In an ongoing series of elaborate plans to force science fiction onto Belle's friends, I suggested Philip K. Dick's Ubik to the book club this month. After we all got done snickering about his last name, the suggestion was accepted. It's a short read, and I finished it this weekend. If anyone would like to participate from home, I'd like to propose the following helpful discussion questions:
If you want to know an era, you take a look at its pulp. That's where the subconscious peeks out. Horror movies, for example, track in interesting ways against mainstream culture of their time--the slasher films that rose with the sexual revolution, the nuclear-powered monsterfests of the 50's, or the nature-strikes-back stylings of the environmental 80's. It's not perfect, but you can get an interesting glimpse into the spirit of the times.
It occurred to me, yesterday at the L St Borders, that the same kind of thing applies to science fiction. It is, after all, a genre composed of what-ifs and daydreams, which is an easy way for social fears and needs to express themselves.
So what's playing at the Jungian Theatre of SciFi Monstrosities these days? Not cyberpunk, that's for sure. Looking over the selection (which is hardly overwhelming on L Street, but neither is it anemic compared to other chain locations), you could be forgiven for thinking that William Gibson is the only person who ever wrote in the subgenre, and he only rents space there now--you could argue that Pattern Recognition and the Bridge trilogy are cyberpunk, but I think that has more to do with Gibson's style and personal obsessions than anything else. It's particularly interesting for my zeitgeist theory that cyberpunk has quietly died, because when it emerged it was seen as a direct response to the privatization and post-Cold War fugue of the Reagan era. Apparently, those big Japanese corporations just don't scare us any more.
What looks to have replaced c-punk as a genre is self-conscious nerd fiction. No doubt this was always an aspect of science fiction--Robert Heinlein's stories of intrepid day-saving engineers with slide rules of steel are just nerdcore from the days when buzzcuts were geek credibility. But I actually saw a book the other day that had, as part of the back cover blurb, something like the following:
Imagine it read in the nicotine-roughened tones of a movie announcer for the full effect. Because seriously: the big dramatic device here is the product cycle? I know we can't necessarily assume that the back cover of a book is entirely an accurate representation of its contents, but I'd rather stab forks into my eyelids than read that. On the other hand, I'm not its target audience. People who do coding all day long and fit a very specific psychological profile probably find it riveting.
I know what that means: there's a market for that kind of cubicle fiction, and clearly there are authors writing about what they know. I'm less clear on why transhumanism has undergone such a renaissance in sci-fi lately. As typified by Alistair Reynolds, Vernor Vinge, John C. Wright, Charlie Stross, and a horde of wannabes, these stories concern people that are at least partly virtual, or manipulated by nano-technology, or other malleable aspects of data. The Singularity often figures prominently. Does it say something about readers that their fiction seeks to reject the boundaries of the human form? Or is it just a reflection of attention spans raised on instant messaging conversations and Boing Boing? Either way, it's another interesting counterpoint to the cyberpunk genre, which explicitly put its protagonists in the role of criminals, lower classes, and vaguely anti-establishment slackers. The transhumanist trend seems like a move back into the utopian technofetish of Golden Age science fiction, just with weirder devices and less emotional characters.
Anyway. The other interesting trend I saw on the shelves was the revival of the gritty "magical underworld" theme. Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher, and a few others pen books about wizards, werewolves, and vampires that are all around us, having really exciting adventures and lots of great sex. There are a lot of these books on the shelves at Borders. I'm not sure if it's a backlash against the geeky escapism of genre fantasy (is it the equivalent of cyberpunk unicorns) or just a coincidence that incorporates the intrinsically (if trashy) appeals of exciting adventures and sex. I can't really blame people for the latter.
There must be a certain point in time when good SF and fantasy authors decide that they want to write children's fiction. Neil Gaiman, although not setting adult fiction aside completely, seemed to revive the trend in recent memory when he penned Coraline. Now one of my favorite authors, China Mieville, has written his own story for younger minds, Un Lun Dun. It's an interesting read, and I think I would recommend it to the target audience, but adult readers might want to pick it up at the library instead.
Mieville's previous books were mostly set in the bizarre world of Bas-Lag, specifically the city of New Crobuzon. Bas-Lag is a fantasy setting undergoing its industrial ages, instead of the gentle feudalism of most genre fiction, and it's influenced heavily by Mieville's Marxism. The books are also known for being grotesque and a little sadistic, or at the very least, grimy. For these reasons, it's hard to imagine him producing stereotypically saccharine children's literature. So while Un Lun Dun (pronounced so that each syllable rhymes with "run") does not reach the freakshow proportions of Perdido Street Station's man-on-insect-woman sex scenes or The Scar's self-mutilating Lovers, it's still not tame and lifeless. I thought it most resembled Alice in Wonderland, which is far more disturbing than those who have only seen the Disney sanitization think. And if he has reined in his more destructive impulses, Mieville has at least tried to redirect them toward an ever-escalating tour of oddities.
Un Lun Dun is about two girls, Zanna and Deeba, who find their way from London to an alternate reality, where Zanna is regarded as a chosen one who will banish the evil Smog by undertaking a quest across its surrealistic landscape. If this sounds cliched, don't be surprised. Mieville has consciously aimed this book at the Harry Potter-esque subgenre of wish-fulfillment fiction. He's aware that for most fantasy (adult or child), the main character basically serves as a Mary Sue, Potter included. Un Lun Dun explicitly takes aim at this hackneyed genre staple, as well as the helpful animal sidekick (replaced here with a milk carton named Curdle), the unhealthy reliance on tradition or authority, and reliance on story "tokens" to get characters out of a pinch.
In fact, Mieville actually has his sights set higher than just the genre. There are clear references, sometimes without even an attempt at disguise, to real-world events in the book. Without spoiling it, I can say that he's making a point about the Orwellian language that's been used by both governments and corporations to disguise their real actions. All I can say is that I warned you: the guy's a full-fledged Marxist and he doesn't care if you know it. I felt like it was a little unsubtle at the time, but looking back toward the end of the book, I can appreciate what Mieville's done in more context. Children's fiction is rarely subtle or subversive. By going against the grain, the end result is not a bad book, and depending on the audience, might even be a very good one.
This review is split into two parts. The first part, labeled appropriately, is for people who simply wish to read the book. They don't want to pick nits with its postmodernity, and they don't want to get meta. It is, in that section, a pretty short review. The second part is concerned with an argument that could be called difficult, perhaps because it is challenging but more likely because it is me being a giant pain about the structure and framework of the book, not its dramatic content or technical execution. In other words, the first review is for readers, and the second is for critics.
Part the First
What is the What is the best thing Dave Eggers has written yet. Depending on your opinion of Eggers, best known for the high-technique but shallow debut novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that may not be a terribly impressive statement. But What is the What is a genuinely moving and skillfully-written book, centering on one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, Valentino. The protagonist is sent out of his village one day after soldiers attack, and begins a long march with other boys to Ethiopia, where he lives in a refugee camp. Around this story is wrapped a present-day narrative of Valentino, now living in America, as he recovers from a mugging. These excerpts serve as anchors for his story of the past, addressing each chapter set in Sudan to a different character from the America story arc.
Although this flashback structure sounds cumbersome, it actually serves to break up the long, depressing death march through Sudan, and it simultaneously reminds us that a refugee's life in American remains a struggle to survive. It is a story of atrocities in Africa, but Eggers gives us a critique of our own actions and support for the victims of atrocities, and the result is more moving than you might expect.
Part the Second
What is the What ends with Valentino addressing the reader directly for the first time. In previous chapters, he speaks silently to people around him, telling them his story, but on the last few pages he drops this device without ceremony and begins using the second-person pronoun instead. It's a strong rhetorical statement, and Eggers uses it to deliver the surprisingly brutal final lines: "How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist." For a book about a largely-ignored civil war and genocide, the words are a striking reminder of the apathy of most Americans toward its subject.
And yet, what a curious ending for a book shelved in the fiction section, and bearing the confusing frontispiece "What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, by Dave Eggers." Taken literally, we might actually doubt the sincerity of Valentino's existence. Eggers based the character on an actual person, including his real name, but the experience within the pages has been extensively shuffled and combined with other refugee stories to create a more compelling narrative. While I find Eggers' other work to be tiresome, I can't avoid that he is extremely skilled with words, and uses the urgency of an "autobiography" to draw the reader in and elicit sympathy. I hope that his book, all proceeds from which will go towards the Sudanese, is a success.
But it is also impossible for me to believe that Eggers, a self-conscious postmodernist known for his use of irony, is not aware of the implications when a partially-fictionalized character uses his "existence" as a goad for audience action. Given a survey of similar works, the decision to frame this account as both a fictional novel and a factual autobiography surely comes across as truly bizarre, and unnecessary. And as I will point out, while I think that What is the What is a good book, the questions that it refuses to answer about authorship and veracity prevent it from being a great one. Why do we care whether this is a novel or an autobiography? Does this matter, in the face of the subject? I would argue that it does, for five reasons.
First, the device undercuts the narrator's reliability. This is nothing new to fiction, and if this were The Sound and the Fury or Lolita it would probably be considered admirable. Those were works of literature. What is the What, on the other hand, obviously wants readers to do something about the Sudan. Characters remark on a regular basis that the United States could take care of the civil war if it felt like it, comparing it to interventions in Iraq. Valentino prods us gently through most of the book, explaining that we can't know what his life was like, before adding that final jab. But do we believe him? Can he be considered an authority? Because of hallucinations and misunderstandings, as well as his relatively uneducated state, Valentino is an impassioned victim, but he's not a historian or an authority.
Indeed, because he has tied himself so strongly to the first-person literary device, Eggers is forced to introduce other characters--soldiers, teachers, and aid workers--who hold forth across a page or two about Sudan's history in order to inform the reader. A valiant attempt has been made to bring these excerpts into the text, but it still often comes across as Chris Farley in Wayne's World--"My, the security guard certainly had a lot of information. I sure hope it comes in handy sometime in the future." And whereas other accounts of nonfiction events (I'm thinking specifically of Under the Banner of Heaven, but there are numerous others) momentarily step with the reader into a few paragraphs of historical explanation before moving back into the narrative, the insistence here on subjectivity--particularly from the memories of a starving, exhausted, confused boy--leaves readers with a relatively weak feeling of veracity.
This raises the second weakness of the non-non-fiction approach: it implies that the real story of Valentino Achak Deng is not good enough to be novelized without embellishment. Determined to tell all kinds of horrifying stories through a single narrator, Eggers compounds the misery of many Lost Boys onto Valentino's thin shoulders, and he struggles to keep up. In the Washington Post review, Gary Krist claims of What is the What that "[t]he result, however, is a document that -- unlike so many 'real' autobiographies -- exudes authenticity." Unlike real autobiographies, this fake seems real? What does this even mean? It is disturbing, not only that we need "better" nonfiction to be driven to action, but that we have to turn a real person into a fictional character before we can really empathize. Poor Valentino: apparently he's not good enough to be "authentic" without Egger's help.
In fact, another reason to be bothered by What is the What is that there are shadows of colonialism--the White man improving and editing the Other--hovering around this narrative device. Again, I find it hard to believe that Dave Eggers, who is by all accounts a generous and conscientious liberal in addition to his literary ambitions, hasn't questioned that fact. The pedagogical side-characters explain to us, through Valentino, that Sudan's conflict is often rooted in the actions of the racist colonial powers. Yet it didn't seem to occur to him that there is a difference between "The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers" and "My autobiography, by Valentino Achak Deng with Dave Eggers." I hesitate to assign racist motives to the author (although The Stranger was not so kind), but for me the question of why this material was not approached as a traditional--and more equitable--ghostwriting project hangs over it, and colors my view.
Which brings us to the fourth weakness of such a complicated frame: it weakens the book's rhetorical strategy. At a basic level, readers must be aware of the book's history and strategy, or it could easily be confused with fiction. The back cover--which, by the way, consists of a leaflet looped over the hardcopy binding and not something integral to the book--makes no mention that Valentino Achak Deng was a real person. A brief preface by Valentino introduces the book, but a preface by a fictional character is not unknown, and certainly isn't out of place for readers who are familiar with the jokey style of Eggers' other works. Attempting to lend weight to the book by relying on its own preface reminds me of a fundamentalist who answers criticism of the Bible's trustworthiness by pointing to Biblical verses about "God's Word." It is a weak argument, even without the author's unfortunate tendency toward elaborate literary playfulness.
By presenting this book as fiction, and shelving it as such, it's entirely possible for the reader to discount it or to feel less moved. After all, it's only a story. For a skeptical or hard-hearted reader, a crime to which I will obviously confess, reading interviews and reviews of the book calls its facts into question--which parts really happened to these characters, we might ask? Which are inventions, based on the testimony of other characters (Lost Boys, Valentino helpfully reminds us, being in the habit of exaggerating their stories for sympathy). Because it's fiction, we're not given a bibliography or future references. It would be possible, a year from now, for someone to pick this book up unaware of its pedigree, be moved by the skill of writing and the character, and then completely disregard it as a true story that demands action.
Is that really the best way for Eggers to make his argument? That is a tough question to answer, especially since many people will claim to be uninterested in nonfiction. I will grant that, as such, it may find more readers than is otherwise likely. Yet my final argument is that the novel has been weakened even as fiction by its determination for self-referentiality. While aficianados of literary fiction may find it charming or clever, the constant interplay between the two stories--particularly when Valentino picks a new present-day character to whom he addresses his past narrative--is jarring. For many readers, it drops them out of their suspension of disbelief. Those members of his audience with Korsakov's Syndrome or other brain damage may thank Eggers for these constant reminders that yes, they are reading a book. It will save them tattoo ink, I'm sure. But for myself and I have no doubt a number of others, these additions don't create more value than they detract.
Why is it that Eggers can't simply leave the two storylines alone, that he has to complicate things in this way? Clearly, for some readers, the device will overshadow the work itself, which would seem to make the novel a failure. I am not willing to go that far. I will say that it is striking that Eggers still cannot write a book that does not eventually star himelf, even one where he does not appear inside. My uncharitable side is inclined to say that he's simply too self-absorbed to step aside without stealing a little bit of the spotlight. At best, I think he's just too clever for his own good.
You may know Max Brooks, author of World War Z, from his previous book, The Zombie Survival Guide. That was a softcover novelty similar to the Worst Case series of books. It showed that Brooks had watched a lot of zombie movies. World War Z, in contrast, demonstrates that he understands what made the best of those movies great.
The central conceit of the book is that it doesn't present a straightforward narrative, but instead collects interviews with survivors of an undead uprising from the near future, under the guise of a "UN Special Report." The interviews detail an outbreak that begins in China and spreads rapidly, overtaking the globe before the remnants of civilization adapt and begin to regain control. There's a lot of talk about how the zombies require a different kind of war and a ruthless outlook--but the best part of Brooks' plot device is that it lets him put a very human face on the survivors--how they fought among themselves, who was saved, and what was sacrificed. Those have always been the real draw of zombie fiction, and Brooks details them deftly.
There are a number of references to recent events, including a "brushfire war" that drains American resources, but they're not too distracting, and in some cases (like the military's myopic focus on technology over effective tactics) the futurism feels a little too accurate. It's probably not a good idea to read World War Z as a metaphor or a disaster prevention guide, but it does provoke thought about our response to emergencies, and provide a pretty good Apokalyptica read in the process.
William McKinley, shot by an anarchist in 1901, is widely thought to have died eight days later from his infected wounds. Lies, all of it. McKinley's shooter, who bore the unlikely name of Leon F. Czolgosz, was in actuality a struggling actor and pioneering performance artist hired by the president himself. Three years later, Czolgosz was himself struck dead by a mysterious disease while traveling in Europe under the alias Frederick G. Whittaker.
McKinley had grown weary of the authority of office. His wife suffered from epilepsy, and a cure was not forthcoming. With his death falsified and a small fortune in stolen White House silver at his side, the former president set out for the unexplored depths of Zaire, where he hoped to find exotic herbs that might remove his wife's affliction, or at least lessen her symptoms.
McKinley's travels led him far and wide. He spent most of his time pretending to be a circus performer, although when drunk he would often put on an eyepatch and call himself "the Pirate President." Among other acts of vandalism and conspiracy, McKinley is believed to have planted the explosives that would later cause the Tunguska explosion, and wrote the bulk of "Ernest Hemingway"'s output (the rest was penned by a young Calvin Coolidge).
Although crypto-historians have not been able to completely trace McKinley's footsteps, they generally agree that his travels came to an end, ironically, when he was shot in a border dispute by badly lost Dutch merchants in Cambodia. His last words are reported to have been "Not in the face!"
An excerpt from The Secret Histories of the Presidency by Jack Shackenaw, page 27.
Dear Orson "Scott" Card,
When I joked that your upcoming novel about a war between the red and blue states would be a rehash of the Turner Diaries, I was only kidding. But clearly, based on the excerpts you've made available, you were too crafty for me, and you went ahead and did it anyway.
My own words fail, sir. But yours speak pretty well:
He kept thinking, the first couple of semesters, that maybe his attitude toward them was just as short-sighted and bigoted and wrong as theirs was of him. But in class after class, seminar after seminar, he learned that far too many students were determined to remain ignorant of any real-world data that didn't fit their preconceived notions. And even those who tried to remain genuinely open-minded simply did not realize the magnitude of the lies they had been told about history, about values, about religion, about everything. So they took the facts of history and averaged them with the dogmas of the leftist university professors and thought that the truth lay somewhere in the middle.
Well as far as Reuben could tell, the middle they found was still far from any useful information about the real world.
Am I like them, just a bigot learning only what fits my worldview? That's what he kept asking himself. But finally he reached the conclusion: No, he was not. He faced every piece of information as it came. He questioned his own assumptions whenever the information seemed to violate it. Above all, he changed his mind -- and often. Sometimes only by increments; sometimes completely. Heroes he had once admired -- Douglas MacArthur, for instance -- he now regarded with something akin to horror: How could a commander be so vain, with so little justification for it? Others that he had disdained -- that great clerk, Eisenhower, or that woeful incompetent, Burnside -- he had learned to appreciate for their considerable virtues.
And now he knew that this was much of what the Army had sent him here to learn. Yes, a doctorate in history would be useful. But he was really getting a doctorate in self-doubt and skepticism, a Ph.D. in the rhetoric and beliefs of the insane Left. He would be able to sit in a room with a far-left Senator and hear it all with a straight face, without having to argue any points, and with complete comprehension of everything he was saying and everything he meant by it.
In other words, he was being embedded with the enemy as surely as when he was on a deep Special Ops assignment inside a foreign country that did not (officially at least) know that he was there.
Princeton University as an alien planet. Reuben Malich as the astronaut who somehow lost his helmet -- and spent day after day gasping for air.
He had to acquire the iron discipline of the soldier who works with the government -- the ability to stand in the same room with stupidity and say nothing, show nothing.
The real danger was not losing his temper, however. For in the second year of his studies, he realized that he was beginning to treat some of the most absurd ideas as if they had some basis in truth. It was Goebbels in practice: If you tell the same lies long enough and loudly enough, even people who know better will despair and concede the point.
We are tribal animals. We cannot long stand against the tribe.
Thank heaven he could go home to Cecily every day. She was his reality check. Unlike the ersatz Left of the university, Cessy was a genuine old-fashioned liberal, a Democrat of the tradition that reached its peak with Truman and blew its last trumpet with Moynihan.
Oh, and this one's proving a big hit with various parts of the liberal blog community, for obvious reasons:
"Yeah," said Cole. "The terrorists are crazy and scary, but what really pisses me off is knowing that this will make a whole bunch of European intellectuals very happy."
"They won't be so happy when they see where it leads. They've already forgotten Sarajevo and the killing fields of Flanders."
"I bet they're already 'advising' Americans that this is where our military 'aggression' inevitably leads, so we should take this as a sign that we need to change our policies and retreat from the world."
"And maybe we will," said Malich. "A lot of Americans would love to slam the doors shut and let the rest of the world go hang."
"And if we did," said Cole, "who would save Europe then? How long before they find out that negotiations only work if the other guy is scared of the consequences of not negotiating? Everybody hates America till they need us to liberate them."
"You're forgetting that nobody cares what Europeans think except a handful of American intellectuals who are every bit as anti-American as the French," said Malich.
"You think we'll do it?" said Cole. "Bottle ourselves up and let the world go to hell?"
"Would it be any better for us to get really pissed off and declare war on all of Islam?" said Malich. "Because we've got plenty of Americans who want to do that, too, and we don't have the President anymore to hold them back."
"I have a terrible feeling," said Cole, "that some turban-wearing Sikhs are going to die today in America, and they've got nothing to do with this."
They reached the end of the bridge.
"It's weird," said Cole. "I always feel like when I get to Virginia, I'm back in the United States. Like DC is a separate country. And not just DC. Maryland along with it. Like the Potomac is the boundary line between the country I love and a foreign country where they hate me because of this uniform."
And when I say your words speak for themselves, what I mean is that they speak crazy, fluently, with no trace of accent.
Addendum: Just a note for anyone who might have thought that Card has--despite a chronic lack of writing ability and creativity--a modicum of expertise on the topic of the American government and culture, I'd like to draw your attention to that last paragraph. Most liberal blogs have been cutting it off after the French slur, but I think his passage about Virginia is telling. Because as anyone who lives near DC knows, the Northern Virginia area is about as blue as it's possible to get. It was a significant force in swinging the vote for Jim Webb this time around. Walking over the T.R. Roosevelt Bridge from DC takes you into Arlington, where I live--and it is definitely not some sort of red state stronghold.
So let's be clear: when Card's soldier crosses over the river and then claims that entering Virginia is like being "back in the United States," compared to the heavily-Democratic DC and Maryland, he's actually revealing just how thin a cardboard construct created by a Utah-based Mormon fanatic he really is.
There's also an echo of George Allen's "Welcome to the Real America" about Card's choice of words. I wonder if he's self-aware enough to realize it?
Orson Scott Card is writing a book/video game/movie about war between red and blue states. He says:
Call me crazy, but somehow I have my doubts that he's really going for a fair and happy ending for both sides here. And how bad of a writer do you have to be to write "true-blue, red-state soldier?"
Previously, people alleged that Card was writing apologias for Hitler. I wonder if this is his version of the Turner Diaries.
Maybe you saw where Wired solicited sci-fi stories limited to only six words long. Some are good, some are terrible. Obviously they didn't ask me, but it's an interesting writing exercise.
Although I couldn't say why, this weekend I started thinking about Orson Scott Card--maybe because I saw shades of him in a barely coherent stem-cell debate, maybe because I was reminded of Mormon theology by Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Either way, while I try to catch up on the Bank's Human Development Week videos, you may be amused by this article on how "Orson Scott Card Has Always Been An Asshat." I've personally never been able to read him the same way, especially after reading the first linked essay there. And one day I am going to make it to a library and dig up Radford's review, "Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman."