Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Gold Coast

I write this review of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Gold Coast, the second volume in his so-called Three Californias series, with the knowledge that in Oakland tonight, an estimated 500 police officers moved with tear gas, batons, and flash grenades against a group of peaceful - and of course predictably annoying, unsettling - Occupy protesters. They're doing the work they're assigned to do, in the way they're trained and encouraged to do it. These things happen. I'm appalled by these actions, offended by the naked signals of power the officers are being manipulated to express through their bodies, but I understand the officers' actions.

As Robinson recognized in the late 80s, though, while writing this most immediately activist of his California trilogy if not before that, resistance of some kind is essential unless the current path is to be followed to its painfully logical resolution. In The Gold Coast, Robinson's several characters all embody and enact different kinds of resistance to the system that's nonetheless consuming them. The city has become two stories tall, with a layer of megafreeways on pylons above residential neighborhoods; Orange County's last standing orange trees are in the cemetery, some of them being felled every year to allow for more burials; there's nothing but concrete and fast food and oppression and McJobs.

So the characters try to resist, in different ways and with differing degrees of self-awareness. Through extreme use of designer drugs, or the design and marketing of such drugs (California Mello, or Buzz, or Pattern Perception, and so on); through sex, usually in temporary "alliances" (since marriage appears to be dead) and usually videotaped and simultaneously projected on multiple screens around the bedroom; through art, either poetry or painting; through stepping outside the economy through tenting instead of renting; through missile attacks on military defence contractors: they try to resist. Orange County represents the pinnacle and nadir of 2027 America, and everyone who lives there is overwhelmed by it. This place cannot be celebrated, though the characters do take a nihilistically gleeful run at it anyway, at least until the wheels start to seriously come off.

It's a more powerful novel, for me, than either of the other two volumes in the series. Vol. 1, The Wild Coast, was a relatively standard, uneasily semi-utopic, post-apocalyptic narrative, and my review here was very brief because it just didn't rock me (and because I read it at a ridiculously busy time in my life). Vol. 3, Pacific Edge, which I read quite recently, I found much more enjoyable: I was somewhat annoyed by the narrative structure and by the focus that I wished was directed at slightly different targets, but my sympathy with its politics meant I couldn't get too excited about any complaints I could come up with.

The Gold Coast, on QUITE the other hand, is a richly realized, complexly organized, intricately layered novel and representation of a city. Obviously I'm going to find myself drawn to a main character like Jim McPherson (composition teacher and self-loathingly failed writer, the most socially awkward person in any group, place geek extraordinaire), so I don't have a hope of reading the novel critically unless I work assiduously at it, but still: it's a place-anchored novel exploring modes of resistance to the death of place, with wacky but believable characters, snappy dialogue, and trenchant politics. It's not all about Jim, even though we spend much of the novel watching and participating vicariously in his path toward what looks like it might turn out to be a shaky enlightenment.

So much that's interesting about this novel - the excavation of Orange County's forgotten history (which appears in a strong of separate chapters, presumably written by Jim); the tour of Great Sites Outside America culminating in an epiphany at an abandoned, isolated ruin in Crete; an escape into the Sierras; a person's self-construction after breakdown - that I'm reluctant to privilege any of it through detailed discussion.

I will say, though, that Occupy Oakland, and Occupy San Francisco, and Occupy LA are exactly the kinds of things needed to forestall the culture that develops by 2027 in Robinson's version of Orange County in The Gold Coast. Resistance, friends: resistance! We don't know how to get from here to the world we want, but we sure as hell know some versions of what we'll do anything to prevent the world from becoming. The Gold Coast shows us one of those worlds, more clearly than should be comfortable.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Occupy This Blog

Predictably, I've been of many different minds about aspects of the Occupy movement. I attended my local movement on October 15th, and I've wandered by twice since, but I'm not planning on camping out. Obligations, you know, too many of them about which I feel too strongly to set them aside for this.

But I've also gotten cranky about some of the comments I've been seeing online, particularly by people whose opinions I thought I knew enough about to predict their politics. Some of this, I should say, comes from an exchange with local reporter and man-about-journalism Murray Langdon, opening with his tweet the other day of "If #ows wants to target overpaid individuals, occupy #NBA arenas and #NFL stadia. Forget town squares." He's a good guy, Murray, and I understand his frustration with the movement (both his personal frustration and what I take to be his frustration as a journalist), but I found myself ... provoked.

So for good or ill, I've found myself unable to avoid attempting something of a manifesto-style response: feel free to determine the appropriate hand signals with which to respond at each point.
  1. The protesters are not themselves the entire 99%. This should be obvious to everyone, not needing to be said, but apparently it's not. The people able to sleep at the protest site will sleep there, but that's not to say they're a demographic mirror of the protest's supporters. They represent me anyway, even if they don't look like me.
  2. "Where have these people been the last 15 years?" One of the comments that makes me the angriest has to do with what's said to be the sudden awakening of this protest, after years of apparent silence about these issues. First, do you really think that a protester is more likely to be correct as a result of spending more time on the barricades over the years? And second, have you not noticed that for decades, there have been smaller or larger protests every few weeks in every major North American city? We've been protesting: you haven't been taking us seriously.
  3. The "professional protester" issue. You've seen the comments, about these protesters being the usual suspects, and it looks at first like a tough point to refute. Yeah, many of us have been at protests in the past, and some of the occupiers have organized their lives around the ability to take action. But you can't object on the grounds BOTH that we've been silent for too long (point 3 above) AND that we've been protesting too often for too long. And "professional" protesters? Um, an unwaged volunteer gig doesn't count as a profession. Call them "committed" or "dedicated," or maybe "multi-issue": some of them are among the most knowledgeable people you'll ever talk to, if you make the time.
  4. The nutbar factor. Now, don't get mad at me here, because I'm a friend to the broad-based nature of the occupations. If you've got a beef with the system, take it public, and come on down. But me? I've got no time for the rare but persistent 9/11 truthers; for the persistent opponents of smart meters for power (a BC issue, mostly: read the comments for a deeper view of the discussion); and for all those other ideas that I have a hard time recognizing as anything but conspiracy theories. The Occupy protests are an umbrella, but you know what? Some people deserve to get wet, and not just the 1%.
  5. Where are the specific demands? Um, you may have noticed this already, but it's a protest, not a legislation-drafting session. We're identifying what's wrong. Hundreds of people, like little old me, are raising our voices in writing to identify what we think needs to be changed, and sometimes how we think they should be changed. If we had control of the levers of power, we wouldn't need a protest.
    Spend some time reading all of our assorted comments (and note that each word there is linked to a different nearly random site, with whose content I may or may not be in agreement). Do that, and you'll see that there are all sorts of ideas out there for you to choose from. Support what you want. You need to get engaged in this process as well, rather than waiting to be told what to do.
  6. Why not do something constructive? I've heard people complaining, for example, that the Occupy protesters should have done something like donate a can of food each to the local food bank, rather than hang out making noise in the town square. My answer is, who do you think already makes donations to local programs? I haven't seen stats on this, and I suspect they'd be excruciatingly difficult to generate, but my suspicion is that many of the Occupy protesters have been donating and contributing to such programs for years, and working for some of them as well. (See the "professional protesters" note above, #4.) And a protest, by the way, IS constructive, at least potentially. Plus at least some of the Occupy protests ARE soliciting for the local food banks.
  7. "These [grubby/hairy/oddly dressed/rude/etc] people are not me." Of course they're not. They've got time in their lives to do this sort of thing. The only question for you is whether you support at least some aspect of their message. If you do, then to just that extent, they're working on your behalf. If you disagree with them entirely, then fine. They're not really the 99%, after all, no matter how convenient a slogan that might be. You want them to protest something different? Then do what you can to influence them, or someone else. Just participate.
  8. What are the key issues, really? Pay attention to this now: there are no key separate issues, and all separate issues are key. Plenty of things could stand to be changed, if we're going to live in a world of broader social equity than exists now.
  9. OK, then what are your key issues? My big three issues are:
  • the semi-criminality of financing and investing, which includes the banks and stock markets but (gulp) probably mutual funds and similar vehicles;
  • the unethical and unsustainable madness that is the food industry; and
  • the reluctance to take genuine action against anthropogenic climate change.
These are huge issues, and effective responses to them would require significant changes by (or at least on behalf of) millions upon millions of people. I don't expect that camping for a few weeks will make much happen, but the Occupy protests are a signal, a call, a loud and sustained principled objection. I'm ecstatic that people are objecting, and that the system appears to be listening. I'll not improve my mood, at bottom, until the system appears to start taking the objections seriously - instead of simply responding to the inconvenience itself of having people in the town square - but it's a start.

I am the 99%. So are you. You have different ideas than I do? Great. Bring it on; I get excited at the prospect of changing my mind to something better!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Steven Price, Into That Darkness

Aptly titled, this novel: Into That Darkness is precisely where Steven Price takes us with his debut novel, about a devastating earthquake that hits the Pacific Northwest. The novel is set entirely in Victoria, though there are vague and conflicting media references about what's happened in Vancouver and Seattle after the quake (which is claimed at different points to range between 8.1 and 9.0, and lord help us if it's accurate about what an 8.1 will do to us), so in some ways it's nice just to be nominated, as it were, but this really is literary disaster porn.

Finely described injuries, the recreation of horrible smells, humans gone feral: this novel has it all, in the relatively small space of under 300 pages. I'm okay with a little disaster porn, I should say, viz. my comments on Cormac McCarthy's excruciating The Road, but Price's is a painful novel. I didn't dream well while reading it, and he's to be commended for bringing that home into my head. I may punch him in consequence, I hope playfully, if he ends up attending our upcoming book club meeting, but it's a good sign that he's done so.

Mind you, the disaster isn't the only reminder of The Road here, and I'm a little unsure how I feel about that. Most obvious at the level of page layout is simply that Price, like McCarthy, decided to eschew the lowly quotation mark, so dialogue blends into exposition and the rest of the prose. (Oddly, the blog stats claim that my long-ago post on McCarthy is one of Google's favourite places to send people interested in McCarthy's punctuation, but I'm certainly no expert.) Price, I assume like McCarthy, gets rid of punctuation marks out of sympathy for how stripped-down society becomes after a disaster. I guess it's appropriate, but I'm not sure where the boundaries are between homage and imitation.

And the young boy / parent dyad is common to McCarthy, too, though I like Price's move - perhaps a tad too CanCon multiculti - to have a nonwhite boy walking with an unrelated elderly white man. It raises some additional questions and resonances of race and age, generation and community, that McCarthy's novel ignores, again to Price's credit.

There are some great lines in the book, thoughtful and concise, such as Arthur Lear's quietly passed-over epiphany soon after the quake has hit: "He understood that very little of what he had outlived mattered" (p.35). Price's form is intriguing, too, in that the third-person narrative that mostly follows Lear (and occasionally gets inside his head) is regularly interrupted by italicized passages of interior monologue by the main wandering characters; these energize the deliberately spare main narrative by enlivening these laconic, stunned characters apparently suffering from shock.

I've only finished Into That Darkness just tonight, so I need to think a little more about it, but right now I'm surprised I didn't like the novel more. I appreciate the artistry, and the evocation of catastrophe in the place where I live, but I was never swept up in it the way I expected to be, given the kinds of positive thoughts I was having as I was going through it.

Given this book club's feelings about Clara Callan, it's perhaps unwise to bring it up as a comparison piece. And given the wild success of Price's spouse, novelist Esi Edugyan, to whom Into This Darkness is dedicated, what I said four years ago about Richard Wright's award-winner might seem unnecessarily biting against Price. I don't mean it that way, because I enjoyed this novel far, far more than I did Clara Callan, and some major literary prizes are won by terrific novels. But I did feel like Into That Darkness is such a readerly novel, showing so many of the traditional cues for High-Quality Literary Canadian Fiction, especially by a poet, that I found myself getting what I expected from it. That shouldn't sound like a complaint, should it? It does, I know it does, but I'm not entirely sure why it should. Hrrm.

Really a good novel, this, so maybe I've just read too much (what?!? Blasphemy!) to really find the pleasure in it that others seem to. I'm not the only one with misgivings of one kind or another, but professional reviewers out there are close to unanimous that it's a very special novel, and I'm completely confident that they read even more than I do. (And by the way, Thomas Allen, keep your links alive! Most of the newspaper reviews on your Into That Darkness pages are dead....)

And for the record, one R.J. Wiersema found the novel worth rhapsodizing about in the National Post, so what the hell do I know:
"Into That Darkness is many things: a novel of survival, a collection of post-apocalyptic quests, an account of loss in its myriad forms, and of hope at its most vital and true. It’s a fundamentally human work that draws deep into the soul and the spirit. It is also that rarest of books, a literary novel with the narrative momentum of genre or commercial writing. It is, above all, compelling and real, a novel that will satisfy at every level."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Octavia Butler, Wild Seed

Wow. Octavia Butler was not on my radar before this summer's ASLE conference, but when she kept getting name-checked, and when people I trusted there kept telling me how important she was, and a cool read as well, then I had to try out Wild Seed. It's a good fit after Ursula Le Guin's ambisexual world of Left Hand of Darkness, though stranger because it's speculative fiction set in Earth's relatively recent past (1690-1840). And I don't know what to make of Wild Seed, though I'll have to collect a few of my thoughts before tomorrow morning's meeting with my Honours student to discuss it....

Start with the obvious stuff. The two main characters are Doro, who's basically a 3700-year-old spirit who moves between the bodies of people "he" kills and then occupies, and Anyanwu, a 300-year-old woman who's able to heal herself and others through intensely visualized knowledge of the body's internal workings. Doro can take on male or female bodies; Anyanwu can become a body in any form she likes, of either human gender or of any animal or bird of which she has a physical understanding (ideally, through eating at least a mouthful of it). Doro has been pursuing a centuries-long breeding program to build humans with inhuman powers of assorted kinds (telekinesis, telepathy, etc), making use of the slave trade to build experimental communities in North America; Anyanwu has been living in her own African village for her whole life, healing the sick and protecting her children and their descendants. Doro finds Anywanwu in the book's first chapter, and tries to insert her into the breeding program. Hijinks ensue.

No, not at all: hijinks most emphatically do not ensue. This is a dark and troubled book, imagining the human race to be potentially under threat from someone who looks like one of its own, who cannot be killed and yet cannot be reached and changed either. Butler places into conversation the discourses of stasis and progress, talent and worth, place and movement, independence and obedience, all sorts of terrifically powerful dyads. As an ideas novel, it's pretty impressive, even if it's much less satisfying as a novel of character or action.

For me, it wasn't a wildly readable book, so I'm hoping to enjoy Parable of the Sower a little more (advice, anyone?), but it's thoughtful and thought-provoking. Probably worth your time, but it depends what else you're reading....

Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

I first read The Left Hand of Darkness about four years ago, and I came away from the experience so very impressed. Since then I've listened to a handful of academic talks about one Le Guin novel or another, read a couple of student papers about her, and waded through a handful of scholarly articles. Conclusion? She's smarter than anyone who ever gets around to talking about her, with the possible exception of the redoubtable Fredric Jameson*, though rather more than the similarly redoubtable Harold Bloom.

Do I have more to say about LHD this time? Well, yeah, I guess so, but it's like what Johnson said of Gray, in a way: had she written always thus, it had been vain to blame and useless to praise [her]. Le Guin does a wonderful job of portraying the two quite different competing cultures on the planet Gethen (known as "Winter" to the representatives of the Ekumen, the coordinating body not unlike Star Trek's Federation), and the nuances of their different social spheres. As she remarks in her brilliant introduction to the novel, to her a work of science fiction is a thought-experiment that comments on the present. One of the nations is bureaucratic, petty, and randomly vindictive; the other is monarchic, chaotic, and enduringly vindictive. There's some clear social commentary on contemporary American politics and culture from the time (1969), especially on the intertwined questions of gender and sexuality.

Because you see, people on Gethen are neither male nor female. They are potentially both, and usually neither, except for a few days each month (a period known as "kemmer") when a person becomes either male or female. The same person can father children with another Gethenian, as well as become pregnant and carry children to term. They're humans, more or less, as the Ekumen believe that the previous Hainish civilization engineered the Gethenians and left them on Gethen to evolve in isolation, but their differing sexuality means that they've evolved different social structures, taboos, and intergroup practices. Le Guin's thought-experiment finds that without stable gender, for example, all-out war hasn't appeared, and marriage in the traditional sense hasn't evolved either, but the human incest taboo takes a surprising turn.

Environmentally, Gethen is at the border of human survivability, in its average temperature and climatic conditions. There are surprisingly few species of animals, too, since the Gethenians haven't evolved from the planet's original species, so there are some really fascinating passages (to my eyes, at least) about the outsider's absolute dependence on the insider's inherited knowledge. It's just such a unique, provocative book, that it pays back any time you want to spend on it.

*The Jameson link is to the original 1975 version of his article "World Reduction in Le Guin," which appears in expanded/clarified form in his 2005 essay collection Archaeologies of the Future, a book you should all read, except for Fraser, who would hate it. The full text of the 1975 special Le Guin issue of Science Fiction Studies appears to be online, too, so happy browsing there!

Monday, October 03, 2011

Jasper Fforde, Shades of Grey

Don't give up on this book. Please.

You're probably going to want to, especially if you've read some of Jasper Fforde's other novels - The Eyre Affair and The Big Over Easy, for example, start fast and carry you along. If you don't get the references in these BookWorld novels, I'd admit that you're likely to find yourself more or less baffled by most of the goings-on, but that's only because your level of referentiality isn't simpatico with the novel's. (We blame you for this, just so you know.)

In Shades of Grey, the first novel in Fforde's third (!) ongoing series, something else happens. It's still not quite clear to me why it took so long for me to get hooked, or why I came so near to giving up before getting hooked, but it's not just because I was busy and distracted. No, that's just a normal day around Book Addiction HQ. Rather, I suspect it's because this world is so very, very different from our own: Orwellian, in that conveniently imprecise way people avoid adjectivizing the title 1984, but immensely stranger than that, in ways that are basically beyond a casual reader's penetration, and Fforde deliberately sets us up as casual readers.

Briefly: It's Britain in the future, an impossible-to-determine number of years from now. No one can see at night, everyone's terrified of the dark, and a person can see only parts of the visual spectrum. As a result, your last name is a marker of your colour-sightedness (Ochre, deMauve, Cinnabar, and so on), with gradations within each of the primary and complementary colours; your sightedness is determined during the Ishihara test, taken during your 20th year. The lowest class are the Greys, who do almost all the work in this new society, and whose deaths are unremarked by anyone of another colour. American painter and inventor Albert Henry Munsell makes an appearance here, in a role like that of Aldous Huxley's Ford in Brave New World. Compliance with Munsell's Rules is absolute, and money has been largely supplanted by the use of merits and demerits: lose enough points, and you're subject to Reboot.

And just as in every other fictional totalitarian state, something's wrong. Desperately so, but it's so unclear as to be outside the comprehension of the protagonist, one Eddie Russett. Will Eddie learn enough to make some sense of it all before it's too late?

In the acknowledgements section, Fforde remarks that Shades of Grey turned out to be "rather more difficult to get on to paper than [he] had anticipated" (p.435). I'm assuming that this is one reason that it's a hard book to get into, because Eddie's position is so benightedly ignorant - just like the position of (almost) anyone else in his society - that Fforde's not able to straightforwardly give us the tools to assess Eddie's position. Instead, we're kept in the dark the same way Eddie is, to such an extent that it begins to seem obstructively unhelpful, almost like cheating on Fforde's part.

Once you get the necessary information, much of which doesn't start falling into place until you're 300 or so pages into the novel's 430 pages, then the earlier confusion seems reasonable, and you recognize just how much Fforde has had to keep from us in order to let us appreciate Eddie's character and predicament. Once I was okay with Fforde's secrecy, then retrospectively I was greatly impressed by his narrative reserve and his judicious decision to suppress the essential backstory to this culture. It's a startlingly rich and rewarding novel, but you won't believe me until you're a few hundred pages into it.

So in sum, don't give up.

Shades of Grey is NOT an easy novel to get through, by far the most difficult Jasper Fforde I've read so far. But I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be the Fforde novel which stays in the mind longest and most intensely: there's a lot here, and the ending sets up the next volume beautifully. The second in the series, whenever it appears, should have a very different narrative structure that's a whole lot more accessible to anyone who's read this first one - and please, God, don't let Jasper Fforde write Shades of Grey 2 as if its readers haven't read this one! Trust us to follow you around, and we'll follow you wherever you go.