Thursday, April 25, 2013

Proust on Mercury and other issues in coming to terms with 2312

About a quarter of the way through Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 two of the major characters, after a catastrophe, find themselves in a section of what is essentially a grand maintenance tunnel running underneath (approximately) the entire equator of Mercury. Above them the long, deadly day has just begun; and just to their west the catastrophe has made the tunnel impassible. And so their choices are either to wait where they are for the eighty-eight Earth days it will take for Mercury's night to return and make rescue possible, or to walk east nearly half of Mercury's circumference--about two thousand kilometers, we're told--to meet the night and be rescued earlier. Despite Mercury's gravity, only a little over a third of Earth's, this is not a trivial amount of walking.
"We walk a day's worth, eat, sleep a night, then walk again. Set a daily schedule. If we hiked for twelve hours out of every twenty-four, that would be a lot, but it would save even more days.... [My AI] says twelve-hour days of walking would shorten our time down here by around forty-five days. That's enough for me.

"Well," Wahram said. "That's a lot of walking."

"I know, but what are you going to do? Sit here for over twice as long?"

"No," he said slowly. "I guess not."

Although really it would not be so very long. A rereading of Proust and O'Brian, a few times through the Ring cycle; his little wristpad was very well stocked.

Though the lengthy episode of walking that follows (in which Wahram does not in fact read Proust, though he does whistle the symphonies of Beethoven) is often excellent, it strikes me what a marvelous novel that might be: the long trudge underground, twelve hours a day, pausing periodically to allow the next section of tunnel to fill with breathable air ("It's like turning on the lights"), reading In Search of Lost Time.* The harrowing environment and the trudging would set the tone for the character's (and the reader's) feelings about Proust; the reading would set the tone for the character's (and the reader's) feelings about the environment and the trudging. Much could be made of the contradictions between Proust's thinking, generated by the experience of living on the open face of one's native planet in its natural atmosphere at 1 g, and the characters', enclosed within an artificial underground environment painstakingly regulated to be just barely survivable, at .38 g. Periodically while walking, and certainly when they stop to eat, there could be conversation. Perhaps things would be dreamed. The text of the novel would maybe even consist almost as much of extracts from Proust's as of "original material." (I've often daydreamed of writing a novel that would consist at least as much of some one other novel as of my own writing.) The other character(s) would no doubt be involved in their own pursuits, which might come into view from time to time. And above all they would be walking, walking, walking, the same every day, nearly without event.

*Which, full disclosure, I still have not yet read, though completely coincidentally I have a first approach to Swann's Way almost next on my list. Speaking of which, yes, I've noticed that 2312's central character is named Swan. I've also noticed that there's a character named Jean Genette. I won't be discussing either of these names, because who cares.

It is one of Robinson's strengths and simultaneously one of his weaknesses that he continually offers up these tantalizing notions that would serve excellently as novels of stasis. In 2312 just in the pages prior to the ones quoted above a woman spends days traveling from one planet to another in a hollowed-out asteroid that is deliberately kept at near-zero g and in complete darkness, passing the time uncomfortably in sensory deprivation hallucinations and conversations with her implanted AI about the various related but very different ways the word aporia has been used by different thinkers in different times; a man spends five days being smuggled up from Earth in a space elevator (hence constantly, gradually losing g until he reaches freefall in orbit) sealed into a spacesuit inside a box full of soil and worms for export; and a man on another hollowed-asteroid vessel (this one with earthlike conditions, called a "terrarium") traveling between planets tries to find the best "pseudoiterative," the balance between routine and surprise, with which to fill the days. Proust on Mercury would no doubt be the best of these potential novels, but all are intriguing to one degree or another.

Of course long periods of stasis must be a facet of any story involving multiple trips between different locations in the solar system, or at least any such story which, like Robinson's, cares to present such travel in a way which pays respect to physical law and at least remotely plausible technological possibility. To his considerable credit, Robinson does not pass over such periods in silence; the authorial eye does not look away in distaste with a "meanwhile" or a "five days later," or if it does it at least makes clear that there could be something to look at. And much in the structure of 2312--particularly the non-narrative sections: the breaks in which Robinson infodumps various aspects of scientific fact or socioeconomic speculation or what have you, the "Extracts" from imagined future texts, the "Lists" (of named craters on Mercury, of mind-altering substances and practices, of types of biomes...)--encourages one to stop the onrushing flow of narrative and consider what has passed by in that flow, including these periods of stasis. (This aspect of 2312's structure is admirably discussed by L. Timmel Duchamp in her Strange Horizons review, which examines many of the best aspects of the novel.)

At the same time, though, the narrative does rush on. As Wahram considers a re-read of Proust, an entire city is burning over him in the direct Mercurian sunlight, a result of the same catastrophe that forced the characters underground; and those same characters do not rest but start walking immediately, on to the next event. Robinson's novels are packed with such world-shattering devastations (one thinks of the climax of Red Mars, with its almost absurd concatenation of catastrophes: floods, cities incinerated, space elevator collapsing...) that seem to contradict with the quieter aspects (the Mars trilogy, after all, consists mainly of people wandering around talking--or not--with other people). In a way I want this to be a complaint, to say that the action-packed sequences get in the way of the more contemplative, to me far more interesting, bulk of the novels. And to a certain extent this is true: the knowledge that big and loud things are going to happen encourages even those of us with an interest in the small and quiet to get impatient, to turn the pages faster: "Yes, yes, she's floating in the dark, but what's going to happen when she gets there?" But the contradiction is also a strength; to return to Mars, perhaps the best thing about that trilogy is that despite all the early (and occasionally continuing) pyrotechnics it never does particularly "get there." One could say that Red Mars contains all of the "plot," whereas Green Mars and Blue Mars consist in their different ways of "...and yet life continues." Much of what is strong in 2312 too is in the way the small and the quiet can overwhelm the big and the loud: a city burns and we go into the tunnels for a month; a spaceship explodes and we float in space for days (it's no "Kaleidoscope," but the resonances are there). But where the trilogy had the freedom simply to go on and go on until it stopped, 2312 does not. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which will be mentioned below, but it is primarily because it has, like far, far too much sf, hitched itself to the structure of the mystery story--which must, by its very nature, "get there."

Where once the sf mystery was a novelty (Isaac Asimov, for example, did it largely as a stunt in The Caves of Steel), it has by now become automatic, almost obligatory--which is a shame, because it never was a healthy trend. Even the handful of great sf stories that are mysteries (including Asimov's robot novels) are never great because of the mystery, always in spite of it. The temptation of the mystery for the sf writer is understandable; it is of course the ready-made set of genre tropes most easily adapted to sf's central aesthetic problem, exposition. What better way, the writer might think, to reveal to the reader the wondrous function of this world I've created than to place in it a mystery, the solving of which requires the slow unfolding of this very world? More grandly, some might argue that other of sf's major concerns, from "conceptual breakthrough" to "transcendence," are in terms of fictional structure nearly identical to the mystery story.

The problem, though, is that once one has dedicated oneself to the mystery structure, one must hit all of its "plot points"--most especially the concrete revelation of "the truth," always and only at the end--whether or not these points are what the work demands. This is of course not literally true; it is possible to write a book which points in the direction of the mystery story for a moment only to go elsewhere, or one that systematically and painstakingly avoids all of the plot points, as for example Paul Auster has done. It is far easier, however, for the mystery to overwhelm the writer's own needs, especially when, as is the case in most of these sf novels I'm complaining about (one thinks of frustratingly near-great novels like China Miéville's The City and the City as well as Psychic Werewolf, PI: Book #7 et al.), the choice seems not actually to have been made so much as to have been assumed reflexively. That is to say, the sf mystery story has become so prevalent as to be the invisible default.* This unfortunately seems to be the case with 2312, which even goes so far as to have an interplanetary police detective (yeah...) as a major character and coyly to place tendentious hints as to coming grand revelations throughout the otherwise strongly non-narrative sections. The intrigue--that is to say, not the specifics of the intrigue in this story but intrigue itself--feels simply trivial in the midst of the conceptual context in which Robinson has placed it. That he can create what he has here created but can only think to tell a police procedural--no matter how grand--within it,** is a failure of imagination not greater but certainly more painful than those of a thousand lesser writers.

*As with so much I blame this largely on the cyberpunks, who, I am increasingly certain, saw the startling vitality of so much of 70s sf and, knowing they could never hope to equal it (and threatened by its frequent assaults on white heterosexual male hegemony), retreated from its many promises in a panic. Their inexplicably successful self-branding as literary and political radicals has done incalculable damage to the sf field ever since. Good work was done in cyberpunk, and has been done since, but again: despite, not because of.
**I should note here that the police procedural is not in fact the central strand of the story, which is more directly focused a bit off of it (the better to heighten the mystery, no doubt). Nevertheless it shapes all of the events
in the story, and its conclusion is the finale of the book.

This major failure seems to draw in its wake dozens more; that the novel climaxes both in a mass incarceration and a marriage (!) between two people of diametrically opposing sexes is indicative of the extent to which it pulls back from what it imagines. That both events are questioned as they happen in precisely these terms--that is to say, as reactionary, atavistic--only makes things worse. Far more serious, in ethical terms, are the problems Vandana Singh discusses in her excellent post about the novel's attitude of, essentially, "benevolent" colonialism. This attitude is of course an integral part of what you might call sf's original sin, the seemingly friendlier face of what Joanna Russ aptly describes as sf's "imperial American/engineering values." One often gets the impression in much of Robinson's work that he is attempting to face this sin directly and confront it, sometimes through its ironic portrayal, sometimes by positioning it as just one element of a much larger mosaic. If this is his goal, however (and that is an increasingly large "if"), he seems to be having a harder and harder time achieving it since the near (or at least nearer) success of the Mars trilogy. What once appeared as irony and complexity now appears as something much closer to--at best--naïveté.

As an example (if you still need one after reading Singh's post, that is), there is an episode in the third quarter of the novel in which Swan and Wahram lead what comes to be called the "Reanimation," in which among other things animals endangered or extinct on Earth are reintroduced in massive quantities from the terraria in space in which they have been preserved. Knowing the opposition they will face, Swan and Wahram do this largely unannounced, unilaterally, and whether or not they have secured approval from anyone on the Earth's surface. In the narration, hovering at the moment ambiguously near (but not quite in) Swan's thinking, we are told that their "leading of animal migrations across agricultural land," in particular, "was the biggest organized act of civil disobedience ever committed by spacers on Earth." No doubt this is intended to call to mind resonances from the Diggers and the mass trespass and other similar actions from Earth's real history of disobedience, but Robinson appears (and certainly Swan is) unaware of the extreme difference between the actions he is describing and real-world civil disobedience. The spacers are not a part of the community they are disrupting. The results may in fact be good (and conveniently the novel tells us they are, though I have severe doubts as to whether such a scheme would work at all even in the context the novel sets up), but regardless of result, what has really happened is not civil disobedience but incursion. The Diggers were taking back the land that they lived on and worked--the land that supported them and that they supported--whereas Robinson's spacers are the very people who have abdicated responsibility to the lands of the Earth. It is troubling at best to see them portrayed as the ones best suited to decide how to restore these lands (not to mention that they seem to be the only ones with any ideas about it, which is nonsense on its face).

In general 2312 sees a fracturing of what had once been a remarkably fruitful contradiction in Robinson's work, that of the conflicting urges towards what you might oversimplistically call artificiality and nature. Over and over in his work we find expressed a seeming certainty that a better way of life (though not utopia by any means) will be the almost inevitable attendant of leaving the Earth, mixed with an insistence that a life rooted in the Earth--living like the savanna primates he reminds us we are--is the most truly human. The loving portraits of the glories of terraforming contrast with the stark awareness that these same processes are what destroyed (or, for the reader, are destroying) the Earth, and also with the recognition of the right of land, even lifeless land, to remain what it is, untouched. In the Mars trilogy the different configurations of these contradictions were emblematized by the characters Sax, Ann, and Hiroko, respectively representing, roughly, heroic technologism, hands-off respect for place-as-it-is, and a mystic syncretism focused on the spread of life.* The trilogy proceeds to its end essentially through the "reconciliation" of Sax's and Ann's positions into a version of the absent Hiroko's, though of course by the end even of the first volume Ann's position is a wholly lost cause, as Mars will never again be as it was before the arrival of humanity. But throughout Ann serves as almost a voice of conscience, or at least a nagging memory of what's been lost forever in the midst of this humanity-triumphant, allowing us to feel the pain of this loss even in the midst of the victory of its opposite. Though by the end even she is forced to admit that she has lost and to contribute to the new order of things, it is her presence at all in the trilogy that allows it to be as beautiful a work as it is.

*Yes, the Japanese woman is the mystic. These problems have always been present in Robinson's work to one extent or another.

One of 2312's greatest failings is that it contains no Ann. Instead what we have is an array of mixtures of Sax and Hiroko in their most self-deluding faces: that is, a supposed love of the land that consists only in changing it to make it more humanly lovable. In the infodump chapter on Saturn's ice moon Iapetus, which has one hemisphere almost pure white and one almost pure black from the dust it passes through in its tidally locked orbit, Robinson, in authoritative-fact mode, describes "graffiti" people have drawn in the black side (called Cassini Regio) by clearing away the dust to reveal the white ice underneath. "Anytime you can easily make such a contrast in the landscape, people have written out their thoughts for the universe to read," we are told.

Later it was declared a mistake and a scandal, a moral stupidity, even a crime, in any case disgusting; and there were calls for the entirety of Cassini Regio to be reblacked. Someday it may happen, but don't hold your breath, for the truth is we are here to inscribe ourselves on the universe, and it is not inappropriate to remind ourselves of this when blank slates are given us. All landscape art reminds us: we live in a tabula rasa, and must write on it.
It is perhaps a mistake to ascribe the opinions professed in these sections, the tendentious musts and the truth ises, to Robinson (and it would be interesting to see what Swan's AI, who frequently mocks Swan by dissecting her rhetorical devices, would make of the first blockquoted clause); all I can say is that as a reader of his novel I find very little else present in it to counter these propositions. The mention of the landscape art could have been a way to present such a counter, had he wished to: in a frankly silly conceit, Robinson has his spacers refer to all such artworks as "goldsworthies," after the artist Andy Goldsworthy.* I confess I am not particularly familiar with Goldsworthy's work, but it had been my impression that its defining characteristic is not so much that it is done on the landscape but that it is temporary: that it erodes or washes away or what have you, leaving no trace.

*They also refer to works of art using the body as medium as "abramovics," after Marina Abramović.

This aspect of leaving no trace seems largely to have been lost on Robinson, or when it does show up seems to be more incidental than essential. Towards the end, Swan finds herself in a terrarium described as a "classic New Englander" during its local October. We are treated to a lovely description of New England autumn foliage as seen coating the hollow interior of a cylinder (i.e., rather than curving down and away to the horizon the ground curves up and over until it becomes the "sky"), and then:

One day she took up leaves that had fallen and arranged them across a clearing so that they went from red to orange to yellow to yellow-green to green, in a smooth progression. This colored line on the land pleased her greatly, as did the wind that blew it away.
A lovely sentiment, but too little too late, I find. Too much of the novel has consisted of the line on the land, and Robinson too often has forgotten the wind. This forgetfulness, along with the absence of any equivalent to Mars's Ann, makes 2312 in comparison to the trilogy not just the less moral work but also the inferior.


With this novel, Robinson has completed his transformation into, essentially, today's massively recomplicated Asimov. We find in them many of the same concerns: the effects of sheer size and complexity on human society taken as a whole; the threat of ecological collapse; the expansionist urges of humanity; the potentially antagonistic and/or symbiotic relationship between humans and artificial intelligences of our creation (sometimes with bodies and suites of behavior potentially indistinguishable from our own); the question of the possibility of frankly and precisely assessing one's own psychological makeup and that of one's culture; the sincere desire to figure out how to create the best possible conditions for everyone's life; and so on. We also find in them the same blind spots--and these blind spots, recomplicated, threaten to take over Robinson's work in a way they never did in Asimov's. Despite his often terribly moving awareness of many of its problems, Asimov was far too strongly wedded to technocracy truly to consider, or even seriously to represent, any real alternative to it--nor did he want to; his concern was to explore what was possible within it. Robinson is conscious enough of other possibilities that his increasing failure truly to engage with them is ultimately far more tragic.

I long for a Kim Stanley Robinson who has read, and internalized the lessons of, Maria Mies, Silvia Federici, and Vandana Shiva--for example. Such an internalization would, I suspect, allow him to find better answers to the questions that nag him...or, even better, to realize that it may not be his place to provide the answers--rather to keep the questions alive. Perhaps then--indeed to that very end--he might spend more time with Proust on Mercury. Until then, I'm afraid that all the--considerable!--beauty and greatness of his work will continue increasingly to buckle under the strain as the moral and aesthetic problems he has set himself become ever more insoluble.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pointless fun

Just for fun, under no illusion that this means anything, here's a list of what I off the top of my head consider to be the ten finest modern sf novels, in reverse order so as to make the shockingly controversial choice for number one all the more shocking (is it actually shocking? I doubt it), allowing only works that everyone agrees are sf (well, there's at least one that many would say is fantasy rather than sf), and only one novel by any given writer. If I were to make the list tomorrow or next week or five minutes from now no doubt it would be entirely different. Well, I suspect the top three would remain about the same, though the order might shift a bit.

Commence the pointlessness!

10. A.E. van Vogt, The Weapon Shops of Isher (1941-1942/1951)
9. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (1961)
8. Clifford D. Simak, A Choice of Gods (1972)
7. Candas Jane Dorsey, A Paradigm of Earth (2001)
6. Kim Stanley Robinson, The Mars Trilogy (or just Blue Mars if a trilogy doesn't count) (1992-1996)
5. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven (1971)
4. Samuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton (aka Triton) (1976)
3. Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!) (1956)
2. Joanna Russ, We Who Are About To... (1977)
1. Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama (1973)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Being boring

Since I've recently come once more across the notion, as always so axiomatic as to be an unstated premise, that "being boring" is absolutely the worst possible thing a book can do--accompanied, again as always, with the statement "if I'm bored, I stop reading"--I feel I must protest: being boring is far from the worst thing a book can do.

Admittedly there are many different definitions of "boring" and many different ways in which a book can be boring--I tend to find action-packed novels of the type many would describe as "exciting" to be boring in a very bad way--but this variety just reinforces the fact that "boring," in itself, is not a flaw. Sometimes boring is good, sometimes it's bad--ergo, it's not the boring itself but something else that's the problem.

Off the top of my head, a short list of books I wouldn't have read if I had let boredom stop me:

  • Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
  • Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage (only 2/13 of the way through, and I fully expect to be bored again, but no way in hell am I going to stop reading this vital work)
  • Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy
  • Isaac Asimov's Foundation series
  • Those dialogues of Plato which I have to date read
  • Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed
  • Hart Crane's The Bridge
  • Tina Darragh's Striking Resemblance
  • Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men
  • Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun
I hope I need not say that I'm very glad that I did in fact read all of these.

A gander at that list will reveal very quickly that the sources of boredom can be immensely varied. Sometimes a work is boring simply because of length (Wolfe, Robinson). Sometimes it is boring because one hasn't yet learned how properly to read it (Plato, Darragh). Sometimes, yes, it is boring because it is flawed--but nevertheless is worth reading despite/because of these flaws (Asimov, Crane, Le Guin). And sometimes the boredom is a structural element absolutely necessary to the book's very worthwhile endeavor (Richardson, Stapledon). And, of course, sometimes these reasons can overlap: the boredom Darragh causes is a result of both the need to learn how to read her in a way that is not boring and her use of boredom as a structural element; Robinson uses boredom strategically and also writes exhaustingly long works. And so on.

Incidentally, here's a list of works I plan to read in the near or near-ish future which I fully expect to be bored by, and glad of it:

  • Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time
  • Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312
  • James Joyce's Ulysses
  • The rest of Richardson's Pilgrimage
  • Asimov's Foundation again
  • Um, the Bible
  • Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle
  • More Plato
...etc. I've mentioned before Susan Sontag's observation that boredom in books can be a structural element similar to silence in music, and though I have my differences with Sontag I think she's absolutely right with that. To take the extreme example, one of the things John Cage is getting at in 4'33'' is that by placing us in a context in which we expect a musical performance and then giving us no controlled sound, he makes us recontextualize the ambient, uncontrolled noises--the awkward shufflings of confused and, yes, bored spectators, traffic passing by outside, birds, whatever might make its way into whatever space we're encountering the work in--into "art," thereby making us appreciate these sounds in a way we might not have otherwise.* Cage was fond of quoting Érik Satie to the effect that one must leave room in one's music for the sounds of the knives and the forks.

*Brian Eno, apparently, has at times had a somewhat similar, but less performance-oriented, practice wherein he sets up recording equipment in some location--a public park, say--and record whatever sounds might happen to occur for a period of about three minutes, and then listen to the recording over and over again the way people do with pop songs, until he gets to know the "song" in that same intimate way. Many of Pauline Oliveros's wonderful Sonic Meditations get at much the same thing in their very different way.

When I'm bored by, say, a very long science fiction novel, or a lengthy passage of exposition on some subject that doesn't particularly interest me in an sf story, oftentimes I will look up from the page, exasperated perhaps, at which point I sometimes become almost startlingly "re-aware" of the nature of the world around me, the everyday reality through which I move, so different from the world I've been reading about, and this return to consciousness recontextualizes and revitalizes both the world of the story and (more importantly) the real world of living and experience. Though I doubt it had the same effect on the original audiences, something similar happens when Homer describes for the nth time how someone "fell, thunderously, and his armour clattered upon him,"* and I look up, sigh, and realize in some ineffable way far beyond the obvious that--and what it means that--I am so very much not on an ancient battlefield in Ilium.

*As Richmond Lattimore translates him, at any rate. Anybody wanna teach me ancient Greek?

The utter aversion to boredom is, of course, a function of the view that a book's (or any work of art's) fundamental purpose is to "entertain." And though I suppose I technically agree that "entertainment" should not be, in the usual construction of its partisans, a "dirty word,"* I think this exclusive focus on entertainment is, well, a wretched way to go about things. In this view a book is--and can only be--something to fill the time: something to do while you're not working, essentially. And, well, yes, a book is this, in part, for most of us who read them, but it can be so much more. And one thing I absolutely refuse to do is to allow art to be merely something with which I "recharge my batteries" so I can go back to work refreshed and work all the harder for the bosses (and not just because I'm, y'know, unemployed--even if I weren't, hah).

*Whether or not entertainment actually is a dirty word is a question which I will leave unaddressed out of lack of interest.

The villanization of being-boring, too, is I suspect a symptom of our society-wide focus on productivity and speed. That is to say, even when we're not working, our "leisure" activities have to get it done, and get it done fast. The story has to hook the reader right off, in that first sentence. Keep those pages turning until they've all gotten read! Good job! You've accomplished something! Time for another! Boring? Taking a while? Requires effort? Chuck it aside--here's another one that doesn't!

And admittedly I succumb to this essentially consumption-based attitude myself more often than not. (Hell, if I didn't would I keep a list of "books completed" over to the right? More to the point, would I be proud at the rate it grows?) But I think we owe it to ourselves to fight it.

If you're reading a book and it bores you, ask why. Is it because, like those action-packed snoozers I mentioned before, it's sleepwalking through empty clichés that have nothing to say to you? Then by all means chuck it! Is it because it's mired in some received form that is a fundamental betrayal of what it seems to want to say? Chuck it! But is it, perhaps, boring because it's saying something that you haven't yet figured out how to understand? Is it boring because it's difficult? Is it boring because sometimes something boring is necessary in order to lead to something worthwhile? Is it boring because sometimes, perhaps, we need boredom? Rather than requiring the book always to entertain us, perhaps sometimes we must entertain the book--entertain the notion that it might after all have something to say to us, if we know how to listen, and how to be patient.

Friday, April 5, 2013

After us will follow...?

Bertolt Brecht's poem "On the Poor B.B." includes these lines:
We know we're only temporary and after us will follow
Nothing worth talking about.
And I wonder if this sentiment, kept in mind (in tension no doubt) with all the others which variously lead people to write sf, might not lead to really vital work.

I quote these lines from Hannah Arendt (in her translation?), in a footnote to her introduction to Illuminations, the collection of Walter Benjamin's essays which she edited. Arendt quotes Brecht in reference to the feeling shared by Benjamin and many of his contemporaries that "all traditions and cultures as well as all 'belonging' had become equally questionable." She discusses all this in terms of the pre-WWII German-Jewish intellectual milieu through which Benjamin moved, but the relevance is broader by far: it's not a problem of one particular moment in history that's done with; if anything, the problem is even worse for us now.

What wisdom the past may have offered to us is in many ways gone, unattainable, leaving in its place only pain and alienation--not only for the reasons people like Arendt and Benjamin (and in his different way Iyer) tend to discuss--as if those weren't enough!--but also because, as Adrienne Rich writes in the fifth of her "Twenty-one Love Poems,"

                            Once open the books, you have to face
The underside of everything you've loved--
The rack and pincers held in readiness, the gag
Even the best voices have had to mumble through,
The silence burying unwanted children--
Women, deviants, witnesses--in desert sand.
"There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," writes Benjamin in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History."

As a reader of the modernists I am accustomed to thinking of the tradition as unavailable, the past as holding out a promise of wisdom and beauty which is ultimately unreachable, though the inevitably failed effort must always be made--because after all what else can we do?

As a reader of sf I am accustomed to thinking of the future as...the future! But the present is alone--in both directions.

To some extent much sf grasps the "we're only temporary" portion of Brecht's lines--in its various futures we ourselves are often remembered only mistily, if at all; a gulf separates us from the futures we read about. But in another sense sf frequently does not grasp this temporariness in all its implications--that is to say, the ways it leads into the next part of what Brecht tells us. After all, you might say that most sf is predicated on the assumption that what will follow after us is very much worth talking about!

And there are certain ways in which this assumption is not wrong. But in other ways, from the point of view of the temporary present the future--which, remember, must eventually become the temporary present and then in turn the lost past--is already much the same as the past: lost to us in irrelevance, silence, and bloodshed. More racks and pincers, more gags, more barbarism. Or worse: Arendt quotes Benjamin, from a letter of 1935:

Actually, I hardly feel constrained to try to make head or tail of this condition of the world. On this planet a great number of civilizations have perished in blood and horror. Naturally, one must wish for the planet that some day it will experience a civilization that has abandoned blood and horror; in fact, I am...inclined to assume that our planet is waiting for this. But it is terribly doubtful whether we can bring such a present to its hundred- or four-hundred-millionth birthday party. And if we don't, the planet will finally punish us, its unthoughtful well-wishers, by presenting us with the Last Judgment.
I sense in this implications for the practice of sf far beyond the obvious Brunnerian ecostastrophes that leap immediately to mind at that last sentence (not, by any means, to belittle ecotastrophe, in fiction or in reality).

A deep sense of the isolation of the current moment may seem inimical to all things sfnal, and maybe it is--but if so perhaps it is (or could be) inimical in much the same way that the absence of the traditions of the past is to a literature that could create Ulysses, or Orlando, or Doctor Faustus. Just as Joyce and Woolf and Mann both cannot and must reach to the past, perhaps sf writers both cannot and must reach to the future.* Perhaps this is what is at work in, say, Cordwainer Smith's bizarre fragments, his stories each a moment (often a silly, self-aggrandizing moment, but a moment nonetheless) lost in some mistily immense future--just the first example that leaps into my mind.

*And, I would say, the same relationship to the past is simultaneously necessary...

On a more "prosaic" level, any sf to be taken seriously must surely take into account what I've had Rich and Benjamin say to one another above. Any writer, indeed, must remember that the barbarism inherent in civilization is in a very direct sense what enables their own writing to exist--even if they are, as most of us are to one extent or another, also a victim of this barbarism. Specific to sf, if one wishes to depict some possible future civilization* one must remember that any civilization's other face is barbarism, that the desert sand may from time to time seem to be lifting off of the unwanted children, but that sand is shifting, and women, deviants, witnesses will always be in danger of being buried in silence. One must also try to understand why.

*And though I shudder at the notion that sf is or should be "predictive" and have my problems too with its being described as "extrapolative" (as I hope this essay helps in part to explain), it does, or should, deal in the possible--broadly speaking, and with much allowance for the impossible, rendered with aesthetic plausibility.

I do not say that a better future is impossible, cannot be depicted, but we cannot just say "half the people on the spaceship are women and there's never ever war" (or whatever) and be done with it. Nor do I say that every work of fiction must deal directly with the underbelly or the margins--but every work should be aware that they exist.

And every work should be aware of just what these things are, the past, the future, and the present, no matter where it locates itself among them. Though of course this location raises issues of its own: what does it mean to treat the future as "now"? And so on...

I fear that this is an essay only in the most strictly etymological sense--and a failed one, at that. I doubt if I've expressed even the jumbled thoughts I hope I have. I hardly know what I'm calling for, if anything. Reading over what I've written, I can see my words seeming to be a call for only utopias, or only dystopias, when really neither will do; or for a blanket defeatism; or for sf always to be simplistically "political" or pretend to be "apolitical" (which nothing, nothing is); or for some sort of ahistorical solipsism; or for greater "realism," so-called; or for sf to be "more like modernism." I want none of this. Perhaps I'm not even calling for anything different in the writing--only in the reading. I don't know. I want from all fiction an awareness of the situation we find ourselves in, and perhaps if we're lucky some kind of illumination on it. I want this from science fiction too; but I want it in the ways that only sf can offer it. What these ways are, I'm afraid I'm still not entirely certain; but sometimes, I think, I get them.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

It was not perhaps a 'good' self, but it was herself

Not sf, not poetry, so I'm going a bit out of my jurisdiction here.

I've only read the first two of its thirteen novels thus far, but I've come to the conclusion that anyone who takes writing, reading, thought, or the experience of living--i.e. anything--seriously needs to read Dorothy Miller Richardson's Pilgrimage. It is very much essential and I can think of no reason for its current relative obscurity other than, y'know, the usual entrenched systemic misogyny.

Excerpting can only do unforgivable violence to this work, especially because any given passage in context resonates with everything in the vaster bulk of what surrounds it. With that in mind, though, here's a passage from later on in the second novel, Backwater, coming soon after the protagonist, Miriam (who is "just eighteen" and only beginning to leave home), has stumbled across a lending library near the North London school at which she is teaching and living:

For the last six weeks of the summer term she sat up night after night propped against her upright pillow and bolster under the gas-jet reading her twopenny books in her silent room. Almost every night she read until two o'clock. She felt at once that she was doing wrong; that the secret novel-reading was a thing she could not confess, even to Miss Haddie. She was spending hours of the time that was meant for sleep, for restful preparation for the next day's work, in a 'vicious circle' of self-indulgence. It was sin. She had read somewhere that sin promises a satisfaction that it is unable to fulfil. But she found when the house was still and the trams had ceased jingling up and down outside that she grew steady and cool and that she rediscovered the self she had known at home, where the refuge of silence and books was always open. Perhaps that self, leaving others to do the practical things, erecting a little wall of unapproachability between herself and her family that she might be free to dream alone in corners, had always been wrong. But it was herself, the nearest most intimate self she had known. And the discovery that it was not dead, that her six months in the German school and the nine long months during which Banbury Park life had drawn a veil even over the little slices of holiday freedom, had not even touched it, brought her warm moments of reassurance. It was not perhaps a 'good' self, but it was herself, her own familiar secretly happy and rejoicing self--not dead. Her hands lying on the coverlet knew it. They were again at these moments her own old hands, holding very firmly to things that no one might touch or even approach too nearly, things, everything, the great thing that would some day communicate itself to someone through these secret hands with the strangely thrilling finger-tips. Holding them up in the gaslight she dreamed over their wisdom. They knew everything and held their secret, even from her. She eyed them, communed with them, passionately trusted them. They were not 'artistic' or 'clever' hands. The fingers did not 'taper' nor did the outstretched thumb curl back on itself like a frond--like Nan Babington's. They were long, the tips squarish and firmly padded, the palm square and bony and supple, and the large thumb-joint stood away from the rest of the hand like the thumb-joint of a man. The right hand was larger than the left, kindlier, friendlier, wiser. The expression of the left hand was less reassuring. It was a narrower, lighter hand, more flexible, less sensitive and more even in its touch--more smooth and manageable in playing scales. It seemed to belong to her much less than the right; but when the two were firmly interlocked they made a pleasant curious whole, the right clasping more firmly, its thumb always uppermost, its fingers separated firmly over the back of the left palm, the left hand clinging, its fingers close together against the hard knuckles of the right.

It was only when she was alone and in the intervals of quiet reading that she came into possession of her hands. With others they oppressed her by their size and their lack of feminine expressiveness. No one could fall in love with such hands. Loving her, someone might come to tolerate them. They were utterly unlike Eve's plump, white, inflexible little palms. But they were her strength. They came between her and the world of women. They would be her companions until the end. They would wither. But the bones would not change. The bones would be laid, unchanged and wise, in her grave.