Random Thoughts on Random Books

I have short, not especially well thought out notes on some of the books I read over the past year sitting on my computer. I may have had an idea of working them up into full-size blog posts, but at this point that’s unlikely. (There are others I still plan to make an effort on! Eventually!) They’re cluttering up my drafts folder, so I thought I might as well give them a light edit and post them in one go.

Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of

The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, Thomas M. Disch’s critical survey of science fiction from 1998, is of wildly variable quality. It seems that Disch was by the late 1990s becoming the kind of guy who complains about “political correctness,” and the book contains one of the most mindless and least generous takes on Ursula Le Guin’s work I’ve ever read. (It seems in part to stem from a personal beef he had with her about a Norton anthology she edited.)

On the good side, I was more convinced by Disch’s identification of SF with con-artistry, a running theme throughout the book—not just big obvious cons like Dianetics and SDI/Star Wars, but the way SF fandom tries to wring plausibility out of dubious ideas like space colonization and post-apocalyptic survival. (He identifies the Baen/Analog set in particular as prone to promoting their fictions as achievable realities.) Also SF fans’ tendency to flatter themselves as uniquely intellectual, and SF itself as a “literature of ideas.” Disch argues for Edgar Allan Poe as the inventor of science fiction, partly because Poe was an inveterate hoaxer.

John Dickson Carr, The Crooked Hinge

I’ve read a lot of John Dickson Carr in the past year. I’d forgotten how weird he can be. The Crooked Hinge kicks off with a Tichborne Claimant scenario, except the claimant is claiming the identity of a guy who is alive and in possession of the ancestral estate. Then it adds rumors of witchcraft, and a decayed eighteenth-century zither-playing automaton which appears to be running around on its own. (Even though you know this is a Scooby-Doo/Diabolique deal where nothing is supernatural, the creepy stuff is genuinely creepy.) Halfway through one character turns out to be hiding a case of amnesia. And the solution involves another wild revelation that was, I guess, technically hinted at, but is still just so far out no one would think of it.

Honestly, not enough mystery novels are weird. I like golden age mysteries because they’re so batty; newer mysteries are invested in tedious stuff like “realism” and “internal consistency” and “three-dimensional characters,” when all I want is to watch eccentrics figure out Rube Goldberg death traps.

Occasionally Carr does a thing with his narration I associate mostly with old detective novels, a casual historical mode—he uses constructions like “Page always remembered her at that moment” or “As for what happened in the few seconds after that, Page is still confused in his mind.” Carr acknowledges the novel is being narrated and pretends the narrator has spoken with the characters without giving the narrator a specific identity. These days most third-person novels don’t acknowledge any narrator at all, so this is always striking when I come across it.

John Gordon , The House on the Brink

The House on the Brink by John Gordon, reprinted not too long ago by Valancourt Books, has a reputation as a great M. R. Jamesian novel—it has an eerie Engligh landscape and an ancient treasure with a revenant guardian. It was originally published as YA but I thought it worked from an adult perspective.

The word “liminal” gets thrown around a lot in discussing fantasy but this is a book about liminality and ambiguity. The plot is driven by something that might be an old log pulled from the riverbank, or might be an animate bog body. As we meet the protagonist, a young man on the border of adulthood, he’s trying to see both sides of an argument. The central theme is how much of life happens in these ambiguous between-states, and how people reach across those gaps.

The prose is spare with just enough detail; the novel manages a strong sense of place without actually describing very much. (Similarly, James tended to describe his ghouls with a few carefully chosen details.) There are only a handful of characters and the book spends most of its time in the heads of its two protagonists, moving freely between them while acknowledging they can’t see into each other’s heads as easily as the narrative. So despite an expansive landscape it also feels interestingly claustrophobic. Tense and dreamlike, and well worth reading if you’re into Jamesian horror.

Jay Cantor, Krazy Kat

I put Jay Cantor’s Krazy Kat down for weeks at a time, which may indicate how involving I found it (although apparently Thomas M. Disch liked it). It’s a novelization of George Herriman’s comic about a genderfluid[1] cat in love with a mouse who returns that love by throwing bricks, and the police dog who pines for the cat and arrests the mouse.

The idea is that Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse witness the atomic bomb tests and decide they’re not three-dimensional enough to compete in a more complicated age; they run through a series of satirical set pieces as they try to become more rounded. Cantor is in part writing about the tension between popular art and high art, Herriman’s comics having at times been claimed for both—is Jasper John’s Flag a painting (high art) or just literally a flag (kitsch)?

I appreciated some of what Cantor is trying to do but all the satire feels obvious, exactly matching a science fiction fan’s stereotype of a mid–20th-century male literary author’s preoccupations—psychoanalysis, Hollywood, early seventies left-wing radicalism. Eventually Krazy and Ignatz imagine themselves as humans and it turns into an interminable and astonishingly boring sequence reinterpreting the central dynamic of the comics as erotica.

Which makes me wonder how the book might be received by modern fandom culture; this seems (with the caveat that I’m a non-expert) like the move most modern fan fiction is making. Despite all the interesting things you could do with unauthorized tie-in fiction, from pastiche to parody, it’s hard to find fanfic that is not entirely about how arbitrary pairs of characters ought to be sleeping together, and the resulting relationships are invariably less interesting and less complex than the relationships the characters had in the original works.

Which is what happens here: in literalizing the brick metaphor Cantor discards Herriman’s subtext, ambiguity, and playfulness. At a certain point Krazy and Ignatz are no longer Krazy and Ignatz; the story moves too far from what interested us about the characters in the first place. And although Cantor clearly wants to resolve that tension between high and low art—Johns’ painting is “both a flag and a painting”—leaving Krazy and Ignatz in human form unintentionally comes down on the side of high culture, where only certain kinds of characters can be “round.” At the same time, it turns Krazy and Ignatz’s relationship literal—the flag is just a flag. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Dorothy B. Hughes, The So Blue Marble

Dorothy B. Hughes is a mystery writer who spent some time in obscurity but returned to prominence due to reprints of her novels In a Lonely Place and The Expendable Man. The So Blue Marble isn’t as good as either of those but is fun; it’s a riff on The Maltese Falcon that feels like it was filtered through David Lynch. (The other books I just mentioned are more serious and grounded; all the Hughes books I’ve read are different.) The cast of The Maltese Falcon are eccentric but the characters in Marble are off-kilter in a story that pretends not to notice their weirdness.

Our Falcon here is a small blue sphere our heroine, Griselda, acquired from her ex-husband, which becomes the target of the weirdest people in New York. The prose slips into a dreamlike tone when Griselda is stressed—it felt like a series of associated details the reader pieces together as Griselda registers them.

The marble everybody is looking for is pulpy as anything, supposedly containing—despite being the size of an actual marble—a map to a treasure vault containing the secrets of solar power and gravity control. Just a delightfully weird book in the guise of a standard pulp noir, maybe not as accomplished as Hughes’ later work but still recommended.

José Eduardo Agualusa, A General Theory of Oblivion

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa is about an agoraphobic woman living in Angola who bricks up her apartment during the Angolan revolution and, having forgotten the Amontillado, spends the next thirty years living on rain water and food she grows on her terrace. Despite her self-immurement she’s tangentially involved with several other interwoven stories that all come to a head in her hallway after she’s been unbricked.

It’s an excellent novel, but I felt weirdly disappointed when I googled the book and discovered it was based on a real woman—as though it would have been cooler if the author had made her up. (The book said she was real. But I’d assumed she was fictionally real, not real real, if you know what I mean.) At the same time I couldn’t stop wondering what the real woman’s real story was. So was I just in a grumpy mood, or do I prefer a clearer dividing line between fiction and nonfiction than I’d realized?

  1. This was a hundred years ago, so Krazy’s pronouns are sometimes “He” and sometimes “She” but never “They.” Cantor’s novel, like most adaptations, makes Krazy definitely female.  ↩

Interesting Links, April 2024

I keep reading things, thinking “I should link to this on my blog,” and forgetting about them. Here are some I remembered.

Adri Joy reviews John Wiswell’s Someone You Can Build a Nest In

A review of a recent cozy fantasy romance starring an adorable Shoggothy creature who murders people for their organs. Adri Joy’s review gestures towards what I think is a minor trend in SFF—stories whose empathy only extends so far, as does their characters’ responsibilities towards others, and whose underlying moral logic is based more on vibes than on coherent ethics. The protagonist’s actions are good because the protagonist feels like a good person.

If the logic of the story requires they do something nasty to someone, the author gives the gift of a conveniently nasty person to do it to. Often it feels like these stories’ minor characters and extras aren’t just different in story-function but are different classes of people within the story; the main characters know it’s okay to treat them differently.

Zachary Gillan, “The H Word: Bartleby and the Weird”

The last time I read “Bartleby the Scrivener” what struck me was its weird-adjacency, how naturally it would fit alongside the work of Robert Aickman and Shirley Jackson. It’s metaphorically the story of a haunting. Zachary Gillan has noticed this, too, and here he teases out the story’s weirdness:

If we take “weird fiction” to refer to horror that focuses on dreadful unsettlement, “Bartleby” is a prime early wellspring, an initial example in a genealogy of the weird that begins not with Lovecraft or Poe but with Melville.

The Breakfast in the Ruins podcast on Robert Sheckley’s Options

Robert Sheckley is one of the most underrated SF writers and Options is one of his most underrated novels, my favorite of his works. It’s a shambolic metafictional plea for SF to abandon cliche and embrace play; I reviewed it here a few years back. It’s great to see someone else notice it and give it a solid ninety minute discussion.

Typebar Magazine

There’s not enough really thoughtful SFF criticism on the web, so I’m happy to see Typebar Magazine—which covers both SFF and general pop culture—show up. Highlights include J. R. Bolt on K. J. Bishop’s oddly forgotten New Weird novel The Etched City, and Gwen C. Katz’s exploration of how SF writers have imagined the death of the sun. The latter examines the history of a SF concept in tandem with the history of the science that inspired it, a surprisingly rare approach.

I’m not as sold on Simon McNeil’s Nobody Wants to Buy The Future—the comments on non-literary SF media don’t really come together; and, folks, no one is using the term squeecore “often,” stop trying to make squeecore happen. But McNeil’s main point is spot on: if SF has lost cultural capital to fantasy, one major reason is that the most SFnal parts of reality are also the crappiest. The long-promised environmental collapse is here, the entire tech industry is based around selling us the apartment door from Ubik that charges you to walk through it, and everybody has novum fatigue. “We got to one of the futures Science Fiction proposed,” says McNeil, “and it sucked.”

Speaking of the future sucking, some politics:

Samantha Hancox-Li, “How Movements Win”

One of my most dispiriting political frustrations is that left-wing politics feels almost entirely disconnected from civic maintenance, the pursuit of institutional power, or any attempt at real material progress. Politics is instead a form of personal expression—it’s about curating your opinions and expressing them through posting, demonstrations, and consumer choices. The effect is that even though the left has the correct moral take on most issues, it has no effective response to any of them.

Which is why Samantha Hancox-Li’s essay feels like the most cogent political analysis I’ve read in a while. In Hancox-Li’s terms, we don’t have an inside strategy:

The overall strategy was best theorized by ACT/UP. They called it the “inside / outside strategy.” The movement had two components. The first was the outside component. This was protest, die-ins, the AIDS quilt—dramatic public acts that worked to raise awareness of the issue and create a sense of urgency—that something must be done. The inside strategy was more boring. It was the people who would show up at city hall at 3pm on a Wednesday to explain the specific policy changes they wanted to regional hospital management. Presentations to the FDA explaining the ethical calculus behind allowing AIDS patients to access experimental medicines. White papers and pocket protectors, speaking the language of policy and evidence. “Something must be done? Here is something you can do.”

Speaking of politics, Hancox-Li’s discussion of outside and inside strategies led me to remember:

A comment on MetaFilter (where I sometimes read the discussion threads) that I often think about.

Sometimes I read comment threads on MetaFilter. I still remember a comment by someone calling themselves “Jane the Brown” who has thoughts about “Entrophic Labour vs. Heroic Labour.” As Jane describes it Heroic Labor is work you can finish definitively; it gives you a sense of accomplishment. Entropic Labor is the cyclic infrastructure maintenance that’s never done but keeps the world from deteriorating—cleaning, laundry, doing dishes, repairs. Entropic labor is less fun, and we treat it as lower-status work.

I often remember Jane’s comment when I think about politics. A lot of the most basic and effective political work—much of what we need to support Hancox-Li’s “inside strategy,” in fact—is entropic labor.

But back to art:

John Coulthart’s Feuilleton Blog

John Coulthart’s Feuilleton has long been an amazing source of links to surrealist art; I mention it now because it recently introduced me to another blog:

The Unquiet Things Blog

Unquiet Things is an art blog dedicated to fantastic and surrealist art. The post that first caught my attention was one on an artist named Anna Mond, who paints work that looks like forgotten 1970s children’s books for goths, but there’s lots of interesting stuff here.

The Time Wayne Douglas Barlowe Designed an Action Figure Line

I had a few weird and nightmarish Power Lords action figures as a kid; I was reminded of them recently when I saw someone post an old ad for the things on social media. What’s interesting is that they were designed by Wayne Douglas Barlowe, the prominent SFF illustrator who wrote Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. In fact, according to the linked article the figures came about after the toy company came to Barlowe wanting to make figures based on the Guide and he had to explain to them he didn’t have the merchandising rights to fifty different SF novels.

On L. P. Hartley’s “The Travelling Grave”


At about the age I was getting over the extreme nervousness of my early childhood I ran across Jack Sullivan’s Lost Souls: A Collection of English Ghost Stories at the library. It’s one of the best ghost story anthologies I’ve ever read—more rarities than familiar chestnuts, and every one a banger.

One of the many stories that stuck with me, mostly due to its absurd and singular final image, was L. P. Hartley’s “The Travelling [sic] Grave.” What’s weird is “The Travelling Grave” is not a ghost story—it’s a thriller, and arguably early science fiction—but it felt at home in Lost Souls. And this isn’t the only time it’s turned up in an anthology of specifically ghost stories—no less an authority than Robert Aickman selected it for the first volume of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories.

Why does “The Travelling Grave” feel haunted?


Cover of The Travelling Grave and Other Stories

First, go read the story. It’s been reprinted all over. Hartley’s collection The Travelling Grave and Other Stories is in print from Valancourt Books. It’s the kind of ironic biter-bit anecdote Alfred Hitchcock Presents specialized in: a villain sets an ingenious deathtrap only to fall into it himself. Anyone who’s seen a few episodes of AHP or The Twilight Zone will guess where it’s going—but not how it gets there.

The first sentence introduces us to Hugh Curtis, whose name and biography are typical of Edwardian adventure stories—public school, service in the first World War, a private income and a gentleman’s club. But the same sentence suggests indecision: Hugh’s waffling over an invitation to a weekend at the country house of Dick Munt. If he’s accepted, it’s only because “they can’t kill me.” This is a habit. Ever since his school days Hugh has reassured himself that they—he’s is one of those unlucky people for whom there’s always been a “they”—can’t kill him. “With the war, this saving reservation had to be dropped: they could kill him, that was what they were there for.” But it’s peacetime again, and Hugh is back to his old habits.

So it looks like Hugh’s our hero, but this brief portrait reveals a nervous, indecisive man, and as he’s arriving late to the party he now disappears altogether.


Instead we follow Hugh’s friend Valentine Ostrop. You can tell from the name Valentine is a different type of character. Hugh likes Valentine but doesn’t understand his “foppishness,” the kind of thing that at this time signaled a character was gay. (Hartley was apparently a gay man himself.) As the story goes on it becomes clear Valentine has an unrequited attraction to Hugh; later the cast will be badgered into a game of hide-and-seek and when Hugh catches Valentine the story compares Valentine to Atalanta.

Valentine’s default conversational mode is Saki-esque piffle. Munt is famous as a collector but nobody knows what he collects. As Valentine settles in with Bettisher, the only other guest, he riffs on the notion Munt collects perambulators (or, as we Americans know them, baby-carriages). This leads to a conversation at cross-purposes when Munt arrives and Valentine plays a guessing-game about his collectables—they carry bodies, they’re mostly made of wood, at some point they perform an “essential service” for everybody—Munt agrees with everything. Only when Munt says his latest self-propelled acquisition doesn’t need a sexton or a priest do we realize Valentine’s error: Munt collects coffins. The house is full of coffins. (Some contain dummies. Or maybe skeletons, which Bettisher says are a kind of dummy.)

This conversation carries on longer than seems necessary and at a certain point Valentine thinks the joke is past its sell-by date. That it sticks out is a clue that it has an important function in the story. Actually, it has three functions.

First, there’s the irony: it unifies two things as chalky and cheesy as coffins and perambulators—one comes at the beginning of life, one at the end, otherwise what’s the difference? I mentioned above “The Travelling Grave” has the same ironic structure as the median episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Irony is not just the structure but the tone; it’s a story of reversals and double-meanings.

More subtly, the conversation positions Valentine and Munt as opposing forces, life and death. And it takes a joke, carries it past the point it stops being funny, then turns it sinister. This will come up again: the story rides the knife edge between funny absurdity and the disconcerting kind. Everyone talks piffle but it’s nightmare piffle. Ha ha funny repeatedly becomes funny peculiar.


Cut to a freshly unpacked Travelling Grave, a wooden cube sitting on top of a tangle of machinery and knives, which seems “to move all ways at once, like a crab.” It’s designed to hunt a guy down, kill him, fold him in half backwards with the head tucked under the heels, and bury itself in the ground. Or the floor—it can drill right through wood and for camouflage Munt inlaid the lid with his own pattern of parquet.

I don’t know whether Harley knew the word “robot”—it was coined less than a decade earlier—but that’s what we have here: a killer robot that seems to anticipate a Dalek. A drone, or one of those dog-bots you can mount a rifle on with the added feature that it cleans up its own mess. This is proto-science-fiction.

But you can see why tradition sorts “The Travelling Grave” into horror—the Grave feels less like a robot than a monster. The point of a robot is that you understand how it works, or at least know it works in a way that’s understandable. It’s programmed, directed. The Grave is more ambiguous. Munt talks like it consciously stalks its prey, but it has a safety-catch and in other moments behaves like a passive booby-trap. How self-directed is that crabwise glide?

Monsters and ghosts have this same ambiguity; their motives are opaque, their intelligence unclear. Could you talk to a Xenomorph if you knew its language, if it has a language? Does Sadako have free will or is she a magical VHS computer virus? Is the bedsheet ghost from “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You” someone or something? The Grave feels like it might fall on the “someone” side; it feels angry.


“The Travelling Grave” jump cuts straight from Munt’s admission that he collects coffins to the party standing around a Grave unpacked and introduced to Valentine in the section break. The group is in mid-conversation. Hartley’s reticent—he tells only as much as we need and trusts us to keep up, to a degree striking in an era where genre fiction errs on the side of over-explanation. But it’s also how transitions work in dreams—you’re in one place one moment, in another the next, context already understood. From here the dream-tone increases. This key to why “The Travelling Grave” fits into a book of ghost stories: it’s proto-SF, but tonally irrational.

Munt plans to welcome the soon-to-arrive Hugh with a game of hide-and-seek. The dream-tone ramps up as the lights go out. Valentine hides in a lidded bath, which he soon realizes is not a bath—Hartley doesn’t tell us what it is; he doesn’t need to—and overhears Munt planning to “test” the Grave when Hugh arrives. Hugh still has not reappeared but in his absence his narrative function has reversed: not only is he not the hero, he’s the damsel in distress.

More sudden shifts: Munt assures Bettisher the Grave’s safety-catch is on, but when Bettisher leaves Munt turns abruptly, titteringly irrational, “chanting to himself in a high voice.” Munt seems to appear and disappear. Valentine, alarmed for Hugh, seems to teleport right to the spot Munt has hidden the Grave.

Up to now Munt has been as identified with silence as with death. (Also as in a dream, it feels like things aren’t making noise when they really ought to—a pretty impressive achievement in text.) He first appears “on silent feet and laughing soundlessly.” His chauffeur, now picking Hugh up at the station, is equally soundless and seems an extension of the car. Valentine is also silent as he carries the Grave to a more out-of-the way bedroom, like picking up the Grave also meant picking up Munt’s narrative role. He’s relieved to make noise again once he sets the Grave down. (Is it really a footstool he trips over on the way out?)


Hugh is greeted by a dark house and an absurd game. The spectacle of grown men playing hide-and-seek should be the funny kind of absurdity. Somehow it isn’t. Valentine thinks up a fatuous excuse to leave, repeating it to himself until it’s “meaningless, even its absurdity disappeared.” Munt vanishes. The rest of the party are left to navigate a country house party without their host, which again should be farcical but leaves everyone uneasy.

All this is leading up to the moment Hugh makes a funny discovery in his room. He reassures Valentine it’s really funny, “not funny in the sinister sense.” This will not last. It’s a pair of shoes upside-down on the parquet floor, seemingly stuck.

Hugh is slow on the uptake and still knows nothing of the Grave, so it’s (again) ironic that he’s the first one to realize the truth, his dialog sliding seamlessly from jocular to hysterical as the penny drops: these shoes are worn by a pair of feet sticking out from between the parquet. For reasons Hugh cannot imagine his host has been crushed and embedded in the floor, a grotesque death and a humiliatingly silly one. Munt is a grim joke, both really and sinisterly funny. Valentine has plucked Death’s sting by rendering him ridiculous.

But we were asking what makes this a ghost story, and still haven’t fully exhumed the body under the floorboards.


When you come to a story written in another time, contexts obvious to the original readers can be invisible to you. Stories don’t say things that go without saying.

Let’s go back to the moment when Hugh thinks “they can’t kill me,” a habit he’d at one point suspended: “With the war, this saving reservation had to be dropped: they could kill him, that was what they were there for. But now that peace was here the little mental amulet once more diffused its healing properties…” But should it?

When Valentine arrives at Munt’s he gazes through the window and remarks “How lovely everything looks.” The wind immediately blows the smell of burning garbage in his face. I keep coming back to tone: “The Travelling Grave” is ironic. Paul Fussell might find that appropriate. In his The Great War and Modern Memory Fussell identifies irony as the characteristic tone of postwar literature. Heck, Fussell argues World War I itself made irony one of the twentieth century’s dominant moods: “I am saying that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.”

When “The Travelling Grave” was first published, in Cynthia Asquith’s 1929 anthology Shudders, the Great War had been over for just ten years. In the entire story, the “they can’t kill me” paragraph is the only time the war is overtly mentioned. But it’s everywhere under the surface. A country house visit is described like an extension of the carnage requiring a “violent mental readjustment … the fanciful might call it a little death.” The house is “pierced” by windows—an odd choice of words unless you’re calling up violent imagery—and hide-and-seek is “mimic warfare.”

And the Grave itself is a thoroughly modern killing machine. The lasting cultural memory of WWI is that it was a modern war, specializing in mechanized mass-produced death. The most indelible image of the war (accurate or not) is one of old-fashioned generals marching waves of infantry into machine gun fire to be mown down factory-style. Armies developed new weapons and defenses—chemical gas, gas-masks. WWI was the first war in which tanks were used and the Grave is like a tiny tank. To contemporary readers the Grave would have been a killing machine with specific contemporary associations, the way cold war audiences got a particular kind of vibes from anything nuclear.

“The Travelling Grave” feels haunted not because there’s a haunt in the story but because the story is itself haunted by an almost unmentioned war. They could kill Hugh; that’s what they were there for. But he shouldn’t have stopped worrying with the armistice. They can still kill him, or anyone who stumbles into the wrong room in the wrong country house. “The Travelling Grave” is a story about how the war permanently broke this now fatally absurd and meaningless world. Death is a mechanism that may strike you down at random if you don’t have someone looking out for you, someone who may not even know what he’s doing but at least has a sense of the absurd. The man most fit to deal with this weird postwar existence is not a conventional English gentleman but a fool.

On Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, and Worldbuilding


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

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

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

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

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

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


Cover of The Mezzanine

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

On Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno’s Tone


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

Cover of Tone

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Post on a Weird Dream

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting Links, August 2023

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

On Stanislaw Lem’s The Chain of Chance

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


Cover of The Chain of Chance

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting Links, May 2023

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

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

(Spoilers from the first line this time!)


Cover of Up the Walls of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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