Mur Lafferty: Six Wakes

Lafferty, Mur (2017), Six Wakes, Orbit
ISBN 978-0-316-38968-6

I’m behind on reading all kinds of lists and books – and this year’s Hugo shortlist is no exception. For whatever reason, the first book I picked off that list is a novel I had never heard of by a writer I had never heard of: Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes. It was an excellent choice: Six Wakes is a very good science fiction novel. For some reason, reviewers of science fiction – and genre generally – are obsessed with the question of ‘transcending genre’ – can a book be more than ‘just’ a genre novel? It is a bad question and the books that ‘transcend genre’ can be quite dull, to be honest. And it is applied more often to science fiction and fantasy novels than to crime novels, for example. And while it’s true that certain novels, mired in genre conventions, may not be appealing to a general public, it is not due to immutable literary laws. SO yes, it is true: there may be readers who may not take to Six Wakes, because it is written within the conventions of science fiction – but at the same time, it also has all the trappings of a conventional mystery. Most of the book’s events could also take place in a locked house, or a house locked down due to weather phenomena – and inside the house, a drama between six individuals with their secrets develops. It would be a quite traditional set-up, if not for the fact that the house is a space ship, and the house itself is a character here. But everything truly science fictional has happened in the past, and Lafferty cleverly restricts the possibilities of the book’s present in such a way that you could replay most of its plot with Agatha Christie’s vocabulary and furnishings. This allows us to appreciate what the truly unique elements are that science fiction brings to this particular table: questioning the limits of what it means to be human, in a way that is just not possible for a plain ‘realist’ mystery. Lafferty won’t win any points for language or concision here – the book is a bit longer than it needed to be – but it is an exceedingly intelligent book, which, like all good mysteries, is very well constructed. This is a genuinely good work of science fiction, and I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason why you shouldn’t read it. Should it win the Hugo? Probably not – but it is a strong field this year. It is still one of the better science fiction novels I’ve read over the past years.

It’s a bit of an irritant: Mur Lafferty, the internet tells me, has written a lot of books and I have read none of them before Six Wakes. At the same time, this appears to be her first foray into ‘proper science fiction,’ after several books that sound more like urban fantasy. And while I enjoy zombies as much as anyone, a book that interrogates our sense of identity and self – and the future of the way we construct those two things – is more up my alley. On the surface, the book is about a generation starship which is run by a small crew of six people. One day they all wake up with no memories of what happened – except the knowledge that one among them is a murderer. The rest of the book is spent figuring out who dun it and what it means for their mission. The actual details of that surface plot are a bit more complicated, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But the most interesting aspect of the whole book was the unexpected decision by Lafferty to make much of the book about religion and faith. One character in the book has an obvious, strong connection to the topic, but ultimately, the question of religion and faith touches all the characters, and Lafferty yokes her discussions of what it means to be human to the question of what it means to have faith. There is no snideness or irony to any discussion of faith here – it is, excuse the pun, enshrined by the author as a fundamental human act, one that helps us and our selves, our morals and values cohere in a way that nothing else does. And it is the aspect of humanity that is the first to be endangered when the basic parameters of being human fall by the wayside and we can become, technically, immortal. Over the past five, six years, there’s been an on/off debate about secularism, and the role of faith in our world – this debate left its fingerprints all over the humanities. At every conference, someone brings up at least Charles Taylor. The religiousness of everything has been offered, denied, interrogated. It is quite refreshing to see a use of faith that does not take sides in this debate, that takes faith seriously as a technique of the self. This is not about God. This is about people.

And people are, in some ways, on their way out in the world of Lafferty’s book. At least people as we define and understand them today. Cloning has become viable – more than viable, it has become an almost everyday occurrence, a tool. In fact, abuse of cloning has become enough of a problem that laws dealing with it have been enacted. Lafferty’s invention here is the idea, which I have not seen before, of the use of cloning. Books involving cloning very rarely follow the interesting uses such a technology might have: in this case, a form of immortality. Humanity has learned how to make mindmaps – and if you want, you can have your mindmap implanted in a clone that carries your DNA, thus living on for as long as someone is there who can wake a new clone and imprint it with your most recent mindmap. There is, in the world of Lafferty’s book, a debate between humans (people who have not exceeded the “normal” human lifespan) and clones. Since there is always only one version of each person (multiple clones are banned by law), clones are as individual and unique as normal humans. This development also gave rise to a new form of hacking. If you hack someone’s mindmap, kill them, and wake a clone with their modified mindmap, you have created a version of the same exact person that may be more to your liking. A rebel who is no longer interested in being a rebel, for example. She does not make the connection more explicit, but this is the first novel I have read that almost directly engages with the ideas put forth by Achille Mbembe in his seminal essay “Necropolitics” – and puts a new spin on it. The new technology of cloning was at first a wild field of possibility – the law, specifically, to rein in the numbers of clones (only one at a time) seems like an exercise of sovereign power in line with Mbembe’s ideas.

The cloning technology also allows for longer distances to be bridged in space travel, with the crew dying and waking up again anew in the cloning bay. And indeed, this is what happens as the book opens – with one crucial technical problem: before death and revival, the mindmaps had not been updated – indeed they had been wiped of everything that happened since they were loaded into the ship’s data. What’s more, the previous bodies of the crew were not properly disposed of. They are found floating around the ship with signs of violent death. Someone stabbed, strangled and poisoned the crew. It stands to reason that it was one of the six. It could have been any one of them. Not only do they not know – the murderer him or herself also does not know since all six mindmaps have been wiped clean. The rest of the book is dedicated to resolving that mystery.

Six Wakes very specifically works on two levels: each person’s memory of the time before the ship’s take-off is a dive into Lafferty’s ideas and the political and social consequences of technology as she envisions it. That part is straight – and very good – science fiction. Everything that happens on the ship after waking, could strictly speaking, with one significant difference (the AI on the ship plays a major role), be rewritten as a Gothic mystery. The ship functions as a big gothic mansion. The six people in it barely know each other. They all have secrets that they hide from one another and the revelations of those secrets will lead straight to the discovery of the murderer. While this story has SF elements, it doesn’t need them, and it is quite clever of Lafferty to write a novel so clearly in two different conventions. It allows her questions about humanity and identity to resonate on different levels as well, allows her novel to push and pull at the reader in two different, but entirely conventionally recognizable ways, which makes the fundamental ideas of the novel stand out. The impression, structurally, is one of craft and care – which, regrettably, doesn’t filter down all the way to the sentence level. The book is too long for the story it tells, and many paragraphs feel padded and superfluous. Long mystery novels structured like Lafferty’s tend to employ incident, conflict and revelation more densely. She does not do that – and at the same time, many of the recollections that form the backbone of the crucial SF parts of the novel are not structured at all with notions of conflict, they are meant to add up to a final revelation, to add up to a picture of the society and this difficult technology it has brought forth. And there is one final weakness: almost all mystery novels I have read suffer from a very weak conclusion and revelation. Six Wakes doesn’t escape that particular fate either.

And yet – this is a very enjoyable book, despite its weaknesses. It is very smart, its ideas unique and cleverly used. The use of genre is done with judiciousness and care. It is not meant to be analyzed sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, but as a whole the book holds up very well to careful critical (even academic) analysis. This book is very good.

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John Scalzi: Lock In

Scalzi, John (2014), Lock In, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8132-3

[A note: this review has somehow turned out very digressive, so here’s a quick tl,dr summary of my opinion: Lock In is an intelligent, fun, exciting science fiction novel built around a brilliant idea, somewhere between Merleau-Ponty and Michael Crichton and executed by one of the most prolific and best SF authors we currently have. If you like techno-thrillers and/or you like science fiction, read Lock In. It’s very good.]

DSC_1559So if you are not following what’s happening in English-language science fiction, it’s quite likely you missed quite a solid amount of drama. The magnificent Adam Roberts has summarized the affair succinctly here. If you don’t feel like clicking on links (another good take is here), the even shorter version is this: dismayed by a distorted perception of who is being fêted by the prize-giving crowd in science fiction, a group of mediocre-to-terrible writers have set up a list of “preferred” writers. Their moniker is “sad puppies” or “rabid puppies” (technically two different groups, practically indistinguishable) and they feel they have to protest what they feel is boring, politically correct fiction. Recent Hugo winners and nominees include books that question gender, race and class, and writers like Larry Correia, who runs a gun shop and likes to shoot guns in his spare time (like, really likes to shoot guns) feel there’s not enough old fashioned ass-kicking and shooting going around, and very much not enough veiled (or not so veiled) xenophobia and misogyny. They are just, we hear, not enough fun. The Hugos should be awarding the fun books, the popular books rather than the books well loved by critics. I remember a similar debate around the Booker Prize and its dreary results [insert here a complaint about many recent Booker shortlists]. But the Booker is not a award that the public can vote on, so what the “Sad Puppies” did wouldn’t have been possible there: they organized a crowd of rowdy, angry, mostly white and male supporters and rigged the voting process, getting a disproportionate amount of “Sad Puppies” on the list. Now, the awards ended in a curious result, which you can find summarized here and here. But of all the essays and thinkpieces on the award, what struck me most strongly somehow was this Hugo analysis (and it’s follow-up here) which I was interested in for two reasons. One, apparently, without the Puppies voters, the award for best novel would have gone to The Goblin Emperor, a nice but not spectacular book (my review here). Two, and more relevantly for this review, without the “Puppy” books, John Scalzi’s Lock In would have been nominated. This is interesting. Neither The Goblin Emperor, which treats class and power with dubious sloppiness nor Lock In are boring-but-critically well received books. In fact, the closest non-SF point of comparison for Scalzi’s excellent book is Michael Crichton’s oeuvre. It’s a fast paced thriller, brilliantly conceived, with smart ideas and a sleek, efficient execution. If you like fast paced SF-y thrillers, read it. It’s a blast.

DSC_1557The reason I suppose Scalzi was not among the recommended authors is not this work in particular. It’s not even his work in general. Lock In is not some nifty exception to an otherwise more complicated and/or difficult oeuvre. It’s not to his oeuvre what Kraken was to Miéville’s, for example. In fact, his Hugo-winning novel Redshirts (2012) is similarly an absolute joy to read. It’s a story about Star Trek, it toys with genre, with conventions and characters. It’s absurdly funny. Sure, there’s a level on which it’s a clever take about truth and narrative, but we are at no point obliged to stop and consider this take in order to enjoy the book. In fact, the reason I never reviewed it here is because I thought it was lovely but a bit breezy and slight. Would I recommend it? Of course. It’s endlessly amusing. And I think the deeper its reader has fallen down the SF culture wormhole, the more enjoyable it is. So is this the kind of dour politicking the Sad Puppies warned us? It’s clearly not about popularity because Scalzi’s books sell like cold drinks in a hot summer. He’s so successful in fact, that Scalzi recently inked a 3.4 Million $ contract with Tor (read the man’s own explanation here). Scalzi is popular, he writes breezy, not entirely weighty books that are not super left wing (Old Man’s War is a good example) in an accessible style – the kind of style, indeed that would allow him to publish 19 books in 10 years. So the issue isn’t with his work per se – it’s with Scalzi the person who runs a blog that frequently discusses political issues in science fiction, and a Twitter account that does the same. For these reasons, Scalzi has become the bête noire of the “Puppies” crowd. And the most fascinating part about it is that Scalzi at no point in his recent work fills the role he’s expected to fill. There are practically no flat polemics, no open and excessive politics, nothing. Lock In is politically interesting, but not overtly so, and his asides that may be read as commenting on the debate are minor, such as when a character says to the other “I get that you’re used to saying what you think to anyone, anytime. That comes from being an entitled rich kid.” Compare this to, say, Rushdie’s grumpy asides on the New Atheism debate in Enchantress of Florence, for example, where he inserted anachronistic debates just to (I guess) make a point.

DSC_1556For all the baggage that comes with the name Scalzi and with the science fiction community and the Hugo dustup, Lock In is an intricate (but not overly so) techno thriller that happens to be SF, but reads in many ways like a novel by Michael Crichton. A new technology is introduced, it proves to be dangerous and influential people behind the curtain try to abuse it to their own benefit and it’s up to some detective-like character to figure it out. It’s not the first time on this blog that I’ve compared a SF writer to Crichton, and last time, it was Charles Stross’ lamentable Halting State. (click here for my review) – but there is a key difference. Stross copied the school of Crichton to a fault, from the narrative skill to the odd politics and even xenophobia. Stross presented a SF novel entirely denuded of all that makes science fiction such a vital and important genre. Because that’s another way that the “Puppies” got it wrong. Science fiction has always been full of exciting books that pushed the intellectual envelope, that managed to say things in the grammar of science fiction that couldn’t have been said equally well within the genre of “literary fiction” – Coreia, Beale and their ilk didn’t just misread and mistreat contemporary science fiction – they also seem entirely unaware of the genre’s proud and interesting tradition. Scalzi on the other hand – and unlike Stross- wrote a book that makes heavy use of the advantages of SF. That summary just now doesn’t really do justice to Lock In and that’s because the book, despite having a thriller corset, wouldn’t work as it does in a pure thriller structure. It’s SF skeleton are as important to the book as its thriller muscles. Unlike Halting State, whose speculative technologies are at best hair’s breadth more futuristic than the technology that Crichton’s more speculative books revolve around, Scalzi’s basic idea is the backbone, the most essential element of the whole book. In fact, in some of its slighter moments the book feels like the author competently-but-quickly fleshed out his ideas. There’s no complex structure to the book, it develops rather straightforwardly from its initial premise. Much like the idea of Redshirts, i.e. what if the characters on a TV show were somehow real, and script rewrites would inexplicably change the world around them. And what if they then managed to escape to “our” world and contact the actors and scriptwriters and producers of “their” show? The rest of the book just fleshes out that idea, expands on it, adds joke and easter eggs. In a more serious way, the same thing is true for Lock In. There’s a premise and the writing just fills in the gaps and wrangles a plot. That premise, however, is so good that it allows Scalzi to really go to town.

DSC_1568The basic idea is that in the near future, an illness strikes a vast portion of the population, the so-called Haden’s syndrome. For a small percentage of those inflicted, falling ill means being locked out of your body. These people are basically paralyzed for the rest of their lives, with active brains and nerves, but without control over their bodies. And there is no cure for Haden’s syndrome. However, after a few years, technology has developed to help the millions inflicted. Many of those technologies involve the transfer of consciousness. Into a virtual community called the Agora, into robots, and into the brains of people who serve as carriers. These solutions are not permanent. The Haden’s victims still have their bodies around which need to be tended to and there is a transfer of physical sensation from the body to the consciousness, and if the body dies, the consciousness dies with it. The transfer is achieved via neural transmitters. Some people, born with the illness, never really encounter the physical world actively and spend all their life in the Agora. Some enter some means of transportation every day. There are CEOs, politicians and people from all walks of life who suffer from Haden and use robots to get around town. This technology is accessible to everyone because, until very recently in the book’s timeline, it was heavily subsidized by the government. The book’s protagonist is a famous Haden’s patient, Chris Shane, who we meet on day one of his new line of work: rookie FBI agent. Shane comes from a famous/rich family, but want to make it on his own. I think you can recognize the trope. On day one, he and his new partner, the troubled but brilliant agent Leslie Vann, are called to the scene of a murder involving Hadens. The book covers roughly one week during which their initial murder case leads them to uncover a conspiracy that involves more murder, corporate greed, terrorism and a popular uprising of those affected by Haden. The book moves quickly, as there’s just not enough time to meander, given all that happens, and it does it with efficiency and narrative excellence. However, just because the book doesn’t offer us digressive essays and pamphlets, it doesn’t mean the book is bereft of intelligent points on a wide range of things.

DSC_1555I have recently been reading (in PhD work breaks) quite a few genre novels and I am vaguely aware of the attempt to establish the term “slipstream”, which I mostly encounter in the writings of genre writers who want to sidle up to the “literary fiction” genre by claiming a kind of shared space. But good literary fiction does more than tell a good yarn, it offers us structures and ideas and an elevated level of prose. Some books, like the incomprehensibly dull The Doors You Mark are Your Own by “Alexander Tuvim” mistake the recent resurgence of narrative (I commented a bit on that resurgence in my review of Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise) for some new literary license to sprawl without having the intellectual nous to actually say something rather than merely indulge. If there was a slipstream genre, surely it would involve books with genre trappings that also fill the shoes usually worn by what is generally perceived as literary fiction. The problem with that is that this is already amply covered, say, by science fiction. M. John Harrison, Iain Banks, Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe and China Miéville are as skillful writers of prose as many “literary” novelists (and certainly better than “Tuvim”), and intelligent and even brilliant ideas abound in science fiction, which has never confortably settled within any arbitrary set of genre conventions. The mere history of science fiction explodes that idea. I know the idea comes from Bruce Sterling who is always worth considering, but to me what he describes is more like a gothic alienating technique (which you’ll also find in the recent works of William Gibson), but I’m always open to being proven wrong about the validity of “slipstream” as a genre. If it hadn’t come from Sterling, I would have assumed it came from someone who doesn’t really understand the reach and power of science fiction. And Lock In is an excellent example of the reach and unconventional positioning of science fiction. Scalzi employs the tropes of thriller writing, with small but significant twists. At the same time, his reliance on his science-fictional premise allows him to implicitly debate issues such as the question of how society and the structures of knowledge intersect with disability. How do we construct a disabled body? Where does deficiency end, and identity begin?

DSC_1566There is a moment where the protagonist is offered a broken robot as his only option to get around town. The robot works, but its legs don’t, so the rookie agent is offered a wheelchair to get around in. It comes near the end and allows the reader to come to terms with the many other ways disability has been portrayed in the book. There are mental disabilities that are shown to be both limiting as well as empowering. We are confronted with the question of how connected our sense of humanity is to our corporeality. In many places, Scalzi appears to offer a riff on Merleau-Ponty’s famous discussions of the corps propre. Even as early as in his 1942 work The Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty points out that “[l]’esprit n’utilise pas le corps, mais se fait à travers lui” – the consciousness doesn’t merely use the body as a host. It could not just be made independent from the body – despite the fact that Hadens can easily and quickly transfer their consciousness from and into different hosts as you would get into and out of different cars (the protagonists keeps traveling throughout the country by downloading into available robots). Very subtly, Scalzi also discusses the topic of race and how visibility and disability play into the cultural construction of race. Least subtly, and likely connected to contemporary American domestic debates, he offers a withering indictment of the opposition to government-supplied healthcare. And I’m not transposing some kind of reading on a more innocuous book – all this is really in there, and he uses plot and setting to offer a debate without having to stop for narrative breath. This is enormously hard to do in “literary fiction” because it’s not as easy to mold the environment to convey a philosophical argument as it is with the grammar of science fiction, and downright impossible to do while maintaining fluid readability. Lock In is a barrel of excitement – did I mention that it’s also humorous and witty? It’s just enormously good at what it does – and it does a lot. It#s the best book by Scalzi that I’ve read so far – although I am far from a Scalzi completist. This is very good and I recommend it to you with all the conviction I can muster. It’s a fantastic book, and the “Puppies” can go suck my big toe.

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