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Exhalation

April 22, 2019

Especially after hearing Ted Chiang talk about how he uses science and technology in his fiction-writing on a panel I moderated in March, I’d been looking forward to getting a copy of his new volume of short stories, which will be published in May and is entitled Exhalation. When I arrived at the table for the ICFA banquet, there it was, along with other new books being given away as party favors (another was Autonomous, one of the books I talked about in my presentation).

The stories in Exhalation include one about time travel, one about parenting an Artificial Intelligence, one about doing science in a world full of evidence for young-earth creationism, and one story that reminded me of Douglas Adam’s Last Chance to See, about a “nonhuman species capable of communicating.” It’s entitled “The Great Silence,” and the last line of the story brings tears to my eyes every time I read it (and then it makes me think about the dolphins saying “so long and thanks for all the fish”).

My favorite story is not the one with the best title (that would be the title story); it’s called “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling.” In it we get two stories juxtaposed, one set in the story’s present and maybe our future and one set in a fictional past during the first generation after Europeans arrived in “Tivland,” a fictional African country.

In the present of the story, there’s an app called “Remem” that
“monitors your conversation for references to past events and then displays video of that event in the lower-left corner of your field of vision. If you say ‘Remember dancing the conga at that wedding?’ Remem will bring up the video. If the person you’re talking to says ‘The last time we were at the beach,’ Remem will bring up the video. And it’s not only for use when speaking with someone else; Remem also monitors your subvocalizations. If you read the words ‘the first Szechuan restaurant I ate at,’ your vocal cords will move as if you’re reading aloud, and Remem will bring up the relevant video.”

In the fictional past, there’s a “Tiv” character named Jijingi who is being taught by a European, Moseby, how to write in his native language, a language that has not previously been written, and it’s changing the way he thinks:
“You could not find the places where words began and ended by listening. The sounds a person made while speaking were as smooth and unbroken as the hide of a goat’s leg, but the words were like the bones underneath the meant, and the space between them was the joint where you’d cut if you wanted to separate it into pieces. By leaving spaces when he wrote, Moseby was making visible the bones in what he said.”

The question Jijingi asks about writing is one I have always raised with my students in writing classes. He asks “how does writing help you think?” Moseby replies “I do not know how to explain it, but writing helps me decide what I want to say.” Eventually (as we all do if we persevere), Jijingi figures it out through practice:
“As he practiced his writing, Jijingi came to understand what Moseby had meant: writing was not just a way to record what someone said; it could help you decide what you would say before you said it. And words were not just the pieces of speaking: they were the pieces of thinking. When you wrote them down, you could grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hands and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn’t if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, make them stronger and more elaborate.”

The character who is thinking about the effects of Remem in the present thinks that “the idea that accounts of the past shouldn’t change is a product of literate cultures’ reverence for the written word. Anthropologists will tell you that oral cultures understand the past differently; for them, their histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself.” In the story, we see this play out with Jijingi and the leader of his clan.

In our world today, we see some politicians making inaccurate claims that nevertheless seem to validate some kinds of communities’ understanding of themselves. No wonder these politicians display such enmity for the press and the literate public.

But in the story’s present, “Remem is merely the first of a new generation of memory prostheses, and as these products gain widespread adoption, we will be replacing our malleable organic memories with perfect digital archives. We will have a record of what we actually did instead of stories that evolve over repeated tellings. Within our minds, each of us will be transformed from an oral culture into a literate one.”

You can see why this story would be so compelling for a person who teaches writing, works with writers, and writes for the internet. As so many of us did, I began this blog as a kind of commonplace book, so I would remember what I read and what I thought about it.

If you write about books on the internet, you should read this story. And all the rest of these stories, too, as Exhalation is full of new and interesting ideas, not like anything else you’ve ever read.

 

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Touched By the Gods

April 17, 2019

I found a collection of my friend Sandra Lindow’s poetry in the book room at ICFA this spring, a 2008 volume entitled Touched By the Gods, and brought it to her in the lobby before we went to dinner one night, asking her to sign it, which she did.

This collection has a lot of wonderful and funny poems, like “Pandora’s Pancakes” (with recipe on the following page) and “Helen,” who is “selected to launch/a thousand shipments of Andromedan/flowering swissel bushes” and solves the mystery of the “alien changelings.” My favorite poem from this volume is “The Monster Wore Reeboks”:

Frankenstein’s monster wore Reebok hightops,
the only shoes that fit his size eighteen quadruple E’s.
Irregularly arched, he needed special support
to keep his feet from turning inward.
“Pronation,” Frankenstein concluded,
and vowed to do better next time.
Meanwhile, Reebok’s funding of Frankenstein’s research
Has an antidefamation clause.

The nameless monster loved his Reeboks.
External stitching and Promethean lightning bolts
seemed significant to him, but he didn’t know why.
When he learned they were made in Indonesian sweatshops
by workers earning $2.00 a day, his great heart broke,
but he couldn’t give them up, swearing to wear them
‘til their soles died and their tongues fell apart.

No longer believing in a future formed and favored
by the fruits of benevolent technology,
the motherless monster became depressed.
“Could be bipolar disorder,” Frankenstein muttered.
The monster overheard and set out for the North Pole instead.
“Better to be a frozen stiff than a capitalist shill,” he thought.
Quarter past Finland, Frankenstein caught up with him.
“Wait! Wait!” Frankenstein shouted.
“It’s true, Reebok pays forty cents an hour
But the local standard is twenty.
They’ve really quite enlightened, their publicist says.”

The monster turned back and settled down in Lapland.
Naming himself Bok the Unconquered,
he became labor negotiator for disenfranchised reindeer.
“Pack animals suffer as much as third-world wage slaves,
but cannot speak for themselves,” he wrote.
Now he wears self-made felt boots and leggings;
his Reeboks hang in a special place in his tent.
Finally he seems content. Good shoes
have given him sole and eyes and tongue
but the heart has always been his.

I do love a good retelling of Frankenstein ever since I saw the parody first (the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein, in 1974). And because all the poems in this collection are about the years when Sandy was raising children, I feel the echoes of what it was like to raise my own children throughout their most idealistic years.

Currently, one of my children is living on the east coast and the other one has decided to take his size-13 feet out to the west coast. As any parent knows, part of your heart is always where the child is, so in the next few years my heart will have to stretch over the entire United States. It seems like it will have to grow into a monstrously big heart.

 

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea

April 10, 2019

I love Sarah Pinsker’s science fiction story about fiddling in space, “Wind Will Rove,” so when I saw she had a volume of stories out, I wanted to read them all (and she signed my book!). Right after she’d signed it, I went into another room clutching it to me and told a man I didn’t know all about how great the story is and so met a person who played a kind of fiddle I’d never heard about before, a keyed fiddle from Sweden called a nyckelharpa. That’s one way talking about science fiction can bring people together.

Another way is talking about stories you can’t forget. I wasn’t all that taken with the title story when I first read it, “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea,” but I keep thinking about it, most recently this morning, when I read an article about climate change and looking at real estate in Miami. And when I go back to the story, I realize why it’s stuck in my head—it’s brilliant in a quiet, masterful way, from the first sentence, “the rock star washed ashore at high tide,” to the last one, which has the title drop within it. One of the great things about the story are the sections that are presented as interviews from a music magazine but seem like they may be figments of the rock star’s imagination, leftover ways of thinking from a previous life.

I was, of course, prepared to dislike the story titled “Talking with Dead People,” but it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that I loved it, that it’s about grief and it rang true to me, even though the plot is about finding a way to let tourists ask questions of dead “murderers and monsters and the unjustly accused.” I especially liked the part I interpreted as being about the kinds of ghost tours I’ve been on in cities like Savannah or New Orleans where the guides tell stories that inevitably turn out to be almost unbearably sad:
“I wandered through the sites with the goal of learning as little as possible about the mystery at hand. The whole thing felt voyeuristic to me, lurid; to my mind, what went on behind a family’s closed doors wasn’t meant to be seen, much less solved. Instead of paying attention to the clues, I concentrated on the architecture, interior design, gardening, art. I studied the books on the bookshelves, the furniture, the cutlery.”

Some of the stories are brilliant little jewels, polished up for readers’ delectation, the events of the story announced by the title, like “The Sewell Home for the Temporally Displaced.” The brilliance is in the details, what’s behind the events and what makes them significant to different characters.

“No Lonely Seafarer” inventively reworks myth and legend to tell the story of how a character can navigate a ship safely past the song of the sirens. Similarly, “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,” (not my favorite title in this volume) invents a new explanation for what happened in Roswell in 1951.

In “The Narwhal,” a character takes a job helping an older woman drive her mother’s car across the country, a car shaped like a whale, which was “bigger and heavier than anything she’d driven before, like it wanted you to feel like you had earned that lane change, and the dorsal fin and tail caught wind, creating a rudder effect.” Whether or not you get interested in the story of what happens to the two women in the car, the image of the car itself is the main delight of this story.

Answering the question “who discovers how to access infinite realities and then uses that discovery to invite her alternate selves to a convention?” turns out to involve a murder mystery and a lot of comic self-reference in “And Then There Were (N-One),” another story that will stay in my head for a long time.

These are mind-bending and fascinating stories, and if you haven’t read them I believe you want to but just don’t know it yet. Give yourself the happiness of a future self, who has read them, as a present.

Sweet Dreams

April 8, 2019

After I had given my presentation at ICFA, on electronic surveillance and AI in Gnomon, Autonomous, and Exit Strategy, the chair of the panel, Steven Shaviro, asked if I had read Tricia Sullivan’s novel Sweet Dreams. I had not then, but I have now.

Before I started reading Sweet Dreams, I had not heard of A.S.M.R. The heroine of the novel, Charlotte, has been making ASMR videos to help people fall asleep before she participates in an experimental study, gets narcolepsy, and becomes a “dream hacker,” someone who can enter your dream and steer its direction. I watched a few minutes of some ASMR videos to see what kinds of things they do and whether I could feel the “scalp tingling” that they can produce. Unsurprisingly, a hair brushing video was most successful for me.

Sweet Dreams is not only the title, but a sleep aid app developed by a corporation of the future, Big Sky. This is a future set in London, where
“the main difference between reals and ARs is that real people don’t usually get up in your face the way the intrusions do. Shandy told me that most AR bots are coded in the US and have to be redesigned for the UK market to make them less rude and loud, but only high-end advertisers can afford to do that. Which means that crossing Central London at rush hour you’re seeing a riot of colourful clothes, hearing mostly American accents, and getting distracted by AR literally signing and dancing for your attention as you try to move unobtrusively through the stream of grey commuters.”

The plot centers on a string of murders that occurred when the victims were asleep. Charlotte and her friends have lots of theories about this, including this one:
“We know that R.E.M. atonia is supposed to protect you from acting out your dreams. It fails in sleepwalkers. What if someone had a way of making it fail?”

The answer turns out to be less about a specific person and more about the “noosphere,” which, as one of the characters explains, “comes from the Greek ‘gnosis’ meaning simply ‘to know.’ The noosphere is the knowledge-space that we all share.” (No wonder the chair of my panel thought of this book as he heard me talk about Nick Harkaway’s novel Gnomon.) The character goes on to explain that “the creature that our noosphere is becoming is actually creating itself as we speak. Human knowledge keeps pushing outwards, making more connections, and new regions of understanding form and light up.”

This novel, published in 2017, is more optimistic about how governments might use the technology and pathways created by corporations than Gnomon or the other two novels I analyzed for my ICFA presentation. One of the characters in Sweet Dreams says that
“with any system, whether you carry it in your pocket, in your body tissue or wear it as jewelery, any communication system can be used to surveil you and control you, but it’s more likely to be used by marketers than the government. Actually, what we’re realizing is that governments can barely control things like taxation and voter registration, so they don’t have time to be getting inside people’s heads!”

However, this novel is less than optimistic about the individuals who wield power in this future London. One of them says to Charlotte:
“Now you’ve come riding in here thinking you’re going to save humanity from my depredations, but the truth is I’m just doing my job. At least I’m honest. Life is short. If I can get power, I’m going to take it. And I’m going to keep it. If desire for power is a mental illness then I don’t want to be healthy, because desire for power is the mental illness Western civilization is built on.”

Ultimately, however, this novel isn’t about individuals. It’s about solving a mystery, and the answer turns out to be more complicated than any of the characters expect. It’s about “the interconnectedness of humanity, through tech and biology and culture and all the ooky hivemind stuff we’ve been accelerating towards since the Internet was born.”

The way Tricia Sullivan weaves current thinking about technology with knowledge about the way our minds work and a murder mystery plot is both thought-provoking and entertaining.

The Last Necromancer

April 3, 2019

Does necromancy pay in C.J. Archer’s 2015 series beginning with The Last Necromancer? Not for the heroine Charlotte, who gets kicked out of her adoptive father’s house for it. Not for any of the dead she raises. Not even for the man who claims to be her biological father, Victor Frankenstein.

The Last Necromancer is a romance novel, of all things, focusing on the developing relationship between 18-year-old Charlotte, who has been passing herself off as a 13-year-old boy for the past five years while living on the streets, and Lincoln Fitzroy, a wealthy man who is the head of a secret organization called the Ministry of Curiosities that looks into supernatural events. The series focuses on the activities of the Ministry of Curiosities.

This book, however, focuses on Charlotte’s attempts to escape Lincoln’s house and then her yearnings for Lincoln’s person. While still disguised as a boy, she watches him exercise:
“I sat transfixed by the power in his graceful moves and the seriousness with which he practiced. What would distract him? A tickle? A kiss? My nakedness?
The mischief-maker in me was tempted to try, but I remained where I was, watching. When he finally finished and returned to the bedroom, I blew out a long, measured breath. It was shaky. Blood rushed through my veins and my heart pounded. The sight of him had affected me, the way a woman should be affected by a handsome, powerful man.
But not this woman, and not that man.”

The romance continues, of course, once her womanhood is revealed. Charlotte manages to save two young men who work for Lincoln (and call him “Death”) from the clumsy machinations of Victor Frankenstein, who wants her to re-animate the bodies he has sewn together from pieces.

The necromancy itself is fairly low-key. At the climax of the plot, Charlotte quietly says:
“I can see you there, ghost.” The smoky form looked around then his gaze settled on me. I moved closer so that only he could hear me, not Frankenstein. “Yes, you. Please, listen to me.”
“What d’you want?” The spirit seemed a little surprised that he could speak, and even more surprised when I answered.
“You have to save us, save my friends, by doing as I say,” I whispered. “I’m going to ask you to re-enter your body.”
“Blimey! That even possible?”
“Yes. It won’t hurt you, and it will only be for a moment. You will then cross over to your afterlife, where you will find peace.” Whether that was true or not, I didn’t know, but it seemed like the best thing to say.

Who would not be intrigued by the lovely and gentle Charlotte after such a scene? But will you be in deep enough to try reading the second book in the series, Her Majesty’s Necromancer, in which Charlotte and Lincoln will continue to dodge the obstacles thrown in the way of their love? If you’re longing for some 19th-century romance in a supernatural setting, go ahead.

 

The Gilded Wolves

April 1, 2019

Following the trail of necromancy in books sometimes leads me into bad and ugly places, and Roshani Chokshi’s new YA novel The Gilded Wolves is one of them. In an extremely hackneyed fantasy style, the gilded world of Paris in this alternate version of 1889 appears beautiful but is built on top of the catacombs, where skeletons wait to be awakened.

In addition to an entirely predictable plot with only half-fleshed-out (ha!) characters, this novel features the kinds of puzzles popular in some children’s mystery books (The Egypt Game, Chasing Vermeer, The Mysterious Benedict Society). It must be that the puzzles are included in order to attract young readers who have heard of–for instance–the Fibonacci Sequence, readers who like the idea that knowing what it is will help them become heroes and save a fictional alternate world.

The worldbuilding consists of a mishmash of symbolic artifacts from ancient cultures, phrases from dead languages, and numerology. The magic, called “forging,” is cobbled together from conventional rules. Here’s an explanation of how some of the magic works:
“Thus, the movement of zero to one is the power of God, because out of nothing, something is created. The Babel Fragments are considered slivers of God’s powers. They bring things to life, excluding, of course, the power to bring back the dead and create actual life.”

One of the characters, Laila, was stillborn at birth but put into a new body with a seam up the back of it by an Indian magician called a “jaadugar” who used “an ancient book in a language no longer spoken” to do it. Her quest is to find the book.

Laila is teamed up with a little gang of misfits we’re supposed to love, but whose motivations are not clear to us, despite their specified quests and the background we get on the abusive stepparents of two of them, Tristan and Severin (their seven stepfathers are briefly characterized by the names of the seven deadly sins). To round out the group, there’s a girl who is a mathematical savant and a gay couple.

Not only the puzzles, but also many of the symbols serve an explicitly pedagogical purpose in the novel:
“Bee deities are not uncommon throughout mythology,” said Enrique. “The image you see here is a representation of the Thriae, a triplicate bee goddess—a recurring motif of trinity goddesses—who had the gift of prophecy. The other is a representation of Bhramari, a Hindu goddess of bees. Am I pronouncing that correctly, Laila?”
“It’s Bruh-mah-ree,” she corrected gently.

Laila has the ability to sense things about objects she touches, and when she finally ends up in the middle of a necromancy scheme taking place in the famous catacombs beneath Paris, she gets a very definite feeling that necromancy never pays:
“She could barely stand to look at this place. Even the air offended her. It had the unstirred and cold texture of a sepulcher, and she could feel it frosting her throat with every inhale. As she turned a corner, she saw a child-sized skull and nearly vomited. Everything reeked of a cost to be paid….”

At the climax of the plot, a not-quite-revealed figure that the deluded would-be necromancer mistakenly thinks is going to bestow god-like powers on him is referred to as “the doctor” without any reference to the British TV icon who time-travels in a Tardis.

This mishmash is a mess, and you don’t even get a happy ending for your trouble. At the end, one of the main characters appears to be dead (but is he really?) and Laila and Severin, our erstwhile hetero couple, are estranged. No doubt this is to whet your appetite for the second book, in which the gang will be joining Laila in her quest to find the book of her making.

If you are looking for a good book, don’t look at this one.

I do appreciate that one of the book bloggers in my circles, Jasmine, alerted me to this particular instance of necromancy in fiction.

Shadow of Night and The Book of Life

March 24, 2019

Yes, I finished reading Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. Maybe the books got a bit better after the very slow romance of the first one (A Discovery of Witches). No, I wasn’t right about the price the main character, Diana, would have to pay for her act of necromancy. In fact, Diana doesn’t really end up having to pay a price; she becomes best buddies with “the goddess” who gave her the power to perform necromancy. If there’s a price, it’s paid in verisimilitude—this is a fictional world in which your favorite characters never die.

There is, at least, an attempt at verisimilitude when it comes to the question of how witches, vampires, and daemons can live in the world with humans and yet remain hidden. The answer is the same one given by the TV show Supernatural and the Harry Potter books and movies:
“How do you hide what you are from the humans?”
“Same way the vampires do, I suppose. A bit of luck. A bit of help from our fellow witches. A bit of human willingness to turn away from the truth.”

We find out that the reason Diana can get pregnant with her vampire husband is because she’s an especially powerful kind of witch called a “weaver.” After a miscarriage, she asks the goddess “did you take my child in exchange for saving Matthew’s life?” The goddess says no, that she has no use for a dead child and tells Diana “you promised I could take anyone—anything—in exchange for the life of the one you love. I chose you. And I am not done with you yet.” Diana’s mission is to break down the “separation of the supernatural races” rules imposed by a group called the Congregation. And that’s the last we see of the goddess.

Diana finally gives birth to twins—one boy and one girl, one witch and one vampire. A daemon couple give birth to a witch. Humans give birth to daemons. Diana uses her power to create a new order so these new little mixed-race creatures can inherit the earth. Along the way, there are trips to the past (including a horrifying encounter with a thoroughly despicable Kit Marlowe), and a subplot involving Matthew’s vampire sons.

The books turn out to be tolerable fun, if you’re in the mood for stories about the supernatural.

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