30 June 2009

The City and the City by China Miéville

If The City & The City is not my favorite China Miéville novel, that is only because I encountered Perdido Street Station at exactly the time I was ready for the riches it offered, and so the powerful, unforgettable experience of reading it will forever overshadow the experience of reading anything else Miéville writes. I think Iron Council possesses many virtues Perdido Street Station does not, but the latter is the novel that lives deep in my heart. It would simply be impossible for me to love a China Miéville novel more than Perdido Street unless I didn't think of it as a China Miéville novel.

And it is almost possible to think of The City & The City as not a China Miéville novel. For one thing, there are no monsters -- at least not in the sense that we are used to monsters from his previous books. This is a great surprise -- what Miéville fan, after all, doesn't know that China loves creating monsters? For another thing, the writing is lean and straightforward, with few of the meaty descriptive passages of earlier books.

But China Miéville is not only the writer of the three Bas-Lag books -- he is also the writer of the stories in Looking for Jake and the YA novel Un Lun Dun, and those works give a certain hints and glimpses toward The City & The City. (Full confession: I never finished Un Lun Dun -- just not my sort of book -- and have not yet read Miéville's first novel, King Rat.)

Writing about The City & The City in any depth will take more thought and readings than I have yet had time to give it. I also want to refresh my knowledge of the works of Bruno Schulz, one of the writers who was an influence on the novel and who provides an epigraph to it ("Deep inside the town there open up, so to speak, double streets, mendacious and delusive streets.") I first read Schulz right around the time I first read Miéville, but I read the stories as I was also first encountering the films of the Brothers Quay, and so my recollection of them is, for now, entwined with my memory of the films.

In any case, I'm also not sure how to say anything about The City & The City without giving away information that some first-time readers may not want to know. This is a problem when discussing any narrative, of course, but it is a particular problem with this book -- not only because it is, plotwise, a mystery novel, but because even revealing the basic premise could reveal more information than some readers would like -- and not just the readers who are particularly averse to "spoilers".

But saying anything meaningful about the book is impossible without giving away the premise, so in the rest of this post I am going to do so. I don't think such information lessens a first encounter with the book, but who knows. I have been surprised by people's reactions to such things before... Thus, you have been warned: Premise approacheth!

Here's the premise: The City & The City is a sort of alternate history novel in which there is a (modern, contemporary) city in what seems to be Eastern Europe that is actually two cities in one, and yet residents and even visitors are forced, through various means, to perceive only one at a time, even though everybody knows there are two (and maybe three). The cities are not separated through magical means -- this is not, as it may seem at first, a novel of alternate worlds imbricating. The two cities, Beszel (which has an accent over the z that my computer doesn't want to put there) and Ul Qoma, are separated by carefully cultivated and disciplined perceptions, and the cities have developed physically and culturally over a long time to meet those perceptions. How they have done so, and to some extent why, is beautifully and cleverly developed -- indeed, Miéville makes the premise as believable as I can imagine anybody ever making it; my brain kept trying to unsuspend its disbelief with lots of objections, but most of them were answered somewhere along the way. It's the most impressive bit of bizarre extrapolation I've encountered since I read Christopher Priest's Inverted World a year or two ago.

Some reviewers have pointed out that this premise is a kind of literalization of a metaphor (or series of metaphors) that will feel appropriate and even familiar to most city dwellers, and that's true, but I think there's more to it. The first half of the book constructs the premise; the second half deconstructs it, but it does so in a particular way. (Despite revealing the premise, I don't intend here to reveal the answers to some of the mysteries that are central to the novel's plot, so pardon any vagueness that ensues. If those mysteries were essential to what I want to say about the book, I wouldn't hesitate to discuss them, but they aren't.) What we get is not just a novel about the two-city premise, but a novel that is also about the effect of conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking. It overlapped well with another book I was reading along with it, David Neiwert's The Eliminationists, a journalistic look at fascism, parafascism, and certain types of extreme rhetoric.

Concepts can affect habits of perception, and those habits of perception can be manipulated in a wide variety of ways for a wide variety of purposes. Conspiracy theories can be a tool of misdirection and control -- used to divert attention from systems (and even conspiracies) that are more banal, insidious, and obvious than the baroque fantasies of the paranoid. I don't know of another novel that explores this idea more elegantly than The City & The City.

Ideas are, indeed, the engine of this novel. China Miéville's previous books prove that he is capable of creating complex and fascinating characters; that The City & The City's characters are not particularly fascinating is not, I think, a fault. This is a novel that exploits a different tradition, or, rather, series of traditions -- the tradition of such writers as Calvino and Borges (and Schulz) on one hand, and of police procedurals on the other. This mix brings ideas and plot to the foreground, and in this case the ideas are given life and expression through the setting in a way that is perhaps best conveyed through characters that are items within the mix rather than the focus of it. In other words, it seems to me that complaining about the lack of depth to the characters in The City & The City is kind of like complaining that "The Garden of Forking Paths" is not a Richard Ford novel.

In fact, the focus and structure of The City & The City solves a problem I have had as a reader with even the Miéville novels I most love -- at some point or another, their plot seemed to distract from their virtues. The mystery structure of The City & The City foregrounds the plot, but the second half of the book shows the mysteries to be directly related to the metaphors that are the core of the novel's philosophical explorations. The plot -- the step-by-step solving of the mystery, including shoot-outs and chases -- is itself a representation or perhaps even a manifestation of the novel's metaphysics. Thus, the pleasures of the novel's first half are the pleasures of exploring the basic premise (the double city) and of delving deeper into a murder mystery; the pleasures of the second half are the pleasures of seeing how the basic premise and the murder mystery combine to explode each other.

I am hardly the first or only person who has been known at times to state that weird fiction has a relationship to what might be perceived as metaphor that is different from the relationship mainstream or allegorical fiction has to what is necessarily perceived as metaphor -- in science fiction and fantasy, the monster is a monster first and foremost, not a representation of the id/ the evil at the heart of humanity/ the moral panic of the moment/ fathers-in-law/ whatever. This concept is fine as far as it goes, but the best SF makes it so simplistic as to be nearly meaningless, and The City & The City is the sort of book that does just that -- the basic premise is wonderful purely for its own sake and for the sake of the care with which it is conceived and explored, but the metaphors it suggests (for urban life, for certain historical and political realities, etc.) are just as important to what makes the novel work so well -- The City & The City starts with the literalization of a metaphor, but it doesn't end there, because ultimately it is not literalizing one metaphor but is, rather, literalizing an idea that is rich with metaphorical potential. It's the difference between writing a story based on the idea, "What if a guy woke up one morning and discovered he was a giant bug?" and writing the story that follows the opening sentence, "One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin."

One of the great joys of China Miéville's novels is their clear ambition to use popular literary forms for complex, intelligent entertainment, and to do so by bringing together disparate influences, sometimes purely for the fun of bringing together disparate influences, and sometimes to interrogate those influences and see what they reveal. Such an approach appeals to my own prejudices -- for instance, I love the fact that Borges was first brought to English-language readers in a translation by Anthony Boucher for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The City & The City is a cousin of that fact.

There is much more to be explored with this novel and the world within it -- the systems of authority and privilege; the representation of academia; the prose style; the suggestions it makes about how ideas of tradition and progress sculpt themselves into our streets and buildings; the relationship of Beszel and Ul Qoma to Berlin and the Balkans and so much else out here in consensual reality; the connections between texts and secrets; the etymologies and archaeologies; the allusions and suggestions. The elegance I noted before is a particular aesthetic quality -- the grace of a simple idea expressed in a way that is itself not complex, but that reveals complexity. The City & The City is an entertaining mystery novel with a setting built from a weird and evocative notion; The City & The City is a richly philosophical structure that uses the reader's imagination as a tool of inquiry. That the two sides of the previous sentence are not mutually exclusive is one of the pleasures of excellent fiction. The City & The City is an example of such excellence.

29 June 2009

Amanda Palmer's Michael Jackson Tribute: "Billie Jean"

I hate to admit it right now, but the only Michael Jackson song that ever really appealed to me was "Billie Jean". I encountered the video many times on the old MTV when I was a kid, and I thought the tiles and steps that lit up underneath Jackson's feet were just about the coolest things I'd ever seen.

Amanda Palmer, though, I have adored since I first encountered her as part of the magnificent Dresden Dolls (I shall be forever grateful to Sonya Taafe for suggesting they might appeal to me).

Amanda Palmer was in West Hollywood to play a concert the day Michael Jackson died. For a tribute, she quickly put together her own version of "Billie Jean", now available as an audience member's video at YouTube (there are two up there [so far], and I've linked to the one with the sharpest video. I discovered the other one via, of all places, Talking Points Memo, then watched this one). There's about 3 minutes of talking beforehand, then the song begins. If you don't like Amanda Palmer, this performance is probably not going to convince you to change your mind, but if you do ... well, it's definitely worth a listen.

And while I'm here, I should also mention that folks looking for complex and nuanced appreciations of Jackson should check out recent, related posts by K-Punk and Steve Shaviro.

28 June 2009

Rick Bowes on Stonewall at 40

Knowing Rick Bowes is a privilege for many reasons, but one of my favorites is that he is a wonderful historian of New York City. Walking the streets with Rick becomes a magical tour through the wondrous and terrible changes the city has seen over the centuries. Having lived in Manhattan for most of his life, Rick has also sometimes been an eyewitness to history, including the history made in the early hours of June 28, 1969 in Greenwich Village: The Stonewall Riots.

Richard Bowes is the author of such books as Minions of the Moon, From the Files of the Time Rangers, and Streetcar Dreams. He has won the World Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the Lambda Literary Award, the Million Writers Award, and been nominated for the Nebula Award. He reportedly likes writing but hates being a writer.

via Wikimedia Commons

In History's Vicinity
by Richard Bowes

It's odd to be old enough to remember history. The Stonewall Riot always makes me feel like a citizen of Concord awakened by musket fire on that crisp April morning and wondering what the commotion was.

In 1965 when I was 21, I came into Manhattan from college on Friday afternoons to see a psychiatrist on the Upper East Side.

On my way back to Penn Station and Long Island, I'd walk down Third Avenue. In the East Sixties, guys stood casually on street corners, paused significantly in doorways, gave sidelong glances: all very discreet. Eyes tracked me from the windows of the bird bars: The Blue Parrot, The Golden Pheasant, The Swan.

In those bars Piaf sang on the jukebox, men in suits sat at the bar. The legal drinking age was eighteen, but in straight places I still got carded and sometimes was refused service. Gay bars were much less fussy and the patrons could be generous.

The first gay bar I ever went to was one in Boston called something like the Tea Cup or the Sugar Bowl. I was sixteen and the drinking age there was twenty-one. They wouldn't serve me but didn't care if guys gave me their drinks.

Down the Avenue from the bars at Fifty-Third and Third was a world famous chicken run. Young boys stood in the cold in sneakers and thin jackets, waited under awnings, stared out the windows of seedy coffee shops and knew just who I was.

Those bars, those coffee shops, were criminal enterprises subject to police raids and being shut down. The men cruising and boys loitering could be arrested on a whim. Serving minors and serving as a place minors could be had for cash was no bigger a crime than catering to a gay clientele.

Mart Crowley's The Boy's In the Band was the first American play to deal overtly with the lives of the kind of men who drank in the Bird Bars. It opened on April 15, 1968. By the time the movie came out in 1970 its world of gay self hatred and closeted sex looked like a period piece.

Between the play and the movie's openings the Stonewall Riot had occurred. If I'd known the Stonewall was going to become an historic site I'd have paid more attention. In fact, it was one bar among many. Gay kids poured into Greenwich Village from all over the city, the country, the world. The nation was all on fire and every oppression but ours got protested.

The Stonewall Bar was badly ventilated, crowded, and filthy, the toilets were an abomination, the bartenders were hostile and the drinks were watered. But that was true in all the Village gay bars. Manhattan ran on methadrine, speed was easily obtained there, and the drags danced like furies. The crowd was very young. The scent was beer, sweat, amyl-nitrate, and cheap cologne.

My grandfather from Ireland used to say that if every man who boasted he'd fought in the Easter Rising of 1916 had actually stood at the Dublin Post Office, James Connolly and Padraic Pearse would be sitting in Buckingham Palace at the moment he spoke. In my case around three o'clock on that famous Saturday morning I was walking down St Mark's place with Allan, a guy I'd recently met. A kid we both knew rushed up and gave us a garbled story about The Stonewall. That's when we became aware of distant sirens.

In that time and place civil disturbances were what bullfights were to Hemingway's Madrid and we were all aficionados. The kid ran off to spread the news. Allan and I headed west, crossed Astor Place and went down Eighth Street, which was still the heart of the Village.

The book and music stores were dark but the bars were just closing and the after-hours clubs were opening. The street was full of people all looking west.

Near the corner of Sixth Avenue was what we recognized as the rear area of the riot. In the doorway of the Nathan's, a blond kid in short-shorts and mascara held a bloody towel to his forehead and a friend held him. From the upper floors of the massive, darkened Women's House of Detention across the Avenue, some inmates were yelling, "The fucking pigs are killing all the faggots."

Police cars with flashing cherry tops barred the way. All along Sixth Avenue, firemen hosed down piles of burning trash. Paddy wagons and Tactical Patrol buses were parked two deep and the riot cops were angrier than I ever saw them.

Here coherent memory breaks down. From Sheridan Square I looked down Christopher Street and caught a glimpse of the front of The Stonewall Bar. Broken glass was everywhere. A car had been turned on its side.

The riot had broken down into guerilla tactics: roving bands of kids chanting slogans, burning trash. That weekend I saw a cop smash his club across the back of a guy who I think was just coming home with groceries, I heard people shouting from their windows at the cops to go away.

By Monday it was over. But events in this tumultuous city in that time of war and turmoil very soon began to be defined as having happened before Stonewall or after.

And it was kids like the ones on Fifty-Third and Third, not the suit johns in their uptown bars, who had given us those nights.

Men with powdered hair and silk britches could have signed declarations and petitions to King George forever. But on that Concord morning it was men and women, not the most attractive or socially poised, not with the purest of motives or the loftiest of intents, people like me and perhaps like you who found themselves pushed one unendurable time too many.

26 June 2009

Twists of the Tail: The View from a Cat

The resident reviewer of all things feline (and catcher of all things rodent) at Mumpsimus Central is Ms. P. Martha Moog, whose incisive review of Predator vs. Aliens many readers will remember. She recently decided that the recent Wildside Press reissue of Ellen Datlow's Twists Of The Tale: An Anthology of Cat Horror made for good bedtime reading, as you can see:

Ms. Moog does caution readers that the stories (from such writers as William S. Burroughs, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many others) are sufficiently frightening that it's probably a good idea to do as she did and sleep with a crate of small arms ammunition beside you.

18 June 2009

Zombie Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee recently came back from the dead to read from his new book (link via Maud):
Seeing Coetzee read on Thursday night thus presented a spectacle to make any postmodern literary critic lick their chops: an almost pathologically private man reading his own "fictionalised memoir", with Summertime achieving a further distancing effect by means of the fact that the book takes the form of a series of interviews with people from Coetzee’s life carried out after Coetzee’s death.
Coetzee fans will remember that in the previous books in the trilogy, Boyhood and Youth, the young John Coetzee discovered a radioactive meteor in provincial South Africa and soon after began experiencing the distancing of signs from their signifiers. In search of signifiers less free-floating, he set out across the wilds of the veld and had many interesting encounters with metaphysical conceits that both tormented him and provided balm to his increasingly abjected soul. By the end of the second book, though, his quest seemed to have failed, as he was captured by an evil allegorist and tortured with harrowingly simplified logics that succeeded in revealing the death instinct to be the mask of symbolic order. All ambiguity appeared to be lost, killed in the dungeon of the allegorist. The author was finally dead.

But wait! In the third installment, we discover that our intrepid hero has come back from the dead to seek revenge, justice, and contingent truths! Will he triumph over the textual practices of enemies more powerful than any he has encountered before? Will traditionalist gangsters plug him in the aporia? What are the interpretive implications of his mantra, "They're coming for you, Elizabeth Costello!"

And most shocking for Coetzee fans may be the scenes of their hero consuming dead flesh as he fuels himself for the final battle in what is sure to be hailed as the greatest novel since Samuel Beckett's Malone Dies Again! Don't miss it!

17 June 2009


I didn't intend to disappear from this blog for quite as long as I did, but I got busy with work on the manuscript of Best American Fantasy 3 (the contents of which we'll finally be able to announce next week!) and I've been teaching an online course for Plymouth State University, an interesting experience, since I've never taught classes entirely online before (nor am I all that sure it's a way I like teaching, but that's another story...)

I probably owe you an email.*

Readercon is coming up -- July 9-12. I'll be there Friday afternoon and most of Saturday. The great and glorious Liz Hand and Greer Gilman are guests of honor. The other guests ain't too shabby neither. Except for that Cheney guy. He's a putz.

Some things I've noticed out on the internets:
  • Hal Duncan wrote a little post at his blog about ethics, reviewing, criticism, etc. A few people commented. Hal wrote another little post responding in particular to comments by Abigail Nussbaum and me. Then another related post on "The Absence of the Abject". And then two posts on "The Assumption of Authority" (one, two). They're wonderfully provocative and wide-ranging essays, but as the whole is now over 20,000 words long, I haven't been able to keep up with it. But I shall return to it over the course of the summer...
  • Jeff VanderMeer has been working for what sounds to me like one of the coolest teen camps in the world, Shared Worlds, and as part of that asked a bunch of writers and other creative-type people, "What’s your pick for the top real-life fantasy or science fiction city?"
  • I accompanied Eric Schaller and family to a magnificent concert by David Byrne a few weeks ago. Byrne's earnest dorkiness has been a balm to my soul since I was a kid. He's been on The Colbert Report a couple of times in support of his tour -- here, performing one of my favorite of his new songs, "Life is Long", and here performing "One Fine Day" (in which everybody seems a bit tired). The Colbert studio isn't quite Radio City Music Hall, but still...
  • Tor.com has, in less than a year, become one of the best science fiction sites, and they've now launched a store that includes "special picks" from their great array of bloggers. (And, interestingly, though the site is allied with Tor Books, it's striven to be, as they say, "publisher agnostic", so it's not just about Tor's books.)
  • Speaking of major SF sites, I enjoyed Charlie Jane Anders's post at io9 titled "4 Authors We Wish Would Return to Science Fiction" because it includes new comments from each of the four writers discussed: Mary Doria Russell, Nicola Griffith, Karen Joy Fowler, and Samuel R. Delany.
  • I really loved Jeff Ford's post on the books he survived in primary and secondary school English classes.
  • I seem to have written yet another Strange Horizons column.
Meanwhile, I've been reading a bunch of books I haven't written about. Some just for fun -- I went on a bit of an alternative history kick, reading C.C. Finlay's The Patriot Witch (available as an authorized PDF download here) and L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall. The Patriot Witch attracted me because I've read some of Charlie Finlay's short stories and enjoyed them, and the book is set during the American Revolution, a time period about which I will read almost anything. The fantasy elements seemed a bit bland to me, but the scenes of the battles of Lexington and Concord were well done, reminding me of Howard Fast's April Morning, a book that, along with Johnny Tremain, was a favorite of mine when I was young. I'll probably read the next book in the "Traitor to the Crown" series because now I'm curious to see if the fantasy element develops in less familiar ways.

Lest Darkness Fall is, as many people through the decades have said, great fun, a kind of Connectic Yankee for readers who want their protagonists to be endlessly resourceful, optimistic, and lucky.

Somewhere in there, I also fit in Jack Vance's Emphyrio, an engaging example of a certain sort of classic ethnographic science fiction, something halfway between Lloyd Biggle and Ursula Le Guin.

I did a bunch of that fun, light reading because on the side I've been delving deeply into various books about British and American colonialism and imperialism for a story I keep telling myself I'm going to write: a steampunk alternate history about a mad scientist, a U.S. and British fight over Nicaragua at the beginning of the 20th century, and the atrocities it all leads to. Among the various books I've been dipping into for my researches are Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction by John Rieder, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century by Daniel Headrick, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 by David Edgerton, Confronting the American Dream: Nicaragua under U.S. Imperial Rule by Michel Gobat, The Eclipse of Great Britain: The United States and British Imperial Decline, 1895-1956 by Anne Orde, The Sleep of Reason: Fantasy and Reality from the Victorian Age to the First World War by Derek Jarrett, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest by Anne McClintock, as well as such books of their time as Winston Churchill's My African Journey (pointed out to me by Njihia Mbitiru, who's been a big help in goading me on to write this story that I keep talking about) and The Ethiopian: A Narrative of the Society of Human Leopards. Also a couple of books I've been familiar with for a while, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson and Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins.

Clearly, I don't want to write a story -- I want to write an annotated bibliography!

Now, though, it's time to stop procrastinating and get back to work...

*Speaking of email, I've severely neglected the email address once associated with this blog (themumpsimus at gmail) because it became massively overloaded with spam (partly because I had redirected some ancient addresses at it) and sometime at the beginning of this year I made a resolution to clean it out, find real messages I'd missed, etc. I removed the link to it from this site so that people wouldn't inadvertently use it, but I expected to get it back up and working within a week. Then I kind of kept procrastinating. Every time I thought about it I suffered trauma. Now cleaning out and organizing the inbox is such a Herculean task that I may just give up and start over with a new, clean address. I don't know. I will fight through my anxieties and figure it out soon, though.

06 June 2009

D-Day at 65

Omaha Beach
photo: Anthony Atkielski, Wikimedia Commons

I graduated from high school in 1994, and my father's graduation present to me was a trip to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. It was as much a present to himself as to me -- he was the one who was obsessed with World War II, the one who would enjoy all the various military museums we would see over the two-and-a-half week tour. I wouldn't say I was thrilled, at 17 years old, at the prospect of the trip, but I recognized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and there would be some free days in London, a city I'd been to once before, and Paris, a city I had never seen, so I went along with the idea.

We began in London, which, it seemed to me then, was likely to be the highlight of the trip, because I got to see excellent productions of Sweeney Todd and Oleanna (the latter directed by Harold Pinter), go to bookstores, and indulge my love of cities. But it wasn't until we took a ferry across the Channel to Cherbourg that I began to realize how truly unique this trip was.

I was the youngest member of our tour group and my father was also among the youngest members. The tour was one he had found via the Battle of Normandy Museum in Bayeux, and it had mostly attracted veterans. We traveled to five of the six landing beaches and to various towns, historical sites, and museums, and all the while I heard the stories of the men who had been there 50 years before.

My journal for the trip is not particularly illuminating, mostly because I did not have time to chronicle everything that happened, and half-way through the trip I was utterly exhausted. Adding to this was my own struggle with my presence there -- I was at the time a self-proclaimed and self-righteous pacifist and was deeply bothered by the inevitable expressions of triumph that accompanied many of the events we attended, so a lot of the journal is me trying to state to myself how much I hated the idea of war and all its attendant celebrations. But through it all, some occasional moments of interest appear. Here's one passage written on June 10 about June 7:
We went to Avranche -- all 12 buses of the tour. The whole town was waiting to greet us, as if they'd just been liberated. We let the veterans get off the coach first, since they were the people the Avrancheans came out for. It was tremendous. There must have been a few thousand people waiting for us, lining the sidewalks, standing on balconies, hanging out of windows, all with huge smiles and excited handwaving and vigorous greetings. They asked all of the veterans for autographs. A little kid, five or six, came up to us and held out his yellow balloon for my father to sign, but dad said, "No no. I'm not a veteran." The kid looked ready to cry.

The veterans and the town marched down to a town square where there were some speeches, music, and lots of wine. Patton's grandson gave a short speech and then led the "Star Spangled Banner", changing a few notes.

We went back to the hotel and the deputy mayor of Vologne [the town where we were staying] was waiting to greet us. He pinned a medal on one of the veterans, as a symbol of the town's thanks, and then gave me a cigarette lighter from the French senate, since I'm the youngest of the group, and I think Roger (who arranged all this) [and was our liason in the town] said all sorts of things about me. [Though I remember the deputy mayor was crestfallen when he learned I did not smoke!] I was really surprised and touched. The mayor herself wanted to greet us, but was doing stuff in Paris with the heads of state who showed up for D-Day.
The day before, we had been at the ceremonies on Omaha Beach (I remember being pleased that we had better seats than senators Robert Dole and Patrick Leahy). I had forgotten my camera back at the hotel, but my father had brought a video camera; perhaps later today I will dig out the tapes, which I haven't ever watched. My journal for the day doesn't say much -- I remember being in awe, incapable of words, and most of the words I wrote down as I tried to mark some memory of the day were about people who were complaining about one thing or another and so were annoying me. Annoyance, that petty emotion, I could express; all the more profound emotions of the experience escaped my vocabulary.

The strongest memory I have of one of the veterans was a man named Harry who lived in northern California and had been with the 741st Tank Battalion. What I remember is sitting beside him on the bus and listening to him talk about watching the DD tanks sink in the heavy waves of Omaha Beach. He said by the time he landed in a regular tank, the entire beach smelled like blood. But he survived -- and went with the battalion on to Paris at the end of August and then into Belgium to support the 2nd Infantry Division, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. After that, the battalion continued on into Germany, crossing the Rhine at Remagen.

What struck me about Harry was how ordinary and humble he seemed. Some of the vets were boastful of their kills, but not Harry -- he talked reluctantly of what he'd done and seen fifty years ago, and more than once I remember him telling me something to the effect of, "War is a terrible thing" and "The Germans were just kids like us." Some of the vets seemed to wish they could go back to their youth, to their time of heroism; not Harry. The beach had smelled like blood.

I returned home from Normandy numbed by the whole experience -- I was getting ready to go to college, I had more on my mind than it could bear, and I didn't know where to put those two and a half weeks. I've spent a long time trying to contextualize them for myself, to fit them in to who I am, to sort out my relationship with my father so that I can better live with the memories. Even in 1994, though, and mostly because of Harry, I knew that part of my responsibility was and would always be to remember as much as I could of what I saw and heard there, out of respect for those men and what they experienced.

In 1995, Harry sent my father a copy of a history of the 741st written in 1982. His letter accompanying it says the history is good as far as it goes, but there's a lot that's left out. He says his wife, Rose, has often told him he should write a book, but he hasn't had time.

My father didn't keep the envelope that accompanied the letter, and so I don't have Harry's last name. (I never wrote it in my journal.) He was going to be 75 that December, he said.

My father died a year and a half ago, and I don't know if Harry or Rose are still alive. I remember that he said he hoped I would return to Normandy for the 100th anniversary. "None of us will be around then," he said, "except for you."

I'll be 67 in 2044, and if I'm alive I'll be in Normandy on June 6 -- for Harry and Rose, for the 741st, for all the people I was privileged to spend those weeks with in 1994.

04 June 2009

NH Governor Signs Marriage Equality Law

Because of what is called, I believe, in technical jargon "bureaucratic wrangling", it took a little bit longer than expected -- but yesterday the governor of New Hampshire, John Lynch, finally signed into law a bill allowing same-sex marriage.

This has a direct effect on the lives of some of my family and friends, so it was pretty big news. That the state went for the idea does not surprise me too much -- we're notoriously conservative economically up here, but socially relatively liberal -- but Lynch's support is a surprise, even if it took a lot to get him there. The added language providing super-duper-double-extra-gay-proof-yay-for-God protection against churches having to perform same-sex weddings is mostly window dressing to mollify people who think their churches are suddenly going to be overrun with people they hate (Gene Robinson will be comin to yer cathedral, spreadin teh gay on yer altar!), but as the commenters at John Scalzi's blog (and elsewhere) have been discussing, the added language is a little bit more than redundant and may, depending on how the law is interpreted in the coming years, have some significant inequalities hidden in it. Nonetheless, it's a great step forward for us until there is full federal recognition of couples' rights.

Cool beans! (as we say up here in the frozen north).

01 June 2009

Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree, Jr.

Much of reading, particularly fiction, is a matter of faith -- ye olde "willing suspension of disbelief". Science fiction, when it is more than an adventure story outfitted with spaceships and Bug-Eyed Monsters, often requires a more specific type of suspension of disbelief, a type that can create a paradox: fiction that is markedly more imaginative than most suffers from a failure of imagination. This failure occurs when the reader focuses on the story's extrapolations, but decides that they are incomplete, or simplistic, or ridiculous. If the reader perceived the story as surrealist fantasy, this wouldn't be a problem, and might even be a virtue. If the reader didn't place much emphasis (in terms of having faith in the imagined circumstances of the story) on the story's probabilities and extrapolations, then the problem would be, at best, minor (thus, stories about alien canals on Mars are perfectly readable if we haven't invested our willingness to surrender to the story on the likelihood of there being alien canals on Mars).

This was the problem for me in reading James Tiptree, Jr.'s first novel, Up Walls of the World, a book full of visionary potential that never communicated as visionary actuality to me because I could not get myself to buy into its basic premises about cognition or language. (This may have been exacerbated by my knowledge that Tiptree, who was Dr. Alice Sheldon, had a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, and so I expected more nuanced presentations of consciousness.) I was interested in the novel partly because I've read and enjoyed much of Tiptree's short fiction (and think a handful of her stories are among the true gems of the science fictional jewelry shop), and partly because I've been reading Istvan Csicsery-Ronay's thoughtful new book The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, wherein Up the Walls of the World is called "an inexplicably neglected masterpiece of recent sf" that is "unparalleled in its use of the sublime mode" described by Patricia Yeager ("Toward a Female Sublime" in Kaufman, ed. Gender and Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism).

Beware critics wielding inexplicably neglected masterpieces! I read John Brunner's Total Eclipse a few years ago because Fredric Jameson, whose criticism I often find interestingly provocative, proclaimed it unjustly neglected. Like Up the Walls of the World, it offered some good stuff to think about, but ... masterpiece? Oh dear no.

I can see why Csicsery-Ronay sees Up the Walls of the World as an exemplar of certain types of what he calls "the sf sublime", a concept I do not have time to get into here because it would take a lot of words (to touch on some of what Csicsery-Ronay means by the concept, see Adam Roberts's excellent review of the book at Strange Horizons). Think vastness and sense of wonder. Tiptree's tale tells of two worlds: a late-'70s/early-'80s U.S. and a planet of ever-blowing winds and people composed partly of energy, who live in the winds and not on the surface of the planet. There's also a planet-destroying space monster looming. The protagonists in the late-'70s/early-'80s U.S. are all involved with a military-funded psionics research project. The protagonists on the wind planet are trying to figure out how to escape the planet-destroying space monster. The two worlds connect via a beam the partly-energy people send through space into the brains of the people involved with the psi project, and their consciousnesses are exchanged. Then, eventually, all their consciousnesses are uploaded into the planet-destroying space monster, which has become a sort of interstellar lifeboat for minds.

From this reductive summary, you can perhaps begin to see why if you have doubts about Tiptree's assumptions about cognition and consciousness the novel might not be able to make you suspend your disbelief. My problem was that once beings started exchanging consciousnesses, I couldn't repress some doubts, and once those consciousnesses were uploaded into the space-monster lifeboat my entire reading experience became one of doubt. Sensory words no longer made, well, sense to me, and yet Tiptree employs them (mostly) unproblematically -- beings without any corporeal body are still receiving sensory information. That was a minor doubt, though; my major ones centered around emotion. How, I wondered, could beings that have been divorced from their bodies be governed by the same emotions they would have in their bodies -- love and fear, for instance, which are preserved in exactly the same form (according to the narrative) as they take in the embodied beings. This makes no sense. Removed from a nervous system and an endocrine system, emotions would, surely, at least be less predictable, stable, and familiar, wouldn't they? I mean, if an iron rod shot into the frontal lobe can cause a personality to become nearly unrecognizable, surely a consciousness beamed across thousands of light-years into a giant space-monster lifeboat wouldn't be exactly the same as it was back when it was in a body in a familiar environment...

And that's not to mention the entrenched ideas about gender roles each of the characters brings with them -- but those are challenged, at least, though the challenges seemed to me simplistic and, again, less imaginative than they needed to be to be convincing.

More significantly, the language of the book in the second half of the novel seemed inadequate. Tiptree ignored a problem many science fiction writers, quite understandably, ignore: by definition, the indescribable is indescribable. (As annoying as some of Lovecraft's narrators' pleas of the limits of language to describe horror can be, at least those narrators rarely, if ever, seem to think they've described the indescribable ... they just go on and on about how indescribable it is.) A science fiction writer who wants to describe something that is beyond or alien to human conception is stuck, because the tool the writer has to do such a thing is the tool of language -- human language, rife with human assumptions and limitations. The writer must create metaphors and images based on what the reader (presumably a human) knows, but therein lies the paradox: the indescribably alien is not describable in familiar language. Somewhere I read that Tiptree said she would have liked to revise the novel to make the space monster's consciousness seem more intelligent, since she understood what someone (I think Gardner Dozois) was getting at when he said the sections of the book devoted to that consciousness reminded him of, as much as anything, Cookie Monster. This is, yes, a problem. But it's only the most obvious iteration of a problem that plagues the entire book -- many theorists would say that consciousness and language are inextricable, but even if you don't go that far, it is, I would posit, self-evident that language and consciousness are deeply related, having at least the ability to reflect and influence each other. (Unless you view language and consciousness as utterly [and unutterably] separate ... but if this is your deepest belief, writing and reading novels is probably not the best activity for you...)

Up the Walls of the World is written in a mix of direct, indirect, and (occasionally) free indirect discourse, but this approach is too simplistic and clunky (not to mention familiar) to help a reader like me, plagued by doubts about the novel's representation of consciousness, suspend disbelief. Virginia Woolf needed a complex representation of consciousness just to represent a day of Mrs. Dalloway's life in London, but representing consciousnesses traveling thousands of light years into utterly unfamiliar circumstances doesn't cause language to bend, burst, or bust?

One facet of the problem here is that the story is presented so rationally. Rational presentations encourage readers to read rationally. It's an obvious statement, but sometimes needs to be stated nonetheless. Part of the brilliance of Philip K. Dick was his ability to add enough irrationality into otherwise rational story structures to prevent readers from being able to reason with the narrative -- you cannot read Eye in the Sky or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Ubik or A Maze Death and connect all the dots to plausibility. Such novels make problems of perception a part of their entire raison d'etre. Tiptree seems to have learned a bit from Dick -- at different points of Up the Walls of the World, I thought of all four of those PKD novels -- but she wasn't able to reach his heights because she clung too tightly to a narrative structure that encouraged a kind of reading that the book has trouble satisfying.

Until the last 100 pages or so, I was actually enjoying my argument with the book, but another of the problems with the novel is that it is too long; some of Tiptree's best work is at the novella length, and it is not difficult to imagine that Up the Walls of the World would have been more powerful and effective if she had cut it down by a third or half. Certainly, a doubtful and disbelieving reader such as I probably finds the novel more tedious than a reader willing to doubt less and believe more, but "A Momentary Taste of Being" this is not.

I noted above the paradox of a tremendously imaginative book suffering from a failure of imagination, and as I was wrestling with questions of why I found it impossible to suspend disbelief for this particular narrative, when I have happily entered into other narratives that are equally or less plausible, I began to think about familiarity and formulas -- for instance, in reading a basic space opera, I am perfectly willing to suspend disbelief about the possibility of faster-than-light travel, about the simplicity of the cultural representations, the implausibility of the economics, etc. and simply go along for the ride. Partly, this is because there are certain SF tropes that, handled in familiar ways, become almost as invisible as repeated speech tags in dialogue. But there's something else, too -- something having to do with the ways a writer manipulates expectations and, partly, how the writer guides our perception of plausibilities -- Csicsery-Ronay notes, for instance, that "[Hal] Clement's Mission of Gravity is so famous for the plausibility of its heavy planet Mesklin that few readers remark on the absurdity of its centipede-like alien protagonists behaving like buccaneer capitalists communicating with human beings with no information loss." The emphases within Mission of Gravity make clear that the book is very much about its speculations and science rather than the plausibility of its characters' behaviors. Up the Walls of the World, though, seemed to me to be about its character's psychological and emotional states as they encounter (and merge with) what is alien to them, and so no amount of imaginative power in other elements of the novel allowed me to overcome my perception of the book's psychological and emotional imaginings as faulty.

I also want to note one other curious element of the book -- one of the main protagonists (the one, in fact, who basically saves everyone's lives*), Margaret Omali, is the daughter of a Kenyan man who "went crazy" and performed genital mutilation on her when he brought her and her mother back to Kenya. The viewpoint protagonist, Dr. Daniel Dann, fell in love with Margaret the moment he saw her, idealizing her as an Egyptian princess with "Nefertiti lips" and "a long blue-black arm of aching elegance" that "when he wraps the [blood pressure] cuff onto it he feels he is touching the limb of some uncanny wild thing." (One could speculate about the influence of Alice Sheldon's childhood on these items, but I won't.) It's entirely plausible for a 50ish white guy in late-'70s/early-'80s America to exoticize a woman in this way -- heck, it's unfortunately still plausible today -- and it's also plausible that a certain sort of Kenyan father might want his daughter to be "circumcised" in the traditional way -- but I am a little bit queasy about the reason Tiptree seems to have chosen to include these details. For the plot, she needed to make Margaret "cold" so that her greatest desire would be for her consciousness to emulate a computer program, and she needed Daniel Dann to find her astoundingly attractive and also a bit alien. This unfortunately just strengthens the stereotype of Africans as "wild", "alien", and either hypersexual or frigid -- themselves problematic concepts, regardless of geographic stereotypes. These choices, too, seem to me to be failures of imagination. Imagine, for instance, an alternative: What if Margaret's mother had been made "crazy" by her allegiance to the patriarchal idea that a wife should do anything to live up to her husband's expectations. Also, because of received stereotypes of Africa she'd had no motivation to question, what if she decided that her husband wanted her to perform a traditional ritual on her daughter -- and so what if she was the one to mutilate (or have mutilated) her daughter -- and, furthermore, when she presented him to her husband, her husband (a modern man with a complex relationship to the traditions of his ancestors) was aghast and deeply, irrevocably saddened. It wouldn't have solved all the problems, but it would have preserved the necessary plot points and added some complexity to the situation and to the characters.

We could say that the limitations of Up the Walls of the World are limitations of its era and genre, but even recognizing that, it's important to imagine other possibilities than the ones Tiptree chose, or else we will accept the limitations when we should challenge them and let them spur us toward deeper imaginings of our own.

*or, rather, consciousnesses, because what meaning is there to the word "life" without some sort of embodiment