Archive for the ‘ reading ’ Category

On Reading Wings of the Dove

For the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly trudging through Henry James’s Wings of the Dove. Slowly and trudging is, after all, the way to do James. I’ve never studied him much in the past and don’t recall ever feeling so alienated, or “put out” as some might say, by his style as I was during much of Wings. I read “Turn of the Screw” in college and Daisy Miller in conjunction with studying Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and wasn’t then quite so vexed by his style, which apparently H.G. Wells described as a Hippopotamus struggling to pick up a pea.

Indeed, one of my recurrent thoughts throughout my plodding time with the novel was that it could never be published today. It’s a self-serving and predictable lament for a writer frustrated by the lack of an audience to complain about the maddening squeamishness and inscrutable subjectivity of the publishing industry, but on this occasion, I wonder if the industry doesn’t have it right as James’s syntax is not so much intricate as obtuse and his approach to exposition is in stark contrast to the show-don’t-tell directive I always give my students in creative writing class.

James tells. And tells. And tells. In seemingly interminable passages of prose he describes the characters’ thoughts and moods at a remove of several meters. This distanced relationship to their own emotions does not fall away when the characters actually speak to each other either. Their discourse is so heavy with vague vagaries and nineteenth century euphemisms that I often had to put the book down with a shake of my head after puzzling out a list of three or four possibilities for just what exactly they might be talking about.

But still, after finally finishing it, I can see why Wings of the Dove is lauded by some. There are layers of irony–though I’m not always sure they were all deliberate–that suffuse the story of journalist Merton Densher’s love triangle with his fiancé Kate Croy and the rich, yet doomed American socialite Millie Theale. It’s the kind of tragedy of manners that could only be set in England before the twentieth century. The shades of morality and immorality revolving around the dying girl’s fortune stir up quite a few contradictions. Kate always professes to admire and love Millie–well, everyone does as James develops her character primarily by having other people praise her as “stupendous” and call her a “dove” oh-so-many times…sooooo many times–but her intentions toward the girl are perhaps the most underhanded, in some ways worse than the rakish Lord Mark who gets summarily dismissed as a “wretch” and scoundrel by Densher even though his own girlfriend is the most manipulative of them all.

Of course, he does come to see this, leading to his ultimatum to Kate that closes the book. Spoilers: her scheme has paid off and without Densher ever having had to actually marry the sick girl. Millie, having come to understand the lovers’ scheme and seeing their need, just goes ahead and wills Densher a small fortune (how much of her ridiculous wealth she bequeaths him is never revealed, not even, apparently, to Densher himself) but the young man’s had enough. He tells Kate she can have the money…or she can have him. He wants them to be together just as they were before Millie came into their lives or not at all, which elicits Kate’s famous line to close the novel so ambiguously: “We shall never again be as we were!”

James Thurber wrote a long review for The New Yorker back in the fifties about the difficulty of adapting James to the stage and screen, but I disagree with him in thinking that this ending is actually quite fit for the screen. I find myself wondering how it’s played out in the most recent adaptation wherein Helena Bonham Carter’s Kate would have the honors of closing the drama, but unfortunately the film doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere and isn’t even readily available in Netflix’s DVD inventory. Reading that conclusion–just a few hours ago–I felt a bit like the Bradley Cooper character in Silver Linings Playbook who hurls away Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms in a fit of literary dissatisfaction. I think I (almost audibly) muttered: “You’ve got to be f’ing kidding me.”

It’s quite a canned moment, particularly from an author associated with Realism, but despite or perhaps because of that unsettled final moment, Wings does seem like a story that stays with one beyond the denouement. These characters, who for much of the past few weeks I felt were tedious (or at least tediously rendered) are now flitting about my mind, quiet and poised, naturally. Their overwrought, self-inflicted predicament lingers. I imagine them there still, frozen in a moment of “just what have we done,” unable to move forward…forever.

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Regolith and Aquifers: Terraforming Mars with Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a monumental sci-fi classic.

It’s also kind of a slog.

With no central narrative arc beyond the ongoing political, economic, and ecological evolution of human settlement on Mars and a rotating cast of narrators whose lives on the red planet range from the mundane–hydrologists, yay!–to the, well, also mundane–desert nomads driving around rovers, yay!–the colossal 700,00o+ word opus never quite aspires to page-turner status.

Reading it, you come away feeling qualified to join NASA as a geologist should we ever get our collective shit together and actually settle a second planet.

And that is what the book is ultimately about: getting our shit together as Homo sapiens…well, rather as Homo martial. Throughout the novels, Robinson evidences his exhaustive and expansive research by dwelling on the minutiae of Martian geology and climate. It’s an ultimately fascinating kind of Utopianism tied to the reworking of the surface of Mars as a kind of ur-metaphor for shaping society.

The Mars Trilogy’s politics are based on a what-works practicality set against the tabula rosa of a new world. His characters squabble over the direction of this new society, eventually settling into a new constitution that ingests the best from Earth’s history with a keen understanding of the forces that have threatened human freedom and dignity throughout, whether they be economic injustices or cultural anachronisms.

Robinson offers a way forward beyond the privatization and spiraling inequality that plague post-Liberal Western society and posits a fresh start on Mars as a way that humanity can, as a whole, reinvent itself. A kind of new city upon the hill to replace the worn-out idealizations of America.

The Earth Robinson describes, wracked by ecological catastrophe and ruled by vast, competing trans-national corporations seems oddly prescient of the world we actually face in the twenty-first century (the last book, Blue Mars, was published in 1996). So many of his characters are ultimately scientists that the entire enterprise could be characterized as a scientific remaking of society–society remade as science. Empirical. Pragmatic. Testable. Open.

Given the retreat into ignorance so on display in contemporary American society–where people dismiss science as “fake news” and apparently flat Earthers are an actual thing–it’s a particularly appealing utopia to gaze at longingly. Robinson’s ultimate theory is that as society progresses, the new paradigms always come into conflict with the old, and indeed whole eras of history are defined by such tensions.

In his hypothesized future, capitalism as a transitional mode between feudalism and democracy gives way to new, more just economic modalities. It seems reasonable to believe that we have reached or are nearly reaching the useful limits of capitalism. Yes, it has created great wealth, but after being co-opted by regimes like today’s China,  it can no longer claim to be the channel into a broader liberalism of Fukuyamian promises and globally it is more and more a driver of extreme inequality–enough to rival any past aristocratic systems.

What, then, beyond it? Robinson’s Mars safeguards the commons, denying private ownership of land or resources and allows competitive economics and markets to be driven by co-ops, banishing the massive trans-nat corporations to Earth where they slowly wither.

It’s a lot to hope for, but in the book, one of the powerful forces that helps the Martians establish their independence and protect their special society is a giant corporation called Praxis, led by an polarizing visionary CEO who believes the world order of and by corporations must give way to something better. He aids the Martians in their search for that better something. Robinson seemed to be anticipating the era of the tech paragons of the Internet age like Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg…

Did I mention that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars?

On Reading ‘The Wasp Factory’

Iain Banks had an interesting career trajectory. He set out to write science fiction novels, but found it impossible to break into the genre. Then his more literary The Wasp Factory was received to great acclaim, launching his dual career. (His Culture series and other sci-fi was published under his name, but including his middle initial “M.”) He said, though, that The Wasp Factory was not so different from science fiction–that its protagonist and narrator Frank was something of an alien consciousness in his own right.

Frank is a sixteen year old who, as a child, killed three children in three carefully staged crimes meant to look like accidents. Yet his prose reads like a somewhat more intellectual Holden Caulfield as he describes his isolated life on a Scottish island with his father. He seems at most times grounded and perceptive–until he launches into a excursion into the woods to slaughter local rabbits with explosives and petrol or before he introduces the titular Wasp Factory itself. It is a huge labyrinth he has constructed in his attic with various ingenious means by which captured wasps might blunder into their own demise. Their deaths in his enormous contraption he reads as prophecy, using the factory as a means of prognostication.

The world, even his father, has no idea about Frank. No one knows he is directly responsible for the three deaths from his childhood (and he is careful not to kill again) or suspects the depravity of his other activities. They all do know, though, that his brother Eric is insane. As a med student, Eric was exposed to human horror so jarring that he was shaken out of his mind and developed the bad habit of setting dogs on fire. Frank spends much of the novel worrying about Eric who has escaped from protective care and, we learn from a series of raving phone calls to Frank, is making his way home.

The mishmash of coming-of-age teenage narrator and heavy helpings of the grotesque worthy of Flannery O’Conner make The Wasp Factory a puzzling exploration of otherness. Banks complicates that exploration by delving into misogyny and genderedness. Frank harbors a deep hatred towards women, beginning with his absentee mother, and has a complex about his own masculinity because he was essentially castrated by a dog attack as a young child.

If that sounds improbable, there’s a twist that I won’t reveal except to say that it feels unearned at the end of the novel and doesn’t make Frank’s psychology any more believable.

But that may be the point, after all. Banks succeeds first and foremost in crafting a very alien mind in his narrator, one you forget to be disturbed by more often than you should.

Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.