Let’s be honest here, when I gush sweet nothings about a given work of literature, it’s because I want you to drop everything immediately and rush to the nearest bookstore or library to purchase or borrow said work of literature and devour it in a single sitting. Will this happen? Likely not. But I keep trying. So, of the dozen or so books I read this past month, here are three that you should get your claws on as soon as you bloody well can. Why? Well, I’m getting to that. Sheesh!
“Blindsight” by Peter Watts (Tor Books, 2006)
For those of you who haven’t been keeping up on the latest Canadian sf community news, marine biologist and writer Dr. Peter Watts was not too long ago beaten and pepper-sprayed at the Canada-U.S. border by the U.S. border patrol. He was then charged with felony non-compliance for not obeying a border guard fast enough. A defense fund was created and the sf community rallied behind Peter in his support and in opposition to the bogus charges. However, Watts was found guilty, and thus we waited with held breath for the sentencing to fall, which might have put Watts in prison for several years. Luckily, that didn’t happen. One jury member in particular spoke up for Peter, which possibly contributed to the judge’s lenient sentence: a fine and a criminal record, but no jail time. Unjust, but better than it could have been. For a more detailed account of this story, click here.
Now, the book. Set in the late 21st century, Blindsight is a hard (very hard) sf novel with a new take on several old tropes. For those of you unfamiliar with sf genre terminology, “hard” sf is that which relies heavily upon “hard” science to establish speculative concepts. And true to the sub-genre, Blindsight can be tough going at times for the scientifically barely-literate like myself. However, unlike a lot of hard sf, Blindsight deals with the hard science not merely as a vessel for cool, far-flung, and fantastic concepts -- though it does that, too -- but structurally and thematically as well. The jargon and complicated ideas aren’t just there to legitimate the novel’s conceits. They partly compose the themes with which Blindsight grapples and provide a unique angle from which to probe the novel’s central questioning of sentience -- not of what sentience “is” but of what sentience is “for.” The conclusions drawn are somewhat bleak and not necessarily the author’s own, but also humbling and have stuck with me even weeks after having put the book down.
Blindsight is foremost a first contact story, told to us by the synthesist (the derogatory term for synthesist being “jargonaut”) Siri Keeton who accompanies a small team of experts sent to follow an alien signal back to its source two months after said aliens took a snapshot of Earth in the most dramatic manner possible, by burning up sixty-five thousand probes in Earth’s atmosphere simultaneously. As a child, Siri Keeton underwent a radical hemisherectomy to cure his epilepsy... half his brain was removed... and as a result he is unable to empathize with his fellow humans and the human condition in general. Thus he fakes it, like a well-adjusted and clinically sanctioned sociopath. Siri’s job is to record what the various experts on the expedition say in translation, rendering all that jargon intelligible to the brass back home, and to the common people for posterity’s sake. The book Blindsight is the record of his account.
Blindsight is a book packed with almost too many neat ideas and conceits, enough concepts with which to write several sf novels. I found myself in absolute awe of Watts’s mental acrobatics, at times barely able to keep up, which for me at least is definitely a good thing. In addition to some of his truly fresh ideas, like the biology and cognitive workings of the aliens in the novel, Watts also revisits several old tropes, most notable of which being that of the vampire. The leader of Siri’s expedition is a resurrected vampire named Sarasti. Watts takes the scientific over the mystical approach to the vampire yet is able to retain an aire of mystery where the creature is concerned. He of course completely rejects the hackneyed notion of the Anne Rice / Twilight romanticized vampire that pervades popular culture at the moment. Watts’ vampires are pretty damned scary. The vampire in the novel is said to have been a third branch of humanity called Homo sapiens vampiris that cohabited the planet with the Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals, as Watts describes in technical detail in the book’s appendix. These vampires were so smart they could hold both aspects of a Necker cube in their head at once, and like any smart predator, they knew not to overhunt their prey. However, due to a cognitive impairment of some sort, Homo sapiens vampiris was psychologically “allergic” to crosses, to the perpindicular intersection of two straight lines to create four right angles, which is a pattern that very rarely occurs in nature, and they went into frothing coniptions when they saw said crosses. Thus they were eventually killed off, only to be brought back from extinction in the late 21st century as super-smart slaves to humanity. Bad idea, right? I have to say, it’s pretty ballsy for Watts to have chosen, of all the vampire weaknesses, like allergy to silver or sunlight, the cross as the weakness for his science-based vampires, and he gets away with it. As for the world in which Blindsight is set, considering the denizens that inhabit it, it’s appropriately sinister, the evil twin to fellow Canadian Cory Docotorow’s take on a “post-scarcity economy” as depicted in the influential Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.
All in all, if you’re looking for a dark (yes, at times dimly lit) and mind-blowing sf romp that is both entertaining and may change the way you look at life, cognitive processes, organic chemistry, sentience, and more -- for why else does one read fiction? -- check out Blindsight. Remember, the throbbing in your head is a good ache. Or maybe I’m just a masochist.
Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow (Random House, 1974)
Not to be confused with the work of the aforementioned Cory Doctorow, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime was the first novel to win the National Book Critics Circle award in addition to being nominated for a Nebula Award. In Fredric Jameson’s influential Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson describes Doctorow as “one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the United States today” (21). High praise indeed, and praise with which I would tend to agree.
Ragtime is set, for the most part, in and around New York city, with a brief excursion to Atlantic City, between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I. The third person narrator jumps throughout the novel from character to character, including various historical figures like Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Emiliano Zapata, and Sigmund Freud, among others; the intertextual allusion that is ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Coalhouse being a characterized reference to Heinrich von Kleist’s novella “Michael Kohlhaas”); and two fictional families, the middle class white American family designated Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, and The Little Boy, and the Jewish immigrant family designated Tateh, Mameh, and The Little Girl. The plot of the novel is rather difficult to describe, for just as Jameson writes that Ragtime mitigates against interpretation in spite of itself, existing as historical pastiche that wishes it were otherwise, it is difficult to say where one plot begins in the novel and where another ends. It would be easy to summarize what appears to be the dominant plot lines, the plots that span a quantifiably greater number of pages in the novel, but such a summary does an injustice to the almost episodic character of the narrative. Episodes sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant and heartbreaking, like Mameh having to prostitute herself to her boss, like Freud and his disciples unable to find a public restroom in New York so that Freud might relieve himself, like Booker T. Washington’s bungled negotiation attempt with Coalhouse Walker Jr., like J. P. Morgan inviting Ford over for lunch one afternoon, seeing in Ford a pharoah reincarnated, literally, or like the Archduke Franz Ferdinand mistaking Houdini for the inventor of the aeroplane, etc.
In Postmodernism, Jameson discusses the novel as uninterpretable before going on to interpret it as a novel mourning “the left’s” defeat of itself, which is indeed one major thread of the novel's intricate thematic tapestry. Jameson writes that “E. L. Doctorow is the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past” (24), rendering ragtime a work of political and cultural tragedy. However, beyond mourning the death of the “radical past,” it might be said that the book mourns the dissolution of politics itself into culture. It is a post-modern retrospective upon post-modernism’s own roots and the attempt to historicize that which resists historicization. The title of the work is helpful in this regard. Ragtime. The precursor to jazz and then the rest of popular music. The first infusion of colour into the culture of white America. The precursor to the kind of fragmentation, ad-hoc improvisation, and pastiche characteristic of the post-modern.
Throughout the novel there is a definite sense of the retrospective and, thereby, the prophetic, that this is a present reading back into the past. The always moving third-person, past-tense narration contributes to this, but also in the engagement of the themes there is always a strong sense that certain characters know, or have some presentiment of, what is coming, that they can see America's future, that J. P. Morgan sees the culture that Ford’s assembly line will effect, that Emma Goldman prophesizes Marilyn Monroe and the cult of the star when she lectures and heart-achingly sympathizes with Evelyn Nesbit, that Harry K. Thaw, looking out of his jail cell at Harry Houdini, glimpses the narrator’s present, and beyond glimpses reality television and MTV, that which is the future for even the narrator. It is as if the past depicted in the novel is haunted by a future that, for the narrator, and for the reader, has already come and gone and is moving on again. I wonder if, when Jameson speaks of the “insensible colonization of the present by the nostalgia mode” (Jameson, 20) we cannot in turn speak of the past being colonized by the nostalgia mode of the present. In short, read Ragtime and join me in puzzling over the state of the historical novel, which brings us to the third book on our list...
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Vintage, 2004)
Cloud Atlas by British author David Mitchell is another Nebula award nominee, as well as being shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Man Booker Prize, and is a prime example of a fusion between literary and popular sensibilities, ideas and plot, as well as between multiple disparate genres, including historical drama, political thriller, pulp detective fiction, contemporary comedy, cyberpunk for the bioengineering age, and post-apocalyptic sf. Check out this interview with David Mitchell in which he briefly discusses the difference between genre and ‘literary’ fiction. David Mitchell is also an author who wears his influences on his sleeves, most notably writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Aldous Huxley, and Herman Melville among others, and while not as deft as these masters, Mitchell manages to do credit to such influences as few other new voices this decade have managed.
Cloud Atlas is divided into six novellas ordered in the following manner: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Thus the first halves of the first five novellas are told, then the sixth novella in its entirety, and then the final halves of the five are told in reverse order. The novellas are told initially in chronological order and then in reverse chronological order. The first novella is composed of journal excerpts from a south Pacific sea voyage in the nineteenth century; the second a collection of letters from an English composer in Zedelgem, Belgium in 1931; the third a manuscript set in Buenas Yerbas, California in 1975 about a journalist investigating a murder tied to a corrupt nuclear power company; the fourth a roughly contemporary comedy taking place in the UK and starring a book publisher who later turns his misadventures into a film; the fifth a recorded interview with a revolutionary Korean clone soon to be executed; and the sixth about a goatherd in a post-apocalyptic future Hawaii who must play host to an anthropologist who is one of the last members of technologically advanced civilization. Five of the six “lead” characters are suggested to be the same soul reincarnated across time. In stories 2 through 6, a character is either reading or viewing the record of the previous story, and in each narrative, the character’s reading or viewing is interrupted part way through only to resume later, in the latter half of the novel, when the reader comes to, in a sense, “inhabit” each successive character taking in the story that comes next. As the reader begins the last half of the novel, the reader is “looking through the eyes” so to speak of a character in the story that had concluded before it, each story concluding with the resumption of the character’s reading or viewing of the story that follows. Thus by the time the reader returns to the first and final narrative, there presses the weight of all those layers of narratives within narratives, in a future that is past.
Mitchell does not merely drape his narrative upon this structural ingenuity for its own sake. The structure of the novel is such that it heightens the intellectual and emotional resonance of the six individual narratives. Mitchell takes advantage of the structure to strike complex emotional chords, and makes it look far too easy at that. What is also remarkable about the six novellas that comprise the entire novel is that each possesses its own unique voice, as if the six novellas were in fact written by six different authors.
Thematically, Mitchell has said that the novel’s central focus is predation. And certainly, Mitchell toys with old questions of humanity’s selfish inclinations as well as whether civilization is humanity’s boon or curse, if civilization can or should suppress the beast in man, or if perhaps civilization is itself bipolar and not a singular good set against savagery. Old fare. What renders it poignant, however, is that around this more obvious set of thematics orbits Mitchell’s (I would argue more essential) questioning of notions of change versus constancy accented by the structure of the novel. Above all, Cloud Atlas is the rare sort of “postmodern” novel that can balance the seemingly contradictory sentiments that “Truth is singular” (Mitchell, 185) yet that an ocean is “a multitude of drops” (Mitchell, 509), and that while surfaces may change, there is also something, if only the hope for something, not eternal, but that time can’t touch. Once more, the title puts the work into perspective, for Mitchell has the temerity to name his work a map of the unmappable, a topography of the heights from which the topographic viewer views.