Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tunneling in the dark: Whitehead's Underground Railroad

I often said to my literature students that they had to judge a novel on what it aimed to do, not on what they wished it to do. This doesn't mean one can't question a writer's choices, only that one should try to enter a novel by acknowledging the writer's guidance through an imaginary world and not by hoping to determine one's own path through that world.

Colson Whitehead's latest novel, The Underground Railroad, repeatedly reminded me of my own advice, and though I felt let down by the end, I think Whitehead accomplished what he set out to accomplish, leaving me to conclude that I wish he'd set out to accomplish something a little different (and to recognize that as my problem, not his).

I knew nothing about the novel when I began, so the turn that it takes (perhaps 50 pages in) from realism to a realism set in an alternate American history knocked me sideways and made me smile. "Ah, so it's not this kind of book, it's that kind of book." But that was wrong, too. Though Whitehead makes the underground railroad a literal (if modest) railway, and though Whitehead makes each American slave state its own imagery realm with its own rules, the fantastical nature of these elements remains restrained. The railroad is the one impossible element; the divergent histories of the states are, as presented, credible.

Much as Ellison's Invisible Man places each conflict experienced by its narrator in a different milieu, varying the level of satire and surrealism within each milieu, Whitehead gives us stories in each American state that somewhat reset the narrative terms for our protagonist, who now has some wholly different tale to navigate. But Whitehead also provides threads that bind Cora, the escaped slave, to a larger narrative, and characters carry over, so there's a sense of the past being buried and then resurfacing with each new "adventure," as in a picaresque novel with a pursuing villain who pushes us to the next tale-within-the-tale—or as in an America in which succeeding generations have found legislative and cultural ways to stifle black progress and re-devalue black lives.

Also echoing Ellison, we see the multitudinous ways black Americans have been afflicted by the culture that abducted and oppresses them. Had Whitehead stuck to a realistic historical framework, we'd have likely seen only the familiar forms of early-to-mid 19th century enslavement. Whitehead instead borrows images and ideas from later in black history, raising issues of education, objectification, white alliances, financial independence, sexuality, and enculturation.

While reading, I felt Whitehead spending more time than I wanted detailing scenes whose details didn't contribute to the book's themes and motifs. Given how the book turned aside from its strictly historical moorings, I felt the writing should have left behind a reliance on the necessities of historical fiction; I grew impatient. However, the resulting novel is a vivid creation, giving us alternate worlds that gain in heft by using details from our history while tweaking the when and where enough to make us question both past and present.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Coming soon!

If one defines "soon" as "within six months . . . maybe."

Next spring, Asimov's will publish a new story of mine, "Good Show," a tale of the unexpected dangers and massive responsibility associated with, yes, reviewing movies.

You'll see. It'll all make sense.

More as the time approaches.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Our place in the universe: Martin Amis's "The Janitor on Mars"

Blinded, betrayed, and bereft, King Lear's Duke of Gloucester cries out, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods./They kill us for their sport."

That pretty well encapsulates the theme of Martin Amis's short story "The Janitor on Mars," appearing in his collection Heavy Water. In the middle of the 21st century, Earth is contacted by an alien intelligence, a Martian "janitor"; the term's full implication is unclear until late in the story, but our point of view character back on Earth is an actual janitor, a largely chaste pederast who works at a facility for at-risk youth . . . if I've understood the organization properly. Things are morally muddy, as consensual relationships, no matter how imbalanced in terms of power, are encouraged and protected. Someone has assaulted one of our main character's charges, however, and he presses the nearly speechless, victimized boy to give him a name. Meanwhile, all of Earth is riveted to TV screens showing the arrival of the human delegation at the appointed meeting place on Mars. It's a juxtaposition that shouldn't work, in part because the science fiction aspect digs deeper and deeper—and for a sizable portion of the narrative—into certain "hard" SF premises having to do with the history and purposes of powerful sentient species. Just when you think the story can't get more grim, it takes another step down its dark path, unrelenting in the logic that governs its universe. Our Earth janitor, for his part, wants to protect one damaged boy from the terrible encounter the whole world is watching.

The story is rich with mordant humor as well as science fictional ideas, and it's deeply humane as well, despite the hopeless framework. What connects the narratives on Earth and in the heavens are the story's ideas about power. Perhaps there is something that makes us stand out against the dark infinitudes, and perhaps, Amis posits, if it's our frailty and weakness, then that may be a good thing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oh, it's a trilogy: THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, Liu Cixin

 . . . or, rather, if you're looking for it on Amazon or in a bookstore, it's by Cixin Liu.

The Three-Body Problem combines politics, international skulduggery, serious physics, computer gaming, and a first-contact event in ways that alternate between creative and clunky. Not only the plot, but the characters and the writing, too, shift from profundity to something that reads like middle-school fan fiction. A penultimate section of the book, containing information that no one in the book should reasonably possess, seems to have been separately imagined and composed, a physics-laden, high-minded space opera that might have been the seed for the rest of the novel . . . or not.

If you're an SF reader, you'll certainly enjoy much of the book, which throws together a host of ideas and which, at least to this layperson, takes its science seriously. That it is a work originally in Chinese, planted in a culture unfamiliar to most American readers, gives it a refreshingly unfamiliar shape—mostly. The Cultural Revolution gives impetus to some characters' actions, but some characters seem to have walked out of Hollywood central casting. Several thought-provoking concepts—political, moral, ecological—lie at the heart of the story, but several truly dumb ideas also propel the plot. Some dialogue is fine, but some is unspeakably bad, the kind of thing one imagines hearing in Communist propaganda films—long-winded, discursive speech no one would say and no one would tolerate hearing. The game that's so important to the novel—a vivid world that fails to prosper in its chaotic three-sun system—doesn't coherently connect with the larger story (obviously, the writer thinks it does, but I found it unconvincing) and also proves disappointing by being more literal than metaphorical in its purposes.

The central character, a woman who, as a young girl, saw her physicist father killed for the sake of the revolution, is compelling, though she leaves the stage quite often, and the characters who displace her never take on the same heft.

The first book in a trilogy (I didn't know this until I'd finished it), the novel can nevertheless stand on its own—unless you're hoping the author is aiming for a happier ending in the long run.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Winningly full: Harkaway's TIGERMAN

A joy.

Tigerman's hero is straight from Graham Greene (say, The Comedians or The Heart of the Matter): profoundly engaged with his own interior life, posted to a spot on the map that his British mind finds impossible to comprehend, the protagonist can't see himself as a hero, but he has to rise to the occasion for pressing moral reasons. Unlike a Greene character, however, Nick Harkaway's Lester Ferris is a man who must, in these times, act boldly in the physical world. He cannot change things for the better through an ambiguous gesture or by speaking the truth or a lie at a given moment; rather, he must, while also using such diplomatic means to achieve his ends, be what he frequently terms "a sergeant," a man who knows how much force to apply when encountering resistance as well as when to yield to stronger forces.

The less said about the plot, the better, but I'll provide this: on a dying, lawless island off the African coast, Sergeant Ferris's friendship with a wickedly smart young boy drives Ferris to build a counter-narrative to the failing world around him. Harkaway provides vivid depictions of the characters we truly need to know; it's an uncluttered novel because Ferris's world is so interior, unlike the wild island whose recesses and people he has mostly come to know through departures and destruction. The story feels utterly modern—through both the openly darker politics of the post-9/11 world and the internet-and-comic-lingo-savvy boy who shadows Ferris— but remains moored, texturally, in the recent British post-colonial past. Harkaway toys with the responsibilities and behaviors of lost empires, all the while providing proof that there's still room for the kinds of heroic thinking that formed—and malformed—those empires. Indeed, the narrative twines life and death about each other in a hug that is like the hugs that form the novel's central motif: sometimes people reach hesitantly for each other; a few times, a hug is suggested but not given; at key moments, the hug is a desperate grasping after life.

And how long should we hold on to what must pass into oblivion?

Smart and exciting, and featuring that rarity, a third act that pays off in every way, never neglecting the themes it has set in motion, Tigerman is, in its words, deeds, and deeply felt passions, a joy.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Overview review: The Old Man stories

Writer and Cambridge-dweller Jay O'Connell (author of Dystopian Love) gives a nice overview of my in-process Old Man series here.

I've been poking and prodding at the final story, but I've also been working on an unrelated piece of short fiction. More news soon.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Free Fiction

Till 5/25, "Vox ex Machina" (Asimov's, Dec. 2013) and "A Crisis for Mr. Lion" (Zoetrope: All-Story prize-winner, 2006) are free (and together).