Some Thoughts on Recent Reads

I started the year out fairly well in terms of writing up my thoughts on my literary exploits, but as the year progressed I fell off that particular horse. This is my attempt to do a bit of catch up. While this post won't constitute a full review of any one book, I encourage readers to view it as the outline review of five.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

Vandermeer gives us a new take on a very old kind of monster story. The humans discover a monster, but is the monster more human they are?

The protagonist, Rachel, occupies an unnamed, desolated cityscape in a kind of post-eco-apocalyptic future. An organization known only as "the Company" has not only wrecked the local ecology, but also continues to release bizarre genetic experiments, which terrorize the remaining population. The most recent of those is Mord, a bear the size of small building.

While scavenging the city for useful materials, Rachel discovers a small blob, and finding it curious, takes it home. At first thinking it a plant, the blob turns out to be animal, then sentient. He decides one day, after months, to begin talking to Rachel, and his poor sense of timing and general misunderstanding of the most basic human social rules remains a source of humor throughout. Rachel names him Borne.

What follows a kind of family drama, albeit with a New Weird cast in a New Weird landscape. Rachel maintains an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend Wick because they are dependent on one another to maintain the security of their living place. The two are mutually utterly dependent despite demonstrating time and again that they are incapable of being honest with one another. Borne disrupts both the city and Rachel's tenuous hold on her relationship Wick, and this drives the novel's major conflict.

At the heart of this bizarre, toxic landscape is a curious inversion of a "monster" who chases human emotion and human connection more adamantly then any of the humans around him.

What does it mean to be and to do good? And, is that question intrinsically bound up with humanness, or is it expandable beyond our own species? As our world inches ever closer to the kind of eco-apocalypse/bio-horror described in the world of Borne, this question will become ever more urgent.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

This novel struck two major chords with me.

Written in 1955, it depicts better than anything I've read the abject terror incited by the mid-twentieth century discovery of atomic weaponry. In my childhood and early adulthood in the late 1980's and early 1990's, wiser adults remarked with some regularity that the initial fear of a nuclear attack within the populace at large seemed to have "worn off", though the actual threat had perhaps not changed all that much since mid-century. The Long Tomorrow imagines a future in which that fear is realized and remains persistently branded in the human psyche. Brackett depicts this deftly.

There is a second, even more impressive level of the novel, one which harkens back to SF's earliest roots—the question of, "where is all this progress leading us?"

The protagonist is a boy, Len, living in rural Ohio a few generations after the nuclear holocaust has reduced all of Earth's major cities to rubble. His family is part of quasi-Amish religion, who believe that science and technology need to be carefully controlled and largely restricted. But as Len grows older, he discovers a deep yearning to really learn. He decides that he can't abide by his community's rules and leaves his family and his home to go searching for the legendary Bartorstown, the one place in the United States where science and technology still thrive.

Len struggles and suffers much in order to get to Bartorstown, but in the end, it turns out that a life devoted to science and technology is no magic key to better and prosperous future. Rather, he finds himself shackled to entirely new set of problems, ones he couldn't even have imagined before. Brackett's parable echoes the story of the prodigal son, except that, in an obvious parallel to the discovery of atomic weaponry, there's no way back to father's forgiveness, or rather, to a world that can't conceive of atomic weapons or the science underpinning them.

The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard

I remain fascinated by Ballard's world building, detailed prose, and stylistic flourish, but utterly underwhelmed by his thematic intent.

Upon reading The Crystal World, I finished Ballard's great series of ecological disaster novels: The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World. In The Drowned World, the world has warmed significantly, melting ice has flooded most major cities, and temperate latitudes have become tropical. In The Drought, industrial pollution has caused evaporation off the oceans to cease and rainfall to dissipate, causing persistent drought conditions. And finally, in The Crystal World, an area of the Gabonese jungle has begun to undergo crystallization, and the affected zone is growing.

Throughout each of these novels, there is the persistent sense of the inevitability of the disaster. Characters who fight the disaster are either villains, most notably in The Drowned World, or, more often, characters put up only token resistance. The novels seem to underpin and promote, rather, the characters who embrace the disasters in various ways—the protagonist of The Drowned World heads south into the blisteringly hot jungle landscape alone, chasing some kind of primal instinct of ancient man; organized religion embraces dryness in The Drought and makes it, in a sense, livable; a captain, saved from crystallization, returns to the affected zone in The Crystal World seeking to reunite his essence with the prismatic landscape.

J.G. Ballard persists throughout all these novels in an attitude that the best course of action, when presented with the apocalypse, is to simply submit to its power and give oneself up to it. In other words, to die.

My understanding of the novel writ large, is that it is a mechanism for exploring the human condition. Something can certainly be said for Ballard's vision being that of a radical, non-human otherness, of the human giving itself up to something bigger than itself, perhaps even divine.


Perhaps not.

Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

This was a difficult read. I found myself struggling through the prose and world-conceptualization both. To add further insult to injury, Callenbach insists in his afterword that his novel is not science fiction. He says he merely took existing technology and extrapolated a future world configuration by inventing a future history. Sorry, Callenbach. That's what science fiction is. You wrote science fiction.

The future imagined is one in which California, Oregon, and Washington have seceded from the United States and formed an independent country called Ecotopia, the highest value of which is maintaining an ecological steady-state, as opposed to unlimited economic growth.

Although Callenbach goes to great lengths to imagine a "viable" society rather than a "utopian" or "perfect" one, I, personally, didn't find his society all that viable. As we have seen from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it takes an individual an enormous amount of material resources and greater-than-average ability to intellectually abstract and project in order to form the foundation of mindset that can sacrifice comfort and security now for the comfort and security of hypothetical humans in a strictly unknowable future. The vast majority of humans are bound to lack one or both of those means.

In short, it is unclear to me how it is that the political and social forces are what they are described to be in Ecotopia. Even as the novel attempts to address this side of humanity, it fails to imagine the appropriate human character, as in, for example, when we are shown that Ecotopia maintains war games as a replacement for actual war. One of the participants of these war games, a person supposedly drawn to competition and blood sport, demonstrates that he is also capable of speaking eloquently to the sport's anthropological and historical underpinnings. This would be amusing if the author weren't serious in his conviction that his imaginings were socially viable.

Yet, for all that, even as I reject Ecotopia holistically as an inviable cultural configuration, I also recognize that elements of its world have in fact come to pass. The most noticeable is the presence of organized recycling and composting programs, which were absent through the United States in the 1970's, but have now come to fruition, at least in most metropolitan areas.

Perhaps Ecotopia, like all good utopias, should never have pitched itself as an achievable goal, but rather an ideal for us to aim for.

The Sea and Summer by George Turner

With amazing character work and a richly nuanced world, The Sea and Summer stands out at the best amongst these five, and would probably make my top twenty science fiction books of all time, if not my top ten. The novel is certainly less recognized than it should be.

The Sea and Summer takes place primarily in Melbourne in the mid-twenty-first century. Automation and computerization have rendered the vast majority of jobs obsolete. Those who hold on to the few managerial and technical positions have come to be called "Sweet," while those who live on the government-issued dole and live in government-owned high rises are called "Swill." The novel moves between perspectives, but primarily follows the lives of two brothers, who begin life as a Sweet family, but are downgraded to Swill when their father's position is obsolesced.

Their mother is able to use her savings to get them a house in a kind of mid-zone neighborhood between the ultra-expensive Sweet neighborhoods and the Swill high rises, and it is here that the family is introduced to the character around which the entire novel turns, Billy Kovacs. He is simultaneously: a family man and a philanderer; a fair dealer and petty crook; knowledgeable beyond his means and strikingly ignorant; a bringer of order and an inciter of chaos; an upstanding citizen and a crime lord. His contradictions run deep, and yet as a character he works. He is believable.

The main narrative traces the rise of one brother and the fall of the other, though which is which will keep you guessing. This is yet another instance of the novel's many oscillations of character.

However, my favorite element is the interaction of this primary story with the frame story, one in which a historian and playwright are attempting to reconstruct Billy Kovac's life history in a future some unknown number of centuries beyond the twenty-first. These are a people to whom our notions of economically-based social class appear not just anachronistic, but perplexingly alien. Also alien to them is the way in which we did not prepare for the environmental changes we knew were coming.

Their conclusion, it seems, can be no firm and knowable binary ala Sweet/Swill, benevolent/maleficent, just/unjust, or good/evil, even though the playwright might prefer to reduce our world to such a dichotomy for the sake of his play. Rather, a series of complex institutions maintained order the best they could, and part of maintaining that status quo was a maintenance of the deeply unfair social systems of the day.

And then the sea rose and swept it all away.

As a rumination on the beauty and devastation, kindness and malice that humans are capable of (sometimes even from the same individual), I have experienced no better novel than George Turner's The Sea and Summer.