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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Charles Stross: Halting State

Stross, Charles (2008), Halting State, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-441-01607-5

These past years, I have recommended Philip K. Dick’s impressive novel Ubik to a number of serious readers of literature interested in Dick and/or Science Fiction literature in general. It’s the perfect introduction to Dick’s work, because it’s both straightforward and pleasantly odd. But there’s more. Several readers have written back to me to complain about how little sense the book supposedly made, how Dick made gross errors in narrative logic etc. This is more than the usual philistine hurry to blame the author for one’s own careless reading. I ‘d suggest that it points to something that is quite typical of the genre of Science Fiction. Dick isn’t the only writer who’s used to infusing a narrative that seems straightforward enough with a dose of the odd or strange. There’s something angular, uncomfortable about many good books of the genre, a sort of basic difficulty, almost independent of the literary skills of the writer in question. Science Fiction demands, like no other genre, that its readers take each book on its own terms. It’s always dangerous to interpret difference as erroneous writing, but with regard to SF, this assumption is more likely to be incorrect. There is no other genre I know of that constantly mixes the tools of experimental fiction with the storytelling of an action movie to produce all kinds of inventive yet readable results. Given the prolificacy of many prominent SF novelists, it’s also astonishing that a great deal of them are greatly attentive not just to matters of literary structure and the like, but also pay extraordinarily close attention to the words they use, to the way they connect to the ideas put forth in the novel. Form is always connected to content in SF, and more often than not, it’s germane to any significant understanding of the book in question. All this means that any work of SF is likely to be less encumbered by conventional expectations of narrative logic, and it’s why Science Fiction is such a worthwhile genre to read. Even so-so works like Tobias S. Buckell’s Ragamuffin contain a daunting intellectual structure; apparent mistakes in narrative logic (as the aforementioned readers thought to find in Ubik) are usually more than that. They are part of a sophisticated, passionate, elaborate literary undertaking that has languished for far too long on the grubby shelves of ‘genre literature’ while the Franzens, Austers and Mitchells of this world reaped critical success and broad public appreciation. This tension between quality and lack of critical success has, on the other hand, led to a tradition in SF that tried to make the genre palatable, relatable, clean, acceptable, slowly draining the genre of everything that made it as powerful as it was. Charles Stross’ 2007 novel Halting State represents a kind of end point for this development. It would be silly and facetious to compare it to accomplished works of science fiction. In fact, the author it most resembles is not strictly speaking a SF writer, it’s Michael Crichton.*

Make no mistake, Halting State is a very good read, a real page turner of a novel; it’s both efficiently written and smartly constructed. Charles Stross is clearly a highly competent novelist, and Halting State is a well-nigh flawlessly executed thriller: in it, Stross displays an uncanny knack for timing, for example. Characters, plot elements, surprises and moments of shock and breathless action are released at just the right moment, a skill that should not be underrated. The book’s sleek efficiency is also visible in the way the characters are fleshed out in just the right amount. There is enough depth to care about the things that happen to Stross’ characters, worry about them, and cheer them on when they fall in love or have an arduous fight to endure, yet not so much as to make readers stumble over potential ambiguities and complexities. To sum up: if you like thrillers and/or Michael Crichton’s work, you’ll love Stross. Another similarity with Crichton’s post-Sphere work is the gentle way that Stross introduces his futuristic technology. Halting State is set in the near future and its technologies are rather similar to ours; the same is true for the kind of social and political structure we encounter. The changes are so slight, so carefully wrought, that they allow any reader to catch up with the author and quickly relate to the events without having to think or re-contextualize. The contexts stay, broadly speaking, the same; additionally, Stross presents a near future with completely believable and utterly dull developments. Nothing is surprising in any way, every single technology in the book is rooted in something that we already use and, in some cases, he uses ‘new’ technology that is already in development. One of the fundamental conceits of Halting State, about the interconnection of private entertainment and the grander world of global espionage, is so banal and unsurprising that it’s been taken up in various guises in pop culture, most recently in an episode of Nathan Fillion’s comedy-drama TV show Castle. Well, I have to admit: this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, what it means is that Stross has utterly professionalized his genre. He has moved away from visions and conceptual difficulties into the realm of professional thriller writers whose books are based on easy emotive access and, ultimately, fear. A fear of that which is still somewhat alien to us, a term which usually means foreigners and technology, i.e. things and people we can’t really understand. That’s why easy relatability is so important – only in a sequence of knowns can the unknown stick out as it does in the work of Crichton. This kind of discourse is of course buttressed by a defense or acceptance of the status quo, of things as they are, of ruling hierarchies and exploitative mechanisms. That this sort of thing, hitherto mainly typical of thrillers, crops up in SF as much as it does these days is sad, but true. Stross is only one of many examples: Cory Doctorow (cf. my review of Little Brother) is another, though less problematic one.

Thus, with a cleaned up language, efficient plot and relatable discussions of future technologies, only one potential stumbling block for readers remains, and it’s one of the few concessions Stross makes towards his genre: he toys a bit with pronouns. The book has three distinct protagonists, each of whom narrates their own chapter. However, the book does not use the first or third person singular, but the second person singular. This trick, which has no further consequences for the way the story is told, does not extend to difficulties of speech and perception, barely engages questions of identity or anything else. Stross could have removed this from the manuscript by copy & paste without damaging the rest of the text except in negligible ways. It’s a nod to his genre, no more than that. Since the novel is concerned with virtual realities, and the ways that our world interacts with the virtual, the use of the second person singular allows Stross to mirror virtual relationships as well as relations that we engage in in dealing with one another (and us ourselves) through online media. As as I mentioned before, using form in order to reflect on content is a commonly used tool in science fiction prose and this appears to be Stross’ main difference to Crichton et al. In most other ways, he follows the mainstream thriller guidelines almost exactly. The similarities to Crichton in particular are both general structural similarities, as well as more specific resemblances. Among the closer ties is an eery similarity to Crichton’s famously racist 1992 novel Rising Sun, which painted the ascendancy of the Japanese economy as a threat to Americans in several garish colors. The apprehension towards dominant Japanese companies had already produced books like Tom Peters’ fun but ridiculous In Search for Excellence (1982), but for Crichton, exalting American values or Americans in general was not enough. His novel contains murderous Japanese businessmen, scheming Japanese officials and two Americans caught in the middle of an intricate intercultural intrigue. Something somewhat similar happens in Halting State. A robbery and a murder have been committed and a police officer, an insurance investigator and a software geek are trying to get to the bottom of an affair that keeps getting more and more complicated. As in Rising Sun, inquiries are quelled or at least hampered by political interference, by executives’ and politicians’ schemes and manipulations. In Stross’ 2007 novel, the Japanese are no longer the bad guys as they were in Crichton’s and other novels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s (as can be expected) Chinese hackers on the payroll of the evil Chinese government that are the enemy now. Actual people of Chinese descent barely make an appearance in the book, but that’s largely unimportant, since, as any racist will be able to tell you, it’s not the specific individual that attracts their rage, it’s the general idea of the foreign culture/race. ‘They’ are different, and ‘they’ are a threat. That’s the name of the game Charles Stross is more than happy to play.

Like Crichton, Stross leaves, of course, ample room for a denunciation of corporate greed. For both writers, this is an important element, because readers are just as likely to reject executives as grossly incompetent, stupid or gluttonous, as they are to reject foreigners as scheming, lazy or destructive, and both writers are engaged in an attempt to build an alliance with their readers built on shared prejudice. Stross even does Crichton one better. Unless I misremember, there is nothing in Crichton’s post-Sphere work that corresponds to what I like to call Stross’ trinity of identification. Stross’ three protagonists are Elaine Barnaby, a woman, who is drawn in a mildly clichéd but not aggressively sexist way, a smart and quirky closet geek. There is Jack Reed, the software engineer, who is the most knowledgeable of the three, constantly explaining facts about the technological background, a nerd who likes to drink, is shy around women, and incredibly smart. The third narrator and protagonist is Sue Smith, a police officer, and representative of a whole strain of elements that crop up all over the book. Thing is, Halting State, a book about the global world of hackers, espionage and online gaming, is rooted in a weird sort of patriotism tinged with localism. It’s set in Edinburgh, and reflects its Scottish background in multiple ways. For starters, there’s Sue, who speaks/writes a mild sort of Scots-inflected English, which stands out among the verbal offerings of the other characters. It is Sue’s point of view that foregrounds most a contrast between locals and foreigners, because in Halting State, only Scottish citizens are truly locals, and Jack and Elaine, the two English geeks, are always slightly out of place. The book crawls with comments about how little the streets and facades of Edinburgh have changed; this is accompanied by comments about the specific/unique relationship that this Scottish metropolis has with the modern world outside. In a way, Stross reproduces the larger discursive concerns that power books like Crichton’s and includes a miniature model of them, localized in terms of references and language. And it’s all so incredibly well made! Halting State is a stunningly crafted thriller, but a mediocre, fifth rate work of science fiction. If the genre did not also contain writers like Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville, Adam Roberts or Vernor Vinge (who, by the way, praises Halting State), I might be worried. There is much to admire in this book, and compared to other, let’s say, thrillers, it would stand out. In its own genre, however, it’s its deficiencies that stand out starkly. If you want a quick, good read by a writer with a good grasp of current technology and excellent command of a certain kind of narrative, this book is highly recommended. If you want something more, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

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*A lot of Crichton’s books can of course be categorized as science fiction, among them probably Sphere or Jurassic Park (incl. sequels). I’d argue, and in a way that is what I’m doing in this review, that Crichton’s main influence and the genre he mainly belongs to is the thriller genre. He may use a SF tool now and then, but they are just props. Crichton’s intentions and visions are those of a mainstream thriller writer, and his approach is the same in Jurassic Park, Next, Rising Sun or any other of his best known works. Finally this: what I take to be the core of the Science Fiction genre I laid out in my first paragraph. It’s a different kind of approach to seeing the world. Iris Murdoch wrote in The Book and the Brotherhood about Marxism: “The only good Marxist is a mad Marxist. It’s not enough to be a revisionist, you’ve got to be a bit mad too – to be able to see the present world, to imagine the magnitude of what’s happening.” I think this madness is necessary for good science fiction, as well, this imagination of possibilities and impossibilities. This is true for space operas, hard sf, cyberpunk, steampunk or the straight madness of Dick’s later novels. The best test for good SF is this: if you take away the odd objects, and the unfamiliar settings, are the texts in front of you still different from mainstream fiction? In my review’s first paragraph I suggest they should be, and any of the authors I mentioned appraisingly in this review have produced works for which that is indeed the case. It is not true for Halting State which is powered by the same visionary black hole that brought forth Michael Crichton’s works. A reader on a literature forum suggested that part of the book were a straight yet awkward pastiche of Ian Rankin‘s books. I would not be surprised to find that to be the case, although I haven’t been able to sample Mr. Rankin’s work yet.

Miéville wins!

Miéville wins this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award. The price is well deserved, too. His prize.winning novel, The City and the City is a well-nigh perfect achievement. It’s so good that I was too daunted to write a review of it. Read more about his win here

The novel won the British Science Fiction Association prize for best novel earlier this month, when BSFA journal editor Niall Harrison predicted it was set to take a slew of further prizes. Miéville pronounced himself “absolutely gobsmacked” and “incredibly honoured” to win the Arthur C Clarke, an award originally established by Clarke himself to help promote science fiction in Britain. “It’s very different from most of my other books,” said Miéville, who has previously won the Arthur C Clarke with more traditional fantasy novels Perdido Street Station and Iron Council. “It was very much written in an effort to be absolutely faithful to works of crime fiction. Crime readers will denounce a book because it has ‘cheated,’ and I wanted to write a book that didn’t cheat, that was faithful to crime rules and that if you’d never read any fantasy you could pick up.”

Adam Roberts: Yellow Blue Tibia

Roberts, Adam (2009), Yellow Blue Tibia, Gollancz
ISBN 978-0-575-08357-8

Here’s the deal. You will have to read Adam Roberts, unless Yellow Blue Tibia, his most recent novel, grossly misrepresents his oeuvre. There is just no way you can bypass this writer, who is so self-controlled, so sure of his capabilities and his craft, who is able to engage both the humorous and the darkly serious nature of his work. Yellow Blue Tibia may not be a masterpiece, but it is certainly an excellent novel and a truly dazzling display of skills. So far, he has ten novels under his belt, a few academic studies (including a regrettable one on Frederic Jameson, in the sense that any study on Jameson is regrettable), some parodies and a few shorter pieces. If any of them so much as approach the quality of Yellow Blue Tibia, you’re in for a treat. Read it. You don’t even have to like science fiction, because one of the remarkable things about the book is that it is as much a literary novel about science fiction as it is a science fiction novel proper. In this extraordinarily funny and smart book, Roberts managed to seize his genre, and put it through the wringer, spinning it around, examining it, without ever becoming too intellectual or too cerebral. It’s also a joy to read, a book that scoops up a lot of the canonical postmodern playfulness of the 1970s, but has, below this, the elegant, moving structure of a more traditional novel. What’s more, Roberts’ playfulness is always in the service of real concerns, real problems, and implies the possibilities of real actions. Adam Roberts is a very serious writer, who likes to use the word “ballsack” a lot. And he excels at both of these kinds of writing. Read this writer. You will not be disappointed.

The plot is hard to describe, mostly because it’s actually quite surprising. It’s not that you can’t see the final twist coming a mile off, but Yellow Blue Tibia, at the beginning, hedges its bets, shows you ways of continuing its tale, before stepping up to the plate and fully delivering its story. It starts off like this: in 1945, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, i.e. Joseph Stalin, ruler of all the Russias, asks a group of well-known Soviet Science Fiction writers to convene in a cabin in the woods. They come by train, by mule cart, they are both giddy and elated to meet Stalin, and mortally afraid. Instead of sending them all to the Gulag, however, Stalin asks them to write a story. In what seems to be a very Wag the Dog-ish line of thought, Stalin has decided that the USSR needs an enemy to unite against. Now that the Germans have been beat, and that (in Stalin’s estimation), victory against the US is, at most, five years away, it is time to plan and come up with a new enemy after the US are conquered. And why not invent an enemy? This is what Stalin wants his science fiction writers to do: invent an enemy to rally the peoples of the USSR against, “an extraterrestrial menace. It will be the greatest Science Fiction story ever told! And we will write it collectively! It will inspire the whole of the Soviet Union – inspire the whole world!”. So, this is what they do. After long discussions and deliberations, they come up with a species of “radiation aliens”, and they even imagine some of their early attacks, such as a destroyed US spaceship, and a bomb launched against the Ukraine.

This section is very densely narrated and it contains a lot of the ideas and themes that the rest of Yellow Blue Tibia later pursues. We learn that these men are all tired, all afraid, but they’re all, additionally, Communists. In period novels such as Vassili Grossmann’s Life and Fate, we learn hat even those afraid to be murdered by Stalin’s henchmen, even those in camps and at the front, that there are many ardent Communists among them, because the idea of Communism is unharmed by the horrific political events in the 20th century, engineered by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and their vassals. So it is with the men in that cabin. Their visions, thought, and basic motivation are informed by Marxism even as their faith in the political reality of their country has long gone. These writers are beat, exhausted, they are all soldiers, and they’re tired of war. One of the writers grumbles that, if he were alive today, Tolstoy wouldn’t write “War and Peace but War and War. He would write War and War and More War”.The connection between fiction, and history, as well as individual fates is established in that first section; also, the truthfulness of journalistic nonfiction, as well as, very importantly, questions of authorship. But as soon as we start to enjoy the odd rhythms of that discussion, that creation of an original story, the meeting in the woods is stopped short. Stalin, without offering explanations, dissolves the project, and swears all the writers to silence. For some decades, nothing else, pertaining to these days in the cabin, happens, as the narrator explains. Until 1986, when the narrator is visited by ghosts of his past.

The narrator of Yellow Blue Tibia is called Konstantin Skvorecky, one of the Science Fiction writers from the cabin. Choosing that name was certainly not accidental: in part it appears to be a clear reference to Josef Škvorecký, the Czech writer, who, like Roberts’ creation Konstantin Skvorecky, is a translator from English to a Slav tongue, and Roberts’ use of detective fiction tropes and his use of some elements of the roman noir may also, albeit in a more subdued manner, tie in with Škvorecký’s Lieutenant Boruvka novels. One suspects that all the names in Roberts’ fine novel are fraught with allusions and references, more than one. Is it coincidence that another writer, Ivan/Jan Frenkel shares his surname with a renowned Soviet physicist? That one writer’s surname and the title of his main book are semantically related? These are just a few of the examples and ideas that will creep up on the reader, and that crowd the margins of my copy of the novel. This is part of the method (and success) of this book: it creates a text that is often suggestive of ideas, that implies tangents, and hints at propositions, rather than blathering at length about them. It’s a book, like the best literary novels, that keeps the reader thinking: not just whodunit, but about all kinds of things, more or less connected with the book’s subject matter. And as we make our way through the book, more and more suggestions and ideas accumulate, making us think, not about a specific topic or problem, but making us, in a broader sense, just think. And for every association and loose idea, there is also a theme threaded through the book, recurring in different guises, suggesting different conclusions each time.

One of these themes is the topic of authorship, and, ultimately, of truth, fiction and authorial intent. The book’s subtitle is Konstantin Skvorecky’s memoir of the alien invasion of 1986 but much of the book’s suspense revolves around the question whether the alien invasion is really taking place or not, and in answering (or not) that question, the book makes use of our belief and disbelief in authorizing genres and gestures. An appended fictional Wikipedia entry for Konstantin Skvorecky ties in these concerns with our reading of our own history and how we understand chronology and time-lines. In this, there is an odd connection of Yellow Blue Tibia to the mad work of writers like Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to 1986 and Konstantin Skvorecky’s troubles. After decades during which nothing happened that related to the events in the cabin, Skvorecky, a resigned old man, left by his wife, recovering alcoholic, who makes some money as a translator now, is suddenly swept away by a series of events that are all connected to the story he and his colleagues made up 41 years ago. People claim that the fiction has come true, that UFOs really exist and radiation aliens, as well, and that the January, 28, 1986 breakup and disintegration of the Challenger space shuttle was the attack prognosticated in the story. What ensues is a delightfully strange picaresque tale that borrows quite a few elements of the noir, mostly in its setup of situations with shadowy government agents who may or may not pursue their own agenda. In scene after scene we encounter wonderfully warm and colorful images, although some of the events that are recounted for us, are dark and brutal.

Generally speaking, Roberts manages to bridge the distance between a serious, even vicious, kind of story/background and a laugh-out-loud funny tale with great aplomb. Like all great satirists (cf. Tova Reich), he is able to approach a situation like an interrogation in the cellars of the KGB and lace them with a humor that is at times almost silly, as with an interrogator, who, off the record, enjoys threatening his interlocutors with castration, which leads to a dialog that had me wheezing with laughter. This does not take away or detract from the dark history that Roberts engages here. But Roberts wants more than just instigate sadness in his readers, he wants us to think, comprehend, and contextualize this mass movement with others in the 20th century. He does this not by lecturing us, by cloaking non-fictional propositions in the soft cloth of a novel. Instead, what is on display in Yellow Blue Tibia is a genuine interest in the ideas and concerns of the novel and its readers are invited to take part in the swirls and eddies of its thinking. This makes for a very rich reading that does not bludgeon the reader with a disquisition on, for example, mass culture, or mass movements; we are rather presented with different elements that we can connect if we want to and in what way we see fit, although the general theme and focus of the novel do limit us somewhat. That theme and focus is writing, specifically the writing of Science Fiction. We are presented with a handful of categorical statements of what science Fction is, or is not, of what it can do, and what it can’t. It is, again, not a coincidence, that we are reminded of a classic of SF here, L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky.

L. Ron Hubbard, his dangerous religion and his mediocre writing have often been mentioned in these contexts and they are a great example for mass movements, because in the evolution of Scientology from Dianetics and Hubbard’s work as a writer of science fiction the interconnectedness of fiction and religion becomes most obvious and clear. Hubbard’s pseudoscience, first published in the leading SF weekly Astounding Science-Fiction under John W. Campbell, Jr.’s editorship, is one of Yellow Blue Tibia‘s most important references. Not only does the book feature two members of the Church of Scientology, but its discussion of aliens, its depiction of UFO obsession, and, finally, its overriding theme of how narratives shape our perceived reality share many links to Hubbard’s new religion. The suggestibility of human beings, especially those ‘schooled’ by authoritarian belief systems is repeatedly brought up, with links, perhaps, to Elias Canetti’s brilliant opus magnum Crowds and Power. Crowds, for Canetti, don’t need a leader, they need a direction. Fiction, for both Hubbard and Roberts, provides the possibility of shaping exactly that: a direction that crowds can use as orientation, orientation that is beyond doctrine. It gives direction not just to explicit thought, but to the essentials of perception. In this criticism, Yellow Blue Tibia allies itself with orthodox Marxist thought and its Ideologiekritik, but it exceeds these narrow boundaries as well. Although it is committed to its ideas, it is not settled or determinate. The whole story is pervaded by a thorough ambiguity, an irony, if you will, which does not undermine the ideas of the book, but is part and parcel of these very ideas.

In the end, despite its concern with crowds, it is, I think, in part a rejection of Mao II‘s dictum that the future belongs to crowds. Nonsense, the book says, the future belongs to human beings, but they have to think for themselves. It is crowds and their narratives that are limiting, forcing people onto their narrow paths of thought. In this, Yellow Blue Tibia tars religion and ideologies with the same brush, calling on its readers to emancipate ourselves from hierarchies and structures that are narratives, i.e. fiction (in what is clearly a work of fiction, a contradiction that the book seems very aware of). This is by no means even close to be new, but then Roberts does not employ the gesture of much science fiction that wants to be ‘mind-blowing’. Yellow Blue Tibia is a novel that is very conscious of its antecedents, philosophically and literary. There is Stirner, maybe, Wilhelm Reich, certainly, Golden Age science fiction, 1970s paranoid classics like the novels of Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick, and many many novels about 20th century’s totalitarian systems. The associative, broad nature of its references and allusions means that its connections extend to books that the author may not have read at all, like the trash of Maurice Dantec and Imre Kertész’ fine meta-novel A Kudarc. Yellow Blue Tibia is conscious of the libraries of books that preceded it and doesn’t even attempt to be full of new ideas. Instead, it opts, surprisingly, for something else. The structure of the book’s narrative, as its ending shows us, is incredibly traditional, and both moving and charming, and it’s Adam Roberts’ major achievement that he managed to ground the story and its ideas in a humane, personal narrative that suggests to us that its concerns are more than fun and games. They matter.

As does science fiction. Yes, the book constantly contrasts fact with fiction, showing how lines get blurred, creating an atmosphere, a sense of undecidability, but it’s not plain ‘fiction’. It’s science fiction. Adam Roberts wrote a paean not just to imagination proper but to science fiction especially. Science fiction is stronger than imagination: at one point, a character exclaims

I only mean – it’s science fiction! If your science-fictional imagination is broken, you can rebuild it with imaginary high technology! If your writer’s soul is amputated, then because we are talking of science fiction you can fit it with a robotic prosthesis. You can write again, write better, stronger, as a cyborg!

Good science fiction offers tools not just to understand history or the present but to change our perception. The ‘cyborg’ bit here is significant: technology does not just provide props (as furnishings in historical novels tend to be), it allows the writer to supplement the imagination. Science fiction does not need to pretend to work from within a fixed, limiting world, its hierarchies and priorities need not be the small, polar ones of what we perceive to be the necessary, inevitable limits. There is, I think, an openness to good science fiction that is more than seeing clearer. It’s not seeing clearer, which is implying an exploration of limits, it’s glimpsing possibilities beyond this table, that wall or that window, without indulging in sloppy metaphysics. Science fiction, dark or light, is a kind of dreamy materialism. Adam Roberts does not attempt to seriously engage these possibilities, instead he highlights the literary genre of science fiction, and its viability as a tool in world building. Science fiction, he says, is worth engaging with, worth writing and reading. As is Yellow Blue Tibia. Read it. You will not regret it.

Unboring (JG Ballard died)

Sad day. JG Ballard has died on Sunday morning at the age of 78. He wrote once:

I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again… the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.

Luckily we have Ballard’s books as antidotes against this kind of future.

Gung Ho: Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother”

Doctorow, Cory (2008), Little Brother, Harper Voyage
ISBN 978-0-00-728842-7

Here’s the thing. I’m not one of those weirdos who make a distinction between good books and fun books. When I had fun reading a book, I had fun and that’s a good reason to recommend any book. But with Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, and his first young adult novel, I must say, I don’t know. Cory Doctorow is no relation to the great American master E.L. Doctorow, as far as I know, but if he were, the apple, as they say, would have fallen far from that beautiful tree (or has it?). Among several flaws, I’m tempted to call the writing sophomoric (but I’m not going to, for reasons detailed later) and, most damagingly, the novel appears to have been conceived in the early 1990s. Hackers, anyone? That said, the book was a whole lot of fun. Thursday on the train to Wuppertal, I was giggling with joy so much that people looked at me strangely (even more than usual). Also, I have ordered it for a friend’s birthday immediately and will continue to recommend it in the future. It’s an insane amount of fun, plus it’s smart and really educational. Any novel for kids that references Emma Goldman and contains a bibliographic essay that recommends Ginsberg’s “Howl” is very commendable. And really, it’s an awful amount of fun.

So, since I just reminded myself of the fun, I’ll start with the good stuff. The story, set in San Francisco, is about four kids who are engaged in a game of Harajuku Fun Madness, which is a quiz/geocaching type of game. The four of them are high school kids who are talented computer/tech whizzes. Marcus Yallow, the main character, has loaded up on gadgets and trickery to circumvent his high school’s increasingly oppressive surveillance tricks. He is the captain of their Harajuku Fun Madness team, and almost indecently paranoid. His home computer, which he has built from scratch, by the way, downloads his email from the server once per minute and then deletes it from the server. During that game of Harajuku Fun Madness, something happens. Terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge, killing thousands in the process. The four kids are near the site of destruction and in the ensuing chaos they are picked up by a group of masked men and thrown into a van. As it turns out, the masked marauders are actually agents of the Department of Home Security (DHS), who suspect the four of being perpetrators of the attack or at least associates of the perpetrators. The fact that they have backpacks loaded with technical devices that are, as I mentioned, indecently well protected, isn’t helping either.

In the course of the next days they are tortured, mostly because the DHS agents are irritated that someone who is so paranoid and thorough with encryption would have nothing to hide. When they are turned out again, one among their number is missing and Marcus and friends are in a state of complete shock. The city, meanwhile, has stepped up the surveillance, control and persecution as we see the DHS taking control of the city. Marcus, humiliated, concerned for his friends, comes home to a father who is trumpeting patriotic hooey, to a school where social sciences has been taken over by a class where patriotism and the importance of the DHS are taught, etc.. The hacker can’t believe his eyes. Powered by a different kind of patriotic fervor (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are quoted roughly 6 or 7 times throughout the novel) he decides to do something. Among other things this involves creating and maintaining an underground Internet-ish web (ok, before we continue here, let me just state that I am probably the most inept guy of my age group when it comes to computers and technology and related issues, so ’tis is very rough and probably wildly inaccurate. If you know my other reviews, you know I’m bad with details, but this is worse. I won’t even attempt to describe what the kid does with Xboxes and chips I never heard of.), and building devices which turn some of the surveillance mechanisms in place into a farce. This then evolves into a nonviolent guerrilla war, complete with a war for media control and the truth. As I said: loads of fun.

And it’s educational, too. Every kid who watches the news and starts to believe the toss about security, Doctorow hands him the intellectual tools to understand the idiocy of such statements, by putting all of this into context. He evokes hallowed American icons such as the Bill of Rights and the American tradition of dissent and revolution. This is a point worth making: Marcus is in strong disagreement with the way the society around him changed, and he rebels. He stands up and takes action. This is no dystopia, the America depicted is not much different from the America (or Germany) today. These changes are all imaginable and quickly implementable. Doctorow is suggesting to his young readers: what would you do? In the final chapter, with everything cleared up (Oh c’mon, it’s a genre novel.), Doctorow has his protagonist work at a company that seems very similar to Doctorow’s own boingboing.net, making it easy for his readers to make the connection to the here and now. In a way his is a fictional enterprise similar to Philip Roth’s The Conspiracy against America, but whereas Roth’s smooth end that blended into history as we know it, was the most damaging weakness of an otherwise great novel, Doctorow’s last chapter invites his audience to do as Marcus does. Read online material, rethink your ideas, stand up for your convictions, hack something.

Here is where my two main gripes with the book come in: ideas and audience. We’ll start with Audience. The book is strangely written. The style is simple and artless, it is functional and generic, which is not a bad thing necessarily. The book is not badly written. To write a book in a way that makes for fluid and fun reading is no mean achievement. What bothered me is something else. A novel that talks about a scene as specialized as Marcus’ and about technologies so far removed from everyday speech habits, needs to make sure that those in the know are not bored and that everybody else knows, roughly, what all the hullabaloo is about. The most obvious way to do this is to include a nincompoop who needs to have all the complicated ideas and terms explained to. This is not just the most obvious way to do it, it is also the most usual. So it’s refreshing that Doctorow’s tactic is different: he opts for the direct address: Marcus appears to talk to someone. Since he turns into a semi-professional blogger at the end it is safe to assume that Little Brother is some kind of extended blog entry. There are two problems with this: one is disappointment: direct address can make for great effect, as all sorts of books have shown (I’ll review two of them within the next week). The other is awkwardness. There are numerous irksome phrases. For instance, each time the word “h4wt” comes up in a circuitous, generic phrase I cringed. Doctorow clearly has trouble fitting these two registers of speech. But then, see, I don’t think he’s interested in doing that.

The same applies to to my second main gripe, his awkward juggling of ideas. His discussion of revolutionary action takes place on a backdrop of American patriotism. The Internet, and especially the hacker scene has, if my outsider’s perception is right, always been highly international. Doctorow is having none of this. He does sprinkle his stars-and-stripes menu with a few international guests, but they are always just that, guests on the sideline. The most impact that other countries’ journalists and hackers have is this:

Most notable is the global attention the movement has received. […] The issue came to a head last night, when the British Broadcasting Corporation’s National News Evening program ran a special report on the fact that no American broadcaster or news agency has covered this story. Commenters on the BBC’s website noted that BBC America’s version of the news did not carry the report.

This is criticism of America, but patriotic, righteous criticism: look what these countries are doing! Why are we not doing this? Thus, it fits the rhetoric, that the journalist, who finally steps up to the plate, is not just an American journalist, but a local one. But compared to other aspects, this is no major problem.

What is one is this: the American system is shown to be fundamentally sound. Again, there are hints: his friend Jojo is trying to cut down on his activities in the revolt because he is likely to be targeted first, as a Chicano American, but the fact that he’s merely afraid of this is a joke. The events after 9/11, in most western countries have demonstrated, that repression is not color-blind. Jojo makes his point well, he criticizes the racial bias of the judicial system:

White people get caught with cocaine and do a little rehab time. Brown people get caught with crack and go to prison for twenty years. White people see cops on the streets and feel a little safer. Brown people see cops on the streets and wonder if they’re about to get searched.

But Jojo isn’t caught, and in the prison where Marcus and his friends are held and tortured, Marcus sees a few Arabs, but that’s it. This discussion feels forced, and in contrast with the main points, it falls by the wayside, and fails to make any didactic impact. If this were not as didactic a novel as it is, it would not be its fault. But it is, and it is. I won’t even mention the fundamental affirmation of capitalism that Doctorow’s romantic idea of hacking puts forth. Well. The book has a clear didactic goal and a laudable one, as well. Doctorow may have chosen right when he decided to narrow his focus as he has done in this book. And this is something he shares with the great E.L., whose novels are also often very focused upon a didactic goal, trying to drive one particular point home. And the results, in E.L.’s case, are masterpieces such as The March. Does Little Brother fall short because the vision it presents it too pedestrian? Maybe.

For a different take on the topic, tune in next week, when I’ll review Charles Stross’ SF novel Halting State. Minus points: no Emma Goldman. Plus points: less flag-waving. I’ll see you.

Different Worlds

Today, on i09: Annalee Newitz on Feminism in Battlestar Galactica, one of the best TV shows of recent years. Her excellent article is a nuanced piece of thinking about her subject. This crucial distinction here’s from the conclusion:

If we define feminism as the critique of a world where men unfairly wield power over women, then BSG is post-feminist. In other words, that critique is no longer necessary in the world of BSG: The show more or less successfully depicts a universe where women and men are equal in the realms of work and family. However, BSG was not made in a post-feminist world, so there are all kinds of hiccups where you get retrograde characters like Cally, or naked cylon chick fetishism, that are relics of our own society, which still so desperately needs a feminist slap upside the head on a regular basis.