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October 31, 2013

Filed under: fiction»litcrit


It is never a bad time to remember that Orson Scott Card is a terrible person. But this week, as millions of people will go to theaters to see a movie based on his most famed work (sorry, Lost Boys), it is good to also remind ourselves: Ender's Game is not a good book. It's barely even a bad one. Consider the following three essays, ranked in descending order of plausibility:

  • Creating the Innocent Killer, by John Kessel, is a comprehensive debunking of the book's "morality." Kessel details how Card stacks the deck, again and again, so that Ender can do the most incredibly awful things but still be a "good" person.
  • Kessel mentions Sympathy for the Superman, by Elaine Radford, which notes a wide range of similarities between Ender and Hitler, and theorizes that the original trilogy was meant to be a "gotcha" on his audience.
  • Finally, Roger Williams writes a conspiracy theory of his own: that Card didn't even write the original books.

Williams' story is unlikely, I think, but it's too much fun not to mention (and for a long time, his account was the only place you could read about the Nazi connection). Radford makes a stronger case, but chances are much of Ender's similarity to Hitler is just coincidence: Ender ends up on a planet of Brazilians because Card is a hack who went on Mormon mission to Brazil as a young adult, he's a misogynist because his author is one, and he justifies his genocide with a lot of blather about "intention" because Card chickened out on the clear implication of the first book: that his protagonist really was a psychopath that wiped out an entire civilization based on an elaborate self-deception.

It's Kessel's essay that's been the most quoted over the years, and for good reason. It's a brutal deconstruction of the tropes used to build Ender's Game, and ends in a deft examination of why the book remains so popular:

It offers revenge without guilt. If you ever as a child felt unloved, if you ever feared that at some level you might deserve any abuse you suffered, Ender’s story tells you that you do not. In your soul, you are good. You are specially gifted, and better than anyone else. Your mistreatment is the evidence of your gifts. You are morally superior. Your turn will come, and then you may severely punish others, yet remain blameless. You are the hero.

Ender never loses a single battle, even when every circumstance is stacked against him. And in the end, as he wanders the lonely universe dispensing compassion for the undeserving who think him evil, he can feel sorry for himself at the same time he knows he is twice over a savior of the entire human race.

God, how I would have loved this book in seventh grade! It’s almost as good as having a nuclear device.

Like a lot of people, I did have this book in seventh grade (or earlier — I'm pretty sure I read it while attending junior high in Indiana). And I did love it as a kid, for most of the reasons that Kessel states: I was a bright kid who didn't have a lot of friends, felt persecuted and misunderstood, and struggled to find a way to express those feelings. Eventually, I grew up. Looking back on it, Ender's Game didn't really do any harm — like a lot of kids, I wasn't actually reading that critically. It's just kind of embarrassing now, and I definitely don't want to go to a theater and relive it.

Feeling embarrassed by your childhood reading material is a common rite of passage for many people, and science fiction readers probably more than others. Jo Walton refers to this as the Suck Fairy. It's tempting, when this happens, to wish we could go back in time and take these books off the shelves — or stop readers now from encountering them in the first place — but it's probably a better idea to foster discussion (a happy side effect of an active adult readership for "young adult" titles) or have alternatives ready on hand.

Recently I re-read another beloved book from my childhood: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. If you haven't taken a look at it lately, you really should. Apart from the titles, the two books have aged in radically different ways — in fact, it's probably better now than it was then. I remember reading it mostly as a puzzle: first to solve it, and then again to appreciate the little clues that Raskin works in. But as for the warmth, the sympathetic characterization, and most of all the humor (seriously, it's an uproariously funny book): I missed out on all of these things when I was a precocious youngster identifying with Turtle and her shin-kicking ways, just like I missed Ender's fascist tendencies.

And so ultimately, I'm not worried about young people reading Ender's Game and being influenced for the worse, because I suspect that what they take from it is not what Card actually wants them. It's sometimes difficult — but also crucial — to remember that the reader creates the story while reading, almost as much as the author does. Should we speak out against hateful works, and try not to give money to hatemongers? Sure. Will I be going to see Ender's Game at the local cinema? Definitely not. But I'll always understand people who have a soft spot for it anyway. Despite my bravado, despite the fact that I dislike everything it has come to stand for, I'm one of them, and I'm not going to let Card make me feel bad about that.

April 8, 2013

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

An Iain Banks Primer

Last week, Iain Banks announced that he has terminal cancer, with probably a year remaining to live. He'll hopefully see the publication of one more book, Quarry, before he goes.

Banks has long been one of my favorite authors, to the point that our living room bookshelves have several units devoted entirely to his work. I even had Belle bring me back paperbacks of his literary fiction from a trip to England, since those are still hard to find on this side of the pond. I'm tremendously saddened that he's doing so poorly, and I hope his plans to enjoy his remaining time as much as possible are a success.

If you've never really read any of Banks' work, and you'd like to see what the fuss is about now, where should you start? The answer seems to be fairly personal--especially within the science fiction genre, opinions often differ wildly on which books are better. This is my take, sorted between the two genres (literary and SF) that Banks called home.


  • The Wasp Factory: His debut novel, this very much introduces two common elements of Banks' fiction: twist endings, and sympathy for characters who are very much unsympathetic. The Wasp Factory centers on a young sociopath living in a Scottish village, who ritually tortures insects as a method of self-therapy. It's better than it sounds, but don't start here.
  • The Business: This is a better place for first-time readers. Banks uses this book to gently satirize capitalism, with its main character being a senior manager for the shadow company that runs most of the world behind the scenes, and would now like to buy its own country for tax purposes. It's a little fluffy, but also tremendously fun.
  • Walking on Glass: Published soon after The Wasp Factory, many of the same tics are present, but this time the story is told from multiple perspectives--one of which is entirely fanciful. I think this is the first of Banks' novels that I read, and it blew me away, but didn't hold up nearly as well on a second reading.
  • The Bridge: Is this science fiction, or literary? The bridge sees Banks learning how to combine the techniques from his previous two books, but leave off the twist ending in favor of more character development and discovery. I also love the chapters written in full-Scottish brogue as a parody of Conan-esque barbarian tales. This'll always be one of my favorites, and is a great place to jump in.
  • Dead Air: Of the literary side, this is the only title I'd actively skip. Banks can be a bit of a polemicist, which doesn't normally bother me, but in this book about a shock jock he lets the character rail on a bit more than is really justified. If you want a book about character redemption, you're better off with Espedair Street or The Crow Road.

Science Fiction

  • Player of Games: Generally considered the best intro to the Culture books, which is probably about right. It has all the elements of a great Culture yarn: huge set pieces, likeable characters who are dissatisfied with their utopian society, and the manipulations of the Mind AIs that actually run the Culture as a whole. It also serves as a fun, slightly-stacked argument in favor of Banks' socialist, post-scarcity future, with the capitalist aliens serving as skeptical audience stand-ins.
  • Use of Weapons: If The Bridge was just on the literary side of things but had a number of science-fictional elements, Use of Weapons is its counterpart. This is definitely SF, but it has elements of cruelty and experimentation that could easily have come from Walking on Glass. It also has a fascinating structure, since the chapters alternate between two different parts of the main character's life as a Culture mercenary, each shedding light and leaving clues for the other, until they merge together for a devastating conclusion. It also begins Banks' habit of showing how the Culture's utopian surface actually hides a number of much less savory choices being made for the greater good.
  • Against a Dark Background: One of my favorites from outside the Culture books. AADB follows a former soldier named Sharrow who is hired to find one of the Lazy Guns--demented superweapons that destroy their targets with sudden, completely random flights of whimsy. Since there's no continuity to worry about, Banks has a great deal of fun with one-off jokes, like the gang of solipsists that wander in and out, each convinced that everyone else is just a hallucination. It's also a merciless book when it comes to its characters, but not without reason.

In addition to these older titles, you may be interested in my reviews of Banks' newer work, including The Hydrogen Sonata, Surface Detail, Matter, and Transition.

May 10, 2011

Filed under: fiction»litcrit


While I re-read Dune once every couple years, I realized while we were on vacation that there's another favorite sci-fi novel that I haven't read in forever: Snow Crash. Due to reprints issued when Neal Stephenson hit the Baroque Cycle lottery, you can't get a new copy of Snow Crash for less than $10 ($13 for the trade paperback), which I regard as highway robbery, but a used bookstore in Seattle had it for $7, and I quickly found myself buried in it again.

Given that I've hated everything that Stephenson's done since this book, I was frankly worried that it would turn out to be another case of memories tinted by nostalgia, but Snow Crash is actually still pretty good. In fact, I think it's probably still the best thing he's written, and one of the better books of the 90's.

What did Stephenson get right with Snow Crash that he hasn't managed since?

  • There's an female character (a protagonist, no less!) who behaves in ways that are identifiably human.
  • It wouldn't be a Neal Stephenson book without pages and pages of infodump, but they're spaced out and reasonably interesting, instead of being 40 pages on the history of 14th century lending.
  • Characters have (barely) distinct narrative voices--i.e., Y.T. is written in a slightly different dialect than, say, Hiro or the Rat Thing. It's not The Sound and the Fury or anything, but it's at least a cursory effort at a prose style.
  • Unlike Cryptonomicon and Anathem, Snow Crash does not read like a barely-fictionalized series of alt.cypherpunks posts, or as a screed against the hippie who apparently kicked the author's dog.
  • It doesn't take itself too seriously. The main character is named Hiro Protagonist, after all. It's a lot easier to tolerate the book's failings since it's not claiming to be the complete saga of Enlightenment science or anything.
It's easy for Snow Crash to avoid an excess of seriousness because it's basically a satire, and a fairly even-handed one at that. It's a long riff on libertarianism, of course, with its fast-food franchise model of society and accompanying triumph of outsourced globalization. And yet it also takes potshots at big-government bureaucracy (the infamous toilet paper pool memo), at religion (Rev. Wayne's Pearly Gates franchise), and at the worst parts of American consumer culture. Not all of these age well (the Fedland section probably overlabors the point a bit), but the ones that are good are really, really good.

There's an old saying that good science fiction contains one big crazy idea--any more, and it detracts from the story, as the writer struggles to fit in story and readers try to keep up. Snow Crash is the glorious exception to that rule. It's just stuffed with great throwaway ideas and scenes: the Rat Things, Raft Pirates, smart-wheeled skateboards, a kayak-riding killer wielding micron-thick glass knives... Despite being satire, and wild satire at that, a lot of the ideas in Snow Crash are remarkably prescient (especially if you give it a little Nostradamus-like leeway): most notably Google Earth, but its depiction of Internet culture and tribalism is pretty dead-on. Its prediction of network consolidation (via phone companies and cable networks) to form a globe-spanning computer network is not that far off. A gargoyle is just a smartphone user without the fancy goggles. And of course, there's that line about globalization:

When it gets down to it-talking trade balances here-once we've brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they're making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here--once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel--once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity--y'know what? There's only four things we do better than anyone else:

microcode (software)
high-speed pizza delivery
...which sometimes these days sounds about right.

And yet, most impressive of all, it doesn't feel particularly cluttered. It feels fast. Stephenson charges through the story at a tremendous clip. It is, and I mean this in the best possible sense, cyberpunk by way of Michael Bay. Yes, the ending is still terrible. Yes, it still spends too much time rehashing ancient Sumerian myths. True, the toilet paper memo is really only funny the first time. But none of that honestly matters in the end. After the final page, what you remember are the explosions.

November 10, 2009

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I, Robot. You, Jane.

It's been probably ten or fifteen years since I last read Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. That's often a recipe for disaster: the book that you enjoy as a kid may be filled with all kinds of glaring faults and dated prejudices when viewed through adult eyes. Asimov's stories hold up better than I expected, although according to his timeline we're a few years overdue for household robots, and I for one feel cheated.

The reason I went back to the book in the first place was Susan Calvin, Robot Psychologist. The movie adaptation was on TV one night, and although it's not an unwatchable film, it does turn Calvin into a typical plot device: mobile-exposition-slash-love-interest. In doing so, and in the deployment of a bog-standard action-movie story, it loses a great deal of what made the stories interesting in the first place.

At heart, Asimov's Robot stories fit into a particular niche of sci-fi: the high-tech detective yarn. There's not a lot of work in this space, because it's a very difficult thing to do. In his Flatlander collection of "Gil the Arm" stories, Larry Niven explains:

A detective story is a puzzle. In principle, the reader can known what crime was committed, by whom, and how and where and why, before the story hits him in the face with it. He must have enough data to make this obviously true, and there must be only one answer possible.

Science fiction is an exercise in imagination. The more interesting an idea, the less justification it needs. A science-fiction story will be judged on its internal consistency and the reach of the author's imagination. Strange backgrounds, odd societies following odd laws, and unfamiliar values and ways of thinking are the rule. Alfred Bester overdid it, but see his classic The Demolished Man.

Now, how can the reader anticipate the detective if all the rules are strange? ... More to the point, how can I give you a fair puzzle?

With great difficulty, that's how. There's nothing impossible about it. You can trust John Dickson Carr, and me, not to bring a secret passageway into a locked-room mystery. If there's an X-ray laser involved, I'll show it to you. If I haven't shown you an invisible man, there isn't one.

The basic idea, then, is to make sure that the rules and the scenarios are clearly laid out for the reader, so that it's a fair challenge with no deus ex machina. Niven is better at this than Asimov is, but the latter has the advantage of what would become one of science fiction's most well-loved tropes: The Three Laws of Robotics. Having introduced the laws, Asimov then uses his short stories to play with them--what happens if they're modified? What if the robot has additional capabilities, like mind-reading? How could these laws go wrong?

Which brings us back to Susan Calvin, the troubleshooter for U.S. Robotics. In about half of the stories collected in I, Robot, Calvin's the protagonist tasked with sorting out her charges' aberrant behavior. She's a cold, impassive woman, described as "plain" but brilliant. Calvin likes robots more than people: in response to a question about the difference between people and robots, she snaps that "robots are essentially decent." I think it's odd that you don't hear much about Susan Calvin when lists of great sci-fi characters--and particularly, great female sci-fi characters--get made. She's acerbic, opinionated, smart, and misanthropic. Compared to Asimov's usual "boy scouts in space," she's a breath of fresh air.

The lone exception, and the one that took me by surprise, is the short story "Liar!" In this case, the malfunctioning robot (Herbie) turns out to be telepathic. Calvin and two other (male) U.S. Robotics scientists are sent to figure out how such a thing could have happened. For each of the three, Herbie presents a different aspect: for one mathematician, he's a brilliant calculator, while for the other (much more insecure) scientist, he professes no great skill with equations.

For Calvin, he claims to be mainly interested in human emotions, and to that end she supplies him with "slushy romance novels." It gets worse: Herbie begins supplying the scientists with "secret" information garnered through mind-reading. To the career-minded Bogert, it's news about an upcoming promotion. But in Calvin's case, it's an unrequited love--and when it turns out to have been a lie designed to satisfy the humans (in accordance with the First Law), she shrilly confronts Herbie with the contradiction of "causing no harm" and sends him into an unrepairable catatonic state. Apparently, no matter how smart or capable a woman is, at heart she's just another over-romantic shrew.

This portrayal of Calvin bears no small resemblance to the treatment of Jane Lynch's Sue Sylvester on the TV show Glee, and it introduces a degree of uncomfortable uncertainty to Asimov's intent. Is Calvin really a smart, cynical woman? Or is she merely an androgynous stand-in, whose rare moments of femininity are exploited for humor? I'm still not entirely sure. I suspect Asimov hoped it would be the former, and he just wasn't quite capable of escaping the latter. It's too bad: as puzzles go, the other stories are often quite good. Asimov's vision of robots as something other than terrifying Frankenstein monsters is still refreshing (the final entry, "The Evitable Conflict," sets the foundation for Iain Banks' Culture society, among other things). And I think it's no coincidence that Susan Calvin's the subject of the Robot Universe prequel novels authorized by the Asimov estate, and the first Asimov property to be written by a woman. There's a really interesting character there for revival, if it's done right.

May 8, 2009

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Walk Without Rhythm

Every few years I re-read Frank Herbert's Dune. This month I started thinking about futurism and novels--how we frame events using fiction, like the crazy people "going Galt" based on Atlas Shrugged--and that reminded me that it had been a few years since I'd picked up Herbert's masterpiece. So I grabbed an old digital copy and burned through it once again.

It's hard to believe that Dune is more than forty years old. It won the Hugo in 1966, but it could have been written yesterday. Much of this is just luck: the setting manages to skirt the kinds of details that date sci-fi (computers with a massive 4K of memory, food pills, landline telephones). But mostly it's just that Dune is really weird--in fact, I always forget how strange it really is between readings. And for all its reputed influence, it still stands apart from the science fiction that followed.

There are certainly parts of the novel that have not aged well. The Baron Harkonnen, as the book's only gay character, is a sinister and possibly-pedophilic rapist. The mysticism comes across as hokey, particularly its strange gender stereotypes. Women are both well-drawn--Jessica is a fascinating protagonist that anticipates Sarah Connor--and yet also trapped in a pseudo-medieval society that makes them either bargaining chips or machiavellian manipulators. And sometimes the writing crosses over from gothic into pulp: must all the villains be physically repulsive?

That said, the rest of the book retains its power to predict and surprise. In today's light, of course, it's a little disturbing: essentially, Dune tells the story of a charismatic leader who, after consuming a large amount of psychotropic drugs, launches a fanatical religious purge across a declining empire, based on his control of scarce natural resources. And he's the hero! Indeed, Herbert himself seemed deeply ambivalent about whether Paul Maud'Dib should be considered admirable, or even sane. Originally conceived during a time when OPEC was first entering the scene and the environmentalist movement was gaining momentum, Dune's become relevant again.

Which is why I thought of it in the first place: while people keep mentioning Rand or Vinge when daydreaming about the future, I tend to think more about Dune. That's not to say that I think we should be modeling policy on it, any more than we should be encouraging rich geniuses to withdraw from society or hoping that the robots will save us all. But as a kind of fable, the themes of Arrakis--corruption, terrorism, geoforming, preoccupation with peak resources--are probably a better framework for considering problems in the real world. Still not a very good framework, I'd say. But better.

November 6, 2008

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Post-Anathem, I have had a mental itch to scratch regarding Neal Stephenson. How is it, I wondered, that the author of Zodiac--an eco-thriller that explicitly dealt with the environmental impacts of unrestricted capitalists--had ended up writing books that were so tedious, so plainly self-interested? And had Cryptonomicon, as I remembered, really been the turning point when I began to find him unreadable? I went back and flipped through the book to check myself.

It's worse than even I had thought.

First, and what's most striking given recent political events, Cryptonomicon reads now like a lengthy, pulped-up pamphlet from Ron Paul. In its fascination with electronic cash and the gold standard, the book was dated even at the time of writing (remember, Paypal made its debut only a few months after publication, and the bubble burst in Silicon Valley a year later). Like seemingly all libertarian fantasies, there's a lot of water, boats, and islands involved. Reading it critically, one is struck by the attempt to normalize some pretty wild ideologies, like tying Holocaust prevention to the possession of homemade automatic firearms. Pull back from the engaging spy-counterspy plot for even a second, and the whole thing starts to unravel, particularly since the dot-com bust has put a lot of its present-day speculation to death. Indeed, the WWII sections are still the strongest in the book, if only because they focus on a character who is not A) a self-indulgent technocrat or B) a particularly deep thinker.

But what I remember bothering me even as I read Cryptonomicon for the first time in college, is the dinner-party flashback in which he viciously burns a strawman of liberal arts and academia. In a novel that often goes out of its way to champion nerdiness (particularly the unexplainable romantic plotline, in which the tough-but-beautiful girl seems to fall for the protagonist through a courtship that bears no resemblance to human behavior), the dinner party stands out as a towering triumph of misplaced Mary Sue dialog.

To set the scene, Stephenson's main character, Randy, is initially in a relationship with Charlene, who is a caricature of a feminist shrew. A graduate student at a Berkeley-esque college, her character is established when she takes exception with Randy's beard, and turns it into a pretentious academic crusade:

She pulled down statistics on racial variation in beard growth. American Indians didn't grow beards, Asians hardly did, Africans were a special case because daily shaving gave them a painful skin condition. "The ability to grow heavy, full beards as a matter of choice appears to be a privilege accorded by nature solely to white males," she wrote.

Alarm bells, red lights, and screaming klaxons went off in Randy's mind when he happened across that phrase.


Charlene published the results of a survey she had organized, in which a few hundred women were asked for their opinions. Essentially all of them said that they preferred clean-shaven men to those who were either stubbly or bearded. In short order, Charlene proved that having a beard was just one element of a syndrome strongly correlated to racist and sexist attitudes, and to the pattern of emotional unavailability so often bemoaned by the female partners of white males, especially ones who were technologically oriented.

"The boundary between Self and Environment is a social construct. In Western cultures this boundary is supposed to be sharp and distinct. The beard is an outward symbol of that boundary, a distancing technique. To shave off the beard (or any body hair) is to symbolically annihilate the (essentially specious) boundary separating Self from Other . . ."

And so on. The paper was rapturously received by the peer reviewers and immediately accepted for publication in a major international journal.

Subtle. There's also a short paragraph about how Charlene doesn't want to have kids because they mean conflict, and "Conflict, acted out openly and publicly, was a male mode of social interaction--the foundation for patriarchal society which brought with it the usual litany of dreadful things." Having laid on the satire with a trowel, establishing Charlene as the kind of moral-relativist harpy that results when women leave the kitchen and start reading, Stephenson then gives her a male counterpart for Randy to verbally demolish. Dr. G.E.B. Kivistik is invited by Charlene to a dinner during a conference on "War as Text." Kivistik is portrayed as a know-it-all contrarian currently involved in a crusade against the Internet:
"How many slums will we bulldoze to build the Information Superhighway?" Kivistik said. This profundity was received with thoughtful nodding around the table.

Jon shifted in his chair as if Kivistik had just dropped an ice cube down his collar. "What does that mean?" he asked. Jon was smiling, trying not to be a conflict-oriented patriarchal hegemonist. Kivistik in response, raised his eyebrows and looked around at everyone else, as if to say Who invited this poor lightweight? Jon tried to dig himself out from his tactical error, as Randy closed his eyes and tried not to wince visibly. Kivistik had spent more years sparring with really smart people over high table at Oxford than Jon had been alive. "You don't have to bulldoze anything. There's nothing there to bulldoze," Jon pleaded.

"Very well, let me put it this way," Kivistik said magnanimously--he was not above dumbing down his material for the likes of Jon. "How many on-ramps will connect the world's ghettos to the Information Superhighway?"

Despite himself, Randy leaps to the Internet's defense, insisting that the "Information Superhighway" is a terrible metaphor, and using his UNIX nerd cred as authority to dictate which ideas are good or bad (as opposed to "the usual academician's ace in the hole: everything is relative, it's all just differing perspectives."). Kivistik, not without reason, points out that Randy gained that authority as a member of an elite, and as such should perhaps not be making decisions for everyone else. This is seen as a grave injustice:

"I strenuously object to being labeled and pigeonholed and stereotyped as a technocrat," Randy said, deliberately using oppressed-person's language, maybe in an attempt to turn their weapons against them but more likely (he thinks, lying in bed at three A.M. in the Manila Hotel) out of an uncontrollable urge to be a prick. Some of them, out of habit, looked at him soberly; etiquette dictated that you give all sympathy to the oppressed. Others gasped in outrage to hear these words coming from the lips of a known and convicted white male technocrat. "No one in my family has ever had much money or power," he said.

"I think that the point that Charlene's making is like this," said Tomas, one of their houseguests who had flown in from Prague with his wife Nina. He had now appointed himself conciliator. He paused long enough to exchange a warm look with Charlene. "Just by virtue of coming from a scientific family, you are a member of a privileged elite. You're not aware of it--but members of privileged elites are rarely aware of their privileges."

Randy finished the thought. "Until people like you come along to explain to us how stupid, to say nothing of morally bankrupt, we are."

Let's set aside the poor-little-white-male victimhood schtick for a second, since it's patently transparent. Look at Kivistik's original question, the one Randy derides so readily: How many onramps will connect the world's ghettos to the Information Superhighway? If you strip away the metaphor, all he's asking is "who's going to make sure the poor can also access the advantages that the Internet brings?" This isn't some far-fetched academic pretense: it's a classic question of the Digital Divide. Perhaps a superhighway is indeed a bad metaphor for this, although I think it actually works rather well. But to argue about the highway, instead of connectivity for the poor, is to miss Kivistik's point entirely.

And in a book written by an honest author, instead of one using his protagonist as a mouthpiece for radical cyber-selfishness, a professor from Yale would point that out. But Cryptonomicon is not that book, sadly. That the author is capable of writing these sentences himself, and then misinterpreting his own words, is a sign of a shocking lack of empathy with his characters. And yet, I get no sense that he's writing from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, since the same tone of self-congratulatory geekishness pervades the entire story. As a college student still trying to get a grasp on criticism, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Nowadays, I'm more and more convinced that this was the exact moment I started to sour on Stephenson.

July 29, 2008

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Red Right Hand

The best part of the Hellboy stories is the freakish stone hand of the main character. Hellboy's Right Hand of Doom is coveted by every two-bit monster and shadowy figure in the cosmos, generally because they believe the Hand can bring about the apocalypse through a variety of unsavory methods. Said methods are never fully explained, but they generally involve the Ogru Jahad, giant, Cthulhu-like squid things trapped beyond space and time, and as such are probably fairly unpleasant.

Similarly, Hellboy himself seems to be an object of some reverence in his adventures, since he was originally Anung un Rama, the fiery-crowned demon born to end the world as we know it. The monsters Hellboy meets fully expect him to live up to his destiny, and are downright eager for him to start the festivities.

And this is where the genius of the character comes in: he's just not interested in filling that role. Raised by Professor Bruttenholm as a typical army brat, Hellboy doesn't see himself as Anung un Rama. He doesn't particularly feel like destroying the world, with either hand. And he's increasingly exasperated by the inability of the supernatural world to get these simple facts through their thick skulls, despite ample repetition. Hellboy has reinvented himself, while the shadowy world that created him refuses to change--a dynamic character surrounded by the static, archetypical trappings of fairy tales and penny-dreadful mythology.

I've never been entirely sure if this is a commentary, a running joke, or just an device that author Mike Mignola used to get his characters into position. It's probably the latter. But I've always loved the idea that Hellboy represents: that no-one's stuck in a role from birth, that destiny is a load of hogwash, and that we are not trapped by the myths of the past--nor are we particularly obligated to take them seriously.

Although the first film centered somewhat around this theme, the second abandoned it for more well-worn tropes (along with some casual misogyny), and I thought that was a real shame. There are lots of fictional places we can go to learn that outsiders need love too, or that action-movie protagonists have a certain kinship with their antagonists. But the conceit of Hellboy is more than just the importance of "being yourself." At heart it's a rejection of the idea that "yourself" is static, or that fate is anything other than a human creation--a vindication of Richard Rorty's anti-foundationalism, among other things. It's also an explicit statement that the time for listening to myths and folklore uncritically is over--Hellboy pays attention and respects his supernatural encounters, but more importantly he studies them and trims off those parts that can't coexist with modern civilization.

You would think that this would be more common in American fiction. We're a culture with a brief national history, a short attention span, and a fetish for rugged individualism. Yet much like the muddled ideology of 300, I think this is surprisingly hit-or-miss. American films tend to conflate destiny with a person's internal character. Self-discovery is seen as noble. Reinvention of self is not, and in fact it's often punished: characters that attempt to do so are often shown being humiliated when the mask is pulled away. You can be anything you want, as long as it's something you already are.

Likewise, Hollywood likes to venerate the past, with ancient prophecies and tragic fates galore. Granted, these are well-worn dramatic devices, but just once I'd like to see a hero dismiss an old legend as baseless superstition ("Rodents of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist.") and not pay for it later ("Argh!").

I imagine that in both the movies and in the comics, it must be tremendously limiting to live in a world so constrained by the flow of myth and narrative. It is one thing to say "with great power comes great responsibility." But it's also kind of sad that these characters don't really seem to get a choice. If they get superpowers, suddenly they're not allowed to become doctors or actors or writers or accountants, jobs that don't involve flying or clobbering or wearing ridiculous costumes. It's like a weird kind of typecasting. "You can set fires with your mind? Well, never mind that important non-profit work, then: time to go ignite some petty criminals."

So, I guess, here's to Hellboy, who breaks the mold. Not very much, or very wide, perhaps--cracks the mold might be more accurate. But as Leonard Cohen once wrote (so I'm told--I've never listened to the guy): "There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

June 24, 2008

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Wright Off

Proving that sometimes free distribution can yield benefits, Tor Books has been giving away one of their titles each week on Kindle. Last week it was John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos, the first part of a trilogy. Having just finished Nixonland, I was in need of some lighter fare, and I gave it a shot. Then, because I'm a sucker for pulp trilogies, I bought and read the other two Chaos books.

At that point, some parts of the narrative irritated me. So I decided to look Wright up, first via Wikipedia, which then led me to an interview with the man and his Livejournal. This may have been a mistake: both reveal Wright as a tremendously unpleasant person.

It's not just that he's a blowhard, because many writers are. And it's not just that he's my political opposite, or that he's zealously converted from atheism to catholicism. Those are jarring, but they don't break the novels. Reading his online rants, on the other hand, was more distressing. Wright refers to women with extremely regressive phrasing, including the description of women engaging in premarital sex as "unpaid whores." He's also fervently homophobic, referring to affection between gay people as (I quote from memory, but it's close) "something from which normal people naturally recoil in revulsion."

Understand that to me these are not "political" issues. CQ asks its employees, rightfully so, to avoid partisan debate. But I see these as questions of human rights: Wright is not even discussing something like gay marriage or abortion, on which unreasonable people might disagree. He's just outright stating that sexually active women and gay people are monsters.

Needless to say, my perspective on the books is now a little soured. I believe I told Belle I'd kind of like to pack them up and send them back to him.

I felt bad about this, honestly. I don't want to be one of those people who pre-judges their media consumption based on the personal leanings of the artist--reviewing movies based on the trailers, for example, as the hapless targets of Roy Edroso's Alicublog have been known to do. Good rhetorical practice is supposed to mean that the speaker's own views are irrelevant to the argument (although I am also partial to Daniel Davies' statement that there's no fancy Latin term for "giving known liars the benefit of the doubt").

And besides, fiction isn't an argument, is it? Surely it does fiction a disservice to throw it into a flat ideological viewpoint with the rest of the spin?

Well, sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Fiction can, after all, be an argument. It can be powerful and appropriate--To Kill A Mockingbird comes to mind. Other times, embedding rhetoric in fiction can be disastrous. I'm as big a fan of Iain Banks as you're likely to find, and I probably agree with much of his politics, but even I am put off by his occassional injections of partisan speechmaking in his mainstream fiction--particularly to the detriment of The Steep Approach to Garbadale and Dead Air.

Indeed, I believe that even viewpoints I disagree with can support and enrich fiction. I started thinking last night about C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, for example. I loathe Lewis's non-fiction and essay writing, which I consider intellectually sloppy and manipulative. But I read the Narnia stories as a kid, even after learning that they're filled with the same views that generated Lewis's non-fiction output, and enjoyed them. I suspect I'd find them readable today. Lewis was not much of an original thinker, but he was a pretty good storyteller, and his ideology does give the books a richness--particularly since he seems to use them as much to explore that ideology as to expound on it. Understanding Lewis's perspective, even if one disagrees with it, allows the reader a deeper and more interesting perspective on the stories, but they're still fine children's stories without it.

The inverse of Lewis is Ayn Rand. Rand also espouses a philosophy with which I personally disagree. But she commits a greater sin: she simply can't write. Her books are compelling fiction the way a rainbow trout is a compelling public speaker. I don't hate Rand because she started Objectivism. I hate her because I read 700 pages of Atlas Shrugged, at which point I lapsed into a coma and had to be nursed back to health through gentle readings of early-era Heinlein.

Perhaps this is where I find most fault with the combination of Wright's viewpoints with his fiction. Without knowing how Wright looks at the world, his books are decent reads that suffer from some overcooked prose and cardboard characterizations, along with a few troubling details or plot devices (I felt similarly about his earlier work, in case anyone suspects sour grapes). Learning about his ideology (particularly his outlook on women--unsurprisingly, homosexuality is largely absent from the Chaos books) does not enrich the reading experience, but heightens those unsettling moments that might otherwise have been discounted in the final analysis: the disjointed sexual scenes and obsession with submission, the heroine's bizarre lack of personal agency (despite her idolization of great explorers), the reinforcement of domestic female stereotypes, shout-outs to Margaret Thatcher...

When I started looking for New Dissent links, one of the more insightful blogs I ran across was Ethan Zuckerman's "My Heart's in Accra." Zuckerman is interested in breaking people of their homophily--love of the same--and in that spirit he started the Global Voices Online aggregator of commentary from around the world. But of course, there's also a kind of homophily in American life--the kind of partisan cultural split hinted at by Nixonland. I am not terribly good at breaking out of that homophily. Too much of my non-fiction reading tends to fit my existing worldview, and I should probably work on expanding that range.

For entertainment, however, I've tried to be more open: I don't boycott movies because I disagree with their stars, or games just because I disagree with their representatives (Sins of a Solar Empire publisher Stardock is run by a rabid neo-conservative). Within certain limits, I'd hope to extend the courtesy of art over politics, as with Lewis. I've never been really sure what those limits would be--where I would draw the line at the cash register. I suppose if nothing else, I owe Wright thanks for helping to more concretely identify the boundaries I don't want to cross.

July 19, 2007

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Potter's Heel

Harry's kind of a jerk.

Actually, that's a bit harsh. He's not a jerk any more than the next teenager, although that's not saying much. But Harry Potter's not particularly interesting, either. He's a poor hero, either in ideological or literary terms. There are lots of reasons that I think a person could dislike J.K. Rowling's books--they're formulaic, trite, cloaked in nostalgia, and not terribly original. If you've got to read youth fantasy, you can do much better...

...which is your cue to note that I am (like everyone else who dares to dislike Rowling's work) humorless, elitist, and needlessly contrarian. If I'm not cloaked in child-like wonder at the series, the conventional wisdom goes, there must be something wrong with me. And at this point, fine. If you can't understand why someone else finds the books tedious, I'm not going to argue with you. Come back later, and we'll talk about something less distasteful for both of us.

Anyway, as I was saying, I think there are lots of reasons that someone could dislike the Harry Potter books, but for me it's always come down to Harry himself. Because he's kind of an unpleasant little sod, isn't he? It's easy to miss, because he's portrayed so sympathetically (although I would never call Rowling a cunning wordsmith, her prose is far from wooden). But I always find, reading the books (and I have read them all, some of them twice), that it's hard to rectify the oddities of Harry's actual character with the character that Rowling thinks she's writing.

Let's recap. When we first meet Mr. Potter, we're told that he is famous because Voldemort's attempt to killed him backfired. Over the next few books, Harry takes place in a number of conveniently year-long escapades, mostly because the recovering Voldemort insists on tying up this loose end, and not because of any action on Harry's part. Eventually, Rowling strengthens this plot from simple revenge by adding a few macguffins: a prophecy that links the two, as well as some magical handwaving like psychic links. But what increasingly becomes clear is that Harry himself did not actually defeat the Dark Lord--I believe one book credits his parents' love (a mushy, underwhelming plot device if ever there was one) with deflecting the death curse.

But he's got other virtues, right? Not really, other than a garden-variety bravery that comes standard on every young fantasy hero. Harry's a poor student, and if he doesn't cheat than he's at least willing to come very close. His selective ethics are discomforting. He has a poor temper, and regularly fights with the people around him over very stupid things. His magical skills don't seem to be noticeably stronger or more refined than the other students. Hermione regularly outstrips him in every category, except for Being An Insufferable Stereotype of a Teacher's Pet. Harry is, in other words, a flawed (and frankly, unattractive) character.

Now, I personally welcome the average hero. I'd love to read a book about someone in a fantastical universe who is not either The Hero of Legend, an Unlikely Savior, or A Being of Vision. But Rowling is not writing those books. Instead, she's writing stories of a young man with a destiny, and her other characters insist on responding to Harry as if he's someone great. People are impressed with Harry, even though by his actions and attitudes he is really quite unimpressive. In general, he overcomes obstacles through either the help of others, or a magical deus ex machina which owes nothing to his own skills or abilities. It's almost sad, really, that in a world filled with wizards and monsters, someone like Harry Potter can even flag down a taxi.

I would like to believe, honestly, that this is the joke. I'd like to think that the Harry Potter books are really a satire about some poor kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, stuck trying to live up to the sadistic prophecies that always anchor sub-standard fantasy novels. His fate as an orphan is just one of the cruel, ultimately shallow literary devices that a fourth wall-breaking protagonist could bitterly lament. But I see no evidence that the author is not playing it straight, and the discontinuity between Harry and the events around him is glaring. Why is he a hero? Only because the book says he is.

At the core of a great deal of (bad) fantasy is this concept of "the chosen one," and Harry Potter slots right into it. If anyone is going to sling around accusations of elitism, it should probably start there. Yet since most readers of Rowling's series are probably blissfully unaware of either the overworn tropes of genre fiction, or the progress that's been made in overcoming them, this context is lost. It's more depressing than anything else. These are not bad books, when all is said and done. They're technically well-written, smoothly plotted, and deftly marketed. But let's face it: they're pulp, and not even the best pulp out there. Considering that Harry's fans are unlikely to ever read another fantasy novel--that they'll never graduate from Hogwarts School of Magic to Unseen University or the college of New Crobuzon--they deserve a better class of protagonist.

April 9, 2007

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Ubik With Us

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:

  1. Who's dead, and who is alive at the end of the book? This is not a trivial question.
  2. What is Ubik? What's the significance of its name? And why does each chapter begin with a short advertising blurb, in which Ubik takes the place of any number of other commodities?
  3. How does that tie in to the other commercial aspects of Ubik's setting, such as the need to pay for opening doors, using television sets, or other mundane appliances?
  4. This book was recently chosen as one of Time's 100 best novels of all time. I'm not sure I have a question for that, I just think it's kind of weird.
  5. There are at least two binaries at work here in the book--the first being the company of psychics run by Hollis versus Runciter's anti-psychic "prudence" organization. What other binaries or opposing forces do you see, and what do they represent?
  6. Themes of surveillance, godhood (either malevolent or ambivalent), and alternate realities (including hallucinations) make repeated appearances in Dick's fiction. What do you make of these themes in Ubik?
  7. You may find it useful to read Wikipedia's entry on Philip K. Dick. Having done so, does this change your perception of the book?
Book club members may also use the comment space to castigate me for my oddities in taste, and to publicly state that I am never allowed to choose our readings again.

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