Galápagos

By Kurt Vonnegut

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I went through a big Vonnegut phase when I was a teenager.

I think that’s pretty normal, actually, for bookish teenagers: a Vonnegut phase. There are a suite of authors (all male) that seem to appeal to adolescent brains: Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Tom Robbins, Hunter. S Thompson, &c. They all share a worldview: anti-authoritarian, irreverent, nonconformist (not coincidentally, all traits to which teenagers often aspire). These authors have made their careers pointing out the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of bourgeois American lives and values, and American teenagers, longing to be different than their parents, tend to encounter them with gratitude and enthusiasm.

Not all teenagers, of course, and not everyone loves all of them – I, for example, despise Jack Kerouac, and rank him among the most-overrated authors of all time (number two with a bullet, right under Henry David Thoreau). But a lot of us have spent formative years embracing an author like this, discovering that the world is bigger than we thought.

Vonnegut was my guy during that phase. He is funnier than most of the other authors on that list, and he had an offbeatness to him, a quirkiness, that the more Kerouacian and self-serious authors lacked. I took a shine to him and read everything I could. While I admired ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, I loved his more apocalyptic visions, ‘Cat’s Cradle’, ‘Sirens of Titan’, and ‘Galapagos’, which was my favorite. Over the years, my Vonnegut collection has dwindled, but I have always kept my copy of ‘Galapagos’, moving it from apartment to apartment. I have nurtured a nostalgia for it, an attachment to this book whose plot I can barely remember.

I have always intended to reread it, but have felt a certain trepidation. I am twenty years older now than I was when I read it the first time. Books cherished in our adolescence don’t always make it unscathed past our adult judgement and it’s demoralizing to pick up a once-loved book and discover that it’s actually kind of crappy. It changes the value of your own remembered world. I didn’t want that to happen to ‘Galápagos’, and I had a suspicion it would. I had vague memory of a tone, a general contempt for humanity, that doesn’t feel as admirable to me now as it did when I was 15 and angry.

Well, I finally reread ‘Galápagos’ yesterday, and I have found that my suspicions were both right and wrong.

‘Galápagos’ has an iterative, rambling narrative style that makes it almost impossible to spoil. I’ve been playing around, trying to sum up the plot in a sentence or two, but I wasn’t super successful. Here are some of my attempts:

‘Galápagos’ is the story of the survival and evolution of the last few members of the human race after they are stranded on the Galápagos islands during the ‘Nature Cruise of the Century’.

‘Galápagos’ is an apocalypse novel about a group of misfits who are accidentally stranded on the Galápagos Islands as a disease slowly renders mankind infertile.

‘Galápagos’ is an entire novel written to justify the idea that human beings would be better off with smaller brains and flippers.

‘Galápagos’ is a moral treatise whose thesis is that human brain power has evolved to the point that it is antithetical to our survival. It is narrated by a ghost.

These are all equally accurate, and yet totally inadequate, descriptions. None of them capture how charming ‘Galápagos’ is. ‘Galápagos’ feels like the apocalypse novel that Carl Hiaasen might have written if he had a major moral ax to grind: it is zany and weird and frivolous and yet somehow deadly serious about the point it’s making. Which point really, seriously, is that our brains are too big and that humanity, as a species, has become so smart that we are now stupid.

Despite the fact that the book is undeniably preachy, Vonnegut takes such delight in the obliteration of his characters that ‘Galápagos’ feels light-hearted. It is funny, though perhaps not as funny as I remembered. Vonnegut has a distinctive wittiness, not subtle but nimble. He has a taste for the absurd, but he almost never goes too far. In general, he keeps his prose skipping over plot and resists getting bogged down in a single point for long.

Which is not to say that ‘Galápagos’ is quite as good as I remember. It is highly, highly repetitive – when Vonnegut finds a phrase or image he likes, he deploys it over and over again, and eventually it becomes exhausting.

Let’s take, as an example, the phrase “big brains”, Vonnegut’s absolute obsession. Here are all the instances of that theme from just the first five pages:

“Human beings had much bigger brains back then than they do today, and so they could be beguiled by mysteries.”

“Many people were able to satisfy their big brains with this answer: They came on natural rafts.”

“But scientists using their big brains and cunning instruments had by 1986 made maps of the ocean floor.”

“Other people back in that era of big brains and fancy thinking asserted that the islands had once been part of the mainland, and had been split off by some stupendous catastrophe.”

See what I mean: repetitive.

Kurt Vonnegut

And Vonnegut has a number of tropes which he repeats with as much assiduousness as his big brains: flippers and mouths, for example. We learn in the opening chapters that humans one million years in the future only have their mouths and their flippers, which features (flippers and mouths) will appear only about a thousand more times in the book.

“It is hard to imagine anybody’s torturing anybody nowadays. How could you even capture somebody you wanted to torture with just your flippers and your mouth?”

“Even if they found a grenade or a machine gun or a knife or whatever left over from olden times, how could they ever make use of it with just their flippers and their mouths?”

“Now, there is a big-brain idea I haven’t heard much about lately: human slavery. How could you ever hold somebody in bondage with nothing but your flippers and your mouth?”

“As for human beings making a comeback, of starting to use tools and build houses and play musical instruments and so on again: They would have to do it with their beaks this time. Their arms have become flippers in which the hand bones are almost entirely imprisoned and immobilized.”

You get the idea.

The endless repetitions are often amusing and often annoying. The entire book, actually, can be described that way: often amusing, often annoying. It has a highly original and winning voice, but it leans too much on it, and it thinks it’s cleverer than it really is.

Nevertheless, it is clever and I really enjoyed it, and that was a tremendous relief. I was worried, when I revisited this adored book, that I would fail to understand what I had once loved, and that’s not the case. I doubt, if I had just read it for the first time, that I would love it quite so much as I did then, but I would have liked it, chuckled at it, and found it worthwhile. I would have respected it and what it was trying to do.

I’m going to put ‘Galápagos’ back on my shelf, and I’m going to get another copy of ‘Cat’s Cradle’. I think it’s time to spend a little more time with Kurt Vonnegut.

The Obelisk Gate

The Broken Earth: Book Two

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

So, now I’ve had some time to think.

Sometimes, when you’re flying through a book, you don’t stop to think about why you’re loving it so much. This is especially true with plotty books – you don’t need to think about why it’s working, you can just lie back and enjoy the ride.

But it’s a worthwhile exercise, once you pause for breath. And I had a busy week at work, and so was forced to spend time NOT reading ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, and so I thought about it.

I want to be clear: this pause was not voluntary. I need to work to eat; otherwise, I would have chewed all the way through the series without washing or sleeping. But, like I said, it was a busy week, so I only just now finished ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, the second book in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ series.

And I know that ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ is technically a separate book, but the entire series really reads like one book, one story, and I am only taking the time to stop and write about this installment for the sake of personal discipline. So, for coherence, I will probably refer to the trilogy as a single work, which it clearly is.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about why the trilogy is so good. And…

I don’t know.

The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about a world that is ending. And I suspect that, like all stories that are about the world ending, it is really about the evil which people do, which comes out of us naturally, inevitably, like breath. About the primitive, tribal cruelties that we perpetrate, in all times, all places, when we are frightened.

There’s a question I wonder sometimes: do you have to understand a novel to love it?

There are two ways to say what a novel is about. Let’s take an easy one: what is ‘The Scarlet Letter’ about? Well, technically, it’s about a woman being punished for adultery through sartorial intervention.

But, obviously, that’s not what it’s really about about. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is about sin, and guilt, and hypocrisy. It’s about how God is all-knowing and all-loving and we are not, and so when man’s law tries to approximate God’s law, the discrepancy will necessarily result in injustice. It’s about humility.

See what I mean? There’s about, and then there’s about about.

I know what ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is about. Jemisin is a clear, effective writer, much more than most science fiction or fantasy writers. Even when she is describing things which are actually beyond description, she is never hard to follow or understand. She’s really good.

But I am not at all sure that I know what this trilogy is about about.

On the most superficial level, ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy is an allegory about racism and xenophobia and otherness. It’s about human cruelty, and about whether we are capable of preserving our humanity, our ability to be kind to the other, when we are desperate, or in danger, or facing extinction. And the fact that this allegory is obvious a) doesn’t mean that it isn’t a valuable metaphor (it isn’t as though we’ve solved this problem, so, by all means, let’s keep working it through in prose) and b) doesn’t mean that it’s all that’s going on in these novels.

I also suspect that it is about about climate change. Bear with me: the premise of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, tectonically-speaking, is that humans, at the acme of their civilization, committed an act which so permanently destabilized the earth’s crust that it threatens the survival of everything on it. This is understood by all living human inhabitants of the earth as its revenge, that the earth is essentially, permanently, hostile to human life. That seems pretty clear to me.

But the problem with explicating allegory is that it makes the work seem preachy, or academic, or pedantic, and that is emphatically not the case here. In fact, the lack of pedantry is partly why I’m having trouble discerning the allegory.

So, am I allowed to love a story without understanding the allegory?

Obviously, the answer is yes – I can enjoy it any way I want. I can even enjoy it while totally misunderstanding the allegory. But (and honestly, this may be wrong) I think that understanding the allegory makes the experience of the books richer. And I know that this makes me sound like a complete nerd, but I am a complete nerd, and I really do enjoy a book more when I understand not only the story, but also the other stories which the story is referencing, the moral questions it is obliquely pondering, the historical events which it is recapitulating. They make me appreciate the story more, the skill of its writing, the depth of its thought.

And when you know, or suspect, that a story has these extra layers, and you aren’t quite getting them, it’s disorienting, like when you fall asleep in the middle of a movie and miss a whole bunch of plot. You might technically understand the ending, but can you say that you really understood the movie?

Not really, and so I don’t feel like I can say that I understand ‘The Obelisk Gate‘, and it’s making me feel very insecure, because I really, really like it. I want to understand it, and so I’ve been thinking about it.

N. K. Jemisin

One of the most salient threads which runs through the first two novels of ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ is that our fundamental selves are revealed through our treatment of our children. This is true on the level of the society as well as on the level of the individual. Children are a major, major part of ‘The Broken Earth’ books – love for them, grief for the loss of them, rage at the people who hurt them.

And cruelty to children winds through the books. There is an idea which pervades the entire trilogy (so far) that, in health, children are loved and cherished, protected and cared for. It is only in sickness that we allow them to be tortured or mutilated, abandoned or killed.

Earth has become a sick place, and the question which Jemisin is asking is, is it possible to be a healthy person in a sick place? Can you bring children into a sick world, raise them in a sick society, love them healthily when you cannot truly keep them safe? When the society in which they will grow up might abuse or murder them, use them or break them? When the very earth on which they walk might drive them and every one they love to extinction at any moment?

What does parental love even mean in that context? Parents love their children, ideally. Parents will do anything, risk anything, for their health and happiness – what does that mean in a world where health and happiness are impossible? What happens to love in a world like that?

It curdles, turns inward into rage, becomes destructive, deadens. Twists and becomes murderous in its turn. Even love becomes impossible, in a sick world.

Now that I think about it, this is kind of what ‘1984’ is also about. Actually, this is exactly what ‘1984’ is about: the idea that in a totalitarian society, even love, even private, romantic love, is impossible, because there is no private space for a human heart to have something normal and good, like love.

And, in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy, that’s true of parents, too: on a hostile earth, where we are threatened at every turn, where constant fear and danger have made us base and mean and vicious, we can’t even love our children. Because loving children is hopeful, and hope requires a future, and in a world with no future there’s no way to love them – it’s too painful.

I know that I’m not making ‘The Obelisk Gate‘ sound fun – I’m probably making it sound like the world’s bleakest book about parenting. It is fun, in a bleak, scary way. It’s one of the most absorbing books I’ve read in years, and, as I mentioned last time, I honestly just resent the time I have to spend here, writing about it, instead of thinking about it. It’s so, so good.

Seveneves

By Neal Stephenson

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s been a long time since a book has upset me this much.

I mean that as a compliment.  Novels elicit a very few, predictable emotional states from me: intellectual appreciation, amusement, the fun of learning something new, and sometimes, when they are really excellent novels, anger or sadness at the unfairness of the world, the cruelty of people.

But it is rare that a novel makes me feel the way ‘Seveneves‘ has: dreadful, afraid, oppressed, a little grief-stricken, and, I think, even rarer that the novel should be End-of-the-World science fiction, a genre which normally moves me little*.  Most apocalypse scenarios are far-fetched MacGuffins; they have very little emotional resonance in of themselves, at least for me.  You are meant to care about the characters – the apocalypse is there only to put them in extremis.

SevenEvesBut ‘Seveneves‘ is different.  The premise of this novel is that, one day, one normal day, in our world in our reality, a rapidly moving cosmic event, perhaps a small black hole, causes the moon to shatter into seven large pieces.  The pieces have the same center of gravity as the intact moon, and so remain in orbit around the Earth.  As they begin to collide with one another and fragment, astrophysicists figure out that their collision and fragmentation rate will accelerate.  Eventually, the pieces will begin to fall to Earth in an ‘Hard Rain’; they will super-heat the atmosphere, setting it alight, killing all life on Earth and boiling the oceans.  At the time of the initial event, the Hard Rain will begin in approximately two years.

Seveneves‘ is the story of humanity’s preparation for the Hard Rain, its desperate attempts to put as many people on the International Space Station as possible, and the sequelae, in space, of the extinction of life on earth.

Stephenson
Neal Stephenson

I’ve been trying to figure out why ‘Seveneves‘ is so effective.  It isn’t because it’s perfect.  Neal Stephenson has great strengths as a writer, and some weaknesses, most of which are on display here.

For example, he has trouble with endings, and the ending of ‘Seveneves‘ is emblematic: the book wraps up suddenly and anti-climactically after nearly 800 pages of vividly-imagined plot, as though Stephenson, after saying what he wanted to say, got bored and wandered away from his writing desk.

And not all of it is equally well-imagined.  Stephenson loves physics and engineering: there are pages and pages of loving, fastidious descriptions of orbital mechanics and robotics programming, so long and so detailed that they come to feel almost punitive.  No detail of physics is left unelaborated.

However, much of the second half of the book hinges on a small miracle of biology taking place, on a revolution in gene-editing technology which would require that genes work entirely differently than they, in fact, do work in real life.  The future of humanity relies on, and cannot be understood without, this miracle, but it receives only a paragraph of Stephenson’s attention.  He doesn’t even posit a mechanism of action – he simply asserts that genes work this way, and that scientists may manipulate them thus, with such and such results.

It goes like this:

“…the point is that I can get a digital record of its DNA.  Once that’s in hand, it turns into a software exercise – the data can be evaluated and compared to huge databases that shipped up as part of the lab.  It’s possible to identify places on a given chromosome where a bit of DNA got damaged…It is then possible to repair those breaks by splicing in a reasonable guess as to what was there originally…if it’s a disease – something on the books, defined in the medical literature as such – I will fix it…Once all that is done, each of us gets a free one…one alteration – one improvement – of your choice, applied to the genome of the fertilized ovum that will grow into your child.  And your child only….So, Camila, if you think it would improve the human race to get rid of its aggression, why then, I will search through the scientific literature for a way to reach your goal genetically.” (p. 552- 562)

Habitat Ring
A graphic from the novel – you can see that, when he cares to, Stephenson really thinks things through.

Maybe it’s because biology is my day job, but this unevenness bothered me.  The point of hard science fiction (well, one of the points) is the science; to just gloss over the parts you’re not interested in so you can rush back to describing robot movements cheats the reader.  This is especially glaring when they are crucial to the plot, when they represent far and away the most important scientific advance depicted in your science fiction book!

But this unevenness doesn’t blunt the emotional effect of this novel, which springs, I think, from two things:

  1. There is something viscerally upsetting about the disintegration of the moon.  The effect on the reader of imagining a moonless earth is primitive and unsettling and super-effective.  And Stephenson achieves it with very little fuss – there are no long passages of devotional description of the moon, no exploration of its place in our cultural imagination.  The novel begins when the moon ends, and, like the old cliche, you discover that you had been unaware of what you had until it was gone.
  2. According to Stephenson’s premise, humanity has two years in which to confront its own annihilation.  Some authors would have taken that opportunity to show a depraved humanity, a burning, anarchic world, man’s heart of darkness let loose.  Stephenson does not, and the mostly calm manner in which his world walks towards its own destruction is more affecting than mayhem and evil could have been.  Most people continue to live lives which very much resemble their old lives, but why?  What meaning can your routines possibly have when, in the near future, you and everyone you love will die in flames?  For that matter, what meaning do they have now?

I didn’t enjoy this book – that verb is inappropriate.  In fact, I spent much of it in the grips of a morbid agitation, unable to relax or be cheerful.  But I was completely glued to it; all my free time went to reading it.  If you’re looking for a feel-good romp, this is not your book.  But if you’d like to be freaked out, to work hard for the privilege of being unsettled, if you want to spend some time absorbed in a genuinely dark, movingly dark, future, this is your book.

*Although, now that I think about it, the only book which has unsettled me in this way in recent memory is, weirdly, also sci-fi: ‘The Reality Dysfunction‘, by Peter Hamilton, which describes a vision of the afterlife which made me want to run screaming into the nearest church.