Category Archives: Books

Adam Roberts, The Thing Itself

I’ve again collected several half-written reviews that have been sitting on my hard drive for weeks. I’m planning to make an effort to finish a few.


Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself is philosophical speculative fiction riffing on Kant’s idea of the ding an sich, or thing in itself. I’m not as smart as Kant, so I’ll summarize his argument simplistically: according to Kant we only know reality, the world outside our minds, through our senses and perceptions. The way our minds work dictates our experience of the universe. We perceive reality through certain mental structures, or categories: cause and effect, distance, space and time, quantity. We can’t think outside of the structures that shape our thoughts because they’re what we think with. We don’t know how relevant those structures are outside the human mind. Yes, there’s something real that our minds perceive as space and time, but is that what it, like, is? There’s the human experience of the thing, and then there’s the thing itself, which might be a cardboard box full of mechanical bees, or a four-dimensional version of New Jersey, or some kind of vast Jello casserole.

Cover of The Thing Itself

The Thing Itself asks: what if this were true? Literally? In the same way a typical science fiction story might ask “What if we filled a moon base with libertarians?” Speculative Philosophy is among the smaller fantastical subgenres, Adam Roberts being one of the few current practitioners. The speculative humanities are in general neglected. There’s plenty of speculative social science, but in the absence of either sci-fi gadgets or magic it’s often dismissed as “not SF.” The range of speculation SF allows itself sometimes feels oddly narrow.

Anyway, to answer the question: you’ve got a solution to the Fermi Paradox. At least according to Roy Curtius, the oddball technician sharing an antarctic research facility with our narrator, Charles. Aliens are by definition not like us; if we can’t access their frame of reference, their categories, maybe we can’t perceive them any more than we perceive the ding an sich. Roy has a plan to find them. It doesn’t end well for Charles.

At this point The Thing Itself jumps back to 1900 to follow a gay couple touring Germany in the company of a Baedeker guide and a copy of The War of the Worlds. (Not that anyone knows Harold and Albert are more than friends: the strangers around them don’t notice a relationship they’re not expecting.) Between trips to galleries and restaurants Harold keeps noticing, and immediately forgetting, incomprehensible amoeboid creatures. So apparently Roy is right. As another tourist tells Harold, “to tour a town with a guidebook in hand is to see only what the guidebook permits.”

The Thing Itself alternates chapters in Charles’s story with short stories that eventually connect to the main plot but could stand on their own. (Some have been published independently, including the first chapter, although in that version of the story “Charles” appears to be “Anthony.”) The interpolated stories are set everywhere from the 17th century to a far-future utopia, following different characters with different perspectives. It’s a crucial addition to a novel which is partly about world views and how they interact, or fail to.

Kant’s structures are, among other things, a metaphor for our everyday habits of thought. Characters in The Thing Itself repeatedly fail to perceive what their thought-structures don’t encompass: People who can’t imagine an apparently respectable 17th century magistrate is an abuser; a utopia founded on “scratching your itch” that doesn’t realize a woman who wants to experience psychopathy is pursuing something more ambitious than passing curiosity. (Incidentally, the utopian chapter is yet more evidence that, contra decades of received wisdom, utopias are not necessarily boring. Humans are weird; however perfect their society, their behavior is not perfectible. People can introduce drama anywhere. Drama is only absent from paradise if it’s defined solely as exaggerated suffering.)

In the main plot Charles is contacted by Irma, an employee of an institute trying to pull off what Roy only imperfectly managed: building an artificial intelligence to interact with the ding an sich. The AI, created by humans but not having human categories of thought, could mediate between us and the Thing Itself. More than that, Irma explains: her group thinks they can use the AI to manipulate the Thing Itself, maneuvering around the categories we call space and time. Travel through time, step straight from England to Antarctica.

Which is a cool concept. So it’s weird that at this point I put The Thing Itself down and didn’t pick it up for a week. Or maybe not so weird, because as soon as Irma shows up Charles propositions her. And propositions her again after it’s clear she’s uninterested. And spends most of the next chapter thinking less about the astonishing information being revealed to him than about how to persuade Irma into bed. To be clear, both the narrative and Charles acknowledge his behavior as bad. It’s a deliberate tactic to establish Charles as more heel than hero, and a contrast with Charles’s later glimpse of a more empathetic vision of human connection, and another restatement of a theme: Charles’s obsession is a thought-structure causing him to ignore the actually interesting things going on around him.

On the other hand… this means Charles, our narrator, is ignoring the actually interesting things going on around him. It only lasts for a chapter or two, but for that chapter or two The Thing Itself just drags. As I complained when I reviewed Anna Seghers’s Transit, what’s unique about this book is pushed aside to deal with a much-repeated and tiresome plot element. Protagonists pursuing uninterested women can and do show up in stories of all kinds; it’s a generic off-the-shelf plot element. Even done with full awareness of its problems it has nothing new to show me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a story about a character who learns better. But it’s tedious when they’re learning a really basic lesson, like “don’t be a stalker.” I want characters to start with their basic life skills down so they can spend the story learning something interesting.

Fortunately this lasts a couple of chapters at most. Once it gets back on track The Thing Itself is brilliant. The main plot is a traditional Hitchcockian average-guy-on-the-run thriller, but it’s also not afraid to stop the action so Charles and an AI can have expository philosophical debates formatted as Socratic dialogs. I’ve said before genre writing is sometimes too much in love with “show, don’t tell.” Novels hesitant to acknowledge their themes aloud, leaving them entirely in the subtext, may risk suggesting a theme without ever actually working out a coherent argument about it. Sometimes the best way to talk about an idea is just to come out and talk.

There’s a lot going on in this novel. I’m going to end by focusing on one small idea because it’s a lovely redemption of a normally cringe-inducing pop-culture cliché: at one point Charles’s AI pal asserts one of the fundamental forces of The Thing Itself’s Kantian universe is Love. “A tad sentimental, isn’t it?” complains Charles. But it isn’t. (Or maybe it is, but in a good way. Is “sentimental” really always bad?)

I mean, yes, in a totally different story this could have been corny. What I mean are those sci-fi and fantasy stories (usually, but not exclusively, movies or TV shows) that resolve themselves through the Power of Love. Emotion, here, works like whatever comes out of a Green Lantern ring: the hero feels really hard and the ancient alien artifact lights up, or the love interest shakes off their brainwashing, or the villain just sort of evaporates in the face of love, man. The Fifth Element is an obvious example; this has also become a regular plot resolution on Doctor Who. It’s an easy–lazy, even–way to wind up the plot and the hero’s character arc in a single climactic moment. The hero doesn’t achieve something great and have an emotional epiphany. Feeling something is the achievement. Mind you, the general level of emotional intelligence among pop culture protagonists is such that maybe just recognizing and articulating their own feelings is an accomplishment.

This is all usually hand-wavy. So it’s neat that The Thing Itself successfully justifies love-as-law-of-nature by carefully arguing its way there step by step. (Another common trope in science fiction is the idea that rationality and emotion are necessarily separate; that the climax of this book’s logical, philosophical game-playing is a genuine emotional epiphany gives the lie to that idea.) In The Thing Itself’s literally Kantian universe, the world as humans experience it is shaped by human consciousness; for human beings, reality isn’t just the ding an sich, it’s that plus human thought. So if affection is a fundamental part of human thought–and the AI classes it as one of several categories of thought Kant missed–it’s a fundamental force in the human world. As the AI asks Charles, “you’re going to tell me that the Affect has no place in human consciousness?”

Of course, in reality the universes of all SF stories are constructs of human thought, aren’t they? I mean, humans thought them up. I often find science fiction and fantasy oddly cynical. (The SF actually marketed as SF, at least; SF as a whole is more complicated.) I mean, the books the word “grimdark” was invented to describe were fantasy epics, not noir thrillers or gothics. (I watch a lot of noir movies. Maybe it’s just the Production Code, but in most of them people are kinder to each other than they are in Westeros.) Science fiction and fantasy are the genres most likely to causally slaughter extras to motivate a hero or just establish a story as Serious. This may say more about my perceptions than the genre, but I feel like more SF universes than not share a basic structural assumption that most people are out to get each other and the universe itself is out to get everybody. If so, does that mean we (as fans, critics, creators, whoever) have categorized SF as being primarily about disaster and disconnection?

I’m still thinking about The Thing Itself weeks after reading it. It combines several things I’d like to read more of in SF: speculation on ideas beyond new technology or complicated magic systems; dialogue that digs into the themes for entire conversations instead of just moving the plot along. But it’s also lovely that Adam Roberts suggests compassion and human connection are part of the deep structure of The Thing Itself’s story-world, regardless of the risk that the SF audience (many of whom value ass-kicking over affect) might (unfairly) think it mawkish. It’s neat to see a wonky, intellectual SF novel unapologetically go for a bit sentimental, and pull it off.

Shirley Jackson, The Bird’s Nest

Considering how fond I am of The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it’s embarrassing that I was unaware until a few years back that Shirley Jackson had written other novels. She did, though, and I’ve been saving a couple for special occasions. Recently I’ve had a short attention span for books, and working on my concentration seemed a special enough occasion, so I picked up The Bird’s Nest.

Cover of The Bird's Nest

The Bird’s Nest turned out to be Jackson’s entry in the tiny genre of mid-twentieth century psychiatric melodramas also including the movies Spellbound and The Three Faces of Eve[1], as well as a comics-code-era comic book series from the same publisher that brought you Vault of Horror. These stories hang their plots on an oversimplified model of psychoanalysis that works like a detective novel. The patient is a mystery, their psychiatrist is a detective, the climax is the revelation of the buried trauma which caused all their problems. The Bird’s Nest doesn’t stray far from this template: Elizabeth Richmond develops multiple personalities;[2] after months of treatment a Dramatic Climax is reached and a Trauma confessed; Elizabeth is, if not entirely well, at least much better.

So the plot is, for Jackson, trite. On the other hand, as anyone who’s ever summarized Moby Dick knows, sometimes the important thing about a book isn’t the premise but how it’s executed. Even before her most famous novels, Jackson was good. The Bird’s Nest starts with a dryly comic portrait of the museum where Elizabeth works–sinking on its foundations, a hole running through the wall of her office–before pulling in to her point of view. There are three characters of any importance–Elizabeth’s psychiatrist, her aunt, and Elizabeth, subdivided into four distinct selves (Elizabeth, Beth, Betsy, and Bess). They all get chapters from their points of view (first-person case studies from the psychiatrist, the others in close third) and they’re not smoothed over into a stylistic monolith; every point of view comes with a distinct narrative voice. It helps that when Jackson opts for close third person she really gets into her characters’ heads, describing their thought processes with scrupulous precision. At the same time, she describes what they’re reacting to in enough detail for the reader to understand more than the narration; in the middle of the novel Betsy takes a long side trip to New York that comes off completely differently to the reader even in the absence of information outside Betsy’s perceptions.

For a writer who can be, at times, mercilessly sardonic, Shirley Jackson also sometimes shows a lot of empathy. The aunt and the doctor are both, at first glance, ridiculous–him pompous, swinging between self-congratulation and false humility; her overly satisfied with her own eccentricity and prone to drink slightly too much. Some novels would leave them at that. In a lot of fiction the point of including a buffoon is to provide the audience with a convenient outlet for their bottled-up contempt. Someone whose faults we can dissect with uncomplicated disapproval. But by the end of The Bird’s Nest Elizabeth’s aunt and doctor have filled out, revealed hidden parts of their histories and characters, without ever actually ceasing to be the people they originally seemed. This is one of my favorite effects in fiction: when a previously limited character reveals unsuspected depths, or someone who came off as a walking joke turns out to be surprisingly compassionate or heroic.

Stories centered on psychiatry often treat the subject way too glibly. If The Bird’s Nest falls mostly on the right side of the line between glibness and sensitivity, it’s probably Jackson’s empathy for her characters doing most of the work. Given the history of fictional treatments of multiple personalities this may be a low bar, but of all the stories with The Bird’s Nest’s premise, The Bird’s Nest is probably the best of the lot.


  1. The Bird’s Nest was filmed too, as Lizzie; I haven’t seen it.  ↩

  2. The proper term is dissociative identity disorder.  ↩

Verity Holloway, Pseudotooth

I bought Pseudotooth not so much because I was interested in this specific book as because I was curious about its publisher. I might look into their other books because this was a good buy; Pseudotooth is one of the better books I’ve read this year. It’s a portal fantasy of a sort, but weird fiction, not epic fantasy–if I had to play the game of comparisons to more famous novels, I’d say there’s some Shirley Jackson and China Miéville here.

Cover of Pseudotooth

Pseudotooth had me from its first sentence. It’s one of those that in a few words tell a lot about the novel to follow: “And of course, the weather turned Dickensian.” That immediate “and of course” tells us we’re in the middle of something, and it’s gone on long enough to grow tiresome, and now on top of it we have this weather and it is the last straw. The word “Dickensian” evokes Dickens’s association (fair or not) with pathetic-fallacy weather, of the Bleak House variety. Longer-term, it prepares us for a story filled with characters who’ve lost or been rejected by parents, and an other-world Dickensian in its technological level and general aesthetic. The novel that follows is gorgeously written. Take the second sentence, with its Dickensian weather: “The East Anglian horizon was crowded with low, goitrous clouds, ballooning out like new bruises,” which at once freshly visualizes a particular type of cloud and resonates with a specific emotional feel.

The real literary influence here isn’t Dickens but William Blake, who’s quoted throughout the novel. Blake is the favorite poet of Pseudotooth’s protagonist, Aisling Selkirk, who turns to his poems in times of stress, of which she’s having a lot. In the wake of a traumatic experience with her mother’s latest boyfriend, Aisling has been suffering from pseudoseizures–seizures with no neurological cause–alongside the occasional blackout or hallucination. Aisling is a few months away from legal adulthood but is treated like an inconvenient child; as an alternative to an institution her mother sends her into the countryside and the care of a sneering aunt. There Aisling spends her time writing fiction in her journal about Feodor, the delinquent son of a Russian immigrant, and exploring her aunt’s old vicarage. There’s little to read except Within Reason: Treatment and Protection of the Defective Classes, a mouldering eugenics manual made especially awful by the pathetic marginal notes (“Whitewash is extremely moral”) of someone who judged himself “defective” and was desperate to cast out, like a rotten tooth, whatever “degeneracy” caused his illness.

The other world reveals itself slowly; not so much magical as ghostly, or perhaps–appropriately for a novel so preoccupied with Blake–visionary. There’s a gradual bleeding-over of the other world instead of a crossing-into. It starts with apparitions: a young man in the garden, an older, balder one on the stairs. When Aisling eventually wakes up to a deserted house she assumes she’s broken with reality altogether; outside is a nameless place ruled by “Our Friend” according to the precepts in the manual–whitewash the walls, cultivate “inner cleanness,” disappear the “defectives.” Aisling is taken in by an ad-hoc family of outcasts, and meets Feodor in the flesh, and uncovers the connected histories of Feodor and Our Friend and her aunt’s vicarage.

What Aisling doesn’t do is what a by-the-numbers portal fantasy might expect her to do: get involved in a revolution. Portal fantasy heroes aren’t “chosen ones” as often as the subgenre’s stereotype might lead you to believe, but it’s true they are with numbing regularity caught up in Big Events. It’s the default template, which sometimes obscures the fact that it isn’t an essential characteristic. (I would read the hell out of a portal fantasy set in Dungeons & Dragons land that was simply about finding a job and an apartment in a world where Adventurer is a career option and your roommate could be a Beholder.) Feodor, once he learned about Our Friend, thought he could be a hero; instead he caused a disaster. He warns Aisling off: “Look, I know what it’s like to think you’re the molten centre of the universe, but there’s history here, and people moulded by it.” (Another example of good writing, typical of Pseudotooth: you’d expect just “center of the universe,” but Holloway sidesteps the cliché by adding molten, segueing into the “moulded by” image.) Aisling still isn’t sure the other world isn’t in her head. Feodor thinks that will lead to her repeating his mistakes. The other world doesn’t revolve around Aisling, it’s more than a backdrop for her story; that’s a sign of its reality. Although the status quo shifts, Aisling isn’t an instigator but a witness. Her story isn’t about changing the world, it’s about understanding her own life.

Given the subjects it deals with, Pseudotooth is in constant danger of becoming one of those stories valorizing mental illness, connecting it to creativity or suggesting it’s actually some sort of unique and valuable insight. (As someone who’s experienced depression, I hate those things; it’s like telling people with thyroid problems or fibromyalgia they ought to accept and appreciate them.) Ultimately, though, Pseudotooth comes down on the right side of the line, even if it teeters precariously and has to windmill its arms around the point Aisling flushes her meds. (Not recommended, even with the suggestion her doctors gave her a half-assed diagnosis.)

A book review feels incomplete without some kind of thematic summing-up, so I’ll say Pseudotooth is less about mental or psychosomatic illnesses than about how people define and categorize the people who have them. Aisling’s mother thinks she’s weak, or faking it. Aisling’s aunt thinks she’s morally deficient. The head of the family who adopt Aisling thinks she needs to be protected from the world; Our Friend would lock Aisling away to protect the world from her. Within Reason’s annotator suffered from psychosomatic illnesses and believed everything his book told him about himself. Aisling’s story is about coming to understand she doesn’t have to accept any definitions. Her pseudoseizures aren’t part of her identity; they may affect her but don’t define her, and whether or not she gets over them she can still move forward with her life.

The main reason to recommend Pseudotooth is the writing, which is, as I said, great. (It’s coming from distinctly literary direction, without the TV or Hollywood or Video Game influences I detect in a lot of modern SF; that’s something I look for and appreciate.) As a small press release with no unusually vast or unrelenting marketing push behind it, it’s a book I’m afraid might slip under the radar of fantasy fans. That would be too bad–it deserves some attention.

Ben Aaronovitch, The Hanging Tree

Among my least favorite trends in contemporary pop culture–I have several–is the serialization of everything. This thought was inspired by The Hanging Tree, the most recent of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, the better of the two novel series by former Doctor Who writers about London magic police.[1] Peter Grant is an officer and apprentice wizard in the Folly, a department dealing with magical crimes. At first Peter and his old-fashioned but open-minded wizardly mentor are the whole staff; the series hook is that Peter is almost by himself figuring out how modern fantasy police ought to work.

Sometimes all you need to make an adventure compelling is a strong voice. Peter is a distinct, likable first person narrator: he’s amused more than he’s disgusted and unlike most contemporary heroes he actually seems to like people. The narration doesn’t just report action as though novelizing a TV series–Peter’s point of view is apparent in every description, and he offers frequent asides on police procedure and magic to explain what he’s doing and why. I have a hard time finding light SF that’s both intelligent and genuinely good-natured; Aaronovitch’s books fit the bill.

Cover of The Hanging Tree

The Hanging Tree’s voice is as likable as the earlier volumes… but what struck me was its weird structure. Here’s the plot promised by the blurb: at a party of wealthy and privileged teenagers one kid drops dead of a drug overdose. A guest’s mother asks Peter to keep her daughter out of trouble. Inasmuch as the mother is not only Peter’s girlfriend’s aunt but also a powerful river goddess, he has some incentive to cooperate. This is not a bad premise. Magic is privilege; wizards are powerful and, lacking oversight, often aren’t held to account for their actions, much as in reality the very wealthy often aren’t. At the intersection of money, privilege, impulsive teenage recklessness, and literally reality-warping power is a novel’s worth of theme to dig into. On top of that, the choice between bending the rules or pissing off a goddess is an interesting dilemma.

The Hanging Tree, though, gradually becomes a different story. As you reach the last quarter of the book you realize the drug overdose was a red herring, Peter’s professional ethics won’t have consequences in his personal life, and the imperiled god-offspring has dropped out of the novel. Her mother sticks around, but doesn’t seem to belong anymore: she’s just visiting from the first unfinished story. The new The Hanging Tree is about small-time crooks stealing magical artifacts and, in a lovely bit of bathos, selling them on eBay.

Now, this is also a potentially great story, the urban fantasy equivalent of a Donald Westlake caper or a Coen brothers comedy. But The Hanging Tree doesn’t finish this story either! The eBay plot becomes instantly irrelevant as soon as it leads Peter to the artifacts’ owner: the Faceless Man. Which will mean nothing to you unless you’ve read other books in the series.

The Faceless Man is a wizardly crime lord who’s been lurking far in the background of Peter’s investigations without being actually immediately relevant to the resolution of any of them. The climax of The Hanging Tree is the moment we discover, after seven volumes of buildup, the Faceless Man is… a character just introduced in this book! And not even one of the important ones! To be fair, using the climax of a novel to unmask your mysterious multi-book villain is a no-win situation. If the villain is a character we thought we’d gotten to know, it’s a cheap O. Henry twist. If the villain is some guy we never saw before, it’s meaningless. And, honestly, these books never convinced me I should care whether Peter identified or caught the Faceless Man at all: see again, lurking far in the background and not actually immediately relevant.

Which makes me wonder why this big reveal didn’t come at the beginning of a book: get the underwhelming part out of the way first and you have an entire novel to explore the consequences. (It’s surprising how often the most interesting parts of a story happen after it ends.) And there would have been plenty to explore–behind the Faceless Man are hints of personality and theme. He has a library full of J. R. R. Tolkien and Alan Garner and other writers at the intersection of epic fantasy and British folk horror, and in a previous book he left a magic booby-trap inscribed with Elven runes. He’s a toxic nerd. From what little we see of him, he’s also a rich xenophobe, an England-for-the-English type. I know Aaronovitch probably came up with this character years ago, but this all feels very relevant.

Series were not always like this. My shelves are full of series in which books build on each other and characters evolve over time, but individual volumes work by themselves–Steven Brust’s Taltos series[2] and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are examples, as are any mystery series in which the characters develop. The exceptions are often single stories split for convenience, like The Lord of the Rings. One reason for the difference might be availability: maybe pre-Amazon, authors were more likely to assume some readers wouldn’t be able to get their hands on the whole series? I would guess that another may be the influence of other media on contemporary written SF–especially television.

Over the last couple of decades TV storytelling has shifted. The overarching story dominates to the point that individual TV episodes often work more like chapters in a novel than stories in themselves. (Streaming services now release entire seasons at once in the assumption the audience will watch 12 hours in one go!) As these series go on it gets harder for any one episode to get a complete story out from under the ever-accumulating baggage.

TV series can be renewed for years if they make money, or cancelled on short notice. This encourages arc plots busy enough to drag out interminably with twists, counter-twists, unexpected betrayals, and the revelation of increasingly convoluted background mythology… but simple enough to wrap up on short notice in a jury-rigged series finale. Basically, stories with more room than actual content; lots of ostensible action but little real movement in the underlying plot, character, or thematic arcs. The fantasy genre is still home to an improbable number of three-volume novels; now genre television is reinventing the penny dreadful.

It’s this style of storytelling The Hanging Tree reminds me of. The Faceless Man story arc played out past its natural length. Now The Hanging Tree brings it to a climax so fast it interrupts itself.[3] Weirdly structured novels are not a problem for me. In fact, it’s often a selling point–I like novels that meander, take detours, eschew traditional plot, and just generally don’t go where I expect. It has to be a good weird structure, though, and this time it wasn’t: The Hanging Tree crams three stories together so tightly none have room to dig into their themes. This is the point where the gravitational pull of the arc so deforms the individual installment it’s no longer coherent or satisfying in and of itself.


  1. The other is a rather grumpier series by Paul Cornell.  ↩

  2. Still current, but it started in the 1980s.  ↩

  3. Twice. No, three times–I haven’t even mentioned the mother/daughter wizards looking for a Very Important Manuscript, who are major characters for a while but eventually, anticlimactically, just pick up the manuscript and walk offstage in what’s almost an aside. They’re not part of this novel; they’re being set up to be important in some other novel.  ↩

Zephyr Teachout, Corruption in America

Popular history is often written like a novel, shaped into the kind of story for which an author might sell movie rights. It’s possible to write good history like this, but it has to be a particular kind of history, focused on people who resemble protagonists and events that can be arranged into plot arcs. Zephyr Teachout’s Corruption in America is another kind of history underrepresented on the bestseller lists–the story of an idea and a legal concept. Teachout describes legal cases and court decisions in terms non-lawyers can understand, and the deeper beliefs about corruption that drove them. The book doesn’t need dramatization, or formulaic biographical sketches of the participants, or any of the usual human interest tricks of bestseller history. The subject is interesting in itself: an argument in response to the Citizens United case about how the United States has understood corruption and how we ought to understand it.[1] (It’s a pretty wide-ranging book. This post shouldn’t be taken as a comprehensive review; it’s more me talking to myself about some bits I found interesting.)

Cover of Corruption in America

Corruption in America defines corruption as the use of public power to further private interests at the expense of the public good. What the public good is, and when we can say for certain private interests are being pursued at its expense, are not always clear. Take the Credit Mobilier scandal. The Credit Mobilier company existed to skim excess profits off railroads; what’s relevant here is the cheap stock sold by congressman Oakes Ames to colleagues who voted on railroad funding. When the details came out, part of Ames’s defense was that he didn’t need to bribe anybody: everything was going great, Congress was very pro-railroad, so where was the motive?

He had a point, sort of: corruption can be nebulous. Did Senator Jones vote for the artichoke bill because of the campaign contribution from Big Artichoke, or did the artichoke PAC donate to his campaign because it knew he really loved artichokes? That’s why we have what Teachout calls structural or prophylactic regulations. These set bright lines officials cannot cross, like the constitution’s now-famous emoluments clause[2]: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” No need to establish motivation, or prove a quid pro quo: ban presents of any kind whatever and you remove the temptation to turn a gift into a bribe. Instead of watching for scandals and proving motives in court, change the incentives. It’s the difference between treating a disease and getting vaccinated to keep from catching it in the first place.

The emoluments clause exists because in 18th century Europe it was de rigueur to shower foreign ambassadors with lavish gifts. The iconic example for Corruption in America is a diamond-encrusted snuff box the king of France gave Benjamin Franklin: that’s it on the cover. Franklin’s snuff-storage problems notwithstanding, for Americans this was exactly the kind of archaic old-world decadence they wanted to do away with. It wasn’t that Americans didn’t trust Franklin, or any ambassador in particular: even in the absence of any specific scandal, emoluments were a moral problem. Gifts create a sense of obligation between givers and recipients. Who could say whether that sense of obligation was stronger than an ambassador’s sense of obligation to the public? Could even the ambassador know for sure? “Offices,” whether patronage positions or expectations of post-government jobs, might be even worse: they created dependencies, encouraging officials to put their employers before their public.

The United States had a representative government. Officials who furthered their personal interests, or the interests of their friends, at the expense of the public interest deprived citizens of representation. Creating a situation that tempted officials to put their private loyalties above their loyalty to the public–letting them accept gifts, or promises of sinecures, for instance–would rot the whole system.

Ideas about corruption have changed since then. Lobbying is a useful example. Lobbying got its start in the 19th century, when lobbyists literally hung around capitol lobbies. This was not a respectable career choice. There were two problems with lobbying (or maybe two facts adding up to one problem, since neither was automatically a problem in itself). First, lobbyists pedaled influence privately, out of the public eye, not just in a courtroom, or before a committee, or anywhere the arguments would be part of the public record. Second, lobbyists didn’t advocate for their own beliefs: their influence was for hire, even to causes they might not personally believe in. Lobbyists sold their personal civic engagement. For many people that was as illegitimate as selling their vote. As a result, courts often refused to honor lobbying contracts: if you agreed to lobby for someone and they stiffed you for the bill, you were out of luck.

Today, lobbying is a major industry. What changed? Well, first, there’s the artichoke problem again: Sure, Senator Jones hangs out with artichoke lobbyists… but what if some of his constituents are artichoke farmers? Representatives are supposed to listen and respond to their constituents. It’s hard to figure out where responsiveness ends and “undue influence” begins. Second, lobbying evolved. As often happens with businesses initially considered weird and dodgy–acting, police work, internet advertising–as people got used to having lobbyists around they went from shady hustlers to professionals. Meanwhile, courts stopped ruling against lobbying contracts. Judges were increasingly reluctant to pass judgement on the content of contracts: where contract law was concerned, courts were laissez faire neutral arbitrators, not moral authorities.

That last change is key: Corruption in America argues that changes in underlying legal philosophy are a major influence on how the United States deals with corruption. Legal philosophy drives court decisions, which decide which laws are valid and how we interpret them. One example of how much the American idea of corruption has changed is the 1999 Sun Diamond decision. Sun Diamond, a trade association, had been fined for giving thousands of dollars in gifts to Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture. On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled the gifts weren’t enough to justify a fine: the government had to prove a quid pro quo–unambiguously connect the gifts to a definite “official act.” Otherwise, according to the decision, a high school principal might be prosecuted for giving the Secretary of Education a school baseball cap. What’s striking is that, compared to Americans 100–200 years ago, the court’s priorities have completely flipped. Americans used to be so worried about corruption they wrote structural rules to prevent officials from accepting gifts. The Supreme Court in 1999 was so worried about criminalizing innocent token gifts they ruled against a structural rule to prevent corruption.

Which brings us to Citizens United. This was the ruling that, as long as they weren’t making literal campaign contributions, corporations and unions could spend as much as they damn well wanted to influence an election. (Which is also a campaign contribution of a sort. An indirect one, yeah, but you have to assume politicians keep track of who helps them out.)

Teachout really doesn’t like Anthony Kennedy’s opinion. In her telling it’s not just technically, procedurally bad, but also bad in its underlying assumptions. She has several points to make, but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll look at one.

The opinion rejects the argument that allowing unlimited spending distorts the political process in favor of corporate interests; thus, the rich and the poor alike are granted the right to spend millions of dollars on political advertising. Partly this is because of the court’s habit of treating corporations as interchangeable with individuals. One of the other justifications is more interesting. Quoting his own dissent from McConnell v. FEC, an earlier decision that went in a different direction, Kennedy says “Favoritism and influence are not… avoidable in representative politics. It is in the nature of an elected representative to favor certain policies, and, by necessary corollary, to favor the voters and contributors who support those policies." If favoritism is unavoidable, goes this logic, maybe counteracting it shouldn’t take priority over a corporation’s right to advertise.

This is a practical argument… but it’s a particular kind of practicality that feels familiar. Teachout detects a distaste for democracy in this decision–she thinks it valorizes corporations as information providers while casting citizens in the role of consumers–but I’m reminded more of what Jay Rosen calls the “Cult of Savvy”. Rosen coined the term to describe an attitude he saw among political journalists: as he puts it, “Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, ‘with it,’ and unsentimental in all things political.” The crucial element of savvy is realism, or something that presents itself as realism. It’s more of a performative rejection of idealism. For the savvy politics is a game, a series of strategic maneuvers. Savvy people are usually ethical in their personal lives, but when it comes to politics calling something strategically or perhaps economically wrong is as close as they come to taking a moral stand. Access to the political system is inherently unequal; representatives naturally favor certain voters and contributors; refusing to accept this is naïve. Regulations written out of idealism instead of hard-headed pragmatism will only lead to unintended consequences.

So Teachout is unsavvy when she argues for a return to older concepts of civic virtue. She frames this as a moral issue, a question of equal access: every citizen has a right to representation, to be heard, to have access to the political process. She argues for structural rules that, if they don’t perfectly guarantee equal consideration and access, at least discourage dependent relationships between public officials and concentrated wealth. The underlying assumptions of Corruption in America’s final argument are that our institutions should be structured not just around the concerns of realpolitik but around our values[3]. And “values” here mean not just what we want these institutions to do (discourage the use of public power for private interests) but the reasons we’re doing it (ideally, everyone should have equal access to the political system regardless of their wealth or power). Ideals are often not actually achievable in the less-than-ideal real world. But it’s not impractical to aim towards an ideal, and count it among the competing interests we weigh against each other when we decide how our institutions will work.

Basically, the argument is that where government is concerned equal access should be a value we treat as important. I have to agree we could stand to work on this: if we’ve learned anything from the town hall meetings of early 2017, it’s that representatives are really unused to listening to constituents.


  1. The argument is the weak point of popular narrative history: the less interesting examples tell a story and stop there, without taking a point of view on it. Some things happened, how about that? This doesn’t necessarily make these books read more like novels: any remotely interesting novel is making an argument of some kind, and watching a writer develop an argument can be as interesting as following a plot. There’s even suspense: What’s she building to? Will it be convincing?  ↩

  2. Whenever I hear the word “emoluments” some small part of me expects muppets to pop up and sing “doo doo de doo doo.”  ↩

  3. Not that the savvy people don’t have a point when they say idealistic rules and programs aren’t going to solve everything, or that they can go wrong. But “can” does not equal “must.” This isn’t an argument for not having rules at all, but for carefully considering their potential consequences.  ↩

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar

I read Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar because I’d enjoyed her earlier Kalpa Imperial–earlier in English translation, I mean; I think Kalpa Imperial is a later work. Trafalgar isn’t as good. I enjoyed it, but the premise–an Argentine traveling salesman who, over coffee, regales his friends (including a thinly-disguised Gorodischer) with his fabulous (in the “fable-like” sense) adventures on alien worlds–is up my particular alley. I can’t guarantee the same experience to anyone else.

Cover of Trafalgar

Trafalgar is a series of club stories, stories told by a character within a frame story (often, in older work, guys gossiping at their club; hence the name). Gorodischer uses a structure I haven’t often come across. Club stories often begin with the frame, then launch into straight first person narration. Most of the stories in Trafalgar are conversations straight through, punctuated by questions and interjections from Trafalgar’s friends, notes on what’s happening around him, and regular reports on the state of his coffee.

Here’s my problem. Trafalgar was first published in 1979 and Trafalgar is a very 1979 kind of dude. In his original 1979 context Trafalgar was probably lovably roguish but now he just comes off as thoughtless. What I’m saying is, he’ll fall into bed with any interested woman, and because his author looks after him someone is interested wherever he goes, and that wouldn’t be so bad except he won’t shut up about it. I mean, show him a planet and his second thought, after “what can I sell here,” is “am I going to get lucky?” Also, in the first story a woman who Trafalgar believes is seducing him, due to circumstances too complicated to explain, actually thinks he’s a holographic Mandrake the Magician. Which, whatever Angélica Gorodischer thought 35 years ago, is not funny. Also, there’s a story where Trafalgar finds a planet where it’s 1492 and he thinks giving Columbus a ride to the New World would be cool.[1] So, 1979, then.

(To be fair to Trafalgar, in the last story we learn he’s started traveling with his daughter, and she takes the lead and rescues him when he gets into trouble, and I think we’re meant to take it as a sign that he’s maturing. You could also take it as a sign that he needs a babysitter.)

But! When Trafalgar is not thinking about sex Trafalgar can be interesting. One planet exists in a different random year every day. On another planet undead ancestors nag their descendants into halting scary, unfamiliar progress. On another the locals, having come to understand the universe completely, decided they were ready to drop out and stop using their conscious minds.

I’ll cut a certain amount of slack for a book if it does a thing I like, even when it does the thing with indifferent success. I found myself cutting Trafalgar a certain amount of slack. I thought it might be worth considering what it was doing to earn it. The answer, I think, is that the part of the genre Trafalgar is working in is home to some better books I’ve loved, including Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries and The Cyberiad and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. It’s also a staple of Doctor Who (as in “The Happiness Patrol” or “The Sun Makers”).

Trafalgar, in short, is one of those space operas that have a lot in common with Gulliver’s Travels. Obviously compared to Swift Trafalgar is superficial–the big problem with the Columbus story is that it doesn’t actually think about its central idea! But there’s a certain distant similarity in approach. The biggest hint is how the planets Trafalgar visits read as islands, with small populations, modest economies, and a single major city. A lot of space opera planets work like this. Sometimes you can chalk this up to the writers’ lack of imagination, or failure to appreciate scale–but not always. I’d argue more space opera stories share DNA with Gulliver’s Travels than most SF fans assume, and they share an approach that’s interestingly opposite to much of that genre.

For such a fanciful genre, so much space opera is so serious: either military SF, or grimly earnest thrillers. Look at Star Wars, our iconic space opera, which we also think of as the quintessential light, fun space opera: for all the cute robots and cool spaceships, the dominant recurring image is a genocide machine the size of a moon. Space opera aspires to be not just serious but epic, which usually translates into galaxy-spanning conspiracies, planetary disasters and mass death.

What’s different about Trafalgar, The Star Diaries, et cetera, is a sense of play. Gorodischer’s universe incorporates anything, no matter how fantastic, that will accept a handwavy science fictional veneer: an exact duplicate of Earth, a planet of ghosts. Other books in the same vein incorporate literalized metaphors and wordplay, social satire, and reducto ad absurdum.

These stories avoid high stakes, epic scale, and operatic emotions. Take the not-uncommon SF trope of the time warp that lets the heroes meet themselves. Some of these stories might be after Sense of Wonder (TM), or existential angst, or an excuse to show off the author’s grasp of technobabble. In The Star Diaries, it’s a story about how Ijon Tichy can’t get along with himself for the five minutes it takes to tighten a bolt. As the Tichies multiply they form a dysfunctional government that immediately loses itself in bureaucratic minutae. This is small-stakes comedy with a domesticity unusual in space opera: Tichy wakes himself in the middle of the night, squabbles with himself over breakfast. The fantastic, here, is not mind-blowing sense-of-wonder stuff: it’s everyday–maybe even disappointing.

The comic style is different, too. The fashion in humorous SF is snarky banter, or overt comedy in the vein of (but rarely as successful as) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Gorodischer, Lem, and company are more wry, taking a straight-faced, matter-of-fact tone. Tichy is a poker-faced narrator; Trafalgar is, if a bit more flippant, also sincere about his crazy stories. This subgenre shades into a less comic, more Borgesian kind of SF; Le Guin’s Changing Planes is an example.[2] I’d argue this style is a close relative of more satirical stories. The satirical and philosophical strands tend to mix–even Trafalgar alternates between slapstick and grasping at profundity.

An occasional weakness of Swiftian space opera is that, in the interest of satire, futuristic or alien societies might be their authors’ own cultures wearing a hat. For a lot of SF that’s the wrong approach: different and challenging futures can challenge default assumptions, suggest different possibilities, even just create interesting environments for adventure stories[3]. Also, as Trafalgar demonstrates, cultural assumptions date fast.

On the other hand, the science fiction genre could use a little more playfulness and a little less self-conscious earnestness. I suppose as long as that’s true, I’ll be forgiving towards books like Trafalgar.


  1. Trafalgar emphasizes he brought the Spanish over as “settlers,” not “conquistadors,” but the story doesn’t think to ask whether this makes any difference at all and it barely mentions Native Americans.  ↩

  2. I’d also give an honorable mention to Leena Krohn’s Tainaron; it’s off topic inasmuch as there’s no reason to believe the city of Tainaron is on another planet, or in another dimension, or anywhere else space opera usually takes us, but it has the same feel.  ↩

  3. Despite how I might sound sometimes, I’m not totally down on those!  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Return of Munchausen

I’ve written before about the Russian fantasist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Due to Soviet censorship, he went unpublished in his lifetime only to be rediscovered and translated in the new century. He took his place among my favorite writers on the basis of Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club. Autobiography of a Corpse and the latest release, The Return of Munchausen, are slightly lesser works but still good.

Cover of The Return of Munchausen

Baron Munchausen is as perfect a hero for Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky as he was for Terry Gilliam. Krzhizhanovsky writes philosophical fiction with the tools of the tall tale: literalized metaphors, wordplay, and so much anthropomorphism that his inanimate objects and abstract ideas can be livelier than his people. (Typical of Krzhizhanovsky’s technique is one character’s descent of a staircase: “Stairs scurried under Unding’s feet and then, damply through his worn-out soles, sidewalk asphalt.”)

Munchausen, for the uninitiated, is a fictional character loosely based on an actual German aristocrat. He’s a serial exaggerator. He rides cannonballs, vacations on the moon, and pulls himself out of swamps by his own hair–or claims to.[1]

Krzhizhanovsky’s Munchausen isn’t just a teller of tall tales, but a defender of fiction, an advocate for fantasy: “I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than other barons of my right to flights of fancy.” His motto is “truth in lies.” He has a “theory of improbability”: where probability theory studies things that happen many times, improbability theory studies things that have happened less than once. A scholar protests that Munchausen’s theory is all metaphor, but that’s the point: “People are fractions passing themselves off as ones… and the acts of a fraction are all fractional,” he argues. Probability alone isn’t a reliable guide to anything as unpredictably irrational as human beings.

So when Munchausen is asked to tour and report on the new Soviet Union, he returns with a lecture full of the usual impossible adventures. Here we see why Krzhizhanovsky had no luck getting published. The Russian sequence is a long, caustic vent about Krzhizhanovsky’s every frustration with his country. Secret police and famines get a look in, but Krzhizhanovsky aims most of his satire at the government’s control of ideas and its treatment of artists and intellectuals–understandably, maybe, in Krzhizhanovsky’s circumstances. Trains are fueled by burning books; Munchausen’s train crawls by inches because the engineer is an ex-professor who keeps stopping to read. Munchausen can see Soviet science is advancing because the scientists, lacking blackboards, are running after the trucks on which they’ve scrawled their equations. For modern readers some of Krzhizhanovsky’s less broad and more specific jokes are obscure enough to warrant endnotes: at one point Munchausen is sentenced to a “conditional execution,” which the notes tell us was a real punishment handed down on one occasion to an engineer whose skills the government couldn’t actually afford to lose. But even without the context there’s still plenty of wit here.

Krzhizhanovsky knows this is satire but Munchausen doesn’t share his latest author’s awareness: he thinks he’s created a flight of fancy, unmoored from reality. When he learns his lecture was nothing more than a comic exaggeration of the truth, Munchausen is stricken.

While this review was half-finished, I came across a weirdly appropriate line in one of the blogs I follow. Adam Roberts, in a review of a different book, quoted this bit from Martin Amis’s book Koba the Dread: “Amis says ‘it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’”

Munchausen is an intellectual anarchist. For him, tall tales represent freedom; absurdity opens up new imaginative possibilities. So it’s important to Munchausen that his tall tales actually are absurd–that they put some distance between themselves and the reality they depart from. If the world isn’t reasonable, Munchausen’s refusal to conform to reason is nothing special. Now reality itself is absurd enough to overtake Munchausen’s ability to reimagine it, and the jokes don’t seem so Pythonesquely anarchic anymore. Just bitter.


  1. The Baron is often misremembered as pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Next time you hear that figure of speech, remember that it describes an impossibility.  ↩

Catherynne M. Valente, Radiance

I read Radiance last year and took some notes towards a blog post but never wrote it. I came across the file and decided to correct that. This post will be vaguer it might have been if I’d come to it while the book was fresh in my mind, but this was one of the best books I read in 2016 and I wanted to register my approval. (It’s an expansion of Catherynne M. Valente’s short story “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” which is online if you want to see whether Radiance is your kind of thing.)

Cover of Radiance

Radiance views common SF tropes–multiverses, transhumanism, alien ecology–through the lens of the planetary romances written back when people still thought Mars might have canals. In the early 20th century humans, with help from the milk of the alien Callowhales, are living and making movies on Venus and Mars and the Moon. Black and white and silent movies, mostly, because the Edison company has the patent on color and sound.

Percival Unck directs fantasies and melodramas. His daughter Severin directs documentaries. Up until she disappears mysteriously while investigating the mysterious disappearance of a small colonial town on Venus. Percival can think of no better way to deal with his grief and uncertainty than to plan a movie about his daughter’s vanishing, one that might find a solution.

Catherynne M. Valente writes some of the best prose in contemporary SF. Radiance really lets her show off. It’s a documentary/assemblage novel, which is both a great worldbuilding device and an excuse to play with voice. There are scripts, and transcripts, and letters, and diaries, and news articles. And Percival Unck’s movie treatment, which changes style as he revises its genre from film noir to pulp space opera to a musical comedy gather-the-suspects-in-the-drawing-room finale. I knew this would be one of my favorite novels of the year when the mind-blowing, space-and-time bending answer to its central mystery was revealed by a vaudeville tune sung by a Callowhale.

Radiance is full of detectives, real and fictional. Sometimes both at once. At one point an actress famous for playing a sleuth finds herself doing real detective work, and the investigations of Anchises St. John, sole survivor of the lost colony, are fictionalized in Unck’s film treatment. It’s not always clear what’s real and what’s filtered through someone’s story.

People often make sense of their lives using narrative as an organizing principle. They turn life into stories. Which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, because reality is different from stories in crucial ways. For one thing, stories end. Most important questions have final, settled answers. Stories tie off all the loose ends in a way that’s emotionally satisfying; reality keeps unraveling more.

Moving from fact to fiction and back is how Percival ties up loose ends. He keeps a filmed diary and has no compunctions about re-staging his life to best effect. When Severin’s mother left her on his doorstep as a baby, Percival had his assistant carry her back out into the rain so he could dramatically restage her unexpected arrival. For Percival, that Severin is missing is in some ways worse than if she had died: it’s open-ended, questions forever unanswered. His film treatment changes styles because for Percival the key to solving Severin’s disappearance is figuring out its genre.

Severin turned to documentaries in reaction to Percival’s fictions, but she arranges her storylines, too, in her own way. She doesn’t restage her life… but when her expedition arrives on Venus and finds Anchises dazed and wandering the empty village, she puts off trying to talk to him until her crew has set up the lighting. As Severin’s former lover puts it, Percival “lived through things first and then reshot them to get them right, while she hung back until everything was perfect, then called action. Couldn’t live through a thing until the camera was rolling.” Documentaries aspire to objectivity, but it’s important to remember they’re also narratives, arguments building to possibly illusory conclusions.

Unlike a story, reality, barring the actual heat death of the universe, doesn’t actually end. That’s the anxiety-inducing thing about real life. But in the end I think Radiance suggests that maybe it’s also the good part.


On another, disconnected note… In a recent post on Philip K. Dick I wrote that my favorite thing about his writing is the prolifgacy of his imagination, the way he would just throw stuff into his novels. Radiance doesn’t resemble Dick’s work at all, but it’s equally generous with wild ideas. Valente gives us a nineteenth-century solar system, and an alternate history of the movies, and a spooky cosmic mystery, and the next step in human evolution, and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and a glorious patchwork of styles, formates, and genres, and… and I’m sure some people–

And yes, I know I’m setting up a straw man here, but it’s a straw man I’ve observed in the wild–

I’m sure there are people who would ask why we need all of this. Could you have a novel that explored endings, and disappearances, and filmmaking, and storytelling as a straightforward narrative? Or a conventional space opera? Or without the SF angle at all, setting it in the days of silent film?

Of course, the answer is, yes, you could, but it wouldn’t be this novel, one that explores those themes in this specific, individual way. And this novel is excellent. And it’s excellent partly because so many big concepts were generously, and confidently, stuffed into one novel. In that it reminds me of another favorite from the last couple of years, Jo Walton’s The Just City and its sequels, which combine Greek gods and social SF and time travel and robots and philosophical tangents and constantly refuse to take their plots in the direction you’d expect.

Sometimes I pick up a SF novel that’s had good buzz centered on a couple of high-concept ideas. Then I discover those ideas are all they have, the rest of the novel being filled in with default tropes, stock plots, and a voice that doesn’t distinguish itself from its neighbors on the shelf. It can be a little frustrating. It’s not that I don’t understand the comfort to be found in a slightly new but still familiar story. I often need comfort reading myself. (Especially lately!) But I already know how to find those books; it’s harder to find SF that surprises me. I need more novels like Radiance that are not cautious variations on other stories, but instead have the self-confidence to be inimitably themselves.

Philip K. Dick, Ubik

There are writers I count among my favorites even though if I made a list of my favorite books nothing they wrote would be on it. Philip K. Dick is one of those writers. I like his tone, the off-kilter feel of his writing, like he’s not bothering to smooth over the points where his world doesn’t join up properly. It matches the bemusement I’ve always felt when reality itself seemed too random or silly to believe. The real world doesn’t always join up properly, either.

The idea of Dick’s writing was a big influence on me even though I can’t honestly say he ever wrote a book I particularly loved. On my scale none of his novels rise past very good to great, unless it’s the imaginary Platonic ideal Dick novel he never quite wrote. Then again, a hypothetical perfectly artful Dick novel it might not have had what attracted me to his work in the first place: his “let’s just throw stuff in there, why not” attitude.

Cover of Ubik

Take Ubik. Joe Chip lives in the far-off world of 1992. Everything is coin-operated including Joe’s front door, which argues like one of the doors from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ensembles like “a cowboy hat, black lace mantilla, and bermuda shorts” or “a floral mumu and Spandex bloomers” are the height of fashion–Ubik introduces everybody by describing their ridiculous clothes. Joe’s employed by an agency for “inertials,” psychically powered people who counteract other people’s psychic powers. Joe hires a new inertial who counters precognition by traveling back in time to change the present. Meanwhile Joe’s boss Glen Runciter is losing touch with his dead wife, who helps run the company from cryogenic “half-life,” because the teenager a few crypts down keeps breaking into their conferences. Joe and Runciter travel to the moon with some inertials for a job but their contact turns out to be a talking robot bomb; Runciter dies. So Joe carts him back to Earth to be put in half-life. But Joe’s coins spontaneously acquire Glen Runciter portraits, food and cigarettes decay, gadgets turn into worn-out obsolete equivalents, and eventually the world around him becomes Des Moines in the 1940s. More worryingly, his intertial pals are spontaneously mummifying. Then Joe starts getting messages from Runciter directing him to look for something called Ubik that will solve all his problems…

Ubik is full of weird little side details that didn’t have to be there. Like, one character has a nightmare that’s invaded by a couple of psychics, and it’s genuinely disquieting but could just as easily have been cut. And there’s no reason at all for those weird clothes. But Dick must not have felt everything needed a reason. He had so many weird ideas he could just toss them around like glitter.

Dick is not among the great prose stylists of science fiction. He’s abupt, shambolic, and pulpy. Not that he can’t deliver moments of beauty or grab you with whatever emotion he wants you to feel; at times you can tell he put in the work. But the bulk of most Dick novels have this “just bang it out and send it off, I’m on a deadline here” vibe.

There’s the aforementioned scene in Ubik where Stanton Mick, who wants to hire the inertials, suddenly inflates, floats, and explodes. Ubik just says “Stanton Mick floated to the ceiling of the room, his arms protruding distendedly and rigidly” in the same tone it might use to describe Stanton walking across the room. The bomb is just there. And without much in the way of context: “‘I’ve heard of this,’ Runciter said to Joe. ‘It’s a self-destruct humanoid bomb. Help me get everybody out of here. They just now put it on auto; that’s why it floated upward.’” This is astonishingly casual. Runciter doesn’t sound shocked; neither he nor the narrative react like he’s in immediate danger. This casualness is typical of Ubik. When Joe discovers his pocket is full of Glen Runciter money it is at first just another aggravation at the end of a long and trying day. I mean, yeah, he knows it’s weird. But it’s the same kind of weird as ordering coffee and getting it already cold. Joe’s not immediately questioning everything he knows about reality, is what I’m saying.

Standards for what’s considered well-crafted in genre fiction are always changing. Today, a respectable SF novel builds up to the scenes on which the plot hinges. Forshadows the big reveals. Changes the prose style and pacing to suit sudden bursts of action. Artfully slips all the explanations the reader needs into the background as it goes.

Ubik… uh, doesn’t. Ubik is more like the pulp stories Raymond Chandler ruefully looks back on in “The Simple Art of Murder”:

…the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

Philip K. Dick is one of those “have a man come through a door with a gun” writers, only the guy he sends through the door has psychic powers and takes a bite out of the hero’s arm. Dick’s main virtue as a writer is that he’s not afraid to over-reach himself.

And, weirdly, his stylistic awkwardness helps. That humanoid bomb scene I described above is, technically, not well written. But Dick brilliantly captures the feel of dreams. Not the bluntly metaphorical dreams you often get in fiction, like writers use when they can’t think of a good way to work in a theme. I mean actual dreams with their arbitrariness and disjointed shifts. (Dick has a lot in common with David Lynch, here.)

Like… you’re in a meeting, and a guy floats up to the ceiling. And you suddenly know, the way dreamers suddenly know things, that the guy is a bomb. And all of this–the meeting, the floating man, the sudden knowledge–feels normal. Dreams don’t divide the banal from the unreal. You’re in one situation, then you’re in another. That’s how Dick writes in his pulpy “just get things down” mode. Moments other novels would build up to, make a big deal of, Dick describes matter-of-factly. Like the way Magritte undramatically, naturalistically painted a man with an apple for a face. So much of the hallucinatory quality of Dick’s novels comes from the contrast between his wild, prolifgate imagination and his straightforward delivery.

Dick’s style joins hands with his love of surrealism, and his flaws become virtues. I have no idea whether this was intentional on Philip K. Dick’s part. Whether it was or not, I think it’s brilliant.

This is not to criticize craft. As Chandler goes on to say of his years in the pulps: “As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better.” A well-crafted novel, all else being equal, beats a poorly-crafted one. It’s just that Dick’s writing, because of his particular, peculiar, circumstances, breaks the rule. When bad writing successfully creates an effect, intentionally or not, it’s no longer bad. It follows that any prose can be good prose–if only it’s used for the right job.

Anna Seghers, Transit

Half the posts on this blog begin by apologizing for not posting much. This is one of them. I spent 2016 increasingly preoccupied with and anxious about the news, then really preoccupied and anxious when the country decided to drive itself off a cliff, a situation for which my entire coping strategy consists of making the occasional dumb joke. My attention span has not been great and what books I’ve been able to finish include a lot of comfort fiction–game tie-in novels, mediocre Sherlock Holmes pastiches–that hasn’t inspired interesting thoughts.

So I need to occupy my mind and get it back into shape. Which means reading more seriously again (which is not always the same thing as reading books that are Serious, although this one is, a bit).

I have a shelf of unread NYRB Classics, a series with a good hit rate. So to distract myself from the news I picked up Anna Seghers’s Transit, a novel about a refugee crisis and the threat of fascism. I may not be very good at this.

Cover of Transit

Transit is set in 1937; the narrator escaped from a German concentration camp, and then a French prison camp, and finally washed up in Marseille under the name Seidler. (We never learn his real name.) Seidler is asked to deliver a letter to a writer named Weidel, who turns out to have killed himself. Seidler tries to deliver Weidel’s effects to the Mexican consulate–Weidel was trying to escape to Mexico, and Seidler figures the guy’s wife is already there. But the consulate staff think he’s Weidel and start arranging for his visas. Meanwhile, Seidler notices a woman who keeps showing up in the same cafés looking like she’s searching for someone. It’s Weidel’s wife, Marie. People keep telling her they’ve just seen her husband.

Seidler is oddly unconcerned at being one step ahead of the Nazis; he doesn’t feel fear until late in the novel upon seeing a few in a local hotel. Danger bores him: “Aren’t you sick of all these suspenseful tales about people surviving mortal danger by a hair, about breathtaking escapes?” he asks. Seidler would rather hear about everyday life: work, ordinary things. Some days when I know what he means.

Marseille is the last stop on the Continent for people on the way to Mexico, or Lisbon, or Brazil, or anywhere they can reach. What interests Seidler’s fellow refugees are visas, what you might remember from Casablanca as “Letters of Transit.” Refugees need a lot of visas. They need a visa to live wherever they’re going, and an exit visa to leave France, and a transit visa to pass through the countries in between. They all take effect and expire at different times, and if a refugee wants to move on–and avoid ending up in an internment camp–the dates have to line up exactly like the tumblers in a lock. Seidler just wants a residence permit that will let him stay in Marseille without getting arrested. France will only renew it if he’s working on getting a visa. So Seidler can only stay if he shows he wants to leave. It’s like somebody hired Franz Kafka to work on a prequel to Casablanca.

Transit as a whole is less interesting than this summary suggests. Not that the parts I just summarized aren’t fascinating. But Seidler is less interested in this stuff than he is in Marie. Marie appreciates Seidler’s friendship but isn’t that into him. Despite this he spends hefty chunks of novel obsessing over her, and feels aggrieved when she associates with another refugee, a doctor.[1] So Seidler tries to help Marie, but he’s trying to help her in some way that means he’ll leave with her, or she’ll stay with him, or at least she and the doctor will leave at different times. And he never quite tells her the truth about Weidel.

This plot–the man who fixates on a woman who isn’t mutually attracted and badgers or manipulates her until he gets the relationship he wants–drives me up the wall when reflexively dropped into a story by a writer who unthinkingly assumes this is what romance looks like. That’s not a problem Anna Seghers has–it’s not the main point of the novel and Seghers doesn’t put up a flashing neon sign to make sure every reader Gets It, but in the end it’s clear even to Seidler that he’s been wasting Marie’s time as well as his own. He’s looking back on his obsession with a certain amount of ruefulness. But if I wasn’t as bothered by the specific implementation of this plot as written by Anna Seghers, I was still impatient having to read through it.

In recent years a lot of online criticism–some of mine included–has poked at and mulled over plots and plot elements that treat as normal attitudes or stereotypes we’d like to get away from. Earlier I used the word “reflexively,” and that’s key–these plots are default narratives. They usually worm their way into stories when writers go with their first thoughts without moving on to the second. They define and reinforce stereotypes because they’re ubiquitous and rarely challenged by alternatives.

That ubiquity has an interesting side effect–or maybe an uninteresting side effect. Let’s assume for a moment you’re not interested in the question of whether stories reinforce stereotype or normalize dubious attitudes. When I see an argument take this turn, a question occurs to me that I never see asked or answered. Maybe you don’t care about the politics, but once you’ve seen the same plot unendingly reiterated in the same pattern in all corners of pop culture… at a certain point, aren’t you bored, as Seidler is with the suspenseful tales he’s heard from every fellow refugee? I was impatient with Transit not because Seidler is an entitled ass–it’s not like the novel rewards him for it. But he’s entitled in a way I’ve already seen in all kinds of older[2] fiction–novels, movies, every possible genre. The obsessed wannabe lover plot can be, and has been, dropped into any genre, format, or situation. It never changes, never tells us anything new.

This is my problem with, as we say nowadays, the problematic: when writers turn to these ancient chestnuts it’s usually in lieu of some more specific and interesting things they could have done if they’d had a second thought. When Transit foregrounds the obsession plot it’s not attending to the specific circumstances it’s set up or the unique questions and thoughts they might lead to. Seidler is thinking about Marie, or trying to arrange Marie’s life, while actually interesting things go on off to the side. That’s one of the points the novel is making, but this point is less interesting than what gets shoved into the margins to make it.

Having spent several paragraphs on that complaint… I still wouldn’t call Transit a bad book. When it focuses on its actual subject, it’s great. First, it’s an interesting window into a different world. Seghers was a refugee herself and wrote the novel not long after her experience, so the details of time and place are authentic–I was struck by Seghers’s description of pizza as an exotic novelty: “It’s round and colorful like an open-face fruit pie. But bite into it and you get a mouthful of pepper.” On a larger scale it’s remarkable that the world is falling apart–a foreign army has occupied the country, people are lining up to buy sardines, everybody’s juggling paperwork trying to avoid getting arrested and thrown into internment camps–yet everyone is so composed. People go to work, hang out in cafés, visit their lovers, and calmly discuss how they plan to flee the country. The greatest emergency of their lives is the new normal.

At the same time Transit has an allegorical streak. The first thing Seidler tells us is that he’s heard a refugee ship sank, and there may or may not be survivors, and a couple of people he knew were on board. Once the novel gets going it isn’t hard to guess who those people will be. Before then, though, Marie is already talking about Mexico as though it’s the afterlife: “When it’s all over, will there finally be peace as the doctor believes? Will we see each other again over there?” She hopes to see the husband she still doesn’t realize is dead. Seghers herself fled to Mexico to escape the Nazis. Maybe the upheaval really felt like the end of one life and the beginning of another. Seghers compares Seidler’s existence as a refugee in Marseille, his time in transit, to his life: uncertain, contingent, subject to absurd rules. In more than one sense he’s just passing through. His biggest problem is figuring out where and when he needs to stop moving.

But the best reasons to read Transit are the stories of the refugees Seidler meets, the ones he resents having to listen to. The woman who agrees to babysit two Great Danes so she can get a visa to deliver them to their owners, the couple who can’t work out compatible dates for their visas and alternate getting arrested, the family who decide to risk staying in France so they won’t have to abandon their dying grandmother… every chapter has a fascinating little story about a life sliding into absurdity. On the whole I’d recommend Transit, I think, if it sounds like your kind of thing. Just be prepared to skim a lot.


  1. We never learn the doctor’s real name, either, and I spent the whole book imagining him as Peter Capaldi.  ↩

  2. I think the “sympathetic stalker” plot is starting to die out. I mean, there’s that recent movie Passengers–when I heard the premise I immediately guessed the twist, then thought “Nah, they wouldn’t.” Except they did. But the encouraging thing is that the critical reaction has been almost unanimously “What were they thinking?  ↩