Friday, 27 May 2011

Ian Watson, The Embedding (1973)

[Some more Watsoniana, along the lines of this and this.]

Watson’s first novel was lavishly praised. The Gollancz yellowback reissue I read carried not only Martin Amis’s gush, which you can see on the front there (“enthralling ... It gave one the sense of being led very near to the brink of profundity, even revelation”) but also The Spectator (“the most spectacular thing in science fiction since the astounding Solaris”), Telegraph (“ambitious and compelling”) and Times (“brilliantly attempts to communicate a precarious truth about what we think is actuality. The effect is quite hallucinatory”). Does it merit such praise? Is there anything for me to do except echo it?

Chris Sole is a UK scientist involved in a rather heartless experiment. Three groups of Third World orphans have been isolated in three basement environments, each group being raised on a different artificial language, with a view to investigating the extent to which different logics of linguistic communication and self-realisation map the capacity of human thought. Meanwhile, Chris’s wife’s ex-boyfriend, the anthropologist Pierre, is embedded with a remote and primitive Amazonian tribe. These people have a complex, incestuous society and a fantastically complicated language, unlike any other, which Pierre slowly learns. Then we learn that aliens are approaching the planet; and the US recruits Chris (on account of his linguistic expertise) in an advisory capacity. The novel is artfully dispersed between these three storylines.

So what is ‘embedding’? A linguistic term, is what it is. This is how Chris explains it to the American, Zwingler:
‘Self-embedding is a special use of what we call “recursive rules”—these are rules for doing the same thing more than once when you form a sentence, so that you can make your sentence any shape or size you loike. Animals have to rely on a fixed set of signals for communication purposes—or else on varying the strength of the same signal. But we humans aren’t limited like that. Every sentence we construct is a fresh creation. That’s because of this recursive feature. “The dog and the cat and the bear ate.” “They ate the bread and cheese and fruit, lustily and greedily.” You never heard these particular sentences before—they’re new—but you have no trouble understanding them. That’s because we’ve got this flexible, creative programme for language in our minds. [46-7]
With me so far? OK: the point is that ‘self-embedding pushes the human mind pretty near its limits’. Chris gives an example, starting with ‘a nursery rhyme ... a beautiful, recursive series, dead easy to follow.’
This is the farmer sowing his corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn,
That wakened the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog
That chased the cat
That worried the rat
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
Chris goes on: ‘Any four-year-old can follow that nursery rhyme. It’s another story when you embed the same phrases. “This is the malt that the rat that the cat that the dog worried killed ate”. How about that? Grammatically correct—but you can hardly understand it.’ [49] Chris is in charge of one of the three groups of experimental children, and has taught them from birth precisely this complicated, involuted ‘self-embedded’ language; their brains having been facilitated by a ‘protein synthesis facilitator’. The Amazonian Indians speak a more recognisable speech most of the time, but speak an embedded language in sacred rituals after ingesting a special drug native to the region.

Now, a little googling reveals that Watson, not (after all) a professional linguist, had misunderstood 'embedding'. Read 'Tense, said the Tensor's' fascinating post on the novel, for instance:
Watson has conflated two related phenomena: self-embedding and center-embedding. It's center-embedding that produces impossible-to-process sentences, while sentences with multiple self-embeddings can be perfectly comprehensible. Take for example the nursery rhyme about Jack's house mentioned above, or my favorite example, "There's a flea on the wing on the fly on the bump on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea," which contains deeply nested prepositional phrases but still makes sense. More importantly, though, I think Watson also didn't have a clear understanding of the role that the center-embedding phenomenon played in syntactic theory in the late 60's and early 70's, particularly in the theories of Chomsky (the only linguist he mentions by name), leading him to ascribe such structures an importance in Universal Grammar they didn't have. Such embeddings have been mentioned (although not called "center-embeddings") in connection with processing as early as the claim by Chomsky and Miller (1963) that "the English sentence (the rat (the cat (the dog chased) killed) ate the malt) is surely confusing and improbable but it is perfectly grammatical and has a clear and unambiguous meaning." (p. 286) Notice the distinction being made: center-embeddings are claimed to be grammatical but hard to process in some way. If they are grammatical in a particular human language, they must surely also conform to any proposed Universal Grammar. Chomsky (1965) expands on this point when he makes a distinction between the acceptability and grammaticalness of sentences like "the man who the boy who the students recognized pointed out is a friend of mine". He writes: "the notion of "acceptable" is not to be confused with "grammatical." Acceptability is a concept that belongs to the study of performance, whereas grammaticalness belongs to the study of competence." In Chomsky's conception, ascribing the difficulty of such sentences to performance means that they do not violate any principle of the language-user's implicit knowledge of language (competence, in his terminology), but only that they somehow exceed the user's capacity to apply that knowledge in actual sentence processing. Again, this means that center-embedded sentences aren't violations of Universal Grammar, only that they overflow a buffer or something.
But I don’t think this is entirely fair. Despite gestures in the linguistic direction, The Embedding is trying for something larger. What Watson’s novel does, I think, is manage (with some aplomb) to articulate at the levels of both content and form, an aesthetic insight crucial to science fiction and fantasy. I say crucial: in fact it is very often overlooked, or misunderstood.

There are various names for the quality, or glory, of SFF that its fans prize so highly, and which is so rarely supplied by other sorts of literature: sense of wonder is one; the ‘Sublime’ another; ‘Enchantment’ a third; ‘Transport’ a fourth. From the mind-blowing aspect of the genre to the intellectual thrill that sets the little hairs on the neck-nape shivering, it's the awe and shock, the magic. This is a transcendental quality. But here’s the thing: we embody this ‘vertical’ glory in a ‘horizontal’ mode—I’m using, as you’ll recognise, Roman Jakobson’s distinction here. Here I'm going to quote myself, from a review I wrote of Farah Mendlesohn's award-winning and highly regarded Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) in which I articulated my baseline disagreement with Farah's critical perspective (I hardly need to add that Farah is a more widely read and influential critic of genre than I am myself, a scholar who has deservedly received multiple signs of esteem from the SFF community, as against my none -- so you may wish to take this bit with a grain of salt). Farah takes a structuralist or formalist, taxonomic approach to fantasy, the rational, linear disposition of the body of SFF texts into a set of definitional categories:
Here is Mendlesohn’s summary of her thesis:
Elaborating on Attebery’s original fuzzy set of fantasy, I have constructed four (or five) fuzzy sets, each of which yet looks to that common center that is so difficult to pinpoint, where mimesis ends and the fantastic begins. Perhaps the only thing at the center is the idea of belief, that however metaphoric a text may be, the fantastical must also contain a metonymic meaning, must be of itself as much as it may be an enhancement. [272]
This seems to me 180-degrees the wrong way about. To deploy the terms metaphor and metonymy in literary-critical debate, as here, is to invoke Roman Jakobson’s influential formulation of the distinction between them—metaphor characterized, vertically as it were, by displacement, and identified as characteristically poetic; metonymy characterized, horizontally, by association or contiguity and formally narratological ... Rhetorics of Fantasy is a study based upon an understanding of Fantasy as a set of continuous prose narratives. Mendlesohn’s net, though thrown fairly wide, was not cast wide enough to snare (say) the Odyssey, the Faerie Queene, Goblin Market or W B Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’. Yet the epiphany (‘enchantment’) she is interested in identifying is surely, to use Jakobson’s terms, strictly a poetic one—an antisystemic and transcendent quality (‘so difficult to pinpoint’) valued by readers precisely for its ability to transport them away from the mundane. In other words, her book is precisely not arguing that ‘the metaphoric fantastical must also contain a metonymic meaning.’ It is on the contrary interested in certain prose narratives—metonymic fantasies that extrapolate associatively from the mundane world—that also crystalize metaphoric moments of intensity and displacement.
We tend to read novels and stories (genre or otherwise), and we watch films and TV shows (genre and otherwise), and almost always we follow a sequential narrative in which one thing happens after another, A to B to C. Characters ‘develop’ according to a linear progression; writers boast of constructing 'story arcs'. But my point is that precisely this linear progression is inimical to this sort of sense-of-wonder, epiphanic moments we genreheads value so highly. The regular, linear, horizontal structure of conventional narrative (something Structuralism is fairly good at apprehending critically, I concede) is not the genius of SFF. What we’re looking for is something that leaps out of that grid altogether.

Another way of talking about this is to think of time, not in Einsteinian terms, cool though those are, but in the sense that Frank Kermode embroiders in his superb Sense of an Ending (the more I think about this book, incidentally, the more profound and important it seems to me ... and that despite the fact that I share many of Richard Webster's reservations about it). Kermode’s emphasis is on religious narratives—the Bible, for instance—but it transfers very nicely to SF & F, modes that share theology’s fascination with transcendence (and also with incarnation and atonement, but that’s not really relevant here). Kermode distinguishes between chromos (which is time in the one-thing-after-another sense) and kairos which is a special time: the right time, a holy time, time (for instance) opened to the possibilities of the Sublime. It may be that few SFF fans are alive to the fundamental oddity of trying to generate moments of kairos out of narrative, character and (indeed) conceptual structures shaped by chronos. But, by George, there are fans who get very cross indeed if their chronos-expectations of ‘story’ or ‘character’ are violated, as I can personally vouch.

But this is what The Embedding is about. Watson folds his three stories, one inside the other: we’re compelled to hold them—the children learning new languages in a psychologically violent experiment, the hitherto-undiscovered Amazonian indigenes strangely untroubled by the news that a huge lake will imminently flood their forest, the peculiar trading aliens interested not in technology but in modes of structuring experience, like language, buying actual brains from the alien species they encounter—simultaneously in our minds, or nearly so. This is the profundity, or ‘even revelation, to the brink of which Martin Amis was brought by this novel. Here’s Pierre’s journal, from his encounter with the Xemahoa:
Our own Western talk of time is all wrong. All out of shape. We have no direct experience of time. No direct perception of it. But for the Xemahoa mind time exists as a direct experience. And time shifts according to the infinitely-variable resistance of the proposition. Time can be conceived directly, in terms of the things around them in the jungle. The tail feathers of the macaw. The wing feathers of the kai-kai. It is while wearing such feathers that they dance time to the chant of the Bruxo [their holy man] (73)
Pierre is amazed at the ‘way in which the object of their attention modulates the bird-feather time scale, functioning like a mental rheostat, generating a variable resistance’; and he comes to understand that it depends entirely upon their language. They have two: Xemahoa A and B, the latter an ‘embedded speech’ that ‘keeps the soul of the tribe, their myths, secret’, but ‘also permits the Xemahoa to participate in their myth life as a direct experience during the dance chant.’
The daily vernacular (Xemahoa A) passes through an extremely sophisticated recoding process, which breaks down the linear features of normal language and returns the Xemahoa people to the space-time unity which we other human beings have blinded ourselves to. For our languages all set a barrier—a great filter—between Reality and our Idea of Reality. [103]
If I’ve a criticism of the novel it is that it errs a little too much on the side of consecutive narrative. We’re given linear teasers, tension and mystery (will the Xemahoa survive the flooding of their basin? What’s happening with the children in Sole’s experiment? They appear to be going mad? What is the nature of the aliens?) which, whilst satisfying, are ultimately irrelevant. The way the novel gestures towards a Christianised allegorical game-playing (those names! Chris(t) Sole/Soul—Pierre/St Peter—rock of the church) is a little facile. And there is a sense, perhaps, that these ideas, deftly handled in the bulk of the book, about in effect the superposition of chronos and kairos, collapses somewhat at the end. One of the experimental subjects, a boy called Vidya, reveals a quasi-telepathic talent for ‘empathetic projection’, and forces his ‘embedded’ perspective of the world into Chris’s mind. With the slight tang of anticlimax, this is rendered in terms of ‘madness’, inflected—the book was published in 1973, after all—via the idiom of the fag-end of sixties druggy psychedelica:
Beyond, a barren plateau stretched out into infinite distance, unable to terminate itself with any solid boundary. Panic mounted in him as he searched for the boundaries that ought to be there, but where not. The most he could located was a circular zone of confused light, very far away. Or was it very far away? Or very near? ... From this unbounded, menacing plateau sprung at intervals stiff towering giants, balanced upon great solitary legs, waving their hundreds of arms and thousands of fingers slackly overhead. [247]
It’s a brave go, perhaps inevitably a little trivialised by the more profound ideas handled earlier in the book. In place of metaphysical insight we get an LSD-y synaesthesia: ‘he wore the sky close as a hat. He knew the moil and coil of wisp clouds barely visible in the blue, intimately. His tongue tasted one by one the brick teeth in that closed red mouth of a house that would swallow him.’ Groovy.

But one of the cool things about this novel is the way it knows its larger project—the embedding of the transcendent in the linear quotidia of more-or-less conventional narratives and recognisable characters—is doomed; but has a go anyway. A splendid novel that deserves to be much more widely known than it is.


Ian said...

Great book --as was Miracle Visitors, which you reviewed sometime back. 'The Embedding' came bacvk to my mind whern I read tis recent bews story about Amazonian Indians who have no sense of absolute time.
Are you getting round to 'The Jonah Kit' any time soon, and 'Alien Embassy'?

Adam Roberts said...

Interesting link.

Just done Gardens of Delight. Next up: one of his Warhammer 40,000 novels (the first of that particular sub-genre I've read; so it should be interesting). And after that The Martian Inca. I read The Jonah Kit years ago, but will give it another shot.

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Sulci Collective said...

Hi there, while not a genre reader or writer, I have just read Watson's book and loved it. I agree with you that it matters not a jot if he gets his linguistic theory wrong or not, it is a work of imaginative fiction after all and a mere jumping off point to examine how 'reality' is constructed through language, as beautifully handled with the culture and myth of the Amazonian tribe.

Just a point about non-genre writing, some of us also despair at the fixed linearity of narrative that predominates to the virtual exclusion of all else. The human brain is not a linear-thinking one, given the speed and cross-simultaneity of thought, the effect of emotional colouring of thought etc etc. it is only language that plods along in linear fashion, after all grammar and syntax demand that this is so. Think of the difference between written language, which is usually reasonably formal and accurate grammatically as against the spoken word which is often full of ums and ers, sentences that go unfinished or are cut across by another speaker. Nevertheless, there are a few writers who look to subvert such narrative form even within non-genre form. Thanks for a very erudite piece on Watson's book.

Marc Nash