Category Archives: Books

Grieving for a whole planet From Princess Leia to Doris Lessing

Frozen PlanetWhen I saw the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, I couldn’t get past that moment when Princess Leia sees her home planet, Alderaan, blown up by the Empire. We didn’t even get to see her reaction shot—the first response to this planetary destruction is voiced by Obi Wan Kenobi, saying he feels a “great disturbance in the force.” How does Leia cope with this devastating loss? We never learn,  since after that she moves right into warrior mode.

Star Wars is great popular entertainment, of course. And it’s part of a long line of sci-fi stories featuring a planet that explodes or is otherwise destroyed by nuclear or environmental disaster, from the dying planet Krypton to an Earth frozen by ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. 

At another end of the spectrum, there’s a novel by Doris Lessing that has stuck with me since I read it, for its unrelenting deep dive into the feelings of a community as it experiences the death of its world. The Making of the Representative from Planet Eight (1982) is the fourth in Lessing’s five-novel series of science fiction novels, Canopus in Argos. It’s a quick but intense read, told in a voice that evokes folk tales or Scripture. (Lessing later adapted the novel as an opera with music by Philip Glass.)

We’re led through the story by Doeg, who lives on the peaceful, prosperous and temperate Planet Eight, part of the Canopus system. A mysterious cosmic realignment causes the global climate to shift, with blizzards causing a buildup of snow and ice—a swiftly cataclysmic, planet-wide Ice Age. Doeg, whose vocation is Memory Maker and Keeper of Records, reports on his own and others’ avalanche of emotional responses as everything about their previous life slips away.

In one poignant moment, the leaders stage a ceremony to help people accept part of their new reality: they now have to fish in their sacred lake for sustenance, a practice that has always been taboo. Standing on the shore, the community watches as a few people row out to demonstrate how it’s done. The sight of this is too much: “A groan or cry came out from the crowds, and this sound, which had been pressed out of us, frightened us all.”

In the end, there’s no escape—all life on the planet is extinguished. Doeg and a few others only survive in disembodied form, as a collective “representative” to the Canopic system. Their transformation reflects Lessing’s study of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Through that lens, the story can be seen as an allegory of the soul leaving behind the physical body (the “world” in which the individual lives). Lessing also pointed to another source for the story, in her lifelong fascination with the doomed British Antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott from 1910-1913.

Now, several decades after it first appeared, and as we move further into our global climate crisis, it’s hard not to read the novel as a stark and cogent allegory of climate change—an early entrant in the growing genre of climate fiction, or Cli-Fi, as it’s been called by journalist Dan Bloom and others. Lessing didn’t talk about this aspect of the work, although she later revisited themes of ecological and cultural collapse in her two “Mara and Dann” novels, set in a far-future Africa.

Wrapping your mind around such a massive phenomenon is hard, especially when it looms over your own life, let alone the lives of your descendants. It is much easier to deny something like climate change while evidence of it builds around you, than to attempt to engage with the scope of what’s happening. But in the moment we find ourselves in now, we also need to learn to stretch our capacity to feel, and express, the worst that could happen, like the people beside the lake on Planet Eight.

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An Alternate History reading list for this moment Or, Did Philip K. Dick foresee our current predicament?

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Are we living in an alternate branch of history? I’ve been asking myself that question since waking up the morning of November 9, with the feeling that reality had turned sideways. Since then, many of us have shared the stages of shock, denial, anger and sadness that come after a great loss. But when so many people share these feelings at the same time, that sense of things being profoundly wrenched out of place, of being exiled from the world you know, takes on a different weight.

Elections can be turning points. Millions of people weighed in on the country’s direction—leaving aside the issues of how their opinions were influenced—and this time the joker came out on top, confounding the expectations of many. A shift happened, which we’re just beginning to live through, and which has the power to affect the world. Trying to make sense of this, I keep coming back to the imaginative precedents offered by alternate history.

The impulse to imagine alternate histories has long roots. Two thousand years ago, the Roman historian Livy speculated on whether Alexander the Great could have defeated Rome. Modern alternate history emerged along with science fiction, as in L. Sprague de Camp’s 1939 classic Lest Darkness Fall: an archeologist finds himself thrown back in time to a slightly different Rome in the sixth century CE, where he manages to insert enough technology and knowledge to prevent the coming of the Dark Ages.

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The imagination of darker alternate timelines—with the Nazis and other Axis powers winning World War II, for example—has become an enduring strand in the genre. There’s Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which takes place in a post-war America carved up into protectorates of the Nazis and the Japanese. Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy plays out a timeline in which Britain has become a fascist dictatorship following a peace made with Nazi Germany, thanks to the influence of the appeasement faction and American isolationism. Simon Zelitch’s Judenstaat offers another possible World War II outcome, with a Jewish state arising not in Palestine but in the area that for us became part of East Germany, and falling inside the oppressive political orbit of the USSR.

Then there are novels that give us a vision of a homegrown Fascism taking power in the United States. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America traces an alternate historical path in the 1930s, following the election of Charles Lindbergh as President (in our time, he was a Nazi sympathizer). This leads to state-sponsored anti-Semitism that includes a Jewish relocation program. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here follows a Huey Long-like demagogue who, soon after his election to the presidency, uses military force to establish a totalitarian state. Technically It Can’t Happen Here may not qualify as alternate history, since Lewis was writing in 1935 about an upcoming election, not about a divergent event in the past.

I’ve seen many of these novels cited as parallels to the moment we find ourselves in now. But I haven’t heard anyone bring up a more obscure novel by Philip K. Dick, Radio Free Albemuth, which was posthumously published in 1985. Dick also adapted the plot as a story-within-a-story inside his great late work, VALIS, where it appeared as a film watched by the characters.

Set in the late 1960s, Radio Free Albemuth hinges on the election of Ferris F. Fremont, a corrupt politician associated with a right-wing populist movement. As it turns out, Fremont is also a covert Russian agent. Fremont was partly inspired by Richard Nixon, whose appeal to “Middle America” nominally qualified him as a populist. But as a parallel to our President Elect, Dick’s Fremont hits the trifecta: corrupt dealings, right-wing populism, and Russian influence.

It was Dick’s swirling mix of paranoia and reality-confusion that I thought of the morning after the election. The Man in the High Castle, for example, sets up not just one alternate strand but several: there’s a book-within-a-book by an author who imagines a different ending to the war, with the U.S. and Britain becoming the postwar superpowers, and this serves to sabotage the novel’s dominant reality. (John Gray delves into this aspect of the novel in an insightful piece comparing it to the current TV adaptation.)

Philip K. Dick is not the author I’d prefer to choose as the prophet of our coming political time. But the creeping ambiguity of his fictional multiverses feel like a match for the fear and uncertainty pervading the world we find ourselves in now.

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Other Times, Other Worlds—Fran Wilde & Lawrence M. Schoen

Cloudbound and Barsk coversI’m excited to be part of All But True’s next author event, “Other Times, Other Worlds,” with two award-winning science fiction authors: Fran Wilde and Lawrence M. Schoen. It’s coming up on November 11—our second time at Mighty Writers West, and our first time focusing on speculative fiction. Here are my thoughts on the novels Fran and Lawrence will be reading from, discussing, and signing.

Lawrence M. Schoen’s 2015 novel Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard won the Cóyotl Award for excellence in anthropomorphic fiction, and it’s easy to see why. It describes a far future peopled by sapient descendants of elephants and other mammals, “upraised” by humans in the distant past, with the humans now long gone. The Eleph and Fant live in exile from the rest of the interplanetary Alliance, on the rainforest planet Barsk.

What I love most about this book is how Schoen extrapolates his humanized pachyderms from our own knowledge and appreciation of this endangered species. Fant society is matriarchal, with the more nomadic males moving in and out of the settled, female-centric communities. Adhering to the legend of the elephants’ graveyard, they know the time and place of their death. And they are keepers of memory and history, both for themselves and other species in the Alliance.

The Fants’ ability to speak with the dead, aided by the psychoactive drug Koph, is a natural and intriguing outgrowth of their strong attunement to the past—and becomes a central element of the story. Barsk builds through widening tiers of revelations, and by the end you’ll learn why and how the Fant became the outcasts of the Alliance, reviled by the furry dogs, otters, bears and other sapient animals in spite of their crucial role as the sole suppliers of Koph.

Cloudbound is the second book in Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe Series. Updraft, the first book, won Wilde both the Compton Crook award for best first science fiction/fantasy novel and the Andre Norton Award for outstanding young adult science fiction/fantasy. Updraft introduced a world where people fly on silk wings between living bone towers, and followed Kirit Densira’s discovery of her destiny as a Singer, along with the machinations of the secretive Spire.

Cloudbound picks up after the Spire’s power has been broken, and shifts to the experience of Kirit’s tower-mate Nat. With Kirit and a small band of outcasts, he flees the conflict-ridden City, traveling down into the clouds in search of long-hidden secrets. This book has a more communal dynamic than the first, and delivers the kind of deepening complexity that’s required of a second installment. Nat’s understanding of leadership is tested against unexpected betrayals and misuse of power by those around him. Cloudbound is as gripping as the first book, and as breathtaking in its development of this vivid and dangerous world.

All But True, a free author reading series hosted by the Working Writers Group

Other Times, Other Worlds—an evening of speculative fiction, with Lawrence M. Schoen and Fran Wilde

Friday, November 11 at Mighty Writers West

3861 Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19104 215-244-4005

 

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Ursula K. Le Guin: Telling makes the world

Maria Popova has written onstorytelling around the fire her wonderful website Brain Pickings about Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay on the nature of speech, “Telling is Listening.” This brought back to me the sense of how much Le Guin—a master storyteller herself—has made the importance of storytelling a central theme in many of her novels and stories.

In the essay, from her collection The Wave in the Mind, Le Guin argues that human communication is not some mechanistic process, involving the transmission of data bits from one brain to another, but is a complex and mutually created event. The message, she says, can’t be separated from “the relationship between speaker and hearer.” Language itself is social. In an image recalling the primal experience of listening to the storyteller around a fire, she says, “The voice creates a sphere around it, which includes all its hearers.”

That very human experience appears again and again in Le Guin’s work, where she has meditated on its significance in different ways. In The Telling, one of her Hainish cycle novels, an ancient culture has been kept alive by the spoken sharing of its history, myths and poetry, while its sacred texts are hidden away from the authoritarian regime that now rules the planet. Then, even this connection is threatened when the authorities outlaw any gatherings to hear The Telling, as it’s called. Le Guin’s young-adult fantasy trilogy Annals of the Western Shore begins with Erroc, a boy who rejects his inherited gift for “undoing,” only to eventually find his calling as a powerful storyteller. In Voices, the second book in the series, Erroc helps the members of a people whose tradition of learning and literature is under attack by a fundamentalist group.

These books tell us that stories, spoken or written, are not just information, but the medium that weaves a culture into existence—in the same way that speech, for Le Guin, is the medium of a shared understanding. But in one short story of Le Guin’s that has stayed with me, and that Popova reminded me of, the power of storytelling goes even beyond this.

“The Shobies’ Story” is another Hainish cycle story, from Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. The crew of the Shoby, an intergalactic spaceship, embark on the first voyage with a new faster-than-light propulsion system that will involve a human crew. No one knows what to expect, and one crew member’s attempts to explain the new system make it sound more metaphysical than mechanical: “‘It is not physical, and it is not not physical,’” he tries. “‘So the ship will be moved,’” another asks, “‘by ideas?’”

The trip is instantaneous. But where exactly they’ve arrived is not clear; and, more frightening than that, everyone, from the old navigator to the children, seems to be having a different experience—they can’t even agree on what is happening. Something in the trip has fractured their shared reality, and different probable events jostle with each other, all equal in weight. In a later story, a character calls it “‘the chaos experience.’” It’s only when they all sit down at the hearth in their living quarters (yes, this ship has a fireplace) and start to tell a communal story of their journey, that space and time begin to knit back together into a narrative they can agree on.

Wow. “The Shobies’ Story” seems to suggest that we need the mutual creation of stories not just to share cultural knowledge, but even to create the perceived universe that we all agree on. Without the human sharing of speech and story, that understanding breaks down, and we’re lost in our individual dream worlds. This story may offer a mirror of Le Guin’s classic novel The Lathe of Heaven, a nightmare scenario in which one man’s dreams actually change the world he wakes back up to. But in the Shoby crew’s desperate and humble reenactment of an ancient tradition, Le Guin seems to suggest that the shared experience of telling, in some fundamental way, has the power to make, and remake, our world.

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The radical leaps of A Wrinkle in Time

The witches of A Wrinkle in TimeI was in sixth grade when I was swept up in the world of A Wrinkle in Time, part of the first generation of girls to discover it. Madeleine L’Engle’s novel imprinted itself on my imagination and gave me a sense of what speculative fiction could be, before I had read much science fiction. Its tingling sense of possibility, and its fearless leaping into deep territory stayed with me, as I later found and read other pioneering authors like Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler.

What makes A Wrinkle in Time such a touchstone, a kind of pole star that has helped many readers, and particularly girls and young women begin navigating their sense of themselves in the cosmos? Many people have written about the power of encountering the anti-cheerleader Meg—a twelve-year-old girl who excels at math and science—not to mention Meg’s mother, Mrs. Murry, who is both a working scientist and a loving, understanding parent.

But it’s not just these two strong female characters that made this book different. L’Engle pulled off something wildly, radically original, marking her own path into a field that is still male-dominated. The title slyly announces its difference: it’s a “wrinkle” in time, not some grand, adventurous noun (Trek, anyone?), but a humble, domestic thing that normally reminds us of fabric—the tangible women’s work of sewing and ironing. Yet this image animates the Tesseract concept that allows Meg and others to leapfrog through space and time on their quest to find her scientist father. Likewise, the story roots itself in the creaky details of Meg’s shabby but welcoming old house before launching into its playful exploration of different planets and ways of being, all without recourse to any of the shiny, tech-heavy details that characterize hard science fiction.

That’s not all. L’Engle, who knew her world mythologies, offers three characters who are introduced as witches—one of them is even named Mrs Which. But these witches are thoroughly de-demonized. No shrill Queens of the Night or interchangeable Weird Sisters here; these are three old-lady pals who genuinely like each other, each with her own distinct personality. They are in fact mentors and helpers to Meg and her companions, and even as they shape-shift, shedding their gender to reveal more cosmic identities, they retain their profoundly good intentions.

And then there are the inhabitants of the planet Ixchel, where Meg is taken to recover from the near-death trauma of Tessering through the Black Thing. These huge furred creatures understand the world completely through sensitive tentacles, and communicate without words. Instead of nightmarish, Alien-like insectoids like those encountered in Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game, we’re given many-limbed beings with the enveloping tactile and emotional ambience of the mother-infant bond, as Meg is regressed and re-raised by an individual she names “Aunt Beast.”

No wonder publishers didn’t know what to do with L’Engle’s manuscript at first. The human characters (Meg and her mom) and the supernatural characters broke the gender barriers of their time. Two archetypal extremes are embodied as female: the celestial, sky-flying, far-seeing witches, and the feelingful, earth-connected species of Ixchel (the planet was named for the Mayan goddess of healing and childbirth). And there are no man-eating monsters among them. If A Wrinkle in Time has given boys something new to chew on in these recast archetypes, that’s great. On behalf of stargazing girls everywhere, I’m grateful to Madeleine L’Engle for letting her imagination fly.

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Kate Atkinson and quantum physics

LifeAfterLife3Kate Atkinson has now won the Costa Book Award twice in the past three years—for her companion novels, A God in Ruins (2015) and the stunning Life After Life (2013). To celebrate, here are my thoughts on the first one, which I just finished.

Life after Life can be seen as a kind of thought experiment: what if a life, when cut off by early death, could be lived again, and again and again? Would anything change, and would the person who lives it learn anything from her previous experiences?

This is what happens to Ursula Todd, who is born, and then born again, and again, on a snowy night in England in 1910. She arrives stillborn the first time, but we follow her as she doggedly relives her own life, which gradually extends in length until she lives as far as the London Blitz and, once or twice, into postwar peacetime and poverty. A diagram of the book’s structure would look very different from most novels: more like a tree, with several of Ursula’s early lives cut off by accident and illness (in the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918) at the trunk, and then longer branches developing as Ursula moves into adulthood—some subtly altered, and others veering off in starkly different directions.

Some moments act as pressure points. One, a lazy summer afternoon in the yard of her large family’s comfortable home outside London, contains the seeds of events that fuel multiple divergences. Other moments feel like twigs rather then branches—possibilities for relationships that never come to fruition. In most of Ursula’s lives, she remains single, and only in one life does she have a child.

If this were a work of science fiction, we would expect the author to open her hand and explain, or at least suggest, how all this works. Is Ursula the only one who has, or is cursed with, this ability to relive her own life? Or are other people branching away into parallel lives as well? From one life to the next, Ursula feels intimations and omens from her earlier experiences, which can move her to act differently, averting the previous outcome. If she isn’t the only one this is happening to, is she the only one with the sensitivity to break through the membrane of death and benefit from her experiences?

Atkinson has little interest in spelling out her premise; the closest she comes is an allusion to reincarnation, in conversations a young Ursula has with her psychiatrist, to whom she is sent after a troubling incident rising from one of her trace memories. Of course, Ursula’s experience is different from the traditional understanding of reincarnation as the serial inhabiting of different lives over time.

But her situation offers a vivid illustration of one aspect of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics—what’s known as a Level 3 parallel universe, in which, at every moment, a person’s choices give rise to other probable universes, each slightly different. The theory doesn’t allow for communication among these universes, but that hasn’t stopped many science fiction writers from imagining it happening. Atkinson’s branching structure also suggests video game progressions, as well as, maybe, a hypertext story. I don’t think Atkinson meant the novel to be any of those things, but it brought up these questions for me as strongly as any science fiction narrative.

What she does offer, as the magnificent writer she is, is a deeply intimate, richly novelistic sense of a person living her life, and the people and events that surround her. For me, the repetitions and variations through Ursula’s many lives had the effect of intensifying the sense of being inside this character’s skin, as well as that sense of readerly poignancy when recognizing the return of a character or place, just slightly shifted.

When Ursula lives through several horrifying variants of the Blitz, it becomes more powerful for me, not numbingly repetitive. If a novel is a way of intimately knowing a person or a cultural point in time, then the refraction of Ursula’s experiences among her different lives gives a heightened, more-dimensional sense of her and her time—a kind of turbo-powered literary portrait.

I wondered at one point if this novel might crystallize a new genre: of alternate lives, as opposed to alternate histories like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. (Life After Life does venture a little into alternate history too.) If there are any more books like this, I’d like to know. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone doing it with more breathtaking intensity than Kate Atkinson has here.

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