Maybe we’ve been spoiled. The past few years have given us a series of novels that were published outside the genre, were commercial and critical successes, and that were — let’s not be ashamed to admit it — good sf as well. Margaret Atwood might call it the wrong thing, but she knows what it is. David Mitchell, as demonstrated in Cloud Atlas and his other novels, clearly knows the old stories intimately. Audrey Niffenegger has confessed to reading sf as a teenager; Kazuo Ishiguro probably hasn’t, but he’s obviously thought carefully and deeply about the implications of imagined worlds for the stories he wants to tell.
Now here comes Michael Cunningham, with a book that aspires to tell the myth of America. As in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours (2002), a literary giant looms behind the story. There it was Virginia Woolf; here it is Walt Whitman, the man who wrote “the poem that was the United States.” (145) Also like The Hours, Specimen Days involves three stories linked across time. The differences are of focus and structure. Specimen Days does not stay in the 20th century, it ranges from 1850 to 2150, and its stories are not intermingled, they are arranged in chronological sequence.
Further comparisons are equally inevitable. Like Cloud Atlas (2004), for example, Specimen Days reeks of design; its stories echo and interact. Cunningham is not the master ventriloquist that Mitchell is — all three tales are told in variations of the same cool, clear voice — but he moves between genres with something of the same enthusiasm. The oldest story, set in the industrial revolution, is a ghost story; the contemporary tale is a thriller; and the final piece appears to be science fiction. There are similarities, too, with Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). Specimen Days takes place within our history, not alongside it, but it employs the same trio of characters in each time period: Simon, a man; Catherine (or Cat, or Catareen), a woman; and Lucas (or Luke), a boy. Each character becomes the viewpoint for one of the stories. As in Robinson’s book, the world may be a variable, but souls are a constant.
Lucas’ story is first. “In The Machine” is set in a New York in the throes of industrialisation. Lucas’ older brother, Simon, has been killed in a factory accident, and Lucas is to inherit his job and support their parents. He has inherited also (or so he feels) his brother’s adoration for his bride-to-be, Catherine. Lucas is strange, earnest and innocent. He does not really understand people, or the world around him, and that’s not just because he’s a child. His parents — ill or idle — are little help, and Catherine looks at him with pity, not as an equal. Lucas’ only guide to life is an early edition of Whitman’s repeatedly-revised book, Leaves of Grass. In the book he finds understanding and support; indeed, in stressful moments the poetry will take him over, leading to involuntary, and sometimes inappropriate, recitations. Through the poetry, however, he gains an answer about where Simon has gone, an answer that can reconcile Catherine’s contradictory insistences that he is in heaven, yet with them still. Simon, per Whitman, has gone into everything: into the grass, and into the machine.
“In The Machine” is a claustrophobic story, and conveys well the sense of how dehumanising technological change can be. To Lucas, the factory seems to literally be another world. The men in it have “relinquished their citizenship […] their former lives were dreams they had each night, from which they awakened each morning at the works” (29). Moreover, Lucas becomes convinced that Simon is not just in the machine, but trapped in it. Unable to make Catherine understand, he resorts to drastic, tragic measures. The story is a lament for the loss of innocence: by a boy, and by the world.
Skip forward to today or tomorrow, and innocence is harder to find. In Cat’s New York, the hazy edge between sleeping and waking “was as close as it got to collective innocence” (114). Cat herself is doing ok, mostly: she’s a 38 year-old African American detective, living in a small but somewhat sought-after apartment on fifth avenue. She works in terrorism deterrence; she’s the person the crazy people call when they want to rant at someone. And in this time, she and Simon — working in finance, trading in futures — are together, but Lucas is absent.
But the rest of the world, the post-9/11 world, is ugly and dystopic. Cat asks a colleague, “It’s getting harder to see the patterns, don’t you think?” (155) and with that question the story becomes a bleak inversion of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003): all noise, no order. Like the world in Gibson’s novel, the world in “The Children’s Crusade” is not yet science fiction, but it does seem an exaggerated reality, in this case exaggeratedly negative, every pessimistic hypothetical made manifest. This is a time when children can walk up to adults, seemingly randomly chosen, hug them, and detonate the bombs strapped to their chest. And yet, there has been some progress. Cat is acutely aware of the sexism and racism that surround her at work, but in her personal life, in her relationship, the balance of power is ambiguous. She is wary of Simon’s white, middle-class nature, but she loves him, and believes he loves her; and when her work intrudes on their time together she reflects that he is “a spectator […] a wife if you will.” (139)
The intrusion is a lead in Cat’s investigation into the child terrorists, which itself leads to more ambiguities: these children seem to have taken Lucas’ obsession with the book to terrifying lengths, adopting Whitman’s words as a prescription for change. Here the effectiveness of the book’s structure is highlighted for the first time, for this story’s Lucas turns out, unsurprisingly, to be one of the bombers. If we had not spent the previous hundred pages inside his head — if we did not understand his desperate need to make the adults understand — then he would be an alien creature indeed. And yet, this sympathetic quality is also troubling. It comes close to endorsing a crusade which seems, at heart, to be sincerely anti-technological. The children were raised by a woman they call Walt Whitman, who may be the reincarnation of the poet. Cat tracks her down, and asks her why:
“Everybody wants a reason, don’t they? Let’s say this, then. Whitman was the last great man who really and truly loved the world. The machinery was just starting up when he lived. If we can return to a time like Whitman’s, maybe we can love the world again.” (188)
The slyly unsettling trick of characterisation-by-association is repeated in “Like Beauty”, the only story in which all three characters are alive and interacting simultaneously. This time it is Simon’s eyes through which we see; this time Simon is a simulo, a made man, working as a rent-a-thug in Old New York, hired to give tourists a thrilling fright (it is interesting that having been killed by the future in the first story, and paid to surf it in the second, now he ignores it entirely, and works in the past). This time Catareen is an alien, “a four-and-a-half-foot tall lizard with prominent nostrils and eyes slightly smaller than golf balls.” (199) In Simon’s eyes she is exotic and terse and enigmatic — but we know what goes on in her mind. We know the restless, cynical intelligence that lies behind her orange eyes, and because of it we see Simon’s well-meaning but patronising affection for what it is. More troublingly, the two of them are closer in station — her a refugee, he stolen property — than in either of the other two stories, and yet they still do not fully interact as equals. If anything, they fix in traditional power structures more firmly than they did in our time.
The success of Catareen’s characterisation highlights one of Cunningham’s themes, that everything is connected, human or alien, self or other; but it is the first failure of Cunningham’s future as a literal world. As soon as we realise Catareen is comprehensible as a human, by definition she ceases to be an alien. She becomes a symbol — a metaphor, in the Star Trek tradition — but is no longer a believable nonhuman intelligence. It is difficult, therefore, to read the story as full science fiction.
Nor, after a while longer, do we want to do so. Cunningham’s future has, as Michel Faber noted in his review of the book for The Guardian, “the usual demerits of mainstream science fiction.” It is old and faded, and feels like unwitting reiteration rather than homage; it looks backward, recreation of Central Park and all. The backdrop is by-the-numbers political fragmentation and environmental meltdown. The details are either superficial (the drinks and the clothes are unusual colours) or embarrassing (children are named tomcruise and katemoss). Matters are clarified somewhat when Simon’s artificial nature becomes clear: he is no more than a tin man, and this is not truly science fiction, it is mythic fantasy. This future is Oz. “I want something. I feel a lack” (232), Simon tells Catareen, as they set out on their quest; but it is an unrevealing revelation that serves only to pave the way for a predictable narrative escape trajectory, first from the city and then, perhaps, from Earth itself.
Through it all, of course, there is Whitman. Like Lucas before him, this Simon involuntarily spouts Whitman in times of stress. The poetry, we are told, is part of his programming; it regulates his spirit, he is told, makes him “better able to appreciate the consequences of [his] actions” (281). Whitman binds these characters together, and infiltrates their thoughts. ‘In The Machine’ is the only story in which he appears directly — as a guide to Lucas, in a curiously soft-focus scene that sketches the poet as a sort of spiritual Santa — but he informs both “The Children’s Crusade” and “Like Beauty”. In each time Simon, Lucas and Catherine are characters bewildered in different ways by the failure of the world and Whitman, perhaps, offers an answer: a lullaby of a world-that-was. Specimen Days repeatedly demonstrates that it is a regressive book, one that looks back to a pre-industrial age of peace as mythical as the post-industrial landscape through which the last Simon wanders. The industrial revolution is bad because it disconnects people from the world; the present is dystopian because urbanisation and technological progress have poisoned the well; the only viable future is to look to the past.
Most egregious is the suggestion that all of this should be accepted on instinct, without discrimination, because “if you insist on too much focus here or there, you miss the larger point.” (147) Whitman’s veneration of the everyday is used as a justification for simplistic reasoning, for an argument that values feeling about thinking, sentiment over intellect. And from such reasoning comes guilt: through our choices we have destroyed the innocence of the world. We should undo them, refill and close Pandora’s Box — or worse, abandon this project and start over. Reach back to the twentieth century, before the old world ended and the towers came tumbling down. If this is the myth of America it is empty, and it is a shame that Cunningham’s undoubted skill — the first two novellas, at least, are worthwhile — should be used in service of a message so obviously banal. It is also the novel’s ultimate undoing, because such clumsy logic does a disservice to Whitman as much as to the reader. By the end, a great poet is not so much a reference point as a crutch for a narrative that emphatically rejects complexity; and such a crutch can only leave splinters in the reader’s hand.
This review first appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction #210 (February 2006)