Category Archives: Books

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?  ↩

Mosaic Novels: Datura

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

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

Cover of Datura

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

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

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

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

Mosaic Novels: Speedboat

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

Cover of Speedboat

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

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

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

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

Mosaic Novels: The Book of Disquiet

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

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

Cover of The Book of Disquiet

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

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

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

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

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


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

Jacqueline Koyanagi, Ascension (and Starship SF)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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