Category Archives: Science Fiction

Social change in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

[Spoilers the size of the First Pulse ahead]

Earlier this year, over spring break, I traveled to San Francisco for a work conference. (What a lovely place!)  I needed a book for the return flight across the country and remembered that I had been looking forward to the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel about future New York. (In a previous post, I discussed why I loved reading his last book, Aurora, as well as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.) I hiked all over the city to local bookstores, trying to find a copy, which I eventually found at Alexander Book Company.  I had high hopes for New York 2140.

This book was precisely what I needed after the political events of 2016.  One of my concerns about much of popular culture (in movies, tv shows, books, etc.) in recent years has been the focus on dystopia, cruelty, anti-heroes, self-loathing, etc. I’ve been slowly cooling out on many parts of popular culture that I used to enjoy.  As an example. I stopped watching Game of Thrones seasons ago (and am torn as to whether I want to finish the novels.)

In my own writing, and in the stories that I want to read right now, I want stories that focus on real people who are working to make their communities better. We need stories that tell us that we can be good, that we can be better. We need stories about communication and collaboration. We need stories that show that outcomes change through daily actions and diligence. New York 2140 delivers this through its magnificent cast of characters—characters who have ordinary but essential jobs. Characters who actually grow as people over time due to their situations and interactions with other people in their communities.

However, it’d be too easy for a novel to swing too far in the other direction away from dystopia and total despair. It could focus too much on utopia, on “perfect” heroes without flaws, on rosy ideas that could never actually happen because we humans are complex and messy. Apparently, at least in this novel, Kim Stanley Robinson feels similarly.

The future New Yorkers are dealing with uncertainly and adversity relating to the environment and capitalism and have been for more than a century.  Yet, despite the destruction, people are still living their lives. There are people who are swooping in to take advantage of disaster and those who are the “helpers” that Mr. Rogers referenced.

This book made me wish that I had read more American literature. There were many classic American stories embedded in the larger story which is why such a large cast was needed: it included a treasure hunt, a police/detective story, a rags to riches orphan tale, Moby Dick references, “Mutt and Jeff,” a gritty lawyer, the immigrant experience, an internet star, love affairs, and so much more.  I’m sure that I missed some references. There’s also “a citizen” that waxes poetical about the city of New York, that gives historical and educational information about New York through the centuries. In fact, New York City felt like a character in this book.

Many stories play out simultaneously in a city, and Kim Stanley Robinson points this out.  In fact, we often focus on the “few” people, but in reality, there are many people responsible for the events around us, including social change. It reminds me of the differences between micro-level and macro-level approaches in sociology.  Reality construction requires the day-to-day interactions and meaning construction between individuals.  You don’t get large institutions like banking or politics without individuals. Yet the institutions and large scale-conflicts around us shape those individual actions. The characters actions in New York 2140 impacted the society that they live in; however, other people in the city/nation/world who were not a part of the narrative played a role, too. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it like this in a chapter by “a citizen”:

Note that this flurry of social and legal change did not happen because of Representative Charlotte Armstrong of the Twelfth District of the State of New York. . . Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember: ease of representation.  It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know.

That said, people in this era did do it.  Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions.  So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand (603).

I loved this idea.  We’re riding a wave that we’re creating together. In some ways, it indicates a lack of control while also recognizing that we are in control of our individual actions. We can work to improve our communities and enact social change.  But there is a limit in scope of what one person can do alone.

A remaining questions that I have: is “a citizen” actually Franklin Garr, the only first person narrative in the novel? He’s smart and knows a ton about New York due to his work in the beginning of the novel as the creator of the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, and extremely complicated formula “used by millions to orient investments that totaled in the trillions“ (19).  It’d be easy to mistake him for “just a stock broker”, but he has to understand finance, as well as the physics of what’s happening.  He obviously had a great education; however, he is young, wealthy, privileged, selfish and immature. Over time, through his exposure to diversity within his building, though his interactions with the other characters, he grows and becomes more empathetic and thoughtful.  This is a great message because people can change. I’d have to go back and do a longer analysis, but small things make me wonder if he’s also “a citizen” like their love of boating, enthusiastic narrative style and way of “speaking.” ( Of course, this could be a coincidence  since the whole book is about New York being submerged.)

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it gets nominated for awards next year. Although I haven’t mentioned it, New York 2140 would be educational for readers who might not have taken a sociology class.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, capitalism, Science Fiction, Sociology, Writing

2016: My Favorite Books

[Minor spoilers]

This year, although I didn’t write many blog posts, I read more books than I have in recent years (28). I used to force myself to finish all the books I started. Now, probably as a product of aging, I’ve gotten more discerning in the books I begin, as well as the ones I’m willing to continue.

Philosophy:

If I had to pick my favorite book this year, I’d pick the book that transformed my thinking the most, Spinoza’s The Ethics, originally published in 1677. (It’s available on Project Gutenberg, if you’re interested, although we read it in A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works.) My husband suggested it, and we read it together. It was a challenging read that took me several months of study, but it was worth it. However, I can tell it’s a book that I need (and want) to return to again. It’s amazing how we can connect across time with a writer.

Fantasy and Science Fiction:

My favorites this year in terms of science fiction and fantasy were The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, and The Jean le Flambeur series by Hannu Rajaniemi. The Shepherd’s Crown is one of the few novels that I actually reviewed on my blog. In light of his own impending death, I thought that Pratchett treated death in a thoughtful and reassuring way in the book. It also dealt with how to be a good person in a time of crisis and battle.

I loved the Escher-esque feel of The Jean le Flambeur series. It a heist story, but it’s also so much more than that. It begins with Jean in prison and tracks his story from there. The dream-like quality of these novels actually impacted my dreams recently. I loved the spaceship’s personality in the books.

Literary Fiction:

In terms of literary fiction, I loved the four Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante.  I loved the series as it traced the complicated relationship of two friends over decades. It was set in Naples, Italy, and its look at social class was fascinating. Once I started reading this series, I couldn’t put it down.

Art and Writing:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, as well as her podcast, Magic Lessons, helped me get back to work on my creative writing. I stumbled across the podcast by accident: someone had posted a link to the one with Neil Gaiman as a guest, one of my favorite authors. The basic format of the podcast is that Gilbert interviews a person who has written to her with a problem relating to their artistic process.  Then, she makes recommendations, gives them homework, and sends them off to work.  Meanwhile she consults with an artist who she thinks can help with their particular problem, and then calls them again after time has passed to see if they have made progress. I found it very helpful, even when the artists’ fields were quite different than mine.

Finally, I really enjoyed A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan, written in 1920. I wrote about my thoughts on his active and passive adventurers and how it relates to living and writing in this blog post.

What were your favorite books this year?  I’d love recommendations.

1 Comment

Filed under Fantasy, Science Fiction, Writing

2016 Hugo Nominees

The 2016 Hugo Award nominees for best novel have been posted, and I’m excited that I’ve already read three of the five since last fall. In January, I reviewed The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. I can’t wait to read more in the series, as I love swashbuckling, flying ships, and Butcher’s unique cast and world building.  I recently posted my thoughts on one of the nominees, Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson, as well as Aurora, which was not nominated, a shame. The other book that I’ve read is Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It’s a lovely, compelling story that pulls from different fairy tales than the ones I grew up on. I’m planning to write a longer review of it, possibly today.

I’d like to read the other two nominees soon, as I’ve enjoyed N.K. Jamison’s lush storytelling in the past.  I’ve read the first book in Ann Leckie’s amazing series, so I’d have to read another book before reading the nominee. This shouldn’t be hard to accomplish since the Hugo awards are presented in August. Luckily for me, I don’t actually have to choose between such disparate books.  I can just enjoy them all for what they are.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Science Fiction

“Aurora” and “Seveneves: A Novel”: Earth as Home

[Star-sized spoilers ahead]

At the end of 2015, I read two books: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. My spouse suggested reading both of them together. I found out recently that Seveneves is a nominee for the Hugo award for best novel. I was actually a bit shocked that neither of these books made it on the Nebula list for novel this year.

This led to me thinking about what the characteristics of a good book should be, especially an award winning one. Certainly, there are times when I just want a fun, entertaining read. But other times, I want to be transformed. I want to look at the universe, the world, society, or myself in a new light. It’s a tall order, and, for me, it requires a thoughtful theme. The book asks the right questions, and possibly, points to new answers.

An award-winning book should leave you thinking. I was so overwhelmed by reading both of these novels at the end of last year that I spent considerable time processing them both individually, as well as their implications together. At first, I couldn’t even come up with topic for a post because they generated so many ideas. Ultimately, I realized just how delicate our relationship with Earth, our home, really is. We’re not living on a sterile spaceship. We’re part of a vast ecosystem developed over time that we do not fully comprehend. I no longer have copies of the library books so I’m going to do a general review from memory of these two.

In Aurora, settlers were packed onto a ship and sent out to their destination. During that time, the quantum machine guiding them became sentient.  (How the AI became sentient was a fascinating piece of characterization, although not what I’ll be discussing here.) It was an amazing feat, and yet, the settlers only hung on by a thread. Generations passed before the settlers arrived, and when they did, the first people that ventured onto their new home were quickly killed. And they had no true scientific understanding of why. The idea here is that if there are the conditions for life in a place, the place is likely already occupied. And the occupants, even if they aren’t sentient, will likely be harmful to us because we aren’t a part of the natural arising of their ecosystem. The settlers disagreed on whether to stay in the system or to return to earth. The narrative follows the ones who returned to Earth. Their return was difficult, and they struggled to survive. They only had enough resources to make it to their destination, if that, and not enough to return.  The AI made major contributions to their survival.

Although considerable problems had happened on Earth while the others went exploring, human culture was recognizable and dealing with the consequences of global warming, which emerged from a lack of consideration for the delicate balance of our ecosystem. (This same ignorance of the role of ecosystems led to the idea that people from earth could just fill some blank niche on another planet.) Furthermore, the characters question whether people had a right to send their descendants into the unknown without their consent. This book made me appreciate our home in a new way.

Seveneves was a gripping read from the moment that the moon shatters at the beginning of the book. There is a cast of characters, and they are all constantly trying to survive. It has interesting things to say about community and the breakdown of community. The few survivors of the catastrophe have to wait for many generations for the Earth to be habitable again, and they even help habitability along. Earth is our home, this novel points out, too. It explores how people react in the face of adversity—those who are helpers and those who are hinderers (often trying to ensure only their own survival.) It explored different examples of patterns of in-groups and out-groups. How would a catastrophe impact gender roles?  How would our different biological capacities, like for reproduction, shape the decisions that are made when the very survival of our species is at stake? It also explores how humans would survive and change both physically and culturally in vastly different environmental conditions over many generations. Finally, if you had the power to create an actual “race” of people, what traits would be emphasized?  When are certain traits useful? And perhaps, we need people of different traits and cultures for survival and to avoid groupthink. Yet, this can also lead to conflict.

Again, paired together, the books left me thinking for months about what our role in the universe is. We’re a part of a delicate ecosystem, and it’s where we thrive. And how we may neglect and destroy our home as we gaze longingly at the stars. I don’t think that either of these books is saying that we should ignore space research and technology; however, we also shouldn’t ignore the world around us. Both books, in their own ways, were optimistic, if cautionary.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Sociology, Technology

Satire in Jingo and Cat’s Cradle

“It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.”

Terry Pratchett

“Sometimes I dream that we could deal with the big crimes, that we could make a law for countries and not just for people.”

Terry Pratchett

“Always be wary of any helpful item that weighs less than its operating manual.”

Terry Pratchett

Recently, I read both Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel, Jingo, published in 1997, and Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963. I’d never read Vonnegut before so I was struck by the similarities and, more importantly, the differences between their works, especially the use of satire. I decided to write this piece comparing and contrasting the types of satire they used.  However, my expertise area is sociology, not english literature. Therefore, I needed to learn more about satire.  My friend, Amanda, loaned me her copy of “A Handbook of Literature” by Harmon and Holman to help me better understand satire.  Satire is “[a] work or manner that blends a censorious attitude with humor and wit for improving human institutions or humanity” (461). The point is that authors using satire write to “inspire a remodeling.” From my reading, I learned that there are two major types of satire, formal (direct) and indirect.  Indirect satire is “expressed through a narrative and the characters who are the butt are ridiculed by what they say or do.” Terry Pratchett’s novel Jingo falls into this category. Although there is a first person narrative, I believe that “Cat’s Cradle” also falls into this type. Although I’m arguing that they both employ indirect satire, I believe that the tone of Pratchett’s is more Horatian (e.g., “gentle, urbane, smiling) while “Cat’s Cradle” is more Juvenalian (e.g., “biting, bitter, angry.”) Perhaps, someone familiar with satire will tell me if I’m on the right track with these ideas or not.

Both books are quite witty, using humor on multiple levels. Although they were written in different time periods, they both deal with technology and war. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a satirical fantasy series that often addresses modern political situations.  In particular, Jingo deals with the appearance of a fantasy island with no apparent “value.” In both countries, there are factions that want war rather than peace. Pratchett uses his characters to show the ridiculous and horrifying lengths that people will go to over their in-groups. However, there are many familiar characters from the Discworld series working to promote peace.

On the other hand, the narrator of Cat’s Cradle wanted to write a history of the day that the atomic bomb was dropped. During his investigations, he learns that the main scientist who helped to invent the bomb also helped to invent Ice-Nine, which essentially turns water into ice. The disastrous implications are easy to spot. In the end, humans destroy their own environment and many commit suicide.

As a side note, the treatment of scientists in Vonnegut’s piece, reminds me of the cartoon going around that science will allow us to clone dinosaurs, but we need the humanities (and the social sciences) to tell us that maybe that’s not a good idea. Just because someone is brilliant doesn’t mean that they are an ethical actor. However, there is no reason to assume that a brilliant mind has to be inherently cold and without empathy. Also, people in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences are usually intelligent (and hopefully, trained to be thoughtful and ethical.) The cartoon actually creates a false dichotomy.  I feel like the sciences and humanities have been pitted against one another to help minimize the attention on the business people and government officials who are throwing all of us under the bus through reduced tenure, instability, fewer grants, etc.

I loved Terry Pratchett’s treatment of his inventor/engineer in Jingo. We are introduced to Leonard of Quirm (based on Leonardo Da Vinci) in the book, who constantly generates ideas.  It becomes quickly apparent that he assumes other people are ethical and doesn’t think that his inventions should actually be used by people for war, although I, as the reader, worried that they might be. In the book, Pratchett notes:

Any sensible ruler would have killed off Leonard, and Lord Vetinari was extremely sensible and often wondered why he had not done so. He’d decided that it was because, imprisoned in the priceless, inquiring amber of Leonard’s massive mind, underneath that bright investigative genius was a kind of willful innocence that might in lesser men be called stupidity. It was the seat and soul of that force which, down the millennia, had caused mankind to stick its fingers in the electric light socket of the Universe and play with the switch to see what happened – and then be very surprised when it did.

Leonard of Quirm ridicules and seems horrified by the suggestion of the less intelligent/less educated character, Nobby, who repeatedly suggests that the drill on his submarine could be used to sink the other country’s ships. In the end, Lord Vetinari uses his own wits, science, and Leonard’s inventions to protect his people and country. He and his country even to come out on top politically. He’s certainly a believer in his in-group, but he does not turn to war.

In the end, the biggest different between the books to me is that of optimism versus pessimism about the ultimate human condition. Pratchett believes that we can learn and do better. It’s not that Pratchett is a “Polly Anna” type, because he certainly understands the darker side of the human condition, but when I read his books, I feel like there’s a chance for myself (and other people) to be better and even a chance to change institutions in society for the better. I prefer Terry Pratchett’s optimism to Vonnegut’s pessimism in Cat’s Cradle. If we don’t believe that humans can change things, I suspect that the chance we will becomes slimmer. In my own writing, I’d rather leave people feeling optimistic than bleak.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Sociology

Reading Progress: 2014 Nebula Nominees

[Spoilers–Enter at your own risk]

This is one of my favorite times of the year because the semester is winding down, allowing me more free time to read the Nebula nominees, too. If I have time, I usually pick up some of the Hugo nominees.  This year, however, I suspect I’ll be focusing mainly on the Nebulas due to the Sad Puppies takeover of the Hugo ballot.

The list of nominees for 2014 is here. Due to several friends’ recommendations, I started with Annihilation. It’s the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. Here is a review at i09 covers more of the details. I tore through it faster than any novel I’d read in years and felt a need to hide under my bed with a blankie when I finished.  It left me with a sense of delicious disquiet. Although I usually write more about sociology, this book explored concepts of psychology in fascinating ways.

The protagonist and narrator, a biologist, is sent with three other women to explore Area X: an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist, the leader of the team. All the previous expeditions had failed, ending in the deaths of all of the team members.  Fascinating group dynamics were presented like trust and distrust, in-groups and out-groups, as well as leadership style. The plot is gripping and the unreliable narrator fascinating. It seems that she may have been psychologically unusual before going to area X, which may be an advantage for her. The mystery, as well as the disconcerting, slow building horror, have me ready to read the second and third book.  The book left me with many questions.

However, I’m currently reading The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, a Chinese author. The book was translated into English by Ken Liu. I’m about a quarter into it and can’t wait to read more.  Yesterday, I spent about thirty minutes reading about black-body radiation online to better understand the book. I love how science fiction forces me to stretch my knowledge. My focus in school was on the social sciences so I love a good opportunity to learn more about science. For example, I’ve been listening to an introductory, astronomy podcast from the Ohio State by Professor Richard Pogge since last fall. I’m on the 28th lecture, and I’ve found the podcasts both informative and entertaining at points. The only challenge I’ve faced is that while I’m driving, I wish that I could see the examples that he’s showing his class.  I search for examples online later. Listening to these podcasts this year has led me to a deeper appreciation of The Three-Body Problem and will hopefully help me with writing my own fiction.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Sociology

Live Long And Prosper

Although I planned to write something different today, I can’t stop thinking about the death of Leonard Nimoy. I’ve actually learned some new facts about him from this NYT piece. I’m usually reluctant to speak about the deaths of celebrities because I don’t actually know the person. But the character he played, as well as the movies he wrote and directed, played a huge role in my socialization and how I view the world today.

Many of my earliest memories include the crew of the original Starship Enterprise. My mother watched the show in the 1960s when it aired, and she recorded reruns on VHS in the 1980s and showed them to me. I was a young child, but I’m not even sure how old I actually was at the time. Mom stayed up late to record them. It was a treat to watch the shows. (In fact, she called me a few minutes ago to talk about Leonard Nimoy. I was happy to be able to share with her Nimoy’s last tweet.)

As a child, I loved the episodes with robots and Tribbles, as one might expect, but, even as a girl, I also appreciated the ones that developed the friendship between Spock, Kirk, and Bones. As I aged, I appreciated Spock more and more, and then, Leonard Nimoy, himself. There’s a danger of conflating a character with his (or her) actor. Leonard Nimoy was so much more than just one character on a TV show. Yet, for me, I’m feeling a loss right now that’s hard to articulate.

I feel the character of Spock is great example of a loving, masculine figure. The relationship between Spock and Kirk in the original series (and movies) looks more what a relationship between men should be like. Spock and Kirk were two people with considerably different philosophies and personalities, who taught each other and loved each other. Isn’t that what friendship between any two people should be like, including two men? Both men changed through interacting with one another. Furthermore, they both represented different aspects of masculinity and helped to bring more balance to the other. Spock embodies the traditional masculine roles of rationality and not showing much emotion, while Kirk embodies the dominant, brave, action-oriented side of masculinity.  Through their interactions, they both become less extreme, possibly displaying more traditionally feminine traits. I’d love to go back and watch some episodes to develop this idea further. This scene between them, right before Spock dies in “The Wrath of Khan,” is one of my all time favorite scenes. I don’t have the sense that these types of loving friendships are shown between men in our media today.  Even in the new Star Trek movies, I feel that there isn’t enough development of the loving nature of the relationship between Spock and Kirk. Nimoy played a huge role in shaping the character of Spock, and I’m grateful that I was able to grow up watching him. (And it appears from reading, that the character of Spock shaped him, too.)

I’m impressed by how the people who actually knew Nimoy as a person talk about him, and I think I may get a copy of his poetry to read as I didn’t know it existed before today. Leonard Nimoy’s last tweet is a treasure that we should always remember: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Science Fiction