Category Archives: Books

American Bardo

A 19th-century stone carved angel in a cemeteryAs I read George Saun­ders’ dar­ing first nov­el Lin­coln in the Bar­do recent­ly, I was struck by its strange­ly close par­al­lels with anoth­er mem­o­rable and equal­ly risk-tak­ing debut nov­el, Chris Adrian’s Gob’s Grief (2000). Both nov­els use the Civ­il War as an entry point into crazed and orig­i­nal med­i­ta­tions on the real­i­ty of death.

In Lin­coln in the Bar­do, Saun­ders reimag­ines the Bud­dhist con­cept of the Bar­do, a thresh­old state of the soul that is thought to last a few days after death. His Amer­i­can Bar­do is a ceme­tery in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., filled with a mot­ley group of dead folks too short-sight­ed to real­ize they’re dead. At the heart of the book is a new arrival, eleven-year-old Willie Lin­coln, who’s suc­cumbed to typhoid fever, and his griev­ing father, the Pres­i­dent, who is a year into the blood­i­est war of the country’s his­to­ry. His­to­ry has left the tan­ta­liz­ing sug­ges­tion that Lin­coln vis­it­ed Willie’s crypt sev­er­al times after the boy’s funer­al.

Gob’s Grief takes place dur­ing and after the Civ­il War. The sto­ry repur­pos­es such real fig­ures as Walt Whit­man, who vol­un­teered as a nurse to injured sol­diers dur­ing the war, and the remark­able Vic­to­ria Wood­hull, a fem­i­nist, a medi­um, and the first female can­di­date for pres­i­dent, in 1872. The emo­tion­al crux of this sto­ry is the rela­tion­ship between Woodhull’s fic­tion­al twin sons, Gob and Tomo. Tomo runs off to be a bugler with the Union Army at the age of eleven, and is soon killed in bat­tle.

Gob is sick­ened by his mother’s insis­tence that his broth­er is alive and well in the Sum­mer­land, the Spir­i­tu­al­ist equiv­a­lent of Heav­en. Years lat­er, a grown-up Gob builds a mas­sive, Steam­punk-like engine meant to bring back to life not only Tomo, but all the sol­diers who died in the war. The engine com­bines “glass tubes and iron gears… bun­dles of cop­per wire,” human bones, and an array of glass neg­a­tives of fall­en sol­diers, float­ing above a set of ceme­tery gates.

Both books are wild­ly non-for­mu­la­ic and genre-bust­ing. Lin­coln in the Bar­do is told in a mul­ti-voiced cho­rus, shift­ing from the dead ceme­tery-dwellers to the living—the ceme­tery guard and the President—along with excerpt­ed his­tor­i­cal descrip­tions of Willie’s ill­ness and death. Gob’s Grief leaps around in time and inside many points of view. But it also alter­nates between nat­u­ral­is­tic depic­tions of events like the bat­tle of Chicka­mau­ga, and oth­er­world­ly hap­pen­ings and char­ac­ters includ­ing the mem­o­rably creepy child Pick­ie Beech­er, born out of Gob’s infer­nal machine. Angels appear in both books, hec­tor­ing the liv­ing and the dead.

Both nov­els are heat­ed into over­drive by the ten­sion between denial and accep­tance of death, two land­marks on the con­tin­u­um of grief. The ghosts sur­round­ing Willie Lin­coln suf­fer from major cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance as they strug­gle to explain their sit­u­a­tion, cling­ing to sad euphemisms: “sick-box” for cof­fin, and “stone home” for their tombs. Their lib­er­a­tion, and Willie’s, hinges on rec­og­niz­ing the real­i­ty of their deaths in this false stage-set they’ve cre­at­ed. An unlike­ly com­mu­nion with the dead helps Willie’s griev­ing father come through a sim­i­lar emo­tion­al pas­sage.

Gob’s Grief is infused with the crazi­ness of grief. Sev­er­al main char­ac­ters, includ­ing Walt Whit­man, are each haunt­ed by a broth­er or loved one lost in the war. Gob’s death-defy­ing engine some­how feels like the believ­able response of some­one who’s ready to change the rules of real­i­ty to bring back their loved one. Adrian’s lat­er nov­els, The Children’s Hos­pi­tal and The Great Night, show a sim­i­lar will­ing­ness to dive head­long into the deep­est waters where death and life, fan­ta­sy and real­i­ty mix.

The idea of the Bar­do came to the West from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the 14th-cen­tu­ry Tibetan Bud­dhist text writ­ten as a guide for the new­ly dead, to help them move through the illu­sions of the Bar­do toward clar­i­ty and rebirth. In fact, Bar­do can refer to any tran­si­tion­al state, even our wak­ing expe­ri­ence. Is there some­thing dis­tinct­ly Amer­i­can in the intran­si­gence of Saun­ders’ ghosts, and Gob’s obses­sive quest to undo his brother’s death? Their stub­born­ness may reflect our cul­tur­al prej­u­dice toward hap­pi­ness, toward hold­ing on to a more pleas­ant ver­sion of things, whether it’s one that exist­ed in the past, or some promised future. In what­ev­er Bar­do we find our­selves, only doing the hard work of acknowl­edg­ing what we’ve lost can lib­er­ate us to move ahead.



Thinking about Gaia

Image of Earth from spaceIn this month of Earth Day and march­ing for sci­ence and cli­mate, I’m think­ing about Gaia.

A hash­tag popped up on Twit­ter last week: #ifon­lytheearth­could­speak. Yes! That’s a good prompt to con­tem­plate right now. The hash­tag elicit­ed a range of respons­es from fun­ny and snarky to thought­ful and earnest. Some tweet­ers sug­gest­ed that the earth is speak­ing, but we’re not lis­ten­ing. Would that be Gaia? The envi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist James Love­lock first for­mu­lat­ed the Gaia hypoth­e­sis in the 1970s, propos­ing that the Earth could be seen as one vast liv­ing and self-reg­u­lat­ing sys­tem, and nam­ing it for Gaia, the pri­mor­dial Greek Earth god­dess. The idea has been borne out since then, but its pop­u­lar­i­ty may owe a lot to Lovelock’s nam­ing it for the Greek Moth­er Earth, thus con­nect­ing it in our minds to the much ear­li­er and long-lived human sense of the earth as a liv­ing force.

In the last week, the earth’s atmos­phere reached an omi­nous new mile­stone: atmos­pher­ic car­bon diox­ide lev­els broke past 410 parts per mil­lion, after hit­ting 400 parts per mil­lion in 2013. The last time atmos­pher­ic car­bon con­cen­tra­tions were this high was in the Mid­dle Pliocene, 3.6 mil­lion years ago. Our con­tin­u­ing to pump car­bon and oth­er green­house gas­es into the atmos­phere, com­bined with the unknown effects of cli­mate feed­back, are cause for alarm. For those of us who don’t deny the facts, it’s a scary time. I’ll be at the People’s Cli­mate March in Wash­ing­ton D.C. in a few days, one of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple need­ing to bear wit­ness to the urgency of this moment.

But are facts enough to ral­ly peo­ple to action? You can’t see car­bon con­cen­tra­tions, and even though the earth is now expe­ri­enc­ing changes that are much faster than the nor­mal geo­log­i­cal time scale, these changes are often too slow, too big, or too abstract for us to eas­i­ly take in. As author Kim Stan­ley Robin­son has said, “Fic­tion can tell us how new sit­u­a­tions will feel, and also, what things mean.” Robinson’s new nov­el, New York 2140, set in a par­tial­ly sub­merged future New York, is one of sev­er­al just-pub­lished works of cli­mate fic­tion (cli-fi), the emerg­ing genre that invites us to pic­ture the human con­se­quences of cli­mate change. Robin­son offers a vision of peo­ple mud­dling along and mak­ing their lives in the Venice-like canals of New York, both cop­ing with the dis­as­ters that have occurred and aware there may be worse ahead.

But where is Gaia in this future? If Earth can be seen as a liv­ing thing, couldn’t we also ben­e­fit from try­ing to take its perspective—as dif­fer­ent from ours as it may be? Sci­ence fic­tion has gone there already. Appar­ent­ly inspired by the Gaia hypoth­e­sis, Isaac Asi­mov includ­ed a new­ly dis­cov­ered, sen­tient plan­et named Gaia in his 1982 nov­el Foundation’s Edge. And Piers Antho­ny made “Gaea” a main character—an arche­type of the Earth, embod­ied in a mortal—in Becom­ing a Green Moth­er (1988), part of his Incar­na­tions of Immor­tal­i­ty series.

The Book of Joan, an ambi­tious nov­el by Lidia Yuk­nav­itch, just out this month, offers a char­ac­ter who is empath­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed with the Earth. Liv­ing only a few decades into the future, the vision­ary child-woman Joan of Dirt leads a rebel­lion among the sur­vivors of an envi­ron­men­tal­ly rav­aged earth who are now liv­ing on an orbit­ing space-sta­tion sanc­tu­ary ruled by a bil­lion­aire dic­ta­tor. This Joan of Arc for a night­mare future can man­i­fest vol­canic eruptions—her sym­bio­sis with the plan­et allows it a form of expres­sion that can’t be ignored. It’s a risky nov­el, also tak­ing on issues of gen­der, sex and race, and it’s on my to-be-read list.

These and oth­er cli-fi nov­els do a great ser­vice by bring­ing the human con­se­quences of cli­mate change into vivid focus, at a human scale we can reck­on with. If they tend to be dystopi­an, that is the kind of future that seems to be star­ing us in the face, giv­en the forces we have already set in motion.

The Earth is speak­ing to us now, in her own lan­guage, not just through beau­ti­ful sun­sets, but through ris­ing sea lev­els, droughts, and strange weath­er pat­terns. Of course we need to be able to imag­ine the human costs of cli­mate change. That’s how we think, and it is the most promis­ing way toward changes in pol­i­cy. But I also feel the need to see things from Gaia’s point of view—even if it means fac­ing erup­tions of trau­mat­ic scale and strength. What may be dystopi­an for us, may just be a cloudy after­noon for our long-lived plan­et. We des­per­ate­ly need to de-objec­ti­fy the earth, and to try to reen­gage in some­thing more like an “I–Thou” rela­tion­ship with Gaia—not of equals, but in respect, and awe and won­der. I hope more writ­ers will take up the chal­lenge of imag­in­ing what she is say­ing, and might be say­ing in the future.




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 cal­cu­lat­ed destruc­tion is voiced by Obi Wan Keno­bi, say­ing he feels a “great dis­tur­bance in the force.” It’s hard to know how Leia feels about this dev­as­tat­ing event, since she moves right into war­rior mode and doesn’t men­tion it again.

Star Wars is great pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment, of course, and it isn’t the only sci-fi sto­ry to fea­ture an explod­ing plan­et, or one that’s destroyed by nuclear or envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter, from Superman’s home plan­et of Kryp­ton to the casu­al destruc­tion of Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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 con­sci­en­tious­ly on his own and oth­ers’ emo­tion­al avalanche 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 the col­lapse of civ­i­liza­tions and ecolo­gies in her two “Mara and Dann” nov­els, set in a far-future Africa.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around such a mas­sive phe­nom­e­non, espe­cial­ly as 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 its real­i­ty. 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.


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

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—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.


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. [LINK]

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, appear­ing as a film watched by the char­ac­ters in his great late work, VALIS.

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.)LINK BELOW

Philip K. Dick is not the author I would 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.


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



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.


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.


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.