22 March 2004

Archform: Beauty by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

After reading Cheryl Morgan's review of L.E. Modesitt's novel Archform: Beauty, I made a note to myself to pick up a copy sometime, but didn't get around to doing so until recently. I wanted to catch up with Modesitt's work, since I had known him years ago when he lived nearby and was working on some of the books in the Ecolitan series, as well as beginning The Magic of Recluce, a fantasy novel that was to launch him from being a little-known author of politically and economically astute space opera to a well-known author of various fantasy series. Recluce was, I think, the first high fantasy novel that I ever read without skimming and with joy, probably because of Modesitt's careful working out of the logic and economics of his society.

Modesitt soon moved across the country, and I lost contact with him. At the same time (though I don't think there's a correlation), he became a tremendously prolific author, and I found myself unable to read as fast as he wrote. While I would smile whenever I saw a shelf of his books at a bookstore, and even occasionally buy one, I didn't read any of them.

Archform: Beauty, though, will have me paying a bit closer attention to Modesitt, at the very least to a second book set in Archform's universe, which is due from TOR in September.

People who have been reading this site faithfully are probably shaking their heads, wondering what has happened to me. After all, I'm the guy who keeps saying we need to blast through the walls of genre, stomp on the stinking carcass of traditional SF, fart in the general direction of Big Fat Fantasy, and tear the guts out of the emotional pornography that is mainstream horror fiction. I'm all about fine prose, subtle nuances, metafictional effects, etc. etc. ad nauseam.

All true, guilty as charged. But just because I want more attention paid to the small presses and the edgier writers, more readers for imaginative fiction that plunders the virtues of mainstream fiction, more writers who dare to alienate their audiences -- that doesn't mean I want to eradicate good examples of traditional forms. It would be like saying that just because I happen to like innovative, "difficult" poetry, I must therefore hate all sonnets. Or Ogden Nash.

The fact is, Archform: Beauty got me thinking and kept me entertained. Doing both can be difficult, and one of my problems with cookie-cutter traditional SF is that it's both braindead and boring. Some people like going through the same sort of story over and over again; I'd rather watch a moth die and pretend I'm Virginia Woolf. Entertainment is not a quality that should be dismissed -- it doesn't by itself make a book a great work of art, but it's also rarer than some critics would like to admit. (Or, I should say, it's rarer in my experience -- I'm not easily entertained by books. Some people must find crap endlessly entertaining, or else they wouldn't keep devouring it. Coprophagia plagues our culture...)

Archform: Beauty is not the sort of book you should give to people if you want to make them fall in love with SF. This one requires some linguistic orientation to the field. The first 50 pages are so full of neologisms and character names that a reader not used to going with all that flow will be frustrated. I was frustrated, myself, at first, though later I realized Modesitt knew exactly what he was doing and did so with purpose.

All of the book's strengths are also what make it difficult reading at first. The narrative is broken between five first-person narrators, and one of the subjects of the book is the relationship between language, image, sound, art, and society. Modesitt's world is Earth in the 24th century a few hundred years after an environmental and political collapse. Much of the culture of the old world has been lost, and anything which hasn't been digitized is considered worthless, including classical music, which happens to be the passion of one of the characters, an adjunct professor of voice and music at a Colorado (or, what once was Colorado) university. The other narrators include a reporter who likes to write poetry, a police officer, a politician, and a corporate CEO.

The neologisms are necessary to portraying this society. If they're annoying (and they certainly were to me), then it's worth taking some time to think about the forces that brought them about, and to think about whether Modesitt's theories of language change are valid. SF is one of the great literary sources of linguistic play and speculation, and Modesitt takes the time to alter some aspects of language, and to vary the language between characters, so as to make it noticeable to us, defamiliarizing key words, and implying certain connections between language and behavior. It's not quite Clockwork Orange, but certain pages have a similar effect. One short chapter in the first third of the book is an excerpt from Historical Etymology by T. Eliot Stearns (wink, wink) from A.D. 2241, discussing how the transformation of the meaning of the word "discrimination" from "to differentiate, to recognize as different" into a synonym for bias and prejudice "clearly reflected and foreshadowed the disaster to come" and did so "more immediately and more accurately than did all the analysts, social scientists, and historians":
At one point more than three-quarters of the youthful population entered institutions of higher-level learning. Credentials, often paper ones, replaced meaningful judgment and choices ... Popularity replaced excellence ... The number of disastrous cultural and political decisions foreshadowed by the change of meaning in one word is endless...
The play on T.S. Eliot's name is a hint, perhaps, that this is a conservative or tradition-bound writer, one who might be blind to various forces affecting society -- what matters, though, is that this little bit of fictional nonfiction gets the attentive reader thinking about the words used by the various narrators and the overall linguistic environment of the world Modesitt has imagined.

The plot of Archform: Beauty is a complex -- some would say convoluted -- mystery-thriller involving corporate dealings that make Enron look minor, mind control, and interplanetary relations. But the real subject of the book is announced with a page of epigrammatic epigraphs:
"Great art is beauty."

"An elegant solution is beautiful as well."

"The beauty of words is lost behind the power of image."

"The beauty of politics lies in how effectively power is shared and transferred."

"A good family is a beautiful one."
Each of the sentences can be applied to one of the narrating characters, and the plot, while interesting and, in the last 75 pages or so, quite gripping, works best as a way to propel us through and between these various ideas. At heart, the novel is a meditation on beauty, irrationality, and the value of arts which are not immediately popular. A reader who grabs this book because it looks like it will be a good shoot-'em-up, a diversion for a plane ride, will be in for a bit of a surprise. There's plenty of shoot-'em-up (more accurately, blow-'em-up), but there's much, much more. Archform: Beauty is propelled by plot and ideas, the traditional hallmarks of science fiction, but there is an underlying humanity to it which puts parts of it in the conceptual vicinity of The Etched City, though on the surface the two books couldn't be any more different.

Finally, I was particularly pleased with the resolution of the central plot elements. Though the mystery is solved and the bad guys get taken care of (and two of the characters even find love and at least momentary happiness), the triumphs of the novel are primarily personal. For the police and politicians, it was all one crisis among many, and for most of the citizens it was just a good news story for a day or two. What we, the readers, see is that for a handful of peopl, life has changed, but the world around them has not. Even though things are different for these characters, they still have to work their way through the world, they have to get through their days, they have the remaining moments of their lives to live. That, it seems to me, is a courageous ending for a book of this sort, perhaps even a subversive one. It's for all the little subversions of its genre that I appreciate Archform: Beauty, and one of the reasons I'll be reading Modesitt more regularly from now on.

But first I need to get back to the genre-defying, carcass-stomping collections of fine-prosed short fiction I'm reading...