Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review: The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi

I never realized it before reading this novel, but what the world needs is a dystopia in the style of Graham Greene, where the sadness, secrecy, danger, ubiquity... the altogether oppressiveness of a failed social effort can be written up as the perfect pot to stew the uneasy moral gristle of the characters.  Greene, of course, had a knack for spotting these tired pockets of the real world, but your better science fiction is all about removing constraints like that, and it has a long history of creating sorry futures as a critique of political ideas.  It'd be a great marriage, is what I'm saying.

The Windup Girl is not that novel, for better or worse, but I will admit that I read a good third of it really wanting it to shape up as a new Quiet American.  The setting works: it's in a future southeast Asia, in a region historically resistant to imperialism, yet eternally dealing with the attempt, simmering with potential coups and clogged up with its own webs of loyalty, history, crime and general hardship.  Generations of resource depletion and biological capitalism have left humanity diseased and dependent, and in the Thailand of the story, have put subsistence living toe to toe with modernity.  We are also introduced early on to a character I wanted to read as a reinvented Alden Pyle.  Similarly named, Anderson Lake is likewise more of an interloper than a proper protagonist, who, along with the boozy expats of his acquaintance, doesn't quite jibe with the culture.  He's in truth a powerful political agent, a fact belied by his willingness to risk himself within the intrigues of Thai society.  He takes a possessive interest in a local woman, and, well, even if that's as far as the similarities go, you can at least see why I was rolling with this.

But the cracks start early.  We're in Lake's mind from the beginning of the book, and it doesn't take long for the his schemes to be revealed, in context, as probably malignant.  Nor is there any allegorical love triangle here.  Emiko may be a trophy object but, well, she's not Thai for one thing (not even Japanese, strictly speaking), and more importantly, she is a challenging individual in her own right.  There is overall too much action, too many characters, and not the right kind of internal space to really qualify as a Greene knockoff.  It's not a tenuously drawn inner balance, this novel, it's the usual point-of-view plot mosaic.

Bacigalupi imagines a world where food sources have been monopolized by a handful of "calorie companies," modern-day Monsantos who have long since succeeded in suppressing local agriculture in exchange for imports or rights to grow non-propagating proprietary strains that the companies sell.  (It's the American Midwest extrapolated to a global hellscape.)  It's not spelled out whether the succession of plagues that have further eradicated old species and leveled the human population were intentionally waged by the calorie companies, or whether they were a result of tempting the world's fate with highly engineered monoculture.  In any case, the political arms of the companies actively seek out what biodiversity is left, with an aim to develop it (no doubt with similar results down the line), and keep the business one step ahead of the next pandemic.  Thailand has made it this far by vicious containment measures, and a rumored pet scientist.  The nation has also maintained an old seed vault in the capital that Anderson Lake wants very much to negotiate. 

The detail of this sorry world is very well drawn out, and the author has really done a good job in fleshing out a location for its conflicts, and selecting characters to witness it from different angles.   This Bangkok seethes with people and squirms under the weight of history.  There is a languor to the city that comes from more than the jungle climate, it's heat, fatalism, decay, a struggle that's more necessary than hopeful. The impact of global scourge and dearth of kilowatt-hours is so effectively shown that I kept noticing the times it was told.  (My only mild complaint about this book is that he uses just a hair more neologisms than I felt were necessary.)

Most things are windup in this world.  The earth has been so poorly used that hand-crank power has become the ubiquitous poor-man's alternative to carbon.  However, Emiko (the girl of the title) isn't throwback tech, she's been made to have jerky toy-like motions.  Emiko is an engineered person, a New Person in the book's language, one who has been bred, altered, and conditioned from birth for a role as a high-end courtesan.  Not just with the creepy doll motions, she's genetically predisposed to obey and please, to seek male guidance, and what the hell, that's three novels in a row (not to mention a tv show) now where subservience is governed by sci-fi technicalities, and although it's gotten under my skin, Emiko's arc is quite satisfying in this story, because this is a girl whose mind has a slim chance of conquering her genetic tendencies.  This far from removed the microcosm for which she's been designed, obedience has treated her poorly.  Abandoned by her old patron and forced into a lesser life of prostitution, in an unsuitable physical environment, she wants safety in Anderson Lake, and that is something her world will also probably not allow. 

A spoiler here, but among the many plot whorls, a new disease has been simmering in Lake's business front, an entirely natural one.  It is managed with the scientific tools at hand, but not before it gets Lake.  Emiko (and new people in general) are resistant to it, and, we gradually learn, often have other strengths, provided the bullshit low-status-signifying mods can be weeded out (or gradually bred out, or can somehow provide into an ecological advantage).  It's heavily suggested that these new organisms are the future of the planet, and our true legacy.  The fact that the disease strain evolved from a natural mutation (i.e., not engineered and as a random element to the plot) is significant, and we're offered a question here about the nature of nature.  Is human meddling an affront against nature or is it an aspect of it?  Most of us prefer the anthropocentric answer, that we're the end result of evolution, and that we have some relationship with the biological world.  But the honest answer is that we're part of the process that has no goal, and in the book, all our activity has been the kind of catastrophe that increases speciation (and the earth's had a few).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

AKA Earned Suspension of Disbelief

Several months ago, I put aside a post about the Daredevil series that had recently aired on Netflix.  I couldn't file it down to the narrow point I wanted to make at the time (and I was also conscious that I have one about the Marvel live-action universe still on the page), but last night, I stayed up binge-watching (as the kids do these days) the followup series, Jessica Jones, and I think I want to work a few things out here. 

Daredevil was the only reason I gave in and got a new Netflix subscription early this year.  On the whole (and like most people), I thought it was fantastic.  There are any number of ways to take on the space-aliens-and-superheroes fare and keep it entertaining--god knows that like 90% of these books I read fall neatly in the sci-fi/fantasy basket--but I've always liked the stories best when they keep a strong connection to known reality.  I think this was as important for the oldest hero stories as it is for the new ones: you can't make anyone larger than life if no one around them is life-sized.  Almost always, the believable angle comes as a plausible approximation of human nature in the response to all the craziness (I always love the sane, marginalized characters who point out just how nuts everything around them is, or who can't help lampshading the plot flaws), but what I'm finding so interesting about Marvel's live-action efforts is how they've been very creative about the places the stories touch ground. 

I don't think Iron Man would have worked nearly as well, for example, without a 20-minute cut of Tony Stark's touch-and-go experimentation.  Something in there got the process of innovation some exaggerated flavor of right.  Shit never works too well at the beginning, even when you're a tech genius.  Agent Carter wasn't in the same league as the Netflix dramas, but it was occasionally very strong, and that one was held to earth by the unexpected tethers of institutional bias.  When I write it like that, it sounds like it's been done before, but it's a very different animal here, and the distinction is important.  Peggy isn't smashing her way through the sexist 1940s and punching oppression-themed villains in the eye (not yet anyway), she is more like a well-realized character who is struggling within a confining peacetime reality. 

Daredevil went on to do a whole bunch of things right in this regard too.  The grounding theme of this show was the human consequences of movie-theater violence.  In a stroke of genius, the aftermath of all the skyscraper toppling in The Avengers reverted New York to an old film-school version its corrupt, shabby self.  (Because for anyone who's been there recently, today's Hell's Kitchen is a world of safe boring storefronts, and modern Times Square looks like some unholy lovechild of Disneyland and Tokyo.)  And of course when the hero can get his ass kicked, get ground down, get laid up as painfully as Matt Murdock did, it makes any of his successes feel earned.  Seriously: Daredevil was a great urban Kung Fu story before anyone got in spitting distance of the red suit.  It would have worked every bit as well if he were just an athletic blind guy--the story didn't really need the "abilities."  I bought wholly in to the first ten episodes, even as syndicates of mystical old ninjas were running through the city, and this viewer didn't bat an eye.  Those places where it gave in to its comic self, that's when it stumbled a little. 

(The other way that Daredevil established its emotional stakes--and this is a strength of Jessica Jones as well--was by giving the characters room to act like believable friends.   To get close to someone as likeable but remote as Matt, you'd have to keep ignoring all of his subtle keep-away vibes, and they found a couple sorts of people who could.  It required some decent acting and direction to communicate it.)

So on to Jessica Jones, a character I was only vaguely aware of through the nerdblogs, who came out 15 years after I gave up on comics.  On TV, she is more obviously powered with enhanced strength and (at least some) resilience, and it's terrifying how all of that power means precisely fuck-all when it comes to the emotional challenges of acting like a hero. 

If Daredevil was about the consequences of violence, Jessica Jones is about the consequences of abuse.  Looking back on the binge, I see it mapped on every character thread, but as before, this is the tether to human realism.  David ("Tenth Doctor") Tennant plays the villain Kilgrave, who can make people obey him, who can make people want to obey him (and what good is super strength against that?).  This is an abuser who is additionally enabled by mindfuck powers (and it's not at all clear which came first), and it's damn interesting how often he resorts to conventional abuse too, because that's the kind of person he is.  It's damn interesting how willing the show is to get right in the head of people like this and develop it as a theme (not just Kilgrave, but a number other male and female characters act abusively as well), treating them with empathy, encouraging the viewer to understand their motives and to weigh their charming apologies, without forgiving a damn thing about what they do, and without ever ceding the agency of the victims.  It's a bit of a spoiler, but Kilgrave starts out as casually menacing, and the show gradually recasts his behavior as obsession, and then as petty obsession.  And the truth is, the Purple Man would be nowhere near as scary if he were bent on world domination, or revenge, or any of the standard supervillain schtick.  Nor is Luke Cage (Jones's lover, and total badass) allowed to ride in as a savior, even though if anything he is more powered than she is.  He understands that this is her demon to overcome, and the wannabe good-guy types who feel it is their job?  The ladies don't even let them drive.  It only sounds like a textbook in hindsight, because it's a character drama before anything else, and they do an good job of keeping it real.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

I remember the buzz in the science fiction groups when The Sparrow first came out. It populated almost everyone's best list for awhile (and the ones who didn't love it felt that the acclaim came at the expense of the genre's roots, which is silly enough to make me wonder if I am not in fact misremembering things), and among that crowd, it's not hard to see what the appeal was. The book is genial, lightly philosophical, hard-ish on the science, and tends to be empowering of women, introverts, and technical people. But as a plotted novel, Russell kind of botches the delivery, and I suspect that anyone's enjoyment of it is going to depend an awful lot on what they are reading for (even more than is usually the case).

The story is set in the near future (that is, 1996's near future, which is getting very close to the present), and it's set in motion when an astronomer at the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico picks up an unexpected signal. The politics of the times, the brevity and intermittancy of the message itself, and the protagonists' personal and professional networks, all have plausibly coincided in such a way that the is revelation is confined to a very small team at first, long enough that they can begin the project themselves, under the discreet hand of the Roman Catholic church (Jesuits, so, you know, the good discreet Catholics), before the public really gets wind of it.  The team determines that it's in fact a snippet of an extraterrestial broadcast. Music, Hot Hits from the next star over. Could this be investigated further? Well, the church is genuinely interested, and consider it within the Society's historical context of mission and scholarship.  Our primary character, Father Emilio Sandoz, is a preeminent linguist, and makes a compelling case for a cultural and scientific effort.  Could we actually get there and check it out?  Surprisingly yes: 2019 technology sometimes moves asteroids during mining (chucking mass out the back), and a sealed rock could in fact keep up 1g by doing this for a couple decades.  The team already includes a pilot, an astronomer, and a polymath, and holy shit, this is all really happening. 

The discovery aspects of the book are done pleasantly well.  It reads like sf "competence porn" that for once isn't driven by male ego.  Russell makes a lot out of the collaborative process, doesn't discount luck (enough things have come together that the Catholics, and Emilio particularly, can't help but see it as God's plan), and keeps a group dynamic based on open communication.  So much of the planning and travel--it must be at least half the book--takes place over intelligent dinner party conversations, where people laugh a lot, and reveal themselves over that extra glass of wine.  The individuals are diverse, likeable and interesting enough (Anne Edwards, the middle-aged den mother of the group, appears to be a real Mary Sue character here, the writer herself herding them along), and these kinds of scenes continue even through the voyage to the planet eventually known as Rakhat, where contact with the alien species is first made.

And even if it takes a while to get there, the events on the planet are interesting.  Finally, the long-developed situation starts changing, and it's the best part of the book.  The characters misjudge the nature of Rakhat's intelligent species (who are about as responsible with civilization as humans are, even if they're much better stewards of their planet).  There are two of them, nearly indistinguishable, and of course people always overestimate the Eloi at first.  Russell's understanding of ecological relationships drives the plot here, as well as inevitable cultural ignorance, and it's quite cleverly done. 

It's a perfectly cromulent way to develop the story, but these parts are all told in flashback, and it's explicit from page one that something went terribly wrong on Rakhat.  Emilio Sandoz is the only member of the team to return, and he's disfigured, cynical, sick, and with what little knowledge that's revealed, disgraced.  His illness seems alien or supernatural (it's not, although he's been plenty traumatized), and the investigatory committee is hungry for his side of the story (although they have years worth of reports, and the popular conclusions that they have allowed are fairly ridiculous assumptions--I'll try not to spoil it). 

Sending the mission off the rails and breaking Sandoz's faith would have worked fine as a linear progression, but this extended flashback business was not the right way to manage the contrasts.  In effect, Russell has decided to set up two kinds of novels and make them sit awkwardly side by side.  For a mission that has succeeded on a foundation of open communication within a group, the author is keeping information from the reader here only to delay Emilio's big reveal.  Since none of the church officials we meet really do much to move the plot that way, I didn't really care about any of them, and yet they occupy a substantial chunk of the text.  Russell wants The Sparrow to be a voyage of discovery and a tense character drama at the same time, but in the discovery part, the characters aren't behaving dramatically, and in fact, any sustained personal tension would have been inimical to the kind of story that's working itself out.  Most of them don't even change in any meaningful way.  And the one guy who does have an arc--Sandoz--is also the hardest character for the reader to approach.  He starts off a somewhat enigmatic man--withholding his inner self from others as a sort of self-enforced humility--and keeps this level of remove throughout the story, a trait which grows sort of beatific as his faith deepens.  When he's recovered afterwards, he's closed off for less subtle reasons.  We spend the whole novel revisiting him in his broken state, but it doesn't become meaningful until the end, after all of his relationships are established, and we finally understand what caused it.  Probably Emilio's more genuine opening after the trauma is the point of these sections, but even though it feels good to point him in a direction of recovery or redemption, it's still a tremendous anticlimax, and it would have made a better epilogue than ongoing plot.