Category Archives: science fiction

2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson

2312

I really, really want to like Kim Stanley Robinson. I do. His ideas are beautiful. The Mars trilogy is the most in-depth analysis of Martian terraforming ever committed to print; Mark Watney couldn’t have planted potatoes without it. The Years of Rice and Salt combines a staggering scope (alternate world history, 1300-present) with a thoroughly original structure (following the reincarnations of a jati, a group of souls fated to meet again and again). In my middle-school years, he and Ursula LeGuin seemed to be the only voices for the earth and the wretched of the earth amidst a sea of gung-ho libertarians like Heinlein, Bradbury, and Frankowski.

But then you actually read the book, and your hopes are dashed. His characters are forgettable, his plots meandering, his prose wooden. I can’t remember which initial from Years of Rice and Salt is supposed to be the angry one, I or B. I recall a few passages of Red Mars, and one character because he was a sympathetic Frenchman at a time when we frogs were all “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and one because he up and disappeared halfway through the book and I kept wondering when he’d come back.

I started 2312 full of the apprehensive hope that the last twenty years have made a better storyteller of this brilliant, idiosyncratic Author. I’m afraid Anne Rice was correct: we don’t really change, we only become more fully what we are. Kim Stanley Robinson is the Arthur C. Clarke of the 21st century: a consummate idea man who isn’t about to let mere writing get in his way.

2312 is full of absolutely amazing ideas: the Mondragon that has superseded capitalism, leaving “capitalism [as] the residual on Mars, as feudalism [as] the residual on Earth,” the art-world of Mercury and its capitol at Terminator, mutually-hermaphroditic sex, and, of course, the terraria.

terrarium.jpg

“Terrarium” for this style of vessel/colony, hollowed out of an asteroid and filled with biosphere, seems destined to enter the SF lexicon alongside terms like “ansible,” “waldo,” “hyperspace,” and “robot.” And Robinson’s inventive new ideas don’t stop at content, he has some brilliant literary strokes as well: the interstitial lists, extracts, and quantum walks are not only elegantly-presented exposition, they further the feeling of balkanization that Robinson characterizes his future with. 2312 has one of the very, very few examples of future works of art that effectively influences the story without being the focus of it, both Swan’s art installations on Mercury and those of other artists through the Solar System. Speaking of art, he even inverts the Famous Famous Fictional Trek trio near the end and lists “I Met Her in a Phobos Restaurant,” “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid,” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” as drinking songs in that order.

But his characters. His plotting. It opens with a funeral and closes with a wedding, in fitting comic theater fashion. There’s terrorist attacks, two survival trials as Swan and Wahram are marooned, a romance that takes you from behind, the possibility of emergent AI turning against their masters, and the secret machinations of various factions…but none of them seem to connect to anything. Indeed, it’s hard to connect much of anything to anywhere. As one not-a-reviewer noted, “Swan Er Hong and Wahram prefer to run away from problems they don’t understand,” and the whole book feels less like a book, less even than a patchwork story, than it does like a picaresque. Our Heroes finish up one adventure (or, more often than not, leave it dangling like the worst Stephenson novel, as they did in Africa) and are whisked off by terrarium to the next one. Which is great! I’ve enjoyed a great many novels exactly like this, and even written a couple myself. Except, Robinson wants us to see a bigger picture and a greater drama to this balkanized novel, and it just doesn’t seem to work.

Which brings me to Swan.

I will probably remember Swan Er Hong a long time, if only because she consistently aroused vague disgust, which is probably not what you want in a viewpoint character. She’s over a century old but behaves like a bratty teenager – a smart one, but still emotionally immature and bizarrely inexperienced. She’s apparently never seen poverty on Earth before, nor been in love (despite a medical history in the middle of the book describing past loves and children), nor even lost a parent. She imperiously declares what is best for whatever planet she’s standing on or in, endangers her friends at least twice, and is generally an unpleasant person to be around and to read about. Her companion, Wahram, by contrast, is merely boring. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre of forgettable characters, Wahram’s phlegmatic plodding is something even Robinson specifically notes as boring. Maybe this is why their romance seems more formal than real: on the one hand, you have the man who’s never perturbed even by losing his own leg, and on the other, the woman who constantly reacts to whatever’s in front of her. What kind of spark could you have there?

Kim Stanley Robinson has never been easy reading. I got that all the way back in seventh grade. But getting through it has always been interesting, even if I argue with myself about whether it was worth it. The sheer scope of Years of Rice and Salt still dazzles me, the meditations on humanity as cultivator or humanity as witness (Green vs. Red) in the Mars trilogy is some of the best philosophy in commercial fiction. Despite the meandering plot and the forgettable characters, despite the mannered prose and the hollow dialogue, I think 2312 was worth it. In 2012, when the book came out, the vision of a future where hope could be found, a future where humanity increases in genetic, cultural, and artistic diversity while still being human, a future where even Earth could be terraformed, was as alien to the omnipresent Singularity or Apocalypse as the liberal-green philosophy of Red Mars had been at the tail end of cyberpunk. Other authors have since taken up the call, dusted off the terraria, grappled with the intersexed and transcender implications, and explored other ways to terraform Earth. We wouldn’t have Sunvault and Reckoning without 2312, we wouldn’t have Ecopunk! without 2312, we wouldn’t have solarpunk without 2312. For that alone, the book is worth it.

(edited versions of this review have been crossposted to Goodreads and to Amazon.com)

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On the Hugos and Positive Censorship

“As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth’s final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.” – Commissioner Pravin Lal, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

I have two enemies in this world: the zealot and the censor. The only difference between the two is that the censor is too squeamish to burn writers along with their books. I have wary respect for the zealot with matches in hand, I have nothing but disdain for the censor.

This fellow, Matthew David Surridge, speaks my mind, regarding my opinion on the Sad Puppies and their pathetic attempt to control the Hugos. They have attempted to form a slate around their ideology, to exclude any other nominations for any reason but agreement with their ideology. That this is completely legal is a fault in the Hugo nomination and voting system. Do not bother me with protestations as to its legality, it is still wrong. In building a slate around their ideology, Vox Day and Brad Torgerson and all their butthurt, simpering followers have declared themselves my enemy.

This image seemed appropriate, because a bunch of dildos have the whole thing spinning out of control.

This image seemed appropriate, because a bunch of dildos have the whole thing spinning out of control.

I have heard rumblings that those most offended by the odious ideology of Torgerson et al should assemble their own slate, fight fire with fire, in the 2016 Hugos. Fingering their matches. If you agree with this logic, you are also declaring yourself my enemy.

This is where it gets involved. TL;DR: “There is more than one way to burn a book, and the world is full of people running around with lit matches.” And they’re standing in the room with you.

When this article made the rounds a few months ago, I was chatting via Messenger on a Facebook group I am no longer a member of. She asked if I, as a writer, would be following the recommendation. No, I replied – I reread Gabriel Garcia Marquez about once a year, I love Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin, and I was at the time working my way through Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. I chose these examples as they were relevant to the recommendation, which is mostly centered on speculative fiction. She accused me of being elitist and provincial. I pointed out, at this, that I was the only person of any color I knew who had read the Dao De Jing, the Analects of Confucius, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Mengzi, the Chuangzi, Lao She’s Teahouse, Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the I Ching, and the Little Red Book of Mao Zedong. In addition to reading the Dhammapada in the original Pali and Baital Pachisi in the original Sanskrit.

The next words from her message box were “I refuse to accept this intellectual colonization.”

I have no idea what she wanted me to read, if neither whites nor (by inference from her disapproval of reading Chinese and Indian authors) anyone else. I do know she would happily light a bonfire of vanities, if not an auto-da-fé. And she will almost certainly vote the Anti-Puppy Slate in 2016.

There are zealots and censors in every group, among every nation, in every creed and for every cause. Yes, even yours. They’re the ones who sensibly advocate stripping Republicans of their voting rights or demand armed uprising against O-Islama-Commu-Social-FASCIST-ism, the Kenyan Usurper.

Both groups, the already-organized wrong-side-of-the-bedsheets-but-lily-white Sad/Rabid Puppies, and the coalescing Anti-Puppy brigade, are my enemy, because they put ideology over aesthetics.

There are places where this is the right thing to do – voting for government elections, for instance. Changing the law, which is always ugly no matter what you do to it. Raising consciousness, although their the rules of marketing and social dynamics start affecting you, and it’s illegal for either of those to marry aesthetics in most states.

Nominating the best short story, magazine, and novel of the year in a given genre in ostensibly a plebiscite of “dedicated” fans of that genre? No. Like the Olympics, that is a matter for aesthetics, not ideology – and I’m well aware how far short the Olympics falls in this goal, but hell, at least they have it as a goal.

The Hugo voting base has clearly dispensed with such petty notions in favor of pure ideological conflict, now and forever. I seem to be the only person who’s noticed that aesthetics as a concern for what the best short story of the year should be have been quietly dropped. Edit: Other than Charlie Jane Anders’ excellent piece on io9. Thank you to the one who pointed me to it!

It doesn’t matter if they tell you to vote against someone because of ideology, or vote for someone because of ideology. Positive censorship is still censorship. If they are telling you to systematically exclude anyone rather than vote your conscience and your taste, they are attempting to censor somebody.

Besides, I’m a white, cisgendered, heterosexual, middle-class American male who writes about a superpowered Mexican Catholic who married a white chick and hangs around with a bisexual mixed-race atheist and a Korean atheist. If you’re voting a slate, Puppy or Anti-Puppy, you already hate my guts for some damn reason or another.

But, I hear you say, some people and their ideologies are so odious that aesthetics shouldn’t trump ideology! You don’t read Vox Day do you?

No, and neither do I read Matthew David Surridge. Because I haven’t gotten around to them yet.

The only saints I know are St. Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, and Friend Bayard Rustin. Robert Heinlein was a warhawk, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, Martin Luther King, Jr. stole chunks of his PhD wholesale while philandering up a storm, Woody Allen diddles (diddled?) children, Orson Scott Card has politics slightly to the right of Atilla the Hun. Orson, I am absolutely sure, would happily light an auto-da-fé as long as all the Wrong People were strapped to it.

This does not stop me from reading and even enjoying Ender’s Game, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, and Hart’s Hope. Nor does it stop me from watching Vicki Christina Barcelona or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, reading Dr. King’s speeches, reading the Declaration of Independence (while fully aware of the hypocrisy), or …frankly my Heinlein collection is too long to list here.

I have discovered that most of the Valiant Sixty, the original Quakers, were anti-Semite, Islamophobic, and anti-pagan. But they, too, like Dr. King, Bob Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Tom Jefferson, and Woody Allen, like, if you wish, Malcolm X and Confucius and Sun Tzu and Gandhi, have an inner light. And while corrupted by their frailties, their work can and does transcend them, so that Jefferson can write “all men are created equal” and Card can write Petra and Barclay and Penington and Penn and Fox can write that “all who are brought into the world have that of God inside them, whatever their externals in creed or color.” Transcending the writer and the reader is what writing is for.

When Ender’s Game hit stores, I watched the very female clerk recommend it to a family, speaking knowingly of both the book and the movie. When I asked how she could, she shrugged and said “if I only read people I could agree with, I wouldn’t have anything to read.” Knowing her politics later, I concurred that she was right.

I do not care what the author has done, or what she believes, I care about the work. Is the work good? Does the author destroy the work by injecting ideology, as Heinlein does after Stranger in a Strange Land (and even Stranger gets iffy)? Does the author’s ideology befog their minds, so that Jack London can only write worshipful, inferior Peoples of Color or “credits to their race”? Does the author commit both errors at once, and so write Perdido Street Station?

I accept no other criteria than aesthetics for judging a book as a book. And I have a sneaking suspicion that ideology can only have an adverse effect on a work’s aesthetic quality (consider Tolkien’s rebuke of C. S. Lewis on the strength of allegory versus [reader] application). Then again, I may be wrong – and I am certainly guilty of smuggling Zen and Taoist themes, Quaker testimonies, the way of Mastery, and liberal politics into my work.  I seem unable to leave a story without it smelling faintly of soy sauce and frying oil.

Ray Bradbury put it best in the Coda of Fahrenheit 451.

“For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmild teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. If the Chicano intellectuals wish to re-cut my “Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” so it shapes “Zoot,” may the belt unravel and the pants fall.

[…]

In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.”

So what am I asking you to do? If you have read the Hugo entries, and are so inclined to part with your forty dollars, vote. Vote for the good stories, the stories that move you, the stories that shock you, the stories that force you to understand another person…whether the writer or his unappointed, ideology-driven fanbase was transcended by the work or no. If it moved you, vote it. If it did not, or if you have not read them…don’t vote in this year’s awards, or go ahead and vote ‘no award’ if you feel you’ve already wasted your two twenties.

But do, in any case, do vote to change the rules of nomination and of voting so that slates cannot happen again. So that aesthetics, rather than ideology, reigns supreme in judging a work of art…or at least can be a hopeful contender, rather than dismissed from the ring with a sneer and a sigh.

And then, if it offends you so terribly that I condemn both censors instead of just the one you hate, go rent a typewriter. Submit that story to Escape Pod, Solstice Literary, Strange Horizons, and other markets that are consciously diversifying to overcome the historical systemic exclusion of women, authors of color, and the QUILTBAG. If it offends you that I slammed the Sad Puppy slate, just go to the markets that are still publishing Campbell-approved “white (hu)man conquers universe” stories and  make a faint whining sound when you squeeze them. You already know which ones they are.

Light me on fire in the story, if you like. Show some goddamn guts. But let me know who you are. As a writer, I consider it good business to know exactly who and where the censors are.