Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

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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Sy Montgomery, “The Soul Of An Octopus” (2015) & Italo Calvino (Trans: Jonathan Cape, Tim Parks, Martin McLaughlin , “The Complete Cosmicomics” (2002, 2009)

June 6, 2016

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The danger in anthropomorphism is that it not only removes the unique beauty of many non-human animals by simply turning them into a different version of us, with all the same foibles and none of their own, but also because the same effect hinders our ability to understand their own behaviour – the way certain species view the world would be very different, guided by the specifics of their evolution in the same way we were. So, expecting them to operate and react in a similar way to us in certain situations is wrongheaded, and in some ways is even dangerous to both human and non-human.

The Soul Of An Octopus tightly walks the line between degrees of anthropomorphism – the journey Montgomery has in the book is not simply to “humanize” octopuses, but rather to show the commonalities in our separate forms of intelligence. She never denies that the octopus’s mind works on a very different level than our own (she regularly reminds us that it is an “alien” entity with a heightened capability of taste and limbs that may well operate independently), but from her own experiences and further research sees so much evidence of certain things – curiosity, memory, personality, stresses (also mentioned in one of David Quammen’s columns in Natural Acts), and possibly even a sense of humour – the driving force of the book becomes finding how a very different sort of animal could seem to share so many things in common with humans. Over the course of the book, we see how many of those similarities come from differences – an octopus needs to be as clever as many of the more highly-developed mammals because of how vulnerable it is physically – but there remains as many questions about how their brains work as there are for the rest of us.

Of course, the scientific and philosophical inquiries are only part of the book – the rest, and maybe the majority, of it is a recounting of the author’s interactions with several octopuses, in captivity and in the wild, which is what spurs her interest in octopus intelligence in the first place. She also becomes friends with the people who are involved with octopus keeping – the staff members of the New England Aquarium (both veterans of the trade and younger volunteers), partners in diving expeditions, and cephalopod-focused scientists – who help Montgomery become increasingly integrated into the going on of the octopus realm, all of them sharing in the same enthusiasm and awe of these animals. The author documents the lives and personalities of the staff as thoroughly as the octopuses themselves (each of whom have their own distinctive personalities, as Montgomery always tries to demonstrate), and the relationship with all the animals they look after are some of the most interesting parts of the book. Whether or not they go a little too far in making their fish and invertebrate and reptile charges seem more “human”, the idea that these people can identify the distinctiveness of each animal is both practical for the daily goings-on in an aquarium and fascinating – even if our species isn’t exactly the same as all the others, there still seems to be a possibility for some kind of understanding, especially in these close, regular encounters.

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Speaking of anthropomorphism, Calvino’s Cosmicomics engage in that in a different way – characterizing processes both macro and micro, cosmic and terrestrial, as a series of fables driven by desire, an endless pursuit of perfection, and a tragicomic relationship with change. Vast, unknowable processes – the expansion of the universe, the creation of the moon, evolution, light speed travel – become a series of adventures of one character, who is almost always in the pursuit of the same goals (i.e. The love of a specific woman or female-coded abstract concept) and is usually prevented from achieving them (An interesting contrast are the stories in the “t zero” section, where the process is almost reversed – a human situation is written as a complex scientific algorithm offering alternate theories of time and probability.) The inevitable course of history is driven by the travails of often highly abstracted characters, who in their lives mix the everyday and the grandiose.

In including all of Calvino’s stories in chronological order, you also see how these themes recur and change over time – and specifically through his series of stories that follow the structure and theme of Orpheus and Eurydice, the most direct being the trilogy of “Without Colours”, “The Stone Sky”, and of course “The Other Eurydice”, a revised take on “The Stone Sky” which even includes slightly different versions of the same sentences. These three in particular feature the previously-mentioned theme of seeking a state of perfection only to be stymied by the development of our world – a world above the surface of the world, a world with endless colour – with the narrator Qfwfq railing against the new world that ruins his static one (which occurs in other stories such as “Nothing and Not Much”) and robs him of his endless, unchanging life with his one true love, who either is left behind (in “Without Colours”) or leaves him behind (“Stone Sky”/”Other Eurydice” – as well as more in a sillier fashion in stories like “The Aquatic Uncle”). The presence of a world beyond himself and his chosen love is the recurring bane of Qfwfq’s existence in many stories, whether it is other characters like Lieutenant Fenimore in “The Form of Space”, or against a generalized mass of noise in the far more angry and cynical “Other Eurydice” (modern life seems to be a pestilence that is destined for eradication) – the whole of existence outside the pair is an affront to the perfection the narrator seeks in many stories, a compromise to his closed loop. But of course, very rarely does Qfwfq ever consider what others, his chosen partner especially (who often, in his mind, end up as some prize for his self-selected battles and rivalries), seeks in their own lives – so he is baffled when in stories like “Stone Sky”, they seem unwilling to simply follow him back tho their old world, to regress with him – they are lost and he is now alone, no longer having to worry about being overcrowded.

Kij Johnson, “At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees” (2012) & David Quammen, “Natural Acts: A Sidelong View Of Science And Nature” (1985, 2008)

April 5, 2016

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Many of the stories in this collection feature an imaginary intersection between humanity and the natural – an unknowable, unmovable force that individuals and whole societies build their identities around. Take for example, the longest (and probably best) of Johnson’s stories, “The Man Who Bridged The Mist”, which uses a fantastical and mostly unexplained concept (the titular mist, which isn’t even really mist) to demonstrate the extent of that intersection, as well as the tenacity of human progress – a public works project with both historical and individual significance. The people at the cusp of the mist have formed economies and individual identities based on their relationship with the mist (most importantly with the Ferry family, the names being the most explicit example of how important occupation and trade is in that society, an idea that reminds me of other books), and the building of the bridge will inevitably impact them both positively and negatively. Even more so, when one’s idea of death (as Rasali’s is, informed by whole generations of her family) is determined by seemingly insurmountable cosmic forces, the realization that it can and will eventually be “tamed” is a cultural shock – the full extent of which is only revealed gradually to the titular man, Kit. Most of the story devotes itself to more “mundane” tension of hiring and building, and the dangers that come not from poisonous foam or massive unseen marine monsters, but workplace accidents – and in those moments we see not just the contrast between the human ingenuity we know and the strange world that is established (and it is tense when they come together – the use of dynamite possibly attracting the attention of the aforementioned monsters, for example, even if it is only for a moment), but also how those accidental deaths are perceived by Kit (who assumes a high level of responsibility as the designer) and the locals like Rasali. There is a level of knowledge that comes with living so close to an untouched (or untouchable) natural world, but it’s also shown how an outsider can learn to appreciate it as well.

Characters defining themselves through a fantasy projection of nature is present in other stories as well, such as the title one – showing another unexplainable natural phenomenon, but one that brings willing individuals a “natural” way to handle grief (taking back its own, animal returning to animal, providing true comfort and peace.)The idea of this mysterious animal power being a gift is also present in “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss” – it seems that allowing these representatives of the natural world a level of autonomy and privacy proves emotionally beneficial. More like “Mist” specifically, “The Horse Raiders” efficiently establishes a fictional society that seems to be undergoing radical changes (this time instigated not by human development, but by purely unguided changes in the environment), which in this case instigates violence between different groups – but, as with the other story, there remains possibilities for the future. Understanding and working within these dynamic ecosystems is important in those stories, much as they are in the smaller-scale ones.

The intersection plays out a bit differently in “Fox Magic”, “The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles”, and “The Evolution of Trickster Stories….” – the first two being told from the animal’s perspective (both are based in Japanese folklore as well), while the last one includes both human and animal sides of the story. These present whole animal mythologies and societies developed alongside humans, crossing paths out of necessity – “The Cat” requiring human assistance as it pursued its own goals, the “Fox” using its illusions to blur those lines out of love, and the dogs finding themselves outcasts once they learn to think and communicate as we do. While many of the other stories show a notionally optimistic outlook of how we and the rest of the animal kingdom can coexist, only “The Cat” seems to unambiguously fall along those lines – and likely only because its protagonist sees humans as just a part of its world. “Fox Magic” ends in tragedy, as even in love such subterfuge can only be temporary, and “Evolution of Trickster Stories” shows that the relationship between humans and animals they seem to care about can be strained when the terms of that relationship changes, revealing that there have always been grievances we refuse to acknowledge. What seems to be suggested in these is that while humans and other creatures can coexist, it needs to be based on (once again) understanding, and the coercions at heart of existing cohabitation are our primary obstacle.

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Interestingly, many of the columns reprinted in Natural Acts read like precursors to Quammen’s books – some of them are directly referenced (“The Megatransect” is referenced in Spillover, for example, and “The Post-Communist Wolf” covers some of the same ground as Monster of God in a reverse way, too, “Planet of Weeds” is a sort of follow-up to the previously published Song of the Dodo), but in terms of general subject and style they show Quammen’s talents and areas of interest. It’s not simply informing us of some quirky facts about animals or questioning humanity’s part in the natural cycle – Quammen loves context and loves specific, and the longer the columns run, the more he can indulge in both. The first batch of columns are able to quickly establish a unique angle – can a giant octopus be stressed out? How does a butterfly evolve to drink blood? How exactly does hypothermia work? – and in their (relatively) short word count find a sympathetic angle, one that balances the fascinating scientific and human sides of every story. As a regular columnist is wont to do, these stories can involve a personal angle as well – “Jeremy Bentham, the Pietà, and the Previous Few Graying” does this, as one example – but in most cases they focus on others directly involved in the subject in as much detail as the science itself.

There’s an equal fascination with the people who involve themselves in natural studies or who choose to integrate themselves into the wilderness in some way, or even the people on the margins. The articles demonstrate a knack for sketching out the personalities of the people involved – be they interview subjects, travel companions, or historical figures – the people involved are worthy of detail, seemingly independent of their impact on the topic at hand, just so we can get the clearest picture of the scope of each story, the micro and the macro. This goes for setting as well – “Ying and Yang in the Tularosa Basin” finds time not just for the curiousness of the White Sands, but also a local motorcade, the nearby site of the A-bomb tests during World War 2, and the stone art of the mysterious Mogollon people, all of which are important to understanding the beauty and history of the region. “The River Jumps Over The Mountain” is about poetry, a Grand Canyon rafting adventure, the shaping of the canyon itself, escape from a troublesome life, and the strangeness of going away and having the world change in your absence – the scientific, personal, historical, and human interest parts of the story seamlessly flowing into each other. None of these things need to be separate, treated as their own story, even though our need for compartmentalization and efficiency might dictate they be – all of these things inform each other, and one of the joys of Quammen’s writing is that it knows that, and exhaustively integrates the facts and questions of those systems – otherwise, we might not properly understand why these things happen and why we, or someone else, might care.

Julia Wertz, “Drinking At The Movies” (2010, 2015) & John Wagner/Alan Grant/Carlos Ezquerra/Cam Kennedy/et. al.,”Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 09″ (1985-86, 2015)

December 14, 2015

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Drinking At The Movies compartmentalizes life in the same way that Wertz’s later book The Infinite Wait does, using both the actual chronology and location (the various apartments she’s lived in, which also means more of her really delightfully detailed drawings of buildings and streets) to set up each section of the book. The big difference here, though, is that this one longer sustained narrative rather than a trio of short stories – so they’re more like chapters in a single story rather than different stories altogether. Having more of a narrative through-line connecting each of the sequences (which, in each chapter, are themselves treated like comic strips that range from one to several pages), recounting Wertz’s beginnings and developing relationship with the city of New York, and how that change in her life connected with several other personal events gives it a real sense of development, even if you’re still mostly reading some jokes about terrible jobs and poor life choices. In this way, it feels more like full memoirs rather than a series of anecdotes like The Infinite Wait.

This book also dates itself in a way that felt very different than the later one – specifically talking about the political situation in a few places, putting the events of the book in the latter part of the Bush years and up to the 2008 elections. These references aren’t extraordinarily prominent, and I don’t think it was necessarily intentional that the stories in The Infinite Wait used fewer specific reference points in that same vain, but it might reflect on the aforementioned compartmentalization – its pretty easy to connect world and personal events in that way, creating further context. Going back to the memoir idea as well, it’s possible that this book’s position as a longer narrative made Wertz want to connect her own story with some of the external ones, creating a sense of America as she acclimated to its biggest city – a much wider narrative overall.

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That internal/external connection is pretty consistent in the book as well, capped off with Wertz’s own realizations in the last pages – that she had no reason to place any blame on the city for her own problems. She seemed to know this throughout – most of the pages about her alcoholism and other problems show a lot of (probably retroactive) self-awareness, and despite all the frustrations with her new life, she seemed well aware of what the impediments, especially in the latter half of the book. She has some cute ways of externalizing those anyway (like the strips about her missing wallet), but they as it proceeds even those jokey formats feel raw, and when real life really intrudes, it sends the whole thing back to reality in a painfully focused way. Even when trying to add some levity, it never loses sight of the real effects these problems have. Meanwhile, those wider world events, and the details about New York life, may seem like distractions from her self-destructive behaviour, but they also give her that final realization, that new surroundings can give her a chance to create a whole new life for herself, or at least change it in important ways.

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I would call this another pretty procedural volume of Dredd, if not for the presence of some very important one-offs and story developments, like “A Chief Judge Resigns” and “Letter From A Democrat”, although the effects of those stories are probably felt much more later. The latter is especially effective, maybe among the darkest Dredd has ever been, just by showing how the openly authoritarian nature of the series’ universe plays out when Dredd is explicitly the bad guy – we’ve had many strips and jokes about it, but this one goes entirely straight, and while the comics afterwards more or less go back to the more standard outlandish fare (where the brutality of the Judges can be more or less written off), its difficult to shake the full realization you’ve just confronted. The whole series has made sure that it never went too long without reminding us that the stories are about a frightening totalitarian state, and here those reminders are presented without any fantastical distractions (as in “The Apocalypse War”). This volume has a couple other stories that play into that theme as well (“The Man Who Knew Too Much” and the blackmailed Judge three-parter), and although the other stories aren’t as effectively constructed as “Democrat”, they still give an impression that the writers were starting to recognize the story potential of tapping into the people who have legitimate problems with the whole Judge system.

“Letter From A Democrat” also stands out because it contrasts so heavily with the rest of the stories in this period – if there’s one consistency, it’s that this is consistently one of the most tonally varied of any of the Dredd books I’ve read. There are strips that are straight action (with the first one, “Midnight Surfer”, being the best of those), grotesque horror (like “Nosferatu”), strange Sci-Fi tragedies, and straight-up goofy comedy (with the goofiest of them, especially “The Magnificent Obsession”, working a lot more than others – definitely helped by the greatly complimentary artwork of Cam Kennedy and Ian Gibson), as well as other weird concepts like “The Lemming Syndrome”, which seems to be trying to set up some background idea for Mega City One, but really doesn’t add much. With so many different ideas in play, the quality tends to be all over the place as well – “A Merry Tale Of The Christmas Angel” has nice Steve Dillon artwork, but sort of just peters out by the end, and the big multi-part action story (with a few major continuity pieces) at the dead center of the book is just sort of there (and often kind of uncomfortable with its borderline offensive Japanese stereotypes.) Still, the stuff in there that does work works quite well, and some consistently good artwork from contributors like Kennedy, Gibson, Carlos Ezquerra, Cliff Robinson, and Brendan McCarthy. It’s quite a few different styles in there, but they are generally employed well even in some of the more disposable strips.

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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.

Sophie Goldstein, “The Oven” (2015); Andrew MacLean, “ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria For The End Times” (2015); & Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Birthday Of The World And Other Stories” (2002)

October 14, 2015

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For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a lot of short, post-apocalyptic comics recently. The Oven, as with Vacancy, uses colour to establish environment – the difference here is that rather than using a blend that gives off the impression of a mess left behind, everything is almost a stark monochrome, a place stripped of all but a few things. Everything is usually detail-less gray, strongly unnatural orange, or bleached white – all of which give off an oppressive feeling of a world where nothing is left, even though life is still obviously going on in the foreground. The outside world portrayed here has a ramshackle feeling like Vacancy as well, but rather than signifying a hasty retreat, it seems more like a place kept barely together with whatever remains. It is certainly harsh, but it still seems pretty lived in – the problem with a term like “post-apocalyptic” is that there is no end, just a shift.

In this case, the shift is a sort of sheltered dichotomy – an indoor city life and an outdoor rural life in a radioactive desert. There are attempts by the characters to define it as a freedom or comfort choice – the main characters leave the city in order to have children due to some unspecified government eugenics program, and the reinforced ideology is “freedom of choice.” But the narrative itself never really buys into it, even when one or both of the couple does (one of the first things said to them is “freedom isn’t free”) – as much “freedom” as the outside world provides, it still ends up reinforcing binary roles for the people (both men and women), and very little actual choice of what their lives can be, just one thankless job or another. There’s no government to tell you what to do, but the drive of basic necessities keeps you in place just as well, as well as numerous unstated community standards – it’s all a series of compromises, which doesn’t sound much different from the little we hear about the city.

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Even the “third way” Eric turns to by the end is a compromise – abandoning everything else just for the possibility of doing anything else in his life, still forced but slightly less claustrophobic. If one doesn’t take to the drudgery or find much solace in a nuclear family (which in turn is part of a far-off promise of creating a community, but one seems to require more of some people than others), it’s basically just drugs (numbing you in the same way the “screens” evidently do in the city) and running away as the alternatives, still kept in check by the inhospitable world around you. What “freedom” is seems to be either a slightly different set of standards, which some take to (as Syd does, after initial trepidation) and others (like Eric) do not – the outside people don’t seem unhappy, but there seems to be ideals that need to be in place for that community to work as it does. It’s a binary of hegemonies, ultimately, dictated by one harsh environment or another, and the delusion saying otherwise becomes part of it.

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Colour plays a part in ApocalyptiGirl as well, albeit in way closer to Vacancy than The Oven – this is another more disorganized world rather than a blasted one, but one that has an environment that has been able to move one. It’s always fascinating to me to see what kind of mark the leftovers of human society will leave when the daily commotion is gone – although built over the natural world, the natural world never really goes away, and it may yet find a way to reintegrate itself. That seems to happen here, as there is greenery, there are actual things to see and places to go in and around the ruined city – and because of that, none of the pages have the colour uniformity that The Oven used to set its tone. The only colour binaries that seem to exist are between the two warring tribes. There is a sense of reclamation in that world – even the mech suit Aria tries to reactivate has become dirt-brown, looking as much like a hill as some explicitly artificial thing. It immediately establishes the idea that there is something still there.

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The land’s acclimation to its destruction is not a wholly separate thing from the destructive events that preceded it, either. Aria tells herself the history of the place as a way to justify it – putting it in mytho-poetic terms in order to make it seem like a natural shift than a war over technology, but she has reason to want to make that argument – after all, the destruction led to the creation of the twin lakes that dominate the background, the natural deriving from the artificial. By the end, we see that the whole story was a lead-up to some kind of judgement – the planet abused its gift, but she decides to spare it because it was “home”, and the way it was portrayed at many points (going back to the colours and the other details) allows us to believe that. Despite the violence in its past and present, it still seems like a real, breathing world, one where life can still thrive. Having spent an extended period of time there, Aria knows that better than anyone else could.

As I mentioned before, apocalypse is usually just a hyperbolic term for massive change – it doesn’t necessarily have to be an end, just a transition to something else. It appears bleak now, in this story, but there is a potential for it to become something more appreciable yet – nothing is set in stone. In fact, the only real apocalypse in the story only comes up as a possibility at the end of the book, when a true end to the planet is proposed and rejected – a complete end to everything there, nullification, not just an end to human civilization or a clean slate. As long as there is existence, there is a chance for it to become something beautiful, and there all are the hints that Earth27 will yet reach that something.

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The stories in The Birthday Of The World continue most of the preoccupations of Le Guin’s other work (and returns to some of the same settings as well), but “free of a damned plot” as Le Guin puts it in the introduction (still my go-to place for additional context), they are allowed to be small, personal stories about the people in these societies. Stories like “Coming of Age in Karhide” (set on the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness) and “Unchosen Love” cover some of the same ground as her novels, but do so in a way that emphasizes the individual mindsets and smaller social mores of these places. While some of the longer stories in the book (which are grouped together as the last of them) show societies in some sort of transition, the others are content to simply demonstrate the life or lives in a place where sex is fluid, where marriage is a much more complicated series of traditions, or where solitude is the norm. Love and familial devotion and hierarchy seem to be constants, but each is always tied up in the specifics of the world, and the nuanced way the people these stories follow work with or around them.

The aforementioned “Coming of Age in Karhide” has an entirely sympathetic air, one that recognizes that fear and joy in discovery are all part of finding one’s way in life – by the end, there’s a celebratory feeling of growth, and a great optimism pervades it more than any other story in the book. This might be because of the way the story is presented – as Sov’s reminiscing, a recollection of such a torrent of varied emotions that would be difficult to process even without taking place in Karhide’s particular human-biological situation (this is also true with the more conflicted first-person narrative of “Solitude”.) It is simply a story of growing up in a science fiction setting, allowing it to feel both very familiar and highly specific, which is one of the recurring feelings throughout the stories that follow it, even as they attempt to be just a little bit more alien.

Or in the cases of “Mountain Ways” and “Unchosen Love”, more adult – those stories are also more interpersonal dramas that use the societal norms of the planet O to show characters dealing with the complexity of domestic relationships. Love and sex are part of it, but there’s the everyday interactions as well, and the way people’s unique personalities interact (it is possible to love someone deeply but still be irritated by things they do), as well as what family and society as a whole expects of your relationship. There is something about both these stories that make them feel more like traditional realist fiction, even with the supernatural (on top of the science fictional) aspect of the former, as they are “just” about people navigating complications in their love life, with outcomes more positive or negative.

“The Matter of Seggri”, which is composed of a variety of different “stories”, is the most experimental of the stories in the book because of that, but thematically it actually feels closer to “The Birthday of the World”, “Old Music the Slave Women”, and “Paradises Lost”, all of which deal with civilizations raised on specific truths going into transition. The difference here is that while the latter three show that transitions with specific characters as anchors throughout, “Seggri” is written like primary research – a smattering of first-hand accounts from those inside and outside the gender-divided world, and even a piece of short(er) fiction, which has an old-fashioned feeling and a delightfully specific writing style – that shows multiple eras of change. All of them are about not just the society, or the way that audience surrogate characters like the members of the Ekumen react, but the way changes within a system affect people of different walks of life, in ways that include both direct (sometimes violent) conflict and just in normal interactions – the stuff that colours all the stories in the book.

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.

Stanislaw Lem (Trans. Marc E. Heine), “Imaginary Magnitude” (1981, 1984) & Karen Russell, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves” (2006)

February 24, 2015

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Imaginary Magnitude feels like the transition between Lem’s science fiction and his experimental fiction like A Perfect Vacuum – all the latter’s cross of pastiche and parody of a variety of forms, while maintaining the tone of fiction like His Master’s Voice. This is clearest in the final section (and majority of the collection), “Golem XIV”, which is more less a short story in reprinted seminar form (just as the Vacuum piece “Non Serviam” was a short story in the form of scientific book review) – using the structure of non-fiction while still containing a recognizable narrative, putting a bit of science fiction into faux scientific literature. That has always seemed to be something that Lem was interested in, but this is about as direct an attempt to marry the two as anything could be.

As I mentioned, the recurring theme in these introductions (and the fake books they ostensibly represent) is the same recurring theme in many of Lem’s books – human intelligence, its context and its limitations. This is pretty explicit in “Golem XIV”, where Golem itself lays out the upper levels of different forms of intelligence, how humanity has plateaued, and how even Golem itself may have reached the same stage,unlike its non-speaking contemporaries. Golem speaks of many different constraints on intelligence, and the implication is that it has placed all of those on itself in order to communicate that very fact to its human creators, and that it is only by retreating into a self-sustaining, self-contained state like the computer Honest Annie that it can exceed humanity’s limitations. It speaks of both evolution as a scale of intellectual degradation – “The Construction is less perfect than what Constructs” – and the restrictions that a natural form itself places on humanity (unlike itself, with a technological existence that allows it to escape the cycle.) Humans can be on the cusp of understanding, but as in His Master’s Voice, will be undone by things inherent in what they are. Golem deigns to lower itself to that level to tell its human creators that, but can barely conceal its disdain (which the scientists writing the introductions attempt to explained away, motivated by their own relationships with Golem) – it would rather try to join Annie in Nirvana.

The other stories, while certainly lighter, also follow along the same idea, as forms of human intelligence are introduced to non-human things – be it bacteria in “”Eruntics” or artificial intelligence in “The History of Bitic Literature”, which are used as simulations of intelligence with their own set of consequences. There is a constant shifting between origins of intellect and perception, which seem to coalesce with what is discussed in “Golem XIV” – there would seem to be a clear hierarchy of non-human organisms (like the bacteria), humans, and then artificial intelligence, but that hierarchy is often muddled, and the things that we think define our civilization can be usurped, as in “Bitic Literature.” In the first introduction, “Necrobes,” all three are conflated – technology creates art at its most primitive, a recognition of our own natural state. Our imperfections are then skewered in “Vestrand’s Extelopedia”, with its attempt to create a technologically perfect encapsulation of human knowledge that leads to less than useful results. All this seems to do is reinforce the idea that we don’t actually know our place and our possibilities.
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The fantasy in Karen Russell’s stories is one where modern human civilization is more integrated into its natural world than ours ever have been – though that doesn’t mean its always well-integrated. After all, it’s mostly just that the animals and natural landscapes have been turned into more tourist traps, more pointless traditions, more businesses – all the negatives are there, just configured slightly differently. So we have a world of alligator wrestling parks, a beach full of massive prehistoric shells, and a social order based on sending children to sing down an avalanche – but the meaning of it is perfunctory to the people who experience it, and just another thing for the children protagonists to overlook and endure. The natural world is definitely part of the stories, but there is little harmony displayed. The readers are the only ones who get to appreciate the absurdity of the settings – as all the characters in the stories have already had those feelings dulled, or are in the process of having them dulled, nature as the fantastic rendered mundane.

The protagonists of most f these stories are children/teenagers, so they are still “outside” these invented social systems, allowing wonder and boredom to commingle. The adults in these stories are usually absent, or are fully engaged in some absurd facet of the Russell’s worlds (like the “blizzard” in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows”, which the children attempt to invade, only to discover its purpose as a facade) – and the adults that do get some modicum of respect are themselves shown to be outsiders (coming to a head in “Out To Sea”, which focuses on an elderly man.) Because they are just on the borders of assimilation into the realm of maturity, there’s a naivety involved in the younger characters’ interaction with the world, which is further confused by their own personal dilemmas. When the naivety and the dilemmas clash, its the former that ends up washed away, again and again – the process seems unavoidable.

This is more explicit in stories like the title story and “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreams,” where the fantastic aspects of these characters’ lives are gradually removed, a delightful facet of their childhood ironed out by a society that considers it a condition to be remedied (as natural phenomenon – there’s also a recurring theme of those natural phenomenon being something to tame.) In some cases, like “ The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime”, the abuse of natural phenomenon (in that story, the turtles and astronomy) is used as an attempt to steer the character’s life in a beneficial direction, that world considered secondary to finding friends and respect. The coexistence and conflict of the natural and the personal is not just about exploitation, either – nature can be used as a lens for loss, fear, and disappointment (as in “Haunting Olivia”) or can even reassert itself (in “Accident Brief.”) Russell uses her natural settings as a vessel, while still maintaining its essential powerful and mysterious quality – we see ourselves in the landscapes, but the landscapes are not just there for us.

Hayao Miyazaki (Trans: David Lewis & Toren Smith), “Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind” (1983-1995, 2012)

February 6, 2015

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The discourse about the natural world always seems to shift towards dualities: natural order vs natural chaos, humanity and/or technology vs Capital N-Nature – interpretations that demand it be one, somewhat static thing. What’s fascinating about Nausicaa is that over the long course of the series (which, being produced in a series of fits over more than a decade, had its plot and other details reconsidered many times) it never falls into just one of those dichotomies – the nature of the sea of corruption and the life within it is never static, and the characters are constantly learning new facets of its origin and its processes. What these revelations provide is a growing sense that the natural world is a long term, adaptive process, where distinctions between the “real” and “artificial” are constantly blurred, as are the destructive and the beneficial (which are closely tied to the real/artificial, both in the story and in our own real ideologies.) A truly complex view of the world is built up over the series, and so the choices the characters make feel like they have weight – they are trying to decipher the ways of the ecosystem and the ways to coexist with it.

This is done primarily with Nausicaa herself, and part of that is why she seems to rise above the “fated saviour” archetype – she is far more open to learning about the nature of the sea and the insects, and it is because from the outset she is willing to learn that she becomes the one to lead human civilization. She is accepted as the saviour by most of the supporting cast off the hop, of course, but the way her character is written still makes it feel more earned – she is the way she is because she made the effort to look deeper, which makes it feel like more than fate. And she is constantly beset with difficulties – not just the changing nature of the environment, but the role played by humanity in it, how they are capable of both destruction and creation, their enormous potential for cruelty The question of whether humans deserve to survive is never brushed over (with the violence and corruption always front and center,)and there is never a definitive answer, even by the end – Nausicaa is, once again, forced to make a decision. But given her willingness to see the beauty in things deemed toxic – the Ohmu, and then the mold and the God Warrior (which, aside from being the main figures of artificiality, are also literally anti-life in many ways) – we know that it is possible to even find sympathy for us.

Part of this is also reflected in the supporting characters – despite several chances to simplify the story and create a true antagonist, it never comes. Every possible candidate (Kushana, Kuwatowa, Charuka, the Holy Emperor’s Brother, and Kushana’s brothers and father) is ultimately fleshed out into a more interesting character, or at the very least is allowed a moment of redemption. The closest thing the story has to a truly evil character is Holy Emperor himself, but he proves to be ultimately ineffective and mostly a pathetic figure – but still the one who does not get a redemptive moment, unlike even his brother (who is part of one of the most powerful sequences in the series.) As the story goes along, the human conflict sometimes feels less important overall (to Nausicaa, and to the readers), although it often reasserts itself as the conflict and death become increasingly grotesque. It’s never made totally unimportant, either – the suffering that Nausicaa experiences is never backgrounded, the toll of warfare always examined – and even as the scope widens, it never loses sight of its various components, and becomes part of the narrative’s compassion for all life.

That also works into the portrayal of the world and the characters as well – the scope is seen in the growing vastness of the forest, the massive size of the individual insects and the even more massive size of their swarms, and the scale of the human wars. They all reinforce the idea that this is a story of all living things affecting each other – everything from the actions of the insects to the political climate created by both the wars and the changes in the environment. This interestingly contrasts the reliance on a singular person to help humanity move forward, even as Nausicaa does so by looking more and more at the bigger picture. Although the individual consequences of the world are not overlooked, they are introduced on that smaller scale and eventually become part of the overall fabric of the story. This sets up the one duality that the story does seem to accept – the many vs the few – which the narrative literalizes in many ways as well: the destructive mold being pacified by being joined with itself, or the change in the God Warrior, a very singular being created to pass judgement, or most importantly in the ending. All those things were man-made, but are still very organic – technology in the story are depicted as either dilapidated or essentially biological in nature, demonstrating that even the man-made is not free from natural processes. Eventually, things become naturalized, integrated into the ecosystem – and it is that process that ultimately informs Nausicaa, and what inspires her to act.

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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.