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How to Be Famous

June 17, 2018

How to be Famous is Caitlin Moran’s latest novel, but you don’t have to know anything about How to Be a Woman or How to Build a Girl to enjoy this one. I got an advance copy from Harper Collins so now I can tell you how great it is and how much you want to read it when it comes out in the U.S. on July 3.

How great is it? I was introduced to the 19-year-old heroine and her life as a “music journalist” in London, things I would not ordinarily be all that interested in, and was immediately charmed by this character’s, Johanna’s, sense of humor and adventure. She explains “I live a life that could largely be described as that of Pippi Longstocking, but with whiskey and rock music. To live in a city at eighteen, alone but for a pet, is to engage in adult pursuits, but with the vision of a child.” She further elaborates that “when I have money, I have take-away spaghetti Bolognese for breakfast, every day, because that is the most treat-y meal, and children buy themselves meals that are treats…I wake at noon, and stay out until 3:00 a.m., and then I have a bath, when I come home–because I can. It doesn’t wake anyone up. Every single one of those baths makes me happy. You leave home to have baths in the middle of the night. That is true independence.”

So I was drawn in, and worried about what’s going to happen to Johanna when she is about to make a mistake and says “if I could go back and talk to me then, I would say, ‘Johanna! Never trust a man who says sex and love are dirty and dangerous! Never go along with it–because to nod is to check the ‘I agree to terms and conditions’ box of the man who is telling you he is dirty and dangerous. He’s telling you, right up front, what his world is like. He’s showing you the contract.”

In addition to being drawn in, I discovered passages that were always going to delight me whether I cared about the characters or not, like the scene in which a dangerous man reads poetry to Johanna: “Having someone read bad poetry to you, angrily, is oddly sinister. I’m surprised people don’t get more baddies to do it in horror films–it’s quite chilling. Not so much from the power of the imagery, but more because you really want to laugh, but know that, if you do, they will become even angrier, and maybe read you another one. In an even more furious way.” You know, kind of like a Vogon (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

And also the scene where Johanna reveals that “it is traditional, as soon as you break up with someone, to tell everyone they have a tiny penis. The impression you have to give is that, when you broke up, you took most of their penis with you. I presume it’s an ancient, witchcraft thing.”

Johanna’s ideas about music and writing and art are fun, and the tale of her love for an older rock musician, John Kite, doesn’t take the path I thought it might. Her stated goal, at the beginning of the novel, is “to write a series of pieces so funny, insightful, wise, and somehow hot that he will fall in love with me–just as his songs made me fall in love with him. This, now, is an art battle. He is my prose victim.”

We get to see some of Johanna’s music journalism in chapter ten, which is entitled “Ten Things I Have Noticed in Two Years of Interacting with Famous People” and with her professional byline attached, “Dolly Wilde.” Like with many of the things she writes, she has John in mind as the audience, hoping that it will “amuse him and make him see I understand what his life is like now.” We see more of her writing in chapter fifteen, in an article with the headline “In Defense of Groupies,” and we also get how Johanna’s new friend Suzanne reacts (“‘I LOVE THIS!’ Suzanne roars, pointing at the paragraph. ‘YES! YES!’”)

Johanna spends most of the novel learning how to become an adult; she negotiates new relationships with friends, and also with her brother and parents. She caricatures many of the the people she meets with her sharp wit–for instance, “people who take a lot of cocaine…remind me of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Black leather, silly John Lennon glasses, greasy hair, twitchy noses.” She aptly characterizes the situations she finds herself in, like when she says “at nineteen, I already have the sense that it is the job of women to simply absorb the unpleasantness that bad men dole out to us. If we stopped doing this–revealing all the awfulness sloshing around–then all the good men would become sad, and anxious, on our behalves, and the world would consist only of bad men, and sad men, and be no fun at all. It’s the work of mere seconds to simply cut the unhappiness, and keep the world more joyful.” We admire her ever-growing bravery.

She also gets braver about using her body. She is not a slender 19-year-old girl. “Ironically,” she says, “given its size, my body lived in a very small world. It could sit and write, it could sit and drink, it could sit and smoke, it could fuck, and it could sleep. That was it. That was its world. It was like an unhappy, housebound pet. And because I could not think about it, or acknowledge it–because I would speak for a thousand hours before ever mentioning my body–I couldn’t change it. You have to name the problem before you can solve it. And I would not name this problem, because I didn’t have the time, or the inclination, to feel embarrassed, and then cry for a thousand years.” Sound familiar? It certainly does to me.

The turning point of the novel comes when John makes a slightly disparaging remark about his teenage girl fans and Johanna becomes indignant on their behalf, thinking that he sees only the crowd, “not thousands of separate young women, who had waited months to be there’ whose walls were covered in pictures of him; who quietly sang his lyrics to themselves when they were scared, walking down dark roads at night. Young women like me.” She resolves to fix it, saying to herself: “I can write. I am good at writing. I am going to write something about teenage fans so good, it will make John a better person. I am going to upgrade him–with prose.” This turning point comes about halfway through, and it takes until almost the end to find out if she has succeeded.

13220830_10208360709408418_9068125062605025278_nIn fact–spoiler alert–she does succeed. And what she says about artists and fans really hit home for me, because I am a fangirl (actually, a fan woman). I’ve stood in a lot of lines, ostensibly to get a book signed but mostly just to see the author up close. Once I went with my daughter to an entire fan convention, for the TV show Supernatural, where we paid to have a photo taken with one of the show’s stars, Jared Padalecki. He had been standing in a small, brightly-lit room for a couple of hours, posing however fans asked him to before it was our turn, and I will never forget how he gave us his complete attention for the few minutes it took us to ask him to put an arm around each of us for our photo.

This is what Johanna says about such an experience:
“I think about how brave it is, to do this: to queue up, and meet your hero. There’s something incredibly intimate about reading, or listening, or looking at someone else’s art. When it truly moves you–when you whoop when Prince whoops in Purple Rain; or cry when Bastian cries in The NeverEnding Story, it is as if you have been them, for a while. You traveled inside them, in their shoes, breathing their breath. Moving with their pulse. A faint ghost of them imprinted, inside you, forever–it responds when you meet them, as if it recognizes its own reflection.
And this is why meeting an artist you admire is always such an uneven, unfair thing. For they–they don’t recognize you at all. You shake their hand, feeling as if you are seeing a dear, old friend again–remembering all the times you shared, together–and they look back at you, as if you are a stranger, and say, quizzically, ‘And what name would you like me to sign it to?’ And you remember: they did not share those times at all. You were there–but they were not.
You can’t meet your heroes–because they are, in the end, just an idea, that lives inside you.
This is why I feel such love for John–watching what he is doing, with all these fans. They are not meeting him–he is meeting them. He is looking them in the eye, conspiratorially; he is hugging them, like they have imagined hugging him. He is saying, ‘We meet–at last!’ He is telling them they are as wonderful as they feel when they listen to him. He has…completed the circle of putting art out, into the world. He sent those songs out into the world, not knowing who would receive them, and now, one by one, they are coming to him, and saying, ‘I found it. I get it. It worked. It made a piece of me–just here.’
And he is saying, ‘And I see it has made you glorious. Thank you. That was just what it was supposed to do.’”

I think that in the past decade there have been an increasing number of writers and actors who make the time to meet their fans in person, and it’s a good trend. Even the introverts are making an effort, like David Sedaris giving condoms or hotel soaps to his fans. We should try to express our appreciation, at least by word of mouth, for those who try to complete what Johanna calls “the circle of putting art out, into the world.”

There are many other good parts of this novel besides the bits I’ve quoted here, but you should discover them for yourself, as Johanna has to experience the kinds of things no one can easily pass on to another person.


The Murderbot Diaries

June 11, 2018

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, is another one of the books I got as gifts from my friend Jenny when I went to visit her. This is the first novella in a series called “The Murderbot Diaries,” and I didn’t find either the title of the novella or the series very interesting. Boy was I wrong.

I was hooked from the first sentence, and delighted by the entire first paragraph:
“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”

This is the story of a sentient creature built for a purpose that it doesn’t approve of. The so-called “Murderbot” has both human and robot parts, making it a cyborg with a heart of…well, probably literally it’s not gold, but figuratively, it absolutely is.

We meet the “Murderbot” as it is saving the life of two of the humans who have been required to hire it as security. We see that there’s no logical reason why it should feel any loyalty to them, as it is not being compelled (it has “hacked its governor module”) and they have not noticed that it has any human characteristics, as it has been careful to appear in front of them only with its armor on and its face shielded: “Human clients usually like to pretend I’m a robot and that’s much easier in the armor.” The usual term for this creature is Security Unit or “SecUnit.”

The slavery analogies are unavoidable, as its current employers are kinder than many of the previous ones: “I had worked for some contracts that would have kept me standing here the entire day and night cycle, just on the off chance they wanted me to do something and didn’t want to bother using the feed to call me.”

The Murderbot continually protests too much about its motives for protecting the humans in its care, saying things like “I’ve got four perfectly good humans here and I didn’t want them to get killed….It’s not like I cared about them personally, but it would look bad on my record.”

At one point, a SecUnit with a functioning governor module manages to insert a combat override module into the Murderbot’s data port, open on the back of its neck, and the module does what it is designed to do, which is to “turn it from a mostly autonomous construct into a gun puppet.” The Murderbot tells the leader of her group of employers, Dr. Mensah, that she must shut it down, and when that doesn’t happen fast enough and Mensah won’t comply with its request to be killed, the Murderbot shoots itself in the chest. This is what the Murderbot, our first-person narrator, thinks next:
“I came back online to find I was inert, but slowly cycling into a wake-up phase. I was agitated, my levels were all off, and I had no idea why. I played back my personal log. Oh, right.
I shouldn’t be waking up. I hoped they hadn’t been stupid about it, too soft-hearted to kill me.
You notice I didn’t point the weapon at my head. I didn’t want to kill myself, but it was going to have to be done. I could have incapacitated myself some other way, but let’s face it, I didn’t want to sit around and listen to the part where they convinced each other that there was no other choice.
A diagnostic initiated and informed me the combat override module had been removed. For a second I didn’t believe it.”
Although the humans have restored the Murderbot to life, in the course of their rescue they find out that it is a “rogue unit” because it has hacked its governor module. They realize that “the fact that the Unit has been acting to preserve our lives, to take care of us, while it was a free agent, gives us even more reason to trust it.”

About halfway through the story, Dr. Mensah finally asks “SecUnit, do you have a name?” And the member of her group who has been going through the unit’s personal log after finding out that its governor module is hacked replies “It calls itself ‘Murderbot.’ Then we get the SecUnit’s reaction: “From their expressions I knew everything I felt was showing on my face, and I hate that. I grated out, ‘That was private.’”

The humans decide that it’s “shy,” and one of them points out that “it doesn’t want to interact with humans. And why should it? You know how constructs are treated, especially in corporate-political environments.”

At the end of the adventure, Dr. Mensah buys the Murderbot’s contract. When they tell it that it is now free, Murderbot thinks “I’m off inventory” and reveals that “I had the urge to twitch uncontrollably and I had no idea why.”

You’ll be amazed at how quickly and easily you begin to see humans from the point of view of a useful thing they have created in order to protect themselves. I kept wanting to call the murderbot “she,” which must be because of how much I sympathized with it, not because it has any gender. In fact, it specifically rejects gender, saying that it’s “not a sexbot.”

I loved All Systems Red so much I immediately went out to find a copy of the second one in the series, Artificial Condition. In the second novella, the Murderbot has another adventure and continues to develop its personality. We learn that
“When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can’t put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side effects.” This, of course, made me think of Marvin the paranoid android, in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In the second novella, the Murderbot makes a friend, a sentient transport (spaceship) that it calls “ART” (“Asshole Research Transport”). As ART is getting to know the Murderbot, it observes that “You dislike your function. I don’t understand how that is possible” and the Murderbot thinks “Its function was traveling through what it thought of as the endlessly fascinating sensation of space, and keeping all its human and otherwise passengers safe inside its metal body. Of course it didn’t understand not wanting to perform your function. Its function was great.”

In the second adventure, the Murderbot is passing as an “augmented human,” and there are more slavery analogies and a couple of funny parts because of that, including one tense moment when the Murderbot has the jump on some bad guys but can’t let them know it:
“I dropped my arm but didn’t move. I had clear shots at all three of them, but that was a worst-case scenario. For me, at least. Humans can miss a lot of little clues, but me being able to fire energy weapons from my arms would be something of a red flag.”

The Murderbot is sounding increasingly human. At one point it tells the group that it’s currently guarding “Sometimes people do things to you that you can’t do anything about. You just have to survive it and go on.” And then “they all stopped talking and stared at me. It made me nervous and I immediately switched my view to the nearest security camera so I could watch us from the side. I had said it with more emphasis than I intended, but it was just the way things were. I wasn’t sure why it had such an impact on them.”

Near the end of the second novella a human asks the Murderbot for help and adds “please,” and its reaction is revealing:
“I had forgotten that I had a choice, that I wasn’t obligated to do what she wanted just because she was here. Being asked to stay, with a please and an option for refusal, hit me almost as hard as a human asking for my opinion and actually listening to me. I sighed again. I was having a lot of opportunities to do it and I think I was getting good at it.”

The first two novellas in the Murderbot Diaries series are absolutely marvelous short adventures full of interesting ideas and clever character development. They are perfect little helpings of delight, to fill a summer hour. There will eventually be two more in the series–one is due out in August, and another in October.

The Word is Murder

June 7, 2018

Before this summer I’d only read one other book by the prolific British author Anthony Horowitz, Moriarty, and that was because Harper Collins had been promoting it and sent me an advance copy. Remembering that I’d enjoyed the mystery in that one, I asked for a copy of his novel newly out in paperback this month, The Word is Murder, when Harper Collins offered it as one of their June titles. I was surprised (and pleased) to find that it’s more than just another murder mystery. It’s a meta-murder-mystery, featuring the story of how the author gets caught up in the hunt for the murderer.

The author is not a generic author figure, either. It’s Anthony Horowitz, including what seem like actual details from his own life, like talking about how excited he is to get to work with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson on the screenplay for Tintin2 and discussing the ideas he got from reading Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason for writing future episodes of Foyle’s War.

Horowitz is contacted by a detective who has been fired from the police force but is still working with them, a flinty and secretive character named Hawthorne who tells him that “people like reading about detectives.” Horowitz replies, saying:
“if I was going to write about you…I’d have to know where you live, whether you’re married or not, what you have for breakfast, what you do on your day off. That’s why people read murder stories.”
Hawthorn’s response is to say “I don’t agree. The word is murder. That’s what matters.”
The hapless author is led through each step of investigating the murder by the laconic detective, which adds a faint element of comedy to the otherwise gritty proceedings, especially when Hawthorne is rude to Peter Jackson about the Lord of the Rings movies, saying that he’d watched them with his son and listing the things they’d disliked, including “we didn’t much like those trees. The talking trees. We thought they were stupid.”

The mystery centers around a woman who has been murdered on the same day she had gone to a funeral director to plan her own funeral. She has a son who is a famous actor, and was involved in a hit-and-run auto accident a decade before her own death. One of the red herrings of the novel is the lack of detail surrounding the accident; readers wonder if it was actually the woman, Diana Cowper, driving the car or whether it might have been her actor son, and she was the one to take the blame. This mystery deepens when the son is also murdered, on the day of his mother’s funeral.

Another red herring is offered when the author becomes convinced he knows who did it:
“As soon as I got home, I looked through my notes and found what I was looking for. It was something that Hawthorne had missed–but it had been there all along, in front of our eyes, the reason why both the mother and the son had to die, and it told me precisely who had killed them. In fact it was obvious.”
Reader, it is not obvious. Anthony Horowitz has it wrong, and when he next meets Hawthorne, the detective tries to walk him through some of the steps towards the right answer:
“I don’t buy your theory….and, anyway, there’s all sorts of things you’re forgetting.” He leaves Horowitz, and the reader, with a clue, saying “it was in that rubbish first chapter you showed me. But I think you’ll find that’s what matters most. Everything turns on it.”

Hawthorne ends up having to save the author from the real murderer at the last minute. After the case has been solved, Horowitz includes the detective’s effort to change his mind about the title of the book, even though it was taken from something he himself had said, telling the author “it’s just a bit poncey. It’s not something I’d read on the beach.”

In fact, this is a perfect book for the beach, or wherever you might be headed to relax this summer.


Six Wakes

June 4, 2018

34444440_10216506731890862_611931478451814400_nThis weekend we were in Louisiana for Walker Percy weekend. It’s the fifth one, and was just as fun as the first, especially because we know more people who come now. We saw Alice, Mary Pratt, and Callie and met two new people who came with them. We saw Rick and Tammy and met some of their friends. We saw the older lady from Oklahoma who has a son-in-law who went to Kenyon. We saw a young man who came for the first time last year and came back this year with his fiancee a week before their wedding. We missed our friends from British Columbia, who used to win the prize for coming the longest way. I got to make my annual Walker Percy-derived joke, announcing to different groups that “we’re the Ohioans.” We talked to John Rhu and we listened to Mary Pratt, who is Walker Percy’s daughter, and Huger, who is Shelby Foote’s son, talk about what it was like to grow up with their famous fathers who were friends for 60 years. We sat in the local bookstore, The Conundrum, and read some of Jessica Hooten Wilson’s book, Reading Walker Percy’s Novels. I bought postcards at a local shop called Grandmother’s Buttons. We drank a citrusy gin and bourbon mixture called “the Binx Bolling” on Friday and three different kinds of bourbon cocktails before eating crawfish on Saturday.

34534747_10214723938245162_8823340595381534720_nSunday morning we met some friends for breakfast at a wonderful place called The Ruby Slipper where we ordered several different kinds of eggs benedict. We were having our usual kind of “cabbages and kings” conversation, as one of them calls it, so we took it back to their house, where their very affectionate standard poodle climbed on my lap. As many of my friends know, I’ve always been a little afraid of dogs, but this dog and I adore each other. I cannot tell you why; it could just be that I adore everyone in this family.

I had brought some books to give them, books I thought they might especially like, and they had books for us. Now get this–this is how great my friend Jenny is as a gift-giver–she came prepared with alternative books if I’d already read any of the books she’d picked out (which I had, because she had already raved about Borderline and I read anything she raves about).

One of the books she gave me was Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty. (Like Autonomous, it was nominated for this year’s Nebulas.) I started reading it at the airport in Baton Rouge, kept reading it during our flight to Atlanta, and finished it as we started our descent into Columbus. It was an ideal airplane book, a page-turner, but also full of interesting ideas that I could mull over while navigating crowded walkways.

As I began reading, I entered the spaceship, a “generation ship” headed to a distant planet, seeing it from the point of view of Maria, identified as the ship’s “maintenance-slash-junior-engineer” who has just woken up in a new clone body with no memory of the past decades and surrounded by the dead bodies of the other crew members. Even the ship’s AI has no memory of what happened; all they get from it is “my speech functions are inaccessible,” which is, as the pilot and navigator, Hiro, points out, kind of like the Magritte painting with the label “ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

Maria has woken up in a new body before; usually “she had been in bed after illness, age, or, once, injury. The helpful techs had created a final mindmap of her brain, and she had been euthanized after signing a form permitting it. A doctor had approved it, the body was disposed of neatly, and she had woken up young, pain-free, with all her memories of all her lives thus far.” We’re told that “some other times hadn’t been as gentle” but don’t think much of it, at this point, any more than we wonder whether each of the crew members, in a crew that we know is comprised entirely of clones, has woken up in a new body before.

As a reader, I got “six wakes,” which means the six crew members’ points of view on their waking. Hiro remembers what happened before current laws concerning cloning were in effect, when “bathtub babies was the term for children born with undesirable genes, the wrong gender, or a disability. The parents would record the DNA matrix and the mindmap, then pay extra for a hacker to change the gender or disability, or even–he remembered with discomfort–to make a mixed-race baby favor one parent’s race over the other’s….The really good ones could modify a sociopath, I heard.”

We hear Joanna, the ship’s doctor, saying that, with cloning “life became so cheap….Euthanize yourself and just skip over terminal illness. Rage Kiddies inventing impossible sports, taking massive risks with their lives because who cares?”

And we hear Katrina, the captain, replying that “life was always cheap, wasn’t it? People stabbed each other for video game loot. Shot each other for traffic violations. Political assassinations. Corporate assassinations. I think cloning actually made us appreciate it more because it was in plentiful supply.”

We gradually find out that each crew member is acquainted in some way with a rich and influential clone named Sallie Mignon, who once asked Katrina: “how does one exact revenge on people who are incredibly wealthy and do not fear death?” We find out more about the crew member’s relationships to each other as they continue to piece together the story of what has happened on the ship. One of the things they discover is that a clone can be duplicated against his will and implanted with selected memories that are not his own: “they’re calling it yadokari, the act of putting something inside someone’s brain to live there, like a hermit crab.” Among the other things they discover is that one crew member used to be an outspoken hater of clones, “from a long line of firefighters and police officers…who died during the clone riots” while another used to preach against clones, saying “I believe it is not murder to remove from this world a man or woman who is not a child of God, whose soul cannot ascend.”

When the clone crew member who used to preach against the practice tells his story and adds that he still believes that “we’re not meant to be God….the act of cloning is against His will,” the doctor loses her temper, pointing out that:
“We played God when people believed they could dictate their baby’s gender by having sex in a certain position. We played God when we invented birth control, amniocentesis, cesarean sections, when we developed modern medicine and surgery. Flight is playing God. Fighting cancer is playing God. Contact lenses and glasses are playing God. Anything we do to modify our lives in a way that we were not born into is playing God. In vitro fertilization. Hormone replacement therapy. Gender reassignment surgery. Antibiotics. Why are you fine with all of that, but cloning is the problem?”

As the novel winds towards its end the revelations come faster, one opening out from another, until everything is perfectly clear except that the revenge plot is going to play out like its originator intended. The most important thing that the crew of the ship recreates in the process of discovering what happened and why is their own free will.

It was the perfect book with which to end a perfect weekend.

Update: I forgot to tell you the Walker Percy quotation we put on Ron’s shirt and my messenger bag this year: “Nowadays there is no piece of nonsense that will not be believed by some and no guru or radio preacher, however corrupt, who will not attract a following.”


May 28, 2018

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz, is the best new science fiction novel I’ve read since Dexter Palmer’s Version Control. Fast-paced and set in the future, the details of its world are extrapolated from the directions our world is taking, and the conclusions are sobering, although the ending of the story is not without hope.

The main characters we meet first are Jack and a slave, whose cruel “fusehead” owner she has killed in the course of his attempted robbery on her submarine. Jack is a scientist, sailing off the coast of present-day British Columbia, reverse engineering expensive patented drugs in order to give them to sick people all over the world. The trouble starts when her free version of a drug called “Zacuity” starts producing undesirable effects and Jack finds out that the patented version has unadvertised problems:
“Jack had to admit she’d gotten sloppy. When she reverse engineered the Zacuity, its molecular structure was almost exactly like what she’d seen in dozens of other productivity and alertness drugs, so she hadn’t bothered to investigate further. Obviously she knew Zacuity might have some slightly undesirable side effects. But these fun-time worker drugs subsidized her real work on antivirals and gene therapies, drugs that saved lives. She needed the quick cash from Zacuity sales so she could keep handing out freebies of the other drugs to people who desperately needed them. It was summer, and a new plague was wafting across the Pacific from the Asian Union. There was no time to waste. People with no credits would be dying soon, and the pharma companies didn’t give a shit. That’s why Jack had rushed to sell those thousands of doses of untested Zacuity all across the Free Trade Zone. Now she was flush with good meds, but that hardly mattered. If she’d caused that student’s drug meltdown, Jack had screwed up on every possible level, from science to ethics.”

The second pair of main characters we meet are a robot called Paladin and his human companion, Eliasz. They seem to be the bad guys since they work for the “Federation office of the International Property Coalition” and are trying to hunt down Jack for patent violations. But we sympathize with Paladin’s longing to know what she would think or feel without the programs that control her, and we come to sympathize with Eliasz’s clumsy human attempts to show fondness for Paladin.

Jack also fumbles her attempts to show gratitude to and fondness for the slave, who is called “Threezed.”

The two storylines are thematically linked by ideas about autonomy, both what it is and what it ought to be. Even the fictional situation with the drug patents contributes, as the patent system can be compared to the indenture system:
“the patent system did seem to be at the root of a lot of social problems. Only people with money could benefit from new medicine. Therefore, only the haves could remain physically healthy, while the have-nots couldn’t keep their minds sharp enough to work the good jobs, and didn’t generally live beyond a hundred. Plus, the cycle was passed down unfairly through families. The people who couldn’t afford patented meds were likely to have sickly, short-lived children who became indentured and never got out.”

We get glimpses of the world of the future, like Casablanca, which is now “one of the African Federation’s key port cities, flush with international capital” since the
“late twenty-first century Collapse, which left populations and farms ravaged by plagues. Afterwards, the newly formed African Federation hatched a ten-year plan from their headquarters in Johannesburg. They promised the Federation’s three hundred million surviving citizens that they would build the most high-tech agricultural economy in the world.
A sweeping reform bill allowed the Federation government to transform virtually the entire continent into a special economic zone with no regulations on research into anything that could make farming lucrative again. Eurozone and Asian Union companies flocked to the cosmopolitan Federation cities to research transgenic animals that secreted drugs; synthetic fast-growing organisms; metagenetic topsoil engineering; and exo-agriculture that could thrive offworld for export to the Moon and Mars colonies. Recent advances in molecular engineering had been ruled unsafe and ethically questionable in other economic coalitions. But not in the African Federation.”

And we find out more about why so many humans and robots are unable to become autonomous. It’s because of
“the emergence of robot kinetic intelligence in the 2050s, followed by early meetings of the International Property Coalition. Under IPC law, companies could offset the cost of building robots by retaining ownership for up to ten years….a series of court cases established human rights for artificial beings with human-level or greater intelligence. Once bots gained human rights, a wave of legislation swept through many governments and economic coalitions that later became known as the Human Rights Indenture Laws. They established the rights of indentured robots, and, after a decade of court battles, established the rights of humans to become indentured, too. After all, if human-equivalent beings could be indentured, why not humans themselves?”

Autonomous is a well-told story about an altogether too-possible future, with sympathetic  and widely-diverse characters who will make you care about the particulars. Even if you’ve never read a science fiction novel before, you should read this one.

Moving House

May 21, 2018

Last week I did something different. Instead of trying to remember which of my various projects I needed to work on first each morning, I went into the office and worked with my student manager on packing up the writing center to move to its new location. We worked 10 am to noon and 1 pm to 4:30 pm and when our time was up each day I came home to do something else. It was a great experience, going to work.

I haven’t moved the writing center (and my office) since 2011, and then it was a matter of moving a few things from two small rooms in the library to two bigger ones. Now we’re moving to a different building and the writing center room will be smaller, so the student manager and I went through the contents of a large vertical filing cabinet and packed what we needed to keep into cardboard boxes we labeled “archives.” Going through them to decide what to keep was fun, as I got to tell her some of the history of the writing center and she got to exclaim over things like finding papers from former student workers who went on to become professors.

IMG_1497Since I’d been teaching Melian, our now-adolescent kitten, how to go in and out the cat flap and stay close to the house during the day, I’d been working at home the week before the move. She did fine with me gone for some of the day, though; she came in to speak to me and get treats with Pippin and Tristan when I went by the house at lunchtime. Sitting outside for a few minutes to admire the flowers in our garden while the cats enjoyed themselves in the spring sunshine, I mused a little about all the cats I’ve trained and the students I’ve known while looking at the boards of the deck that need to be replaced and thinking about what will have to be moved for that. It’s a never-ending process, moving. I do it slowly, to savor the pieces of history that get unearthed and to reassure the cats who, like me, don’t like things to change too fast or too much.IMG_1481

Lately I’m always cleaning out closets, overstuffed with clothing and bedding and memories. I’m reluctant to get rid of things that were once dear to me, so when Ron wants a change, he offers me incentives like I offer treats to the cats. It works, mostly because I see how much he wants it, not because I want much change myself. I want to take it all with me, like the speaker in Hugh Savage’s poem:

Moving House

If only we could take it with us, our
inevitable accumulation of a lifetime
–things we’ve grown into, as clothes
wear themselves to the wearer’s move,
tools to the craftsman’s every touch.

We’d like to take the entire lot, not
throw those out, save these. But how
can we be sure if, when it’s curtains
for us, they’ll fit whatever windows,
if any, give onto braver certainties?

Let’s face it: what we’d like to take
is nothing less than the house itself
–so accustomed have we become to the
feel and incommunicable smell of what
we’ve come to know as home. Stop it!

Why not admit that the house is built
on a cesspit; that from the ground up
the frame is riddled with white ants,
each in the fast-lane of its twisting
fistula; that sounds have been heard,

untoward things occurred in the rooms
upstairs; and that in fact the better
off we’ll be the sooner we get out of
it: our makeshift digs the body, that
transportable dwelling, moving house?

IMG_1502I’ve gotten rid of some of the things that weigh me down at work and at home, but kept what anchors me to what I do and where I am, notes from former students, photos of former cats, time to sit in the same place each spring and admire the new yellow of the old azaleas. And the next time I move, I’ll find a note I’m saving, from the student who spent last week working with me.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

May 13, 2018

At the library, I came across a copy of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, and the title rang a bell so I picked it up and started reading it. Then I remembered that I’d heard about it at both Reading the End and Rhapsody in Books. Jenny at Reading the End calls it literary fiction, although I don’t think it has the “lasting” part for what I define as literature. It’s very much a book of its time and place, which is the early 1980’s in and around New York City.

I graduated from college in 1982, which means I had friends, good ones, who died of AIDS very young. So I went into reading this book with a chip on my shoulder, angry about the naivete of the first-person narrator, who is 14 and still being sheltered by her parents, and furious with the smugness and presumption of the parents, who deny her uncle’s partner any share in their family life, even the bitter solace of attending his funeral.

The narrator’s name is June, and as the story begins she and her sister Greta are sitting for a portrait painted by her uncle Finn, who is dying of AIDS. Although they know he has AIDS, mostly because their mother doesn’t want them to borrow his chapstick, they know very little about his life except that he is a famous painter who teaches them to appreciate beautiful things. June, in the way of fourteen-year-olds, believes that she appreciates them more than her mother and sister, but as the story unfolds, she finds out that she is less singular than she wanted to believe.

Finn’s death comes early (both in the story and in his life), and we’re told that “my mother had arranged for the funeral to be held at a funeral home in our town instead of in the city, where all of Finn’s friends lived. There was no argument about it. It felt like she was trying to gather him up. Like she was trying to keep Finn all to herself.” We see Finn’s partner standing alone outside the funeral home and the girls’ father directing them to tell him “if you see that man come in” and adding that it’s “for your mother’s and your grandmother’s sake.” We see Greta, June’s sister, stopping outside the door to the funeral home and saying “in a loud clear voice” that “he’s the guy who killed Uncle Finn.” And then we see that “he’d already turned to go.” I was about ready to stop reading at this point. I couldn’t sympathize with such meanness.

Later I picked it back up, though, and took some hope for June’s redemption from the part where she says “there’s just something beautiful about walking on snow that nobody else has walked on. It makes you believe you’re special, even though you know you’re not.”

The title of the book comes from the portrait of Greta and June, which Finn has wryly titled “Tell the Wolves I’m Home.” It’s a gift from him to the daughters of the sister that chose to be one of the wolves pursuing him through the darkness, rather than waiting in one of the lighted windows of home.

We see the girls’ mother pressuring her older daughter, Greta, into making use of her talents and we realize that it’s because of her own regret over wasting her talent, the same kind of talent that her brother nurtured and that eventually made him famous. She has raised her daughters to believe that “life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half that size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn’t be a mother….Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more.”

We see the elaborate ways Finn sought to bring his devastated partner, Toby, together with his devasted niece, June. He knew that he’d have to be explicit, so he left them both notes asking them to look after each other.

Because her parents have no idea how AIDS is transmitted and are so determined to shelter their teenaged daughters, June thinks that her attempts to reach out to Toby aren’t part of a normal life: “It was normal things Greta wanted me to confess to. Boyfriends and sex and crushes. Things we might have in common. All I had was a strange man in the city, and secret trips to Playland, and pleas for help from the dead.”

There’s an interesting subplot involving Toby and the girls and their mother painting small objects over parts of Finn’s painting of the two of them, speaking to each other and to Finn through art. By the end, they’re ready to let go of what they added to his portrait and, because Toby has given her Finn’s sketches for the portrait, June even learns to look at the “negative space” and see what is there.

I love the moment when Toby finally gets to explain to June why his parents have hidden his existence from her, and his answer to her question about why her mother and Finn couldn’t have talked it all out: “You get into habits. Ways of being with certain people.” That seems true, and it’s that kind of moment in the novel that kept me reading.

Well, along with June’s gradual redemption. She is finally able to realize
“that if Finn were still alive, Toby and I wouldn’t be friends at all. If Finn hadn’t caught AIDS, I would never even have met Toby. That strange and awful thought swirled around in my buzzy head. Then something else occurred to me. What if it was AIDS that made Finn settle down? What if even before he knew he had it, AIDS was making him slower, pulling him back to his family, making him choose to be my godfather. It was possible that without AIDS I would never have gotten to know Finn or Toby. There would be a big hole filled with nothing in place of all those hours and days I’d spent with them. If I could time-travel, could I be selfless enough to stop Finn from getting AIDS? Even if it meant I would never have him as my friend? I didn’t know. I had no idea how greedy my heart really was.”

We find out how greedy June is at the end of her story, when her actions kill Toby, a kind of ironic twist on what she was told about him “killing” Finn at the beginning. Toby goes willingly, sacrificing what is left of his life out of love for June, and teaching her more about what love is, in the process.

It’s a lovely story about fearful and ignorant people. It shows what we can destroy through fear—fear of unleashing our talent and our feelings in the world, and fear of catching a disease that we didn’t understand much about at the time this novel was written.

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