Speed of Dark: III

Speed of Dark cover

(Previously)

So what can we do with Gene Crenshaw? Right from the start he feels false; in his first scene, we see him berating Pete Aldrin about how “these people” — Lou and the rest of Section A — “have to fit in”, have to give up their “toys” (17). It’s Crenshaw who insists to Section A that “you are not normal. You are autistics, you are disabled” (103); in his most charitable moments the most he can allow is that it’s “Not their fault” (163); when the police come to interview Lou about the vandalism, Crenshaw’s first assumption is that Lou is the one under investigation, and his second assumption is that it’s Lou’s fault: “What have you been up to, Lou, that someone’s trying to kill you? You know company policy — if I find out you’ve been involved with criminal elements –” (247). But it’s Crenshaw who drives the central tension of the novel. There is, it seems, a novel treatment that could “cure” adult autism. Crenshaw buys it (just like that!) and sets about blackmailing Lou and his colleagues into taking it, or face redundancy.

We might, I suppose, find it ironic that the character most ardently convinced that Lou is defective is himself monstrously inflexible, entirely unable to adjust his preconceived ideas to accept Lou as a person. We might also find some satisfaction in the fact that Crenshaw’s obsessive vendetta leads directly to his downfall late in the novel. We might reflect on the ways in which institutional policy and social conventions support and validate Crenshaw’s bias, while at best tolerating Lou’s. We might even find Crenshaw’s antics amusing, theatre, if his whole routine wasn’t so drearily predictable. It’s not that Crenshaw clearly wears a black hat that’s the problem; it’s that he fits his role in the plot too neatly and completely to develop any of the possibilities above, denied the personhood insisted upon for Lou.

In contrast, Don’s plot strand, perhaps because it is of secondary importance, ends up somewhere interesting. It helps that we simply see more of Don, including — if only briefly — different sides to his character, and helps, too, that his judgments of Lou are mostly muttered and snide, rather than improbably explicit. But in many ways Don is as much a device as Crenshaw; it’s just that something interesting happens after he’s dealt with. After his arrest, the police explain to Lou that the probable punishment, if he is found guilty, is the insertion of a “programmable personality determinant brain-chip” (284), because:

“Recidivism,” Mr Stacy says, pawing through a pile of hardcopies. “They do it again. It’s been proved. Just like you can’t stop being you, the person who is autistic, he can’t stop being him, the person who is jealous and violent. If it’d been found when he was an infant, well, then …” (285)

A little on-the-nose, perhaps, down to the possibility of early correction, but effective nonetheless: having spent 300 pages being conditioned to recognise the possibility of the modification of Lou’s personality as beyond the pale, it’s nicely unsettling to be asked to accept it as justified for someone else, perhaps especially someone as obviously a bad guy as Don. (We might think: it’s been proved, you say? Like Lou’s disability?) The feeling is reinforced when the fencing group welcomes the news, over Lou’s misgivings:

“I think it is very scary, I say. “He did something wrong, but it is scary that they will turn him into someone else.”

“It’s not like that,” Lucia says. She is staring at me now. She should understand if anyone can; she knows about the experimental treatment; she knows why it would bother me that Don will be compelled to be somebody else. “He did something wrong — something very bad. He could have killed you, Lou. Would have, if he hadn’t been stopped. If they turned him into a bowl of pudding it would be fair, but all the chip does is make him unable to do anyone harm.”

It is not that simple. [...] Even I know that, and I am sure Lucia knows it too, but she is ignoring it for some reason. (291-2)

Thus is the second point of parallel — the treatment — made explicit, and thus does the ground of the novel shift a notch further, moving away from the unambiguous wrongness of Crenshaw’s blackmail towards the more challenging questions of what might be changed, and what change might mean in practice. (Although we never get to see the chipped Don, which seems a shame.) “I am sideways to the world”, is Lou’s assessment of his own situation (277); and at some point, he starts to wonder whether that’s how he always wants to be.

And so to the closing chapters of Speed of Dark, where the novel is at its tough, thoughtful best. With Don apprehended and Crenshaw deposed, there remains only the question of change itself, the cost/benefit analysis of becoming a different person — or rather, hastening the process. As Lou himself points out, he has changed already, and would have done even if Gene Crenshaw had never impinged on his life. But the possibility of removing his autism feels more fundamental. The crucial passage probably comes when Lou goes to church, and finds himself confronted with a sermon about the necessity of choosing to be healed. He asks whether he should want to be healed, whether God would want it; the best his priest can do for an answer is, “only if it doesn’t interfere with who we are as God’s children, I suppose” (347). (And Lou is more than his autism, the novel has been telling us.) At the fencing club, his friends can scarcely believe it when he tells them he’s going to take the treatment, some being sure that he must be doing it to be accepted by Marjory; at work, Pete Aldrin can’t quite believe Lou really understands that there’s no longer any pressure from the company, or threat to his job. Lou’s choice is not unexpected — if you hang a miracle treatment on the wall in the first act of a science fiction novel, it’s almost unthinkable that you won’t do anything with it in the third — but it feels like a choice nonetheless, suffused with ambivalence and uncertainty. The chapter in which Moon breaks down Lou’s voice and then reconstructs it, the same but different — not out of love, nor out of fear, but out of curiosity and ambition — is very effectively controlled. Of course it changes things more; changes Lou’s job, his friends, his relationships. (Though not, in the case of Marjory, in the way that the earlier Lou would have hoped.) But at least, he tells us on the final page, at least “Now I get to ask the questions” (424). The call-back is one more neatness in a novel that has too many of them; but this one, I think, is earned.

The Habitation of the Linked

For perhaps the final time, at least here (once again, I’m shifting over to the Strange Horizons blog):

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Cascadia Subduction Zone

Huzzah! Not too long after the launch of one critical zine comes news of another. It’s like, I don’t know, some holiday when people are encouraged to hand out gifts, or something. The Cascadia Subduction Zone is produced by Aqueduct Press and says of itself:

The Cascadia Subduction Zone aims to bring reviews, criticism, interviews, intelligent essays, and flashes of creative artwork (visual and written) to a readership hungry for discussion of work by not only men but also women. Work by women continually receives short shrift in most review publications. And yet the majority of readers are women. Ron Hogan writes in an August 2010 post on Beatrice.com, “[Jennifer] Weiner and [Jodi] Picoult, among others, are giving us a valuable critique of a serious problem with the way the [New York] Times [Book Review]—and, frankly, most of the so-called literary establishment—treats contemporary fiction. Which is to say: They ignore most of it, and when it comes to the narrow bandwidth of literature they do cover, their performance is underwhelming, ‘not only meager but shockingly mediocre,’ as former LA Times Book Review director Steve Wasserman said three years ago. And it hasn’t gotten any better since then, leaving us with what Jennifer Weiner describes as “a disease that’s rotting the relationship between readers and reviewers.”

The relationship between readers and reviewers interests us. We want to bring attention to work critics largely ignore and offer a wider, less narrowly conceived view of the literary sphere. In short, we will review work that interests us, regardless of its genre or the gender of its author. We will blur the boundaries between critical analysis, review, poetry, fiction, and visual arts. And we will do our best to offer our readers a forum for discussion that takes the work of women as vital and central rather than marginal. What we see, what we talk about, and how we talk about it matters. Seeing, recognizing, and understanding is what makes the world we live in. And the world we live in is, itself, a sort of subduction zone writ large. Pretending that the literary world has not changed and is not changing is like telling oneself that Earth is a solid, eternally stable ball of rock.

All of which I can easily get behind. There are good people involved, too — Managing Editor is Lew Gilchrist, Reviews Editor is Nisi Shawl, Features Editor is L Timmel Duchamp, and Arts Editor is Kath Wilhelm; and the first issue, which I’ve just downloaded and had a quick browse through, includes reviews by Duchamp, Rachel Swirsky, Nancy Jane Moore and others. (You can see the full table of contents on the site front page, here.) In fact, at this stage my only quibble is that they indulge that annoying habit of American magazines, that of starting an article on one page and then continuing it on another non-contiguous page. In a print edition, this is irritating; as a PDF, it’s a bit more than that. Still, I wish the CSZ every success. For those who may be interested, the submission guidelines are here.

Loose Ends

1. I’ve put together an index post linking too all the posts of the past week, plus the contexual posts from earlier in the autumn. If you want to link to the poll or discussions, that’s probably the best place to link to now.

2. Matt Denault asked what a top ten that treated book-length series (ie aggregated votes for, say, Bold as Love and Castle Made of Sand) as a single entry would look like:

1. Natural History/Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Justina Robson
2. The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall
3. Maul, Tricia Sullivan
4. Small Change trilogy, Jo Walton
5. the Time-Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffeneger
6= Spirit, Gwyneth Jones
6= Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon
8. Bold as Love series, Gwyneth Jones
9. The Castle/Fourlands novels, Steph Swainston
10. The Vorkosigan novels, Lois McMaster Bujold

So new entries for Bujold and Swainston, Walton and Robson move up, and Life, Lavinia and City of Pearl drop out. Treating the two Robson novels as a series is arguable, I grant — they’re a shared universe but share no characters — and if you don’t, Natural History places joint third with Small Change.

3. A couple of dangling links: Tansy Rayner Roberts on Feed by Mira Grant and on The Gene Thieves by Maria Quinn, winner of the first Norma K Hemming Award. The latest Coode St podcast includes a bit of discussion about the list.

4. Follow-up. This obviously isn’t the last word on this topic; I have a few other ideas in mind, but none ready to go just yet.

Chasing the Links

  • Aishwarya Subramaniam talks about her nominations for the Future Classics poll
  • Michael Froggatt on 2017 by Olga Slavnikova
  • Cold Iron and Rowan Wood on The Meat Tree by Gwyneth Lewis, part of Seren Press’ “new stories from the Mabinogion” series.
  • Jonathan McCalmont on The Red Tree by Caitlin R Kiernan and Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
  • Tansey Rayner Roberts talks about the new Norma K Hemming Award, for excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability in sf published in Australia or written by an Australian citizen
  • Details of the latest Galactic Suburbia podcast
  • David Hebblethwaite on An A-Z of Possible Worlds by AC Tillyer and on Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Matt Denault on Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren, and its marketing:

    I wrote at the outset that my two chief frustrations with Walking the Tree involve its outside and its inside. The frustration with the outside is easy enough to describe: the book’s cover. The back cover of my published UK edition contains the instruction to “FILE UNDER: FANTASY” and a quote from Ellen Datlow, best known in recent times for her work editing dark fantasy and horror; the front cover bears a quote from Trudi Canavan, “bestselling author of the Black Magician trilogy,” a fantasy work. Additionally the publisher, Angry Robot, is marketing as similar two more of its books on the back cover: Warren’s debut novel Slights and Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, a dark fantasy. In short, this is a science fiction book by a female author that is being marketed very hard to look like a fantasy book—and a fantasy book for a primarily female audience. This was done, I’m sure, with the best of intentions. But there is a deeply insidious notion about the relationship between women and science that’s suggested by this chosen marketing. Labeling a science fiction book by a female author as fantasy contributes to the fallacious but widespread idea that women don’t write science fiction. This in turn can only reinforce the stereotype that women aren’t any good at science. Parallel to this, to fixate the book’s marketing so squarely on women reinforces that damaging gender paradigm that men’s stories should be of interest to both men and women, while women’s stories should be of interest only to women. The two problems are entwined: men’s stories are important to all because they are seen as real, and thus can be grounded in something real like science; women’s stories are dismissed as fantasy, nothing that could ever happen and so nothing that’s worth treating as actionable. So I’d argue that the book’s marketing, whatever its intentions, is actively, damagingly in opposition to the ideas of the book’s content.

Going Linker

Linking Out

Linking It Real

Super Sad True Link Story

And finally finally: don’t forget that next week around these parts is going to be about sf by women. In particular, if you haven’t voted in the ongoing poll, please do email me your top ten sf novels by women from the last ten years (2001–2010). Deadline 23.59 on Sunday 5 December, results all next week.

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The Half-Made Links (2)

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