Tag Archives: Science Fiction

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1967

In the first part of this series I described Harlan Ellison’s authorial persona as a guy who’d walk up to people who hadn’t even noticed him and shout “What are you looking at?” This also describes science fiction/fantasy fans who carry gigantic chips on their shoulders about SFF’s respectability, or lack of it. One time somebody suggested they read something besides The Lord of the Rings, and it scarred them for life. In one breath they dismiss “literary fiction” as nothing more than stories written by obsolete old men about professors sleeping with their students. In the next they insist fantasy is just as good as literary fiction, dammit. Nothing can satisfy them: SFF dominates pop culture. Science fiction is taught in college courses. Octavia Butler and Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin have been canonized by the Library of America. Still science fiction fandom lies awake worrying that, somewhere, a junior high English teacher is sneering at them.

Some years they deserve the sneers.

For instance:

1967

In 1967, three novels made both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists were Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, and Samuel R. Delany’s Babel–17. Babel–17 is a classic novel by one of SFF’s greatest authors. Flowers for Algernon is fondly remembered even by people who aren’t into science fiction. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is… um, a Heinlein novel.

But we’re concerned with short fiction. Here’s the list of double nominees, with executive summaries. You’ll notice it’s longer than the previous year’s. In 1967 almost the entire Nebula ballot also received Hugo nominations, the one exception being a story by Avram Davidson called “Clash of the Star-Kings.”

  • Brian Aldiss, “Man in His Time”: An astronaut returns from Mars shifted three minutes into everyone else’s future.
  • Gordon R. Dickson, “Call Him Lord” (Won the Nebula for Novelette): A bodyguard takes the crown prince of the galactic empire on a tour of Earth, which is maintained as an Amish-style low-tech cultural reserve.
  • Robert M. Green, Jr., “Apology to Inky”: A composer goes home to visit an old girlfriend and has visions of his younger self.
  • Charles L. Harness, “The Alchemist”: A chemical company discovers an alchemist on the payroll.
  • Charles L. Harness, “An Ornament to His Profession”: A chemical company discovers a demonologist on the payroll.
  • Hayden Howard, “The Eskimo Invasion”: You really don’t want to know.
  • Richard McKenna, “The Secret Place” (Won the Nebula for Short Story): A geologist looking for a uranium mine in the desert during World War 2 meets Helen, an eccentric young woman with a connection to the land that seems to reach back to prehistory.
  • Bob Shaw, “Light of Other Days”: “Slow glass” delays light that passes through it, allowing windows that show scenes from years past. A couple buying a pane discovers the seller has a secret.
  • Jack Vance, “The Last Castle” (Won the Hugo for Novelette and the Nebula for Novella.): In the far future, decadent humans who’ve enslaved four alien species face consequences.
  • Roger Zelazny, “This Moment of the Storm”: A cop lives through a hundred-year flood on an alien planet and gets to shoot some looters.

The science fiction world in 1967 agreed with remarkable unanimity that these were the finest science fiction stories of 1966.

They’re mostly shit.

Okay, One I Liked

I’m being a bit unfair. “Apology to Inky,” “The Secret Place,” and “Light of Other Days” are very good and not out of place on an award shortlist, although my personal reaction to them was amiable indifference. “An Ornament to His Profession” is great and memorably weird. It opens with patent lawyer Conrad Patrick contemplating the problems waiting at work. He has a dubious contract to write. Also, an employee applied for a patent on an invention he cribbed from a student thesis he now can’t find or identify, which the company wants to co-opt or bury. Patrick recently lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and work is all that’s keeping him grounded. The scene is a genuinely good and sensitive treatment of depression and eroded self-esteem.

So he meets with the people involved in the patent and the contract. The contract guy abruptly starts explaining how he summoned the devil.

Wait, what?

If you think back you remember when Patrick was thinking of the contract he thought about selling someone’s soul. In context, it sounded like a figure of speech. But no: this chemist wants to sell his soul to get a new production process working. After all, in some sense isn’t everyone in the company selling some essential part of themselves? Patrick thinks the chemist needs to see the company psychiatrist, but he also needs to keep the guy happy because the new process is worth a lot of money. Also the chemist knows hypnosis, so, hey, maybe he can help the patent guy remember the name on that thesis. And both plots come together in this strange and ambiguous image, and questions about what it means and what Patrick really values. “An Ornament to His Profession” is uncanny and ambivalent and the best discovery I made reading these stories.

Those others, though…

Decadent Castles and Virtuous Villages

Well, last time I had praise for “The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth,” but “The Moment of the Storm” shows the limits of Roger Zelazny’s ability to punch up a banal story with great prose. It’s overlong and has little to say beyond clichés about disasters unleashing people’s worst selves. “The Alchemist” is about nothing. Like a lot of bad SF, it takes a premise and plays out the consequences but manages to avoid saying anything thematically beyond “Look at this premise!” It doesn’t even have any interesting accidental subtext. (It’s weird that two similarly-premised stories in the same series, starring the same characters, by the same writer are at opposite ends of the quality spectrum.) “Man in His Time” has interesting ideas and goes in unexpected directions but is let down by basic conceptual flaws.

I suppose I should deal with the winners. “The Secret Place” is a perfectly fine story that feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone with a happier-than-normal ending. I find I don’t have a lot to say about it in isolation.

Cover of magazine featuring The Last Castle

“The Last Castle” is Jack Vance, so if nothing else it has style. Here are all Vance’s hallmarks—entertainingly amoral characters, surface-polite verbal fencing, baroque vocabulary—and he deploys them as wittily as always. But the sweet spot for Vance is a battle of wits between charming con artists. Here he’s trying to write about fatuous aristocrats realizing, or failing to realize, their civilization is built on a great crime. As good as he is at his usual business, Vance doesn’t have the specific chops he needs to develop this situation convincingly. So he stumbles into a rushed and far too neat ending. The humans repatriate the aliens and leave their castle to live in simple villages, and this is somehow all the redemption necessary. This is juvenile. “The Last Castle” doesn’t have the tools to deal honestly with its theme, and the story doesn’t bear up under its moral weight.

Vance is always at least readable, though I find if I read too much of his stuff at once it gets repetitive. Gordon R. Dickson… well, the words are spelled correctly, and he doesn’t make obvious grammatical errors, and there’s nothing to stop you from reading his stuff very fast so at least it’s over quick.

I wasn’t even born yet in 1967 and as I write I’m actually kind of angry that “Call Him Lord” won a Nebula. In 1967, a room full of professional SFF writers and alleged adults agreed “Call Him Lord” was the best SFF novella anyone had written in the last year. And it’s a bad story. And I’m not saying it’s immoral here, which is what SFF fans usually mean when they call a story bad—though I’ll be saying it in a few paragraphs, because its politics are in fact lousy. What I mean is that, judged merely on its technical merits as fiction, “Call Him Lord” is incompetent.

The hero is a plastic He-Man, simple, honest, and tough. The prince is a sneering, whining wastrel impossibly devoid of common sense and self-preservation. They’re both exactly who they appear to be the first time we see them and do not at any point reveal new depths. The hero’s briefly-glimpsed wife Just Doesn’t Understand, begging him not to go before falling into his arms crying:

Ever since the sun had first risen on men and women together, wives had clung to their husbands at times like this, begging for what could not be. And always the men had held them, as Kyle was holding her now—as if understanding could somehow be pressed from one body into the other—and saying nothing, because there was nothing that could be said.

Have they, though? Because there’s nothing convincing about this scene. (It doesn’t even make sense in context: as it turns out, Kyle’s job isn’t that dangerous.) Gordon R. Dickson writes like he’s never met a human but is trying to understand them by cobbling together pulp clichés. There is not one honest insight or accurate observation of human behavior anywhere in the story.

For science fiction “Call Him Lord” is weirdly regressive. “Call Him Lord” is about how rough, simple people are superior to decadent civilized folk. Earth sticks to 19th-century technology with just a few carefully selected modern devices. The worldbuilding is vague but you get the sense this is an agrarian society. Dickson is looking to the past for his ideals, not the future. And there’s a parallel in “The Last Castle”—Vance’s good humans reject not only slavery but also technology like radios and solar power. They live in rural villages and have a gendered division of labor, men chopping wood and women gathering berries. And the society they walked away from was already archaic, having reinvented feudalism. These stories are examples of a strand of back-to-the-land science fiction more interested in resurrecting old technologies and social structures than inventing new ones. The people who’ve adopted those old ways are often depicted as stronger, more honest and more rugged.

There’s an uncomfortable eugenic subtext here which in “Call Him Lord” becomes text. Earth is kept in technological and social stasis to maintain healthy human genetic stock in case human colonists—who are said to have wiped out at least one alien species—lose something “essential” living on other planets. Whatever that essential something is, the prince doesn’t have it. At the end of the story Kyle kills him for being a “coward.”

And I haven’t even gotten to the real turd in the punchbowl.

This Is It, Folks, the Worst Hugo and Nebula Nominee Ever

I said you don’t want to know, but I guess we’d better deal with it. In “The Eskimo Invasion” an anthropologist visits a previously unnoticed Inuit tribe who have a lot of children and say things like “Good dream protect us from bad ice. Good dream help you like us better tomorrow.” They really want to be liked. The anthropologist sleeps with a woman, because he’s a cad. (There’s a very weird paragraph where he thinks about how his “only” sexual experiences were with a long run-on sentence full of women.) In less than a month, the woman has had his baby. And this tribe worships a bear spirit who will come “when we have covered the world for him!”

“The Eskimo Invasion” may be the single most racist science fiction story ever to get a major award nomination. It is literally nothing more than fascist, white supremacist paranoia about being outbred. And the SFF community of 1967 nominated it for a Hugo and a Nebula. And the next year Hayden Howard expanded it and some sequels into a fixup novel, and they nominated it for a Nebula again.

You may have noticed the writers listed at the top of the post are all male. Apart from Samuel Delany, they’re also all white. One of the biggest factors keeping science fiction and fantasy from becoming fully adult genres—and I don’t think we’re there yet—is that their core is organized around a small, insular fandom culture. Science fiction writers, editors, and fans read the same magazines and attend the same conventions and writing workshops; writers usually start as fans. Editors rarely make an effort to look past fandom for new voices and other points of view.

This has consequences. The relevant one here is that in 1967 the genre was very hostile to women and to anyone who wasn’t white. Organized fandom grew out of clubs that were mostly white and male. Ideas like “don’t sexually harass people” were not on their radar. Meanwhile the SFF world’s insularity meant a single editor could gain an outsized influence and set much of the tone for the science fiction genre. As bad luck would have it that editor was the notoriously racist John W. Campbell. So there was hardly anyone to push back when writers and fans nominated Howard’s story.

Reading “The Last Castle” in this light I can’t help noticing the ending suggests fixing a monstrously racist society is easy. Jack Vance’s privileged humans wash themselves clean just by walking away. No further reparations are due. I’m not condemning Vance here, because amoral characters were his thing and it normally works for him. But you have to wonder what about that story might have appealed to the same people who liked “The Eskimo Invasion.”

So, Moving On

Besides racism, what other themes appealed to SFF fans in 1967?

Seeing through time. Slow glass slows the light that passes through it, showing images from years past. In “The Secret Place” Helen’s personal fairyland incorporates visions of other geologic eras. The hero of “Apology to Inky” sees himself as a small boy and a young man. Jack Westermark in “Man in His Time” exists three minutes into the future; from his perspective everyone else is three minutes slow.

What’s interesting is that this is all nostalgia—no one is looking into the future. “Apology to Inky” ends in a meeting with the hero’s older self, but otherwise everyone sees only the past. Meanwhile the people in “The Last Castle” and “Call Him Lord” have returned to older technologies and social structures. The colony in “This Moment of the Storm” resembles “the mid-nineteenth century in the American southwest.” The chemists in “The Alchemist” and “An Ornament to His Profession” revive prescientific ideas, reinventing alchemy and magic.

In 2001 Judith Berman wrote an essay called “Science Fiction Without the Future” arguing that science fiction had turned away from trying to imagine the future, instead indulging in nostalgia for the past. In 2012 Paul Kincaid made a similar argument in an essay called “The Widening Gyre”, calling science fiction “exhausted” because it had “lost confidence in the future.” It turns out this was nothing new: science fiction fans in 1967 were looking backwards.

Dead wives. If the people in these stories are nostalgic, it might be because their wives are all dead. Mr. Hagan the slow glass salesman lost his wife and son in a car accident and spends his days watching their images through his slow glass windows. Conrad Patrick, the protagonist of “An Ornament to His Profession,” also lost his wife and child in a car accident. The narrator of “This Moment of the Storm” lost a wife back on Earth and loses his fiancé at the end of the story. If you find yourself in 1967 don’t marry a science fiction man!

Alienated astronauts. Space travel is a fundamental science fiction trope, usually one fans get excited about. But “This Moment of the Storm” and “Man in His Time” are ambivalent about space travel; it’s not exciting but alienating. “This Moment” doesn’t have faster-than-light travel. Space travelers are put in suspended animation and wake up at their new planet centuries later. It’s a one-way trip into the future and once you leave your planet you’re forever out of sync with everyone else. The narrator has moved planets several times. He’s always looking for the perfect place that might exist the next solar system over, and failing to connect with where he is.

In “Man in His Time” every planet has its own local time. When Jack comes back to Earth he’s stuck in Mars time, three minutes into the future. One of the conceptual flaws I mentioned earlier is that it’s never clear how this works. Other people can bump into the place he was standing three minutes ago, and when he reads a magazine he needs help turning pages, but he seems to have no trouble eating or wearing clothes. He answers questions three minutes before anyone asks them. From his perspective, when he asks a question he has to wait three minutes for the answer.

What happens next is unexpected: Jack starts thinking of himself as a superman—everyone else is so slow. Soon he’s a megalomaniac. He plans more expeditions and thinks of himself as the first of a new breed. Meanwhile his condition baffles his wife, and his mother keeps thinking of her husband who killed himself driving too fast. (“This progress thing. Bob so crazy to get round the next bend first, and now Jack…”) Interestingly, the story ends here in unresolved mutual incomprehension. As humans move into space they’ll move into their own time-streams, getting further and further apart until they can’t understand or interact with each other at all.

But here we also come to the bigger conceptual problem. Jack’s mother says, “Jack is so strange, I wonder at nights if men and women aren’t getting more and more apart in thought and in their ways with every generation—you know, almost like separate species. My generation made a great attempt to bring the two sexes together in equality and all the rest, but it seems to have come to nothing.” A scientist studying Jack tells his wife, “You could not think what you suggest because that is not in your nature; just as it is not in your nature to consult your watch intelligently, just as you always ”˜leave aside the figures,’ as you say. No, I’m not being personal; it’s all very feminine and appealing in a way.” “Man in His Time” mixes its alienation with gratuitous gender essentialism, suggesting an unbridgeable gap between men and women. Men are egotistical but forward-looking and scientific, women are down-to-earth but imprecise. Obviously this is problematic, but the sexism is as much as anything an aesthetic problem. This theme isn’t based on accurate insight into how people work, but on received ideas about men and women. Like “The Last Castle,” “Man in His Time” lacks emotional truth. It’s possible for a story to reflect a writer’s bad ideas while still being on the whole good, but in this case the gender essentialism is lodged too deep in the story’s core and it sinks the whole thing.

Quiet Stories. The one thing I like about the 1967 shortlists is that they have room for stories about ordinary people dealing with ordinary human problems that just happen to be tied up with fantastic concepts: grief, loneliness, how people find meaning in their lives. There’s not enough of this in SFF. The genre loves superhuman characters and dangerous, high-risk problems. It often pays only desultory attention to the kind of ordinary human concerns that make stories relatable and relevant. “Light of Other Days” is a perfect example: where other SF stories take a new invention and build an absurd conspiracy or an adventure around it, Bob Shaw asked how slow glass might actually be used by real people. His answer was logical, inevitable, and devastatingly sad.

Sort of fantasy, but not really. Some of these stories, like “The Alchemist” or “The Last Castle,” have what look like fantasy premises under a science fiction veneer. Other fantastic stories, like “Apology to Inky” or “An Ornament to His Profession,” leave it ambiguous whether the fantasy elements are happening in reality or in the characters’ heads. In the sixties Lord of the Rings was only just out in paperback and fantasy barely existed as a marketing category. Writers who wanted their work to sell tended to slap a sci-fi façade over their fantasy stories.

One useful substitute for magic was “psionics.” For a modern reader “The Alchemist” has a weird tone; everybody throws the word “psi” around like it’s an unproven but familiar idea. This makes more sense when you realize John W. Campbell published the story in Analog. Campbell really believed in psychic powers; building a story around them was a good way to get his attention.

A Small World

I said earlier the SFF world in 1967 was insular. I’m not letting modern SFF off the hook, here. It’s no longer actively exclusionary—Award nominees these days are as likely to be all women as all men. The fandom that nominated “The Eskimo Invasion” is dying, though maybe not dead. But SFF is still a small world that rarely looks beyond itself. SFF writers and editors still attend all the same workshops and conventions, still mostly read each other’s stuff, and still generally come up from fandom. The main effect is that the genre is still aesthetically conservative—SFF tends to stick to a limited range of styles and subjects.

And it still has, to put it gently, variable standards. The quality of modern awards shortlists still swing wildly, mixing brilliant, worthy nominees with baffling mediocrities. Both in 1967 and today, I get the sense people nominate stories based on whether they feel good, but make no distinction between work that feels good because it’s moving or mind-expanding, and work that feels good because it flatters their preconceptions, presses their buttons, and doesn’t challenge them to grow. The fandom that nominated stories as ordinary as “The Alchemist” and “This Moment of the Storm” is alive and well.

So I love SFF, but unlike the fans I described way back at the top of the post I don’t blame people who think it’s not Literature. After all, when they look at the genre and find that, year after year, major awards have gone to stories on the level of “Call Him Lord” and “The Last Castle”—work that is flat out not up to the maturity and complexity of the stuff in the Literary Fiction aisles—what the hell else are they supposed to think?

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1966

The science fiction and fantasy genres love awards. They have two big ones, the Hugos and the Nebulas, and both hand out trophies for short stories, novels, novellas, and novelettes, the last two being stories longer than short stories but shorter than novels. You might ask, “Science Fiction, why do you need two words for stories bigger than short stories but shorter than novels? Why can’t you get by with one?” Listen, these people love trophies, okay?

It’s surprising how often these award winners drop out of sight. Not so much the novels, although there are definitely Hugo and Nebula winning novels whose stars have fallen. But pretty much all short SFF feels immediately irrelevant. A story wins a Hugo, or a Nebula, and next year it’s just… not part of the conversation anymore. Well, okay, short stories in any genre haven’t been popular for decades. And the extent to which there’s a cultural conversation around written SFF at all isn’t great. But when people do talk about short SFF they’re usually talking about short SFF still new enough to nominate for something. As soon as award season is over it drops off the radar.

So I’ve been looking for some direction for my reading, and I thought it might be interesting to read some older SFF award winners, most of which I haven’t read in many years if at all. Specifically, stories that made the shortlists for both the Hugos and the Nebulas. These are popular awards, but popular within a subculture. The Hugos are voted on by the few hundred or thousand SFF fans who attend science fiction conventions, and the Nebulas are voted by members of a professional group, the Science Fiction Writers of America. So these awards don’t quite represent the tastes of the much larger group of readers who will pick up some fantasy novels at the library but aren’t interested in arranging their social lives around them. Still, the overlap between the two shortlists is probably a decent guide to what made an impression on readers at the time. Do they hold up, or are they deservedly forgotten? We’ll see.

A few notes on this series:

  1. This project will cover novellas, novelettes, and short stories, and few if any novels. Including novels would involve a lot of reading. More to the point, it would involve reading a lot of books life is too short to read again, or at all.
  2. I’ll only write in detail about joint winners, or other stories I find interesting. Otherwise future posts will be broad summaries of whatever themes I noticed in that year’s stories.
  3. The series will be written slowly and posted irregularly, and will continue until I get bored or distracted. I’ve got to be honest, I may not get out of the 1960s here. I’ll stop before I reach the 2010s in any case, since it’s harder to have critical perspective on writing from the last decade.
  4. I can’t promise it will be comprehensive. I’m an amateur critic writing for my own amusement, and if I have trouble finding a story I’m only willing to go to so much trouble and expense to track it down.

That said, let’s start with:

1966

1966, the first year Nebulas were awarded, makes for an easy start: only two stories were both Hugo and Nebula nominees (along with Frank Herbert’s Dune in the novel category; it won the Nebula and tied with Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal for the Hugo). That might seem hard to believe given the Nebulas’ overstuffed first-year shortlists—27 stories in the short story list alone—but that year the Hugos had only one category for short fiction. By the time they expanded, the Nebulas had figured out how to trim their shortlists to a sensible half dozen entries. Nevertheless, future years will feature longer lists of shared nominees.


So the obvious place to start is Harlan Ellison’s “’Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” which won both the Hugo and Nebula for best short story in 1966. (For stories published in 1965. This series is going by the dates of the awards; the stories in each post will have been published in the previous year.) And having asserted old short SFF isn’t part of the cultural conversation I must admit we have an exception here, at least to the extent that “Repent, Harlequin” is obviously being taught in literature classes: Google it and you get pages of prefab essays for incompetently lazy students to plagiarize.

Which is weird, because you’d think students wouldn’t need the help. Ellison starts “Repent, Harlequin” by flat out telling you what it’s going to be about. “For those who need to ask, for those who need points sharply made, who need to know ‘where it’s at,’” he pastes in a long paragraph from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Which also tells you about its tone. It is, first, looking for a fight. A narrator immediately certain his readers are demanding to know “where it’s at” feels like the kind of guy who’d shout “What are you looking at?” at people who hadn’t even noticed he was there. (Harlan Ellison has a distinctive voice, and this would be a big part of it going forward.) At the same time there’s something playful about a story that provides its own Cliffs Notes.

“Repent, Harlequin” is set in the capital-S System, a society so monomaniacally efficient its systems have no give at all. So it notes whenever anyone is late for anything and deducts the time from their projected lifespan; rack up enough lost minutes and the Ticktockman shuts your heart off by remote control. The Harlequin dresses up as a jester to prank the System by, for instance, gumming up the moving sidewalks with $150,000 worth of jelly beans. The story asks where he got $150,000 worth of jelly beans, then admits it doesn’t care. Jelly beans are the thematically right tool for the job and their origin is thematically irrelevant, so the Harlequin just has them. It’s fiction. Deal with it.

It’s not hard to see why Ellison felt like writing about civil disobedience in 1965. The civil rights movement was winning real victories (Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in August) and opposition to the Vietnam War was picking up. What’s more surprising is a synchronicity with something that hadn’t happened yet, though it would be part of the cultural context for the Hugo and Nebula voters. Namely, the premiere of the Adam West Batman in January 1966. “Repent, Harlequin” is a superhero story about a costumed crusader facing off against a masked villain, and like Batman it’s self-aware and self-parodying. The jelly bean incident is followed by a deflating domestic scene in which the Harlequin’s relatively normal girlfriend takes the piss out of his overdramatic dialogue and (accurately) points out how ridiculous he is. This wouldn’t happen to the square-jawed engineers and space marines who were the stereotypical SF heroes ten years earlier.

Speaking of differences from earlier SF, maybe it’s time to talk about the prose. This is a vast oversimplification, but fans and critics tend to divide mid–20th-century SF into two distinct periods, the “Golden Age” (the 1940s through the 1950s) and the “New Wave” (the sixties through the early seventies). One difference between these eras was stylistic. Most Golden Age SF writers wrote slapdash pulpy prose meant to deliver a plot reasonably clearly, without much attention given to the work the prose was doing beyond simple description. (Advocates call this “transparent prose.” The idea is the prose is a “window” through which you watch the story without noticing the glass.) The New Wave writers’ tastes were more literary and they paid more attention to how language communicates feelings and images beyond its surface meaning.[1]

Ellison was a New Wave writer with a distinct voice, and knew how to make words work for him. When writing about the Ticktockman the prose keeps a regular rhythm, short sentences, or short phrases separated by commas: “You don’t call a man a hated name, not when that man, behind his mask, is capable of revoking the minutes, the hours, the days and nights, the years of your life.” The confrontation between the Harlequin and the Ticktockman is a metronomic tennis-match back-and-forth dialogue. During the jelly bean assault the narrative begins straightforwardly, speeds up to a run-on sentence as the Harlequin looses his beans, switches to short choppy single-sentence paragraphs when the System notices its schedule is off, and goes openly exasperated, all italics and question marks, as it asks what is going on? Every line of “Repent, Harlequin” is crafted to not only describe what happens but express how what is happening feels.

The prose carries you along like a carnival ride. It’s not until the ride is over that you might start to poke at it. “Repent, Harlequin” has, arguably, failings matching the weak points of left-wing culture in the late 1960s.[2] You might wonder whether scheduling, that tool of The Man, is pernicious enough to invite parody; if you asked me to list the problems with a regimented, unequal, surveillance society, things happening at predictable times would be far down the list. In Paingod and Other Delusions Ellison admitted to being chronically late and pointed out the similarity between Harlequin and Harlan; he’s not protesting injustice here so much as something that’s just harshing his mellow.

You might discern an uncomfortable, reflexive disdain for squares. (See again that opening line, presuming a fight the reader wasn’t actually picking.) When the Harlequin buzzes a crowd they faint and wet themselves, and there’s that bit of Thoreau: “In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.”

And maybe “Repent, Harlequin” has a slightly too naïve faith in the power of protest: those Vietnam protests went on for years, involved tens of thousands of people, and did nothing to stop the war. Civil disobedience isn’t a virtue in itself but a tactic, which can be deployed effectively (as the Civil Rights movement did) or ineffectively (all those Vietnam protests). And it’s not clear the Harlequin was effective. As his costume suggests his pranks are in the spirit of carnivalesque protest—balloons and giant puppets, billboard détournement, attempts to levitate the Pentagon, the kind of street protests that shade into street parties—which was popular with a large chunk of the activist left who opposed the war. Say, the Youth International Party (Yippies), who would get their start in a couple of years. But the point of medieval carnivals, with their reversals and tweaking of authority, was that they didn’t challenge the system, just acted as a release valve. After Carnival was over everything went back to normal. “Repent, Harlequin” says “if you make only a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile,” but the little change is that the Ticktockman is three minutes late… which he just denies. “Check your watch.” Who’s going to argue? This is still the guy who can revoke the minutes of your life. Your watch says what the Ticktockman says it says, because the Harlequin did not at any point tip the balance of power and the moral of the story doesn’t account for that.

That said, the prose does carry you. It’s a good ride.


The cover of the magazine that first published Doors of His Face

“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth”, by Roger Zelazny, is an evocative title for what is basically just a fishing trip. But it earns the title. Zelazny was having a good year. In addition to tying for the best novel Hugo, his “He Who Shapes” tied with Brian Aldiss’ “The Saliva Tree” for Best Novella at the Nebulas.

The title comes from the book of Job, in which God brags about this awesome fish he made:

10 None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?

14 Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about.

19 Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.

You can find leviathans on Venus. They haven’t yet been caught. Carl Davits tried, and was so awed by the Godzilla-sized fish he froze and couldn’t press the Fish Catching Button. Now he’s been hired as a bait man by Jean Luharich, his ex-wife, who’d like a big fish herself.

“Doors” is an old-fashioned adventure story with lots of technical detail about how a 300-foot fish is caught. (It’s not quite as simple as pressing a button. But there is a button. It’s very Jetsons.) But as with “Repent, Harlequin” it’s the style that matters. Carl has a poetic soul and his descriptions of Venus—how the sky looks at sunrise, what it’s like to approach from orbit—are vivid. Sometimes he slips into self-parody; the story’s last words are “the rings of Saturn sing epithalamium the sea-beast’s dower,” and I defy anyone to read this story without having to look up the word epithalamium. But I think this is more characterization than clumsiness on Zelazny’s part. What makes Carl memorable is the contrast between his inner monologue and his outer presentation as a rough port bum, as when he’s asked what it’s like diving at night:

I puffed, thinking of my light cutting through the insides of a black diamond, shaken slightly. The meteor-dart of a suddenly illuminated fish, the swaying of grotesque ferns, like nebulae-shadow, then green, then gone—swam in a moment through my mind. I guess it’s like a spaceship would feel, if a spaceship could feel, crossing between worlds—and quiet, uncannily, preternaturally quiet; and peaceful as sleep.

“Dark,” I said, “and not real choppy below a few fathoms.”

There’s a The Old Man and the Sea vibe to this story. It’s about humans pitting themselves against nature to prove their courage. But unlike Hemingway it’s not exclusively masculine; the gender politics are not modern but for a mid-sixties SF story (and that’s a big caveat) they aren’t bad. Jean organized this expedition as a publicity stunt for her cosmetics company, but her marketing is about adventure and heroics more than beauty. And she’s a competent adventurer. Their marriage failed because she and Carl were too alike.

If “The Doors of His Face” feels old-fashioned it might be because it feels like a screwball comedy. A critic named Stanley Cavell once identified a subgenre popular in the 1930s–40s called the “comedy of remarriage.” Examples are The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday (Cary Grant turns up in them a lot). They’re about couples who split up at (or before) the beginning of the movie but realize they belong together at the end; they were a way to create an exciting but Hayes-code-friendly simulation of infidelity as the couple dally with potential new partners. Structurally that’s what we have here. Jean also freezes at the vital moment, but because Carl is there to give her some “you can do it” encouragement she unfreezes and presses the Fish Catching Button that defeated him. (If landing the fish seems absurdly simple, it’s probably to keep a hundred percent of the reader’s attention on the drama.) And, well, that’s where the epithalamiums come in. Once you notice this it’s hard not to imagine “The Doors of His Face” as a black-and-white movie, with Katherine Hepburn as Jean and Robert Mitchum as Carl, with leviathans by Ray Harryhausen.

The one thing “The Doors of His Face” doesn’t resemble in the slightest is the book most critics claim as an influence: Moby-Dick. It’s not Moby-Dick, people. I assume you’re all saying this because you’ve never read Moby-Dick but it’s the only book you can think of about a giant sea creature. Moby Dick is unconquerable Nature. The leviathan is a big Filet-O-Fish. Who can open the doors of his face? Apparently these people. “The Doors of His Face” is New Wave in style but its heart is still in the Golden Age; it doesn’t doubt humans can conquer anything.


So I found the politics of “Repent Harlequin” a touch naïve, and called “Doors of His Face” old fashioned. Am I saying these stories aren’t worthy award-winners after all?

Oh, hell, no. These are great. “Doors” is less likely to reveal new facets on rereading—“Repent, Harlequin” is literature, “Doors” is an adventure yarn that just happens to be really, really well done. But they’re both classics. It is, again, all about style. Roger Ebert had a maxim he called Ebert’s Law—I think he might have codified it in a review of a movie called Freeway—that states “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” The same is true for stories. This lesson is, unfortunately, still lost on a lot of SFF, especially at novel length. Scores of novels are published every year that bury a few interesting ideas within but are written like plates of limp noodles with no sauce at all. You can’t say that about these stories; as unimpressed as I am with Dune, I’d say the award voters did pretty well in 1966. On to 1967 in… maybe a couple of weeks? We’ll see.


  1. You can probably tell from this description where my sympathies lie. It’s criticism! I don’t have to be fair!  ↩

  2. To be clear, my own politics are to the left; that’s why the failings of the 1960s counterculture disappoint me so.  ↩

Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

Science fiction has a grade inflation problem. I’ll pick up a popular, award winning book surrounded by piles of excited reviews, and half the time I discover it’s… well, okay. A fun read. Good if you’re tired and need something entertaining but not challenging. These books are hard to enjoy for what they are. After the hype I expected, y’know, more.

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is one of those books. Technically it’s about coexisting with empire, and cultural hegemony, and how it feels to identify with a culture you don’t belong to and that threatens to absorb your own. It detours into issues of identity and algorithmic bias. But it never manages to be about those things more than superficially. As I’ve grown older I’ve gotten used to books that dive into their themes, come at them from all the angles. A Memory Called Empire stands back from its themes, points, takes a photo, and gets on with the plot.

A Memory Called Empire is a space opera. The protagonist, Mahit Dzmare, is the ambassador from Lsel, an independent space station, to the vast Teixcalaan empire. It’s a cool job; her favorite books are Teixcalaanli—but she doesn’t quite fit in. Stories about an outsider trying to understand and exist in a fictional society are my kind of thing, or one of my kinds of things, so I enjoyed it. It’s not a book I’d recommend to anyone whose thing this isn’t. If this book doesn’t hit one of your “my thing” buttons, there won’t be enough here to keep you going through 470 pages.

A Memory Called Empire is written in close third person, almost all in Mahit’s head, narrating her experiences with journalistic objectivity and effacing the narrator as much as possible. It’s mostly flatly descriptive, sometimes rising to real eloquence (“Empire was empire—the part that seduced and the part that clamped down, jaws like a vise, and shook a planet until its neck was broken and it died.”) sometimes weighed down by awkward lumps (Mahit sees someone eating meat and is “horribly tempted by the smell of it, and a little horrified at the same time”).

Like a movie it keeps a steady pace, skipping the less plotty moments instead of standing back and summarizing. This means the novel can’t cover long stretches of time. So the plot takes mere days to play out, but the pacing is monotonous. The book overexplains things readers could pick up on themselves, mostly Mahit’s theories on what’s going on in other characters’ heads. In one of the novel’s rare flashes of humor Mahit comes across someone named “Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle.” A more confident book would have dropped the name onto the page, trusted the reader to understand why it’s funny, and moved on. Here, Mahit and her local aide/obligatory love interest Three Seagrass spend painfully earnest paragraphs explaining the joke.[1]

The novel doesn’t move back or forth in time—Mahit rarely thinks about anything not in front of her. As a result, though the novel is filtered through her POV she’s a bit of a cipher. She recalls the past fleetingly, and only when it relates to the present. All we learn of her family is that her parents are alive and she has a brother, and she seems about as emotionally attached to these people as to a toaster oven. The brother is mentioned twice, briefly, and we don’t even learn his name!

To be clear, vague characterization isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s what a story needs to accomplish its goals: a detective novel where most characters are types, an allegory where they’re stand-ins for ideas. But it doesn’t work with the story A Memory Called Empire is trying to be, about how Mahit feels navigating a culture she loves but isn’t part of. To really get those feelings, we need to get Mahit. In practice, Mahit feels like one of those old-fashioned space opera heroes written more as identification figures for the audience than characters in their own right—anyone in this book’s audience could imagine ourselves in her place. She doesn’t have weird foibles or rough edges; where she doesn’t need a definite characteristic, she’s nonspecific.

I also didn’t get a sense of Mahit’s class. I’m not sure whether Lsel is a classless society or whether it didn’t occur to the author to consider it. We don’t learn much about Lsel. (The narration has no opinions of its own, so if a POV character doesn’t think about something we don’t know it. Science fiction needs more omniscient narrators!) Lsel apartments are 3 by 3 by 9—but nine what? You have to read closely to confirm the book means feet. And for someone whose idea of private space is a sleeping pod, Mahit’s psychology feels awfully similar to an average 21st century American’s. She has a standard apartment on Teixcalaan and occasionally thinks about its size, but doesn’t feel weird about having multiple rooms to herself. Water is precious on Lsel and she’s boggled at decorative fountains, but surprisingly unsurprised by a shower. Mahit is inconsistently foreign.

She’s also 26. That’s young for an ambassador to an empire Lsel fears might annex it. The Lsel Stationers have devices called imagos that grant people the memories and skills of others, like Deep Space Nine‘s Trill. Mahit is carrying the imago of the previous ambassador; she was the only person available who could integrate it. Even so, it’s interesting no one thinks Mahit is young for such a sensitive position. Do young stationers with old memories often have important jobs? Or is this just another example of science fiction’s youth obsession? The Trill have customs and ceremonies centered around their symbionts but Mahit seems to think of imagos as tools, like iPhones. The ability to pass on their ancestors’ memories is a radical departure from human norms. Stationer culture seems hardly affected.

The same is true of Teixcalaan. We’re told Teixcalaanli poetry is central to its culture, but by the end of the novel we still don’t know much about it. We get only brief snatches and bare descriptions of poems. Quotations from in-world documents are mostly fenced off in the chapter headings.[2] It’s hard to get a sense of how Teixcalaanli literature works, what themes it returns to, what makes it unique and attractive. It’s a hole the rest of the novel circles around. One of Mahit’s formative experiences was reading Teixcalaanli poetry and seeing her world the way she saw it herself, but what did it give her that Stationer literature didn’t?

The distinctiveness of this poetry-obsessed culture isn’t even expressed in the prose. Teixcalaanli are so steeped in verse that at one point we’re told Three Seagrass is “falling automatically into polysyllabic couplets when she wasn’t paying enough attention not to,” but unless the effect was way too subtle for me it’s not demonstrated in her dialogue. Her voice sounds like Mahit’s voice, which sounds like everyone else’s.

Mahit attends a party where Three Seagrass’s friends hold an extemporaneous poetry slam, duelling in spontaneously spohisticated verse, and Mahit is stricken: no matter how long she studies Teixcalaanli literature she’ll never have this way with words. But does every native Teixcalannli? Because these are the local equivalent of ivy leaguers, the best and the brightest. Does everybody spend their childhood cramming for intensive poetry drills, or is it an upper-crust, private-school thing? Teixcalaan isn’t as classless as Lsel—we see the poorer parts of the capital. But the locals we meet are political dissidents or dropouts. Everyone in this book feels like part of the nebulous middle-to-upper class who populate many Hollywood movies.

Lsel and Teixcalaan have foreign elements, but both still feel like places where people put on a suit to go work in an office at a computer while drinking coffee. And, again, it’s not that this isn’t a valid approach. The alien world that’s really just America with a prosthetic forehead is often used to great effect, especially in satire. But, again, this isn’t the book A Memory Called Empire is trying to be; it’s more like it just hesitated to move too far from middle-class 21st century American assumptions about what’s normal.[3] Lsel could have felt like America to get us thinking about how it feels to be overshadowed by a foreign culture. Teixcalaan could have felt like America to get us thinking about the ways in which the United States is an empire. If they both feel like America, there’s not much conflict. Mahit’s journey feels as fraught as moving from the United States to the United Kingdom.

I said earlier I enjoyed A Memory Called Empire so it may seem weird this review is so negative. Like Doctor Who novelizations and Sherlock Holmes pastiches, it’s one of those books I enjoy while still admitting all the ways in which it’s mediocre—but these books don’t normally inspire me to review them. What’s frustrating about A Memory Called Empire, and tantalizing, is that it’s almost about so much.

There are themes of empire, cultural hegemony, and ambivalent attraction to the foreign. And Lsel’s imagoes raise unanswered questions about identity—how does it change you when you suddenly remember someone else’s life? There’s also a contrast between two kinds of cultural memory. Lsel passes memories directly from generation to generation technologically. Teixcalaan remembers itself through collective memory, and ensures the survival and spread of its self-image through cultural hegemony, increasing the numbers of people who learn and remember its literature. (The Teixcalaanli do a lot of memorization and extemporaneous poetry. Some canonical poems have thousands of variations. They have writing but they’re an oral culture. Lsel’s imagoes are, in the stability and immutability of their memories, closer to written culture.)

Another theme dropped into the novel and hardly touched is algorithms—how they’re not the objective mathematical structures they’re meant to be. They’re designed by people with subjective assumptions, and purposes, and points of view. (A set of rules built for a purpose is an argument about what’s relevant to that purpose, and what isn’t.) There’s a potential point here about how a poem is an encoded point of view, like an imago or an algorithm. Late in the book Mahit and Three Seagrass get themselves out of a jam by writing a poem that is, like an algorithm, written to produce a particular outcome. But although this would have made the perfect thematic climax it isn’t emphasized. We’re told the poem spreads like a virus, but we don’t get to see the reaction. A Memory Called Empire doesn’t quite connect the dots between its ideas. It gestures at themes, but doesn’t manage to dig in. And I think part of the problem is the plot.

A Memory Called Empire is a novel of political intrigue. Someone wants to overthrow the Emperor. The Emperor wants an imago machine. Mahit gets embroiled in the kerfuffle. Before I wrote this review I went looking for others. One of the most interesting observations—one that made me realize something about how the book worked, or didn’t quite work—came in a review by Nandini Ramachandran at Strange Horizons of the 2020 Clarke Award shortlist. She points out how friendly Teixcalaan is to Mahit, how quickly people let her in on their secrets and how readily she’s accepted into the halls of power.[4] And what else could the book do? The whole story is in Mahit’s POV. The intrigue plot won’t come off if she doesn’t have a front-row seat. But Teixcalaan feels welcoming, and Mahit rarely feels lost. And for a book about existing in a foreign and maybe hostile culture you love but don’t belong to, that’s backwards! And the novel’s structure tells us Mahit is our protagonist, not a Nick Carraway-style lens for someone else’s story. But it ends with Mahit witnessing a climax that has not much to do with her: the coup ends when a member of the supporting cast, who has hardly appeared in the novel, sacrifices himself to elevate another member of the supporting cast to power. The court intrigue plot actively works against A Memory Called Empire’s themes. It’s full of Exciting Events! but very little of what happens feels significant.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments where it comes to life—these are what kept me reading. These are moments where the book engages with its themes: when Mahit watches the bright young things’ poetry slam. When she marvels at the decorative water bowl on a restaurant table, or considers how Stationers have a single word for birds. When she realizes she understands Teixcalaanli poetry but doesn’t really, y’know, understand it. These are moments where the novel steps away from the plot and goes about its real business. By the end I was thinking of Leena Krohn’s novel Tainaron. Tainaron is about a woman who’s gone to live in a city of insects. Like most of Krohn’s novels its chapters are self-contained vignettes that build to something bigger. It follows her over seasons, each chapter revealing a new facet of the city—sometimes weirdly familiar, sometimes deeply strange. That’s the version of A Memory Called Empire I wish I could read—one structured like Krohn’s work. A year in the life of an ambassador, with the plot emerging from a series of human-scale incidents. A chapter for the poetry slam, another reflecting on the algorithms that run the capitol, others for long conversations about imagos and identity, or digging into Mahit’s favorite Teixcalaanli poems. Maybe even a narrator with enough ironic distance from Mahit to understand her better than she understands herself.

So what’s the attraction of the intrigue plot? Here I should note that A Memory Called Empire is not the first SFF novel I’ve read where the plot felt like a distraction from the actually interesting parts. The core science fiction and fantasy genres have assumptions about the range of stories SFF can tell that they only occasionally think their way beyond. Acceptable plots for a novel include variations on the themes of wars, conspiracies, rebellions against dystopia, apocalypses, detective stories, and, yes, political intrigue. Stories where the protagonist is in deadly danger. Thrillers of the Hollywood summer blockbuster variety, stories that might have been produced by the vast entertainment empire beside which literary SF is a hopeful asteroid. Sometimes it feels like SFF can’t imagine an existence outside the gravitational pull of the blockbuster. SFF novels get squashed into this mold even when one of the many alternate plots and story-structures in the wider world of literature might suit them better. A Memory Called Empire is the kind of book you get from a genre whose imagination has been colonized by Hollywood.


  1. You might argue these paragraphs help readers understand Teixcalaanli naming conventions, but there again the book could have trusted readers to figure them out from the actual names.  ↩

  2. Of course, writing literal examples of a fictional culture’s greatest literature rarely comes off—but it’s possible to write about imaginary literature without literally writing it. Borges and Stanislaw Lem have done it, and though Martine isn’t Borges I think she could have pulled it off: in the novel’s glossary we’re told “current literary scholars of Teixcalaan refer to The Expansion History as being composed by ‘Pseudo-Thirteen River,’ an unknown person,” and it’s tantalizing.  ↩

  3. So it’s all the odder that the back matter contains an author’s note explaining “If one wishes to pronounce Stationer words one’s own self, and has only Earth languages to go by, a good guide would be the pronunciation of Modern Eastern Armenian,” for all the world as though most of the intended audience for this novel would be familiar with Modern Eastern Armenian.  ↩

  4. Mind you, someone also tries to assassinate her. But she recovers quick.  ↩

Margaret St. Clair, Sign of the Labrys

1.

In science fiction circles Margaret St. Clair’s Sign of the Labrys is not much more than the answer to a trivia question: what book had the worst back cover blurb of all time? This one shouts “WOMEN ARE WRITING SCIENCE-FICTION!” in breathless all-caps, like it’s news. “Women,” we learn, “are closer to the primitive than men. They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind’s obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel… Such a woman is Margaret St. Clair, author of this novel.” This copywriter seems either contemptuously sarcastic or very high.

Women in general and Margaret St. Clair in particular had been writing science fiction for a while by 1963, and St. Clair should be better remembered. I haven’t read her other novels—she’s maddeningly out of print—but her short stories feel like close Twilight Zone-ish cousins to Richard Matheson’s or Charles Beaumont’s, and at her best she’s just as good. (A couple of her stories were adapted for Night Gallery.) As for finding those stories… well, “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” turns up all over, and you can find another story in The Future is Female, but as far as I know the only collection in print in the U.S. is The Hole in the Moon. It’s all worth tracking down.

I wanted to start with that recommendation because Sign of the Labrys is… uh, not a lost classic. But it’s also not worse than some books SF fans think are classics, and if the premise strikes you as interesting it’s a fine way to pass a couple of hours. And its flaws are at least interesting flaws. We’ll get into that.

2.

Anyway, that premise. This is a book where a yeast-based pandemic has depopulated the world and the survivors are afraid to get too close to each other. Which feels not so much “painfully on the nose” as “grabbed the nose and slammed it in a door.” Most people work menial, meaningless jobs—Sam Sewell, our narrator, moves boxes from one side of a warehouse to the other and back again, and no one cares whether he shows up on any given day. The only people with productive jobs are mass gravediggers and the mysterious dudes from the Federal Bureau of Yeast. Sam lives rent-free in a vast underground fallout shelter built by people who were extremely prepared for the wrong disaster, feeding himself on purple fungus and stockpiles of preserved pre-apocalypse food that never seems to spoil. Aside from the fungus, there isn’t much fresh food; too many species went extinct during the plagues.

One day Sam has a visit from a FBY man looking for a woman named Despoina. Sam has no idea who this is but the agent insists he ought to because Sam, like Desponia, is a witch.

Margaret St. Clair was a Wiccan and Sign of the Labrys is practically an advertisement for Wicca, which in this book is not just a neopagan religion but actually grants magical powers. (In this light the blurb’s blather about moon-pulls, earth-tides, and humankind’s obscure and ancient past vaguely makes sense.) Labrys is packed with stereotypically pagan accoutrements like athames and people substituting “Blessed Be” for “Hello,” and St. Clair cribbed ceremonies and other details from an influential mid-century occult writer named Gerald Gardner.

Sam learns Despoina may be in his own fallout shelter and spends most of the novel exploring its deeper levels. Sam’s descending into the underworld to retrieve occult knowlege. He’s also acting out a kind of story modern geek-culture types might find familiar. When the original Dungeons & Dragons came out in 1979, the creators included an “Appendix N” listing books that inspired them and right there, between Fred Saberhagen and J. R. R. Tolkien, was Margaret St. Clair with The Shadow People and Sign of the Labrys. Sam’s fallout shelter is a dungeon.

Even if you’ve never read a D&D manual you might recognize the “dungeon” concept from video games. A dungeon isn’t a literal dungeon (the name, one suspects, was chosen solely for the alliteration). It’s an enclosed space for the players’ characters to explore, filled with traps to avoid, puzzles to solve, and monsters to fight. A dungeon might be a cave, a castle, a tomb, or even (as in Myst) an island—the crucial thing isn’t that it’s literally enclosed, but that it’s self-contained. If people live in the dungeon they’re usually weirdos and rarely leave. Dungeons are challenges first and narratives second. Often they’re arbitrarily constructed and run on weird internal logic. (Why does that white house have a troll and a Flood Control Dam in the basement?) Peculiar though they are, “dungeons” are useful frameworks for exploration-based stories comfortable with a certain amount of absurdity. Star Trek and Doctor Who visit them a lot, enclosed spaces being great budget savers.

And dungeons are great if you want to mash random stuff together and watch it juxtapose. Dungeons are eccentric subworlds, strange terrariums whose isolation and artificiality are license to be whimsical. The levels of Sam’s fallout shelter are incongruous subcultures, unaware of each other—a laboratory complex where floods of lab rats carpet the floor, an artificial garden full of wealthy Eloi, a machine shop attended by a cookie-obsessed miniature-builder with a teleporter. A lot of this is never explained. At one point Sam meets a dog with human intelligence who shows him the gate to the next level. (Through charades, which Sam has to interpret: in true dungeon-crawling spirit, he’s solving puzzles to get around.) Sam never sees the dog again or learn what its deal is. You could look at this as half-assed worldbuilding, or as leaving the world open to interpretation. If you want to send a character on a metaphorical, surreal, symbolic journey, this kind of thing has potential.

But if you want the reader to see the book as “open” and not “half-assed,” you have to live up to that potential. This is where Sign of the Labrys stumbles. On his journey Sam meets his long-lost half-sister Kyra who confirms that, yep, Sam’s a witch! Which means… well, mostly that he has X-Ray Vision, and can make people hallucinate. I read Sign of the Labrys soon after The Hearing Trumpet and, man, was that an unflattering comparison. Both books are surreal, symbolic spiritual journeys but The Hearing Trumpet ends in strange and numinous revelations. All Sam learns is that he’s a superhero. The spiritual journey got into a wrestling match with a pulp novel, and pulp won. This is in one sense banal but in another sense interesting enough to push me to review Sign of the Labrys. It’s a glaring example of a problem I’ve seen before—one of those glaring examples that brings a recurring pattern into clearer focus.

3.

There’s a common pattern in pop culture where a story is structured like a bildungsroman, but at the end of the story the protagonist isn’t a wiser or deeper or a more developed person, just more powerful. Or at least more assertive and confident. They haven’t grown as a person, just levelled up. Think Star Wars: Luke isn’t any more mature when he destroys the Death Star than he was at the beginning of the movie. Or superhero origin stories: often the point of these stories isn’t that their heroes develop. Instead, the heroes’ newfound powers let them express who they already were. (Captain America is brave and decent at the beginning of the movie; at the end he’s brave, decent, and strong.)

Now, in some cases this might be related to serialization. If you plan to keep using your protagonist, they can’t change too much too quickly. (Also, if they get really smart they might figure out how to stop getting themselves into adventures.) But Sign of the Labrys is a standalone novel. The problem here is that, for all that St. Clair is sharing her religion, Sign is a power fantasy and not a wisdom fantasy. (Again, the pulp narrative sucked everything into itself like a black hole.) Sam—and by extension anyone who identifies with him—doesn’t need to develop in any real way. He’s already great. He just needs to learn how to express his greatness.

Actually, Sam doesn’t learn so much as remember. Kyra spends some time preparing him to remember, but once he’s through his initiation Sam masters his Wiccan powers almost as soon as they’re introduced to him. It’s intuitive: he just knows how it all works. Sam has a buried secret identity, it turns out. Spoiler: he’s the Devil! Or “the person our persecutors called the devil,” according to Despoina. “They gave that name to the male counterpart of the high priestess, the other focus of power in the circle. You’re of the old blood, Sam.” Sam is one of those protagonists who are special because of what they are, not what they do.

Having learned this, it’s interesting to go back to the very beginning of the novel. Remember, this is first person narration: “There is a fungus that grows on the walls that they eat. It is a violet color, a dark reddish violet, and tastes fresh and sweet. People go into the clefts to pick it.” Notice the “they.” We soon learn Sam picks and eats this fungus, too—that’s how he knows how it tastes. But the fungus eaters are still “they.” From the first sentence, Sam’s narration is telling us he’s different from other people.

4.

At one point Sam (who’s been a witch for mere days but speaks with the confidence of an old hand) assures us “We Wicca are trained in scruple for life, if we do not possess it to begin with.” So it’s weird that when Sam thinks he’s accidentally killed someone[1] this is his reaction:

I sat down on the ground again by Cindy Ann’s body to think it over. Proximity to her didn’t bother me at all. It was like sitting down by an empty packing case, or a bundle of old clothes. I suppose it was because I didn’t have any feeling of moral responsibility for her death. And then, she hadn’t had much personality when she had been alive. Not much had been withdrawn.

Speaking as someone with not much personality, thanks, Sam. Of course there are such things as unreliable narrators, and unsympathetic protagonists, but Sam doesn’t appear to be either. There’s no sign we’re meant to find his thoughts troubling or absurd.

The real reason Sam isn’t bothered by Cindy Ann’s death is the same reason she doesn’t have much personality. Cindy Ann is a very minor character who only exists to deliver some exposition. Sam doesn’t care because the reader won’t.

Again, I’ve seen this before: stories that confuse characters’ importance to the story on a meta-level with their importance as people to the other characters. Sign of the Labrys doesn’t expect the readers to care about Cindy Ann’s death. We only knew her for a few pages. But Sam doesn’t care either. He only cares about people to the extent they’re structurally important as story-elements.

This problem gets really blatant when we learn Kyra’s history. Kyra, it turns out, released the plagues:

My face must have shown my shock, for Despoina said hurriedly, “Consider the situation, Sam. Have you forgotten? Nuclear war seemed absolutely inevitable. Nobody knew from day to day—from hour to hour—when it would begin. We lived in terror, terror which was sure to accomplish itself. Nobody even dared to hope for a quick death. “Kyra realized what had come into her hands. She acted. She took on her shoulders a terrible responsibility; she assumed a dreadful guilt. She knew that plagues are never universally fatal. She decided it was better that nine men out of ten should die, than that all men should.”

The only problem Despoina sees is that Kyra didn’t consult the boss witches first. Sam soon comes around to the idea that mass murder is okay, actually: “What a person Kyra was! Unhesitatingly she had taken on her young shoulders—she couldn’t have been over twenty at the time—the agony of a decision a god might have flinched from making. Mrs. Prometheus—I felt proud to be related to her.”

Now, to be scrupulously fair to Margaret St. Clair, who seems in all the others of her works I’ve read to be a normal empathetic writer, Sign of the Labrys came out the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Assuming a fast publication schedule parts of it might have been written during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you wrote an SF novel during the gloomiest years of the Cold War you might be forgiven for building it around a giant half-joke of the “not ha-ha funny” kind. For decades people really believed humanity might be wiped out at any moment. We came close, more than once. I’m just old enough to remember the Reagan years and if you aren’t it can be a difficult headspace to get your own head around. Or maybe not. It wouldn’t surprise me if novels exist that toy with the idea of wiping out millions of people to avert the worst version of climate change.

Whatever. None of this, in any case, is compatible with sermons on “scruple for life.” You could look at this as a moral problem—that’s a popular critical lens these days, and not necessarily a bad one. But recently I read George Saunders’ new critical book and was struck by how he frames moral failures like sexism or racism as failures of craft—an authorial failture to fully and honestly imagine every character. And I think this is the best, most relevant way to look at Sign of the Labrys. It’s not just that the novel fails to empathize with the background characters. It fails to empathize with Sam. It doesn’t successfully imagine how someone with “scruple for life” would think, or depict him with emotional honesty.

Sign of the Labrys is trying to present Wicca as a positive, ethical system; presumably that was Margaret St. Clair’s experience with it. But the pulp narrative is divorced from any actual ethics and unlike those nameless extras it cannot be killed. Sam and Despoina defeat a fascist takeover by the FBY and find a strain of yeast that will heal humanity’s aversion to close contact. But they can’t fix the millions dead or the devastated ecosystem and the novel doesn’t grapple with that. Sam says, “We Wicca know how to be happy even in a bad world. But we are not content with a bad world.” But the world they’ve created isn’t good, just less crowded.


  1. He thinks he unknowingly infected her with a deadly plague. Later the witches tell him he’s mistaken, but the real cause of death is never adequately explained.  ↩

Max Gladstone, Empress of Forever

Vivian Liao, heroine of Max Gladstone’s space opera romp The Empress of Forever, is a tech billionaire. Elon Musk is mentioned by name as a colleague and/or competitor. This is… an interesting choice. Not that this novel is all “Yay tech billionaires!” It’s all about confronting Viv with the consequences of her own supervillain instincts, deconstructing part of the genius entrepreneur myth. It doesn’t appear to notice there are other parts it’s failed to question.

Viv is a nice billionaire. Sort of. Yes, she got rich by designing Clearview-style surveillance software, but she gives her workers free housing (in “targeted congressional districts”) and gets relief workers (branded with “Liao Industries livery”) to hurricane victims before FEMA. Her self-dealing charity has pissed off the vaguely defined near-future government. At any moment Viv expects to be hauled off to a black site for torture. So she disappears and hatches a cunning plan to hack into and take control of all the computers in the world, which is apparently a thing she can do. For high-minded purposes, mind you. She plans to save the world. (And maybe crush her enemies just a little.)

So Viv breaks into a very important server room and uploads a virus. In a welcome non sequitur, a green glowing Empress pops out of nowhere and sticks her hand into Viv’s chest. When Viv wakes up it’s thousands of years in the future and a space monk is fighting a knife robot.[1] What follows is portal science fiction, throwing a contemporary character into a space opera the way a portal fantasies send their protagonists to fairyland. It has a typical epic fantasy plot, the overthrow of a tyrannical monarch–a few thousand years ago, to avoid attracting alien predators called the Bleed, the Empress took over the galaxy and started pruning overly ambitious civilizations.

Structurally, Empress of Forever is an episodic story bookended by plot, like a TV series balanced between a continuing story and self-contained episodes. Viv visits different planets, deals with local problems and accumulates allies–Hong, the monk; Zanj, a crabby three-thousand-year-old warlord; Xiara, a pilot; and Gray, an intelligent mass of grey goo. Viv levels up and seeks out the Empress for a confrontation and a plot twist most readers will see coming long before Viv catches on. (I will have no compunction about spoiling this in a few paragraphs.)

Shortly after Viv wakes up she and Hong find themselves diving into a miles-long elevator shaft and wrestling a robot in free fall. During fights Zanj grows extra arms, hangs in midair, or moves faster than Viv can see. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, this book tends to resolve situations with action set pieces, and it’s the exaggerated, hyperkinetic action encouraged by unlimited CGI budgets. The result is that Viv’s adventures can feel arbitrary. This is one of those stories where you come away unable to recall what the characters did, but remembering how their relationships developed. Viv’s ultimate plan is “get everyone together and do a handwavy thing so we can reach the Empress and beat up on her,” which doesn’t feel clever. It’s more like a middling episode of Star Trek: Voyager where the crew solves the space anomaly of the week by emitting particles. But the important part of the climax is the thematic meaning and emotional core of Viv’s showdown with the Empress. The mechanics of how she gets there aren’t interesting. Luckily the novel is actually good at developing those relationships and delivering that emotional core, so they don’t necessarily have to be–although if they were, it would have been a nice bonus.

Empress of Forever keeps the narrator invisible, sticking to close third person. It feels less jumpy than books with this narrative style usually do because it has fewer points of view and stays in them longer. The novel only strays from Viv when her POV doesn’t have access to a vital chunk of story. The prose is readable–nothing special, but good enough for a lightweight adventure story, which is, after all, what this is. Stylistically it’s space opera written as epic fantasy. In SF terms, everything is full of nanites and internet; some characters mentally merge with entire fleets of spaceships, others are intelligent gray goo. Everyone’s constantly online, their minds uploaded to the space internet–the “Cloud”–which can rebuild their bodies and teleport them through space. In practice, everything is described in mythic language. People talk about the Cloud like a spiritual realm that holds their “souls.” They’re disturbed Viv doesn’t seem to have one.

The story explicitly riffs on Journey to the West (it’s most obvious when Zanj shows up; she has fur and a monkey’s tail). It literalizes, if not actual Buddhist philosophy (I don’t know enough about it to judge), at least a typical Western understanding of Buddhist philosophy. Viv finds she can escape handcuffs and see doors Hong can’t because she’s not hooked into the Cloud. The Cloud isn’t telling her (as it is Hong) that the handcuffs are locked and the door isn’t there. The Cloud is illusion, and Viv can see through it. Later Hong helps the gang escape from the Empress’s traps by recognizing they have no stable selves for the Cloud to pin down and bind: “There are pieces of me in all of you, and pieces of you in me. We are all empty of inherent form. Trace the threads of each of us, and you find not just the others, but the entire universe.” Their individual identities are shaped by the people around them, so they bleed into each other.

Which segues into the book’s other theme, undermining the Randian myth of the genius entrepreneur. The Empress is Viv, a few thousand years after taking control of Earth; Viv is a simulation of her earlier self given flesh. Viv branches away from the Empress when, forced to choose between a friend’s safety and victory over her enemies, Viv chose her friend. She learns to connect and cooperate with people instead of controlling them from the top down, nudging them with intrusive software or just ordering them around. Instead of treating people as minions or tools she puts their needs on par with her own. The solution to the Bleed is one Viv could come up with but the Empress couldn’t: to recognize it’s not an enemy, just a Cloud-based life form fighting the Empress’s control the only way it knows how.

But the book’s treatment of the genius tech entrepreneur myth is where we run up against its limitations. Yes, it realizes the lone genius is a myth. But why does it take the idea that Viv is any kind of genius at all at face value?

Vivian Liao is a recognizable type. Our culture sees certain entrepreneurs and certain companies as geniuses, innovators. They’re CEOs with the personae of gurus, people who get profiled in magazines. They’re young and enthusiastic about technology to the point of self-parody. They run tech or tech-adjacent companies like Uber, Facebook, Theranos, and WeWork. They have apps. That’s the kind of billionaire Viv is: the celebrity innovator. Her braid is her trademark, like Steve Jobs’s black turtleneck. She turns up on magazine covers.

Most of these people aren’t that bright.

They have programming skills, and they’re clever in specific ways that help them make wads of cash. Often this just means they have the charisma to talk investors into backing nonsense. Even the successful tech companies rarely do anything new or useful. Uber is just unregulated taxis you call through an app instead of a phone number, Facebook is a restrictive replacement for personal websites that sells your information to advertisers. Tech companies build smart juicers that do nothing customers couldn’t do with their bare hands and design algorithms camouflaging prejudice as math.

Ask a tech genius to solve a real problem and they’ll try to put it on a blockchain and feed it Soylent. Soylent is the archetypical example of modern innovation, actually, because it incompetently “solves” nonexistent problems in two ways at once: hardly anyone finds food so inconvenient they’re willing to trade it for joyless glop, and anybody with an actual need to go on a liquid diet already had better options.[2] I’m skeptical that the golden children of Silicon Valley would handle getting tossed into a space opera as well as Arthur Dent, much less the schoolteachers, stewardesses and office temps on Doctor Who.

Empress of Forever takes place in a world where entrepreneurs really are scintillatingly brilliant. Viv is exactly the sharp, adaptable prodigy the typical gushing profile would imagine her to be. This seems… well, unlikely. It doesn’t help that Viv’s vocabulary is full of ridiculous jargon: “She’d almost said minimum viable escape plan instead of a way out of this, but somehow she doubted the Mirrorfaith, whatever that was, knew much about development methodology.” She actually thinks of her decision making process as an “OODA loop.” But Viv’s knowledge of tech-industry philosophy and management-babble is precisely what Empress of Forever identifies as her superpower!

“[Viv] didn’t know this place,” says Empress of Forever, “but she knew how to manage a team.” Viv doesn’t understand the world she finds herself in and can’t access the all-important Cloud, but she’s a natural leader. At one point the gang’s spaceship is crashing. Viv doesn’t know how anything works but she knows (better than the 3000 year old woman!) what everybody needs to be doing, and coordinates it. Viv’s character arc is about learning to lead without dictatorial control. That’s a lesson a lot of real executives could use: the corporate world has pushed workplace surveillance to levels that would creep out Frederick Winslow Turner. But the issue is how Viv leads; that leadership is her natural talent is never in question.

One of the foundational myths of American business culture is that anyone with management training can manage any organization at all, even with no experience in its field, moving from marketing to health care to higher education. Empress of Forever takes this idea at face value. Viv founded Liao Industries; of course she can zap thousands of years into the future and immediately captain a starship. How hard could it be?

There’s precedent for this in fantastic fiction. One common character is the naïve but earnest person whose power is a talent for collecting friends and inspiring them to be their best selves. Think Farscape, or The Wizard of Oz. The hero may not be strong or brave or know the world very well but, like the Dude’s carpet, they really pull the group together. That’s what Empress of Forever is doing. So am I just looking for something to object to? Why did this story rub me the wrong way?

Well, it’s one thing when the natural leader is a wisecracking astronaut, or a kid. I’m more uneasy when it’s a wealthy entrepreneur. Our culture tells us these are our natural leaders even though they’re just clearly not, and that any leader can lead anything even though they just clearly can’t. And as I write this, thousands of Americans are dying from COVID–19 because a few million Americans thought a reality TV host could manage the executive branch of the federal government, and that President thinks his real estate developer son-in-law can manage a pandemic response. So on this subject I’m in the mood to be cranky.

Empress of Forever is a fun book. But it’s a book that sets out to teach us a lesson about billionaire entrepreneurs and ends up worshiping them anyway.


  1. The few comments on the excerpt I linked complain about the “tonal shift” and speculate on whether it’s deliberate. I’ve said this before, but SF fans are the most unimaginative and unadventurous readers in the world.  ↩

  2. Also, the Soylent guy thinks it’s more efficient to buy new clothes and give them away when dirty than to do laundry.  ↩

The Importance of Being Genre

Alix Harrow’s fantasy novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a very good book, and I enjoyed it. I’m a little conflicted about my enjoyment. The Ten Thousand Doors of January got me thinking about two kinds of subtext running beneath some types of speculative fiction to which it bears a distant family resemblance.

These themes aren’t related–at most, they sometimes intersect–so this essay will ramble, and I’m not sure how coherent it will ultimately be. Just bear in mind I’m not trying to tie everything together; I’m describing a Venn diagram where the circles ever-so-slightly overlap.

Subtext #1: You Flatter Us

There’s a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy written to flatter people who like science fiction and fantasy. Its heroes are smart, imaginative, and interested in strange ideas. In stories set in anything resembling the real world, they usually read actual SF or fantasy. People find them strange, dismiss them as impractical dreamers, or bully them.

All this is, if not like speculative fiction fans, at least like their self-images: Today geek culture is mainstream, but older fans still nurse grudges over lectures from teachers or bullying from peers about their then-weird obsessions. That’s why it’s a kick when a hero’s geek traits turn out to be superpowers. Science fiction geek heroes may be the only one who can solve a problem due to their ingenuity and special geeky knowledge. (Ernest Cline’s books are shameless examples.) Fantasy heroes either have honest-to-god magical powers connected to their imagination, intelligence, or love of reading, or are among the privileged few who can see magic or have access to portal or wainscot worlds.

At their smuggest, the lessons of flatter-the-fans stories are:

  1. Science fiction and fantasy are very special genres, and the fan culture surrounding them is also very special!
  2. Being, or at least resembling, a SF fan is a sign of intelligence and sensitivity!

I understand why sci-fi fans love this stuff–I can enjoy it, too, in the right mood. But I’m not sure stories telling fans they’re special are the stories they need right now. Again, these days stuff fans like is mainstream. Most pop culture caters to them already, and to the loudest, most aggrieved fans most of all.

Subtext #2: The Special People

Modern culture, geek culture especially, values people for what they are more than what they do. Sherlock Holmes has privilege but what makes him a hero are his skills, which theoretically anybody could learn with study. Contemporary pop culture heroes might be skilled, but they’re heroes because of powers or privileges nobody else can access. Our standard hero is the superhero. Superheroes are special because they’re aliens, or mutants, or just so rich they can build a batcave and train all day instead of getting a job. Even in a comic-book universe, any kid can’t grow up to be Superman.

It’s interesting watching existing characters evolve to fit the trend. The latest Star Wars protagonist, Rey, went from an impoverished nobody to the daughter of the emperor in two films (mostly because fans were loudly dissatisfied with the former option). The 1960s Captain Kirk was a man in his 30s who’d worked his way up through Starfleet; the new Captain Kirk is handed the Enterprise straight out of the academy. Doctor Who used to be a mediocre, underachieving Time Lord who fled Gallifrey out of boredom; now she’s an ex-super-spy whose superior alien genes are the original source of every Time Lord’s ability to regenerate. (And for a while now she’s been the last Time Lord in the universe, just to ensure no one has the authority to boss her around.)

The Part That’s Actually a Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about January Scaller, a young woman at the dawn of the 20th century. January voraciously reads pulp novels and tales of adventure. (SF isn’t really a genre at this point, but she comes as close to fandom as she can–she even voluntarily reads Tom Swift books.) She can see doorways to other worlds. And she has the magical power to make things she writes come true, which she uses to open more doorways. She’s not just a fan; she’s become a writer herself, opening doors to worlds of her own.

So, yeah, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is wish fulfillment for fantasy readers. That’s no problem. I am a fantasy reader. And, honestly, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is an excellent novel of its type. I’m not saying it’s deep–it’s unambiguous, easy to interpret, and unlikely to confound or challenge most readers. As with a lot of SF, I get the sense this book is pitched younger than the adult audience it’s marketed to. Unlike a lot of SF, it feels like a novel, not a pitch for the Netflix series many writers seem to want instead. It’s a book about learning, uncovering information, more than presenting breathless action.

Its metaphors don’t work only one way; they rhyme with each other. It’s a novel about doors, and traveling between worlds, but January is also liminal herself: as an upper class mixed-race woman in 1900s America she moves between social worlds. January alone is perceived differently from January in the company of her wealthy white guardian.

We see a couple of worlds in detail, one independent world and one pocket-universe refuge for people marginalized by 1900s America. They’re both vivid. The larger world, a place of islands, tattoos, and word-magic, feels more distinctive and complete than most epic fantasy settings in a fraction of the space.

Ten Thousand Doors’ prose has style, not an attempt at styleless transparency. It’s sensitive to narrative voice, even down to the niceties of capitalization. As the novel begins it’s already asking us to notice the difference between a door and a Door. Which comes in handy, since the book has two narrators: January herself, and a nonfiction book on Doors that becomes a biography of Adelaide Larson, a woman who travels through them.

(That second strand sold me on the novel. Fantasy and science fiction don’t spend enough time exploring the worldbuilding and storytelling possibilities of fictional nonfiction. If nothing else it saves time when you can just come out and tell the reader about the world instead of implying everything through plot, and it’s often the more interesting option.)

And then–here’s where I start revealing the things that ought to surprise you on first reading–that biography neatly transitions into an autobiography of Yule Ian, its otherworldly author, then connects back to January’s plot, which loops around to the very beginning of the novel as she sits down to write, and then past it.

One of my cranky literary opinions is that every story has a narrator. Yes, even when they stick to close third person, or “transparent” style, the whole way through. You’re getting the characters’ thoughts and feelings because someone is telling you them. Sometimes this narrator is a persona the author wants to present to the audience. Sometimes it’s a persona the author doesn’t realize they’re presenting. One interesting question to ask about any novel is who is telling this story, and why? Even stories in first person don’t always consider the second half of that question.

Here, it’s easy to answer. Ten Thousand Doors is a first person narrative wedded to a mostly third person narrative that gradually lets the first person take over. Each narrator is writing to a specific audience for a specific reason.

Meanwhile the real-life readers are in the position of those characters, being addressed by the narratives. The nonfiction strand, addressed to January, ultimately explains her background and powers: you are magic. January’s story turns out to be addressed to an amnesiac boyfriend: an unsuspected magical girlfriend is looking for you. Both reinforce the book’s wish-fulfillment aspects.

On a higher level, both narrators are metaphorical fantasy authors–dreamers, writers, fascinated by Doors–making their cases for the importance of fantasy. But they do a weirdly lousy job of selling what’s so awesome about it.

Everybody Wants Their Genre to Rule the World

Doors are a metaphor for books. Speculative fiction, mostly; books about other worlds and presumably other possibilities.

Doors, The Ten Thousand Doors tells us, are also change. They’re the source of wonder and innovation, where revolutionary ideas slip into our world from fundamentally different ones: “revolution, resistance, empowerment, upheaval, invention, collapse, reformation—all the most vital components of human history, in short.”

The European rebellions of 1848 hung like gun smoke in the air; the sepoys of India could still taste mutiny on their tongues; women whispered and conspired, sewing banners and authoring pamphlets; freedmen stood unshackled in the bloodied light of their new nation. All the symptoms, in short, of a world still riddled with open doors.

Are they, though? There’s a step missing here: The Ten Thousand Doors never tells us what these changes have to do with Doors. It’s like the cartoon about the scientist who solves a complicated equation by writing “then a miracle occurs.” The book insists Doors are change but can’t come up with a concrete example of the world changing because of a Door.[1]

You’ll notice these revolutionary movements happened in the real, Doorless, world. This is one of those fantasy stories set in the real world, which puts it in a bind. The novel can’t introduce changes that never happened or the world won’t look like ours anymore. It also can’t give Doors credit for real-world changes without denying credit to the real people who worked for them. True, a lot of social movements were in part inspired by books… but most of them weren’t the kind of books January reads. They were books like Das Kapital, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, or occasionally realist novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle.

Mostly Doors aren’t about changing this world, but escaping into other ones. Adelaide finds Yule Ian’s world and her true love. January’s African governess slips into a world free from European colonialism. A community of outsiders and marginalized people take refuge on an uninhabited Earth. And there’s nothing wrong with this. Sometimes people need an escape, a refuge. Weird, bullied people, or those who’ve been genuinely marginalized: The Ten Thousand Doors makes sure to provide portals for the non-white, non-male readers who rarely got to star in the fantasies of decades past. This is all good!

It’s just that there’s a gap between what Ten Thousand Doors wants to make of fantasy and what it actually provides. It tells us stories can change the world, but only ever shows them leading people inwards to their own private worlds. In a way, Doors are change–but only for the select group of people who get to travel through them.

A Bad Witch

I might not have given The Ten Thousand Doors of January a shot if I’d remembered Harrow had also written “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,”. “A Witch’s Guide” has a similar central metaphor but isn’t as smart, or as kind. It’s one of the most obnoxiously smug flatter-the-fans stories I’ve ever come across. It still won a Hugo Award. That might be why it won a Hugo Award.

“A Witch’s Guide to Escape” is about a librarian/witch who sees her job as connecting people with The Right Book, or, as she puts it, “divining the unfilled spaces in their souls and filling them with stories and starshine.” I must emphasize here that at no point in this story is there any hint of irony.

You get a sense of the narrator’s personality when she says “There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches.” She’s the kind of person who thinks there are two kinds of people. And, like a Josephine Tey character, she thinks she can know a person by looking at them. The patrons she’s concerned about are kids. She barely speaks to any of them, but brief glimpses as they pass through her library “kind of [tell] you all you need to know” about their lives. She knows what they need, and what they need is always the same thing. Fantasy, king of literature and the literature of kings!

“And you really can’t do anything for the people who only read Award-Winning Literature,” she says, “who wear elbow patches and equate the popularity of Twilight with the death of the American intellect; their hearts are too closed-up for the new or secret or undiscovered.” Which is amazing. I mean, if the internet has taught me one thing it’s that sci-fi/fantasy fandom includes some of the most incurious and unimaginative people on earth. And a lot of people they’d dismiss as “mundane” are smart, thoughtful readers. The narrator can’t imagine anyone might read “Award-Winning Literature” and find things in it that are new, or secret, or undiscovered. I read fantasy and Award-Winning Literature and off the top of my head I could come up with a half-dozen “literary” novels with more of the new and undiscovered in them than in Brandon Sanderson’s entire oeuvre.

A social worker brings one boy in and suggests he read some nonfiction about his depression instead of another fantasy novel. She’s not as diplomatic as I’d be, but she’s not wrong. I read fantasy, and I’ve dealt with depression. I need some escape sometimes but I can confirm nonfiction is better long-term help in this area than fiction of any genre. The witch is incensed: “Anyone could see that kid needed to run and keep running until he shed his own skin, until he clawed out of the choking darkness and unfurled his wings, precious and prisming in the light of some other world.” And, I mean… does she not realize it’s possible to read more than one thing? No, fantasy solves all problems! Fantasy is the most important literature.

So the witch steers kids to the books she thinks they need. It doesn’t work–one kid, pregnant and desperate, kills herself. So the witch swears she’ll give the boy one of the really magic books, the ones witches keep from the public. And she does, and it’s a literal portal, and the boy vanishes into it. The story says this is a happy ending. Maybe from the boy’s point of view it is. We don’t know. The witch is telling this story, and she’s so disengaged from the kids they barely have any dialogue; we never get his point of view. From everyone else’s POV, both he and the pregnant girl are equally gone from the world. What’s the difference?

But everyone else’s point of view doesn’t matter. The witch is a fantasy fan, “A Witch’s Guide” is here to tell us fantasy fans are wiser and more sensitive than the common herd.

Guarding the Doors

January’s guardian belongs to the New England Archaeological Society. The NEAS collects powerful artifacts from beyond the Doors. Then they close the Doors behind them so just anyone can’t do the same. The NEAS are special, better than the mundanes. They know what’s best.

The NEAS are SF fans. They’re the fans who police the boundaries, set pop quizzes to sort “real” fans from poseurs, and whine when their comic books start to look less white and male. They memorize canons and amass Funko pops while blockading the doors to divide themselves from the herd, keep the club exclusive. What kind of world would this be if January could get in?

But even a lot of fans on the right side of these fights, who want to open the doors, are more like the NEAS than they’d care to admit. January’s magical powers, remember, mark her as sensitive and creative. She’s a character the Witch from “A Witch’s Guide” might like to see herself in. The Witch is a speculative fiction fan, and she doesn’t want to keep anybody out–quite the opposite. But, well, some people are just too dead inside to get with the program, am I right? If they had any imagination they’d gladly be assimilated into her Borg. She won’t accept that people who love literature beyond fantasy could feel the same love for it or get the same rewards. Fantasy is her refuge. She can’t stand the suggestion that anything outside her fandom could be as important.

I’ve seen aggrieved SF fans set up psychological barricades to protect themselves from ideas that might pop their SF-is-special bubbles. They don’t consciously police boundaries, but they have the same combative grudge about other kinds of art that they imagine litfic readers have about SF. They get defensive over even mild criticism of the things they love. They question the imaginations of the non-genre readers, performatively sneer at the books they were assigned in high school, or dismiss litfic as books about professors having affairs with their students.

The result is that SF is so frustratingly small. From the golden age onwards, most popular writers have come out of the same fan culture and read the same books. Most SF draws from a limited range of styles, themes, and subjects. During the “golden age” we got pulp potboilers starring white, male soldiers and engineers. Today, the standard is a low-subtext Hollywood-style thriller. At all times, the style hasn’t strayed far from the contemporary understanding of “transparent prose.”

The core, non-small-press part of the speculative fiction genres don’t learn from anything outside themselves. If SF is so special and powerful, and its readers so especially imaginative and sensitive, what could the outside world have to teach?

Super Genres and Supermen

Alec Nevala-Lee’s brilliant book Astounding is part biography of Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell (along with Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard), part cultural history of his disproportionate impact on science fiction. Campbell was a man of strong opinions, most of them bad. He was convinced science fiction was not ordinary literature–it might even be the most important literature. He once told Barry Malzburg “There’s going to be a moon landing because of science fiction. There’s no argument.” By that point he’d spent his entire career trying to prove science fiction could change the world.

Campbell spent World War II looking for ways sci-fi might contribute to the war effort, imaging Astounding as a laboratory where smart people could brainstorm new ideas. He sometimes pitched schemes at actual government employee Robert Heinlein. Campbell was so desperate to prove his genre could lead to a world-changing breakthrough that after the war Hubbard suckered him into using Astounding to introduce Scientology.

Nevala-Lee writes Campbell saw Astounding as “an evolutionary collaboration between authors and fans to develop ideas at blinding speed… his ultimate goal was to create a new kind of person in both the magazine and its audience—a competent man who might pave the way for the superman to come.” Campbell wanted to be one of those competent men. He was a reasonably smart man who thought he was brilliant–the Dunning-Kruger Effect in human form. He’d grown up precocious, and bullied.[2] The lesson Campbell took was that ordinary people can’t handle genius.

Science fiction of Campbell’s era was stocked with superhumans–people who were naturally smarter than the common folk. A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and Zenna Henderson’s People stories are famous examples. Campbell published Wilmar H. Shiras’s “In Hiding,”[3] about a child psychologist who discovers a boy is hiding his true intelligence because the people around him Just Don’t Understand. The story consists of the kid explaining seriously and at length how smart he is–running selective breeding experiments with kittens, publishing stories in magazines whose editors don’t know he’s twelve. The boy isn’t just bright–normal people can’t educate themselves up to his level through hard work. He’s an atomic mutant, genetically superior. Brains are in his blood.

January, meanwhile, is special because she’s literally magic, and she’s magic because her father is from another world. January’s a better person than the NEAS, she’s not interested in excluding anyone, but she can’t help being special. The abilities that metaphorically mark her as a fan and a creator are hereditary powers no mundane human could learn. January masters them instinctively. They’re in her blood. She’s a superhero.

(Magic powers are often hereditary in fantasy. If you don’t want magic to be absolutely ubiquitous, restricting it to a small part of the population is an obvious solution. But it’s weird that it’s usually genetic. Why does it need to follow the rules of heredity? It’s magic.)

The significant, plot-moving characters in The Ten Thousand Doors are people who know about Doors. Few non-door-aware people get names. The novel cares about how they support or hinder January, or her parents or governess, or her enemies. It rarely hints at what goals they might have of their own. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a struggle for control of fantasy fandom. Here, it’s the only world that matters.

One of the best small moments in The Ten Thousand Doors of January involves Adelaide’s journey to the island world. She needs a ship, and her Door is on top of a mountain, and she hires two Hispanic men to lug it up, and they’re the last people to see her before she disappears. And the book acknowledges the trouble this causes them! They’re not disregarded as extras–Adelaide’s biographer names and quotes one of them. We may not learn what January plans to do for the world outside her charmed Door-savvy circle, but this book knows January and her friends and family have responsibilities to others. The novel is calling Adelaide on her privilege–not just her white privilege, but her hero privilege.

The NEAS aren’t special–but neither are January and her parents. It’s easy to reject a villains’ assumption of specialness. Remembering to question a story’s assumptions about the hero’s specialness is harder. They usually aren’t conscious on the protagonist’s or the author’s part, so they’re more hidden.

Stories of special, magical people that lose this sense of perspective can be toxic. Heroes who are more special than everyone else aren’t held accountable for the collateral damage incurred by their adventures. Superhero movies often center the hero’s self-actualization while disregarding the background extras’ health and safety. They divide people into the special ones and the mundanes, and encourage the audience to identify with the special ones.

I know this post has rambled. I’m not sure it’s entirely cohered. But I do see points of connection between the gatekeeping fans; and the defensive, incurious fans; and stories about special people; and stories where those people are fans. The Ten Thousand Doors of January has the perspective and self-awareness they lack. On top of that, it’s genuinely well-written. Still, this book feels like a candy bar: I loved it, but I know if I consume too much of this stuff I’ll make myself sick.


  1. In reality, the biggest changes SF and fantasy made to the world are Scientology and the Disney corporation’s monopoly on the American imagination, neither of which were a win.  ↩

  2. Which, though it doesn’t justify anything, was probably partly in reaction to Campbell’s own obnoxiousness–for instance, he recalled “solving” games like hide-and-seek.  ↩

  3. Recently reprinted in the Library of America anthology The Future is Female.  ↩

Doctor Who, Celebrity Historicals, and Meddling

Fair warning: unless you watch Doctor Who this post will probably be of no interest to you whatsoever.

Recently news leaked about an upcoming story from the next season of Doctor Who. It’s a spoiler, I guess, although not much of one as it’s not the most original idea. The word is that Mary Shelley will meet the Cybermen, who will give her the idea for Frankenstein. In reality Frankenstein, like most great novels, was the result of a whole array of ideas and influences. Apparently in the Doctor Who universe Mary Shelley just saw a Cyberman. (This blog post assumes the description of the episode is roughly accurate. It could still turn out to be more complicated than that.)

I commented on Twitter that when SF stories explain a historical event was really caused by time travellers and/or aliens, they usually pick something that isn’t actually mysterious and come up with an “explanation” less interesting than what happened in real life. Doctor Who doesn’t often base entire stories around this concept. It’s usually a joke; an allegedly funny tag scene or name-dropping anecdote in an story about something else.[1] This is partly because the TV show rarely visits specific historical events at all. (The TV series, specifically–it’s more common in the books and audio plays.) At least, until recently. Between the Shelley rumor and season 11, the first produced by Chris Chibnall, it looks like the way Doctor Who uses history is evolving. This lets it tell different types of stories, but they’re story types with potential pitfalls.

You can divide historically-set Doctor Who stories into two categories. (Parenthetical caveat #3: Not the only possible groupings, just ones I’ve chosen for the purposes of my argument.) Type 1 stories have a historical setting, and may deal with historical themes, but aren’t about specific historical events–“The Pyramids of Mars,” “Black Orchid,” or “Thin Ice” (which uses a real event as background but isn’t about it).

Type 2 stories throw the Doctor into a specific, real historical event. This was more common in the 1960s when the show did what fans call “pure historicals”–stories with no science fiction elements aside from the TARDIS. (The only post–1960s pure historical is “Black Orchid,” an odd Peter Davison two-parter.) After the show went all SF, all the time, it’s hard to come up with examples. “City of Death” involves the Mona Lisa, but we never meet Leonardo. “Mark of the Rani” has Luddites but isn’t about them; they’re just background for bizarre Master hijinks. Before season 11 the new series had “The Fires of Pompeii” and… well, “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Day of the Moon” take place while history is being broadcast on television, but the Doctor is in the audience watching, just like us.

Most Type 2 stories are about the Doctor landing in trouble and trying to survive long enough to escape in the TARDIS. The historical event is usually wide-ranging enough to keep the Doctor away from the center of the action–the Reign of Terror, say, or the Parturition of India. You see why when you watch “The Gunfighters,” one of the few Doctor Who stories centered around a small-scale, local historical event. When we reach the big climax in episode 4, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, the Doctor is absent. There’s nothing for him to do there.

When the Doctor gets involved in real history there’s only two ways the story can go: she can observe, or she can intervene. First, Observation: the Doctor stands to the side and observes history without affecting it. This keeps historical figures at the center of their own stories, but reduces the Doctor to a supporting role in her own series. She isn’t participating in a story, she’s an audience member who has a closer seat than we do.

One variation on Observation is the story where someone travels back in time to change history, and must be stopped. It’s a popular idea but is almost never used in Doctor Who. The only time meddler stories in the original series are “The Aztecs,” “The Time Meddler” (both Hartnell stories), “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (in which the villains never manage to leave the 20th century), and “The King’s Demons” (another oddly old-fashioned Davison two-parter). “Rosa” is the only one I can think of from the new series. It rubs against the grain to have the Doctor working to keep everything the same; meddling is what Doctor Who is about. In fact, after the Hartnell era the show rarely mentions the possibility of changing history at all. In the new series “Father’s Day” and “The Fires of Pompeii” explain for the new audience what the Doctor can and can’t interfere with, but otherwise it’s assumed that changes, as the eleventh Doctor puts it in “Hide,” “mostly work themselves out.”

Another kind of Observation story sends the protagonist back in time to witness a famous disaster or injustice. Often it’s an event society is still processing–Quantum Leap used this model a lot and was specifically set up to take stock of the Baby Boomer audience’s experiences. The time traveler can’t make a big difference in what happens, though they might help a few people. The traveler learns more about history and the story follows their emotional journey as a proxy for the audience’s. “Witness to history” stories can be problematic. They’re often stories of privileged people[2] having feelings about things happening to marginalized people. That’s less of a risk the more distance there is between the audience and the history; for instance, an inoffensive literary example is Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. This is another plot Doctor Who almost never uses. The only one in the entire classic series[3] is “The Massacre,” and two things are interesting to note: first, it’s not an especially fraught tragedy for contemporary audiences, most of whom wouldn’t feel a strong personal connection to the persecution of Hugenots. Second, the witness is the companion; the Doctor disappears for most of the story. It’s as though this plot isn’t compatible with the Doctor.

The other way the Doctor can interact with real history is Intervention: let the Doctor, or the aliens she meets, inspire or intervene in history. This lets the Doctor be active but diminishes the agency of real historical figures, giving fictional characters credit for their accomplishments.

Which brings us back to Mary Shelley. Assuming the description is accurate, the Shelley idea works according to an inanely reductive theory of art and invention where every idea can be traced to a specific incident from the author’s life. (There’s a lot of this among the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare crowd: Shakespeare must have been noble, because only a noble could or would have written so much about nobles.) It’s a condescending, teleological version of cultural and technological evolution. Our ancestors weren’t sophisticated enough to come up with their own ideas–they needed help from us, the smart future people!

Doctor Who has flirted with this attitude before. Seventies Who got a lot of mileage out of Chariots of the Gods?, with aliens boosting ancient cultures a la von Däniken. And it tends to agree with Star Trek that low-tech cultures—including present-day Earth, from the Doctor’s perspective—need to be protected from anachronistic technology they’re not ethically developed enough to handle. Which I find dubious inasmuch as not everyone can handle the technology we have in real life. Let’s go for the edge case and consider nuclear weapons. If you showed a nuclear missile to random medieval people and explained what it did clearly enough that they really understood it, would they really be any less likely than people today to ask “Why the hell would you even build that?” By contrast, plenty of moderns assume we could survive a nuclear war and on more than one occasion in the last century we actually almost blew ourselves up. We have more information than our ancestors. In many ways, on average, we’re more enlightened. But that doesn’t mean we’re smarter. And it’s important to remember that our descendents will consider us ignorant and morally deficient in ways we can’t predict.

The time traveller who hands a historical figure their big idea is an inane gag, but scriptwriters never tire of it. Doctor Who has “explained” H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and even Richard Nixon’s penchant for recording himself. On Quantum Leap Sam Beckett invented everything from the lyrics of “Peggy Sue” to the Heimlich maneuver. Back to the Future had Marty McFly writing the music of Chuck Berry, which was not only insulting but, inasmuch as it gave an average white kid credit for the work of a black man, also racist.

In classic Doctor Who, once you’re past the Hartnell era historical celebrities rarely appear onscreen at all. After “The Gunfighters” in 1966, the first historical figures who weren’t illusions or robot duplicates didn’t appear until 1985’s “Mark of the Rani” and “Timelash.” Modern Doctor Who invented what fans call “celebrity historicals”–stories where the Doctor visits the past and teams up with a famous historical figure. Charles Dickens or King James I wander into a standard Type 1 historical Doctor Who story and act as a one-off companion, with the Doctor and the guest sharing the role of the hero–or anti-hero, in James’s case.

But it sounds like in the Mary Shelley episode the Doctor is going to be at the Villa Diodati while the Byron-Shelley circle are writing their horror stories. This is a Type 2 historical story. What’s more, after a decades-long post-Hartnell dry spell season 11 has two of these stories: “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab.” And they’re different from previous historical stories in other ways.

First, these stories put the Doctor into segregation-era Alabama or the Parturition of India, history that’s both emotionally fraught and within living memory. Generally Doctor Who has stayed away from events that might be connected to painful family history for some of the audience. “Rosa” and “Demons” avoided trivializing their subjects, but it was a risk.

Second, these are exactly the kinds of stories Doctor Who hardly ever tells. “Demons” is a witness to tragedy story. Luckily it’s a good one–about as good as these stories can get, in fact. The writer is himself British-Indian and it’s a story about Yaz’s family that’s focused on her feelings, not the Doctor’s. And “Demons of the Punjab” is about witnessing and remembrance. The aliens of the week and the story itself are both memorializing the dead.

“Rosa”, meanwhile, is the first time meddler story since the Davison era. The script, co-written by a black writer, avoids most of the potential pitfalls of grafting a time meddler story to Rosa Parks’s most famous moment of activism. It doesn’t soft-pedal the racism or romanticize mid–20th century Alabama, which feels appropriately unpleasant. (I liked Quantum Leap but, steeped as it was in Boomer nostalgia, it presented a theme-park version of the past[4] even when it wasn’t appropriate.) “Rosa” doesn’t focus on the Doctor’s feelings and manages to avoid looking as though Parks needs the Doctor’s help. On the other hand, to offset the meddler’s work the Doctor does a lot of behind-the-scenes manipulation and stage managing, which is still not a good look. And the episode’s “Sound of Thunder”-style butterfly effect theory of time travel, in which small changes can rewrite history, has unintentionally problematic implications. The premise of the meddler’s plan is that just having a different bus, or a different driver, on the day Parks refused to give up her seat could derail the civil rights movement. This is different from how any other Doctor Who story has handled changes to history.[5] For one thing, if every episode worked on these assumptions just stepping out of the TARDIS to buy a newspaper might shred the web of time. More to the point, the idea that some asshole messing with a bus schedule could stop Rosa Parks from making her mark on history is at odds with the fact, which the episode itself acknowledges, that she was a committed activist. The butterfly effect model of time travel suggests progress is fragile. All human achievements, large or small, are the products more of random chance than of human effort. A time traveler steps on a butterfly and decades of social progress are undone.

There’s a progression in Doctor Who’s use of time travel. The classic series used it mostly as a way to move between settings and genres. Russell T. Davies introduced the celebrity historical. Steven Moffatt brought in twisting, achronological storylines in the tradition of (albeit much simpler than) Primer. And Chris Chibnall is introducing traditional time travel premises that haven’t been seen much in Doctor Who.

“Rosa” and the upcoming Mary Shelley episode are celebrity historicals mixed with the Type 2 historical story: the Doctor makes a guest appearance in the historical figures’ own stories and gets involved in the events that made them famous. This is new. I mean, sort of new, in a not-actually-new-at-all sense. The spinoff media, the books and audios, do this all the time (Big Finish, as I mentioned above, has even used more or less this exact Mary Shelley idea). But in the actual TV show it’s rarer than you’d think.

There’s a reason for that: again, there are only two ways a story centered around the event that made the celebrity famous can go. The Doctor can be involved in the celebrity’s big moment, but then it’s going to look like the show’s giving her partial credit for their achievements. Or the Doctor can stand off to the side and watch the celebrity do their thing, in which case she’s not the actor but the audience. In either case, somebody’s probably going to be Poochie.

That’s Poochie as in “Itchy and Scratchy and.” The Poochie is a character who shows up partway through a story, encroaches on the cast’s narrative roles, forces them to react instead of acting, and looks cool and super-competent mostly because when the Poochie is around everybody else is less cool and competent. When the Doctor gives H. G. Wells the idea for The Time Machine in “Timelash,” he’s the Poochie–turning up in Wells’s biography and inserting himself into Wells’s most famous books. On the flip side, in “Marco Polo” the Poochie is Marco. He steals the TARDIS and the central narrative role from Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor. For seven episodes the show becomes the Marco Polo show, guest starring Doctor Who.[6]

I have one firm opinion on how Doctor Who ought to use history: if you’re going to do a celebrity historical, the celebrity should guest star in a Doctor Who story instead of the Doctor guest starring in the celebrity’s story. An original Doctor Who story can make room for more than one hero without shortchanging any of them. But the celebrity’s biography is an existing story and it’s hard for the Doctor to insert herself into it without to some extent hijacking it. I’m not interested in watching the Doctor become Forrest Gump, wandering into the frame whenever someone else does something interesting.


  1. There are exceptions; see the paragraph on von Dänikenism.  ↩

  2. If nothing else, the time traveler is temporally privileged in that they’re going back to the future as soon as the story ends.  ↩

  3. The original 1963–1989 series. It feels like the distinction may be meaningless soon, inasmuch as the new series is pushing 15 years old, but it’s what everybody calls it.  ↩

  4. I kind of cringed at how weirdly ignorant the TARDIS crew are of the dangers of Alabama in the 1950s; despite everything, they start the episode acting like they’re wandering around Disneyland. Later Graham turns out to be so well informed about Rosa Parks that he even knows the name of the bus driver, so why is his reaction to landing in the 1950s “Can we meet Elvis” and not “Hey, maybe this isn’t the safest place for my grandson?”  ↩

  5. With the possible exception of “Turn Left,” although in that case Donna’s left turn didn’t change real-world history.  ↩

  6. “Marco Polo” is one of only two missing Doctor Who stories I would not be excited to have back; the other is “The Celestial Toymaker.”  ↩

Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel

1.

We think of spoilers as a recent concern. That’s not necessarily the case. Witness the preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel. None other than Jorge Luis Borges explains why he wants readers to discover the novella’s plot for themselves: “To classify it as perfect,” says Borges, “is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” Spoilers aren’t the only concept this book anticipates. Morel, first published in 1940 (though not translated until 1964) plays with ideas science fiction wouldn’t pick up on for decades: transhumanism, virtual reality, audiences’ relationships with media. To explain, I’ll have to reveal everything. Sorry, Jorge!

Seriously, though, maybe you should read this book before reading my reaction. That feeling of discovery is one of the best things about it.

2.

The Invention of Morel is efficient, packing a novel’s worth of ideas into 100 pages. The first line is already laying clues to what’s coming: “Today, on the island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time.” Morel’s nameless and disreputable narrator is a fugitive. He’s fled to a deserted island with a hotel (called, for reasons he doesn’t yet understand, a “museum”) and a lot of diseased trees. He insists he’s wrongly accused–of what, he refuses to say. Footnotes from a puzzled editor suggest we shouldn’t entirely trust him. Among other things, the narrator is obsessed with Thomas Malthus’s ideas on overpopulation. You get the sense that, for all his intellectual pretensions, he just doesn’t like people much and wishes there weren’t so many.

Rumor has it the island’s last visitors died of plague. Still, as the story opens our antihero is hiding from a sudden materialization of tourists. As sometimes happens in old novels the narrator falls in Love at First Sight with a vacationer named Faustine. As does not happen often enough in old novels, it occurs to him a strange man popping out of the wilderness to declare undying love may disconcert the object of his affection. He starts a garden to attract her attention. When she seems to ignore him he doesn’t immediately approach. So it takes a while to dawn on the narrator that she can’t see or hear him at all.

The tourists are simulations. The island runs on hydroelectric engines. When they’re working a week-long recording of the tourists runs in loops. These aren’t images, they’re physical. So are recordings of the museum, the trees, and even the weather. (Summer came early when recorded sunshine superimposed itself on reality.) Somebody’s invented a holodeck, like on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

That somebody is Morel, the mad scientist whose island and whose party this is. His guests are all friends, but as the loops repeat it becomes clear Morel just invited them as a pretext to get close to Faustine. A few iterations later the narrator is in the right place at the right time to watch Morel calmly explain to his friends how he murdered them.

Morel has invented a new kind of camera. Like film, it records and plays back images. Like a gramophone, it records and plays back sound. Unlike either, it records and plays back everything else–temperature, odor, physical matter. In fact, insists Morel, his invention records everything so exactly it captures thoughts. The recordings played back by the invention of Morel are conscious, but it’s consciousness without free will or memory. Morel and his friends can’t think new thoughts. With each playback they relive the same thoughts and experiences, as though for the first time. But they are real experiences. A pity that the process destroys any living thing it records! Trees or people, all waste away as though diseased. Morel has, nonetheless, spent the last week recording himself and his closest friends. They’ll die, but Morel’s invention guarantees him an afterlife eternally reliving a perfect vacation with his friends. Especially Faustine, whether she likes it or not.

Morel is scary. He’s a mild, unspectacular character. But he’s mildly and unspectacularly an utter sociopath. I thought Dr. Moreau was bad but, as island-owning mad scientists whose names start with “More” go, Morel has him beat.

He’s also a transhumanist uploading his brain into a personal Matrix, which is impressive for 1940.

3.

Early in 2018 the internet paused to gawk at a startup company called Nectome. Nectome offers to record your mind. They’ll store your consciousness–at least, if you believe the optimistic view. Someday, maybe, someone will be both able and willing to run it in a computer, granting you new life as an artificial intelligence in a simulated world. The catch is that Nectome stores, like, your brain. As a cofounder quoted in the MIT Technology Review puts it:

The product is “100 percent fatal,” says McIntyre. “That is why we are uniquely situated among the Y Combinator companies.”

(A line that cries out to be followed up with “Beep Boop. I am a robot.”)

Fatal or not, mind uploading is a popular idea in science fiction and among Transhumanists. Morel sees no problem in trading lives for digital afterlives, though Morel’s simulation runs in the real world instead of on a computer. The narrator considers the implications: what if there’s a way to find and gather “vibrations” long since dispersed? Everyone who ever existed could return to replay their lives. The narrator imagines simulated afterlives crowding out living humans. (At this point the weary editor claims to have removed a long, incoherent rant on Malthus.)

This is basically physicist Frank Tipler’s Omega Point. Tipler imagines a future society with near-infinite computational resources simulating every possible universe containing everyone who ever lived. Less cosmically, yet even less convincingly, some think we could recreate people by combining conscious software with biographical and psychological profiles. To be fair to Tipler and friends, at least they’re imagining an afterlife for everybody. When transhumanists talk about “life extension,” I often get the sense they’re really talking about “life extension for me, the silicon valley billionaire!” without caring how accessible those extended lives will be to the rest of us peons.

4.

This raises questions. Obvious questions, asked many times, without dampening transhumanist interest in mind uploading at all.

  1. Assuming you can copy your mind onto a hard drive, and it’s conscious, is it really you? Is there continuity between you and the you in the computer? Most people (myself included) would say no. You’ve created a parallel version of yourself, a mental twin whose identity immediately diverges from yours. Although from the twin’s point of view it may feel like you. It has all your memories up to the point of upload, and if you had your brain freeze-dried the original you isn’t hanging around to raise awkward questions. Maybe for some people that’s close enough.

  2. Maybe it’s okay your upload is someone else–maybe you just want to leave behind a digitally conscious offspring. The next question: Is it conscious? I’m assuming you made the decision after some due diligence. Presumably whoever sold you on the process let you talk to an AI who assured you everything was great. But were you talking to a conscious mind, or an extraordinarily sophisticated Eliza? Not being inside a computer yourself, how can you be sure?

  3. What kind of afterlife is this? Do you have an interface to the real world? Can a computer run more than one mind? Can you network with those other minds? If you’re one of the first uploads, will you be spending decades by yourself in a low-polygon-count video game?

These are questions The Invention of Morel doesn’t ask, except implicitly: the narrator doesn’t ask, but we’re not meant to trust his judgement. The nature of uploading in Morel makes these questions especially important. The recordings can’t do or think anything new. But they’re (at least theoretically) conscious within those limits. And they don’t know they’re limited: each run feels like it’s happening for the first time.

If they can’t think new thoughts, are they alive? If they don’t know it, from their own point of view does it matter? Morel doesn’t stop to ask. What kind of person would take this deal?

5.

In Morel’s case, the answer is obvious. He’s a type of sociopath we’re all too familiar with, fueled by toxic masculinity and a bloated sense of entitlement. Other people are supporting characters in the movie of his life. If Faustine won’t play the role he’s laid out for her he’ll cancel production. Morel sacrifices his whole cast to replace uncooperative reality with a perfect eternal image.

There have been a lot of debates over the years about how media influence audiences, for good or bad. I’m increasingly convinced the most pernicious influences in popular culture are stories that value protagonists’ self-actualization, emotional fulfillment, or personal goals over the supporting cast’s safety or emotional health. I’m thinking, for instance, of all the action movies where the plot puts the lives of innumerable extras at stake but the emotional through-line is about nothing more than the hero’s conflict with a father-figure.

Our culture needs more heroes who care about other people’s self-actualization and fulfillment.

6.

What’s more interesting is the fate of the narrator. He never knew these people. They no longer exist in his world. They’re characters in a television series or a giant video game. It’s media–a documentary, but it might as well be fiction for all the narrator can affect anything. Still, he turns on Morel’s invention and records himself walking among the tourists. He inserts himself into their conversations, choreographs his actions so they seem to interact. An outside observer would never know he wasn’t part of the original group. The narrator will waste away; his copy will spend eternity pretending to have friends.

At this point it’s worth noting Bioy Casares based Faustine on the actress Louise Brooks–that’s her on the cover of the NYRB Classics edition of the novel. As a young man Bioy Casares had a crush on Brooks. The Invention of Morel is in part dissecting his adolescent self’s attraction to a woman he knew he’d never meet.

What Bioy Casares felt for Brooks is an example of a parasocial relationship. That’s the technical term for the one-sided relationship people have with fictional characters who feels like “old friends.” People can have parasocial relationships with media figures or celebrities, too. But as with explicitly fictional characters they’re only mental simulations of those people. A real relationship goes two ways; both sides engage with the other person’s point of view. In a parasocial relationship the feelings are all on one side. The second party isn’t aware of the first, and can’t be. The second party is fictional.

A horror movie’s audience feels fear they know is nothing like real fear. A tragedy’s audience feels sadness distinct from the sadness they feel when sad things happen in real life. Parasocial relationships are like that, with friendship; they’re not necessarily unhealthy. The devoted fans who check in with their favorite TV show every week have feelings analogous to the emotions associated with real friendships while understanding they aren’t the same.

If they’re healthy. If not, you get the proverbial soap opera fan accosting the villain’s actor on the street. Or a celebrity stalker. Or Reg Barclay, the character on Star Trek: The Next Generation who got so lost in his holodeck sessions he couldn’t deal with reality. Or the narrator, who has the same problem, except Counselor Troi isn’t around to stage an intervention.

The narrator can’t deal with people. I don’t mean he’s an introvert, drained by social interaction. That, I could sympathize with–no one’s more introverted than me! No, the narrator can’t deal with people because he’s a self-absorbed misanthrope. Instead, he’ll spend time with phantoms who can’t surprise him because they’re completely predictable, and ask nothing of him because they don’t know he’s there. For him, that’s close enough.

7.

In the social media age it’s become common for creators (they’re usually women) to get death threats when some cartoon or video game or movie franchise takes a turn its “fans” don’t like. As far as these guys (they’re always men) are concerned, their parasocial relationships with fictional characters are more important than real people’s emotional health and feelings of safety.

I sometimes wonder how many people have, without admitting it to themselves, on some subconscious level convinced themselves other people aren’t real.

8.

Compared to Morel, the narrator may seem merely pathetic. But the novel draws a direct parallel between them! Even the narrator notices, and he’s not especially self-aware. Both claim to be in love with Faustine, but neither know anything about her. They’re not thinking of her as another human with interiority like their own. They look at her and see fictional characters they invented to support stories in which they’re the protagonists.

For the narrator a simulated person is close enough to a real person that a parasocial relationship and a real relationship are almost interchangeable. He’s willing to murder himself for an afterlife surrounded by images. At this point, remember the narrator is a fugitive, and still hasn’t told us what he was accused of. Who is he, really? What’s he capable of? Given the chance, could he have been another Morel? Bioy Casares seems to think the narrator and Morel are different more in degree than kind.

If there’s any hope for the narrator, it’s that at the end he hopes for some future gatherer of vibrations to unite him with Faustine’s consciousness. Maybe he’s starting to realize other people have their own stories, and it might be a good idea to listen.

9.

The official history of science fiction looks like a list of books that aged badly–who can read Asimov anymore without occasionally laughing? Or Heinlein? It’s easy to assume aging badly is an inherent property of the genre, that very little SF more than a generation old is worth reading.

In forgotten corners of the shelves is an alternate history of SF. There are books less celebrated (sometimes forgotten) by dedicated SF readers that still have something to say to us today. The Invention of Morel is one of those. Transhumanism, virtual reality, the merging of real life with media, and destructive, entitled misogyny? This is all very current, if not always current in the way we’d want.

Short Complaints About Several Books

This summer hasn’t been great for reading or writing. My concentration and attention span are low; I read the first chapters of a book only to get distracted by another. Still, I have a few longer posts in the works about books I liked enough (or in one case disliked enough) to inspire substantial thoughts. Meanwhile, here are shorter notes on some books that inspired insubstantial thoughts. Most of them I wasn’t impressed with.

Steve Aylett, Lint

I can’t decide how I feel about Lint. It took me weeks to read. Not that it’s bad–far from it. But it only works in small doses.

Lint is a biography of Jeff Lint, a 20th century science fiction writer distantly based on Philip K. Dick. It’s comedy in a style that mostly doesn’t depend on obvious punch lines, which I like. (Only a few pieces of this novel feel like conventional jokes and they’re the bits least likely to work well.) Lint has some genuinely incisive lines: “Truth is unpopular because it doesn’t have a dependent need to be liked or believed–its independence seems like unfriendliness.”) Occasionally descriptions of Lint’s novels aspire to the satire found in Stanislaw Lem’s fake book reviews: “In the novel Jelly Result, half of Eterani city is exactly the same as the other half, because the authorities don’t have enough ideas to cover the whole area.”

But the dominant style of humor here is randomness: “On one occasion Lint fired forty pounds of chili from a turn-of-the-century baseball gun mounted on the roof of a 23rd Street apartment block, and eagerly told a baffled Kerouac about it.” Most of the text is a succession of sentences like this. Parts of the book seem written with a text-processing program like JanusNode: “They behave like rain upon travelers,’ he thought, seeing those spirits. ”˜We are a circus of ourselves. We make the sleeve. We the alteration.’” This is amusing more often than not, but after a while the rhythm feels overwhelmingly samey, like a stuck nozzle relentlessly pumping out infinite quantities of cake frosting. After every chapter I had to put it down and read something else for a while.

One chapter, though, stood out: the account of Lint’s short-lived animated TV series, Catty and the Major, is genuinely disturbing. It reads like a half-remembered urban legend, suggesting this nightmarish cartoon show hides some deeper mystery we don’t have enough clues to solve. Should you give Lint a try and find the style hard going, it might be worth pushing on to the Catty and the Major chapter. It’s nothing like the rest of the book.

Fran Wilde, The Jewel and Her Lapidary

I got interested in this one because I’d heard it was written at least partly as a travel guide (the blurb begins “Buried beneath the layers of a traveler’s guide is a hidden history”), and then it got a Hugo nomination. It turns out the travel guide entries are just chapter-heading epigraphs. The bulk of the book is a decent but not unusual epic fantasy, with maybe slightly better than average prose.

Unusually in a genre inclined to bloat, this fantasy may not be long enough. It’s plot, plot, plot all the way, with little room to pry into the oddities and philosophical underpinnings of its world. (And there is some odd stuff here, which might have been interesting if unpacked; the power relationships inherent in most feudal fantasy are heightened, with the constant presence of literal physical chains as a metaphor.)

Someday, someone needs to write that epic fantasy in the form of a travel guide. (Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland isn’t quite the same thing.)

Marie Brennan, Cold-Forged Flame

For me, the single interesting aspect of Cold-Forged Flame is how stripped-down it is, almost experimentally so. It’s pure action, lacking any of the context that makes action meaningful–character, setting, philosophy. The protagonist is an amnesiac born at the moment the novel begins. Most of the story is set in a mutable otherworld, the magic-island equivalent of Star Trek’s holodeck–the kind of setting SF series use when they want to be Symbolic. The novel’s only serious engagement with ideas is a brief conversation about ethics.

As a blank slate, the protagonist knows only as much as the reader, and in experiencing the story she initially works as a proxy for the reader. Like, at first what little we see of this world looks like Celtic Britain, but then the protagonist sees a gun and instantly understands guns are a thing in her world: “I’m just wondering how I recognize that thing… How can I know all that, when I don’t remember anything from before I opened my eyes on that slab?” She knows about guns because the readers of Cold-Forged Flame know about guns, and they deduced what the gun meant in the same moment she did. The protagonist learns her world like a typical fantasy reader, with the same background knowledge and skill in deducing the nature of the world from the cues her author gave her. She is in effect a fantasy fan dumped into a random fantasy story.

Like I said, we don’t learn much about this world before the protagonist reaches Holodeck Island. SF stories don’t usually resort to holodecks (or Lands of Fiction, or insanity pepper hallucinations, or other mutable surrealist dreamscapes) until we’ve gotten to know the characters in their normal context; watching them navigate symbolic landscapes is less revealing when, as in Cold-Forged Flame, we don’t understand who they are or how their world works in the first place. As the protagonist of Cold-Forged Flame learns about herself, it’s less and less apparent what the facts she learns mean. At the climax we learn she’s something called an “Archon,” and we’re given some idea of what an Archon is, but having spent so little time in her world we don’t know what being an Archon means: how should she feel about being an Archon? What do other people think of them? What’s their place in the world? It’s not clear, so the scene meant to deliver the novels’ biggest emotional punch falls flat.

Brian Evanson, The Warren

The Warren is the story of X, an artificial being living in an underground bunker. He’s the latest in a long line of constructs, but the first to be alone instead of part of a pair; his past selves live within himself, perceived as a collection of eyes that open when the personality wakes.

X’s selves trade off the first-person narration as they trade off his body, unaware of any of the others’ actions beyond what they might have written. The prose is perfectly controlled, always clear except where it’s intentionally not, with a strong personality. It’s one of those stories that manage to imply far more about its world than they explain, a landscape packed into a small space. It’s apocalyptic, but it’s apocalyptic surrealism. For me, literary surrealism is one of the main attractions of SF.

So it’s odd I didn’t like The Warren more than I did. Like the last two books, the problem is that it feels insubstantial. There are fewer layers here than there ought to be. Expectations are the problem: SF has literary status anxiety, and fans and marketing copy both have a habit of selling SF books as deeper than they are. (It’s telling how often fan-written reviews say a novel is about certain issues but don’t dig into how it’s about those issues, or what it’s actually saying about them.) The marketing surrounding The Warren is best summed up by Charles Yu’s blurb: “What is a human? What is a person? The Warren is a truly original exploration of these questions”•the kind of work that causes one to re-examine long-held certainties. Profound and deeply unsettling, in the best way possible.” And, yeah, the questions What is a human? and What is a person? come up in The Warren. But I honestly don’t think it has much to say about them except that, in a science fictional world, maybe our definition of “person” ought to be as expansive as possible. Which is true, but not any more profound than your average quarter-century old episode of Star Trek.

Two Blake’s 7 Tie-Ins

On the other hand, sometimes my expectations are modest but still aren’t met. The Forgotten and Archangel are tie-in novels based on the TV series Blake’s 7, published by Big Finish, a company that mostly produces audio dramas. There’s one in this series I haven’t yet read that I expect I’ll enjoy–it’s by Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum, who have a good track record with Doctor Who novels.

These first two, though… they’re competent, but I can’t call them good even by tie-in standards. They read like bald descriptions of a couple of hypothetical TV stories. They don’t feel like real novels and I get the impression the possibility they could have been real novels wasn’t even on the authors’ sensors. The one memorable incident in either is a strange moment in Archangel when we learn Jenna hates going down to the Liberator’s power section because it “always seemed to have the same effect on her. It affected her fingers first, making them ache until it was difficult for her to grip things, then it would slowly seep down her body until her stomach felt bloated and she needed to use the bathroom.” This is more than I wanted to know about the Liberator’s power section.

Agatha Christie, Towards Zero

Towards Zero is a perfectly cromulent Agatha Christie novel. If you’re into Agatha Christie it will pass the time adequately; if not, then not. The only noteworthy moment is when Superintendent Battle notices a clue because it’s something Hercule Poirot would have noticed. This unfortunately just emphasizes that the entirely charisma-free Battle is the detective instead of Poirot.

D. M. Devine, The Sleeping Tiger

D. M. Devine’s The Sleeping Tiger is one of a half-dozen paperback “Crime Classics” I bought off a remainder table. How it’s a “Classic” I have no idea. This is a stupid book.

Some of the problem is values dissonance; a lot of old mysteries have moments that didn’t age well, but The Sleeping Tiger is way out of touch. When protagonist John Prescott declines to cover for a doctor who had an accident driving drunk, we’re meant to think he’s a stick-in-the-mud. When he slaps his unfaithful wife, we’re meant to think he’s standing up for himself. His love interest by the end of the book is a woman he meets in the first chapters, five years earlier, when he’s in his twenties and she’s fifteen. Oh, and John takes antibiotics for flu. I hate this guy.

This is the 1960s, by the way: circa 1962–1967. The novel was published in 1961. One thing that’s not at all interesting about The Sleeping Tiger, but could have been, is that it could have qualified as near-future science fiction if it had occurred to Devine to wonder how the world might change over the next five years. As it is, the novel takes place in the indeterminate 20th century England of your average Agatha Christie adaptation.

Beyond that, John is one of the dumbest mystery-novel heroes I have ever come across. Never mind that he’s willing to get into a car with a drunk. This is a person who upon finding a dead body moves it, gets himself covered in blood, pulls the freaking knife out of its back, and tells the police an easily-disproved lie about when he arrived. Worst of all for a detective novel, John doesn’t clear his name through brilliant deduction–the villain finally just outright tries to kill him. Give this one a pass.

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.