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.

Remembering Kathy Acker

This weekend is the Kathy Acker in Seattle symposium, exploring her visits to Seattle in 1980 and 1989, and the influence she had on younger writers, artists, and musicians. I was unable to attend, but I participated in the symposium via Skype. I read an essay/chapter that I wrote about Acker a long time ago, a text that I am still proud of – it is probably the greatest success I have ever had in not commenting on another writer, but mingling their prose with my own (thus mimicking Acker’s own technique as a writer). I am not sure how well it all went: there were sound issues with the Skype transmission, and I read much faster than I ought to have done, in order not to overrun my time slot.
But in any case, I prefaced the reading with a short remembrance of Kathy Acker, how I met her, and how I saw her both as a writer and as a person. I am reproducing this here:

I want to talk about Kathy Acker as a person, somebody I knew; but also about Kathy Acker as a writer. The two are not identical, though it is difficult to disentwine them. Indeed, Acker’s construction of her public persona as an avant-garde punk-feminist icon is certainly one part of her accomplishment as an artist.

But I still wish to put the emphasis where I think it belongs, which is in Kathy Acker’s accomplishments as a writer. There is something overwhelming about her fiction, which has to do with the way that it combines emotional intensity with rigorous and incisive intellectual abstraction. These qualities are generally considered to be entirely incompatible with one another. You can be raw and immediate, or you can be distant and reflective; but you aren’t supposed to be able to be both at once. And yet this is what Acker accomplishes in her writing. She conveys the urgency and excitement of sexual arousal, and the pain and rage that come from a lover’s betraying you. But she also takes us away from all these feelings — estranges us, as the old modernist critics would put it — in order to stop us from taking things for granted. Instead, her writing forces us to think, for instance, about how gender stereotypes work in our society today, and about how oppressive and constraining they are.

In literary terms — which always mattered to her, though they are not the only things that mattered to her — Acker is equally an emotivist and a formalist. She is widely known for being sexually explicit and vulgar in her writings, and for giving voice to womens’ feelings that were scarcely allowed to be expressed so openly before. But she deserves to be equally well known for the ways that she takes pre-existing materials, tears them apart and assembles them into new configurations. She makes new realities out of the debris of old ones. “Art is this certain kind of making,” Acker once wrote; “a writer makes reality, a writer is a kind of journalist, a magic one.”

Autobiographical material certainly plays a large role in Acker’s fiction, as Chris Kraus shows in her recent biography. But all sorts of other materials play a role too. Acker describes her writing method as piracy. She adapts, transforms, or “plagiarizes” a wide variety of sources, including novels, plays, movies, histories, philosophy texts, and so on. To give an almost random example, just because I happened to be reading it the other day: on page 16 of Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker splices an account of how her biological father abandoned her mother when she was pregnant, with an account of the suicide of the French Romantic poet Gerard de Nerval. Both of these are then juxtaposed with a reading of the Hanged Man card from the Tarot deck, together with a passage lifted from James Miller’s biography of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, explaining why Foucault retained an interest in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, despite the latter’s having been a Nazi.

The staggering result of these combinations is a vertiginous, unexpected new narrative. Tarot plus Foucault and Heidegger plus Nerval plus autobiographical trauma leads us to someplace we have never been before. Through this web of references, Acker invokes “the act of turning inside out, reversing, traveling the road into the land of the dead while being and remaining alive.” This is an impossible quest; but it is one that resonates throughout Western culture, from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (the explicit subject of one of Acker’s last writing projects, left incomplete at the time of her death) to the writings of the 20th-century French avant-garde writer Maurice Blanchot (whose work was always a touchstone for Acker). All this from a single page from just one novel.

To put this more broadly and abstractly, Acker is accusing our contemporary American way of life of being a culture of death. And she is asking — here and throughout her fiction — if there is any way for us to remain alive, and to be open to life and love, even as we are unavoidably stuck in this culture of death. Nobody would call Kathy Acker a utopian writer; she is too acutely aware of all the obstacles we face, both from existing social and economic structures, and from the unruly passions of our own hearts. Neverthelss, she continually asks us to envision new ways of living and loving together: to imagine a time “when there’s human pleasure in this world” (Pussy, King of the Pirates), or when “there’ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (Empire of the Senseless).

I started reading Acker’s novels at around the same time that I moved to Seattle, in the mid-1980s. The first book of hers I read was probably Great Expectations, which was published in 1983. It was also around this time that I first saw Acker give a reading, at an art space in San Francisco. I didn’t get to meet her in person then; but I become sufficiently obsessed with her writing that I tracked down and purchased everything that she had published up to that point. And I started buying and reading all her new books as soon as they came out: Don Quixote in 1986, Literal Madness in 1987, and Empire of the Senseless in 1988. Each of these was an important event for me: a communication from beyond, you might say.

I was thrilled, therefore, when Larry Reid invited Acker to come to Seattle in 1989. I wanted to hear her read again. But also, in order to meet her, I offered to interview her for the art journal Reflex. I scarcely remember the details, any more; and I don’t seem to have preserved a copy of the article I wrote. We met in somebody’s apartment on Capitol Hill. The interview went well; we hit it off. This was partly due to common literary interests; Kathy and I were both in love with the transgressive French writers of the mid-twentieth-century, like Georges Bataille and Jean Genet. In any case, though she was quite different from me, or from anyone else I knew, by the end of the afternoon I felt like we were soulmates. We chatted for several hours, indiscriminately, about life and art and books.

I should point out that Kathy didn’t make any distinction among these topics. She wrote from life, and she also wrote from books. She rejected those all-too-common cliches that would oppose life and art to one another. She was, among so many other things, a voracious reader; she knew a much wider range of books than I did, or than I ever will.

Shortly after Kathy left Seattle, I received a letter from her, saying basically, let’s keep in touch. And we did. Not long after her gig in Seattle, she moved to San Francisco, where she remained until 1996. Kathy seemed to thrive in San Francisco; in those days before extreme gentrification, the city was something of a multicultural, queer, feminist utopia. I had lots of friends and relatives in the Bay Area at that time; I would go down there a couple of times a year. Whenever I went, I made sure to get together with Kathy. Sometimes I would visit her at her apartment in the Haight; other times we would meet at a restaurant, and she would show up on her motorcycle. We had dinner, or went to clubs, or to the movies. I remember seeing Jean Claude Van Damme’s Double Impact with her, on the day that it opened in 1991. She told me that, as far as she was concerned, Van Damme had “the perfect male body”; but she was disappointed in the film, because (in contrast to his previous ones) he didn’t give sufficient recognition and respect to the Asian masters who had taught him martial arts.

During her years in San Francisco, Kathy taught creative writing at the San Francisco Art Instutute. She challenged and excited her students, and in turn she was invigorated by her contact with them. Acker inspired a lot of younger writers and artists — predominantly women — both as a role model and as a teacher. The downside to her job at the Art Institute is that she was horribly underpaid. In those years, she was always looking for a teaching job at a college or university, anywhere in the United States, that would give her adequate pay and medical benefits. But nothing ever turned up.

Kathy left San Francisco in 1996, shortly after she learned that she had cancer. The last time I saw her was once again in Seattle, during the Labor Day weekend 1996, when she came to perform with the Mekons at Bumbershoot. This was a live performance of the album that she did with them: a musical version of Pussy, King of the Pirates. Acker was a writer above all; but she was keenly interested in other media, and especiallly in the new multimedia environment that was just coming into existence at that time, due to growth of the Internet. She told me that she was interested in adapting Pussy into a virtual environment or a video game.

I do not want to claim any special insight here. I would not say that I knew Kathy Acker extremely well; she had broad social networks, and at various points in her life, lots of people were closer to her than I ever was. But I got to know her well enough; and I can confidently say that she was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. She was interested in so many things; she was curious about everything and everyone. Her thinking was fresh, independent, and idiosyncratic. With most people, alas, once you get to know them a bit, you can pretty much tell in advance what they will say about any given subject. But Kathy was one of those extremely rare people whose takes on things you couldn’t possibly predict. I was always surprised, and stimulated, by her insights and opinions.

Kathy was a very demanding person: she expected a lot from others, just as she expected a lot from herself. She could be quite imperious at times: even (or especially?) when she was also feeling vulnerable and desperately needy. This often led to fallings-out with people she had been close to; or in my case, to bouts of anger, eventually followed by reconciliation. To this day, I am not really sure what she saw in me, or why she valued my friendship. But I think her liking for me might have had something to do with what she accurately perceived as my social maladroitness; or even with what could be called (in contemporary terms) my mild gender dysphoria: my failure to adequately perform straight masculinity, even as I am unable to imagine myself in any other terms.

One final, possibly embarrassing, anecdote. When Kathy was on her deathbed, in an alternative cancer treatment clinic in Tijuana, I called her to say goodbye. But being, as usual, socially maladroit, I said just about the stupidest and worst thing I could have said under the circumstances. When I got her on the line, I said to her: “Kathy, I don’t know what to say.” She responded, in a weak voice, ravaged by her illness, that I could at least tell her whether or not I loved her. So I said to her, “Kathy, I love you.”

Gwyneth Jones on Joanna Russ

Crossposted from goodreads:

Gwyneth Jones’ book about Joanna Russ – one of the greatest contemporary science fiction writers discussing one of the greatest science fiction writers of the previous generation – is lucid and concise. And it is actually quite rich, even though it is relatively short. Jones goes through all of Russ’ published writing, including not only her science fiction novels and stories, but also her non-genre fiction, and her non-fictional prose as well, including everything from major essays to ephemeral book reviews. Jones cuts to the chase, with no wasted prose; but she is deeply insightful about everything she discusses. I appreciated the discussions equally of the Russ books I have read recently, of those I read a much longer time ago (Jones made me want to read them again), and of the essays and short stories that I have never previously read. The emphasis is on Russ’ published texts, with only a minimal amount of biography – though Jones speculates interestingly on how Russ’ life (as somebody who grew up at a time of extreme misogyny, and had to struggle as part of the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s) is inscribed in her fiction, and also about how a lot of her fiction can be read as a working through of her love/hate relationship with science fiction itself (she read sf from the age of 12, and wrote sf as an adult, because it offered her visions of imaginative freedom and possibility; she encountered and suffered from the extreme sexism and misogyny that was engrained in the sf community, and much of the sf writing, of her time). All in all, this is a great book that taught me a lot about a writer I already loved and whose works I already knew at least in part.

The Deep, by Rivers Solomon

I published my review of THE DEEP, by Rivers Solomon, on Goodreads. But I thought it would be a good idea to post it here as well. I got access to an advance copy of this novella through Netgalley. The book is scheduled for publication on November 5, 2019.

Rivers Solomon recently wrote on their twitter feed: “me discussing writing today with a friend: i wanna be murdering ppl with every line… to clarify, i mean murdering readers. emotionally.” This applies, I think to Solomon’s new science fiction novella THE DEEP. The book just slays me. It is about about trauma and history, and about remembering and forgetting.

The book refers to the real history of the Atlantic slave trade, but also to an imaginative alternate history, or counter-mythology, that was invented by the Detroit techno band Drexciya. In a series of releases between 1992 and 2002, Drexciya tells us the story of an underwater realm in the mid-Atlantic, “populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown off of slave ships during the Middle Passage who had learned to breathe underwater in their mother’s wombs.” These merpeople and their descendants establish a utopian society in the sea, free from the war and racism on the surface. In this way Drexciya imagines a partial escape from the horrors of modern history, and reclaims what the philosopher Paul Gilroy calls the “Black Atlantic.”

Other artists have further developed Drexciya’s vision. Ellen Gallagher’s ongoing “Watery Ecstatic” series of mixed media artworks (2001- ) offers a Black feminist, and also “posthuman and interspecies,” reworking of the Drexciya myth. More directly relevant to Solomon’s novella, the avant-rap band Clipping released a song called “The Deep” in 2017. This song is set in the world imagined by Drexciya, and brings its narrative into the present. The song envisions the underwater realm threatened, today in the 21st century, by global warming and undersea oil drilling, and imagines the Drexciyans’ apocalyptic response to these dangers.

Rivers Solomon picks up Clipping’s scenario, and once more reimagines it. (In an Afterword to the book, the band compares the transmission from Drexciya to Clipping to Solomon as like a game of Telephone, in which each reiteration of a phrase creatively expands and transforms it). Solomon gives us the story of Yetu, the official Historian of the merpeople, who are here called wajinru rather than Drexciyans. Her job is to remember their past. She hoards the memories of these aquatic human beings, all the way back to their ancestral origins, when their first generation was born underwater from the wombs of kidnapped African women thrown from slave ships into the open ocean. By remembering, in excruciating detail, everything that has ever happened to the wajinru, Yetu grounds them in history. On the one hand, she uses her knowledge to remind them who they are. On the other hand, by remembering for all the others, she frees them from the burden of their history, allowing them to forget, and thereby to enjoy life in the present.

The history of the slave trade is deeply traumatic, and Yetu suffers mightily from being forced to remember it. She experiences directly, in mind and in body, the tensions that animate her whole society. On the one hand, to forget your history is to become unmoored, to feel a kind of hollowness, a cavity (a word the novella uses several times). Without some sense of growth and development across time, there can be no feeling of accomplishment or achievement. On the other hand, to remember your history is to be traumatized by it anew, and to feel unable to escape it. As Karl Marx famously wrote, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Yetu is literally trapped by this dilemma. Her job of remembering and preserving the past makes it impossible for her to function in the present — let alone to enjoy it. But by taking the task of remembrance upon herself, she allows her people both to have fulfilling lives in the present, and to maintain the historical background that they need to thrive. She is torn between the need for self-care, and the need to hold things together for her people and for the ancestors. THE DEEP is really about how Yetu negotiates between these two needs, both of which are crucial to her survival, and yet which seem to contradict one another. It’s a powerful and affecting book; you can’t read it without being deeply shaken by the conflicts that it depicts in such vivid prose.