hunters, farmers, and time

In a wonderful review-essay in the most recent issue of The New Atlantis, Adam Roberts argues that farmers were the first time-travelers:

It is certainly possible to imagine our hunter-gatherer ancestors living in some bestial, continuous present of consciousness, their experience of time pricked out with moments of intensity — the chase, the kill, the satisfaction of a full stomach — but indifferent to the distant future.  

But it is quite impossible to imagine farmers prospering in such a frame of mind. Once we humans began to depend on planted crops and domesticated animals, our new mode of life absolutely required us to think ahead: to anticipate setbacks and think through solutions, to plan, to map out the future world — indeed, many potential future worlds.

Time travel as mental exercise must have begun at least that early. And that makes this focus on recent modernity look a little parochial. We are not so special. Indeed, thinking in this way of the future’s origins might make us rethink some of the metaphors we use to articulate our sense of time. Gleick is good on the limitations of these figures of speech — for example, time, as he shows, is not really “like a river.” Farmers, the original time travelers, are likewise prone to think of rivers not first as modes of transport but means of irrigation. Might time be the same for us — not a vehicle for taking us somewhere, as a horse is to a hunter, but a resource to make fertile what we have and hold dear?  

This view would imply that science fiction is at root a farming literature.  

I am intrigued by this idea, and responded to it in an email to Adam that I’m going to adapt for this post. (I should mention here that Adam and I are these days thinking together about fantasy.) If “science fiction is at root a farming literature,” could we not say that the Primal Scene of fantasy is the disruption of the lives of farmers by hunters? And that that disruption is (to stick with Freudian categories) a kind of return of the repressed, the nightmarish recurrence of something that the farmers thought had been banished by their forethought, i.e., their time travel?

It is not just fantasy, of course: when Horace retreats to his Sabine farm he is surely escaping the “hunters” of Roman politics; and when Machiavelli is exiled by the fierce hunters of Florentine politics to the countryside what does he do? He enters his study and practices the time travel of conversing with long-dead men. Maybe the founding myth of this particular pattern is Cincinnatus’s returning to his plow. (On the Lawn of the University of Virginia there is a statue of George Washington standing with the fasces, his plow behind him — and immediately across the Lawn there is another statue, of Jefferson sitting and contemplating this scene. It’s marvelously ambiguous.)

But what if the genre of fantasy uniquely finds its fons et origo in the fear of the return of the repressed hunters? Think of Odysseus’s encounter with the Kyklopes and his deep repulsion at the fact that they do not farm but just eat whatever comes up out of the ground — and then he immediately goes on to note that they have no politics either, and simply deal out whatever they think is justice to their own families. They are hunter-gatherers and therefore uncivilized, as are Penelope’s suitors of course, who behave in exactly the same way. And so the killing of the suitors and the subsequent purging of the halls of Odysseus are a prefiguration of the Scouring of the Shire.

So maybe science fiction is fundamentally about the hopes of farmers, and fantasy about their fears. If the history that David Graeber and David Wengrow sketch out  —the one I described in my previous post — is correct, and there was no smooth sequential abandonment of hunting and gathering in favor of farming but rather a very long period of mixed economies, mixed cultures, then the survival of these complexities into modern literature is not wholly surprising.

let joy be unconfined …

… because there’s a new Adam Roberts novel!

No one has yet said to me, “Of course you praise Adam Roberts’s novels, you’re his friend.” But if anyone ever did say that to me I’d reply that Adam and I have become friends in large part because I admire his novels — and his criticism as well. A few months back I commented to Adam that I couldn’t remember how we first connected, and he reminded me that it was in the comments section of a now-silent website called The Valve. His posts there intrigued me, I commented, he replied, I decided to read one of his novels — and a friendship was born, one that I greatly value.

So … am I prejudiced in his favor? Only in what we might call a Hazlittian sense, I would argue: I am prejudiced in favor of Adam’s writing because what I have read by him has consistently given me pleasure. And that is the right kind of prejudice to have.

Which brings me to The Real-Town Murders,which is a really good novel — you should read it. You should buy it. You also should support Adam’s completion of Anthony Burgess’s idea for a book, The Black Princeplease do, or the book won’t be published and I won’t get to read it.

But back to The Real-Town Murders. It’s a fantastic read, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat stuff — but it’s also sometimes disorienting, and I want to emphasize the disorientation it produces, because that’s related to something Adam has written about before — with, I think, disarming honesty — which is, not to put too fine a point on it, his neglect by the SF world. Not complete neglect, mind you, but significant neglect, especially of a book with the ambition, profound intelligence, and emotional depth of The Thing Itself, about which I have written here. It’s in light of this neglect, and Adam’s understandable puzzlement at it, that I want to say something about The Real-Town Murders.

As I say, it’s a terrific thriller — Roberts writes masterful chase scenes — most of his books have chase scenes, and they’re always great — but it’s also kinda weird. For instance, it can be really hard in The Real-Town Murders to know if someone is dead. Sometimes you think people must be dead but they turn out not to be. At the risk of a spoiler, here’s an example:

‘You see,’ Pu said. ‘You see, you can’t reinvigorate the Real simply by decreeing it. You can’t make it happen by fiat. You have to make it more attractive than the Shine. More intriguing to the people who … Who …’ Her weight slumped away from Alma, and she struggled to continue holding her upright. But she had gone, and Alma was not strong enough. As slowly as she could she lowered Pu Sto’s body to the ground. The aircars banked overhead and came down into the turf fifteen metres away.

Pu Sto had fainted.

Fainted?? You said “she had gone,” and we know what that means! You said “her body”! Damn you, Roberts! So a little later on, when someone else seems to have been killed, I the reader am waiting, waiting, waiting for the revelation that my assumption was wrong … again … but no. This time the assumption is correct. (Isn’t it?)

Here’s another thing: sometimes in this book human language goes awry. That is, certain characters temporarily lose the ability to speak grammatically coherent sentences. Sometimes this happens to automated systems, bots, as:

‘Relevant company documentation and answer any question to podscrip pending in your legally permitted break for lunch,’ said the receptionist. It had been prodded into a less secure margin of its response algorithm.

‘Furious green ideas?’ Alma asked.

‘Profitability supersedes itself in a company atmosphere of positivity and,’ said the receptionist, smiling.

‘Realising that nothing changes,’ Alma tried, ‘change everything.’

‘Happy to leverage all options and drill down to the next level.’

‘Let me ask you a direct question: are you, in fact, not the Ordinary, but rather the Extraordinary Transport Consultancy?’

‘Thank you for your input,’ beamed the receptionist.

‘Teleportation?’ Alma tried. ‘Instant transportation devices?’

‘No comment,’ the receptionist replied, rather too rapidly, and shut down.

But it happens to human beings too — and Roberts never explains why. He just throws us into this weird world where sometimes humans, like digital machines, develop linguistic glitches — and perhaps for the same reasons, given that the future society he describes draws human beings closer and closer to as purely digital a world as can be managed. And there are people who just speak oddly, by my standards, for reasons that might be related to the online world called the Shine or because they have a regional accent that I don’t know about or…?

‘I know he works in the world, but his free time is all online. All of it! And you need to own dare stand – I make sure he eats. He has always ate. He used to weight a hefty number. Loves his food. He comes to mine, and I feed him till his stomach bulges. Then it’s o mama and gut-ache mama and I see it shrink down.’

There’s even a (relatively minor) character — one whose language is still more distorted — whose name seems to change: for most of the book he’s called “Lester” but there’s a period where he’s called “Ernest,” and I don’t know what to make of that, because, though I’m tempted to say that it’s just a copy-editing oversight, there’s another minor character whose name changes repeatedly through the handful of pages in which we see her. (So I’m thinking: is Ernest someone different? Did I miss something? Surely I missed something. But I’m caught up in this story here and don’t want to go back to be sure.)

With Roberts, you never know — this is my point. Roberts likes making fictional knight’s moves, which is another way of saying that he is a perverse rather than an accommodating writer. To me, this is endlessly delightful; I enjoy having my legs taken out from under me, from time to time, as I read. I laugh at how Roberts sneaks in a line from Pynchon here, a line from Shakespeare there. I love this novel’s extended, multi-faceted homage to and riff on Hitchcock — another guy who was good at chase scenes — who makes an uncredited appearance here, as he typically did in his own films, but whose name is never mentioned except as the provider of an epigraph for the novel’s second part: “Puns are the highest form of literature.”

It’s all enormous fun. But I suspect that there is a kind of reader — a quite common kind of reader — for whom it would be rather too much. Many readers like their fictional moves to be straight, like those of a rook, or (when they’re in an adventurous mood) on a diagonal, like those of a bishop. This starting out on one path and then suddenly veering off — well, it’s rather disorienting, isn’t it? Rather perverse. I say: let Roberts do his thing! Take a ride! But many readers will simply prefer writers who are willing to do more to accommodate the most typical readerly expectations. It’s the way of the world. And this, I think, is why Adam Roberts hasn’t won a major SF award, though he has written several of the very finest SF novels of this millennium.

In addition to the pleasures it provides, The Real-Town Murders is also an extremely thoughtful meditation on one of the classic forms of literary pleasure. People have long asked “Why does tragedy give pleasure?”, which is a very good question — but one might equally well ask why thrillers give pleasure, why mysteries do — why death does, the sudden appearance of death in the midst of life. (In tragedies the most important death comes at the end; in mysteries it comes at the beginning.) It’s a question you might expect both Adam Roberts and Alfred Hitchcock to have some thoughts about. And they do. We could talk about those thoughts once you’ve read the novel.

Topsy-turvy, Tono-Bungay

In his blog-through of the works of H. G. Wells, Adam Roberts has reached Tono-Bungay, and there’s much food for thought in the post. Real food, not patent medicine like Tono-Bungay itself. Much of the novel, in Adam’s account, considers just that relationship: between the real and the unreal, the health-giving and the destructive, the truly valuable and mere waste — all the themes that Robertson Davies explores in The Rebel Angels and that are also, therefore, the chief concern of my recent essay on Davies, “Filth Therapy”.

Here I might quote Adam quoting some people who quote some other person:

Patrick Brantlinger and Richard Higgins quote William Cohen’s Introducing Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life to the effect that ‘polluting or filthy objects’ can ‘become conceivably productive, the discarded sources in which riches may lie’, adding that ‘“Riches” have often been construed as “waste”’ and noting that ‘the reversibility of the poles — wealth and waste, waste and wealth — became especially apparent with the advent of a so-called consumer society during the latter half of the nineteenth century’ [‘Waste and Value: Thorstein Veblen and H. G. Wells’, Criticism, 48:4 (2006), 453].

This prompts me to want to write a sequel to “Filth Therapy,” though I clearly need to read Introducing Filth first.

It occurs to me that these are matters of longstanding interest to Adam, whose early novel Swiftly I have described as “excresacramental” — it was the first novel by Adam that I read, and given how completely disgusting it is, I’m rather surprised that I kept reading him. But he’s that good, even when he’s dirty-minded, as it were.

These themes make their way into fiction, I think, because of an ongoing suspicion, endemic now in Western culture if not elsewhere, that we have it all wrong, that we have valued what we should not have valued and vice versa, that we have built our house only having first rejected the stone that should be the chief cornerstone. As the old General Confession has it, “We have left undone those thinges whiche we ought to have done, and we have done those thinges which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” This suspicion, which is often muted but never quite goes away, is perhaps the most lasting inheritance of Christianity in a post-Christian world: the feeling that we have not just missed the mark but are utterly topsy-turvy.

Christianity is always therefore suggesting to us the possibility of a “revaluation of all values,” a phrase that Nietzsche in The Antichrist used against Christianity:

I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient (i.e. A means of attaining an end, especially one that is convenient but considered improper or immoral) is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty — I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind… And one calculates time from the dies nefastus on which this fatality arose – from the first day of Christianity! Why not rather from its last? From today? Revaluation of all values!

But Nietzsche issues this call because he thinks that Christianity itself has not set us right-side-up, but rather turned us upside-down. It was Christianity that first revalued all values, saying that the first shall be last and the last first, and he who seeks his life will lose it while he who loses his life shall find it, and blessed are the meek, and blessed are the poor in spirit…. Nietzsche’s call is therefore a call for restoration of the values that Christianity flipped: rule by the strong, contempt for the weak. It is, when considered in the long historical term, a profoundly conservative call.

Whether or not Nietzsche’s demand for a new paganism is right, surely it is scarcely necessary: for rule by the strong and contempt for the weak is the Way of the World, always has been and always will be; Christianity even at its most powerful can scarcely distract us from that path, much less set us marching in the opposite direction. Because that Way is so intrinsic to our neural and moral orientation, because we run so smoothly along its well-paved road, it is always useful to us to read books that don’t suggest merely minor adjustments in our customs but rather point to the possibility of something radically other. Such books are at the very least a kind of tonic, and a far better one than the nerve-wracking stimulation of Tono-Bungay.

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.

things and creatures, conscience and personhood

Yesterday I read Jeff VanderMeer’s creepy, disturbing, uncanny, and somehow heart-warming new novel Borne, and it has prompted two sets of thoughts that may or may not be related to one another. But hey, this is a blog: incoherence is its birthright. So here goes.


A few months ago I wrote a post in which I quoted this passage from a 1984 essay by Thomas Pynchon:

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come — you heard it here first — when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.

If you look at the rest of the essay, you’ll see that Pynchon thinks certain technological developments could be embraced by Luddites because the point of Luddism is not to reject technology but to empower common people in ways that emancipate them from the dictates of the Capitalism of the One Percent.

But why think that future technologies will not be fully under the control of the “biggest of brass”? It is significant that Pynchon points to the convergence of “artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics” — which certainly sounds like he’s thinking of the creation of androids: humanoid robots, biologically rather than mechanically engineered. Is the hope, then, that such beings would become not just cognitively but morally independent of their makers?

Something like this is the scenario of Borne, though the intelligent being is not humanoid in either shape or consciousness. One of the best things about the book is how it portrays a possible, though necessarily limited, fellowship between humans and fundamentally alien (in the sense of otherness, not from-another-planet) sentient beings. And what enables that fellowship, in this case, is the fact that the utterly alien being is reared and taught from “infancy” by a human being — and therefore, it seems, could have become something rather though not totally different if a human being with other inclinations had done the rearing. The story thus revisits the old nature/nurture question in defamiliarizing and powerful ways.

The origins of the creature Borne are mysterious, though bits of the story are eventually revealed. He — the human who finds Borne chooses the pronoun — seems to have been engineered for extreme plasticity of form and function, a near-total adaptability that is enabled by what I will call, with necessary vagueness, powers of absorption. But a being so physiologically and cognitively flexible simply will not exhibit predictable behavior. And therefore one can imagine circumstances in which such a being could take a path rather different than that chosen for him by his makers; and one can imagine that different path being directed by something like conscience. Perhaps this is where Luddites might place their hopes for the convergence of “artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics”: in the arising from that convergence of technology with a conscience.


Here is the first sentence of Adam Roberts’s novel Bête:

As I raised the bolt-gun to its head the cow said: ‘Won’t you at least Turing-test me, Graham?’

If becoming a cyborg is a kind of reaching down into the realm of the inanimate for resources to supplement the deficiencies inherent in being made of meat, what do we call this reaching up? — this cognitive enhancement of made objects and creatures until they become in certain troubling ways indistinguishable from us? Or do we think of the designing of intelligent machines, even spiritual machines, as a fundamentally different project than the cognitive enhancement of animals? In Borne these kinds of experiments — and others that involve the turning of humans into beasts — are collectively called “biotech.” I would prefer, as a general term, the one used in China Miéville’s fabulous novel Embassytown: “biorigging,” a term that connotes complex design, ingenuity, and a degree of making-it-up-as-we-go-along. Such biorigging encompasses every kind of genetic modification but also the combining in a single organism or thing biological components with more conventionally technological ones, the animate and the inanimate. It strikes me that we need a more detailed anatomy of these processes — more splitting, less lumping.

In any case, what both VanderMeer’s Borne and Roberts’s Bête do is describe a future (far future in one case, near in the other) in which human beings live permanently in an uncanny valley, where the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman are never erased but never quite fixed either, so that anxiety over these matters is woven into the texture of everyday experience. Which sounds exhausting. And if VanderMeer is right, then the management of this anxiety will become focused not on the unanswerable questions of what is or is not human, but rather on a slightly but profoundly different question: What is a person?

the tragedy of angelism

Consider this the mirror-image of my previous post.

In Lost in the Cosmos — about which I wrote an enthusiastic length here — Walker Percy offers a “semiotic primer of the self” which takes as one of its chief concerns the problem of alienation and re-entry: experiences that throw us out of our familiar patterns, in ways both good and bad, and thereby generate the challenge of finding our way back into our lifeworld. For instance, this is a pattern generated by both the making and the experiencing of art:


But the problem of re-entry can also be created by suffering of any kind, what Hamlet called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”; and this alienation, this being-cast-out, can be either the worst or the best thing that happens to us. Percy’s contemporary and coreligionist Flannery O’Connor writes of a character who has been so cast out receiving “some abysmal and life-giving knowledge”; but more commonly the knowledge is just abysmal.

Percy first used his space-age metaphor in his 1971 novel Love in the Ruins, whose protagonist, Dr. Tom More, invents the More Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer, a device capable of measuring a person’s alienation from his or her own life. For instance, here’s his description of the reading he gets when a troubled graduate student comes to him for help:

He registered a dizzy 7.6 mmv over Brodmann 32, the area of abstractive activity. Since that time I have learned that a reading over 6 generally means that a person has so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him, seeing things as theories and himself as a shadow, that he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman. (34)

More comes to believe that humans who are so orbiting their own lives may eventually decide that theirs is a superior way, a higher calling — that they are somehow meant to live in orbit (like the “citizens” of Egan’s Diaspora who shake their digital heads at “bacteria with spaceships”). This is, More thinks, an understandable but catastrophic affliction. Recall that for space capsules the problem of re-entry is twofold: if the capsule approaches the atmosphere at too shallow an angle, it will bounce back out into orbit; if at too steep an angle, it will be consumed by fire. That’s why the the condition of orbital exile is so prone to a Rortyan redescription as a Better Way. But we weren’t made to live in orbit, and Percy calls the belief that we can flourish out there “angelism”: trying to live like angels, disembodied creatures, we who are made to be embodied. An understandable catastrophe, but a catastrophe all the same.

It happened, he thinks, to his first wife, Doris, who

was ruined by books, by books and a heathen Englishman, not by dirty boooks but by clean books, not by depraved books but by spiritual books. God, if you recall, did not warn his people against dirty books. He warned them against high places. My wife, who began life as a cheerful Episcopalian from Virginia, became a priestess of the high places.… A certain type of Episcopal girl has a weakness that comes on them just past youth … They fall prey to Gnostic pride, commence buying antiques, and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine. (64)

When they were still married, Doris was puzzled that her Catholic husband would always want to make love when he returned from Mass:

What she didn’t understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates [Ariadne’s thread, that leads him out of the maze of the cloverleaf intersections and to a church] and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning. (254)

Eating Christ is how More finds the safe and right angle of re-entry, how he avoids both bouncing and burning. In Christ and not otherwise may be be brought back to his life. But Doris could not join him there, at the Altar or in daily life: her “clean books” had taken her to “high places” from which she would not, could not, come down. And so they were parted.

Angelism is not just personally catastrophic; it is socially so, one might say planetarily so. This becomes clear in a scene in which Tom More — whose medical speciality, not incidentally, is psychiatry — is confined to a psychiatric hospital and finds himself joined by a new patient: his priest, Father Rinaldo Smith, who had unexpectedly fallen silent at Mass when he was supposed to be preaching a sermon, then left the church, muttering that “the channels are jammed and the word is not getting through.”

Father Smith ends up at the hospital in the bed next to Tom More, who thus hears the questioning of the priest by a team of psychiatrists, led by one named Max.

“What seems to be the trouble, Father?” asks Max, pens and flashlight and reflex hammer glittering like diamonds in his vest pocket.

“They’re jamming the airwaves,” says Father Smith, looking straight ahead.… They’ve put a gremlin in the circuit.”

“They?” asks Max. “Who are they?”

“They’ve won and we’ve lost,” says father Smith.

“Who are they, Father?

“The principalities and powers.”

“Principalities and powers,” says Max, cocking his head attentively. Light glances from the planes of his temple. “You are speaking of two of the hierarchies of devils, are you not?”

The eyes of the psychiatrists and behaviorists sparkle with sympathetic interest.

“Yes,” says Father Smith. “Their tactic has prevailed.”

“You are speaking of devils now, Father?” asks Max.

“That is correct.”

“Now what tactic, as you call it, has prevailed?”

“Death…. I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”

And — I believe this is the key theme of this brilliant if flawed novel — it is the voluntary self-exile of human beings, our acceptance of life in orbit, our defection from our proper role in the cosmos to a bogus angelism — that makes room for the principalities and powers. Thus near the end of the book, in a ruined but not destroyed world, as More reflects on the possible restorative uses of his Ontological Lapsometer, he offers, among other things, a wonderful repurposing of the favored populist slogan of Huey Long.

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man. Even now I can diagnose and shall one day cure: cure the new plague, the modern Black Death, the current hermaphroditism of the spirit, namely: More’s syndrome, or: chronic angelism-bestialism that rives soul from body and sets it orbiting the great world as the spirit of abstraction whence it takes the form of beasts, swans and bulls, werewolves, blood-suckers, Mr. Hydes, or just poor lonesome ghost locked in its own machinery.

If you want and work and wait, you can have. Every man a king. What I want is no longer the Nobel, screw prizes, but just to figure out what I’ve hit on. Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.

Sovereign wanderer, lordly exile: dominion not as a simple possession but as a calling to which we may be at any given point more or less worthy, towards the fulfillment of which we should be moving as pilgrims, here and now, not afflicted by “the new plague, the modern Black Death” that flings us into orbit and keeps us there and teaches us to prefer the airless void to the things of this world.

fleshers and stoics

I’m going to be traveling for the next few days, by automobile, and will therefore be mostly away from the internet. I have queued up a few posts that will show up during that period, but I will probably be slow in approving comments.

Greg Egan’s novel Diaspora came out twenty years ago, and it anticipates in really interesting ways conversations that are going on right now. We have the uploading and downloading (and digital generation) of consciousness, explored in more detail than is usual in novels pursuing that theme, and in far more detail than Cory Doctorow gives in Walkaway. But Egan also provides some interesting, though not to my mind very satisfying, reflections on sexuality, gender, and embodiment.

In this far-future universe, we find a comparatively small number of fully, permanently embodied people. These “fleshers” have undergone profound genetic enhancement and modification — some of them, the “dream apes,” have even chosen to eliminate speech and certain high-level cerebral functioning in order to draw closer to Nature, or something like that — but despite their astonishing variety fleshers are perceived as a distinct group because of their permanent and stable embodiment. In this sense they differ from “gleisner robots,” who take on bodies of various kinds and live in the same time-frame as the fleshers, but are fundamentally digital intelligences. The third group are the “citizens,” who are generated digitally and exist in purely digital environments they call “scapes” — though citizens can take gleisner-robot form when they want. They don’t often want, though, and can be scathing in their contempt for embodied intelligences, whom some of them call “bacteria with spaceships.”

The citizens appear to one another as avatars, and typically these avatars have no determinate gender, so they refer to one another, and Egan refers to them, as “ve”, “vis”, and “ver.” (I was surprised in reading the book at how quickly I got used to this.) Some citizens, though, take on distinctively male or female form and assume the associated pronouns, though this appears to be one of the few things you can do in this world that generates widespread revulsion.

Here come the spoilers. Insofar as the story has a protagonist, that protagonist is a citizen called Yatima, and ve has a friend named Paolo (a gleisner/citizen) who decides to die. Yatima considers dying verself, but then says “I’m not ready to stop. Not yet.” However, ve is concerned for Paolo. “Are you afraid to die alone?”

“It won’t be death.” Paolo seemed calm now, perfectly resolved. “The Transmuters didn’t die; they played out every possibility within themselves. And I believe I’ve done the same, back in U-double-star … or maybe I’m still doing it, somewhere. But I’ve found what I came to find, here. There’s nothing more for me. That’s not death. It’s completion.”

“Maybe I’m still doing it, somewhere” refers to the possibility of clones of Paolo that are doing their own thing. Yatima thinks this really matetrs: “Paolo was right; other versions had lived for him, nothing had been lost.” I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether this is a compelling point of view.

The most interesting thing here, though, I think, is Paolo’s assumption — which, for reasons just noted, among others, Yatima doesn’t question — that there are no longer any reasons to live once you have “played out every possibility.” That is, the value of life depends wholly on novelty. In a provocative digression in his book Early Auden, Edward Mendelson writes,

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

Many, many centuries from now, Paolo’s self-understanding is still governed by the valuation of repetition given us by the Industrial Revolution — or rather by Romanticism’s reading of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. If it really works out that way, if the love for repetition cannot be recovered and neophilia reigns forever, then the Industrial Revolution will ipso facto turn out to be the most consequential event in the history of humanity. And post-humanity.

I wouldn’t mind reading a science-fiction novel that assumes the opposite. (I don’t know of one.)

There is one more illuminating moment in the scene I have been describing:

Paolo took ancestral form, and immediately started trembling and perspiring. “Ah. Flesher instincts. Bad idea.” He changed back, then laughed with relief. “That’s better.”

Paolo’s mind isn’t afraid of dying — but his body is. A good thing, then, that, since he has purposed to die, his body is dispensable, is merely an “ancestral form” that can be donned and doffed at will. For if the mind craves novelty and can’t think of reasons to live when the possibilities for novelty have been exhausted, the body takes the opposite view: it craves repetition, delights in repetition, and shakes in fear when it’s about to be deprived of the simple pleasure of “bearing witness / To what each morning brings again to light.”

People will call Paolo’s mind’s viewpoint Gnostic, but that’s a word that is used far too loosely these days. Paolo doesn’t hate embodiment, or think embodiment a curse: it is because he values embodiment that at this crucial moment he wishes to “take ancestral form.” But he believes that the body’s verdicts are not wholly trustworthy, and that at times they need to be overridden by the intellectual powers he believes to be higher. This is not Gnosticism; it is Stoicism.

In C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, when the Fox, the Greek tutor of the book’s protagonist, falls out of favor with the King, he decides that his best remaining course is to take his own life:

Down by the river; you know the little plant with the purple spots on its stalk. It’s the roots of it I need.”

“The poison?”

“Why, yes. (Child, child, don’t cry so.) Have I not told you often that to depart from life of a man’s own will when there’s good reason is one of the things that are according to nature? We are to look on life as — ”

“They say that those who go that way lie wallowing in filth — down there in the land of the dead.”

“Hush, hush. Are you also still a barbarian? At death we are resolved into our elements. Shall I accept birth and cavil at — ”

“Oh, I know, I know. But, Grandfather, do you really in your heart believe nothing of what is said about the gods and Those Below? But you do, you do. You are trembling.”

“That’s my disgrace. The body is shaking. I needn’t let it shake the god within me. Have I not already carried this body too long if it makes such a fool of me at the end?”

That the Fox is a Stoic is clearly marked throughout the novel, not least by his repeated reference to what is or is not “according to nature.” What we see in Diaspora and Till We Have Faces alike is not Gnosticism — the idea that some evil demon has imprisoned us in bodies and delights in our imprisonment — but rather the characteristically Stoic attempt to reckon with the unquestionable truth of “nature” that bodies are vulnerable and bodies know that they are vulnerable.

The root of what I am calling our Anthropocene moment is the desperate hope that the very technological prowess that has put our natural world, and therefore the bodies of those who live in it, in such dreadful danger may also be turned, pivoted — as it were converted — to safeguard Life; that we may overcome by technical means the vulnerability of those bodies. It’s really the most sophisticated (and potentially insidious) version I know of Stockholm Syndrome.

Look for a rather different fictional perspective on these matters in tomorrow’s post.

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.

The Thing of the Year

For many Decembers now I have looked forward with great anticipation to John Wilson’s list of his favorite books of the previous twelve months — I always find fascinating items I never would have come across on my own. Alas, John will no longer be issuing his list from his customary perch as editor of Books and Culture, since Books and Culture is no more, but I am hoping that he’ll be providing me great reading material for many years to come from his new place — about which you’ll be hearing more in due course.

This year’s list offers the usual flair and fun, but also one extra surprise: he has chosen my friend Adam Roberts’s fabulous novel The Thing Itself as his Book of the Year. I say a few things about the book here, but if you just click on the “Adam Roberts” tag at the bottom of this post you’ll see what a stimulating interlocutor Adam has been for me on the past few years, and in how many ways. So it’s just delightful to me to see my friend and favorite editor commending so warmly the work of my friend and favorite active-SF-novelist.

on re-reading Le Guin

I’ve recently re-read Ursula Le Guin’s most famous novels, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) — the former for the first time in, yeeesh, I don’t want to think about how long. The latter, which has always been my favorite among her novels, revealed some structural flaws this time around: I really don’t think she brings Shevek’s story to as successful a conclusion as it deserves. The Dispossessed would have been better as a longer and more sweeping book, something more Tolstoyan in scope, perhaps with more of the history of the Odonian movement — but then, Le Guin really doesn’t do Tolstoyan sweep. A shame, in a way, given that so many of her themes invite it. (I wonder if Virginia Woolf’s famous comment in A Room of One’s Own that women’s books are likely to be shorter than those of men is relevant here?) By contrast, on this reading The Left Hand of Darkness struck me as a genuine masterpiece, perfectly calibrated and balanced, and even more moving than I had remembered.

In both books, Le Guin is great on sexual politics, in several senses of that phrase: she shows the ways that the political order is shaped by sexual experience, and sexual experience by the political order. (The former is primary in The Left Hand of Darkness, the latter in The Dispossessed.) I’m reminded that both books were written in the era of “The personal is the poltical”, and it shows — in important and useful ways.

Le Guin’s interest in showing how dimensions or facets of our experience that we like to keep separate, or at least to conceptualize separately, ceaselessly impinge on one another is a testimony to her moral realism, her unsentimental acknowledgment of what we Christians would call fallen human nature. There’s an important passage in The Dispossessed where Shevek’s friend Bedap argues that the very inequities of power that the Odonians fled when they colonized Anarres have subtly and quietly found their way back into the society. He illustrates this by referring to Sabul, an intellectually limited physicist who has been clever enough to build up his own little sphere of power, and is constantly thwarting Shevek’s work.

“You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can’t, he prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. Right? In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. Not from intellectual excellence, he hasn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.”

When I read this passage I think of “The Day Before the Revolution,” the companion story to The Dispossessed, in which Odo reflects on her own life’s work:

She had never feared or despised the city. It was her country. There would not be slums like this, if the Revolution prevailed. But there would be misery. There would always be misery, waste, cruelty. She had never pretended to be changing the human condition, to be Mama taking tragedy away from the children so they won’t hurt themselves. Anything but. So long as people were free to choose, if they chose to drink flybane and live in sewers, it was their business. Just so long as it wasn’t the business of Business, the source of profit and the means of power for other people.

Human nature is such that “misery, waste, cruelty” can never be eliminated. Thus The Dispossessed is not a utopia, even an “ambiguous utopia,” in the phrase that has gradually become the book’s more-or-less-official subtitle. For Le Guin, the question is whether we accept a social order that is effectively designed to exacerbate misery, waste, and cruelty, or whether we will choose one that makes domination more difficult for the Sabuls of the world. Either way there will be costs, and Le Guin isn’t shy about showing what they are. That’s why, for all its flaws, The Dispossessed is an essential book for our times.