“O Black Hole!”

This animation from director and animator Renee Zhan is weird and wonderful and existential and it will fulsomely reward you for the 16 minutes you entrust to it. Never mind that the filmmaker describes it this way:

“A woman who can’t stand the passing of time sucks everyone and everything she loves inside herself to keep them with her forever. Eventually, she turns into a black hole.

“A thousand unchanging years pass inside her dark embrace until one day, the Singularity wakes.”

Alien Ant Colony

Photo by Roman.

That’s what it is. Obviously.

There they are, under a protective dome, while they work their technomagic to modify the earth to their liking. Is that to your disadvantage? Is your way of life about to change radically? Maybe to the limits of sustainability? Too bad.

But not to worry. It will begin slowly, barely perceptibly. Watch for strangely aggressive earthworms at first… followed by half-eaten Robins… followed by — well, you really don’t want to know.

But again, no worries. You may not live long enough to see it all. And if you do, perhaps you’ll be selected for the bio-preserve where you will be viewed with something akin to nostalgia by a species not well known for emotion but reluctant to simply throw away anything that might have some future use.

In the meantime, welcome to the human zoo.

The Great Game

a review by bob roman

The Betrayals by Bridget Collins, William Morrow / HarperCollins, 2021

What is this novel by U.K. author Bridget Collins? Well, as it is an intricately plotted, character-centered story, one could call it a soap opera. But at 400 pages, it is about half the length one might expect of the literary version of that genre — I mean, think War and Peace or Anna Karenina… No, it’s too short. It might be a gothic novel as most of it takes place in an isolated mountain academy, Montverre, with a vulnerable female protagonist: the Magister Ludi, to name her by her title, and yes, there is that ongoing element of repressed sexual tension there too. But “gothic” would be a far too partial a characterization to be accurate. Or you could call it alternate history / speculative fiction. This comes closest to the mark as the setting is, like most sci-fi, very much a character in the plot. But whatever niche is occupied by The Betrayals, the novel is not for everyone as the plot depends on ambiguity to maintain its momentum.

Ambiguity! Obviously I am enthralled. I love ambiguity (just peruse this blog and you’ll see). But ambiguity is something that others may find difficult or disappointing.

Consider one of the major elements of the setting, the grand jeu. This is French for big / great game. But what is it? Baseball? Quidditch? It won’t be much of a spoiler to say that Collins was inspired by Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, but it has been decades since I’ve read any of Hesse’s work and none of it has remained in accessible memory. This is probably true for most of her readers. So how does Collins handle this? It’s as simple as “The gostak distims the doshes.”

Nonsense? Not really. The syntax alone imparts information (see the Wikipedia article). All the author need do is carefully layer additional suggestions, clues if you will, that evoke meaning and relations in the mind of the reader. If it is done well, the reader is led on, following a trail (or trails) to find greater resolution. Bridget Collins is a master at this.

Collins also does this with her main characters, and I found this to be wonderfully attractive. For all that they are bright, educated people, none of them are entirely aware of why they make the choices that they do, and they second guess and suffer for it. Western culture in particular glorifies rational self-interest, but in fact we are often miserable at calculation and torn unaware by our own conflicting agendas. And then there are the circumstances surrounding these choices. To paraphrase old Karl Marx: Humans make history, but not just as we please. The combination is fertile ground for betrayal after betrayal.

Collins isn’t perfect at drawing her characters. One of her main characters, Léo Martin, begins the novel as an aspiring cabinet minister in an extreme right-wing, authoritarian party (referred to only as the Party) recently elected to power and consolidating its hold on the government and the country. Her portrayal of this portion of Martin’s life shows him far too naive and resourceless, not at all C suite material if you will, but I doubt most readers will notice. Politics has become so professionalized and thus out of most people’s experience that most folks would have a hard time sorting fantasy from the plausible. Remember this: about three quarters of all politics is gossip.

It is tempting to regard Léo Martin as an unreliable narrator. And he is. But he is also clearly not entirely in touch with himself. One might say he contradicts himself and thereby becomes legion. It is beautiful to see this aspect of personality manifested in prose. I do think this may not be unusual. Which one of you is reading this. Which one of me chose or typed these words?*

The story is told in the present tense. Flashbacks, in the form of journal entries, are in the past tense. It’s an interesting arrangement. I like Collins’ prose generally, but my favorite is the first chapter, introducing Rat. Not all the rest of the writing is this good.

The author brings the story in for a deft landing that includes a bouquet of betrayals and a twist that seems to offer a way out. And maybe it does. Ambiguity, remember? You can write the post-ending story as some manner of happy-ever-after romance, but the nature of authoritarian regimes is to make as many as possible complicit in their crimes, actively or passively. It’s a seemingly never ending series of betrayals, large and small. My humble opinion is that it ends well for no one.

Oh, and apart from my humble comments on technique, what’s the novel actually about? Read the bloody book; anything else is a spoiler. If you like the first chapter half as much as I do, you’re very likely to like the rest.

I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to read this book. Maybe you will too.

Photo by Roman.

* Dissociative Identity Disorder would be an extreme example of this, but I’m not suggesting that everyone has these separate identities, rather merely multiple personalities that are assumed almost like clothing to fit the circumstances. When these personalities have conflicting agendas, the stage is set for self-sabotage…

“The Unraveling”

a review by bob roman

The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum, Erewhon Books, 2021

It’s not unusual for me to find a library book that I’ve never heard of by an author I’ve never heard of, only to find that the author has been hitting them out of the park for years now and the book has a fearsome buzz. I routinely plead guilty, confessing how thoroughly unhip I am.

But I had heard of this book and the author, having read a review of the book by Jake Casella Brookins at the Chicago Review of Books and an essay about the book by Benjamin Rosenbaum himself at John Scalzi’s Whatever blog. When I ran across the volume in the Harold Washington Library’s “Popular Library” section, I didn’t need to contemplate the cover or its blurbs.

It is also not unusual for me to complain just how much genre books end up seeming like Frankenstein’s monster, made of whatever parts are available or popular. These chimera can seem to have a life of their own, but they lurch and sway on the precarious edge of falling into a tar pit of boredom. Most of the pieces from which The Unraveling is constructed have been scattered about the sci-fi / pop culture scene for a while but out of these bits Rosenbaum has constructed something fresh. This happens only now and then, so while Rosenbaum has been nominated for a variety of sci-fi awards, it is about time that he wins one and this book may be it.

The Unraveling is basically an illicit love story and coming of age story that shakes the world that it inhabits, set some half million years in the future on a vaguely named planet some 400 light years from Earth. If that time and place seems a bit wild, there is no fantasy physics here (no faster than light travel, for example) and while some of the biology may be pretty speculative, our species, Homo Sapiens, is already about a half million years old in 2021. The future’s remoteness allows the familiar to seem a bit alien and the alien rather less outlandish. (The late Gene Wolfe did a brilliant job with this in his series The Book of the New Sun.) As one blurb-writer described the protagonist: “Fift has 3 bodies, 9 parents, 50 million viewers, 1 (?) forbidden love [and] 1 chance to save the world.”

This effect also makes for a good setting for one of the central themes of the book, gender as a social construct. The society in The Unraveling has two binary genders, “vail” and “staid” that are almost entirely divorced from reproductive biology. For the curious, the protagonist, Fift Brulio Iraxis, gets a brief childhood “birds and bees” conversation early on and in Fift’s world changing a person’s reproductive role is not much of a medical challenge. The profession of “genital designer” is a thing in The Unraveling. Maybe something for the stylish…

If that seems a bit weird or overly philosophical: guys, consider your pectorals, those muscular pecs you’re so proud of — or not. Gals, take a good look at his pecs too. Are you done? Sorry to break the news but those are boobs or, to be less colloquial, breasts. No, I’m not being insulting. All the biology to make and dispense milk is present; male nipples are not some useless evolutionary left-over. This is true of most all mammals, incidentally, and I would speculate that it may be one of the reasons mammals made it through the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event when so much else was buried by that asteroid etc. That doesn’t clear gender of all biology, but it should make apparent just how much the meanings we assign to gender influences our perception of ourselves and of others.

For the reader, the immediate consequence is new pronouns to learn, ve and ze. Understandably, Rosenbaum uses them liberally, particularly in the earlier parts of the story and this is a bit of a challenge. (It also reminds me that, in my humble opinion, we routinely over-use pronouns.)

Likewise, the portrayal of multiple bodies sometimes create a textual confusion, with several diverse conversations or storylines simultaneously in progress on the page, undelimited except as paragraphs. Sometimes this works to comic effect, as in a family quarrel or debate. Other times, not so much. With this feature, Rosenbaum may (or may not) have made unnecessary extra work for himself and his readers. While it adds to the strangeness, I found myself considering the octopus whose intelligence is more widely distributed in its body than just in its head but includes each of its eight arms. This is not unlike the multi-bodied denizens of Rosenbaum’s future, but I have read that each of the octopus’ arms seem to have something of their own personality while all of Fift’s bodies are closer than genetic twins. On the other hand, it widens gender’s divorce from reproduction.

Fift’s parents, incidentally, struck me as something out of turn-of-the-century pop culture: absurd, well meaning but in some respects out of touch or self-absorbed and only sometimes effectual.

Such challenges ought to demand soaring, vivid writing. There’s not much of that in The Unraveling. But there is heart-felt writing about the pecking-order games that children often play or the awkward and anxious stirrings of love and affection and commitment or the fear of discovery and of falling or the confusion of sorting out expectations, or the fear and demagoguery of the social media mob. The language did not need to soar for it to be rewarding. It speaks to the experience of growing up in the latter half of the 20th Century and the 21st thus far. That the story prospers in the face of such challenges to the reader speaks well of the writing.

In stories such as this, the imagined universe wherein the story is set can be counted as one of the characters in the drama. Rosenbaum has done a terrific job in creating this future society. As a mostly post-scarcity society, popularity has assumed the role of money, making social media mobs all the more fraught and the basis for something resembling social class. Judging by Rosenbaum’s essay at Whatever, the imagined universe may have benefited from an extensive false start on the novel. Regardless, it’s well done and mostly show not tell.

Lately I’ve been attentive to how writers end their story and Rosenbaum’s solution was clever and to the point, as the novel is about the kids and not so much the revolution. I liked it very much.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Benjamin Rosenbaum’s work.

Photo by Roman.