Sunday, 31 July 2011

Ian Watson, The Martian Inca (1977)


A Russian probe, bringing a sample of Martian soil back to Earth, crashes in Peru. Andromeda Strain-style, the local population are infected and many die; although some are transformed into as-it-were reincarnations of the ancient Inca population. Meanwhile, an American manned flight to Mars is about to land on the Red planet. But, look -- to quote Nietzsche (I think it was), 'enough of my yakkin'. Here's a review of the novel not by some random sf blogger, but by an actual science fiction novelist, indeed, a writer of a stature comparable to Watson himself.  Stanislaw Lem, no less. Wouldn't you rather read that?
As a rule I do not review SF books, for they are as a rule bad. To take notice of this kind of book seems to me justified only if it raises the culturally relevant question why in this genre bad books are written even by intelligent and scientifically or fictionally talented writers.

A promising English author, Ian Watson, has tackled in his novel The Martian Inca a classical topic, the first contact between aliens and human beings. In The Martian Inca two different story-lines run parallel: that of the first American manned landing on Mars, and that of the curious events surrounding a Soviet space probe back from Mars. Having crashed in Bolivia, it infects human beings with a Martian life-form, so that they undergo a strange psychic change. A Bolivian Indian turns into a reincarnated Inca, bent on recreating his vanished empire by leading a revolution against the new masters of Bolivia. At the same time, as the result of a similar change, two American scientists on Mars become transformed into clairvoyants; but their newly acquired talents serve for nothing, for they are killed in a Martian sandstorm.

As is only proper for SF, Watson's book provides a causal explanation for these extraordinary events. According to his imaginary hypothesis, on Mars there are micro-organisms similar to our viruses. Infected humans at first become dangerously ill, and then the very structure of their thinking processes is irreversibly changed. The metamorphosis of a scientist resembles the sea-change wrought in a primitive Indian insofar as the result in both cases is a mystical experience that opens up extra-sensory contact with the essence of all things. The viruses from Mars have no civilization of their own, because it was in no way necessary for them to enter upon this difficult path of technological progress. They do not need any science, technology or civilization, because they are intelligent in a scientifically non-terrestrial way. They are about to know the world by a process that requires no sensory organs, no language, and no tools. These supposedly very primitive viruses are therefore vastly superior to human beings. The human beings infected by them gain an uncanny insight into the drama of existence, the mystery of life, and if these shortcut insights were of no use to them, it was because they were members of a species that has lost the chance at reason. The message of this novel may be reduced to this bland statement that human civilization is a deplorable aberration, having got stuck in the dead-end of materialism and rationalism. There was, indeed, a chance of a true path even on Earth, in the Far East, where mysticism once flowered; but this chance was lost, and the path destroyed by the aggressive civilization of consumerism.

I believe this message of Ian Watson's novel to be wrong. The mystic message of the East towards life and its deeper meaning may well help this or that individual, but this oriental wisdom is totally without merit as a program for civilization. The literary form of Watson's book is modern, but its content is wrong and misleading. There never was a Holy Grail in the East, a final truth, of a revelation in the sources of passive mysticism that we have lost and now must weep over. True, this way of thinking is fashionable in modern times, so that many people, in particular among the younger generation, mistake this passing fad for the Philosopher's Stone.

The idea from which Watson starts is truly simplistic, for it implicitly assumes that in the universe there is a royal--i.e. simple, harmless, and easy-- road to reason, a way of general salvation, perfectability, and blessing, and that we ourselves have blocked this way. Such a royal road does not exist. We have only the choice between primitive vegetating and a dangerous technological progress. However, the intelligence of people on our planet is at present quite insufficient to recognize the prospective import of this watershed and to make a conscious choice. The drama of existence does not allow shortcut solutions, since there exists no single valid truth that would make happy all intelligent beings for all times. There are just hard facts and fairy-tale-like myths; even in literature, including SF, there is no other alternative. It is a pity that even highly talented, well-read, and intelligent writers of the younger generation, such as Ian Watson, fail to recognize the difference between the delusion of mysticism and what is really the case. He has erroneously yoked his considerable erudition to the wrong purpose of passing off a shallow fairy-tale for the lost redemption of our civilization. His novel tells much more about the confusion that currently holds captive even the brightest young people than about the real state of things on Earth and in the heavens, from which Mars shines down upon us as a challenge. About the genuine mysteries of the universe that we have yet to solve in the years to come, Watson's novel tells us nothing. He has wasted a good--in the sense of well-written--novel on a worthless cause. Only if Ian Watson comes to this insight himself may we expect from him a mature SF work.
So there you have it. Lem admired the way Watson wrote, but disagreed with what he took to be the Eastern mumbo-jumbo mendacity of Watson's theme. This, it seems to me, is unfair. 'Spiritualism', broadly conceived, is only one of the ways the novel's thematic manifests itself, aesthetically speaking. Indeed, I can't shift the sense that Lem has, on a basic level, misunderstood this novel. It's a text that posits the virus as a superior mode of life to multicelluar forms like us, something that goes beyond human categories like 'spirituality' or 'mysticism' altogether, I'd say.

The Inca half of the narrative is interesting; but for some reason the Mars missions held my attention more fully. The astronaut characters are well delineated, including (whatever Lem says) both 'spiritualists' and materialists; the descriptive prose is very nicely handled ('Next day was a fine Martian day: still, clear and bright, the sky a delicate pink verging on lilac at the zenith'). There's only one moment of plot-creakiness, when Watson has to get past the fact that his astronauts are, of course, sealed away from the contaminating dust in their spacesuits -- a pocket of air below the surface makes a mechanical digger chew through one spaceman's boot. But then the weird virus does its thing, and we get a lot of rather brilliant Watsonian pontificating: 'You must excuse me, but sex and thought are rather similar, that's all! Did you know, thinking's a permanent orgasm inside the head?' [162]. Silverman, one of the astronauts, has an insight into the nature of the cosmos, viz.'Mind's a hyperstructure': which is to say, 'you can only explain how electrons behave by using six-space multidimensional space. But the electrons and the atoms all still appear to exist inside one single three-dimensional world.' The hyperstructural element of consciousness renders reality in modular form:
What happens when the brain 'sees' the world? A topological model of filtered reality is produced in the n-space within, by interacting, interfering, electrochemical wavefronts. What happens when I see the forms that constrain and sustain the thought-system? The n-space within bifurcates in a shape catastrophe, like a cell dividing ... [167]
There's lots of stuff like this, that ought to have been much more boring than it actually is. Light only exists when we see it; but for the universe to exist at all it must include its own perception, or consciousness -- 'the Sun is merely a mode of light by which it sees. The Sun is its own organ of vision.' What interests me, though, is the way Watson inflects this not through Eastern mysticism so much as Western intertextuality. Halfway through Silverman has a vivid dream, and the dream he has is: another Ian Watson story. More, in a rather pleasing serendipitous symmetry, it's the place I started from when I launched into my belated Ian Watson reading in the first place.
'I had this dream last night about how I invented a time machine ... the only way I could travel forward in time was by travelling backwards, accumulating time potential on the way. This was my big discovery. Real mad professor stuff ... to jump forward twenty years required crawling backwards downhill for twenty years first of all. I could built a reversing chamber all right, which would take me backwards at a snail's pace. That is to say, at the pace of real life, but lived backwards. So here was I shut up in this metal box with a single window to look out of, no bigger than a suitcase -- When I got back to the past I was cramped and crazy! But it was the only way back then, that I could push the button and make the quantum jump through time twenty years ahead of my starting point. And that's when I woke up, damn it! [89]
I can't work out if this is (in effect) the first appearance of this story: 'The Very Slow Time Machine' first appeared in Christopher Priest's edited collection Anticipations in 1978; so perhaps it was written in story-form after this novel, or perhaps Watson already had it, kicking around. I'm interested that this novel reads the story (as it were) as being about the dialectic of claustrophobia and epiphany, in an evolutionary-advance sense. It also provides the spurious-physics explanation for how that machine works (apparently time is disposed into quanta that 'depend on the total age of the Universe. They get larger the older the Universe is'. But mostly I liked the idea that the whole of Watson's 1978 story is actually a dream that occurs within a completely different Ian Watson 1977 story.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Everything Everything, Man Alive (2010)


Not that I've listened to the entire Mercury shortlist, you understand; not yet, at any rate. But this album is far and away the best of the ones I have listened to, and indeed the best album I've heard in ages and ages. The worst you could say of it is that it's the art-rockiest sort of art-rock; but, see, that's exactly what I like: a mutant Gentle Giant/Radiohead hybrid with Tom-Tom-Club rhythms. And there's real joy here, in amongst the wholehearted sixth-form-poetry pretentiousnesses ('How do I live in the present?/I make my own density?/And Ah-Ah-Ah!'); and alongside jejune fascinations with, er, playing video games, social media and the death of Princess Di. I mean 'jejune', by the way.  I'm not confusing that word with 'juvenile'.  Now, now, wait a moment. Am I giving the impression the lyrics are bad? The lyrics are by no means bad. I say that despite the fact that, examined in the cold light of day (let's say copied out and quoted in the middle of a blog post) they might look bad.
Chasing homeless cheerleaders, through the sewers lit by burning polythene bags
Pushing flame scorched limos to the oil rig tonight, for the promenade dance
Fill your locker with an arsenal, hieroglyphic every particle, mother all about the coal and the lava and the gas that we are, lovers on the landfill, digging me up to fuel rockets and risk
Look across now honey the horizon, I can see a shuttle birth, is it a boy? Or a girl? Or a gun?
But rare exceptions aside (I quite liked the line 'your pliable head is a walking hope' from 'Leave The Engine Room' -- and, actually, to be fair: there are quite a few lyrics here that achieve an actual Dylan Thomasy buzz, even if that's only on account of stopped-clock-right-twice-a-day-ishness) .. exceptions aside, the lyrics work not so much on the level of content as form. Specifically, the entire album is a miracle of intricate, complex rhythmic play that never becomes tangled or tortuous. The way the band fit their long, spooling lines into their frantic, angular, Futureheadsy catscradle beats is a source of wonder and pleasure.

Christopher Ricks (I think it was) once wrote an essay about how cleverly Bob Dylan uses unstressed final syllables as line-endings ('William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Caroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger' and so on), something perfectly captured by the celebrated nasal dying-fall of his vocal phrasing. Well, listening to Man Alive it occurs to me that Everything Everything do something similar with the trill.

Ah, the trill. Years of sulkily assiduous piano practice taught me to hate the Mozartian grace note as a thing of sticky, fussy egregiousness; and the simple strikes of Ramones guitar playing cut through all that in a way that seemed to me, back then, enormously liberating. But now I'm older I'm starting to see the attraction in them: their lightness, deftness, their gesture towards complexity. Now it seems to me that the grace note is the principle upon which Man Alive is constructed; from the sweetly cheeky five-note synthesiser-whistle trill that ends the lines of 'Schoolin', to the lovely, mellow packing of sung syllables into small spaces -- 'the drummer goes on, the drama goes on' takes up two beats -- and an expert way of ending lines with rococo folds of syllables. Hard to illustrate that with mere quotation; but listen to 'Two for Nero', with its harpsichord theme, curling at the end in a trill, and the way that pattern is captured in the way they sing:
(I'm sure you'll make a decent) father, there’s a world war coming in
All the reasons I've been worrying
It's prog, really; the whole thing. Luckily for me I love prog. You might love it too, because it's classy prog with a proper injection of art-pop sensibilities. Plus a genuinely saving sense of humour, that hen's-teeth quality of classic prog ('who's a-gonna sit on your fa-a-ace when I'm gone? Who's a-gonna sit on your face when I'm not there?') Rich and splendid, and repaying multiple relistens. Marvellous.

PS.  Matt reminds me that I ought to have included a link to the band's own online lyric sheet.  He's right: nobody sits on anybody's face in that venue.

PPS: 'Photoshop Handsome' is simply one of my favourite songs of the 21st Century.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From The Goon Squad (2010)

A Powerpoint from the Goon Squad

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels (2009)


Not for the first time I butt my bear-ish snout up against the problem of writing a praising review. This novel is very good indeed. What else is there to say except, buy a copy, read it? You won't regret it, but you will find yourself wholly immersed in Lanagan's miraculously well-realised double-world (a medievally 'real' world and a medievally 'fairy tale' world, linked by a weird portal). The matter of the traditional fairy tale, in this case Snow White and Rose Red, is treated with all the sophistication and thickness of an unillusioned modern novel, but it is wholly to Lanagan's credit that this rather enhances than undermines the magic. 'This is a very good novel' hardly cuts it. It might, perhaps, make sense to establish a grading scale of veries out of ten; such that I could say 'this is a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very good novel'. That could certainly simplify the business of reviewing.

Why is it so very good? Partly because it's just extremely well written: very vividly realised and cleverly made; and partly because the characterisation, though simple (as befits fairy tale provenance; I don't mean 'simplistic', by the way) is genuine and authentic and engaging such that you really care what happens to the agents. Although it does not spare its players (or us) any of the horriblenesses to which mortal life, especially female mortal life, is sometimes prone, it is nevertheless a warm book: I was reminded less of Angela Carter's rather brittle, chilly modern-recastings-of-fairy-tale, and more of Sheri Tepper's wise, lovely Beauty (1991), one of my favourite books. There is wisdom here, too: not only about the way people cope with trauma by relocating themselves, to one extent or other, in an imaginative realm, but also about precisely the limitations of that sort of idealised living, about the way it starts to chafe after a while. I was particularly impressed by the way Lanagan handled her weight of textual precedence. There have been lots of fairy-tale-based modern novels, after all; and lots and lots of portal fantasies where one world leaks into another. But, as far as both antecedents are concerned, the novel deftly and cleverly parleys its influences into something far beyond mere belatedness.

So why only eight veries, and not ten? And why, perhaps more importantly, do I carry on pretending the plural of 'very' is 'veries', when we all know it to be 'verii'? I can't answer the second question, but can have a go at the first. In part the novel is a victim of its own extraordinary success: specifically, its opening stretch -- in which poor put-upon Ligia is raped first (repeatedly) by her father and then by a lairy crowd of village boys -- is so extraordinary and powerful, the reader feels a slackening when the book moves past it into its middle section. It sounds like a grim way to start a novel, no pun intended, and it is grim; but it manages to be both properly horrifying and non-exploitative without ever being offputting. Indeed, the thing that impressed me the most was the way Lanagan renders Ligia's point of view in terms of bewilderment, nausea and a low-level, oppressive sense of being trapped and having no way out. At the moment she is driven to suicide, Ligia translates (perhaps) into fairyland, and is gifted a threat-free, flawless version of her previous life in which she can raise her two daughters, the Snow White Urdda and the Rose Red Branza. The end of the novel is very well judged too: genuinely moving. It acquires its heft in part by virtue of a kind of accumulating sense of horrible inevitability about the way real life, with its danger and glamour, increasingly bleeds into the fantasy realm; and about the way Branza is herself drawn to it. But also the novel toys precisely with our expectations: will things end happily, fairy-tale fashion, or unhappily, according to the logic of the modern novel, a form over which Lanagan demonstrates such impressive command?

But, yes, there's a slight sense of sag about the central sections, well-written and absorbing though they are. I also wondered if Lanagan's versions of maleness, personified here via a fairly venal man of restricted height and two (male) bears, is a touch limited. She apprehends bearish masculinity as a cuddlesome, clumsy, inarticulate thing in one of the bears, and it is well done; and she apprehends it as something more threatening, potentially violent and sensual in the other bear, and it is even better done. But that's as far as the men go, really; the whole gender otherwise becomes a background collection of rapists and users. Although, that said, the focus of the novel isn't on the men; it is, rather, on the women; and in a sophisticated, accomplished way, I think.

One final thing: I read the novel is a 2010 Vintage paperback edition -- the one you can see at the top of this post, there, with the cod-Pieńkowski fairy tale silhouette design. I bought it because it piqued my interest in the bookshop, not for any other reason. Nevertheless, it surprises me that it is nowhere mentioned, anywhere upon the cover of this edition, that Tender Morsels won the 2009 World Fantasy Award. I wonder why not?

One final final thing: in amongst my googling I chanced upon this Clarkesworld interview between Lanagan and Jeff Vandermeercat; which is worth your time, and is especially markworthy on account of Lanagan's use of the excellent word 'boofhead'. I intend to start using that one in my day-to-day. It's a fine word.

There is no final, final, final thing.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Adam Roberts, Anticopernicus (2011)


Adam Roberts, Anticopernicus (2011). 0.86p. Available for Kindle download on Amazon.

Update: also available for download in EPUB format from Wizard Tower books (same price). While you're there, you may want to check out their other many excellent books.

I feel a bit sheepish about temporarily hijacking this blog to advertise one of my own books; but here we are -- a new venture for me, self ePublishing. This is what 'they' call a 'Dwarf Novel': four chapters, c.15,000 words, eighty-six pence, never before published, and not to be made available in any other way. I'd be very grateful if you bought a copy. No, I don't know who 'they' are.

What's it about? I'm glad you asked.
First contact: despite our cosmic littleness, the aliens have come to visit. But they have parked their interstellar craft on the outskirts of the solar system, and despite friendly interaction (their English is fluent and idiomatic) they will come no closer. So an Earth ship, the "Leibniz", crewed by the best and the brightest, begins the slow haul towards the Oort cloud, in the hopes that meeting these alien creatures will answer the most profound questions humanity can ask. Anticopernicus is not their story, though. It is instead the story of Ange Mlinko, an ordinary pilot working the Earth-Mars trade routes, largely uninterested in the arrival of alien intelligences. And because the focus is on her, it remains to be seen whether this short novel can answer the following questions: why have the aliens come? Why won't they come any closer than the furthest edges of the solar system? What does this have to do with the nature of the mysterious ‘dark energy’ pervading the cosmos? What about the celebrated Fermi Paradox? And most pressingly: could Copernicus have been wrong all along?
One final note: the splendid cover art you can see there was done by the very talented Bruce Asher. If you're looking for cover- or poster-art for any reason, I recommend him: he works quickly, to a high standard, and his rates are very reasonable.

Normal service on this blog will be resumed as soon as possible. The owl-with-his-eyes-shut in the top right of the main page, there, is ashamed of me.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)


You can read an essay I wrote on this classic and, according to some, originary SF novel over on Ian Sales' estimable SF Mistressworks site. In it, amongst other things, I give voice to my Patent Original Theory as to the true meaning of the title character's name. You may find this Patent Original Theory less convincing than I do, of course. That's possible:
What about the creator’s name, ‘Frankenstein’? It’s a common-enough Germanic moniker (the invaluable Wikipedia tells us: ‘Mary Shelley maintained that she derived the name “Frankenstein” from a dream-vision. Despite her public claims of originality, the significance of the name has been a source of speculation. … The name is associated with various places in Germany, such as Castle Frankenstein (Burg Frankenstein) in Hesse or Castle Frankenstein in Frankenstein, Palatinate.’) But I have a fanciful theory about the name; or half-fanciful, and I intend to air it here. The half that’s less fanciful is the first syllable, which seems to me very likely, in its reference to France, to encode a symbolic allusion to the French Revolution. The half that’s more fanciful would link the stone (‘-Stein’ in German) with the French for stone, –pierre, as a sort of sidestep towards Robespierre, architect of the French revolutionary Terror … like Frankenstein, a well-bred, well-educated man impatient with old forms, who wished to conquer the injustices of the world but who ended up creating only a monster of Terror. This may strike you as more tortuously implausible than it does me, not just because I tend to see in this rebus (Frankenstein = French ‘stone’ = French [robes]-pierre) an example of the way the creative subconscious works, but because there are a great many people who share my sense than the novel is in a symbolic sense ‘about’ the French revolution. Chris Baldick’s book, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford 1987) traces the many appropriations of Shelley’s monster in the culture of the century noting how very often revolution, upheaval or popular dissent was troped precisely as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’. Like the Revolution, the monster is a creature of power and uncanny novelty, brought into being with the best intentions, but abandoned by its architect and running into bloodsoaked courses of remorseless violence and terror. Which is to say: the monster emblematises Revolution because it focuses terror. Indeed, for an English liberal in the first decades of the 19th-century there were two key Revolutions in recent history: the French and the American. It may not be a coincidence that, after making his European monster, the French-Swiss Frankenstein is persuaded to make a second, on the understanding that the pair will emigrate to America. He changes his mind:
Even if they were to leave Europe and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.
That last word—terror—is crucial for the novel. The word ‘terror’ chimes like a bell through the whole text. Terror, of course, was Robespierre’s touchstone: here, for example, he is in his Discours sur les principes de morale politique (February 1794):
Si le ressort du gouvernement populaire dans la paix est la vertu, le ressort du gouvernement populaire en révolution est à la fois la vertu et la terreur : la vertu, sans laquelle la terreur est funeste ; la terreur, sans laquelle la vertu est impuissante. La terreur n’est autre chose que la justice prompte, sévère, inflexible ; elle est donc une émanation de la vertu ; elle est moins un principe particulier, qu’une conséquence du principe général de la démocratie, appliqué aux plus pressants besoins de la patrie. [If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.]
Terror is an emanation of virtue because it is the purest form of justice; and Frankenstein’s mythic heft and potency derives surely in large part from the sense that there is a cruel, implacable justice behind the monster’s violence. If people had treated him well, and seen past his hideous exterior, he would have repaid their trust. Because they treated him with violence and disgust, those are the human qualities he mirrors back.
You heard it here first.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Anthony Burgess, Black Prince (1973)


Not, of course, an actual novel by Anthony Burgess -- more's the pity, I think; for (via this 1972 Paris Review interview with him) it sounds not only fascinating, but like something fairly thoroughly worked-up, at least in a preliminary sense:
INTERVIEWER

Do you expect to write any more historical novels?


BURGESS

I’m working on a novel intended to express the feel of England in Edward III’s time, using Dos Passos’ devices. I believe there’s great scope in the historical novel, so long as it isn’t by Mary Renault or Georgette Heyer. The fourteenth century of my novel will be mainly evoked in terms of smell and visceral feelings, and it will carry an undertone of general disgust rather than hey-nonny nostalgia.


INTERVIEWER

Which of Dos Passos’ techniques will you use?


BURGESS

The novel I have in mind, and for which I’ve done a ninety-page plan, is about the Black Prince. I thought it might be amusing blatantly to steal the Camera Eye and the Newsreel devices from Dos Passos just to see how they might work, especially with the Black Death and Crécy and the Spanish campaign. The effect might be of the fourteenth century going on in another galaxy where language and literature had somehow got themselves into the twentieth century. The technique might make the historical characters look remote and rather comic—which is what I want.
I wonder what happened to this project, or that 90-page plan? Is it in some archive, somewhere? Wouldn't it be an excellent thing to complete the book, and add posthumously to Burgess's oeuvre?

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle, Higher Education (1996)


Since I myself happen to work in Higher Education I was curious as to what Sheffield and Pournelle have to say on the subject. It’s been a revelation, let me tell you. The protagonist of this preachy, authorial-thumb-in-the-balance novel is Rick Luban, 16 years old and bored by his incompetent, rubbish Earthly school. He takes the chance to go work in the asteroid belt as a miner, but first he and his fellow teens (alternately befriending, trying to get off with, gossiping and fighting amongst themselves as is the way with teens) have to go to a new kind of school. ‘Higher’, you see. Because it’s in space. Anyway, at this school they are treated without indulgence or slackness; they are not special snowflakes to be nurtured; they are there to be disciplined and to learn hard-knocks. So there’s a lot of stuff like this:
Your lack of knowledge of the Belt and the Solar System is deplorable. Learn the following by heart. Sheet after sheet of data about the planets, asteroids, rings and moons of the Solar System, endless names and numbers and lists and computer file references.

Back in school he had never been forced to learn things by heart. That was dismissed by the powers-that-be in the Earth educational system as “rote-learning”, old fashioned and restrictive and undesirable. It didn’t leave a student with what Principal Rigden always called “time for smelling the roses.” Rick didn’t recall smelling many roses. He did know he had spent a lot of time watching the tube.
Ha, that Principal Rigden! The dick. Yeah!—the real business of education is forcing kids to memorise endless lists of computer file references. That’s what I’m going to be doing with my students, just as soon as the new academic year begins.

Here’s an example of how real teaching happens: a (female) teacher called Barney French, who ‘might have been pretty but for her oddly lopsided face.’
“You stated on your general knowledge quiz that Rome was founded in the year 753A.D. Would you be interested in revising that opinion?”

There was a long silence as Deedee opened her mouth and then closed it. Finally she said, tentatively: “753 B.C.?”

“Correct. A mere difference of fifteen hundred years, but what’s that between friends? Bravo. ... Now listen all of you. You may be thinking, what the hell is all the fuss about? Barney French is nit-picking on things that don’t make a damn of difference. Well if you think that you’re wrong.” ... She walked along the line of trainees, turning so that they could get a good view of her misshapen face. “See the scars? See the bone grafts? Take a close-up. You’re seeing me after thirty-seven operations and the best plastic surgery that money can buy. My body is in worse shape than my face—I have more metal than bone in my shoulders. And I’m one of the lucky ones. Four people died in the accident that did this. And do you know what caused it?”
That's right—it was caused by somebody not knowing the correct date of the legendary foundation of Rome. (Well: ‘one lousy plus sign that should have been a minus in one small subroutine that controlled one phase of a continuous casting operation on CM-24’). In the environment of Belt Mining ‘the details matter’. Should any of my students, let's say, mistakenly conflate the Lacanian Real and French Realist fiction in an essay on nineteenth-century fiction, I shall yell at them: ‘You’ve never known real horror until you see what a pressure jet of molten steel does when it hits a human body in low-g!"

Now that’s higher education.

So, yes, clearly I need to model my pedagogy on the Full Metal Jacket drill instructor. I also (this is almost too obvious) need to ditch English Literature and start teaching something useful like Engineering or Physics. Are there any English teachers at all in Sheffield and Pournelle’s future vision of Higher Education? Why, yes, there are. As one of the main characters, Polly Quint, recalls:
“My English teacher told me—before he decided that he was more interested in getting into my pants than into my head—that cussing is the sign of an inferior intellect and an inadequate vocabulary.”
Fuck, yeah. Polly knows that sometimes real engineers need to do the Actual Swearing. That's all part-and-parcel. She also knows that unlike Engineering teachers, English professors aren’t really interested in their subject; they’re interested in boffing their students. The swine. And just in case we've missed the hammerhead thesis here, the novel ends with the Rick being addressed thuswise: 'back on earth you were being strangled by the biggest, most inefficient, best entrenched bureaucratic system in the world. You were in school, adrift within an education system that had lost any interest in the value of knowledge, or truth, or discipline, or self-evaluation. Like all monopolies it was more interested in perpetuating and protecting its own territory than in anything else. The men and women who emerge from the school system know less and less -- and then wonder why they find themselves unemployable.' Well, they won't for much longer. Not when I stick my ugly face directly in their line of sight and tell them about what a pressure jet of molten steel does when it hits a human body in low-g.

As to whether it is possible, even with the greatest literary talent, to make a 'good' novel out of this confection of right-wing ideological tendentiousness, bias, strawmannery, tedious earbending and downright banging-your-fist-on-the-edge-of-the-pulpit preaching ... well, that's a different question.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Ian Watson, Alien Embassy (1977)


On with Watson. This struck me as a lesser addition to the Watson canon (the ‘Watscanon’?). Our heroine is Lila, a young girl in an East African coastal village, living in a fairly Spartan but generally harmonious and (even) borderline Utopian post-Industrial 22nd-century. Flight to the stars is effected not by technology—20th-century impatient obsession with machines very nearly brought about global disaster—but by a mode of astral projection achieved via tantric meditation and earnest spiritual shagging of the sort associated with Sting and Trudie Styler. All this is coordinated by an organisation called BARDO, the ‘Bureau of Astronomy Research and Development Organisation’, who also guard against global overpopulation by ensuring everybody carries a contraceptive implant embedded in their arm. Lila manifests prodigious tantric talent, and is whisked away to a facility in Florida where she learns the skills of the psychic astronaut, eventually zipping out to a planet called ‘Asura’, where the natives are tree-bird hybrids. One occupational hazard of using lengthy bouts of fucking as your launch-mechanism for interstellar flight, of course, is that your female astronauts are liable to get pregnant, and this is indeed what happens to Lila (for reasons explained in the novel, astronauts don't have the contraceptive implants, you see). By this point in the story Watson's narrative has reached, in a well-written but rather leisurely and, frankly, unengaging manner, page 120 of a 300 page book. Since the story can hardly continue in this agon-free drama-less manner, We The Readers expect a twist; and a twist duly arrives ... two, in fact, Watson twice pulling the carpet from underneath to make us lurch about and go "hey!", crossly.

Watson gets the credit for writing the first female black narrator in SF (did he really? Hard to credit it!); and the postcolonial bona fides of the novel are more-or-less impeccable: from Africa to Florida to China and Nepal, white characters the minority, the old Western cultural assumptions eviscerated. But ... well, I’m almost tempted to utter a foolishness of the ‘this sort of thing was much more radical and striking in 1977 than it is today’ sort. Certainly, and thankfully, there are many more SF novels with people-of-colour narrators and global settings than used to be the case. But there’s something rather condescending and, indeed, lame about praising a novel on those sorts of terms ('sure it's feeble, but its feebleness was much less noticeable 40 years ago!'). In fact, however respectfully and attentively Watson has recreated his ‘Eastern’ spiritual idiom, there’s something rather flat and affectless about this novel. The twists, revelations of hidden secrets, chase-and-pursuit, even a scene [SPOILER] at the end when Lila, driven to distraction by the secrets she has uncovered, murders, or attempts to murder her own child—it’s all expertly rendered, sensitively written, full of skill and yet oddly unengaging. As if the principle of ‘bodhicittam notsrjet’—look it up—though suppressed by the Bardo for its own purposes in the world of the novel, has nonetheless worked its way through into Watson’s own artistic practice. Conceivably, of course, this is a good rather than a bad thing; and if I were in a wiser and more mature reader I might even welcome the purgation of dramatic tension and the elimination of climax. Maybe it’s that the tantric stuff, of which there is a lot, here, both in terms of practice and interminable discussions of the philosophy of the universe, struck me not as wise and enlightening but narrow, unhelpful and tedious. Your Yogic mileage may vary.

Are there really no prior SF titles narrated by a woman of colour? I find that rather hard to believe.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Iain M Banks, Surface Detail (2010)


I’ve fallen behind in my M. Banks reading, so I thought I might hoover up the last few, and see how he’s developing as a writer of the vasty galactic-operatic. So here’s Surface Detail, his latest Culture novel, which I enjoyed, up to a point. The novel's main premise is that with the invention both of completely immersive virtual realities and the uploading thereunto of the consciousnesses of the recently dead, some societies have taken to uploading their dead into virtual heavens and—more to the point—hells. These latter are the occasion of humanitarian outrage in some quarters; and indeed a war is being fought (virtually) between the pro- and anti-Hell camps. The anti-Hell camp is losing, and feels so strong a moral repugnance concerning these hells that it is ready to bring the war into the Real, aiming to destroy the ‘substrates’—the hard drives, in effect, upon which the virtualities are being run. The Culture is notionally neutral in this war, but it’s obvious where its sympathies lie.

The Culture is the same old high-tech polymorphously-perverse utopia of geekish wish-fulfilment familiar from the earlier novels, where the particular skill-sets, ethics, desires and wit-discourse of sf nerds turn out to be the gold standard of pangalactic multi-species civilisation. It’s still pretty winning, too, that conceit; although after a dozen revarnishings the core ideas are starting to smooth themselves in ways that are not especially helpful, dramatically and aesthetically speaking. Indeed, it's all starting to seem a little overfamiliar.

Surface Detail struck me as a novel that is lengthily intricate without being in any sense complex. It is necessarily 'about' the largest questions—life and death, punishment and atonement, cruelty and kindness—but churns through a great deal of business without ever saying anything particularly worthwhile about any of that. The Boschian hell that Banks describes has its cruel ingenuities, both practical (waterwheels powered by the blood of the flayed) and moral (an anti-Hell soul is incarnated as a demon and allowed to kill—which is to say, delete, remove from their suffering—one soul per day, out of hell’s billions; although each time she does she takes on a fraction of her victim’s pain). But that said, the hell felt underpowered imaginatively and derivative to me (compare, if it's not too random a connection, this hugely superior sfnalisation of the Boschian inferno). Of the various narrative braids, some are more absorbing than others; at 627 pages the novel is about 250-pages too long; and the GSV names struck me as feebler than in previous Culture novels I have read (Me, I’m Counting?; Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints; Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly; The Spaceship Name That Makes The Reader Go Meh. Well, not that last one, obviously).

If I had to pick one word to describe Surface Detail it would be: rapey. To be a little more exact, it isn’t wholly rapey, but it’s a bit rapey, and that’s not a good thing. A main narrative strand concerns the can-do action-heroine Lededje, enslaved and repeatedly raped by a smooth-talking villainous Steve Jobs called Veppers. At the beginning of the novel Lededje, trying to escape Veppers, is captured by his staff. As he taunts her, she breaks free and bites the end of his nose off, enraging him so much that he stabs her to death. But she is resurrected by a bit of Culture-tech handwaving, and returns—with (if you’ll forgive me) deadening literal mindedness—to wreak her revenge. Veppers' rape and murder of Lededje is the way Banks focalises his more systematic, corporate, super-wealthy Evil. Rape, you see, is wrong; and Banks underlines this point by building his Hell around it. This is what happens to a key character, Chay by name:
They took turns raping her while they discussed what to do to make her really suffer. In Hell, the seed of demons burned like acid and generally brought with it parasites, worms, gangrene and tumours, as well as the possibility of the conception of something that would eat its way out when the time came to be born. That conception could equally well take place in a male; a womb was not required and the demons were not fussy. [280]
Because, evidently, vanilla rape is not nasty enough for our purposes. There’s a narrative offhandedness to this which doesn’t sit well (“I’ll make sure they tell her it’s all your fault when they’re fucking her to death, a hundred at a time...” [446]); but there’s something more. One Culture character is called Demeisen, the avatar of the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints. Lededje needs this ship to facilitate her inevitable revenge against the bad, rapey Veppers. When she and the avatar first meet, Demeisen burns his own hand with a cigarette.
Lededje stared at [the burn], openly aghast. “Don’t worry; I don’t feel a thing.” He laughed. “The idiot inside here does though.” He tapped the side of his head, smiled again. “Poor fool won some sort of competition to replace a ship’s avatar for a hundred days or a year or something similar. No control over either body or ship whatsoever obviously, but the full experience in other respects—sensations, for example. I’m told he practically came in his pants when he learned an up-to-date warship had volunteered to accept his offer of body host.” The smile became broader, more of a grin. “Obviously not the most zealous student of ship psychology, then. ... So, I torment the poor fool. ... powerless to stop me,” Demiesen said cheerily. “He suffers his pain and learns his lesson while I, well I gain some small amusement.” [207]
Ha-ha! Ha-ha! How funny all this is (the Demiesen character is played for laughs throughout, in a dark sort of way). This scene ends with Demiesen noting that ‘fascinatingly, the fellow is quite defiantly heterosexual, with a fear of bodily violation that borders on outright homophobia’, before going off to have passive gay sex with a young man, thereby forcing that particular experience upon his passenger. In other words: rape is very terrible if done to a woman; but can be played for laughs once you’ve established that the victim is (a) a bit gullible and (b) has a notionally 'borderline homophobic' dislike of being fucked up the arse.

What does this tell us? It suggests that Banks is less interested in definitions of rape predicated upon consent. Indeed, the whole drift of this, as of other Culture novels, is that the John Stuart Mill liberalism as socially consensual (freedom means: you should be free to do anything except interfere with another's freedom) of the Culture’s official ethos just doesn’t cut it in the nasty, nasty place the galaxy truly is. Hence we need the Culture black-ops, the heroised Special Circumstances, who, having identified bad guys to their own satisfation, treat their ‘consent’ with gung-ho contempt. No, rape in this novel isn't about consent; it's about something sexually nasty happening to somebody you like. When something sexually nasty happens to somebody you don’t care about it's funny. And when you’ve established that somebody is a bad guy, then he's fair game for any number of horridnesses, as the nasty Veppers finds out at the end of the book, physically paralysed by a Culture ship, kneeling before his victim and tortured to death (‘he had never known such pain, never guessed that anything could hurt so much’). So there you are.

The ostensible moral of the novel is that ‘cruelty and the urge to dominate and oppress’ are ‘childish and pathetic’ [626]; which runs the risk of coming over, in terms of its didactic effectiveness and analytic sophistication, as a touch, well, childish and pathetic. Or to put it in terms of the formal logic of the Space Opera, the subgenre of which this novel is a bulky example: one of the downsides of the Golden Age of SF being twelve is that any more sophisticated ethical questions it wants to explore must be built upon the shifting sands of melodramatic notions of the clear separation of right and wrong, and of ‘fairness’ parsed (‘it’s not fair!’) via juvenile intensities of eye-for-an-eye by which most 12-year olds—however bright—tend to live their lives.