Adrian Tchaikovsky, SERVICE MODEL

Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of the most accomplished science fiction writers of the past two decades. He is also remarkably prolific, having published well over thirty hefty novels, together with many shorter works, in the years since 2008. Tchaikovsky also has a great range. He seems reluctant to repeat himself, and has instead explored a wide variety of subgenres in science fiction and fantasy: everything from novels of uplifted animal intelligence (the Children trilogy), to the dying-Earth subgenre (Cage of Souls), to metaphysical space opera (the Final Architecture trilogy), to alternative visions of evolution (The Doors of Eden), to science fantasy with a dollop of horror (Walking to Aldebaran).

Tchaikovsky’s latest novel, Service Model, might be characterized as robot cyberfiction. It recounts the story of a robot’s picaresque adventures in a ruined, posthuman world. “Charles”, as the robot is initially called, initially serves as a valet to a rich man, and is programmed to anticipate his every wish, and to pamper him to a degree far exceeding what even the richest actual human beings today are able to get their servants to do. Charles is content in his position, even though his idle, wealthy employer is clearly a degenerate scumbag (I am using this phrase, which does not appear in the actual text of the novel, in the precise sense in which it is defined by the Urban DIctionary: “a person whose behaviour and attitude holds back the progress of the human race while eroding social solidarity”).

Only one day, without realizing it, Charles slashes his master’s throat while in process of shaving him. With no master left to serve, Clarles has to leave. In addition, since the name “Charles” was only imposed as a feature of his initial position, once that position is gone, so is the name. For the rest of the novel, and following a suggestion from somebody else, the robot calls himself Uncharles instead. (I am only using he/him pronouns here because of the initial name “Charles”; the robot shows no particularly gendered characteristics one way or the other).

Most of the book narrates Uncharles’ search for another source of employment; and secondarily in order to find out why he murdered his employer, since he cannot discover any reasons to have done so. He sees himself as a mechanism, having tasks to perform, but without anything of the order of needs, desires, and emotions, such as human beings might feel. Uncharles seeks a new job, not for monetary reasons — he has no physical needs as long as he can be recharged from sunlight — but because he still feels a strong impulse to do the sort of work for which he was initially programmed: to be the enthusiastic helper of a living human being. The problem is that the world has been largely destroyed. Pretty much everything has been reduced to debris. The wasteland is heavily populated with robots set adrift, much as Uncharles himself is. Human beings have almost gone extinct; for the most part, the only surviving ones are relegated to hellish situations of continual pain and punishment.

For most of the volume, Uncharles passes through a series of situations that are unattractive for him, and evidently satirical from the point of view of the author and of us as readers. Thinking the murder of his employer results from some sort of mechanical defect, Uncharles goes to a robot repair center that is entirely dysfunctional (which is evidently for the best since its only form of “repair” for broken robots is to terminate them and scavenge their physical remains for spare parts). Uncharles then goes to a sort of farm or factory where the few surviving human beings are compelled endlessly to re-enact their supposed pre-robotic folkways (consisting in straightened living situations, hellish commutes, and meaningless and unending factory labor, though they do not actually produce anything). Then there is a library where all human knowledge is transcribed into 1s and 0s and then erased, with the original sources (books, movies, etc.) also being physically destroyed. After that, there’s an enormous junkyard where robot armies continually battle one another for no discernible reason. And so on. These scenarios are referenced to famous modernist authors, such as Kafka (the bureaucracy of the repair facilities), Orwell (the ceaseless surveillance of the people forced to reenact the most oppressive circumstances of their past lives), and Borges (the library) — though this is a joke only for the readers, as it is something the robots themselves remain unaware of.

Uncharles is accompanied on his voyages by another figure known as The Wonk (who turns out to be a human woman in robot disguise — I don’t feel like I am giving away a spoiler here, because the reader realizes that this in the case, long before Uncharles is officially informed of it). She plays Sancho Panza to Uncharles’ Don Quixote, with her comments continually undermining his delusions about his tasks and about the structure of society. She also keeps noting to Uncharles that, in contrast to his original programming, he has developed something like free will. This is an observation that he continually denies, but that readers in the long run judge to be true.

The question of human freedom or flexibility versus robot programming and external determination is also continually raised in the novel’s own language. A close third-person narration is continually describing Uncharles’ reactions to various things by comparing them to human emotional responses, while at the same time disavowing these comparisons by saying things like: Uncharles was acting very much like a person getting angry, though of course as a robot he didn’t feel anger or any other emotions. The novel gets a considerable degree of this power from this sly use of rhetoric, as well as from the evidently satirical and exaggerated characterizations of all the predicaments within which Uncharles finds himself.

In short, Service Model is a brilliant novel, equal in power to many of Tchaikovsky’s other works, but unique among those works in its particular strategies and angles of approach. Its ultimate impact is to blur the distinction between internally-generated and externally-imposed actions and responses, as between what philosophers call dispositions and what common sense refers to as feelings. And therefore it also erodes (even as it overtly affirms) differences between natural and artificial intelligence. This is both the source of the considerable pleasure I took in reading the novel, and the sign of its being a deep philosophical thought-experiment and argument in its own right.

Michael Bérubé, THE EX-HUMAN

Michael Bérubé is one of our best social and cultural critics. He has written important books on cultural studies, disability studies, and the politics of the “culture wars” in academia and beyond. Bérubé’s new book, The Ex-Human, is about science fiction. Bérubé offers thoughtful close readings of a number of classic science fiction texts: Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? (with some reference to its film adaptation as Blade Runner), Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 (with some reference to its better-known film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick), and Octavia Butler’s Parable series and Lilith’s Brood series.

Bérubé’s discussions of all these texts are subtle and insightful. But close reading in its own right is not the point of the book. Bérubé includes autobiographical personal reflections, and discusses writing the book in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which deeply changed the dynamics of his own personal and family life, together with everyone else’s. Above all, though, the book is concerned with how science fiction allows us to entertain non-human perspectives upon human life and existence, and specifically to imagine the end of humanity — or rather (and better) its transformation in radical ways that exceed our capacity for imaginative projection and continued empathy.

I am inclined to share Bérubé’s pessimism about human futures. Immanuel Kant said that, regardless of its mistakes, excesses, and bad human rights record, the French Revolution was inspiring and positive because it demonstrated the sheer fact that human beings were capable of rebelling against injustice and envisioning something better. But today we find ourselves facing a sort of inverse of this situation. Regardless of whether Donald Trump gets elected to a second term or not, his widespread support by millions of American voters is frightening and horrific because it demonstrates the sheer fact that human beings are so enthusiastically vicious, bigoted, and sadistic that they are more than willing to embrace a worsening of their own lives, as long as this guarantees that other people will be treated even worse than they are, and that they will retain the privilege of enjoying the spectacle of other people’s suffering, like Christians in Heaven who gain surplus gratification from observing the torments of sinners in Hell. Though Bérubé doesn’t express himself precisely in these terms, he is definitely saying something similar. He cites, for instance, Octavia Butler’s insight that human beings are both highly intelligent and inveterately hierarchical, an extremely deadly combination.

Bérubé chooses the works he discusses precisely because they all share something of this ferociously negative vision, even though many readers/viewers seem to have gone out of their way to avoid acknowledging this. He defines his perspective by identifying it with that of Ye Weinjie, the character in The Three-Body Problem who deliberately contacts the Trisolarians (the aliens who inhabit the Alpha Centauri three-star system), thus encouraging them to invade Earth. Having suffered through the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and subsequent tyrannical and environmentally destructive actions of the Chinese government, Ye Weinjie concludes — mistakenly but not unjustifiably — that an alien invasion might well be the one thing that “can somehow save us from ourselves.” Bérubé is careful to distinguish this position from the more overtly radical one (also dramatized in the novel, and expressed in theoretical terms by such anti-natalists as David Benatar) that straightforwardly seeks the self-annihilation of Homo sapiens altogether.

For Bérubé, then, the greatest virtue of science fiction is its ability to articulate perspectives “in which we have become able to see ourselves and our sorry fate from the vantage point of something other than the human.” Rather than using such common terms as posthuman or transhuman, Bérubé describes his perspective as ex-human. To me, this suggests the scenario of tending one’s resignation from, and retiring from, the human race, although Bérubé does not quite describe it in these terms. In any case, the term ex-human avoids the self-congratulatory visions of exceeding and transcending the human that we find in Nietzsche, say, or more to the point in recent Silicon Valley TESCREALists (TESCREAL = “transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, rationalism, effective altruism, and longtermism”). [You can find out more about TESCREALism here]. For Bérubé, the ex-human “is distinctive in that it is framed by the possibility of human extinction and driven by a desire to imagine that, somehow, another species is possible.” Becoming otherwise is desirable, and may well be a better alternative than remaining conventionally “human”; but it should not be seen as a conquest, a triumph, or a heroic accomplishment.

The novels and films discussed by Bérubé all express this desire in various ways, albeit often tentatively. The bioengineering of a less malevolent successor species to Homo sapiens is most explicitly envisioned in Oryx and Crake. Much more mildly, Ursula Le Guin’s vision of a society that is not governed by gender in The Left Hand of Darkness proposes a modification of “human nature” that is not flawless, but evidently more desirable than not. Though Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? is explicitly premised upon the supposition that human beings are able to feel empathy, whereas androids are not, it is not only set in the aftermath of a human-made catastrophe (nuclear war), and questions its human-supremacist premise in many other ways as well. 2001 also contrasts banalized human characters with the supercomputer HAL, who is arguably the most empathetic character in both the novel and the movie. 2001, like Androids and Blade Runner, suggest that transcending, or at least reforming, what we understand as “the human” is urgently necessary, and indeed perhaps inevitable.

The richest discussion in The Ex-Human is that in the final chapter, devoted to Octavia Butler. Here Bérubé discusses both the Parable diptych, and the Lilith’s Brood trilogy. The Parable books presciently envision a Trumpian America, and set against it a small-scale utopian community project. In the course of the novels, the protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina does succeed in setting up a worthwhile intentional community, but only after the most horrific and painful tribulations. And in any case, such a result is not scalable to humanity as a whole. This leads Butler to posit space travel and migration to other worlds as a more permanent solution to self-inflicted human suffering; but it is all too symptomatic that Butler was never able to write a third novel in the series that would convincingly envision such a movement. Here Bérubé cites Gerry Canavan’s exploration of Butler’s many abandoned manuscripts. (In fact, this impasse was already encountered in Butler’s early novel Survivor, which she ultimately disowned as a result).

Bérubé then turns to Butler’s earlier Lilith’s Brood series, consisting of Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. In these novels, Butler envisions an Earth devastated by nuclear war, survived only by a small number of humans who are rescued by an alien species with superior technologies, the Oankali. These aliens define themselves as gene traders; they seek to produce a genetic hybrid between themselves and humans. I won’t go into Bérubé’s reading of this trilogy in detail. I will only note that the biggest interpretive disagreement about the trilogy is over whether we should regard the Oankali as benevolent saviors, or whether we should regard them as manipulative and oppressive colonialists. There is good evidence for both approaches in the books. The Oankali insist, quite plausibly, that human beings are bound to destroy themselves (again; since the premise of the novels is that we have already done so once), unless they accept the deep species modifications that are being offered them. However, the Oankali clearly maintain a position of superiority vis-a-vis the surviving humans, lying to them, forcing them into actions against their will (up to and including what can only be understood as rape), and continually overriding human demands and desires, supposedly for the humans’ own good. Bérubé offers a remarkable synthesis of these two opposed readings; he agrees that the Oankali’s treatment of human beings is entirely, unacceptably nasty; but at the same time he suggests that (from Butler’s own perspective, which Bérubé endorses) such a forcible remaking of humanity into something *other* is preferable to human beings remaining as they are. The human condition as it actually is can only lead to horrors of nuclear holocaust, devastating epidemics, or the re-election of Donald Trump. I have to say — much as I do not want to — that Bérubé has a point.

Andrea Hairston, ARCHANGELS OF FUNK

Andrea Hairston, ARCHANGELS OF FUNK

I received an advance copy of Andrea Hairston’s Archangels of Funk, in return for giving an honest review. Here it is. The book will be published in two weeks or so.

Archangels of Funk

Andrea Hairston’s new novel, Archangels of Funk (2024), is a science-fictional sequel to her two previous magical realism / alternative history novels, Redwood and Wildfire (2011) and Will Do Magic for Small Change (2016). The new novel’s heroine, Cinnamon Jones, is now a sixty-year-old woman; those previous novels were about, respectively, Cinnamon’s grandparents (a Black grandmother and a Seminole/Irish grandfather) who leave the deep South and come north to Chicago during the Great Migration of Black people in the first half of the twentieth century, and Cinnamon herself as a teenager in Pittsburgh in the 1980s.

This places Archangels of Funk as occurring in 2030 or so. This is only a few years beyond the actual present in which the book was published, and in which I am writing this note. But things have changed radically during those several years. We have gone through the Water Wars, which are not described in detail in the novel, but which evidently shook things up quite a bit. Large corporations and rich white people still own the world; but not everything is under their control. Cinnamon Jones is part of a thriving multiracial alternative community, including farming cooperatives and centered on the Ghost Mall, a former shopping center now refurbished as a collective gathering place and free kitchen, with lots of space for experimental collaborative projects. This community is hooked in to the global Internet, but it is largely a loose, local aggregation, autonomous from major centers of power and production, more or less self-sufficient in terms of food, and largely reliant on bicycles for transportation, instead of cars. This community is also relaxed and dispersed, resistant to the sort of centralization and totalization that one often finds in both utopian and dystopian visions.

Archangels of Funk is narrated in close third person through the varying perspectives of Cinnamon herself, her close friend Indigo, her dogs Bruja and Spook (both of whom seem to be able to grasp spoken human desires and suggestions, and the latter of whom is cyber-enhanced), and even her three “circus-bots”. These sentient machines are camouflaged, when they are quiescent, as piles of junk; but when they awaken they take on robotic animal forms, and project vivid multimedia spectacles. They are also imprinted with the personalities of Cinnamon’s grandparents and great-aunt. The circus-bots preserve and transmit the wisdom of the ancestors, but they also plunge forward in time in order to generate exuberant new configurations of spectacle.

Hairston is less concerned with narrative than with exploring the textures of everyday life in the changed circumstances of the world that the book presents. The novel is set in just one locality, western Massachusetts, where Hairston herself actually lives; and it takes place over the span of just a few days. Cinnamon is mostly concerned with staging her yearly extravaganza, the Next World Festival. This is a “community carnival-jam”: a gigantic theatrical spectacle, highly participatory, played in an outdoor ampitheater, and filled with song and dance, as well as with seeemigly magical masks and costumes, together with splendiferous props and sets. Everything in the Festival both calls back to African American history and leap forward to envision social and personal transformations. A Mothership lands, recalling George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Careful planning serves for the proliferation of play, rather than for any more instrumental purpose.

Cinnamon is by no means anti-technology. But she is careful with her gadgets and inventions, because she is all too aware of how computational devices in the 21st century serve purposes of dissuasion and surveillance. Her house is configured as a Faraday cage, and she never carries or uses a cellphone. Her bots are always gather data, and anxious to give advice; but they are also booby-trapped to prevent corporate spies from seizing and reverse-engineering them. There is also considerable attention paid to physical safety. The surrounding woods are rife with robbers looking for a quick score, as well as with “nostalgia mlitias,” dudes roaming about in combat gear trying to bring back the old days of MAGA values. But their efforts are somewhat hampered, fortunately; though they seem to have lots of guns, they are mostly empty because bullets, bombs, and other munitions seem to be quite scarce.

Cinnamon and her friends are not just happy-go-lucky creators, however. They suffer from depression, relationship problems, bouts of fake nostalgia, and other all too real psychological symptoms. The ill effects of global warming are everpresent: “deny climate change all you want, but when that brushfire rolls up on your ass, you run or burn“. There are also kids whose parents are missing, visitors with murky and perhaps dangerous agendas, and so on. The novel is, at least in part, about how to negotiate such difficulties. It is psychologically incisive, even as it values lateral connections with others over the narcissism of deep interiority. Cinnamon is adamant that she is “too busy” to be “waiting for love,” but she remains open to chance encounters and unexpected opportunities. People always seem to be engaging in

Archangels of Funk has no deep, mythical narrative, no grand, overarching Story: this is precisely because everything in the book is composed of little stories, told and experienced, involving exchanges and transformations on multiple levels. There is no firm line between actuality and dream, or between technology and magic. Hairston’s prose style strikes me as unique, and it is ultimately what draws everything together. The writing is liquid and mercurial, stopping to capture unexpected details, passing between interior monologue and physical description, then turning and flowing away from what you thought was important, and drawing your attention somewhere else. When I finished reading Archangels of Funk the other night, I felt a bit confused because I was hoping for more. The final dialogue, between Cinammon, her bots, and some long-ago friends who have shown up long after she expected never to see them again, suggests a never-ending adventure. You may become tired of adventure and seek to rest for a while, but the energy will return, at least until you have passed (as all people and all things ultimately must). “You’re a dream the ancestors had” — which is true enough, except vice versa is true as well. “We’re in a sacred loop”; there is no goal except continuing to play and to circulate. “Nobody makes up their own mind,” because our minds like are bodies are continually in motion, continually intertwined with others. (Earlier, we had been told that “mind was always a community affair”). And: “here we are at the end of the world,” Cinnamon finally says, “thinking up what the next world will be.” And: “I am who we are together.”

Cory Doctorow, THE LOST CAUSE

Cory Doctorow’s latest science fiction novel, THE LOST CAUSE, is a book about both the politics and the technics of responding to climate change. The novel is set in the near future, perhaps thirty years from now, in Burbank, California. Brooks, the narrator and protagonist, is a 19-year-old young white man, a high school graduate, who inherits a private house when his grandfather passes away. The grandfather, who raised Brooks after his parents died when he was 8, was a MAGA climate change denier; the two always argued. Now Brooks is entirely on his own.

The political background to the novel is important. In the time between our actual moment and the present of the novel, global warming has only become much worse than it is now. A progressive US President has passed comprehensive Green New Deal legislation, guaranteeing jobs and a reasonable income for all. The jobs guarantee mostly takes the form of temporary employment involving all sorts of environmental remediation. Brooks and his friends do not worry about long-term careers; they take these short-term jobs one after another, working hard but knowing not only that they are they economically secure, but also that their work offers our only hope for averting worldwide catastrophe.

Things are already really bad, with areas of the United States and other countries rendered uninhabitable due to heat, drought, and chemical pollution, and loads of people forced out of their homes and neighborhoods due to unviable conditions. The only hope these refugees have is to rely upon the goodwill of strangers: people in other regions who agree to take them in. In places like Southern California that are still functional for the time being, a lot of construction work is necessary, both to house these refugees, and to remediate and replace environmentally unviable practices and structures.

Brooks invites refugees into his home (which is the kind of 20th-century private residence that is way too big to house just a single person or small family), and eventually tears his house down in order to build a multiple-residence structure instead (a four-story building with two apartments big enough for a family on each floor). This can be done quickly and cheaply, thanks to advances in building technology: modular, prefabricated parts that are resilient and inexpensive, and easy enough to assemble together that the entire four-story building can be constructed by a crew of 15 people or so in less than a week. Doctorow, as is his wont, goes through all the technical details at almost excruciating length. Such is not my favorite sort of writing; but I think that it is justified here, because Doctorow needs to make the point (and succeeds in making it) that this is not fantasy, but something that will soon (if not quite yet) be realistic on a technological level. He convinces the reader that, in our society today, we have the expertise and the resources (without straining the environment yet further) to do things like this.

Even at best, Doctorow tells us, this is not a quick solution to climate change, nor even a quick fix for immediate emergency problems. It is rather an ongoing process, that Brooks and his friends can expect to continue for their entire lives. We are not given anything like utopia, but Doctorow’s vision is nonetheless hopeful rather than grim. The extensive Green New Deal provisions in the near-future of the novel are what make this sort of vision viable (in a way that “market-based solutions” are not). To avert climate catastrophe will require a lot of hard work, but in a way that involves feelings of satisfaction and solidarity. The alternative (deepening disruption of the climate) is too horrible to consider.

The point of Doctorow’s novel is that there are no technological obstacles to such relative improvement (alleviation and remediation, if not complete reversal of global warming and widespread pollution). Rather, the obstacles are political. Brooks and his cohort in general seem both eager and idealistic. They know that the danger of climate change is undeniable, but that responses are available that are not futile. The problem is that there are way too many people who are trying to stop them.

The plutes (plutocrats) and their allies seek to block the necessary changes, because they don’t want to give up their privileges, their wealth, and their power. They think that they can wait out the climate disasters, with their power and money intact, regardless of what happens to everyone else. We meet them in the novel in the form of the Flotilla, a seasteading enterprise of the sort advocated by extreme libertarians; people live on ships they own, sized from small vessels to aircraft carriers, that remain more than 12 miles from shore in order to escape the juristiction of the US or any other government. This has its attractive side, if you are one of the owners — but not if you are one of the workers keeping those ships running, or one of the multitude who cannot find a place upon them. China Mieville has written at length about these false paradises; Doctorow only gives them a subordinate focus, but shows well enough how they can only be the solution for a small privileged class.

The more immediate danger faced by Brooks and his friends is that of the MAGAs — mostly older white men, middle class and well-to-do. who are embittered about the changes that they see around them, and which threaten their sense of superiority. Brooks’ grandfather dies early in the book; but all his cronies are still around, and they have automobiles (one of the luxuries they refuse to give up), not to mention weapons (AK-15s and the like) to enforce their anger. They obstruct change in any way they can. from swarming political meetings in order to outshout their opponents, to seizing public spaces in order to enforce what they consider to be their property rights, to bombing government buildings, to making “citizens’ arrests” of Brooks and his friends in order to stop them from building a place to house refugees. They are aided behind the scenes by the plutes, who employ lawyers invoking spurious grounds to crack down on new housing construction and other climate alleviation procedures.

The novel has something of a repetitive structure. Each time Brooks and his friends are in the process of doing something useful, the MAGAs show up to stop them. This happens again and again, in nearly every chapter. It is frustrating and perhaps a bit repetitious, but Doctorow is right to compose the novel in this way, because it reinforces his double points: first, that even at the best, climate remediation and rights for climate refugees will involve extensive difficulties; and second, that political divisions in the US are so severe and extreme at this point, that any good faith attempt to actually alleviate climate conditions can easily lead us to the brink of civil war.

Doctorow offers no good solutions for countering the MAGAs; they are almost certainly a minority, but they have money and guns, and backers among the rich and within the media. No matter what we do, they will not go away. Doctorow even bends over backwards to get us to understand that these people are not just somehow intrinsically evil. They have their own desires and demands, which make sense to them; they have their own vision of the good life which they used to have, and which they are not wrong to see as slipping away. (If your sense of a fulfilling life includes an enormous mansion and a gas-guzzling vehicle that allows you to go anywhere and everywhere without obstruction, then you may well find the new environmental constraints to be a limit upon your freedom; and you will probably blame young people and foreigners and people of color for your torment). Brooks, to his credit, tries to understand where they are coming from; and Doctorow pushes the point that, if we simply demonize these people, we run the risk of becoming as vicious and intolerant as they are.

I could probably go on at considerably more length detailing the ins and outs of all these situations, and tracing how thoughtful the novel is in facing them frankly, rather than pushing them under the carpet or simply arguing them away. But I think I have done enough to explain what is at stake. The novel is at once remarkably optimistic, since it shows us ways that we might really be able to alleviate the oncoming disaster of global warming and its accompanying dangers. But at the same time, it also leaves me (or leaves a side of me) in despair, because it refuses to diminish the dangers and near-impossibilities that we face. I will not spoil the novel’s conclusion here, but only say that it powerfully balances the triumph of Brooks and his friends with an ecological disaster that they could never have imagined.

THE BLUE BEAUTIFUL WORLD, by Karen Lord

Karen Lord’s novel The Blue Beautiful World (to be published on August 29, 2023; I got to read an advance copy through Netgalley) is the third in her “Cygnus Beta” series of science fiction novels, following The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013) and The Galaxy Game (2014). (Lord has also written a series on novels based on West African and Caribbean folktales: Redemption in Indigo (2010) and Unraveling (2019), with at least one more forthcoming.

In any case, The Blue Beautiful World is the first book in the Cygnus Beta series to be set on Earth, rather than on other planets. The series as a whole takes place in the near- to mid-range future, on a number of planets that contain humanoid life, all of which are more technologically advanced than we (Earth) are. The planets all orbit stars that are relatively near us, in galactic terms: Vega, Fomalhaut, Pollux, Alpha Centauri, Epsilon Eridani, Epsilon Tauri, and 16 Cygni B. Most of these stars are within 25 light years of the Sol system — though Epsilon Tauri is considerably further away (147 light years), and has been quarantined from the others. Lord is careful about most of her cosmological details, although the two least likely aspects of her set-up (both of which are necessary to the novels) are only hand-wavingly explained: the method of FTL travel, and the genetic similarity between Earth humans and the near-humans on other planets. The Blue Beautiful World in fact shares some characters with the earlier novels, but it can be read independently from them.

It is not easy to describe what The Blue Beautiful World is about — it has a sort of wavering quality that is central to its charm. All three of the novels in Lord’s series work on multiple levels. The Best of All Possible Worlds begins with a shocking incident of planetary genocide; but gradually it turns into something like a romance novel combined with an anthropological tour of multiple cultures. While there is nothing that extreme in The Blue Beautiful World, it also plays with a similarly disconcerting mix of levels and themes. A lot of readers on Goodreads and similar sites seem to find it ‘confusing’ — which simply means that its plot is not entirely linear, and there are changes of focus throughout. That is to say, the elements that other readers complained about are precisely what delighted me about the book.

The Blue Beautiful World starts (after a single-page preface) with a pop star named Owen, who is extremely charismatic and is the most popular entertainer on Earth. But it shortly turns out that he is not actually human (i.e. he comes from one of the other humanoid planets), and that his mission is not just fame and popularity, but has political elements to it as well — he seeks, either to take over our planet (not literally, but in a manner of speaking), and/or to produce the conditions which will make it possible for Earth to enter the galactic commonwealth with the other inhabited planets.

After a few chapters with Owen, and with his human manager Noriko, who is eventually initiated into the ways he is more than just a pop star, the novel jumps forward a decade or two, and focuses on a different set of characters (though Owen and Noriko eventually reappear). These are young people (20ish) from around the world who have been chosen for a sort of junior diplomatic corps (actually, their mission will be to provide diplomatic representation for Earth to the other planets, only they don’t know this yet). Owen and the other passing-for-human extraterrestrials are trying to manage the gradual entry of Earth into galactic society. But it turns out that the Earth is already being exploited, in a covert but clearly neo-colonialist sort of way, by capitalist cartels from one of the two habitable planets of the star Vega. A covert war is going on throughout Earth. Eventually this bursts into the open, and the entire population of the Earth suddenly receives the unexpected message that they are not alone in the galaxy. All hell breaks loose, but the more benevolent people from non-Earth planets do their best to manage the situation.

In describing the plot in this way, I am not doing a good job of conveying the mood or affect of the novel. Part of its brilliance in my eyes is the way it juggles different levels of action. The Blue Beautiful World is a First Contact novel, but it remains focused on individual characters who are affected in their personal, private lives by the grand events, without quite being actors in them. Actually, that is not quite a correct description either, since Owen is centrally involved in the grand politics and economics of the novel, and the young people in the latter part of the book also find themselves centrally involved with those politics. But the book mostly gives us the ways in which these grand events are not depicted in themselves, but make themselves known through the ways they filter into, and affect, the everyday lives of people. The novel is very canny and creative in the ways it fluctuates between backgrounds and foregrounds, mutating each into the other in various ways. I know what happens in terms of the plot, but the shifts and different interiorities are so subtly blended together that I find it hard to qualify the novel tonally — and this is a big part of why I find it so wonderful.

There are a number of other aspects of the book that need mentioning here as well, ranging from discussions of cuisine and clothing, to a subplot involving an intelligence deep in the Earth’s oceans that is willing to negotiate with us, the surface dwellers, but remains wary of being victimized by human exploitation in the way many human beings have been by the British and other empires. Also, there is something about the texture of the novel that I find it difficult to convey: some chapters are quite meditative, while in others events spiral and multiply frantically, and yet it all seems to hang together.

Karen Lord is from Barbados — and I saw a reading/inteview with her, over Zoom, where she talks about the positionality of being from a largely Black small island country that is nonetheless connected to other parts of the world in all sorts of ways. It is both isolated, and a kind of international crossroads. And it is part of the Commonwealth, which both benefits them economically and reminds them of the British colonial subjugation and exploitation from which they have historically suffered. Lord emphasized that she sees her work as not just science fiction or speculative fiction but also as “sociological fiction”, referring here to C. Wright Mills’ notion of “the sociological imagination” — which for Lord translates into equal consideration of “the personal concerns of the characters, the public issues of their community, and the historical context that has produced both the community and the characters.” Lord also cited the idea of what Brian Aldiss called “cozy catastrophe”, meaning apocalyptic stories that nonetheless provide comfort for their middle-class bourgeois readers. Lord said that she wanted to address issues of great scope, including the most horrific ones, and yet still provide the reader with a certain “cozy” sense nonetheless.

Lord’s general comments seem to me to apply quite well to the way that The Blue Beautiful World — like her previous science fiction novels — is as shifting and as subtle as it is in its movements and especially in its continually modulating tonalities. Coming out of this novel, I had a strange lingering sense that something important had really happened, but that it would take me a while to sort it all out and to get a sense of just what it was that moved and affected me.

John Cowper Powys, PORIUS (1951)

(this is a revision of something I first posted on Facebook).

I just finished reading John Cowper Powys’ PORIUS (1951, though the full text wasn’t available until 2007). It is a long novel — 450,000 words or so — and an absorbingly relentless one. Powys (1872-1963) was a contemporary of the great modernist writers, and his work represents an alternative form of modernism, and for me a quite inspiring one. PORIUS takes place over a week in October 499 AD; the eponymous character is the heir to a small princedom somewhere in Wales. He encounters, in addition to various relatives, rivals, and friends and/or lovers, such mythical Welsh figures as King Arthur and especially Myrddin Wyllt (who we know as Merlin). The novel occupies a strange place where naturalism, myth, and pantheist nature worship seem identical. We get modernist stream of consciousness of the various characters, except that the consciousness in question is entirely embroiled with and taken up by the natural world. We go seamlessly between the description of a gleam of sunlight on a mushroom, or for that matter a pile of dung visited by numerous flies, and the alienated self-consciousness of one or another character. The background is that of a society in flux. There is a Saxon invasion, that is reported to us but that we do not see directly. There are also ongoing factional disputes between the various ethnicities inhabiting pre-Anglo-Saxon Wales. Most of the groups are Celtic, more or less. The indigenous “forest people” seem to be Celtic, but Powys also suggests that they were originally from Morocco and Iberia. The Brythons, the ruling class to which Porius belongs, are also Celts; but they have intermarried with Romans from the former occupation, and picked up a lot of Roman customs. There are also the Gwyddylaid (Scots), and the Ffichtiaid (Picts).

The fractures are religious as well as ethnic. Christianity is in process of conquering Britain and exterminating all its rivals, but it hasn’t entirely gotten there yet. The priests, official representatives of the Roman Church, are loathsome bigots. But they have a lot of competition, both from milder more-or-less Christians, and from pagans of various sorts. The two extreme ideologies on display are mirror images of one another: militant Christianity on the one hand, and the extreme nihilism and hatred of life of Medrawd (known to us better in Arthurian tales as Mordred) on the other. In between, we encounter Mithraism, pagan nature worship, and the kinder gentler form of Christianity associated with Pelagius (he denied original sin, and is thereby regarded by the Church of the time, and ever since, as a heretic). Porius himself is not firmly committed to any religious faction. Instead, he is largely embroiled in the questions of political power, disputed among the many groups and tendencies, and in his marriage to his first cousin Morfydd, a move designed to solidify the dynasty. Morfydd in turn is in love with another man, Rhun, who is another first cousin to both Porius and herself. Despite flashes of jealousy, the three cousins work things out well enough. The drama of the book is largely metaphysical, and the emotions of the characters get subsumed within that.

The overall plot of the book is also somewhat picaresque. Though Porius is the most central character, the book also shifts focus numerous times and goes into the mentalities of a lot of the other characters. Porius is also diverted into other actions and adventures. Most interestingly, he has sex with a giantess (the last of a nearly extinct race of giants who inhabited the land before even the indigenous forest people arrived), and at the very end he rescues Myrddin Wyllt from his imprisonment by his lover Nineue (which is the last we see of Merlin in Arthurian legend). Powys not only gives Merlin a subsequent afterlife, but he also expresses considerable appreciation and admiration for his sorceress/destroyer, rather than treating her as a straight-out villainess as the traditional accounts do.

In the massive course of the novel, all of these odd happenings and strange contestations get subsumed within what might be called Powys’ post-Romantic nature worship. But that term is not quite right, since nature is not a single entity for Powys, but a vital multiplicity. It is composed of, or decomposed into, multiple instances: one particular tree, one particular mushroom, the special glint of sunlight behind cloud as it affects a small clearing in the middle of the forest, and so on.

Powys is a singular writer, and a marvelous one. I read another novel of his every two or three years, or so. Fortunately he wrote a lot, so I am in no danger of running out. PORIUS is so overwhelming that I would not recommend it as the first text of Powys to read, if you have never encountered him before. Though frankly, I am not sure which text is the best beginning place.

In any case, I will conclude with a few samples of Powys’ prose. These are just passages that stopped me cold when I was reading the novel, and that are relatively graspable without knowing the context, or the details of the plot.

  • Powys writes of the Welsh bard Taliesin’s poetry “whose peculiarity was that it was not only absolutely ‘a-sexual,’ or devoid of sex, but devoid of all the emotions connected with religion and piety where sex enters.” This poetry displays an “absolute immunity to all the human emotions where sex plays a dominant part, as it does in love, in hate, in race, in religion, and in almost all forms of cruelty; and the curious thrill of pleasure, as of a new exciting sensation that his poetry produced, showed what a mass of subjects is left when sex is cut out.” Taliesin’s poetry expresses “a quivering, vibrating, yet infinitely quiescent moment of real Time, a moment of Time so satisfying that it surpassed all the pleasures of sex, while it reduced to something unnatural, distorted, and perverted, every scruple of chastity.”
  • “Could you see the shadow of a thing and its reflection at the same time?”
  • Powys describing the fall of leaves: “the huge dark dumb mysterious process, reeking with sepulchre-sweet rot and fetid with lust-satisfying decay, of the enormous vegetable dissolution, out of which, autumn by recurrent autumn, the organic life of the earth is renewed.”
  • “The girl bent down as she crossed this little stream and stared steadily into one of these constantly growing bubbles; and this arbitrarily chosen eye of the whole inorganic world stared back at her—the eye of matter itself responding in subconscious or perhaps superconscious indifference to the eye in a human skull!”
  • “And yet there hung about the whole project something dreamlike and unsubstantial, not so much unreal as subreal, like a decision under water, or in the soft persistent falling of snow upon snow!”
  • “Active brutality rather than erotic cruelty was the worst thing into which the surging urge of the invisible force which swept him forward drove Gunhorst.”
  • “… though it might be impossible for the human brain to imagine such things it was still within the bounds of possibility that the ultimate reality was neither One nor Many, nor even a mysterious mingling of them both, however much helped out, so a few riverbed gurglings seemed to interject, by the Holy Trinity, but was something completely and absolutely different.”

Robin James, The Future of Rock and Roll

Robin James is a philosopher who writes about popular music. She is the author of, among other books, Resilience and Melancholy (about how Rihanna’s refusal of positivity undermines the neoliberal recuperation of feminism) and The Sonic Episteme (a warning against the neoliberal resonances of the ‘ontological’ turn in sound studies — I have taken to heart her critique of tendencies in ‘theory’ that I am otherwise too easily seduced by). Her latest book, The Future of Rock and Roll, is somewhat different from the previous ones — it is largely a history of 97X WOXY, an independent radio station from Oxford, Ohio that broadcast from 1983 until 2004, and then online until 2010, and that — under the slogan “The Future of Rock and Roll” — offered a broader variety of music than nearly all other US radio stations. I have never lived in that area of the country, and never heard of the station before. But in James’ account, it was far more diverse in the sort of popular music it played than “alternative rock” or “indie rock” stations ever are. WOXY refused to just repeat a small number of songs over and over, in the ways that nearly all commercial radio stations (regardless of genre) tend to do. James gives detailed information on just what music the station played — which gratified my inner music nerd, and made me sorry I had never heard the station in its heyday. But beyond that, James writes about how the station succeeded for several decades (before ultimately ceasing due to the neoliberal economic conditions that oppress us all) because it nurtured a community of listeners, and was grounded in a philosophy that understood true independence as being enabled precisely by serving and helping to sustain such a community. Instead of the neoliberal “freedom from” (the simple absence of regulations), the station emphasized “freedom to” — the sort of creativity that can happen when people support one another. This positive sort of freedom — “the idea that true independence is possible only if you practice it with and for other people” — is generally stifled by the alienating hyperindividualism of the mainstream American idea of merely negative freedom. Things like exciting musical creation, and exploration of new aesthetic forms, do not happen in a vacuum — they require the backing of a scene, a community of people who are open to and interested in such developments. Mainstream commercial radio, despite all its changes over the decades, is not open to or supportive of such a scene or community. WOXY was a for-profit business, but its owners and staff were committed to their vision of independence and diversity (rather than just seeking to maximize profit, regardless of content). Although WOXY eventually stopped broadcasting, its community of fans continued its activities in various formats (podcasts, online discussion boards, etc.). James both gives a detailed history of the station, explicates its philosophy, and the way its community worked, in great detail, and draws lessons from all this about the possibilities for continued projects of independence in our current neoliberal world, when nearly every activity, no matter how niche or how unusual, gets recuperated and milked for profit by the 1% at the expense of all the rest of us. The Future of Rock and Roll is inspirational in the way that it gives us hope, and even provides something of a blueprint for change, in a very unpleasant and otherwise despairing time.

Annalee Newitz, THE TERRAFORMERS

Annalee Newitz’s new far future novel The Terraformers is about worldbuilding in a more literal sense than is usually the case in science fiction. Newitz gives us a vivid setting, or imagined world, in the planet Sask-E, where all the action takes place. But the novel, as the title indicates, is literally about transforming an alien, lifeless planet into a world in which human beings and other earthly life forms can thrive. This is a wonky book (of the type formerly known as “hard science fiction”) because of how it goes into the technology of altering a planet, so that it has suitable oxygen levels, and a self-sustaining environment or food web; and then, at a later stage, how cities can be built, lived in, and flourish economically. There’s a lot more detail than I ever thought I would want to know about transportation planning, for instance, and the differences between public and private systems. But — in contrast to most (if not all) of the hard science fiction of half a century ago — The Terraformers insists on the social, political, and economic dimensions of technological development. Technologies are not autonomous forces; they always depend upon issues of power and control. Who plans them, and who pays for them in the first place? Who uses them? Who maintains them? Who (if anyone) draws a profit from them? And are they privately owned, and marketed as a scarce resource? Or are they available as a common good? These questions are ceotral to the novel; they do not just come up after a technology is instituted, but influence technological growth and invention in the first place. Such issues seem obvious and commonsensical to me, but it is surprising how often they are ignored, both by technological determinists on the one hand, and by people who underestimate the radicality of technological change on the other. Newitz writes excitingly of (extrapolated, futural) inventions, but she insists on alway placing these developments in a social, political, and economic matrix.

The novel starts by presupposing several big utopian changes from life as we know it and experience it today. The first, and most important, of these is called the Great Bargain; it is a backstory that explains how Earth itself was saved from ecological catastrophe. The Great Bargain was “a way to open communication with other lifeforms in order to manage the land more democratically.” As a result of the Great Bargain, mammals, birds, and other animals become able to think at human levels, and to communicate through spoken or written language. Beings like moose and cats and naked mole rats, and eventually even earthworms, who do not have human-style vocal organs, are nonetheless able to communicate with one another and with human beings via something like wireless, telepathic text messages. The novel presents this as an ethical and political development above all: lands and environments can only be managed for the common good if all the stakeholders are able to enunciate their needs and desires, and participate in decision making. The result is a society in which a large variety of sentient beings, including humans and other sorts of hominids, mammals and birds and other sorts of animals, and AIs and robots of the most varied sorts, are all considered people, and all exist (at least in principle) on an equal basis.

Several other technologies exist in order to back up the Great Bargain. People (of all species) no longer reproduce sexually. Instead, they are “decanted” from genetic blueprints with the help of something like 3D printers or matter synthesizers. People of whatever species are “born” with fully developed adult bodies, although they still need a certain amount of guidance or education before they can be fully functioning and autonomous. Every new entity — human, animal, or robot — therefore has one or several “parents”, those these need not be organically related to the new individuals under their initial care. In addition, sentient entities have greatly extended lifespans compared to what actually exists today. Human beings live for hundreds of years, and in some cases well over a thousand. (This is actually one aspect of the book that I found a bit disturbing. I have worked as an academic for nearly forty years; I look forward to retiring in the next several years. The idea of working for an obnoxious boss continually for seven hundred years straight, as some of the characters in this novel do, is deeply upsetting).

When sexuality is freed from the chains of reproduction, it can flourish in all sorts of new and different forms. Newitz wrote about robot sexuality in her 2017 novel Autonomous, and she writes about it more here. Also, when human and other beings are “decanted,” their bodies can be constructed in different ways, not reducible to traditional gender binaries. Some of the human characters in The Terraformers use “he” or “she” pronouns, but a number of them also use “they”. There actually is not very much explicit sexual description in the novel, but one humanoid character (not Homo sapiens, but a different genetically engineered human lineage) is described as hermaphroditic, with genetalia containing both stamens and pistils (as with flowers).

The Great Bargain has also solved environmental problems. Human and animal entities get their energy by consuming vegetal matter, and robots and AIs run on solar batteries. In either case, a planet’s sun is the ultimate source of energy, much more directly than is the case on Earth today (nearly all of our our energy comes ultimately from the Sun, but harmfully mediated in the forms of meat and fossll fuels). In Newtiz’s future world, there is only clean energy. There is also a technology called “gravity assist,” which allows both animals and robots to fly. I really enjoyed the flying moose (who save the day at one point in the narrative), as well as the sentient flying trains for mass transfortation.

It has become a cliché (but one that remains true for all that) that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Although the technologies that I have described so far make a world of abundance rather than scarcity possible, it still takes a huge investment, including a huge amount of labor, to terraform a planet in the first place. And so the future society imagined in The Terraformers is still a capitalist one, despite all the broad bottom-up and more or less egalitarian social structures that the new technologies have made possible. One galactic-scale corporation initiates the terraforming of Sask-E, and another one comes in as a major landlord, building cities and tyrannically ruling large populations. Nothing would happen on Sask-E without the initiative of these corporations, but they are also the major impediments to human, animal, and robot flourishing throughout the novel. The protagonists of The Terraformers continually need to battle these corporations, which is something that they cannot do as individuals, but only as parts of communities, or as parts of something like what is often called ‘civil society’ (though this phrase is not used in the novel). There is no vision of total revolution here, but only one of continual struggle, of maneuverings to leverage the needs and wants of large numbers of people against the power of the corporations. Or to put it differently: the corporations have lasers from space that can wreak destruction, but the people on the ground (and in some cases, living in cities under the ground) are sufficiently numerous, and their organizations sufficiently robust, that the corporations have to negotiate and/or back down and/or be outmaneuvered in legal and procedural terms. (These three outcomes are what happens in the three main sections of the novel).

I have mostly described the presuppositions of the novel, rather than the characters and the overall narrative. This is because, in the grand science fictional tradition, the former really guides (and even determines) the latter. The novel is divided into three sections, hundreds of years apart (in order to convey the vast time scales involved in terraforming). The narration is in the third person, but the protagonists of the three parts are respectivly: 1) a Homo sapiens employed by one of the large corporations but whose basic loyalty is to the enivronmental action group of which he is a part; 2) a Homo archaea whose ancesters were supposed to have died after initiating terraforming, but who survived instead by living underground, inside a volcano; 3) a sentient flying train. All three central characters are quite empathetic; and all of them have to make alliances with others in order to accomplish anything.

In sum, I loved The Terraformers. It combines utopian speculation with a continued realistic sense of the impediments that movements towards liberation will still have to deal with. It’s knowledgably political, while at the same time it maintains a science-fictonal commitment to, well, scientific experiment and discovery rather than the magical transmutations of desire that are more explored in fantasy. (I like certain varieties of fantasy well enough, but my heart is still with science fiction, so Newitz’s focus was especially welcome).

Children of Memory, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Memory (2022; but published in the US on January 31, 2023) is the third science fiction novel in a series that started with Children of Time (2015), and continued with Children of Ruin (2019). The books are concerned with different varieties of sentience and intelligence. The background scenario for this far-future series is that human beings on Earth set forth with an ambitious project to terraform planets across the galaxy, but that the project and never completed. The terraforming project involves creating a livable climate, and stocking the planet with a diverse enough range of Earth organisms to create a functioning ecology. After this, either the planet can be inhabited by human beings, or else the world is seeded with a plasmid that provokes genetic mutations to raise another species to human-level intelligence. But due to troubles on Earth, the plan is never quite realized. In Children of Memory, instead of uplifting nonhuman primates, the plasmid creates a species of intelligent Portia spiders. The novel traces the stages of the spiders’ rise to civilization, and considers how their mentality might be different from a human one due to the intrinsic biological differences between the species. In Children of Ruin, octopuses on a water world are boosted to human-level intelligence; again, the novel explores how such a cephalopod intelligence would be different from either a primate or an arachnid one. In addition, in the second novel, the human beings, spiders, and octopuses also encounter an alien lifeform that is something like a parasitic slime mold. The slime mold assimilates, stores, and remembers the mentality and the experiences of any other living species that it encounters. This is at first a danger to the other sentient species: the slime mold transforms all the mindful entities that it encounters into more versions of itself. But eventually, this behavior is changed from a predatory, parasitic lifestyle into one of symbiotic mutualism. The slime mold craves novelty and new experiences; eventually it realizes (or is persuaded) that it can get more of these if it does not assimilate other organisms, but rather coexists alongside them and shares their experiences.

[WARNING: WHAT FOLLOWS CONTAINS SPOILERS] Children of Memory introduces an additional uplifted species: Corvids (the exact species is not specified; they seem to be a crow and raven hybrid). The Corvids do not get the plasmid that the spiders and octopuses got in the previous volumes; rather, they evolve greater intelligence on a partly-terraformed planet where they have become the dominant species. Once again, Corvid intelligence is qualitatively different than that of human beings and other species in the previous novels. The Corvids are able to speak, but their intellectual activity happens, not in individual birds, but only in pairs. One member of a pair gathers information, parses patterns in the information, and especially notices instances of novelty. The other member of the pair in effect collates this information and strategizes ways to act upon it. Neither of the pair can do much on its own; but in conjunction, the pairs are able to analyze large reams of data and operate complex technology. Whether they are capable of originality (as opposed to noticing and moblizing novelties that they discover in their environment) is uncertain. The Corvids deny that they are sentient; the actual situation seems to be that sentience inheres in their combined operations, but does not quite exist in either of their brains taken separately. In certain ways, the Corvids in the novel remind me of current AI inventions such as ChatGPT; they emit sentences that are insightful, and quote bits and fragments of human discourse and culture in ways that are entirely apt; but (as with our current level of AI) it is not certain that they actually “understand” what they are doing and saying (of course this depends in part on how we define understanding). Children of Memory is powerful in the way that it raises questions of this sort — ones that are very much apropos in the actual world in terms of the powers and effects of the latest AI — but rejects simplistic pro- and con- answers alike, and instead shows us the difficulty and range of such questions. At one point the Corvids remark that “we know that we don’t think,” and suggests that other organisms’ self-attribution of sentience is nothing more than “a simulation.” But of course, how can you know you do not think without thinking this? and what is the distinction between a powerful simulation and that which it is simulating? None of these questions have obvious answers; the novel gives a better account of their complexity than the other, more straightforward arguments about them have done. (Which is, as far as I am concerned, another example of the speculative heft of science fiction; the questions are posed in such a manner that they resist philosophical resolution, but continue to resonate in their difficulty).

The dilemma of the Corvids and their degree (or not) of sentience is encased within a much broader story or unsuccessful terraforming, or of the mismatch between human organisms and their re-created environment. The novel mostly takes place on and around a planet that has been only incompletely terraformed; thousands of years later, a generation starship containing thousands of human beings in cryonic suspension arrives with the mission to found a new society on this planet. The attempt is tragically unsuccessful, for a number of reasons. I don’t want to give away all the plot twists here, so I will just say that the novel envisions a series of interactions between Earth-born colonists and their descendants and an unforgiving environment that only includes a limited number of transplanted Earth species, as well as these baseline humans’ interactions with the various transformed species (including but not limited to human beings who have themselves been boosted by their encounters with the other intelligent species and with the advanced technologies arising from their encounters), and also with an even more powerful technology left behind by an unknown alien species. There are multiple levels of simulation and speculation, as well as even more complex and self-reflexive levels of both intelligence and sentience (with the relation between these never becoming entirely certain). There is a lot here that deserves unpacking at much greater length than I am capable of, after writing this brief review from just one reading. The entire Children series, and this third volume in particular, exemplifies how science fictional fabulation, at its best, can lead us to reflect upon vital issues in ways that simplistic pro- and con- arguments are unable to do.

Jason McBride on Kathy Acker

It is difficult to write a biography — to assmeble the traces that somebody has left behind them, and use those traces to reconstruct, in words, the person in question. It is very difficult to get to know another person, even if they are still alive and you are close to them. It is even more difficult, once the person is dead. But it is equally difficult, albeit for different reasons, to know oneself. The immediate acquaintance I have with myself, in the first person, is always filled with distortions and blind spots. The attempt to know myself is inevitably bound to fail — although the effort might in fact lead me to transform myself, which is perhaps a more important thing than to know myself.

These dilemmas are central to Kathy Acker’s writing; and they are also central to Jason McBride’s new biography of Acker: Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker. There are many reasons why Kathy Acker, who died just about twenty-five years ago, was one of the greatest writers of her time, and why her work remains so relevant today. One of them is that Acker’s novels involved cotinual explorations of, and challenges to, the very idea of personal identity. Acker understood our world to be one in which originality of any sort is rare and difficult (a situation which is ironically expressed through the exaltation of originality and innovation in every domain of social and cultural life). This is part of the reason why Acker’s own texts are continually engaged in the appropriation, remixing, and reworking of previously existing texts; but the “texts” in question here are not just books that Acker had read, and movies that she had seen, but also her own familial and personal history. None of these fragments are “true” and “authentic” in their own right, but the very process of working through them produces something that, in its very provisionality and mutability, might be described as truer and more authentic than any more literally accurate statement could have been. For all of Acker’s mystique as a punk feminist rebel, she was also deeply literary, deeply committed to and embedded in the processes of reading and writing. The hard thing is to grasp how these two aspects are not in fact radically opposed, but different aspects of the same molten process (in something of the same way that, for Spinoza, mind and body are two aspects of the same substance). Acker’s tattoos and bodybuilding and sexual adventures were forms of writing, and her writing was a form of being embodied in the world.

Acker’s novels and other texts still exist for us, and they certainly haven’t been taken up, appreciated, and reworked in their own terms as they deserve to be. Bur I cannot dissociate them, at least in my own mind, from the person who Kathy Acker was, and who passed a quarter of a century ago. I only knew Kathy Acker casually, and not deeply or well; but she is the only person I have known in person (writer/artist or not) of whom I could say (as Norman Mailer said of William Burroughs) that she “may conceivably be [or, in this case, have been] possessed by genius.” The phrse is right, because genius is not something that anybody has, but something that a few rare people may be possessed by, at certain occasional moments in time. It is tied up, not with identity — there is a reason why Acker titled one of her novels In Memoriam To Identity — but with how it slips aside and transforms, so that it is never whole and accomplished, but also never negligible or inexistent either. It is not a something, but not a nothing either (as Wittgenstein might say). It is always both consolidating and slipping away; it cannot be grasped substantially, but it also cannot be grasped dialectically — but only obliquely. To quote Wallace Stevens (a poet in whom, as far as I know, Acker was not in the least bit interested), the author must escape from being “too exactly himself” [sic], and instead somehow manage to utter “speech we do not speak.”

In all this, I am saying both too much, and not enough. I think that what I have written above is fairly accurate, as far as it goes, about Kathy Acker; but it only says the tiniest part of what she was about, or what she made, what her texts do and say. Though I have written about Acker’s texts before, this is not a task to which I feel adequate. Yet I think that Jason McBride’s book definitely helps in this regard. It is hyper-aware of all the issues that I have been raising — issues that are front and center in Acker’s own texts — and yet it gives us some sense of who Acker was, what she was like — despite the acknowledged difficulties of apprehending either other people or oneself. It seems to get the facts mostly right, as far as I am able to be aware; my only corrections are extremely picayune. Beyond that, it does give me something of a sense of Acker’s living presence (even if that phrase can only hold partially and ironically, for reasons that I have already said).

If Kathy Acker had not died twenty-five years ago, she would be seventy five years old today. While I do not believe that wisdom somehow comes with age (at least not in my own case), I cannot help missing what Acker might have said, had she still been among us in this schizophrenic time. Not a month goes by when I do not think of her (or think of her absence), and McBride’s biography has made me feel this all the more intensely.