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Pride’s Children

October 13, 2019

Pride’s Children, written and sent to me by frequent NNP commenter Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt, is a novel I didn’t want to put down after the first few chapters. For academics, overthinkers, obsessives, and fiction fans, this novel is a big celebration of all the things we like best.

Academics will be delighted by the prologue, which is labeled a “prothalamion,” a poem written in honor of a marriage. It’s the beginning of a fictional New Yorker article about the main characters of the novel, but written after the events of the novel have already taken place.

The things this novel reveals about obsession may be more commonly spoken about now than they were before 2015, when the novel was published. The main character, Kary (who is a writer and also a fictionalized version of the author herself), obsesses over an actor she’s met to the extent that she ferrets out all the fan websites, watches all his movies, and listens to all his music. We may not all be as thorough about ferreting out every single website as Kary is, but I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in giving myself over to occasional obsessions like this one after seeing a movie or watching a tv show.

I did have a bit of a rocky start with this novel. Chapter One begins with Kary’s point of view, but it lasts for only three pages before we have to start all over again with Andrew’s point of view, which lasts for just three pages before we’re then switched over to the point of view of Bianca. She gets her three pages and then we’re tossed back into Andrew’s point of view for four pages, and Kary’s again for one, and only then do we arrive at Chapter Two. I like to get interested in at least one of the characters before I have to start switching points of view.

The subtitle for Chapter Two intrigued me, however, as it’s “Daughter of Jairus,” a Biblical story about Jesus bringing a girl back from the dead. This is the chapter where we learn that Kary, like the author who created her, struggles against CFS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. When a talk show host asks her “why, given all that it costs you, are you willing to spend your allotment of energy on writing?” Kary answers “because I can. Because even if I can only work in one-page increments, there is something of me left.” Working against her illness isn’t what brings Kary back to the land of the living, however. A song sung by the other person on the talk show with her–the actor Andrew–is what does that.

At first there’s a little too much of Kary educating others about her illness and describing what it’s like when she writes. But especially for fans of the Song of Roland, Kary’s obsession with Andrew starts out with a fascination with his movie based on the tale and so she goes on for pages about that, too. Here’s a small sample:
“Kary could find no flaw: Roland took each fork in the path of his destiny with a calm able heart, a man on whose shoulders command lay lightly. A supremely intelligent man, always thinking, always calculating risks. The ultimate fighting man, favored by God and his sovereign. Tested by a deity who exacted a high price for His favor. Medieval man, never questioning fate’s blows, because he lived in a fixed cosmos where his place was preordained. Going with good cheer to his final battle.”
Although this hefty (479 pages) novel might have needed the kind of editor Thomas Wolfe had in Maxwell Perkins, readers will eventually find that the effect of the detailed description is cumulative. It takes all those pages of description of the Song of Roland movie to get the picture of this character’s obsession, one that’s familiar to me and maybe to a few of you:
“Each still from the movie brought back a scene, but now the shock of discovery was replaced by an intensity of yearning for the moment to last forever, to avoid the coming fate. She wanted to crawl into the pictures, change history.”
For someone who can’t even talk about how the story of Orpheus and Eurydice always comes out the same without starting to get a lump in her throat, this is irresistible; I’ve definitely been there and done that. And I like the way Kary brings herself out of it, using a different fiction to get a new perspective–she realizes that: “she had grown a second head, like Mrs. Grales, the old tomato woman in A Canticle for Leibowitz.”

Because this is a novel, Kary gets to meet Andrew, the actor who played Roland, and they get to know each other, as she offers her secluded home to him as a refuge from the public eye, whose predations she is well aware of, having been among his rabid fans. This is where the story really begins. Although in person she is self-controlled and circumspect, Kary’s seclusion gives her free rein for her literary imagination. When she takes Andrew hiking, “the unrhythm forced by stepping over tree-roots and under branches on the overgrown trail made her think of the deserts on Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune, where the fedayeen kept their steps irregular to avoid summoning sandworms.”

Information about CFS is brief and well-worked-in to the fiction after the initial long description, like when Andrew asks Kary how she is able to go hiking and she tells him she has worked up to an hour’s hiking after eight years of practice, adding “half a block….a minute or a short distance” whenever she could.

The point at which Andrew invites Kary to his current movie shoot is where the pacing of the novel really starts to find its footing. Seeing the drudgery, fun, maneuvering for bigger roles, and all the other details of the shoot makes it real for readers who have never been on a set. Andrew’s assistant shows Kary around, warns her when the cameras are rolling, and demonstrates for her his daily routine of “hurry up and wait, with occasional frantic bits” so that each scene can be shot on schedule. We also see the shoot from Andrew’s point of view; he is playing a Revolutionary war colonel:
“His daughter raised her eyes, so like his dear Emily’s. But Emily never defied him, and here was both defiance and—pity? How dare she—
‘AND—CUT!’
The tinny megaphone burst Andrew’s fictive bubble, let in cameras, crew, caterers… It took so much work to reconstruct; he longed to be left in the colonel’s world to finish his story.”

We also see some of the shoot from the point of view of the actress who plays Andrew’s daughter, Bianca. There have been intervals from her point of view before this, but she hasn’t seemed very important; just an ambitious actress who has decided to seduce Andrew to get him to play a part in her next venture. Bianca’s always-competitive point of view provides a different perspective on Kary:
“She took the invader in with one glance: too tall, washed-out hair, gray eyes, no makeup, white sleeveless blouse and a mid-calf denim skirt buttoned up the front, sandals but no pedicure, no jewelry except tiny gold earrings. Damn aristocratic bones.”

From the prologue, we know that Bianca has made what is to her the ultimate sacrifice and let Andrew get her pregnant in return for a promise of marriage and we also know that Andrew was already secretly married to Kary when this happened. None of that happens in this novel, however. We’re seeing only how the entanglements began.

One deep entanglement is Kary’s confession of her previous obsession over Andrew to Andrew. He is initially alarmed, and then he begins to enjoy being known by another person. During a party Kary gives for the movie folk, when Bianca asks Andrew to sing, he asks Kary to join in, and she does:
“As on the CD, he picked a whole verse and refrain; she waited, a cat watching her mouse. In the third verse she let go, and the harmony kicked and teased as she wove tendrils around his simple tune, below, above, in syncopation and back in lockstep. His own music, his own lyrics, transmogrified, subtle, stretched to limits he’d never heard.”
This is the point when Andrew starts to see some benefit in Kary’s familiarity with his music.

What all three characters have in common is in the title of the novel: pride. They each have good reason to be proud, but Kary’s characteristic overthinking reveals the dangers of too much pride and too much reliance on what has worked for her before.

The end of the novel leaves Kary and Andrew as friends, with Bianca scheming away in the background. Andrew has worked through some of the issues with his ex by talking to Kary, and he has helped her bury some of her issues with her ex-husband. We know what must happen next, but how do they get there? All of us overthinkers, obsessives, and fiction fans want to know.

 

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The Lager Queen of Minnesota

October 6, 2019

I didn’t grow up in a family of beer drinkers and never learned to like beer or stout or ale or any of those kinds of things, as experimentation in my 20’s revealed that they give me migraines. So I am uninterested in the craze for “craft beer” and “IPAs.” I’m not a teetotaler, but doomed to appear an elitist at gatherings where everyone is drinking beer.

I read J. Ryan Stradal’s new novel because I’d loved his first one, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. But what I didn’t know is that reading The Lager Queen of Minnesota requires a love of beer. There are things to love about the novel even if one does not love beer, but I can only imagine how much more I’d have enjoyed reading it if I were as obsessed with the taste of beer as much as most of the characters are.

Two of the main characters, Helen and her great-niece Diana, are totally obsessed with making beer. Helen starts a brewery with money left to her by her father from the sale of the family farm, which her sister Edith resents, as she gets nothing. Helen’s main claim to fame is a light beer, developed just as the American demand for light beer is at its highest point. Diana–who does not know her great-aunt Helen because Edith, who raised her, has not spoken to her sister since the farm was sold–has to work her way up to a position in a micro-brewery and learns to make what is popular today, craft beers.

Helen, Diana, and Edith each get turns as the focus of each chapter. We see that Helen has a difficult time growing up as a female with big ideas, unlike her more conventional sister. When she sounds her mother out, she finds that “her mom carefully selected her memories to reflect her established opinions, and it turned her mind into a bowl of lettuce she believed was a salad.”

We don’t meet Edith until she’s already nearing retirement age. We see that “while her sister lived high on the hog somewhere, Edith spent Thursday afternoons hovering over the local paper, scanning fine print for the words ‘part-time’ and ‘evenings.’” Edith already works part-time at a nursing home, making pies for the residents, and is looking for another part-time job because her husband has Alzheimer’s and “she didn’t want him going near anything hot or sharp anymore. He had worked full-time all those years so she only had to work part-time, and now it was her turn to help him.”

Edith has put the nursing home on the map by making pies so good that their fame spread, so she is offered a more lucrative job, in a bakery attached to a cafe. We see that she is more than the conventional woman Helen always imagined when Edith thinks “It was brutal to say farewell to the residents and her coworkers, and not just because of what they meant to her. Although there was massive turnover in each group over the years, she realized that by unintentionally putting this nursing home on the map as a culinary destination, she’d helped develop a sense of pride in the place for everyone involved. Even if not everyone there knew her well, she was aware that when people asked them, where do you work or live, and they said St. Anthony-Waterside, people would say, Oh, the place with the pie, and it made people smile.
Having done that once, she hoped she could do it again.”
The author works hard to make us like Edith, because she’s the one who can’t forgive her more ambitious sister.

Having just taken a trip to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I loved the description of the little town Edith’s café is in, “Nicollet Falls,” because it sounds a little like downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake:
“Tippi’s Café was nestled on a tree-lined street with a bike lane, in a row of attractive brick storefronts between Klingerhorn Realty and Carolyn’s Organic Kitchen. The whole downtown seemed too polished and perfect, like something from a movie or a magazine advertisement. Golden autumn leaves clustered in the storm drains, young women leisurely pushed double-wide strollers, and cars drove slowly and didn’t honk their horns.”
The inside of the café also sounds like a place we’d wander into while in Niagara-on-the-Lake:
“The wood-paneled space lined with crafts tables, candle displays, and the staggering assortment of baked goods were designed specifically to make a sucker out of people like her—she knew that—and she was all for it.”

After a few years, the café has to close, her husband has died, and Edith has to find other jobs. By the time Diana comes to live with her and finish high school after her parents, (Edith’s daughter and son-in-law) are killed in a car accident, Edith is working part-time at Arby’s and part-time at Kohl’s. Diana works part-time after school, at Gretchen’s Café. These part-time jobs are not enough to make ends meet, so when Diana meets a man who first accuses her family of “gaming the system” and then gives her a job at his brewery, she thinks (but does not say):
“The bosses who made her dad list a payroll company as his employer, they gamed the system. The assholes who convinced her parents to take out a second mortgage and a HELOC in 2006 gamed the system. The employers who would never give Edith enough hours for benefits gamed the system. But ask a lot of people, and they’d tell you it’s people like her grandma who game the system. They’d tell you that an old woman who’s worked hard every day of her life and still struggles to get by is a malignant vacuum for their personal tax dollars, and a blight on their lives as free Americans.”
Isn’t that well said? Or thought, at any rate.

Eventually, Diana gets some revenge on at least one person who was gratuitously cruel to her when she and her grandma most needed help, and Edith thinks that
“it was upsetting to witness her granddaughter behaving like this to another human being, even a rude one who may have had it coming. Diana seemed to believe that not every wrong against you is forgiveable and not everyone should be forgiven. It frightened Edith that Diana would come to this conclusion, and Edith wondered who in Diana’s life might have influenced that conviction.”
It’s Edith herself, of course, because she has never forgiven her sister for taking all of their inheritance.

In the end, though, Helen does the right thing. And Edith does the right thing. And we all get a dose of sentimentality about what beer used to be, as part of what Helen does is sell her fictional brewery:
“Like Schmidt, Old Style, Shaefer, Schlitz, Hamm’s, Rainier, Olympia, and Stroh’s, among many others, the label would persist, applied to a light adjunct lager made somewhere else, untouched by the people who created it, who’d made it into something that sustained lives and families. The name on that label was now just a nostalgic reminder of the real thing.”

The feel-good ending will make you want to love beer and your sister. I don’t like beer and have a brother, so I shrug my shoulders and offer to pass the book along to someone who might like it better. Is that you?

Wayward Son

October 1, 2019

The sequel to Carry On, Rainbow Rowell’s new novel Wayward Son, has a cover designed to excite members of two fandoms, only one of which will be pleased by the continuation of her Harry Potter fanfiction about Simon, Baz, Penny, and Agatha. The first title (Carry On) made reference to a British saying, “keep calm and carry on,” while the second (Wayward Son) references a song by Kansas, one that plays at the beginning of the last episode of each season of Supernatural, which is about two American boys driving across the Midwest while fighting supernatural creatures in order to keep the world safe. Rowell’s Wayward Son continues the story of Simon, Baz, and Penny as they leave London and drive across the western part of the U.S. to reach Agatha in California, fighting supernatural creatures to keep their world safe. 9781250146090_p0_v2_s600x595The cover art even seems to show long-haired Baz as Sam Winchester and short-haired Simon as Dean. Rowell is obviously aware of the crossover factor; one has to wonder if she consciously played to it in order to sell more books.

As in Carry On, we get each chapter in Wayward Son from the point of view of one of the four: Simon, Baz, Penny, and Agatha. And as with the first book, much of the fun is in the name of the spells. Since they’re in America, the spells that depend on British idioms don’t work. Baz actually thinks his magic doesn’t work when the problem is that he’s tried to cast “Bristol fashion, Keep schtum,” and “Exceedingly good cakes.” Then he realizes that “there aren’t enough Normal people here using those phrases….It’s the Normals who give words magic.”

Penny finds out that when you think you are as close to your imaginary friends as you are to friends you see in person, you’re often wrong. She gets airplane tickets to Chicago, so they can “stop by” to see her boyfriend in Chicago on their way to San Diego, but finds out that he has been trying to tell her the relationship is over for a while and she just hasn’t been paying attention.

There’s a bit of middle-aged American woman profiling when Simon and Baz experience a woman giving them “her most aggrieved ‘don’t be gay face” and Simon thinks that “the lady with the cross can’t get mad at us because we have to sit this close. It’s sitting in economy that’s making us gay.” But then he says “the last time Baz and I held hands in public, some girl with a nose ring took offense. If you can’t trust people with nose rings to be open-minded, who’s left?”

One of the most wonderful parts is when they stop by a Renaissance Festival in Nebraska (they also drop by Carhenge, which Penny’s evidently never heard about before). Simon gets a discount on the RenFest entrance fee because his wings and tail are visible. While Penelope, Simon says, “decided to take umbrage at all the bad English accents,” Baz “has taken to it like a fish to water. He can out-thine the best of them.”

When there’s a fight between Simon, Baz, and Penny and a group of vampires they meet at the RenFest, Baz has trouble with his spells:
“None of my spells are doing much damage. I try ‘Guts for garters!’ but it just seems to irritate them. Then I try ‘Sod off!’ That should push them back a few feet and at least give me time to think. It doesn’t. It doesn’t do anything. Which means I must be being too English again. What a time to realize I should have been watching more Friends reruns.
‘Bugger off!’ I shout, fruitlessly, dodging behind a tree. ‘Push off! Naff off!’ Nothing, nothing, nothing. (I would try ‘Fuck off,’ but the magickal effect of swear words is unpredictable; it depends entirely on the audience.) ‘Buzz off!’ someone in the crowd shouts at me….I point my wand at the vampire. ‘Buzz off!’ It works. He jumps back like he’s been shocked.”

Rowell echoes Supernatural and Gaiman’s American Gods with the claim that the supernatural is especially dangerous in America: “Every kind of magician and magickal creature has made its way there. There’s old magic and new. Hybrids and twists you can’t anticipate. It’s the most dangerous place in the world.”

Simon has a fabulous conversation with a dragon who calls him a “precious hatchling. Lost” and when Simon shouts “I’m not a DRAGON!” she replies “Not yet….Are kitten. Someday dragon. Someday ferocious.” Among the things I love about this, not least is the suggestion that E. Nesbit was right in her story “The Dragon Tamers,” about how kittens and dragons are related.

Penny has a frank conversation with a Normal who has befriended them, saying “we keep magic secret for a reason. Because Normals would grind us into sausage if they thought they could extract our magic that way. Normals have annihilated elephants and rhinoceroses because you believe they’re magic. They’re not, by the way. They’re just going extinct.”

And Baz is befriended by an older vampire who tries to make him feel better about being a vampire by describing “’the food chain. I didn’t see you feeling sorry for that pig we had for lunch. Or the rabbit you had for dessert. Everything eats something else.’
I swing my head towards him. ‘What eats you?’
He raises an eyebrow, giving me a taste of my own medicine. ‘Existential despair.’”

Even though it merely references and imitates my favorite “wayward sons,” Sam and Dean Winchester, Rowell’s sequel to Carry On is quite as much fun as the first one and brings magic home for an American audience.

 

Where’d You Go, Summer

September 29, 2019

8B421F2D-0D74-448C-ABAC-CA7823A11B41At work I have been told that I must do six impossible things before Christmas, so I’ve been pushing other things off my desk at home, making room for the recurring necessity of working full time while being paid for half.

Here are a few books I read and enjoyed that have been sitting on the desk for a while.

Since I ran out of Miles Vorkosigan novels I’ve been reading others by Lois McMaster Bujold, and I read the first three of her Sharing Knife series while traveling on airplanes. I couldn’t find the fourth one in paperback, so have put it aside for some time when I want something easy and fun while I’m at home.

I read The Truth About Lies, by Tracy Darnton. It has a memorable question for our time: “when there is so much information at your fingertips, how do you sort out the important from the trivial, the truth from the lies, from the alternative facts?”

Since G. Willow Wilson was the guest of honor last March at ICFA, I read her novel Alif the Unseen, which is about the power of the internet, political resistance, and jinn. At one point Alif and his friend Dina find a book that they think is just like The Thousand and One Nights, titled The Thousand and One Days. A jinn tells them “that title is no accident—this is the inverse, the overturning of The Nights. In it is contained all the parallel knowledge of my people, preserved for the benefit of future generations. This is not the work of human beings. This book was narrated by the jinn.” So it’s a fanciful novel, but also terrifying. At one point, a repressive government agent tells Alif:
“people don’t want freedom anymore—even those to whom freedom is a kind of religion are afraid of it, like trembling acolytes who make sacrifices to some pagan god. People want their governments to keep secrets from them. They want the hand of law to be brutal. They are so terrified by their own power that they will vote to have it taken out of their hands. Look at America. Look at the sharia states. Freedom is a dead philosophy, Alif. The world is returning to its natural state, to the rule of the weak by the strong.”

Reading The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, made me sad. It’s literally one of those books where the dog dies. Almost everybody has died and it’s an interesting post-apocalyptic universe, but definitely about the rule of the weak by the strong.

I read Jim Butcher’s Storm Front. There’s a whole series of these novels, about Harry Dresden. I’d read and reviewed Dead Beat a while back, because there’s necromancy (very, very amusing necromancy!) in it. I might read another sometime, but I’m going to space them out, because Harry is the kind of detective who drives himself almost to the point of death investigating a mystery, and it wears me out.

Finally I got around to reading the very popular Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, and liked it a lot while I was still reading it. Afterwards all I could think about was how unlikely it seemed that Audrey and Elgie would have changed enough to make the events of the plot possible. Also I may have felt annoyed that in the end the mom whose only friend is her daughter gets to have the daughter living at home for a few more years. It seems like that daughter would be at an age where she would start pulling away. Then again, not all mothers get so dramatic.

The poems in You Are Not Dead, by Wendy Xu, delighted me when I first read them, and I marked several that I wanted to write about, but when I went back to them, the spark was gone. It’s hard for me to write about poetry now.

Because my kids kept insisting, I read the first two of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga. The third one was left here in Ohio with me, so I’ll read it next. It’s entitled The Hero of Ages. I’ve found that these are good bedtime reading, so I’ve been keeping one in my bedside table and end up reading it very slowly, only when I haven’t brought some other book back to the bedroom from wherever else I was reading it.IMG_3324

Those are all the books I’ve taken off my desk. It’s by no means cleared off, but it seemed like a good place to start trying to get rid of anything non-essential for the rest of the fall semester.

A Song For A New Day

September 26, 2019

If you attend live music performances, you’re already sold on the “song” part of Sarah Pinsker’s novel A Song For A New Day. The “new day” is the science fiction part, and while it’s not entirely new in terms of apocalyptic detail, it uses new aspects of the everyday to tease out the little things that make up the whole of the experience of being part of an audience.

I was thinking about the novel this weekend when I went to see Dear Evan Hansen at the Ohio Theater with 2,779 other people. Why did it make a difference to hear my favorite lines from the song “Disappear” while surrounded by strangers? The man sitting right next to me never spoke a word to anyone the entire time, but we both had tears in our eyes watching two boys sing “If you never get around to doing some remarkable thing, that doesn’t mean that you’re not worth remembering.”

Sometimes I play live music (and sometimes I get paid for it, which makes me a professional musician, right?) but I think that the “live” part is often more fun for the players than for the audience. There may be better recordings of fiddlers playing “Tam Lin,” for instance, but there are few other people who get as much of a kick out of playing it as I do, with a group. I like to tell the story before we play the reel, and maybe get the audience to imagine how the music shows him continually struggling to get away, out of her arms—at one point even flying up like a bird.

The author Sarah Pinsker plays live music, like her protagonist Luce Cannon, who sings and plays guitar in a rock band, the last band to play a live show before it became illegal to congregate in public places after a series of threats which included an explosion in a crowded stadium and a contagious and often fatal epidemic.

One of Luce’s fans is a young girl named Rosemary who doesn’t remember much about life before people stayed separated. Rosemary grew up on a farm, working remotely for “Superwally,” the mega-corporation that supplies everything for everybody via drone delivery. When she takes a new job with a company that records music for individual virtual reality experience in a device called a “Hoodie,” the events of the story begin.

Rosemary takes a job offer from the mega-corporation that records music for “Hoodies,” StageHoloLive. The job is to recruit new acts for their recordings. On her first trip away from the farm where she grew up, she stays in a city in a hotel which advertises that:
“Every floor of our hotel is individually reinforced and blast-guarded. Our elevators do not pick up more than one party at a time. Marton hotels comply with all congregation and occupancy laws. All surfaces in every room are sanitized between visits.”

The first time Rosemary experiences a live show (watching Luce perform), she has a panic attack:
“So many people. Dozens, maybe hundreds. No, impossible. She’d seen the space empty. But it was so hot now, and everyone stood so close to each other. How did you get from one place to another in a crowd like that? If they didn’t move, if they stood their ground, what happened to the person moving through? Worse yet, what if somebody else panicked while she was stranded in the middle of the sea of people? She’d be trapped, suffocated, crushed, trampled. Her breath caught in her throat.”

In this world, restaurants have isolation booths. Public transportation is available in “single-cells,” although at one point Rosemary takes a bus with “no private compartments” and sits on the edge of a seat “so her hip didn’t touch the hip of the woman next to her.”

Rosemary has “learned in school that the time Before was terrifying and anxious, full of shootings and bombings and crowd-borne disease.” But then a long-time Baltimore resident tells Rosemary:
“I know it’s bad form in some circles to say anything is better in the After, and there are new things that are fucked up, and some of the same old problems, but there are a few things that’ve improved…. Look around. Kids have access to good schools, regardless of where they live. People have better access to jobs and housing. We’re working on federal basic income….The prison cycle’s got a flat tire. The rents went back to manageable when all the rich people left. City resources were reallocated more fairly.”

Rosemary also meets people who are “noncomm,” meaning they don’t use phones and Hoodies. One of them tells her “it’s not anticonsumerism. We still buy stuff, but we don’t want our purchases tracked, and we don’t think we always need to be in contact and trackable ourselves.” This is happening now, for some people, in our real-life version of “Before.”

In the fictional version of “After,” Luce hates “the pox, the bombers, the bombs, the gunmen, the guns, the chaos they sowed, the politicians who wielded restriction in the name of freedom and safety, or the ones who didn’t stop them, or the ones who were sure it would only be temporary.” Some of these things are certainly happening now, too.

What do you think about the dangers of too much virtual living, or about the pleasure of being present at a live performance?

 

To Be Taught, If Fortunate

September 23, 2019

The title of Becky Chambers’ new novella, To Be Taught, if Fortunate, comes from the 1977 recording that went into space with Voyager: “we step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship—to teach, if we are called upon; to be taught, if we are fortunate.”

The novella is about four people from earth who are doing an ecological survey of a moon and three planets orbiting a fictional red dwarf star. And the reason you want to read it is the inventiveness of the universe-building. From the moment the narrator, Ariadne, is woken because her ship has arrived at the moon, Aecor, we get to explore new places with her and learn what has made her exploration possible. She explains how “somaforming” works and why she needs it on this mission by explaining how excited she is when she discovers that her skin is covered with:
“Glitter.
I can think of at least one lab tech back home who would frown at me for calling it glitter. Technically, what I possessed was synthetic reflectin, a protein naturally found in the skin of certain species of squid. But…come on. It’s glitter. My skin glittered, and for a moment, I felt childlike glee, like I’d emptied a bunch of craft supplies on myself, like I’d had my face painted at a carnival, like I’d flown here in a cloud of pixie dust. But it was practical, the astroglitter. Aecor is roughly as far from its star as Uranus is from our own, which makes for a sun no bigger than a fingerprint in the sky. Night and day do not look dramatically different. Here, glitter served the same purpose for us that it does for sea-dwelling animals back home: it catches and refracts light.”

We went to see the movie Ad Astra this weekend, and I enjoyed it for some of the same reasons I enjoyed To Be Taught, If Fortunate— for its views of planets and the feeling of what it might be like in space. Ad Astra’s view of space was confined to our own solar system, while Becky Chambers’ view will add to your picture of what could lie beyond. In addition, you get what one of the astronauts in Ad Astra wouldn’t give up on—the discovery of extra-terrestrial life.

The first life Ariadne and her crewmates discover is on Aecor, at night, under the ice:
“There were snake-like things, full-bodied things, worms and flowers and combs. Some shoaled by the dozens. Some travelled alone. Some bobbed. Some chased.” The biologist, Chikondi “was beside himself….He took a deep breath, and shouted in crescendo: ‘Multi…cellular…ORGANISMS!’”

When they proceed to the planet Mirabilis, with its two gravities, their somaforming transforms them to work in those conditions:
“I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ It’s often misused, operating on the false interpretation that fit means physically fit, therefore expressing a dog-eat-dog ethos. The strongest wins the day. But that’s not what Darwin meant, not at all. He meant most suited to, as in, the creatures most suited to—or most fit for—a specific environment are the ones with the best chance of passing on their genes….I was fit for life on Mirabilis. The fact that I was also physically fit was just a nice bit of synchrony.”

One of the most inventive bits of universe-building is about where they land:
“If I am to be a good scientist, I shouldn’t say we landed in grassland, because the stuff around our feet was not made of blade-like leaves peeling away from stems, but rather flexible spiraling stalks, each rising up to knee-height in a tight corkscrew (Spirasurculus oneillae). We learned later that these autotrophs (organisms that don’t need to consume a living source of energy, as animals do) do not photosynthesise at all. They chemosynthesise, like the creatures you find clinging to ocean vents back home. Spirasurculus suck the energy and nutrients they need from the groundwater below them. They grow upward not to reach for the sun, but to provide a landing place for a tiny flying creature we dubbed Murmurus voii, with which they are symbiotic. But again, if I were to say we landed in ‘a field of curly plants’, this would lead you astray, because Spirasurculus are not plants. Yet ‘plant’ is the best word I have if I want to paint you a mental picture.”

There’s a scene that will forever stay with me from the end of the crew’s four years on Mirabilis, when a small creature has gotten into a hole where the liner of one of their sample boxes has begun to pull away from the side. The creature has accidentally been carried in the box into an airlock and has gone through the plasma cycles the crew uses to make sure they don’t take planetary bacteria into the ship. “This was full-body, heavy-duty exposure, never intended for living tissue. Beyond eradicating whatever symbiotic dermal bacteria this animal needed to stay alive in its natural biome, there was no telling what side effects the animal itself might suffer, or what mutations it could carry with it. Release was out of the question.” Chikondi, who is in the airlock with it, tries to soothe it as it frantically tries to escape, saying “I don’t want it to die afraid….He pulled his palm back and leaned against the wall, folding his legs beneath him, trying to stay calm for the sake of them both. They remained that way for several minutes, the grieving man and the frightened alien. Eventually, the animal’s movements slowed down, and though it still searched for an exit, its cries and digging began to ebb.” When he finally steels himself to do what has to be done, it takes five agonizing shots from a stun gun turned “up to a level that would’ve killed an Earth animal twice its size.” Chikondi never entirely recovers from this episode, and I don’t think I will, either. It’s too awful, too detailed, and too plausible. The creature reminds me of a squirrel, but is described with bright colors and gills, so readers will each imagine the kind of wild animal quick and curious enough to hide among the equipment strangers have brought to its planet, strangers who intend to do no harm but occasionally fail in that attempt.

On the next planet they visit, a stormy waterworld called Opera, they can’t explore, leave, or even sleep because of the weather and the animals affixed to their ship. Each of these animals is
“roughly the size (and to a lesser extent, the shape) of a rugby ball, its sandpaper skin a limp lint grey. My first thought was slug, but that wasn’t right, because it belly was not a foot, and that’s not what it was holding on with. Its point of suction was its mouth, an ovular orifice surrounded by a shaggy fringe of feelers. I could see sharp structures waiting within. It had limbs as well—twelve feeble-looking legs. The animal did not appear to use its legs for bodily support, but rather to scoot its anchoring mouth forward.
I was attempting a better look at the legs when the animal raised its stump of a tail. Two neat rows of holes opened up along its sides, and from these a bone-chilling sound rang out. I am sure to its own ears—or whatever sound receptors it had—the sound was as normal as anything. To me, it was somewhere between squealing metal and a dying horse. I was taught to be objective, as a scientist, but I cannot help the fact that I am also an animal with instincts of my own. Everything about the sound told me to run.”

The crew has no compunction about blasting into space at the first opportunity, even though it means the death of hundreds of these creatures, named “rats” by the crew, who have anchored themselves to the ship:
“The rats were terrified. Some had fallen with the initial blast, but others were still clinging to the goddamn windows, too stupid to understand that the longer they held fast, the more certain their doom. I watched their shuddering bodies as the rushing air sent them flailing, as the ones that did not fall were swallowed in flame and rendered ash. I felt nothing but quiet loathing toward them, and the purity of that feeling was the ugliest I’ve ever felt. It’s not their fault, the good scientist in me feebly argued. They meant no harm. This is a terrible death. They don’t deserve this.
I don’t care, the raw spite in me replied. And I didn’t. For all my impartiality, for all my trying to set aside anthropocentric biases and see the beauty in all forms, I truly didn’t care. I watched them burn, and felt a twisted gratitude.
I have never stopped hating what that says about me.”

On Votum, they find a water source and some single-celled organisms. When they begin to sample the different species, they find that “none of them possess a chiral preference. They freely use amino acids and sugars of both types. They are, in effect, ambidextrous….This means that chiral preference is not a requirement of life. This means that emergent life forms do use whatever is on hand. This strongly suggests that life on Earth only arose thanks to ingredients that originated off-planet.”
At this point in the novella, the reader can be forgiven for getting excited about a discovery that is…fictional.

In the fiction, life on Earth hasn’t been doing so well while Ariadne and the rest of her crew have been exploring in space. Civilization has suffered a setback because of what they think must have been a solar flare: “We’ve been impotently worrying about what a solar flare could do to electronic infrastructure since the 1900s. But my generation was so preoccupied with fixing the mess left by the unaddressed-and-fully-known about environmental disaster of the previous generation that we committed the same sin of criminal procrastination against yours.”

The end of the novella offers a series of questions that I think we should all be asking ourselves today:
“What is space, to you? Is it a playground? A quarry? A flagpole? A classroom? A temple? Who do you believe should go, and for what purpose?”

What a plethora of new ideas we can get from even thinking about exploring the universe! Imagine the ideas and inventions we might get from continuing to go further out into it.

 

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

September 16, 2019

When I started watching a tv show called The Americans, set in and around Washington, D.C. in the 1980’s, I was surprised at how far in the past it seemed. I lived near Washington, D.C. in the 1980’s and I suppose that in my mind, everything there was still just about the same.

The main character of Dinaw Mengestu’s novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears seems to think the same way about Addis Ababa, where he grew up. Now that he is living in Washington, D.C. he uses local landmarks to think about the place he came from, as if he can recreate how it was in his mind and find some kind of conclusion about his time there that he was not able to reach before he left.

He has two friends in the DC area who are also from the African continent: Ken from Kenya, as they call him, and Joe from the Congo. They adopted these names after being given them by a manager at their first job in the U.S. They have rituals, including a game of naming African dictators, that help them make sense of their place in the world, distorted as it has been by moving to America and becoming just one more anonymous immigrant from another country. One of Ken’s rituals is repeating a phrase whenever he sees a particular person because “as much as Kenneth has ever needed anything in his life, he has needed order and predictability, small daily reassurances that the world is what it is, regardless of how flawed that may be.”

One of Joe’s rituals is to make big gestures: “you get the sense when watching him that even the grandest gestures he may make aren’t grand enough for him. He’s constantly trying to outdo himself, to reach new levels of Josephness that will ensure that anyone who has ever met him will carry some lingering trace of Joseph Kahangi long after he has left.” Sometimes, to tease him, Ken would tell him he looks like he is from Ghana, and he would “stand up then and theatrically slam his fist onto the table, or into his palm, or against the wall. ‘I am from Zaire,’ he would yell out. ‘And you are a ass.’ Or, more recently, and in a much more subdued tone: ‘I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Next week, it may be something different. I admit that. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be from the Liberated Land of Laurent Kabila. But today, as far as I know, I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The main character, Sepha, has his own rituals. He sees himself as part of a group: “we live in the shadows of every neighborhood. We own corner stores, live in run-down apartments that get too little light, and walk the same streets day after day. We spend our afternoons gazing lazily out of windows. Somnambulists, all of us. Someone else said it better: we wake to sleep and sleep to wake.”

All three of them play chess: “they had a religious devotion to the game, a respect for its handful of rules and almost infinite variations born, as Joseph said, out of a shared sense of gratitude for having at least one space where their decisions mattered. ‘Nobody,’ he said once, ‘understands chess like an African.’”

The events of the novel are precipitated by the gentrification of Sepha’s Logan Circle neighborhood, which includes the appearance of a new white neighbor named Judith, a History professor, and her mixed-race daughter Naomi, who is eleven. Sepha reads The Brothers Karamazov out loud to Naomi at her request, and he enjoys the experience so much that he “tried not to notice too much, to simply just live, but that was impossible. Every time I looked at her I became aware of just how seemingly perfect this time was. I thought about how years from now I would remember this with a crushing, heartbreaking nostalgia, because of course I knew even then that I would eventually find myself standing here alone.”

After attempting to get involved in Judith and Naomi’s life, Sepha decides that they are too different. He saves up things he wants to pass on to Naomi, including a passage from the end of The Brothers Karamazov that he has memorized:
“People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.”

Sepha has one good memory of his father in Ethiopia, and he has one good memory of Naomi from their time in Logan Circle. So he strides boldly out of his store and leaves it, taking a walk around the statue of General Logan in the circle while remembering walking with his father around a park in Addis. He thinks that “there wasn’t much point in holding on to a store, in holding on to anything, if in the end it didn’t matter to at least one other person than yourself.”

Rather than an ending, however, this might be a beginning for Sepha, as he adds a saying to his list of adages to live by: “a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough.” It seems a little like my realization about how many years have passed since I lived in Washington, D.C. that this character is realizing how many steps it has taken him to get to where he is and become who he is now.

 

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