How about half a dozen of these?” I asked him and hit him as hard as I could in the middle of his belly.

A lot happened here. Saying nothing, taking it with equanimity at first. After the exchange has taken place, being taken over the edge by a final snide comment. Then, Marlowe accomplishes two things: flooring a man who has been shitting all over him and inserting a wonderful piece of BT as he does it, “How about a half a dozen of these?” Someone has been served here, and it ain’t Marlowe.

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I don’t always smoke, but when I do, it’s after watching a Humphrey Bogart movie.

Chandler has been called a hack by some and a thief by others (he has a lot in common with earlier crime writer Dashiell Hammett). Those calling him a hack are hacks themselves, and those calling him a thief should realize that he did not steal a style, he polished and perfected it. He gave to American crime fiction a literary element it didn’t quite have before. His densely-packed, evocative prose created a legion of admirers, from Paul Auster to Joyce Carol Oates. Again, he almost single-handedly invented an entire style of dialogue.

The overarching plot of the book is a little crazy. Marlowe happens to meet a drunk at a club and finds out he has a beautiful wife. About ten pages later, the beautiful wife is dead and the drunk is at Marlowe’s house with a gun asking for a ride to Mexico. The drunk is a bit nervous, so Marlowe pours him a big shot of Old Grand-Dad (which I have been drinking steadily while writing this article). He takes him out of the country, returns, and spends the rest of the book navigating a world of shit as he attempts to find out what happened. By the denouement, there are so many twists and turns and moving parts that the whole thing almost comes crashing down. Almost. That being said, I hit the last 200 pages of this book and could not stop, meaning that I read until five a.m. and went in to work on just under three hours of sleep. Sometimes crazy is good. In addition, the solid, vivid atmosphere put together by Chandler alongside the snappy dialogue means that if it had been a story about the night shift at Pizza Hut, I still would have read it.

American crime fiction started its life in the literary backwater of pulp fiction, and a lot like SF, has since migrated into the mainstream. Raymond Chandler’s cynical style, sparse prose, and satisfying plotting laid a lot of the groundwork for that. He considered The Long Goodbye his greatest work, and you should too. Read it right now.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Images: IMDB, Amazon, and Litreactor

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

There are two main classes of SF author: those who have broken into mainstream success, and those who have, while creating a vibrant and diverse body of work, remained largely unknown outside of the hallowed halls of SF fandom. In the first category, you have your Ursula K. Le Guins (who is actually in a category all by herself because dear God is she amazing), your Neal Stephensons, and your Robert Heinleins. In the second category, you have your Roger Zelaznys, your Vonda McIntyres, and your Poul Andersons. The work of those in the second category is not necessarily worse than those in the first. Indeed, many of the ideas explored are right on par or better than those from the first-category authors. Their work simply tends to be less geared towards wider audiences, so it does not have the wider appeal of the first-category authors.

One way to make SF appeal less to wider audiences is to construct a hard SF tale. Hard and soft SF are terms which denote an overwhelming focus on technology and innovation for the one and a focus more on the social developments and psychological effects of technology for the other. In hard SF, you’ll get an explanation of how the propulsion system of the spacecraft works, the main character will be an engineer, and the main conflict will be his struggle to repair the craft before everyone dies. In soft SF, everyone will be on the same spaceship, but it’ll just fly because that’s what spaceships do, and the narrative focus will be more on character development and social concerns. These two directions are not mutually exclusive – you can have good explanation of tech in soft SF, and you can have strong character development in hard SF – it’s just a question of focus. Tau Zero is considered a perfect example of hard SF.

First off, the name itself is a scientific term. Tau is the symbol which denotes proper time in physics. Proper time is time as measured by a moving observer, meaning that at relativistic speeds, proper time for someone in a ship is very different than proper time for someone outside the ship. Time dilation is a central concept of this book, and tau is a central measure in time dilation. According to Anderson (Wikipedia says he fudged this a bit), as tau approaches zero, the gap between experienced and objective time becomes more and more significant. This is the main conflict of the book.

A team of scientists boards the Leonora Christine, a new ship with a Bussard ramjet propulsion system. Bussard ramjets are theoretical engines that use massive magnetic fields to collect hydrogen from space as they travel interstellar distances. The faster the ship goes, the faster the hydrogen is collected. The magnetic fields and the acceleration combine to compress the hydrogen to the point where it fuses and creates a massive amount of energy, which is then directed by those magnetic fields out the back of the engine, creating thrust. This proposed propulsion system solves the problem of holding onto fuel for interstellar travel – no ship would be able to lug around all the crap it would need to burn to get from one star to another – the prohibitively high weight would render it infeasible.

Anyway, they got themselves a ramjet, and they’re using it to go on a twenty-year exploratory mission. The way the trip works is that the ship spends half of its time accelerating and half of its time decelerating, so at the midpoint it turns its engines around and reverses thrust. The astronauts are prepared for time dilation to make twenty years go by on Earth, but there’s a hitch. Right before the midpoint, the ship passes through a nebula. All that dust collides with the deceleration system and renders it nonfunctional. The astronauts cannot slow down, so they sit and try to solve the problem while everyone they have ever known dies on Earth. They decide to accelerate even more and go to an entirely new galaxy, so they kiss human civilization goodbye and ramp up their speed. The main struggle of the book is fixing the decelerator and finding a place to live now that all of human civilization has been gone for millions of years.

The character development of the book is severely lacking. It exists, and it is passable, but it was clearly not a priority. They were so paper-thin that they had less substance than the gangsters from that fake mob movie that Kevin McCallister watches in Home Alone. A grizzled war veteran holds the entire crew together as they bounce from crisis to crisis, never giving up hope because he’s just got too much damned grit. That in itself is a pretty slipshod job of character building, and he’s really the only character I remember from the book. That and the fact that I spent more than half of this article talking about spaceships and about five percent of it talking about characters should indicate the severity of this book’s character problem.

Despite all that, I enjoyed it. The overarching direction of the book is humanity boldly going where no one has gone before, which I’m a sucker for. A very simple, clear, and horrifying problem arises when their propulsion system goes on the fritz, and the hard work of a handful of dedicated individuals solves the problem in a very interesting way. It has a very interesting and clear central idea, but the surrounding elements do not quite come together. It is a novel expanded from a short story, and maybe it should have stayed a short story. Problems aside, you should give this one a shot.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Image from here.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: René Barjavel’s La nuit des temps (The Ice People)

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

French SF is relatively unknown in the United States. Discounting La planète des singes (Planet of the Apes) and Jules Verne, it has not carved out a strong presence in America. It might be that high-quality domestic product is glutting the market, as the only nation ever to put human beings anywhere other than Earth is also kind of a world leader in producing fiction about space and science. Most everyone who cares at all about books knows the names Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick. Let’s repeat that list with some big French SF authors: Jean-Marc Ligny, Xavier Mauméjean, and Pierre Bordage. If the final question at bar trivia had asked about anyone on that second list, would your team have been anywhere close to winning a free pitcher? I understand this imbalance to a certain extent. Having a strong French presence in the American SF market would make about as much sense as California merlot being the best-selling wine in Paris. The weird thing is, there’s almost no French presence in the market. Its profile is so minor that it’s the equivalent of people in Paris not knowing that California exists. It’s not because of lack of quality. La nuit des temps is among the best 1960s SF I’ve read. It’s certainly the best French SF I’ve read since Vingt-mille lieues sous les mers. Its quality derives from a combination of technical inventiveness, delightful early-SF pulpiness, and haunting social commentary.

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America: being amazing since 1776

The opening paragraph of La nuit des temps (translated literally as The Night of Time, sold in Anglophone countries as The Ice People) signals a Big Problem from the get-go:

My beloved one, my abandoned one, my lost one, I left you there at the bottom of the world, I returned to my city apartment with its familiar furniture over which I’ve so often run my hands, the hands that love them, with its books that nourished me, with its old cherry bed where my childhood slept, and where, tonight, I sought in vain to sleep. All of this decor which witnessed me grow up, grow bigger, become me, today seemed to me strange and impossible. This world which is not yours has become a false world, in which I have never had a place.

Already, on page one, the narrator is reflecting upon the loss of his beloved. The reader knows from the start that this story does not end well, and this creates a tension that builds higher the closer the ending gets. The general background of the story is that, during the Cold War, a team of French scientists discover the ruins of an ancient civilization deep under the ice of Antarctica. When carbon dating places the ruins at 900,000 years old, hundreds of thousands of years older than human civilization, it incites international interest and passion. Pretty soon, an international team of scientists and a new research station are assembled at the location. They dig, and they find a buried city filled with wonders. Unfortunately, all of these wonders melt with the ice that held their molecules in place. All except one – the contents of a special Egg. Within the Egg, there is a strange generator and two human forms, male and female, encased in solid helium, preserved in a state of suspended animation at near absolute zero. The scientists decide to revive the female first. She wakes up, and the main narrative takes off. The main storyline is twofold. The first is concerned with international reaction to scientific developments at the station, the interrogation and assistance of Eléa, and the general tensions of the modern world. The second concerns the story of Eléa’s life in her ancient world, which the reader also knows will not end happily because her civilization has been annihilated.

The inventiveness of Bajarvel is a pleasure, and the book is filled with little pieces of technology either invented by the scientists or recovered from the ruins. One of the first that he introduces is the “eating machine,” which supplies Eléa with nourishment. It is a squat dome with buttons. She presses those buttons in a certain order, and the device produces colored spheres. These spheres are perfectly-balanced nutrition, and when the scientific team dismantles the device, they cannot find any raw materials. Eléa says the food is created from universal energy, the use of which her society had mastered through Zoran’s equation (the prospect of plucking limitless energy and materials out of thin air gets everyone on Earth’s attention). Unfortunately, Eléa is not a scientist and does not know the equation.

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This is Zoran’s equation. Yea, the Antarctic scientists didn’t know either.

Another invention is the “serums” of her society, one of which increases the hardiness of the human organism, so much so that the word “fatigue” all but fell out of Eléa’s language. An experimental one that she took in order to survive the freezing process of suspended animation confers biological immortality. Biological immortality means that if you get hit by a truck, you still die, but you’ll never die from old age. Sadly, most futurists predict that, were humans biologically immortal, the average life expectancy would still be only about 200, because shit happens. Anyway, attractive tech. I love the next two examples of technology because they are so blatantly story-enabling. First off, there is a giant computer, the Translator, whose basic function is to provide translation between the many different languages of the international scientific team. Everyone wears an earbud connected to the computer, and the computer takes in whatever is said to the person, converts it to their language, and pipes it back into their ear. The blatantly story-enabling part of this machine is that they feed all the data they have on Eléa’s language into it, and after not really that long, her 900,000-year-old language is one the computer fully understands, enabling communication.

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Did someone say implausible but plot-essential translation skills?

The other piece of tech that’s more narrative trickery than a machine is a brainwave reader. This is a device that, when put on the head, transmits thoughts. Its intended use is to pair it with another such device, thus allowing two people to communicate directly by thought. The scientists modify it so that it broadcasts to a television, meaning that, instead of Eléa having to talk about her life, she just puts on the circles, and up it pops on the Jumbotron. After they recover her, communicate with her, and turn the inside of her brain into quality TV programming, the narrative switches directly to describing what happens on the screen as the scientists watch. It explores the ancient civilization, which leads to a lot of the delightful pulpiness of the book.

First off, Eléa’s country is called Gondawa. It existed on Earth during a time when there was really only it and one other country, Enisor, on the same technological level with a few weaker nations scattered here and there (sound familiar?). The majority of their country was leveled by nuclear bombardment from Enisor, so they lived in extensive and beautiful underground cities, filled with plants and animals bioengineered to subterranean life. There are factories on the lowest levels of each city, factories which use Zoran’s equation to manufacture tools, structures, and implements from nothing. A central computer calculates the GDP of the country each year, and disburses an allowance equally to each citizen, to be used to purchase clothing, transport, and housing, and whatever other luxuries they might need. Very few people spend through their entire allowance, and it disappears at the end of every year to prevent the accrual of wealth. All of the machines and services are activated by a special ring worn by all citizens after their Designation ceremony. The Designation is a rite of passage from child to adult, at which citizens receive their numerical identification (Eléa’s is 3-19-07-91), their rings, and their partners. Yup, there is no dating in Gondawa. The central computer matches personality profiles of children to each other, finds ideal pairings, and designates them. This is probably the most utopian dream of the book, as the pairings result mostly in great happiness and sometimes in ineffable joy. Even bad matches are amiable and peaceful. Eléa had one of the second kind of matches, the perfect, soul-shatteringly intense level of love. The tragedy and pain Eléa feels from the second she regains consciousness is that as far as she knows, the love of her life, Paikan, has been dead for nine thousand centuries. The modern narrative circles around her inability to recover from this, and the ancient narrative circles on the development of her relationship with Paikan. The pulpiest parts of the book come from this relationship, which is high-octane, high-emotion, crowd-pleasing idealism. It is Romeo and Juliet, except the two people involved are not separated by a misunderstanding, but by the death of a civilization. The personal tragedy of two lovers is just one casualty of worldwide destruction, which forms the basis of this novel’s social commentary.

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in ROMEO AND JULIET

Their match.com profiles were 95% compatible!

There’s the standard advanced-civilization-versus-ours dynamic at play here, in which our society seems barbaric by comparison to the society of the visitor, but little things like Eléa not understanding why nudity is such a big deal (1960s male SF writer, folks) are not the main punch of the commentary. The frightening social commentary of La nuit des temps, doubly frightening when it was published at the height of the Cold War and when the collective insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction was in vogue, centers around the fact that an ancient humanity existed on a world with two superpowers and that there is now almost no trace left of that civilization. I will not get into specifics, but the Gondawans, in an attempt to avoid another war, built “l’Arme Solaire,” the Sun Weapon, as a deterrent. The function of the Sun Weapon is to concentrate the Sun’s rays on Enisor and basically melt the entire country. It backfired, both as a deterrent and as a weapon. The civilization that gave birth to it was wiped from the face of the Earth. Terrifying stuff to read, in 1968 especially.

You should give French SF a chance. Sure, if you search “Best French SF” on Google, the entire first page of results consists of the highest quality French restaurants in San Francisco, but you can always go to the French science fiction wikipedia page to look for good stuff. It is a vibrant and inventive branch of the genre. It produced La nuit des temps, which is a great novel filled with a heart-wrenching love story, fear-inducing social commentary, and a rewarding exploration of an extremely advanced society.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Haruki Murakami has an awesome how-I-became-a-writer story. His parents expected him to snag a job with Mitsubishi and find a nice wife once he was secure. He married young and started a jazz bar, the Peter Cat. One: That is an awesome jazz bar name. Two: Something about saying “fuck stable employment, I’m going to open a jazz bar” seems like an especially risky thing to do in Japan. He continued running the bar until, at 29 years old, he saw a player hit a home run at a baseball game, and he suddenly knew he could write a novel. A lot of people say “I can write a novel!” to themselves. Not a lot then immediately go home and write an award-winning one, which is what Murakami did. At 65, he is one of the foremost practitioners of the post-modern novel of the weird. He usually builds the reality of his book out of the materials at hand, i.e the real world, but then takes those parts and subtly bends them until the world he bases on this one becomes haunting, unsettling, and strange. The proximity of the completely normal, unassuming world with the depths and strangenesses Murakami weaves through it creates a tension that is central to most of his work. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, that dynamic is in full play, but he more explicitly includes science-fiction and fantasy in the mix.

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I desperately want to travel back in time to the Peter Cat Jazz Bar.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World comprises two interwoven narratives, one science-fiction and one fantasy, that play out in alternating chapters. In the SF world, a data encryption specialist gets in way over his head. In the fantasy world, a newcomer with no memory of his self gives up his shadow in order to enter a strange town. The weaving itself is impressive – one of the signature Murakami pieces of weirdness is that these narratives are connected in a strange and unknown way that is very hazy at the beginning of the book. What is extraordinary is how perfectly Murakami hits the tone of each genre in the alternating chapters. In the SF chapters, Murakami creates a gritty, slightly grim world of loneliness and serious men doing serious things reminiscent of cyberpunk, and in the fantasy chapters, he perfectly captures the importance of place and the sense of timelessness that permeate a lot of the genre.

In the SF chapters (Hard-Boiled Wonderland), the narrative follows a man as he gets more and more involved in a dangerous conspiracy that he does not understand. The main science-fictional element of this world is that the main character is a Calcutec, an individual who has undergone brain surgery and training to transform his subconscious into a data-shuffling device. He takes a series of numbers, puts a pencil in his hand, goes into a trance, and then when he wakes up, he has run the data through his subconscious and shuffled it into a new, nearly-uncrackable code. Something about the uniqueness of each person’s consciousness and the chaos of the human mind make this the most secure form of data encryption – without the key, there is almost no way to decrypt the information. This is important, as the System, the giant data-protection agency which fields Calcutecs, is battling the Factory, an underground organization composed of Semiotecs whose main motivation is finding, decrypting, and selling top-secret information. The protagonist is hired by a mad scientist to protect his cutting-edge research. He does his normal thing, encrypts the data, but then people who desperately want that data make his life difficult. The main conflict in the Hard-Boiled chapters comes from the protagonist’s desire to stay safe and discover what is going on and why people are chasing him.

In the fantasy chapters, the narrative follows a newcomer around a mysterious town as he tries to figure out what is going on and reunite with his shadow. There are many magical elements to The End of the World, such as the protagonist having to give up his shadow, which becomes a separate, autonomous entity. There are unicorns that wander around the town during the day and are sent out the West gate at night. The central magic of these chapters, however, is dreamreading. The protagonist is assigned a job, as all inhabitants of the town are assigned a job. His is dreamreading, which consists of going to the library at night, going into the stacks, which contain shelves of unicorn skulls, taking them down, tracing the glowing lines on each skull with his fingers, and attempting to read the thoughts and dreams contained within. The point and method of this process is just as mysterious and unknown as the data encryption in the SF world, and each protagonist is just as confused and lost as the other. In addition to the magical aspect, another trait that makes these chapters a strong example of fantasy is Murakami’s attention to maps and places.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It ain’t fantasy without a map.

The Town itself is a major character of the fantasy chapters, and one of the major differences between the two narratives is how much more important not just what is happening but where it’s happening is important to this one. The Town is a community which stands at the End of the World. It is surrounded by a gigantic, perfect wall, with only one exit: the West Gate, which is tended by the Gatekeeper. These locations are primal: There is only the Library, the Woods, the Pool, the Barracks, et cetera. Each location is just the capital-letter archetype of what it represents, and there are no clear place names. This adds to the haziness and nonspecificity of these chapters. All of the characters here are named for their occupation: the Librarian, the Colonel, and the Dreamreader, in addition to the Gatekeeper. A mildly sinister tone is set in the first chapter when the protagonist has to give up his shadow, and when the Gatekeeper starts seeming more like a warden than a keeper. The main conflict in The End of the World chapters comes from the main character’s desire to find out what the secret of the Town is and to reunite with his shadow.

The greatest success of this book is the flawless interweaving of each separate narrative into a cohesive, if jagged, whole, and Murakami’s masterful switching between tones and styles each chapter. To give an example of the perfect and nuanced difference in style, following are two excerpts from the book.

First paragraph of first SF chapter:

The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was not telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know? 

First paragraph of first fantasy chapter:

With the approach of autumn, a layer of long golden fur grows over their bodies. Golden in the purest sense of the word, with not the least intrusion of another hue. Theirs is a gold that comes into this world as gold and exists in this world as gold. Poised between all heaven and earth, they stand steeped in gold.

In the SF opening, the focus is on the thoughts of the narrator as he interacts with a piece of technology – an elevator. Rational, analytical thought dissecting all possibilities of movement and speed for the elevator he is riding to his job. In the fantasy opening, the focus is on rich, mythical description. The narrator describes the autumn coats of the unicorns, and they are not just gold and pretty; their coat color is a Platonic form of gold, “poised between all heaven and earth.” The focus is not so much on the analysis of the mundane as it is on the observation and experience of the mythical. This slight but powerful stylistic difference reverberates throughout each narrative, keeping them distinct even as the reader discovers how they are connected.

The main pleasure of this book comes from the dense accumulation of small, vivid details. The SF narrator spends a lot of time drinking whiskey, listening to jazz, and reading books. The fantasy narrator spends a lot of time going on long walks within the town walls. These sound boring, but Murakami’s descriptive power makes it pleasurable to read about the SF narrator eating a sandwich or the fantasy narrator walking to the Library looking at the sky. That is, Murakami’s talent makes his book interesting in parts that a lesser author would make unforgivably boring. Another strong point of this novel is its deep meditation on the nature of self. As the narratives cycle more and more tightly around each other, the major thematic focus of the novel shifts to questioning who each narrator actually is, what the significance of self is, and what identity means. The SF narrator becomes more and more preoccupied with who he is and what motivates him:

Once, when I was younger, I thought I could be someone else. I’d move to Casablanca, open a bar, and I’d meet Ingrid Bergman. Or more realistically – whether actually more realistic or not – I’d tune in on a better life, something more suited to my true self. Toward that end, I had to undergo training. I read The Greening of America, and I saw Easy Rider three times. But like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.

Everyone deals with constructing their own identity, trying to modify themselves either by strengthening their identity or trying to get away from it, and Murakami profoundly captures the futility and beauty of the struggle with that amazing line, “I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.” In addition to these discrete thoughts on self and identity, the narratives begin spiraling around each other in a way that structurally supports meditations on what existence is – I can’t really get into that part of it without hitting spoilers.

If you’ve been hearing buzz about Murakami for years but have not yet read anything of his, this is the place to start. It is not as long and sprawling as 1Q84, is more plot-driven than The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and is a great book all on its own. The creation and sustainment of two distinct but intertwined worlds, the depth of detail he creates in each narrative, and the shattering profundity of the final reflection on what selfhood means all mark this as a book well worth your time.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Images: Map from here and Jazz Bar from here.

Should I Read This: The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry Winner 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri

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Austin Duck

As the committees announced the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry this month, we find ourselves once again in that season where, all of a sudden, people read a book of poems. Sure, it’s only one (and usually not the best one of the year), but hey one figures, all these poor suckers are writing these books that maybe five hundred people ever read, and if this one has made it atop this year’s pile of dreams (a la the scene in World War Z) we might as well. Maybe we’ll feel something.

If you’re feeling this way, 3 Sections might not be for you. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read it—really, it’s astonishing—but, in 3 Sections, Seshadri grapples not with the known, reducing the world to something we can see or hear or think; there are no easy answers or feelings of beauty or satisfaction in these poems. Yes, they’re beautiful, yes, they’re satisfying, but, in some ways, his subject matter is so foreign, so simultaneously abstract and concrete that even when you make it through a poem, or the book, or the book twice, it seems to have been a dream, a dream you didn’t understand, a dream that gestures and satisfies at the very idea that, if you understood something, you’ve dominated, destroyed, and reconstructed it in your own image; that astonishment and beauty and meaning in the world luxuriate all around us inaccessible, and that that is the pleasure, to see and fail to assimilate it, to feel the meaning slip always through your fingers. Like I said, not, conceptually, a very simple book, nor a book in which the author has much chance of succeeding.

I mean, it doesn’t take a philosopher to see the logical problem of making a book in which poem after poem (each, in and of itself, a meaning machine) concludes unable to make meaning, or makes meaning of not being able to make meaning, not being able to know, always just outside of the world taking place before the mind. Add to that the collection itself, 3 Sections, is not actually delineated into three sections and you wind up less with what you might consider classically as a book of poems (title, body, meaning / title, body, meaning), or a logical piece of work, precisely because both logic and “classical definitions” are ways of understanding the world by categorization and rules, both of which assume that we truly know the world. Rather Seshadri crafts a story about failed attempts, of trying and failing to break into what we think of as the “sensible” world in which we know how to make meaning, precisely because we allow our minds to to categorize and sort things we don’t understand.

What we get instead is a book unable to separate itself out, or, in case some of you think about books as put together by an external author, unable to be separated. While it parses like this—a bunch of short poems, then a long prose piece about commercial salmon fishing, and then a really long philosophical poem—and while each of the pieces does have its own title, its own thud of meaning, we have a singular mind working its way through a singular problem so that the “sections” seem formal rather than thematic, new approaches to the same problem, new strategies that land in different, though (in many ways) equivalent valences of failure of access to the world.

I know that I’ve talked about this book very abstractly, and for that, I apologize. Here’s an alternative way to consider this book and its project: Imagine you’re looking at a very beautiful woman (or man) by whom, inexplicably, you’re filled with an enormous amount of feeling and affection. At this point, if you’re in any way conscious of what it means to fantasize about someone, you acknowledge that there are two paths you can take: 1) you can project your dream of them, all of your ideas and fantasies about who they are and what their life means onto them, or 2) you can accept the frustrating, terrifying reality that they are only, exclusively themselves, and that, no matter what happens, or how much you pay attention, all you will ever come to is that what they are, what they think and feel and what makes them beautiful is entirely inaccessible to you, and that that singularity, that inaccessibility, that inability to ever know something well enough to separate out its parts and to theorize it, is exactly what makes it beautiful and astonishing and worth looking at and trying towards again and again.

In many ways, this is a book of prayers, a book of trances, a book in which, ultimately, things can only be seen exactly and perfectly and separately as they are. It’s not a pleasant book because the mind in the world is not pleasant; the mind wants to steal from the world, to make comfort and simple beauty, and to ask god what’s the meaning of life and to get a satisfactory, comprehensible answer, and the world and god refuse. Seshadri’s 3 Sections is a story of how to live in that refusal.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

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Read This or Kill Yourself: Maud Casey’s The Man Who Walked Away

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Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

It’s not often that I finish a book, especially one I really liked, where I have nothing to say. I tend to be able to situate it somewhere in my mind, somewhere among the various books of various types that I’ve sat down with, be it cultures or subcultures of literature, genre fiction, mass-market texts, or theory. Typically, I’m able to find some angle to enter with. But this book, Maud Casey’s The Man Who Walked Away, is not exactly typical. Let me explain.

Set in 19th century France during the dawn of psychiatry, this novel tells the story of Albert, a man who, again and again, wakes to find himself walking across Europe (from Paris to Constantinople and everywhere in between), pathologically walking, blacking out, masturbating, and walking some more, until one day, he walks himself back to his hometown and is placed in an asylum and under the care of the Doctor. But this isn’t exactly the story. The novel also tells the story of the Doctor, a man who’s unsatisfied with the current psychiatric suggestion that mental illness is neurological, who, in his own trauma, sees something in the newly arrived Albert and begins, in equal parts professional care-giving and obsession, to help Albert uncover if not the story of his illness, the source of it, the “invisible lesion” that set him walking in the first place.

Though that’s not exactly right either. The novel also sets out to tell the story of telling stories from pieces, of how to make coherence (and even something larger, art) arise from one man’s story with an unremembered plot, another man’s obsession whose motivations are similarly psychologically inaccessible, and from the voices of a handful of other patients at the asylum, each with their own invisible lesions, their own traumas that fail to cohere, become too large for them to bear, and which Casey consciously avoids fleshing out. In other words, this is not a psychological mystery during which we, with the help of the Doctor, piece back together anyone’s broken story as a way of healing, of getting over things. Instead, we get the pieces, the voices, the gaps in story and sense, and the story of using those gaps to create, in Casey’s words, “astonishment,” but that of a very particular, almost Stein-ien kind.

I really can’t help but recall the beginning of the “Objects” section in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons:

A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

Reading Stein, to me, produces the same kind of astonishment as The Man Who Walked Away. While not nearly so experimental in her prose style (of which we’re all, I think, eternally grateful), Casey’s mode—of alternating chapters centering around Albert and the Doctor, of italicized refrains of “Listen” and “He returns”, of different pieces of a fable in which a boy grows up with one arm a bird-wing—creates a calculated confusion that, combined with her sure-footed writing style, comes across as ethereal, otherworldly, as if the novel were written with a different set of rules in which story doesn’t matter (though I assure you that there’s a classical plot guiding everything), information is everywhere, and psychological access to anyone is next to impossible. We get the characters’ problems, their stories, but never their pathologies; pathology, in a way, becomes synonymous with astonishment and is always just out of reach, just beyond sense, but which, for us as readers trained to psychologize as a part of reading and for the patients and doctors desperate to cure and be cured, hangs just outside what’s written, demanding to be discovered.

In many ways, the novel works as similar to one of the text’s recurring tropes: the vase. In various places the asylum is referred to as a vase, the body a vase, the mind making sense of experience a vase. For Casey, the idea of a vase, fundamentally, is not a place to display dead flowers but a container that makes sense of difference, that creates and maintains a kind of homeostasis by gathering and displaying together everything it’s gathered. This becomes synonymous with well-being; not the discarding of dead flowers or the fertilizing of the water but the simple fact of everything being held together, everything able to be acknowledged, to fit in a single container. Disturbance (which only receives positive or negative value when the experiencer acknowledges or fails to grasp his/her “vase”), then, is a vase overflowing, a too-much-ness in which one is unable to account for every piece inside the container; instead, there’s an excess/access problem in which something overwhelming is just a bit out of reach, whether it be coherence, a moment forgotten, an unknown cause; something known but not quite grasped which, nevertheless, acts and causes action. To put it another way, Casey’s astonishment is created by being comfortably contained while experiencing an excess while the text’s illness/pathology is created by lacking a sense of containment while still being overwhelmed by the surety that there’s even more one can’t see.

So when I say that this is an astonishing novel, please do not misunderstand me as using a praise-y abstraction to avoid getting to the meat of the text. This is a book that, on the sentence-level, the chapter-level, and the book-level, creates a sense of coherence, of stability and story and pleasure while simultaneously disorienting, overwhelming with stories and moments and juxtapositions. While never out of control, the text is always, and assuredly so, too much, at any moment, to think or speak. This book is as simple and complex, accessible and inaccessible, as we are, and that, achievement enough, is astonishing.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image: NPR

Anne Carson’s Red Doc> – An Artwork on the Edge of Sense

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Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

Where you headed /
bit further along the road /
why

you running / oh I often do
/ are you

meeting someone / yes
/ who / a stranger / how
will

you recognize each other /
in a strange way / strange

to both of you / that

would have been a
problem / it’s no longer a
problem / no

(p. 119)

 

To call Anne Carson’s work, in general, very difficult would probably be an understatement. I mean, it’s not inaccessible nor is it written in cryptograms (though, for a very interesting interpretation of conceptual, cryptographic poetry, check this out), but it’s definitely the kind of work that, if you found yourself on an overseas flight—or stuck on a very long journey—and all you had was Red Doc>, you might be a little upset. But you shouldn’t be.

Red Doc> is a kind of follow-up to Carson’s 1998 title Autobiography of Red, a myth-in-novel-in-verse (thing) retelling Herakles’ tenth labor, to kill Geryon, from a different perspective, instead exploring Geryon’s coming of age, coming to terms with his homosexual love for his pal Herakles, and his artistry as a photographer. What may be most vital to understanding about Autobiography of Red, for my purposes anyway, is that it makes sense. It’s clearly more committed to behaving like a novel-in-verse, a transmission of plot with moments of elevation. It’s coming of age, at times moving, and well reviewed by The New York Times Book Review. Red Doc>, on the other hand, is not. In fact, why don’t you take a minute to peruse other reviews of this book. Seriously. I’ll wait.

Whether you chose to or not, what you’ll find is that, largely, no one knows what to do with it. Daisy Fried of The New York Times praises Carson, recommends you read it, and goes on to call it a failed novel but that it “succeeds at linguistic confrontation” (whatever that means) while The Guardian goes a bit further, kind of paraphrasing the plot (because yes, there is a kind of plot) before ruminating over the title itself. Both agree that the heart of the work (because both reviewers believe poetry has such a thing) lies in Geryon (here G)’s final conversations with his mother at the end.

For the time being, though, I’d like to avoid talking about the ending, the place where we see a somewhat traditional rumination on time, mortality, mothers and sons, etc. because there are approximately 150 pages that deal with all sorts of other, in my mind more vital (and certainly more useful), thoughts, ideas, and tropes. Buckle up; this will be as silly as it is pretentious.

Let me get the kind-of plot out of the way. The book opens on G, middle-aged, having trouble coping with age, the loss of his looks, his friends, while still (sort of) tending a herd of musk oxen. He meets back up with Herakles, here Sad But Great (Sad for short) who’s deeply troubled with post-war PTSD, and they go on a kind of picaresque road-trip with the artist Ida to a glacial lake (which features a glacial rift leading toward a cavern filled with “ice bats” who live in—I kid you not—Batcatraz), and then to an autoshop / clinic, presumably for people with mental health issues. There are volcanic eruptions and riots and eventually G returns to his mother.

The plot, though, comes across as kind of meaningless. And maybe it is. Even Carson, talking through one of the characters in the book (I tried hard to find it; I really did), claims that plot is a house and poetry is the man on fire running through it. So why have it at all? Why waste time jerking us around, forcing us to re-orient ourselves again and again in different, less and less comprehensible situations, obscuring real understanding of G or Sad of Ida or 4NO, each characters who—whether haunted by the past or the rapidly coming future (4NO is a prophet of five seconds into the future)—are unable to access the present moment. Why not just write a book of poems thematically structured so that we may comfortably interrogate the man on fire?

I think that, for two reasons, the answer lies in the poem/section I provided in the epigraph. First (and probably most obvious) is that this book isn’t an interrogation of a single character; it works as dialectic (a conversation between at least two parties). Many of the poems are structured as conversations, and, section to section, character to character, what we are left with is this. Try as we might, there is no patterned similarity or concern linking these various players. They’re just, fundamentally, different. But wait Austin, I’m sure you’re thinking (because I’m thinking it too), what about the fact that none of the mains can access the present moment? That each is driven, in some way or another, by some subconscious concern, be it the past or the future? Isn’t that a pattern?

Yes. Yes it is. Sort of. However, to simply link these characters together—one obsessed with his aging body, his sexuality, his herd, another whose mind is ravaged by way, another who’s only access to the present is only seeing five seconds into the future—under such an abstract pattern is incredibly reductive. It seems that, were we being asked to drop the specifics of each concern, to generalize and lump together each character to fit our idea of coherence, what’s lost is profoundly strange and profoundly real. Yes, I do think that the pattern of similarity is important—it is, after all, what makes us culturally (maybe even ontologically) recognizable to one another, empathizable with one another—but I think that, with the jumps in plot considered against the organization of the book (which poems/sections come after each other), we’ll see a kind of freedom, an intentional strangeness that’s pointing toward itself.

Which brings me to the second reason I chose the epigraph that I did: the lines “how will you recognize each other / in a strange way.” What we’re being pointed toward, even with the goddamned > in the book’s title, is not simply Anne Carson’s I’m a super badass hijinks. Instead, it’s a statement of strange recognition, a new kind of identification that occurs beyond what we, as a culture of people, are conscious of. I’d bet dollars to donuts (because I love donuts) that the majority of you look at the title and think that looks like a file I’d save on my computer, and it is! That’s the whole story of how Carson titled the book. But beyond that, it’s a piece of information that communicates similarity and similar understandings to us despite the fact that, linguistically/grammatically/philosophically, it is meaningless and just plain strange. The surrealist picaresque plot of the book, then, the organization, the characters’ relationships with one another, the fact that this is sort of a novel, doesn’t exist to create what most of us would classically think of as coherence. After all, we all know what a novel does: It uses plot to move a theme toward resolution with characters either furthering or impeding that progress. And a poem: It’s a pattern of language that makes the incoherent cohere. Here, we have those things, but also we don’t. As much as there seems to be a plot, seems to be patterns coalescing toward an identifiable meaning, there isn’t. What we come to instead is a profound strangeness and a profound identification alike (with characters and poems and forms and genres), an experience of the unheimlich, the uncanny, a thing both twisted and recognizable, home and not. We see the human, the mythic, the literary, the poetic, the cultural, and, at the same time, we see none of it, just strangeness, some unidentifiable piece of work existing completely on its own and in a vacuum.

When I made the statement in the title that Red Doc> exists on the edge of sense, I meant that sincerely and even as a kind of celebration. This is not a conceptual poetry that can’t be read, but, at the same time, it certainly isn’t the kind of poetry or novel that you’re likely used to reading. It’s an artwork of the mind and its reality, of the dissimilarity that each of us knows to be true about ourselves and, ultimately, what it means to connect with another, to be alongside them in life, on a journey, in time when this is the case. To never escape our shit while moving forward through time. To be with another and to know nothing of them, to see their cruelty and damage and violence and insanity and their capacity to care, to feel, to empathize and identify. To “be / suspended in the lives of/ others and still not.” This is a book about being.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: Telegraph