Month: August 2022

Mirrorflaking the ocean’s steely surface

After two decades of going over-schedule and over-budget, the James Webb Space Telescope is finally proving that there is no such thing as over-exposure when photographing deep space. Arriving at its final destination in orbit about the Sun, blossoming and unfolding its hexagonal petals, the JWST began soaking up photons — photons coming to the end of a long journey from the very distant past. Aside from some spacey looking, Chris Foss-esque, snapshots, serious technical data is being collected. By carefully observing the flickers of stars, scientists are measuring light spectra as distant planets cross pass over the face of their sun. From these spectra, the composition of elements on those planets can be deduced.

Most of us will never get to see the Earth from orbit or walk on the moon. The solar system and beyond will remain bright dots in the night sky. The craft of Astronomy is to deduce facts from a limited vantage point, with inevitably limited means, about phenomena that you will never observe directly. Astronomers refer to the chain of reasoning that they have employed as “climbing the celestial ladder”. It’s the oldest scientific game going, with shockingly accurate estimates of the earth’s size attributed to Eratosthenes in the third century BC.

We differ in many respects to those Greeks, not least of all in the extent and power of our technology. But here is another: we possess powerful convictions about the future, animated at least in part by science fiction. Some, when the JWST data is all brought together and processed, will be more than merely curious about the theoretical existence of life “out there”. Those certain people will be looking at those worlds as potential destinations for the future of our species.

When Herge had Tintin set his ligne claire foot upon the moon before Niel Armstrong, so he had to imagine how it could happen. There was a literature at the time, written by scientists and engineers, on the subject of rocketry and a future moon expedition and Herge consulted it. The aim was realism and in that Herge was remarkably successful. The field of “hard SF” — science fiction which sincerely aims to pays its dues to the equations — has shown much less restraint, but nevertheless seems to harbor the belief that they are anticipating similar future developments. Many authors and readers believe these stories have social utility in either inspiring us toward grand feats or in anticipating the inevitable challenges that await us. Either way these writers become prophets, sensitive to the whispers of the goddess Science in their ears.

This review of Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson, will stray deeply into the “spoilery” territory some of you like to avoid. Territory where I’m not so much assuming you have read the book, but that you are fine with me divulging the key contours of the plot so I can explain my grand theory about what is really going on. For my part, I started reading Aurora with a good idea what lay ahead. The story, as far as I understood it going in, was going to be a fictionalized illustration of a guest essay Robinson wrote for Boing Boing many years ago — that I read at the time — which laid down a thorough account of the reasons why we aren’t going to be colonising other planets or doing much of any travel outside our solar system.

The premise of Aurora is that humanity reaches for the stars anyway. We alight upon a generation star ship as it reaches the end of a 160 year journey to Tau Ceti — a nearby star possessing Earth-like. The generation star ship is a tool for science fiction writers; a means of carrying mankind across the unfathomable distances between stars. Rather than hyperdrive or cryosleep, you imagine a spaceship as a kind of grand terrarium in which a living, breathing, teeming, reproducing lump of Earth’s ecosystem, humans included, are sent off in a self sustaining bubble. A nuclear reactor provides the constant input of energy required to avoid entropy, and with the turning of a few pages hundreds of years pass, generations rise and fall, and we arrive at their destination.

There are characters, but only three are really important; only two are human. Devi, the ship’s chief engineer, whose existence is devoted to fixing the alarming array of problems that are presenting themselves, and Freya, her daughter, struggling to follow in her mothers footsteps despite lacking inclination toward anything mathematical. Then there is the ship’s AI, who might even dispute their status as a character at all, but has been cultivated by Devi into a storyteller who narrates most of (and I would argue the entire) novel.

Readers responded most strongly to the AI narrator, won over by the ship wrestling with the way we employ metaphor and simile in our language. But this amounts to the ship transitioning from writing with the dispassionate, exhaustive, technical register you’d expect from a computer, to the kind of cliched idiom you’d encounter in the prose of an eager yet unimaginative writer. That is until there is some geography to be described, in which case they invariably write like the singular Kim Stanley Robinson.

To my own liking, Devi is the most compelling character. She lives with a constant sense of anger. Not at anyone who shares the ship with her, but at those predecessors who volunteered themselves and condemned their offspring to the journey. As the chief engineer, she is responsible for addressing the oversights and shortcomings of the original design. As a consequence, she understands better and earlier than anyone else on board how truly nightmarish their reality is.

Kurt Vonnegut’s sixth of eight rules for writing seems especially relevant here:

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

In this respect Robinson uses the generation star ship as a terrible predicament for our characters. They aren’t intrepid voyagers; they are poor souls born in a tin can hurtling through the void. By the end it is the great, great, great, great grandchildren of those who first set off from earth who arrive at the destination. One of the all time great sci-fi speculations, but awful for anyone who would be caught, trapped, sealed inside such a thing.

It’s not Robinson who is the sadist — it’s all of us. The trick in storytelling is allowing the reader implicate themselves in the actions and events of a story. In Aurora’s case we are implicated as science-fiction readers, eagerly anticipating mankind setting foot on another world, with little consideration of the actual fate of the generations of voyagers stuck on the starship. We are with that first generation of volunteers who effectively consigned their descendants to their bleak and unpromising fate.

We are to learn the hard way that “habitable” and “Earth like” are terms-of-art for astronomers, applied to a broad family of planets. What resembles Earth from a great distance might not be a place we would want to live. Aurora is the planet the colonists settle on with its limited prospects: oceans, wind, and oxygen. Filled with relief, they rush off the ship that has been their inter-generational prison and start building a new life. Unfortunately, those who expose themselves to the ostensibly breathable atmosphere start having extreme adverse reactions, quite likely from some mysterious microscopic alien organism that they can barely identify. Thus, they find themselves caught in another great literary trick: the double bind. Either they choose to settle an Earth-like planet can potentially support life, in which case it will be almost certainly poisonous, or they choose an Earth-like planet that is inert and unlivable, on the promise that terra-forming will make it livable in a few hundred years.

It is a long way to have traveled to arrive at such a truth. To be betrayed. The population struggles to accept this reality, falling into violent civil war, and ultimately having to divide itself. The ship is split in two. Half of them remain, believing that colonization will still be possible, while the other half set off on a return journey to Earth. At this point, quite conveniently, our heroes are presented with newly invented hibernation technology that will allow them to sleep through the return journey. Not only sparing them from famine as the internal balance of their limited ecosystem begins to collapse, but also to allow those who arrived at Tau Ceti to confront the society that sent them in the first place.

The final chapter of the book has no clear narrator (although I believe that there is one implied). With insufficient means of slowing it’s approach, the ship performs a sequence of reverse gravity slingshot manoeuvres to slow their trajectory sufficiently so that the remaining colonists can be ejected back to earth, while the ship itself is lost into the sun. Freya and her shipmates arrive on earth, discovering in it a to be a home like nowhere in the universe. Perversely, many on earth are upset that they returned, feeling that they betrayed mankind’s true destiny. It is on this final ironic note that the novel might have ended, but instead we finish with an extended passage where Freya goes to the beach and enjoys the waves. This final passage has proven particularly dissatisfying and mystifying to many readers.

With the ship perishing in its final orbit around the sun, the reader might be obliged to conclude that the ship couldn’t possibly be narrating the final chapter. That is to forget why the ship was narrating at all. The ship’s narration was an exercise set by Devi as a means of explaining to the occupants on board the ship the nature of their predicament.

Devi: Ship! I said make it a narrative. Make an account. Tell the story.
Ship: Trying.
Devi: […] Do what you can. Quit with the backstory, concentrate on what’s happening now. Pick one of us to follow, maybe. To organize your account.
Ship: Pick Freya?
Devi: … Sure. She’s as good as anyone, I guess. And while you’re at it, keep running searches. Check out narratology maybe. Read some novels and see how they do it. See if you can work up a narratizing algorithm. Use your recursive programming, and the Bayesian analytic engine I installed in you.

While we can assume that everything up to a certain point is true, I don’t see any reason why the ship wouldn’t extrapolate further, simply because each story needs an ending. What better way to explain the situation than to imagine what might likely happen? Allow them to foresee a future as it might likely be. The ship would be doing what Robinson argues science fiction writers have failed to do. That the narrative was in large part an AI hallucination would explain many things, not least of all the convenience of the hibernation technology. But also the final passage on the beach, which closely tracks the opening passage of the book, set out on a lake in one of the ship’s internal ecological containers. The ship is solving the “halting problem”, frequently alluded to, with a recursive, oroborean structure, starting where we began.

Back in late 2020, and early 2021 I read a very different generation star ship novel (or really a quadrilogy of novels). The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe. As specific as Aurora’s preoccupations are to Robinson, he readily alludes to it’s influence:

One of the best novels in the history of world literature, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, a seven-volume saga telling the story of a starship voyage and the inhabitation of a new planetary system, finesses all these problems in ways that allow huge enjoyment of the story it tells. The novel justifies the entertaining of the idea, no doubt about it.

The central conceit of Wolfe’s story is that the population of the Whorl have forgotten that the live in generation star ship — something that Robinson’s characters could only wish to forget. Like all of Wolfe’s works there is a literary preoccupation with the internal logic and the implications of who is telling the story. In the case of the Long Sun, save a dropped pronoun, up until the very end the reader must assume that the text is narrated by the omniscient third person.

I don’t think that Wolfe saw himself as a practitioner of hard SF, and although he had given thought to how the Whorl worked, it all seems to be in service of providing the reader with a fantastic literary vista — a setting that forces the reader to reorient themselves in reading the text. The real appeal of SF, as far as I judge it, is not that the authority of science grants the writer powers of prognostication, but rather a certain means of suspending disbelief, and then remarkable destinations to carry the reader away off too once their disbelief is in flight. It has been glibly asserted that SF needs to be more than jet-packs and ray guns, but Wolfe himself, even in his literary shenanigans was all about the jet-packs and ray guns. The problem was never the paraphernalia. The problem with a lot of SF was that the writing was not very good.

The ship was pulling its punches. I half anticipated the ship to arrive back at Earth to find that reintegration of the passengers into Earth’s ecosystem was impossible. How many new viruses would have evolved on Earth in their absence? How dangerous would their own bacteria have become to humans on Earth? Or perhaps they would be received back on Earth with abject horror. Inured to their own true state, they don’t appreciate how irradiated, starved, inbred, and traumatized they. But these would have been endings that would have not have suited the ship’s purposes, nor Robinson’s inclinations as a writer.

In the end mankind’s colonisation of the galaxy resembles less of a science based prediction of the future, than a kind of secular heaven. It lives, like heaven, in our imaginations, where it can be left unchallenged, save for when we encounter true believers. The aspirations of Star Trek, like many religious traditions, are better inherited in a flexible, non-literal form. But that also has grim possibilities as a divide opens up between the naive believers in our science fiction future and the better schooled theologians who will inevitably have to choose their words carefully so as not to alienate the faithful. In the case of the novel, the readers are left to imagine how the passengers on the ship in Aurora might have eventually reacted to story they have presented to them. Back in the real world a work like Aurora entering the “canon” of SF might inoculate us, but if the resistance to accepting Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… into any kind of canon is any indication, Robinson has his work cut out.

The Long Tail Twitches

The 20th Century promised us flying cars, jet-packs, and Mars colonies. And how could it not deliver? It was already happening. The atomic age arrived, ending the Second World War in terrifying fashion, nuclear power was ushered in, and men walked on the moon. But where exactly did we fall short in achieving the envisioned grandeur of tomorrow? Was anything less than Star Trek going to be a disappointment?

The 21st Century birthed a fresh litter of new promises and speculation; now it was the internet that was going to transform mankind. And how could it not deliver? The internet was already here. We were connecting and reconnecting via social networks, being blessed with the unlimited email inbox space, discovering with instantaneous search, guiding ourselves through meatspace via smartphone GPS, and abandoning TV for streaming. You have to separate the broken promises, and from those which became a nightmare.

One promise was of particular interest for those who, like me, feel some investment in our arts and culture (in my own case, being somewhat ‘bookish’). It was argued in a Wired essay, then spun into a book, that the internet would fundamentally change the market for culture; supply would meet demand more responsively and more dynamically. We had unmet needs stuck out in the “long tail”. The niche and otherwise obscure would reach the audiences who would appreciate it. In many ways it has. But the true implication of the long tail is that most cultural output is now the krill that the big conglomerate whales feed off. No individual artist living in the long tail will make any real money, but a corporation taking a 10% cut from the entire the long tail has a healthy return. We won’t be leaving the old gatekeepers behind any time soon and we still live under the tyranny of the lowest common denominator.

The new media landscape that has emerged has deeply frustrating shortcomings — even for increasingly well served readers. As Matthew Claxton observed in his newsletter on the phenomenon of the Brandon Sanderson kickstarter, if you go to Sanderson’s Amazon webpage for any of his books, the algorithmically generated recommendations put you at the bottom of a pit full of other Sanderson titles. The algorithm sends you to books you are likely to buy, which ultimately means bestsellers very similar to the bestseller you are already looking at. There is no effort to introduce you to new releases you might be interested in, or take you anywhere off the beaten path. Amazon has no interest in doing the things that bookseller enjoy doing, which must be utterly infuriating for booksellers who are learning the hard way just how irrelevant they are to the business of simply selling as many books as possible. Amazon could have been interesting if they weren’t so singularly focused on their algorithms.

What kind of bookseller would feel any pride in just putting the most obvious bestseller into the customer’s hands? One who only cared about making money, probably. One who had no investment in the treasure of discovery, certainly.

Let’s face it though: all of this talk is tiresome. The failures of our futurists is far less intriguing than the question of how we actually stumble upon our treasures of discovery. There is no reading list for life, and it is difficult to even talk seriously of a canon. It is more like we have inherited what is both a legacy and still growing, thriving enterprise. Both past and future works outpace us as more gets published then ever, and older works are rediscovered and re-evaluated. Every book listicle is a desperate attempt at navigating this reality. Engagement with this leviathan is no small feat: a book takes an unusual degree of engagement, in terms of time, concentration and intellectual commitment compared to most other narrative art forms.

To look back and wonder why I read any particular book is to confront free will itself. Something that the ideology of big tech pays some tribute to in all their talk of providing us with more “choice”. But it is reassuring to look back and find half a mystery and plenty of serendipity.

Some books I have read in large part because they were sat on a shelf before me, especially when I was younger. I read Thomas Harris’ counterfactual thriller that I found in the Welsh holiday cottage my family stayed at on the strength of the implied horror of blurb alone (what if…?). A similar story with Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett, with the Josh Kirby cover art that drawing me in rather than the blurb. It was bound to happen sooner or later — there are enough copies of both Harris and Pratchett out there that maybe it was only a matter of time.

Sometimes it is someone else’s initiative that leads me over the threshold of the first chapter — I make a point of reading the books that friends and acquaintances recommend to me. HHhH by Laurent Binet. Rant by Chuck Palahniuk. Death at Intervals by Jose Saramago. Me Speak Pretty One Day by David Sideris. Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. 4321 by Paul Auster. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Recommendations removed from book marketing and publishing log-rolling, and read free form the usual burden of expectations. I really can’t think of any that have been remotely dissatisfying.

Then there are the recommendations of famous and celebrated writers. This is treacherous ground, with all the log-rolling, blurbing, favors, politics, and insufferably chummy niceness that ultimately muddies the waters. You rarely hear an author expressing dislike for another authors work, but any serious writer must have stronger opinions than they let on. A reader with a developed sense of taste should be discarding books they find weak or disagreeable, and I find it hard to believe a writer the stones to make strong creative decisions if they can’t abandon a dismal novel.

I can think of two writers whose recommendations I would trust. This isn’t necessarily correlated to my opinion of them as writers, just on how their recommendations seem to have worked out. 1. Neil Gaimain — who seems to have a consistent knack for championing and recommending great work in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. He led me to Gene Wolfe, Susanna Clarke, and Jonathan Carroll. 2. Will Self — who, when he isn’t musing on the future of the novel, recommends some seriously interesting reads — The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, and My Father and Myself by JR Ackerly. (I also need to get around to Riddly Walker by Russell Hoban, which he has been effusive about.)

It is worth noting that The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe has a more complicated provenance than the Niel Gaiman recommendation. I have a vivid memory of being in high school, and reading a glossy paged coffee table book that must have been Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia by John Clute. I pored longingly over the reproduced cover art and reading accompanying text. One book sounded particularly arresting. A singular reading experience where the reader is introduced to what is ostensibly a fantasy setting before it is gradually revealed through various clues and hints, that it is fact the Earth of the distant future as the Sun is dying. It was a quadrilogy, which back then seemed like an unthinkable commitment, even if I could track down a copy. Yet the memory of the book lodged itself deeply in my mind as something that I should read. Yet I didn’t memorize the author or title, so I really have no idea how I managed to rediscover it later.

And then there are the lists. There are so many book lists, and you might wonder what possible use they may have. One list in particular — 1001 Books to Read Before You Die — published in book form, left a particular impression on me because I quite seriously set about trying to read them all. I was young and the attempt could not have lasted more than a year. But this would have been how I discovered Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, Ian McEwan, and many other “obvious” authors. I only got about a third of the way through A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and I should probably get around to giving it another go. There was something incredibly empowering about just going in blind, irrespective of any perceived “difficulty” the book might have. I suspect it liberated me as a reader.

There have been other lists that have been useful. The New York Times Best of the Year list and the Booker prize shortlists have been worthwhile. (A Tale for the Time Being, bu Ruth Ozeki being a stand out discovery). Sometimes books just have reputations: 1984, A Brave New World, The Selfish Gene, and Sapiens. Sometimes they got mentioned repeatedly on the New York Times Book Review podcast, and the authors interview very well — so I had to pick up Educated by Tara Westover and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood. Say what you like about the NYTBR, but having little interaction with the humanities side of academia, the highly networked worlds of genre and lit-fic, nor publishing more generally, they have been the best means of access available to me for the vicarious thrill of insider book-talk.

And who wrote those lists? Critics, you’d hope. Book reviews do in fact occasionally drive me toward reading a specific something. It was newspaper reviews that led me to Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev and Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter. I’ve tried a few books on the strength of them getting an A on The Complete Review. And was given the impetus to read Aurora by a New Yorker profile of Kim Stanley Robinson from the past year. But disappointingly it seems like it is the general critical consensus that moves me to read something that any one given critic. I guess James Wood is responsible for bringing Karl Ove Knausgård and Elena Ferrante to our attention, and I have read books by both of them. But it wasn’t James Wood’s writing that sent me to the bookstore.

Unfortunately it seems that my need to read a book accumulates within me as mysteriously as the workings of any algorithm. I badly needed to get around to reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, but I couldn’t point to any one particular recommendation. And I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson understanding the general critical acclaim it holds. It’s not unusual for me to read a book review and conclude that the book in question sure sounds great, only to file a mental note away in the overflowing mental filing cabinet.

And then there is the fact that one book can lead to another. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on various author’s Wikipedia pages trying to make sense of their influences. I’ve never anything like a systematic study, but I read Vance’s Tales of a Dying Earth because of Gene Wolfe, or and dipped into Dickens because of how much his novels have meant to Donna Tartt, among others. Authors may bridle at the question of where they get their ideas from, but tracking down their influences is fantastically easy. I could of course go about it the other way around and enroll in a “Great Books” course so I could convince myself that there is a coherent trajectory in literature that arrives at the present, but I think that’s better left as a vague aspiration.

A great deal of ink has been spilled in service of justifying extensive personal libraries of books that couldn’t possibly all be read in the owners lifetime. But their principal justification must be the ready richness of possibility that lies open before you when choosing the next book. We aren’t whales consuming books like krill. A book takes up residence in your inner life for days, weeks, months, or years. The cerebral furniture has to be arranged to accommodate the guest. As readers it doesn’t make sense to think about the “long tail” when the kinds of book I’m reading lived out there long before the internet came along. The long tail isn’t even a particularly meaningful concept then to readers like me except perhaps in reference to the way certain books can stay with us long after we’ve closed their covers.