Galápagos

By Kurt Vonnegut

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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.

1984

By George Orwell

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In general, I’m not a huge fan of banning books. I think that people should get to read pretty much anything they want. Books can contain ideas or information, and we should have the right to encounter both. Be they counter-productive, perverse, even wrong, the right to consume them or not should lie with the individual. And, again in general, I believe that this is a universal right: if you can read about an idea, I don’t think anyone should have the power to stop you.

However (and perhaps this is breathtaking hypocrisy, I don’t care), I don’t think teenagers should read ‘1984’. And I definitely don’t think it should required of them.

Unfortunately, it often is. ‘1984’ is required reading in many high school curricula – it certainly was in mine. I read it the first time years ago, as a ninth grader, and I believed that I understood it. I thought it was about the natural culmination of the authoritarian state, about surveillance and propaganda, Big Brother and Thought Crime and 2 + 2 = 5. I dismissed the human story as irrelevant. I thought Winston and Julia and their love story were merely props upon which Orwell was resting his polemic; I thought those set-pieces of authoritarianism were the point of the novel.

And because I thought it was merely about those set-pieces, because I ignored the human story entirely, I thought ‘1984’ was very simple, and I wasn’t at all impressed by it. I thought it was obvious. 2 + 2 does not = 5, clearly, I already knew that; Big Brother is sinister, duh. It seemed like an awful lot of words to make an unoriginal point: Authoritarianism is bad – yes, thank you, I know all about the Nazis, I get it*.

*I was such an asshole.

Many years later, I reread ‘1984’. I didn’t want to, by the way – that’s how alienated I had been from the text when I was a kid. But my father gave me Orwell’s collected non-fictions, and I decided to reread a few of his most famous works as prep. That was when I discovered that I had completely missed the real point of the novel. And I had missed it because I was a teenager, and there are certain things that most teenagers can’t understand yet.

The surveillance state isn’t the point of ‘1984’ – it’s the premise. When Winston is taken into custody, and tortured for months, as his will breaks, he begins to believe the lies Big Brother tells him. He tells his torturers, swears to them, that 2 + 2 = 5, and he really believes it, and I thought that that was the moral of the book: that eventually, under enough duress, we can believe anything.

But the important part actually comes next. As he is being tortured, even as his sanity breaks down, as he begins spouting Big Brother’s propaganda back at him, Winston keeps something back.

“For what was there that they had not screwed out of him under the torture? He had told them everything he knew about her [Julia], her habits, her character, her past life; he had confessed in the most trivial detail everything that had happened at their meetings, all that he had said to her and she to him, their black-market meals, their adulteries, their vague plottings against the party – everything. And yet, in the sense in which he intended the word, he had not betrayed her. He had not stopped loving her; his feelings toward her remained the same.”

And for this last reluctance, he is taken to Room 101. Room 101 reveals, of course, the real purpose of the surveillance state. Because They have been watching you every moment of your life, They know your every hope, your every fear. They know what scares you the most. And in Room 101, They can inflict it on you.

Winston’s worst fear is rats, and in Room 101, the state has devised an apparatus that will allow rats to eat off his face while he is still alive (as a side note, this is one of the very few choices that Orwell made in ‘1984’ I don’t agree with – it’s a little too outlandish, too dramatic, for me). That moment, as Winston is facing down the rats, is the real point of the book:

“The mask was closing on his face. The wire brushed his cheek. And then – no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment – one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over.

‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you to do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!'”

The rats are stopped, and Winston is released. He is allowed back into the outside world; he is not even monitored. Because he has sacrificed his love to the torture, because the state has destroyed his capacity to love, and the state knows that people who cannot love are not a threat to anyone.

The power of this moment can only really be understood by someone who has loved another person more than they love themselves. That’s the only way to feel what it would mean, in a moment of danger, to offer up that loved person in your place, to want them to suffer instead of you. If you have not cherished someone else’s happiness and safety more dearly than your own, it is impossible to imagine what would be required to wish them harm of that magnitude. If you have, this moment is horrifying, because you know that it would require the denaturation of your very self, your entire being.

That is the point that Orwell was trying to make, I believe. That terror, sustained terror, deprives us of our ability to love other people. And that the ability to love other people is a necessary part of our humanity. Without it, we are not fully human.

And the State, the modern, industrial state, is one of the few entities able to exert the force you need to instill that level of terror, that loveless, dehumanizing terror, in a large population of people (the Church being another). The ultimate tragedy of the terror state is not that it tortures and kills – it isn’t even that it warps reality for the purpose of control – it’s that it deprives its citizens of their ability to truly love each other. It reduces them to crouching and fearful animals, capable of caring about nothing besides their own survival.

Teenagers, with some exceptions, have not had the opportunity to love something else more than themselves. They are incubating the personalities they will roll out as adults, and that requires most, if not all, of their attention. They are the center of their own worlds, and perhaps rightly so. But that means that the visceral horror of Winston’s capitulation – the fear you feel as an adult imagining what it would take to make you turn on your own – that is probably not accessible to most teenagers.

George Orwell

It certainly wasn’t accessible to me as a teenager. And while I obviously don’t think people should be kept from reading books simply because they might misunderstand them (I think now that perhaps I have never really understood any book the first time I read it), it does hurt my heart to think about all those teenagers walking around believing that they have read and understood ‘1984’, when in fact they missed it completely. If it were not required reading, some of them might have found their way to it, as adults, understood it then and been moved by it, but they don’t, because they think, as I did, that they’ve already it.

It’s too good a work to be missed in this way. It’s too good to be forced onto an audience who cannot really grasp it. ‘1984’ is one of the most powerful, brutal, prescient novels ever written. When I read it as an adult, it devastated me, and my respect for it became the foundation of my relationship with George Orwell, the writer I love most in the world. I admire ‘1984’ deeply, and I regret bitterly all those years that I misunderstood it.

Stations of the Tide

By Michael Swanwick

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I read Joyce’s ‘Ulysses‘ in college, for a course on the epic novel. Much of the classroom time spent on “Ulysses’ was merely explication: what has happened, who is who, what do these words actually mean, to what does this refer? And I remember, very clearly, that at some point in these discussions my professor said something which I have come to regard as the single smartest thing that I heard in college on the subject of literature.

It was during a discussion of works of criticism about ‘Ulysses’ that my professor said, ‘Of course, most critics of ‘Ulysses’ spend their time just proving that they understand the book, rather than assessing its literary merits. As you might imagine, that isn’t the critically healthiest situation.”

What he meant, I think, is that if, as you read a book, you must exert constantly just to understand it, you will lack the attention necessary to assess it. If you’re barely treading water, you don’t waste energy admiring the beauty of the ocean.

I thought about this a lot as I read ‘Stations of the Tide‘ because, frankly, I spent much of this book struggling just to understand what on earth was going on, and so I don’t really know whether or not the book is any good.

Stations of the Tide‘ is about an outer world. Humanity’s elite now lives in space cities, from which they control the access of the outer worlds to “controlled” technologies, the technologies which have allowed the survival and spread of humankind after the demise of Earth.

The spread of these technologies is controlled by the bureaucrats of the Puzzle Palace, and illegal possession of controlled technologies is investigated by the Division of Technology Transfer. One of these bureaucrats, called only the Bureaucrat, has come down to the planet Miranda on just such an investigation.

Miranda is an unusual planet. Every two hundred years, the normally verdant Miranda is flooded by the Jubilee Tides – almost the entire surface of the planet will be underwater for a generation. Most of the native animals on Miranda have evolved two lifecycles for this reason: a terrestrial one, and an aquatic one. But humans are not native to Miranda, and they must either flee the coming floods, or drown.

Miranda is a backwater planet, the people kept technologically poor, and subject to the predations of magicians. The bureaucrat has come to interrogate one such magician, Gregorian, who has been accused of stealing a piece of controlled technology, and who is claiming to be able, with the stolen technology, to transform the humans of Miranda into semi-aquatic beings who may survive the Jubilee Tides. And so the Bureaucrat must find the magician, and the tides are coming.

Stations of the Tide‘ is a science fiction-fantasy-Southern Gothic–surrealist-mystery novel, and it’s either brilliant, or it’s a mess. Perhaps it is both. I honestly cannot say, but I didn’t like it.

I’m sure that this is my own failing, but I have never warmed to surrealism. I know that, in some obscure way, I am marking myself out as possessing a pedestrian mind, but I like knowing what’s happening in the books I’m reading. I have caught glimmers, over the years, of what surrealism might offer us: the chance to engage with the idea that knowable, linear “reality” is, in fact, an illusion, a construct of our minds, but in the safety of literature, or film.

But I still hate it: my plodding mind loves plot, likes to grind itself against mechanism of action, and cannot relax into the sophistication of non-linearity.

There is a decided surrealist tint to ‘Stations of the Tide‘. There are multiple dream and hallucination sequences, and the pervasive sense of unreality is heightened by the fact that consciousness can be beamed from body to body, even to machines called ‘surrogates’, and duplicated, which allows characters to have conversations with themselves, or with multiple versions of the same person without being able to tell them apart. Also confusing is the fact that one of the main characters is a briefcase.

Thus, I spent much of ‘Stations of the Tide‘ unsure of what, exactly, was happening, rereading paragraphs and pages in order to get a clearer glimpse of the action, usually in vain.

And as my English professor said so long ago, this is not the ideal position from which to make critical judgements. The truth is, the fact that I did not understand a book does not mean that the book is not good. A book may be excellent and still exceed my cognitive grasp, but, because it has exceeded me, I am not able to say whether it is good or not. So it is with ‘Stations of the Tide’: it is perhaps good, perhaps very good, but I am not the right person to ask.

I can only speak to whether or not I enjoyed it, and I think I can answer with more confidence here: I did not. It’s difficult to enjoy a book which isn’t making any sense to you: I think that prose that is incomprehensible is almost always boring, because it’s essentially gibberish. There is nothing to hold your attention, no coordinates of plot on which to anchor yourself, and so the reading essentially becomes an exercise of dragging your eyes over words. It isn’t especially fun.

Michael Swanwick

In fairness, much which had been mysterious to me in ‘Stations of the Tide‘ was made clear in the end: the last two or so chapters are somewhat more lucid than the rest of the book and are purposefully explanatory, the sci-fi equivalent of that part of any Sherlock Holmes story where Holmes explains to poor Watson what has just happened. The clarity of hindsight allowed me to relax enough to see that ‘Stations of the Tide’ was, at least, highly original and often beautifully written. There is enormous skill and deliberate vision behind even the most obscure aspects of ‘Stations of the Tide’

Hence my inability to state with any confidence whether or not ‘Stations of the Tide‘ is a good book. At the end of the day, it doesn’t even really matter: I admired it but didn’t enjoy it. I’m glad I read it, but I can’t say with any certainly I understood it. It’s broad points, sure, but I’d be willing to bet complexities eluded me, and I have nothing brilliant to say about it.

When you don’t really understand a book, it can never belong to you. It can’t become the property of your heart, the way loved books do. In order to love a book, you must feel you can grasp it, in its entirety; without this ability to get your arms around it, it won’t ever be yours. On some level, you and the book will always be strangers. Just because someone is a stranger doesn’t make them a bad person – it just means you don’t know them.

So, ‘Stations of the Tide‘ and I are strangers. I admire it, from a distance, I think, but at a distance I remain.

Ringworld

By Larry Niven

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As I’ve said before, I have different standards for different kinds of fiction. Literarily, my standards are lowest for science fiction and fantasy: those books are about plot, about ideas – I don’t expect them to exhibit Jane Austen’s prose.

My standard for the prose of science fiction is merely this: I need the writing to not be so bad that it distracts me.

That’s it! I think that’s a pretty low, pretty reasonable bar: just don’t write so badly that your garbage writing distracts me from your story.

Here is an example of writing that is so bad that it is distracting:

“”Aren’t you going to let me out of here?”

The puppeteer considered. “I suppose I must. First you should know that I have protection. My armament would stop you should you attack me.”

Louis Wu made a sound of disgust. “Why would I do that?”

The puppeteer made no answer.

“Now I remember. You’re cowards. Your whole ethical system is based on cowardice.”” (p. 8)

This is bad writing. It’s bad on a couple of levels: first, it’s a freshman-creative-writing-class violation of ‘show, don’t tell’. Second, it doesn’t in any way resemble dialogue that people would actually have, ever, under any circumstances. It’s cheating out, explaining for the audience, like high school drama nerds: “Oh, right, your whole ethical system is based on cowardice!”

I believe that it is fair to say that the only good thing about ‘Ringworld‘ is its premise, and, frankly, the premise is not well-utilized. On the contrary, the set-up of the novel feels like a wasted opportunity (which is not uncommon: good scifi premises are a great deal more abundant than good scifi executions):

Louis Wu is a two hundred year old human man. Bored during his two hundredth birthday party, he goes wandering via teleportation around the globe, only to be highjacked by an alien from a species thought to be extinct, the two-headed Pierson’s Puppeteers. This puppeteer, named Nessus, offers Louis a chance to join him on an expedition, a member of a four man crew, though where they are heading, Nessus won’t say. The payment will be a ship with hyperdrive capability, which only the puppeteers have, and blueprints for same. The two other members of the crew are a member of a catlike warrior species, the kzin, named Speaker-to-Animals, and a human female, Teela Brown, who has been born with a genetic gift for luck.

This crew sets off for their unknown destination, which will, of course, be revealed to be the Ringworld, a 186 million-mile-wide ring orbiting an unknown star in distant space. The ring is, ostensibly, an answer to a problem of over-population: with a livable surface which is over a million miles wide and almost 600 million miles in circumference, the Ringworld would comfortably support the populations of many worlds. A marvel of engineering, nothing is known of its creation or inhabitants. The puppeteers have been observing it, of course, but they have not even been able to observe whether or not there is any life still occupying it.

OK, so, yes, the character set-up is a little furry, I admit. But the Ringworld itself: a technological marvel, discovered in deep space, abandoned and uninhabited? A construction with more living room than most solar systems, unknown to its nearest neighbors and empty? It’s a great premise for an eerie space mystery!

But ‘Ringworld‘ is not a great space mystery. The Ringworld itself is merely a backdrop for what is, at its heart, an feel-good romp with a zany ensemble cast, and it’s stupid. All the possibilities of the Ringworld are wasted; its mystery is asked and answered, barely, almost as a side note, and as boringly as possible.

Ringworld‘, to give it credit, doesn’t wiff quite as badly on the second most interesting question it poses: what would happen if a person were bred for luck? What would luck look like if it could be relied upon? What would your life mean if you could know, could really trust, that everything that happened to you actually happened for the best, the best for you? What if your luck was so powerful that you could apply it to other people, warp their lives and their destinies, to further your own luck, that you had this effect simply by being near them?

Ringworld‘ is one of those scifi “classics” from the 60’s and 70’s (it was published in 1970), and it shows, not only in the bad writing, but in the bad politics. The women are particularly ghastly: they are (both of them) beautiful, overly sexualized, and stupid. Explicitly stupid – their male counterparts wonder at their stupidity, and marvel outright at their occasional ability to solve problems. One of them is, literally, a ship’s whore.

Whatever – basically, to read any literature written before 2008 (and half written after) is to encounter problematic depictions of women. You learn to stop taking it personally. My issue is that these characters aren’t only problematic, they are clunky and problematic.

This is the reason for my not-so-bad-I-notice rule for prose in genre fiction in the first place: bad prose amplifies every other sin a book may possess, and books, like people, are never perfect. As you wade through garbage writing, you tend to notice every single flaw that passes you by, and they irritate you more than they normally would, they grate on the nerves. Beautiful prose might not hide flaws, but it does make them easier to swallow. Why should I read about shallow, stupid characters if they aren’t even written well?

Ringworld‘ was bad. The prose was bad, the characters were shallow. The premise, the problems, are interesting, but they are abandoned: never answered, never explored.

Larry Niven

But ‘bad’ is not necessarily boring. ‘Ringworld‘ isn’t really boring: it hops weirdly along, you keep up. But it isn’t good – it’s probably the worst Hugo and Nebula winner I’ve ever read. But science fiction is often uneven, that’s almost a characteristic of the genre. Sure, a book’s characters might be thin, but the premise is thought-provoking, even profound. Say the dialogue is stilted – it might be redeemed by incredible world-building. I think, ultimately, my problem with ‘Ringworld’ is that it doesn’t do anything to redeem its badnesses. There aren’t really any upsides to weigh against the downsides of the bad prose, stupid characters, wasted premise.

One should always keep in mind, though, that books are due credit not just for how good or bad they are, but also for their effect on the genre. Some of ‘Ringworld‘s sins (like two-dimensional women) might not have been so damning in 1970. Whatever the reason, people remember ‘Ringworld’ as a classic, and it has had its impact on the genre. That legacy belongs to it – a work deserves some recognition for what it inspired, not just what it is.

So I’m not saying that ‘Ringworld‘ should be pulled from bookshelves, wiped from the cannon. I read it, and I’m glad. It informs my knowledge of the genre, and I’m grateful for that.

It’s just bad, is all.

A Unified Theory of Novels

So, I’d like to do something a little different this week, and instead of talking about one book which I finished in the past seven days, I’d like to talk about novels in general.

I said something a little while ago: “It doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story.” But when I thought more about it, I felt that I had, as usual, been glib. And not merely because I have never read ‘The Notebook’, but because while I believe that this is a true and self-evident statement, why is it true?

It’s true because there are different kinds of novels.

I don’t mean Good versus Bad novels – I mean that there are different categories of novels. Partly, yes, this is what we’re talking about when we talk about genre: romance versus horror, but even within that great non-genre, Literature, there are different categories of literary novel. And I know that this is obvious to everyone, but it bears a little reiteration, because it has implications which we rarely examine with any care.

Let me put it this way:

Which is the better novel: ‘Ulysses‘ or ‘Jurassic Park‘?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because it is a technical accomplishment of such complexity and beauty that it transformed the very idea of the novel.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because that’s the book that people are more impressed when I say I’ve read it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because more people like it.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because more informed people like it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because, unlike ‘Ulysses’, it’s actually fun to read.

None of these answers is quite satisfying, is it? Yes, ‘Jurassic Park’ is more entertaining, but ‘Ulysses’ was more complex. How can you adjudicate ‘better’ in a case like this?

The problem, of course, is that the question is nonsensical. Neither novel is strictly ‘better’, because they are different kinds of novels, and so have different novelistic goals.

Over the years, I’ve come to think about three broad categories of novels (in my head, I call them Tiers). Within each Tier, a novel can be either successful or not successful, which means that there is such a thing as a Very Good Tier 1 novel, which is, for my money, ‘better’ than a Very Bad Tier 3 novel, in so far as goodness can be read into execution of intention.

These are my Tiers:

Tier 1 Novels: Plot

Tier 1 novels are novels where the primary purpose of the novel is plot. ‘Plot’, in this case, is distinct from ‘story’ – most, if not all novels, have a story of some sort, but not all novels are plot-driven.

Plot-driven novels are characterized by action. Action moves the novel forward, and action is the necessary resolution of the plot. ‘Action’ does not necessarily, of course, mean a sword fight – action can also be the discovery of a murderer, or the culmination of a magical quest, or an exorcism.

Because, of course, most of what are traditionally called ‘genre novels’ are contained in this tier: fantasy, murder mysteries, techno-thrillers.

My favorite Tier 1 novelist is Michael Crichton (as is probably clear from my obsession with ‘Jurassic Park’). I’ve read everything he’s written, even that pirate one. I could wrote a whole essay on my deep love of a Crichton premise. Stephen King is another beloved Tier 1 novelist for me; so was George R. R. Martin, before he ghosted us all.

Tier 2 Novels: People

Tier 2 novels are novels in which the story isn’t, necessarily, plot-driven: these novels might be novels of character development, emotional crisis, personal tragedy or triumph.

Tier 2 novels are not characterized by subject matter – they are characterized by their limitation. Tier 2 novels are only about what they are about. They do not, by design or failure, transcend their own story. If they are a story of a young man’s descent into madness, then they are only about that particular young man and his particular madness – they are not a metaphor for anything larger.

This is not necessarily a comment on the value of these novels; on the contrary, Tier 2 includes some of the most absorbing novels I have ever read. They are often powerful, moving stories, stories you may perhaps relate strongly to, but they are stories from which you do not learn anything about the greater problems of humanity.

Jonathan Franzen is the exemplar Tier 2 novelist: his novels are beautifully imagined, richly, even elaborately, detailed, intricate and specific. But his protagonists, his beautifully-imagined protagonists, are what his stories are about. They aren’t about you or me, us, the great mass of humanity – they are about the people that appear in their pages, and no one else.

Sometimes, a Tier 2 novels transcends category: it is a story only about the specific people and specific incidents described, but it is so beautiful and perfect, so finely and humanely drawn, that it feels as though it touches on something universal, and so becomes about the common human experience without ever becoming a metaphor. Elena Ferrante’s novels are, in my opinion, the best of example of this kind of category-straddle: indisputably, to me, Tier 2 novels, the depiction of the two women at the heart of those books is so deft and true that it becomes about us all, in the ways that we are all alike.

Tier 3 Novels: Metaphor

Tier 3 novels are novels which transcend the specifics of their story. They are novels which use their specific stories to tell a bigger story, a more universal story. Their characters are metaphors, archetypes, allegories, from which we might learn something about ourselves. They can be bad or good, successful or unsuccessful, but their characters or stories mean something more than the specific circumstances that afflict them.

Tier 3 novels are the novels we are all used to thinking of as “great” novels. Most of the canonically “great” novels are Tier 3 novels, but this is, I think, a limitation of the canon.

Of course, many of my own most-loved novels are Tier 3 novels: ‘East of Eden‘, ‘Infinite Jest‘, anything by Graham Greene, ‘The Age of Innocence‘, ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘, by George Saunders – all Tier 3. Most of the really excellent or seminal science fiction, Tier 3: Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Asimov, Dick, Herbert, Gibson, Le Guin, you name it: all Tier 3.

And, of course, some of the most bloated, irritating ‘classics’, the books with which we are all flogged in high school, are also Tier 3: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘The Golden Bowl’, ‘Sons and Lovers’, ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell – all Tier 3, lord help us.

But some great classics, books beloved and admired, are Tier 2’s: most of Jane Austen’s novels, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘ by Evelyn Waugh, anything by E. M. Forster.

I don’t argue for the perfection of this system. Some of my favorite novels defy categorization according to my system:

I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus, ‘World War Z‘ by Max Brooks (no, I’m not kidding), ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler‘, by Italo Calvino – what are they?. Or how about something like ‘Bleak House‘, by Dickens? You feel as though it ought to be Tier 3, it is Dickens after all, but is it? Only in the most insipid sense: a fable about how goodness will be rewarded and wickedness punished, but on that level the book is garbage anyway – ‘Bleak House’ lives in its specific characters and prose, so maybe it would be happier in Tier 2.

Or how about ‘The Screwtape Letters‘: it’s clearly a Tier 3, but it isn’t a metaphor, it’s a fantasy, and so in some ways feels more like a Tier 1 novel than anything else. It’s a fable, an exposition, it’s barely a novel, more a series of lectures in a funny framing.

But, for better or worse, this is how I think about novels, and my tiers have given me a way to love and exalt ‘Jurassic Park‘ as much as I love and exalt ‘Infinite Jest‘, a way to express what I feel: that these are books of equal quality, in which I might take equal joy, because they are trying to do different things. There are a lot of ways to be good, and ‘literature’ is just too broad a category.

The Stone Sky

The Broken Earth: Book Three

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Normal warnings aside, I am really, really going to spoil this trilogy in here, so if you don’t want to know exactly how ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ ends, don’t read this.

Um, I’m also going to spoil several movies.

You know that theory (we’ve talked about it before) that there are only, like, seven plots in all of literature? They, supposedly, are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

And they’re pretty self-explanatory. The theory goes that all the works of literature are just attempts on these seven basic plots: retellings, new perspectives, embellishments, interpretations. That these are the only stories there are.

OK, well, that may or not be true*, but I do know that, when you read a lot of stories, you notice that there aren’t so many different things to say as there are books. It’s not just plots – characters, premises, dilemmas, it all comes around again and again.

*I’ve never really been satisfied that any of those plots describes ‘Jurassic Park’. Maybe this is just me getting hung up on dinosaurs again, but ‘Jurassic Park’ doesn’t really fit any of those, does it? Which could it be? The Quest [to get out of Jurassic Park]? Overcoming the Monster [actually many little monsters and no one really overcomes them, just runs away]? I’m not buying it. I propose a new list: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth, Jurassic Park.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter whether there are seven plots or seventy, or whether the above list is exhaustive. The fact is, when you read a lot, the landscape of fiction does becomes familiar to you.

Which can be kind of nice. Familiar landmarks help you orient yourself. They signal to you what kind of story you’re reading, what kind of lessons you’re meant to learn, what sort of characters you should expect to meet and what might happen to them. Often, they tell you how the story wants to be evaluated: it doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story. How do you know that it wasn’t that kind of story? It didn’t have any landmarks of the kind of story where zombies and werewolves battle – no weird contagions which make people sort of bitey, no bodies of eviscerated sheep showing up around the village after the full moon, stuff like that.

But surprises are also nice – think how great it would have been if there had been even one zombie in ‘The Notebook’. Surprises make you realize that life isn’t over yet, that the world is still turning, that it’s worth trying new things, or reading new books. That, even if people have exhausted all the basic plots, they haven’t stopped thinking up new things to decorate them with.

And they don’t need to be big surprises, either; they can be small adjustments to old things, as long as you’ve never seen them before.

Which, I think, in the end, is the thing I ended up liking the most about ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘. Yes, the story was quite strong, and it was never badly written (which is about as good as it gets for genre fiction), and it didn’t get soggy at the end, but what I really ended up loving was that it surprised me.

And it surprised me in the most unlikely way: the villain surprised me!

Villains are never really surprising – even “surprise” villains aren’t really surprising, because you know that, according to the Laws of Fiction, you have to have been introduced to them already. And since, in any given story the number of named characters is relatively small, and since you must be prepared, according to the Laws of Fiction, for any character to turn out to be a surprise villain, even if you are surprised by who the villain turns out to be, you aren’t really surprised surprised, because you knew it had to be someone.

Which is why the last time I was really surprised by a villain was when, in the first ‘Saw’ movie, the villain turned out to be the dead body on the floor in the background! Because that dead body wasn’t a character, really – he was scenery. And scenery doesn’t usually turn out to be the villain*.

*Although, now that I think about it, why, then, wasn’t ‘The Happening’, by M. Knight Shamaylan, a movie in which the villain also turned out to be scenery (trees), more surprising? Maybe because, by the reveal, you were too irritated to be surprised.

This same mechanism is at work in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, but not in a cheap, one-shot reveal sort of way. The villain in ‘The Broken Earth’ is also scenery, but in the most fundamental way that there is: the villain is…the Earth.

I know that this sounds cheesy, but it kind of isn’t. I thought it was going to be cheesy, too: when I started picking up on the hints that the Earth was somehow malevolently set on destroying humankind, I thought for sure I was in for some irritatingly-heavy-handed climate change metaphor, where the Earth wasn’t really alive, but had become so destabilized by hubristic human overreach that it was functionally hostile to human life, yadda yadda yadda, we must all honor Mother Earth, so on and so forth, and I was like, anticipatorily bored.

No, that’s not what happens. In ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, the Earth is alive. Alive and conscious, and angry. It is a living, thinking, speaking core of molten rock and hot gas in the center of the planet, and it hates us.

It’s..pretty weird, actually. It’s a great surprise, because it’s both functionally impossible to imagine ahead of time and totally easy to imagine afterwards: it’s hard to think of dirt as part of any living thing, but the Earth’s molten core lends itself right away to personification. It’s scary and angry already! All of which makes the premise (that we have failed to notice that the earth was alive this whole time) kind of plausible.

The Earth itself is the slow-reveal antagonist of the entire trilogy, but I didn’t begin to really grok that that until the end of ‘The Obelisk Gate‘. Which meant that ‘The Stone Sky‘ was a fun journey of dawning implication for me, especially as I began to figure out that the pseudo-villains of the first two books, the Guardians, are really just under the control of the Earth, via pieces of the Earth’s core which have been lodged in their brains.

N.K. Jemisin (Picture taken from newyorker.com)

Which, again, sounds super cheesy when I say it like that, but it doesn’t play out that way! It’s actually pretty elegant, the way Jemisin rolls everything out, and lets the five or six separate mysteries she has created inform each other until, piece by piece, you realize that they are all the same mystery.

And it takes a while to knit the whole picture together, a satisfying, leisurely length of time, which wouldn’t happen if ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ weren’t surprising. The only way that mysteries can afford to be leisurely (and ‘The Broken Earth’ is a mystery, at the end of the day) is if they are very, very sure you aren’t going to solve everything before the end and get bored waiting for the text to catch up.

And it worked! I didn’t figure it all out because I didn’t expect the, like, ground beneath everyone’s feet to be the bad guy. Who expects that?!?

As I said at the beginning, there is a lot going right in these books. And there is more to say, I’m sure, about the moral of this story, and about the humane character of the books, about what they mean and about how fun they are. There is a lot to be said for how strongly they are executed, how tight the writing is and how well-paced and well-structured the story is – this is really, really strong world-building.

But I’m mostly just so happy to have been surprised. I’m always grateful for a good story, surprising or not, but a story that shows me something new under the sun? Rarer and rarer, and the more precious for it.

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.

The Fifth Season

The Broken Earth: Book One

By N. K. Jemisin

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I think that prejudices must be a little like guns: just as likely to hurt their owner as they are to hurt anyone else.

I’m just going to say this, straight-out: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel. I’m not defending this position – I know that this is shallow – I’m admitting this as the shortcoming is it.

But there it is: I’m always a little embarrassed to be seen reading a fantasy novel.

Because they look bad. I’m not saying that they are bad; certainly, they aren’t all bad. But they all look bad. For some reason, the marketing for fantasy novels has evolved certain universals (thin covers, big, serif-fonted, foreboding titles with moody, dramatic art behind them) that signal badness. The books all look cheap, interchangeable, and plotty.

See?

Which, fine. Nothing wrong with cheap, interchangeable, and plotty, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. But it’s not ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, is it? And it always gives my vanity a little twinge, to be caught reading one. It makes me feel defensive, like I want to announce to everyone on the red line train with me, ‘I just finished ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, and so I’m just taking a little break!’

Which is vain and insecure, yes, and emphatically my own problem (no one on the red line gives a flying fuck what I’m reading, I promise). There’s a reason we have that old expression, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, and even though that expression usually applies to people, turns out it applies just as well to actual books! Because if you avoid books just because they have fantasy-looking covers, sometimes you miss really good books.

I’m trying to explain how it is that I came to be the last person alive to have discovered ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy by N. K. Jemisin: I ignored it because it looks like a bad fantasy novel. I’m sure that I have walked by it in bookstores a thousand times, sorting it pre-consciously into “garbage” into my head and moving on. Even if I picked it up and looked at the back, I would have immediately put it down and walked away, because the back cover makes ‘The Fifth Season‘ look like a garbage book.

But the other day, I was with a friend in Trident Bookstore and she spotted ‘The Fifth Season‘ on the Staff Recommendations rack and said, ‘You’ve read that, right?’

And I said, ‘No, I haven’t even heard of it.’ Which, given the look she then gave me, is clearly much more embarrassing than reading a fantasy book on the red line.

I now know, of course, that ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ trilogy has made N. K. Jemisin the only author ever to win Hugo awards three years in a row. The third installment, ‘The Stone Sky‘, also won a Locus and a Nebula. The praise for ‘The Fifth Season‘ is so over-the-top it sounds sarcastic (“These novels are a gift to the whole of our culture,” says The Guardian – seriously?).

I’m not sure even how to describe ‘The Fifth Season‘ in a way that is going to do it justice. I’m worried that a description of the plot mechanics is going to make it sound…generic? And I don’t think that ‘The Fifth Season’ is generic. To be completely honest, I finished it about fifteen minutes ago, and I haven’t had time to digest it yet.

I know I loved it. I loved it so much that I’m feeling frankly kind of resentful that I have to be here, writing about it instead of just starting the next book in the series, ‘The Obelisk Gate‘.

I don’t know whether I loved it because it was “good” – I’m way, way past caring. I just know it’s a great story, an absolutely phenomenal story, set in a world which is complex and well-imagined and dark.

Fantasy is like any genre: it has threads that it can pull, values it can adjust, which are known to its readers, and which refer to the genre as a whole while still belonging to the story specifically. Part of what you admire when you admire a piece of genre fiction is the way that this particular story has used those conventions, has toggled those toggles. It’s a form of creativity within limits, and when it’s done well, the limits make the creativity even more impressive.

And so ‘The Fifth Season‘ plays with some ideas that will be very familiar to even casual readers of fantasy (or even just to people who have seen ‘Game of Thrones’). It takes place on an Earth subject to terrible seismic upheaval; severe tectonic activity causes global catastrophe every few centuries, periods of darkness and apocalyptic death: these are the fifth seasons.

Human civilization has learned to weather these periods of mass extinction through community stability and the careful husbanding of resources. However, planning alone has not saved them – magic is also necessary. For there have evolved among them humans capable of channeling and controlling seismic activity: the orogenes. Orogenes are very powerful and very dangerous, and normal people revile them. It is more common than not for young orogene children to be killed upon discovery in rural areas.

But, whenever possible, the forces of empire gather young orogenes and bring them to be trained in the capital. There, they are taught through brutal lesson to control their powers and put it to good use.

The Fifth Season‘ tells the story of three orogenes, all women. One is a child, just discovered and nearly destroyed. Another is a young woman, advanced in her training, as she is given for mentorship to the most powerful orogene alive. And the third is a mother, trying to live in secret, in hiding, after she discovers that her husband has just discovered the gift in one of her children, and so has killed him.

N. K. Jemisin

I’m making it sound kind of garbage, I know. It’s difficult to write about some of these things without sounding silly, and I’m just not a good enough writer to throw around made-up words for magical beings convincingly.

But, and this is all that really matters, N. K. Jemisin is. I made it through this entire novel without rolling my eyes once. That’s astonishing. There is something about the word ‘fantasy’ that sounds soft; it makes people (maybe just me?) think of Tolkieny shit, of mages and dragons and Chosen Ones, where the deepest and darkest metaphor is racism between dwarves and elves.

There’s nothing silly or soft in ‘The Fifth Season‘. Quite the contrary – this novel is dark, brutal, mean. It is violent, even wrenching. It’s characters don’t find relief anywhere, and neither will you. I don’t know if it’s a metaphor for anything (again, it really has been only fifteen minutes – I’m still sitting in the same chair, for fuck’s sake); sometimes a dark story is just a story about darkness.

But what a story it is.

Fall

Or, Dodge in Hell

By Neal Stephenson

All Posts Contain Spoilers

There comes a moment in every Neal Stephenson novel when I can tell that Neal is bored.

This moment is familiar to anyone who has ever tried to write fiction, I suspect: sometimes, the sheer effort it takes to get your characters where you know they are going is exhausting. You want them to just hurry up and get there, but, somehow, they won’t, and so you trudge with them through what feels like endless plot, in order that they and the reader will understand their ultimate destination.

Neal Stephenson

These are some of the hardest moments in fiction-writing, at least for me – they’re joyless – but you try not to communicate this difficulty, this joylessness, to the reader. You obviously don’t want your reader to know that you’re bored, that you hated writing this part of your own story, that what they are reading is, essentially, infrastructure, the dull but necessarily support around the good bits. And so you work really hard to hide your boredom, your loathing, from the reader.

Or I try to hide it, and that’s why, despite my essential sympathy, Neal Stephenson’s boredom annoys me. It’s lazy; worse, it’s ungrateful!

Stephenson delivers seven-, eight-hundred page books to his readers, with labyrinthine, esoteric plots, plots which hinge on elaborate and esoteric mechanisms, arcane rituals of cryptography or minute robotics protocols. He is a man, some might say, in need of an editor. And we, his readers, go romping through these stories with him, willingly, happily, because they are great tales. But, really, the least he could do, for our sake, is not be clearly, obviously bored by the very stories he sends us.

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell‘ is Stephenson’s latest. Clocking in at 883 pages, it is a story about the future of the internet, about the digitization of consciousness, about humanity, and about death.

Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast is a tech billionaire, a man who has made his vast fortune producing video games, imagining worlds, creating virtual realities. When, against doctor’s orders, he eats before an out-patient surgical procedure, he begins to asphyxiate on the operating table. When he is declared brain dead, his family and friends learn that, some decades earlier, under the influence of a Silicon Valley fad, Dodge left instructions in his will that his brain be cryogenically frozen and his consciousness preserved by any mean necessary.

The Forthrast’s learn that this provision in Dodge’s will is largely the work of El Shepard, a reclusive, mentally-ill billionaire. Originally, El had imagined that whole bodies would be cryogenically frozen and revived; it is clear now, however, that that is not feasible. Instead, the brains of subscribers will be scanned, synapse by synapse, and uploaded and reconstructed in the cloud. According to El, these synaptic connections, the ‘connectome’, should constitute the complete consciousness of the individual at their time of death.

Fall‘ is a novel about the Singularity (or, one version of it): namely, the intelligence explosion, when an uploadable (sometimes artificial, but not in this case) intelligence acquires the ability to self-improve so rapidly that it permanently and fundamentally alters human existence. In ‘Fall’, this fundamental alteration takes the form of a provable afterlife, a known, watchable digital life after the death of the body, and the novel takes place in two realities: our own, and the digital world that Dodge’s consciousness creates, the digital world that becomes the new afterlife, peopled with uploaded human souls.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s a compelling one. Science fiction doesn’t need to generate novel premises to be great – in the hands of the right person, it can work wonders with the same old problems.

But if you’re going to tackle something zeitgeisty, you have to either answer people’s expectations, or thwart them. You need to either show them a meaning, explicate their moment for them, dazzle them with hope or fear, or you need to swerve. Surprise them, make them laugh. Turn their zeitgeist into a joke.

Fall‘ doesn’t do either, really. It just tells a story, a story about how uploaded human consciousness might turn a digital afterlife into a new pantheon (literally: Dodge hurls thunderbolts). About how, in the cloud, after death, we all might have wings. And wouldn’t that be fun?

Sure, there are a few vague, unresolved gestures towards the big questions (What is a soul? Can a human intelligence orient itself without the information provided by a physical body? Are we simply the sum of our memories, or is there a self which will reconstitute itself, independent of learned experience?). However, as we all remember so well from ‘Seveneves‘, Stephenson doesn’t actually think biology is interesting, and so tends to gloss over questions involving genetics, or neuroscience, or even philosophy, with the shallowest of treatments.

As so often happens to me when I read Stephenson’s novels, I am left with the impression that he builds his stories not around moral dilemmas, technological problems, or human conundra, merely around stuff he finds cool. He likes space robots and encryption and the Greek pantheon, so why not write novels about those things? Not for any specific reason, not to answer any questions, but just to flex the old mental muscles over some neato shit.

Which is probably why it’s so easy to tell when he gets bored. Character development (or, heaven forbid, plot logistics) isn’t nearly as cool as space robots, and if you aren’t in it for the characters, why the fuck would you bother? Just move through the boring stuff as quickly as possible and get back to the space robots.

Which is how you get passages like this:

“A few minutes later, Weaver was struck by a lightning bolt and vaporized. The surviving members of the party scarce had time to become shocked by this turn of events before the sky turned nearly black. At first some of them looked to Fern, as one who had survived a lot of strange weather, but she was too fascinated by what was going on in the sky to be of much use. Corvus was busy changing himself into human form, maybe reckoning wings and feathers would only get torn off by whatever was going to occur next. Mab seemed unconcerned; Prim had a clue as to why, which was that she might not have a body at all. But she was in some form of communication with Edda that no one else was privy to. Edda thus became the leader of the Quest, at least for now.” (p. 812).

Huh?

That passage, I’m sorry to be frank, is bad. It’s chaotic, and hurried, and abrupt. It’s not like the entire book is written that way, but big sections are, and during those sections neither you nor Neal Stephenson want to be there.

Fall‘ is, I don’t know, entertaining? I was entertained. There are villains and heroes, deaths and rebirths. Gods battle angels; ballads are sung. Thunderbolts are thrown; bad guys get their just deserts; human souls live in hives. Billionaires behave badly! It’s fun! It’s a fun book! And I like fun books, even ones that go one for 883 pages. I think fun justifies itself.

But I hope that I wasn’t supposed to learn any lessons, because, if I was, I missed them. I hope that this isn’t the deepest novel ever written about the Singularity. I hope it isn’t the smartest. Maybe it will be funnest, but I hope it’s not the best. I think we can do better.