Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The top fifteen best science fiction novels, and why they are the best:

I brainstormed my favorite science fiction novels, then sorted them into order of which I love most. So… here are my top science fiction novels and why I love them.

1. Kim Stanley Robinson’s, Mars Trilogy. Why: magnificence, literary depth, an array of Shakespeare-scale characters, brilliance of construction, complexity and dazzling quality of ideas. Red Mars is first.

2. Charlie Stross, Accelerando. Why: Dazzling and funny ideas, linguistic brilliance and elegance, wit, visionary and prophetic power, evocative power of social processes.

3. Greg Egan, Schild’s Ladder. Why: Dazzling and magnificent evocation of physics in the plot, existential refinement and sublimity of theme, visionary power, brilliant visual evocations.

4. Joe Haldeman, ‘The Long Habit of Living’ and his three most recent novels especially ‘Camoflage’. Why: complete and effortless mastery of construction and all aspects of workmanship from skilful synethesis of character, theme, plot, dialog, and ideas to writing and editing.

5. Schizmatrix and stories, Bruce Sterling. Why: Sterling’s book has the exact same set of excellences that Stross’ book does, except that it occurred fifteen years earlier.

6. Karl Schroeder, Permanence, and all his novels. Why: all, really, are extraordinary in plot, theme, and brilliance of ideas. Skilful and well blended exposition of idea, theme and plot is Schroeder’s great strength. His ideas are truly uncanny. But I have seldom cared less about a novels’ characters, hence he is number six.

7. Allan Steele, Coyote. Why: sublimity of sentiment, mythic resonance, vigor of storytelling, plot ‘miniatures’. Plot is fine but Steele’s real strengh in the Coyote books is as a myth-maker, situated distinctly in the American revolutionary mythos. I don’t care for his characters, though the set piece in book one of Coyote when the ship is en route to the colony is remarkable and hypnotic.

8. Isaac Asimov, Foundation. Pebble in the sky. Daneel sequence of mystery stories. Why: Asimov’s great strength is in marvellous and contrived plots: his storytelling is pursuasive, impersonal, and flat out entertaining. Social and civic morality is his constant concern in these books, and Asimov’s single great theme.

9. Stephen Baxter, Exultant, Transcendent, etc – Destiny’s Children trilogy he calls it. Why: these books seem to capture the spirit and soul of fin de siecle post-postmodern Britain. Endless war, endless empire and endless personal sacrifice characterise the entire universe, into which his extensive gifts of narrative, character, science writing, speculative brilliance and world-building come to a climax. This trilogy really represents to me the most suberb climax of Baxter’s work in the Xeelee Sequence, and an important representation of the human species being acted on by evolution over enormous periods of time (a major concern of Baxter it appears).

10. Alastair Reynolds, Revelation Space. Why: gothic space opera’s flagship work, this book introduces all Reynolds basic themes in the personalization of a great evil rotting sentient space ship. This is also Reynold’s funniest novel of several hilariously bloodthirsty books. Reynolds is definitely a great humorist in gothic drag.

11. Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson, Variable Star. Why: Robinson updates Heinlein’s libertarian themes to the nineties, throws in refined characterisation and inspired plotting. Not just a homage to Heinlein, Spider Robinson in this book out-Heinleins Heinlein.

12. Dune, Frank Herbert. Why: worldbuilding alone. I don’t think Herbert is much of a character creator, nor do I find his work thematically distinct. If you compare it to Asimov’s work it goes begging. The humanity test of the gom jabar is the only remarkable theme in the novel for me.

13. Michael Swanwick – Stations of the Tide and the Dinosaur book and stories. Why: Swanwick himself. He is strange, very strange. His characters seem flat like puppets. His novel length plots are more like dreams than narrative sequences. Yet the work is so exotically written, daring in its sexuality and non-conventional science fiction material, and full of strange perspectives. In a way Swanwick himself is the entertainment in Swanwick’s books.

14. Robert Reed, Sister Alice and the Marrow sequence of books. Why: they show incredible posthuman ideas on an unthinkable cosmic perspective. Science and society are submerged here in personal dramas on a cosmic scale. He is very much in the mode of James Blish in his Cities In Flight sequence of novels – except that he is forty years later along and I find his work cool.

15. Book sequence about biotechnology starting with ‘The Cassandra Complex’ and continuing through ‘Engines of Emortality’ by Stableford, I can’t recall his first name right now (it’s Brian), but I remember his elegant books very well. Asimovian detective stories set in a Wildean social millieu, they depict the effects of the biological transitions into a trans- and post-human so beautifully and movingly, I almost can’t believe it. The crown of the sequence is the short story “A History of Death”, which I sometimes think about, remembering that in order to achieve a genuine posthumanity all that is needed is the extra perspective a few extra hundred years; by the last book the humans in the story have lived longer than us to the extent that they are genuinely alien. These are contemplative books, beautiful artifacts from an alien imagination.

Look at what makes number one distinct from the others: greatness of character primarily… I love and care about the characters in Robinson. Add to this the moral and intellectual magnificence of the Mars trilogy and you have a number one book.

Numbers two and three, Stross and Egan, have the ability to dazzle which is so important to SF, common to all fifteen of these writers, and most developed in them.

Fourth, Haldeman’s best work presents a concentrated and stable combination of crafted books. His books impress instead of dazzle. By contrast, Robinson simultaneously impresses and dazzles with the Mars trilogy.

Each of these writer after has their key excellences. Asimov has a gift for plots built like swiss watches. Schroeder and Herbert have a gift for worldbuilding. Steele has an unusual gift for a kind of folksy myth-making. Reynolds’ unique gift is the incredible geeky cool and sublime irony of his serious black humor. Swanwick’s gift seems to be his own rather odd person. Baxter’s many great abilities seem to unite around a central gift of the tragic representation of a rather bleak and existential socio-evolutionary worldview.

What makes Kim Stanley Robinson’s characters so strong is essentially the use of perspectivism. By integrating multiple consciousnesses as points of view in his novel, he ends up collapsing most of the major human themes inwards to a sort of quantum representation of the theme of the Mars trilogy.

The theme of the Mars Trilogy is that “one comes to know oneself only through and in the physical world”. Key to Robinson’s Mars trilogy I think is the distinction in his novelette Green Mars between the world (as a culture-process) and the earth (as the nature which contains all culture process). His essential genius is to depict the world, the culture-process, of a new earth (the terraformed Mars), thereby revealing truths which could not otherwise be disclosed. Robinson does not descend to scientific reductionism, but represents the limits of human subjectivity in relation to nature, science, politics, economics and culture. It is hard not to overpraise the care that is taken drawing this theme out through multiple perspectives. It would take many more words to describe the Mars Trilogy’s shortcomings and other strengths, so it is best to end here.

But I want to ask: what is it to you? What are your favorites and why? I define a favorite as a book you would be willing and ready to re-read. The use of perspectivism is really key to why I chose my number one. But without dazzling ideas, morality-driven plots, and a reassuring sense of craftsmanship I doubt the Mars Trilogy would be my favorite.

Honestly, many of these books I love just because of their razzle-dazzle. I would read them again as I am now, but in a few decades or so I doubt they would mean as much as they do now. I suspect numbers one and fifteen will remain my favorites, the first because it has become an emblem for good SF for me at my present time in life, and the last because it depicts an ageing society so beautifully, no doubt I have missed most of its meanings in my youthful haste to read ‘Engines of Immortality’ and its sequels.

Razzle-dazzle in science fiction matters. Entertainment matters. If I am pursuaded that a novelist wishes only to entertain me, only then do I begin to look for the deeper lessons in the novel, which, in my satiation with mere entertainment, become more attractive after I reach the end of the book than during the reading itself; and so stubbornly I return to the site when I felt something deeper than entertainment, lured by the honey of amusement to contemplate the meaning of a novel, no matter how bitter or sour it may seem, that it appears on reflection outside the heat of the moment of reading as if the chief attraction of reading is difficulty itself, when it fact it is the sweet moment of transition from shallow entertainment to a more profound engagement which is the only thing that ever matters in any book: in the moment of coming to care and love, as if in the first bite of the first fruit of the season, is contained in complete immediacy and in one taste the entire satisfaction a book can offer.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

On Marcel Proust

I started reading Proust when I was 14. I read the first few hundred pages of Swann’s Way a few times, quitting each time. Finally, I realized that I wasn’t the right age to be able to comprehend the book, and I gave up til later. I remember my older brother teasing me for owning the book a few years later, but I knew it wasn’t the right time of life to be reading them. For some reason I have lost that elegant and literary translation of Terence Killmartin I owned then. Perhaps it still sits in my mother’s shed or sister’s bookcase.

Peter, with whom I lived in Queensland, was to give me in my late 20s the first edition in the original English translation in a dozen little blue and white books that looked like mecidinal lollies and read like car wrecks. I didn’t stick at Swann’s very long with them; perhaps I will collect the four missing volumes one day solely for the pleasure of having collected them.

Finally at perhaps 29 years (the memory escapes me precisely when) I got snared into Swann’s terrible romance with Odette. Then Marcel’s first holiday at Balbec. The glamor of the Guermantes had time to decay into a more realistic view, then after the final straw of de Charlus screwing Jupien at the start of book number four, I found I couldn’t possibly tolerate yet more socialising. I quit.

Then this week, the stars were right for reading Proust. I was ill in bed for several days. I was preparing for a social event where I knew he would be mentioned. So infirmity and snobbery temporarily combined in me much as they did in the author, and quite suddenly all that socialising made sense:

You see, once Marcel discovers that de Charlus is gay, being such a naïve and curious guy he is compelled to review everything and everyone he has met in society in the context of their sexuality. It is this compulsive curiosity that might be said to be a condition for Marcel’s insane jealousy.

In fact, the entire novel sequence is marked by a growing awareness of human connectivity. The invisible realm of emotional connections is revealed first through Marcel’s aunts and mother, then Francois, Combray, Swann and Odette’s romance, then suddenly Marcel’s awareness of an entirely new continent of human relations, gay and lesbian, appears with Charlus. So he is compelled to test his observations about human nature against this new information; and his testing is what the 150 pages of socialising is all about after he spies on de Charlus screwing Jupien.

I read here a deeper clarification of what the rest of the novel is to be about. Harold Bloom writes about how Time Regained “reaches toward a new sense of self” of some kind. I’m not sure about that claim, but it clarifies what Proust is doing somewhat.

Marcel’s mad attachments to others prove useless and illusory when others die; he admits as much in book four. The tragedy of A La Rechere is that he lives on after the things that he feels made his soul truly live are gone. The comedy of the same, of course, is that he can re-experience, re-create, and regain the past, but it is never accurate. Finally, then, does Proust experience a sense of self which is “representational” in the sense that it is the sum of the perspectives and skepticisms about these perspectives. Is Proust identifying self, then, with the substance of his book? I will have to read on and see.

Against realism

I have started writing critiques again of short pieces of fiction. Nothing in them is more tedious than their common presumption that the story must be realistic. The spectre of realism ensures each story imitates the effects of past stories. It can be a pale satisfaction to trace the influence back to the point of origin in some of them, but it is hardly a replacement for a real story. So I got to thinking about the cult of realism in fiction, and what it means to be realistic. And realism starts, it seems to me, with the novel.

Genres of writing change over the centuries. At the moment the realistic novel is ascendant. Many other modes of writing at not predominant at any one time, for example epic poems: even though our culture now produces a few epic poems, I can’t think of one modern epic poem which doesn’t follow the conventions of the prose novel. I believe the epic poem is dominated by the novel form and realistic conventions. I think the influence of realism on epic poems makes for some pretty dull reading, but I don’t get many pages into modern epic poems anyway. Even Dan Simmon’s Hyperion seems a bit flaccid and imitative compared to Keats.

Unlike epic poem, no clear domination is clear between film and novel genres. Both are story, separate, living genres. Translations from novel to film tend to lose the novel’s inner life and outer complexity. On the other hand, while one man still crafts a novel, it takes a team to produce a film; the two necessarily work to different and incompatible commercial standards.

To see for yourself these different standards, make believe for a second that your favorite books have been made into films then back into “novelizations”. I immediately see an impoverishment in plot and structure when I apply this thought experiment to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.

An 120 page novelization of the Mars Trilogy would eliminate the stories of Michel Duval, Frank Chalmers and Nadia, focus on Ann versus Sax, transplant John Boone’s romance with Maya and his murder to the climax of the book, add more blood and guts to the war of ’61, and eliminate almost all the politics, geology, historical and ecological theory. The climax would be a bloody battle as the Martians, led by Hiroko and her areforming team, wrest control of a flooded Earth from the evil metanationals. Most easy to cut would be the long contemplative first-person prose poems, which in turn allow Robinson’s astonishing character-driven conflict sequences (such as Zo’s confrontation with Ann) to overpower the imagination. The novelization of the film of the Mars Trilogy would definitely lose vitality from the original.

The reason I mention the influence of film on novel is because I think the concept of realism has all but vanished from both film and novels. What passes as “realism” seems to me to be more conventional sequencing of actions according to audience expectations. Even slice-of-life films or books cohere around the expectations that a lifetime of documentary viewings have trained us to hold. The concept itself of realism, so pungent only 150 years ago, has become mixed up with so many other expectations that realism is like a dead letter, never arriving at the intended audience, but instead piling up a backlog of words and ideas with no vivid audience to witness them.

Contrast “realism” with “versimilitude.” Realism could mean “imitating what is real”, but what classes of facts (other than the scientifically verifiable) can be called real in our symbolic postmodern culture? It is precisely the realistic pretension of “being fair and balanced” in journalism that win perverse views airtime in order to “balance out” sensible views. Thus realism by definition is on the surface on things. And indeed, the superficial neoplatonic hope of realism is that by capturing the surface of a form, somehow the actuality of a thing has been won. But by dressing like a star one does not become a star; one simply becomes a credit card debtor. And by trying to be fair and balanced to every nutbag with two cents worth of opinion one simply becomes an objective journalist.

Versimilitude, on the other hand, locates the sense of things on the fuzzy boundary between the sense of experiencing and the actual experience itself of a thing. By including the subjective, versimilitude ignores the false separation of world and witnesser. The actor in the world is part of the world – this much is clear from the point of view of realism. But is the thought or feeling of the actor also part of the world? Is the actor’s experience, awareness, conscience, imagination also part of the world? Is – most astonishing of all- is the world of teacups and trees and letterboxes and placemats somehow mixed up with MY feelings and thoughts and awareness? Versimilitude would show it is.

Realism would show only the straw men, the hollow men, while versimilitude measures our my life with coffee spoons. Realism can show the expression on the actor’s face; versimilitude can reveal the figure of our common humanity. Because of realism, we falsely come to expect stories will go a certain way. But car chases and gun fights are not realistic; they are cliché. And documentary-like sequences of grim events are not realistic; they are dull. Realism sends dead letters to be stored unread; it fires blanks of pessimism instead of bullets of narrative vigor; it pretends to confirm our ideas of a real imitation of a story, while it incestuously imitates only those stories which have proven bankable in the past.

Versimilitude is what you can get away with. Realism is merely the recreation of what has been got away with before. There is no risk in the merely real; it has been confirmed. The life-like, on the other hand, cannot be measured and judged; it has first to be experienced in order to be real. Versimilitude carries a distinct shock – the shock of the real – while realism only conveys the safe pleasures of familiarity.

I have a storehouse of past plots and characters in memory which are most real for me because I have experienced them as being like life. They have passed mysteriously into my personal experience. Maya’s madness and Michel’s despair, Hiroko’s eccentricity and Frank’s pugnacity – these are people I have experienced. They are life-like because I give them vitality. And why do I give Maya and Michel, Hiroko and Frank vitality? It is not because of the realistic accumulation of objective detail, like so much icing, around them. It is because, just as with actual people, I love these characters that they are real to me. Their realism, so-called, actually comes from me. The real doesn’t somehow leap from the words of the page of the text. It is given to the story by the love of the people in the story.

As I describe it, realism is bankrupt. Versimilitude represents the spirit of story telling itself. Versimilitude, the freewheeling love of a risky yarn, requires only that we let go of objective reality and care a little more for the people in the story. Screw Flaubert and his telling details, Zola and his drab poor, Stendhal and his limpid moralism: show me instead why I should give a damn, and I’ll read your damn story with pleasure.

On Alastair Reynold's 'Minla's Flowers'

Recently Alstair Reynolds won my admiration with his story ‘Minla’s Flower’. This story, or novelette if you want, is for me the story of Reynoldses’ which, whenever I think of his work, I say to myself “But where the hell did THAT story come from?”

The story reminds me of DH Lawrence’s Odour of Chrysanthemum’s, but it’s more complex. It definitely transcends the genre boundary of science fiction; I don’t even know what to call it. Catastrophe fiction? Existential fiction? Tragedy? Buggered if I know what to limit it to.

I was wrong about Mr Reynolds. I admit it. He is a very talented writer. A very very gifted man. And ‘Minla’s Flowers’ is a rare but perfect masterpiece of his.

Poor islam!

I'm watching a wonderful series of documentaries created by a Roman Catholic, Mark Dowd, talking to Jews, Christians and Muslims thoughout Israel. In this man's wise and bold questioning I seen in summation the nobility and precision of the whole Catholic humanist tradition. He is never Jesuitical; he is humane to the core.

As he speaks to many muslims in Egypt who all differ in their views and all say "We muslims believe..." or "We muslims should...".

Poor Islam!

On Aussie Election Falsehoods

"81 % of labor politicians are anti-business union officials" a billboard on South road tells me.

I muscle test the statement "union officials are anti-business." False. I muscle test the billboard as a whole. It tests weak.

Fi Fie Foh Fum
I smell the blood of a non sequitur.

It doesn't follow - does it? - that being a unionist makes you anti-business. It might make you "anti-" unfair or inhumane treatment of workers by business, for true or false.

The coalition under Mr Howard are in a spot. They can try to smear their opponents by the above falsehoods, and if elected continue business as usual, or they can come up with some new ideas and risk losing their existing support.

I see the election this way. For the liberals, its a popularity contest. For the labor party its about time for change.

Who has the strong message here?

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