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Arcanos Unraveled

January 10, 2018

Like most of us, I spent the last few years tending to my own knitting, trusting that the politicians would work it out. When they didn’t, I started getting more involved. Last night I spoke at a City Council meeting, inviting the members to the first anniversary celebration of Signs on the Square, our weekly demonstration aimed at getting the attention of our congressional “representative” who usually votes to curry favor with his cronies rather than to benefit his constituents.

I don’t know how to knit and am not ordinarily very interested in it, aside from using it as a metaphor, but Jonna Gjevre’s new novel Arcanos Unraveled is a delight whether you’re interested in knitting or not. Like all those novels about sisters that are irresistible to women with sisters, I imagine this book will be irresistible to anyone who likes to knit.

Arcanos is a magical castle, the location for a magical college called The Isthmus that coexists with the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Lest you think this is a Hogwarts knockoff, however, you should know that the main character, a magical textiles instructor, is an adjunct who gets fired and has to leave Arcanos before the action really begins.

The magical shields that protect Arcanos from the mundane world are down, and the adjunct textiles instructor, Anya Winter, has been charged with the responsibility of trying to restore them. To do this and retain her magic, she has to travel by flying carpet and fairy circle while avoiding modern technology. This sounds more fanciful than it is—as Anya explains: “Many witches raised by mundane parents lose most of their magic by adulthood. Carelessly exposed to computers and cell phones, they don’t have a chance to develop their powers.” The novel does not devolve into easy allegory, however—the way magic works in this world is affected by RFID, so they ward against it. Anya finds herself working with a mysterious character named Kyril who has magic but also manages to use technology while shielding himself from its effects. His magic turns out to be number magic.

Anya can make a powerful spell called a web portal with what Kyril calls “just a ball of yarn,” although she points out that “my dying mother spun this yarn by hand from angoras she raised herself.” While knitting the portal, Anya uses a Fibonacci sequence. Kyril tells her that at first he “thought those lace spirals were random…but you were adding up the sum of the last two repeats, every single time.” They have to work together to restore the magical shields for the college, as the knitting pattern is provided by a “Hollerith card,” which is also a computer code.

This is the point at which Gjevre makes knitting exciting (which, for me, is as good a trick as Weir doing this with welding in Artemis). The castle’s defenses were formerly provided by machines called the Drini, which Anya can fix after her realization that they are part of a giant magical knitting machine:
“I grasp the giant needle, and the gleaming metal moves easily in my hand. I pull it towards me, then loop it back down. Again, I pull it towards me, then loop it back down.
Kyril stares. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I think I’m casting on.’ Which conveniently requires only one needle.
A luminous thread of power begins to glow, shimmering, golden, and clear. It’s the ley line. Surely, the thread was always there, caught up in the machine, waiting for the technique that would call it forth. A shining thread catches on the giant needle as I swing it around. It forms a translucent chain of gold. The wormlike chain extends and grows, penetrating the granite wall. Then the Drini takes over, moving of its own accord, using the same looping motion I’d begun. The stone floor opens seamlessly, and a second giant needle joins the first. Noiselessly, they bind together an unbroken chain of gold light.”

There’s a political angle to the destruction of the magical wards and Anya has to figure it out before she gets caught in the crossfire. This is what forces her to plunge into a stand of stinging nettles in an attempt to travel by using the magic of a fairy circle:
“The presence of nettles makes me confident that there really is a fairy ring in the orchard up ahead. For centuries, the stalks of woodland nettles have been retted and spun into enchanted fiber, then knitted or woven into magical textiles. It’s said that the only successful resurrection shroud in the history of magic was woven with nettles harvested from a graveyard.”

In addition to the reference to necromancy, I love this story for the heroism of the adjunct, who finally realizes:
“There was never a place for me at the university. I’d thought The Isthmus could be the home I always wanted. But a home consists of people, and there’s a giant moat of power and privilege around these elite scholars—a moat that I could never bridge. I didn’t see the gulf before. I thought it was just their fine clothes or their advanced training that set them apart. But the truth is clear now: their loyalties are only to their own kind.”

I think Americans are becoming more aware of the “moat of power and privilege” surrounding many of our institutions, and while we can’t all be adjunct heroes, we can let fiction help to open our eyes to the viewpoint of those adjacent to the circles of power, those who have enough of a foot in the world of higher education or local government to lead the way towards making a difference.

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Going Home: New Orleans

January 4, 2018

26167331_10213524641703498_7691626078586467004_nWe went to New Orleans for a couple of days during our holiday season, for no particular reason except it was the southern destination that all four of us felt most enthusiastic about. I had hoped to introduce my kids to friends who live in the area, but they were too busy. So we had some free time and I thought maybe I shouldn’t schedule it up as I sometimes do, now that the kids are adults and have their own ideas about what would be fun. We’re four adults with different interests, physical capabilities, and strong wills, however, so it turns out that it would have been better for me to schedule more. Well, live and learn.

26165898_10213509549606205_7519713003892503773_nOn the day we arrived, we introduced our kids to the Louisiana custom of getting a drink and then carrying it around with you. We tried a “hand grenade” from a bar across the street from our hotel, which came in a tall, thin green plastic cup, perfect for carrying. Walking down Bourbon Street and exploring some of the little shops and art galleries on the streets nearby, we eventually found our way to Antoine’s, where we had a reservation because I’d always read about it and wanted to go. We had good food and a good time, sitting in a beautifully decorated inner room in front of an enormous Christmas tree.

The next day we went to the jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters, where the brunch was extensive but the jazz was too little too late, starting half an hour after we arrived and consisting of a few muted tunes before the musicians took a break and we left to walk around Jackson Square, 26001021_10213514856898884_7910038369079271250_nthrough the market, the St. Louis cathedral, and then through a little museum in a building called the cabildo next to the cathedral. We had po boys and muffaletta in an outdoor café with a jazz band (better than the one at brunch) and then embarked on a tour of bars recommended by a local we know from the Walker Percy Weekend. Alas, her recommendations were so crowded we could hardly get in the door, as football fans were already arriving in town. We found that we didn’t much care for the taste of a sazerac or the crowd at the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, and after a quick look at the Monteleone’s revolving “carousel bar,” we decided we needed another plan.

We went back to Café du Monde, where the line had been around the block earlier in the day, and found that it was only halfway around the block and shorter for takeout, so we got some takeout beignets and then strolled down Bourbon towards our hotel. I noticed a bar serving a drink called a “Resurrection” and posed for a photo with the bar’s skull-head mascot (the photo above). We heard zydeco music from inside another bar (they were all open-air) and went in to listen. The band consisted of a drummer, bass player, fiddle, and accordionist on a stage called the “Bayou Club” that was part of a bar called Tropical Isle. The other part of the bar had a band blasting the same kind of loud rock music we heard all along the street, but we liked the music at the Bayou Club so much that we came back the next night, when the accordionist was gone but there was another fiddle player, just as good.

We had tickets for a 10 pm show at Tipitina’s, so we all four crammed ourselves into a taxi and admired the Christmas lights in the garden district all the way over to Napoleon Street, where we had a good time listening to the opening band, DJ Soul Sister. After more than 45 minutes of DJ music, at about midnight (central time), we gave up on the advertised band, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, and got a Lyft back to the hotel, where we slept for a few hours before Eleanor had to get up for her flight. She had an early New Years’ Eve party to attend in snowy Ohio.

The remaining three of us got ourselves over to Café Beignet early enough to get in a short line for excellent beignets and eggs, and then hopped on a bus for a “swamp tour.” It was a bit cool, but my lined raincoat was warm enough. We saw more herons and egrets than usual, since the alligators were mostly buried under the mud in the (mid-fifties) “cold” weather. The guide told us that one part of the bayou we were looking at was “the bayou where The Princess and the Frog was filmed.” We assume he meant that this is one of the bits of local scenery that inspired the animators.26114276_10213522945261088_609581972964584910_n

After the bus brought us back to New Orleans, we strolled down the river walk to the aquarium and went through it. We like aquariums and have been to a good many (Columbus, OH, Baltimore’s Inner Harbour, Charleston, SC, the Shedd in Chicago); this one stood out for its quantity and variety of seahorses. Then we had an excellent dinner at the Red Fish Grill, which was recommended by local friends. 26112470_10213524548581170_6071457206719113789_nAfter more Cajun music at the Bayou Club, we had a few hour’s sleep before we got to see what our airport shuttle driver called “the zombies” still weaving their way up and down Bourbon Street at 5:30 in the morning.

I loved getting out of Ohio between snows and missing some of the shoulder-tensing below-zero temperatures. It’s always fun to get to go to Louisiana–it’s still exotic to me, but I love it more every time, and Sheryl St. Germain evokes some of that in this poem:

Going Home: New Orleans

Some slow evenings when the light hangs late and stubborn in the sky,
gives itself up to darkness slowly and deliberately, slow cloud after slow cloud,
slowness enters me like something familiar,
and it feels like going home.

It’s all there in the disappearing light:
all the evenings of slow sky and slow loving, slow boats on sluggish bayous;
the thick-middled trees with the slow-sounding names—oak, mimosa, pecan, magnolia;
the slow tree sap that sticks in your hair when you lie with the trees;
and the maple syrup and pancakes and grits, the butter melting
slowly into and down the sides like sweat between breasts of sloe-eyed strippers;
and the slow-throated blues that floats over the city like fog;
and the weeping, the willows, the cut onions, the cayenne, the slow-cooking beans with marrow-thick gravy;
and all the mint juleps drunk so slowly on all the slow southern porches,
the bourbon and sugar and mint going down warm and brown, syrup and slow;
and all the ice cubes melting in all the iced teas,
all the slow-faced people sitting in all the slowly rocking rockers;
and the crabs and the shrimp and crawfish, the hard shells
slowly and deliberately and lovingly removed, the delicate flesh
slowly sucked out of heads and legs and tails;
and the slow lips that eat and drink and love and speak
that slow luxurious language, savoring each word like a long-missed lover;
and the slow-moving nuns, the black habits dragging the swollen ground;
and the slow river that cradles it all, and the chicory coffee
that cuts through it all, slow-boiled and black as dirt;
and the slow dreams and the slow-healing wounds and the slow smoke of it all
slipping out, ballooning into the sky—slow, deliberate, and magnificent.

 

 

 

Choices

December 25, 2017

For the last couple of years, we’ve given ourselves a writing prompt for Christmas Day and read our offerings out loud to each other. This year the prompt is “orient.” Ron wrote a good science fiction story about the effects of human magneto-perception sense when the earth’s magnetic poles suddenly shift, and Eleanor wrote a great story about the last generation of Tarquins returning to Rome after the fall of the western empire. As usual, I wrote an essay, and here it is, with their permission:

Lately I’ve noticed that when people reach my age, they get set in their ways, and have been seeing first-hand how it happens.

I see parents on Facebook certain that they know “the truth” about Santa Claus, and determined to shape their family’s expectations to match their own. This is something I’ve always thought was short-sighted and lacking in imagination. Ron and I started out by asking our children to help pick out a thing or two to put in the stockings for pets or older relatives and have ended up with a household full of adults who delight in finding ways to surprise each other at Christmastime without wanting credit for each gift. We think this is a fine thing, and it grew out of a conviction that we can create some of the kind of world we want to live in.

We see our congressional representative, whose net worth is $2.3 million dollars, acting certain that he knows what is best, helping to push through a new tax law to take from the poor and give to himself, cloaking it in thoughts and rhetoric about “de-regulation” and “financial systems” rather than seeing himself as a modern-day version of Ebenezer Scrooge.

There’s a re-orienting that has to keep happening in order for people to get older and wiser, rather than just older and more convinced that we’re right about everything.

When I see friends my age set on pursuing their own dreams for an adult child who clearly doesn’t want to follow their proposed path for her life, no matter how much the mother rhapsodizes about how good she is at it, or how much the father wants to protect the child from the consequences of her inaction, I get a perspective on continuing to re-orient my own hopes and expectations for my children. Although I still wish Walker would take some of those civil service tests.

When I see the people I work with trying hard to implement their ideas of what is right for our college, I get another perspective on pausing occasionally to make sure that my idea about what is right is still on target. In terms of a weapon analogy, it’s an occasional recalibrating. If I’m aiming at something, I’d better be sure that it’s the right target. I’ve had help with this, the kind of help that liminal people find in odd places—because I’m “half-time,” I’ve had to create positions for and delegate lots of responsibilities to a growing number of student managers, who give me good advice and ideas about how to do things better.

After many years of being a leader, I’m trying to keep learning about humility and how sometimes I have to take a few minutes to follow instead of leading all the time.

For me this has been literal, in terms of walking. Everyone walks faster than I do now, even though I have long legs and for years was at the front of the pack, waiting for those with shorter legs (friends, children) to catch up. Now I’m always behind, singing the line Orpheus sings on the soundtrack of Hadestown we’ve been listening to (“wait for me, I’m coming, wait, I’m coming with you”). In a different family, I might be a grandmother already, or at least an aunt whose nieces and nephews get together at Christmastime. In a family like that, I imagine that it doesn’t matter when an older person can’t keep up if she’s willing to help amuse the little kids. We’ve never had a lot of extended family, though. Since my parents died, my brother and his family are spending Christmases with her parents, and Ron’s family usually have their own plans with friends and the families they married into. It’s hard to re-orient my idea of what the holidays should be, but clearly I need a new perspective, one that doesn’t include so many expectations about families.

It helps to go somewhere new; we’re trying New Orleans for a few days right after Christmas. Why not go south, we figured, after all those years of holiday treks to the north?

And it can help to learn something new. Since I started taking violin lessons again three winters ago, I’ve had the pleasure of being a follower in a string quartet at a wedding and a Christmas party, a violin duet at a retirement home, and even a fiddling group, which is not something I ever pictured myself doing, before. Fiddling sounds quick, and I was never sure my fingers could fly that fast or that I could improvise rather than just reading the notes.

I’ve always been part of a family who like to read and look things up. We like well-timed quotations and quick retorts in our conversations. Now my adult children are often quicker with a quip than I am, and faster at finding relevant and correct information on any topic. I have to accept the humility of letting someone else lead when we have a conversation or explore a new place. One of the things my immediate family has always needed me for is the job of tour guide, but now that they have each traveled on their own, everyone knows better ways of getting around, so when, for instance, I reserve an airport shuttle they say “we could have just called an Uber.” Now, if we could just agree about whether I’m making a plan or we’re improvising.

Even at home, in my own small town, I’m having to re-orient myself, after living here for more than 20 years. The other day I typed in the address of a fairly new business where I was supposed to show up for a rehearsal (“you don’t need to know where it is, mom, just type it into your GPS”) and I was informed that I had arrived when I was in front of the Woodward Opera House. I kept driving up and down Main Street until I found a storefront with the correct sign. Then I dragged my stand and violin case through that doorway and up a step, only to be informed that the place where I was expected is two doors down, where I’d seen a sign for an art shop. So maybe the best way to keep re-orienting is to keep exploring. Our weekly political demonstrations on the town square on Saturdays have certainly offered me a wider perspective on this place where I’ve been living, waving at strangers who sometimes wave tentatively back, probably thinking they must know me.

Even if there are days I can’t get out, like on icy roads when re-orienting could be disastrous, it’s important to keep my expectations from petrifying, like in this poem by Tess Gallagher:

Choices

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

If you get fixated on your desire for that distant view of a mountain, you’re going to miss generations of people and animals coming and going right in front of your face. I think congress has been doing this–getting fixated on the distant view–and I hope we can eventually show them that they need to re-orient. It’s the experiences of re-orienting that eventually accumulate and become wisdom, not staying in one position until all your thoughts and ideas get calcified and rigid.

Well, that’s my essay.
And here is Walker’s poem, a kind of meditation on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, reproduced here with Walker’s permission:

Navigation Song For Me and Saanvi, by Walker Griggs

Let us go then you and I
To Agra, stopping in Shanghai
Who’s there? And how, and what, and why?
Is it evening? Is there sky?

I leave from Tulsa, heading East
A brain of tunes, a trunk of beer
I wave to every passing beast
On highway – skunk. In forest – deer.

What fool goes down the road in want
Of home or plan or favorite haunt

I fail to mine these Eastern trees
I fail to tap the waterfall
The hardest part is not of seas
It is to mine or tap at all

A girl named Saanvi dares to tap
On tempered glass of door or phone
Does she dare to check a map?
She dares, and finds herself alone

What fool would question maps with “Whither?”
For dread the map would answer simply “Hither”

She leaves and comes and goes and waits
Through citadels and rogue states
She sings and shrieks at airport gates
Escaping peace, outrunning fates

In Shanghai Saanvi nearly finds
A map that leads her past the crowds
of vacant hands and sweaty minds
Into the garden in the clouds

What fool would trust in maps to guide
Where East and West and faith collide

I pick up Prufrock in Shanghai
though his appearance gives me pause
He’s turned into his scuttling lie
Of silent seas and ragged claws

With him in tow I go and go
He pumps the gas when I refuel
He plays the parts, puts on a show
At last the Prince, with me the Fool

We meet at last in Agra far
Removed from who we were, or are
And Prufrock sings, to my guitar
His Love Song once, now his memoir

And Saanvi stares as in a trance
And then at once begins to dance
We’ve found in India a France
Of fire and rose and blithe romance

I pop the trunk, I crack some beers
as Saanvi plops upon the curb
She turns to Prufrock, saying “cheers,
this universe you’d dare disturb?”

They hit it off and leave, I stay
And watch the ghost lights flicker past
In Agra there is more than day
There’s evening, and the sky is vast

What fool expects a different sky
What sage seeks only gentler sea
That fool is I
The sage Saanvi.

Landscape with Invisible Hand

December 19, 2017

We were big fans of M. T. Anderson’s YA novel Feed when it came out, so when I found out that he’d written a new YA novel entitled Landscape with Invisible Hand and read some reviews calling it satiric, I had to read it posthaste. And I was glad I did, as in a holiday season full of disturbing news, it provided almost as much comfort and joy as the post entitled “Yes, I know I’m angry. I wish you were.”

In Landscape with Invisible Hand, aliens called the vuvv have invaded Earth. They offer humans “their tech and invited us to be part of their Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance. They announced that they could end all work forever and cure all disease, so of course, the leaders of the world all rushed to sign up.” What the humans didn’t realize, our narrator Adam says, is that “all that tech would be owned by someone and would be behind a paywall” and that “no human currency could stand up against the vuvv’s ch’ch” so that “the human economy collapsed” and “only the wealthiest of humans could compete, once they had a contract for vuvv tech, once they could invest in vuvv firms.”

Adam and his parents spend their days looking for work while, as he says, “our leaders were making speeches about how American’s middle class had to stop dreaming and start learning how to really work.” Even subsistence farming doesn’t work because “the vuvv could grow food cheaper,” so finally “the only way to make money was to work with the vuvv personally.”

In desperation, Adam finds a job courting the teenage girl whose homeless family has had to move into his house. They make “hundreds of dollars a month” wearing recording equipment so the vuvv can observe their dates. The viewers and the money disappear, however, when Adam and the girl start to grow apart and after an unfortunate episode that reveals the unpleasantness of the disease that Adam has caught from drinking tap water, because “as part of the vuvv’s austerity measures, municipal water is no longer purified.” It’s hard not to see a current political parallel when Adam reveals the fact that he’s “tried to get some kind of medicine to help with it—the vuvv can apparently solve this kind of thing in five minutes—but we have minimum insurance coverage. All the medicine in the world won’t help if you don’t own it. I was saving up for a single visit with a vuvv doc. I hoped I’d have enough cash by the time my small intestine shriveled like an earthworm on hot pavement.”

It’s even harder not to see parallels as the story goes on, with Adam’s formerly indomitable mother cowed by the impossibility of ever finding work and Adam’s job gone.
“So we watch the news, and there has been a race riot in Central Fals. Security cameras show a bunch of white guys rampaging through a bodega, lifting up the Coke fridge and tipping it through the window, attacking the owner and his family with a baseball bat, screaming shit like go back to Mexico and leave us our jobs. They’re stomping on the chips in the snack food aisle and showing their teeth like an animal pack. Some white woman standing outside on the street in a terry-cloth hoodie tells a reporter that if it weren’t for those goddamn people, the censored censored illegals, everybody wouldn’t be eating the grass in our yards on all fours.
On another channel, the pundits talk about how lazy humans are, and how if they’d just go out there and get jobs, they’d be much happier. Somewhere in the Midwest, there has been a terrorist strike against a vuvv agricultural transport—human farmers, ruined, desperate, getting revenge by detonating a fertilizer bomb in the back of a ship unloading romaine lettuces from space. ‘Only goddamn thing left for me to do with my fertilizer,’ says an industrial ag farmhand as he is led away.
And the pundits talk about how if we spent less time complaining about the vuvv and more time following their example, investing smartly in vuvv tech—if we’d just get up off our duffs, stand up from our Barcaloungers, and go out and actually work—then maybe we wouldn’t all be starving and demanding food we haven’t actually worked for.”

The plot involves Adam, with encouragement from his art teacher, entering a vuvv art competition with his landscapes of Earth, a long-shot entry because the vuvv believe all Earth art should consist of still lifes. His teacher, Adam says, “has devoted his life to listening to us and giving us a space to make our statements. That, I guess, is why he is one of the few actual adults I know, as opposed to people who are just old.” And that, for me, confirms the quality of the satire in this novel. In the past year I have seen many people in rural Ohio who are not acting like adults, but who are just old and wishing for things to go back to the way they were at some point in the past.

An alien invasion story is an excellent way to hold up a mirror to Americans and show them what it looks like when the future is now and there’s no escape from the new reality in dreams of the good old days. I like Anderson’s faith in his Young Adult audience and his attempt, in this satiric novel, to show them the effects of getting so stuck in a ruined world that you can’t find a new way to see, an avenue of escape.

 

Artemis

December 6, 2017
tags:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Enough

November 29, 2017

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

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

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

Enough

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

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

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

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They are almost enough.

Gnomon

November 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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