Category Archives: Speculative Fiction

“… overwhelmed by the dizzying madness of reality”: Yoss’ ‘A Planet for Rent’

The idea of the voyage was Jowe’s, and when he speaks of it, the words that emerge from his lips sound like beauty itself.”

Space-faring science fiction has often been associated with the narrative of colonialism. There is more than a kernel of truth to this assertion: Galactic exploration across the terra nullius of open space, chiseled pioneers opening the gates to the unknown, and Contact stories that invariably portray alien species as the impenetrable Other, incomprehensible at best and dreaded enemies at worst. Starship Troopers is a particularly crude version of this phenomenon, while Avatar is a more subtle account that ostensibly undermines the tropes while continuing to reinforce them.

Sooner or late, of course, each narrative produces its counter-narrative. In Embassytown, China Mieville writes of Contact gone horribly wrong, as cynical human attempts to exploit a species incapable of telling a lie descend into a bloody conflict. But if Mieville’s novel is still written from the perspective of colonizing humans, it is Jose Miguel Sanchez Gomez – or “Yoss” – in whose work we find a true “writing back” to the dominant register. Yoss is a Cuban punk-rocker science-fiction writer with a degree in biology, who knows a thing or two about being at the receiving end of economic and military colonialism. And A Planet for Rent is an incredibly powerful, haunting set of interconnected short stories of a Galaxy in which all earth has become a Colony.

The premise is simple. After watching the leaders of Earth take the planet to the brink of destruction with their ceaseless internecine conflicts, the benevolent space-faring species of the Galaxy intervene and take over. Like the “Mandate” system imposed by the Western “Great Powers” under the League of Nations, humans are kept in tutelage by “the Galactic community, into which they would be accepted one not very distant day, with the rights of full membership…” (p. 12) In the meantime, the landscape of Earth is regenerated, and the Planet transformed into a tourist destination for the well-endowed amongst the Galactic races, whether it is to embark on big game hunts, observe the local populace, or simply experience what it is like to be a different species, through entering the bodies of human criminals sentenced to the punishment of becoming “body spares” for a period.

“Body spares” is a particularly disturbing manifestation of this futuristic, inter-species colonial relationship, but the rest of it sounds rather familiar. It is. And so are the corollaries. Under the velvet glove of benevolent tutelage lies the grasping, iron hand of violent repression, cynical collaboration and futile resistance, tightly controlled emigration implemented by a brutal colonial gendarmerie, an economic embargo that suffocates any attempts at terrestrial development, and systematic brain drain to the many metropolises (“You didn’t invent the brain drain, but you perfected and institutionalized it” says an immigration applicant to his Cetian interrogators).

Yoss’ characters are human beings struggling to survive – and negotiate – their existences as colonial subjects at the bottom of the Galactic hierarchy. In a series of interconnected stories (interspersed with wry and savage interludes containing nuggets of tantalising information about the social and economic structure of the Galaxy), Yoss explores the lives of a sex worker trying to escape Earth by becoming attached to a “Grodo”, a performing artist eking out a living from Planet to Planet, an athlete dreaming of revenge by defeating a multi-species team in a game of “Voxl”, a guard at the space-port, a scientist trying to immigrate for a better life, a rebel dreaming of Galactic spaceflight, and an Earthbound girl taken under the protection of a “Colossaur”. What makes the stories of A Planet for Rent particularly compelling is that in Yoss’ world there are no heroes, no tales of organised resistance (whether triumphant or tragic), no grand conflict in the theatre of space, no sanctity or sublimation. His characters are so occupied with bettering the conditions of their existence, that they have no luxury of thinking through the deeper questions of the injustices of colonialism and the possibilities of resistance (and those who do either meet a tragic end, or disabuse themselves of such notions before things come to such a pass.)

If Planet for Rent tells the story of a colonized world, but consciously eschews a story of resistance, then what is it about? It is about the everyday interactions between the colonizers and the colonized, the exercise of power not at a grand level but in the organisation of thought, feeling and action that constitutes the lifeworld, the capturing of that nameless experience that structures an unequal relationship. This is where Yoss is a consummately skilled craftsman: his characters are of a type without losing their individuality: grafters, collaborators, pragmatists, opportunists, human; his encounters are familiar without losing their authenticity: the insufficiency of benevolent masters who nonetheless remain masters, betrayal in a world where loyalty offers no reward and has lost its meaning, the impossibility of ideals in a compromised relationship; and the clear political undertones do nothing to take away from the spinning of a jolly good yarn: Yoss is particularly masterful at that last twist of the knife that ends the story (sometimes literally), that leaves you shaken and grasping for support at the dissolving straws of hoped-for happy endings. All this is done in a wry, ironic tone, often with hilariously funny dialogue (or interior monologue) that draws the reader into laughter for that brief moment before she becomes aware of the darkness that lies beneath. In its review, The Nation has the best set of words to describe it: “riotously funny, scathing, perceptive, and yet also heart-wrenchingly compassionate.”

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Round-Up: Inoue, Barnes, Roberts, Liu

 

Yasushi Inoue’s The Hunting Gun is my first foray into Japanese literature. A novella, The Hunting Gun uses a narrative device that I recently came across in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer: the same set of contemporaneous events is described by three individuals, one after the other. Not only are there three different perspectives, three different sets of facts, but with each successive (re)telling, the story unfolds a little bit more, casting fresh (even contrary) light upon the previous narration. In The Hunting Gun, it is three letters written by three women to a man, triggered by a tragic death. What is most striking about The Hunting Gun is – like the Japanese art of bonsai – its sense of containment. In the three letters, you have betrayal, love, heartbreak, loss – themes that threaten to bubble up and spill over beyond the pages, but which always – somehow – remain there, within bounds. An instance:

“I knew love was like a clear stream that sparkled beautifully in the sun, and when the wind blew any number of soft ripples skittered across its surface, and its banks were gently held by the plants and trees and flowers, and it kept singing its pure music, always, as it grew wider and wider – that’s what love was to me. How could I have imagined a love that stretched out secretly, like an underground channel deep under the earth, flowing from who knew where to who knew where without ever feeling the sun’s rays?” 

Or:

“As you cooled, with the speed of a red-hot piece of iron plunged into water, I matched your coolness; and as I grew cold, you drew circles around me in your plummeting frigidity, until at last we found ourselves living here within this magnificently frozen world, in a household so cold one feels ice on one’s eyelashes.

There is a sense of balance, an almost preternatural poise in this language, where the most powerful emotions are distilled into language, but never reduced. To use Inoue’s own words, “transformed into [something] as limpid as water…“, and retaining the sense of “a blaze of flowers in the otherwise muted room.”

Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time left me rather conflicted. On the one hand, Barnes’ exquisitely crafted sentences, his wisdom and his insights, and his ability to crystallise those insights into limpid prose. The Noise of Time is a fictionalised biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous 20th-Century Soviet composer, controversial because of his alleged compromises and complicity with the Stalinist regime. Barnes’ subject, then, compels him to explore some of those fundamental questions about the human condition, and especially, the human condition in the 20th century: the meaning of artistic and moral integrity, how totalitarianism can make the heart betray itself, and the ethical contortions compelled by tyranny. There are individual moments – captured, as ever, in perfectly complete sentences, which distil a thought just so – that are breathtaking. For instance: “we expect too much of the future – hoping that it will quarrel with the present…“; “Theories were clean and convincing and comprehensible. Life was messy and full of nonsense...”; “... not shattering, because that implied a single great crisis. Rather, what happened to human illusions was that they crumbled, they withered away. It was a long and wearisome process, like a toothache reaching far into the soul…”; “The self-doubt of the young is nothing compared to the self-doubt of the old.

As a novel, however, The Noise of Time is acutely disappointing. The crushing of the individual under the ostensibly-communist, actually-totalitarian post-1930s Soviet (and post-1950s Eastern European) regimes has been a heavily written subject, from numerous angles. Kundera has written about the regimes’ attempts to control art and music (The Joke), Danilo Kis has written about individual moral degradation (A Tomb for Boris Davidovich), Koestler has written about the horrors of surveillance and interrogation (Darkness at Noon), and there are many more. Reading The Noise of Time, one feels that this is ground that has been covered many times over, and by writers who had access to a more unmediated set of experiences than Barnes.

This issue might have been mitigated had Shostakovich’s character been at the front and centre of the novel. However, Shostakovich himself is painted in generic colours, a placeholder for the ordinary individual whose none-too strong character and none-too courageous heart wilts underneath Stalinism. Unlike Colm Toibin’s Henry James in The Master, for instance, who is utterly unique, Barnes’ Shostakovich is almost an allegory.

Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself  combines science fiction, Kantian “categories”, time travel, and a bewildering variety of stylistic variations (including one very successful one after James Joyce) in a heady mixture. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Roberts’ premise – that time and space are categories that structure and mediate our perceptions of the world, but can also be transcended – is a remarkably complex and difficult one to pull of in an actual science fiction novel, but he manages it in a quite virtuoso manner. The only downside to that is, that at times, the book is a little… difficult!

In a similar vein, Cixxin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem takes another fairly complex concept (i.e., the three-body problem!), and constructs an absolutely thrilling science fiction novel out of it. Friends have been recommending Liu to me for a couple of years now – and it was certainly worth all the hype. A novel about first contact (but not quite), The Three-Body Problem reads like old-school SF – James Blish’s Cities in Flight comes immediately to mind –  in its sense of wonder, of space, of the most haunting of questions; but it simultaneously avoids the blunders of old-school SF (the white-male-coloniser-centric worldview – it’s set in China, for a start, and has at least two female protagonists).

 

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Filed under Adam Roberts, Cixxin Liu, Inoue, Japan, Julian Barnes

Samuel Delaney, Language, and Representation

I just read Samuel Delaney’s novel Babel-17 and (accompanying) novella, Empire Star. Babel-17 won the Nebula in 1966, and would probably find a place on most Science Fiction canons. The interesting thing about reading Babel-17 in 2015, however, is that it rests upon a largely discredited scientific theory: a strong version of the Sapor-Whorf Hypothesis. As its protagonist, Rydra Wong puts it:

“… most textbooks say language is a mechanism for expressing thought… but language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language…. When you learn another tongue, you learn the way another people see the world, the universe.”

Babel-17 is an invented “analytically perfect” language that is used as a secret weapon in an inter-galactic war. It’s mastery not only results in mental ascent, but even physical superiority. While it is well-accepted now that language has an influence upon cognitive processes, its influence is nowhere near as strong as Delaney puts it in Babel-17 (for a lucid discussion, see Guy Deutscher’s The Language Game). This makes many of the central events in Babel-17 – and indeed, its central plot – at odds with science.

While time and science have not been kind to Babel-17, the book is perhaps the best example of how science-fiction grounded upon a falsified thesis can nonetheless be a great read. Like the other SF masters of the 60s and 70s, Delaney has a great sense of plot and pace. His protagonists race across the galaxy to decipher the alien language, and the narrative is pock-marked with entertaining starfights, intrigue and treachery, and the craters of love. However, Delaney is not simply a gifted plotter: like M. John Harrison and James Blish, he is a wordsmith as well. In the first chapter, I was pulled up short by this marvelous line:

“… he needed another moment to haul himself down from the ledges of her high cheekbones, to retreat from the caves of her eyes.”

And this could be right out of A.S. Byatt at her best:

“I listen to other people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences, and their clumsy feelings that they can’t express – and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn’t hurt anymore: that’s my poem.”

Empire Star, on the other hand, fares much better against the march of time – perhaps because it is a novella about time paradoxes themselves. Reading it, I was strongly reminded of Robert Heinlein’s classic 1941 short story, By His BootstrapsIn both stories, time loops back upon itself, and characters meet their past and future selves again and again, as realisation begins to dawn slowly. Like in By His Bootstraps, Delaney parses out his revelations piecemeal, leaving the readers in deep confusion for much of the novella, and without any satisfactory resolution at the end (think of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, and the lingering feeling of non-fulfillment with which one finishes that book. But that, in the end, seems to be the nature of time-paradoxes. Trite to say, but they would hardly be paradoxes if they could be resolved.

(After finishing the book(s), some quick googling informed me that Babel-17 is said to have influenced both Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and China Mieville’s Embassytown – two books that I love to bits. Embassytown itself draws from the Sapor-Whorf hypothesis: its central premise is that alien beings with no physical brain-mouth filter find it impossible to lie, and are therefore easily colonised by human beings. The influences are clear. About The Dispossessed, I’m not so sure. Curiosity held me for a little while more, until I came across this fascinating article about an invented script exclusively for women, in medieval China:

Only men learned to read and write Chinese, and bound feet and social strictures confined women to their husband’s homes. So somehow — scholars are unsure how, or exactly when — the women of this fertile valley in the southwestern corner of Hunan province developed their own way to communicate. It was a delicate, graceful script handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece, from girlfriend to girlfriend — and never, ever shared with the men and boys.

So was born nushu, or women’s script, a single-sex writing system that Chinese scholars believe is the only one of its kind.

 

 

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Mist over the marches: Kazio Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’

“For in this community, the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.”

A generation after King Arthur’s death, an uneasy calm hangs over South Britain. Saxon and Briton, once implacable foes, now live together in relative peace. But all is not well. Ogres prowl the edge of the village stockades, making daring raids to carry off unwatched children. Briton soldiers roam the countryside, lying in wait for a Saxon warrior on a quest. High up in a mountain fastness, monks use an old torture device to expose their bodies to the beaks and talons of wild birds, in expiation for some nameless, horrible crime. A mist of forgetfulness, arising from the breath of the dragon Querig, which clouds the people’s minds with uncertainty and leaves only the vaguest remembrance of things past, lies heavily upon the land. Boatmen wait to ferry old couples to the island of afterlife, charged with separating them forever unless they can recall their most cherished memories, even through the mist. And Sir Gawain, long ago of King Arthur’s court, now a feeble, aged knight, waits to carry out his old command to slay the dragon and lift the mist of forgetfulness, once and for all.

In this strained climate, Axl and Beatrice, an old couple, decide to leave their village to pay a visit to their son, whom they have not seen in years. The mist has robbed them of their memory of why and when he left them; they remember only that he lives in a village a little way away. On their path, circumstances ensure that they fall in with Wistan, a Saxon warrior who (like Sir Gawain) has been charged with destroying the dragon Querig, to break the mist; and Edwin, a Saxon boy suffering from a dragon bite, who Wistan believes will lead them to Querig’s lair. And before long, they meet Sir Gawain himself. As the journey progresses, and slivers of memory, of their own torn and conflicted pasts, begin to return to Axl and Beatrice, the quest for their son gradually becomes a quest, with Wistan, to lift the mist and find answers to the questions that they cannot still articulate.

Kazio Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is set in the Britain of the Grail Cycle, a mystical land peopled with knights-errant, quarrelsome kings, boatmen to the afterlife, ogres, pixies, and of course, the titular “buried giant”, a dragon. It involves duels, battles, run-ins with ogres and other monstrous beasts, daring subterranean escapes, and an overarching quest that unifies the diverse characters and the divergent narrative strands. On the basis of these well-worn tropes, one might at first blush place The Buried Giant within the canon of high/romance fantasy, located in the ambiguous half-historical, half-imaginary time and space that is a staple feature of the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay, or even Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.

Unsurprisingly, though, The Buried Giant resists any such easy classification. This is perhaps because Ishiguro’s choice of genre is – in my opinion – instrumental. An writer who has won critical acclaim for novels such as The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go has chosen the Arthurian romance as the framework for his latest novel not because of the narrative possibilities that such a world (with its established conventions, traditions and folklore) would allow him, but because it serves as a vehicle for a deeper set of political and moral arguments (or perspectives) that he wishes to express.

How does this play out in The Buried Giant? To start with, the novel is much more strongly allegorical than most fantasy writing. Ever since Tolkien expressed his “cordial dislike” for allegory, there has been a circumspection about allowing fantasy to collapse into a morality tale. In The Buried Giant, however, the moral question is categorically framed almost from the very beginning, and is reiterated whenever the fantastic elements of the story threaten to take over. For instance, immediately after discovering their torture/expiation device, one of the moments of high suspense and drama in the novel, Wistan asks the monks, “is your Christian god one to be bribed so easily with self-inflicted pain and a few prayers?” Instances like these abound. Even as Sir Gawain hacks at a monster, or as pixies attack a rowboat in the middle of the river, the question remains foregrounded: can peace only be bought by an enforced forgetfulness of past crimes? 

The allegorical focus of the novel also ensures that a number of the characters remain dimly impressionistic, at times even appearing to be caricatures. Sir Gawain’s delightfully quixotic potential is never quite realised, Wistan fights valiantly but fails to free himself from the shackles of his chivalric knighthood, and Edwin, after a promising start, seems to simply fade away into a narrative shadow. The twin exceptions (or perhaps it should be called a single exception) are Axl and Beatrice, whose relationship is portrayed with great depth and sensitivity, and by the end of the novel, has left its pages and lodged itself firmly in the reader’s mind. Perhaps The Buried Giant is better read not as an Arthurian allegory about the connections between violence, collective and individual memory, but as an exploration about the “black shadows [that] make part of the whole” (p. 343) of any relationship (with an incidental, fantastic backdrop).

Such a reading is reflected in the style of the novel, which proceeds in a slow, meandering and unhurried way, much like Axl and Beatrice’s slow progress through the countryside, and their conversations with each other. Dialogue predominates over action; and even action takes its own, leisurely time. The duels are described as though they are being fought in slow motion, and the battles have an unreal, dreamlike quality about them. Much like The Remains of the Day, the novel’s pace is determined from the perspective of its protagonist(s). In another way, this reflects how Ishiguro’s use of the genre is partial at best: it is the rare fantasy novel where the protagonists are, ultimately, passive spectators to most of the pivotal events, whose own quest recedes into irrelevance midway through the novel, and whose personal journey – ultimately – comes entirely apart from the core quest.

Questions about the role of memory and forgetting in shaping identity and conflict have been explored before, in fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is an outstanding example, but perhaps comparisons with Howard Jacobson’s are most apposite. Like Jacobson, Ishiguro is working with a genre that he is unfamiliar with; like Jacobson, he is trying to navigate the tricky terrain of personal and collective memory at the same time; like Jacobson, there are times when the story seems to be subordinate to a broader politico-moral claim. And in my opinion, like Jacobson, he succeeds – but only partially.

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“We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives”: Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Warning: Some minor spoilers about the endings of 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451.

In the Republic of Gilead, built upon the ruins of a United States torn apart by economic, social and environmental conflict, women have been reduced to breeding machines. Offred, the protagonist of the story, is a “handmaid” – that is, a woman specifically selected for the role of producing offspring, through copulation with one of the rulers of the society, known generically as “commanders”. Sexual intercourse outside that strictly defined boundary is punishable with death or exile to the “colonies”; any form of rebellion against the established order is similarly treated. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred attempting to shape her own life – through resistance, submission or escape – in this society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopic novel – belonging, I think, rather clearly to the dystopic tradition through its use of certain common elements: a future world, an oppressive order, a combination of force and ideology to maintain that order, and a protean resistance movement. Nonetheless, in certain respects it is a rather atypical dystopic novel, and I think this is evident in a vivid and striking way through the character of the protagonist and narrator, Offred. Through an analysis of her character one can also, I think, come to a better understanding of some of the main themes of the story. So, here goes:

When I think of great dystopic novels, three immediately come to mind: 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Though very different from each other in their own ways, they are similar in that the protagonist(s) in each of these stories – Winston Smith (and Julia), John the Savage and Guy Montag – are all clear, unambiguous rebels, taking on the System through a series of consciously defined acts of rebellion, acts which they are aware put their lives at risk, acts which they carry out nonetheless because they believe in resisting the System. Offred, however, is a far more ambiguous character. She is not brainwashed or willingly compliant, like many of the persons she interacts with. She has not succumbed to the ideology but neither is she willing to act against it. So, at one point, she goes as far as admitting:

Is this what I would die for? I’m a coward, I hate the thought of pain.”

And, at another point, when the she spots the summary execution of someone else on the street, her immediate reaction is: “What I feel is relief. It wasn’t me.” And even when she does commit acts of rebellion, they are not motivated by ideals of resistance – simply pure physical need. Indeed, it is Offred’s friends and companions who are actively involved in the resistance movement, but Offred herself is almost completely passive – things happen to her, and she responds to them, events move her, but she never moves – or even tries to move – them. This makes Offred a less inspiring character than a Winston Smith or a Guy Montag, but I also think that it makes her a truer character, and one easier to identify with – for the truth is that most of us aren’t actually willing to put our lives on the line in order to resist power. 

(Let me put it this way: Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451 is Edward Snowden. But for one Edward Snowden, there are a million others who feel the same way, but do not act. Offred stands for – speaks for – thinks for – those million others.)

Concomitant with the ambiguity in Offred’s character is the ambiguity in the conclusion of the novel itself. Again, here, Atwood seems to depart from the canonical dystopic novels. At the end of 1984, Winston Smith is broken; at the end of Brave New World, John the Savage dies; and at the end of Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag escapes and meets others like himself. Contrast this with the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale:

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, therefore, is interesting because of its conscious insistence on leaving threads untied, loose ends as they are, in resisting the idea of a conclusion. And once again that, perhaps, makes it truer to reality.

In other respects, The Handmaid’s Tale is a solid dystopic novel, treating the themes of power, ideology and resistance with a subtle and deft touch, creating a world that is different enough to be terrifying, but not so alien that it is incomprehensible, and creating characters that are instantly recognisable. There is, for instance, that ironic breakdown of the useful-work-versus-useless-toil dichotomy:

“Sometimes I think those scarves aren’t sent to the angels at all, but unraveled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted in their turn. Maybe it’s just something to keep the wives busy to give them a sense of purpose.”

There are sharp – and beautiful descriptions – of the sense of alienation, hopelessness and entrapment that are the lot of anyone who is disenfranchised and has lost control over the shaping of her own life:

We lived in the gaps between the stories…

“… the amount of unfilled time, the long parenthees of nothing.”

“I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor…”

I am a blank here, between parentheses. Between other people.”

There is, of course, the compulsory account of the workings of ideology, in a way that the oppressed comes not only to accept her oppression, not only to endorse it, but – most horrifying of all – to identify with it (Kundera makes a similar point in The Joke when referring to defendants pleading for punishment in show trials – as does Orwell in Animal Farm):

I have once again failed to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own.”

This works, as it always does, through language and images. One point that emerges clearly from the writings of Ismail Kadare on myth is that a central issue of contestation is who will have the power to define the existence and content of myth; similarly, here it is about the power to control vocabulary and image – in other words, what images come to mind when certain words are mentioned? Consider:

“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons, of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me…  now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, through black-red rather than black. Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars. Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like famine. To feel that empty, again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time.”

The body being envisioned as a vehicle of fertility implies that Offred’s very thinking – her conceptualisation – of herself is in the specific terms, the language of fertility – and as we know, rebellion against language is the most difficult rebellion of all. The message is clear – he who has power to define the meanings of words, and the images that are associated with them, has power simpliciter. The point is made with striking clarity in Aunt Lydia’s peroration to the (potential) handmaids, as they are being trained for their new roles:

We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savours in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.

Perhaps one of the best scenes in the book is the Dionysiac episode in which the body of a condemned rapist is ripped to shreds by the assembled women bears strong resemblances not only to some of the scenes in Arthur Miller’s Crucible, but also exhibit another method of control – providing one avenue for the release of all the emotions, all the energy, all the violent hatreds that are suppressed elsewhere through force and ideology, providing one tightly controlled and defined avenue to power that somehow makes suppression at all other times acceptable, and the need to rebel less urgent (Sundays for factory workers!). Part of the greatness of this book lies, I think, in its refusal to identify one, monolithic locus of tyranny operating through particular forms of control, and one particular form of resistance. Atwood understands (in an almost Foucauldian vein) that power and control operate at all levels of society, tailored to the specific circumstances in question – and resistance takes the appropriate form itself. In this sense, the book is a more subtle exploration of the theme than, say, Brave New World (soma and genetic engineering) and Fahrenheit 451 (book burning and television), where the forms of control – and therefore, forms of resistance – are more clearly defined, and thus more… essentialistic. Once again, we come back to the point about ambiguity – at all times, The Handmaid’s Tale refuses eschews reductionism – but nor does it makes things so complex that the narrative loses force.

Lastly – Atwood is a rare writer who combines a great sense of plot and pacing with poignant and moving language. I leave you with three particularly striking passages:

“I sit in my room at the window, waiting. In my lap is a handful of crumpled stars.”

“The way we’re talking is infinitely sad: faded music, faded paper flowers, worn satin, an echo of an echo.” 

“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.”

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A Moment in Eternity: Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel

Octavio Paz says calls The Invention of Morel, “without exaggeration… a perfect novel.” According to Borges, “to classify [it] as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” It has influenced creations as diverse as the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the influential French film Last Year at Marienbad, and the television series Lost. Wikipedia says (albeit, without citation) that “many consider it… to be one of the best pieces of fantastic fiction.” And if that isn’t enough to pique one’s interest, the principal character, Morel, is  named after H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau, and the main female character is called Faustine, which I am convinced is a play on Faust – and moreover, these two names are entirely appropriate.

First things first – The Invention of Morel is entirely resistant to genre classifications. Perhaps the safest bet is to call it a work of speculative fiction, but I don’t think that label does it justice. In its willingness to play with and twist our conceptions of existence and reality, it anticipates some of the best works of Philip K. Dick (notably, Ubik which, in turn, was subject to a rip-off by Inception), but has greater philosophical depth than Dick; its musings on death, on immortality, on love, loss and regret, on the impossibility of desire, and on the intertwined nature of reality, time and dreams (think of Borges’ The Circular Ruins), and on the connections between all of these, are moving and profoundly beautiful; and the denouement is both melancholy and haunting, worthy of the great tragedies.

The second thing is that it is virtually impossible to write a review of this short, 90-page novella, because everything turns upon a single premise that, if revealed, would spoil the story, but without which nothing would make any kind of sense. So I’ll commence with an outline of the story, and then, following a Spolier alert, proceed to discuss the main themes. For me, personally, reading the book a second time, even knowing exactly what was going to happen, didn’t take away from the experience. But for some, it might, and so I’ll be careful not to give away too much. 

The story is told from the point of view of a fugitive who, fleeing from the law, has arrived upon a remote and inaccessible island, where he determines to live out the rest of his life. This plan is thrown into serious jeopardy when, for no apparent reason, a group of people suddenly arrive upon the island, and the fugitive has to hide form them. Soon, however, he finds himself falling in love with the pensive and enigmatic Faustine, whom he sees every evening, watching the sunset from a rock (there are some truly brilliant observations about the psychology of love scattered throughout the novel – it’s worth reading for that alone). The fugitive’s attempts to attract her attention fail utterly; she refuses to acknowledge his existence – she even seems blindly oblivious to it. Subsequently, he sees a man named Morel come up to speak to her, at times in an intimate manner, and yet at other times distantly and formally – so that it is impossible to tell whether they are, or have been, lovers. The fugitive feels an intense jealousy – and yet Morel refuses to take any notice of him either, even when they nearly come face to face.

At this point, other strange things begin to happen. The fugitive notices that the conversations between Morel and Faustine are repeated, word for word, after the interval of a week. People complain of feeling cold even when the climate is excessively hot. They dance in a storm and swim in a pool that is full of rotten leaves and decaying fish. And one day, two suns and two moons appear simultaneously in the sky.

** HERE THERE BE SPOILERS **

The fugitive finds, eventually, that the island belongs to Morel, who is a scientist. Morel has discovered a method of recording that captures not only the visual (as in the case of photographs), or the auditory (radio), but reproduces, instead, all of sensorial parts of the individual (the word “all” is ambiguous, and the story does not resolve the ambiguity). As Morel says:

When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges…When Madeleine existed for the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, Madeleine herself was actually there.”

The price, however, is that the process of recording kills the subject. Morel himself is in love with Faustine, but (for reasons never explained entirely) she cannot be his. So Morel decides to bring a group of his closest friends to his island, where he has set up his elaborate equipment, and without informing them, record the entire week that they spend upon the island. The consequence is that physically, they all die (their bodies are found in the ship that is taking them back from the island), but in the recording, they live on. And since the equipment runs upon a perpetually renewable source of kinetic energy generated from the sun, the wind and the tides, the one week is like a song on an infinite loop: it repeats itself forever, the same week, beginning to end. And this explains all the strange occurrences – the apparent dancing in the storm and the swimming in a putrid pool, and the two suns and two moons in the sky – it is the world of the recording and the “real” world rubbing shoulders. In essence, you have two “times” existing side-by-side: linear, “ordinary” time, to which the narrator is subject; and circular time, in which the rest of the people, including Morel and Faustine, live forever.

Morel kills his friends, but gives them in return an eternity with each other, and himself an eternity with the woman he loves. The week will repeat itself forever, but obviously those who live in the projection will have no memory of it; at the end of each cycle, they will begin again as though the world was beginning again. They are trapped in endless repetition – but they do not know itand so, for them, every moment is new. As Morel says:

Even if we left tomorrow, we would be here eternally, repeating consecutively the moments of this week, powerless to escape from the consciousness that we had in each one of them – the thoughts and feelings that the machine captured. We will be able to live a life that is always new, because in each moment of the projection we shall have no memories other than those we had in the corresponding moment of the eternal record, and because the future, left behind many times, will maintain its attributes forever.

On learning, then, that Faustine is actually nothing more than a projection, a recording, a phantom, the fugitive is distraught. But then, he discovers his solution. Finding out how the machines work, he restarts the process, and places himself in the recording – walking just ahead of Faustine, as though they are lovers and she is following him, saying something to her just before she speaks, making it seem as though she is replying to him – and all the while, through a conscious effort of will, bringing himself to believe that this is real, that Faustine is real, that they really are lovers. And so, at the end of it, the fugitive has sentenced himself to death, but he too will live on forever in that one week upon the island, with Faustine. And as he feels himself beginning to die, as he senses his body decaying, the fugitive’s last wish is a prayer to those who follow in the footsteps of Morel, and invent an even more perfect machine, to merge his and Faustine’s consciousness. “It would be an act of piety.”

In a previous post, I discussed immortality in the context of the Faustian pact. I discussed how there is a paradox in the Faust wishing for a moment that would last for eternity; simply because it is the momentariness of the moment that makes us wish that it would last forever. If it really did last forever, or even for very long, it would simply lose everything that makes it what it is. Bernard Williams calls this the “tedium of immortality“, and Janecek’s opera, The Makropoulos Affair, is a brilliant exploration of the theme. Casares accepts the paradox, and resolves it: in The Invention of Morel, the moment (or, to be more precise, the week) does last for eternity, but the word “lasting” is not entirely accurate. By repeating itself continuously, yet without any consciousness on the part of the subjects that there is any such repetition, Morel, Faustine and the fugitive can truly live in the moment for eternity“. And curiously enough, my own response to this was a mingled awe and horror. Would I, given the choice, take Morel’s solution, the solution that the fugitive later adopts as his own? I simply do not know. It seems ideal, it seems perfect and yet, at the same time, it seems utterly horrifying. That, I feel, is where the great success of this novel lies. Casares manages to convey to us the sheer vastness, the magnitude of what immortality, in its best imaginable form, could be like, and the thought, almost beyond the ken of comprehension, is truly frightening.

Immortality is not the only complex theme that Casares deals with. Love is ever-present. Perhaps the spirit of the novel is summed up by one of the characters quoting the first two lines of Verlaine’s famous poem:

Âme, te souvient-il au fond du paradis
De la gare d’Auteuil et des trains de jadis…

What is it that we really love, when we fall in love? Is it, as Tolkien, would say, “a shadow and a thought“? Casares certainly seems to think so. The fugitive falls in love with a phantom. Morel creates a phantom to spend an eternity with. But if we’re pressed to answer what exactly makes this phantom any less real than a human being, or the experience poorer, paler, more attenuated – barring the obvious – there is nothing that we can say. Consider the point made by this review of the book:

Yet Morel’s projections belie his words. The characters generated by Morel’s invention are hollow creations, lacking any sort of totality; and there is no proof to support Morel’s claim that his machine will capture the soul, since his existing creations are only the sum of their sensorial parts. What the machine does offer, however, is a presentation of reality that is fixed and unchanging, not dependent upon the shifting viewpoint of the subjective self.

But what is the soul, then, if the sum of the “sensorial parts” is present? Do we even need someone’s soul, if we have the rest, and if we have it like this – “a fixed and unchanging presentation of reality“?

The fugitive sums up the paradox here:

To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares; to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost).

And yet, by the end of it, he changes his mind completely:

He [Morel] loved the inaccessible Faustine. That is why he killed her, killed himself and all his friends, and invented immortality! Faustine’s beauty deserves that madness, that tribute, that crime. When I denied that, I was too jealous or too stubborn to admit that I loved her. And now I see Morel’s act as something sublime.

Here, love and immortality become intertwined. In a sense, it is not only a solution to the Faustian pact, but also to the Tithonus problem – Faustine has been given Tithonus’ gift of immortality without the curse of ever growing old. Because murder is the only way to achieve that, Morel’s act remains “a crime” – and yet, is something “sublime“.

But the price, of course, is that Morel and the fugitive are both condemned to love a phantom, a phantom who is herself unaware of the gift that she has been given. As the fugitive himself concedes, by his death he achieves the “eternal” and “seraphic” contemplation of Faustine. Is that better than nothing? Perhaps. Is that ideal? Not by a long shot.

And I think that the final point that Casares makes is that it is simply impossible to, in a sense, have it all: if you were aware of the fact that the week you’re living in is going to repeat itself eternally, than even the most intense joy would be tempered by a kind of horror; and on the contrary, if, like Faustine, you didn’t know, then your thoughts and your feelings remain as they ever were; is immortality any good if you don’t know that you are immortal? 

I can’t say.

** HERE END SPOILERS ** 

Part-Borges, part-Kafka, part-Philip K. Dick; lyrical, beautiful and haunting; this is the kind of book you never, ever forget.

Bioy’s Britannica Online Page: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/66263/Adolfo-Bioy-Casares

His Wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolfo_Bioy_Casares

The Invention of Morel’s wiki page (with spoilers): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invention_of_Morel

A spoiler-free review: http://www.nthposition.com/theinvention.php

A spoiler-laden review: http://www.waggish.org/2003/the-invention-of-morel-adolfo-bioy-casares/

Another spoiler-laden review (right from the go): http://www.lisaswanstrom.net/fantasticpastresponses.html

The opening: http://anagrammatically.com/2011/09/18/the-invention-of-morel/

A note on the translation: http://anagrammatically.com/2011/09/18/the-invention-of-morel-redacted/

Verlaine’s poem: http://lyricstranslate.com/en/ame-te-souvient-il-dear-soul-do-you-recall.html

Tithonus: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/tithonus/

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Filed under 20th Century Anti-Realism, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Latin American Fiction, Speculative Fiction, The Invention of Morel (Casares)