Sunday, April 26, 2015

Points of View: On 2 Hugo Nominees

The ranks of those who take science fiction seriously have been abuzz with discussion of slates and voting tactics. This entry will not be a commentary upon those events, not least because I, as author, am less qualified to comment than most who already have. If we analogize science fiction to a country, with its distinct political institutions and customs, then I am a recent migrant, drawn more by economic necessity than conviction (I write in all genres and none, but there are more paying venues for short fiction in SF-land than in most others), still bemused by the ways of this place and not yet certain I want to stick around. Whatever I have to say in passing about the Hugo Awards may be illuminating only in an inverse relationship to its authoritativeness.

Since SF-land, unlike most nation-states, erects only a slight barrier to entry and to voting rights ($40 for a "supporting membership" of WorldCon), I now have a dubious privilege familiar to me as a citizen of the United States: Making sense of a complicated ballot, most of whose options are unappealing.

My progress through the nominated novels has been deliberately slow. Not that they take a long time to read, but I have other things to read in between them. Two, in fact, I have already judged to be unreadable: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, and The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson, with the former putting me off within a page of narrative text, and the latter lasting, miraculously, eleven whole pages. You can see I have not prejudged things.

Thus far, the only book actually on the ballot that I have read in full is Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword. By the time I got around to Marko Kloos's Lines of Departure, he had already withdrawn the novel from consideration in order to avoid the taint of association with Vox Day and his "Rabid Puppies" campaign. A wise move that left me more favorably disposed to Kloos. But since the Vigo County Public Library in Terre Haute, Indiana had already sent his book a thousand miles to Maine for my benefit, and I am still awaiting the arrival via ILL of its replacement on the ballot (The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin), I went ahead and read it.

It is the latter two books that I wish to compare. Superficially, they have much in common. Both are military SF. Both deal in the political aftermath of the far-flung human colonization of interstellar space. Both have, lurking on the margins, an alien threat that is both inscrutable and seemingly invincible. Both are the second installment in what seems to be the now-obligatory trilogy.

It is in matters political and aesthetic that they diverge sharply. Leckie's novel is like a plate full of skel--engineered for optimal nutritive value--with an occasional bit of steamed fish or dredgefruit for variety, washed down with some mid-grade, machine-picked, slightly underbrewed tea. Kloos's is a rare steak (non-soy), served with a loaded baked potato and frosty mug of cheap beer.

I like steak, even though I know it's bad for me.

Let us take it for granted that science fiction is no more "about" the future than high fantasy is "about" wizards and elves. Each book encodes, fairly translucently, the anxieties occasioned by an American empire that is at the same time hardly subject to any serious challenge and yet palpably in decline. Both books can be judged politically by the analyses they give of those anxieties and the paths they map for their overcoming. That is not the same as judging the politics of the authors. If you want to understand the mass psychology of fascism in the 1930s, the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline are far more useful than anything by Bertolt Brecht. That doesn't change the fact that, given the chance, I'd share a beer with Brecht and put a bullet into Céline.

I do not want to speculate on Kloos's politics. I suspect if he and I got to talking seriously about the subject, he would eventually say something I found offensive. Since, until recently, I would have positioned myself to the left of Nick Mamatas, who positions himself to the left of China Miéville, that applies to nearly everyone in SF to Miéville's right, and 99% of the population of the world's wealthier countries. At a superficial level, the ready narrative use of such phrases as "welfare rat" and "hood rat" likely attracted VD and would turn off some of the sensitive liberal types who might attempt to read the book. That is a shame, because such a reading is so superficial as to overlook the fact that the narrator and protagonist of the book, Staff Sergeant Andrew Grayson, was himself raised a "welfare rat," would be one still were he not enlisted in the military of the North American Commonwealth. There are other aspects of the world extrapolated by the novel that give life to long-standing fantasies of the U.S. right wing, such as overpopulation or a hot war with a "Sino-Russian Alliance". I am familiar enough with the exotic fauna of the far left, such as Deep Green Resistance or the various branches of the Global Class War Tendency, to know that these fantasies are not the exclusive property of the right.

Leaving behind the superficial reading method that would attempt to pigeonhole a book by assigning a spot on the political spectrum to the author on the basis of the words of his characters, what are we to make of the fact that Grayson calls himself and others "welfare rats"? Perhaps it indicates something about what it is like to grow up poor in America, how much that requires one to develop self-hatred and hatred of others with whom one shares that status. That Grayson only belatedly develops empathy for his own mother and her life choices, and is slow to generalize that empathy beyond her, rings true to me at least. Anyone who, like me, has had the opportunity to eavesdrop on diner-table conversation among working-class military veterans in Maine small towns--excoriating the VA on the one hand for lackluster delivery of benefits, and on the other hand echoing our governor's derision of all recipients of any form of government assistance--might recognize the voice of a character who has adapted cliché as a means of evading cognitive dissonance.

Leckie was similarly adventurous in her voicing of Breq in the first part of her trilogy, Ancillary Justice. Though the Radchaai have more than enough secondary characteristics to give aneurysms to the likes of John C. Wright--e.g. dark skin, gender-blindness, polytheism--their imperialist arrogance is more than recognizable to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with human history. Though Breq ironizes heavily about Radchaai chauvinism in the first book, on several levels she still believes in it--as one might well expect from a character who is the last surviving fragment of a warship more than 1000 years old. Yet somehow, by the second book, though elevated to the rank of Fleet Captain, she spontaneously sides with the underdog--striking tea plantation slaves and the slum-dwellers of the Undergarden--taking seriously the rhetoric of the equality of all citizens in defiance of everything 5000 years of human civilization has taught us about the psychology of power. The result is like an episode of The West Wing in space, an enactment of every liberal fantasy about how, if we just got the right people, the good people, in charge, the state could become an instrument of justice.

Perhaps related to the suddenness of Breq's conversion into a benevolent military dictator is the way her status as Fleet Captain interacts with her remaining ancillary implants to give her a kind of quasi-omniscience, in which she can use ship and station sensors to maintain simultaneous awareness of not only the actions but the moods and thoughts of her underlings. No one gets anything by her, no matter how implausible her means of finding out. The centuries' old lament of the Russian peasant--"if only the Tsar knew!"--is given practical meaning. She is not quite the Tsar, but once she knows, she will do something about it. Where the first book made good use of her adjustment to being confined to a single perspective, a single sensing body, her partial reconquest of the means of surveillance voids the second book of narrative tension.

In contrast, though Grayson has access to a number of technological means of expanding his awareness, tactical displays and the like, he often does not know what is happening around him, and even voluntarily shuts off his access to data about events over which he has no power. In other words, he remains human. If his first reaction to being asked to shoot civilians was careerist--to get himself sent into space to fight SRA troops and the alien "Lankies" instead--it is not a sudden inexplicable wave of goodness that gets him to turn, but loyalty to a former superior. It is the limits of his knowledge that account both for his slowness to change heart about following orders, and the suddenness of his change when it does come. For anyone who has studied major uprisings in world history, such as the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik Revolution, or the Cuban Revolution, this rings far truer. And the events described in Lines of Departure--riots, mutinies, military defeats, and strange ad hoc alliances--have more in common with what humans are negotiating on the ground in Syria today, and what will become more commonplace the world over.

The difference in perspective also makes itself felt in the language on the page. Long passages of Ancillary Sword consist of soliloquies in which Breq tells everyone else, at the time that it suits her purposes, just what the hell is going on. In Lines of Departure, Grayson and his comrades spar in vigorous, often profane dialogue to try and puzzle out what is happening and what they are going to do about it. As soldiers and other humans with their lives on the line often do.

Over on Goodreads I gave 3 stars to both these books, since they both fit in the broad category of "books that I enjoyed while reading, that are not to be mistaken for great or even good literature". But it should be clear from this review that I enjoyed Lines of Departure more. Both politically and aesthetically it is more plausible, more interesting, more useful, more enlightening. So I thank the "Rabid Puppies" for having called it to my attention, even as I think Kloos made the right call by removing it from consideration to the benefit of The Three-Body Problem. I look forward to reading the latter once I get it (and will, for fairness' sake, get around to opening Jim Butcher's Skin Game when I feel like it). And with this contribution, I suspect I have infuriated nearly everyone on both "sides" of science fiction's present démarche.

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