All posts by Wesley

On Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, and Worldbuilding

1.

A critical term used in science fiction and fantasy and rarely any other genre is worldbuilding. Hardly anybody talks about how other genres build worlds because other genres take place in a simulacrum of reality. The real world, we assume, doesn’t need to be built.

The most hapless world builders, it’s agreed, assemble the world before the story. This is not always bad—for some writers thinking up a place and asking “what could happen here?” might get results. But some wannabe writers get stuck perpetually constructing their worlds like cosmological Winchester Mystery Houses and never get around to making anything happen in them.

Which makes sense when you realize what they’re building: pantheons of gods, lists of kings, timelines of historic wars, magic systems—what M. John Harrison calls “the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there.” I see how they might want to start with the big picture—think how much of the world today was shaped long ago by the Roman empire, or the Reformation. But exhaustive-survey cosmology is mostly not story-stuff—at least, not the stuff of the stories these writers imagine themselves telling. Rome shaped our world, but how many contemporary novels need to explain how? You don’t need to know who founded London to get the point of David Copperfield.

In Aspects of the Novel E. M. Forster made a famous distinction between story and plot. For Forster story is a description of things happening, a plot is that plus cause and effect. “A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”

He has a point, although I can’t read this without wincing because, dammit Forster, you’ve got those words the wrong way round—“plot” is a better word for the bare description and “story” for that plus meaning. Either way meaning is the point—“the queen died of grief” is not just cause and effect, it’s a cause and an effect readers immediately get. They can start thinking about what work the queen’s death is doing in the story. By contrast, it’s going to take Herculean authorial labor to guide the reader to a point where “after the trade negotiations over the Blorple crystals fell apart in year 37 of the Meat Century, the Duke of Gorp went to war on Mustachia” tells them anything.

The world is not the point of SFF. It’s an element a story uses to say something, a vehicle for expressing a point of view. The point of view comes before the world; it’s the stuff the world is built of.

2.

Cover of The Mezzanine

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is about an office worker (who is maybe Baker, or maybe not) buying new shoelaces on his lunch break. The whole novel takes place in the narrator’s reverie as he rides the elevator back to his office. Most SFF fans would not consider this a plot in the Forster sense but its mundanity makes it a usefully extreme demonstration of how to infuse descriptions with meaning.

The Mezzanine notices ordinary, everyday actions in precise detail. Here’s the narrator opening a milk carton: “the radiant idea that you tore apart one of the triangular eaves of the carton, pushing its wing flaps back, using the stiffness of its own glued seam against itself, forcing the seal inside out, without ever having to touch it, into a diamond-shaped opening which became an ideal pourer…” From there the narrator’s thoughts open out into the history of milk packaging, and memories of home milk delivery—how it worked, how it gradually ended.

He recalls the precise movements you make to use a stapler. The unspoken rules governing a trivial interaction with a coworker. The relative merits of different strategies for putting on your socks. The efficiencies we develop around daily routines, like his discovery that when he forgets his deodorant there’s a way to put it on without taking off his shirt. The feelings we have and unconscious calculations we make over actions so commonplace we long ago stopped noticing them.

What makes The Mezzanine more than a novella-length catalog of trivialities is that Baker is deeply interested in these details. His narrator remembers placing objects alone against white cardboard backgrounds when he was a child, how it made any object seem worthy of attention. Trivialities segue into bigger philosophical questions—this is not just a cause-and-effect plot but a chain of ideas. How do I know when I’m an adult? What if I’m not important? What does “important” vs. “unimportant” even mean when applied to human lives?

What’s life about? We remember big events—a wedding, a birth, the first day at a new job. But the time we spend on those landmarks pales before the time we spend sitting, typing, eating, shopping, commuting, tying our shoelaces. Inane interactions with people we barely know. Putting on our clothes in the morning and taking them off at night. These time-fillers and maintenance activities are in The Mezzanine “the often undocumented daily texture of our lives.” Disregarding details means missing most of your life.

The narrator is struck by a line from Marcus Aurelius: “Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!” The Mezzanine argues we should philosophize where chance finds us, take an interest in everything we spend our time doing whether or not it’s interesting.

3.

Twenty years ago (I shriveled up like a leaf as I typed that) a parody by a writer named Mark Rosenfelder went the 2004 equivalent of “viral”.“If all stories were written like science fiction stories” described an airplane trip in the explanatory voice of golden age SF:

The surprisingly large passenger area was equipped with soft benches, and windows through which they could look down at the countryside as they flew 11 km high at more than 800 km/h. There were nozzles for the pressurized air which kept the atmosphere in the cabin warm and comfortable despite the coldness of the stratosphere.

Sizable chunks of golden age SF stories took this explanatory tone, infodumping about their fictional innovations to the reader. Skim any of the out-of-copyright SF stories on Project Gutenberg and you’ll probably find something similar.

But it’s also a lot like what Nicholson Baker is doing all through The Mezzanine! Compare it to the bit about the milk carton. But the parody, like the middling SF it’s parodying, is flat, affectless. Anhedonic. That’s not The Mezzanine: to Baker a milk carton is a “radiant idea.” As the narrator describes tearing open its eaves and using its seam against itself you feel his pleasure in its workings.

The Mezzanine is suffused with joy. Baker approaches milk packaging and escalators and shoelaces with—heck, I’ll just say it—a sense of wonder. The proliferation of shampoos in CVS is an astonishment, the perforations on a paper towel an underappreciated technological miracle. All but the best SFF struggles to infuse deep time and infinite space with wonder; Baker can find it in an office men’s room.

4.

It’s a commonplace in SFF criticism that infodumps are boring. But infodumps aren’t the problem.

The Mezzanine is a fascinating book and, again, all infodump. The key is that its essays are not just plot-scaffolding, or world-scaffolding. They aren’t purely functional prose getting the book from one place to another or showing how neatly its world fits together. They’re part of the book’s arguments.

An element of a story that does not even tangentially tie into the story’s themes is an element that did not interest the writer. Any element of a story not infused with meaning will be boring, whether it’s an infodump or a love scene or a climactic fight. The point of view comes before the world.

5.

Sometimes Baker’s narrator wonders what it means to be the kind of guy whose philosophy dreams of shoelaces and paper towels: “I was the sort of person whose biggest discoveries were likely to be tricks to applying toiletries while fully dressed. I was a man, but I was not nearly the magnitude of man I had hoped I might be.” On the other hand, a footnote praises people who don’t seem to have accomplished much yet know “all that can be known about several brief periods of Dutch history, or about the flowering of some especially rich tradition of terra-cotta pipes.” These people, Baker declares, quietly sustain civilization.

Most SFF novels are about heroes, people with exaggerated agency. Other people may not think they’re important, but they wind up in the right place at the right time to change the world. They’re people of magnitude. This seems unremarkable to SFF fans but is one of the strangest aspects of SFF. How many mainstream novels are about heroes? Not a lot. Most find meaning in the lives of people who don’t bend the world to their will. Even in other kinds of heroic genre fiction—adventure stories, mysteries—heroes solve small problems, intervening in a few lives. (Sherlock Holmes solves mostly domestic problems, just a few of national significance, and never saves the world.)

Most of us live in the long tail of historical significance. The books that speak most deeply to most people deal with problems of our magnitude and help us come to terms with our mundanity. Much of SFF assumes without thinking about it—and, in assuming, inadvertently argues—that the only people of significance or interest are the ones whose lives take place on the cosmological/world-historical scale of exhaustive worldbuilding. Part of becoming an adult is accepting that you’re really Toiletry Application Guy, and that being this kind of person is okay. That so much SFF daydreams about being someone of greater magnitude is a sign of its continued immaturity.

(It’s a side issue, but there’s also the political naïvety encouraged by stories where the world is changed exclusively through personal heroism instead of the long-term cooperation and compromise change tends to require in real-world democracies.)

6.

Some SFF exhaustively surveys the world. Some SFF has what might be the opposite problem. (Although it’s not so opposite that the same story can’t tend in both directions, as bad epic fantasy often does!) We’re on a spaceship, but what kind of spaceship? A swordsman walks into a tavern, but what kind of tavern? Most fiction doesn’t stop to describe the world at length but will drop a few important details, enough to clue us in to what’s significant. Some SFF assumes its readers come equipped with a mental store of stock genre furnishings. It’s assumed we’ve seen spaceships and fantasy taverns before and know what they look and feel like.

Based on the tone of a story we can say this spaceship must be like the Enterprise, and that one like the Millennium Falcon. In the age of remakes and remixes this might even be what the writer wants. But these spaceships are indistinguishable from those earlier spaceships. Specificity is lacking. What’s the operating system like on the computers? Is there a background noise that gets on your nerves until one day you stop noticing? Are the chairs comfortable? If it’s a city-sized ship, do people get around on bicycles? Has the crew figured out a trick to keep the sliding doors open?

What a character notices about their world tells us about the character. What the narrator asks us to notice about the world tells us about the world, and about the narrator, and hints at the story’s preoccupations. A story whose narrator and characters don’t notice much, asking the reader to fill in the details of the world, is leaving opportunities to communicate on the table. A spaceship that’s not specific is not significant, in the sense that it doesn’t signify anything.

Once when asked what she’d change about her work, Ursula K. Le Guin joked that she regretted not mentioning Anarres’ street-corner pickle barrels in The Dispossessed. She didn’t mean she’d passed up a chance to explain how pickle barrels were a cosmologically important puzzle piece in the Hainish universe. It’s a detail that would have said something unique and evocative about Anarres.

It’s hard to connect with a world when the immediate environment doesn’t feel specific—if characters aren’t noticing the details that should matter most to them. We’ve seen an office and a CVS; they’re naturally part of our stock furnishings. But The Mezzanine notices specific meaningful details that remind us of what it is like to exist in them—how a drug store feels. Exhaustive SFF instead spends its time on abstractions like magic systems or some kind of pixie/gnome war from fifty years ago. It doesn’t philosophize where chance finds its characters.

Let’s return to that M. John Harrison line, part of a short online rant that stuck in a lot of memories, mine included, calling worldbuilding “the clomping foot of nerdism”:

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.

Worldbuilders want their worlds to feel real but it’s hard to get that feeling from an exhaustive survey. Lifelike worlds aren’t built from the top down, but from the characters and their surroundings out. They allow for ambiguity, lacunae in our knowledge, the way reality feels no obligation to make sense. Exhaustive worldbuilding aims for worlds logical enough to be mastered, which aren’t worlds at all but clockwork orreries. We can hear the gears click.

7.

The Mezzanine focuses on the most mundane details of an insignificant office worker’s uneventful lunch hour. It feels more real than the most encyclopedic and carefully worked-out photocopy of Middle Earth because of the loving attention it pays to the world. “Worldbuilding” is a term applied to SFF but realist fiction also builds worlds, using a lot of the same techniques. (I’d say SFF’s worlds are imaginary while realist fiction’s world is real—but is it? Maybe it gives us versions of the real world as filtered through different writers’ points of view.) Properly done worldbuilding is not so much building as describing a world, starting where the characters are and radiating out to wherever the writer’s themes take them.

In M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again something big is happening to the world, a literal sea change. Its two protagonists stay on the margins, see only its edges; like Nicholson Baker they attend to what is striking and memorable in their own lives. That attention to life is the stuff the book’s meaning is built from. We don’t need the details on what’s happening to the larger world. Harrison philosophizes where chance finds him. The Sunken Land is the most vivid work of SFF I read last year.

It’s time for SFF to dare to be trivial.

On Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno’s Tone

1.

What I mean is, I’m writing on Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno’s book Tone, not their, y’know, tone. Although that’s interesting, too. This is imaginative criticism, not dryly analytical but poetic. Books about art can also be art.

Cover of Tone

Tone, as a literary concept, isn’t as easily defined as plot or character. “Tone” seems to mean less the more you repeat it. (Tone. Tone? Tone tone tone.) Online literary discourse (and it is mostly discourse, in its incarnation as the term for sniping and squabbling on various Twitter methadone sites, rather than discussion or conversation) hinges on plot, character, and visible surface politics, and not much else. Tone mostly comes up in the context of accusations that someone is trying to police it. You start to feel like any consideration of it is cop-brained.

But it does mean something, albeit something elusively complex; Samatar and Zambreno are approaching a definition, not declaring one finalized and laminated for safekeeping. Singular authority is what this book is running from; it’s written in first person plural for a reason.

2.

It’s not voice, for one thing. A book with a consistent tone can contain many voices and one voice can speak in different tones. Readers often have very different feelings about the first three Earthsea books and Tehanu. (I’m lukewarm on the former and loved the latter.) They’re all in Ursula K. Le Guin’s voice but she’s writing in different tones.

Some of the metaphors Samatar and Zambreno use to approach tone:

  • Windows. (Lighted windows, stained glass windows, computer windows.) A window frames what you see through it, maybe colors it. You can be inside looking out or outside looking in. Is this the difference between the writer and the reader? Which is which?

  • Synesthesia. Tone can be a color—some books are grey, some blue. Tone can be an odor or a background noise. Sense-impressions create atmospheres; atmospheres remind us of sense-impressions.

  • Speaking of atmospheres: Ecology. Tone is established through relationships—how the materials of a text relate to each other in a complex web, like the elements of an ecosystem.

Samatar and Zambreno illustrate their arguments with close readings of several novels, and their reading of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn lays out (even for someone like me who has not yet read it) how the ecological metaphor works. Samatar and Zambreno argue The Rings of Saturn has a distant tone, an atmosphere of parts:

  • The Rings of Saturn is structured by a long walk through Sussex—a distance travelled horizontally—after “a long stint of work.”
  • The book repeatedly watches things from heights—from a cliff, a plane, the top of a well.
  • There’s a model of the Temple of Jerusalem, which not only seems distant—we look down on models like we’re looking from a great height—but models something distant in time. The novel ponders the history of the territory the narrator walks (and “the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place”), and also thinks for a while about the 17th century writer Thomas Browne.
  • Sebald’s prose is itself old-fashioned, temporally distanced, originally written in an archaically-tinged German.

Writers arrange images, incidents, and language to resonate against (or with) each other. And then this feedback loop happens: the resonance becomes an organizing principle in itself; readers interpret images, incidents, and language through the tone.

3.

Tone is a general exploration of tone, and also offers readings of several specific books, and at a certain point you realize you’re also reading cultural criticism. Samatar and Zambreno are writing about the tone of the world—the affective atmospheres we breathe without noticing.

The books Tone analyzes, in relation to each other, set a tone—Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, about a Black woman academic; Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate, about a writer working a temp job at an Amazon warehouse; Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, about people working absurd, meaningless jobs; Sebald’s meditations, which take in historical disasters. Samatar and Zambreno investigate tones specific to their own experiences as women in 21st century academia (the atmosphere breathed by a visiting scholar, for instance) and more broadly the tone of the world everyone shares, where capitalism is a sickening and collapsing end in itself instead of a means.

Tone is about the relations between elements in a text, but it’s also about seeing the relations between people in a culture that atomizes us and nudges us into an individualist mindset: we’re the hero, others supporting extras. In the end, Tone concludes, the book has been as much about “making a space where certain things can be said” as about tone itself.

Good criticism, like any other kind of good writing, has got to do more than one thing at a time.

4.

These points where Samatar and Zambreno talk about tone in ecological terms struck me hardest. Another word for an ecosystem is the environment. “Environment” can also mean a social or cultural or architectural environment. In any case it’s an arrangement of materials that relate to each other in particular ways and create particular effects (or affects), and we are among those materials in both senses of the word.

In the Peanuts strip that ran August 11, 1970, Linus is just back from a trip. Everywhere he went he saw the same malls and motels and restaurants they had back home. “Every town looks like every other town… It doesn’t matter where you go… you never left!”

A lot of SFF books—popular fiction in general, really, but SFF is the genre where I keep most up to date—feel like featureless lumps of gray teflon. My attention slides off them. I’ve always found the reasons hard to pin down—nebulous and most likely myriad. But one piece of the puzzle that is my alienation from pop culture is likely a loss of cultural biodiversity. 21st century SFF favors reboots and retellings. It’s marketed as bullet lists of safely familiar “tropes” legoed together into microtargeted subgenres. Every book needs its comp titles; the most marketable use mostly the same materials in mostly the same configurations.

Tone is part of this. High-profile SFF stays within a limited range of marketable tones—straightforwardly invisible, snarky, heartwarming, spunky (this last usually written in first person present tense). SFF paints deep space, fairyland, and contemporary New York in the same tones; they color the speech of medieval Europe, the Paleolithic tundra, and posthuman Pluto. Tonally, these stories are interchangeable geography-of-nowhere theme park suburbs. A literature where, no matter where you are in space or time, you can always get McDonalds.

(It’s easy to see why media execs are comfortable with AI art: AI is inherently remixed, no potentially off-putting tone of its own. A portfolio of proven successes blended into a palatable Soylent shake.)

Samatar and Zambreno quote a speaker at a conference who says Kafka’s style is unlike any other kind of German, like a “meteor” fallen to earth. What with the books’s focus on relationships I don’t feel like it makes sense to talk about this as individuality of tone. Maybe specificity is the right word. Kafka compels because the tone of his work, like the language, is determinedly specific.

Samatar and Zambreno write that the most compelling reason to return to a book is “to breathe that air again.” But first it needs air of its own.

A Short Post on a Weird Dream

A couple nights ago I had a dream about big animation companies basing movies on public domain stories. Apparently my dreams are doing media criticism now, possibly more competently than I do.

I couldn’t remember much of the dream on waking, but one line of dialogue lodged steadfastly in my brain: “And that’s why Ratatouille is involved in the story of Cain and Abel.”

(I have never seen Ratatouille, but evidently I’ve absorbed enough Ratatouille facts from memes and references for it to turn up in a dream.)

This sentence left me unaccountably disturbed. First, I recall it carried the subtext that Pixar, or whoever made that movie, had somehow permanently embedded Ratatouille in the Old Testament—had in some Philip K. Dickian way rewritten more than 2000 years of cultural memory, and no one now recalled any other version. Which is absolutely something big media companies would do if they could pull it off.

Second… well, what was Ratatouille doing in the immediately post-Edenic world? It can’t have been good. Natural enemies, hell—that rat and that snake are working together.

Interesting Links, August 2023

I haven’t been writing very fast lately, but here are some links I saved in recent months, since the last time I did a links post:

On Stanislaw Lem’s The Chain of Chance

The Chain of Chance is, first, not a direct translation of the title. The book’s Wikipedia entry—not the greatest source, I know—renders it as Catarrh, or Rhinitis. Hay fever. Not a disease, an annoyance.

1.

Cover of The Chain of Chance

What’s most striking about The Chain of Chance is its structure, which is not conventional at all. (As we’ll see, this book’s themes are directly integrated into the structure and the prose. This is something a lot of SFF could learn from!) The first section is a rambling avalanche of frustrations, raindrops building to a storm of aggravation. The narrator, John, is driving to Rome. Severe allergies clog his sinuses. It’s too hot and too humid. Traffic is heavy; the fan blows exhaust fumes in his face. It looks like rain but the storm won’t break, until suddenly it’s a downpour. “My stomach felt like a lump of dough, my head was on fire, and stuck to my heart was a sensor that caught on my suspenders every time I turned the wheel.”

John doesn’t explain what he’s up to. He doesn’t notice he hasn’t explained it. He’s the guy next to you on the plane who spends the flight pouring out his least interesting troubles. We pick out the plot from sporadic details like that sensor: John is posing as a dead man named Adams, using his belongings, monitored by electrodes as he follows Adams’ last journey. How Adams died is a mystery; John imitates his actions precisely, hoping for clues along the way.

Before he took this job John was an astronaut. He didn’t get past orbit, disqualified by allergies. Even his memories of space are annoyances: chasing down floating crumbs and dandruff with a vacuum in zero-G, readjusting to gravity when he came back down.

John stops at a gas station. It’s empty except for a woman who walks in and for some reason faints. What does this mean? Does it mean anything? Just because something seems anomalous, is it important?

An escalator in the station starts when John comes near and stops when he leaves as though, John thinks, it’s announcing the end of a scene.[1] But there’s no intent there, just a sensor. A mechanical process.

2.

Stymied, John flies to Paris, where his journey started. (He still hasn’t gone into details. Who was Adams? Who’s interested in his death, and what’s mysterious about it?) He’s delayed by an airport bombing.

You might assume this is a plot point. It is later, although not in the way you’d expect. For now it’s a thematic bomb. The Chain of Chance was published in 1975 and in the early 1970s terrorism was on everybody’s mind—there was an epidemic of hijackings (over 130 between 1968 and 1972), and Italy was deep in the Years of Lead. In 1975 a bomb would have seemed a logical way to inconvenience the protagonist of a novel in an Italian airport.

Terrorism feels uncanny. The victims are random. The perpetrators are distant, unseen; there’s no direct link. The motive is impersonal—somebody thinks they have to make a point (or that they have a point at all) and to make it they’re going to kill… I dunno, let’s see, maybe you? We don’t know who the somebody is but we know there’s a somebody. When disasters happen in patterns we expect someone is causing them for a reason, an enemy we can fight. As one character observes in an entirely different context, “It’s always convenient to know who’s to blame for everything.”

3.

In the 1960s a programmer named Joseph Weizenbaum created a program called ELIZA. ELIZA was what we’d call a chatbot. It could have followed any number of scripts, but Weizenbaum set it up as what’s known as a Rogerian psychotherapist. (This is the ELIZA we’re all familiar with today, but Weizenbaum called this script DOCTOR.) The technique involves asking open questions and reflecting the patient’s answers back to them, which could be simulated simply by saying things like “That’s quite interesting,” and “Can you elaborate on that?” and occasionally regurgitating whatever the “patient” just typed (“You say the owls are not what they seem?”). What Rogerian psychotherapists thought of all this is not recorded.

In his book Computer Power and Human Reason Weizenbaum described what happened next.[2] When he suggested recording conversations with ELIZA colleagues objected that this “amounted to spying on people’s most intimate thoughts.” Not that Weizenbaum was cool with spying on intimate thoughts, but it hadn’t occurred to him anyone would share intimate thoughts with ELIZA. People were treating ELIZA like a real therapist. Even Weizenbaum’s secretary asked him to leave the room so she could chat privately. Three psychiatrists (including his colleague Kenneth Colby) writing in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease saw a future where “Several hundred patients an hour could be handled by a computer system.” To Weizenbaum this was weird and creepy. Any real therapeutic relationship is based on empathy. How could anyone think this half-assed algorithm was capable of empathy?

Pareidolia is the psychological quirk that makes you see unintended images—often faces—in random or meaningless arrangements of shapes. It’s what’s happening when an electrical outlet looks like a surprised little guy, or when you see a major religious figure in your English muffin. It’s a form of apophenia, the temptation to find meaning in things that aren’t meaningful or even connected. Like, lefty urbanists sometimes insist cities don’t plant fruit trees along the streets due to active collusion between planning departments and supermarket owners, who meet in smoky backrooms nationwide to prevent free food. Nobody thinks of the ordinary and obvious fact—because it’s not an interesting story—that fruit leaves a goddamn mess on the sidewalk. This story takes isolated data points—ornamental trees don’t have fruit, business owners don’t like competition, they’re often tight with local politicians—and perceived a pattern that isn’t there. That’s a form of apophenia.

Humans also tend to anthropomorphize inanimate objects; some small corner in every human mind will see a stuck Roomba banging around under a couch and imagine it’s frightened. Sometimes people see more humanity in objects than humans. The point of all this being that no one who has accidentally sent a text message about ducks thinks the autotext feature on their phone is smart, but put a better version of the algorithm in a different context and you’ll convince a lot of people—educated people, even—they’re talking to Deep Thought. People like to see people and, more than anything else in the world, people want to believe in agency.

4.

Stymied, John visits Dr. Barth, a computer scientist who consults with the Sûreté. We’re halfway through the book and up to now we’ve had to piece the plot together by picking relevant details out of a torrent of grumbles, but here John finally explains what’s going on.

John’s story is the best kind of telling instead of showing, not a dramatization but a report. It’s a long chunk of exposition, but efficient. The Chain of Chance takes advantage of its status as prose and doesn’t draw the explanation out with flashback scenes or extra dialogue. Lem loved crossing fiction and nonfiction; he was a master of storytelling through exposition and his novels include Borgesian volumes of reviews and introductions to nonexistent books.

Adams was one of a series of men—all middle-aged, all single, all balding, all with allergies—who visited a spa famous for its sulfur baths. Each one subsequently developed paranoid delusions—hinting they were on to some mysterious journalistic scoop, or being hounded by terrorists. (Apophenia again.) Finally each man either committed suicide or died through accidents so careless they might as well have been intentional. Adams’ family noticed the similarities and hired John to make sense of this—not that he’s had much luck. Is it a poison? Is someone testing a chemical weapon? Why balding, allergic men, and why single—is that part of the profile, or did they just not have anyone to notice their strange behavior and get help? Just because it’s a point of commonality, is it important? John isn’t sure what details to pick out; he’s been reading the situation the same way we read the first sections of the novel.

5.

Dr. Barth introduces John to a colleague, Dr. Saussure (no relation). Dr. Saussure doesn’t have a solution but he does have a hunch, expressed in metaphor: imagine a table held together with nails, the nail-heads visible on its surface. Imagine a drop of water perfectly positioned on each nail. You’d conclude someone had been by with an eyedropper. But leave the table out in a rainstorm and of course the nails will be wet, no eyedropper required: in a storm some drops will inevitably hit.

Or imagine a fly landing on a firing range. To hit the fly with a single bullet would be impressive marksmanship. But what about a real fusillade, a room packed with bullets? Shoot long enough, and one’s bound to hit. The dead fly would only impress you if you didn’t notice the misses, if your perceptions were somehow limited to that single bullet.

As an astronaut, John had a metaphorical long-distance view of humanity; he could take in the entire world at one glance. On Earth, he’s one of the flies on the firing range.

6.

Here John returns to his catalogue of annoyances. Chief among them is a tabloid suggesting impropriety between John and the young woman who survived the bombing with him; he’s pissed off enough to get careless. In his angrily random roamings he ingests exactly the wrong combination of snacks, allergy medicine, and shampoo—and now he stumbles into the solution to the mystery, nearly adding to the list of victims in the process. The dead men weren’t poisoned by people. What drove them to suicide was an unlikely chemical reaction involving sulfur, allergy medicine, hair tonic, and candied almonds (hey, everybody likes candy).

Lem opens a chapter of his novel Fiasco by insisting “That which mathematically has an extremely low probability also has this characteristic: that it may nevertheless sometimes happen.” Lem keeps coming back to chance and contingency; when he published a book of literary theory he called it The Philosophy of Chance.[3] The Investigation is another mystery where the villain may be an improbable natural process. His Master’s Voice offers this as one possible explanation for an apparently alien signal.

Any wild improbability may be inevitable including, the last line suggests, the writing of The Chain of Chance, a novel that looks at the twentieth century and sees more people alive than at any point in history and a world moving faster every year. This is a human rainstorm: every day enough people take enough weird and random actions to hit every spot on every table and then some.

Surely such a complex repeating pattern must have been planned? But a lot of people die, and a lot of those deaths also have complex backstories, and a lot of those backstories inevitably happen more than once. It’s just that no one picked those specific wet nails out of the many raindrops hitting the table, assumed they’d found a pattern, and deduced intent. John’s investigation is based in the same kind of apophenia the dead men experienced.

Of course, there is an intent behind The Chain of Chance: Lem’s. But we aren’t living in a novel. We can’t read the world like a story. A lot of political discourse is real people fanfiction about the machinations of perceived enemies who are in reality confused and fumbling. Banal contingencies become plots. Anyone who is at all online has seen people confabulate elaborate stories to explain why strangers took actions that were in fact unimportant or random. Think of the people on Nextdoor who see a van driving slowly and warn that burglers are casing the neighborhood when it was just some guy looking for an address.

Purpose and agency are weirdly comforting even when they seem malevolent. Things don’t just happen. Someone is running the game even if it’s rigged against you. Anyone who’s read a detective novel knows mysteries are caused by villains, and at the end of the story the villain will be revealed. You can do things about villains: arrest them, or fight them, or at least call them out. You can’t call out a random combination of chemicals. You can broadcast warnings and pass laws and regulations; but they take a lot of work, and the work doesn’t feel like a fun adventure, and anyway there’s only so much you can do to protect people from their own haplessness. In that sense a villain is, oddly, less frightening. The Chain of Chance is a detective novel where the villains are nature, chance, and apophenia. These are the enemy more often than most of us would care to admit.


  1. Which is is, but only from the reader’s perspective.  ?
  2. I have read just excerpts of this book and would like to read the whole thing… but it’s out of print, used copies are expensive, and the available ebook for some reason consists of page images cut in half and displayed sideways.  ?
  3. As far as I know this has never been translated into English but there’s a summary at that Wikipedia page.  ?

Interesting Links, May 2023

Every so often I come across an interesting link and think “I should keep a list of these, and post them on my blog.” Then I immediately forget to keep a list or post them on my blog. Here are a few I still had saved somewhere.

On James Tiptree, Jr.’s Up the Walls of the World

(Spoilers from the first line this time!)

1.

Cover of Up the Walls of the World

Late in Up the Walls of the World, after the human protagonist Dr. Daniel Dann has transcended his mortal existence, the book throws a good-natured jab at 2001: A Space Odyssey: “I’m not going to be reborn as the embryo of humanity transcendent in the cosmos,” thinks Dann. “I’ll just be me.”

Up the Walls of the World was out of print for years. (It’s back now, as an appallingly typo-strewn ebook.) Tiptree’s novels don’t have a great reputation. They’re not as brilliantly intense as her stories; Tiptree dilutes with length. But Up the Walls of the World is still great (and better than 2001 the novel, which has its moments but mostly survives on the coattails of the superior movie).

UtWotW is structured as two alternating and converging strands with occasional interjections from a standard-issue MYSTERIOUS ALL CAPS ENTITY. Tivonel, a telepathic flying manta from the gaseous planet Tyree,[1] travels to the Wall of the World to hook up with an old lover. Her tryst is interrupted by her world’s impending destruction and certain Tyreeans’ plans to escape via interplanetary mind-swap. Meanwhile, Dr. Dann consults on a military experiment in telepathic communication while managing the drug habit that numbs his overwhelming empathy. His determination to detach from humanity is shaken when he finds himself attracted to the equally distant computer programmer Margaret Omali. (UtWotW could have stumbled here—Margaret is a generation younger than Dann, rather Spock-like in personality, and Black, and Dann initially exoticizes her a little. It would have made for an awkward romance. But where a modern SFF novel might consider romance obligatory, here their relationship settles into a more interesting friendship.) After a series of telepathic contacts and human/alien body swaps everyone ends up as telepathic presences crewing an alien machine built to preserve life from dying worlds—an apparent Destroyer that, in an anomalously eucatastrophic move for Tiptree, turns out to be a Saver.

Up the Walls of the World tells its story in a present-tense third person that sticks close to the point of view characters but allows itself moments of omniscience to let us know what they don’t. (Dann, for instance, doesn’t understand how much better his patients feel after they talk to him, even as he pulls away.)

Tivonel’s voice is all exclamation points and excited questions. She uses the word “how” primarily to marvel at things: How thrilling, how huge, how beautiful, how incredible. (Tivonel thinks less often about how to do things. She just does them.) And there’s something to marvel at everywhere, or in almost everyone. Everything is rich, strong, intense; colors are everywhere.

Dr. Dann’s internal monologue introduces itself by repeating the phrase “as usual.” He’s prone to short sentences and cursory observations, occasionally almost telegraphic. (“Specimen of young deskbound Naval intelligence executive: coarse-minded, clean-cut, a gentleman to the ignorant eye.”) Dann notices what annoys him: asinine projects, substandard door frames, disgusting electrode paste, Naval intelligence executives. The first person he pays detailed attention to is the ironically named Lt. Kirk, who Dann can’t stand. Conversely, he thinks of his patients as their code numbers (“Subject R–95”) to keep them at arm’s length, not because he doesn’t care about them but because in his experience caring hurts. (He warms to them as the book progresses, to his alarm.) Margaret’s POV enters after she leaves her body behind; her chapters are heavy on abstraction and computer metaphors. She sees herself as “ghostly circuitry.”

Tiptree being Tiptree the novel pokes at gender. The Tyreeans swap human gender roles—men carry and raise young and are more emotionally intelligent, women are more action-oriented—but still privilege male activities. Lt. Kirk is everything the Tyreean men aren’t, a symbol of self-destructive male aggression; he’s introduced after kicking a computer and almost castrating himself on the cooling fan. When he’s mind-swapped he ends up as a child—he’s the one with the most to learn from the Tyreeans. But to the extent anyone talks about Up the Walls of the World, gender is the thing they’ve talked about already. I felt more like writing about two points relating back to the quotation at the top of the post.

2.

“I’ll just be me,” thinks Dann, and he will continue to be himself for some time. Visionary or psychedelic SF stories like 2001 often end on a moment of transcendence, where the main character levels up in a cod-evolutionary sense. It’s a metaphorical epiphany, the moment after which everything is different. But we don’t learn how everything is different; the next stage of existence is indescribable. (Or the next world. Closely related are stories that transport the protagonist into the future, or an alien world, but end before we see it because it’s too wonderful to describe.)

It’s the end of the story (2001, Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions, the movies The Black Hole or Repo Man). Or the POV characters watch someone else transcend (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Clarke’s Childhood’s End, the sublimed civilizations haunting the background of Banks’ Culture novels). Or the character de-transcends for the epilogue, returning to ordinary life happier or wiser but not much different. (This risks bathos. Either intentionally, as with the wickedly cynical punchline of Dick’s Galactic Pot-Healer, or unintentionally, as in “Threshold” from Star Trek: Voyager, unrecognized cousin to 2001: For a moment Tom Paris is omniscient, existing everywhere in the universe at once; the writers can’t imagine what comes next and in desperation turn him into a mudskipper.)

What’s the transcendent ending doing? At the simplest level, it’s a literalized metaphor. A novel is supposed to end with the protagonist changed, in a new phase of their life, ideally wiser. Ascending to a new evolutionary phase makes the change more concrete…

…But also more abstract. Growing as a person is good in itself, but in a realist novel we can also appreciate what the protagonist has learned and guess what they’re going to do next—assuming this isn’t a tragedy, where the protagonist won’t be doing anything next—because we know what life looks like. They’ll marry the guy they’d assumed was a jerk; or move back to the midwest and forget about joining the beautiful people; or go on another, hopefully less doomed, whaling voyage. Becoming a space embryo is vaguer. What does an ascended energy being do, besides hassling starship captains? What has it learned that our puny human minds can comprehend? We don’t know what transcendence means; we’re just meant to be impressed these guys transcended. At worst the transcendent SF climax is the idea of wisdom without the specifics, an escapist fantasy for SFF fans who like to congratulate themselves on how much more expanded their minds are than everyone else’s.

So the human and Tyreean cast of Up the Walls of the World ascend to a new existence as pure minds. What’s interesting is that where other stories end there, Tiptree carries on well beyond that point.

“For though he was master of the world,” says 2001, “he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.” Up the Walls of the World says: Okay. So think of something, already. So you evolved. What do you do with that?[2] What’s transcendence for? One of Tiptree’s humans loses himself in a dream world. For a while the Tyreeans live in a virtual recreation of Tyree. But what’s the point of that existence?

Margaret, having taken control of the Saver, knows its crew needs a task. Possibilities flit through Dann’s mind in a rush of em-dashes: its powers can rescue endangered species, turn back and rerun time to save lost civilizations, stop wars. Tivonel, characteristically, wants to try everything. But the important thing is to engage with the world and contribute to the general struggle against entropy instead of retreating into self-absorption. Up the Walls of the World argues growth can be an end in itself but declaring it the end is a failure of imagination. Wisdom isn’t knowing the secrets of the universe; it’s knowing what to do with them.

3.

“I’ll just be me,” thinks Dann, chagrined his cosmic transformation hasn’t granted wisdom: “But what new great necessities have I discovered, beyond the old necessity of kindness?”

On Tyree the Wall of the world is a giant stable windstorm, a mountain of air currents allowing the Tyreeans to climb high into the atmosphere. Only at the top of the Wall can Tyreean telepaths listen to other planets and, if sufficiently morally flexible, swap bodies with aliens.

The arc for these characters is about learning to go over the walls between people. Learning not to fear empathy. Dr. Dann spends the early chapters trying to be colder than he really is because he fears other people’s pain. In one of Tiptree’s more obvious metaphors, as a Tyreean Dann gains an empathic healing ability but has to feel his patients’ pain to heal them. Acknowledging others’ pain can be painful in itself, especially if we’re even indirectly implicated. And comprehending the reality of other people. Some Tyreeans are steal human bodies because to them the humans are supporting characters while they’re the protagonists. But this works the other way around: as an empathic being Dann understands “the reality of a different human world. A world in which he is a passing phenomenon, as she was in mine.” For a Tiptree story this thing is startlingly warm-hearted.

For the first time he has really grasped life’s most eerie lesson: The Other Exists. Cliché, he thinks dazedly. Cliché, like the big ones.

And, yeah, you understand why Dann isn’t that impressed by his own insights. Stated baldly, this is a cliché. Look at it one way and all Up the Walls of the World is saying is that people should be more patient with each other. Tiptree is almost apologizing here for abandoning her usual melancholy, like a goth embarrassed to be caught watching the Lawrence Welk Show. It’s like she’s asking: is this really all I’m saying?

I feel like I need to defend Up the Walls of the World from its own narrative. Stated baldly most moral insights—Dann’s “big ones”—sound like clichés. Any incompetent critic in a bad enough mood can reduce any novel to the bit at the end of the He-Man cartoon where Orko belabors the moral for the less attentive children. And some writing is satisfied with that. The equation of happiness with shallowness is itself a cliché, but it’s a cliché with some basis: the history of SFF is littered with stories written to soothe the reader with reassuring platitudes. (Although the problem isn’t only the stories telling us love conquers all, or the modern variations about how finding a properly affirming friend group solves everything—the hard SF story written to tell its readers how intelligent and tough-minded they are is the same candy, just in a different flavor.)

The real question is whether a story expects the reader to be satisfied with the platitude. And I think Up the Walls of the World passes that test. Whatever doubts the book puts in Dann’s mouth, this happy ending is hard-won; climbing those walls is difficult in ways UtWotW can only express in metaphors, not morals. As the novel ends not everyone’s problems have been solved. Again, the point of the last chapters is that transcendence means ongoing work.

Most stories circle around insights that are both profound and ordinary. Sometimes the difference between bad writing and good is simply that bad writing flattens eternal truths into cheap morals, while good writing finds complexity hidden under clichés.


  1. One of the literary aliens Wayne Douglas Barlowe illustrated for his book Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials.  ↩

  2. To be fair, in 2001 the novel, unlike the movie, the Star Child does do something, usefully vaporizing some weapons satellites.  ↩

On Travis Baldree’s Legends and Lattes

1.

I often wish more fantasy novels would focus on ordinary lives. Literature in general is not about adventure, but about… well, life. What it means to be a person in the world, even (especially) an ordinary person who is not going to save it.

And then Travis Baldree’s Legends and Lattes came along. And I said, “No, not like that.”

I tried Legends and Lattes because it’s gotten buzz as a popular self-published book that got picked up by Tor. I finished it merely because it was so insubstantial finishing was as easy as quitting. This book has nothing to say. It feels like the work of an author unfamiliar with the idea novels can be more than descriptions of things happening. It is innocent of theme or subtext. (Well, not entirely innocent; there’s that “the real treasure is friendship” business beloved of children’s cartoons. But this is as close to the surface as a theme can be. And what kind of friendships are we talking about? We’ll get to that.)

2.

Cover of Legends and Lattes

What Legends and Lattes describes happening is the opening of a coffee shop in a generic fantasy world. Viv, the protagonist and proprietor, is an orc who’s abandoned Dungeons & Dragons adventuring for peaceful entrepreneurship. Her business attracts a found family of employees, contractors, and customers. These include a succubus, a rat guy, and a legally distinct pseudo-hobbit. Legends and Lattes is a diverse book in terms of D&D races. If any of the human characters were nonwhite I don’t recall, but it does teach us not to stereotype succubi or gnomes.

Even sans theme this might have been logistically interesting: how does a coffee shop work in a world where “adventuring” is a career? How do you establish a business in a fantasy city? How do you rebuild a livery stable into a restaurant? How does an orc make coffee? Where does an orc get coffee? Alas, where the answers to these questions are not easy Legends and Lattes handwaves them. Most of the detail is decision-making, a series of brainstorms as Viv and friends invent the familiar amenities of a 21st century American coffee shop—iced coffee! Biscotti! Live music! Travel mugs! But what specific carpentry is needed to transform a stable into a shop? Well, Viv’s Hob friend handles that. How does the oven work in a city with no electricity or gas? That’s the rat chef’s business. How does Viv make coffee? A vaguely described machine does it. Both machine and coffee are delivered by an improbably reliable postal service for a low-tech, monster-strewn world. With shipping this convenient, it’s hard to believe no one but Viv has heard of coffee.

Tonally, the book feels like Terry Pratchett minus anything as unruly as jokes. Moments feel like they should be jokes, like when Viv, the orc living in a D&D world, posts a want ad including language like “food service experience desired,” “advancement opportunities,” and “wages commensurate.” But there’s no sense the book realizes this might be funny. It just assumes this is what want ads say the multiverse over.

As a tale of found family, the tone the book aims for is “heartwarming,” but it begs to be loved with such earnest seriousness it lands on “smarmy.” And something about the family Viv finds feels false: Her family includes employees, contractors, and customers, but not neighbors or coreligionists or people she meets through hobbies. Viv doesn’t have friends whose relation to her is not transactional. They’re the ones with the actual skills that make her business work while she organizes them. This is a workplace family, and Viv is the heart of the family because she’s everybody else’s manager.

3.

Fans of Legends and Lattes call it cozy. We’ve all heard of cozy mysteries. Ask aficionados and they’ll tell you their attributes include an amateur detective, a small, close-knit community (a subculture, or a country house, or a literal small town), and a lack of sex, violence, or profanity. These remove… let’s say literary turbulence—features that make readers anxious. Amateur detectives are fun to identify with; they don’t have to follow annoying rules and don’t work for a corrupt carceral system. Close-knit communities feel insulated; troubling social issues seem distant if they come up at all. Draw a veil over the awe and terror of violence and the mystery becomes pure puzzle. And you also don’t have to read the word “shit.” If the appeal of mysteries is the restoration of order after trauma, the appeal of a cozy mystery is that you never feel trauma in the first place. What’s interesting is that cozies descend from and style themselves after “golden age” mysteries, but golden age mysteries were not cozies. Writers like Christie and Sayers were often out to trouble the reader.

Similarly, Legends and Lattes descends from the fantasy works that inspired Dungeons & Dragons, but without the mixed emotions and scary bits that are part of what made Tolkien, Lieber, or Moorcock memorable. Instead, this is genre as warm fuzzy blanket. Unlike almost everything else in this review, this is not a criticism; there’s a place for fuzzy blanket books. I just don’t think there’s any reason they can’t have ambitions along some other axis, even as they build a cozily familiar world.

Familiarity is definitely part of the coziness here. A world like a D&D game feels comfortably homey to a lot of geek-culture readers. Even many of us who’ve never played actual D&D have spent time with Baldur’s Gate, not to mention D&D-adjacent games like Dragon Age and Skyrim. Elfy-dwarfy stuff feels like visiting the old neighborhood. And, like Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age, where the world doesn’t need to be medieval or fantastical it feels contemporary. The characters are modern Americans in spirit, the better to identify with. (That’s important in a game!) Pratchett does this too, but where the Discworld books mixed modernisms and fantasy clichés with satiric intent Legends and Lattes is just worldbuilding by default. Pratchett was interested in how societies work and had serious criticisms about the ways in which they don’t. Legends and Lattes puts a fantasy filter on an idealized version of middle-class America, like a D&D Hallmark movie.

Even here, I’m not complaining. You could do something with this! It’s just that Legends and Lattes isn’t doing anything with this.

The real problems come in when you notice what parts of the world are left out—and, to return to a previous theme, what parts of the logistics of coffee.

4.

A lot of books have worldbuilding which is technically, from a strictly logical perspective, bad. This is not a problem. Worldbuilding is part of how a story communicates its themes. If part of the world is effective theme-scaffolding it doesn’t need to make literal sense. I mean, Kafka’s good, right? And it’s not like he’s the most realistic world builder ever. (You’re a bug? How did that happen?)

But when a book has nothing going on but pedantic descriptions of the decision-making surrounding D&D world’s first coffee shop, I start wondering about the internal logic. And my biggest question is: how does this city work?

Seriously, who runs the place? Is there a city council? A monarch? We never learn what kind of government it has. Someone is maintaining kerosene streetlights and cleaning the streets. The water is clean. Sewage is taken away. The postal service implies safe and well-maintained roads, and a system to find addresses. We don’t know who or what runs any of this. A late disaster gives a brief glimpse of emergency services, but the book depicts them less as people and more as weather. There’s no sense the infrastructure of this society is maintained by anyone—it’s just there, like a natural resource.

What’s particularly striking is what Viv doesn’t need to do to build her business. She doesn’t need a business license; alternately, assuming a more medieval setup, she doesn’t need to join a merchant’s guild. No one makes sure she’s following building standards as she remodels. Her coffee shop doesn’t need to pass health inspections. No rules, whether laws or guild regulations, govern how she treats her employees. She doesn’t pay taxes. Opening a business is as simple as buying a building, remodeling, and hanging a sign.

The problem is the local crime boss, a woman named Madrigal who runs a protection racket. If Viv doesn’t pay a sizable monthly tribute something unpleasant will happen to her business or her employees. Exactly what isn’t specified; as organized crime goes, this is pretty G-rated. But everybody warns Viv Madrigal is serious. People who refuse to pay have regretted it.

Viv consults her old adventuring troupe. Paying is out of the question, but does she want to fight? Again, it’s interesting to see what isn’t suggested: nobody suggests going to a police department, city watch, or government agency of any kind. An American might assume the local police-equivalents are murderously corrupt and racist, but that’s not the problem. It’s also not that they can’t touch Madrigal, or that they only help the rich. They just don’t exist. Laws do not come up as a concept. It doesn’t occur to Viv or her friends that this city might have laws to protect its citizens’ rights, or provide recourse if they’re broken. The idea is outside their frame of reference.

It also doesn’t occur to anyone to band together with other victimized businesses and present a united front. Anyway, that would lead to all-out war, and Viv doesn’t want to pull her old sword down from the wall. The point of opening a shop was to stop being a person who waves swords around. Viv’s got her self-image to think of. Fighting Madrigal would eliminate a threat, but also eliminate Viv’s ability to regard herself as flawlessly moral.

So Viv cuts a deal with Madrigal, who turns out to be a nice old lady who will leave Viv alone in return for regular deliveries of cinnamon rolls. (I told you, this mob is really G-rated.) Just like that, Madrigal is part of the family and Viv is defending her: “some people might consider any of her crew to be assholes, just because of the nature of the business. But I don’t think that way… I’ve got respect for people who have to get their hands dirty to get things done. That’s just work.”

The only moral distinction Legends and Lattes makes is between nice people and “assholes.” You can run a protection racket and not be an asshole. You can smash up some hapless merchant’s shop or beat up his employees and not be an asshole. That’s just another job, like running a coffee shop. An asshole is someone who creates problems specifically for Viv or her friends, and can’t be bought off with cinnamon rolls. Madrigal is still soaking the other small business owners in town, or destroying their livelihoods, but Viv is okay and I guess that’s all we’re supposed to care about. Solidarity? Viv doesn’t know those people and doesn’t owe them anything.

What makes Legends and Lattes cozy, the reason it’s low-stress, is that the world does not make demands on its heroine. Viv has no obligations to anyone outside her chosen family. A found family is a refuge with both the power and the right to close the door on humanity and pull the ladder up after it.

Legends and Lattes has nothing to say. Unfortunately, that’s not the same thing as saying nothing. What it’s saying is a bit like something Margaret Thatcher once said: “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” As long as that includes found families, I think Legends and Lattes would agree with Margaret.

Olga Ravn, The Employees

There’s an obvious visual difference between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Where Kirk’s Enterprise looked like a sterile battleship, Picard’s looks like an office. Soothingly beige, carpeted, with comfy chairs and the occasional potted plant. (Most of the waiting rooms I’ve known in my life have felt very Enterprise D-ish, which is fine by me; who’d want to wait for their dental appointment in a battleship?).

It’s not just an office, of course. The Federation is meant to be a utopia, so the Enterprise is also a home and community. Everybody hangs out in the lounge, attends concerts and amateur drama, gets plenty of free time for hobbies. Everybody on Star Trek: The Next Generation has a great work-life balance.

Cover of The Employees

The Six Thousand Ship, the setting of Olga Ravn’s The Employees, is something else. Among the themes of The Employees is an approach to space travel I haven’t often seen: if a starship is a workplace, its crew has nothing but their workplace, floating in an empty void. It’s implied the Six Thousand Ship’s crew signed up for a one-way journey—it won’t return to Earth in the crew’s lifetimes. Much of the novel is an exploration of the psychological effects, the damage done when there’s literally nothing outside of “productivity.”

Space is the corporate dream: the one place your employees can’t walk off the job. Not if they want to keep breathing.

The Employees is structured as a series of statements to managers holding listening sessions to “gain knowledge of the local workflows.” The statements are anonymous. We rarely hear a name. The protagonist is the whole crew. Given SFF’s emphasis on worldbuilding, it’s weird it doesn’t do fictional mass observation more often. Adventure stories or bildungsromans starring singular heroes are the default, to the point the average SFF fan might think The Employees is more experimental than it really is. SFF tells stories about different worlds, but defaults to focusing on how those differences affect a singular, special, hero as they chase self-actualization. Even SFF novels with multiple POV characters (i.e., A Game of Thrones) often feel less like social novels than like multiple hero stories broken up and braided together. The Employees is instead a portrait of a society.

Toiling alongside the human employees are “humanoids,” artificial workers indistinguishable from humans. (We often don’t know whether a statement is made by a human or a humanoid.) Humanoids were built to work. They don’t know Earth, they have no experience of anything but employment. One is baffled to hear a human colleague say there’s more to a person than their work: “what else could a person be?”

The human employees find themselves nostalgic for everything they had on Earth—family, nature, shopping. They sound surprised. These weren’t feelings they’d expected to have. Some employees keep simulated holographic children as substitute family. Eggs are a recurring image. One employee dreams about tiny spheres like fish eggs breaking out of their skin. In the real world human employees come down with cases of warts, like the dream is trying incompetently to come true. The humans disappear into their roles, becoming interchangeable parts: “As long as you’re in the suit and pass through the corridor to be cleansed, you’re the first officer.” Later there’s a mutiny and the ship’s funeral director doesn’t know how to respond as anything but a funeral director: “I haven’t always felt that my capabilities were being utilized to the full.”

In this environment employees’ full potential as people goes unused and unusable—humans and humanoids both.

As I write this internet junkies have gathered to morbidly gawk at the train wreck that is Elon Musk’s Twitter, which he is running like the world’s drunkest railway signalman. Paid verifications let pranksters pose as his advertisers! People can’t log in because he turned off the two-factor authentication server! He’s getting dangerously close to violating the GDPR!

Most relevantly, as soon as Musk bought Twitter he laid off half the work force, on the theory that anybody left could just work harder. Many have. One proudly posted a photo of herself sleeping at the office, which provoked horror but also some cheering from Musk fans, one declaring “This is how great new things are built.” Which… they’re built badly, but, yeah, this is how a lot of the tech industry works. It’s a standard part of the stereotype: clownish startups filling their headquarters with cereal bars and foosball tables in a vainly half-assed effort to take the edge off long days in the office. Video games are built on “crunch.” Musk demanded his ever-shrinking pool of workers sign a loyalty oath declaring their willingness to be “extremely hardcore” which means working “long hours at high intensity.” The workplace comes first. (Nothing outside of productivity.) In a development that surprised Musk and absolutely no one else, most of the remaining employees took severance instead. That’s where space comes in!

The humanoids suspect something is missing. The humans who identify with their jobs are suffering cognitive dissonance over a bad and irrevocable career choice. Having no past to look back on gives the humanoids time to look at their present, and they’re not sure they want to be tools. At the same time they’re growing their curiosity and optimism as fast as the humans lose it. The company can upload and redownload the humanoids’ minds; they’re likely to survive after the humans are gone. Maybe they’ll someday see Earth. Maybe they can survive on the alien planet the Six Thousand Ship has been studying. “I may have been made,” says one, “but now I’m making myself.”

The statements keep circling back to “the objects,” artifacts from the planet, which hold a strange fascination for the crew. They’re called “the objects” because nobody knows what else they could be. They look like eggs, or tubes, or stones. Sometimes they feel alive. “It’s a dangerous thing for an organization not to be sure which of the objects in its custody may be considered to be living,” says one person. They could be talking about the objects, or the humanoids, or the whole crew.

The objects are the reason The Employees was written in the first place—if you want to get metafictional, you might say they were there at the creation of the crew’s universe. The objects are based on the work of a sculptor named Lea Guldditte Hestelund who asked Olga Ravn to write a text for an exhibition, which became The Employees. The novel mentions the Six Thousand Ship has white walls and orange and gray floors. So does the museum space in the photos at the site I just linked. We’re probably meant to visualize the ship as resembling the real-world museum.

The crew doesn’t understand their own feelings towards the objects; they’re both attracted and disquieted. (A quietly throbbing egg is not as straightforward as a foosball table.) Maybe the objects, in their sheer inscrutability, are envoys from outside the bounds of the crew’s imagination. If these objects are beyond understanding or conception, what other possibilities are they missing? The crew who’ve experienced life outside of work, who know what they’ve lost in moving to a world of pure productivity, are making their imaginations smaller to adjust. It’s that or stop breathing.

“I think you need to imagine a future and then live in it,” says one crew member.

Have I mentioned Elon Musk is the guy who wants to run a Mars colony? I think he’d get takers. Americans are carving away at their imaginations as you read this.

Microworlds and All Systems Red

Recent Reading 2022–01

Microworlds

Cover of Microworlds

In 1973, the Science Fiction Writers of America gave Stanislaw Lem an honorary membership. In 1976, they found an excuse to take it away. They’d found out what Lem thought of science fiction, and SFF culture is deeply petty. Lem was one of the genre’s harshest critics and Microworlds is 280 pages of what the SFWA was reacting to.

What’s striking about Microworlds is how relevant it feels, though it was published forty years ago and collects essays that are even older. A running theme is Lem’s belief that science fiction’s pulp roots—in his view, its status as a commercial genre—holds it back. One point he keeps coming back to is that science fiction is intensely conformist in the kinds of stories it tells; most defaults to adventure stories or detective stories, and the resulting novels lack the tools to grapple with the bigger themes they gesture towards. And, yeah… this is a phenomenon I’m familiar with even from current SFF.

And Lem calls fans out on that two-step maneuver where they insist science fiction is important literature—maybe the most important literature of all—but when it’s subjected to serious criticism they pull back and insist it’s just entertainment and the critics are being pretentious. SFF fans pull this one out on a regular basis to this day. Fandom likes to congratulate themselves on how much SFF has evolved, but the truth is today’s SFF has a lot of the same problems it had back in the “golden age.”

All Systems Red

Speaking of not grappling with themes…

Cover of All Systems Red

Martha Wells’ Murderbot series has snagged a couple of Hugo awards. In early 2022 I decided I should finally get around to reading the first book, All Systems Red. (Yes, it’s been that long since I took notes for this review.) It’s fine, I guess. It’s entertaining on the same level as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche or one of the better Star Trek novels. I’d have been more impressed if that were what I’d expected going in. SFF grade inflation strikes again.

This is one of the many SFF novels that don’t recognize their own best ideas, or push them far enough. Murderbot is a “SecUnit,” ostensibly a security robot, though in fact it’s (it goes by “it”) a human being with cyborg parts. Murderbot loves television. All it wants to do is watch television and it’s constantly telling us how it spends every spare moment on its shows. But it doesn’t tell us what its favorite shows are like. This is a large and weird narrative hole. First, a chance for fun metafictional commentary on science fiction is left on the table. More importantly, this is a missed opportunity to characterize both the narrator and its world. What stories does Murderbot gravitate to? What kind of stories get told? (Or what kind of propaganda? Because corporations are in charge here and, as in our world, TV is corporate IP.) How are this world’s stories different from our stories, in broad outline or in detail? How does Murderbot’s life differ from the clichés? We don’t find out.

Which means they effectively aren’t different. All Systems Red leans on the reader’s knowledge of what television looks like to fill in the gap. This is admirably baldfaced pandering—Murderbot’s a media fan, just like you! (It reminds me of how so many musicals are about musicals, because the one topic the entire audience is certain to care about is musicals.) But the whole book feels sketched in. We don’t get a sense of what the protagonists’ spaceship or habitat module is like because we’re assumed to already have usable mental models for “spaceship” and “sci-fi base.” We don’t know what Murderbot’s armor looks like because we have a mental model for “space armor.” No good novel catalogs every detail of every environment, but they will offer surprising or thematically relevant details to pull readers away from our mental defaults. Here we’re working with our defaults.

The human characters are an indistinguishable mass. There’s a sympathetic one, a paranoid one, and some other ones. The book could be doing this on purpose to signal Murderbot’s disinterest, but it’s hard to tell.

All Systems Red is one of those books that start in media res with an action scene. These openings make it hard to care what’s happening. We don’t know yet who anyone is, or what world they live in, and can’t put the action in context. It feels like All Systems Red never gives enough context. The narration is a bald and mechanically paced description of events in a generic first person that could easily be converted to third person (a popular default style in contemporary SFF). This happened, then this, then this. Murderbot only narrates what’s happening right now; the structure of the novel doesn’t let it think back or stop to contemplate.

This could be clever, because the book works like a recap of a TV episode where events play out at a steady pace and what isn’t “on screen” isn’t important. But I’m not sure the book is doing this thoughtfully. One important event in Murderbot’s past needed more exploration. This event would have been a traumatic turning point in its life. It would be the first thing to affect how anyone who knew of it thought of Murderbot. But after a brief initial allusion the book mentions this event only a couple of times, briefly, when it comes up in dialogue. The book’s straight-ahead moment-to-moment style doesn’t allow exploration of Murderbot’s past, and doesn’t allow introspection. Murderbot thinks about one of the most significant moments of its life slightly more often than it thinks about rutabagas, and with similar emotional weight.

The end reveals the entire novel was a letter from Murderbot to another character explaining its decision to strike out on its own, rejecting both the security corporation and the second-class citizenship experienced by free cyborgs. But until the reveal the novel doesn’t read like a letter, and at no point does it read like a letter meant to explain anything. Murderbot describes events but rarely has opinions on them beyond mild annoyance at anything that isn’t television. Until the decisive moment all it seems to want is to slide through life with minimal awkwardness or responsibility. The novel never feels like an argument for why Murderbot would make this risky and uncertain decision now, as opposed to any other point in its life. Murderbot has an epiphany just because there’s one scheduled for the end of the novel.

All Systems Red doesn’t explain what it claims to be explaining. It’s more like… well, we can see it’s wrong for SecUnits to be second-class citizens, and we’re meant to identify with Murderbot, so it should be able to see what we do. So we fill in the book’s argument like we filled in the nature of the spaceships and the armor and the planet this all happened on. This book is not about what it wants to be about in any meaningful way.

I’m normally happy when a book hands me implications and asks me to fill in the gaps, but it doesn’t feel like All Systems Red is implying anything. What’s explicit is meant to be enough.

This is not exactly a review of All Systems Red. I mean, it is, but I wouldn’t have bothered to write it if I didn’t have these exact frustrations with so much other science fiction and fantasy. So much popular SFF is so thin. (And by no means am I only talking about current SFF here—but the older thin books are no longer popular.)

It’s not that the All Systems Reds of SFF are bad books. They’re skilled, professional novels. But it feels like that skill and professionalism is focused on streamlining books down to nothing more than a plot and a moral, precision-engineering away any accidental subtext or ambiguity. The resulting novels have skins, and skeletons, but not much of a heart.