Saturday, September 17, 2011


Dhalgren by Samuel Delany

I've admired most of Delany's books that I've read, but felt distant from them to a degree, that didn't happen here. The presence of language does a lot with this, it seemed. The text engages in some very ambitious use of represented mythology, boundaries of different genres, construction of racial and gender identities. This never came across as remote, though, in large part because speech effectively expressed a sense of lived in space, the way that people (particularly younger people) would plausibly think and talk about both race and sexuality. The sheer length of the book does play a major part in this (and it earns the right to its 800 pages more than about any other long novel I've encountered since Infinite Jest) building up impressions, sexual encounters and patterns of the city's dynamic such that it forces an impression. It still comes across as shocking, although not as much as it must have in '75, and not primarily due to the eroticism--yet it's still fascinating to see Delany be as unconcerned with describing the nature of the catastrophe and rebuilding process, instead centering on a bubble of lived identity in relation to the larger dislocating shift.

The irony is that in giving such a non-systematic view of the new community, so free of usual pattern of establishing big-scale assessments of community, it is a powerful structural challenge. It shifts the focus of science fiction pretty dramatically, onto an awareness of the body, the way that it is used, benefited and exploited through sex, violence, politics, and constructions of racial difference. In a lot of ways this forms a great companion piece to the near-contemporary The Dispossessed. Le Guin's book has a more elaborated pattern of political analysis, opening up of utopian alternates as well as questioning long-term tendencies of such patterns. Dhalgren goes further in looking at character within the limits of change and breakdown, in what I take to be a recognition of how pre-crisis systems were already virtually science fiction, already constructed and contrived across very precise narratives. That is to say the biggest point I take on this first reading is that there is no community or personal narrative, or science fictional narrative, without some kind of grappling with race, gender and sexuality, that our ability to even imagine these things is bounded. It's somewhat convenient to see that (and I'm sure that I am missing a lot in the book) as it's something I've been persuaded of for awhile, a bit through Delany's articles and from other academic texts more widely. It's still staggering to see that emerge as the push of a novel, particularly one of such raw power.

This is exactly the sort of book that needs to exist, and that demands more attention and general reworking of assumptions that it challenges. I have a great deal of respect for genre fiction of the '60s and '70s, particularly the New Wave, and even by this standard it's a stand-out. This is exactly the type of book that justifies the past and continued existence of science fiction. It also gives a rather sobering reflection on more recent take. Recently I've read a lot of science fiction and fantasy from across the last fifteen years, much of it very good. In recent years I'd have no hesitation in referencing Lavinia, The Dervish House, the City and the City, Windup Girl, In Great Waters, as indication that speculative fiction is still very much involved with issues of quality. Yet I don't think any of these are anywhere in the same league as Dhalgren, and I'm not sure that I've encountered anything from the past ten years which is. I wonder what that implies.

On the other side of the recognition, looking back I see that the Hugo voters didn't even nominate this book, although the Nebula's did, as one of the unprecedented before or since eighteen nominees. Only to give the award to The Forever War, also bypassing The Female Man. Forever War was a major work and an important statement on recent reality, but come on.


Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson. 2011.

*This is the book that rounds things out, and gives a fuller explanation for the nature of the Hypotheticals and their long-term implications. Which in itself makes the biggest problem I had going into the book, and to an extent at the end, in that I found it difficult to be very invested in the Hypotheticals, the nature of the Spin and the wider mechanics of the universe. I thought that Spin itself was a decent exploration of those issues, and that the wider questions didn't need further answering. It's been a long time since I read Spin, and Axis didn't further whet my appetite on these matters---quite the contrary.
*Yet in the end Wilson proved a lot of his mettle and made a very good book, well worth reading. Not great, though, and in the final analysis I'd say it falls significantly short of Spin and slightly short of Julian Comstock. Partly it's a problematic evoking of the big-scale issues, partly the near-future Earth sections not being as compelling. A bigger issue is that characterization doesn't seem to be as good as is usual for Wilson, partly as a consequence of the jumps around in setting and point of view I felt far less engaged by the people and their particular personality issues. It took too long for me to care about the main people for the book to really click on that level.
*Still there does remain a lot of value. Wilson is great at presenting a sense of scale, creating a representation of massive spatial and chronological limits that is grander than any other fiction we're likely to see this year (Baxter is going small scale this year, Reed doesn't seem to have anything major coming out). The notion of interconnected worlds, the nature of the Hypotheticals themselves and particularly the last forty pages capture a sense of truly cosmic scale and drama.
*Also great is the outgrowth of some of the blander elements from Axis, particularly the politics of Equatoria. Vox Core is a great construction, and quite complex--on the one hand more genuinely democratic and egalitarian than current societies, but also far from a one-note utopia--they have a single linked conscience that makes it easy to tolerate the slaughter of rivals, and they are in basis a descendant of a fanatic faction that finds it easy to reinforce their own rather biased assumptions. The dynamic of how this plays out, from the slaughter of the Farmers to their own destruction through misplaced veneration of the Hypotheticals, is very strong material, and has a lot of value to say on religious both explicitly and symbolically.
*In the end I still can't say that Spin sequels were really needed, but there's a lot of pleasure and interest to see this series finish out. I'm quite interested to see where Wilson goes after this.

Grade: B+

Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

The first line of dialog in the book is "I can't believe we have to go through this again". I concur. In the end this seems one of the more aggressively pointless works, largely due to its reboot qualiteis. In the introduction to the piece Scalzi tries to present it as all things to all people--it's a new version of the story to bring the main themes up to date, it's an autonomous story that happens to use some of the same characters, it's an homage to the original that can bring more attention and readers to a past classic. The result is to make me quite unsure on why Scalzi actually settled on this project.

My own connection to the original franchise is minimal, I've heard it mentioned a few places and read the last volume a long time ago. I don't feel that it's a betrayal to revive it again, and am not as critical as if it were, say, another butchering of the Foundation Universe. I don't much like the practice of taking over abandoned genre sand-boxes, and it's hard to fight the impression that Scalzi is doing this as a way of provoking more discussion and a sense of newness over his writing while at the same time is explicitly becoming less original.

All that aside, what emerges from the story is quite generic, even if it were rebranded enough to have no relation to the original series I'd still feel safe calling it heavily derivative. There's dynamics of colonization, alien contact, a bit of corporate intrigue, and a protracted high-impact legal battle. The story isn't terrible, but it doesn't do very much with any of these elements, or do more than slightly warm over the stock SF narrative of past decades. Scalzi has in the past brought a lot more humor and energy to proceedings that can push through his employment of cliches, here the plot is slow enough and the dialog labored such that it settles into mediocrity early, and only pushes past that in brief flashes across the book. For all that we were laboriously told about the impact of the proceedings on the planetary ecology, on the characters' finances and ideals, on indeed on the larger colonial economy, it was very hard to feel that there were real stakes at any point. I've read worse books from 2011, and even books less distinguished, but this had a sense of controlled mediocrity that felt particularly frustrating, like Scalzi was consistently hitting safe groundballs to push forward his story, and in the process draining it of real interest.

I gobbled down the Old Man War trilogy, a fun ride with a fair bit of substance below the surface, particularly in worldbuilding. Since then I've felt a deep sense of diminishing returns, Scalzi's contribution to the 2008 Hugo Shortlist meltdown with the breezy, inconsequential tie-in Zoe's Tale, the deeply inert God Engines, and in the 'real world' his own insistence on defending fandom against the whiners and critics--which is to say defending it as a zero-challenge exercise in mediocrity, among other things. I guess given that it shows an avoidance of hypocrisy to carry that into his own writing, in which the very reboot format declares his intention to boldly chart a story of change and revolution in an echo of past forms, staying strongly within a particular box. Which isn't the worst thing in the world, and I'm sure a lot of people will be pleased by Fuzzy Nation, but I'm not pleased by the way things seem to have gone. I think I'll add Scalzi to the category of Dropped Authors (with Stross, Sawyer, Martin, Bear and Haldeman) authors that I had followed pretty regularly, but are not delivering at a level to reward that attention, whom I'll avoid in the future unless I encounter a review or other reason to suggest things have significantly changed.

Grade: C-

Similar to and better than: God Engines by John Scalzi

Similar to and worse than: Newton's Wake by Ken Macleod