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December 6, 2017

Last week I read Artemis, the new SF novel about life on Earth’s moon by Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian. It was not a good choice for a busy week because it’s a page-turner, much like his first novel. I kept trying to read it for “just a little while” and ended up staying up too late and regretting it the next morning. It is a good choice if you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure.

Let me just say that I have no idea why this author, so good at embedding the technical details of life in space in his fiction, would even try to make his first-person narrator female. Characterization is not his forte, and I didn’t find his teenage girl to be very girl-like, so I ignored references to her gender and love life and got on quite happily with the story.

Weir is such a good writer that he can make something like watching someone do welding interesting. It’s amazing. Here’s the suspense he creates when his main character, Jazz, needs to borrow welding equipment from her father without telling him what it’s for:
“’I need a torch, a couple tanks of acetylene, a tank of O2, and a mask.’
‘What about neon?’ he asked.
I winced. ‘Right, yeah. Neon, of course.’
‘You’re getting rusty,’ he said.
I didn’t need neon. But I couldn’t tell him that.
When you weld aluminum, you need to flood it with a non-reactive gas to keep the surface from oxidizing. On Earth they use argon because it’s massively abundant. But we don’t have noble gases on the moon, so we have to ship them in from Earth. And neon weighs half as much as argon, so that’s what we use. It didn’t matter to me, because I’d be working in a vacuum. No oxygen to oxidize the metal. But I didn’t want him to know that.”

Jazz gets involved in a caper that’s not entirely on the right side of Artemis law, which is tricky because it involves going outside the domes, and only a handful of Artemis citizens are licensed to go “EVA,” which stands for “extravehicular activity,” an acronym surviving, in this future moon colony, from the days of space travel.

The writing reminds me of a Heinlein juvenile, with some Neal Stephenson-inspired updating (in Anathem cell phones are called jeejahs; in Artemis they’re called gizmos). Here’s a taste:
“The thing that sucks about life-or-death situations is how boring they can be.
I waited in Dad’s shop for three hours. I didn’t have to show up at five a.m., but I’d be damned if I was going to let Jin Chu show up before I did.
I leaned a chair against the back wall of the shop, right next to the air shelter where I’d snuck my first cigarette. I remember I damn near puked from all the smoke that built up but hey, when you’re a rebellious teen and you think you’re making a statement, it’s worth it. ‘Take that, Daddy!’
God, I was such a dipshit.
I checked the clock on the wall every ten seconds as eight a.m. approached. I fiddled with a handheld blowtorch to pass the time. Dad used it to shrink seals onto pipe fittings. It wasn’t ‘welding,’ but you had to do it in a fireproof room, so he offered it as one of his services.
I kept my finger by the ignition trigger. It wasn’t a gun (there were no guns in Artemis) but it could hurt someone if they came too close. I wanted to be ready for anything.”

Later, when her father is helping Jazz fix what’s gone wrong with her EVA caper, he does some welding and she asks him “What’s up, Dad? You’re slow as snot today.” He replies that he is “just being thorough.” And then there’s a nice passage in which Jazz realizes why:
“This wasn’t a normal job. Tomorrow, his daughter’s life would rely on the quality of these welds. It slowly dawned on me that, to him, this was the most critical project he’d ever done. He would accept nothing short of his absolute best….Very few people get a chance to quantify how much their father loves them. But I did. The job should have taken forty-give minutes, but Dad spent three and a half hours on it.”

Fixing what’s wrong involves more exciting welding and adaptation of equipment for alternative uses. There are chase scenes, and you’ll be rooting for everything to work right so the characters can keep breathing and save their society.

If only saving ours could be done so concretely, with scientific know-how and technical ingenuity. Come to think of it, the state of politics on Earth might be what finally drives us out into space, where we can set up a rational society with people who value knowledge and expertise.




November 29, 2017

It’s been a difficult last few days, coming back after a week-long break for Thanksgiving, tempers short at semester’s end, the news full of stories about the rich plotting ways to make themselves richer at the expense of the poor and middle-class, and net neutrality on the line again, like a rotten cherry on this mud-and-shit-pie of a week.

I have been practicing trying not to say everything I think. This is hard for me. Sometimes it means I have to be entirely quiet, so nothing escapes. Last night I tried just going to bed, but that didn’t work, so I got up and read for a while.

Today the sun is shining, a rarity for an Ohio November. And I had lunch with a friend who is good at taking turns venting and letting me vent. We had lots of lunch.


It’s a gift, this cloudless November morning
warm enough to walk without a jacket
along your favorite path. The rhythmic shushing
of your feet through fallen leaves should be
enough to quiet the mind, so it surprises you
when you catch yourself telling off your boss
for a decade of accumulated injustices,
all the things you’ve never said circling inside you.

The rising wind pulls you out of it,
and you look up to see a cloud of leaves
wheeling in sunlight, flickering against the blue
and lifting above the treetops, as if the whole day
were sighing, Let it go, let it go,
for this moment at least, let it all go.

Is your whole day sighing? Have you seen anything as beautiful as wheeling leaves in sunlight? I had to go to the grocery store (where I met my mailman and we said hello and he commented on how well I was walking– what a small-town encounter) to buy ingredients for pies I’m making for a work event this weekend, and I bought some roses;  they are beautiful.


They are almost enough.


November 22, 2017

I was so eager to read Nick Harkaway’s new novel Gnomon that I ordered it from the UK, where it was published in November, rather than waiting for US publication in January. And then it came during one of the busiest weeks of the semester, so I couldn’t read it as fast as I wanted to. But that turned out to be a good thing; it’s a complicated 684-page novel; I needed to slow down my reading so I could digest the ideas.

This is a novel about the urge to perform what I call often necromancy—let’s call it resurrection, in this case–as much as it is about anything. Here the urge is the real, tragic thing—a deep longing to bring back a picture of the universe that includes a particular person—a longing so intense that the person who has been left will try to break the rules of the universe itself. This turns out to be an essential element of the plot.

It takes the reader a while to understand the scope of the plot. At first we’re following the investigation into the death of a citizen from the near future, a “nation under digitally mediated governance.” The citizen is Diana Hunter, a woman who appears to have believed in digital resistance and the question is why she died during her “interview,” during which surgeons and an AI called the Witness physically invade her brain to see what she is thinking, allowed by the “Security Evidence Act.”

The investigator is Mielikki Neith, assisted by an AI called the Witness. As the action begins, Neith
“is an enthusiastic proponent of both the System and the Witness. The first is a government of the people, by the people, without intervention or representation beyond what is absolutely necessary: a democracy in the most literal sense, an ongoing plebiscite-society. The second is the institution for which Britain perhaps above all other nations has always searched, the perfect police force. Over five hundred million cameras, microphones and other sensors taking information from everywhere, not one instant of it accessed initially by any human being. Instead, the impartial, self-teaching algorithms of the Witness review and classify it and do nothing unless public safety requires it.”
Her job is to be one of several “prosecutorial ombudsmen to the surveillance state, reviewing and considering any case that passes a given threshold of intervention,” like Diana Hunter’s. In order to “review,” the case, Neith plugs herself into the record of the dead woman’s brain, so she can see what she was thinking and what happened.

As Neith examines what Diana Hunter was thinking, we also get to see. First we see a few of her recent memories, like when she teaches children “how to read books which cannot speak to them, how to close the covers and lie down when they are tired because the pages will not detect their fatigue or tell the house to extinguish the lights so that they know they should sleep.” That might sound a bit luddite and moralistic, until I think about all the nights since August that I’ve gotten up and seen Walker lying in bed asleep with his laptop open beside him and the lights on.

Hunter’s brain, however, is full of other memories, stories of lives that can’t be her own. First there is the story of Constantine Kyriakos, a mathematical genius who has an encounter with a shark and makes a fortune in the stock markets.

Then we get the story of Athenais Karthogonensis, a 4th-century alchemist whose son has died. She often thinks about bringing things back from the dead, even lamenting the waste of a duck she had planned to cook when her plans were suddenly changed by wondering if she should “speak to the duck and make it fresh again, though always careful not to push too hard and bring it once again to life.”

Finally we hear the story of a 20th-century artist, Berihun Bekele, an Ethiopian immigrant to the UK, and his granddaughter Annabel and her British company, which is “a miniature version of the cultural and commercial stew that has been so successful in Silicon Valley.” Through the grandfather, we get the perspective of an older person who lives “imagining that the world wasn’t really changing all that much, imagining that now was a great deal like then, and that the future probably would be, too. But I have to tell you that it won’t be.” In Annabel’s company, he realizes,
“computers were the bones, but imagination, ambition and possibility were the blood. These kids, they simply did not accept that the world as it is has any special gravity, any hold upon us. If something was wrong, if it was bad, then that something was to be fixed, not endured. Where my generation reached for philosophy and the virtue of suffering, they reached instead for science and technology and they actually did something about the beggar in the street, the woman in the wheelchair. They got on with it. It wasn’t that they had no sense of spirit or depth. Rather they reserved it for the truly wondrous, and for everything else they made tools.”

Berihun expresses the daily fear and dismay that so many of the world’s people have been feeling during the past year:
“I had hoped that we were alone in all this. Let Britain be a laughing stock, and the world continue along its moral arc. Let us be left behind; sooner or later we must realise our error. Then, in November, America joined us in folly and ugliness. The same country that embraced Selassie, and inspired him and me by putting astronauts on the moon, echoed to the joyful celebration of a revitalized Ku Klux Klan. The vile and furious of every nation were made bold again.”

We find out that Diana Hunter contains these stories, these multitudes, deliberately, as part of a resistance movement formed in response to the workings of the System and the Witness:
“The architect of this barrier did not attempt to harden the mind against inquiry, did not build some brittle wall to keep the Witness out, but accepted the stricture of intrusion and created a defence in depth—not a shield, but a drowning….It was done, either to the woman or by her, with this end in view: that when—not if, when–the Witness touched her mind, Diana Hunter would confound it.”

As Neith continues to experience Hunter’s implanted memories, she begins to wonder if she has been changed by her immersion in the recordings, but then thinks “we are all changed, all the time, by each passing instant of our days. The woman who wakes tomorrow is not the woman who woke yesterday, for all that there is a line of consequence between them.”

There’s are a number of brief but wonderful digressions about books and bookshops, and this one is my favorite, about why one of the characters loves reading pulp fiction:
“I love it for its cheap trashiness, its wicked women and its unrepentantly vivid sex. I love the violence, the moral turpitude, and the absoluteness of right and wrong in a universe that pretends to be shaded with grey. I love its clear signing and rich cast of archetypes and markers. Pulp is the vector for Eco, the cloak of Chandler, the soft pillow of Virginia Woolf, the birth caul of Cold Comfort Farm, the fairy godmother of Doris Lessing and William Gibson. Pulp is the key to open the doors not only of Freud and Jung, but even of Barthes, who stole everything from Calvino….”

About halfway through, we begin to see the correspondence between the stories that Neith is experiencing and the “real” world of the fiction. A character who will ultimately turn out to have been one of the inventors of the surveillance society in the novel says that some of what seems like symbolism in the 4th-century tale—the “chamber of Isis,” the “Alkahest,” which can dissolve anything (including any container that might hold it), even a mother’s longing to bring back her dead child—can be made literal. “Athenais can raise her son from the dead. The vase can be unbroken, the world made whole. The Alkahest is the solution…. there’s a very real chance the basic unit of our universe is information. Meaning is as fundamental as matter.”

As we begin to see the correspondences between the stories and the world of the fiction, the figure of Gnomon–who has been mostly a theoretical way of knowing or a symbolically perpendicular perspective on something up to this point in the novel–comes to life. Like Voldemort, Gnomon has a larger perspective on mortality:
“Living across multiple bodies is, obviously, safer than sole-substrate existence—that’s living in one body, as you do—because it’s wildly unlikely that all your brains should be in an accident at once, especially if you make sure one or two of them are somewhere nice and secure. But this same precautionary approach of putting your eggs in a large number of baskets and distributing those baskets all over the place makes us vulnerable to the peculiar sin known as wetjacking, in which one such body is severed from its overarching mind and held incommunicado, an incapable semi-person with enough awareness to be afraid and alone. The wetjacker then takes advantage of this suggestible state to force a new, alternative connection, integrating the experience and memories of the kidnapped body into his or her own mind, stealing a fragment of personality and selfhood, and swallowing, in primitive terms, a little of the target’s soul.”

To save the world, Neith eventually realizes that she is going to have to perform a task Diana Hunter has set for her. Others have tried, including one man who shares his results with the investigator:
“I took an aggressive regimen of antibiotic, antiviral and anti-fungal drugs for one week in a clean room, and then cultivated the biome of a senior academic researcher in security at one of your universities on and in my body. I ate what he ate, drank what he drank. I stole water from his bath. It was fascinating, actually. I noticed a tangible alteration in my perceptions. We really are a composite organism inhabiting our entire bodies, not just a single homunculus seated in the skull…. But that is the point. The connectome requirement—that is not surmountable. I think it may be the perfect lock. It is not merely behavioural. That was my mistake. I had simulated my target from thousands of hours of recordings. By the time I attempted my operation, the simulation was word-perfect. The effect was uncanny. But the connectome analysis revealed me immediately. The quality of my thought was not the same. I was no more persuasive to your machine than I would have been seeking to evade facial recognition in a carnival mask. It sees the thought and the affect, and it knew me for a completely other individual. To beat the connectome lock, you must become the target—and if you do that, you will no longer want to beat the lock. It is circular. Brilliant.”

There’s a scene of descent into Hades at one point, which coincided with my first hearing of the soundtrack for the new musical Hadestown, which is as absolutely marvelous to hear as this book is to read. The culmination of the journey to Hades comes when Athenais’ demon guide “know-all” tells her that what she desires is nothing less than eternal life:
“Your son is dead. His soul is flown, his body should give itself up to the soil and the air. From his corpse should spring flowers and bees. You reject this. You rebel against death—and God. You seek his resurrection: a remaking of the universe to a style that suits you. You don’t wish to undo the time since his death. You wish to bring him alive, here, now: to be his savior and to be able to save him forever more…. With Adeodatus newly returned, would you place him once again in the hands of fate, and see him die the next day from falling in a lake? Would you then consider his time fairly ended? Of course not. We are one, you and I. We desire continuity and security of self.”

This traditional viewpoint on the yearning for resurrection of a person’s loved ones and immortality for oneself is not the last word on the subject in this novel, however. Repeatedly we are told—and shown—how the process of re-creating a person could work, so that a new version, “identical in shape and form, in structure and function” would be “divided only by time, itself a mysterious quantity.” There is a powerful temptation scene (amplified for me by listening to the song “Epic III” from Hadestown while reading it):
“tell me that if the person you most miss in the world were offered to you back again, in however strange or impossible a fashion and at whatever price, you would be able to walk away unhesitating: anti-Orpheus, leaving the ghost in Hades without a second look.”

Because the temptation is so powerful, it’s brave and wonderful how this novel ends, with a few people managing to resist. This is the story of people who persisted in their resistance–not in spite of, but “because people are not always good. Not always rational at heart, or kind. Sometimes we amplify the best in one another, sometimes the worst.”

The wish to bring back humanist ideas that seem to be no longer viable in the world after Brexit and the 2016 American presidential election is at the heart of this novel. We are feeling like “a collection of cattle mooing and dismayed. There are no grown-ups behind the secret door. There’s just this lot.”

And yet we have to do something. “Inaction is not neutrality, but choice.” If we want to “make America great again” or restore a distinctively British sense of pride, this novel shows us that the only way to do it is not by harkening back to some kind of national golden age, but by facing forward, into the future, and seeing what we can do with imagination and some of the terrible, wonderful digital tools we have already begun to create in the world.

And how wonderful is it that my favorite living writer ended up wrestling, in this latest novel, with both my current preoccupations–necromancy and democracy?


Die For Me

November 17, 2017

Die For Me, by Amy Plum, is a young adult paranormal romance about the Parisian adventures of an orphaned 16-year-old girl named Kate who meets a 19-year-old boy named Vincent and falls in love, although she has to wait a little while before he will take her home to meet his “kindred.”

The “kindred” are heroic immortals who died saving people and then come mysteriously (and apparently spontaneously) back to life so they can save new people, with a rest period of only three days each month when they appear dead, although they call it “dormant.”

The plot is pleasant and predictable. When Kate heads to the library to do research for a school project on the French riots of 1968 and says “instead of looking through history books, I decided to search contemporary newspapers to find personal accounts,” it’s obvious that she’s going to find out that Vincent and his friends are way older than they look. In fact, she immediately finds Vincent’s obituary: “And there he was. Halfway down the first page. It was Vincent. He had longer hair, but he looked exactly like he had a month ago.” When she confronts Vincent and his friend Ambrose about seeing their obituaries and asks “so how can you be here now?” they respond with “we’re zombies” and then try out “undead” and “ghosts” before finally explaining “we call ourselves revenants.” In an effort to keep Kate from “freaking out,” one of them matter-of-factly offers some etymology of the word “revenant” as “one who comes back.”

Vincent later tells Kate that his kind exist all over the world, saying “I’ll bet you walked past a good number of revenants in New York City without knowing that you were crossing paths with a zombie.”

The Parisian “kindred” live together in a magnificent house that still belongs to its original owner, Monsieur Grimod. Along with the house come faithful family retainers like their cook Jeanne. When Kate is introduced to her, Jeanne explains:
“My great-great-great grandfather (plus a few) was Monsieur Grimod de La Reyniere’s valet, and went to war with him when he fought under Napoleon. It was that ancestor, only fifteen at the time, whom Monsieur Grimod saved, pushing him from the path of a cannonball that took his own life. It’s a good thing the boy was determined to bring Monsieur’s body back from Russia for burial, because he was there three days later when Monsieur woke up and was able to care for him. And my family’s been with Monsieur ever since.”

The kindred have enemies, however. They fight the “numa” who they say are
“the same as us, but in reverse. They’re revenants, but their fate isn’t to save lives. It’s to destroy them….We become immortal when we die while saving someone’s life. They win their immortality by taking lives.” Kate’s sister, of course, falls in with one of the numa and Kate and Vincent have to rescue her.

Kate and Vincent also have to go through all the usual hand-wringing over the dilemma posed by an immortal contemplating a lifetime relationship with a mortal. You’ll be glad to know they work it out, however, and find a way to live fairly happily ever after—at least until the sequel (the title of which, Till I Die, indicates that it will follow the pattern established by Twilight and let Kate join the carefree immortals).


Montaigne in Barn Boots

November 12, 2017

Since I have enjoyed the essays of both Montaigne and Michael Perry in the past (like the one I called his “armchair farming book,” Coop), I said yes to the HarperCollins offer of an advance proof of Perry’s new collection of essays about reading Montaigne as a writer and rural dweller in mid-America, entitled Montaigne in Barn Boots. It’s not bad, but some of it seems like a bit of a stretch—like Perry would be more at home in the boots without having to worry about making connections to the sixteenth-century French philosopher. In the end, though, the conceit pays off, as Perry’s train of thought has a destination that lifts it above the mundane, at least some of the time.

Perry’s “aw, shucks” persona seems unnecessarily exaggerated from the start, when he compares himself to Montaigne by saying:
“He was a nobleman born to nobility; I was born to a paper mill worker and a nurse. He was privately tutored in Latin from the age of two and enrolled in the University of Toulouse to study law when he was fourteen; I matriculated as a barn-booted bumpkin who still marks a second-place finish in the sixth-grade spelling bee as an intellectual pinnacle.”

But I kept reading, because I like what he says about how neither he nor Montaigne is trying to get the last word about anything:
“Over the course of Montaigne’s life, civil tensions erupted into civil war. Montaigne responded as a citizen by meeting his public duties….In private, he wrote essays that for all their meandering always traced threads of kindness, tolerance, and compromise.
Now and then I receive communication from a reader gone all hurt and purple over something I’ve written, as if I had donned my titanium underpants, declared myself THE ALL-CAPS INCONTROVERTIBLE KING OF THINKING, and dropped the mic, when in fact I was attempting to round out my mind whilst mumbling around clad in the patchy bathrobe of diffidence.”

As a blogger, of course, I adore the part where Perry admits “I offer things in print I would never offer in conversation, as did Montaigne” who he quotes as saying:
“Many things that I would not want to tell anyone, I tell the public; and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts I send my most faithful friends to a bookseller’s shop.”

And I liked the chapter on “Roughneck Intersectionality” in which he describes taking his daughters to a performance of Twelfth Night on the same weekend he took them to a demolition derby, “hoping my daughters might intuit that cultural consumption can be effected on a sliding scale, including down there where it’s greasy. That both couplets and carburetors sing.”

Later in that same chapter he gets around to wondering what so many Americans have been wondering lately, whether there’s some rottenness in the heart of our national experience, and I think he puts his finger on one of the problems when he says
“By surrendering our independent thought to ‘interlocutors’ (be they talk show hosts, pundits, blog blasters, or Top Commenters) we bypass our neighbors, and thus their humanity….We are excused to mock the movement without giving consideration to the people. To spit criticism without context.”

It seems to me that this passage from Perry captures the spirit of exploration of thought that Montaigne’s essays exemplify so well:
“If I have the phrase right, it’s Check your privilege, not abandon it. It’s not really much of an ask. To disrupt the canon is not to destroy it but rather recast it. To—this word again—amplify it. I want every day to remember that mine may not be the definitive perspective. That this country may have arisen from something other than bald eagles, gumption, and pickup truck commercials.”

About halfway through this book, however, Perry starts to pick out passages from Montaigne so he can complain about his health in the extended way my parents, living in a retirement home, used to refer to as an “organ recital.” We have to hear about erectile dysfunction, kidney stones, anxiety, and “proctalgia fugax” which is a literal pain in his anus. So even though there are two more parts which I not only very much like but agree with, I lost a lot of my interest in the book at that point.

One of the parts I like from the second half, though, is about appreciating beauty in its full context, without enlarging or cropping the frame to focus on the part that strikes us as beautiful:
“Lately whenever I invoke the word ‘artisinal’ it tilts toward pejorative. I’m still struggling with how to remain a sensible and unpretentious fellow while celebrating the civilizing power of aesthetics. I’m striving for a point of equidistance between snark and sanctimony. Perhaps this was what Terry Teachout had in mind when he wrote that we must be careful not to become ‘terrible simplifiers.’ As a critic, says Teachout, part of his job is to accept and revel in complication.”

And the other part I very much agree with is about being a person in her fifties, in this country and at this time. Perry says
“As I type these words, I am fifty-one years old. Middle-aged, late middle-aged, whatever…. Raised to respect my elders, I have now watched many of them grow brittle of thought and bitter of mind. It seems that somewhere around my current life stage, people make one of two moves: Some stiffen, dig in their heels, and attempt to block the future; others reinvigorate life by blending it with the spirit of youth. I hope I will—and I am working to—bend toward the second. I am not talking here about the embarrassment of an oldster trying to vibe with the kids. Nor am I talking about abdicating principles. I am talking about offering a hand, opening new doors, and sometimes—when new blood is best—stepping aside and standing down. ‘Youth is making its way forward in the world and seeking a name: we are on our way back,’ said Montaigne, who felt that too much was made of mere seniority and often punctured the idea that age automatically conferred wisdom.”
I love the phrase “brittle of thought and bitter of mind.” It does seem to describe more than a comfortable number of my contemporaries.

There are a number of great phrases in this book, from Perry and from Montaigne. But too many of Perry’s are buried in the personal. Although–as you know–I’m a champion of the personal essay, perhaps it’s good to get an occasional reminder that it doesn’t take much for personal anecdotes and references to become too much of a good thing.


November 8, 2017

A friend of mine sent me a book last week for no particular reason except she was listening to it on audio and decided we should experience it together, so I of course dropped everything for a few minutes each day and read Robin Sloane’s new novel Sourdough. It’s a quick and easy read, and takes some sharp turns, which saves it from being another story about a woman who hates her job but loves cooking and eventually learns how to make a living at it. The last turn was the turn it gave me last night when I noticed that the book glows in the dark.

The woman who hates her job, Lois, works at a computer company where her job involves robot proprioception, which she describes as “the process by which organisms judge the position of their own body parts in space.” This is something I’ve never been very good at, and it became a joke with my kids when they were in high school, as Eleanor would say “I’m not very good at proprioception” and then flap her arm around so that it slapped her brother. Lois is trying to teach proprioception to a robot arm, and experiences repeated failure trying to figure out how to get the arm to crack an egg.

Lois also experiences what seems like pareidolia, which is something I’m extremely good at, seeing faces everywhere. She sees faces in the sourdough bread she makes with a starter given to her by a man she got acquainted with when he started delivering her dinner every night. Here’s one of the turns this book takes, though—it’s not just pareidolia; there really are faces in the bread.

The man who delivers her food moves away, but then he starts emailing her and this becomes a subplot in the novel. His background is mysterious and the starter he gives Lois proves to have unusual, maybe even magical qualities.

Louis gives up her computer job and buys a robot arm from the company, which she then succeeds in teaching to reliably crack an egg. She starts baking bread at an experimental farmer’s market where everybody is trying something new with food. Cricket cookies, for instance, unusual mushrooms and cheeses, even “a man selling barramundi that lived their whole lives in watery tubes extending deep into the depot’s corridors. Next to him, another man cleaned those fish and fried them into tacos on the spot, filling tortillas made from cricket flour and topping them with slaw made from cabbage grown in the pink-light rooms.” Some of the foods are produced with the help of microorganisms, like the cakes one woman is trying to get right so they can be “your quick lunch. It’s what you eat in the car. It solves food security, because once I get the microbial community stabilized, we’ll be able to produce it literally anywhere.”

The goal of this experimental farmer’s market is to build a new food system because “on both sides, they’ve failed us….the industrialists. Their corn syrup and cheese product. Their factory farms ringed by rivers of blood and shit, blazing bonfires of disease barely contained by antibiotic blankets….But on the other side…the organic farms, the precious restaurants…they are toy supply chains. ‘Farm to table,’ they say. Well. When you go from farm to table, you leave a lot of people out.’”

This novel is set in the San Francisco area, and there’s a restaurant called “Café Candide” that’s clearly based on a restaurant that exists in real life, and that I’ve been to. It’s in Berkeley (both in real life and in the novel) and its actual name is Chez Panisse.

The action takes yet another sharp turn when Lois’s starter becomes a character. Each morning, she says, it “greeted me like a puppy, yapping and leaping, excited to be alive.” She sees “ripples across its surface like laughter….bursts of luminescence”….and “a tiny pseudopod rising slowly like a periscope, wobbling back and forth, then retreating into the crock.”

After a cheesemaker shows Lois how bacterial cultures can “do things we only dream of” like “speak to one another with chemicals and light” and “form teams….Millions strong, all working together perfectly” Lois perks up her starter by giving it another starter to conquer. As she watches, she wonders “was I detecting signal flares launched above a vast battlefield? Or was it the wreckage of war—the broken remnants of armies cleaved apart? Was I smelling corpses?”

Eventually Lois has to repudiate her starter. She becomes worried that she might be creating a monster, but the microorganisms are already out of the bag; the woman who makes microbial cakes has loosed this monster for her own purposes. Lois gives in to the insistency of the subplot, and readers may find that following her subsequent decisions proves anticlimactic after the mystery and madness of the main plot.

But when I discovered that the cover glows in the dark, I felt less let down.

The Buried Giant

November 5, 2017

With a giant in the title, you’d think I’d have expected to find ogres, pixies, and an actual knight of the round table in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and yet I kept being surprised by the fairy-tale elements because it reads like a very realistic story about a slow, careful old couple. Even though readers keep getting hints about how long ago this couple lived—they are Britons who start out traveling from their home warren to a nearby Saxon village—they seem like any old couple still fond of each other. Their goal in setting out on a journey isn’t clear, and at first readers may chalk it up to the vagaries of old age. In the end, though, everything is revealed to have been very, very literal, from the very beginning. Their memory loss is real, and it’s caused by the breath of a dragon. Their goal is to find their son, and it turns out that’s where they’ve been headed, all along.

We get to know the old couple, Axl and Beatrice, through their everyday actions and conversation. As they set out, they lament the way they can’t remember what they son looked like. Beatrice says he had
“A strong, handsome face, that much I remember. But the colour of his eyes, the turn of his cheek, I’ve no memory of them.”
“I don’t recall his face now at all,” Axl said. “It must be all the work of this mist. Many things I’ll happily let go to it, but it’s cruel when we can’t remember a precious thing like that.”

Early in their journey, they meet a boatman and a woman who is angry with him because she says “the boatman took away my husband and left me waiting on the shore, after forty years and more of our being husband and wife and hardly a day apart.” Meeting the angry woman makes Beatrice remember another woman who had come by their warren saying that “her husband too had been taken by a boatman and she left behind on the shore” and she worries about being separated from Axl. They reassure each other and walk on. Although the boatman seemed a bit Charon-like, I figured that was an intentional echo and read on.

When Axl and Beatrice stop at the Saxon village, they hear about fear and unrest in the country, and they acquire two more traveling companions, a boy cast out from the village because of what seems like superstition and a mighty Saxon warrior named Wistan. They head for a monastery where Beatrice hopes to get some advice about a mysterious pain, and along the way they meet Sir Gawain, who introduces himself as “nephew of the great Arthur who once ruled these lands with such wisdom and justice. I was settled many years in the west, but these days Horace and I travel where we may.” We get some hints that Wistan, Gawaine, and Axl were once acquainted, but like the hints of enmity and revenge between Britons and Saxons they continue to meet along their way, they are disregarded. The “mist” has made them forget their quarrels, if they ever had any.

At the monastery, Wistan reveals the purpose of one of the towers to be tactical, a place to trap and kill Briton enemies. He is teaching the boy to fight and to hate Britons, although at the same time they continue to treat Beatrice and Axl kindly and protect them. Along their journey, we learn about a few more of the memories Axl and Gawain retain, mostly impressions but sometimes a concrete story, like the one about a British maiden that Gawain protected even after bringing down her Saxon enemy so that “he lay breathing on the earth, his legs no more use to him, staring his hatred up at the sky” and seeing her as she
“stood above him, the shield tossed aside, and the look in her eyes chilled my blood over all else to be seen across that ghastly field. Then she brought the hoe down not with a swing, but a small prod, the another, the way she is searching for potatoes in the soil, until I am made to cry ‘Finish it, maiden, or I’ll do it myself!’”
We find out that Axl was once called “the Knight of Peace,” sent into the countryside by Arthur to make peace between Saxon and Briton villages and then dismayed to get news of
“women, children and elderly, left unprotected after our solemn agreement not to harm them, now all slaughtered by our hands, even the smallest babes. If this were lately done to us, would our hatred exhaust itself? Would we not also fight to the last as they do, each fresh wound given a balm?”
At this point, it becomes obvious to readers that the “mist” is one of the last effects of a strong, centralized government. Not only the predicament of the characters, but the political overtones of telling such a tale at such a time (the novel was published in 2015) become clear. What will any of us become without centralized governments that can broker peace between factions?

Eventually we will become like Axl and Beatrice, clinging to each other even while various temptations for forgetting offer themselves, like the voice that speaks to Axl saying
“You’ve known a long time now there’s no cure to save her. How will you bear it, what now lies in wait for her? Do you long for that day you watch your dearest love twist in agony and with nothing to offer but kind words for her ear?”

In the end, of course, the dragon is so nearly gone that slaying it is only a slight hastening of the end of the mist, the end of Gawain, the end of peace in the land.

Axl and Beatrice, who have refused to be turned from their quest to remember, end up with the boatman again, for of course he has always been their destination, having ferried their son over long ago. Axl remembers his “foolishness and pride” and says that although the boatman may “think our love flawed and broken” he hopes that “God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.”

It’s a slow tale, and a sad one, and full of both irritations and insight, like listening to a very old person in order to understand more about how the world as we know it was created, not only by a Creator and its most famous human architects, but by the individual actions of each person who lived before our time upon the earth. The title makes us think about the giants buried beneath our own land, those tales of hatred and revenge that we would tremble to awaken.

More discussion of this book today at The Emerald City

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