empire and critique

Many years ago I wrote an essay on the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in which I looked at what I believed to be a neglected element of his novels: their critique of the Igbo society they describe. 
One of the most-quoted passages in his work comes from his autobiographical essay, “Named for Victoria, Queen of England,” because it is there that he describes his discovery of his literary calling: “At the university I read some appalling novels about Africa (including Joyce Cary’s much praised Mister Johnson) and decided that the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else no matter how gifted or well intentioned.” And so he was set upon a path: “Although I did not set about it consciously in that solemn way, I now know that my first book, Things Fall Apart, was an act of atonement with my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son.” 
But Achebe was a prodigal who had not really chosen to walk apart from his people: that choice was made by his father, who had become a Christian as a young man and, with the zeal common to the new convert, set himself quite apart from the culture he had grown up in. (When Achebe was a boy his father forbade him to eat with non-Christians in their town.) Achebe may have decided to come back towards the world that his father had rejected, but he did not simply despise his father’s choice, and had a sympathetic understanding of what drove him to it. In Things Fall Apart, one of the characters, a boy named Nwoye, is a portrait of Achebe’s father, and he is drawn to Christianity because he sees it as offering an alternative to some of the practices of his society that seem to him cruel — for instance, the belief that twin babies are evil and must be left to die.
Achebe discusses this very matter in that same autobiographical essay, though this passage is almost never quoted: 

And in fairness we should add that there was more than naked opportunism in the defection of many to the new religion. For in some ways and in certain circumstances it stood firmly on the side of humane behavior. It said, for instance, that twins were not evil and must no longer be abandoned in the forest to die. Think what that would have done for that unhappy woman whose heart torn to shreds at every birth could now hold on precariously to a new hope. 

Achebe wants to honor the integrity and the beauty of the culture his father set himself against — but not at the price of denying or even obscuring its flaws. This is a particularly powerful theme in Arrow of God, which I believe to be the best of Achebe’s novels, where a priest and clan leader called Ezeulu insists that white Europeans have come to be dominant because they have not been resisted: 

Let me ask you one question. Who brought the white man here? Was it Ezeulu? . . . How many white men went in the party that destroyed Abame? Do you know? Five…. Five. Now have you ever heard that five people — even if their heads reached the sky — could overrun a whole clan? Impossible. With all their power and magic white men would not have overrun entire Olu and Igbo if we did not help them. Who showed them the way to Abame? They were not born there; how then did they find the way? We showed them and are still showing them. So let nobody come to me now and complain that the white man did this and did that. The man who brings ant-infested faggots into his hut should not grumble when lizards begin to pay him a visit. 

Ezeulu is not wholly right about this — but he is not wholly wrong either, and Achebe shows quite clearly that the other clan leaders unwisely neglect his counsel — seeking their own individual prestige rather than the good of the clan as a whole — which furthers the division of the people. 
So that’s what my essay is about: Achebe as not just a celebrant but an interpreter and critic of Igbo traditional culture — his elevation of “humane behavior” as the standard by which the Igbo people and the English imperialists alike should be judged.
I had a lot of trouble getting it published. (Eventually it ended up in this book.) I sent it out to several journals, and each time the peer reviewers made more-or-less the same reply: You can’t say that. My argument, one claimed, is “profoundly offensive.” Another said that the world didn’t need another “justification of the colonial enterprise.” I thought to myself: I’m not saying these things about the flaws or blind spots of traditional Igbo culture, Achebe is saying them. But I suppose my sin was pointing out what any decent person would have passed over in discreet silence. 
I recalled this experience when I read this post by Nigel Biggar about the response he has received to his claim that the moral legacy of colonialism is a mixed one. Rhetorical Leninism once more: Biggar’s claim makes him indistinguishable from Cecil Rhodes or for that matter Colonel Reginald Dyer. One must deal in moral absolutes or be absolutely damned. But if we’re truly to learn from history we need to be able to see more than what our predecessors got wrong. Most human beings — and all cultures without exception — are mixed bags. Chinua Achebe understood that. 

Enough said on that. But another thing nags at me: I don’t understand why Biggar thought that the best response to his critics on social media was to report them to their bosses. I guess this is the New Normal — maybe especially in the U.K.? I saw a comment the other day (can’t remember who said it) that whenever anyone in the U.K. says something on Twitter that’s even slightly controversial someone else reports them to their local police: “Hey, this person obviously needs to be arrested.” But I don’t like it. And when well-established academics do it it’s far less seemly than when woke students try to call down administrators on noncompliant professors or fellow students. Trying to get someone in job trouble for incivility doesn’t seem very … civil. 

literary fiction and climate change, revisited

Here we have Siddhartha Deb making precisely the same inexplicable error that Amitav Ghosh, whom he quotes, made last year — a mistake on which I commented at the time. The thought sequence goes like this:

1) Declare yourself interested only in “literary” fiction;

2) Define literary fiction as a genre concerned only with the quotidian reality of today;

3) Complain that literary fiction is deficient in imaginative speculation about the realities and possibilities of climate change.

But if you have already conflated “literary fiction” and “fiction” — note how Deb uses the terms interchangeably — and have defined the former as having a “need to keep the fluky and the exceptional out of its bounds, conceding the terrain of improbability — cyclones, tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes — to genre fiction,” then you have ensured the infallibility of your thesis. Because any story that engages with “the fluky and the exceptional” (or, riskily, the future) ipso facto becomes “genre fiction” and therefore outside the bounds of your inquiry.

This self-blinkering leads Deb into some very strange statements:

In the United States too, even well meaning liberal fiction, often falling under the rubric of cli-fi, reveals itself as incapable in grappling with [our steadfast rapaciousness]. This is perhaps because to think of modern life as a failure, and to question the idea of progress, requires an extremism of vision or a terrifying kind of independence. An indie bestseller like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, set in an eco-apocalypse, features rhapsodies on the internet and electricity. Marcel Theroux in Far North includes a paean to modern flight as one of the finest inventions of “our race,” even though the effect of air travel on carbon emissions is quite horrific.

Let me just pause to note that Deb has a rather expansive notion of “the United States,” given that Emily St. John Mandel is Canadian and Marcel Theroux was born in Uganda and educated wholly in England. Setting that aside, Deb’s description of Mandel’s book is farcically inaccurate. It is true that there are characters in the book, some among the handful of people who have survived a plague that killed 99.9% of humanity, who miss the internet and electricity. Does Deb think that in such an world nobody would miss those technologies? Or is it his view that a truly virtuous writer should make a point of suppressing such heretical notions?

Either position is silly. Of course people in such a world would miss technological modernity, for good reasons and bad. At one point we get “an incomplete list” of what’s gone:

No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by.

No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take pictures of concert states. No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars.

No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite….

No more countries, all borders unmanned.

No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from Vandenburg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space.

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

Again: Does Deb think people in a devastated world wouldn’t think this way? Or does it think it wrong to give voice to such memories and reflections?

Does he think that such a list offers nothing but regret?

The central figures of Station Eleven are the members of a group called the Traveling Orchestra. They play classical music and perform plays.

All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.

When I first read Station Eleven I had mixed feelings about it, but in the two years since I have thought often about the Traveling Symphony and what it achieved, what it reminded people of, what it made possible. The book offers, especially through the Symphony, a moving and at times profound meditation on the complex relationships that obtain among technology, art, and human flourishing. I’d strongly recommend that Siddhartha Deb read it.

And he should read some Kim Stanley Robinson while he’s at it.

the masterful diptych of Coroger Zelaznorow

It’s been very interesting for me to re-read — for the first time in 40 years, so who am I kidding, let’s just say read — Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. It’s a wonderful book, and I am especially pleased that I got to it just after reading Cory Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway. Doctorow’s book has some good points, but I wasn’t a big fan — I felt it left too many important questions unasked — until I realized something: Lord of Light, though written fifty years ago, is actually the sequel to Walkaway. And if you think of the two books as a diptych, the first installment gets a lot more interesting. Let me explain, with many spoilers.

Roughly in the middle of Doctorow’s novel “walkaway” scientists – that is, scientists who have gone off the standard panoptic grid of our world, the “default” world, have headed out into the wilderness to live in anarchic community — figure out how to upload human consciousness to digital form and then reconstitute that consciousness. Which means, at least according to one way of thinking, the way of thinking that Doctorow allows to dominate the book, the end of the reign of death.

The chief conflict of the book, then, pits the scientists who want to share this power with everyone against the capitalist one-percenters of “default,” who want to keep it for themselves – partly because they think that scarcity creates value and they are the Lords of Value, but also because they control the 99% by making them afraid of bodily harm and death. (As David Graeber wrote a decade or so ago, our whole social order is upheld by the threat of violence against bodies, and Walkaway is essentially Graeberian political philosophy in novelized form.)

Eventually the good guys win out, and immortality-via-upload becomes widely available – but it turns out that those minds miss being embodied, and scientists somehow find a way to grow bodies and reanimate them by injecting them with consciousness. Or something. (There aren’t a lot of details.)

The story begins less than a century from now, and ends not too much later. So let’s fast-forward a few thousand years, and imagine that Earth has died or been destroyed but humanity has spread elsewhere in the galaxy. And on at least one of the planets our descendants colonize, control of immortality has been seized by a tiny few. It turns out that, for them, simply being immortal – or, if that’s the wrong word, simply having access to recurrent embodiment – isn’t enough. Welcome to the world of Lord of Light, or, as I prefer to think of it, Walkaway: The Sequel.

The attentive reader of both books will notice that one difference between the two is that in Lord of Light human minds are no longer uploaded to the cloud, stored on a networked server, but are simply transferred from one body to another. Our author, Coroger Zelaznorow, doesn’t explain this, but it’s easy to understood what must have happened in the intervening centuries. Already in Walkaway we see the disturbances that arise when more than one living instance of the same, or “same,” person is around; those disturbances surely would have been magnified as downloading became more widespread, not least among megalomaniacs who wanted to see themselves as widely distributed in the world as possible. Moreover, minds uploaded to networked servers would have found themselves subject to to the experiments, relatively benign or deeply malicious, of hackers. In the end, it seems clear, the protocols of transfer were deemed safer, more reliable, and less subject to abuse than the protocols of uploading/downloading. Perhaps someday Zelaznorow will write a novel about this period of transition between the two ways of making us immortal: the Networked Way and the Way of Transference.

Now, it will immediately be seen that the Way of Transference introduces a complication: if your consciousness is not uploaded to a supposedly safe location, then if you are murdered or have a fatal accident you, as they say in Lord of Light, “die the real death.” But is this a bug or a feature? Might it not be that many who have lived a very long time, in multiple bodies, learn that death is indeed the mother of beauty? We might here compare Iain M. Banks’s Culture books, in which, as Banks himself explained, most people live a few hundred years and then accept death. Not all — some choose the Networked Way and get themselves downloaded immediately or after a period of sleep — but most. It seems likely that to the potential immortals of Lord of Light the possibility of the “real death” is another reason for preferring the Way of Transference.

Over time, the controllers of any given culture learn how technologies work, decide which potentialities are to be embraced and which resisted, tune their employment of those technologies to their larger purposes. In Walkaway the controllers, the capitalist one-percenters, want to keep immortality for themselves, but by the time of Lord of Light the strategy has become more complex.

If Walkaway offers its readers a straightforward and apparently simplistic victory for sharing — for acting on the assumption of abundance rather than scarcity — Lord of Light shrewdly and usefully complicates the situation by showing that even if sharing wins in one place and time it may not do so always and everywhere. The Lords of Karma, as they call themselves, have discovered the virtues of control that is not based on exclusive possession. They do not want to keep immortality only for themselves; they want to share it; but they want to exercise precise control over that sharing.

And it turns out that the ideal structure to enable what they want is that of traditional Hinduism. Within a social order aligned to the Hindu cosmos, they can be gods, each of whom “rules through [his or her] ruling passions,” as one of them says, achieving and enacting the apotheosis of that passion. And by controlling Transference, they can punish those they deem wicked by re-incarnating them in an inferior body, perhaps that of an animal — you can never be sure in this world that a dog is merely a dog —, and reward those whom they deem virtuous by elevating their status, incarnation by incarnation, raising them up to become demigods and then, ultimately, gods. (Of course, employing the time-honored logic of colonial powers they say that they are merely withholding blessedness from those who are not yet ready for it.) And only those who have fully internalized the ethos of the Lords of Karma will be allowed to join that pantheon. The world is governed, then, by a self-perpetuating oligarchy which must occasionally refresh itself, if only because over the centuries some will inevitably “die the real death.”

And a world so ordered is one in which the Lords of Karma are gods not just because they are (probably) immortal and (certainly) immensely powerful, but also because they can compel worship. The capitalists of Walkaway manifest a craving for mere power that would be annoyingly simplistic if the book stood alone; but when we understand that it is the first book of a diptych then we see that it describes a fairly early stage in the history of oligarchy, and that later stages make progress by a kind of ressourcement. The unspoken motto of the Lords of Karma is: Ad fontes! And the fontes to which they return are those of religion. They receive worship, and they gratify the desire of many human beings to find something or someone to worship. And by reliably granting ascent to those who satisfy their demands, they create an orderly, coherent, and logical system — a system which constitutes a powerful myth, and, as Freddie deBoer recently commented in an essay which only superficially seems to have little in common with this one, “the human animal runs on myth.”

Only a great scoundrel would seek to disrupt so peacefully disciplined a world. Or a great saint. Or someone who is a bit of both.

When I read Walkaway I was disappointed by its limited exploration of the ethics of immortality, and the complete lack of interest in metaphysics. (There is no myth in Walkaway: the place of myth is taken by 3D printers.)  The book elides vital questions simply by treating the reconstituted minds as the very same characters whom we have come to know, as the other characters themselves do. There are bits of desultory conversation about the continuity of identity via digital representation, but the narrative simply doesn’t allow us to take seriously the possibility that such representations could be deceptive and that the characters for whom we have come to have affection have in fact “died the real death.” It is only when reading Lord of Light that we see how Zelaznorow calls into question the narrative assumptions of Walkaway.

Similarly, in Walkaway our characters mainly want to stay alive, to enjoy one another’s company, to feel useful — they don’t inquire any further into life’s possible meanings, its ultimate values, what Robert Pirsig (God bless his soul) called Quality. But all these lacunae turn out not to be oversights but rather a clever suspending of certain questions so that they can be explored more fully in the sequel. That Zelaznorow is a genius. But you can only see that if you read the sequel. Reading Walkaway alone might be an underwhelming experience.

accommodation and perversion

I wrote recently that I see world-building in SF and fantasy as coming in two chief varieties, the speculative and the meticulous, and that those varieties offer different kinds of literary interest and pleasure. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea falls on the speculative end of the spectrum, Tolkien on the meticulous end. Here’s another binary: the accommodating and the perverse.

The distinction applies to all kinds of writing, but I think it especially evident in SF or fantasy or any other kind of writing that evades the constraints of standard-issue realistic fiction. The accommodating writer is one who is content to work within the common shapes of story, the expected arcs and structures of human tale-telling throughout history and across cultures, while the perverse writer suspects those arcs and structures and strives to avoid or subvert them when possible. (So when I recently called Adam Roberts “perverse” I was describing, not criticizing. I think Adam’s fiction is very usefully perverse.)

It strikes me that these two binaries may usefully be juxtaposed to each other. These are distinctions of degree, not kind, so some Cartesian plotting is required, thus:

I’m not sure that I’ve placed any of these texts with precision, but it’s a start. Most of them will be familiar to most of my readers, but perhaps not China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. I was tempted to identify Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series as strongly meticulous and strongly perverse but then decided that both of those designations are potentially misleading. I’ve also been re-reading Thomas Pynchon lately, and was tempted to mark Gravity’s Rainbow as strongly speculative and off-the-chart perverse, but that needs more thought also.

I’m happy to entertain any corrections or suggestions in the comments below.

Transhumanists are searching for a dystopian future

As part of a Washington Post series this week about transhumanism, our own Charles T. Rubin offers some thoughts on why transhumanists are so optimistic when the pop-culture depictions of transhumanism nearly always seem to be dark and gloomy:

What accounts for this gap between how transhumanists see themselves — as rational proponents of a cause, who seek little more than to speed humanity along a path it already follows — and how they are seen in popular culture — as dangerous conspirators against human welfare? Movies and TV need drama and conflict, and it is possible that transhumanists just make trendy villains. And yet the transhumanists and the show writers are alike operating in the realm of imagination, of possible futures. In this case, I believe the TV writers have the richer and more nuanced imaginations that more closely resemble reality.

You can read the entire article here.

Ferrante’s tragedy

Once you are well inside the world of Elena Ferrante’s just-completed quartet — what English-language reviewers are calling the Neapolitan novels but what is really a single long novel published in four volumes — you are not likely to escape. The books are utterly compelling and the world they create as real as real can be. Somewhere Iris Murdoch writes of the kind of story you read to which you simply say, “It is so.” Ferrante has written that kind of story. I had been telling myself for some time that I simply no longer have the tolerance for contemporary realistic fiction. Then I started this story and thought: Oh. I just haven’t come across anything this masterful in a while.

But one thing I find curious: the universal description of these books as being centrally the story of a friendship. I think they are much better described as the story of an overwhelmingly intense, identity-forming, lifelong hatred. Much has been made of the ambiguity of the adjective in the first installment’s title: L’Amica Genial, The Genius Friend, or, in Ann Goldstein’s English translation, My Brilliant Friend — it is what each girl thinks of the other. But not enough attention, I think, has been brought to the deeply misleading, or at best ambivalent, character of the noun Amica.

There is no doubt that Elena, the narrator, is fascinated by, obsessed with, in need of, Lila; and Lila is probably just as obsessed by Elena — though Lila’s mind remains to some extent obscure to us, in part because Elena tells this story and no one can ever enter fully into the mind of another, and in part because Elena, I think, does not want us to have full access to Lila’s inner world and resists entering that world herself. When Elena gets access to documents that reveal much of Lila’s thinking, she describes their contents rather sketchily, and then destroys them, unable to remain any longer in their presence.

Elena’s destruction of Lila’s documents — though surely foreseen by Lila — is just one example of what may be the novel’s chief recurring theme: that neither woman ever misses an opportunity to harm the other, to hurt as badly as she can possibly hurt without ending their relationship forever. (To act nastily enough to cause a separation of several years, that each of them will do.) Even when they help one another, such assistance serves to acquire leverage that is later used for cruelty.

Each woman is to the other what the Ring is to Gollum: “He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter.” So Elena: “I loved Lila. I wanted her to last. But I wanted it to be I who made her last.” This kind of relationship cannot be described simply, but I don’t think there’s any meaningful sense in which it can be called a friendship.

The novel can and should be read as, among other things, an appropriately scalding, scarifying indictment of a society that made it impossible for Lenù and Lila to be genuine friends. They were made to be friends, I would say, deeply complementary personalities, helps and correctives for one another. But the world they are brought up in — with its harsh, rigid codes of masculinity and femininity untempered and uncorrected by a Christian message (despite the presence and apparent authority of the Church), with its relentlessly soul-grinding social and economic injustices that generate either defeatism or wild grasping attempts to escape — deforms their connection almost from the start, perverts it, twists it.

On the first disastrous day of Lila’s disastrous marriage, her brother says to her new husband, “She was born twisted and I’m sorry for you.” The new husband replies, “Twisted things get straightened out.” But the overwhelming message of the novels is that they don’t. This is not a story of a friendship. It is the tragedy of what should have been a friendship but never was.


No surprises here, of course, but when you ask people who teach creative writing in American universities what books they assign, almost all of them assign books written in the past few years. A couple of people reach all the way back to Chinua Achebe, Saul Bellow, and Jean Rhys, and one bold trailblazer — Joel Brouwer, who teaches at my alma mater, the University of Alabama — actually assigns Homer and Virgil. But the rest don’t dare look any further back than yesterday, and, moreover, the great majority of the texts they assign are by Americans.

This studied avoidance of the past, of the world — of anything that isn’t immediate and local — is bad for the future of fiction and bad for the American mind more generally. The default assumption that our writers can be valid only when they’re working in the idioms of their peers is something close to a death sentence for artistic creativity. Looking at reading lists like this, I can’t help thinking that they play a significant role in maintaining the dreary sameness that is so characteristic of the fiction and poetry that come out of contemporary MFA programs.

on Aurora

My friend Adam Roberts, whose critical judgment is superb, loved Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel Aurora; I didn’t. At all. And while such differences in literary experience are inevitable and commonplace — “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like” is the most truthful of all reviews — I’m a little uncomfortable to be so far from Adam in my response.

And that’s because I didn’t like the book. If I had liked it more than Adam did I wouldn’t be bothered; but I’d prefer not to be the sort of reader whose insufficient catholicity of taste, or readily insensitivity, blocks him from appreciating things that deserve appreciation. But I didn’t care for Aurora, and I think I can say why: I was not moved or convinced by the cultural world it portrays.

Adam writes, “Aurora is a magnificent piece of writing, certainly Robinson’s best novel since his mighty Mars trilogy, perhaps his best ever.” So since he compared it to the Mars trilogy, I will too — even though in one sense that’s unfair, since the Mars books gave Robinson at least three times as many words in which to portray a fictional world. But the stories have a fundamental three-part structure in common:

  1. The decision to send human beings to another world.
  2. How they get there.
  3. What they do when they arrive.

The proportions vary greatly: the Mars trilogy is overwhelmingly about number 3, Aurora more focused on number 2. And you could make an argument that the richer cultural world of the Mars trilogy is a function not only of its greater length but its dominant setting. Still, as I read Aurora I kept thinking about the two-dimensionality of lives of the people living on their ship headed for Tau Ceti. They were all focused on personal relationships, political questions, and the technologies needed to manage life in a strange environment. That’s it. One group of people, living in one biome, had developed a kind of ritual in which they introduce young people to the fact that they are living in a starship … but if any of the other biomic cultures had done something similar, we don’t hear about it. Also, sometimes people play music. But that exhausts the cultural life of the ship — which the people haven’t even named. The ship’s AI suggests that it be called “Ship.” But I cannot imagine that human beings living for generations on a starship wouldn’t name the damned thing.

On Mars, in Robinson’s trilogy, there are poets, and composers, and dramatists — a rich cultural and artistic life. There are serious (and endless, and fascinating) philosophical debates about what they’re doing on Mars and why they’re doing it. Is it too much to expect that something of the kind on Aurora’s generational ship? I don’t think so. Czeslaw Milosz writes somewhere — in The Witness of Poetry, I think — about situations of extreme suffering and deprivation in which poetry becomes “as necessary as bread.” And I am persuaded by the governing conceit of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (about which I wrote briefly here): that if civilization collapsed people would value all the more the music and drama and poetry that had seemed so frivolous and ancillary in a fully-functioning world.

I’m trying not to spoil Aurora too much here, but I think it’s okay to say that when the ship finally gets to the Tau Ceti system an intense dispute arises about whether the people should stay there or go somewhere else. When some characters are taken aback by the passionate intensity of those who want to stick with the original plan, one person comments, “I do think it helps to think of the stayers as holding a religious position. The Tau Ceti system has been their religion all their lives, they say, and now they are being told that it won’t work here, that the idea was a fantasy. They can’t accept it.”

But I don’t see any evidence in the text that people think/thought act/acted in a religious way — about this, or about anything else. Robinson seems to portray them as simply being excited about coming to the end of a long voyage. There doesn’t seem to be much (any) reflection about those thousands of people who were born on the ship and died on the ship — like Israelites who were born in the wilderness and died before reaching the Promised Land. Surely this is something that people would have thought about in the 160 or so years that the ship had been sailing through space, and probably even before they departed Earth. It’s hard for me not to imagine that on such a ship there would be whole philosophical schools — not formal, not professional, but comprised of people deeply invested in the key questions. You see something like that in Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, a book I also have commented on. Yet the people of Aurora seem myopically focused on the immediate and practical; and in that sense they don’t seem fully human to me.

That’s why I didn’t like the book very much.

on difficulty

In this exchange on literary difficulty I think Leslie Jamison gives us something far more useful than Heller.
Here’s Heller:

Recently, when I read Christine Schutt’s short story “You Drive” with a graduate writing class, several of the students complained that they found the story baffling. They couldn’t make out the chronology of the events it described; they weren’t always sure which character was speaking; the story, they concluded, “didn’t work.” The fact that they had trouble following Schutt’s elliptical prose was not in itself a surprise. What did take me aback was their indignation — their certainty that the story’s difficulty was a needless imposition on readerly good will. It was as if any writing that didn’t welcome them in and offer them the literary equivalent of a divan had failed a crucial hospitality test.

The “as if” in that last sentence is doing a lot of work, and rather snide work at that. Why should Heller conclude that her students’ dislike of one story is revelatory of a sense of readerly entitlement, a universal demand that texts “welcome them in and offer them the literary equivalent of a divan”? Maybe she assigned a poor story, and the students would have responded more positively to an equally demanding one that was better-crafted. You can’t tell what people think about “any writing” on the basis of their opinions about a single text. 
It’s easy and natural for teachers to explain every classroom clunker by blaming the inadequacies of their students. It’s also a tendency very much to be resisted.
Jamison, by contrast, approaches the question of difficulty in a much more specific way, and what I like best about her brief narrative is its acknowledgment that a reader might approach a given book with a very different spirit in one set of circumstances — or at one moment of her life — than in another. It’s something I have said and written often: that one need not think that setting a book aside is a permanent and unverifiable verdict on the book — or on oneself. People change; frames of mind and heart come and go; and if a book and a reader happen to find each other, it’s beautiful

brief book reviews: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a historical fantasy, set in late Victorian London, that seems determined to bring in … well, everything you might imagine turning up in a historical fantasy set in late Victorian London:

  • steampunky mechanical things? ✓
  • dark and narrow London alleyways? ✓
  • English orientalism? ✓
  • The Woman Question? ✓
  • stern and bigoted Victorian patriarch? ✓
  • delicate and bigoted Victorian matriarch? ✓
  • Gilbert and Sullivan? ✓
  • The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name? ✓

And yet … it’s a really well-told story, and Pulley is a promising writer. I just hope that her next outing contains fewer predictable elements.