Stanislaw Lem, The Invincible

There are two Stanislaw Lems. I’m a big fan of the playful satirist who wrote The Cyberiad and A Perfect Vacuum. The hard science fiction writer, not so much. Not that Lem couldn’t write brilliantly in that mode–Solaris really is a classic–but his track record wasn’t as good.

For the longest time the only version of Solaris in English was a translation of a translation. A few years ago an ebook of a new, direct translation was released. More recently I came across another new Lem translation of The Invincible, which I’d never read.

Cover of The Invincible

The Invincible is Lem in Hard SF mode. It’s very much not Solaris. In fact, of all the Stanislaw Lem novels I’ve read this is the weakest. Lem was famously unimpressed by American science fiction but reading The Invincible it’s hard to understand why. It underachieves in exactly the same way as most “golden age” American SF.

The Invincible’s prose is nothing more than functional. It’s so straightforward it’s a slog to read. That might seem contradictory, but the difference between functional prose and good prose is the difference between a monotonous drone and a song. What’s more fun to listen to: a Beatles album, or your refrigerator? The Invincible is the refrigerator.

It’s hard to tell whether this is more the fault of Lem or his translator. Lem was usually lucky with his translators,[1] but The Invincible often felt off. For instance, at one point the text refers to “shadowless lamps” where Lem probably meant they didn’t have lampshades.

But never mind the prose–Hard SF fans will tell you the ideas are the star! This argument has problems.

First, if described badly enough even the most fascinating ideas can be boring. The Invincible’s opening sets the tone. Before any of the characters even wake up it spends 500 words narrating a starship’s automatic processes, and we’re halfway through the first chapter before we get any dialogue that isn’t tech jargon like “Full axis power. Static thrust.” This novel cares more about things than people.

We’re told 83 men are on board.[2] That statistic is hard to recall. There might just as easily be 47 men, or a dozen, because they have no personalities or distinguishing features, as even the text acknowledges:

It was baffling, because both men were entirely indistinguishable from the others in their clothing, weaponry, and appearance.

Most of the crew don’t have full names and it’s impossible to remember what surname belongs to who, or which characters we’ve seen before, or when, or where. The Invincible feels like a sketch comedy where all the characters are played by the same two or three people.

Some, again, would argue that The Invincible is the kind of book where the ideas are more important than the characters. But the main advantage a novel of ideas has over a nonfiction book is that it can bounce its concepts and themes off of idiosyncratic characters, with their own concerns and opinions, who will send those ideas in unexpected and strange directions. If the characters are flat, the ideas probably won’t bounce far.

Most of The Invincible consists of long dry descriptions of the crew’s investigation of a planet. Their activities sometimes seem to have equal emphasis regardless of whether they lead to any interesting discoveries. Following one methodical search of what appears to be a ruined city:

Rohan contacted the Invincible, informed the commander of what they had learned—which was essentially nothing

Oh. Okay, then.

Lem built The Invincible around ideas that were, for 1960s science fiction, ahead of their time. The planet is inhabited by self-organizing, self-replicating nanites which aren’t truly conscious but display pseudo-intelligent behavior as an emergent phenomenon. Most of the genre didn’t pick up on concepts like this for a couple of decades. But The Invincible doesn’t do anything with them besides argue that the universe is rather complex and incomprehensible, a theme Lem handled better in other books. “Here are some ideas!” says The Invincible. “I’ll just leave them here. My work is done.”

Which is a problem, because, well, the rest of the genre eventually did pick up on emergence and nanotechnology, and did find more interesting things to do with them. Heck, Doctor Who has done more interesting things with them. That’s the other problem with science fiction that only exists to drop a few ideas: science fictional ideas have a sell-by date. Once a SF novel is conceptually past its time it needs to give us some other reason to keep reading it. The Invincible didn’t manage that.

  1. Michael Kandel in particular is brilliant. Lem’s more playful works include wordplay that sounds completely natural in Kandel’s English but must have been hell to translate.  ↩

  2. Literally all men, which only serves to make the crew even more bland and indistinguishable. ↩

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria

I haven’t posted to this blog in ages. I want to start writing again about the books I read: I don’t feel like I’ve been thinking about any of them as much as I should, and as a result I’ve increasingly gone for books with less in them to think about. Writing blog posts helps me get my thoughts in order.

I’m out of practice again and I expect for some time my writing will be terrible. One reason I haven’t blogged in a while is that everything I wrote seemed clumsy and pompous. Maybe before I can write well again I’ll just have to work through a clumsy pompous phase.

I’ll start by finishing book reviews I left half-written months ago. Like this one:

Coverof A Stranger in Olondria

Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria was the best fantasy novel I read in 2014, and maybe the best fantasy novel of 2013, period. It’s among a few books that restored my interest in SF and fantasy at a time when I’d nearly given up on the genres.

Stranger is a secondary-world fantasy about Jevick of Tyom, a young merchant who travels to a foreign country whose language and literature he loves. When the ghost of a fellow islander turns up to dictate her memoirs he’s caught between two religious factions with different ideas about people who can speak with ghosts, and discovers how little he knows the place.

I’ve seen reviews of Stranger complain the early chapters aren’t heavy on plot. This isn’t wrong, but it misses the point: Stranger just isn’t doing what these reviewers expected. The first couple of chapters are first-person immersive fantasy written as memoir, and you might expect that approach to continue through the end of the book, but this novel isn’t satisfied with a single genre or voice. Here’s a paragraph from the chapter when Jevick first sees the Olondrian city of Bain:

I loved the book markets under the swinging trees, the vast array of books on tables, in boxes, stacked on the ground, and the grand old villas converted into bookshops. I loved the Old City also, which is called the “Quarter of Sighs,” with its barred windows and brooding fortified towers, and I loved to watch the canal winding below the streets and bridges and the stealthy boats among the shadows of trees.

This is literary travel writing about an imaginary place. Jevick builds an impressionistic portrait of Bain from the specific details a charmed foreign tourist would notice, “selling” Bain to the reader as in a travel article. Later Jevick wakes after a wild night and sees only Bain’s tawdry side, the opposite of the details he noticed before. When the haunting begins Stranger conveys Jevick’s confusion with fragmented present tense excerpts from his diary. Stranger is an anthology of different kinds of fantasy writing, slipping into whatever style suits the story in that moment.

At the time I read it this was just what I needed. See, SF fandom has this obsession with “transparent prose.” Prose, in this theory, is a clear, clean window through which the reader “sees” a story. The text disappears; the content flows pure and undistorted from the writer’s brain to the reader’s. Which makes no sense, because the prose is what the content is made of. I like good straightforward prose, but most “transparent prose” novels are devoid of personality or voice. They erase their narrators and points of view, posing as stories told by nobody. I’ve given up on popular, much-recommended SF and fantasy novels because they read like neutral Wikipedia summaries of themselves. A Stranger in Olondria restored my enthusiasm for the genres by moving through several styles of writing and doing them all brilliantly.

Those same reviews seemed to feel that Stranger picked up halfway through, and I think that’s because after Olondria’s religious squabbles ensnare Jevick his story enters more familiar territory, resembling the quest fantasies whose heroes learn their world (and teach it to the readers) by traveling it. Jevick gets one take on Olondria from its religious authorities, and another from the cultists interested in his newfound abilities as a medium, and the people and places he encounters as he travels deepen and complicate both sides of the argument. Stranger travels through other genres along the way–history, folktales, poetry. The climax of the novel is the story of Jissavet, Jevick’s ghost. Jevick and Jissavet both write memoirs but their voices are nothing alike. This is partly characterization but also partly structural: Jissavet speaks extemporaneously. She orders her story thematically as well as chronologically, letting one memory remind her of another as people do when recollecting aloud.

It’s a book about books that itself samples many kinds of books. And in saying that I may have just put some people off. Since the audience for novels inevitably consists of people who love books, it’s tempting for stories about books to get overly sentimental. Books change readers’ lives, dude; create worlds in which they escape their miseries. These stories ascribe near-magical powers and omniscient wisdom to our favorite pulped-wood products, sometimes flat-out declaring that books are better than people. I’ve felt this myself sometimes; that’s probably true of anybody who loves books.

A Stranger in Olondria is a novel, so you know it’s going to come down on the pro-book side. But the story it tells is more complicated. Jevick’s books haven’t fully prepared him for life and his story is partly about learning to love them wisely. I won’t get too far into this topic; there’s a review at Asking the Wrong Questions that goes deeper than I can manage. But Stranger’s argument for the value of literacy is more specific and more interesting than most “Books Rule!” stories.

One of the few books I managed to review in the last couple of years was Barbara Hanawalt’s The Ties That Bound, a social history of medieval British peasant communities. Hanawalt resorted to combing through accident reports to reconstruct these peoples’ lives. There aren’t many primary sources on medieval peasants; they weren’t always literate and didn’t leave many letters or diaries. Their families knew their stories, and maybe passed them down for a few generations, but it’s hard to get the wider world to care about great-grandpa William’s misadventure with the haywain. So the pre-mass-literacy Europeans we know best are the upper classes, those famous and influential enough to be written about. The closer you get to the present the less true that is. The spread of mass literacy meant that more and more people, and more and more kinds of people, sent letters and kept diaries. Our view of 13th-century peasants is almost entirely from the outside, but we can learn more about the point of view of, for example, 19th-century mill workers.

What’s most relevant to Stranger is that literacy doesn’t just preserve the voices of people overlooked by history. It preserves the voices of people no one, even their peers, thought worth listening to in the first place. The stories that survive through oral tradition do so because a community actively chose to pass them along, and the criteria it uses to make those choices aren’t necessarily good. Every family has relatives they don’t talk about and every community has people they’ve decided don’t matter. Jissavet is desperate for Jevick to write her book because the illness she died of made her an outcast. In life no one would listen to her. And maybe no one wants to listen to her now, but writing, unlike speech, can survive without anyone actively paying attention. Barring accident or active censorship, the words will still be there if and when someone wants to listen.

When Jevick returns home, he decides to become a kind of teacher called a tchavi. Traditionally these teachers lived on mountains, making prospective students struggle to reach them like gurus out of New Yorker cartoons. Jevick instead comes into town, teaching anyone who wants to write.

Books are as close as we can get to long-distance mind-to-mind communication. They fulfill their potential when they give minds of all kinds the chance to connect. And writing can communicate across time: if no one wants to hear it now, it will (assuming at least one copy survives) still be waiting, unchanged, for a more receptive audience.

Your Best SF List is Terrible

I like fantasy and SF, as you can probably tell from this blog, but this article that recently appeared in the New Statesman is right: most “best” or “most important” SF/fantasy lists are terrible.

The biggest problem with the fantasy and SF genres is that their critical canon formed around what fans liked when they were twelve. And much of fandom’s tastes never matured beyond that. When someone curious about SF asks for recommendations I cringe, because I know I’m going to see fans jump in to push the Foundation trilogy, or Heinlein’s YA novels, as though any adult would want to read them. If the golden age of SF is twelve, that’s because hardcore fans keep pushing books that would appeal only to twelve-year-olds.

Not that there aren’t enough genuinely good SF novels to fill a real top 100 list… but in a lot of cases online fandom doesn’t seem to remember they exist. Earlier this year I read Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre. At the time it came out it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards. It’s a great book (once I get my blog going again–it’ll happen someday soon, I swear–I ought to review it) and obviously a major work. But it was out of print for years, and even now is only available as an ebook, and no one talks about it at all.

Lately SF circles have been having a recurring conversation about the improbable maleness of the SF canon. Lists of the best or most important SF often default to a few well-known mid–20th-century male writers–Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, etc.–many of whom were never worth reading in the first place, let alone fifty or sixty years after their time. (Yeah, Foundation was influential once, but there’s no reason for a SF fan to read it now any more than a student of English literature needs to read The Castle of Otranto.) These are the only writers the list-makers have heard of, so they’re the only writers who appear in these lists, so they’re the only writers later list-makers have heard of. It’s a vicious cycle.

But canons aren’t fixed. Ask anyone to name the greatest American novel and chances are they’ll nominate Moby Dick. But Moby Dick flopped when it was new and didn’t find its audience until the 1920s. The SF canon, after 50 years of critical reappraisals, is going to look different, too. I wish I had a time machine so I could see how it looks.

Recent Reading

I have several half-finished book reviews sitting on my hard drive, all of books I liked quite a bit. They’re unfinished partly because my attention span for writing hasn’t been great, but mostly because of impostor syndrome: I’m having a hard time convincing myself these potential posts say anything intelligent or interesting. Since I ought to be getting some practice in, I’ve written a few paragraphs on books about which I have much less to say:

Agatha Christie, Appointment With Death and Murder in Mesopotamia

Christie’s second husband was an archaeologist and she often accompanied him on digs. Occasionally she worked her archaeological experience into her novels by sending Hercule Poirot off to stumble on murders in random middle eastern countries. She didn’t use nearly enough of her experience for my taste–for all that she knew her stuff, the settings of these novels read like a generic archaeological dig and foreign tourist site and could have been set anywhere in the world.

Trevor Baxendale, Fear of the Dark

This Doctor Who tie-in novel was first published in the years before the current series began. At the time BBC Books published one or two Doctor Who novels every month. I skipped this one at the time because Trevor Baxendale’s novels were always terrible. This one is a short story’s worth of secondhand ideas padded out to a 300 page novel. Here we have all the laziest clichés of late 1990s-early 2000s Doctor Who: Grimdark cynicism. Corporate space marines. Incessant deaths (all so grotesque I’m surprised the BBC republished this book in this more family-friendly era). An alien planet in the far future inhabited by people who talk and think like they’re from 20th century London (and who include, between a starship crew and a mining expedition, exactly one woman). A half-assed monster that is literally called “The Dark” and does evil things because it’s evil.

There used to be a Doctor Who novel just like this almost every month. So much nostalgia. I almost enjoyed it.

Various authors, “Time Trips”

The BBC has been releasing Doctor Who novellas as ebooks under the name “Time Trips.” They’re all very weird.

“Into the Nowhere” is about a planet of traps and walking skeletons controlled by a grotesque nerd caricature who turns out to be guarding all the knowledge in the universe, man, which manifests as the tree from the Garden of Eden because it pulled the image from Clara’s mind. The Doctor, while bleeding from his palms, tells Clara not to eat the metaphorical apple because “the entropic chronicle of perpetuity” would depress her.

“The Death Pit” is a fourth Doctor adventure on a golf course with a deadly alien sand trap. It’s perhaps trying just a little too hard to be Douglas Adams, but it’s charming and at times genuinely funny.

“Keeping Up With the Joneses” is about a sentient time war weapon that turns the interior of the TARDIS into a temporally indeterminate English village with occasional giant monsters. The strangest thing in the book is that the owner of the bed and breakfast is patterned after Lady Christina from “Planet of the Dead,” for all the world as though the Doctor might have had her on his mind. Or even remembered her at all. (When I wrote this review for a post on a mailing list I had to Google the episode to remember her name.)

These novellas are the product of writers who are doing their own thing rather than delivering a “standard” Doctor Who story. That’s fine by me regardless of the quality of the results (not that these three are bad). We have all the standardized, formulaic Doctor Who stories we need at this point.

Avram Davidson, Masters of the Maze

Like a lot of SF, this is the story of a young man discovering he has a hidden destiny and saving the world from an alien invasion. Because Avram Davidson wrote it, it is much better than that description makes it sound. Also much weirder. There’s an other-dimensional maze that runs all across space and time. At the center the hero has a philosophical discussion with Lao-Tze, Apollonius of Tyana, and Benjamin Bathurst. A villainous John Birch Society-type teams up with the aliens to take over the United States, cut taxes, destroy the welfare state, and outlaw milk pasteurization; he has the idea that he might then use them as contract labor to keep wages down. We get chapters from the point of view of the aliens themselves, humanoids who live and think like hive insects. Plus Ambrose Bierce turns up. It’s all as well written as you’d expect from Davidson. The most significant flaw is a lack of important female characters, but that’s sadly common with older SF.

David Edison, The Waking Engine

Portal fantasies have been out of style for a while but I’ve seen a few new ones lately. This is one of them, as well as an afterlife fantasy–the idea is that when you die you’re serially reborn on a series of China Miévillesque worlds until you finally reach the place that offers True Death.

I found this novel paradoxically both too weird and not weird enough. Too weird because the afterlife world seems like a collection of grotesque and baroque images that give very little idea of how people in this world would actually live their day-to-day lives. Not weird enough because the hero is almost as bland as an everyman can get. It was several chapters before I even had an idea of what he looked like, or what he was wearing. (The book described him lying down after work and waking up dead; I assumed he was wearing a suit and had to rapidly readjust my assumptions when the book mentioned a heavy metal t-shirt.)

The Waking Engine also suffers from a problem common to afterlife SF, the temptation to pack the story full of celebrity guest stars–here we get Richard Nixon, Cleopatra and Walt Whitman, with a cameo by Kurt Cobain. The end leaves plenty of plot threads hanging, so I’m sensing yet another series; I’m not sure whether I’ll try the next one.

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Like Masters of the Maze this is really good, but not in a way that inspired me to try writing a full review. I read it a few months ago and at the time I was finding most novels hard to get into, but this one eventually built momentum and I finished the last hundred pages in an evening. It’s a discursive, essayistic novel, which is something that’s appealed to me lately.

It’s published as mainstream but is arguably SF in that it plays with scientific concepts in support of a sort of magic realist narrative, and would probably have been a better Hugo award candidate than most of what ended up on the ballot.

Saki, The Unrest-Cure

Despite my good intentions, I haven’t managed to write much lately. I did come up with a short review inspired by a book I wasn’t expecting to dislike.

Coverof The Unrest Cure

I bought The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories because it was an NYRB Classics reprint illustrated by Edward Gorey. The only Saki stores I had ever come across in anthologies were “Tobermory,” “The Open Window” and “Sredni Vashtar.” It turns out there’s a reason for that. Once you’ve read those three stories, you have read all the Saki you will need for the rest of your life.

Judging from The Unrest-Cure Saki had exactly one trick, which he rehashed every time he put pen to paper: brief and often plotless vignettes of upper-class English people being politely horrible to each other. The blurb explains that “Saki’s heroes are enfants terribles who marshal their considerable wit and imagination against the cruelty and fatuousness of a decorous and doomed world,” by which it means they are assholes. Saki’s favorite story–it is the same story every time; only the details vary–is the tale of a young person who gets one up on an older person through a mean-spirited prank. It felt as though there were more of these in The Unrest-Cure than there were actual pages in the book.

Saki’s saving graces are his dryly understated prose and ability to come up with the occasional genuinely witty line. (i.e., “Children are given us to discourage our better emotions.”) But there aren’t enough of these to make up for the numbing monotony of Saki’s upper-class prank fixation. Get this one if you’re an Edward Gorey fan, but don’t try to read more than one of these stories in a row.

Links to Things

I haven’t posted one of these in a while.

Agatha Christie, At Bertram’s Hotel

As a Miss Marple novel, At Bertram’s Hotel is a dud. It’s a detective novel that doesn’t allow its hero to solve the crime. Miss Marple does some eavesdropping and makes a couple of deductions at the same time as a police detective, but never gets to tell him anything he doesn’t already know. At one point she plays the role of the witness amazed when the brilliant detective explains the surprising truth behind what she saw. That’s just backwards.

What makes At Bertram’s Hotel interesting is what Miss Marple does while she’s failing to detect. Bertram’s Hotel caters to elderly guests who want an environment that reminds them of their youth, and tourists who want to see the London of fifty years ago. Christie belabors how Bertram’s serves proper muffins and poached eggs and seed cake. The rooms are done up in tasteful archaic styles, camouflaging their modern fittings. The staff resemble the happily efficient servants who only ever existed in P. G. Wodehouse novels. The guests resemble the aging gentry who only ever existed in… um, Agatha Christie novels. During her stay at Bertram’s Miss Marple shops for the plain old-fashioned dish towels she has trouble finding nowadays, and visits places she remembers from her youth.

But Miss Marple finds that most of the places she remembers have changed or been built over. Bertram’s out-of-time fittings begin to look unnatural. Even the guests don’t look quite how she expects elderly people to look in the world of 1965. She concludes “that one should not ever try to go back–that the essence of life is going forward.”

It’s generally an error to assume an author’s biography has anything at all to do with her writing. But in this case it’s tempting to draw conclusions from the fact that, when At Bertram’s Hotel was published, Agatha Christie was 75 years old, near Miss Marple’s age. At Bertram’s Hotel feels like Christie letting herself indulge in nostalgia for the old days, then spending the rest of the novel gently scolding herself for doing so.

Tatyana Tolstaya, The Slynx

Book Cover

Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. Lately in the interest of preserving my mental health I’ve avoided reading any SF that seemed the least bit apocalyptic or dystopian. Which these days is pretty much all of it. But this is another old half-written review I’ve just now finished, so The Slynx slipped in last year. Anyway, it’s the kind of post-apocalypse E. C. Segar might have invented for Popeye to sort out: a world of mangled language, kinetic brawling, and ubiquitous foolishness. This book is too colorful to depress.

Generations after “the Blast,” the world is divided between the ignored minority of Oldeners–people alive during the Blast, who stopped aging in that moment and remember the world before–and the Golubchiks, born after the Blast. The Golubchiks act like feral toddlers on a sugar high. They steal and brawl and only half pay attention; anything the Oldeners tell them comes back garbled. A Golubchik’s idea of a fun game is “smothers”: “you stuff a pillow in someone’s face and smother him, and he flails and sputters and when he gets away, he’s all red and sweaty, and his hair’s sticking out like a harpy’s.”

The Slynx’s voice is as far as you can get from the flat, monotonous prose that oftens seems standard in science fiction:

Old people say the Slynx lives in those forests. The Slynx sits on dark branches and howls a wild, sad howl—eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx- aleeeeeennnxx—but no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teeth—crunch—and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All the reason runs right out of you. If you come back, you’re never the same again, your eyes are different, and you don’t ever know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon, their arms outstretched, their fingers fluttering: they’re asleep, but they’re standing on their own two feet.[1]

It’s unusual for an SF novel written in third person to have a narrator with a personality. Readers aren’t encouraged to think of third person prose as having a narrator at all. A story is being told, but not told by anyone. But all fiction has a voice; modern fiction just hides it behind a curtain. (So we never wonder what hidden assumptions that hidden voice might bring to the story… but that’s another argument.)

Reading The Slynx it is like meeting a weird but charismatic and funny storyteller and getting so engrossed in conversation that hours pass and you don’t notice. The Slynx is written in the rhythm of voice. The narrator slips into second person (“If you wander into the forest…”) as people do when talking. The Slynx speaks in a voice from out of the world it’s created, a storyteller with an eccentric worldview and a vocabulary of malapropisms. That voice is the main tool The Slynx uses to create its world.

The Slynx tells the story of Benedikt, a scribe in a village near what used to be Moscow. Benedikt copies out the poetry and philosophy of the local ruler, Fyodor Kuzmich Glorybe. Most of it’s plagiarized from once-famous Russian authors. When Fyodor Kuzmich resorts to his own words they’re drivel.

Like the work of another Russian author published by NYRB Classics, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Slynx is preoccupied with text and ideas. But what matters in Benedikt’s world aren’t the ideas themselves so much as how they’re perceived.

B. Kliban once drew a cartoon of a king standing on a balcony telling his subjects “I’m the king, and you have to do what I say or I won’t be king anymore.” If The Slynx followed the standard clichés of the post-apocalyptic genre it would have set the Oldeners up as an ossified elite for a fresh-thinking hero to knock down. That’s not what we have here–the Oldeners are marginalized. As stewards of civilization they’re ineffectual, and not because they fell from some earlier height. The survivors of the blast were perfectly ordinary. Their children just never paid them attention.

The saying goes that knowledge is power, but in Benedikt’s world what’s powerful is what people can be convinced to respect as knowledge. The Golubchiks scorn the Oldners’ ideas, but they’re impressed by what they see as culture. Fyodor Kuzmich is head of the village because as long as the Pushkin holds out he sounds wise and literate.

Pre-blast books are treasure, albeit treasure with an aura of danger: for years after the Blast, the surviving books were radioactive, which is the official reason they’re confiscated by officials called Saniturions. Unofficially, the Saniturions just don’t think the Golubchiks can take care of them. They might read them with dirty hands, or use them as pot lids! When Benedikt rises in the world and gains access to the Saniturions’ library he’s impressed by the pristine, unread books. The worn, well-read books, he thinks, must not have been important enough to take care of.

Benedikt isn’t a careful reader. Neither is The Slynx’s narrator, who thinks like Benedikt and often gets inside his head. Nor are the Saniturions who, for all the books they’ve collected, don’t understand them better than any other Golubchik. They take stories literally. They filter them through their worldview and culture without understanding that other ways of thinking and living exist. No need for a Slynx; Benedikt lets his reason run away by itself. Near the end of the novel Benedikt thinks he sees the Slynx in someone else’s face; in reply he’s told to look at his own reflection.

But The Slynx is not one of those dystopian novels in which the author spends 200 pages ranting that everyone else is stupid.[2] The Golubchiks aren’t what this book considers civilized, but it’s not sour or angry and it lets the Golubchiks tell their own story. We laugh with them as much as at. And The Slynx is a book in love with books, and an argument that books are worth loving. Whether he understands them or not, Benedikt is amazed at how books bring voices and images and experiences into his head. He’s distraught when he discovers he’s finally read the whole library.

And in its final chapter The Slynx suggests that no matter how long stupidity holds power, or how scorched-earth their rule, the spirit of civilization survives to, eventually, rise again. What’s great is, despite everything, how uncynical this book is. That’s something recent science fiction hasn’t given me enough of. I’ve sworn off reading about apocalypses, but for The Slynx I’ll make an exception.

  1. For some reason the excerpt on the Powell’s Books website doesn’t have apostrophes. The book itself has all its punctuation.  ↩

  2. Hello, Brave New World!  ↩

A Review, Sort Of: The Ties That Bound vs. At Home

This blog has been stagnant for over a year now. I’m getting to the point where I’d like to revive it. Unfortunately I haven’t written anything in a while, so until I get back up to speed the quality of my writing will be shaky. I plan to start off by finishing some half-written reviews of books I read weeks or months ago, of which this is the first.

Book Cover

The Ties That Bound by Barbara Hanawalt describes the lives and environment of English peasants during (mostly) the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. (I wish I could come up with a snappy opening line, but I haven’t tried to review a book, or write anything at all, in ages, and the gears have rusted.)

Social history is the kind of history I’ve found most interesting lately. Unfortunately as social history goes further back in time primary sources can get a little sparse. Not a lot of 14th century English peasants left diaries.

So The Ties That Bound relies on archaeology to detail living environments, then turns to legal documents and other less direct sources to explore family structure, life stages, and social ties. Its particular focus is on coroner’s inquests. Accidental deaths, it turns out, were well documented on all levels of society. Inquests supply not only details of peasant life but also the names of people who would have been unremembered by history had they not inadvertently stabbed themselves or fallen off haystacks. After a while you expect every anecdote to end in tragedy, giving The Ties That Bound undertones of Edward Gorey–The Ghastlycrumb Peasantry, maybe–as Hanawalt occasionally acknowledges: “While ditches may have been created chiefly for drainage, they served a variety of functions, aside from indirectly reducing population.”

Not that this is a snarkfest. The Ties That Bound is written in the best academic style: not overly technical, but not working too hard to avoid dryness or difficulty. Historians trust that the information they’ve gathered will hold the reader’s interest. It is, after all, the reason the reader picked up the book.

Book Cover

Which brings me to another social history I read around the same time, Bill Bryson’s At Home. This purports to be a history of the home in England over the last few centuries. It has a serious case of attention deficit disorder.

The way Bryson organizes At Home is promisingly clever. Each chapter is a room in a house–“The Kitchen,” “The Drawing Room.” Rooms are how we organize domestic life; pattern a history of domestic life after a house and the history almost falls into order by itself. You would think.

But At Home is all over the place. Half the Drawing Room chapter is taken up with mini-biographies of eccentric 18th century celebrity architects. “The Passage” is mostly a history of the Eiffel Tower. “The Dressing Room” focuses not on the wardrobes of the vast bulk of the English population, but on Beau Brummel. Bryson begins “The Cellar” with the Erie Canal, explaining “The reason I have prefaced it all with the story of the Erie Canal is to make the point that building materials are more important and even, dare I say, interesting than you might think.” But wouldn’t the quickest way to convince readers that building materials are interesting be to actually write about them, interestingly?

Well, sure. I mean, I must be open to the idea that building materials can be interesting, or I wouldn’t have picked up a book named after and organized around a kind of building. But Bryson, having chosen as his topic the history of the home in England, displays no faith in its ability to hold the readers’ interest. So At Home prioritizes pithy celebrity biographies–the more eccentric the better–over describing how people lived. Celebrities left more documentation, after all, and making grotesques entertaining doesn’t take much effort. And the Erie Canal, as a large, singular, and significant project, is just naturally more memorable than a cellar.

Every so often At Home walks up to its ostensible subject and touches it, gingerly, and for a moment it’s interesting. One section on the architectural and engineering principles behind stairways–more complex than you’d think–manages to make stairs compelling. But then At Home backs off again, running to the safety of another colorful anecdote, too afraid of boring the reader to focus for long on its core subject. At Home is like a software manual that gives bios of the people who programmed the software, and tells funny stories about things that happened while they were programming it, but only as an afterthought gets around to telling you how the program is supposed to work.

Here’s why I bothered to write up this rambling rant about two apparently random books: At Home is not alone. I’m bored with popular nonfiction, the kind that makes the bestseller lists, in general. Whatever the subject–history, psychology, sociology, biology–the tone is the same: light, breezy, and depthless.

Popular books on academic subjects–science, history, whatever–fall into a few types. One kind is padded with mini-biographies of scientists or archaeologists or historians, descriptions of their appearance and minor eccentricities, and stories about how the pop-nonfiction writer met them in their offices. You also get anecdotes about the author’s travels to historic sites, or visits to businesses, nonprofits, government offices, and other slightly relevant institutions. Whatever actual information these books contain sometimes seems structured around the stories–introduced by and organized around them–rather than the other way around. The information may take up more space, but it feels secondary.

Pop psychology and sociology gravitate to a style pioneered by Malcolm Gladwell: The author begins every chapter with a colorful (and often familiar) anecdote, preferably involving a celebrity. The chapter goes on to cite a series of psychological, sociological, or economic studies centered around a theme taken from the anecdote. These are always presented without context that might help us evaluate them. (Were the results replicated? How did other scholars respond? Who knows?) The chapter ends by finishing the anecdote in a way that sums up the chapter’s theme.

And then there’s the kind of pop nonfiction exemplified by At Home: the quirky kind. At Home approaches every subject by looking for the oddest details and most colorful characters and focusing its attention there, sometimes pushing the original topic to the side, like an artist who sets out to draw a portrait but ends up filling most of the paper with one weirdly shaped nostril.

Most of these books seem to be written by journalists rather than scholars. What these kinds of pop nonfiction books have in common is a journalistic feature-article writing style that they’re taking places it wasn’t meant to go. Every subject, even if it must be awkwardly mashed and folded to fit, becomes a human interest story.

Which betrays a narrow view of what humans might be interested in. More seriously, the human interest approach to history illuminates less about human lives than academic writing.

Compare At Home to The Ties That Bound. In the “What We Can Remember” version of history the image conjured by the word “peasant” is an illiterate rustic prodding dirt with a stick. Standard pop culture peasants live packed into hovels, start breeding in their teens, have few ambitions and are given no way to pursue any that might exist. In fact, The Ties That Bound finds English peasants–both men and women–who made wills and contracts, joined guilds, and bought and sold rights to farm land. They both farmed and ran businesses on the side. When land was scarce adults didn’t necessarily marry until their late twenties. Throughout the book The Ties That Bound argues that these people, although their lives were not like ours, were more active and recognizable than we tend to think.

At Home argues… not much. Bryson sums up 700 pages of anecdotal meanderings with the observation that, over the last few centuries, some things have changed and some haven’t. How about that? He then notes that contemporary civilization uses a lot of energy; that there is massive inequality between the UK, the subject of his book, and the developing nations At Home hasn’t mentioned at all; and that maybe in future both of these will change. The first point is inane. The other points are non-sequiturs. At Home is a book without a central thesis. It tells stories, but those stories don’t add up to an argument. At Home has nothing in particular to say.

Quirky, breezy books like At Home portray history as a collection of discrete stories with strong plots and extraordinary characters… but real life is weird and complicated and not like a story at all. In a way, the books that emphasize detailed research, well-organized evidence, and a strong central argument before narrative wind up telling better stories than human-interest-style nonfiction. They have two things that improve any story: a sense of genuine curiosity, and a point of view.