Posts Tagged ‘Novel’

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Trans: Olena Bormashenko), “Roadside Picnic” (1972, 2012); Leslie Stein, “Time Clock: An Eye Of The Majestic Creature Book” (2016); Stanislaw Lem (Trans: Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox), “Solaris” (1961, 1970, 2002)

August 30, 2016

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The key to understanding the underlying philosophy of Roadside Picnic is in the third chapter, the conversation between Noonan and Pillman, which is also an expansion on the interview with Pillman in the prologue. Noonan chastises Pillman for promoting theories that say the alien Visitors didn’t notice or care about the native population of earth, but simply dropped their stuff off and left without a thought. “Where do you get this disdain for man?” Noonan says; but in reality Pillman is not the one with disdain – as seen in his two relatively brief appearances in the book, he is simply skeptical about the idea that first contact occurs because of humanity or earth’s centrality, or that communication is a necessary outcome – as he explains in the prologue, the significance of the event is not the possibility of humans understanding the extraterrestrials, but that the possibility of life on other planets exists at all. He is the face of the ambiguous science fiction concept that provides the novel’s setting, not answering the questions we may ask about the nature of the technology, but telling us that it’s unimportant, that communication and understanding in this situation is unimportant. The only thing that matters is the expanding possibilities in the known universe. He acts as the Strugatskys’ contextualizing tool, but he doesn’t know much more than the readers about what the Zone is – that knowledge is beside the point.

Really, it’s almost every character other than Pillman that has disdain for man – specifically, Noonan’s “friend” Redrick, whose life as one of the Stalkers has driven him to completely reject all but a few people in his life, never realizing how much of his existence has been subsumed by the Zone until the end. Almost every relationship he has with the others on the edge of the Zone is paired with profound hate: hate for the authorities who try to prevent his scrounging, hate for his fellow Stalkers who are in a constant competition to see who can swindle the other, hate for anyone who knows less about the Zone then he does. We are in Rederick’s mind for most of the book, whether it be the introductory chapter where he is the narrator or the rest where he is picked apart but an omniscient one, and every thought seems to be fed by anger and disgust – his feelings about his destroyed hometown seems to melt away, any sentimentality buried by the realization that he has always had essentially nothing, and seems to want nothing. He seems to care for his family, but even that is undercut by his final thoughts in the closing chapter, his desire to owe no one – being a Stalker has become his sole source of meaning, beyond even his desire to make money, becoming the barest sort of survival drive. The significance of the Zone even begins to influence his family life, where two of the only people he shows affection for are casualties of the Zone’s malignant influence.

Redrick’s life is Exhibit A in Pillman’s theories about this story’s first contact – the very existence of the extraterrestrials and their technology becomes the most significant thing in his life, every action revolving around journeying in and out of the Zone or justifying his reaction to the authoritarianism and criminal greed that were themselves reactions to the visit. Many of the characters seem trapped in this cycle, trapped by how much the Zone has changed human civilization – and despite Noonan’s attempts, answers for what the Zone is and why it’s there cannot provide an escape from it. The only question that can seemingly be asked of it is “now that this stuff is here, what can be done with it?”, a question that is the driving force behind the stalkers and the scientists – but even that ends up having no possibility for conclusion.

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Continuing more or less directly from Stein’s previous Eye Of the Majestic Creature book, Time Clock moves the stories in the direction of small-scale internal conflict, a difficult attempt to balance what you want and what you think you want (complicated by what others want as well.) After spending most of the previous books drifting from job to job, Larrybear decides to get a more serious career going, the kind of structure that she seemed to be looking for in previous stories – there seems to be less of a sense of wandering, even when Larry does move to different settings, with a drive for predictability and security. The one big but brief change that occurs in the middle of the book is initiated with a big, dreamy flourish, pages of outdoor whimsy that contrasts the concrete urbanity of the rest – the one thing unifying both visuals, though, is their inability to affect Larry, who seeks some kind of fulfillment in two settings, the pastoral openness of the country and the tied-down structure of a New York job, but can’t seem to make it work. It’s an ambivalent streak that runs through the whole book in a way unlike previous Eye stories.

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Every story here also seems to have Larry become aware of how other people find solace with their passions while she struggles – she goes to a convention for her artistic calling, where she finds camaraderie with the other artists as well as a “nemesis” whose popularity and methods are the inverse of her situation, but after that point sit becomes increasingly difficult to find inspiration for her work. The move back to the country is spurred by her talking guitar’s increasing sense of isolation and his attempt to find his own calling – but while the move benefits him greatly, she has trouble adapting again and in a fit of low-key desperation goes back to her job and the city, seeking something to do other than constantly ponder what’s supposed to happen next. But no decision in this book is ever not fraught, always in some way tainted with regret – no matter how committed one is to their life choices, it always seems like there’s more good than bad and there’s always something better somewhere else. It’s a secret that everyone other than Larry has figured out, it seems, and by the end she seems to have become even more isolated.

In that way, I guess the wandering feeling of older Stein books isn’t entirely gone – but where before it seemed to contain possibilities, now it just feels lost.

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I decided to read Roadside Picnic because of the essay Lem wrote about it in Microworlds (wherein he attempts to come up with the most logical explanation for the whys of the technology, as Lem is wont to do), and it’s easy to understand why Strugatskys’ novel interested him: in its active refusal to show humanity understanding the signs of alien life, they are playing within the same realm of science fiction thought that Lem himself often did. Lem has often explored the difficulties of a true cultural understanding or exchange between species of wildly different evolutionary histories with vast differences in between, and while Picnic uses the unknown quality of the extraterrestrial presence mainly as a background element (an important one) without the depth of argument that Lem gives it in his own work, the strange incomprehensibility of the alien signs and the human reaction (how the limited nature of human cognition would lead to numerous assumptions as obsessive individuals attempt to crack the indecipherable code) is still very much in line with it.

Solaris is many ways the inverse of his other alien contact novel His Master’s Voice in that it involves humans visiting an alien “intelligence” rather than the alien intelligence being visited upon them. Long stretches of the book are devoted to recounting the history of scientific studies of the sentient ocean, the many theories about the hows and whys of its existence and what it can do and whether humans can communicate with it, volumes of study and debunked crackpot hypotheses that shift and change – Solaris becomes a vessel through which the scientific community displays the aforementioned limits of human cognition, bias and the herd mentality of consensus. Kelvin retreats to the vast library of Solaristic material as a way to further understand what is happening around him, but finds that even first-hand accounts and the words of his own mentor only suggest that Solaris can only be understood by humans in entirely subjective terms, a complicated act of interpretation that never reaches any conclusion. Each of the three human characters in the book have their own “visitors”, dealing with them in different ways after very similar initial reactions – subjective possibilities also seen in the reports Kelvin reads – the true picture of Solaris seems to be distorted because it appears in different forms to different people, contorting itself to their minds.

The most wondrous passages in the book describe the series of nature phenomenon that occurs in the ocean, large ephemeral monoliths and complicated acts of mimicry when humans arrive, which constantly straddle the line between deliberate acts of beautiful creation and mindless reactions to stimuli – the possibility of the latter, of course, making the ocean’s power to spontaneously form life and “read” the innermost minds of the station crew all the more disturbing. As an act of a cognizant being that can be benevolent, malevolent, or even just confused, doing something like physically manifesting Kelvin’s guilt into a independently intelligent being could be understood in human terms, but if it is able to do that unconsciously it is psychological violation and trauma without any purpose at all, and uncontrollable loosing of our own unconscious minds. This is the idea of God that Kelvin speaks to Snow about in the final chapter, a thing with the greatest possible power with no understanding of how to use it – what’s more interesting, or concerning, about this form of non-contact is not simply us being unable to reach another mind, but knowing that it can reach yours and reacts in its own inscrutable cosmic way.

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JG Ballard, “The Unlimited Dream Company” (1979, 2014) & Jane Mai, “See You Next Tuesday”(2015)

February 29, 2016

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I found it interesting to look at Unlimited Dream Company through the lens of the previous Ballard novel I read, High-Rise. Both revel in the destruction of suburban symbols, the most carefully-maintained orders in our modern society – homes and businesses (the specific identities and descriptions emphasized in the same way the vocations and hobbies of the people are) become enveloped by the chaos unleashed by the events of the book, and the people themselves embrace it, having awaited the chance to throw off the shackles of their quaint lives. The big difference between the two, then, is in the nature of the upheaval – High-Rise was a savage apocalypse, its setting wholly separate from the outside world and left in a disgusting disarray, garbage and death abound – but the apocalypse in Dream Company is one where the urban is retaken by the natural world, with plants overwhelming the concrete and the sky dominated by birds spawned (pretty much literally) by Blake, and the people inspired to look to the freedom of the animal world. Ballard delights in describing these microcosms in their broken state, but only in this one does something more beautiful grow from the cracks – it’s not just erasure, it’s renewal.

In the plot as well, there is a tension between those two types of change (erasure and renewal, I mean), as Blake slowly learns how he will use his messianic powers to instigate what he sees as an improvement of mankind. Although mostly unaware of it at first, he initially thinks that the way is through destruction – and so many of his early encounters with his multiple lover figures is capped off with attempted murder. This is the underlying ethos for much of the book – even in his creation of life there seems to be a lack of empathy on his part, and when he tries to teach, there is still part of him that wants to take and horde the people he is trying to uplift. The natural beauty of his power is diluted by the depraved humanity that underlies him – he knows something important is there, but hasn’t figured out how to handle it in a decidedly unselfish way. His inability to unlink violence from his revolution is reflected also in his search for the person who revived him – an emphasis on their apparent strength, Blake’s musings that whoever did may have also tried to kill him – and although the answer is clear from early on, he still manages to elide that solution by antagonizing the figure in the plane, avoiding it because of its symbolic tie to death. He only fixes course in the end when he realizes that he was not resurrected in an act of violence, but in an act of difficult but necessary self-driven change, and so inspires others to find the same path.

The cynical (but often well-founded) belief in the inevitability of violence has been a core part in much of Ballard’s work, but in this case he presents an alternative view. Not one that eliminates the violence completely, to be sure, but one that shows it as something that is to be overcome, a part of a cycle of human reinvention. The anarchic free-for-all of Ballard’s text, in this case, has a purpose other than solely reflecting our own capacity to perpetuate it.

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This book really plays with its diary/sketchbook format – the scribbled lines and extra text in the margins suggests that every comic is stream-of-consciousness, but also thoroughly considered, reworked and drawn over to best get the story across. There isn’t a time line to any of the comics – which the introduction tells you upfront – so everything feels less like a straight diary and more like a series of recollections – everything in past tense, memories flooding back in response to something – with the short text pages (written in the same brush strokes as the the notes on the comics themselves, but larger, getting you to pay more attention to what’s written) indirectly commenting on the undercurrents of the comics, conflicts of identity and self-worth. The book is often having a conversation with itself, an ongoing project that is constantly self-reflecting even when it doesn’t make direct callbacks.

Identity plays a large part in the humour and sadness in the comics – the book is about a person named Jane Mai (referred to almost exclusively as Jane Mai), who may or may not reflect the life and personality of the author, who is also named Jane Mai. The character introduction includes three different characters named Jane Mai, as well as Nurse Janey, “a fictional character” – in the page before, the text that explains the non-linearity of the stories also says “I’m not even sure I exist tbh” – which is a joke, but also keys you in on one of the main concerns of the book – the identity in something autobiographical is never completely clear. Mai (the author) mentions it directly in one of the text pieces (and even in an introductory “making of” comic at the beginning), but there’s an idea in the world of diary/sketch comics (as part of social media) that you are trying to sell your personality, hoping the amusing or “relatable” details of your life will ingratiate you with the audience (“What is Jane Mai? She is a product I made and sold” she writes, “And the sadder she got the more popular she was” – because depression and self-esteem issues make for funny and very “relatable” comics, it seems.) This is only one manifestation – many of the comics and asides deal, in one way or another, with how you as a person exist for others, be it family, friends, or (if you’re a creative sort) an audience – you perform to meet their expectations, or to shrug off those expectations in your own way – but in either case, it may feel that everything is forced upon you by the rest of the world, and you can’t seem to escape wanting to shape how you are perceived.

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Tailoring your life details like that, however, can also be used as a distancing tool, to help avoid the internal and external pain by making others (and maybe yourself) laugh about it – but in See You Next Tuesday, it’s also clear that Jane Mai’s goal is to eventually be okay with herself, in whatever form that takes. The book is an intentionally scattershot depiction of that journey – there’s no definite line to say why it ends where it does, but that’s sort of the point.

James Tiptree Jr., “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” (2004) & Larissa Lai, “Salt Fish Girl” (2002)

November 29, 2015

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There is a deep streak of despair underlining most of the stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever – there is very little sympathy for humanity in most of the stories, and a conviction that our darkest behaviours will inevitably show themselves. Despite being science fiction (for the most part), a lot of these stories are essentially horror as well, slowly building towards a sudden realization and the accompanying violence, and usually making one ask “what have we done?” Reading several of Sheldon/Tiptree’s stories in a row is a pretty unsparing experience, even if the level of shock varies between them.

The first story, “The Last Flight Of Doctor Ain”, gets to the point immediately – however, it’s short enough that it’s possible to miss the impact of the final punch. However, it is followed by “The Screwfly Solution”, which is certainly the most disturbing thing I’ve read recently – a gradually escalation of all-out hatred and inescapable violence, fusing both the uncontrollably natural with our tendency towards rationalizing things. By the midpoint, it becomes completely unrelenting, capping off with a coda that could be seen as darkly humorous, but without diminishing the horror of the previous pages. Importantly for the second story, “Screwfly Solution” introduces readers to the gendered violence that becomes one of the most important themes running through all of the stories in the book.

That theme is rather explicit in many of the stories (most distressingly in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” with its slow and subtle series of revelations), but one particular example of it is in the narration of stories like “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and the first half of “With Delicate Mad Hands”, which seemingly goes out of its way to berate the physical and behavioural faults of its woman protagonists (Philadelphia Burke in “Plugged In” is repeatedly described as a beast, and it’s considered good that she is locked away controlling a more “palatable” girl); its the kind of thing that appears in the dialogue as well, but seems to be even more pronounced when the cruelty is coming from the author itself. In a lot of ways, this seems to culminate in “The Women That Men Don’t See”, which subtly reverses things by having the women able to escape that world of viciousness – which would seem like a victory, but because the story itself is narrated by a man who simply does not understand what they know, that seeming triumph is portrayed in a different light. Likewise, “With Delicate Mad Hands” ends a slightly happier note, if only in a fleeting way.

In “The Women Men Don’t See”, the sex-gender hierarchy is shown as a all-encompassing force that seems outside ourselves (although it may only SEEM that way), which is another major theme running through several of the stories. Humanity discovers that everything it knows could simply be a tool for some unknown force – as in the title story (one of the most bleak, introducing its fantastical element only to further that bleakness) or especially in “A Momentary Taste Of Being”, where humans are a disposable component part of something else entirely (which also mentioned briefly as a possibility in “Slow Music”, with the image of free human consciousness being ground up into cosmic sausage.) That story is one of the ones that ends a note of inescapable destruction that is also seen in “On The Last Afternoon”, “Slow Music”, “And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”, and “The Man Who Walked Home” – natural forces seemingly destined to bring about the end, even when there’s a possibility for intervention. The most obvious example of this is in one of the more fantastical stories, “Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death”, where a strange alien animal tries to break its own deadly life cycle – but of course, the natural system is far more durable than it expected, as it always seems to be here. If the plan seems natural, it seems resilient to subversion – and maybe its under that logic that the abuse of our gender-oppressing world seems equally inescapable.

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There are many running parallels throughout Salt Fish Girl, but one particularly interesting through line concerns ideas of homogeneity, both physical and cultural, which has a ominous omnipresence in both halves of the story. The worst thing that seems to happen to the protagonists in both time periods is a loss of varying degrees of distinctiveness, which begins in the very first chapter when Nu Wa gives up her non-humanity, which is accompanied by the searing pain of change that also ends up recurring throughout the book – and the pain is not just in the loss of one’s identity, but in attempting to reclaim it as well (when she steps back in the water.) The physicality of that opening act of conformity is also broadly seen in Miranda’s story as well – much of it taken up by her exuding durian smell, which threatens her place within the extremely stifling suburban world, and also required some painful and arcane methods to eliminate. A snake tail and the constant smell of pepper and cat piss seem like very strange traits to represent this idea, but they are ultimately symbolic of a greater need to hold on to one’s identity, even when one is confronted with the possibility of loneliness as its direct result.

The book’s conception of a homogeneous world is taken into the extreme with the introduction of cloning – physically identical people engineered to fit a predefined role. But where Miranda, by her own volition or others’, is forced to push herself towards conformity, Evie and her family (all clones of each other) as outsiders can subvert that by showing how they can still be distinct people – and along the way manipulate their own genetically manipulated origins to sabotage the corporations. She embraces her non-humanity, and by doing so allows Miranada to eventually do so as well, bringing the story back to Nu Wa

The cultural identity half of that theme is integrated a bit more subtly, but is just as important. It is the most obvious in the middle section of the China story, where Nu Wa is taken to the Island of Mist and Forgetfulness, which is a timeless place in more than one way (oddly removed from any time period, it is described like a culmination of the entire 20th century), but more importantly one that oozes corporate, western monoculture, and has the side effect of “cursing” Nu Wa into forgeting her own language, subsuming part of her cultural identity. But even before then, there are signs of that world – while Nu Wa lives a sort of free, if morally dubious, life as a thief, the Salt Fish Girl is forced to join the legion of poorly-treated workers in an increasingly industrialized South China, itself a sign of encroaching modernity that reaches its nadir in the Miranda chapters, where the Salt Fish’s Girl incarnation is literally a person made to work in a factory. But in the earlier parts of Miranda’s story, however, the same culture that produced that appears in other forms as well – it is emphasized that Miranda’s family is one of the very few Chinese families in the very white, capitalistic enclave of what was once the very multicultural city of Vancouver – which likely makes Miranda’s smell, and the threat it poses to her family’s stability in that social ecosystem, an even more demanding issue to her parents, especially her careerist father. At various points, there is a lot of emphasis in the text on food – from the durian that is central to the story to the some of the dishes served by other Chinese characters – and they signify some of the few places where distinctive culture can still exist apart from the manufactured one. It seems minor, but in that society, it’s an important place to start.

More so on a personal identity level is the songs written by Miranda’s mother, which are crucial throughout the book. There is a large focus on advertising in that corporatist/conformist culture in Miranda’s chapters – which involves turning something personal into something broad and robbed of specific meaning. Miranda selling the rights to the songs is seen as a great betrayal of that, which spirals further when she gets a job at an advertising firm and lets her own artistic visions be compromised in the name of selling, misusing both her and her mother’s artistic talents. Evie and the other Sonias again subvert that by using slogans embedded in foot prints (which also subverts that society’s increasing distrust of physical connection with the planet itself) as a form of protest. Personal expression is demonstrated as another important part of identity, and a powerful tool against encroaching sameness.

John Gardner, “Grendel” (1971, 1989); Jen Lee, “Vacancy” (2015); & JG Ballard, “High-Rise” (1975, 2014)

July 27, 2015

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Grendel’s journey throughout the book is to weather the outside world and defend his own semi-nihilistic philosophy. Although his ways do come from some sense of morality (for example, his disgust with the human’s capacity for hypocrisy and lies, as demonstrated by the Shaper’s deft ability to craft and create both), he decides his ultimate purpose is to create and also deny meaning to others, especially wannabe heroes like Unferth. He even denies it to himself – when he finds beauty and empathy in Wealtheow, he intentionally forces himself to attack her not only to belittle his nemeses, but to prove to himself above those petty feelings (but they leave their mark, for sure.) But for him to be on defensive, he has to recognize that others exist – and that is also the underlying basis for his decisions, the constant need to find some way of communicating with people in the ways he can’t with beings like his mother. Nothingness is not necessarily a blank slate, after all – it can be a reaction, a conscious decision to remove things from one’s life, and while Grendel often observes nothingness around him in nature, his own acts are deliberately made to be the antithesis of the Danes in one way or another.

From his first encounter with them, Grendel decides to be what Hrothgar and his band think of him – a malignant natural being, or an angry spirit (and at various points, he even tries to play both roles among different humans.) Since he is, for the most part, unable to communicate with them verbally, he uses the definitions thrust upon him as his mode of expression – violence becomes his language. He can even justify it, being told by the dragon and later telling himself that his violence inspires the Danes to even greater things, even if Grendel himself finds many of these things (like the eternal warring and powermongering) distasteful. As ultimately destructive as their interactions are, Grendel feels a part of something in his battle against the Danes, in some kind of conversation, the kind he can never have with his mother (who ironically seems to be the only one with genuine concern for Grendel, despite his never ending condescension) and the mindless animals whose actions he explains to the readers.

The great challenge for Grendel following his meeting with the dragon is keeping the bits of his stance he agrees with while defying the others – and especially seeks to balance the inherent meaninglessness of everything while still having full control of his life. Being an instigator is his main method of proving that despite the dragon’s claim of omniscience, that there might not be an inevitable end for him. He loses that sense of control when Beowulf appears, ending his reign in a way he could never foresee (and by someone who shares the need for violence, but in a way that Grendel does not abide by, seeing him as insane) – and Beowulf is conflated with the dragon because of this, becoming the embodiment of the ideas Grendel wanted to defy. The dragon (and by extension, Beowulf) is a kind of Satan figure in Grendel’s life, offering the possibility of evil but taking it out of Grendel’s hands – but even at the end, Grendel will not allow his self-direction to be taken from him, turning his defeat into a stupid mistake, an “accident.” It could happen to anyone, he taunts his animal oppressors in the final lines – but it happened to him.

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I’m personally quite fascinated with what legacy our modern society will leave, especially in the theoretical future without us. Vacancy isn’t necessarily about that, but every image in it is based around a very similar idea, at least – in the background, the abandoned locales, and the hand-me-down clothes worn by all the animal characters. Most interestingly, through the circular sequence of the events – starting in the suburbs, going to the wild, and ending in the suburbs – we see how the world left behind has become an integrated whole, our hollowed towns becoming yet another ecosystem with its own rules. The only thing separating our homes from nature is our human perception of difference – take that away, kick down the wooden fence, and suddenly it becomes a continuum, as it probably always was (after all, animals like raccoons have treated it as such for so long…)

Simon, the dog, he hasn’t quite figured that out at first. He seems only a recent oprhan, desperate to find a new family to join, but not quite able to make the transition. He sees the opportunity once the two wild scroungers appear, following them into the wild world just beyond his familiar one – desperate to prove himself as an adaptable, wild animal himself. But he’s still, at heart, a pet, and even beyond that a creature bred far away from eating rotten garbage off the dirt. It’s not that he wants to leave what he knows, but that he thinks he has to – with the separation of ecosystems gone, with no one else left protect as a guard dog should, there is a void he feels he has to fill. He does that, eventually, but not in the way he thought – him and his wild companions find that the abandoned remnants of human society are as good a home as any. It’s all an animal’s world, anyway, and at least it holds some aura that protects them from the dangers of the woods (the wolves talk of the danger of the suburbs, but is it just a memory, or is there something else still there as well?)

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Whatever quick-acting apocalypse left these animals in a human-free world did the majority of the work blending the town and the woods together – even when beyond the fence, the evidence of our existence forms permanent new pillars of the wilderness. A crashed plane blends in with the autumn trees, abandoned buildings become places to hide, and garbage and belongings that hold little meaning blanket the ground. There are certainly other boundaries, in-between places, but we seem to have left behind much, reshaped the world in our absence. We can see the visual remnants of our lives in almost every panel, and while still subtly highlighted, through the colours alone we can see how those remnants are simply part of the landscape. In the land, and in the animals, the memory of our time remains.

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Once a Ballardian societal breakdown begins, it usually continues on as you’d expect, but part of the angle in High-Rise is how quickly it happens. It doesn’t seem like the escalating violence and hatred found in the tenants was a particularly grand shift in those people – quite the opposite. From the moment the plot kicks in, pretty much everyone (especially the trio of characters we follow) seems anticipatory, giddy, about the possibility of their petty annoyances being used to justify greater and greater destruction. There are external elements brought in, too, the idea that the crush of always being surrounded by an all-encompassing mass humanity (the whole thing doesn’t kick off until all two thousand or so apartments are occupied) is a contributing factor, and scenes of the tenants interacting (mostly by tossing their trash downwards) on their numerous leeringly used balconies establish a distinct lack of privacy. But these, while sometimes interesting, seem more and more like asides as the novel continues. No, despite how oppressive and divide-enforcing the design of the complex is, what really instigates the mini-apocalypse is what the tenants themselves bring into the building.

This is fairly obvious from those characters we follow – Laing and Royal both have plenty of baggage they bring in from the beginning (the former’s divorce, and the latter’s accident as well as his unique position as the designer of the high-rise itself) but those are used primarily as excuses more than anything. These background details serve as feeble justifications for eschewing society in order to force themselves into the roles they imagine themselves in – trying to find some sort of definition to their lives that only a lawless land could provide, a differing but philosophically related need for control. Royal, in particular, remembers how he’s always wanted to build a zoo, hides himself away from the people to stay in the company of animals (his dog and the gathering mass of gulls), but returns when he determines that he has successfully created his zoo after all (only to have it all taken away when he realizes the animals don’t stay in their cages.) They reflect each other in scale determined by their home floor – of course Royal wants to lord over everyone at the top of the high-rise, while Laing on the lower (but not bottom) floors seems perfectly fine trying to jockey for power among a small group of abandoned people – but he’s the one who makes it through to the end, as his lower ambitions are more achievable in the chaos.

More broadly, as a corralled cross-section of middle class life, many of the tenants are treated as some degree of non-entities – names eschewed for job descriptions or social roles. This seems not only to kind of show what kinds of people we are dealing with generally, but also helps reinforce the class hierarchies – the upper class jewellers and executives with their endless parties above, and the decreasingly less prestigious working people (often with the social butterfly-crushing burden of children) as one descends. When the degradation sets in, many of them throw away their obligations to anything outside the pointless tribal warfare of the apartments (and Laing is used to demonstrate this as he slowly argues himself out of never leaving the apartment) – so in effect, many of them remove the only defining characteristic the book gives them, and then what? They become anonymous mobs, with the hazy recollection of their former positions informing their behaviour, abstracted beyond memory – and while the hierarchy remains, it becomes ingrained rather than something tangibly delineated by occupations and money, prejudice both random and encoded in their DNA. Eventually, a great number of them then become corpses in a swimming pool, the logical conclusion of their identity -erasing devolution.

Shotaro Ishinomori (Trans: Dan Owsen), “The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past” (1992-1993, 2015) & Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Word For World Is Forest” (1972, 1977, 1980)

June 2, 2015

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I imagine the main interest in this book is its status as a cross-media historical curiosity. Here is a comic adaptation of one of the most well-regarded video games of all time, made by one of the preeminent manga artists (and general multimedia creator in Japan) of all time, published for mainly American audiences in a video game magazine for children, where the previous facts almost certainly eluded them. It’s also fun to wonder what Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto, himself once an aspiring manga artist, thought when he convinced someone who was very likely a major influence to adapt one of his own games. The comic itself is sort of a book-sized fun fact.

I have no idea what value this comic has to scholars of Ishinomori’s oeuvre, or to anyone not fairly familiar with the series – but for those who are big into Zelda (and Link To The Past in particular), this is pretty interesting beyond just being nostalgia-bait, especially as a representation of the series from another time. For the most part, the comic follows the structure of the game fairly closely, going to place A to get item B after fighting boss X, etc – it’s pretty much a truncated runthrough. Each chapter of the comic more or less correlates to most of the major milestones in gameplay (with some sections left out to keep things concise) – but, of course, there had to be changes in order to better use the form. Most of those changes seem to be incorporating well-trod adventure story traditions – there are some comic relief sidekicks added, and a muted unrequited love subplot (with a pretty downbeat conclusion) between Link and a fairy. The character of Roam is such a well-worn figure (the cocky rival of the unsure hero) and is essentially transplanted from Ishinomori’s other works. Link himself, who to this day defiantly shrugs off attempts at characterization, comes off as an affable goofball slowly becoming a heroic figure – a plotted version of that “journey”, which in the game is represented mainly by Link acquiring better equipment.

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That may be indicative of the whole project, really – taking something that was intentionally left vague in the game (or disregarded, possibly) and filled out with Ishinomori’s own sensibility. What little background and plot there was in the game itself is more or less maintained, without much being added aside from a few characters – and it reminded me how many plot elements in game were fairly dramatic for what is otherwise a pretty simple adventure (the introduction with Link’s uncle, for example) – there was stuff there for Ishinomori to bounce off of, even if it was pretty low key. The iconic quality of most of the character designs and environments remain as well, if only because that was all that was there in the first place – images and concepts. Some of the characters and concepts used here would be fleshed out and defined more concretely as the series progressed, so seeing them here creates a alternative interpretation, something that could only have really occurred fairly early on in the franchise’s history. Before ideas could be entrenched in the minds of both creators and fans – that’s probably the best time for another artist to project their own structures and ideals onto something, given a level of leeway that seems almost unthinkable now.

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In the introduction, Le Guin is the first to admit that, in retrospect, The World For Word Is Forest is not as morally complex as she would want, coming from a very specific desire to address then-current events. It is a direct response to the Vietnam War, and so much of it feels like a straight recreation (acknowledged in the text itself by characters of Vietnamese descent, even) – the colonial efforts are very much a mid-century military job, varying degrees of uncaring soldier and worker sent by their leaders to perform a task, using the resources and people of a foreign land to enrich themselves. There is some lip service paid to anthropology and other science work, but that of course ridiculed by the aforementioned soldiers – it’s a token effort to understand the world they are plundering. The contrast between the Earth men and Athsheans is stark, right down to the gender politics – the human colonies use of women as simple as the Athsheans’ gender roles are complex. Back in the introduction, Le Guin describes Captain Davidson as “purely evil”, the ultimate nightmare soldier – xenophobic, callous, genocidal from the very beginning, jumping to whatever paranoid conclusions are needed to justify his lone wolf violence. He is the most antagonistic character to appear in any of the Hainish cycle stories I’ve read, and while he drives the plot, the directions of it are fairly predictable, although likely intentionally so – it’s just waiting for the bomb to go off from the moment he appears.

That isn’t to say there is no complexity in the rest of the story. There is an acceptance of the inevitability, difficulty, and ultimate repercussions of inter-societal contact, something that weighs heavily on the other two major characters, Selver and Lyubov. The former is forced into a position that he never truly wants to accept, that of the Athshean bringer of death, the first murderer. Although christened a god – a bringer of great change – and using it to invoke his people to drive away the earth colonists, he remains ambivalent about his role, the first to know that the germ of a violence he has wrought will remain with his society, changing it irrevocably even as he tries to prevent annihilation. The more influence he has, the less he feels of his own unique civilization – the dual reality of the waking and dreaming worlds, a cornerstone of the Athsheans, grows weaker and weaker for him over the course of the story, until they seem no longer intertwined at all. The pieces of Selver’s culture is one of communication and peaceful discovering of self, both inward and outward, but once he introduces violence and war to them, he finds the inner sense of self thwarted by the outer realities, which now seem inescapable – he can only sadly dismiss the dream apparition of his friend Lyubov after causing his death, the affect of one reality overcoming all others.

Lyubov, the lone “good” human, is himself forced to recognize what his presence means in his sections as well. He seeks only to understand the Athsheans, to protect them from the more aggressive elements of the invasion – but he himself is still a colonizer, casually overlooking how he disrupts the lives of his subjects as he tries to learn about them. Despite trying to be the one to mitigate the violence, he becomes part of it, and his influence on the course of the story slowly dawns on him at the very end, when he sees how he has failed both sides of the conflict. It is left ambiguous whether there even was a better way for such a meeting of cultures to have happened – the benevolent aliens who appear to present some revolutionary communication technology to the earth humans seem to be a model, but even their presence is seems strangely condescending in the usual imperial sense (bringing their newly-formed intergalactic government on the unwary earth men out of the blue), and is undone by the end, their contributions destroyed in the crossfire. The ultimate conclusion leaves enough space for a more considered exploration of the planet in the distant future, but Selver’s acknowledgement of the likely aftermath of the story suggests that no solution is guaranteed to avoid causing similar damage again. They have all seen the most disastrous version of contact, and it seems that the terrible costs means they can’t even imagine a less destructive alternative.

Endnotes for 2014

January 17, 2015

I have some more focused book posts I’m planning to get around to, but on a whim I also wrote some paragraphs on many of the books I read in 2014, including a few that didn’t end up on the site, and some quick additional thoughts on ones that did. So, here is my 2014 Year In Review round-up:

The first thing I read this year was The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, something that I had been holding off for a while despite having no real reason to hold it off. I didn’t write a post because I didn’t feel I could flesh out any of my ideas into anything coherent or interesting. I found it particularly interesting to read a piece of historical fiction that essentially rewrites some of the history of something relatively minor, maybe something that many of the readers wouldn’t even notice. I still am parsing, trying to determine what I think about this in terms of a medium that still grapples with the truth of its own founding narratives.

I read two books about the natural world back to back – David Quammen’s Spillover and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. The things I learned from Quammen’s book, which was from a few years ago, turned out to have startling relevance a little bit later in the year. Despite being a 2014 book, the things Kolbert wrote about did not seem to have as much import this year when faced with some more immediate issues, although it is an ongoing condition that remains to be grappled with. Reading them together was one of my first thematic duets this year – the role of man in the precarious and hostile environment we have mostly engineered for ourselves, fundamentally changing the natural system in many ways.

I managed to write a short thing about a Michael DeForge comic I read this year, after failing to come up with a proper response to Mostly Casual last year. Ant Colony (which I followed in webcomic form as it was being posted the year before) seemed a little more straightforward, and I could find a couple dumb things I wanted to mention about it, but I’m still terrible at discussing comics in a half-intelligent way. I also read A Body Beneath, but obviously didn’t write anything about that for the same reasons as Mostly Casual.

I watched a little over half-dozen giant monster movies earlier in the year, and wrote about those as well. It’s a genre that I have a longstanding affection for, and falling for a multimedia blitz like the mark I am, I decided to use it to brush up on my stuff. This was supposed to lead up to me going to see the new Godzilla movie, but that didn’t happen because that would involve leaving my house. This also led me to read August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which is a beautiful, utterly essential book that reminds me on every page why I love these stupid movies.

One author I decided to begin reading this year was J.G. Ballard, and I started with one of his novels (Concrete Island) and a collection of his short stories. The short stories provided some crucial context to development of his style and themes – even when he was working with more standard genre trappings, he had a knack for finding jarring, inward-looking story angles, and crafting claustrophobic environments. By the time we get to the novel (which I read first), he had transposed those ideals from the science fiction realm to a contemporary “realist” one, but with essentially the same results.

I read another volume of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, 07, which I forgot to write about, to be honest. It’s way more of a procedural volume, without any real major developments in the series ongoing, but since it’s those kinds of stories that make up the bulk of Dredd (and allow for more of the stuff I like from it – namely, the dark humour), it’s good to see what the creators do with their “free time” between epic storylines. The art is all over the place, leaving some interesting stylistic changes (the haunted house story in particular) and some less-than-interesting examples (a lot of the latter part of the collection), with the regulars like Ron Smith putting out their consistently good work.

My light summer reading was Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, which like Quammen’s book, had a lot of material that became in-your-face relevant by the end of the year. Questions of how policing in America is used against certain classes of people has finally become one of the most important social questions for everyone, rather than just the direct victims, and The Divide provides many disturbing examples of how the system has been set up like this. It’s not the whole picture, to be sure, but it’s an important piece of it. Reading 2011’s Griftopia gave me even more insight into some of the systems Taibbi described in his later book.

For one reason or another, I decided to go crazy with my Stanislaw Lem reading this year – I read four different books by him: one novel, one short story collection, one book of criticism, and one literary experiment, all the different forms Lem is known for. It’s pretty easy to look at all four of them together as Lem’s mission statement for science fiction: His Master’s Voice is his take on “first contact,” Mortal Engines covers artificial intelligence using older literary forms re-contextualized as science fiction (mocking those conventions in the process,) Imaginary Magnitudes* (which, despite its gimmick, is pretty much a collection of science fiction short stories in its own right) demonstrates how the genre can be applied outside standard literary modes, and Microworlds well, states its purpose pretty openly, attempting to form a basis for actual literary criticism within the genre. Even without many of his more well-known works, one could easily understand many of Lem’s pervading themes and stylistic tics just from these four books.

*To be discussed further at a later date.

Stanislaw Lem (Trans: Michael Kandel), “His Master’s Voice” (1968, 1983, 1999) & Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Dispossessed” (1974, 2003)

August 25, 2014

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Then anthropocentric view of extraterrestrial life, which forms the basis of our attempts to communicate with the stars (I.E. SETI), is the inevitable result of our general pattern of thinking: that the human organism is, for whatever reason, an evolutionary constant, that things have meaning that we can ultimately define, and that our knowledge has no limitations. If one civilization has arisen, why not another? And if there are multiple civilizations, no matter the differences between them, they should be able to communicate through sheer will, and the fact that communication is possible at all.

Lem will have none of that. His novel is made entirely to argue against these points – and he even specifically goes after American science fiction, whose unimaginative and banal ideas directly influenced our approach to stellar exploration.

His Master’s Voice is primarily a philosophical dissection of the idea of human knowledge being “pure” and limitless, with Lem, through the mathematician Hogarth, wondering if basic linguistic and cultural roadblocks would ever allow us to understand a message from an alien civilization. Scientific knowledge, despite the idea that being based in physical phenomenon prevents bias and agenda from leaking in, is entirely hobbled by our individual mentality and cultural consensus, and is subtly dependent on context (the personalities of the scientists and the political atmosphere of the times, with the Cold War setting of the novel being a perfect example.) Hogarth’s preface, where he goes over his defects as a human being and how they are intrinsically tied to his work in mathematics, are meant to demonstrate just that – no matter his arguments about mathematics as a “pure” science, he knows that it, and the knowledge derived from it, are not wholly removed from the people who devise them.

During the His Master’s Voice project (which is as much another game in the arms race as an attempt to advance human civilization,) the message from space is “decoded” in several different ways, all of which lead to multiple theories that prove inconclusive. Especially in the chemical-biological interpretations, the creation of the “Frog Eggs” and “Lord of the Flies” substances, the interpretation goes further than simply reading the message, but attempt to put a face on their origins – the motivation for the message, and thus some inkling of the alien civilization. The suggestion that the message itself, which might encode some part of a species genetics or may have even kick-started life on earth, provides the most openly anthropocentric possibility – either way, the senders are trying to create (or have already successfully created) a kinship with humanity. But no theories in the novel can be proven, and its entirely possible that the biological functions of the message are entirely coincidental.

The other possibility, that the message may in fact be destructive in nature, becomes the basis for one of the more intense episodes, where Hogarth and a fellow scientist think they may have discovered a weaponized use for one of the substances derived from the code – fearing that it would allow atomic weapons to become inescapable, and that the discovery would be inevitable. This, like all the other theories, turns out to be wrong or inconclusive, but the very idea – and the fact that something of that nature might be what the government and their cronies in the project were after all along – is another fearful constant in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, that it could end up being misused (though not specifically connected, Rappaport’s Holocaust memories remind us of the destructive capabilities of humanity.) This Armageddon scenario could have been a coincidence as well, but that only adds more unwanted baggage to the project – not only denying us the meaning we want, but also making the very act of trying to find into something self-destructive.

The story ultimately becomes Lem turning our belief in the inevitability of discovery into the inevitability of failure. On one hand, it is entirely possible that any civilization capable of sending an interstellar message might be too advanced for us to understand – but Lem seems even sceptical of that notion, wondering if inevitable evolutionary-linguistic distinctions would render any attempts to communicate more or less impossible. This leaves any message to be more or less interpreted in any way one can wish – so when we want to see us in the unknown, we will, and no amount of scientific method will mitigate that “impurity.”

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Though maybe more optimistic, Le Guin is working in the same context as Lem (six years later) – the Cold War exerting its influence on the practice and purpose of science. The novel being more concerned with the method and mode of societal/political thought, Shevek, the protagonist, finds himself brushing up against the idea of scientific “utility” – whether he was in the anarchist society of Anarres or the capitalistic country he visits on Urras, his value as a physics researcher was in what he can produce – either some benefit to his society, or a technological advancement to win the space race. Though his research was able to produce certain things (which was why the government of A-lo was willing to house him), his theoretical approach is the exact opposite of “practical science”, but is essential to his work. In His Master’s Voice, that overbearing oversight was more subtle – but not so in The Dispossessed, where Shevek has to deal with either societal disapproval or conspiracy in order to protect the “purity” of his research.

Le Guin is likewise also upfront about the relationship between science and ideology – but posits a more stable relationship, the two working in tandem rather inhibiting one another. Shevek’s theories were ultimately meant to be a reflection of the revolution his society represents but has fallen away from – in his attempt to more or less rethink time, he is taking the Odonian belief system and applying it to physics, butting heads with the increasingly rigid views of the current Anarres. One kind of revolution begets another – a society needs to be able to rethink the basis for their ideologies before they can truly make a change. In that regard, the broad implications of Shevek’s theory can be seen as more important than the substance, which is what the A-lo government completely misunderstood, and even the anarchists refuse to get.

Of the sections where the novel turns to Shevek’s life on Anarres, the development of that revolutionary ideology is put into greater context. From the earliest chapters, Le Guin sets Shevek as someone who is ill-at-ease among his people, and with the rest of the book revolving around his (literal) flight from that society, we may be led to believe that he has in some way abandoned the anarchist way of life. But the further it goes, the way he works his way through the traditional cycles of work of the Odonian, and overcomes his frustrations and finds peers in his wife and friends, Shevek comes to understand and revere his society far better – and his trip to Urras is seen in a different light, as someone willing to sacrifice his own place in his society in order for it to continue. Especially when he speaks with the Terrans and other aliens near the end of the book, Shevek becomes a figure of idealization – he believes in the morality of his society, and though it may be in a conservative era, the basis and everyday workings of it (through him we can see how the inhospitable nature of Anarres’ environment shapes the society, both negatively and positively) is still something he is willing to fight for, and his assurance inspires the off-worlders.

Much like Lem, Le Guin is also interested in language and how it shapes ways of thinking – and limits them. Even beyond the fact that Urras and Anarres have developed different languages (which for the reader is only implied), their languages are based on such diametrically opposed political systems, that even when Shevek can speak with his hosts on Urras, they find that there are many terms and phrases that each cannot grasp – how can Shevek understand all the ideas about ownership and money and class when he comes from a society without any of those things? At first, Shevek and his counterparts on the homeworld seem to avoid this by speaking through a third, seemingly neutral language – physics – but very quickly, he learns that even that has walls, when considering how those sciences are thought of and used (going back to the discussion of “practical” science.) Eventually, Shevek seems unable to even stand the upper crust citizens of Urras (and, especially when he gets drunk for the first time, could even see them as a corrupting influence, though his trip was partially to prove to Anarres that such an influence did not exist), and goes on his own to seek out the working class, and then to the extraterrestrial emissaries. Through conversation and through language, he seems to come to the same conclusion the propaganda about Urras on Anarres did – but he tries to hold out hope for them still.

Ideology, language, and knowledge are all seen as three interrelated systems – but that is not something that necessarily prevents change and expansion, as Shevek’s beliefs strongly influence his important theoretical work. There are limitations, things that lock out the minds of others and prevent them from seeing future possibilities – the governments of Urras fear the alien visitors and hope to push them aside with technological advances, while Shevek is ultimately willing to give his findings to the Terrans and Hainish because there is a greater chance they will be understood, both in use and in implication. And with that idea, he can then offer those other people, and the people of Urras as well, the chance to understand how his seemingly impossible society could continue – the seeds of something new.

J. G. Ballard, “Concrete Island” (1973, 2001)

June 11, 2014

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I have a keen interest in stories that attempt to find hidden places in the modern world, if only as a sneering counterargument to social Luddites who believe the interconnectedness and conformity of the urban landscape allows for no mysteries, strangeness, or wonder. The titular island is as good an example as any – just about the only place where a man can be stranded in plain sight, the speed of living represented by the motorway preventing human contact once Maitland is off the track, an impersonal and deadly barrier from the fleetingly omnipresent civilization. The land itself, which Maitland comes to identify with, is a perfect mixture of the cycle of urban decay and renewal (scrapyards, garbage, abandoned roads, old movie theatres and WWII bomb shelters, all left to rot as the modern motorways were built overhead) and natural reclamation, as the tall grass covers the remains of the vehicles and with isolation has grown wild. All old things left to their devices as the city curved around them, giving them a freedom from their constructed surroundings that becomes less frightening and more enriching to Maitland the longer he is forced to stay.

This is the modern deserted island, and so most of the survival tropes are played out – but with the imperialist undercurrents of the Crusoe lineage made quite prominent. It is repeatedly suggested that Maitland crashed his car intentionally – an escape from his back-and-forth lifestyle, between family, job, and mistress, vying to return to a more “natural” existence, even if that involves eating garbage and drinking wine in the back of his totalled vehicle. Though his desire for escape remains, once he realizes that no one will stop for him, and that no one seems to be looking for him, he more readily accepts that learning to survive in this dislocated space may be a rewarding experience. However, Maitland’s ideas of back-to-nature freedom – after his almost serenely gruesome disassociation fantasies where the tall grass and other island features replaces him – are revealed to be far more about control than freedom, the chance to finally enact all the things his social ranking and privilege should allow him. After all, he seems to be far from a hen-pecked husband or slave to his job – he seems to have plenty of say in his own life, as his dalliance with the doctor indicates – yet, he craves more power over his own existence, and the existence of others especially.

It begins only in his mind – playing out the roles of the women, removing all autonomy from them – and continues on when he discovers other people in his hidden enclave. At first, as in many encounters with “natives”, he is intimidated and ultimately reliant on Jane and Proctor – but once he realizes that neither have any intention of helping him, he returns to his survivalist mode and violently dominates them, his self-proclaimed connection to their home trumping theirs. Outcasts who seem unable to fit back in civil society, they have a reason to want to live in isolation – Maitland is there through carelessness or subconscious self-destructiveness, and takes advantage of their broken status to more or less enslave them, though he still recognizes the possibility of revolt, as all smart slave drivers do. Transliterating the shipwrecked tropes to a modern city, the story then becomes one about how the upper class abuse the lower classes, taking even the little scraps of living they have for themselves. After all, the story ends with Maitland remaining on the island as the other two exit (one way or another) – driving out those who once needed that space and making his rule of the land absolute. Their isolation was forced upon them, and they adapted – his eventually became self-imposed, something only a person in his position could do.

The conclusion of Concrete Island is that the modern world is not too dissimilar from the wilds of the centuries before, untamed spaces finding ways to co-exist with the constructed worlds that people like Maitland build over them – and that the treatment of them, and the people who find themselves there, have not changed much, either. Maitland ends up conquering the island, no longer hobbled by injury and able to escape on his own – but he wants his conquest to be decisive, so he eschews Jane’s help and decides to stay there until he chooses to leave on his own terms. According to Ballard’s narrative, the existence of wild terrain means that the people like Maitland will eventually find them, demystify them, and exploit them – the eventual fate of all islands.

Don DeLillo, “Mao II” (1991)

December 23, 2013

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A recurring style choice I’ve noticed in DeLillo’s novels is that it often seems like his characters rarely talk TO each other – more often it seems that they talk AT each other. Character interactions sometimes become monologues in ways that are often connected thematically, but never seem to actually involve one another. While this could be a simple writing tic, it plays right into the sense in DeLillo’s stories that the people are fundamentally disconnected – as alien to each other as their weird conversations are to the naturalism-seeking reader.

This is often threaded into a view of the world where images and ideas are more important to people than other people are – this is central to the way White Noise created an atmosphere of emptiness, where it is clear that commercial values and cheap thrills are the only methods of expression his characters know. This is equally important in Mao II, where ideology and images are the main form of expression, and the future seems to lie in a kind of collective movement that places an emphasis on those ideas and images, while the old forms of individualistic expression are left behind (“The future belongs to crowds.”) Bill Gray, the writer, represents the latter pretty thoroughly, and who realizes that his place in the world as a provider of ideas has been usurped by the terrorist, who attempts to change the world entirely through ideology and imagery. The bulk of the story being Bill’s attempts to somehow situate himself in that milieu, becoming part of a covert operation in the form of a poetry reading.

Somewhat ironically, his life had already become more picture than idea – trapped rewriting the same unpublished book over and over again, having acquired the reputation of a recluse. His obsessive assistant Scott making sure he stays that way, as Scott became enamoured with Bill as an ideal more than as an actual novelist, and his primary goal seems to be to maintain Bill Gray the writer’s status as a mystery rather than as someone who actually produces things. The novel begins with the incursion of Brita, who photographs writers – reducing them entirely to a catalogue of images, artistic replications. Despite being similar in nature, Brtia’s project is still at odds with what Scott wants – the image of the unknown vs. The image of the known, but it’s still an image, still nothing on the actual man himself, whose life and work seem of no importance to them (knowledge of Bill’s past seems to only important to Scott as a symbol of his power over the image.) All these, however, are still entirely individualistic in nature – though they strip him of his depth, it still maintains the idea that one man (or writers in general) can be important in a way they manufacture.

The other major character, Karen, goes in the opposite direction – she appears in the prologue as someone joining a religious movement, whose individual identity slowly drifts away as part of a mass marriage ceremony. She spends most of the book recovering from this, but she’s the one who seems to have the most sympathy for Bill, whose life seems to always be wrest away from him. She quietly absorbs Bill’s ideas, and then like him, wanders off – she ends up in New York City, spending her times among the homeless. This is some of the closest any of the characters come to real human interaction – Karen learns the signs and sounds of the homeless community, listens (which is an important distinction – it is at least a one-way interaction) to a small-time drug dealer, and then begins finding ways to help them all out – which, ultimately, sends her back into her original religious fervour. Now part of another crowd, she asserts the ideas of collective happiness through heavenly intervention – trying to instill amongst a group who can do nothing but be a crowd the same kind of singular devotion as the mourners at Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral, seen by her and Brita earlier. Brita also realizes much of the same by the end of the book – the final chapter explaining how she switched from photographing writers to photographing “interesting things, barely watched wars, children running in the dust” – the symbols of destruction and terrorism, of general humanity instead of individuals, the very things Bill said replaced his job as the one to reconfigure human consciousness.

The writer doesn’t matter – the very purpose of Bill’s excursion to London and Cyprus, aside from escaping his life as a writer, is a European poet who remains anonymous, who exists merely as a person Bill himself invents. His poetry is never given a chance to be read, just as Bill’s novels are left unfinished or untouched upon in any substantial way – they are of little importance. Even Bill’s fictionalized account of his imprisoned contemporary (whose few in-text appearances are left ambiguous as to whether it is really him, or Bill’s version of him) is usurped by his own life – as his thought and research eventually turns to figuring out that he is dying, and even then he only ever acknowledges it in an abstract way. Reality becomes paramount, and Bill’s life as a shaper of reality ends by making him as anonymous as possible – dead in a foreign land, no identification, only unfinished work left to his name. His whole invented identity is enveloped by reality, which is likely what he had been seeking all along, becoming one of the dead paving the paths of history.

This is the “modern” (well, modern as in 1991) mode of expression – to be swept up in the dust, to be part of the crowd experiencing the full blast of reality. DeLillo is grappling with how the novel fares in this new idea economy – and how can it compare with the kinds of images you see on the news (then, and still today)? How can words compare with the visceral shock of real violence, the feelings of becoming part of a mass movement (even if, as the end of the book shows, even they have authors)? The act of writing, even if it reaches millions and touches some profoundly (like Scott), it is still a one-on-one activity – it cannot create the kinds of mass, history-making furor that the world as it is seems to provide on its own.

Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Lathe of Heaven” (1971, 2008)

September 23, 2013

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The Lathe of Heaven makes for an interesting companion read for Ubik – both books explore similar themes (a conflation of the internal/mind and the external/reality and the attempt to disentangle them being the most obvious one), but do so in a way that reflects Le Guin and Dick’s individual interests and writing styles. For the most part, Ubik leans more towards the internal, with the main struggle being Joe Chip’s gradual revealing of each layer of unreality, including the lessening of the life/death divide. All of it slowly becomes less and less – the outside world soon has little to no bearing on anything, and the minds of Chip and his fellow psychics simply become one mass in half-life. The way the mind alters the world is shown as a regression – the slow rot before ultimate oblivion as the mind falls apart. Contrasting that in Lathe, George Orr’s creation of new realities is viewed in the exact opposite way – it is always a progression, shown from the very beginning as an attempt to improve upon a shattered world – but the question remains whether this actually is an improvement. In this way, Le Guin’s story is far more external – not just in the surface plot, where Orr’s dreams really do change reality, but in that the way people can affect other people (the horror both Orr and Dr. Haber feel knowing that they effectively disappeared countless lives when they put an end to overpopulation) – so the multiple realities become more about how individuals connect, whereas Ubik displays a slow dissipation of that connection.

Le Guin is also a little more subtle in applying the concept of multiple levels of realities than Dick – but that’s simply because the question of “what is real” is more central to Ubik‘s plot, whereas the main conflict of Lathe is the one between Orr’s fear and Haber’s drive to alter reality. There is a question about whether any of the dream-influenced realities are any more real than any other one is brought up when Orr attempts to take his life into his own hands, knowing that all things in reality are really an expression of himself, and then in the end when Haber’s attempt to use the machine on himself unravels all that came before – his own dream being an alien body on the Orr-based realities built atop one another, and thus rejected. When Orr explains how the very beginning of the book is a deviation from the “original” reality – where he was attempting to escape death in a nuclear apocalypse – this question becomes even more prominent. There is no telling how many changes have been made by Orr’s dreaming, and each new dream complicates matters further – while, interestingly, each “effective” dream creates a different kind of science fiction world (allowing Le Guin to explore multiple dystopic subgenres), they all have a strange unreality to them, as they really creations of one “irrational” mind. So, both book deal with complex interactions between mind and matter, but do so in different ways, at different scales.

The horror apparent in both books are, then, actually quite similar – the realization of the discrepancies between what one “knows” is real and what is in the observable world. This is likely where Le Guin took direct influence from Dick himself – Orr is the only one who remembers all realities, including the ones that were created before he started being treated by Haber – and in each section where a new world order had been devised, he finds himself repeatedly unable to adapt to the small changes in his environment. The one difficult thing about the mind is that the things contained within are not within your control, memories and thoughts floating in and out, none of which can be acquired or removed when one thinks they are needed. Orr is unable to remove the memories of what the world had been like before, which is part of his tragedy, but he attempts to control what he thinks he can, his ability to dream – which leads to further tragedy. That many of these changes are of his choosing, thought not all of them, does little to assuage this – when he attempts to bring back Heather LeLache, and make them married in the new reality, he not only has to deal with how this wish changes her (all racial differences eliminated, which had the initial effect of removing the mixed-race Heather from that reality), but also has an implicit sadness as the “new” Heather also maintains few personality similarities to the “original”, becoming superficially “nicer” – possibly showing that Orr himself is not above trying to manipulate things to his advantage. But it ultimately cannot hold, and Orr is only able to “fix” the world in that it becomes a jumble of the different realities, with just enough left that is familiar (Heather’s original appearance and behaviour, the presence of the aliens) to allow him to move forward. Like Ubik, Lathe ends on a slightly positive note – though the uncertainty of reality remains, there is presented a possibility for adaptation (in Joe Chip discovering his ability to generate Ubik, and in Orr reconciling the combined reality with what he’s seen), showing that hope is in realizing what little power has over an amorphous landscape.

Lathe feels very much like Le Guin attempting to do something akin to Dick’s work, or at least in the sense of how the world and the mind of the individual interact. She gets even deeper into those issues by bringing in critique of concepts of psychology, personality, and sanity through the conflict between Orr and Haber. But that also leads back to where Lathe and something like Ubik part – the latter being more concerned with perception on the side of the perceptive, while the former goes into our how our perception interacts with the world at large, and whether our ideas of how civilization is to improve would really do so. It is two different ways of seeing how the internal and external worlds can be at odds, and the slow realization that what we think doesn’t match up with what is the hallmark of the style Dick pioneered and Le Guin re-examines.