Neon Yang, The Genesis of Misery

Neon Yang’s The Genesis of Misery is an intriguing and twisty space opera. Yang is a nonbinary speculative fiction writer from Singapore.

The book is apparently the first volume of a trilogy, the idea behind which Yang has described on twitter as “Joan of Arc, BUT GUNDAM”. That is a pretty accurate characterization. We have a galactic empire, with travel between star systems provided by wormholes. But it all has a basis that seems more religious than scientific — in this way, the novel tends more towards what is sometimes called “science fantasy” than towards “hard” science fiction.

The novel’s backstory is that, centuries ago, when human beings first explored interstellar space, they became mentally and physically ill as a result of contact with, or contamination by, what they call the “nullvoid”, which seems to be something like the “quantum foam” or “dark energy” of spacetime itself. The nullvoid first foments madness, and then causes physical deterioration. The first human beings to explore interstellar space were also betrayed by their spaceship’s AI. which (HAL-like) sought to pursue the mission by killing all the human beings conducting it.

But the human explorers were saved by the intervention of some apparently godlike agency called the Larex Forge or the Demiurge. The survivors of the mission, now remembered as “Saints”, or as the eight Messiahs, were blessed by dream visions, which taught them how to manipulate certain materials known as “holy” stones to fend off the nullvoid. The various types of holy stones now run nearly all human technology; AIs of any sort are banned. The result is a despotic galactic empire dominated by the two (secretly conflicting, or jockeying for power against one another) authorites of Church and State. There are also enemies, known to the Faithful as Heretics, who deny the divine and seek to find scientific explanations for all these phenomena (and also seem to be less phobic about AI). The Faithful and the Heretics are engaged in a perpetual war.

As for the spaceships — or at least the space warships — in the novel, they are all more or less giant mecha (hence the Gundam premise). The are described, at least on the Faithful side of the confilct, as “seraphs” or “archangels.” A pilot is ensconced in a ship, and binds with it so that they feel like the the ship’s limbs are extensions of their own (except they often have six or eight limbs instead of four). Space battles (of which there are a good number in the course of the novel) are an odd sort of physical combat. Nothing happens at a distance. Instead, the mecha ships grapple with one another, their limbs physically bashing and trying to cut into one another. Not having been a gundam/mecha fan in my childhood, I am not really sure about the emotional resonances of all this; I am sure there are aspects of it that I am not catching. But the space battles are described grippingly enough that it still works for me without this extra layer of understanding.

The novel’s protagonist is a young woman named Misery Nomaki, presumably the novel’s Joan of Arc analogue. I love the twist of having her first name be “Misery”. She’s a young queer woman from a mining colony moon in some distant star system. She starts hearing voices and hallucinating apparitions that claim to be divine, and that prophesy her status as the next Messiah. She also has the power of being able to manipulate, with her mind, all the “holy” stones on which the civilization runs. Initially, Misery is really punk in sensibility. She’s been screwed over by everyone, and she hates it. She comes to the capital of the Empire, cynically determined to use her special abilities to get ahead. She assumes that her hallucinations and powers are a fraud, the result of nullvoid contamination; this means that her life will not be long, but in the meantime she hopes to do as much as she can.

In the course of the novel, however, Misery has a conversion experience. She has a mystical vision of union with the cosmos, and as a result comes to believe that all the things she has cynically pretended to be are in fact literally true. She is now confident that she actually is the Ninth Messiah, called by the Larex Forge to liberate the Empire from the destructive threats of the nullvoid and of the Heretics. United with her archangel mecha, she thinks she is invulnerable and can win every space battle. She and her lover Lightning (the ferocious sister, and bitter opponent, of the current Emperor) resolve to save the world (or worlds) together.

And this is where questions of narration come into play. Misery’s story is told in the third person, but very vividly, in the present tense, and with the narrator closely identifying with Misery and expressing her inner feeelings. (There are short sections called Interludes, narrated more objectively, and containing information that Misery doesn’t necessarily know; but these constitute less than 5% of the text). The narrator is themself a character in the narrative, however, as is revealed in a Prologue and Epilogue framing the main story. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal who the narrator is, though this does prove consequential for the narrative as a whole).

When Misery has her conversion experience, the content of her thoughts changes, but the style of narration does not. So, as we move from Misery’s punk cynicism to her absolute militant fervor, we are inclined to still give her the credit that we did from the beginning. We are strongly seduced into completely identifying with Misery’s zealotry; but at the same time, I also started to feel an uncomfortable, nagging sense of doubt. Things just don’t feel quite right. Indeed, Misery herself starts at some point to feel that things aren’t quite right — albeit for different reasons than the reader feels this. Misery never doubts her religious certainty, but she begins to doubt to what extent the universe really conforms to that certainty. I cannot be more specific about this without recounting the ending of the novel in detail; there’s a surprising shift of perspective there that puts a new light on everything — but that I remain uncertain about, and that will only be resolved one way or the other by the succeeding volumes of this trilogy. The official publicity for the book states that the trilogy as a whole is “a story about the nature of truth, the power of belief, and the interplay of both in the stories we tell ourselves.” This self-reflexivity is entirely merited in the current volume, since the novel both solicits our belief in the protagonist and in her beliefs, and yet steps back and makes us question that at the same time.

I will end with some more general points. The Genesis of Misery — like a lot of recent speculative fiction — presents a world, or a cosmos, in which queerness is taken for granted and not stigmatized. A good number of the characters are (by our early-21st-century standards) queer or trans in one way or another, but (unlike today) this is entirely normal or expected within the world of the diegesis. I am inclined to see this as a kind of utopian element; however these novelistic worlds are messed up and oppressive in all sorts of ways, gender identity and sexual orientation are not parts of the problem. Writing speculative fiction in this way does two (seemingly incompatible) things at once. On the one hand, it gives readers plenty of opportunities for identification, rather than demanding default identification with a white, cis, heterosexual protagonist as older genre fiction all too often tended to do. At the same time, and on the other hand, struggles for gender equity and sexual equality are not in any way the focus of these novels, because the struggles have already been resolved, and in an entirely liberatory way; this leaves the author free to both be affirmatively queer, trans, or non-binary, and yet at the same time to address all sorts of other issues as well.

This leads me to larger questions as well. My friend Jason Read wrote on Twitter, just this morning, that: “The cultural domination of fantasy over science fiction that we are currently living through just seems to be symptomatic of the broader turn towards fascism.” He is especially thinking, I suppose of current television blockbusters like the prequels to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. I am inclined to agree with Jason for the most part: it just seems reactionary to me that so many speculative fiction works focus on Kings and Emperors, rather than on bureaucracies and spy systems, as both forces of oppression and ideals. I will always prefer science fictional approaches. But at the same time, this domination of fantasy over science fiction in recent years does not just apply to hegemonic media, but also to written speculative fiction by so many queer, trans, and nonbinary authors, and to many nonwhite authors as well. I am not sure what to make of this. I do not accept the explanation that this simply means the rejection of dominant Eurocentric instrumental reason in favor of older and non-Western ‘ways of knowing.’ But I do not have a good counter-theory, either. The Genesis of Misery deals to a certain extent very thoughtfully and self-reflexively, but my questions remain.

Grant Morrison, LUDA

I have followed Grant Morrison’s work, on and off, for something like three decades now – ever since Kathy Acker told me I had to read him. Morrison’s run on the comic DOOM PATROL became the template and inspiration for my own first attempt to think about “postmodernism” in the 1990s – I titled my own book DOOM PATROLS. Since then, I have read a lot of Morrison’s creator-owned comics titles, and some of his revised versions of canonical (and corporation-owned) superheroes. I also liked the tv series HAPPY!, based on Morrison’s comic of that name, and made by the director Brian Taylor in collaboration with Morrison. (I think I may be the only academic who has published book chapters about both Morrison and Taylor; though I didn’t write anything about their collaboration).

LUDA is Grant Morrison’s first novel — their first narrative consisting of words only, without illustrations — i.e. formatted as prose fiction rather than as a comic or a “graphic novel.” I got an advance copy from NetGalley, with the obligation to write an honest review. This is it, though it is hard to be objective and judgmental about a book like this. I found it utterly delightful, but it is not easy to explain why.

LUDA is a novel about drag queens. The first-person narrator, Luci LaBang, is an aging drag performer, trying to come to terms with the brute fact that you aren’t as glamorous and beautiful at 50 as you were at 25. (As somebody who is close to 70, all I can say about this conceit is, 50 still seems relatively youthful to me). We get all her reflections about her life and career, her past and her present, with scenes ranging from her childhood infatuation with women’s garments, her stint as a glam rock star, her brief attempt to go straight in a heterosexual relationship, her later career as a washed-up ex-star on a reality/game show hybrid television series, and her present as a drag performer in a “pantomime” (which seems to mean, in the UK, a live musical theater entertainment mostly for kids). Luci is a lifelong resident of “Gasglow” (which I presume is a deliberate misspelling or re-spelling of the Scottish city of Glasgow; I have never been there, and I do not know how the novel’s cityscape relates to the actual cityscape, but the city is certainly a major character, as it were, in the novel).

The eponymous character of the novel, Luda, is a much younger drag queen who sort of becomes Luci’s protégée, though actually it is much more complicated than that. Luci does give Luda advice about drag performance, about magic, and about life. They meet because they are supposed to be costarring together in a pantomime called “Phantom of the Pantomime” (which sort of combines “Phantom of the Paradise” with “Aladdin”). But their relationship is also one of a continual, and usually underhanded, power struggle. The novel suggests multiple frames of reference (the “All About Eve” plot of a younger diva supplanting an older one is one of them), but it always manages to subvert, or to turn inside out, the conventional genre twists that you cannot help expecting.

The novel is dense with nested narratives: we get Luci’s life story, Luci’s attempt to uncover Luda’s life story, the story of the pantomime being rehearsed, the story of the continual problems that come up in the course of rehearsing it, and so on. These all resonate with and echo one another. Drag is not presented as exotic or weird, but just as something that the narrator and her object of fascination do.

Evidently we are in the realm of fantasy and pretense, but part of the novel’s point is that pretty much everything than any of us do is really driven by fantasy and pretense. Desire is never simple and straightforward, it is rather why human beings in general most emphatically are never simple and straighforward. It is a case of universalizing, not by generalization, but precisely by emphasizing the particular in all its minute particularity. We get the ins and outs of Luci’s life and career, in both its glamorousness and its abject failures, in its everydayness but also in its extremities. We also get Luci’s cares and worries, her misunderstandings and illusions, her pain and depression as well as her episodes of happiness and enjoyment. It is this insistent particularity, or singularity, that makes it possible to “identify” with Luci (though I am not sure that “identify” is the right word here, or indeed ever).

LUDA is often quite funny. Its extravagances and outrageous twists of reality (such as one would always expect from Morrison) are themselves often quite funny. But there is also a lot in the novel that is quite disturbing, and even horrific. I don’t ever like describing a narrative as a “romp”, as some reviewers tend to do. But if you go into this expecting a romp, then after being flattered into enjoyment in this way for a while, you will eventually find yourself in for a bumpy ride. This is a novel about frustrated desires, about alienation, about unrealistic fantasies, and ultimately about horrific abuse. None of this is freakshow-like, in the sense of something that puts unconventional lifestyles on display for straight delectation. No, the straight people in the book are really the ultimately most horrifying ones. Drag is a desire as straightforward AND as twisted as any other, but not more so.

The book left me with both a keen sense of enjoyment, and with a depressive sense of desolation, both at the same time. Morrison is masterful in the way they reel out twists and surprises, and in the way they sneakily insinuate things you weren’t expecting, yet that seem inevitable once they are revealed. The narrator is both narcissitic and deeply self-deprecating; both charismatic and exposing herself to our contempt and disgust. She is always talking directly to her audience, aware of the reader’s presence, teasing and alluring us, only to end with a sucker punch (or several) of desolation — only to follow that by tying everything together with a dazzling series of ironic (?) postmodern flourishes that pull the ground from under us (even after we thought we had had the ground pulled from under us and reached the lowest level of bedrock possible already).

I said that this is a novel about drag queens. I found myself delighted by its total rejection of gender norms — without even having to mention it or make an argument about it. But– AND THIS IS CRUCIAL — I do not know how it will read to readers who are trans, or genderqueer, or already far less normative than I am. I am unable to step away from my own predilections enough to even guess.

Ruthanna Emrys, A Half-Built Garden

I have previously known Ruthanna Emrys for her revisionist Lovecraft fiction series, which sees the ‘fish people’ of The Shadow Over Innsmouth as a persecuted minority, and tries to imagine life from their point of view. (I also saw an interview with Emrys, in which she pointed out that her own grandparents, Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe who came to Brooklyn in the 1920s, were precisely the people about whom Lovecraft expressed his racist revulsion. I immediately identified with her comment, since my maternal grandparents were Jews who emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1920s as well).

A Half-Built Garden is quite different from Emrys’ previous work. It is a semi-utopian first contact novel. (She also describes it in the concluding acknowledgements, somewhat humorously, as ‘diaperpunk’.)

We are in the late 21st century. The Earth has undergone a big reorganization, for the better. Though nation-states and large corporations both still exist, they have been displaced from much of the Earth’s land surface by “watershed networks,” ecological communities that are more or less anarchist and communal in organization, each of which is responsible for the watershed in which they live, and which have succeeded — over the past half century, since the mostly nonviolent revolution that allowed them to be set up — in slowing down, and even to a certain extent reversing, the ecological damage that had been done to the planet by the two previous centuries of unbridled capitalism.

The watersheds are characterized by a mesh of extended families, tied together by nonhierarchical computer networks using automated (computerized) comment moderation, designed to maximize democratic discussion, and weighted according to the core values of the communities: shared resources, volunteer work sharing, and concern for the broader environment (so that the rivers, trees, etc. have their interests represented as well). Ubiquitous computing allows people to access and participate in the network through unobtrusive technological prostheses (mesh nets over their heads, projection into their glasses, etc.). Decisions are made by consensus, but without the annoyance of having to attend hours of meetings all the time. All this is beautifully presented, both in terms of the way that the writing conveys it (through community/environmental description without excessive infodumps) and in terms of being down to earth and deidealized (people are not any more perfect in such a setting than they are in capitalist America today, it is just that authority is decentralized and decisions are made better).

We get the point of view of Judy Wallach-Stevens, a woman who lives in the Chesapeake watershed. She has an extended family: she and her partner have a baby, and they live with another couple who also have a toddler. This enlarged household is also tied to other, surrounding ones (both through family relatedness, and simply through geographic proximity). Gender is refreshingly fluid and changeable; though some people identify themselves as “male” and “female,” many do not. Multiple sets of pronouns are used, and in terms of both physical presentation and community expectations, nobody is tied in to a single identity — they can stay as they are, if they are happy with that, but they can also shift if and when they want. There is no assignment of gendered responsibility for childraising; at a minimum, both adults identified as the parents share equally in childcare, and the other adults in an expanded household pitch in as well. (It is considered rude to enquire as to which parent actually physically bore the child in their womb).

Nation-states (like the US government) still exist, but they seem to have greatly reduced authority. Corporations exist too, but they have been exiled from the mainland of all continents, and exist only on artificial islands that they have constructed. The corporations still manufacture certain high tech goods that they can sell to the watersheds. The way financing works is not entirely clear, but in the watersheds most things are commonly available without money; and whatever monetary basis the corporations work with does not have the universal reach that finance does today. The corporations are evidently still very hierarchical, and they are always seeking to extend their power and regain the control they had in the 20th and early 21st centuries — so the watersheds still need to exercise vigilance with regard to them. However, the corporations as much as the watersheds have rejected traditional gender roles, and have replaced gender binaries with continually shifting forms of self-representation. These forms are central to the jockeying for dominance that is a major feature of corporate cultures, but again it is completely free of and apart from what we take for granted as male/female binaries.

All the world building in the novel is convincingly and vividly done. And it is solid enough that I was not bothered by questions of how the unaddressed portions of social organization and technological infrastructures might work.

At the same time that the background of Emrys’ world is conveyed, the narrative is mostly about how this organization and way of life is disrupted by First Contact. An alien spaceship lands in the Chesapeake region. The crew consists of two separate sentient species, originally from two separate planets, who have lived in symbiotic communities with each other for more than a thousand Earth years. There are ‘plains people’ who are sort of like human-sized arthropods on twelve or more legs; and ‘tree people’ who have mammal-like fur but look more like giant spiders (though again, they have a lot more limbs than actual spiders do). The aliens have learned to speak English from watching all the movies and television series that we have inadvertently beamed into space for decades. The aliens are organized into cross-species extended families, with gender systems that are a bit different from ours (I mean from the more liberated one that humans have in the novel’s future setting), but not unintelligibly so. They aliens place a very high value on their children, whom they take with them everywhere; part of the initial bond that the novel’s narrator makes with them is that she is nursing her own child when she first meets them.

The aliens are friendly, but they have an agenda. In the course of their technological development, both species destroyed the environments of their home planets. They now live in huge constructed orbital habitats around a single sun, all of which are kept in ecological balance around a planned, controlled, and limited ecosphere. They live in company with numerous trees and other plants, and with some nonsentient animal species; but this is (by their own admission) a rather limited environment compared to those of their original native planets. They are flourishing, but only because they have constructed an ecosphere that is basic enough for them to manage.

The aliens now seek to rescue other sentient species from ecological catastrophe. They are unhappy about having reached three planets in other solar systems too late, when the species in question had already exterminated themselves through self-generated environmental catastrophe. They are happy to have reached the Earth in time. What they want to do is rescue Homo sapiens by having us all abandon Earth en masse, and taking us instead to share their artificial space habitats. They hope to convince us by reason and persuasion to join them. But they are not averse to using force if they cannot get us peacefully to agree. They believe that if we refuse to abandon Earth we are endangering the lives of our children, so they have to force us for the children’s sake. (What would Lee Edelman say about this scenario?).

This creates confusion and disunity on Earth. The corporations love the idea of forcible removal. They see it as a way to increase their markets and their power, and maybe even to return to the practice of continual expansion that is no longer allowed on Earth, but that could be renewed on other planets throughout the galaxy. The nation-states are also attracted to the idea, for less extreme but somewhat similar reasons. But the narrator, and most of the people in the watersheds, unsurprisingly resist the idea of leaving Earth forever. They feel that they have made considerable progress in healing the Earth, and that as they continue to do so they will be able to live in reasonable harmony with a large and vibrant ecosystem, rather than with the severely reduced one that they aliens have created for themselves. Judy initially gets along well with the aliens — having been the first Earth person to meet them, and sharing their insistence on the importance of children — but tensions arise because of the aliens’ ultimate aims. But there are also a number of additional contributing factors that complicate and enrichen the narrative, including both interspecies sex between humans and aliens, and tensions that arise because the corporations deploy computer viruses to disrupt the watersheds’ networks.

So the novel has substantial dramatic tensions as well as great worldbuilding and great aliens. Things are semi-resolved (there is a reason why the “garden” of the title is only “half-built”) over the course of the book, mostly through complex negotiations among all the various parties. Discussions, arguments, shifting of locations and of background assumptions. One of the great things about the book is that it makes these negotiations as exciting and as emotionally compelling as violent conflicts are in other speculative novels. (I also appreciated all the specifically Jewish stuff in this book. Unusually for American literature, this is a book that is essentially non-Christian — by which I mean there are no traces of either a Christian or an anti-Christian sensibility).

Guy Lardreau, Fictions philosophiques et science-fiction (1988)

A number of Franocphone philosophers have written interestingly on Anglo-American, or English lanugage, science fiction (henceforth sf). Isabelle Stengers discusses sf briefly yet penetratingly, in an interview here that has greatly influenced my own work. Jean-Clet Martin has written an excellent, and large and capacious, book reading Golden Age sf through the framework of Hegel’s Science of Logic: Logique de la science-fiction. And David Lapoujade has written a concise but rich and detailed book about the philosophical implications of Philip K Dick’s writings: L’Altération des mondes.

But the book I want to concentrate upon here is Guy Lardreau’s Fictions philosophiques et science-fiction, from 1988. Lardreau (1947-2008) was a French philosopher who started out as a Maoist militant and ended up as a kind of transcendental pessimist; his rejection of Maoism in favor of universalist ethics must be distinguished, however, from that of his contemporaries the so-called nouveaux philosophes, who movied all too easily from supposed Maoism to center-right pontification. Peter Hallward (see next paragraph) notes that Lardreau “Lardreau was always careful to distance himself from la nouvelle philosophie as an apparently ‘collective’ project, and still more as a media phenomenon.”

There is not much English-language writing on Lardreau; the most extensive overview of his thought and career comes in two articles by Peter Hallward, available here and here. I haven’t read any other of Lardreau’s writing aside from his book on science fiction; I will concentrate here, less on giving any form of meta-critique, than just on trying to get his arguments right. I read French almost-fluently, but I find it harder to reproduce the sense of what I have read in French, compared to things I read in English; my main purpose here is just to get straight in my own mind the overall structure and sense of Lardreau’s arguments. My account inevitably involes a certain number of misstatements and misunderstandings, but hopefully it will be not too misleading. But in any case, my reading of Lardreau was very helpful for me. I am trying to think through my ideas about the potentiality that is represented and expressed in science fictionality, and also why I have come to embrace a Leibnizian approach to science fiction (as opposed to the ultimately Spinozian approach favored by Fredric Jameson and people influenced by him).

Lardreau’s book begins with a “Retroduction” (instead of an Introduction), and ends with an “Introclusion” (instead of a Conclusion). I think he does this in order to emphasize the circular (or better, labyrinthine) structure of his overall argument, which does not proceed to an uncovering of truth, but rather insists that truth can only remain intertwined with fiction, and that science fiction is the form of literature that best communicates with philosophy’s own need to resort to fiction. The Retroduction states that the whole book arose out of Lardreau’s noting an “astonishing homology” between the fictions deployed by Leibniz in order to explain his ideas about possible worlds, and the way that science fiction imagines parallel worlds. Science fiction develops conjectures that are grounded in science, but that touch on areas that science cannot reach.

After this, the first major chapter is about “fiction as a philosophical experience.” Lardreau starts with some dilemmas in early modern philosophy, involving questions about the nature of experience, and the adequacy, or inadequacy, of empirical sensations for understanding the nature of reality. Thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries proposed thought experiments. Molyneux asked if somebody blind from birth, suddenly given the power of sight, would be able to correlate what they saw with what they had previously only felt. Condillac imagined a statue suddenly brought to life, but with only one sensory impression at a time, and asked whether this being would be able to comprehend the world in its full multi-dimensionality. Such fictions, Lardreau argues, construct imaginary objects, or entire imaginary worlds, in such a way as to “constrain a philosophical doctrine” to acknowledge all its presuppositions, and thereby to demonstrate its “coherence” and “the extent of its validitty”. By varying the conditions given in the fiction, one can see how well the doctrine performs in different circumstances. (I myself compare philosophical thought experiments to science fiction narratives, in the first chapter of my book Discognition. I am exploring this further in a current manuscript in progress. So I particularly welcome Lardreau’s focus on this).

Variation is thus the central principle of philosophical fictions — and of science fiction. Everything can be varied imaginatively, and thus made the subject of a fiction, as long as the fiction does not involve logical contradiction. But the avoidance of logical contradiction is a very low bar; some fictions are better than others, more powerful than others, more reasonabe than others, more plausible than others: in short, some fictions are more possessed of vraisemblance than others. This insistence on Lardreau’s part seems to me to be vitally important (it relates to my attempts, in my work in progress, to distingish meaningful potentiality from mere logical possibility, with the help of both Whitehead and Deleuze Lardreau is a valuable ally in this attempt).

We can put the matter this way. Both American analytic philosophers, and a number of continental ones — most notably Quentin Meillassoux — insist that anything not logically contradictory is therefore possible. But this is an extremely impoverished definition of possibility. Unless you believe (as both Meillassoux and David Lewis apparently do) that no point in spacetime is related in any positive way to any other point, so that every punctual state of affairs is unrelated to any other, then actually-existing connections and disconnections constrain potentiality much more strongly than the mere criterion of logical non-contradiction allows. To use Leibniz’s language (as Lardreau does later in his book, albeit not here), it is not enough that something is possible; it must also be compossible with other things and circumstances. This is what Lardreau is getting at with his insistence that some philosophical fictions are more plausible or meaningful than others.

Lardreau goes on from considering these various early modern philosophical fictions to look in depth at the most far-reaching of these: Descartes’ hypothesis of the Evil Demon. It is only by proposing this fiction that Descartes can get beyond the doubt with which he begins, and establish the cogito and the existence of God. This is because it is only by means of such an extravagant fiction, that Descartes is able to break from the presuppositions of “common sense” that he otherwise would unwittingly continue to take for granted. This fiction is necessary in order to transform Descartes’ doubt from a merely psychological condition into a properly ontological one. In this sense, fiction-making is a necessary condition of possibility for philosophy itself. Moreover, Lardreau argues, such fiction-making is not merely imaginative; by disrupting the way that imagination merely recombines and plays with previous sensory impressions (i.e. previously given images), Descartes’ procedure of fictionalizing pushes thought beyond imagination to the more abstract level of understanding.

This leads further to one of Lardreau’s main themes throughout the book, one that he places within the framework of the history of Western philosophy. Even though Descartes wishes to deduce everything about the world a priori, from first principles, he also discovers that such an ideal is impossible for us to attain. Only God could successfully make such a deduction; in actual human practice, we need empirical observation as well as logic, and fictionalizing is necessary in order to bridge the gap between empirical particulars and first principles. In terms that get repeated throughout the book, Lardreau claims that one of the most essential dividing lines in Western philosophy is the question of whether the Real is Rational, or whether the Real always exceeds the Rational. Descartes insists on the latter, even though he seems to start out with the former. Lardreau never mentions Levinas, but this seems to me to resonate with Levinas’ reading of the idea of infinity in Descartes, which always exceeds the subject.

More generally, according to Lardreau, philosophers who proclaim the ultimate coincidence of the Real and the Rational include, not only Hegel, but also Spinoza (both in his geometric method, and since he posits the third kind of reason as able to know everything from first principles) and Bergson (because he sees the power of intuition as able to surpass the limitations of scientific rationality and of the pragmatic basis of natural perception). For thinkers who claim that the Real coincides with the Rational, fictions can have no place (and it is for this reason that Spinoza denounces the falsity of the power of imagination). But if the Real exceeds the Rational — as Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant all maintain — then fiction is necessary to philosophical reflection. Even as such philosophy tries to move from imagination to the surer process of understanding, it cannot eliminate imagination, and in fact needs to rely upon it. If the Real exceeds Reason or Rationality, this means that fiction is necessary. For Spinoza, since the Real and the Rational ultimately coincide, fiction has no place. But for Descartes, since Real and Rational do not coincide, this means that (echoing Lacan) “truth is not all” (la vérité n’est pas toute), and therefore fiction becomes a necessary tool of the understanding. Lardreau goes on to restate this explicitly in terms of Lacan’s three orders: Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. The Real exceeds the Symbolic, and is not reducible to it.

The book’s second chapter is about “fiction as experience of philosophy.” Lardreau works through what today we might call the dilemma of correlationism (though that term hadn’t been invented yet in 1988). In its most obvious terms, this is the problem posed by Hume: how do I know that an object that disappears from view (because I close my eyes, or look in a different direction, or simply walk away) is still there, and will be in the same place when I return to it? Lardreau sees this as another instance of the non-coincidence of the Rational with the Real — nothing in the former can guarantee the persistence of the latter. Lardreau develops this in Lacanian terms. Even as language allows us to designate real things, it also sets up a “wall” or a barrier beyond which the Real is sequestered. Our everyday reality cannot be equated with the Real, because it is structured by language (the Symbolic) and by images (the Imaginary). In Lacan’s terms, we are stuck in these registers, just as in Kant’s terms we only experience phenomena, not things in themselves. Lardreau adds that Philip K. Dick explores the same dilemma in his late novels (he refers specifically to The Divine Invasion). The Real remains radically Other, radically out of reach, radically irreducible to representation.

Lardreau also explores this in terms of an opposition he sets up between philosophy and science. By “science”, Lardreau seems to mean both physics and other physical sciences, and social sciences like that of historical materialism. (Here I sense echoes of Althusser’s discussion of how we can never step out of ideology, and of how science can only exist to the extent that it is radically asubjective. But Lardreau does not mention Althusser — this is unsuprising since Althusser is radically Spinozian, and Lardreau is rather Leibnizian). Where philosophy sees a wall separating us from the Real, which remains radically Other, science both denies that the wall exists, and tries to account for how the ideological illusion that such a wall exists is produced nonetheless. I am not sure that I am getting this quite right, but I think Lardreau’s point is that where philosophy sees the Real as radically Other, science dissolves this otherness, and in the course of doing so also dissolves ourselves as subjects (since we are no different, for science, than other natural phenomena). Where philosophy insists that at least some sort of opacity exists, science denies this opacity. Science “demands that every shadow, every obscurity can be dissipated, every incomprehensibility expelled, that there is absolute intelligibilty.” In this way, science is aligned with philosophies of totaland evidently Deleuze’s as well, though Deleuze, like Althusser, is never mentioned by Lardreau). Lardreau maintains the Lacanian distinction between reality and the Real; whereas for science as for the philosophies of immanence, there is no radical Otherness, and hence no Real (but only the small-r “reality).

As a semi-Deleuzian, I find this disturbing; my more Deleuzian friends will no doubt throw up their hands and reject Lardreau altogether at this point. But I think there is something worthwhile in continuing to pursue the argument further. Lardreau concedes that science has chipped away at philosophy, indeed parochialized philosophy to the point where philosophy cannot contest science any longer. Instead, philosophy can do one of two things. Either, in a positive sense, philosophy can accompany science, rescue it from the dangers of positivism by organizing and synthesizing its findings. Or else, in a negative sense, which is the one that Lardreau himself favors and practices, philosophy can perform the task of reminding science of the not-all. For Lardreau, science is true (vrai). but it is not The Truth (la verité). Science does not, and cannot, encompass everything; thereby, philosophy can maintain “the insistence of the Real” beyond the limits of science, or at least in the margins of the territory that science has imperialistically annexed.

All this means that, while philosophers can strive either to clarify science or to limit it, in either case they “no longer know how to make worlds” (faire des mondes). And this is where Lardreau comes to science fiction. Given the weakness of philosophy with regard to science, it is now science fiction that navigates between them, science fiction that “takes up the double task of adjusting our vision of the world to the advances of science, and of making us still feel the weight of the Real.” Philosophy can no longer negate the findings of science, but sf can probe the Beyond that science has not yet reached, and never will. If classical philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant deployed fiction to bridge the gap between the Rational and the Real, then sf at once indicates, widens, and bridges the very gap that science claims to have already filled in.

This reminds me — to refer to a text that comes several decades later than Lardreau’s — of Quentin Meillassoux’s reference to the “Great Outdoors” (or great outside — le grand dehors). Meillassoux argues that physical science alone is able to describe this outside. Lardreau would reject this, since he argues that science fails to grasp the outside, precisely by turning it into an inside. Where metaphysics insists that there is a wall, and that therefore there is both an inside (dedans) and an outside (dehors), in contrast “science is the discourse that says that the outside is actually, for whomever understands, the inside (la science est ce discours qui dit que le dehors est, pour qui sait voir, le dedans.).

Lardreau expands this line of thought, by saying that, just as philosophy can no longer keep up with science, so also it can no longer keep up with what he designates by various names, including religion, theology, spirituality, and ethics. The only form in which philosophy subsists today is as Philosophy of History; but such philosophy is unequal to face the horrors of the modern world, like Nazi concentration camps and the killing fields of Cambodia. If there can be, to paraphrase and extend Adorno, both no poetry and no philosophy after Auschwitz, then here science fiction can take up the task that philosophy is no longer capable of performing (la science­ fiction relève la philosophie). Here Lardeau cites, in particular, Thomas Disch’s The Genocides and Camp Concentration.

The book’s third (and longest) chapter is called “Two Preliminary Studies, in the Form of Applications”. The first of these two studies is focused on Leibniz, and the second on Frank Herbert’s Dune saga (Lardreau includes all six volumes written and published by Herbert, not just the first). These both have a lot to say about science fiction, drawing upon the formulations developed in the prior chapters.

Lardreau sees Leibniz as the most pleasurable philosopher to read, as well as the most science fictional. This is because Leibniz displays “the marvelous richness, the mad generosity, the entire liberty of a thought that does not refuse itself any object, that does not reject any question, that does not judge any reference to be valueless or any knowledge to be unworthy (indigne). A thought without exclusivity, without principle of authority…” Lardreau insists that this is radically different from the way that Hegel incorporates and integrates everything into a totalizing framework. “There is no ‘dialectic’ in Leibniz, no labor of the negative, no Aufhebung“. Rather, for Leibniz, “it is in what it affirms, in what it offers purely positively, that every thought can be welcomed as a particular case or particular development.” Indeed, I could quote Lardreau on the greatness of Leibniz at much greater length; the rhapsody goes on for pages. The insistence on positivity and affirmation has a Deleuzian ring to it; but once again Lardreau does not mention Deleuze, probably because Deleuze applies this sense of affirmation to thinkers Lardreau rejects (i.e. Spinoza, Bergson, and Nietzsche). Instead, Lardreau cites Deleuze’s friend Michel Serres on Leibniz. In his joyous pursuit of affirmation, Lardreau continues, Leibniz develops “strange narrative machines, ‘possible fictions’ that he often develops, not without a sort of literary obligingness/indulgence (complaisance, a word that does not have negative connotations in this context), in which science fiction fans may discover the original mold (le moule originel) of many of the topoi that delight them.” And Lardreau quotes Leibniz himself on this matter; in his New Essays on Human Understanding, after pondering such weird, proto-science-fictional matters as how we would treat a person who came from the Moon, Leibniz wonderfully writes: “still these bizarre fictions have their uses in abstract studies, as aids to a better grasp of the nature of our ideas” (3.6.22) (It should be noted that Leibniz’s original French, quoted directly by Lardreau, uses the word spéculation for what is translated into English here as “abstract studies”).

Lardreau here returns to his earlier claims that fictions are crucial to philosophy, because the Real and the Rational do not coincide, or because there is “a separation between the Real and our power to apprehend it, no matter what one calls this power.” For Leibniz, the sort of intuition upon which Descartes relied is inadequate; it is only through fictioning that we can approach the truth. Projecting a Kantian vocabulary back on Leibniz, Lardreau writes that “there are objects that we are unable to not think about, but that we cannot think about otherwise than in the mode of fiction (no matter how imperfect and insufficient fiction might be compared to other forms of truth).” Fiction, in Leibniz’s sense (which we today understand as science fiction) is not only metaphysically legitimate, but even metaphysically indispensible. The only way to consider and judge between multiple possibilities is to fictionalize each possibility as a possible world. We need to project these fictions, because of “the finitude of human reason”; unlike God, we cannot comprehend all the truth directly and intuitively. Yet at the same time, finite human reason “stubbornly refuses to accept as true anything that it cannot explain and verify through its own powers.” This is what makes science fiction not only legitimate, but metaphysically necessary.

These metaphysical considerations bring us, in a somewhat surprising way, to the heart of Lardreau’s understanding of science fiction. Lardreau says that the ultimate vocation of sf is to be anti-utopian. In other words, Lardreau’s thesis seems to be the exact opposite of the most common understanding of English-language sf scholarship, which is — following Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson — to identify science fiction as a utopian discourse par excellence. This difference can be explained, in part, by Lardreau’s intellectual history. Like other French intellectuals of his generation, Lardreau started out as an ultra-leftist. But his disillusionment with the failures of the Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s led him to adopt, instead, a kind of tragic view of history (expressed in its most extreme terms, supposedly, in the 1976 book L’Ange that he co-wrote with Christian Jambet, which I have not read). In the current volume, Lardreau phrases this by saying that, while negative attempts to fight and resist oppression are always praiseworthy, positive attempts to create a better world most of the time (le plus souvent) end up making things worse. But Lardreau still says this with a different inflection than that adopted by his better known contemporaries, the nouveaux philosophes such as Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann. Where the latter leverage their new-found anti-communism to become prominent spokespeople for colonialism and imperialism, as well as other sorts of fatuous stupidity, Lardreau instead maintains what Hallward calls a kind of “ascetic withdrawal” from politics. This is combined with continued fidelity to the pseudo-Maoist dictum of the French Left in 1968, that “it is always right to rebel” (on a toujours raison de se révolter).

Though I do not wish to defend Lardreau’s ant-leftist political quietism, I think that I can understand his anti-utopianism, and indeed justify it to some extent, by returning to Leibniz. In his novel Candide, Voltaire famously mocks Leibniz in the figure of Doctor Pangloss, who continually proclaims, in the face of unspeakable horrors, that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Lardreau responds to this portrayal by noting that Leibniz is anything but sanguine in the face of catastrophe. Rather, it is precisely by “facing the desolating spectacle of the world, confronting it, and not at all by turning away from it, that Leibniz pronounces that all is for the best.” Lardreau proposes that we should understand Leibniz to be saying, not that the world is marvelous, but rather that it is, under the circumstances, “the least bad of possible worlds.” We can always imagine something even worse, though we lack God’s power of envisioning all the possible alternatives. I am reminded here, at least to some extent, of Karen Lord’s excellent (and insufficiently recognized) science fiction novel The Best of All Possible Worlds, a space opera that begins with the horror of a nearly total genocide, but nonetheless manages, not only to continue on in the face of such catastrophe, but even to transform itself into a romance novel with a happy ending.

Lardreau’s explanation of Leibniz’ optimism also reminds me Alfred North Whitehead’s discussions of Leibniz in Process and Reality. At one point, Whitehead remarks that “the Leibnizian theory of the ‘best of possible worlds’ is an audacious fudge produced in order to save the face of a Creator constructed by contemporary, and antecedent, theologians’ (47). Later in the text, however, Whitehead enunciates an oracular formulation that is quite Leibnizian in spirit:

This function of God [in providing the “initial aim” for every actual occasion] is analogous to the working of things in Greek and in Buddhist thought. The initial aim is the best for that im­passe. But if the best be bad, then the ruthlessness of God can be personified as Atè, the goddess of mischief. The chaff is burnt. What is inexorable in God, is valuation as an aim towards ‘order’; and ‘order’ means ‘society permissive of actualities with patterned intensity of feeling arising from adjusted contrasts.’ (244)

Both Lardreau and Whitehead seem to be making the point that, far from proclaiming that things are perfect, Leibniz takes pain and suffering quite seriously. Whitehead’s God seeks to increase, as much as possible, the quantity and quality of “actualities with patterned intensity of feeling.” Leibniz’s God, the philosopher’s “audacious fudge” aside, similarly operates according to what Lardreau calls “the law of maximum and minimum… the production of the maximum of worlds (and not only of the maxiumum of effects in each world), following from the minimum of principles.” This is an aesthetic principle no less than it is an ethical one; Leibniz, Lardreau, and Whitehead all refuse to belittle either the ethical or the aesthetic by separating them from one another. (It is only be means of such a separation that there can be anything like the fascist “aestheticization of politics” decried by Walter Benjamin). Lardreau drives this point home by quoting a maxim of Leibniz’s that is too delightful for me not to repeat it here:

My great principle, as regards natural things, is that of Harlequin, Emperor of the Moon, … that it is always and everywhere in all things just like here. That is, that nature is fundamentally uniform, although it varies as to more and less and in degrees of perfection. This results in the simplest and most intelligible philosophy in the world.

The point of these formulations about the maximum and the minimum, and about the ruthlessness and inexorability of God, is that change always happens, but it is never simple. We must reject the idealist theory according to which evil and oppression can be eliminated just by changes in personal attitude — which amounts to believing that you can eliminate bad things in reality by the simple expedient of thinking them away. Things in the world are intricately inteconnected; and even if we could change any one thing, this change would have ramifying effects upon everything else. This vision leads Lardreau to reject what he sees as a facile utopianism. But it equally leads him to reject, and to warn us against, what he calls the “lazy” and cynical underside of such utopianism: the idea, popular among the nouveaux philosophes and other conservatives, that “we must never change anything, for fear that this will cause everything to collapse, without warning, into horror.” For Lardreau, revolutionary utopianism and anti-revolutionary Burkean conservativism are bad ways of understanding what Leibniz tells us.

So when Lardreau says that science fiction is anti-utopian, he does not mean this in anything like the Burkean sense. Rather, he finds in science fiction the Leibnizian virtues of variation and compossiblity. Science fictional speculation seeks to explore — or better, to express — as many and as various worlds as it can. In this way, it works to expand possibility. But the possibilities of science fictional world building cannot just be abstract logical possibilities. That they are non-contradictory, and therefore not logically impossible, is not enough. The changes envisioned by a science fiction narrative must not only be possible in themselves, but compossible with other circumstances. If you make worlds by introducing particular changes (if you introduce a novum, as Suvin would say), then you need to work on as wide a scope as you can, in working out how this one change also changes other things. What other developments are compossible with the novum?

I won’t discuss Lardreau’s reading of Herbert’s Dune cycle at any length. It is an interesting and powerful reading, but it doesn’t add much, for my purposes, to what Lardreau says in the earlier portions of the book. The central argument is that Dune considers, in fictionalizing mode, the ultimately theological question of predestination versus contingency, or of fate versus free will. The discussion includes digressions on Kierkegaard and St. Augustine, and especially on the question of Manichaeanism and Augustine’s conversion from that to Christian orthodoxy. It also spends several pages on the significance of the Mule in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series — another prime science ficitonal example of how contingency disrupts the apparent laws of history.

Finally, the “Introclusion” to Lardreau’s book returns to the question of the Real, and how it exceeds all measures of intelligibility. This leads Lardreau back to the way that his insistence upon a negative philosophy makes for a necessary counterpart to the positivity of Leibnizian and science fictional invention. Late modern philosophy seems incapable of making grand conjectures any longer. The power of science fiction is that it generates and explores metaphysical conjectures more powerfully than any other discourse. Lardreau differentiates between science fiction and fantasy, and he seems to dislike the latter as much as Darko Suvin does, albeit for entirely different reasons. Lardreau suggests that world building in fantasy works to shut down conjectures and speculations, in contrast to science fiction that opens them up. (I have to confess that I am largely in accord with Lardreau about this, even though there are plenty of individual works of fantasy that I love, including those by Mirrlees, Peake, Mieville, Le Guin, and even — despite the ridicule I often receive from my Marxist friends for this — Tolkien). In any case, Lardreau celebrates the capacity of science fiction to open up conjectures, rather than shutting them down; this is why he says that sf is anti-utopian, and why he hopes that sf can be a stimulus to some future philosophy, whose task would be to transform (science fictional) imagination into (philsophical) understanding.

Rivers Solomon, Sorrowland

Here is my review of Rivers Solomon’s new novel, Sorrowland. The book will be published on May 4th. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Rivers Solomon is the author of two previous books: An Unkindness of Ghosts, a space opera crossed with a neo-slave narrative, and The Deep, a narrative elaboration of the hip hop group clipping.’s reboot of the Detroit techno band Drexciya’s mythology of an underwater civilization composed of the descendents of kidnapped Africans who were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. Both of those books were powerful and thought-provoking, but Solomon’s new novel, Sorrowland, is even better. The book feels like science fiction to me, even though it might more likely be categorized as gothic horror, or even magic realism. Solomon’s writing is one more instance of the genre hybridity and emotional and conceptual reach of speculative fiction writing in the twenty-first century, especially by writers of color.

It is difficult to discuss Sorrowland without giving away lots of spoilers, but I will do my best to keep these to a minimum. The reason it is hard to avoid spoilers is that the narrative works by continual expansion. It starts out with a very narrow focus, but continually opens up, or spirals outward, to new dimensions and new contexts. What starts out as a grim survivalist tale about isolation, loneliness, and deprivation ends up as a much broader account of the United States as a repressive hierarchical state founded upon racist terror. The writing is tightly focused on naturalistic detail, even as it offers up the most unsparing judgments, and even when it opens up to the most fantastical happenings.

At a number of points throughout the book, the narrative reaches a crux, a confrontation. Each time this happens, you think about what might take place next; you imagine the most extravagant possibilites, and wonder if the author will dare to go there. And each time, Solomon does not so much go there as go even further, to an outcome (or a new stage) that exceeds even my most delirious expectations. (Of course, my inability to imagine such happenings in advance is part of why I am not a creative writer, but a critic-scholar who seizes on books like Sorrowland as opportunities for reflection and expansion). At each of these cruxes, it feels like I have had the rug pulled out from under me, and I am forced to realize that, ‘no, this is vaster and more horrifying than I had previously imagined.’ I should note too, though, that every time these developments are given fictively scientific explanations, rather than supernatural ones; this is part of the reason that the book feels science fictional to me, despite the fact that its tropes have more in common with gothic fiction. Even as we discover and feel forces that are cosmic in scope, and disproportionate with our commonsensical understandings, they still ultimately have empirical roots and explanations. There is no rupture or bifurcation here between the natural and the social, or between the material and the spiritual.

Sorrowland gives us the story of Vern, a young albino (and apparently intersex) Black woman. When we first meet her, she is 15 years old and pregnant. She is extemely nearsighted, and does not know how to read. She is hiding, alone, in the woods, having run away from the only home she has known, a Black nationalist commune called Cainland, somewhere in the US Deep South. Cainland is all about Black pride, education, and self-sustaining independence for its community; but it is also extremely patriarchal and puritanically religious. Life in Cainland involves a seemingly endless series of chores, prayers, punishments, and medical exams and injections. Vern, still a girl, was forcibly married to, and impregnated by, its stern leader, Reverend Sherman.

But all this backstory is only filled in gradually, over the course of the book (and with revelations placed strategically at unexpected points in the course of the narrative). At the start of the book, Vern gives birth to twins, unassisted, in the heart of the forest. The novel has a great and compelling opening sentence: “The child gushed out from twixt Vern’s legs ragged and smelling of salt.” Vern immediately thinks of drowning this child, to preserve him from a worse fate. But instead, she cares for him “with what gentleness she could muster, and it wasn’t enough to fill a thimble.” Though the child is referred to as “he” (together with his sibling, born an hour later), Vern raises them without any ascription of gender. Their names are Howling and Feral. Vern and her babies remain in the forest, apart from any human contact. They subsist as hunter-gatherers. Conditions are harsh, rather than idyllic; Sorrowland is no robinsonade. But Vern’s survivalist skills are sharp enough that they make do.

Things happen around Vern and her children, however; she is not truly isolated, but submerged in the world, or in nature. The novel has an ecological vision, according to which all things are entangled. Vern has a living connection to the trees, and more generally to the animals and plants and fungi. But there are more disquieting things, as well. Vern is stalked by a “fiend,” who continually taunts her, sometimes by setting fires, and otherwise by leaving murdered animals hanging from the trees, often adorned with baby clothes or toys. In addition, Vern is frequently tormented by hauntings, visions of the dead who sometimes speak to her, and other times just appear mutely before her. They include people she remembers from her time in Cainland, but also people from deeper (ancestral, community) levels of memory, like lynching victims she sees hanging from trees. And on top of all this, Vern starts to notice strange changes in her body…

Saying more, with any detail, would involve those spoilers I said that I would try to avoid. So I will just note that Vern lives with her babies in the forest for four years; and then — at not quite a third of the way through the novel — she has to return to, and deal with, what most of us know as the outside world (and what she mostly encountered in the past during short supervised trips outside Cainland itself). Surviving in contemprary America without any form of ID, or any money or credit cards, is in some ways more difficult that surviving in the forest. But Vern finds allies and helpers, as well as persecutors and enemies. She and her children are gifted with greater resources, as well as assaulted with wider and more articulated dangers. And Vern herself continues a metamorphosis (both physical and mental) that at once debilitates her, gives her strength, and puts her in danger from forces that want to control her. She is no longer entirely human, though in some ways this also ties her more concertedly to human histories and communities. (Again, I must be vague in order to avoid giving away too much).

Like Solomon’s other novels — only even more so — Sorrowland is at times overwhelmingly distressing, though it manages to eke out a bit of hope by the end. A lot of what happens in the course of the novel really hurts. The pain is both inflicted by others, and also self-inflicted, as Vern has to some extent internalized her own oppression — this is part of how she was educated, as well as how she experiences the world. Though Vern ultimately becomes something like a superhero, she also continually has to face her own limitations, an existential finitude that would exist in any context whatsoever, but that is massively amplified by social injustice. This is still another way in which the novel feels science-fictional to me; it combines a daring cognitive scope with a careful parsing of how it feels to be caught up in, and very nearly swamped by, powerful social and technological currents.

The prose of Sorrowland is deeply affective and intellectually cutting at the same time, a combination few writers can manage. Concrete physical and sensory details, and a deep sense of corporeal being, coexist with tremendous leaps of abstraction, not to mention citations of such authors as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Jacques Derrida. There’s even a joke about a book supposedly called A Poststructuralist Critique of Embodiment (which is entirely silly, and yet at the same time deeply apropos to what is going on over the course of the novel). The novel starts out with a harshly delimited horizon, but it ends in a sort of cosmopolitics.

Sorrowland is an extraordinary novel. it is continually and astonishingly inventive, while at the same time (I don’t know how to better express this) it has the force of necessity, of something that just has to be. It begins with the harshness of childbirth; and it ends with “the night calls of one thousand living things, screaming their existence, assuring the world of their survival.” The book is itself a deep and ferocious expression of survival; and — perhaps, even, we may at least hope, beyond its final pages — of flourishing.

Charlie Jane Anders, Victories Greater Than Death

Here is my review of Charlie Jane Anders’ new science fiction novel, Victories Greater Than Death. The book will be published in two and a half weeks. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Charlie Jane Anders’ new novel, Victories Greater Than Death, the first volume of a projected trilogy, is great fun. It is Anders’ first book for a YA (Young Adult) audience, which means that it has teenage protagonists, who are shy and moody and nervous about their infatuations. It is perhaps less conceptually audacious than some of Anders’ other work; but this is only a relative observation. There’s still a lot going on in Victories Greater Than Death, even if its main purpose is to entertain.

Victories Greater Than Death is about a bunch of human teenagers, of various gender identities and ethnicities, who find themselves transported onto a starship, and e in a galactic war. A multi-species and relatively non-hierarchical federation, the Firmament (ultimately guided by benevolent computers like those of Iain Banks’ Culture novels) is engaged in struggle against a fascist counterforce, which we can think of as an analog to the contemporary Earthly movements behind Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Orban, Duterte, Netanyahu, and so on, only expanded to a galactic scale. In the course of the novel, we get everything that we expect from space opera: exciting interstellar battles, majestic discoveries, last-minute escapes, daring rescue missions against great odds, and the sociology of navigating interspecies differences. We also get everything we expect from YA fiction: the emotional ups and downs and intensified agonies and ecstasies of teenagers who are geniuses but misfits, struggling to define themselves, to do something meaningful in the world, and to make sense of their own emotions. What we do not get, thankfully, is the overdone template of YA dystopian fiction today, in which a plucky teen girl, all on her own, overthrows a totalitarian world order. Anders has something much more imaginative in mind.

Victories Greater Than Death deftly combines teen interiority with galactic socio-politics. The narrative focuses upon six teens who leave the Earth behind and venture into space. They are gay and straight, female, male, and trans, and from different continents and ethnic and racial groups. Their multiplicity is echoed by the crew of the warship the HMSS Indomitable, who are drawn from different humanoid species originating across different planets. Anders’ worldbuilding feels solid and well-thought out, although she definitely puts wacky imaginative detail ahead of plodding sociological plausibility.

In its worldbuilding, Victories Greater Than Death entertainingly subverts many of the expected genre clichés. For instance, the HMSS Indomitable belongs to the Royal Navy. We all know how space opera is obsessed with galactic empires. But it turns out that the Queen, ostensibly at the head of this interplanetay society, “isn’t a monarch,” but rather “more like a librarian”; she interfaces with gigantic AIs, “gathers the knowledge of a million worlds,” and “shares it with everyone in the Firmament.” She is more Barbara Gordon or Rupert Giles than she is Elizabeth Windsor. Learning this is a great relief to one of the teens, an Afro-British gay man who hates his memories of “being forced to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ as a small child.” I give this detail as only one small example of how the novel continually plays with the tropes of both the space opera and the teen romance, and twists them into delightful new forms.

Tina, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a white American teen girl who is actually, under disguise, the genetic clone of a legendary Firmament starship captain from a planet of purple-skinned humanoids. She is supposed to have the captain’s memories implanted into her own brain as well, but the operation backfires. She gains her predecessor’s procedural and semantic memories, but not her personal ones. Tina now knows how to fire a “positron cloudstrike gun,” and she knows cultural details about the various galactic species, but she does not know what her predecessor actually did, or what sort of person she was. This turns out to be a good thing rather than a bad thing, because Tina reaps the rewards as well as the confusions of hybridity, without having her own personality swamped by that of her supposed ‘original’. In any case, this extra-human or post-human layer of doubt works to intensify the romance aspect of the novel, which has Tina pining for one of the other teens, a dark-skinned trans woman from Brazil.

In giving Tina this divided and incomplete heritage, Anders also undermines the tiresome narrative stereotype of the Chosen One. As a result of her incomplete transformation, Tina cannot be the one who saves the world; more broadly, she cannot be “The One” (like Neo in The Matrix) at all. This is, first, because such a savior figure does not exist; and second, because any such figure would be a nasty, megalomaniacal dictator if he or she did in fact exist (that would be the novel’s antagonist, Marrant, who leads the fascist rebel forces: fascists have leaders, but egalitarian democrats don’t).

Instead, Tina learns a number of things. In the first place, although Tina picks up the powers and abilities of her predecessor, and therefore is a superb warrior, she finds that she cannot live with herself after killing people. This is the case even though she only kills people in self-defense, in order to stop them from killing her and her friends. She becomes a pacifist, and hopes to defend the Firmament and oppose the fascists while maintaining “non-offensive status.” It remains to be seen, in the other volumes of the trilogy, just what this will entail.

In the second place, Tina learns that she can only help to save the world by joining up with her friends. The group of Earth teens integrates successfully into the larger galactic community aboard the Indomitable, but they also stick together and have one another’s back. Defeating the bad guys is a group effort, in which everyone has their individual roles. Nobody can go it alone, but also nobody can substitute for the uniqueness of anybody else.

Multiculturalism is replicated on multiple levels throughout the novel. There’s the multiplicity among the group of Earth teens, and there is the larger multiplicity of the humanoid races existing in harmony on the starship, and throughout the Firmament. But beyond this, there is a looming, still broader level. We gradually learn the backstory behind the Firmament. An older, now vanished species, known only as the Shapers, went through the galaxy ages ago, aiding the growth of humanoid sentient species on many planets, while at best stymieing the development, and at worst exterminating, all the sentient non-humanoid (and especially non-vertebrate) species they found. These crimes stand behind the current splendor of the Firmament, as much as slavery and genocide stand behind the United States of America. The fascist antagonists in Victories Greater Than Death embrace this ugly heritage, as much as right-wing forces in contemporary America (with analogs across the world) do. But even the good guys, the Firmament, are not free of this history. In principle, the Royal Navy is supposed to cross the galaxy, aiding the helpless and oppressed. But in practice, this doesn’t always happen — the Firmament has a long history of broken promises and calculations based on realpolitik. And this, too, is part of the legacy our teens have to deal with.

The end of Victories Greater Than Death gives us something of a cliffhanger, preparing us for the later installments of the trilogy. Most of the plot strands are resolved, and the immediate bad guys are defeated. But there is a cost — Tina’s best human friend, and one of the alien good guys as well, are left in a coma — and there are intimations of greater dangers to come, as well as the lingering, unresolved issues that I have already mentioned. I look forward to the sequels; but for now, Victories Greater Than Death is a fun, satisfying, and also thought-provoking read, which I can happily recommend to an adult, as well as a YA, audience.

Nicky Drayden, Escaping Exodus and Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis

I just finished reading Nicky Drayden’s just-published Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis (2021), the sequel to the first Escaping Exodus (2019). These books are absolutely bonkers, and I mean that in the best possible way. I haven’t absorbed enough from just one reading of these novels to be able to draw out their rich implications as fully as I would like. In what follows, I will mostly avoid spoilers as I write about what these novels offer in a fairly abstract way.

The Escaping Exodus books are space opera of a sort. The Earth is nothing more than a distant memory. Human beings live, not precisely in spaceships, but rather inside the bodies of the Zenzee, enormous (moon-sized) living animals that travel in herds through outer space. Inside each Zenzee is a complex array of parasitic or symbiotic microfauna, and an equally complex human society. These societies differ radically from one another, after thousands of years apart. The people in the novels have to negotiate their own social worlds, together with the biophysical challenges of their host environments.

That’s the basic premise of the novels. What really brings the books alive are their rich, world-building details, including a lot of gross and squishy macro-anatomy, odd foods that range from delicious to repulsive, complicated sex/gender/family/class systems that are as inescapable as they are arbitrary, and Machiavellian political infighting. These societies aren’t easily described along a utopian/dystopian axis. In the main world of the novel, for instance, same-sex relationships are just as common, and just as accepted, as heterosexual ones. Women are pretty much in control of everything; men are mostly expected to remain in the domestic sphere, and when they appear in public their appearance is beautified through makeup and revealing garments. There is a rigid class system, with a powerful aristocracy who can get away with pretty much anything, and workers who have almost no rights or privileges. Families are rigid institutions, but they are nothing like the nuclear families of our own society. Instead, these families are composed of multiple spouses, all of whom are consigned to pre-determined roles, and with child-bearing heavily policed as well. Of course, the way these structures are taken for granted within the society, to such an extent that the characters are nearly unable to think their way outside them, can be seen as a cognitively estranging ways of reminding us that our own gender and family arrangements are equally arbitrary and constraining. But the florid proliferation of these arrangements makes an impressive point in its own right; and it is further relativized by the brief glimpses we get of social arrangments inside the other Zenzee worlds (my favorite, perhaps, is the insane world in which there is no gender inequality, but children from a very young age are trained to be warriors; the result is a heavily hierarchical society filled with paranoia, as everyone is full-time engaged in trying to betray and undermine their superiors, while at the same time policing their inferiors to prevent the same thing from happening to them; assassination is common).

The overall effect of all this world-building is quite amazingly delirious, even though in logical terms it all hangs together, and makes at least as much sense as the more humdrum world-building arrangements projected by other sf writers (let alone the world-building arrangements that we ourselves inhabit, and take for granted more than we should). The social relations that I have just described are overlaid by ecological ones, based on the relation between the human beings in general, and the organisms that they inhabit. The human beings initially exploit their Zenzee as resources to be plundered; when the weight of human activities saps the energy of the Zenzee and kills it, the human inhabitants simply transfer themselves to another one. But gradually it becomes clear, not only that this environmental pillaging is unsustainable (making the books into ecological parables), but also that the Zenzee themselves are sentient and feeling organisms, whose own needs and desires need to be taken into account and respected.

Indeed, the novels are concerned above all with various forms of intertwinings and co-dependencies that exist on multiple scales and levels, moving from particular sexual relationships among human individuals, to social arrangments and exploitative class structures, all the way to large-scale ecological dependencies such those between the human beings and the Zenzee. On all these levels, people and communities need to negotiate between their own needs and those (often quite different ones) of the others they encounter. These negotiations can be understood anthropologically and sociologically, of course, but also physically in terms of energy flow and biophysical resources.

The novels thereby suggest — without spelling things out too explicity — an ontology that is very different from anything we are accustomed to. Our most basic categories break down, and it becomes evident that we need different ones. This is both intriguing and difficult, because the characters in the world(s) of the novels never articulate their primary assumptions systematically. They are unaware of their presuppositions in the same way we are all too often unaware of our own (ultimately in the same way that, as McLuhan said, fish are unaware of water). The result is a kind of exciting indeterminacy. For instance, the traditional binary between biological and social simply makes no sense in these novels. Neither of these terms is reducible to the other, or can be explained in terms of the other; but the social and the biological are nonetheless so inextricably intertwined that we cannot find a stable boundary between them. Recent feminist and ecological thinkers have addressed this sort of situation by means of linguistice coinages like Donna Haraway’s naturecultures or Karen Barad’s intra-activity; but in Drayden’s world(s), somehow these hybrid words/concepts don’t seem quite right either. This is yet another one of those cases where even our most advanced theoretical articulations have yet to keep pace with the constructions of speculative fiction.

In any case. we need to infer the consequences of Drayden’s world-building — together with those arising from the wild twists of her plots — indirectly. This is of course one of the main characteristics of science fiction narratives in general; but Drayden carries this “cognitive estrangement” to an extent, and with a meta-referential skill, that is quite unusual. I am tempted to say that, where we expect science fiction to introduce a novum that induces cognitive estrangement, the Escaping Exodus novels present the experience of cognitive estrangement itself as the novum. The books continually force us to reconsider whatever we have already accepted and agreed to. The novels present us with a series of ethico-ecological imperatives, and work to convince us that these imperatives are both urgent and entirely rational. But whenever we get to some degree of acceptance and resolution, the narratives then up the ante in startling and outrageously hyperbolic ways. The Escaping Exodus volumes are immediately gripping and entertaining; but they also push us inexorably into a series of increasingly crazy WTF moments, whose imperative logic we nonetheless have to accept.

Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace

Here is my review of Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel, A Desolation Called Peace, her sequel to the Hugo-winning A Memory Called Empire. The book will be published in three weeks. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel A Desolation Called Peace is a sequel to her Hugo-award-winning debut, A Memory Called Empire. Like its predecessor, Desolation is a far-future space opera. Martine carries over her exquisite world-building, and some of the same characters, from the previous volume, and gives both world and people a series of new challenges. The galaxy-spanning Teixcalaan Empire — reminiscent of both the Byzantine Empire (the subject of Martine’s scholarly work as a historian) and the empire of the Aztecs — regards itself as the epitome of civilization. All outsiders are disparaged as “barbarians.” The Empire is at once aesthetically dazzling, enormously wealthy, bureaucratically vast, and politically ruthless. Its accomplishments in art, literature, and architecture are unparalleled. It dominates galactic trade and commerce, and controls access to the “gates” (presumably wormholes) that allow for travel between distant planetary systems. With its fearsome military might, the Empire slaps down anyone and anything that dares to challenge its worlds-spanning dominance. Teixcalaan is something like a science-fictional analogue of the United States (at least in the period after we “won” the Cold War but before our recent decline), though its overtly totalitarian political structure bespeaks a franker acknowledgment of aspects of the American Empire that we tend to dissimulate, even to ourselves.

A Desolation Called Peace switches fluidly among multiple points of view; but like its predecessor, its main character is an outsider (a so-called “barbarian”): Mahit Dzmare, from the small independent space colony Lsel Station. The Station is fully in the Teixcalaanli sphere of economic influence, but it has so far managed to preserve its political independence. Mahit has grown up studying, and loving, all things Teixcalaanli, while maintaining her Lsel cultural identity. In A Memory Called Empire, Mahit is sent as Lsel’s ambassador to the Empire. Coming to the Teixcalaan capitol planet and city, she fully indulges her love for its culture; but her ambassadorial charge is to preserve Lsel Station from the Empire’s imperialist designs.

Immediately upon arrival, Mahit is thrown into a world of complex and treacherous political scheming (that fully merits the adjective ‘Byzantine’ in its looser metaphorical sense); at the same time, she is forced to recognize that, no matter how well she integrates herself into Teixcalaanli cultural life, she will never fully be accepted by it. She will never escape being regarded as an inferior barbarian. Mahit acutely feels the same post-colonial dilemma that so many people of color and people from elsewhere than Western Europe or North America have had to face in our actual world today: how to negotiate between their having been shaped by, and having come to love, certain aspects of Euro-American culture, and their inescapable awareness that this culture has systematically devalued and exploited them.

A Desolation Called Peace inverts the situation of the previous novel. Now, several Teixcalaanli legions find themselves at the edges of the Empire, engaged in low-level space combat with a nonhuman but sentient alien species. If the Teixcalaanli regard human beings from other cultures as barbarians scarcely worthy of recognition, how can they deal with this far more deeply alien presence? The aliens’ technology is at least equal, and in some ways superior, to that of the humans; but their communications, both among themselves and when they address themselves towards humans, don’t seem to be categorizable as anything we can recognize as language. Given the inscrutability of the aliens, together with their mastery of stealth guerrilla warfare, it seems that the Empire is faced with an alternative between humiliating withdrawal, or genocide of the alien species on a planetary scale (with the latter still not guaranteed to end the war for good).

In this situation, the linguist and spy Three Seagrass — Mahit’s Teixcalaanli contact and semi-love-interest from the first novel — is called to the space frontier to try to find a way of negotiating with the aliens. Three Seagrass asks Mahit to come along and help her. Mahit agrees, because she is in political hot water back home at Lsel Station; although she preserved the Station from direct annexation by the Empire, she is still regarded by her own people as overly pro-Teixcalaanli and therefore untrustworthy.

What follows is another story of (sorry) Byzantine political intrigue, combined with the ontological uncertainties of a First Contact novel. A Desolation Called Peace is rich on a personal-is-political level, as Mahit must negotiate her way among many stresses: the distrust and disdain of the Teixcalaanli in general, the condescension of Three Seagrass despite the mutual sexual attraction between them, and the ill-will of her Lsel compatriots — not to mention the difficulties of grasping the desires and beliefs of civilized beings who nonetheless look grotesque and menacing to human eyes, and whose vocalizations (which they think of as singing) literally cause nausea due to infrasonic vibrations when heard by human ears in human bodies.

I should probably be a bit more circumspect in the rest of this review, so that I do not give away too many spoilers. I will just say that the novel’s resolution comes about through Martine’s other great theme, besides questions of borders and negotiations and cosmopolitanism. This other theme has to do with the nature of individuality, and of possible connections among minds and bodies. The major science fictional novum of A Memory Called Empire, alongside its broad political and cultural vision, is a key technology that Lsel Station has, but the Empire does not. This is what the novel calls the imago — a prosthetic computational device that contains the memory and personality of ancestors or predecessors. Upon reaching adult maturity, every Lsel citizen is implanted with an imago that is suitable for their personality, and for their chosen career. Mahit is given the imago of Yskandr Aghavn, her predecessor as Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan, and who shared many of her cosmopolitan interests and even (to some extent) sexual proclivities. An imago often contains a multi-generational line of predecessors, and its personality is supposed to integrate with that of the host. For various reasons, Mahit finds such integration difficult, over the course of both novels. The technology is supposed to be a Lsel secret; but when the Teixcalaanli find out about it they tend to be both fascinated and horrified.

Questions about the integrity of the self, and of personality connection and integration, are central to both novels. Mahit is genuinely helped by Yskandr’s imago, and mostly values their integration, but she also sometimes has difficulties with having what is ultimately another person “inside her endocrine system.” Similarly, after Mahit finally has sex with Three Seagrass (maybe this is a spoiler, but after we’ve been teased about this prospect over the length of two long volumes, it just had to happen eventually), she worries about what it means to say that “this person has had their hands inside you.” So it is not too much of a stretch to see the technological forms of personality integration imagined by Martine as extensions of sexual connection — just as First Contact tropes in science fiction generally are extensions of actual worldly problems of connection among people of different cultures and belief systems. In all these cases, questions of intimacy — of welcoming someone who in one sense combines with you but also at the same time remains other than you — are combined with questions of freedom and coercion, and of unequal power relations between the partners.

A Desolation Called Peace imagines an expanded range of technologies of connection among separate bodies and minds — alike among the Lsel Stationers, the Teixcalaanli, and the aliens. I will just mention that these exist, on several levels, without going into description and analysis of all of them. It is quite beautiful the way in which these prospects of connection nicely resolve the narrative, and lead to at least a certain possibility of peace, beyond the alternatives of either continual skirmishing or violent annihilation — while at the same time, things remain open, complicated, and unresolved on a broader, philosophical level, and in terms of future prospects for the characters and their societies. A Desolation Called Peace gives us so much of what I look for in science fiction: deep and cogent worldbuilding, characters who definitely intrigue us and grab our attention, whether or not we actually like them, and deep conceptual speculation, which opens up new prospects for thought.

Elizabeth Bear, MACHINE

Elizabeth Bear’s space opera MACHINE has just been published. I received an advance copy, courtesy of Netgalley, in return for writing an honest review. Here it is.

MACHINE is set in the same cosmos as Bear’s previous book ANCESTRAL NIGHT, but it is not a sequel — the two novels can be read separately. In both books, Bear gives us a galaxy-spanning future civilization, containing many sentient and sapient species from many planets and star systems, all living more or less in harmony. The Synarche (as the galactic confederation is called) is far from a utopia, but it is much more cosmopolitan, and permits much more individual flourishing (of human beings and of numerous other species) than is the case for any actually-existing society on Earth today. It isn’t as egalitarian as one might like, but everyone gets more-than-basic subsistence, and working is not backbreakingly oppressive. There is a wide choice of jobs and careers, and there are machines to do the most obnoxious tasks. Sentient/sapient AIs have the same rights as organic intelligences do. To link the numerous star systems together, Alcubierre-White drives allow for a certain degree of FTL travel without violating relativity. Bear gives us one of those rare space operas that is not organized according to a military or colonialist paradigm.

The main socio-technological innovation that allows the Synarche to function is called rightminding. This is a chip implanted in everyone’s brain (called a “fox”) that works to dial down aggression and other dysfunctional emotions. It allows you to regulate and tune your own nonconscious bodily-emotive-intellectual processes, by regulating levels of hormones and neurotransmitters, as well as autonomic responses. In Bear’s account, being able to do such things (I decide to dial down my anger, suppress pain, suppress or enhance sexual feelings, and so on) is not paradoxical, but works as a self-aware feedback loop (the logic behind it is circular, but it is a virtuous circle rather than a vicious one). Being able to regulate oneself is a state of greater freedom, ultimately, then always doing what you think you want, but being at the mercy of your own raging emotions and your own social conditioning.

However, rightminding is a social rather than just an individual process. And it is tied up both with health and medicine, and with surveillance and policing. Other entities, and especially AIs, are able to access your fox, and tweak your settings, if you permit them to do so. Social rules are generated by consensus, which is ascertained via massive computation; and there are rules and norms that you aren’t allowed to violate. The regulation is soft rather than harsh, but it still exists. Cops are major characters in both novels. (Especially endearing, if that is the right word, is Goodlaw Cheeirilaq — “goodlaw” being used instead of “officer” — who is basically a sentient/sapient 8-foot-tall insect, somewhat like an enormous preying mantis, and who appears in both novels). If you break the rules (commit a crime), you are not punished in any of the ways that we are familiar with today; but you basically get a choice between exile or confinement, on the one hand, or allowing the authorities to tweak your fox settings so that you will not do it again, on the other.

This system might sound a bit creepy and oppressive — especially to the sorts of people (Americans in particular) who think that being obliged to wear a mask in public places when a pandemic is raging all about them is a violation of their fundamental rights. Bear takes this sort of worry seriously, but the books argue against it, and in favor of the Synarche system. In ANCESTRAL NIGHT, the main antagonist is a sexy and alluring libertarian pirate, who categorically rejects rightminding as a form of enslavement. The protagonist is powerfully seduced by the pirate, but ends up rejecting libertarianism and reasserting her allegiance to the rightminding system. (Is it worth mentioning that both protagonist and antagonist are women?). In a libertarian society, nobody has their mind manipulated, but massive oppression exists in the form of economic inequality, servitude enforced by contracts, and an overall social environment whose perverse incentives encourage the flourishing of violent sociopathy. You are nominally free, but you have no chance of being able to exercise your freedoms unless you are a degenerate scumbag (a term which I am using here in its strict technical sense, as defined in the Urban Dictionary). All in all, Bear’s volumes are unique for the way that she makes this kind of argument explicitly and at length, rather than just preassuming it (or rejecting it as is so often the case in works of hard science fiction with a libertarian bent).

MACHINE is also a work of medical science fiction; it takes place mainly in an enormous, multispecies hospital near the center of the galaxy. Bear mentions, in her acknowledgments, her debt to the Sector General series of science fiction medical dramas by James White (which I have not yet read, but which are high on my reading list). I will not try to summarize the plot here, in order to avoid spoilers. But I need to note that Bear juggles all the pieces and puts them together at the end quite nicely and convincingly.

The female human protagonist, Dr. Brookllyn Jens, is a doctor who used to be a cop. Both professions are highly relevant to the action of the novel. She now works as a rescue specialist; her job mostly involves trying to save people (of whatever species) who have had accidents in deep space. Dr Jens is not without problems of her own; she suffers from chronic pain which even the advance medicine of her far-future society is not able to cure. This means that she is thorougly cyborgian: she can’t do anything without her “exoskeleton” that provides support for her body, and integrates with her self-regulation of bodily states via her fox. She is also a bit neurotic in a way that I found all-too-recognizable and relatable. As one of her crewmates tells her, “You’re not detached. You’re dissociated.” Brookllyn finds herself having to confess that he might well be right:

what I thought of as a professional reserve, professional detachment . . . was really more like floating a centimeter outside the world, never really engaging with it. (ellipsis in original text)

Brookllyn is also, throughout the book, frequently having to put on “hardsuits” and other devices to protect her from the vacuum of outer space, or from atmospheres in which other sentient species live, but which are inimical to human life. All in all, the book is brilliant and powerful in the way it conveys a sense of interdependency. The point is that I am dependent upon otherse even when I am alone, even when I am at my most individualistic and most stubbornly anti-social, and even when my entire life strategy consists in dissociating myself from the world, so as not to have to engage with it too distressingly. Even at such times, my very existence depends upon a vast web of prosthetic technologies, not to mention built environments (however naturalized they may feel) and contributions by other people. As Brookllyn puts it at one point:

We cannot isolate ourselves from systems, have no impact, change nothing as we pass. We alter the world by observing it. The best we can do is not pretend that we don’t belong to a system; it’s to accept that we do, and try to be fair about using it. To keep it from exploiting the weakest.

The plot of the novel involves violations of social trust on the part both of insiders at the heart of the system, and of rebels against the injustices of the system. MACHINE works through a delicate balancing act, as Brookllyn finds her faith and trust in the Synarche and its institutions deeply troubled, yet still ultimately finds herself needing to affirm it and to save it from destruction — the alternative is violence and oppression on an unimaginable scale. Yet I am not sure I am expressing this quite right — it is not a conservative novel urging obedience in order to avoid anarchy, but a radical one in the way that it argues for a common that goes beyond individualism, and that indeed finds its only basis and justification in the way that it supports individual flourishing better than any other social arrangement would be able to. Brookllyn must learn, in the course of the novel, to recognize the dangers of overidealization, but without lapsing into a resentful nihilism in response. The book is ultimately about trust. This really is, as I already said, an emotional and cognitive exploration that I deeply relate to.

And oh yes, MACHINE also has an exciting, suspenseful plot involving various forms of derangement, physical dangers, malignant computer code, and twisted psychological reactions, all the fun stuff.

Music video commentaries (10): Kendrick Lamar

Here I discuss the five videos Kendrick Lamar released for songs from his album DAMN.

Kendrick Lamar, Humble (Dave Meyers and the Little Homies, 2017)

This song/video was the first track to be released from Kenrick Lamar’s prize-winning 2017 album DAMN. It’s a banger, with a hard-hitting percussion and piano motif repeatedly looped. The lyrics involve a lot of complicated wordplay (as is always the case with Lamar), but they basically revolve around a paradox. In the verses, Lamar is boasting of his prowess as a rapper, his superiority to all the competition — which is a traditional hip hop trope. But at the same time, at points in these verses, and even more in the repeated chorus, Lamar is warning himself, as well as others, to be humble: which probably means both before God, and in terms of the rapper’s responsibility to the community and to social justice.(There is even a mention of Obama, who had just left the Presidency when the song was released).

The video is directed by Dave Meeyrs (whose work with major artists from Missy Elliott to Britney Spears to Harry Styles we have seen earlier in the semester) in collaboration with the Little Homies (which consists of Lamar himself and his associate Dave Free, who has also directed an impressive number of superb hip hop videos on his own). The video consists in a number of carefully lit tableaus featuring Lamar and others, which vary in an editing rhythm that makes counterpoint to the rhythms of the song. Some of these tableaus are specifically keyed to particular lines in the lyrics (for instance, when Lamar mentions Gray Poupon mustard, we see him handing a jar of the mustard to somebody in another car, which echoes old TV advertisements for the brand). Other tableaus reflect the lyrics more generally. The video begins in a large, mostly empty space with high ceilings (resembling a church); it is mostly dark, but a shaft of sunlight points directly to Lamar, who stands wearing white priestly garments, with his head bowed. Shots of him rapping in this setting are montaged with ones of him lying on a floor scattered with Franklins ($100 bills) while scantily-clad women around him are running the bills through money-counting machines. This sets up the duality that runs through the song and video: religious reverence and service versus a parodic version of the opulence that is almost stereotypical for hip hop videos. Other tableaus follow, including a reenactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, with Lamar in the place of Jesus; his apostles are all partying and ignoring him. We also see Lamar sitting under the dryer in an African American hair salon (all the other customers are women); Lamar riding a bicycle in a wound-up shot (apparently done with GoPro cameras on a drone, plus software to stitch 360-degree views together into a distorted spherical view — a technique previously pioneered in this video); Lamar golfing off the roof of a car, in the Los Angeles River; and Lamar dressed in black, in the middle of a crowd of similarly dressed black men with bald scalps and their heads bowed. Then there are shots of Lamar dressed in white, with his head on fire, in front of other black men dressed in black with ropes on fire wrapped around their heads. One of the most praised (and also criticized) sequences shows the screen divided in half, with Lamar on one side, and a black woman on the other; as Lamar objects to false female beauty standards created with Photoshop, Lamar and the women both cross to opposite sides of the image; she metamorphoses from processed to natural hair, and from an airbrushed image of shaking her ass to one where she displays, as Lamar requests, “somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.”`I won’t catalog all the imagery in the video; suffice it to say that all these tableaus provide an expansion, and a counterpoint, to the dichotomies that we find in the lyrics. Humble is a superb example of a video that illustrates the lyrics of the song, but in an imaginative rather than reductively literalistic way.

Kendrick Lamar, DNA (Nabil Elderkin and the Little Homies, 2017)

This is another song from DAMN, with high-speed rapping by Kendrick Lamar. The wide-ranging lyrics speak about everything from black accomplishments (wealth, honors, and references to “scholars” and to the Williams sisters’ successes at Wimbledon) to problems like the prevalence of “sex, money, murder” in the ghetto. Lamar cites all these as parts of “our DNA.” There’s also, in the middle of the song, a sample of Fox news personality Geraldo Rivera denouncing hip hop.

Nabil Elderkin is an experienced video director; earlier in the semester we saw his video for FKA twigs, Two Weeks. In the first half of the video, Kendrick Lamar is a prisoner, padlocked to a table. A police inspector (played by the actor Don Cheadle) comes in to interrogate him. There is some kind of weird energy exchange; Cheadle and Lamar lip-sync the first half of the song in tandem, trading lines and glaring at each other. Finally Cheadle releases Lamar; then Cheadle falls down dead. Lamar leaves, and next we see him on the sidewalk with his posse, playing dice as he starts to rap the second verse. Lamar and his friends stand up and walk towards the camera; for much of the remaining time of the video, this turns into a black-and-white closeup of Lamar as he frantically raps. This footage is intercut with brief shots (in color, like the rest of the video) of different scenes of African American life, including gambling, eating dinner, a corpse in a coffin, and (most frequently) a bunch of young black women driving around at top speed and screaming. At the end of the video, when Lamar’s fast rapping has ended and all that’s left is the closing chorus, a member of Lamar’s posse, fellow rapper Schoolboy Q, walks toward the camera and gives it a punch. The video is visually compelling with its stark images, but also hard to put together as a whole; this matches the chaos and ambivalence of the song, which often moves from pride to self-reproach, and back, in the course of a single line.

Kendrick Lamar, Element (Jonas Lindstroem and the Little Homies, 2017)

The song, also from DAMN, mostly references Lamar’s pride and skill in his craft, even when the content is unpleasant and ugly (e.g., “if I gotta slapa pussy-ass n****, I’ma make it look sexy). Lamar also states, “I’m willin’ to die for this shit / I done cried for this shit.” The music, produced by James Blake, is less harshly rhythmic, and more flowing, than the previous videos.

The video begins with a shot of water, and then a hand and arm emerge out of the water. We hear the rapper Kid Cudi, sounding like a preacher, introducing Kendrick Lamar; then we hear him shout, “I don’t give a fuck.” After this, we get a flow of almost still images. In many shots, people are standing almost still, and in others, violence unfolds in slow motion. We see a man who has been bloodied; we see a crowd, backs to the camera, motionlessly watching a house burn. We see Lamar rapping, camera framing him from below, the blue sky behind him; but there are blood stains on his white t-shirt. We see a young boy, in profile, bare-chested, standing as snow falls. There’s a shot, early in the video, of three young African American children, evidently poor, standing behind a barbed-wire fence; the child in the middle is holding a gun. When the image returns later in the video, the boy is aiming the gun at a car passing by, and pretending to shoot it. According to this article, many shots are recreations of famous still photos by the great African American photojournalist Gordon Parks. All in all, the video mixes horror and beauty; it asks us to pay attention to what we see, and to grasp its multiple dimensions.

Kendrick Lamar, Loyalty (Dave Meyers and the Little Homies, 2017)

Yet another song from DAMN, this one a collaboration with Rihanna. The music is built around a sample from a Bruno Mars song; so it is more lyrical, and less banging, than many of Lamar’s other songs/videos. The song, true to its title, is all about the concept of loyalty: “Tell me who you loyal to. Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink?” Dave Meyers’ visuals mostly reference gangster movies (and perhaps horror as well; the video begins with a dog barking, its eyes lit up malevolently). Then we see shots of a city at night; then some sort of club, with Lamar in a big chair, blindfolded, while women dance around him. Rihanna both caresses him, and holds a knife just over his head. There are also surreal shots of tarmac suddenly liquefying, and people (presumably members of Lamar’s crew) sinking downward; there are even shark fins gliding through the suddenly liquefied ground. We see Lamar in a fist fight with a taller and more heavily muscled man, while Rihanna looks on. We see the top of a skyscraper; Lamar stands there, holding on to Rihanna who is dangling over the edge; he tells her to “trust me” (and she does). We see Lamar as a gangster, interrogating a prisoner (also played by Lamar), and then turning him over to Rihanna, who suffocates him with a plastic bag. We see Lamar and Rihanna on a joyride; the car suddenly crashes with a sickening thud. Only then they look at one another and both start laughing: are they glad they survived? or is this a meta-moment, the two of them out of character and simply responding to the movie stunt they have just pulled? There are also several shots, placed throughout, of Lamar and Rihanna locked together in an embrace, and sinking into the liquefied tarmac; the video ends with a shot of them almost totally submerged.

Kendrick Lamar, Love (Dave Meyers and the Little Homies, 2017)

This one is a love song, supposedly addressed to Lamar’s partner, Whitney Alford. Lamar is joined by the singer Zacari, who wrote the original version of the song. The video starts with shots of the seashore; a typically romantic location, but we only see Zacari and Lamar each standing their alone, in separate shots. Then we see vignettes of Lamar and his (fictional, played by Andrea Ellsworth) love interest at the dinner table – they embrace and make out, later they sit separately and glare at one another, then they fight and she smashes a plate in anger; then we see Lamar alone at the table, drinking. His profile dissolves into wavy lines (one of the video’s nice, low-key visual effects). Then we get continuing shots (we had seen them quickly interspersed with the previous sequence) of women dressed in black, barely visible against the darkness of the frame, either posing or dancing in slow motion. This gives way in turn to a number of surreal shots of nude women, covered in glitter, their bodies either mirroring one another or fused together in weird, impossible configurations, parts of their flesh lit against a blank bluish background (I admit it, this is my favorite part of the video). There are more suggestive shots (not surreal, but like earlier in the video) of women posing while Lamar continues to sing/rap. Then we get Lamar in the passenger seat of a car, continuing to rap wearing a silver hoodie and looking towards the camera, while Zacari, similarly clad, drives. This is mixed with shots of Lamar wearing this hoodie rapping in front of a building, while the rapper Travis Scott sits on some steps behind and to the left. Then, continued shots of the women dancing slowly in the dark, sometimes in the same shot with Lamar, and again with those wavy lines around their profiles. But these shots are interspersed with ones of Lamar’s (fictional) girlfriend working on his braids, and then embracing him; and a bit later, he comes up the steps of a house, she opens the door for him, he enters and they look at one another, both suspiciously and longingly. Perhaps this could be regarded as a reconciliation after the quarrel earlier. But the video, like so many music videos, resists any simple linearity. This seeming progression is intercut with shots that belonged with other sections of the video: Lamar on the seashore, Lamar with the models dancing in slow motion behind him, against a black background, Lamar in the car with Zacari. In this way, the video suggests simultaneity — rather than a linear narrative with beginning, middle, and end. This is also a good example of what makes music videos so difficult to talk and write about: I have described many of the sorts of shots that recur throughout, but I cannot find a good way to describe the rhythm of the shots, how they are held and varied and made to give way to one another. It is this rhythm which really makes the video come alive, so that it changes the feel of the song from what it would be without any visuals.