Tag Archives: Science Fiction

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.

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!  ↩

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.

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.  ↩

The Clomping Foot of Orbis Tertius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Recent Reading, Unfinished and Ambivalent

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

Will Elliott, The Pilgrims

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

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

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

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

Graydon Saunders, The March North

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

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

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

Marta Randall, Journey

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

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

A. L. Kennedy, the Drosten’s Curse

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

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

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

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon

I’m often frustrated by the sameness of most modern SF novels’ voices. That sameness is made more stark when I read a book like Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon that has a voice of its own. Part of its individuality comes from the setting. This is a standard Earth-based first contact story, like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But these aliens, perhaps realizing we’ve seen an awful lot of U.S. and U.K. based visitations already, decide to park their spaceship in Lagos. More importantly for me–because at the moment it’s the kind of thing I notice–is that much of it is written in omniscient point of view instead of the close third person used by most modern genre fiction.

Cover of Lagoon

I sometimes think I’m tired of SF novels with casts of thousands, like A Game of Thrones. Maybe my problem is more with novels that combine huge casts with close third person, like A Game of Thrones.[1] They’re choppy. I’m just getting interested in a character and their situation when the story jumps to another and forces me to readjust; my momentum is broken. Omniscient narration flows, smoothly carrying the narrative from one character to the next.

Lagoon is free with its point of view. It can focus on one character, tour the inner voices of a crowd, or pull back to survey the city. There are chapters from the POVs of animals, first person witness statements–whatever the book needs in that moment. Some reviews have opined that most of Lagoon’s characters are a bit flat, and to some extent that’s true, but for the type of novel this is that’s fine. Lagoon isn’t any one character’s story. It’s a study of a city reacting to a historically weird event. The characters are mosaic tiles–just chips of color in themselves, but making a bigger, deeper picture.

It’s also a mosaic of genres. It’s first contact science fiction, but with regular sidesteps into fantasy, myth, and magic realism. Lagoon is the kind of book where the three main human characters turn out to be superheroes because, hey, why not. It reminded me of Douglas Adams even though it’s only a comedy in the old fashioned “not a tragedy” sense, maybe because of its willingness to enter the point of view of anyone or anything–there’s a bit with a bat that reminded me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s whale and bowl of petunias. In its early chapters Lagoon also resembles a caper story, maybe by Donald Westlake: It has a big and often eccentric cast, all with their own agendas and attitudes towards the central McGuffin, drifting through each other’s stories and occasionally converging in one place to bemuse each other.

These days it takes me a while to read a science fiction or fantasy novel; I keep stopping and starting. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the books I’m reading, but the genres have made me gun-shy. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I find most recent SF depressing and I’ve been conditioned to expect something awful to happen in any given book. No matter how well an SF novel is going, I’m never quite convinced that there won’t be a massacre in the next chapter. This is how I read Lagoon at first, too. In this case my apprehension might have been enhanced by the entire history of the aliens-on-earth trope. These situations never seem to end well. Half the time the aliens are invading monsters as made famous by The War of the Worlds. If the aliens are friendly, then the humans will be paranoid and fearful and the lesson will be that the real monsters are us.

But the occasional tense moment aside, the meeting of humans and aliens goes smoothly. And maybe that’s partly because Lagoon’s magic realist side is nudging it away from the standard tropes of the alien visitation genre: there are larger powers looking out for everybody. But mostly Lagoon is one of those books where most people mean well and the ones who don’t aren’t all-powerful.


  1. For me A Game of Thrones symbolizes everything wrong with science fiction and fantasy in the 21st century.  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club, collections of fantastic tales by a once-forgotten Soviet writer, were two of my favorite books from the last few years. So it’s odd that I just last month finished the third volume, Autobiography of a Corpse. Or maybe not; it didn’t rock my world to the extent the last two volumes of Krzhizhanovsky did. Not that it wasn’t good. It just feels less new. I’ve now read enough of his stories to notice when he repeats himself. His themes and tics are familiar: loss of identity, negations, anthropomorphized ideas, the word “I” used as a noun. Most interesting writers circle back to the same wells, and that’s not a problem as long as they ring interesting changes on their preoccupations. It’s just not as revelatory.

Cover of Autobiography of a Corpse

Still, there are good stories here; all that’s lost for me is the element of surprise. “The Collector of Cracks” deals with a mad scientist who discovers that time is made of discrete moments separated by “cracks,” like the lines separating frames of a film. In “Yellow Coal” another scientist discovers a way to generate electricity from meanness and spite. In “The Unbitten Elbow” a man’s obsession with biting his own elbow becomes a media phenomenon and sparks serious philosophical debates. In “Bridge Over the Styx” a supernatural frog proposes “a bridge suspended between the eternal ‘no’ and the eternal ’yes,” allowing the dead to mingle with the living.

What struck me this time around was how Krzhizhanovsky uses anthropomorphism. He writes about objects and ideas like they’re characters: A scholar writing a dissertation on “The Letter ‘T’ in Turkic Languages” tells how “the bustling ‘T’ would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark” at the end of a work day; the elbow-biter’s manager portrays the elbow as equal contestant in a wrestling match, at the end of every show declaring the elbow a winner.

At the same time, many of Krzhizhanovsky’s characters admit to feeling as though they’re ideas, human abstractions losing themselves in the cracks and seams of the world, like the “0.6th of a person” imagined by the narrator of “Autobiography of a Corpse.” The nameless narrator feels dead in life, and knows his disconnection from humanity is leading to his actual death, but he’s cheered by the thought that he’ll live on as an indelible ghostly image in the mind of the inheritor of his manuscript: the next tenant of his apartment. As a figment, he feels more alive than ever.

Fans call science fiction the “literature of ideas”–somewhat ridiculously, since you’d be hard-pressed to find interesting literature of any genre that doesn’t contain ideas, but we’ll let that pass. They mean that SF is writing in which the ideas are as important as the characters, or are even written about as though they are characters. Krzhizhanovsky takes this to the limit: in Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, ideas and people are interchangeable, and can go back and forth from one state to the other, like the living and the dead traveling the bridge over the Styx.

A Very Confused Detective

This year I read two Stanislaw Lem novels I’d never read before. The Invincible didn’t impress me, but The Investigation is one of his better books.

The Investigation is Lem’s take on the British mystery. As you might expect the subject isn’t the usual mundane murder: Lieutenant Gregory of Scotland Yard is assigned to look into reports of dead bodies found moved with no one around to move them. It seems corpses are getting up and walking.

Cover of The Investigation

Generally[1] I think Lem is at his best in his satirical books, like The Cyberiad, The Star Diaries, and A Perfect Vacuum. The Investigation isn’t one of those, but it’s not dry and numbingly earnest like The Invincible. Lem’s prose is good here, with sharp and memorable descriptions, as when Gregory looks at his fellow train passengers and sees “a sea of accidental faces.”

The Investigation is set in detective-novel England as seen from Poland. In the first few pages we hear of places like Engender, Planting, and Spittoon, and minor characters with names like Thicker and Samuel Filthey. Lem drops these into an entirely straight-faced conversation about animate corpses. It reads like a CSI briefing done in Monty Python voices. Lem surrounds straight man Gregory with interestingly grotesque characters.[2] The best is the birdlike, irascible statistician Sciss, who is incensed by the suspicion that someone might be making fun of mathematics.

Where The Investigation shines is in its surrealism. Lem writes like a dream here, literally: when he drops in a dream sequence it’s not a typical allegorical novel dream, it actually has the disjointed, illogical feel of a real nightmare. Yet it’s still one of those dream sequences you don’t initially realize is a dream, which says a lot about the novel’s tone. Gregory is, after all, investigating walking corpses. Meetings with his superior often take place at night, or in darkened rooms, as if Scotland Yard has instituted mood lighting policies. The case culminates with the nightmarish image of a body moving like a wind-up toy, and I can’t imagine a horror movie pulling off a creepier image than the one The Investigation evoked in my imagination.

The more impossible the case seems the more Gregory moves out of the ordinary world, and the more alienated he becomes. His life outside Scotland Yard is a series of small awkward failures to connect to other people, from the bartender whose simple questions about dinner he’s too abstracted to understand to a humiliatingly unsuccessful attempt to give a few coins to a beggar. Gregory is ultimately so confused that he walks down a tunnel, finds another person blocking his way, and only belatedly realizes he’s walked into a mirror.

Like the astronauts in The Invincible, Gregory is dealing with an apparently intelligent phenomenon that may have no intelligence behind it at all. Sciss’s best explanation for the animate corpses is essentially that some random physical phenomena happened to come together in just the right way to make the dead walk. For Gregory this calls to mind a metaphor of the universe as a bowl of soup in which bits randomly clump together to form something whole. Improbable, but as Lem wrote in another novel, mathematically improbable events sometimes happen anyway. Lem was seemingly fascinated by randomness and probability, returning to the theme over and over. (One of the fake book reviews in A Perfect Vacuum covers a book arguing that if the laws of probability are true then the universe itself, being so improbable, cannot possibly exist.) Lem’s characters seek order in statistical chaos. Many of his novels hinge on distinguishing between meaningful, intelligent phenomena and pareidolia: the misapplied pattern-seeking that, for instance, lets us see faces in clouds. His aliens are really alien. Is Solaris bringing visitors’ memories to life for a reason, or is it an autonomic response, like white blood cells reacting to a virus? Is it possible, without anthropomorphizing, for humans to understand what’s happening on Eden? Most of Lem’s stories and themes come back to the limits of human ability to comprehend an infinite, incomprehensible universe.[3] (In this Lem has a weird thematic parallel to H. P. Lovecraft, although happily Lem’s preoccupation with incomprehensibility is based in a sense of wonder, not xenophobia.) The Investigation takes these themes out of their science fictional context and applies them to the detective novel.

How readers interpret the genre of The Investigation will affect how they interpret Sciss’s theory. Gregory can’t decide what genre he’s in. Sometimes he’s seduced by Sciss’s ideas—if the human mind can’t understand everything, he reasons at one point, maybe it’s irrelevant whether an explanation seems to make sense. Sometimes he’s not buying it: the outbreak of walking dead must have some human intelligence behind it, and he increasingly suspects Sciss himself. But because the name on the cover is Stanislaw Lem and not Agatha Christie, the reader knows the impossible may be happening.

And that’s what Gregory ultimately confirms. But his superintendant has a more mundane theory—a truck-driving prankster—that almost fits. And it’s a tidy theory, since the suspect has since died and wouldn’t be inconvenienced by the accusation. In the end it’s not clear what Scotland Yard’s going to go with. Is a tidy but probably wrong explanation better, or an unsatisfactory mystery? Lem, as you might expect from somebody who lived in Communist Poland, suggests the authorities would rather be satisfied than right. The real horror isn’t the walking dead—it’s the thought that the universe might be too big, random, and weird for human beings to get their heads around.


  1. Exceptions include Solaris, natch.  ↩

  2. The biggest problem with The Investigation is that, as is often the case with older SF, it’s lopsidedly male. Only a handful of women appear and we’re well into the novel before one even gets any lines. I’m mentioning the biggest flaw in a footnote because it’s an all too common problem in older SF, and not even an interesting problem. There’s only so much I can think of to say about it beyond “it’s this crap again.”  ↩

  3. I haven’t read Lem’s philosophical book Summa Technologiae, but in it he apparently argues for something like the Singularity: eventually, he suspects, humans will reach the point where we have so much information we can’t process it all.  ↩

A Less Apocalyptic Postapocalypse

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre won the 1978 Nebula and the 1979 Hugo awards for best novel. It also won the Locus Award, given on the basis of a poll run by Locus magazine. Its first chapter was originally published as a novelette called “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand.” That got a Nebula, too. People really liked Dreamsnake, is what I’m saying. Despite this, it was out of print for years and is now only available as an ebook. Apparently it got caught in a couple of publisher meltdowns. I’d at first wondered whether it was just so different from the last twenty years’s worth of science fiction that publishers didn’t know what to do with it.

Cover of Dreamsnake

While checking the dates on those awards I came across Tor.com’s rundown on the 1979 Hugo awards and there were multiple comments to the effect that Dreamsnake hasn’t aged well. Which is weird. I mean, yes, this is a very 1970s novel. It’s a post-apocalypse where the apocalypse was a nuclear exchange, not a climate disaster, pandemic, or zombie swarm. Humanity enjoys copious free love because someone has invented biofeedback-based birth control, perhaps following the discovery of a surviving Whole Earth Catalog. Dreamsnake does not contain dolphins, but if it did they would probably talk. But these are minor quirks, not problems. Many, many SF novels still considered classics have aged far worse. There are more interesting ways in which Dreamsnake departs from today’s SF, and to me those differences make it seem fresh.

I read Dreamsnake a few months ago. I decided to finish and post this review after The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet because Dreamsnake is another SF novel set in a world that doesn’t feel malign. Which is funny, because it’s a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland. But it’s the rare post-apocalyptic story about how civilization still functions, more or less.

Snake is a doctor on the post-apocalyptic equivalent of her internship. She travels through scattered communities with a trio of snakes engineered to produce medicine instead of venom. Unfortunately a patient’s family freaks out over her dreamsnake, the snake that provides anesthetic, and kills it. Dreamsnakes are really hard-to-get space snakes, so this is equivalent to the new intern letting somebody smash the MRI machine. Snake hopes to salvage her trip by finding a new dreamsnake, or at least some clues to how to convince the damn things to breed. Meanwhile over in the B plot Arevin, a relative of the ophidiophobes, leaves to find Snake’s people and let them know the dead snake incident was totally not her fault.

Many modern science fiction and fantasy novels follow one of two templates: endless, meandering serials with oversized casts and heavily media-influenced series whose individual volumes read like Hollywood movies. Dreamsnake is a single, complete, not-overly-long novel with only a couple point-of-view characters. Like Long Way it’s a picaresque novel with ongoing plot strands that come up at the climax. (Between these novels I’m coming to realize how much affection I have for this narrative structure.) An episodic structure is exactly what this novel needs to express its themes: moving Snake between different people with different cultures and technologies, and showing them coexisting, is the point. Arevin’s subplot gives another perspective on the places Snake visits, and reveals more about her society without having to send her home.

The different sub-stories allow Dreamsnake to run its themes through several variations. What’s interesting about the novel’s setup is Snake’s reaction to the death of her dreamsnake. It would be easy to put all the blame on the people who attacked her snake, who honestly should have known better. But Snake also blames herself for not getting how afraid they were, or explaining enough: she “didn’t understand them until too late.” She should have talked to them more.

Snake’s adventures center around communication, and problems caused by miscommunication and bad assumptions. An exile from a domed city dies because she went prospecting in a radioactive crater; her people lied to her so often she no longer believed in the danger. A young man is given outdated information on those birth control techniques and causes an unwanted pregnancy. Snake discovers and rescues an abused child by being the first person to pay any attention to her. On a less fraught note, Arevin discovers late in his journey that he may have mildly offended several people by misunderstanding what they meant when they asked if there was anything they could do for him.[1] In between, Dreamsnake is punctuated by small misunderstandings cleared up by talking. Snake solves problems by asking questions, sharing information, and considering other points of view. She loses her temper with stupidity or genuine evil, but generally she’s patient, tolerant, and curious.

This is unusual for a post-apocalyptic hero. Post-apocalyptic fiction is squarely in the middle of that strain of SF that assumes heroes are tougher than they are smart. This is especially true of media SF, but given that novels are a textual medium it’s odd that many SF novels also have heroes who don’t primarily solve problems by using their words.

SF has a bad habit, going back to “The Cold Equations,” of valorizing people who make what are laughably called “hard choices” to survive. By this they mean that their heroes will compromise their morals to ensure their own safety. This never seems as difficult to these heroes as the phrase “hard choices” would imply. Nowhere is this a bigger cliché than in an apocalyptic wasteland. Survivors lock the riff-raff out of the fallout shelter and leave the weak and injured for the zombies. This is not how most people behave during disasters in real life. That’s because real life doesn’t have writers out to punish anyone who doesn’t live up to their standard of toughness. Post-apocalyptic heroes make hard choices because they’re in the power of authors who contrived their worlds to require them.

But Dreamsnake’s world isn’t inherently hostile to the people in it, so most of those people are reasonable. Dreamsnake has villains, including an abusive guardian and what’s basically a drug dealer, but it’s interesting how tawdry and how small these villains are. The narrative doesn’t center on them and they don’t drive it. They’re not strong, charismatic, or clever. They aren’t Snake’s biggest problems; they seem more like symptoms of problems. In Dreamsnake’s world villains aren’t powerful, just pathetic.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, Dreamsnake is not a utopian novel. This is, again, a world with radioactive craters. But the communities that are left are getting along okay because humanity didn’t abandon every value it ever held the moment the bombs fell. Most people do their best to cooperate and to fix things, and McIntyre didn’t construct their world to constantly pull their football away. I wish Dreamsnake had been a bigger influence on the SF genre. It needs more novels where evil is weak and heroes solve problems with kindness and curiosity instead of face-punching.

In closing, I should really try harder to review books I liked on their own merits instead of spending most of the review comparing them to the ones I disliked.


  1. They forgot to add “Nudge nudge, wink wink.”  ↩