Rivers Solomon, Sorrowland

Here is my review of Rivers Solomon’s new novel, Sorrowland. The book will be published on May 4th. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Rivers Solomon is the author of two previous books: An Unkindness of Ghosts, a space opera crossed with a neo-slave narrative, and The Deep, a narrative elaboration of the hip hop group clipping.’s reboot of the Detroit techno band Drexciya’s mythology of an underwater civilization composed of the descendents of kidnapped Africans who were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. Both of those books were powerful and thought-provoking, but Solomon’s new novel, Sorrowland, is even better. The book feels like science fiction to me, even though it might more likely be categorized as gothic horror, or even magic realism. Solomon’s writing is one more instance of the genre hybridity and emotional and conceptual reach of speculative fiction writing in the twenty-first century, especially by writers of color.

It is difficult to discuss Sorrowland without giving away lots of spoilers, but I will do my best to keep these to a minimum. The reason it is hard to avoid spoilers is that the narrative works by continual expansion. It starts out with a very narrow focus, but continually opens up, or spirals outward, to new dimensions and new contexts. What starts out as a grim survivalist tale about isolation, loneliness, and deprivation ends up as a much broader account of the United States as a repressive hierarchical state founded upon racist terror. The writing is tightly focused on naturalistic detail, even as it offers up the most unsparing judgments, and even when it opens up to the most fantastical happenings.

At a number of points throughout the book, the narrative reaches a crux, a confrontation. Each time this happens, you think about what might take place next; you imagine the most extravagant possibilites, and wonder if the author will dare to go there. And each time, Solomon does not so much go there as go even further, to an outcome (or a new stage) that exceeds even my most delirious expectations. (Of course, my inability to imagine such happenings in advance is part of why I am not a creative writer, but a critic-scholar who seizes on books like Sorrowland as opportunities for reflection and expansion). At each of these cruxes, it feels like I have had the rug pulled out from under me, and I am forced to realize that, ‘no, this is vaster and more horrifying than I had previously imagined.’ I should note too, though, that every time these developments are given fictively scientific explanations, rather than supernatural ones; this is part of the reason that the book feels science fictional to me, despite the fact that its tropes have more in common with gothic fiction. Even as we discover and feel forces that are cosmic in scope, and disproportionate with our commonsensical understandings, they still ultimately have empirical roots and explanations. There is no rupture or bifurcation here between the natural and the social, or between the material and the spiritual.

Sorrowland gives us the story of Vern, a young albino (and apparently intersex) Black woman. When we first meet her, she is 15 years old and pregnant. She is extemely nearsighted, and does not know how to read. She is hiding, alone, in the woods, having run away from the only home she has known, a Black nationalist commune called Cainland, somewhere in the US Deep South. Cainland is all about Black pride, education, and self-sustaining independence for its community; but it is also extremely patriarchal and puritanically religious. Life in Cainland involves a seemingly endless series of chores, prayers, punishments, and medical exams and injections. Vern, still a girl, was forcibly married to, and impregnated by, its stern leader, Reverend Sherman.

But all this backstory is only filled in gradually, over the course of the book (and with revelations placed strategically at unexpected points in the course of the narrative). At the start of the book, Vern gives birth to twins, unassisted, in the heart of the forest. The novel has a great and compelling opening sentence: “The child gushed out from twixt Vern’s legs ragged and smelling of salt.” Vern immediately thinks of drowning this child, to preserve him from a worse fate. But instead, she cares for him “with what gentleness she could muster, and it wasn’t enough to fill a thimble.” Though the child is referred to as “he” (together with his sibling, born an hour later), Vern raises them without any ascription of gender. Their names are Howling and Feral. Vern and her babies remain in the forest, apart from any human contact. They subsist as hunter-gatherers. Conditions are harsh, rather than idyllic; Sorrowland is no robinsonade. But Vern’s survivalist skills are sharp enough that they make do.

Things happen around Vern and her children, however; she is not truly isolated, but submerged in the world, or in nature. The novel has an ecological vision, according to which all things are entangled. Vern has a living connection to the trees, and more generally to the animals and plants and fungi. But there are more disquieting things, as well. Vern is stalked by a “fiend,” who continually taunts her, sometimes by setting fires, and otherwise by leaving murdered animals hanging from the trees, often adorned with baby clothes or toys. In addition, Vern is frequently tormented by hauntings, visions of the dead who sometimes speak to her, and other times just appear mutely before her. They include people she remembers from her time in Cainland, but also people from deeper (ancestral, community) levels of memory, like lynching victims she sees hanging from trees. And on top of all this, Vern starts to notice strange changes in her body…

Saying more, with any detail, would involve those spoilers I said that I would try to avoid. So I will just note that Vern lives with her babies in the forest for four years; and then — at not quite a third of the way through the novel — she has to return to, and deal with, what most of us know as the outside world (and what she mostly encountered in the past during short supervised trips outside Cainland itself). Surviving in contemprary America without any form of ID, or any money or credit cards, is in some ways more difficult that surviving in the forest. But Vern finds allies and helpers, as well as persecutors and enemies. She and her children are gifted with greater resources, as well as assaulted with wider and more articulated dangers. And Vern herself continues a metamorphosis (both physical and mental) that at once debilitates her, gives her strength, and puts her in danger from forces that want to control her. She is no longer entirely human, though in some ways this also ties her more concertedly to human histories and communities. (Again, I must be vague in order to avoid giving away too much).

Like Solomon’s other novels — only even more so — Sorrowland is at times overwhelmingly distressing, though it manages to eke out a bit of hope by the end. A lot of what happens in the course of the novel really hurts. The pain is both inflicted by others, and also self-inflicted, as Vern has to some extent internalized her own oppression — this is part of how she was educated, as well as how she experiences the world. Though Vern ultimately becomes something like a superhero, she also continually has to face her own limitations, an existential finitude that would exist in any context whatsoever, but that is massively amplified by social injustice. This is still another way in which the novel feels science-fictional to me; it combines a daring cognitive scope with a careful parsing of how it feels to be caught up in, and very nearly swamped by, powerful social and technological currents.

The prose of Sorrowland is deeply affective and intellectually cutting at the same time, a combination few writers can manage. Concrete physical and sensory details, and a deep sense of corporeal being, coexist with tremendous leaps of abstraction, not to mention citations of such authors as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Jacques Derrida. There’s even a joke about a book supposedly called A Poststructuralist Critique of Embodiment (which is entirely silly, and yet at the same time deeply apropos to what is going on over the course of the novel). The novel starts out with a harshly delimited horizon, but it ends in a sort of cosmopolitics.

Sorrowland is an extraordinary novel. it is continually and astonishingly inventive, while at the same time (I don’t know how to better express this) it has the force of necessity, of something that just has to be. It begins with the harshness of childbirth; and it ends with “the night calls of one thousand living things, screaming their existence, assuring the world of their survival.” The book is itself a deep and ferocious expression of survival; and — perhaps, even, we may at least hope, beyond its final pages — of flourishing.

Thoughts on transgression in the 21st century

This posting should probably be called Thoughts on “Transgression” — since it is difficult to think of transgression today without using air quotes or scare quotes of ironic distancing or whatever. Transgression was an important move in 19th and 20th century Euro-American aesthetics; from the Paris bohemians shocking to bourgeoise, through surrealism in Europe and the Beats in the USA, on to much of the LGBTQ art of the late 20th century. But what remains of this today?

Transgression, like so many other things, has largely been commodified and corporatized in the 21st century. What used to seem subversive is now no longer so. There is no sexual kink so extreme that you cannot find an internet community devoted to it. Of course, transgression always had different political valencies. If anarchism, extreme sex, and psychedelic drugs were transgressive, so were the eruptions of violence and destruction that the Italian Futurists loved, and that culminated in fascism. There’s always been a large degree of uneven development (to borrow and detourn a Marxist term) involved. For instance, I am second to no one in my admiration of Georges Bataille’s deeply transgressive critique of bourgeois capitalism (including of how it prepared the ground for, and then accomodated, fascism). My first book was half about Bataille. But what can be more stupid, boring, and old-fashioned to read today than Bataille’s pornographic fiction, with its extreme (and all too typical of male intellectuals of Bataille’s generation) gynophobia? — as in his ludicrous description of the female genitalia as “hairy and pink, just as full of life as some loathsome squid… that running, teeming wound.”

Even more seriously, perhaps, transgression today is largely a phenomenon of the ultra-right. Bari Weiss urges us to embrace the daring of the “intellectual dark web,” where people express such “dangerous” and “taboo” ideas as white supremacy, normative heterosexuality, male superiority, and the attribution of all differences among human beings in social power and wealth to the inexorable effects of genetics. This is what happens when large corporations, in order to maintain their sales, pay hypocritical lip service to “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” Yesterday’s mainstream ideology, which still has widespread support throughout society despite polite surface disavowals, is now packaged as a rebellious and transgressive refusal to conform. This is the basis of websites like 8Chan, and of the appeal of Donald Trump, whose supporters love him precisely because he violates the norms of social and political propriety.

I am not really bothered by the loss of transgression as a gesture, or as a self-aggrandizing form of display. I am happy to get beyond that, to stop being impressed by that sort of grandiosity. What I do wonder about, however, is the existence of ideas that really are disturbing — not just ‘disturbing’ to liberal opinion because we don’t say such things (even when we really believe them) in polite white society. Neither the race-baiting of the alt-right, nor even something like Nietzsche’s whole-hearted advocacy of enslaving the large majority of human beings, is all that shocking today: we have a whole history in which such positions were hegemonic (and, beneath hypocritical disguises, they still actually are, more or less).

What I am thinking of, instead, is some propositions that are raised, often indirectly, in science fiction novels and stories. Take, for instance, the idea that perhaps it would be better if human beings were to go extinct, leaving the planet to other (and hopefully less rapacious) organisms. This idea is raised at least as far back as 1969, in the short story “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and it has been taken up by many science fiction and environmental fiction writers since. Such a contemplation of complete human extinction is genuinely disturbing, in a way that neither Georges Bataille’s sexual fantasies, nor the alt-right’s sadistic imaginings of domination, could ever be.

But perhaps the very totalization of imagining human doom makes things a bit too simple. There are other suggestions I have found in recent speculative fiction that are not quite as extreme, but perhaps even more unsettling. In my forthcoming book Extreme Fabulations, I write about several science fiction texts that pose the question of human extinction in a somewhat different way. WHat these texts propose is that, from an ethical and political standpoint, complete human extermination might well be less bad that a catastrophe that allows the wealthy to survive the doom they have inflicted upon everyone else. None of the texts I have in mind quite state this, but they do raise it as a question. The best known of these is the two most recent novels by William Gibson: The Peripheral (2014) and Agency (2020). Both of these novels envision a 22nd century in which something like 80% of all human beings have killed off as a result of multiple ecological catastrophes; but the affluent have survived the damage, along with enough people to be their servants, and enough technology to make their lives pleasant. Though Gibson does not raise the point directly, he raises in the reader’s mind (or at least in my mind) a question of justice. I find it intolerable that a group or class of people who have essentially committed genocide should get to enjoy the fruits of what they have done. This is not far from a real-world situation: it is obvious that, today, the international billionaire class is aware that we are headed to ecological ruin, but that they are unwilling to spend even a small part of their wealth, let alone undergo discomfort, in order to alleviate it. They have decided, instead, to bunker down and outlive it (or, in the case of Elon Musk, escape it by moving to Mars): they anticipate that eventually they, or their descendants, will be able to emerge from hiding, and resume ownership of a world from which most other human beings, together with innumerable other species, will have been eliminated. This may well be a ridiculous fantasy; perhaps there will not be enough left for them ever to resume their privileged lives. But am I wrong to feel an ethical revulsion at this prospect? Is it not more ethical to have total human extinction, than to allow the perpetrators of mass death to survive and get away with it?

Here is another science fictional scenario, that I will discuss more briefly. Several sf texts that I have read recently — Carl Neville’s novel Eminent Domain, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s short story “Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods” — both suggest that the continuing existence of the United States of America makes the achievement of any degree of freedom and prosperity, or any sort of humane socialism, in the rest of the world impossible. Sriduangkaew’s story pretty much explicitly advocates the destruction of the USA and the violent extermination of its people. While Neville’s novel neither envisages nor advocates any such thing, it nonetheless makes it clear that the continuing existence of the USA is an absolute stumbling block to any hopes for liberty, equality, and general well-being anywhere else in the world. This seems to me to be the inverse of the situation I described in the previous paragraph. As a comfortable, affluent, and generally privileged citizen of the USA, I don’t really want anything to happen that will harm my own way of life, of those of my children, friends, and relatives. Nonetheless, I find the ethico-political claim made by these works of fiction to be compelling and largely true: that the maintenance of American power across the world, and of affluence for a smaller group of Americans among whom I must include myself, is contingent upon the immiseration of a large majority of human beings, and only the complete elimination of the American imperium and the American threat can possibly alleviate this situation.

So these are some of the uncomfortable thoughts that are too extreme even to call “transgressive,” that will never be entertained by the proponents of the Dark Web, whose right to be expressed will never be a cause celebre for the opponents of so-called “cancel culture,” but whose logic I find it hard to counter, much to my own distress.

Charlie Jane Anders, Victories Greater Than Death

Here is my review of Charlie Jane Anders’ new science fiction novel, Victories Greater Than Death. The book will be published in two and a half weeks. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Charlie Jane Anders’ new novel, Victories Greater Than Death, the first volume of a projected trilogy, is great fun. It is Anders’ first book for a YA (Young Adult) audience, which means that it has teenage protagonists, who are shy and moody and nervous about their infatuations. It is perhaps less conceptually audacious than some of Anders’ other work; but this is only a relative observation. There’s still a lot going on in Victories Greater Than Death, even if its main purpose is to entertain.

Victories Greater Than Death is about a bunch of human teenagers, of various gender identities and ethnicities, who find themselves transported onto a starship, and e in a galactic war. A multi-species and relatively non-hierarchical federation, the Firmament (ultimately guided by benevolent computers like those of Iain Banks’ Culture novels) is engaged in struggle against a fascist counterforce, which we can think of as an analog to the contemporary Earthly movements behind Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Orban, Duterte, Netanyahu, and so on, only expanded to a galactic scale. In the course of the novel, we get everything that we expect from space opera: exciting interstellar battles, majestic discoveries, last-minute escapes, daring rescue missions against great odds, and the sociology of navigating interspecies differences. We also get everything we expect from YA fiction: the emotional ups and downs and intensified agonies and ecstasies of teenagers who are geniuses but misfits, struggling to define themselves, to do something meaningful in the world, and to make sense of their own emotions. What we do not get, thankfully, is the overdone template of YA dystopian fiction today, in which a plucky teen girl, all on her own, overthrows a totalitarian world order. Anders has something much more imaginative in mind.

Victories Greater Than Death deftly combines teen interiority with galactic socio-politics. The narrative focuses upon six teens who leave the Earth behind and venture into space. They are gay and straight, female, male, and trans, and from different continents and ethnic and racial groups. Their multiplicity is echoed by the crew of the warship the HMSS Indomitable, who are drawn from different humanoid species originating across different planets. Anders’ worldbuilding feels solid and well-thought out, although she definitely puts wacky imaginative detail ahead of plodding sociological plausibility.

In its worldbuilding, Victories Greater Than Death entertainingly subverts many of the expected genre clichés. For instance, the HMSS Indomitable belongs to the Royal Navy. We all know how space opera is obsessed with galactic empires. But it turns out that the Queen, ostensibly at the head of this interplanetay society, “isn’t a monarch,” but rather “more like a librarian”; she interfaces with gigantic AIs, “gathers the knowledge of a million worlds,” and “shares it with everyone in the Firmament.” She is more Barbara Gordon or Rupert Giles than she is Elizabeth Windsor. Learning this is a great relief to one of the teens, an Afro-British gay man who hates his memories of “being forced to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ as a small child.” I give this detail as only one small example of how the novel continually plays with the tropes of both the space opera and the teen romance, and twists them into delightful new forms.

Tina, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a white American teen girl who is actually, under disguise, the genetic clone of a legendary Firmament starship captain from a planet of purple-skinned humanoids. She is supposed to have the captain’s memories implanted into her own brain as well, but the operation backfires. She gains her predecessor’s procedural and semantic memories, but not her personal ones. Tina now knows how to fire a “positron cloudstrike gun,” and she knows cultural details about the various galactic species, but she does not know what her predecessor actually did, or what sort of person she was. This turns out to be a good thing rather than a bad thing, because Tina reaps the rewards as well as the confusions of hybridity, without having her own personality swamped by that of her supposed ‘original’. In any case, this extra-human or post-human layer of doubt works to intensify the romance aspect of the novel, which has Tina pining for one of the other teens, a dark-skinned trans woman from Brazil.

In giving Tina this divided and incomplete heritage, Anders also undermines the tiresome narrative stereotype of the Chosen One. As a result of her incomplete transformation, Tina cannot be the one who saves the world; more broadly, she cannot be “The One” (like Neo in The Matrix) at all. This is, first, because such a savior figure does not exist; and second, because any such figure would be a nasty, megalomaniacal dictator if he or she did in fact exist (that would be the novel’s antagonist, Marrant, who leads the fascist rebel forces: fascists have leaders, but egalitarian democrats don’t).

Instead, Tina learns a number of things. In the first place, although Tina picks up the powers and abilities of her predecessor, and therefore is a superb warrior, she finds that she cannot live with herself after killing people. This is the case even though she only kills people in self-defense, in order to stop them from killing her and her friends. She becomes a pacifist, and hopes to defend the Firmament and oppose the fascists while maintaining “non-offensive status.” It remains to be seen, in the other volumes of the trilogy, just what this will entail.

In the second place, Tina learns that she can only help to save the world by joining up with her friends. The group of Earth teens integrates successfully into the larger galactic community aboard the Indomitable, but they also stick together and have one another’s back. Defeating the bad guys is a group effort, in which everyone has their individual roles. Nobody can go it alone, but also nobody can substitute for the uniqueness of anybody else.

Multiculturalism is replicated on multiple levels throughout the novel. There’s the multiplicity among the group of Earth teens, and there is the larger multiplicity of the humanoid races existing in harmony on the starship, and throughout the Firmament. But beyond this, there is a looming, still broader level. We gradually learn the backstory behind the Firmament. An older, now vanished species, known only as the Shapers, went through the galaxy ages ago, aiding the growth of humanoid sentient species on many planets, while at best stymieing the development, and at worst exterminating, all the sentient non-humanoid (and especially non-vertebrate) species they found. These crimes stand behind the current splendor of the Firmament, as much as slavery and genocide stand behind the United States of America. The fascist antagonists in Victories Greater Than Death embrace this ugly heritage, as much as right-wing forces in contemporary America (with analogs across the world) do. But even the good guys, the Firmament, are not free of this history. In principle, the Royal Navy is supposed to cross the galaxy, aiding the helpless and oppressed. But in practice, this doesn’t always happen — the Firmament has a long history of broken promises and calculations based on realpolitik. And this, too, is part of the legacy our teens have to deal with.

The end of Victories Greater Than Death gives us something of a cliffhanger, preparing us for the later installments of the trilogy. Most of the plot strands are resolved, and the immediate bad guys are defeated. But there is a cost — Tina’s best human friend, and one of the alien good guys as well, are left in a coma — and there are intimations of greater dangers to come, as well as the lingering, unresolved issues that I have already mentioned. I look forward to the sequels; but for now, Victories Greater Than Death is a fun, satisfying, and also thought-provoking read, which I can happily recommend to an adult, as well as a YA, audience.


Here are some thoughts about NFTs and the art market. NFTs — “non-fungible tokens” — have become the latest art world craze; The New York Times explains them here.

My question is how we might think of NFT’s in the context of what Walter Benjamin called mechanical reproduction or technological reproducibility (depending on which translation you use). Benjamin says paintings have an aura because they are unique objects: the photo, postcard, or other reproduction of the Mona Lisa is not equivalent to the actual painting. But this is no longer the case with mass-reproduced objects, like cinema for Benjamin. And this was why Benjamin saw a revolutionary potential in cultural forms without an aura (the opposite position to Clement Greenberg’s rejection of kitsch).

Now, one of the things Benjamin didn’t quite get was that, in an economically unequal society, the privilege of the aura is recreated in other ways. Benjamin dismisses the “phony aura” of the movie star; but I would argue that, say, Marilyn Monroe’s aura is no more or less “fake” than the aura of the Mona Lisa. Benjamin failed to grasp how celebrities themselves actually do have an auratic presence, in the same way that unique paintings do. Even today, there are also still auratic fetishes about technological differences: things like film vs video (e.g. Quentin Tarantino still insists in making his movies on photographic film, and snobbishly considers that you aren’t really seeing the movie unless you see them projected on an analog projector in 70mm). More generally, every time technology destroys the aura, or destroys the distinction between original and copy, the “culture industry” finds ways of bringing the distinction back. Digital files can be reproduced indefinitely without any degradation of quality, but often the files are degraded anyway, in order to maintain the prestige of the original. e.g., mp3s use compression, lowering file size by degrading quality, so they actually aren’t exact copies of the master recordings. So-called “digital rights management” also restricts the circulation of electronic texts (as well as audiovisual works) in order to maintain an artificial scarcity; the reason for this is to increase revenue, but to the extent that it makes a work unavailable or irreproducible, it once again creates an aura.

Benjamin was interested in aura as a form of elitist cultural prestige; for him, it was more like something for the old aristocracy than something for the bourgeoisie. But in today’s financialized capitalism, this distinction falls away. Anyone with enough money can buy a Picasso, a Warhol, or a Basquiat; the snobbery of the old-rich art connoisseurs becomes less relevant, when (for instance) rappers can hire (white and impeccably aristocratic) art advisors to tell them which canvases to buy. Or to put this all another way: aura and prestige have traditionally been tied to access: as long as there is inequality of access, the work has an aura, and the people with access to the work have prestige and power in a way that people without access don’t. There are only a certain number of Warhols or Basquiats in the world, and reproductions don’t quite do them justice; so these works retain their aura, and their owners retain a measure of prestige. But Benjamin was right that movies don’t have quite this level of aura or social prestige as paintings did: I can watch a Tarantino movie on my computer, even though Tarantino himself scorns this and sees it as an inferior form of access. Widespread piracy of written texts, circumventing DRM and making the books available for free, not only harms publisher profits, but denudes the book of its aura as well. (This also explains why some books are published in limited numbers in high-production-value formats, even though there is no change in the actual text).

As far as I can tell, the brilliant thing about NFTs is that, for the first time ever, it completely separates ownership and auratic prestige from the work itself. I cannot really appreciate Basquiat’s brushstrokes when I see a digital or photographic reproduction of one of his paintings, in the way that I could if I had the painting itself. But I can download, essentially for free, the exact same digital file created by Beeple that just sold for $69 million. NFTs entirely separate prestige, ownership, and bragging rights from access. Some rich asshole just paid an enormous sum for the aura of Beeple’s file, and presumably this will be re-sellable indefinitely, perhaps at a profit. But this unique ownership, embedded in the digital “token” that records it, has no longer has any relation to the possibility or the difficulty of actually looking at the work in question. The aura is a different file from the file of the work itself. The separation of monetary value from the object is very much like what happens with financial derivatives, which float free from their “underlying”. There is a unique, and therefore expensive, prestigious, and auratic “essence” to the work, but this “essence” no longer has any relation whatsoever to questions of access, or to the actual availability of the experience of the work.

I think this would be a great model to apply to other cultural forms as well. Writers are worried about selling their works, and nervous about piracy, because their royalties are the only way they get paid. At the same time, most writers would like to be read as widely as possible. NFTs offer an escape from this dilemma. If I were to write a novel, and if I could sell an associated NFT of the novel to somebody like, say, Martin Shkreli for a million dollars — then I would be paid for my work, and I could still let everybody else download the novel for free. Shkreli could “own” my novel in the same way as he owns that never-released Wu Tang Clan recording. In 2014, before NFTs became widely accepted, RZA sold Shkreli the exclusive rights to the recording itself; nobody else gets to hear it. If RZA had been able to sell Shkreli an NFT instead, Shkreli would have the same bragging rights, and the Wu Tang Clan would have gotten the same money, but everyone in the world could hear the music.

Nicky Drayden, Escaping Exodus and Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis

I just finished reading Nicky Drayden’s just-published Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis (2021), the sequel to the first Escaping Exodus (2019). These books are absolutely bonkers, and I mean that in the best possible way. I haven’t absorbed enough from just one reading of these novels to be able to draw out their rich implications as fully as I would like. In what follows, I will mostly avoid spoilers as I write about what these novels offer in a fairly abstract way.

The Escaping Exodus books are space opera of a sort. The Earth is nothing more than a distant memory. Human beings live, not precisely in spaceships, but rather inside the bodies of the Zenzee, enormous (moon-sized) living animals that travel in herds through outer space. Inside each Zenzee is a complex array of parasitic or symbiotic microfauna, and an equally complex human society. These societies differ radically from one another, after thousands of years apart. The people in the novels have to negotiate their own social worlds, together with the biophysical challenges of their host environments.

That’s the basic premise of the novels. What really brings the books alive are their rich, world-building details, including a lot of gross and squishy macro-anatomy, odd foods that range from delicious to repulsive, complicated sex/gender/family/class systems that are as inescapable as they are arbitrary, and Machiavellian political infighting. These societies aren’t easily described along a utopian/dystopian axis. In the main world of the novel, for instance, same-sex relationships are just as common, and just as accepted, as heterosexual ones. Women are pretty much in control of everything; men are mostly expected to remain in the domestic sphere, and when they appear in public their appearance is beautified through makeup and revealing garments. There is a rigid class system, with a powerful aristocracy who can get away with pretty much anything, and workers who have almost no rights or privileges. Families are rigid institutions, but they are nothing like the nuclear families of our own society. Instead, these families are composed of multiple spouses, all of whom are consigned to pre-determined roles, and with child-bearing heavily policed as well. Of course, the way these structures are taken for granted within the society, to such an extent that the characters are nearly unable to think their way outside them, can be seen as a cognitively estranging ways of reminding us that our own gender and family arrangements are equally arbitrary and constraining. But the florid proliferation of these arrangements makes an impressive point in its own right; and it is further relativized by the brief glimpses we get of social arrangments inside the other Zenzee worlds (my favorite, perhaps, is the insane world in which there is no gender inequality, but children from a very young age are trained to be warriors; the result is a heavily hierarchical society filled with paranoia, as everyone is full-time engaged in trying to betray and undermine their superiors, while at the same time policing their inferiors to prevent the same thing from happening to them; assassination is common).

The overall effect of all this world-building is quite amazingly delirious, even though in logical terms it all hangs together, and makes at least as much sense as the more humdrum world-building arrangements projected by other sf writers (let alone the world-building arrangements that we ourselves inhabit, and take for granted more than we should). The social relations that I have just described are overlaid by ecological ones, based on the relation between the human beings in general, and the organisms that they inhabit. The human beings initially exploit their Zenzee as resources to be plundered; when the weight of human activities saps the energy of the Zenzee and kills it, the human inhabitants simply transfer themselves to another one. But gradually it becomes clear, not only that this environmental pillaging is unsustainable (making the books into ecological parables), but also that the Zenzee themselves are sentient and feeling organisms, whose own needs and desires need to be taken into account and respected.

Indeed, the novels are concerned above all with various forms of intertwinings and co-dependencies that exist on multiple scales and levels, moving from particular sexual relationships among human individuals, to social arrangments and exploitative class structures, all the way to large-scale ecological dependencies such those between the human beings and the Zenzee. On all these levels, people and communities need to negotiate between their own needs and those (often quite different ones) of the others they encounter. These negotiations can be understood anthropologically and sociologically, of course, but also physically in terms of energy flow and biophysical resources.

The novels thereby suggest — without spelling things out too explicity — an ontology that is very different from anything we are accustomed to. Our most basic categories break down, and it becomes evident that we need different ones. This is both intriguing and difficult, because the characters in the world(s) of the novels never articulate their primary assumptions systematically. They are unaware of their presuppositions in the same way we are all too often unaware of our own (ultimately in the same way that, as McLuhan said, fish are unaware of water). The result is a kind of exciting indeterminacy. For instance, the traditional binary between biological and social simply makes no sense in these novels. Neither of these terms is reducible to the other, or can be explained in terms of the other; but the social and the biological are nonetheless so inextricably intertwined that we cannot find a stable boundary between them. Recent feminist and ecological thinkers have addressed this sort of situation by means of linguistice coinages like Donna Haraway’s naturecultures or Karen Barad’s intra-activity; but in Drayden’s world(s), somehow these hybrid words/concepts don’t seem quite right either. This is yet another one of those cases where even our most advanced theoretical articulations have yet to keep pace with the constructions of speculative fiction.

In any case. we need to infer the consequences of Drayden’s world-building — together with those arising from the wild twists of her plots — indirectly. This is of course one of the main characteristics of science fiction narratives in general; but Drayden carries this “cognitive estrangement” to an extent, and with a meta-referential skill, that is quite unusual. I am tempted to say that, where we expect science fiction to introduce a novum that induces cognitive estrangement, the Escaping Exodus novels present the experience of cognitive estrangement itself as the novum. The books continually force us to reconsider whatever we have already accepted and agreed to. The novels present us with a series of ethico-ecological imperatives, and work to convince us that these imperatives are both urgent and entirely rational. But whenever we get to some degree of acceptance and resolution, the narratives then up the ante in startling and outrageously hyperbolic ways. The Escaping Exodus volumes are immediately gripping and entertaining; but they also push us inexorably into a series of increasingly crazy WTF moments, whose imperative logic we nonetheless have to accept.

Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace

Here is my review of Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel, A Desolation Called Peace, her sequel to the Hugo-winning A Memory Called Empire. The book will be published in three weeks. I received an advance copy, courtesy of NetGalley, in return for providing an honest review.

Arkady Martine’s new science fiction novel A Desolation Called Peace is a sequel to her Hugo-award-winning debut, A Memory Called Empire. Like its predecessor, Desolation is a far-future space opera. Martine carries over her exquisite world-building, and some of the same characters, from the previous volume, and gives both world and people a series of new challenges. The galaxy-spanning Teixcalaan Empire — reminiscent of both the Byzantine Empire (the subject of Martine’s scholarly work as a historian) and the empire of the Aztecs — regards itself as the epitome of civilization. All outsiders are disparaged as “barbarians.” The Empire is at once aesthetically dazzling, enormously wealthy, bureaucratically vast, and politically ruthless. Its accomplishments in art, literature, and architecture are unparalleled. It dominates galactic trade and commerce, and controls access to the “gates” (presumably wormholes) that allow for travel between distant planetary systems. With its fearsome military might, the Empire slaps down anyone and anything that dares to challenge its worlds-spanning dominance. Teixcalaan is something like a science-fictional analogue of the United States (at least in the period after we “won” the Cold War but before our recent decline), though its overtly totalitarian political structure bespeaks a franker acknowledgment of aspects of the American Empire that we tend to dissimulate, even to ourselves.

A Desolation Called Peace switches fluidly among multiple points of view; but like its predecessor, its main character is an outsider (a so-called “barbarian”): Mahit Dzmare, from the small independent space colony Lsel Station. The Station is fully in the Teixcalaanli sphere of economic influence, but it has so far managed to preserve its political independence. Mahit has grown up studying, and loving, all things Teixcalaanli, while maintaining her Lsel cultural identity. In A Memory Called Empire, Mahit is sent as Lsel’s ambassador to the Empire. Coming to the Teixcalaan capitol planet and city, she fully indulges her love for its culture; but her ambassadorial charge is to preserve Lsel Station from the Empire’s imperialist designs.

Immediately upon arrival, Mahit is thrown into a world of complex and treacherous political scheming (that fully merits the adjective ‘Byzantine’ in its looser metaphorical sense); at the same time, she is forced to recognize that, no matter how well she integrates herself into Teixcalaanli cultural life, she will never fully be accepted by it. She will never escape being regarded as an inferior barbarian. Mahit acutely feels the same post-colonial dilemma that so many people of color and people from elsewhere than Western Europe or North America have had to face in our actual world today: how to negotiate between their having been shaped by, and having come to love, certain aspects of Euro-American culture, and their inescapable awareness that this culture has systematically devalued and exploited them.

A Desolation Called Peace inverts the situation of the previous novel. Now, several Teixcalaanli legions find themselves at the edges of the Empire, engaged in low-level space combat with a nonhuman but sentient alien species. If the Teixcalaanli regard human beings from other cultures as barbarians scarcely worthy of recognition, how can they deal with this far more deeply alien presence? The aliens’ technology is at least equal, and in some ways superior, to that of the humans; but their communications, both among themselves and when they address themselves towards humans, don’t seem to be categorizable as anything we can recognize as language. Given the inscrutability of the aliens, together with their mastery of stealth guerrilla warfare, it seems that the Empire is faced with an alternative between humiliating withdrawal, or genocide of the alien species on a planetary scale (with the latter still not guaranteed to end the war for good).

In this situation, the linguist and spy Three Seagrass — Mahit’s Teixcalaanli contact and semi-love-interest from the first novel — is called to the space frontier to try to find a way of negotiating with the aliens. Three Seagrass asks Mahit to come along and help her. Mahit agrees, because she is in political hot water back home at Lsel Station; although she preserved the Station from direct annexation by the Empire, she is still regarded by her own people as overly pro-Teixcalaanli and therefore untrustworthy.

What follows is another story of (sorry) Byzantine political intrigue, combined with the ontological uncertainties of a First Contact novel. A Desolation Called Peace is rich on a personal-is-political level, as Mahit must negotiate her way among many stresses: the distrust and disdain of the Teixcalaanli in general, the condescension of Three Seagrass despite the mutual sexual attraction between them, and the ill-will of her Lsel compatriots — not to mention the difficulties of grasping the desires and beliefs of civilized beings who nonetheless look grotesque and menacing to human eyes, and whose vocalizations (which they think of as singing) literally cause nausea due to infrasonic vibrations when heard by human ears in human bodies.

I should probably be a bit more circumspect in the rest of this review, so that I do not give away too many spoilers. I will just say that the novel’s resolution comes about through Martine’s other great theme, besides questions of borders and negotiations and cosmopolitanism. This other theme has to do with the nature of individuality, and of possible connections among minds and bodies. The major science fictional novum of A Memory Called Empire, alongside its broad political and cultural vision, is a key technology that Lsel Station has, but the Empire does not. This is what the novel calls the imago — a prosthetic computational device that contains the memory and personality of ancestors or predecessors. Upon reaching adult maturity, every Lsel citizen is implanted with an imago that is suitable for their personality, and for their chosen career. Mahit is given the imago of Yskandr Aghavn, her predecessor as Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan, and who shared many of her cosmopolitan interests and even (to some extent) sexual proclivities. An imago often contains a multi-generational line of predecessors, and its personality is supposed to integrate with that of the host. For various reasons, Mahit finds such integration difficult, over the course of both novels. The technology is supposed to be a Lsel secret; but when the Teixcalaanli find out about it they tend to be both fascinated and horrified.

Questions about the integrity of the self, and of personality connection and integration, are central to both novels. Mahit is genuinely helped by Yskandr’s imago, and mostly values their integration, but she also sometimes has difficulties with having what is ultimately another person “inside her endocrine system.” Similarly, after Mahit finally has sex with Three Seagrass (maybe this is a spoiler, but after we’ve been teased about this prospect over the length of two long volumes, it just had to happen eventually), she worries about what it means to say that “this person has had their hands inside you.” So it is not too much of a stretch to see the technological forms of personality integration imagined by Martine as extensions of sexual connection — just as First Contact tropes in science fiction generally are extensions of actual worldly problems of connection among people of different cultures and belief systems. In all these cases, questions of intimacy — of welcoming someone who in one sense combines with you but also at the same time remains other than you — are combined with questions of freedom and coercion, and of unequal power relations between the partners.

A Desolation Called Peace imagines an expanded range of technologies of connection among separate bodies and minds — alike among the Lsel Stationers, the Teixcalaanli, and the aliens. I will just mention that these exist, on several levels, without going into description and analysis of all of them. It is quite beautiful the way in which these prospects of connection nicely resolve the narrative, and lead to at least a certain possibility of peace, beyond the alternatives of either continual skirmishing or violent annihilation — while at the same time, things remain open, complicated, and unresolved on a broader, philosophical level, and in terms of future prospects for the characters and their societies. A Desolation Called Peace gives us so much of what I look for in science fiction: deep and cogent worldbuilding, characters who definitely intrigue us and grab our attention, whether or not we actually like them, and deep conceptual speculation, which opens up new prospects for thought.

India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)

I have been teaching exclusively online since March 2020, and I will continue to do so until at least the end of 2021. This means, among other things, that I have to write out all my comments that might otherwise have just been delivered verbally, during class discussion. Last spring, I posted some of my remarks on music videos on this blog, but I haven’t posted any class notes since. But I wanted to post my notes on Marguerite Duras’ movie India Song (1975), since I think this film is still under-discussed (though revered by many cinephiles).

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was one of the major French novelists of the second half of the 20th century. Her movies are not as well known as her prose fiction, but she directed close to twenty films, wrote the screenplays for several others, and had a lot of her novels adapted into movies by others. Duras was a white French woman, but she was born in Vietnam, which was a French colony (part of French Indochina) at the time (Vietnam only became an independent country after World War II; it then went through decades of war before the Communist north and the pro-US south were finally united in 1975). Duras’ parents were schoolteachers, which is to say they were minor bureaucrats in the French colonial apparatus that ruled Indochina at the time. Duras moved to France itself in 1932, when she was 18 years old, and lived there for the rest of her life. During the Nazi occupation in World War II, she was active in the Underground resistance. She started publishing fiction towards the end of the War, and continued prolifically from the 1950s through the 1980s. Her first involvement with cinema came when she wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), one of the key works of the early French New Wave. She started directing her own films in the late 1960s, and continued doing so right through until the early 1980s. Often her work crossed genres and used the same characters and situations in different works; thus India Song was first written as a play before it was made into a movie, and it contains elements and characters from a number of Duras’ novels from the previous decade (most notably The Vice Consul from 1965, but there are others as well). India Song itself was further transformed in a later movie by Duras, Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (1976), which used the identical soundtrack but had entirely different visuals.

The most surprising and challenging thing about India Song, in formalist terms, is the separation between the images and the sound. We see the main characters of the story — Anne Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig) and her husband and various lovers, as well as the Vice Consul (MIchael Lonsdale) who is in love with her — but they never speak on screen. (Besides these main characters, the only other human figure we see is that of a single Indian servant who turns on lights and passes out champagne glasses on occasion). On the soundtrack, we hear a number of disembodied female and male voices who tell us (or tell each other) the story of these characters. We also hear music (the song called “India Song”, which the voices at times refer to directly, as well as a number of other 1930s-style not-quite-tango dance numbers, all composed specifically for the movie by Carlos d’Alessio), and some background ambient sounds, plus the untranslated speech and singing of the Laotian (? – it seems) beggar woman coming from outside. The music may or may not be diegetic; the story includes at its center a big party at the French embassy, but we never see this event, since the camera remains in a different room, with an unused piano and a gigantic mirror, into which some of the characters occasionally wander). There is also, from time to time, in addition to the main voices, barely discernible background murmuring, in both French and English, which is perhaps the chatter of the guests at the party (we cannot tell for sure whether this is diegetic sound or not; part of the effect of the movie is to make the diegetic/non-diegetic distinction itself break down).

The voices recount to each other the story of Anne Marie Stretter and the Vice Consul; sometimes this is in the past tense, and sometimes in the present. Sometimes the voices describe what they see: but this is not always the same scene that we see on screen. At other times, the voices speak the characters’ own dialogue, instead of commenting on the characters in the third person. These dialogue sequences seem to coincide more or less with what is happening visually on screen at the time, but we do not see the actors’ mouths moving; we don’t really know for sure if the characters are actually saying these things, or only thinking them. At a climactic point in the film, there is a dialogue between Anne Marie Stretter and the Vice Consul, in which he tells her of his love for her; she responds that she feels the same way, but will not stay with him. The offscreen dialogue starts as they are dancing together on screen; but they soon move offscreen as the dialogue continues. After this, the Vice Consul starts screaming (he has already said to her that he will do this); apparently (as far as we gather from the voices) he is kicked out from the party for acting this way, but he still continues screaming from outside afterwards. We hear the screaming, on the soundtrack, on and off for a good stretch of time, but we never see the Vice Consul making a scene or actually screaming. After he has left, we only see him in a single shot where he is walking down the road away from the camera (and not screaming).

As for the images, most of the film takes place in the French ambassador’s mansion in Calcutta. The setting is a lavish mansion, but crumbling into decrepitude. Most of the interior shots are set in a single room, with a piano and an enormous ceiling-to-floor mirror. The camera never moves when it is in this room, but Duras gets amazing effects from the mirror, as we sometimes see characters only in the actual room, sometimes only in the mirror, and sometimes both. All this energizes our sense of space, although the room’s decrepitude and gloomy color scheme (sort of a pukey green, which is contrasted with Anne Marie’s red dress) conversely makes the room feel dead. There are some other shots in other rooms of the mansion, which are also fairly dark and often show the characters in nearly motionless tableaus. Early in the film, we see Anne Marie and several of the others lying on the floor, nearly passed out from the heat; closer to the end, there is a tableau of her and the five men (all but the Vice Consul) standing on a sort of verandah, as the light varies from murky to bright and back again. Interspersed with these fixed-camera shots are a number of sequences of the ruined mansion from outside, or of the park surrounding it; these are usually left-to-right tracking shots.

For the last half hour or so, the setting is different; we are told that the ambassador and his entourage have moved from Calcutta to the Ganges delta. Here the indoor scenery is lighter and brighter. There is one extraordinary shot where Anne Marie and the five men walk through the central corridor of the empty hotel restaurant, the camera tracks backwards as they walk forward. They continue walking, left of the camera and out of the frame. The shot continues, with the camera now motionless. as the Vice Consul comes in, tracing their steps, walks all the way to the camera, and then out of the frame on the right. (I am not sure, but I think that this is the only time the camera moves in an indoor shot).

India Song could be regarded as what is now known as slow cinema, though the term hadn’t been invented yet in 1975. What’s certain is that there is nothing random about any of this; everything in the movie is quite planned and deliberate. Duras produced the soundtrack first, and then shot images to accompany it; this is a procedure that is almost never done in cinema (usually the images come first, and the soundtrack is calibrated to match the image track). (Music videos, which didn’t exist yet in 1975, are the only contemporary form in which images are matched to pre-existing sound, instead of the reverse). In any case, because the movie is not shot naturalistically, it invites us to think of the juxtapositions between sound and image in a new way. Most movies naturalize the relation of sound to images; when we hear people speaking, we see their lips moving, and the non-diegetic music matches the mood of what we see happening on screen. Other movies deliberately mess with image/sound coordination in certain ways, in order to get certain reactions from us (in some classes, I have shown a sequence from Takeshi Kitano’s 1989 film The Violent Cop, in which a vicious fight between a cop and a gangster is accompanied by music that sounds like it belongs in a softcore porn film instead; his whole point is to blow our minds with the incongruity). But India Song doesn’t take either of these approaches; the relation between what we see and what we hear is oblique, but always meaningful.

Since the people on screen never actually speak, we mostly respond to them by interpreting their body language. Mostly, they seem bored, enervated by the heat; their lives seem sterile and repetitious, drained of meaning. It is as if they share the decrepitude of their surroundings. Delphine Seyrig, as Anne Marie, dances listlessly and without energy, handled by whichever man she is dancing with at the moment; the dance postures are always sterotypically correct. Sometimes she breaks into a smile, but we don’t get the impression that this does much to alleviate the monotony. We are told by the voices that Anne Marie has sex with any number of men, with the tacit approval of her husband — it seems that the Vice Consul, who is the only man who is truly aroused by her, to the point of obsession, is the only man she will not sleep with. Often we see these people smoking, though they usually just hold the lit cigarettes, without actually taking a puff.

The decrepitude of these characters’ lavish surroundings is a powerfully anti-naturalistic feature of the movie; we would have to presume that the mansion was not decrepit like this when it was actually being lived in in 1937. Usually, because of the intensity of the action, movies seem to take place in a heightened present (regardless of the year or historical period in which they are set). India Song amazingly goes against this; because of the decrepitude both of the setting and the characters, it seems to be played out in the past tense (in other words, it is not just that it takes place in 1937 when the movie was made in 1975, but everything we see and hear radiates pastness, over-and-done-with-ness, instead of the present tense featured alike by historical epics, futuristic science fiction, and movies set in the present moment). This in itself is a remarkable achievement. I am inclined to think of the voices we hear on the soundtrack as ghosts: they are not really present; and the now that plays out for them, when they describe what they see and what the characters are saying, is an already long-past now, which for that reason can only be revived in this ghostly form of images without substance, and sounds without bodies to produce them. (Gilles Deleuze, who we will read later in the semester, is the only film theorist I know of who conceptualizes the idea of films not in the present tense; though he develops this idea independently of his discussion of Duras).

India Song works as a political commentary on European colonialism in Asia, something that Duras was concerned with, and all too familiar with as a result of her childhood as a French colonialist in Vietnam. The film shows us the lives of white European colonialists, bureaucrats of colonial occupation, who are rich and powerful but have no knowledge of, or connection to, the people whose lives they control, and who they oppress. The colonized masses are never seen in the film: they are represented only by the voice of the beggar woman, whose ongoing life, in conditions of extreme poverty, contrasts with the vapid existence of the white colonials. (There is also, as I have already mentioned, the discreet presence of the one Indian servant who we see briefly). The colonial rulers live in ignorance and isolation. The men are involved either in bureaucratic governance or in making money through business; the women (of whom we see only one, Anne Marie Stretter herself) have nothing to fill their lives, but are kept as trophy wives or mistresses by the men. We are told that Anne Marie Stretter has already tried to commit suicide once, with a lover, but the attempt failed. We also learn that Anne Marie used to be a concert pianist, but she has stopped playing and now basically does nothing. The abandoned piano (with the music of India Song, and a photo of Anne Marie in her youth) is prominent in the mise en scene, and it notably remains unplayed. (We are told at one point that it is out of tune, due to warping as a result of the heat).

There is a remarkable moment, in the latter part of the film, after everyone has gone to the islands. We see a tableau of Anne Marie and the five men (all but the Vice Consul) seated around a dining table, dressed mostly in white, and brightly lit (as was never the case in the mansion). The camera pulls back slowly from the group. The offscreen voices tell us, for the first and only time, that it is 1937. They add by cataloging what is going on in the world at this time. Japan is waging war against China, and they have just bombed Shanghai. In Spain, the civil war goes on, and the Republic is on the verge of being destroyed by the fascists. In Russia, the Revolution has been betrayed by Stalinist terror. In Germany, the Nazis have just held the gigantic Congress of Nuremberg rally, consolidating their power. Suddenly it all gets crystallized for us: these people live in a bubble, a sort of vacuum, unconnected to and unaware of not only their colonial subjects (the very people they oppress), but all the horrible things that are going on in the world. I find this an absolutely stunning moment, because of how it emerges from the otherwise even tone of the film, and how it both estranges us from what we have been seeing for over an hour and a half, and gives us a sudden deeper insight into it).

Why does Duras make a long movie about such worthless people? Why does she dwell upon their splendor and decadence? (I am thinking both of the characters’ wealth and privilege, and of the way they are ironically portrayed, by being shown in the ruins and decay of a retrospective view of their lives? (I say retrospective, because of the temporal disjunction at the heart of the film — the way it doesn’t seem to have a present tense, the way the decay of the mansion in which we see them is apparently decades removed from the life they lived in 1937). I think the answer to this is in the tale of passion at the heart of the story: the Vice Consul’s hopeless love for Anne Marie Stretter. Duras is, in a certain sense, an ultra-romantic novelist and filmmaker. Her compulsive subject, in nearly all of her work, is hopeless romantic passion. (Part of her claim to be a major feminist writer and filmmaker is the way she takes this stereotypically ‘feminine’ subject and twists it around, analyzing it, pushing it to extremes, suggesting both its inescapability and its failure or impossibility). Here, the Vice Consul is the only one of the male characters who realizes the full extent of his vacancy and nullity. He is madly in love with Anne Marie Stretter, despite barely having met her and knowing nothing whatsoever about her. He sacrifices everything in his life, including notably his privileged position in the diplomatic corps, to his overwhelming, and totally ungrounded, passion.

We learn that, in the backstory, the Vice Consul has been dismissed from his consular position because he started shooting at random into a leper’s colony, indiscriminately murdering the native inhabitants. I think the point of this is that he has only literalized what all the European colonialists are doing when they make their livings in Asia by oppressing the inhabitants. All the other colonials are every bit as racist as the Vice Consul, but only he has had the bad taste to overtly and publicly act it out. Leprosy is significant in the movie both literally and metaphorically. Lepers were in the past separated from the rest of society, because their illness was believed to be so highly communicable. In earlier times, leprosy was a menace in Europe as much as elsewhere, but by 1937 it had largely been eliminiated in the affluent West (although effective treatments were not developed until after World War II). Leprosy has therefore been traditionally metaphorized as a form of social stigma. But we are also told by the voices in the film that leprosy involves decay of the nerve endings, so that sufferers do not actually feel pain, even though their bodies are in a state of decay. In this sense, the voices describe the situation of the European characters in the film as a “leprosy of the heart.”

The Vice Consul’s passion is both a symptom of the malady of the European colonizers, and a desperate (and inevitably futile) effort to overcome it. His screaming about his unreciprocated love for Anne Marie Stretter — a screaming which we hear on the soundtrack, but do not see — is both a deliberate social transgression (it gets him ostracized from white colonial society in a way that even murdering native people did not do) and a desperate attempt to express what cannot possibly be expressed. For Duras, extreme erotic passion is both fascinating and delusive. It is a demand for something that cannot possibly be attained — my fusion with the person I love, at the same time as that other person remains unattainable, because the condition of my love is precisely that they are utterly different from and alien to myself.

In nearly all of Duras’ novels and movies, this excess of passion is at the center. The Vice Consul’s passion is a desire that ruptures all social bonds, and all structures of meaning. Duras romanticizes and celebrates this excess, because it is the ultimate rejection, both of all social constraints and of the very state of being self-enclosed or trapped within one’s own subjectivity. But at the same time, it is entirely futile, because such a crossing of all boundaries is impossible; and also because such extreme feelings are inexpressible. Anything you say or do is inadequate to the desire you are trying to express. All words fall short, and all deeds are ludicrously ineffectual. Such extreme desire cannot really be represented; to represent it in any positive way would be to sell it short, and thereby to trivialize it, and indeed even to betray it. In this sense, the sexual passion that is the ultimate subject of India Song is not represented anywhere in the movie. We neither see it nor hear it, although everything we do see and hear testifies to it — or rather, testifies to its absence. This is the deepest reason for the separation of sound and image in the movie (as in most of Duras’ movies). What the movie is really about is what falls between the cracks, what neither soundtrack nor imagetrack can contain.

Throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st, artists have been obsessed with transgression, insisting on images of extreme sexuality and violence in order to scandalize audiences and break taboos. Duras turns this impulse inside out, in effect suggesting that transgressive images themselves overly tame and normalize the actions that they present — the effort to shock only ends up making the “shocking” material banal. This is why Duras is interested instead in what cannot be presented at all, what resists being captured cinematically, what falls into the disjunction between sound and image. By showing us daily banality, she preserves the extreme passion from being banalized. Life is exhausted in these movements of excess.

India Song therefore ends with the voices informing us of Anne Marie Stretter’s suicide, which once again, of course, is not directly presented to us on screen, but only communicated to us indirectly. Anne Marie has sex with just about anybody; but this sex is evidently entirely insignificant. Perhaps it temporarily relieves Anne Marie’s boredom, but it doesn’t seem to mean anything emotionally. The one passion in the movie on the part of any of the white characters, that is not just idle and trivial, is the Vice Consul’s passion for Anne Marie. But it is for this very reason that she turns him down. She reciprocates his passion only by failing to connect with him as massively as he fails to connect with her. Were she to accept him, as she does with all her other prospective lovers, this would only trivialize his passion, and extinguish her own. Another way to put this is to say that there is no solution to, and no escape from, the sterile and empty lives of the colonists. The movie’s grim message is that only escape is death, and the only meaningful passion is the one that culminates, not in satisfaction, but in death. At least this is the case for the European characters; Duras said in a interview that the only non-tragic character in the movie is the beggar woman who we never see. The beggar woman, Duras says, goes on with her life despite conditions of deprivation; but this is something that the European characters, even or especially with all their affluence, are unable to do.

A brief note on Chris Beckett’s TWO TRIBES

Chris Beckett’s novel Two Tribes contains a more or less naturalistic account of events set in the author’s actual time and place: the book is about class differences in the UK during the Brexit disputes of the late 2010s. But this account, while it is contemporary for us, is framed as being written by a historian in the year 2266. This future narrator uses (fictional, but naturalistic) diaries from the 2010s as her raw material, in order to describe a failed romance between an upper-middle class man who is an architect, and a lower-middle class woman who is a hairdresser. Though these protagonists are both small business owners (and hence petit bourgeois in Marxist terms), they are very far apart in their values and assumptions, their habits and interests, and their social circles. The text moves back and forth between third-person descriptions of these characters’ lives, and first-person reflections by the narrator, who seeks to understand these lives from her own perspective as someone living in a twenty-third century Britain ravaged by climate catastrophe, economic decline, and authoritarianism. But there is also a third time level to the novel, consisting in scenes that are set in the narrator’s past, but that the narrator admits to inventing out of whole cloth, due to the absence of sufficient documentary evidence. These added scenes are also supposedly set in the late 2010s. But the narrator acknowledges that they would actually have taken place a bit later in time: the near future for us, but still the distant past for her. These scenes point to the origins of a violent civil war in later twenty-first century Britain, between high-tech armies bankrolled by professional and managerial elites (Tony Blair-style “New Labour” people), on the one hand, and fascist militias controlled by Tory aristocrats who recruit soldiers from the resentful white working class, on the other. This civil war is recounted as being nasty and quite destructive, even though the novel reveals that the instigators on both sides come from the same tiny ruling class. Beckett’s novel thus works on multiple levels with the estrangement effects that come from differences in perspective, due both to class antagonisms and to temporal displacement.


I have just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, The Ministry for the Future. It is one of Robinson’s best books. It is a near-future novel, starting a few years from now, and continuing for several decades thereafter. It is about global warming, and the possibilities for alleviating climate catastrophe.

The novel begins with a real punch to the gut. The opening chapter depicts in excruciating detail a disastrous, and all too plausible, weather event. Recent scientific studies demonstrate that human beings cannot survive a wet-bulb temperature of over 35 degrees Celsius. (Wet bulb temperatures measure a combination of heat and humidity). The worst extreme-heat events across the world have almost reached this threshold; it is not unlikely that the threshold will be crossed sometime in the near future. When it gets that hot and humid, human bodies are unable to cool themselves any more; people die, even when they are in good health, have access to drinking water, and do nothing but sit motionlessly in the shade. Robinson’s opening chapter extrapolates such an event, imagining it taking place in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and killing 20 million people in the space of a couple of days.

After this harrowing opening, the novel looks at responses to, and ramifications of, a gathering awareness that something has to be done about climate change. The novel focuses on two protagonists. Frank May is an American aid worker in India, one of the few survivors of the opening chapter’s climate event. Unsurprisingly, he is both traumatized by PTSD, and weighed down with survivors’ guilt. Mary Murphy, the other protagonist, is an Irish politician who is named head of the eponymous Ministry for the Future, a UN agency founded in order to enforce the Paris Agreement and other international climate accords. It is underfunded, and has no military or police power to punish nations or corporations that violate the agreements, but it has some room to give financial support to modest climate initiatives, and to exercise moral pressure on governments and banks.

The Ministry for the Future is far more loosely organized than most of Robinson’s previous novels. Though it keeps on coming back to Frank and to Mary, it also offers a wide range of other voices and perspectives. Robinson is not interested in exploring bourgeois interiority, in the manner still typical of literary novels today (and even of literary novels that flirt with science fictional conceits). Rather, these two central characters are by design fairly flat and generic. Even their particular personal characteristics are forged in a kind of feedback response to the economic, social, political, and technological forces in the world they live in.

(I have to say that, personally, I find the novel of bourgeois interiority insufferable in the 21st century; which is why I prefer straightforward genre writing, like Robinson’s, to most varieties of more ‘literary’ science fiction).

In any case, the lives of Frank and Mary are (aside from the initial catastrophe Frank suffers through and witnesses) not all that dramatic. What’s dramatic are the events that unfold around them — world-scale in their impact, but most often local and small-scale in their enaction. The book is divided into over a hundred chapters, all of them relatively short (on the average, each chapter is 3 pages long or so; though individual chapters range in length from a single paragraph to fifteen or so pages). Though some chapters give third-person accounts of the lives of Frank and Mary, most of them come from other voices. Some are fairly straightforward infodumps; others describe local happenings in a wide range of voices, usually anonymous and often collective (“we” rather than “I”). Here we learn of the experiences of, among others:

  • climate refugees who flee ravaged developing countries, and spend years in refugee camps in Switzerland and other western countries;
  • engineers in Antarctica, experimenting with various techniques to slow down the melting of the glaciers;
  • economists and lawyers seeking to convince the world’s central bankers to adopt more climate-friendly policies;
  • terrorists who carry out targeted assassinations of oil company executives and other megarich people who are directly responsible for ruining the climate in the interest of short-term profit;
  • exploited workers who rebel against neo-slavery conditions in extractive industries like mining;

and many others. These many chapters give the novel a diffuse feel. Robinson is juggling many threads, but he has no interest in combining them all into a tightly organized narrative. This is in part, at least, because the world we live in doesn’t work that way. It is unimaginably complex, and it is at least potentially open. The Ministry for the Future is dedicated to Fredric Jameson, and it offers an elegant and effective solution to the dilemma that Jameson outlined in his discussion of postmodernism several decades ago: how to “endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” when this system is dense and interconnected in ways that defy ordinary forms of representation. Robinson knows that a Spinozian understanding of this system sub specie aeternitatis, or a Hegelian grasp of the system in its dialectical totality, is impossible — the world system cannot be captured experientially, nor can it be cognized completely. Therefore, Robinson gives us multiple, and only loosely interconnected, perspectives — each of them is grounded in particular, incomplete sorts of experiences; but all of these actions and passions have global ramifications, well beyond the immediate experiences of the people who act and undergo them. The novel is filled with close descriptions of places and of actions, that are filled with local detail — but that also have implications that reach well beyond their immediate contexts. The book as a whole is discontinuous rather than synthesized into a perfectly shaped whole — but part of Robinson’s demonstration is that anything that were so well-shaped, would be, by that very fact, representationally inadequate. It is precisely this sort of open, indefinitely extensible, and never-completed endeavor that makes science fiction writing into “the realism of our time,” as Robinson insists in numerous essays and interviews.

(Side note: I find this sort of approach much better than the more common one that sees science fiction as utopian and/or dystopian. Fiction like Robinson’s doesn’t estrange us from contemporary social reality; rather, it gives us a “heightened sense,” to use Jameson’s words of that social reality, both in its hard actuality and in its still-open potentiality).

In a certain sense, The Ministry For the Future is almost a guidebook to how we may overcome the horrors of global warming, and avert a climate apocalypse. The novel does not offer us a messianic and utopian vision of revolution. Such a depiction would be useful in itself, by giving us a sense of what we need to fight for. But here Robinson is doing something different. The novel is filled with careful discussions of pragmatic policies that actually could be implemented in the world as we know it today, and that would have important positive effects. These are things like introducing a blockchain-regulated “carbon coin,” that would be paid to states, corporations, and individuals who succeed in sequestering carbon instead of spewing it into the atmosphere; geoengineering to make the waters of the Arctic, once they are unavoidably melted, more reflective of sunlight so as to decrease global heating; drilling in Antarctica to extract liquid water from underneath glaciers, where they lubricate fast motion of the ice above them into the ocean, but which, when extracted and refrozen on the surface increase the bulk of water trapped in ice form; setting up rewilding corridors in areas around the world, so that animal populations increase, and biotic products circulate without releasing carbon into the atmosphere; the replacement of gasoline-fueled airplanes with airships (essentially, large helium- or air-filled balloons), and of tankers with new sorts of clipper ships that move by a combination of air in the sails and motors whose generating power comes from sunlight via photovoltaic cells; a replacement of predatory private platforms like Facebook and Google with an organization of the Internet that is publicly owned and that preserves people’s privacy; and many more.

None of these technologies (using this word in the broadest possible sense) by themselves will save us from climate catastrophe, but deploying so many of them, together with creating a social atmosphere that is conducive to their continued discovery and development, can alleviate the otherwise runaway processes of global warming, and perhaps even reduce it to some extent. The point of giving us such detailed descriptions of all these processes is to make us aware that they are achievable in the actual world, with our current levels of technology and social and political organization. Robinson does not shy from the fact that getting these entirely plausible policies enacted will require, not only mass political protest around the world, but also some judicious doses of environmental terrorism. For instance, the transition over the course of the novel from fuel-consuming airplanes to carbon-neutral airships is prompted by eco-terrorist drone attacks that take down the former vessels frequently enough that even the rich are scared to fly in jet planes any longer. More broadly, central bankers (who are, the novel suggests, closer than any other group to being the actual rulers of the world) need to be bullied and threatened, as well as cajoled, into moving the world’s economies into more beneficial arrangements — they will only do so when they are convinced that current capital-accumulation policies can lead only to worldwide economic collapse and the loss of value of all the world’s currencies.

In a powerful sense, The Ministry for the Future is a remarkably optimistic novel. It assumes that our capitalist rulers can somehow be forced, or convinced, to accept the reforms necessary to save the human world from ruination. The novel is, as I have already suggested, a reformist rather than a revolutionary one. It seems resigned to the fact that capital will never entirely relinquish its hold; but holds out the hope that it might agree to social changes that somewhat diminish its power and wealth, in order to avoid what Marx and Engels called “the common ruin of the contending classes.” It also depicts an improvement of the international situation. Robinson says little in the novel about the United States, implying (probably accurately) that conditions here are so vile and degraded as to be totally irreparable. He does depict some positive ecological initiatives that take place at the state level. Though at one point Robinson imagines the catastrophic flooding of Los Angeles — something for which a precedent exists in the Great Flood of 1862 — he also sees a California that is progressive enough to pioneer rewilding initiatives despite the hostilty of the US federal government. (There is even a short passage about surfing towards the end of the novel, though it is set in Hawaii rather than California).

But in the novel’s vision, other parts of the world do considerably better than the United States. The climate disaster in India leads to the total discrediting of Modi and the Hindu nationalists, and the election of a new government whose main object is to make sure that such a catastrophe never happens again. The novel also envisions a China that continues with its relatively (compared to the rest of the world) climate-friendly economic policies, while giving up on its heavy-handed totalitarian governance (not out of goodwill, but simply as a result of discovering by experience that it doesn’t really work very well) and according more rights to its currently hyper-exploited working class. And in the various countries of Europe, though the rightwing anti-immigrant parties still exist forty years from now, they fail to take power or to disrupt the semi-enlightened internationalism of the more liberal European tradition.

All in all, The Ministry for the Future gives us a best-case scenario. It is not without loss — there are also policy setbacks, murders and bombings by revanchist rightwing terrorists and venal governments, and so on. But nevertheless, by the end of the novel, the world seems to have drawn back from the precipice of climate catastrophe — although the improvements in both the climate situation and the social situation, remain precarious. The world has not been saved, and hard work and massive international solidarity will still be needed for an indefinite future. But the worst has been averted, at least temporarily. Arguably, we need more quasi-optimistic (but not mindlessly optimistic) speculation like this, if only as a counterweight to our seemingly endless diet of dystopian horror.

And yet, and yet… I called The Ministry for the Future a best-case scenario. If precarious survival is the best that we can hope for, what will we face in a non-the-best case? It remains extremely unlikely that as many things will go right as the novel needs to have going right in order for it to present its case. The novel demonstrates that a better world is truly possible, and attainable, on the bases of the resources and technologies we have now. But I cannot help also realizing that without all these technologically possible, and yet all-too-politically-unlikely developments, we are, in fact, well and totally fucked.

Elizabeth Bear, MACHINE

Elizabeth Bear’s space opera MACHINE has just been published. I received an advance copy, courtesy of Netgalley, in return for writing an honest review. Here it is.

MACHINE is set in the same cosmos as Bear’s previous book ANCESTRAL NIGHT, but it is not a sequel — the two novels can be read separately. In both books, Bear gives us a galaxy-spanning future civilization, containing many sentient and sapient species from many planets and star systems, all living more or less in harmony. The Synarche (as the galactic confederation is called) is far from a utopia, but it is much more cosmopolitan, and permits much more individual flourishing (of human beings and of numerous other species) than is the case for any actually-existing society on Earth today. It isn’t as egalitarian as one might like, but everyone gets more-than-basic subsistence, and working is not backbreakingly oppressive. There is a wide choice of jobs and careers, and there are machines to do the most obnoxious tasks. Sentient/sapient AIs have the same rights as organic intelligences do. To link the numerous star systems together, Alcubierre-White drives allow for a certain degree of FTL travel without violating relativity. Bear gives us one of those rare space operas that is not organized according to a military or colonialist paradigm.

The main socio-technological innovation that allows the Synarche to function is called rightminding. This is a chip implanted in everyone’s brain (called a “fox”) that works to dial down aggression and other dysfunctional emotions. It allows you to regulate and tune your own nonconscious bodily-emotive-intellectual processes, by regulating levels of hormones and neurotransmitters, as well as autonomic responses. In Bear’s account, being able to do such things (I decide to dial down my anger, suppress pain, suppress or enhance sexual feelings, and so on) is not paradoxical, but works as a self-aware feedback loop (the logic behind it is circular, but it is a virtuous circle rather than a vicious one). Being able to regulate oneself is a state of greater freedom, ultimately, then always doing what you think you want, but being at the mercy of your own raging emotions and your own social conditioning.

However, rightminding is a social rather than just an individual process. And it is tied up both with health and medicine, and with surveillance and policing. Other entities, and especially AIs, are able to access your fox, and tweak your settings, if you permit them to do so. Social rules are generated by consensus, which is ascertained via massive computation; and there are rules and norms that you aren’t allowed to violate. The regulation is soft rather than harsh, but it still exists. Cops are major characters in both novels. (Especially endearing, if that is the right word, is Goodlaw Cheeirilaq — “goodlaw” being used instead of “officer” — who is basically a sentient/sapient 8-foot-tall insect, somewhat like an enormous preying mantis, and who appears in both novels). If you break the rules (commit a crime), you are not punished in any of the ways that we are familiar with today; but you basically get a choice between exile or confinement, on the one hand, or allowing the authorities to tweak your fox settings so that you will not do it again, on the other.

This system might sound a bit creepy and oppressive — especially to the sorts of people (Americans in particular) who think that being obliged to wear a mask in public places when a pandemic is raging all about them is a violation of their fundamental rights. Bear takes this sort of worry seriously, but the books argue against it, and in favor of the Synarche system. In ANCESTRAL NIGHT, the main antagonist is a sexy and alluring libertarian pirate, who categorically rejects rightminding as a form of enslavement. The protagonist is powerfully seduced by the pirate, but ends up rejecting libertarianism and reasserting her allegiance to the rightminding system. (Is it worth mentioning that both protagonist and antagonist are women?). In a libertarian society, nobody has their mind manipulated, but massive oppression exists in the form of economic inequality, servitude enforced by contracts, and an overall social environment whose perverse incentives encourage the flourishing of violent sociopathy. You are nominally free, but you have no chance of being able to exercise your freedoms unless you are a degenerate scumbag (a term which I am using here in its strict technical sense, as defined in the Urban Dictionary). All in all, Bear’s volumes are unique for the way that she makes this kind of argument explicitly and at length, rather than just preassuming it (or rejecting it as is so often the case in works of hard science fiction with a libertarian bent).

MACHINE is also a work of medical science fiction; it takes place mainly in an enormous, multispecies hospital near the center of the galaxy. Bear mentions, in her acknowledgments, her debt to the Sector General series of science fiction medical dramas by James White (which I have not yet read, but which are high on my reading list). I will not try to summarize the plot here, in order to avoid spoilers. But I need to note that Bear juggles all the pieces and puts them together at the end quite nicely and convincingly.

The female human protagonist, Dr. Brookllyn Jens, is a doctor who used to be a cop. Both professions are highly relevant to the action of the novel. She now works as a rescue specialist; her job mostly involves trying to save people (of whatever species) who have had accidents in deep space. Dr Jens is not without problems of her own; she suffers from chronic pain which even the advance medicine of her far-future society is not able to cure. This means that she is thorougly cyborgian: she can’t do anything without her “exoskeleton” that provides support for her body, and integrates with her self-regulation of bodily states via her fox. She is also a bit neurotic in a way that I found all-too-recognizable and relatable. As one of her crewmates tells her, “You’re not detached. You’re dissociated.” Brookllyn finds herself having to confess that he might well be right:

what I thought of as a professional reserve, professional detachment . . . was really more like floating a centimeter outside the world, never really engaging with it. (ellipsis in original text)

Brookllyn is also, throughout the book, frequently having to put on “hardsuits” and other devices to protect her from the vacuum of outer space, or from atmospheres in which other sentient species live, but which are inimical to human life. All in all, the book is brilliant and powerful in the way it conveys a sense of interdependency. The point is that I am dependent upon otherse even when I am alone, even when I am at my most individualistic and most stubbornly anti-social, and even when my entire life strategy consists in dissociating myself from the world, so as not to have to engage with it too distressingly. Even at such times, my very existence depends upon a vast web of prosthetic technologies, not to mention built environments (however naturalized they may feel) and contributions by other people. As Brookllyn puts it at one point:

We cannot isolate ourselves from systems, have no impact, change nothing as we pass. We alter the world by observing it. The best we can do is not pretend that we don’t belong to a system; it’s to accept that we do, and try to be fair about using it. To keep it from exploiting the weakest.

The plot of the novel involves violations of social trust on the part both of insiders at the heart of the system, and of rebels against the injustices of the system. MACHINE works through a delicate balancing act, as Brookllyn finds her faith and trust in the Synarche and its institutions deeply troubled, yet still ultimately finds herself needing to affirm it and to save it from destruction — the alternative is violence and oppression on an unimaginable scale. Yet I am not sure I am expressing this quite right — it is not a conservative novel urging obedience in order to avoid anarchy, but a radical one in the way that it argues for a common that goes beyond individualism, and that indeed finds its only basis and justification in the way that it supports individual flourishing better than any other social arrangement would be able to. Brookllyn must learn, in the course of the novel, to recognize the dangers of overidealization, but without lapsing into a resentful nihilism in response. The book is ultimately about trust. This really is, as I already said, an emotional and cognitive exploration that I deeply relate to.

And oh yes, MACHINE also has an exciting, suspenseful plot involving various forms of derangement, physical dangers, malignant computer code, and twisted psychological reactions, all the fun stuff.