Quote #17

‘”These signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process. The process follows the same form, the same structure. To apprehend it you will follow the signs. All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth — I know I presume — you must look into the technology of these matters. Even into the hearts of certain molecules — it is they after all which dictate temperatures, pressures, rates of flow, costs, profits, the shapes of towers…”

“You must ask two questions. First, what is the real nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control?”

gravitys-rainbow“You think you know, you cling to your beliefs. But sooner or later you will have to let them go…”‘

– The séance-channeled spirit of Walther Rathenau in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Rathenau also alludes to the mysteries of coal-tar chemistry, specifically Perkin’s synthesis of mauveine, used as mauve dye (“…the first new color on Earth, leaping to Earth’s light from its grave miles and aeons below.”) All in all it’s one of my all-time favorite scenes in a novel — a creepy, prophetic little slice of liminal horror that I’ve cracked open to read a hundred times since I first read it twenty-five years ago.

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Review – “After the Apocalypse”

More great stuff from Small Beer Press. I ordered Maureen F. McHugh’s short story collection After the Apocalypse after reading the title story in a “Year’s Best SF” anthology. It’s one of those stories that uses its last lines to masterfully re-jigger the whole emotional structure of the story — not in any sort of trick-ending way, but just through solid, unflinching commitment to the portrayal of a certain kind of horrifying character.

With cover foxing baked right in!

With cover foxing baked right in!

McHugh’s stories are all set after hard times have fallen. There aren’t any actual apocalypses here, unless they’re the not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper kind. Entropy is an over-used — and usually misused — concept when applied to societies (you could probably blame Pynchon) and McHugh doesn’t use it herself. But the stories here are mostly about what happens to a closed system that’s accustomed to exporting its chaos when that chaos gets harder to export. We can’t offshore our waste heat forever — inevitably, it will find its way back to us in the form of bird flu or spongiform encephalopathy or economic collapse.

Even before the societal trauma, McHugh’s protagonists are pretty much all hard luck cases, victims of a bad economy or a relationship gone wrong or simple class divisions. But what differentiates these stories from the typical New Yorker-type story of lower middle-class ennui is that, for the most part, the protagonists try to claw some sense of agency from their lives — even if that impulse leads them to destructive, or self-destructive, acts.

The included stories are:

“The Naturalist” — A convict in a zombie-plagued Cleveland used as an Escape from New York-type penitentiary city finds himself conducting fieldwork on the undead. Clever twist on zombies, and a great use of physical detail. McHugh does a good job making a sympathetic character out of someone committing monstrous acts.

“Special Economics” — A pair of young women, working indentured jobs at a biotech firm in Shanghai, use their gumption to try and find a way out of their servitude. The view of modern China felt refreshingly unpatronizing.

Useless Things” — The best story in the collection, to my mind. A woman living alone in New Mexico after massive economic collapse scrambles to keep her life from deteriorating. Nothing terribly shocking happens here but it’s a haunting story. Like Kij Johnson’s story “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” this one skillfully uses pet dogs as a means of raising the emotional stakes in a subtle way. Every relationship here felt real.

“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” — Written as a feature story in a newspaper, this one investigates a teenager who disappeared after dirty bombs were set off in Baltimore.

“The Kingdom of the Blind” — A collection of programmers try to figure out if the health-care software system they run is developing into an AI. Some really good characterization in this one.

“Going to France” — A magical-realist story of a woman who gives aid to some folks flying to France, and the brief jolt they give to her life. Somewhat slight, but still interesting.

“Honeymoon” — A woman leaves behind an annulled marriage in Lancaster, PA for a hospital job in Cleveland, where she takes part in a disastrous medical study. This one’s very reminiscent of the stories in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s collection Greasy Lake.

“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” — A resentful teenage girl deals with the deteriorating mind and messy relationships of her mother. Solid story — even more harrowing than the portrayal of spongiform encephalopathy is the (truly sympathetic) portrayal of a hoarder.

“After the Apocalypse” — A mother and daughter make their way north to Canada as the US falls into anarchy, sort of a negative exposure of McCarthy’s The Road. I’ll be curious to see how bad the moms in McHugh’s previous short story collection, Mothers and Other Monsters, are in comparison to the one portrayed here.

There really isn’t a dud here, which is rare for a collection of short stories.

Compiling a Worldwide Genetic Atlas

Just amazing: tracing the genetic legacy of Alexander the Great in Central Asia, among many, many others:

Dr. Myers and his colleagues have detected European ancestry that entered the Tu people of central China between the 11th and 14th centuries; this, they surmise, could be from traders traveling the Silk Road. They find among Northern Italians an insertion of Middle Eastern DNA that occurred between 776 B.C. and A.D. 550, and may represent the Etruscans, a mysterious people said by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus to have emigrated from Lydia in Turkey.

Science Fiction? What Science Fiction?

Wow. John Schellenberg writes a whole hand-wringing article over at Aeon about how modern culture seems to accept “deep time” as a concept pertaining only to the past and not the future — and nowhere in the article is science fiction even mentioned. No Stapledon, no Stross, no Vinge. Not even Wells! And not even a dismissive comment like “Oh sure, sci-fi folks may do this, but when it comes to serious inquiry blah blah blah…” It’s as if the whole undertaking of SF simply never existed.

It’s almost like an ironic short story about an alternate universe where Western culture has no tradition of imagining the future. I was expecting it to end with some sort of alternate-world stinger like “If only there were writers brave enough to explore concepts like space travel or post-scarcity economics! But ever since H.G. Wells died in that trolley crash at the tragically young age of thirty, no writer has taken up the task.” Which would be a pretty clever story, incidentally — certainly more clever than Schellenberg’s article.

Calvin the Kwisatz Haderach (and Hobbes)

Actually, Calvin and Muad’Dib:

calvin-and-muaddib2calvin-and-muaddib1Brilliant! (h/t Tor.com)

In Defense of “The Road”

In her recent negative review of Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, the fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin makes a pretty good case for the book’s slightness:

A good many things in the novel were inexplicable to me, such as how and when North America came to be like this, what happened to nation and religion, how raw materials are produced and how, without trains or good highways, they manage to have coffee, petrol, electronic devices, food in plastic pouches, neoprene suits, plastic throwaway dishes and implements — unsustainably hi-tech luxuries that we in 2014 enjoy thanks to our immense global network of industrial production. In a broken, sporadic civilisation, where does all this stuff come from? Neglect of such literal, rational questions in imaginative fiction is often excused, even legitimised, as literary licence. Because the author is known as a literary writer, he will probably be granted the licence he takes. But social science fiction granted no such irresponsibility, and a novel about a future society under intense political control is social science fiction. Like Cormac McCarthy and others, Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.

There are some good points here. Le Guin’s basically complaining about a lack of worldbuilding in Lee’s novel, and she provides enough specific detail that the complaint makes a lot of sense. But her passing shot at McCarthy — clearly in reference to The Road — just seems wrong-headed to me. Complaining that The Road doesn’t adhere to SF worldbuilding dogma is like complaining that L’avventura neglects the conventions of mystery fiction because it doesn’t (spoiler alert, I guess) resolve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance.the-road

When you get down to it, worldbuilding is really about ecosystems, either natural or cultural. How does this world work? How do its parts hang together? How did it come to be this way? If you buy into the worldbuilding orthodoxy, you demand this sort of detail; and if you really buy into it you relish that detail, all intellectual considerations aside.

But The Road’s focus is precisely: what if there are no ecosystems left? What if all the natural and cultural infrastructures that sustain us are stripped suddenly away, replaced only with the certainty that we can never, ever get them back? What if the world the author builds seems gray and lifeless because that’s exactly the world he’s trying to create in order to explore the themes he wants to explore?

In The Road, there appears to be no earthly life left other than man. This is, to put it bluntly, impossible — no disaster we can imagine, whether meteor or supervolcano or thermonuclear war, could bring about such a state. But the world McCarthy creates has to be this bleak to fulfill his purposes. He masterfully exploits his stark mise-en-scene to examine a very specific question: how can a parent fulfill his obligation to nurture and protect his child when there is absolutely, positively no worldly hope? Complaining that the cause of the book’s apocalypse is left unclear or that “we can’t live without bacteria” (as one of the commenters on Le Guin’s review gripes) is dogma-driven nerdishness of the most obtuse and tedious sort. It prizes a specious rigor over the central aims of art.

Le Guin has complained about McCarthy swiping SF’s goods before (though, interestingly, a close reading of her comment there suggests she hasn’t even read The Road). And she’s long nursed a resentment toward the mainstream literary world — more specifically, to the way she feels the mainstream literary world looks down on SF. It’s an understandable resentment. It can be ridiculous to see a gaggle of Brooklynites or Upper West Siders go apeshit over an SF trope that has, for readers familiar with the genre, long since curdled into cliché. But The Road was a popular success as well as a critical one, and so far it’s had a lasting cultural afterlife (which I suspect Lee’s On Such a Full Sea will not). It’s not just literary mandarins who embraced McCarthy’s novel, it’s the reading public as a whole, and that should tell Le Guin that she’s acting like a bit of a literary mandarin herself.

Quote #16 – Super Bowl Edition

end-zone“You know what to do,” he said, and his voice grew louder. “You know what this means. You know where we are. You know who to get.”

We were all making the private sounds. We were getting ready. We were getting high. The noise increased in volume.

“Footbawl,” George Owen shouted. “This is footbawl. You thow it, you ketch it, you kick it. Footbawl. Footbawl. Footbawl.”

– Don DeLillo, End Zone. Good luck Seahawks!