Charlie Jane Anders, Even Greater Mistakes

Charlie Jane Anders has published three science fiction novels, all quite different from one another, and all great. All the Birds in the Sky deftly takes the tropes of fantasy and of science fiction, and sets them against one another (but also asks how they might positively relate). The City in the Middle of the Night is set on a planet tidally locked to its sun, so human beings can only live along the terminator (one side is too hot, the other side, too cold). Using this framework, it asks questions about social organization and political power, about misplaced love and sexual desire, and about what it means to confront the truly alien, and whether we would even be able to recognize an intelligence radically different from our own. Victories Greater Than Death is the first volume of a YA space opera trilogy; its a lot of goofy fun, and I wrote about it here.

Anders’ latest volume, Even Greater Mistakes, is a collection of her short stories. She has published a lot of them, and the new book provides the author’s selection of her favorites. The variety here is just as wide as among her novels, perhaps wider. The stories range from angry and despairing to utterly whimsical, with a lot of other in between tonalities as well. I had read several of them before online, but most of them I hadn’t. The stories include short semi-independent sequels to her first two novels, conceptual explorations, and just plain silliness. I was sad that one of my favorite of her stories wasn’t included: “The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model,” which I talked about this past summer at the (online) conference of the Science Fiction Research Association. But otherwise I have no complaints about Anders’ self-selection.

The longest piece in the volume is an amazing novella, Rock Manning Goes for Broke, which I have published an article about. It’s a story about a guy who just likes to make people laugh with idiotic slapstick routines; but these come to carry a deep political charge due to the times we live in. I see this novella as almost the definitive statement of what it was like to live under the regime of Donald Trump; but Anders reveals that she started writing it long before, at the start of the Iraq War; and in fact is was first published in 2016, that is to say, before Trump even took office. It just goes to show how science fiction works to think about futurity (which is not the same thing as actual prediction of the future).

Other stories deal with such politico-philosophical dilemmas as whether the future is fixed in advance, or open to multiple possibilities (“Six Months, Three Days”), the paradoxes of time travel (“The Time Travel Club”), and the relation between gender positions and social hierarchies, set in (“Love Might Be Too Strong A Word”). But Anders always embodies these issues in the dilemma of concrete and rich characters, who are sometimes poignant and sometimes just silly. She is rarely able to resist detours into goofiness, which is welcome when you consider the serious import that some of these stories would have otherwise. In “The Bookstore at the End of America,” she writes about the division between the two Americas, the Trump/Christian one, and the California/Queer one, with both an awareness that these divisions are artificalLY too extreme (there are many Christians who are not homophobic bigots, for instance), and the Rodney King-esque hope that somehow we can all get along. But she can also write, with equal care and attention, a story like “Fairy Werewolf Vs Vampire Zombie,” which asks the question (one that is certainly important to at least a certain subset of fanboys and fangirls), as to, if you are both a zombie and a vampire, which of these two identities will win out? Do you want to suck blood, or gobble brains? Most of these stories are funny, but a few of them are disturbing and even downright terrifying, like “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue, which envisons a world in which the transphobes completely take over, and medical technology has progressed to the point that the most sadistic forms of mind/body control are now routinely carried out.

Even Greater Mistakes is a triumph of queer and trans sensibilities; but the real point it makes is that such sensibilities are not ever just one thing. There is an incredible amount of variety and creativity in the world, which would be unleashed to a far greater extent than is the case now, if only we could free ourselves from the stupidities of binary-gender normativity. Several of Anders’ stories point toward such utopian possibilities, most notably “Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived by Her Mercy,” which envisions the possibilties for creative, collective expression in a post-global-warming, post-sea-level-rise San Francisco, where the tops of some of the hills are the only parts of the city not permanently under water. This story, in particular — although it contains its share of conflict and shitty behavior — gives me a sense of hope, and even a poignant sense of community (rarely evoked in a misanthropic old-codger hermit such as myself) — in the face of the coming ecological and political catastrophes.

Cadwell Turnbull – No Gods, No Monsters

Cadwell Turnbull’s new novel, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, will be published in a few weeks (September 7). Via NetGalley, I got to read an advance copy, in return for providing an honest review.

Cadwell Turnbull was previously the author of THE LESSON, a parable about colonialism in the form of a story about aliens (from a planet technologically far superior to ours) establishing a presence in the US Virgin Islands (where the author is actually from). That novel excelled at combining vignettes of everyday life with its sf premise, which worked both allegorically (as a representation of colonialism) and intimately and realistically, in terms of the characters and their interactions.

This combination of everydayness with weird/uncanny premises works even better in NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, which makes sense entirely on its own, but which is also announced as the first volume of a trilogy (the “Convergence Saga”). The speculative premise here is one that might more readily be characterized as urban fantasy than as science fiction: there are “monsters” among us in the world as we know it now, shapeshifters (werewolves etc), psychics of various sorts, soucouyants (people from West Indies folklore who can cast off their skins and move about invisibly), and many others.

NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, however, has a far different feel than any other urban fantasy I have read. And this has a lot to do with the everydayness I mentioned. There are magical powers, and there are people using these powers both for good and ill; but for the most part, these powers are just another part of the life circumstances of the people who wield them, and who just want to get on with their lives, pursue activities of value, have romances, and so on — just like everybody else.

This in itself is a brilliant commentary on our social myths and fantasies. All too often, both in works of fiction and in what might be called the social imaginary, a distinction is made between ordinary folks and people with extraordinary powers, who become either heroes/saviors or villains (or both, depending). This type of story itself depends upon a bigoted set of assumptions; since the “ordinary folks” are generally assumed to be straight white men. Think of how the newspapers distinguish between everyman and so-called ‘special interests’ — the “average” American is always somebody like a white male working-class midwesterner who is mad as hell about immigrants and people of color allegedly getting ahead at his expense, and who therefore supports Trump. Why is such a person any more ‘ordinary’ than, say, an unmarried Black lesbian mother of two kids who has to work backbreaking jobs with long commutes just to make ends meet?

Anyway, one of the great things about NO GODS, NO MONSTERS is that it simply ignores such bigoted assumptions. Among the many characters we meet in this book, an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might well be, say, a biracial trans man who is married to a woman but who generally considers himself asexual, and who is an anarchist activist devoted to organizing bottom-up cooperative enterprises owned and run by their workers (rather than by a capitalist boss). Or an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might be an ex-drug addict now trying to repair relations with estranged family members, but who is also a werewolf, and who has been able to go straight and pull themselves together due to his bonds with his werewolf community. Or an ordinary person just trying to get along with their life might be somebody like the novel’s narrator, a failed academic who leaves the US mainland and goes back to his home in the Virgin Islands; he isn’t quite sure what he wants, or where he is headed, but he has the imaginative power to enter other peoples’ lives and observe them silently, which is where the material of the novel comes from.

In other words, there are lots of ways of being ordinary; most people just want to get along. It is this wanting just to get along that turns them into social activists, because our society is set up in such a way as to block their flourishing. There are many instances of this in the novel, having to do with racism, economic inequality, heterosexism, and so on. But most strongly, in this novel, it has to do with people having to hide their feelings and their very existence because they are “monsters.” Early in the novel, one of the main characters has to deal with how her estranged brother was murdered, a Black man shot and killed by a cop. Except it also turns out that her brother was a werewolf, and the cop shot him when he was in animal form. Werewolves keep to themselves, and do not harm ‘ordinary’ human beings, but who not part of the magical/monster underground is going to believe this?

In the course of the novel, the existence of monsters is revealed to the general public (or to straight people), in an event called The Fracture. Many of the monsters are more relieved than disturbed by this; they are anxious to come out of the closet and go public with who they are – a civil rights movement arises. But there are also forces seeking to suppress the evidence, and to make the monsters disappear from public view once again. The videos that proliferated across the Internet, showing the transformation of werewolved back into human form, mysteriously get erased. This itself seems to be a supernatural act. For there are also secret societies of monsters with their own hidden agendas, who seek to manipulate events for their own power and profit. And some of the monsters do in fact have scary supernatural powers. And there is also a lot of bigotry against monsters on the part of other people, even otherwise progressive other people. And there is still a lot of violence; this is a book that does not shy from representing murder, mutilation, and other ugly forms of abuse. Some of this violence is of the sort that we expect from the supernatural-with-elements-of-horror subgenre that this book belongs to. But more of the violence comes from straight people killing monsters by shooting guns — a form of violence that monsters are just as susceptible to as any other human beings. Monsters, like other outsider minorities, are much more often the victims of violence than its perpetrators.

NO GODS, NO MONSTERS does not have a single narrative focus; the narrative will stay with one character or set of characters for a few chapters, then switch attention to other ones. This back-and-forth seems to have disturbed some of the more simpleminded advance readers who posted on Goodreads; but it is essential to how the book works. This is a sort of networked novel. Human beings, ‘monsters’ or not, are social beings; nobody is an island unto themselves. What happens to people happens in the context of their relationships to other people. The different characters and plot strands scattered through the novel ultimately turn out to be interconnected — albeit interconnected often by what network theorists call ‘weak ties’, rather than through some grandiose and paranoid design. I have already said that the novel focuses on everydayness, and that it absorbs its supernatural and ‘monstrous’ visions into this everydayness; well, loose entanglements and interconnections are part of this everydayness. The novel gives us a powerful sense that, although nobody is unequivocally in control, nobody is insignificant either. This is one of the novel’s gifts, and part of what makes it so moving.

This sense of interconnection also pertains to the narrator. Though often he is recounting, in the third person, what happens to other people, he also has his own story, and his own emotional problems — his failed relationships, although entirely mundane, resonate strongly with the failures and problems experienced by the other characters, who are either monsters or the straight people who love them. The narrator’s insight into the lives of these other characters is itself something of a monster-like power; his “I” is there, although invisible, when things happen to other people. Mostly he is unnoticed, but sometimes the monsters, with their supernatural powers, are able to detect his presence, He seems, therefore, to be able to travel through time and space via astral projection; there are also references to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the sad life of that theory’s inventor, Hugh Everett, itself becomes a strand in the novel interwoven with the entirely fictional ones. It is noteworthy how the special status of the narrator who says “I” does not seem like a metafictional/postmodern conceit, but is itself woven into the textures of the novel’s world of networked interchanges, mirroring situations, and general drift. Throughout the book, existential crisis and everydayness also interpenetrate one another.

The novel’s title, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS, is itself a play on the old anarchist slogan, “no gods, no masters.” This is an egalitarian hope, something that cuts against the structure of the system of patriarchal racial capitalism in which we actually live. But such an “axiom of equality” (to cite something that has been formulated in varying ways by such theorists as Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou) is essential both to what it means to be human, and now to what it might mean to be posthuman or more-than-human. It is essential to anybody’s flourishing. In the novel, there are both gods and monsters. But the slogan “no gods, no monsters” is chanted by the monsters themselves, and their supporters. The “monsters” we meet do not want to give up being monsters — which is who they are, or what it means to be themselves — but they want to abolish the sense that “the monster” is an absolute other, an aberrant category, designating people (or sentient beings) who cannot be admitted into society. Isn’t this the dilemma faced by so many insurgent groups today (people of color, women, gays and lesbians, trans people, disabled people, and so on) who are always getting accused of “identity politics” when they point up how they are being excluded and victimized precisely on the basis of their perceived “identity”?

In short, NO GODS, NO MONSTERS is a reflection on some of the most crucial issues and social conditions that we are faced with today. At the same time, it is quite singular — different from just about anything else I have read. Its combination of detached drifting and fascination makes for a unique reading experience, a tone I have not found anywhere else.

Rivers Solomon, Sorrowland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on transgression in the 21st century

This posting should probably be called Thoughts on “Transgression” — since it is difficult to think of transgression today without using air quotes or scare quotes of ironic distancing or whatever. Transgression was an important move in 19th and 20th century Euro-American aesthetics; from the Paris bohemians shocking to bourgeoise, through surrealism in Europe and the Beats in the USA, on to much of the LGBTQ art of the late 20th century. But what remains of this today?

Transgression, like so many other things, has largely been commodified and corporatized in the 21st century. What used to seem subversive is now no longer so. There is no sexual kink so extreme that you cannot find an internet community devoted to it. Of course, transgression always had different political valencies. If anarchism, extreme sex, and psychedelic drugs were transgressive, so were the eruptions of violence and destruction that the Italian Futurists loved, and that culminated in fascism. There’s always been a large degree of uneven development (to borrow and detourn a Marxist term) involved. For instance, I am second to no one in my admiration of Georges Bataille’s deeply transgressive critique of bourgeois capitalism (including of how it prepared the ground for, and then accomodated, fascism). My first book was half about Bataille. But what can be more stupid, boring, and old-fashioned to read today than Bataille’s pornographic fiction, with its extreme (and all too typical of male intellectuals of Bataille’s generation) gynophobia? — as in his ludicrous description of the female genitalia as “hairy and pink, just as full of life as some loathsome squid… that running, teeming wound.”

Even more seriously, perhaps, transgression today is largely a phenomenon of the ultra-right. Bari Weiss urges us to embrace the daring of the “intellectual dark web,” where people express such “dangerous” and “taboo” ideas as white supremacy, normative heterosexuality, male superiority, and the attribution of all differences among human beings in social power and wealth to the inexorable effects of genetics. This is what happens when large corporations, in order to maintain their sales, pay hypocritical lip service to “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” Yesterday’s mainstream ideology, which still has widespread support throughout society despite polite surface disavowals, is now packaged as a rebellious and transgressive refusal to conform. This is the basis of websites like 8Chan, and of the appeal of Donald Trump, whose supporters love him precisely because he violates the norms of social and political propriety.

I am not really bothered by the loss of transgression as a gesture, or as a self-aggrandizing form of display. I am happy to get beyond that, to stop being impressed by that sort of grandiosity. What I do wonder about, however, is the existence of ideas that really are disturbing — not just ‘disturbing’ to liberal opinion because we don’t say such things (even when we really believe them) in polite white society. Neither the race-baiting of the alt-right, nor even something like Nietzsche’s whole-hearted advocacy of enslaving the large majority of human beings, is all that shocking today: we have a whole history in which such positions were hegemonic (and, beneath hypocritical disguises, they still actually are, more or less).

What I am thinking of, instead, is some propositions that are raised, often indirectly, in science fiction novels and stories. Take, for instance, the idea that perhaps it would be better if human beings were to go extinct, leaving the planet to other (and hopefully less rapacious) organisms. This idea is raised at least as far back as 1969, in the short story “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and it has been taken up by many science fiction and environmental fiction writers since. Such a contemplation of complete human extinction is genuinely disturbing, in a way that neither Georges Bataille’s sexual fantasies, nor the alt-right’s sadistic imaginings of domination, could ever be.

But perhaps the very totalization of imagining human doom makes things a bit too simple. There are other suggestions I have found in recent speculative fiction that are not quite as extreme, but perhaps even more unsettling. In my forthcoming book Extreme Fabulations, I write about several science fiction texts that pose the question of human extinction in a somewhat different way. WHat these texts propose is that, from an ethical and political standpoint, complete human extermination might well be less bad that a catastrophe that allows the wealthy to survive the doom they have inflicted upon everyone else. None of the texts I have in mind quite state this, but they do raise it as a question. The best known of these is the two most recent novels by William Gibson: The Peripheral (2014) and Agency (2020). Both of these novels envision a 22nd century in which something like 80% of all human beings have killed off as a result of multiple ecological catastrophes; but the affluent have survived the damage, along with enough people to be their servants, and enough technology to make their lives pleasant. Though Gibson does not raise the point directly, he raises in the reader’s mind (or at least in my mind) a question of justice. I find it intolerable that a group or class of people who have essentially committed genocide should get to enjoy the fruits of what they have done. This is not far from a real-world situation: it is obvious that, today, the international billionaire class is aware that we are headed to ecological ruin, but that they are unwilling to spend even a small part of their wealth, let alone undergo discomfort, in order to alleviate it. They have decided, instead, to bunker down and outlive it (or, in the case of Elon Musk, escape it by moving to Mars): they anticipate that eventually they, or their descendants, will be able to emerge from hiding, and resume ownership of a world from which most other human beings, together with innumerable other species, will have been eliminated. This may well be a ridiculous fantasy; perhaps there will not be enough left for them ever to resume their privileged lives. But am I wrong to feel an ethical revulsion at this prospect? Is it not more ethical to have total human extinction, than to allow the perpetrators of mass death to survive and get away with it?

Here is another science fictional scenario, that I will discuss more briefly. Several sf texts that I have read recently — Carl Neville’s novel Eminent Domain, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s short story “Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods” — both suggest that the continuing existence of the United States of America makes the achievement of any degree of freedom and prosperity, or any sort of humane socialism, in the rest of the world impossible. Sriduangkaew’s story pretty much explicitly advocates the destruction of the USA and the violent extermination of its people. While Neville’s novel neither envisages nor advocates any such thing, it nonetheless makes it clear that the continuing existence of the USA is an absolute stumbling block to any hopes for liberty, equality, and general well-being anywhere else in the world. This seems to me to be the inverse of the situation I described in the previous paragraph. As a comfortable, affluent, and generally privileged citizen of the USA, I don’t really want anything to happen that will harm my own way of life, of those of my children, friends, and relatives. Nonetheless, I find the ethico-political claim made by these works of fiction to be compelling and largely true: that the maintenance of American power across the world, and of affluence for a smaller group of Americans among whom I must include myself, is contingent upon the immiseration of a large majority of human beings, and only the complete elimination of the American imperium and the American threat can possibly alleviate this situation.

So these are some of the uncomfortable thoughts that are too extreme even to call “transgressive,” that will never be entertained by the proponents of the Dark Web, whose right to be expressed will never be a cause celebre for the opponents of so-called “cancel culture,” but whose logic I find it hard to counter, much to my own distress.

Charlie Jane Anders, Victories Greater Than Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicky Drayden, Escaping Exodus and Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.