Mosaic Novels: Datura

One of my favorite authors in the last couple of years has been Leena Krohn. I haven’t yet written about her work here. This post is an excuse to correct that. It’s another in my series on mosaic novels–again, I’m defining this as novels made of vignettes that build up to a cumulative theme instead of a single plot. The last two posts covered The Book of Disquiet and Speedboat which, at least on the surface, aren’t structured much like Krohn’s novels. She writes full-length chapters, with titles, usually chronologically ordered. But the chapters in Krohn’s novels work like those novels’ vignettes. Every chapter could stand as an individual unit of writing. But they aren’t stories as such; again, they read more like essays or descriptions of situations.

Krohn’s novels pick a theme and approach it from different angles, with different strategies. So Tainaron: Mail From Another City, a novel composed of letters from a human living in a city of insects, includes chapters centered on metaphors for life in human cities, others anthropomorphizing actual insect behavior, and others just focusing on the strangeness of Tainaron to convey the feeling of living as an expatriate.

Cover of Datura

Tainaron is Krohn’s best novel, but my favorite is Datura (or a Delusion We All See). Datura’s narrator is the editor and entire staff of The New Anomalist, a low-rent Fortean Times knockoff, the seriousness of which is indicated by the fact that its owner wants its gift shop to sell Big Mouth Billy Bass. As she runs around interviewing cranks and crackpots, the datura she’s taking for her asthma is making her hallucinate. Some chapters describe her research. Some are interviews with people who believe in strange things–plant intelligence, trepanation, the face of Jesus manifested in cheese–which are gently mocking but not scornful. Datura is compassionately interested in these people’s conceptions of reality. Other chapters describe the narrator’s hallucinations: an old woman who’s always ahead of her, a candy shop that seems out of its time. Sometimes it’s not clear what kind of chapter we’re reading. At one point the narrator is passed by a column of empty cars which she later learns were a convoy of real driverless vehicles.

There’s not much plot. The narrator starts taking datura and then stops. We know where this rudimentary story is going from the first chapter. But all of her experiences together–character studies of crackpots, different views of reality, musings about how human beings see patterns and create meaning, datura-induced breaks with reality–all these self-contained scenes, equally important, build to a larger theme. It’s an interesting one, because although Datura’s themes–science, skepticism, anomalies, the nature of reality–are familiar in SF, especially since the heyday of The X-Files, Datura approaches them from a different direction than usual. On the questions of whether plants can think or angels exist, Datura comes down on the side of skepticism, but it’s pro-rationality for a reason that in a lot of SF doesn’t get much play: it’s important to understand the world because we live in it with other people, together. To connect with others we need some common frame of reference, however tenuous. “The truth is always shared. A reality that belongs to only one person isn’t real.” Datura has empathy for its cranks because reality connects us even to people who don’t believe in it.

A traditional plot would not have suited Datura. A strong plot would need an active protagonist with a defined goal, and an antagonist to stop her getting it. A plot would turn Datura’s focus inward onto the protagonist instead of outward to the world around her. There’s nothing wrong with that–obviously, lots of strongly plotted novels are great! But it wouldn’t be this novel.

Leena Krohn’s novels have narrators instead of protagonists; they watch, listen, and think more than they act. Her chapters build on each other and develop ideas and characters. But they work more through accumulation and association, less through the cause and effect of traditional plotting. Her books combine the best parts of essays–a focus on ideas, looking out from the self instead of in at a protagonist–with the novel’s ability to explore character and approach themes through metaphor.

Mosaic Novels: Speedboat

As I explained in my last post, this is part of a short series on mosaic novels–novels made up of vignettes that build up to a cumulative theme instead of a single plot. For a lot of people the classic example will be Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Speedboat is a literary cult classic and its recent reprint by New York Review Books Classics got the kind of reviews and attention most new novels only dream of. Most of Speedboat’s vignettes are less than a page long, and many are single paragraphs. They’re written in the voice of Jen Fain, a journalist in the 1970s. Unlike The Book of Disquiet, Speedboat was deliberately ordered, not pulled out of a trunk. It’s also more arch, less introspective, and much more elliptical. According to its afterword, when Adler wrote Speedboat she often found herself stopping before she’d reached a section’s planned ending. The result resembles a book of compact essays suggesting more than they say outright, with a journalist’s eye for telling details.

Cover of Speedboat

Speedboat is a portrait of a particular social milieu (white, educated, upper middle class New Yorkers) at a particular time (the early 1970s). Speedboat is dryly funny and self-deprecating (which may be important for some in an age when it’s harder than it used to be to have patience with feckless privilege). I love its specificity. I said this was a book with exactly the right details but it also uses exactly the right words, in exactly the right order. Every page has several perfect sentences and at least one surprising sentence. Some characters who appear for a few paragraphs have enough comic presence to carry stories of their own. Says Jen, “Hardly anyone about whom I deeply care at all resembles anyone else I have ever met, or heard of, or read about in the literature.” (Which is, there, one of those perfect sentences I mentioned: the way “at all” might equally well belong to “care” or “resembles;” the way it doesn’t end with “read about” but with “in the literature” as though she’s checked scientific journals.)

Like The Book of Disquiet, Speedboat allows anecdotes and observations to stand on their own without having to squeeze themselves into a plot. Vignettes don’t have to justify their presence in utilitarian terms to avoid getting cut. The mosaic novel is the perfect format for authors who don’t want to kill their darlings. Speedboat is the Good Parts Version of the 1970s Great American Novel, minus the filler. But that doesn’t mean the parts don’t add up to a whole, or a hole.

Speedboat takes its name from the story of a woman taking a speedboat out for a spin who happily bounces up and down with the boat until suddenly one sharp bounce injures her spine. This is the structure of the book in miniature. Jen cruises on the amusing foibles of the upper middle class but keeps suddenly veering into anecdotes where someone gets murdered or rides a bicycle off a cliff. By the end she’s describing schoolmates who got sick on field trips, how they apologized for ruining the trip for the other students, how they’re still politely apologizing to each other even though anymore it seems everybody’s sick. Jen’s people seem silly because their money, education, and social status allow them to insulate themselves from the least silly parts of reality… most of the time. Speedboat is about what privilege will not protect you from. Accidents. Illness. Having to make really big life choices. “Even our people who stay fit with yoga seem to be, more than others, subject to the flu.” You can’t keep reality out.

Another novel with Speedboat’s theme might have been heavy, or maudlin, or just whiny. Speedboat stays light and funny because its touch-down-and-take-off-again structure lets it circle its theme without looking straight at it. You’re aware of certain subjects from the holes they leave, the way the novel flinches from them, as its characters flinch. The way Jen keeps changing the subject is the point. (Remember how Adler kept stopping her vignettes before she’d reached the most obvious ending.) It’s like a puzzle book. You triangulate Speedboat’s real subject from the themes its disparate vignettes approach but never baldly confront.

Mosaic Novels: The Book of Disquiet

For most of this year I’ve drifted halfheartedly from book to book, a dozen at once, my attention span measured in single chapters, until a book catches and I’m enthusiastic again. Recently my attention was caught by Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. It started me off on a blog post that went off on a long enough tangent that I still haven’t finished. It only just tonight occurred to me that I could post it in pieces, which is, for reasons that will become clear, kind of ironic.

The Book of Disquiet is a collection of vignettes, some as short as a single sentence, posing as the diary of an assistant bookkeeper named Bernardo Soares. Pessoa wrote under alternate identities that were more than pen names. He called them “heteronyms” and they had histories and personalities, like player characters in a literary game of Dungeons and Dragons.[1] Pessoa called Bernardo “me minus reason and affectivity.” Bernardo doesn’t do much beyond bookkeeping, writing, and dreaming, so he has plenty of time for self-examination and lots of interesting things to say about things that are not ostensibly interesting. “The wise man makes his life monotonous,” he writes, “for then even the tiniest incident becomes imbued with great significance.” This book is a deep dive into the experience of unimportance.

Cover of The Book of Disquiet

Bernardo is the type popular culture likes to portray as dead inside. In a Hollywood movie Bernardo might be a comic villain; if not, a wild adventure would teach him to loosen up and assert himself. Bernardo will not be loosening up and does not have an adventure; The Book of Disquiet is plotless. Between that and the title you might assume this is a depressing book, but it’s not. Some texts are anxious, or sad, but as often as not Bernardo feels satisfied with his circumscribed life. “In dreams I have achieved everything. I’ve also woken up, but what does that matter?”

The fragmented format makes for easy contrasts. The book doesn’t need to transition from one mood to another, it just places them next to each other like books on a shelf. In one text Bernardo is anxious, in the next he’s relaxed. In one he’s loquacious, then he stops with a sentence, barely able to get the words out. The texts explore different ideas but often highlight common themes through their juxtaposition. Thoughts on the common metaphor of life as a journey are followed by memories of an co-worker who collected travel brochures, going on vacations in his imagination.

I liked The Book of Disquiet enough to buy copies of both available English translations, by Richard Zenith and Margaret Jull Costa. I haven’t yet finished either version–ironically, given my quest for books that hold my attention, this is a good book to dip into at intervals. But I feel confident in my evaluation because The Book of Disquiet is inherently unfinished. Pessoa wrote The Book of Disquiet in bits, on labeled but loose pages, and died before he decided which texts to include, or in what order, or whether any given text was in its final form. (Some sections have blanks where Pessoa intended to go back and insert just the right words.) Every edition of The Book of Disquiet is unique. No selection or ordering is definitive, so both English translations include a different selection of texts in a different order. Richard Zenith even suggests that readers read the book in any order, as they please, like a modernist Choose Your Own Adventure. (To meditate on tedium, turn to section 118. If you’d rather study the back of the man in front of you, turn to section 40.)

Because The Book of Disquiet is one, I’ve been thinking about a kind of novel I might call–because I have to call it something, if I want to talk about it–a mosaic novel. [2] I don’t mean a novel written in pieces and assembled later, as The Book of Disquiet was. My definition of a mosaic novel, which I am admittedly working out as I go along, is a book made up of vignettes, short chapters between a few sentences and a few pages in length, each a distinct piece of writing rather than part of a single overarching plot. Mosaic novels aren’t strongly plotted, although subplots may recur now and then. The vignettes are often not in chronological order and build up to a theme or a big picture instead of a straightforward plot. The de-emphasizing of plot distinguishes the mosaic novel from the montage technique used by John Dos Passos in USA and John Brunner in Stand on Zanzibar. (Some of Kurt Vonnegut’s work feels closer, but is still too plotty for what I have in mind.) The novel in pieces is also not a short story collection, or a fixup novel, because the chapters aren’t complete stories. They’re scenes, sketches, vignettes, or essays.

Similar formats have been used in nonfiction, especially in books of philosophy or aphorisms. It’s a more natural form for nonfiction, so I’m focusing here on fiction: it’s interesting to see writing styles where they don’t obviously belong. Sometimes pieces of an otherwise conventional novel are written in mosaic form. For instance, Jo Walton’s recent novel Necessity includes multiple narrators. Most tell their stories chronologically but one, a robot named Crocus, writes in this subject-to-subject associational way. What’s more interesting is that I’ve read several entire novels in this format, or something like it. My next few posts will talk about novels by Renata Adler and Leena Krohn, plus a multi-author Doctor Who spinoff, and finish with some thoughts about why these books might appeal to me right now.

  1. At one point in The Book of Disquiet Bernardo even praises a poem written by another one of Pessoa’s heteronyms.  ↩
  2. The term is already in use for something that isn’t quite what I’m describing here, but I figured I’d go ahead and repurpose it.  ↩

Jacqueline Koyanagi, Ascension (and Starship SF)

I haven’t accomplished much in the last month because the news has had me genuinely stressed out. 2016 has had far too much news, most of it alarming, and I’m trying to back away from following it obsessively. In part that means getting back to writing and drawing, as a distraction. So I finished roughly two thirds of this review in early June and the rest just now; if it seems disjointed, there’s your reason.

Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension, a space opera novel, came out a few years ago. I read it recently, having chosen it at random. It’s not bad. It’s not perfect, either, but it meets and exceeds my baseline criteria for “good.” For about half this post I’ll explain further; then, as is my habit, I’ll use this book review as an excuse to wander off on a tangent: What is starship-crew space opera (of which this is an example) usually doing? Why is it more common in media SF than in print? And what do fans get out of it?

Ascension is narrated in first person by its protagonist, Alana Quick. The prose is good; it’s clear this book has paid some attention to word choice. Like, in this world starship mechanics are called “sky surgeons,” and Alana describes her work as “stitching together humanity’s lifeline.” Which tells you Alana sees ships as living organisms, and thinks of her work less as engineering than as lifesaving medicine. Alana’s complex enough that when she did something crazy impulsive–as she does more than once, because that’s her personality–I never lost patience.

Her first impulsive decision is to stow away on the starship Tangled Axon. She wants a job. More importantly, she wants to know why the crew were hired to deliver her sister to the big Wal-Mart-meets-Google corporation that literally travelled from a parallel universe to dominate the run-down local economy. The Tangled Axon’s crew is not thrilled to find Alana in their hold, but for now they’re stuck with her because shortly thereafter everyone’s framed for blowing up a planet.

Ascension is about a starship crew accepting a new member and might appeal to the same audience that liked the similarly themed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I don’t think Ascension is as successful a novel because its world doesn’t feel as complete or lived in as The Long Way’s. The Tangled Axon’s crew rarely interact with anyone outside the main cast. Granted, they are fugitives, and their isolation adds extra complications since Alana is chronically ill and running out of medication. But it feels like the characters live in a bubble, or a movie with a limited budget for speaking parts. The one person they seek out for help tidies herself away by dying as soon as she’s told them what they need to know. Even the big villain is, in a sense, part of the family.

Ascension’s universe is a backdrop in front of which the characters work out their relationships. Despite the presence of generic cargo crates I’m not sure I understand how the Tangled Axon earns a living when it’s not having an Adventure. And although Koyanagi tries, the crew don’t seem to react to the destruction of an entire planet with the warranted level of blue-screen-of-death horror. On the other hand, another story with this flaw is the 1977 film Star Wars, which I’ve heard has done well for itself. On the other other hand, having only recently finished Ascension I already cannot recall how destroying a planet fit into the villain’s master plan.

Anyway, that one thematic parallel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet started me thinking about Starship SF, and the kinds of stories it tells. Starship SF is the space opera subgenre that brings together a disparate bunch of characters and watches them mess about in a starship. Starship SF novels exist, including Ascension and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but the best known examples are TV series–Farscape, Firefly, Red Dwarf, Blake’s 7, Star Trek. These shows like to tell different kinds of stories in their individual episodes. But it’s arguable that their overall series-long stories are, at least in part, about found families or families of choice.

Starships are central to space opera TV shows in a way they usually aren’t in novels; they have a budgetary incentive to set as many scenes as possible on their standing set. (One redemptive reading of Ascension’s lack of interest in the universe beyond the Tangled Axon is that its insularity mirrors Starship SF’s affection for the bottle episode.) A spaceship is a terrarium floating in a void, by necessity an enclosed, self-sufficient world. The crew can’t leave because beyond the walls is airless vacuum–literally nothing. Stick some random people in this situation and it can go one of two ways. One is horror, the breakdown of a miniature society under pressure, as in the movies Alien or Sunshine. The other, more suited to a series, is for the crew to come together as a community. Or a family. Starship crews can be metaphors for either, or both, which is where the consolatory element comes in. These communities, like families of choice, at least aspire to work out their problems and make a safe space for all their members.

I spent the last year re-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I hadn’t seen in ages. Coincidentally the blog Vaka Rangi by Josh Marsfelder reviewed the series episode-by-episode at around the same time, so I followed that as well. Gene Roddenberry thought of ST: TNG as utopian SF: the Federation is a post-scarcity society where nobody’s poor because anyone can get whatever they need from a replicator; everyone values self-improvement over money and status. In his reviews Marsfelder repeatedly suggests that, yeah, ST: TNG is utopian, but it’s not the Federation that’s the utopia–we don’t know how the Federation works[1], and the Enterprise often has to fix situations the Federation’s screwed up. The Next Generation’s utopia is the Enterprise itself, because the crew models better ways to resolve conflicts than the truculent posturing passing for drama in grittier SF. The crew, and whatever guest stars have shown up this week, are stuck with each other. If they can’t keep the Enterprise community functional while they’re between planets… well, leaving is more complicated than opening an airlock and walking away. The characters have their differences but The Next Generation’s focus is on how they work them out and come to understand each other.

In written science fiction space opera and military SF are so closely linked they’re often conflated, but that’s not the path The Next Generation took. Yeah, Starfleet looks like a military organization–they have ranks and uniforms–but it’s unlike any military we know. The characters rarely relate to each other like soldiers in a disciplined chain of command. (The episodes where The Next Generation modeled itself on military drama were usually the ones where the show went off the rails.) The Enterprise feels like an office staffed by close and supportive employees. More than that: the bridge crew relate to each other in a way that feels as close as a family. And they really do appear to be each others’ primary family: Star Trek did not have an unlimited recurring cast, so most of the crew have just one or two literal relatives. The only one with an American-style nuclear family is Chief O’Brien.

Most televised Starship SF resembles ST:TNG in that their long-term emotional arcs are about disparate people forming family-style emotional bonds. Firefly is about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Farscape is about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Red Dwarf is, despite Arnold Rimmer’s best efforts, about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Even the Blake’s 7 crew feels a bit like a family, though they’re a dysfunctional one and the series ends in a messy divorce.

You might, if inclined, divide ensemble TV series into two broad groups: the edgy ones, spectacles of people ingeniously betraying and undercutting each other (A Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, House of Cards), and the consolatory ones whose characters support each other and come together to solve problems. Whether these ensembles are SF like ST:TNG, crime dramas like Leverage, or even sitcoms like The Simpsons or Community, the ways the characters relate to each other feel similar. Their emotional arcs take familiar routes regardless of genre. Either a character is emotionally tied up in the A plot (Worf’s family is caught up in Klingon politics, Starfleet wants to disassemble Data), or the B plot is about someone working through emotional issues that tie into the A plot thematically (Data wants to understand some human foible, Barclay is working on his psychological issues). The rest of the cast help them through their problem to an emotional epiphany.[2] Scenes where Geordi explains humanity to Data or Picard works through an ethical dilemma with Guinan aren’t all that different in function from the part of a Simpsons episode where Marge Simpson inspires Homer to briefly locate his better side. You could drop the characters from another ensemble show (maybe not The Simpsons, but certainly Community or Leverage) into a Star Trek show and the usual styles of Star Trek stories would still make sense in a way they would not make sense with, say, the characters from A Game of Thrones.

It’s significant that which plot is the A plot and which is the B plot is not always clear. On Star Trek shows–Voyager in particular–it isn’t unusual for an episode’s external threat to be a vague pseudoscientific problem resolved through perfunctory technobabble, with more running time spent on the character interactions that, structurally, might be some other show’s B plot.

Literary space opera usually doesn’t work like Starship SF TV shows; most starship-heavy novels are Military SF, or thrillers. Maybe that’s because a novel is, like a movie, a one-off event; even if it’s part of a series you’ll probably have to wait a year for the next volume. Starship SF audiences aren’t into plot so much as regular contact with their favorite characters. They want to see what the gang is up to this week.

Not that space opera fans don’t enjoy suspenseful action, special effects spectacle, and clever problem-solving, but in these series the chance to watch allies or co-workers becoming friends and friends becoming family is an important attraction. Starship SF is consolatory and aspirational, and I mean that in a positive sense. There’s a certain escapist pleasure in just watching a bunch of friends hang out.[3] To that extent, most of SF fandom’s favorite shows push the same emotional buttons for their fans as a show like Friends does for its audience. Mind you, I’m not saying Star Trek and Friends are interchangeable. The stories and themes they explore in addition to the weekly dose of camaraderie are different, and have different functions; if that weren’t true, they wouldn’t have different audiences. But they do both have that weekly dose of camaraderie, and it’s a point where their audiences have something in common. SF fans who write fan fiction love having their favorite characters just plotlessly hang out together; there’s even an entire subgenre transplanting characters from different settings into 21st century coffee shops.

I’ve wandered far from my original point here. But I think Ascension would appeal to the audience I’ve just described, who might find the characters’ non-involvement in the outside world to be as much a feature as a bug. Sometimes insularity is privilege or self-absorption. But sometimes it’s just that the outside world is the B plot.

  1. This vagueness makes the Federation more convincingly utopian–the more details you give about a utopia, the more likely it is that the audience will decide some of those details don’t sound all that great.  ↩

  2. On ST:TNG helping resolve emotional arcs was literally Troi’s job, which just makes it weirder that the writers so often had no idea what to do with her.  ↩

  3. Or even just watching the extras: when I rewatched ST:TNG one of my favorite parts was watching the people in the background, who were more visible now that I wasn’t watching on a 19-inch screen with bad reception.  ↩

Dark Tide and the Dubious Appeal of Drama


The Boston Molasses Flood of January 15th, 1919 was always one of those events trotted out wherever weird and strange historical events were compiled. In the days before the internet details were sketchy; usually you’d encounter a brief summary in a magazine article or a trivia book. You might have thought of it as a harmless, quirky Wes-Anderson-movie kind of disaster, had Wes Anderson been a thing at the time. You know: molasses flowing down the street past a sad but knowing Bill Murray while an old Rolling Stones song plays.

Actually, the molasses flood was not a joke. It was a blast of 2.3 million gallons of molasses moving in a 15 to 25 foot wave at 35 miles an hour.[1] Pictures taken at the time show buildings smashed to pieces. Twenty-one people died, mostly from suffocation. Horses caught in the muck had to be shot. The cleanup was awful: people tracked the molasses all over and eventually the whole town was sticky. Even the molasses itself was serious: the United States Industrial Alcohol Company used it to distill alcohol for munitions.

Cover of Dark Tide

Details on the molasses flood are more available now, partly because they’ve been pulled together on the internet. You can find even more information in the single book about the flood, Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo. What’s great about Puleo’s book is that it doesn’t just describe the flood: it explains how the flood was not just weird, but actually important.

The molasses flood wasn’t a freak accident. The U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company’s tank was junk. The Industrial Alcohol employee in charge of construction, Arthur Jell, wasn’t an engineer. He approved a tank that wasn’t sturdy enough to hold two million gallons of molasses and didn’t bother with basic safety checks like testing for leaks. People who lived and worked near the tank told U.S. Industrial Alcohol they could see molasses leaking from the seams and running down the sides. The company responded by painting the tank brown.

Asked why their tank had burst, the Industrial Alcohol Company had a ready answer: anarchists. This was not as stupid as it sounds. Anarchists were the big terrorist threat at the time, and, remember, the company used the molasses to make alcohol for munitions, most recently for use in the First World War. This was war molasses, and the company really had received threats to blow up the tank.

But the tank wasn’t just shoddy, it was obviously, embarrasingly shoddy, as the subsequent investigation had no trouble establishing. Despite agreeing the tank wasn’t up to code, the grand jury didn’t indict any Industrial Alcohol Company executives for manslaughter. (From a 21st century perspective, maybe it’s amazing they considered indicting corporate executives at all.) But there was one important consequence. The government of Boston decided that before their building department would issue a construction permit more detailed architectural plans would have to be filed with the city, including all engineering calculations, certified by an actual engineer. Cities all over the U.S. followed Boston’s lead, tightening their building codes and increasing their oversight of construction projects and engineering requirements. If the buildings in which you live and work haven’t fallen down on you lately, you can thank molasses.


Dark Tide is a good, well-researched book. I’m going to get into some caveats here, and they’re big caveats, but I really do recommend it. It includes details on the flood you won’t find anywhere else. Sometimes, though, there are reasons you won’t find those details anywere else. Like, at one point Puleo describes Arthur Jell in his office getting some concerning news about the tank, and we get this line:

“‘The tank will be safe,’ Jell said aloud, sitting alone in his office.”

He was alone when he said this? Then… how do we know? Did Jell have one of those invisible offscreen butlers, like in Citizen Kane?

That would be cool. But, no, apparently Puleo just made it up:

In some cases, I have built the dramatic narrative and drawn conclusions based on a combination of primary and secondary sources, and my knowledge of a character’s background and beliefs. For example, Hugh Ogden’s[2] letter to Lippincott from the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., is real; Ogden’s concerns about the manner in which the country has been thrown into turmoil is my interpretation based upon what I know of Ogden’s patriotism and his soldier’s attention to order.

Dark Tide tells us things about people’s thoughts and feelings the author could not possibly know. It doesn’t sound speculative–it states them confidently, as facts, with the same omniscient tone novelists use with their characters. This is truthiness presented as history.

That novelistic tone is the key to what’s wrong here: Puleo’s desire to build a “dramatic narrative.” The line I quoted comes just before a section break. It’s narrative punctuation, a cliffhanger–a strong image to imprint itself in the reader’s memory as the subject changes. (And note it’s not just a strong line but a visual image, like you’d get before a scene change in a movie–a character is in a setting, saying something aloud. This is history written in Novelization Style.)

This is not a quirk of Dark Tide alone. Many popular histories lean hard on narrative. As much as possible the authors want their books to read like novels. (And maybe like movies–nonfiction books get optioned for film too.) Which misses the point of nonfiction. A lot of topics work better when not artificially squeezed into the shape of plot, suspense, and characterization. For all that history superficially resembles story, it’s usually one of those topics. I mean, it’s not like Dark Tide’s central arguments are weak–how the molasses flood came to happen, and how it influenced engineering standards, are dramatic enough without being dramatized.

But that’s quibbling. The real problem is how the dramatized scenes distort the history–the confidence with which Dark Tide narrates scenes that were never recorded in any form, and claims to know the hearts and minds of people long dead.

Switching gears for a moment… I’m reminded of something the novelist Guy Gavriel Kay has said more than once, most recently in an article at Boing Boing. One reason Kay writes fantasy instead of historical novels is that, even in a novel, he’s not comfortable imposing (his word) his own invented personalities and opinions on people who really existed. It’s arguable whether this is actually a problem in fiction; even Kay acknowledges good novels have been written about real people. But I’d argue that historians have a responsibility to tell the truth, as far as they know it, about real people.

Sometimes we do know with reasonable certaintly what a person was thinking or doing in private–sometimes they left diaries or letters or court testimony that tell us. (At least, they tell us what they’d have liked us to think they were thinking!) But usually we don’t know, especially when we’re talking about passing thoughts as opposed to fundamental beliefs and motivations. Historians may know the reasoning behind most of Lincoln’s decisions during the Civil War, but can’t claim to know what passed through his mind during breakfast. There’s nothing wrong with speculation–discussing what the author thinks a person was probably thinking, or probably doing–but it should be written as speculation, not omniscient narration, and supported by facts. Nonfiction takes humility, a willingness to acknowledge sometimes the author just doesn’t know. Otherwise writers run the risk of coming out with passages like this one, about the Industrial Alcohol Company’s lawyer:

But in the places none of us like to visit—the darkest corners of the mind, the coldest reaches of the heart—Charles F. Choate must have felt a sense of perverse satisfaction when he received word on the afternoon of September 16 that someone, most likely an anarchist, had detonated a deadly bomb on Wall Street in New York City.

Or this one about John Urquhart, a boilermaker who worked on the tank:

Urquhart knew that all of these issues were out of his control and would be decided by smarter men.

I mean, maybe Urquhart did think the people who made the Big Decisions were smarter than he was. Maybe he mentioned it in a diary somewhere, or in testimony during the lawsuit, or something. Without checking Puleo’s sources, I have no clue. Dark Tide has a problem common in popular narrative history: the novelistic style is meant to be exciting, but reading it feels like harder work than reading an academic tome by a professional historian. Reading this style of nonfiction is a tiresome exercise in sorting source from speculation, the literary equivalent of picking the fish bones out of ten pounds of chopped tuna.

In recent posts I’ve complained fiction that uses the style and narrative techniques of nonfiction was underrated; now I’m complaining nonfiction techniques are also underrated in actual nonfiction. I like fiction in the style of essays or histories, but I guess it doesn’t work the other way around!

  1. Yes, in fact the speed of molasses in January exceeds the speed limits of most residential neighborhoods.  ↩

  2. The attorney who audited the court case over the tank and submitted the final report.  ↩

Agatha Christie, Crooked House

Sometimes, as I browse the internet, an article or a blog post syncs up eerily with a book I’m reading. Most recently it was a post by Doctor Science at Obsidian Wings, who created “the John Donne Test”:

At some point in there I came up with what I’ll call the John Donne Test, because he said “Any man’s death diminishes me.” The Test is very simple:

Is there a second murder? (a second incident; two people murdered at once doesn’t count)

If the answer is “Yes”: you fail.

If it’s a mystery story without any murder, you get an A.

There’s nothing wrong with telling stories about murders. These are, after all, fictional people. But, argues Doctor Science, there’s something squalid about stories that don’t treat death as a tragedy–that casually kill characters off merely to raise the stakes, push the story along. Which is not only a problem in mystery stories. (And is, maybe, another example of a tendency I’ve noticed for some stories to treat background characters as literally less important than protagonists.)

I like mysteries but I’ll admit it’s odd the genre is so murder-centric. It’s not like there’s no potential for drama in fraud or embezzlement or a good old-fashioned jewel heist. And Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, possibly the greatest mystery novel of the “Golden Age,” is murderless. But sometime between Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie the genre decided murders were the only proper subject for detective novels.

Speaking of Agatha Christie, early 20th century mystery novels are comfort reading for a lot of people, me included.[1] Which is a bit weird, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a criticism or condemnation of the genre to acknowledge that. Lots of good things are a bit weird. Mulling over and poking at the weirdness of things, even things you love, can be fun.

Mysteries aren’t the only genre built around grim subject matter. There’s horror, and grimdark fantasy, and dystopian science fiction. But those are genres people go to when they want to be in some way unsettled, whether that means being kept in suspense, being made to think about difficult subjects, or just having their heads enjoyably messed with. (The thing I like about horror movies isn’t the horror, exactly; it’s the surrealism.) The audience is having fun, yes, but it’s fun discomfort. No one talks about “cozy horror” or “cozy dystopias.”[2] But there are “cozy mysteries.”

As to what kind of comfort can be found here… well, it’s a cliché and a truism that the detective novel offers a restoration of order, the rebuilding of a community thrown into turmoil and uncertainty. But in this case I think the truism is, well, true. For myself, given the failures of America’s justice system–the false convictions, the police departments that function as racist protection rackets–imagining some quixotic amateur swooping in to sort out its mistakes is a satisfying wish fulfillment fantasy. (Granted, usually the problem in real life isn’t that prosecuters missed some vital clue, but that they faked forensic evidence; or ignored exculpatory evidence; or, alternately, deliberately let a killer off the hook because he happened to have a badge. Sherlock and Elementary notwithstanding, a modern Sherlock Holmes’s greatest challenge would be less explaining the facts and more shaming the authorities into doing the right thing.)

Cover of Crooked House

When I came across the Donne Test I was reading Agatha Christie’s Crooked House. Christie’s books are synonymous with the cozy mystery. But Christie herself was less cozy than we remember. As I reread her work in recent years I noticed many of her novels are shrouded in a pall of unease never entirely removed by the neat solution. Christie’s most famous novels, remember, include (Spoilers!) The One Where Everybody Dies, The One Where Everybody’s Guilty, and The One Where the Killer is Your Pal, the Narrator. Some of the Miss Marple novels in particular are practically noir.[3] For all that Christie’s books were the kind of mysteries Raymond Chandler hated, I suspect if Philip Marlowe met Miss Marple they’d exchange knowing nods, each recognizing a kindred spirit who’d also Seen Too Much. Crooked House is another unsettling novel, particularly considered in light of the Donne Test. Christie considered it one of her favorites, which is interesting because here she seems to cast a jaundiced eye over her own literary career.

Crooked House doesn’t star any of Christie’s recurring characters but looks like a typical Christie. The title is taken from a nursery rhyme. The narrator is a statistically average bland detective novel love interest.[4] The ending might be considered a twist in that the killer (who I will soon reveal) is a character most mysteries wouldn’t normally lump in with the suspects. And the grasp of proper police procedures on display here is sketchy. The elderly head of a household has been murdered, apparently by his much younger wife. Narrator Charles Hayward is both the fiancé of the old man’s heir and the son of the Scotland Yard commissioner in charge of the case, which is totally convenient and not a conflict of interest at all.

Charles, naturally, does the amateur detective thing, snooping around and interrogating the family. And at one point he finds himself using the phrase “the fun will start,” and thinks to himself:

What extraordinary things one said! The fun! Why must I choose that particular word?

Well, there’s your question. Charles isn’t the only one having fun. His fiancé’s young sister, 12-year-old Josephine, loves detective stories. She’s been spying on everyone, collecting secrets and writing them down in her notebook, and she knows how this situation is supposed to go:

“I should say it’s about time for the next murder, wouldn’t you?”
“What do you mean—the next murder?”
“Well, in books there’s always a second murder about now. Someone who knows something is bumped off before they can tell what they know.”

And, sure enough, someone unsuccessfully tries to kill Josephine, and later successfully poisons her nanny. And Josephine knew it was coming because she arranged it herself. She killed her grandfather, for entirely childish reasons. Then she sets up her own death trap because she’s read a million detective novels and now, as a newly-fledged author, she knows it’s time to raise the stakes. And she adds another successful murder to make things more exciting, because the nanny’s just a background character, right? You can just kill background characters off. You know, for effect.

It’s impossible not to read Crooked House as Agatha Christie interrogating her own formula, complicating the entertainment we get from her novels, owning their weirdness. It’s a reminder that detective novels fail when they forget murders are tragedies as well as puzzles. At the end Josephine’s dying great-aunt deliberately wrecks her car with Josephine in it and it’s as though Christie is trying to symbolically dispose of the temptation to focus so thoroughly on the puzzle that the people disappear.

Christie was particularly proud of Crooked House; she wrote an introduction explaining that she saved the idea up for years and worked on it extra-carefully. The people who adapt her novels into films and TV shows have not similarly embraced it. According to Crooked House’s Wikipedia page, this is one of only five unfilmed Christie novels–a movie was planned a few years ago, but so far hasn’t gotten off the ground. Maybe they’re afraid the audience would walk away feeling a bit ghoulish.

  1. Christie’s not my favorite; Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and Margery Allingham are all more lively.  ↩

  2. Although I’d argue they exist… think of all the dystopias designed expressly to get knocked down by Very Special teenagers. Or the old Universal horror movies where the monsters were lovable and charismatic and the heroes always got away safe in the end.  ↩

  3. For instance, speaking of the Donne Test, A Pocketful of Rye includes what may be the saddest and most unfair secondary murder of any Christie novel.  ↩

  4. Characters weren’t Christie’s strong suit–she wrote types. This is why Miss Marple is such a great detective–her criminological methodology is entirely about recognizing types which, as a Christie protagonist, she’s surrounded by.  ↩

The Clomping Foot of Orbis Tertius

(Edited to add: oddly, my RSS feed seems to be having trouble with the o-with-an-umlaut character that should go in Tlon. Please excuse the misspelling.)

So… as I said in my last post (oh so long ago now), recently I reread Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” after it turned up on the shortlist for the Retro Hugo awards, juxtaposed with pulpy stories by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Leigh Brackett. Which, I grant, seems incongruous.

It’s possible to argue–I’ve seen arguments made, anyway–that salting a SF shortlist with classic literature is a dubious move. That such a list might simply be grabbing at cultural respectability, poaching a work that came from outside the SF tradition and therefore doesn’t really belong with it. What’s interesting about this argument is that it could just as easily come from people skeptical of genre fiction, or from genre fans who resent “literary” fiction and insist the beloved pulp of their childhoods is just as good as–no, better than–the books their ninth grade English teacher forced them to read. I would refuse to belong to these groups even if they were willing to have me as a member.

Genre is just a tool for describing what fiction is doing. Any interesting fiction does more than one thing, and might be grouped with any number of genres. The people of Tlon assume all books are the work of one all-encompassing author, whose mind they reconstruct by juxtaposing such wildly dissimilar volumes as the Tao Te Ching and the Arabian Nights; we probably shouldn’t go that far. But no laboratory test in existence can establish definitively how much of which genres any book contains. I’d argue that anyone who can come up with an argument (reasonable or not) for putting a particular work in a particular genre should feel free to do so. The only excuses you need are “Does this make for an enjoyable argument?” and “Could putting this story next to these others lead to interesting ideas?”[1]

For those who haven’t read “Tlon,” a summary: the narrator, a fictionalized Borges, hears of an imaginary world, Tlon, referenced only in an article on a nonexistent country appearing in a single bootleg copy of an encyclopedia. Later he discovers a volume from the Encyclopedia of Tlon which gives a more complete picture of Tlon’s radically different worldview.

SF still has a lot to learn for Borges. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” like much of his work, is a story in the form of an essay. You don’t see this much in science fiction or fantasy. I mean, yeah, there aren’t massive quantities of fictional nonfiction in general. But it’s odd that essay-stories don’t turn up much more often in SF, because the format suits SF so well. Some strains of SF just want to build worlds, or speculate about new technologies’ effects on society, and these are too often the ones with clichéd plots and flat characters. Maybe these stories authors’ only cared about (and, incidentally, had the right sort of talents to deal with) the ideas that weren’t related to plot or character… but, not realizing that fiction didn’t have to be conventionally plotted and narrated, they bolted on perfunctory plots and characters about which they felt no real enthusiasm. A lot of golden-age-style engineering problem stories would benefit from being written as fake journal articles. A lot of epic fantasies would be better off as fictional travel writing in the vein of Leena Krohn’s Tainaron or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. Still, not many essay-stories turn up in Best SF collections; in genre the only writer I can think of who embraced the form enthusiastically was Stanislaw Lem, whose A Perfect Vacuum (which includes a nod to Borges) and Imaginary Magnitude collected reviews of, and prefaces to, nonexistent books.

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” uses its essay format to build a world in a small space. Worldbuilding is core to science fiction and fantasy, but it’s often seen as a distraction, an invitation for geeks to vanish down their own navels; M. John Harrison famously called it “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. (For the opposing view, see China Miéville.) “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” leans toward Harrison’s vision of worldbuilding as toxic labyrinth–but more on that later.

I sometimes agree with M. John Harrison, but I think there are different kinds of worldbuilding. One kind, the kind that can seduce a writer into compiling a thousand-page wannabe-Silmarillion recording the undistinguished deeds of indistinguishable gods and heroes, is boring. But I think other kinds are relevant to creating worlds with a sense of life, and characters who seem to live as citizens of those worlds instead of using them as sketchy backdrops for narcissistic protagonisting. One concerns itself with the material conditions of people’s lives–their food, their jobs and pastimes, their plumbing. Another, the kind of worldbuilding Borges is doing here, is concerned with how people in this imagined world think–not so much their surface opinions as the underlying philosophies and fundamental beliefs. What makes them tick.

The Tlonites tick differently. Their worldview resembles the “subjective idealism” proposed by the 18th century philosopher George Berkely: Tlon denies that material reality exists. Instead there are actions and perceptions. Tlon’s languages have no nouns; one is composed entirely of verbs, another of adjectives, which they use to describe objects, which exist only when perceived. Tlon’s geometry insists that a moving person modifies the forms that surround them, its mathematics claims that counting changes an indefinite number into a definite one. In Tlon, ideas make things: the desire to find a lost object, or even the hope to find something previously unknown, can create new objects called hronir. In Tlon science and philosophy are more games than searches for truth. The point is to construct arguments that come to interesting conclusions.

In the final section of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, ostensibly written seven years later, we learn about the secret society that invented Tlon at the behest of a rich American who wanted to prove God wasn’t the only entity who could create worlds, dagnabbit. The Encyclopedia of Tlon, it turns out, exists in its entirety.

Which brings us back to M. John Harrison’s suspicion of worldbuilding. When I looked up that famous “clomping foot of nerdism” quotation I was struck by a passage that seemed to resonate with Borges’s story:

It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

The Orbis Tertius group releases the entire Encyclopedia of Tlon into the wild, along with a handful of artifacts apparently from Tlon. Now Tlon is everywhere, more inescapable than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The public devours Tlon’s history, adopts Tlon’s culture. Schools teach Tlon’s languages. It’s what everyone on the internet is writing inane thinkpieces about. Everybody loves Tlon because Tlon is simple. Bizarre, yes. But Tlon is the product of human minds, so can be completely contained in and comprehended by human minds–unlike the infinite, complex, accidental, ultimately unknowable real universe that produced the minds that produced Tlon. In a few years, Borges speculates, the world will be Tlon.

So, worldbuilding. What’s it for? Potentially lots of things. I think a lot of them are good. Worldbuilding can create just the right environment to make a story work. Stories of other worlds can show readers other possibilities, good and bad; other ways of thinking or arranging societies. I’m even sympathetic to worldbuilding as consolation, providing imaginary places to daydream about. If occasional escapism helps someone exist in the world, I’m not one to sneer. (There’s a Lynda Barry quotation that turns up a lot on the internet: “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”)

But in these worlds some people find consolation of another, stupider kind. Science fiction and fantasy, the genres most concerned with worldbuilding, are beloved of geek culture, which in the 21st century is mainstream culture. (See: Marvel Cinematic Universe, inescapableness of.) See, geek culture has this pathology–well, geek culture has several pathologies, but this essay is concerned with just one. Geek culture has a habit of relating to its favorite fictions, especially franchises and expanded universes, through a kind of obsessive collector mentality. Not collecting things, collecting facts–fictional facts, at least. Memorizing every detail of the history of Middle Earth, knowing exactly which issue of X-Men each character was introduced in, remembering the name and personal history of every alien in the Star Wars cantina.

Which sounds harmless, but leads to so many annoyances. Like, any discussion involving a pop culture phenomenon, something like Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes, stands a nonzero chance of getting derailed by obsessives arguing over canon: which fictional facts fit with all the other fictional facts, and which have to be thrown out? I’m usually the first to argue that any critical approach can lead to an interesting conversation regardless of how generous you have to be to describe it as a “critical approach,” but even I must admit this stuff is tedious.

What’s worse are the geeks who form in-groups based on obsessive cataloguing, and resentfully police their boundaries with trivia. You’re not a proper fan unless you’ve read all the right science fiction novels,[2] or agree that the animated Star Trek series isn’t canon, or like the right version of Doctor Who. Women in particular seemingly can’t show interest in geek culture things without being quizzed on trivialities by tedious nerds hoping to expose “fake geek girls.”

And then there’s the way any remake, addition, or slight change to any media franchise brings man-children crawling out from under their rocks crying that their childhoods are being ruined.[3] And we have to put up with this nonsense constantly, because the studios that control 90% of American pop culture have run out of ideas and produce nothing but remakes, additions, and slight changes to franchises. As I write this the internet is up in arms because what appears to be a perfectly inoffensive remake of Ghostbusters happens to star women. It’s exactly as tiresome as turning on the radio and hearing the overplayed single you’re most sick of.

So why does this subset of geekdom treat exhaustive surveys of places that aren’t there with a seriousness normally reserved for nuclear nonproliferation treaties? Why the pathetic overreactions?

You might as well ask why everybody in Borges’s world is obsessed with Tlon. Exhaustively surveying a place that isn’t there is exactly the kind of worldbuilding Orbis Tertius does. As M. John Harrison notes, a literally exhaustive survey of the world would be too big for anyone to comprehend in its entirety. Reality contradicts itself, and it keeps changing–tripping people up with new facts. And, let’s face it, reality has terrible continuity. Like, the characters in the “United States” spinoff are supposed to be incredibly afraid of terrorism, but nobody does anything about the mass shootings happening every other day. What sense does that make? Something here isn’t canon! And then there’s that “quantum mechanics” business, which the writers are obviously making up as they go along. And don’t get me started on the way they keep randomly killing off major characters!

Tlon is orderly. Tlon can be catalogued, managed. Tlon can be mastered. The real world is confusing, but with Tlon the fans can feel like they’re in control… At least until Orbis Tertius decides to rewrite Tlon. Or add some new characters. Or remake it with a non-nerd-approved cast. That’s when the panic sets in.[4] The fans, tripped up by new facts, this formerly managable system out of their control, have to face the fact that they’re not masters of anything at all.

Borges identifies the impulse that drives people to Tlon–the desire to simplify and tame the universe–with the impulse that drove people to fascism and totalitarianism. When I look at the grimier edges of nerd culture I’m not sure he’s wrong. Note, again, how much of the behavior I’m describing is bound up with defining and expelling out-groups, and with sexism in particular–whining when the SF canon lets in authors from marginalized groups, refusing to accept the new, diverse characters added to their treasured franchises. There’s some irony in the fact that science fiction, a genre full of stories about opening minds, discovering new things, and accepting the alien, has fans terrified of the new and different in real life… but fictional difference and novelty are under control, and that’s how they like it. Imagine a nerd foot clomping on a human face–forever.

I have no solution for any of this. Neither does Borges in his story; he just does his best to take no notice. Maybe he has the right idea. There are styles of worldbuilding that don’t pander to obsessives and can handle glitches with grace; there are fictional worlds where two planets can have the same name and Atlantis can sink three times without falling apart.[5] Let the Tlonist geeks freak out whenever their authority over trivialities is challenged; I’ll be over here, actually enjoying myself. Only… maybe they could freak out where I don’t have to listen to them?

  1. Incidentally, the first place I read “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was in an anthology called The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which I read when I was young and just recently interested in SF. Like many older anthologies it had a serious gender imbalance–there were more women it could have included, if the editors had worked harder to find them–but within its limits it was a great anthology. It had lots of translated stories, some by writers I’ve never read elsewhere, and brought writers like Sheckly, Le Guin, and Bradbury together with writers like Borges and Boris Vian.  ↩

  2. Some SF fans will tell you proper SF fans should be conversant with the works of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, which is like insisting that anyone interested in English literature absolutely must read Samuel Richardson.  ↩

  3. Invariably followed by a flood of superfluous online thinkpieces noting that, hey, man-children are crying, what’s up with that?  ↩

  4. Although continuity can be rewritten in the service of Tlonism, too. The last thirty years of DC Comics constitute an endless series of increasingly baroque and preposterous attempts to force their entire line into internal consistency.  ↩

  5. My favorite media franchise, Doctor Who, has over the years has gone off in any number of mutually contradictory directions. I might get annoyed when one particular strand of Doctor Who seems to be playing narrative Calvinball, but I don’t lose sleep over the fact that different strands of the series have featured two different versions of Human Nature with two different Doctors and two different political slants. This is a show that had an episode where the Doctor had to defeat somebody wanting to set Earth’s canon in stone to better catalogue it. And yet Doctor Who fans still have arguments about canon!  ↩

Reasons for a Shortlist

(Edited to add: oddly, my RSS feed seems to be having trouble with the o-with-an-umlaut character that should go in Tlon. Please excuse the misspelling.)

Every so often the science fiction convention that runs the Hugo Awards also takes nominations for “Retro Hugos,” a Hugo Award for science fiction and fantasy works published in years before the Hugos existed. Which is great, because there’s something peculiarly appropriate about a science fiction award that retcons itself.

Anyway, this year the Hugo Awards are running Retro Hugos for 1940, and I was amused to see the lineup for Best Short Story:

  • “Martian Quest” by Leigh Brackett (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Feb 1940)
  • “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding Science‐Fiction, Jan 1940)
  • “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov (Super Science Stories, Sept 1940)
  • “The Stellar Legion” by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, Winter 1940)
  • “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges (Sur, 1940)

One of these things is not like the others. And yet this list isn’t as strange as it seems: for all that Asimov and Borges come to this shortlist from different literary worlds, any definition of fantastic fiction that can’t encompass the works of both authors is, I think, incomplete.

On the other hand, there’s a definite difference in quality here. I was tickled enough by this shortlist that I’d thought of rereading and reviewing all the stories, but it turned out to be a dispiriting experience. The two Leigh Brackett stories are perfunctory dramas built on pulp fiction tropes old-fashioned even for 1940. “Robbie” reads like an outline for the sort of treacly animated short I’d imagine coming out of a studio with the desire, but not the talent or the budget, to compete with Chuck Jones’s “Sniffles the Mouse” cartoons. When “Requiem” turned out to be unavailable from both the public library and my personal book collection I decided not to spend time or money tracking it down; a review I found suggested it wasn’t better than my vague memories of it, anyway.

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was, of course, still amazing, and I’m going to ramble about it a bit in a second post. But the exercise left me wondering: what are the Retro Hugos for?

That question is not rhetorical or sarcastic. I honestly think it’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. I’m writing as an outside observer of the Hugo Awards, which are primarily nominated and voted on by the part of SF fandom that organizes and attends SF conventions. As an extreme introvert who counts any day in which I don’t have to leave the house as a success, this is very much not my thing. So I may have ideas about what SF’s most well-publicized award ought to be for[1], but I’m not particularly qualified to lecture the Hugo voters about them.

I’m definitely qualified to look at what they’re doing bemusedly, though, so let’s get on with it. It’s obvious what the regular Hugos are for: they’re supposed to honor the best SF work from the previous year. Not all the voters have the same standards for “best,” but (assuming no one is deliberately nominating crap to spoil other people’s fun) everybody agrees on the actual goal. But there’s more than one perspective from which to judge stories with 75 years of historical distance. What does “best,” mean in this context? In other words, what is this award measuring? I can think of three reasons someone might nominate stories for Retro Hugos, none mutually exclusive.

Historical reconstruction: Stories that, at least as far as anyone can tell, fans would have nominated at the time. This could be why the Leigh Brackett stories were nominated, as well as Heinlein’s “Requiem.” On the other hand, I can’t imagine many SF fans at the time would have been aware of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and I’m not convinced the aggressively twee “Robbie” would have been a popular choice. Also, looking at the whole Retro Hugo ballot, there’s a lot of Heinlein there: out of the fifteen slots under Short Story, Novella, and Novelette, Heinlein took six. And the other two slots under Novella were taken by two stories in the same series by the same authors, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, just as two Short Story slots went to Leigh Brackett. This is unusual–Hugo shortlists rarely have more than one story by the same author in the same category. The amount of repetition on the ballot suggests we don’t remember enough SF from 1940 for today’s voters to guess what fans might have nominated at the time.

Historical significance: Stories that were important to the development of the SF genre. This is probably how “Robbie” found its way onto the ballot. It’s not good, but it was the first story Isaac Asimov published in the Robot series that made him famous. This might also be one reason for “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Borges wouldn’t have been on SF readers’ radar at the time, but he’s influenced a lot of writers. And Leigh Brackett is still remembered (especially for her script work) even if these specific stories aren’t very good. But the Heinlein story is just another Heinlein story, of no special importance. The same could be said of the Heinlein stories in the other categories.[2]

Actual quality: Stories that today’s readers, with 75 years of perspective, believe deserved an award on their own merits. This is, again, a good reason to nominate “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” It’s not a reason to nominate anything else on this shortlist. Or, indeed, a lot of other things on the Retro Hugo ballot: most of the stories on that list haven’t aged well.

What’s interesting about the Retro Hugos is that the voters apparently nominated stories for all of those reasons at different times. Some of these stories are on the ballot because they’re significant, some because they’re examples of SF that was popular at the time, and some because 75 years later we still read them with pleasure. All of these are perfectly good criteria, but based on the results there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on which criteria to follow.

This does mean that the Retro Hugos aren’t quite suitable for any specific purpose. If you want a snapshot of what was popular with science fiction fans in 1940, you’re going to want to look at a subset of the list. If you want to know what SF stories from 1940 are of historical interest, you want a different, overlapping, subset. If you want to read some of the actual best fantastic stories of 1940, you want another, much smaller subset. And probably some stories that aren’t even on this list.

On the other hand, the scattershot approach does produce the kind of list where Jorge Luis Borges can rub shoulders with unabashed pulp hackwork and a cornball robot story. Maybe a juxtaposition that weird is valuable in itself.

  1. Basically I wish they were more adventurous; even when they’re not being distorted by right-wing write-in campaigns, they tend to feature a certain amount of work that’s competent but not truly outstanding.  ↩

  2. The most historically significant work in any category is “A Wild Hare” under Best Dramatic Presentation (Short). This is the cartoon that introduced Bugs Bunny.  ↩

Recent Reading, Unfinished and Ambivalent

I’ve read a lot of books in recent months that I didn’t finish, or felt ambivalent about. I have notes on a few of them.

Will Elliott, The Pilgrims

This is a portal fantasy with a pair of protagonists. The first protagonist is a loser. He finds a door–a literal door–to another world, and it’s the greatest thing to happen to him in, like, ever; he fully expects that in this new world he’ll be a hero. Rather uniquely, the novel realizes he’s an idiot. He does end up touched by Mysterious Powers but his homeless friend, protagonist number two, is the one who’ll probably have something closer to a traditional hero role. This novel is trying to deconstruct stories about schlubs who travel to another world and discover their inner strength. I have a soft spot for this genre, but I still enthusiastically agree it needs deconstruction.

Unfortunately The Pilgrims never arrives where it’s going because it’s the first volume in another damn trilogy that ends on another damn cliffhanger. As usual for the first and second books of trilogies, it feels like mostly padding.

Actually, the padding is interesting to think about, if not to read. I’ve noticed some epic fantasies set lots of action in what you might call “Adventure Land.” Vague fields, forests, or mountains where nothing happens apart from bands of adventurers travelling through having what Dungeons and Dragons calls “encounters.” There’s no evidence that Adventure Land belongs to anyone, or is used for anything, unless it’s been set aside as a park. If so, fantasyland has a very extensive national park system; Teddy Roosevelt would be proud. There might be roads in Adventure Land but these novels rarely mention farms. (Civilizations need agriculture; I’d expect most cities to be surrounded by farms.) There might be a ruin, if the novel is especially D&D-ish. Usually the only inhabitants of Adventure Land are monsters. Or bandits. Or inexplicably self-sufficient cottages which if the protagonist is lucky are owned by helpful allies, and if unlucky by Tom Bombadil.

A lot of The Pilgrims takes place in Adventure Land. It’s specifically mentioned that farming is taking place under a dome. Beyond that, there’s a city, and a castle, and the rest of the land is… I dunno. I’ve got to admit, by the midpoint of the novel I was picturing the characters tramping across a giant lawn.

Graydon Saunders, The March North

Saunders writes SF like John M. Ford did: leaning heavily on incluing for explanations, feeding you only just enough context to deduce the world, the backstory, and the underlying meaning of what’s happening. I find that Ford stays just on the right side of gnomic. For me, Saunders crossed the line into obtuse. This may be partly because The March North is military fantasy, which is not usually my thing. There’s a lot of military jargon and maneuvering and it’s hard to tell how much is relevant, or in what way. The characters spend long passages exchanging technobabble about magic artillery. On the positive side of the ledger, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. On the negative side, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. It’s not particularly interesting, and it’s never clear why it’s relevant.

The characters are mostly ciphers; salient facts about the narrator’s identity and background aren’t made clear for a while, and the soldiers might as well be a formless mass labeled “soldiers.” When a good chunk of them die it’s about as affecting as seeing barrels get smashed in a video game.

There’s a second book set in the same world that doesn’t share the same setup or characters as this one. It might have been better if I’d read that first; maybe I’ll try it someday.

Marta Randall, Journey

Marta Randall’s prose is good so at first this seemed promising. I soon discovered this is a book where it’s considered acceptable for a guy to own an entire inhabited planet and treat the natives as servants. I checked some of the later chapters and didn’t see any suggestion that at any point the novel questioned this. 1978 seems late for something like this to be published.

There’s also some lack of acknowledgement of how big planets are. Like, 200 refugees come to this planet owned by a single family, and the wife wants to make it clear the refugees don’t own the land they’re living on. Because—setting aside the natives, which is, let us admit, a pretty massive thing to set aside—an entire planet inhabited by 200 people is facing a serious land shortage, right?

A. L. Kennedy, the Drosten’s Curse

The Drosten’s Curse is a Doctor Who tie-in starring the fourth Doctor. It’s an expansion of one of the Time Trips novella ebooks the BBC published a couple years ago.

At first the prose style seemed a little strange. The Drosten’s Curse uses a lot of ellipses and run-on sentences. But it felt right, somehow. Eventually it hit me: the prose is a pretty accurate replica of the way Tom Baker talked when he played the Doctor. The narrative voice of The Drosten’s Curse is the fourth Doctor as a Douglas Adames-esque third person omniscient narrator. That’s a smart choice, and appropriate: the novel takes the same whimsical tone as that one year during Tom Baker’s tenure that Adams worked on the program.

Unfortunately, after a while the novel starts to drag. There’s just too much happening, and too much of it feels random. And it may be that the fourth Doctor’s voice only works as prose in smaller doses.

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories

Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories is the book for anyone who’s interested in epic fantasy but put off by series that seem approximately the size of Borges’s Library of Babel. It’s got revolutions and religious wars and political scheming and cursed monsters and a warrior woman riding a giant bird, all in one volume.

(It’s set in the same world as her earlier A Stranger in Olondria. But you don’t have to have read that book to read this one. But you should!)

Cover of The Winged Histories

Olondria is in a bit of a state. Kestenya, one of the provinces, is rebelling. Believers in Olondria’s old religion are fighting the new official religion that tried to suppress them. The Winged Histories views Oldondria’s civil war through four narrators–Tavis, who flees her shabby-genteel family to become a soldier, Tialon, the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, Seren, Tavis’s nomadic lover, and Siski, Tavis’s more conventional sister. All four are given individual voices and storytelling styles and points of view. The writing is, as in Samatar’s earlier novel, beautiful; it doesn’t just tell us what her characters feel, it conveys what feeling those things feels like to them.

For me, The Winged Histories is likely to be the best fantasy novel of the year. The problem with reviewing a novel that good after a first reading is that it can be hard to explain what made it so good. It’s easier to step back and analyze the books I’m less caught up in. I’m reduced to waving at it and saying “look at that,” and I’m not sure what to wave at first. Although doesn’t it say something that there are multiple waving-targets to choose from? So many fantasy novels just tell a story and leave it at that; once you’ve closed the last volume there’s no reason to think about it again. The Winged Histories is full of ideas.

Maybe history? Because this is a book about history. I will acknowledge that in some fantasy novels historical exposition can be a bad sign. The Winged Histories isn’t that kind of book. The problems with fantasy history come up when novels infodump a load of ancient creation myths explaining where the generic Evil Forces came from and what Mighty Plot Coupon the hero needs to make them go away. The Winged Histories is about history, and brief passages from Olondria’s official history actually appear in the novel, but it’s the kind of history people feel things about. The Winged Histories is about history that affects its characters’ lives and material realities. It matters to Tavis and Siski that Kestenya, their home, is part of Olondria, and that once it wasn’t. It makes a difference in their lives that their family has ties to Olondria’s rulers–their cousin Dasya is an heir to the throne–that, correctly exploited, could make their family important again.

Tavis is not, at first, concerned with history. She joins the army just because she wants to be a soldier. We get her limited view of the border skirmishes that keep the army busy on the edge of Kestenya. Who is she fighting, and why? She’s not totally sure. She starts to think maybe it’s not good that she’s not sure. Maybe, if she’s going to risk her life, she should risk it for Kestenya. The history of Olondria is placed between the narrators’ sections, so we don’t get exposition until we’ve gotten to know Tavis, and she’s started caring about history, and so by that point we care about Olondria’s history, too.

The historical sections are titled “From Our Common History.” There’s an understanding here–often elided in fantasy–that history is told from a certain point of view, that histories choose certain facts to present, leaving others out. Even objective, honest histories–there’s a lot of information out there, too much for any one history to hold. That’s why there’s always room for new histories of events we’ve studied for centuries: there’s always more to tell.

Tavis, Seren, and Siski are family. Tialon seems the odd one out in this novel; she doesn’t personally know any of them, though she meets Dasya and she also has a connection to A Stranger in Olondria, having appeared in that book. Tialon has spent her life in a tower with her father, the Priest of the Stone. The Stone is literally a big rock, covered in criss-crossing carvings, that serves as his holy book. Tialon is an insider and an outsider: she’s watching a family she has no connection to from a center of power she’s never had the chance to leave.

The Stone, it turns out, has a lot more writing on it than the Priest wanted translated. A lot of people wrote a lot of different lines on this rock. Some of it sounds religious, some more mundane. The Priest calls the extra lines “Orphans” after a line he found on the Stone cursing “these orphans darkening my path.” He’s decided they’re just graffiti some punks scraped into his holy artifact although, as one scholar points out, some of the mundane lines might sound profound when taken metaphorically. The thing is, it’s entirely up to the Priest which lines are the voice of his god and which are Orphans. The Stone is a grab bag from which the Priest picked the lines that told the story he wanted to tell. Yet in his mind he isn’t that story’s author: it came from the Stone.

But by picking out the lines he wants and suppressing the others, he’s not getting the complete story. The texts on the stone are woven into and written through each other, all part of the same artifact. Tialon realizes that people, too, are “written into each other.” She doesn’t know Tavis, Siski, or Seren, but their choices affect her life, and, whether they ever realize it or not, choices Tialon makes affect theirs. Lives coexist and cross over; people are context for each other. Even people who don’t know or think anything about each other (that “orphans” line was, after all, probably referring to actual orphans).

Historical infodumps tend not to work in generic epic fantasy, but that isn’t because fantasy history is an inherently bad idea–it’s that less accomplished fantasies don’t understand history as The Winged Histories does. History isn’t important because it’s full of mysteriously accurate prophecies, or because it contains instructions for defeating the Sauron of the Month. It’s important because it’s the context for people’s lives.