Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: The Ophiuchi Hotline, by John Varley

The Ophiuchi Hotline is one of John Varley's "Eight Worlds" novels, which share a common setting in which humanity has been exiled from earth to populate (gradually, and with difficulty) the moon and surrounding planets. The novels and shorts tend to focus on related themes: the meaning of life when it is indefinite; the meaning of sexuality when the body becomes easily reconfigurable; psychological exploration when boundaries of brain and body are expanded; of species survival in a hostile world; of the relationship between culture and the individual. Varley consistently does a difficult thing very well: creating social thought experiments in a society that is convincingly complex, with only the necessary minimum of sf kludges, and comprised of people who act like people, and he does it with interest and humor, with a real joy in the details, pointing out weird but sympathetic variations on human behavior. He's a bit less good at creating a setting which is consistent among the various stories, and even though the backstory and themes are very similar, The Ophiuchi Hotline has some big issues of chronology and emphasis with Steel Beach and the other books he wrote in the nineties to make the meaning very different, but maybe given the long intermission he took in writing, we can consider the later ones sort of a reprise.

It's a few centuries after human technology (and terrestrial humanity, very nearly, as a consequence) has been eradicated from the home planet. The marginal Lunar settlement was able to survive for awhile, but things only really started moving forward for the species when they were able to intercept and decode a broadcast, apparently from a good 70 light years out, beaming out endless technical information to get the hairless apes up to speed. This novel, quite unlike the others (in fact, I think the hotline isn't a feature of any of the other stories at all), puts a focus on the various extrasolar denizens of the universe, a brief light on what they're like, and what they want. The invaders, never observed but in this one, are cetacean-like species, incomprehensible consciousnesses that perceive the universe in some fundamentally different ways, endemic to gas-giant planets (including Jupiter), and the motive for wiping out people was sympathy for their ocean-dwelling cousins. The broadcasters of the hotline are different kinds of beings, and the mechanics of the plot are driven by a sudden change in the message: after 400 years of free information that got the last shreds of humanity to thrive across the solar system, they are now presenting us with the bill. I won't spoil the resolution very much, except to say that it kind of maps an ecology of life and culture in the broader universe, but not in a very resolute way, and it's not as satisfying as in the usual Eight Worlds story, where the invaders are mostly considered a fait accompli, and humanity is left to be its own worst enemy.

The plot itself is plenty people-centric. We're introduced to convicted felon Lilo, a scientific pioneer whose research has run afoul of the few hard and fast rules of the Eight Worlds society. The science of cloning and memory recording is a serviceable way to extend life of the individual, but the society has strict population rules, and even when everything goes, where outward morphology and internal plumbing hardly matters anymore, people remain squeamish about the philosophical consequences of duplicating yourself, and of losing whatever genetic heritage makes us uniquely human. Normally, death of the body gets you reset at an earlier point, from whenever you were last recorded, more or less like a video game death. For her crimes, however, Lilo faces a grim sentence, execution of her body and erasure of the record of her mind, and the opening of the book, presents the first of her desperate evasions of fate. The first dodge is sacrificing an illegal (fully sentient, fully Lilo) clone in her place, and it starts the exploration of lives bifurcated, survived, and lost. Outside the law now, she's conscripted to join a team of similarly shanghaied individuals to work on (it turns out) the mystery of the changed message from mankind's benefactors. The trip's a compelling one, and it presents plenty of details to explore a strange, but familiar world.

For someone who's presented with a strong sense of individuality and will to live, there must end up six or seven Lilos by the end, each, convincingly a little bit different in character (or differently influenced by her surroundings). It's a little bit cruel of the author to do this to her, and it makes for a disjointed reading experience as well, making it hard to connect to the character or the story, especially as she changes subtly. An intentional irony, and Varley emphasizes it further here and there by jumping the style: sometimes a point of view is presented as a journal entry, and occasionally as a deposition (but these don't distinguish a different Lilo, as is only very clear near the end). Some Lilos meet the respective interfering cultures, and the kaleidoscope of her character is also meant, in part, to tie in to the unexplainable way that Varley tells us the invaders experience time. For the confusing style, and for the more outward-looking (and, strangely enough, consequently weaker) emphasis, and for the unsatisfying resolution, I rate The Ophiuchi Hotline lower than most of the stories I've read in this setting, but it's still a thought-provoking read.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Devils We Know

It gets to the point of cliché to observe this, but through every new election cycle I've tried to stay awake for, it's that much more obvious that we're meant to judge our candidates by some kind of cultural shorthand more than by their positions and views, or the historical evidence they present for pursuing them. [Would we have a beer with this guy is the dumb shorthand, but it's not like I'm a special flower, above all this. For me, I found that George Bush's dumbfuck fake cowboy routine made my teeth grind, but I was occasionally susceptible to more mature poses, such as Al Gore's or Barack Obama's ability to patiently speak in complete sentences containing polysyllabic words. It's not less an act, it's just one that is meant to appeal to knowledge-worker tools such as myself.] Expectations are justifiably low. The human concerns that most desperately require collective action (such as looming environmental crises, resource management plans, egregious class inequality, and the well-being of the non-elect) require a serious disruption of the existing power structure to achieve, and I have a cynic's faith that that it won't be achieved using that structure. Which isn't to say that any of these guys, when elected, won't turn that machine toward making things actively worse for the species. That cynic in me expects new and expanded wars as a matter of course, but the boundaries of the in-group, who is included and who isn't, is given as a sort of wildcard, and that's the place where our votes may actually help. I don't think the dominant ideologies will push any other big issue forward much, but if some of our would-be leaders really believe in turning back the clock on equality, then that's all too feasible.

Which brings us to Rick Santorum. There is much about that vindictive cracker that seriously bugs me, but I can't tell if he's only offering cues to a tribe that's not mine, or if he does in fact contain an extra level of evil in his tortured soul. It's not like he lacks for insincerity, and the anti-intellectualism isn't exactly unusual from what you get from team Republican, but when it comes to religious types with a taste for power, it can be hard to tell where the scam ends and the conviction begins. In the puckered little sphincter of Rick Santorum's mind, any belief is automatically justified because he sees himself as a godly sort. Last week's soundbite about the theology of radical environmentalism ("not real theology" says Rick) gets me to the core, as if any kind of theology should dictate environmental policy. Mixing religion and politics buys a super-secret mystical threat to underline every statement and action he may pursue: if you don't support this guy, if you believe anything other than what he says, then you don't just disagree with him, you sin. When it comes to Santorum, the froth doesn't even stop at vague righteousness. He's doubled down on the usual evangelical language, named names, called out God and the Adversary to perch on his shoulders and look down at you. Maybe it's the natural progression of all this "under god" shuck and jive, the crumbling wall between church and state has let through a refutation-proof justification for anything and everything when someone professes loudly enough that they have the big bearded dude on their side. Scary to consider Santorum a would-be theocrat.

Here's Rick back in 2008 (via, which got it from the Drudge report, of all places, which I ain't gonna link). Tremble in holy fear:

“While we all see all this as a great political conflict in warfare between the Obama camp and the McCain camp and culture wars, what Bishop Aquila put his finger on and what I think, I suspect those of you who are here understand, this is not a political war at all. This is not a cultural war. This is a spiritual war.”

“And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age? There is no one else to go after other than the United States and that has been the case now for almost 200 years, once America’s preeminence was sown by our great Founding Fathers.”
The thing is, I know this schtick. And I am a little resentful for the experience. I'm a little surprised to find it rendered as a Catholic thing: Guilt? The (negotiable) threat of hell? Those as Catholic menaces I know of, but Satan walking among us, tricking the naïve out of their souls, that's a lot more like the televangelist grift I grew up with. It was the early eighties, okay? And there was an active hysteria about corruption of young minds through rock music,* which took some purchase among the minds of worried church parents, and those lessons filtered down to us kids, about how Satan might be invited into our lives unknowingly: how participating in innocent-seeming secular rituals might be a subversive form of witchcraft; how the wrong music might subconsciously turn us to the dark side, through overt irreverence or secret backwards messages; how we might mutter the wrong figure of speech and actually end up selling our precious soul for a donut.

And y'know, it's funny. Although you'd routinely pray for sick people and so on, the best that the personal relationship with Jesus was really supposed to afford you was a sort of meditative serenity, a knowing of some kind. It was implied that Satan, meanwhile, if you gave up enough, could actually accomplish stuff in the material world. It was an insidious superstition to a little ambivalent type like me,** considering that (a) I had none of the private epiphanies that were supposed to be the route to Christian salvation, and (b) I did occasionally, more or less, accomplish stuff--did every step forward in my life come at the expense of some portion of my soul? Neither of these conditionals coule be disproven. There was no promise of miracles if I did believe, and no way was I going to take the gamble of dealing with the big red feller on purpose (although an attempt would have no doubt been instructively futile). Effects to my invisible soul from these purported bargains were ineffable by definition, and I could always fail any test with insufficient faith, which for me, was inevitable.

The most insightful thinking on obsessive-compulsive disorders that I've read (or heard about--I think it was an NPR segment actually) is that they are essentially a bodily expression of mental anxiety, and not centered on beliefs that compulsive actions will influence things. That seems like a correct understanding to me. It makes sense that concern about your kids' rebellion could get you obsessively overturning rocks to find a reinvented Satan living under them. And it made sense that an 11- or 12-year-old could find mortality such a cosmic affront that he'd resort to superstition, especially when the nicer adults I knew had bought in and sold it to me as pure truth.

As things scale up, I am undecided on whether puissant pissants such as the guiding stars of the Christian Coalition, or Rick Santorum, are merely in the business of transferring their doubt and superstition to the public because they're in a position to do so, like parents worried about their kids' music habits or if they are exploiting the religious fears of the little peaople. Are they cynically assuaging the legions of OCD-style moralists out in the world to make them follow, or are they simply speaking the language of shared anxieties? Maybe paternalism is just a viable route to power, and god knows it's been tried. I am not sure those things are exclusive, or whether the reasons matter. It'll be hell on those of us who have grown up.

*I actually must have been around 14 or 15 for this anecdote (my daughter's age!), which tells me that the desire for belief went on longer than I prefer to think. I can place it because my brother had a Guns n Roses T-shirt on, skulls on a cross, which puts him at about 13 and the year about 1987. The poor kid ended up being the perfect person from the crowd to draw out and shame. The lecture was in a church basement somewhere, and we were brought there out of a very sincere concern that some kids from the youth group didn't quite bring themselves to renounce Led Zeppelin, etc., who were, we were told, indeed proselytizing on behalf of Satan himself. Until this point, the faithful people that I'd encountered had been very honest and well-meaning, good examples, and this con artist might have been the first person in my consciousness to finally cross the streams of Selling Something and Good People, and it was a big turning point. To this day, the motivations puzzle me, but most likely, it was a paid seminar, and this fuckhead was the spiritual equivalent of the unaccountable consultant uselessly instructing corporate drones to think outside the box or some other such happy horseshit.

I remember that the course opened with a quote (from Nietzsche?), that I've since been unable to find. Something about how if you wish to control a people, you first must control their music. It's an aphorism that I'd in fact prefer to locate, because like much that's used to mislead, there's an element of truth to it. Revolutions and movements have all had their theme songs, as do nations, and the twentieth century tapped some of that stuff intentionally. It's an interesting theme to riff on, but there was, to the point of the talk, no devil that was whispering in the ears of rock and roll musicians to further his nefarious ends. This guy played us kids on a great big false syllogism.

Not to say there wasn't explicitly anti-Christian music out there at the time, not that I'd expect any promoter putting himself on the side of Jesus H. Christ to address very honestly the various reason that it was written or would sell. The thing is, he drew that kind of iconography down so far as to include anyone who'd ponder spirituality at all, lumping in any reasonably honest disagreement or question or disillusionment, and, because no countervailing discourse could be tolerated, everything not on the overt God list got lumped in with Slayer. (Seriously, Hall and fucking Oates was one of the bands he tried to make us worry about.) Call it guilt by association maybe. Even the most negative stuff, my adult self realizes, was probably only ever meant ironically, or as sincere criticism. And what wasn't those things was most likely a marketing gimmick, those bands manipulating their audience's irreverence just as cynically as this guy who was peddling Christian angst. I love me a heartfelt dissent, but I tend to remain unimpressed with rebellion that's done without honesty or humor or artistry. Those fuckers are making a different buck, but they're grifters too.

At the end of the seminar, we were all asked to close our eyes. Everyone who's accepted Christ raise your hands. I wonder, as he counted, what he thought. Probably it was just gauging success of the lecture, how long could he keep up the racket. Maybe there was some personal satisfaction at conversion, thinking he had worked the audience, maybe turning them to what he saw as the good. My own eyes were shut tight, and I was trying hard, but not succeeding, to accept this line of crackpottery, almost certainly for the last time. I wonder how many of my peers kept 'em open. I wonder what they thought as they did, if they were wise enough to realize the crowd was getting played. I wonder who raised their hands.

**Even today, I tend to view the world with a great deal of ambivalence, coming to conclusions only after a very lengthy devil's advocacy (so to speak). Eventually, it gave way to a naturalist perspective, and I hope I've become the right sort of skeptic as a result. I had an ear for profundity as a kid too, a need to find deep meaning in existence, and I really wanted to believe in a higher order of things. In those days, Middle Earth was even more compelling than Christian salvation, and it's maybe a good thing no one was telling me that was real. I am fortunate that I had some good anti-authoritarian influences, but there was no one at that age to really show me how beauty and depth is compatible with empiricism, and I think it's kind of a shame that I didn't find any of that reading until much later.

Monday, February 20, 2012


Like everything else imbued with human associations, geography is a funny thing: we have ways of sowing it with little landmines just in the course of living our life, nostalgic deathtraps that seem to grow in power the longer we ignore them, especially in those places that struggle to ever change. I had a trip to New York the other week, to the Saratoga Springs area, near which my current employers operate a mill. It is a stretch that is not by any means The City, but is also not upstate in a meaningful sense, and while New York has plenty of nowheres to find yourself in the middle of, it is close enough to a handful of somewheres to almost count. And there’s something additionally lonely in the nightlife of a tourist town off-season. Everything’s open, but no one’s there.

If you ever need to drive from Massachusetts to eastern New York, you can’t do better than to take the length of route 2. Even as a guy who resents every motherfucking minute of my life that I waste piloting a motor vehicle, I love this particular drive. It’ll take you up through the Berkshires, around the quasi-famous hairpin turn, descending into artsy Williamstown, and up again through mountains in New York. The vistas feel local and private, not open, made up of imposing tree-covered grades across which the road is compelled to switch back and forth in order to ascend, each turn opening up to find you in the thick of more wooded slopes. Where a view does open up on the peaks, it’s inevitably affixed with the quarter-century-old ruins of motels and kitsch shops, abandoned from a time when people did more budget sightseeing. I guess even the leaf-peepers can’t be arsed to go across that way, and something in that appeals to me. If I was in a field where I could make a living while avoiding people, then, if it wasn’t the Green or White mountains, or the Litchfield Hills, then I’d live in a place like this. It’s the trees and the hillls.

It’s a lovely way come back from the Saratoga area, especially in a solitary mood, but I couldn’t return along 2 without traversing the old minefields. I went to school in Troy NY, and while on one level I enjoyed it, and although it felt like one of the few life decisions I was able to make that was right, I also managed to plant a disproportionate number of depth charges there, and that town changes slowly enough to keep nostalgia alive, even if the university continues its quixotic effort to "improve." The trip took me right through the heart of memory, and I went so far as to stop at the student union to take a leak and hopefully steal a couple minutes of wireless access, but apparently the latter privilege only comes with a thirty thousand yearly subscription. Relieving myself is harder to prevent, I guess. The trip went badly, emotion-wise, dredging up regrets that I hardly knew I had in the day, and I am in a mind to take a big old piss on the place, instead of one discreetly within its borders, as if it bears some fault for how my life has gone.

In his books, Kurt Vonnegut often referred to the town of Ilium, a sort of Mecca of American innovation and urbanity that has evaded its actual namesake for at least a century. Real-life Ilium is that rare university town that suffers little of the prestige of the couple or three institutions within its borders. Up the river there’s the Schenectady where Proteus Steinmetz worked to define electrical engineering, where even now, GE still hasn’t outsourced its R&D headquarters. Down the river, there’s the goddamn capital. In between, you got a whole lot of depressing Trojanness, as if it were rebuilt, but only just barely, after the last time it burned down 150 years ago. Back on the Fray, I had a conversation a few years ago with a guy who went to RPI fifty years before I did. Troy was, he recalled, a shantytown then too, and it must have been quite a defiant one to suck so thoroughly in the middle of a technological hotbed in boom times, supplying it with engineers even. I mean, Wikipedia tells me that it was a prosperous town once, but that was over a century ago, sometime way back before Big Steel went to Pennsylvania. It’s been sliding inexorably since. It’s got to be why Vonnegut felt he had to code-name the place, to fictionalize the Capital District enough to write out its problem middle child.

Longtime readers of this blog will notice a recurring fascination I have with New England’s midlist factory towns, as I’ve lived or passed through them, trying to piece the cultural character based on its vintage industry. It seems like I always end up in or around one of them, and I give you the likes of Waterbury and Torrington CT (brass), Willimantic CT and Lowell MA (textiles), Leominster MA Naugatuck CT (polymers). They’ve all as good as left, the industries, and the cities are filled with a different selection of immigrants servicing the different economic niches that are available nowadays. They’re similar enough historically, ethnically, and geographically, and make for interesting compare and contrast exercises. Do the cultural differences come from the nature of the work? Or maybe it’s the titans that once governed it. I still can’t answer that question well. You find all these old mills still perched on their now-less-polluted riverbanks, anti-jewels set in pastoral velvet, monuments in smoke-scorched red brick (America is only so old) to more barbarously productive ages. The rivers were convenient as drains or raw materials or (depending on how far back you might go) power, but the surrounding areas stayed rural for a long time, and you can head out to the outskirts of any of these places, and find, even now, a couple farms that aren’t quite given over to burbclaves. The vogue for the factories themselves is to renovate them into designer lofts, and the attendant railroads have been dismantled for scrap and landscaping.

My immediate and lasting impression of Troy was as a mirror of Waterbury, which is more or less where I grew up. (In one of the suburbs, itself an old factory town. I am more familiar with the edges of Waterbury, where my grandparents lived.) And although they’d look pretty comparable in a slide-by-slide comparison of their greater and lesser parts, there’s something about Troy that makes it seem so much more fundamentally shabby and depressing, like it just stopped trying. (I mean, it does have the universities, which is an incredible point in its favor, and eastern New York is almost as nice as eastern Connecticut, but these assets don’t seem to buoy the place up.) Maybe a technical college town just invites weary cynicism, because after all, who’s more grouchy and depressed than your average engineer? Waterbury, if you read the local paper, supports some sort of vindictive, authoritarian pride of place, but at least it’s something. The area is churchier, which helps the architecture some, and it has a downtown stretch that you’d be tempted to stroll around. When you drive past Waterbury, you go past the hospital, the iconic brick clocktower, and then, across the river, the south end of town manifests as white houses popping up through the trees. Troy, on the other hand, crouches on the side of the Hudson like a surly pile of rubble, like a rusting hulk, sucking away your hopes before you even cross the bridge. Yes, the alma mater rises tastefully on the hill, a pearl on the midden, and for reasons of its own, it’s been dwarfing the iconic green copper roofs with a succession of 1970s-style brutalism and zippy 1950s-style sci-fi palaces. The town itself has some notoriety for its preserved 19th century buildings, but not, like these towns east of the Berkshires, in the form of big, imposing industrial cathedrals, and more of the closed-in and oppressive variety that recalls the squalid living in old New York City that you couldn’t escape even with great wealth. Troy is a shithole’s shithole.

Although I have to say that to this day, I have never known a place in Waterbury where I’d like to get a beer, and those little niches of mordant hospitality were my absolute favorite part of living in Ilium. The place wasn’t so far gone that there weren’t places of peace and humor if you needed them, and there’s something satisfying and personal about being one to get that. And sure, the outskirts got interesting in one or two directions. It often occurs to me that maybe I’m the reason the place made such a weird impression. God knows I’m better tuned to love/hate than to uncomplicated love. Fucking regret. Seriously.