City of Pearl: IV

City of Pearl cover

[previously]

Here’s another quote, from rather later in the novel, just after Lindsay, who managed to get herself pregnant before the mission left Earth, has given birth.

“He could do with some more milk, if you’re up to expressing some.”

Not more tubes. He was too weak even to feed properly. She laid him down in the cot again with a breaking heart. Every instinct in her body said she should forget common sense and take him somewhere quiet to comfort and nurse him. But Hugel was a doctor, and knew better. And Lindsay was an officer, the ranking officer now that Shan was out of action.

“I’ll get on with it,” she said. (311)

This is such a brusque examination of the maternal instinct that it feels little more than functional, a device to remind us that humans are animals, but set up and dismissed in a couple of sentences so that Lindsay, and the narrative, can get on with it. Quite a lot of City of Pearl felt like this to me: it is an almost exhaustingly direct novel, with a quite narrow emotional range; like a more cynical John Scalzi, or a less schematic Isaac Asimov. What’s interesting is how this style dovetails with the novel’s content.

Constantine, we are told, is “a transparent sort of place” (61), not somewhere of great complexity or nuance, with a symbolic fascination with glasswork. More than that, the native life on bezer’ej is often see-through, as a camouflage strategy; the planet, Shan concludes, “was a transparent world” (194). The wess’har, as I’ve already described, are a moral position embodied as its extreme to enable contrast and conflict, and deployed with no ambiguity whatsoever, the dilemmas their laws produce being the equivalent of 24’s ticking bombs, in that they distort a situation beyond all likely reality to justify an extreme response. And the grand climax of Shan’s narrative is an audience with a wess’har matriarch for which she is told that she must speak with absolute directness: “Shan made a conscious effort to remove the automatic tendency to edit what she thought before it escaped her mouth. It had taken many, many years to learn to do that. Now she had to unlearn it” (355).

Not infrequently, this all starts to feel like an indulgence of the worst of sf’s world-simplifying tendencies. Yet running alongside all of the above is a determined effort to complicate choices and confuse boundaries. The wess’har are imposing their morality on others, and are resisted by the isenji. A third group of humans arrive completely without warning, with their own agenda. Constantine turns out to be not just as transparent as glass, but as fragile, an artificial ecology maintained within the native bezer’ej landscape. And – most symbolically – towards the end of the book, Aras deliberately infects Shan with c’naatat to save her life, and Shan begins to change. Judged alone, I think I would have to find City of Pearl wanting; but the dynamics it establishes are so clearly set to evolve over successive books that I can easily believe the series ends up in a more complex place.

Advertisements

City of Pearl: III

City of Pearl cover

[previously]

We’re presumably meant to see the decision to arrange the execution of the offending scientist as the sort of thing Shan Frankland’s recruiter had in mind when insisting that the expedition needed “a government representative there who isn’t afraid of hard decisions” (16). And if the decision isn’t that hard in the end, it’s a shame not only because it simplifies Aras for our consumption, but because it diminishes Shan, who is otherwise probably the best thing about City of Pearl.

An efficient ex-cop, Shan is – according to Eddie Michallat, the expedition’s rather irritating journalist – “not plump big, womanly big, but tall, athletic, hard big”, and deeply, occasionally comically, cynical about human nature. She is a baseline human, primarily, we a told, thanks to the pagan beliefs she inherited from her mother, giving her — in a world where the unaltered are becoming less common than the altered — a “hint of wildness and savagery”. She has a temper, and a brain; and most important, to me, she is a professional. For all her physical capability, called on several times over the course of the novel, she is a serious person who takes her job seriously: a rare enough type in science fiction at all, but particularly distinctive amongst the impoverished array of contemporary female characters. Her self-confidence makes her an effective counter to the eternally mutable Aras, and in fact makes her somewhat irresistible to his matriarch-conditioned brain: he finds her no-nonsense manner distinctly wess’har, and increasingly has to fight the urge to defer to her will.

Shan’s other important relationship in City of Pearl is with Lindsay Neville, who would have been leading the expedition had Shan not been installed at the last minute. Lindsay is young military authority, Shan is older civilian authority; unsurprisingly they have rather different ways of doing things. For Lindsay, death is “nothing personal […] all neat and sanctioned and under rules of engagement. After you’d killed them, you would stand at memorial parades and say what an honourable enemy they were”; while Shan “got to know her targets far too well, and honor never came into it” (211). Their headbutting, and eventual tentative respect, is rather nicely done.

It’s hard to say that Shan’s interaction with the rest of her expedition’s members is handled as well. That she doesn’t like the scientists she has to look after – describing them almost exclusively as “payload” – is fine, but there is never an equivalent of the detente with Lindsay, or even the potential for one. What’s missing – aside from brief diary extracts at the start of a couple of chapters – is the viewpoint of a scientist, which leaves them little more than ciphers, and makes incidents like that involving the bezeri child feeling even more lopsided. The payload are the ones who cause trouble, the ones who – astonishingly – we are meant to believe see sentient aliens as just a kind of animal, the ones who just won’t follow orders, god dammit. They are, in fact, the villains of the piece; which would be more interesting if they weren’t also the novel’s truest Other.

[continued…]

City of Pearl: II

City of Pearl cover

[previously]

City of Pearl is, on one level, another entry into the proud tradition of brutal challenges to the Campbellian notion that humanity is a special case. Its particular lens for focusing this argument is ecological: the wess’har, or at least the ones we meet in this novel, are environmental fundamentalists who consider all living things to have equal rights – Aras refers to rats as “people” – and who live with as little imposition on other beings as possible. They’re also possessed of a technology level capable of wiping out large cities – say, those of the isenj – and restoring the landscape left behind to a wilderness state without too much difficulty, which makes them exactly the people you don’t want to have taken custody of a planet when you’d like to settle on it.

The first humans to reach Bezer’ej are spared by dint of the fact that they carry a gene bank of Earthly life, and found the agrarian Christian commune of Constantine. A later expedition of scientists with a military guard, led by City of Pearl’s protagonist Shan Frankland, is allowed to land because Aras is curious; it’s a decision he comes to regret.

The conflict between wess’har and human psychology and morality has strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, having a viewpoint character with such an absolutist worldview as does Aras enables Traviss to throw her readers off balance every so often, to make them question their assumptions – as with the remark about rats noted above, or as when Aras corrects Josh, the leader of Constantine, about humans “detecting” other alien species, rather than “discovering” them; or when Josh himself mentally tuts that Shan only recognises Bezer’ej as “inhabited” when there are sentient aliens in the frame. And the colonists of Constantine, who carried their own ecological morality with them from Earth but have followed the wess’har’s lead, philosophically, during the decades of their tenure, are an interesting bunch that I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with.

But as the narrative (inevitably) heads towards conflict, it stumbles. When he allows Shan and her companions to land, Aras sets some ground rules, of which the most important is “no samples of living material”: not a blade of alien grass. It’s clear almost immediately that for most of the scientists in Shan’s party this is an unacceptable restriction on their research, but it’s not until half-way into the book that one of them manages to pick up what appears to be a dead organism from the shore and bring it back to base camp. When that happens, some of the party do object, but the scientist in question locks herself away and begins a dissection before Shan arrives to stop her.

This, of course, is enough to initiate a diplomatic crisis, and for a few pages it looks like a quite interesting one: the scientist’s actions are against wess’har morality, and though they surely have the right, and the power, to set the local rules, they can’t help seeming excessive to us; while even as we disapprove of the scientist’s actions, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her curiosity. (She has, after all, given up her life for the opportunity to visit another world: with slower-than-light journeys and cryogenic suspension, nobody she knew on Earth is going to be alive when she returns.) But quite quickly it’s revealed that the organism wasn’t dead, after all; and moreover that it wasn’t just any organism, it was a juvenile bezeri; and so the scientist, monstrously, has been dissecting a living child. This, I can’t help feeling, is much less interesting, because it horrifies us as much as the wess’har, which means that when Aras demands the death penalty for the scientist’s crimes, it’s a demand that comes from a recognisable place (even if we abjure capital punishment ourselves). How much more challenging it would have been to empathise with Aras if the scientist’s actions had been a crime by wess’har standards only.

[continued…]

City of Pearl: I

(With profuse apologies for belatedness, here’s the start of my discussion of the Future Classic for July, Karen Traviss’ first novel City of Pearl. A bit of a curate’s egg…)

City of Pearl cover

I.

Here are a couple of sentences from very near the start of City of Pearl:

Aras mimicked the lettering, copying it into the unspoiled snow beside him with a steady claw. He considered it, then brushed it away. (1-2)

Does anything here bother you? Personally, I’m bothered by that pronoun. From the claw at the end of the first of these sentences, and the fact that we know we’re starting a science fiction novel, we infer – correctly – that Aras is an alien. But for an organism not from our biosphere, how meaningful is the male pronoun likely to be? It would be understandable as the imposition of a human point of view, as in, say, Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed, but there are no human characters in this scene, or indeed on the planet at this point. Later, we are told that Aras’ species, the wess’har, are matriarchal: their women are big and few and occupy ruling positions, while their men are in thrall to the feminine, and have stronger nurturing instincts. But because that initial pronoun is pure narrative imposition, the complication of the pronoun seems like an arbitrary trick. Had Traviss chosen to make Aras “she”, she could have almost as easily described wess’har society as ruled by men with enormous harems. And that bothers me, because it makes the authorial fiat involved in constructing an alien society more visible than I would like it to be.

That aside, the fact that City of Pearl includes a non-human perspective is something to be admired, and the other ways in which it is complicated are more satisfying. Aras is the last of a soldier caste, infected with a virus or micro-organism (it’s not entirely clear) his people call c’naatat that exacerbates the already-high mutability of his genetic code to enable him to adapt rapidly to environmental threats – such as, say, otherwise lethal wounds – and incorporate useful traits from other species with whom he comes into contact. This is junk science, but a very useful fictional device. As soon as Aras has touched a human, we have an excuse for the inevitable humanness of his point of view; and once (inevitably) one of the human characters becomes infected by c’naatat, you have a beautiful model system in which to play out some ideas about the self and the other.

As the first in a series of six, City of Pearl doesn’t push this notion as far or as fast as you might hope, and there are other things in its portrayal of the alien that don’t quite work – including some spectacularly ill-judged names, such as the capital city of F’nar. But by the end of the novel you do believe in the wess’har as an independent species with their own distinct culture and behavioural principles, literal and logical but without the obtuseness often assumed to accompany those characteristics. Moreover there are reasons to believe that the cultures of two of the other three species who claim a stake in the world Aras guards – namely the native, squiddish bezeri and the expansionist, arachnoid isenj – will be further developed to similarly satisfying effect. The fourth species with skin in the game, of course, is us.

[continued…]

Woman’s Hour: Women and SF

The following is a transcript of the recent (25/05/11) Woman’s Hour segment on women and sf, for those who can’t listen and in case it vanishes from the BBC website. Of related interest, given recent discussion elsewhere, is the most recent Guardian Books Podcast in which Nicola Griffiths is, as she points out, identified as a “sharp-eyed blogger in Seattle”, rather than as a novelist.

Jenni Murray: Now, the British Library has just opened an exhibition, called “Out of This World: Science Fiction, but Not as You Know It”. It’s a genre that’s generally perceived to be of interest to young children — think Doctor Who — or to men — think HG Wells, Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne. But the exhibition includes Mary Shelley, the Brontes, Marge Piercy, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Gwyneth Jones, so is the perception of science fiction as a male-dominated form a complete misrepresentation? Well, Karen Traviss is a New York Times bestselling writer, Farah Mendlesohn is reader in science fiction and fantasy literature at Middlesex University, and Gwyneth Jones has won the Philip K Dick and Arthur C Clarke Awards for her science fiction. Gwyneth, what was it about sci-fi that appealed to you?

Gwyneth Jones: The science. I’m a thwarted scientist and when I was a little girl it was — I can’t remember the name of the writer because writers’ names mean very little to children, or they did mean … it was either Asimov or Heinlein who told me that the universe was like unto a rubber sheet and that planets and other bodies deform this rubber sheet, and that’s the way spacetime functions; I was hooked. I just love stuff like that.

Jenni Murray: And Karen, what was its appeal for you when you began writing?

Karen Traviss: Well, I actually set it up as a business, it was something … I’m not a reader, it’s a terrible thing to say and people will probably come and stone my house, but I absolutely hate reading, but I like writing. I was far more influenced by TV, and by films, I absolutely loved science fiction series, I like science fiction movies. But my reason for writing science fiction was a sort of business decision because I actually specialise in military science fiction and also mainstream military fiction, and I set out to have a business, I had a five year business plan, I stuck to it. There was no sort of motivation from love of the art, I’m afraid, and the sort of picture that I see of science fiction being painted here doesn’t bear any resemblance to my working world. I mean, let me just put a caveat on that — I might live in the UK, I pay my taxes here, but I work in the USA. I work solely for US publishers, US game studios, that sort of thing. It’s a very different world.

Jenni Murray: Let me just bring Farah in for the moment, Karen. What about the audience, Farah? Who is interested in reading sci-fi?

Farah Mendlesohn: Well, the entry age I found was somewhere between about 10 and 12, which is younger than we used to think. Slightly younger for boys, they seem to come in around 9, girls around 11. After that, these days it’s about 45% female and 55% male, and people stick with the genre once they’re there. The audiences for gaming, for tie-ins, for films — they’re slightly different, they lean towards male, but I’ll be honest, I think it’s just a matter of time, I think it’s changing very rapidly. The idea of science fiction being for men has never been true, if you look at the early magazines there are always letters from women. Now I know it’s biased, because the editors are choosing the letters, but it’s actually quite interesting that someone like Hugo Gernsback, one of the earliest of the editors, wanted to represent women in the magazines by choosing those letters. About 1 in every 10 letters in the thirties, by the sixties we’re up to 1 in 3; it keeps spiralling.

Jenni Murray: And yet, Gwyneth, I know you have said, because you said it to our producer, that you wish you’d used a male pseudonym as a writer. Why?

Gwyneth Jones: Ah. That’s because I started writing science fiction in 1984 and I wrote feminist science fiction and I wrote science fiction for at least a decade, and I wish now that I had used a male pseudonym for my feminist books.

Jenni Murray: Why?

Gwyneth Jones: Because, if you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public.

Jenni Murray: You’d have sold better.

Gwyneth Jones: Well, not only that. My later books, which are in my reading not at all feminist science fiction, although they have female characters — it would be strange if they didn’t — are now feminist. And I find that a disadvantage on two counts. First, because I know what feminist science fiction was about, it was about disentangling the battle of the sexes and I’m not doing that, and I don’t want my books to be read as feminist when they’re not addressing that agenda and second, yes, because the word feminist is poison to many sectors of the science fiction audience. And that’s a shame.

Jenni Murray: There was, Farah —

Gwyneth Jones: Sorry, I was —

Jenni Murray: No, it’s all right, I just wanted to continue the point with Farah, because there was a famous science fiction writer, James Tiptree Jr, who came out in the seventies as Alice Sheldon, so he actually was a she. What was the reaction when that happened?

Farah Mendlesohn: Well actually, Gwyneth’s summary is perfect, because first of all what had happened was that Tiptree had withdrawn a story that was nominated I think for the Nebulas, on the grounds it had been nominated because it was a feminist story by a man. And he withdrew it. Robert Silverberg had actually written an introduction to one of the books which he’s lived to regret, in which he described Tiptree as “ineluctably male”, So there was actually quite some controversy. Joanna Russ, one of our most famous authors is the person who outed Tiptree [Note: actually Jeffrey Smith; see comments and Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Sheldon for details], and it rippled. But I think that Gwyneth is absolutely right, both because Tiptree’s work was then received very differently, but because what I see in critical accounts of the genre from male academics is they forget women when they’re writing about space opera, and then have a token chapter about feminist writers. And I see that over and over again. There’s a book by Istvan Csicery-Ronay Jr that has a whole chapter on linguistics. The most famous science fiction writer of linguistics, who’s a professor of linguistics, is Suzette Haden Elgin. She’s not in that chapter. She is in the chapter on feminism. So often it’s that inability to see a female writer as anything other than a feminist writer — and this is where you might want to bring Karen back in, because she’s often seen that way by critics and herself would find that, I think I’m right in saying, would find that a problematic label.

Jenni Murray: You anticipated my next move. Karen?

Karen Traviss: Well, I’m sort of struggling to recognise this landscape, because it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the world I work in. I think it’s very easy to try and see science fiction, one, as a sort of separate walled garden, but also as something defined by critics. I like to deal direct with my customer, basically, and if I go round a huge bookstore in the States and I stop someone who’s browsing in the isles and say, “why have you picked up that book?”, none of them have heard of the Hugo awards, none of them read book reviews, none of them care what critics think; they pick up books because they like the cover, or because they like the blurb on the back, or they like the author, or their friends said, “you really should try that book” — and I mean perhaps I’ve lead a charmed life, but given the very macho nature of what I like and the fact that most of my characters are male, I have never been pigeonholed as a female writer. You know, the sort of novelty for the States is that I’m English, that always comes as a shock to them.

Jenni Murray: Karen, you’ve very deliberately published in the States, why? Is it because it’s different here?

Karen Traviss: Much much bigger market and much more money. Sorry, it’s really that crude. But that was my first port of call, because that was where I saw the industry as being. This is the entertainment industry, you know, I am there to entertain people primarily, but also to make them think; I’m a former journalist, I’m not there to set an agenda for feminism or anything else, I’m there to say, these are people, male and female, in a very challenging situation; and one thing that science fiction offers you, speculative fiction generally, is that you can push the boundaries and say, what if this happened? What would happen? And all I do is sort of shine that light and say, how would you react in this situation? I’m not going to send some feminist message.

Jenni Murray: Farah?

Farah Mendlesohn: I want to agree with Karen, but with a caveat. I started looking at what was on the shelves in Britain and in british libraries, both in bookshops and libraries, and couldn’t find any women writers, including a really big selling writer like Lois McMaster Bujold. So I’d say Karen has made the right decision, the market in the States is far better, but the market here is problematic. Forbidden Planet has just produced a list of its 50 favourite writers with three female writers. there’s something odd going on at the marketing level here.

Jenni Murray: Gwyneth, how much are you conscious of the fact that there may be something odd going on at the marketing level?

Gwyneth Jones: I think, for one thing I think the US market is a far broader church; it’s far easier, it’s much easier for an outsider to survive. But I am conscious that I have always been regarded as an outsider by my publishers of science fiction. it’s an assumption which is a self-fulfilling prophecy, if there is a list of books that are going to be promoted, well, probably a woman writer is an outside choice so we won’t have a woman writer. That does happen.

Jenni Murray: But you’ve won the big awards — you’ve won the Philip K Dick award, the Arthur C Clarke award. what difference does that make to you? Do they not say, this woman is a great writer?

Gwyneth Jones: I find it very strange. There’s no heavy lifting, I don’t have to be six foot six, and in fact even to write action fantasy you don’t have to be a large muscular man to do that, but I think it starts with the publishers and I think it also it ripples through to the fans.

Jenni Murray: Women fantasy writers seem to do very well, Farah, JK Rowling I suppose being the best known. Why? What’s the difference between the sci-fi and the fantasy?

Farah Mendlesohn: That’s a very difficult one to put your fingers on. I think there is a sense that it’s more appropriate for women to write about dragons than to write about guns — and I do wonder, to come briefly back to Karen if the more mixed army in the united States makes a difference, they have a fully integrated military — but otherwise it’s not that straightforward. the biggest names in fantasy, the ones who receive the most publicity, are still the men. And I think there is a bias there. but I would agree with Karen, in that I don’t think the bias is necessarily among the fans.

Jenni Murray: Farah Mendlesohn, Karen Traviss and Gwyneth Jones, thank you all very much.

Another Short Story Club

Just a quick post from me to say that those of you who enjoyed the last couple of years of short story clubs here might enjoy a project that Karen is kicking off over at the Locus Roundtable blog: a club to read some of this year’s award-nominated stories, on the following schedule:

  • May 22: “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”, Aliette de Bodard [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • May 29: “Ponies”, Kij Johnson [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • June 5: “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”, Eric James Stone [nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula]
  • June 12: “The Things”, Peter Watts [nominated for a Locus, a Hugo, a BSFA, and a Shirley Jackson]
  • June 19: “Plus or Minus”, James Patrick Kelly [nominated for a Locus, a Hugo, and a Nebula]

So the first discussion is this Sunday. See you over there?

(Actually, while I’m here, I’ll also point out the ongoing Tiptree Award book club, which is working its way through some work from recent honor lists; they’ve discussed “Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh, “Galapagos” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Lifelode by Jo Walton, and are currently considering “Beautiful White Bodies” by Alice Sola Kim.)

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.

Speed of Dark: II

Speed of Dark cover

(With apologies for the delay.)

(Previously)

One of the few scraps of information we gain while outside Lou’s viewpoint comes in a conversation between his line manager, Pete Aldrin, and his new boss, Gene Crenshaw. The latter feels the supportive environment their company provides for Lou and his colleagues is an expensive indulgence; the former defends the cost by pointing out that Section A is “person for person, more productive than any other department” (18). Rationality has no effect on Crenshaw, who launches a crusade to get Section A’s “privileges” removed, and its personnel more “integrated” into the company — on which more tomorrow — but we get the point. In the right context, someone like Lou is better than most of us.

Lou’s great skill, we are told, is pattern recognition (a skill that, by the by, for me is emblematic of twenty-first century sf). It’s what enables him to excel at his (rather vaguely defined) job; it’s what makes him a skillful fencer, once he’s mastered the physical basics. “What I like is learning patterns,” he tells us, “and then remaking them so that I am the pattern too” (34). Patterns structure his daily life, from the regimented day to day activities — the routine — to any social interaction. Lou knows the rules of the psychiatrist’s office, and the rules of the office, and the rules of the supermarket; what is expected, how things should go. And he sorts people by the patterns they enact: friends, acquaintances, colleagues. And, perhaps more pertinently, when he doesn’t understand people, he assumes it’s because he can’t see their pattern.

Moon is good, as I already said, on Lou’s analytical approach to life, his constant assessment of patterns, of testing behaviour against expectation and projection: good at conveying the seductive functionality of it all. Inevitably, however, a major strand of the novel turns on the problems that this approach to the world — so successful at work — can cause. And on that front, I’m less convinced.

Among Lou’s fencing friends, there is a woman called Marjory on whom he has a crush (and who seems to like him), and a man called Don, who is rather obnoxious (and not much liked by anybody). He seems — to us, and not to Lou, who has Don firmly in the “friend” category — that Don is jealous both of Lou’s talent, the skill it gives him it fencing, and of his friendship with Marjory. Matters take a darker turn the week after Lou enters, and excels in, his first fencing tournament. They day after the next fencing class, Lou discovers that the tires on his car have been slashed. The pattern is clear to us but, this time, opaque to Lou.

Put another way, at this point, there are two possible stories that could be developing. (OK, more than two, but two obvious ones) In one of them, the reader’s intuition that Don is responsible will be correct; in the other, Lou’s assumption that the tire-slashing is a random event will be proved valid. A week later, Lou’s windscreen is smashed; and a week after that, a small explosive is attached to his engine. At this point Don’s name finally enters the frame — Lou and a cop have an entertaining conversation about the mathematical validity of “once is accident, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action” — and see that Lou’s affinity for patterns led him into excessive rigidity, refusing to recategorise Don until it’s almost too late. But the problem with making the reader right and Lou wrong in this way we readers haven’t, in fact, worked out the right answer based on a superior understanding of people, the understanding that the text wants us to recognise that Lou lacks; we’ve worked it out on the basis of a superior understanding of the formulae of fiction. Lou is trapped inside a pattern that he can never know, but that we can solve easily.

The other story, I think, would have been more interesting: the story in which Don may well resent Lou, but the vandalism has nothing to do with him; where the challenge to Lou’s behaviour is not that he recognises the wrong pattern, but that it’s hard for him to tell when there’s no pattern to recognise; where we as readers are denied the neatness of pattern, and put in the same position as Lou, not opposed to him. (What proportion of incidents of vandalism are random or targeted, I wonder? Which narrative would be more “true to life”?) That would be a story in which it’s easier to accept the argument — made forcefully in another strand of the novel — that Lou’s cognitive approach to the world is only a point at one extreme of a spectrum of human behaviour, that we are like him in crucial ways. In a similar way, there could be a more nuanced understanding of the interplay of class, money and power, of the forces that make an executive gym earned, but Section A’s gym a luxury. It’s one thing to be shown that autism can be as effective as “normality”; it would be another to be shown that normal can be just as error-prone, as fooled by life, as autistic.

(Continued)

Speed of Dark: I

Speed of Dark cover

We have to start with Lou. He lives a normal life. He has his own apartment, and he works as an analyst in the bowels of a pharmaceutical company. He does his weekly shop on Tuesdays, his wash on Fridays. He’s a church-going man. He goes out for pizza with colleagues, and he goes fencing with friends. But the world tells him, over and over again, that he’s not normal. “Questions, always questions”, are his first words to us; and then, “Everything in my life that I value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think, and saying what they want me to say” (1).

You could argue that Speed of Dark is primarily a demonstration of why Lou has to live this way, and what living this way means. It is a work whose most memorable characteristic is the voice telling the tale, Lou’s voice, notable for the particular ways in which it carries out the duties of every narrative voice to filter and sort and react. This is how Lou experiences the world:

“You got home from work at nine –” he glances down at his handcomp “– forty-seven last night?”

“No, sir,” I say. “I got home from work at five fifty-two, and then I went –” I don’t want to say, to my fencing class. What if he thinks there is something wrong with fencing? With me fencing? “To a friend’s house,” I say, instead.

“Is this someone you visit often?”

“Yes. Every week.”

“Were there other people there?”

Of course there were other people there. Why would I go visit someone if nobody but me was there? “My friends who live in that house were there,” I say. “And some people who do not live in that house.”

He blinks, and looks briefly at Mr Bryce. I do not know what that look means. “Ah … do you know these other people? Who didn’t live in the house? Was it a party?”

Too many questions. I do not know which to answer first. These other people? Does he mean the people at Tom and Lucia’s who were not Tom and Lucia? Who didn’t live in the house? Most people did not live in that house … do not live in that house. Out of the billions of people in the world, only two people live in that house and that is … less than one millionth of one percent.

“It was not a party,” I say, because that is the easiest question to answer. (127-8)

I offer a fairly lengthy quote because I think you only start to appreciate the power of Lou’s voice after immersion in it; at first glance it can seem merely readable. The short, straightforward sentences of this passage are characteristic; Lou doesn’t use semicolons, or contractions (or parentheticals). At the start of the passage, you might think he’s the ideal subject for a police interview, conscientious and precise in his answers; but that pursuit of precision, the constant literal analysis of what his interlocutor has just said, makes the interview hard going for Lou, even makes him look like he’s got something to hide. He hasn’t; it’s just that to say what they want him to say, he first has to work out what they’ve said.

All of which is the long-winded way of saying what’s clear from the back cover, or the acknowledgments, or at the latest at the bottom of page one: Lou is autistic. But the word raises expectations, not all of which are met. Moon takes pains to create distance between her autistic characters, setting them in a near future in which an improving array of treatments has ameliorated the most extreme effects of autism, and pointing out more than once that Lou and his colleagues are among the last cohort of individuals to be so far away from “normal”. (We’ll be coming back to that word.) So although clearly meticulously researched, and drawing on personal experience, above and beyond Lou’s distinctive individuality, Speed of Dark avoids claiming authority, making it less obnoxious than, say, Mark Haddon’s subsequent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And there are aspects of Lou’s character that actively go against expectation: fencing, for instance, is not the kind of hobby conventionally associated with autistic individuals, but Lou’s enthusiasm for it and skill at it are convincing here.

Of course, writing the story of an uncommon perspective as science fiction raises another raft of associations, particularly once news breaks of a treatment that might be able to “cure” Lou’s autism once and for all. Parallels with Flowers for Algernon (1958/1966) are there to be seen in the mismatch between Lou’s understanding of people around him and what we as readers can see through his narration. The comparison highlights one of Speed of Dark’s weaknesses, which is that every time we leave Lou’s viewpoint feels like an assertion that Lou’s understanding is literally insufficient, when in fact such excursions tell us barely anything we didn’t already know. It’s a betrayal in particular because it undermines the key difference between the two books. In Algernon it’s clear that Charlie Gordon’s low intelligence is an affliction – not an excuse to demean his personhood as so many do, but a real straitjacket on his potential all the same. In Speed of Dark, it’s not at all clear that the analagous assertion is true for Lou; in fact a large part of the novel is devoted to arguing that it’s false.

(Continued)

Reminder: Speed of Dark

As Shana posted at the start of the month, I’ve been reading the second (chronologically) of the Future Classics identified in last year’s poll, Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, and will be putting up some discussion posts here next week. So if you want to join in, time to pull your copy off the shelf!

This also seems an apt time to point out the discussion Ian Sales has been hosting about sf mistressworks, and the meme he’s put together as a result.

(And in case you were wondering whether I’ll be leading every discussion, after this I get a few months off, but I’ll be back later in the year.)