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.

A brief note on Chris Beckett’s TWO TRIBES

Chris Beckett’s novel Two Tribes contains a more or less naturalistic account of events set in the author’s actual time and place: the book is about class differences in the UK during the Brexit disputes of the late 2010s. But this account, while it is contemporary for us, is framed as being written by a historian in the year 2266. This future narrator uses (fictional, but naturalistic) diaries from the 2010s as her raw material, in order to describe a failed romance between an upper-middle class man who is an architect, and a lower-middle class woman who is a hairdresser. Though these protagonists are both small business owners (and hence petit bourgeois in Marxist terms), they are very far apart in their values and assumptions, their habits and interests, and their social circles. The text moves back and forth between third-person descriptions of these characters’ lives, and first-person reflections by the narrator, who seeks to understand these lives from her own perspective as someone living in a twenty-third century Britain ravaged by climate catastrophe, economic decline, and authoritarianism. But there is also a third time level to the novel, consisting in scenes that are set in the narrator’s past, but that the narrator admits to inventing out of whole cloth, due to the absence of sufficient documentary evidence. These added scenes are also supposedly set in the late 2010s. But the narrator acknowledges that they would actually have taken place a bit later in time: the near future for us, but still the distant past for her. These scenes point to the origins of a violent civil war in later twenty-first century Britain, between high-tech armies bankrolled by professional and managerial elites (Tony Blair-style “New Labour” people), on the one hand, and fascist militias controlled by Tory aristocrats who recruit soldiers from the resentful white working class, on the other. This civil war is recounted as being nasty and quite destructive, even though the novel reveals that the instigators on both sides come from the same tiny ruling class. Beckett’s novel thus works on multiple levels with the estrangement effects that come from differences in perspective, due both to class antagonisms and to temporal displacement.

Kim Stanley Robinson, THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE

I have just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, The Ministry for the Future. It is one of Robinson’s best books. It is a near-future novel, starting a few years from now, and continuing for several decades thereafter. It is about global warming, and the possibilities for alleviating climate catastrophe.

The novel begins with a real punch to the gut. The opening chapter depicts in excruciating detail a disastrous, and all too plausible, weather event. Recent scientific studies demonstrate that human beings cannot survive a wet-bulb temperature of over 35 degrees Celsius. (Wet bulb temperatures measure a combination of heat and humidity). The worst extreme-heat events across the world have almost reached this threshold; it is not unlikely that the threshold will be crossed sometime in the near future. When it gets that hot and humid, human bodies are unable to cool themselves any more; people die, even when they are in good health, have access to drinking water, and do nothing but sit motionlessly in the shade. Robinson’s opening chapter extrapolates such an event, imagining it taking place in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and killing 20 million people in the space of a couple of days.

After this harrowing opening, the novel looks at responses to, and ramifications of, a gathering awareness that something has to be done about climate change. The novel focuses on two protagonists. Frank May is an American aid worker in India, one of the few survivors of the opening chapter’s climate event. Unsurprisingly, he is both traumatized by PTSD, and weighed down with survivors’ guilt. Mary Murphy, the other protagonist, is an Irish politician who is named head of the eponymous Ministry for the Future, a UN agency founded in order to enforce the Paris Agreement and other international climate accords. It is underfunded, and has no military or police power to punish nations or corporations that violate the agreements, but it has some room to give financial support to modest climate initiatives, and to exercise moral pressure on governments and banks.

The Ministry for the Future is far more loosely organized than most of Robinson’s previous novels. Though it keeps on coming back to Frank and to Mary, it also offers a wide range of other voices and perspectives. Robinson is not interested in exploring bourgeois interiority, in the manner still typical of literary novels today (and even of literary novels that flirt with science fictional conceits). Rather, these two central characters are by design fairly flat and generic. Even their particular personal characteristics are forged in a kind of feedback response to the economic, social, political, and technological forces in the world they live in.

(I have to say that, personally, I find the novel of bourgeois interiority insufferable in the 21st century; which is why I prefer straightforward genre writing, like Robinson’s, to most varieties of more ‘literary’ science fiction).

In any case, the lives of Frank and Mary are (aside from the initial catastrophe Frank suffers through and witnesses) not all that dramatic. What’s dramatic are the events that unfold around them — world-scale in their impact, but most often local and small-scale in their enaction. The book is divided into over a hundred chapters, all of them relatively short (on the average, each chapter is 3 pages long or so; though individual chapters range in length from a single paragraph to fifteen or so pages). Though some chapters give third-person accounts of the lives of Frank and Mary, most of them come from other voices. Some are fairly straightforward infodumps; others describe local happenings in a wide range of voices, usually anonymous and often collective (“we” rather than “I”). Here we learn of the experiences of, among others:

  • climate refugees who flee ravaged developing countries, and spend years in refugee camps in Switzerland and other western countries;
  • engineers in Antarctica, experimenting with various techniques to slow down the melting of the glaciers;
  • economists and lawyers seeking to convince the world’s central bankers to adopt more climate-friendly policies;
  • terrorists who carry out targeted assassinations of oil company executives and other megarich people who are directly responsible for ruining the climate in the interest of short-term profit;
  • exploited workers who rebel against neo-slavery conditions in extractive industries like mining;

and many others. These many chapters give the novel a diffuse feel. Robinson is juggling many threads, but he has no interest in combining them all into a tightly organized narrative. This is in part, at least, because the world we live in doesn’t work that way. It is unimaginably complex, and it is at least potentially open. The Ministry for the Future is dedicated to Fredric Jameson, and it offers an elegant and effective solution to the dilemma that Jameson outlined in his discussion of postmodernism several decades ago: how to “endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” when this system is dense and interconnected in ways that defy ordinary forms of representation. Robinson knows that a Spinozian understanding of this system sub specie aeternitatis, or a Hegelian grasp of the system in its dialectical totality, is impossible — the world system cannot be captured experientially, nor can it be cognized completely. Therefore, Robinson gives us multiple, and only loosely interconnected, perspectives — each of them is grounded in particular, incomplete sorts of experiences; but all of these actions and passions have global ramifications, well beyond the immediate experiences of the people who act and undergo them. The novel is filled with close descriptions of places and of actions, that are filled with local detail — but that also have implications that reach well beyond their immediate contexts. The book as a whole is discontinuous rather than synthesized into a perfectly shaped whole — but part of Robinson’s demonstration is that anything that were so well-shaped, would be, by that very fact, representationally inadequate. It is precisely this sort of open, indefinitely extensible, and never-completed endeavor that makes science fiction writing into “the realism of our time,” as Robinson insists in numerous essays and interviews.

(Side note: I find this sort of approach much better than the more common one that sees science fiction as utopian and/or dystopian. Fiction like Robinson’s doesn’t estrange us from contemporary social reality; rather, it gives us a “heightened sense,” to use Jameson’s words of that social reality, both in its hard actuality and in its still-open potentiality).

In a certain sense, The Ministry For the Future is almost a guidebook to how we may overcome the horrors of global warming, and avert a climate apocalypse. The novel does not offer us a messianic and utopian vision of revolution. Such a depiction would be useful in itself, by giving us a sense of what we need to fight for. But here Robinson is doing something different. The novel is filled with careful discussions of pragmatic policies that actually could be implemented in the world as we know it today, and that would have important positive effects. These are things like introducing a blockchain-regulated “carbon coin,” that would be paid to states, corporations, and individuals who succeed in sequestering carbon instead of spewing it into the atmosphere; geoengineering to make the waters of the Arctic, once they are unavoidably melted, more reflective of sunlight so as to decrease global heating; drilling in Antarctica to extract liquid water from underneath glaciers, where they lubricate fast motion of the ice above them into the ocean, but which, when extracted and refrozen on the surface increase the bulk of water trapped in ice form; setting up rewilding corridors in areas around the world, so that animal populations increase, and biotic products circulate without releasing carbon into the atmosphere; the replacement of gasoline-fueled airplanes with airships (essentially, large helium- or air-filled balloons), and of tankers with new sorts of clipper ships that move by a combination of air in the sails and motors whose generating power comes from sunlight via photovoltaic cells; a replacement of predatory private platforms like Facebook and Google with an organization of the Internet that is publicly owned and that preserves people’s privacy; and many more.

None of these technologies (using this word in the broadest possible sense) by themselves will save us from climate catastrophe, but deploying so many of them, together with creating a social atmosphere that is conducive to their continued discovery and development, can alleviate the otherwise runaway processes of global warming, and perhaps even reduce it to some extent. The point of giving us such detailed descriptions of all these processes is to make us aware that they are achievable in the actual world, with our current levels of technology and social and political organization. Robinson does not shy from the fact that getting these entirely plausible policies enacted will require, not only mass political protest around the world, but also some judicious doses of environmental terrorism. For instance, the transition over the course of the novel from fuel-consuming airplanes to carbon-neutral airships is prompted by eco-terrorist drone attacks that take down the former vessels frequently enough that even the rich are scared to fly in jet planes any longer. More broadly, central bankers (who are, the novel suggests, closer than any other group to being the actual rulers of the world) need to be bullied and threatened, as well as cajoled, into moving the world’s economies into more beneficial arrangements — they will only do so when they are convinced that current capital-accumulation policies can lead only to worldwide economic collapse and the loss of value of all the world’s currencies.

In a powerful sense, The Ministry for the Future is a remarkably optimistic novel. It assumes that our capitalist rulers can somehow be forced, or convinced, to accept the reforms necessary to save the human world from ruination. The novel is, as I have already suggested, a reformist rather than a revolutionary one. It seems resigned to the fact that capital will never entirely relinquish its hold; but holds out the hope that it might agree to social changes that somewhat diminish its power and wealth, in order to avoid what Marx and Engels called “the common ruin of the contending classes.” It also depicts an improvement of the international situation. Robinson says little in the novel about the United States, implying (probably accurately) that conditions here are so vile and degraded as to be totally irreparable. He does depict some positive ecological initiatives that take place at the state level. Though at one point Robinson imagines the catastrophic flooding of Los Angeles — something for which a precedent exists in the Great Flood of 1862 — he also sees a California that is progressive enough to pioneer rewilding initiatives despite the hostilty of the US federal government. (There is even a short passage about surfing towards the end of the novel, though it is set in Hawaii rather than California).

But in the novel’s vision, other parts of the world do considerably better than the United States. The climate disaster in India leads to the total discrediting of Modi and the Hindu nationalists, and the election of a new government whose main object is to make sure that such a catastrophe never happens again. The novel also envisions a China that continues with its relatively (compared to the rest of the world) climate-friendly economic policies, while giving up on its heavy-handed totalitarian governance (not out of goodwill, but simply as a result of discovering by experience that it doesn’t really work very well) and according more rights to its currently hyper-exploited working class. And in the various countries of Europe, though the rightwing anti-immigrant parties still exist forty years from now, they fail to take power or to disrupt the semi-enlightened internationalism of the more liberal European tradition.

All in all, The Ministry for the Future gives us a best-case scenario. It is not without loss — there are also policy setbacks, murders and bombings by revanchist rightwing terrorists and venal governments, and so on. But nevertheless, by the end of the novel, the world seems to have drawn back from the precipice of climate catastrophe — although the improvements in both the climate situation and the social situation, remain precarious. The world has not been saved, and hard work and massive international solidarity will still be needed for an indefinite future. But the worst has been averted, at least temporarily. Arguably, we need more quasi-optimistic (but not mindlessly optimistic) speculation like this, if only as a counterweight to our seemingly endless diet of dystopian horror.

And yet, and yet… I called The Ministry for the Future a best-case scenario. If precarious survival is the best that we can hope for, what will we face in a non-the-best case? It remains extremely unlikely that as many things will go right as the novel needs to have going right in order for it to present its case. The novel demonstrates that a better world is truly possible, and attainable, on the bases of the resources and technologies we have now. But I cannot help also realizing that without all these technologically possible, and yet all-too-politically-unlikely developments, we are, in fact, well and totally fucked.

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.

John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy

I just finished reading The Last Emperox, the just-published final volume of John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy. It’s a fun, breezy read, though not deep. But it is definitely of interest allegorically, since its collapsing interstellar empire tracks the current decline and fall of the American empire. We have an autocratic government that basically serves the interests of a rapacious capitalist/feudalist ruling class, of families that control all production and trade through the possession of rigidly enforced (both legally and technologically) patent monopolies, and engage in purely extractive activities. Beneath these corporate/familial entities, the vast mass of the people have no influence or political power whatsoever — but they do seem to have a welfare state much better than anything we have in the US currently (the ruling class of the Interdependency, unlike our own rapacious elite, are aware that they are buying general stability by stopping short of absolute immiseration of the masses). In the trilogy, we mostly see vicious political infighting among the elite (including frequent bombings, poisonings, and other sorts of assassination techniques) against an overwhelming background of massive and unavoidable environmental and economic collapse. The Empire is ending, and eventually the entire ruling class is forced to become aware of this. The only remaining question is what can be salvaged from the wreckage. The prevailing attitude among the members of the wealthy elite — just like the prevailing attitude among members of our real-world 1% (or really, 0.1%) — is to save themselves, and let the masses be exterminated. But the series has an upbeat ending, and the forces of rapacity are defeated, and the masses are saved, through a veritable technological deus ex machina, involving a unlikely confluence of a number of factors: benevolence among a tiny fraction of the ruling elite, combined with supercomputing and absolute surveillance technology, and a massive scientific effort that is able to detach itself from the usual corporate imperative of short-term financial profit. Scalzi’s greatest accomplishment as a writer is that he really pulls this off — his upbeat conclusion doesn’t seem forced or artificial, because of the skillfulness of his world building and his character creating. So the trilogy is a gratifying read. We don’t reject the conclusion; we are nonetheless unavoidably aware of how unlikely such a conclusion is to our actual current situation of collapsing empire. There is hope, as Kafka said, only not for us. Scalzi provides us with a (semi-)utopian alternative, which is a laudable thing to do in these dark, depressing times. In a situation where it is still easier to imagine the end of the world rather than modest improvements to the world system, I will say that even from my own marxist perspective Scalzi’s reformism is a welcome riposte to the ideology of “there is no alternative.” At the same time, for all of the trilogy’s gratifying conclusion, reading it reinforces my awareness that what happens in Scalzi’s fictional universe has little chance of happening in our actual one, and that the most likely scenario is the one that is defeated in the novels: the 1% will save themselves, at the expense of nearly everybody else.

Charles Soule, ANYONE

Charles Soule’s recent science fiction novel Anyone was published in 2019, but I only got around to reading it in early 2020. If I had read it in time, I would certainly have included it in my roundup of my favorite science fiction of the year. Anyone has a brilliant premise that is worked out through an exciting thriller plot. I won’t go into the details of the narrative, except to say that it is quite exciting, with lots of surprising twists and turns. But I do want to think through the implications of the novel’s central premise or novum, and that requires a certain amount of plot summary, including a consideration of the (amazing) ending. Therefore I have a WARNING: there are SPOILERS in what follows; I cannot really discuss the book without them.

The novel’s premise is an old science-fictional idea, but it is worked through in a fresh and highly original way. The idea is: transferring your mind into somebody else’s body. In the book, this technology is extrapolatied from the actually-existing practice of optogenetics, in which neuroscientists use flashes of light to manipulate the brain. In the novel, if you see the right sequence of flashes, you suddenly find yourself in somebody else’s body. Your own body enters into a coma, or a vegetative state, until your mind returns to it. The person whose body is inhabited loses consciousness, and only regains it when the intruder departs; they have very little sense of what is happening when somebody else is acting and experiencing with their body; they retain no memory of it when they awaken. This technology is, unsurprisingly, called the flash; the company that markets it is called Anyone, since the promise of the procedure is that you can become anyone at all.

This set-up might seem, at first glance, to be a Cartesian, dualist one: mind and body are entirely separate. But it’s not that simple. Mind never exists separately from body; your consciousness needs to be embedded somewhere, embodied in an actual brain. If the body you are in dies before you can transfer somewhere else, then you die mentally as well. Your mind is never entirely free and unconstrained; it is both limited and shaped by its physicality. The body you find yourself in makes a difference to what you can do, and how you think and feel. When you transfer, you always have to make adjustments, because the body you newly find yourself in is shorter or taller, older or younger, heavier or lighter, and perhaps differently enabled and/or differently gendered, than your “prime” (your original body).

This means that inner and outer cannot be cleanly separated. On the one hand, a character reflects that every person “had his [sic] own secret self that came to the surface no matter which body he was wearing.” There are tell-tale signs that signal your mental presence, no matter which body you inhabit at the moment. But this is only true to a certain extent. At the same time, your facial expressions and physical gestures just feel different when you are embedded in a different body; the way they come out is subtly but unavoidably changed.

This ambiguity is inherent to the nature of consciousness. Gabrielle White, the scientist who discovers or invents the flash, reflects that “the self-model was utterly complete and bounded in the human mind — a person’s sense of themselves was a conceptual object, transferable from one brain to another relatively intact.” But this is only a limited observation; since the novel also insists that your identity is more than just your self-model. Who you are also depends on the body you have (or should I rather say, “the body you are”?). Your personhood is mediated by gender, bodily habits, aging, disease and injury, and so on: that is to say, by factors that are at once physical (rather than exclusively mental) and that are socially mediated (rather than being entirely innate). Gabrielle also quickly realizes that,

even after only ten minutes inside another physical self, it was obvious to her that a great deal of human experience had nothing to do with the brain. It was the body. Each parcel of flesh and its particular configuration of pluses and minuses created a unique reality. In other words, it wasn’t just the software — it was the hardware too.

When you flash into another body, you retain psychological continuity with your past self; but you also inhabit the world differently (something that will not surprise the phenomenologists). And this happens in ways that you could not have predicted, let alone understood, in advance. All this makes me wonder if Soule got the term “self-model” from the philosopher Thomas Metzinger). For Metzinger’s whole point in using this term is to point out that the “self-model” is in fact a model of who one is, rather than being the entire content of who one is. I use my self-model to navigate the world, but it remains the case that who and what I actually am, as a physical and animal being in a physical world, leaks out far beyond the boundaries of the self-model. The self-model is a representation that does not fully contain, and does not fully map on to, that which it represents. Metzinger draws the nihilistic conclusion from this that the “self” does not exist; but I am rather inclined to think that Metzinger’s argument in fact gives us clues to a positive understanding of what the “self” actually is, as a limited and finite, but entirely positive, entity. It is not a question of debunking the mind’s powers of self-reflection and meta-reflection, but rather one of situating these powers.

In any case, I think that this latter alternative better explains what is going on in Anyone. As the novel recounts it, my self-model can continue to exist in a different body from its initial one; but adjustments are always necessary due to the physical nature and social positioning of the substitute body. A corollary of this is that not all bodies are equally suitable. Soule does not flinch at this prospect. The novel goes so far as to imagine horrific scenarios in which human beings have their minds flashed into the bodies of rats, and in which an adult’s mind is flashed into the body of an infant. In these cases, you find yourself in a body whose neural architecture is inadequate to the mental capacities of your self-model. The result is a sense of suffocating imprisonment. The characters who are flashed into rat bodies have terrifying experiences; they suffer full-fledged psychotic breakdowns once they are restored to their primes.

The novel reaches out from these metaphysical speculations in order to consider the social, ethical, and political implications of the flash. Gabrielle initially has utopian hopes for the technology. It has the capacity to change social attitudes on a vast scale. Everyone could experience, from the inside, what it is like (in Thomas Nagel’s famous phrase) to have a body that is differently gendered, aged, or abled from their own. At the same time, the technology would prevent us from categorizing other people on the basis of first impressions, which is to say judgments about gender, race, and so on:

If you can’t tell who’s inside the skin of the person you’re talking to, maybe you can’t judge them so quickly based on the color of that skin… Black, brown, white, gay, straight, boy, girl, trans, young, old, disabilities… none of that would work as it does now, with the world putting you in a box from day one just because of your face, your hair, whatever.

The novel suggests, however, that these hopes are, well, a bit naive. This is because the potentialities unleashed by any technology are themselves dependent upon, and tied up with, the ways in which the technology is implemented. In Gabrielle’s case, she doesn’t own the rights to her own discovery. A venture capitalist has funded all her research, and he gets to control all the results. Gabrielle at first tries to hide her discovery of the flash from him. She wants, not to make money from it, but to develop it further; and she rightly fears that the venture capitalist will not do this in the right way. But this only ends up making things worse. Gabrielle is unable to escape either the ironclad provisions of “intellectual property” law, or the violence of the venture capitalist’s hired thugs.

The novel is divided between two plot strands. The first one, set roughly in the present, tells the story of Gabrielle’s discovery, and how she loses control of it. The second is set 25 years later, and shows us a world in which the flash has become the dominant technology, and changed world society in all sorts of ways. Some of the consequences are unequivocally good: the climate crisis has been alleviated, because people have largely abandoned air travel and other fossil-fuel-intensive technologies. Why bother halfway around the world, when you can just flash into the body of somebody who is already there? Others are more ambiguous: there does seem to be a reduction in racism and sexism, if not to the entire extent that Gabrielle had hoped for.

But monopoly ownership of the flash technology has its downsides as well. Some of these are reminiscent of the ways that, today, the liberating potentialities of digital technologies have been compromised by corporate control. The Anyone corporation (also known punningly as NeOnet Global) does not charge exorbitantly for its flash services, because it wants everyone in the world to use the technology. But much like Google et al. today, only even more so, it engages in full-time surveillance of everything that takes place over its network, and as a result it owns immense quantities of data about everyone. (There is also an illegal, underground “darkshare” flash economy, in which the technology is used by criminals and others who want to do things undetected; but the police’s top priority, in collusion with NeOnet, is to suppress this). Anyone also extends its control over users by enforcing limitations to the flash technology:

The first of the Two Rules of the flash: if one dies, both die.
The second: no multiple jumps. If you’re in a vessel, you can’t move to a second without flashing back to your prime first.

The Two Rules are supposed to apply to everyone; people are told that they are intrinsic to the flash technology. But in fact this is not the case; they have only been added on arbitrarily. Certain people are secretly exempt from the Rules: they are, in effect, able to live indefinitely, perhaps forever, by continually jumping from one body (once it is injured or gets too old) to another. Stephen Hauser, the CEO of NeOnet, reserves this unlimited use of the technology for himself, for his chief thug/enforcer, and for a global elite known as the “Centuries.” He bribes prominent people with the prospect of immortality, in order to get them t0 serve his interests (and he can take the gift away again, if they don’t cooperate).

There is also the crucial question of the flash’s one-way structure. What happens to somebody whose body is taken over by another mind? It is actually a vampiric process. Usually, the “vessel” is just unconscious for the interim; they awaken once the occupation is over, without a clue as to what the user of their body did — but with whatever physical injuries might have been incurred. The question is why anyone would consent to this in the first place? Though the novel doesn’t go into great detail on this, it is evident that the answer is economic. If I am affluent, I can take a vacation by paying to inhabit someone’s body in a distant location. But if I am poor, my only hope of earning money may be by renting out my body to the rich tourist. Labor seems to operate in this way as well: skilled workers are flashed to a workplace, where they inhabit the bodies of unskilled locals, who are paid even less than they are. It’s even worse with the victims of the Centuries: a older person takes over a younger, healthier body, and never gives it back. The ultimate form of exploitation is murder. Flash technology seems to perpetuate, and even intensify, economic and colonial exploitation — a situation that is far indeed from Gabrielle’s utopian dreams.

In all these ways, the flash technology ultimately works as a kind of dystopian panopticon — much as the contemporary Internet already does, only even more so. And it sets in place a power structure that is almost impossible to dislodge: there is really no way to touch either the corporation as a structure, or Hauser and the other individuals who run it. In the first, near-present plot strand, Gabrielle is definitively dispossessed when the venture capitalist not only takes the technology from her, but also uses it in order to imprison her consciousness in the body of her infant daughter. In the second, 25-years-in-the-future plot strand of the novel, the now-grown-up Gabrielle-in-her-daughter’s-body looks for a way to disrupt the tyranny that she has inadvertently created. There are lots of great plot twists along the way, but the upshot is that she cannot do it. In one particularly notable sequence, she manages a media takeover. She demonstrates, in real time, over the network with billions of people watching, that the Two Rules are lies, and that it is possible both to flash into a succession of bodies, including into a new body when your prime dies. But despite her demonstration, nothing happens. The very next day, her stunt has been entirely erased from the media archives, and nobody else remembers that it happened.

Fortunately, the book does not leave us just with the bleakness of this unsurpassable impasse. But the sheer, brilliant extremity of how the novel ends testifies to how difficult it is to disrupt the control society, and to unleash the liberatory potential of (actually-existing, as well as extrapolated) digital technologies. In the novel’s final pages, everything that we have understood so far is pretty much blown to smithereens. Gabrielle manages to radically alter the flash technology, so that now it works in both directions. Everybody finds themselves in somebody else’s body. You no longer render somebody else unconscious when you flash into their body, because they simultaneously flash into yet another person’s body as well. Everyone becomes someone else. And this is a completely random process: “Everyone would be a traveler, everyone would be a vessel. At random.” Gabrielle’s final stroke of genius abolishes the restricted, vampiric, capitalist economy of flash usage, replacing it with a sort of Bataillean general economy — or perhaps with something like Nietzsche’s Eternal Return as re-interpreted by Pierre Klossowksi. The world is opened up to a universal promiscuity of circulation and exchange. There is no restriction and no control; no stability, and no foreknowledge of who you will become. This also means that there can be no mechanism for payment, or for the accumulation of wealth:

Lawyers become soldiers. Dancers become farmers. Men become women. Young become old. Women become men. Old become young. More than seven billion people, all over the world, become someone new…. *All of humanity is all of humanity*. There is no rich, no poor, no light, no dark, no young, no old…

Instead of the naive (or merely wishful) utopianism of Gabrielle’s initial thoughts about the flash, we get at the end of the novel a much more radical utopianism, one in line with Fredric Jameson’s dictum that “utopia is not a positive vision of the future so much as it is a negative judgement of the present” — and a disruption of that present. Or as Soule’s narrator puts it: “It may not last, but it begins, and that is something.”

There is one important corollary to this vision. Even as she frees the world, Gabrielle abolishes her own selfhood, sending her mind (or her self-model) to the flash equivalent of /dev/null in Linux. This final stroke is a gift to the future.For it allows Gabrielle’s daughter, whose body she has used as a mere vessel for twenty-five years, to awaken and become fully conscious and fully embodied on her own — as she had not been since infancy. We learn from this final twist that when you are reduced to being a vessel, your consciousness isn’t entirely absent; the daughter’s consciousness has existed for all this time in a virtual, nascent state. She is now an adult mentally as well as physically, by virtue of having for so long observed everything that her mother has thought and done. Now this consciousness has finally been actualized. The last line of the novel reads, referring to the daughter: “You are you.” The identity of the self-model is only achieved through the radical contingency of bodily exchange. Where can she go from here? Nobody knows, and that is the novel’s achievement.

Favorite science fiction, 2019

Here are my favorite science fiction novels (or in a few cases, collections of stories) from 2019. As before, I make no pretensions toward completeness or towards numbered or objective rankings — these are simply the new SF books I liked most this year, among whichever ones I have read. I am mostly oriented towards what might be considered science fiction proper, as opposed to other speculative fiction genres like fantasy; as well as towards overt genre writing, as opposed to speculatively oriented literary fiction. But of course, these sorts of distinctions are unavoidably inexact. The list therefore includes a number of books that would more likely be classified as fantasy rather than science fiction, but that were sufficiently SF-adjacent to hold my interest.

  • The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders. This dazzling novel takes place on a tidally locked planet; one side always faces its sun and is extremely hot; the other side faces away and is extremely cold. Human colonists can only live on the terminator between the two sides. It is always twilight for them; the lack of any solar cycle, or indeed any variation in the light, makes it hard to establish regular sleep patterns. There are two cities: one is harshly authoritarian, and has legally enforced regular sleep times. The other is ostensibly anarchist — which means, in practice, that it is controlled by Mafia-like gangs that violently enforce their supremacy. With no fixed sleep times, there is very little in the way of scheduling; people just go to sleep whenever they feel tired or find it convenient, and lots of people are permanently sleep-deprived. From this starting premise, Anders engages in unusually rich and complex world-building, raising all kinds of issues along the way, including reflections on gender and class, on power and aspiration and inventiveness, on technological dependency, on ecological relations among humans and between humans and nonhumans, and on hybridity and transformation. There are great sentient aliens, as well.

  • The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie. This is a fantasy novel from an author whose previous novels have all been science fiction (most notably, the gender-bending Ancillary trilogy). It operates through a highly original conceit that I can only call a theory or theology of multiple gods (and emphatically not of a singular, capital-letter God). The multiple gods of Leckie’s world in this novel are effectively immortal, yet materially circumscribed. They are bound to — or perhaps one could better say — particular physical objects, and their powers are vast, yet finite and localized. Each is a solitary being, though they communicate with one another, and often with human worshippers who feed them energy and in turn receive favors from them. I have never read anything quite like this book, but its conceptualizations are not far from those of a panpsychist power metaphysics.

  • Infinite Detail, by Tim Maughan. This brilliant near-future novel is divided between alternating “Before” and “After” chapters – that is to say, before and after the actions of an anonymous hacker group that takes down the entire Internet, thereby disrupting globalized supply chains, along with much else, thus putting an end to most commodity production along with the ubiquitous surveillance that we have become all too used to. The “before” chapters show us the dystopian mechanisms of control that have come alongside digitally-maintained affluence (for some) and deprivation (for others). The “after” chapters present what might at first glance be dismissed as just another post-technological dystopia – but which at closer examination is something else. Yes, the post-Internet society, as Maughan describes it, is decidedly non-affluent, with fascistoid armies rampaging across the landscape and locked-down localites dominated by petty gang bosses and warlords. But actually there is more than meets the eye, including forms of democratic cooperation and artistic production, and minoritarian or non-totalitarian uses of digital technologies. Maughan asks us seriously to consider that the deprived future world he presents to us might in fact be less oppressive than the consumerist, high-surveillance and micro-managed digital dystopia that we actually live in today. Orthodox science fiction criticism regards the genre as essentially utopian; Maughan redefines what this might mean. Much as I am attracted to the ideal of fully automated luxury communism, it may well be that such a vision is total fantasy, and that Maughan in fact offers us the best possible alternative to neoliberal global domination.

  • The Rosewater Insurrection and The Rosewater Redemption, by Tade Thompson. These are the second and third volumes of Thompson’s amazing Rosewater trilogy – I discussed the first volume, which came out several years ago, at greater length here. An alien invasion takes place, not in the so-called developed world, but in near-future Nigeria. The US has devolved into an overt police state, and hidden itself behind a paranoid firewall. The UK has disintegrated due to alien intrusion effects. But Nigeria remains as ground zero for the encounter between human beings and the alien life forms. The second and third volumes of the trilogy are entirely worthy of the first; we get a complete and interconnected narrative that combines sociological observation and social criticism with bio-cybernetic technologies and much else. Lots of my favorite science fictional tropes are here, but transposed into a new key.

  • The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley. This is the second sf novel by an author whose other works can be categorized as harsh, bracing feminist fantasy. (The first was the brilliant The Stars Are Legion from 2017). This novel is Hurley’s revisionist take on military science fiction, combined with an inventive time travel premise. Military sf has both obnoxiously idealized (e.g. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers) and unsparingly displayed the horrors (Haldeman, The Forever War) of organized militarism with its endless conflicts. Hurley’s book is an updated entry in the latter category; it takes place in a fully neoliberalized and technologically heightened society in which corporations have overtly displaced nation-states as the units of conflict. Soldiers are transformed into pure energy so that they may be transported at light speed to the interplanetary battlefields at which they are rematerialized. But the protagonist is unmoored in time as a result of this process, so that she experiences her different military missions in nonlinear order. (So you could think of this novel as The Forever War meets “Slaughterhouse-Five*). The time loops ultimately provide an escape from what is otherwise endless neoliberal/imperialist horror. The book’s final vision is therefore both poignant and hopeful, even as its time-paradoxical nature leaves us uneasily aware how unlikely such an escape from the neoliberal time prison actually is.

  • Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow. This book contains four unrelated novellas, all compellingly political in their implications. The first one is about immigrants who, even when they are finally allowed into the United States, face harsh exploitation, enforced by proprietary digital technologies — until they find ways to hack the technologies for themselves. This story folows lines that are familiar from much of Doctorow’s earlier fiction. But the other three novellas are much more fresh and surprising. One is about older white men who are radicalized into acts of domestic terrorism, except that their targets are not the imaginary ones that propel right-wing terrorism today, but rather health insurance companies that have refused payments for medical procedures that could have saved their loved ones. Another one gleefully deconstructs the ruling-class fantasy of retreating into a bunker in order to sit out (and survive, unimpacted) political/economic/environmental catastrophe. And best of all, there’s a story which is basically Superman meets Black Lives Matter; the story movingly but unswervingly demonstrates the inability of liberal empathy and fair-mindedness to fight against, or even minimally deal with, the systematic and socially-embedded structures of police violence under white supremacy.

  • Waste Tide, by Chen Qiufan. This is the English translation of a powerful, near-future Chinese SF novel. It takes place in a Chinese city, based closely on the actual city of Guiyu, that has become a world center for the recycling of electronic waste. Junked computers, cell phones, etc., as well as worn-out biological prosthetics, are disassembled so that rare metals and polymers can be recovered for re-use. The workers are overworked and poorly paid, while the corrupt post-communist ruling class, combining hyper-modern and old-fashioned forms of oppression, appropriates the profits. The processes of disassembly also result in massive toxic waste, and the workers have short life spans as a result of poisoning and infection. In such conditions of hyper-exploitation, it’s nearly impossible to accumulate enough savings to be able to afford to move elsewhere. All this becomes the setting for a dazzling high-tech thriller involving artificial intelligence, and both computer and biological viruses. The novel reminds those of us in the West of aspects of the current global world order that we tend to overlook; beyond this, it is brilliant for the way that it raises and recombines technological issues, socio-political ones, and conditions both of political economy and of the way new forms appropriate and transform old traditions.

  • Exhalation, by Ted Chiang. Chaing is one of our finest contemporary science fiction writers; this volume, his second collection of short stores, contains pretty much everything he has written since the previous volume, Stories of Your Life and Others was published in 2002. The stories in this new volume range from just a couple of pages long to novella-length. They are all treasures, and I cannot here comment on all of them. I will just mention that I wrote at great length about one of the stories here, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” in my 2016 book Discognition.

  • Sweet Dreams, by Tricia Sullivan. This was actually released in the UK in 2017, but I am including it in this list because it only received its first US publication in 2019. I wrote about it here.

  • Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s 2015 sf novel Children of Time. That book dealt with the remnants of humanity trying to terraform distant worlds, inadvertently leading to a society of upraised (boosted to human-level intelligence) Portia spiders. This book takes a mixed crew of humans and spiders to another terraformed world, this one inhabited by upraised octopuses. They also encounter a non-Earth-originated intelligent lifeform, more or less like a sentient, and highly computationally efficient, sort of slime mold. This volume, like the previous one, is brilliant in the way that it imagines and articulates the nuances of intelligence in nonhuman form. Spider intelligence is very different from mammal intelligence, and cephalopod intelligence is different from both. All the intelligences in these books ultimately operate on underlying forms of computation, which is what makes communication between them possible at all. But these intelligences are always embodied, and remain radically distinct from one another because of their different biogenetic and sociocultural characteristics. These novels explore the rich terrain in between the fantasy of total communication and communion, on the one hand, and the opposed fantasy of absolute, radical otherness, on the other.

  • Walking to Aldebaran, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is an alarmingly prolific author; the majority of his books are fantasy, none of which I have read. But this year he published a second science fiction book in addition to Children of Ruin. This one is much shorter, just a novella. It is totally unrelated to the Children series, but mind-blowing in its own way. A alien, clearly constructed labyrinthine structure is discovered in the outer solar system that seems to provide shortcut transit (through interdimensional wormholes? we never find out) between solar systems and worlds that are otherwise inaccessibly distant from one another. Our narrator is an astronaut who is separated from the rest of his team, and finds himself walking through and exploring the folds and caverns of the structure. I don’t want to give away the plot here; let’s just say we have an unreliable narrator, and a story that combines old-fashioned science-fictional “sense of wonder” exploration with plot twists worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.

  • Stealing Worlds, by Karl Schroeder. This novel is a powerful thought experiment that considers the utopian and dystopian potentialities of combining the technologies of augmented reality glasses, massively multiplayer role playing games, ubiquitous networks, and artificial intelligence. At worst, this could lead to a new form of surveillance-based extractive capitalism, with corporations controlled by self-perpetuating algorithms that have optimized themselves for rent-seeking. This is just a small extrapolation from the ways that, already today, both banking and financial institutions, and high technology companies, are trying to create conditions under which they can extract payments from all transactions (even ostensibly non-economic ones) in which human beings take part. But against this dystopian situation, Schroeder proposes a vision of cooperative networking, an economy decoupled from the imperatives of finance, and most importantly, the input of nonhuman actors (trees and forests, rivers, ecosystems) into decision-making processes. (This vision was first sketched out by Schroeder in his 2014 short story “Deodand”). This is the first science fiction novel I have read that contains a shout-out to the philosophy of speculative realism (Levi Bryant and Tim Morton are explicitly mentioned).

  • The Iron Dragon’s Mother, by Michael Swanwick. This is the third and final volume of Swanwick’s “Iron Dragon” trilogy of deidealized fantasy. All three novels take place in the parallel reality of Faery – but Swanwich envisions a Faerie whose magic entirely coexists with the uglinesses of Victorian Era capitalism, and the overload of 20th-century-and-following branding and consumerism. The first volume of the trilogy, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), is IMHO one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written – it is brilliantly imagined, and ferociously nihilistic in tone, sort of like the punk rock cover version of traditional fantasy. I didn’t like the second volume, The Dragons of Babel (2008) anywhere near as much, though it has its powerful moments. This new (final?) volume strikes me as better than the second, though not as good as the first. But it is still rich and powerful, and it gives us an admonition on the next to last page that we ought to keep forever in mind: “The world is choking on old stories. Tell new and better ones.”

  • And Shall Machines Surrender?, by Benjamin Sriduankaew. Whatever you might think about the author’s past activities in fandom, she has undeniably become a powerful author of posthuman BDSM-lesbian fairytales. She writes both science fiction and fantasy; I prefer the former (as in this book) because there is also lots of stuff about artificial intelligence, cyborg beings with non-binary genders, and the pleasures (as well as limitations) of living in a total-surveillance, algorithmically-governed society. In any case, Sriduangkaew writes in a highly-wrought prose that I find irresistible.

  • The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz. The author has recently described this novel on Twitter as “a book about angry Jewish girls traveling through time and kicking the ass of the white supremacist patriarchy.” I can’t really better that description, so I won’t try. I will just note that in this book we get, among other things, a glimpse of the Great Columbian Exposition held in 1893 in Chicago, riot grrl rock in an alternative timeline, a vision of the ancient kingdom of Petra, and even a visit back to the Ordovician Period, when trilobites were the world’s dominant life form. The book is an inspiring feminist vision, behind which we get troublingly reminded of the fragility even of the greatest human accomplishments, and therfore of the need to continue struggling. I wrote about this novel at greater length here.

  • Beneath the World, A Sea, by Chris Beckett. Chris Beckett is one of my favorite contemporary science fiction writers, but this beautifully mysterious book is different from anything else I have read by him. (A chapter in my forthcoming book Extreme Fabulations discusses Beckett’s Dark Eden trilogy, and I published review of his novel before this one, America City). Beneath the World, A Sea is about a remote region in South America, the Submundo Delta, where biological forms, and maybe even the laws of nature, are different from anyplace else on Earth. What seems to happen in the Delta is that your most repressed and unwelcome unconscious thoughts and desires emerge, and you are forced to confront them. It’s a realm of truth, but also (and therefore) a realm of neurotic misery and depression. Moreover, even to get to the Delta, you need to pass through another region, the Zone of Forgetfulness, whose nature is such that, whenever you leave it, you are unable to remember what you did or what happened while within it. It appears, as far as we can tell, that here people cast off their inhibitions entirely, and do things that they would never countenance were they able to remember having done them. So the novel is really about people of various white European mindsets — the narrator is a hard-headed cop; we also meet scientists, anthropologists, artists, hippies, colonialist administrators, and capitalist entrepreneur types — all of whom attempt, and all of whom fail, in their various ways, to come to grips with the disconcerting otherness of the Zone and the Delta. The novel recalls both Lem’s Solaris (with its alien intelligence that repels our efforts to understand it) and the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic (with its Zone where noramal Earthly categories do not quite seem to apply, and which less discloses anything about itself than it responds to those who would explore it and exploit it by reflecting back their own prejudices and limitations to them). But Beckett brings to this novel a sense of metaphysical and psychological disquiet and displacement that is more in tune with our neoliberal present than is the case with those novels written under conditions of “actually-existing socialism.”

  • The Deep, by Rivers Solomon. The Detroit techno band Drexciya invented the mythology of an underwater realm, inhabited by the descendants of pregant African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships during the Middle Passage. The children of these women continue to breathe in the water, as they did in the womb, and they create a utopian, high-tech society, safely apart from the horrors of land and air. The experimental hip hop band Clipping revised and extended this mythology, with a 2017 song that imagined the Drexciyans no longer safely apart from the surface world – for now they have to deal with worldwide ecological catastrophe, and with current efforts by large corporations to mine the seabed. Rivers Solomon picks up the story and again reimagines it in this novella, which turns on the dilemma that the Drexciyans can afford neither to forget nor to remember the traumatic history from which they originated: to remember the traumas is ti be crippled into inactivity, but to forget them is to lose any sense of what defines them as a community with a common history. I wrote at greater length about this powerfully affecting novella here.

  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers. Chambers writes science fiction that is exuberantly multicultural — her galaxy is filled with wildly different species, different genders, different social/familial/reproductive arrangements, different forms of intelligence (both biological and computational), and so on. At the same time, her novels have a decidedly retro emotional feel — they are entertaining, and even comfy, in a way that recalls Golden Age science fiction (if only that older sf hadn’t been so white, patriarchal, and heteronormative). It’s a peculiar affective combination, and I know people who have been turned off by Chambers’ upbeatness and utter lack of cynicism or even irony. This has never been a problem for me, but YMMV. In any case, To be Taught… is my favorite book of hers so far. It’s a standalone novel, apart from the Wayfarers series of her other books. There is very little plot or drama; a group of scientists simply examines the various life forms (none of them reaching human-scale sentience) on a number of planets in a solar system 14 light years away from Earth. The novel succeeds in imagining forms of life that are truly different: they don’t fit into anthropomorphic (or mammalomorphic) categories at all. Yet they are also free from any tinge of the uncanny (such as we find in “weird fiction” from Lovecraft a century ago, all the way to VanderMeer or Mieville today). To my mind, this is not a flaw, but a positive accomplishment, and an important one.

  • This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone. This book is kind of a spy romance, in the form of an epistolary novel. Two women are ruthless agents on opposing sides in a universal war that involves time travel — it is fought by both agents going back or forward in time in order to change the very shape of the timeline. The two spies are always setting traps for one another, and outwitting one another. It reminded me, actually, of Antonio Prohias’ Spy Vs Spy comic strips, that appeared in MAD Magazine when I was a kid. In any case, the spies leave letters for one another, each taunting the other for defeating her plans. As things progress, the spies gradually fall in love with one another, and look for ways to defect from the war they are both involved in, in order to be with one another. I found this novel cute and engaging. It was fun to read (though I didn’t love it quite as much as many people on the Internet seem to have done).

  • Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir. This book is ostensibly a mix of space opera and horror-cum-murder-mystery, but it is actually lesbian goth fanfic of a very high order. The prose is lively (or deathly, if you prefer), the plot twists are outstanding, and the highly emo love/hate relationship between the two protagonists (one woman a magician, the other a fighter/bodyguard) intensifies without ever letting go, and gets resolved in the most weirdly twisted manner imaginable.

  • Interference, by Sue Burke. This is the sequel to Burke’s previous novel Semiosis. These books are about sentient plants, the dominant life form on a planet that has been colonized both by human beings escaping the ecological and political catastrophes on Earth, and an equally intelligent arthropod-like species. Where the first novel was mostly about how the human settlers both learn about the sentience of the native plants, and learn how to coexist with them, this second novel widens the scope, giving us a multispecies variety of viewpoints and (often unreliable) narrators, and a wide range of different forms of intelligence, and different sorts of social and political arrangements. I wrote about the novel in greater depth here.

  • The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman. The second volume of the Book of Dust trilogy picks up the story of Lyra ten years after the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Wonderfully inventive, as Pullman always is; and deeply expressive of Pullman’s own sort of vital materialism (in clear opposition both to the dogmatism of organized religion and to any sort of eliminativism and reductionism). Pullman is still exploring his great theme, “the amorous inclinations of matter” (to quote from his early masterpiece Galatea), with a lively and inventive narrative of an alternative world. Also, the book ends on a cliffhanger — Lyra, and a number of other characters towards whom we have become affectionate, are all in deep trouble — and I cannot believe I will have to wait several more years for the third volume, with the resolution.

  • A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. The author of this novel is (in ‘real life’) an historian of the Byzantine Empire; and she puts her knowledge to dazzling use in this novel, focused on a galactic empire reminiscent both of Byzantium and of the (long dominant, but now declining) American imperium. The protagonist is the newly-appointed ambassador from a distant space station, sent to the center of the Empire, and needing to negotiate her way through a dizzying complexity of social rituals, political infighting, and plots and counterplots, all the while striving to somehow maintain the independence (or at least, semi-independence) of her home, which the Empire is anxious to absorb. Besides being tense and thrilling, the novel plays powerfully with the way that different cultures have different customs and rituals, and different underlying assumptions. The narrator is somebody who has grown up entirely fascinated with the Empire’s art and culture — much the same was as people today, in far-flung parts of the world, have been fascinated by American movies, music, and sports. But she is uncomfortably aware that this sort of fascination is very different from being an insider of the culture one is fascinated with. She needs to learn how to negotiate the vast complexities and unexamined assumptions of the Empire, which are alien to her despite her lifelong fascination with them. In addition, she needs to grasp how the Empire is not a monolith, but riven by political and economic privileges and by class conflict. And above all, she also needs to come to terms with her increasing realization that she is in fact a colonized person whose obsession is with her colonizers. The different cultures do not meet on anything like equal terms, and no matter how many of the Empire’s arts, sciences, and general assumptions she adopts, she will never really be one of them, but rather always seen as a barbarian outsider. Add to this artificial intelligence and other cybernetic technologies, and the novel as a whole involves cognitive estrangement (often said to be the defining characteristic of science fiction as a genre) to the max.

  • Escaping Exodus, by Nicky Drayden. Drayden’s previous novels are best be described as something like magic realism, set in an African context (Drayden is African American, but she lived for several years in South Africa). The present novel, however, is full-blown space opera. Human beings of various nationalities and backgrounds live in an interstellar flotilla; Earth is only a very distant memory. The humans have outgrown the generation starships that originally brought them to the stars, and they haven’t found any planets around other stars that are sufficiently Earth-like to live on. So instead they live in the innards of gigantic (Moon-sized) spacefaring beasts; they are essentially parasites, drawing sustenance and shelter from the animals within which they live, and from the animal’s other intestinal fauna and flora. The animals are mortal, however, and whenever one of them dies the human beings have to evacuate, and capture and colonize another one. Add to this the social arrangements, involving rigid class hierarchies, poly-marriages arranged for political or economic advantage rather than love, gender-role inversion, and revolutionary stirrings among the lower classes that are viciously repressed by the ruling class. And cap it all with a forbidden (because cross-class) love between two young women. What’s most remarkable about the novel is its squishy biotechnology; Drayden imagines in discomforting detail what it might be like to live within another organism’s vascular systems. In addition to the politics of race, class, and gender, ecological politics plays a central role, as the people gradually realize that they are killing their hosts, and thereby destroying themselves, through the unchecked exploitation of their resources. The novel is wildly inventive in its particulars, and compelling in its overall bio-ecological vision.

Sue Burke, Interference

Sue Burke’s new science fiction novel Interference is the sequel to her previous book Semiosis. That book introduced us to Pax, a superhabitable Earth-like planet some fifty-six light years away. Human colonizers, fleeing an ecologically and politically ravaged Earth, arrive on Pax; they must learn to get along with the native life forms. These include, most notably, intelligent plants. All the plant species on the planet are sentient to varying degrees; they are often engaged in Darwinian struggles against one another as well as against the animals who feed on them. There are also a number of language-capable animal species too, including the predatory eagles and the scavenging bats. (The colonists give names reminiscent of Earth species to all the life forms they discover, even though their biochemical makeup and descent are quite different). Pax also has a population of large arthropod-like beings known as the Glassmakers; intellectually and culturally, they are at least the equals of Homo sapiens, though their manners and outlooks are unsurprisingly quite different. In Semiosis, the human community learns, over the course of several generations and about a hundred years, that in order to survive they must give up their colonialist/pioneering/conquering mentality, and instead negotiate ongoing relationships with the other species. By the end of the novel, a stable community of human beings and Glassmakers has been established, with both species in effect playing the role of “service animals” for Stevland, the intelligent bamboo species that dominates the portion of the planet on which they live.

Burke draws on recent scientific research that has discovered that, already here on Earth, plants are sentient in the sense that they actively sense and monitor their environment, they are able to learn and remember, they make decisions among possible alternatives, and overall they respond flexibly to the situations in which they find themselves. Plant neurobiology is a real scientific subfield. For more on this, see the recent books by Daniel Chamovitz and by Monica Gagliano. Only animals have cells specialized as neurons, but non-specialized plant cells exhibit the same physiological bases for thought — electrochemical reactions and transmissions from cell to cell — as animal neurons do. Of course, Burke’s intelligent plants on Pax are extrapolated far beyond anything that actually exists on Earth. But such further specialization, on the basis of already-existing biochemical processes, is not wildly implausible. Intelligence in varying degrees is a useful adaptation, evidenced to some extent in all living organisms on Earth, and there is no reason why it could not develop further. On Pax, plants have cells specialized in similar ways to animal neurons {Another science fiction novel that includes speculation on neural cells added to plant architecture is Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier}.

You definitely need to read Semiosis first in order to make sense of Interference. But given that, the sequel at least equals the previous book, and adds layers of richness to Burke’s world-building. Interference picks up the story about a hundred years after the end of Semiosis. The human/Glassmaker/bamboo community is largely doing well. Life on Pax is not quite a utopia, but it arguably allows for a greater degree of flourishing than most of the actual social formations we are familiar with here on Earrh. There are all sorts of minor injusticies, power differentials, and petty disputes and jealousies. And there is a lot of work to be done: many advanced technologies have been lost, and metals are generally not available. Nonetheless, the small society on Pax, organized around one single village, offers a lot of room for personal idiosyncrasies. Many things are done collectively, and resources are shared on a mostly equal basis. Everyone has access to food and shelter. People accrue obligations to one another, but there is no money. Glassmaker society is matriarchal and somewhat hierarchical; among the human inhabitants there seems to be gender equality. Humans and Glassmakers together make decisions on a more or less democratic basis, though there is no doubt that Stevland, the intelligent bamboo, has ultimate authority.

But Stevland is not a dictator; it understands that its own well-being is entirely intertwined with that of the two other sentient species, as well as with a wide variety of other plant and animal life with which it remains in communication. The politics of Pax rests upon the biological conditions of commensalism, mutualism, and symbiosis. One of the best things about both novels is the way that Burke imagines such relations arising out of Darwinian competition. Burke’s vision stands in opposition to selfish gene theory, but it is in general accord with more recent theories about the evolution of cooperation, multi-level selection, and ecological webs of multispecies dependencies. Burke does not skimp on the horrors of predation and parasitism; some of the competition among species described in both volumes is violent to the point of extermination. But the novels also insist on the ways that mutual dependencies are also a crucial part of evolution; cooperation itself evolves, and complex forms of life could never come to exist without it. Most importantly, perhaps — at least from a human point of view — is the fact that the multispecies community on Pax maintains a more or less steady state, in terms of energy, ecology, and economics. It does not strive to endlessly expand in the manner of all too many human societies on Earth, ranging from ancient and early modern despotic regimes all the way to contemporary capitalism.

The ground for all this was already established in Semiosis; but Interference pushes things a lot further. The second book has a wider scope than the first. Interference starts on Earth, and we witness a near future involving massive genocide followed by the establishment of an ecofascist regime. This helps us appreciate, by contrast, the positive aspects of life on Pax — despite its dangers, and its lower levels of technology and material well-being. At the start of the novel, Earth has lost contact with Pax; a spaceship is sent there on a scientific mission, to find out what happened as well as to check on the animal and plant life. This allows Burke to avoid the danger that is often attributed to utopian fiction: a portrait of a more or less stable and satisfying social situation can lead to a boring, conflict-free narrative. Instead, we get massive cultural and political conflict, already among the human beings on the spaceship, even before they arrive; and all the more so, once they have arrived, between them and the humans on Pax, not to mention all the other species.

I will avoid spoilers at least to the extent of not recounting any of these conflicts in detail. I will restrict myself to several observations. The book extends the range of sentient species further than had already been done in the first volume. Imperatives of both violent conflict, and grudging or active cooperation, together with instances of both understanding and misunderstanding, continue to ramify in Interference. Burke does not extend her vision of sentient diversity to the extent of radical incommunicability, i.e. the existence of intelligences so different from one another that they are unable to communicate at all. But she does try to imagine how sentient arthropod (Glassmaker) intelligence might in fact be quite different from ours, and plant intelligence even more so. This is highlighted in Interference by the way that each chapter of the novel has a different narrator: we get Earth humans, Pax humans, Glassmakers, and plants. The ongoing events are described from vastly varying perspectives. Interestingly, it is the human narrators who come out the worst: they range from badly misunderstanding what they experience, to seriously delusional, to outright sociopathic. The Earth humans come out as far worse than the Pax humans, though the latter also show serious limitations. The chapter narrated by a Glassmaker is somewhat more understanding and sensible than any of the human ones; and the chapter narrated by Stevland is the most rational, observant, emotionally balanced, and self-aware of all. We also get, from Stevland’s perspective, a powerful sense both of the plant’s stable rootedness and rhizomatic proliferation, and of the constriction it feels from being unable to really travel.

In short, Interference gives us an absorbing and exciting story, but it also asks us to think about how things might be otherwise than what we take for granted, both for better and for worse. In particular, it thinks about emotion, intelligence, and the problems of living with others in both a biological and a sociological register. It neither reduces social processes to biology, nor pretends that biology is irrelevant to our own species being (or to those of presumptive other intelligent beings). It extends Darwinian perspectives to the social and intellectual realm — and it does this in ways that are opposed to, and offer a useful counterpoint to, the nastily reductive fictions of’ so-called ‘evolutionary psychology.’ All in all, Interference, like its predecessor, is science fiction at its best.

Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline

Annalee Newitz’s new science fiction novel, THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE, is about to be published – it comes out on September 24. Here is my review. I got to read an advance copy of the novel thanks to Netgalley, which asks me in return to write a review. I loved the novel, but in order to explain it I will need to be a bit nerdy. I will try to avoid too many spoilers, but give a warning when one I cannot omit discussing is about to come up.

The novel is set in a United States, and a world, that is similar but not identical to our own. In the world of the novel, time travel is a reality; there are five portals, in Canada, Jordan, Mali, India, and Australia, which allow people to travel into the past (but not into the future). Nobody knows who or what forces created the portals; they have existed for hundreds of millions of years, at least since the Cambrian and Ordovician periods. Time travel is an object of academic study, in the field of geochronology, which seems to combine geology and history.

There are two main protagonists in the novel. Tess is a geochronolgist and a professional time traveler; she is based in California just-past-the-present (in the year 2022), but spends a lot of time in the late nineteenth century. Tess is tough and resourceful, but also deeply troubled. Beth is a teenager in Irvine, California in 1993, who is fascinated by geochronlogy, and also likes to go hear riot grrl bands. Newitz gives us vivid descriptions of a number of such bands, which never actually existed but which really ought to have; this alternative-punk invention is one of the pleasures of the novel. Of course, Tess’ and Beth’s trajectories intersect over the course of the book; but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will not say anything more specific about how this happens.

Aside from the existence of time travel, the biggest difference between the world of the novel and our actual world is that, at least at the start of the novel, abortion is still illegal in the United States both in 1993 and in 2022. The timeline is also different in other subtle but important ways. Reconstruction was not brutally halted in the world of the novel as it was in our own world in the 1870s; and as part of the process, women were given the vote (half a century before they actually attained it) alongside black people. On the other hand, the Victorian backlash against women’s sexuality was even more brutal in the world of the novel than it was in ours.

But due to the existence of time travel, all this is subject to revision. Tess and her friends use time travel not just to do scholarly research, but also to change history in various ways. How this is done is one of the main innovations of THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE. Usually in science fiction, the paradoxes of time travel are sidestepped by using the multiple-worlds theory of quantum mechanics. If you change the timeline, in effect you create a new universe that diverges from the previously-existing one, without abolishing it. This allows you, for instance, to go back in time and kill your grandfather without thereby eliminating your own subsequent existence; you still exist in your own timeline, but you also create a different one in which you are never born. The trouble with this approach is that it means that you cannot really change anything; even if you go back and kill Hitler and create a world without the Holocaust, the world in which Hitler and the Holocaust happened continues to exist as well. This is unsatisfactory, because it means that you cannot really ever change things at all.

But THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE takes a different approach. Here, there is only one timeline. If you succeed in changing things in the past, then the present you return to is altered as well. Only the person who went back and intervened can remember the earlier state of the timeline; everyone else only remembers the past the way it was revised. At one point in the novel — WARNING: HERE IS A SPOILER THAT I CANNOT AVOID DISCUSSING — Beth gets pregnant, and has an illegal abortion. Later, after Tess has changed the timeline so that abortions became legal in the late 20th century after all, Beth instead remembers going to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the abortion, which she gets despite being vilified on the way by fundamentalist-Christian extremists. Only Tess knows that abortions used to be illegal in 1993, but became legal back then due to her own “edits” of the timeline. I enjoyed the mind-bending nature of this metahistorical revisionism.

What this leads to is a time-editing war, between feminists and misogynists. Both sides go back to the past in order to change historical outcomes. As the novel traces this history of revisions to history, we go back not only to 1993, but to the famous Chicago world’s fair (the Columbian Exhibition) of 1893, to the Nabataean Kingdom of 13 BCE, and even to the Paleozoic Era, when the world was dominated by trilobites. Along the way, Newitz drops a lot of vivid historical references, most of them more or less true of our own world. We meet a number of personalities who really existed in the late 19th century, including the notorious censor Anthony Comstock, and the really cool feminist anarchist Lucy Parsons.

You can read this book as an empowering feminist story — I don’t think I am really giving away a spoiler when I say that the good guys win — but also as an intensely thoughtful form of speculation (which is what science fiction at its best does). In the course of its rousing story, THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE asks us to think about a number of big subjects. For instance: how does history happen? To what extent do Great Men – or Great Women – make a difference, and to what extent does it depend on collective action? What is possible at any given time, and how are possibilities limited? Do small changes make a difference, as opposed to major historical events? Or another example: how do memory and history work in the case of individual personalities? In the course of the novel, Tess breaks one of her group’s main taboos, which is that you aren’t supposed to change your own personal timeline; as a result, she suffers greatly from extreme cognitive dissonance.

The novel also makes us think about contingency and precarity. Even when the feminists succeed in changing the timeline for the better, we remain aware that the bad guys could try to change it back. I think this speaks to one of the biggest issues that we are facing today. In order to keep hope alive, we need to have some sort of faith in the possibility of progress. The gains made by people of color, by women, by gays and lesbians, by trans people, and so on, over the past fifty years, give at least some credence to the hope expressed by Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But at a time of Trump and all the other fascistoid leaders in power around the world, and the renewed attacks in the US on fundamental freedoms like abortion rights and voting rights, we must also realize that these victories are precarious, that we can never totally guarantee that they will last, that we cannot take anything for granted, that we must continue struggling and remain vigilant. This is grim, but it is not a counsel of despair: and it is something that we really need to keep in mind in these troubled times. THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE is one of those not-common-enough novels that addresses important questions, and really helps us think about them.