The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead

The time period is difficult to pin down. The location is difficult to pin down. Maybe New York, maybe Boston or Chicago? 1950s, 1960s? There are clues pepered here and there but the whole thing has a timeless, every city quality to it. I love that it’s never explicitly stated. This world is exactly like ours, except that elevators are a big, big deal. Their creation has shaped the form and structure of cities; buildings with arrangements of floors vertically stacked ad infinitum up into the sky, a concept itself only possible as a result of reliable, mechanical elevation. Those elevators highly utilized only because they are safe, safe only because of the skilled elevator inspectors laying down the law regarding their maintenance, and upkeep.

Colson WhiteheadAll of this is true in our world as well, but here it’s more than just a technicality, it’s elemental as a foundation of their entire modern society; an alternate Americana. Elevators and elevator inspectors are given the same level of awe that airplanes and pilots once had in our version of America. Just as the airplane compressed our world’s surface horizontally, elevators compressed theirs vertically, bringing the unrealized potential of the sky down to earth.

Elevators aren’t just a large aspect of the literal plot of the novel, but used as a metaphor for the ongoing racial struggle of black Americans, among other things. It’s handled elegantly, and I don’t want to touch on it all that much for fear of spoiling the experience. Suffice it to say there are several layers to this elevator-as-metaphor aspect, and they have a unique dialogue with one another.

Two warring factions in the Department of Elevator Inspectors in a bustling metropolis vie for dominance: The Empiricists, who go by the book and rigorously check every structural and mechanical detail; and the Intuitionists, whose observational methods involve meditation and instinct. The Intuitionist conjures a parallel universe in which latent ironies in matters of morality, politics, and race come to light.

Almost every corner of the novel mirrors, and folds on itself. The narrative is broken into two sections: Down, and Up: a fall from grace, and a rise from the ashes. A literal crashing down of one elevator, and a possible rising of another, perfected model; a “black box”. The dual and dueling, mirrored approaches to elevator inspection, Empiricism and Intuitionism. The former being the familiar method of visually inspecting, and testing components to ensure their reliability, checking them against tolerances and allowances. The latter embodying what you might call a holistic approach; feeling and communicating mentally, or spiritually with the elevator in an effort to understand what issues may be affecting it. The concept of intuitionism is where a lot of the surreal comedy of the novel stems. Can you imagine a sillier approach to checking a mechanical system? It’s all very Pynchonesque.

This book is an exemplary illustration of the power speculative fiction wields as a form of literature. Because of course, intuiting what ails an elevator is completely ridiculous in the real world, but it’s oddly endearing in an America slightly off from our own. Empiricists don’t respect Intuitionists, but they can’t argue with their results, which statistically, are ever so slightly more effective. It’s a slap in the face for those living a life guided by rules and measurements, when “feeling” a system merits slightly better results than doing your best to follow the rigid structure you are in trying to impose on the world. Couple this with the double standards governing white America and black America, men and women, and it becomes poetic. This is used to show that there is always more than one way to approach any topic, any reality that you can interact with. That only using our eyes, can sometimes blind us in other ways, to other things. Reality is what we make it, and limiting ourselves to just one sense can be a dangerous practice indeed. You have to be able to fathom change before you can start to affect it.

The Intuitionist reminded me, in an odd way, of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I am unsure if it’s the somewhat similar setting, similar themes of an underclass breaking upward into America proper, or the general mystery aspect of the narrative. Both were published in 1999, maybe there’s a similar cultural background at play? Whatever the reason, I find them comparable novels.

The Word for World is Forest (Hainish Cycle), by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Library of America just published these definitive hardcover collections of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle novels and stories, which made my decision to finally start working my way through this classic series of speculative fiction again that much easier. I’m going to be tackling these in no particular order, since they’re only tertiarily connected to one another, but take place in a shared universe.

The Word for World is Forest is a terrific novella, originally published in the Harlan Ellison edited Again, Dangerous Visions anthology in 1972. It went on to win the Hugo award for best Novella later that year. I believe it was very influential to James Cameron’s Avatar (which I am now certain was constructed entirely from story elements and themes originating in Old Man’s War & The Word for World is Forest). The novella also definitely influenced George Lucas’s Ewoks from Return of the Jedi, to such a degree that I think plagiarism is the better suited word.

When the inhabitants of a peaceful world are conquered by the bloodthirsty yumens, their existence is irrevocably altered. Forced into servitude, the Athsheans find themselves at the mercy of their brutal masters.

Desperation causes the Athsheans, led by Selver, to retaliate against their captors, abandoning their strictures against violence. But in defending their lives, they have endangered the very foundations of their society. For every blow against the invaders is a blow to the humanity of the Athsheans. And once the killing starts, there is no turning back.

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin

It’s a social science fiction story, and a moralistic/ethical one with some wonderfully insightful and precient things to say about dangerous ideas entering the public consciousness. In this way it was perfectly suited for that Dangerous Visions anthology. My main takeaway from tWfWiF is that once a dangerous idea is out there for the first time, there is no turning back. It becomes a part of the public consciousness. Here, specifically that dangerous idea is the very concept of murder, introduced to the peaceful Athsheans by their human/yuman occupiers.

Ursula K. Le Guin

I enjoyed the waking dreams that the Athsheans were capable of, and how deeply dreaming was ingrained into their culture and at such a foundational level. Especially when that was contrasted with how little the humans/yumans dreamt; how they had almost lost the ability altogether and required drugs to fully dream. It speaks volumes to how overworked and under-rested western, and specifically American culture has become. Assuredly, this has only become a larger problem since the seventies when this was written. Dreams are necessary, not only as moments of respite from our chaotic lives, but as catalysts for forward imaginative thinking. We need downtime in order to reset. Dreams fuel us and encourage us to create. What are we without dreams? Without the possibility to imagine something different?

There was a great line in this book about how suicide harms those who live on, but murder harms the murderer herself. I really liked that. It may not be entirely true, but poetically, it was beautifully constructed. This story almost represents the antithesis of that sentiment, when the concept of murder enters the societal consciousness of the Athsheans, it continues to harm them after the fact, by perpetuating itself ad infinitum. It’s impossible to go back once innocence is lost. The Athsheans are forever changed by the invading yumans. Be cautious what you allow into your lives and societies.

Okay, so onto the Ewok/Return of the Jedi connection:

You’ve got a forest planet, filled with furry little creatures about a meter tall. They’re described as looking quite a bit like teddy bears. They live in the forest city named Endtor. Some of them were being used as slaves. They eventually rise up and decide to take on their occupiers, and reclaim their planet. All of their names are exactly 2 syllables long. Hmm… sounds a little familiar.

Ewoks

Are you kidding me George Lucas? For real dude? It took about 9 years, but you massively ripped that concept off from Le Guin. You didn’t even scrape the serial numbers off it. If Le Guin were particularly litigious, she could probably get a percentage on all Ewok merchandizing past and future. She doesn’t strike me as the type to sue, and Disney is a bit of giant to go up against these days. Still, credit should be given where credit is due. The Ewoks originated in Le Guin’s mind, and she deserves the recognition.

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

This short novel thoroughly creeped me the hell out. It’s been a few years since I’ve read anything that maintains this level of unease throughout. It’s not intended to be outright scary, instead it maintains an eerie tone (think VanderMeer’s Annihilation) and punctuates it with some genuine goosebump moments that snuck up on me. The narrative plays the POV characters’ relationship woes (something we can relate to) against a supernatural backdrop (something we cannot). Juxtaposing the relatable with the unrelatable works so well here, and serves to pull the unrelatable closer until it feels solid, foundational, and within the realm of possibility.

This narrative tactic also got me heavily invested in the characters and their troubled relationship; rooting for them to find a way out of their situation together; to come out the other side a more entwined, singular team. They’re two people who in a misguided attempt to navigate up out of a downwardly spiraling situation, inadvertently ensnare themselves into another, accelerated, more deadly one. I love the way that these events escalated, and built on one another. The way that they dealt with that escalation also felt incredibly like actual human behavior.

Julie and James settle into a house in a small town outside the city where they met. The move—prompted by James’s penchant for gambling, his inability to keep his impulses in check—is quick and seamless; both Julie and James are happy to leave behind their usual haunts and start afresh. But this house, which sits between ocean and forest, has plans for the unsuspecting couple. As Julie and James try to settle into their home and their relationship, the house and its surrounding terrain become the locus of increasingly strange happenings. The architecture—claustrophobic, riddled with hidden rooms within rooms—becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains are animated on the wall—contracting, expanding—and map themselves onto Julie’s body in the form of bruises; mold spores taint the water that James pours from the sink. Together the couple embark on a panicked search for the source of their mutual torment, a journey that mires them in the history of their peculiar neighbors and the mysterious residents who lived in the house before Julia and James.

Written in creepy, potent prose, The Grip of It is an enthralling, psychologically intense novel that deals in questions of home: how we make it and how it in turn makes us, mapping itself onto bodies and the relationships we cherish.

Jac JemcThe story found its way to a terrific resolution. I imagine it’s difficult to end a haunted house novel in a way that is satisfying to the reader, but doesn’t undercut the creepy tone — that built it in the first place — with too much clarity. Do you completely explain the haunting and lose all the mystery, or do you leave it entirely unknown by ending in an ambiguous manner? The finale of The Grip of It finds that perfect middle point between these two extremes, balancing resolution/irresolution to both fulfill my deeply rooted desire for closure as a reader, and keep the eeriness fully at play.

We’ve all got that old lizard brain resting below our rational one, nearly all that it understands is fear, and it love a good poking. Logically, I know none of these supernatural events are real or even remotely possible, but my lizard brain doesn’t care about logic, it likes being afraid. It wallows in the macabre, and thrives in the unknown terrors that might lurk in the shadows residing just at the periphery of my vision. I mostly read this right before going to bed, and I found myself double checking silhouettes in my bedroom as I lay there, imagining how the strange sensation of seeing my wife’s face, but not recognizing her, would feel; finding patterns where none exist, and missing patterns previously obvious. The whole affair put me on edge.

The prose is clean, the chapters short, and the pacing tight. You could even read it in a single sitting if you wanted, and it’s engaging enough that the decision to do so might end up outside your control. It might just happen, you looking at the clock afterward and wondering where the time disappeared to.

Escapology, by Ren Warom

Escapology, by Ren Warom

This novel changed my perception of what modern cyberpunk could be. I have to apologize in advance because this is going to be a little long-winded and meandering for a review. In order to approach my feelings on Escapology, I first need to share some thoughts about genre and how it can inform expectation.

Modern cyberpunk stories are operating in an interesting retro-futuristic narrative space these days. Cyberpunk had its big moment in the mid-to-late eighties, right at the convergence of rapid technological growth, reaganomics, corporate overreach, and heightened cold-war tensions. In addition to this collection of odd ingredients, the world had a general ignorance regarding computers and micro-technology, but had the knowledge that these things were coming toward us at breakneck pace. Tech was a sort of magic – in the Clarkesian sense – that was unknowable to the general public. Cyberpunk was a reactionary genre to all of this, and an extrapolation of a possible future that we might soon all be subjected to – shadowy mega corporations, invasive rampant technology, and the value of human life plummeting as a result. High-tech low-life was the general idea.

Of course, these things did eventually come to dominate our modern lives, but in entirely different ways than cyberpunk predicted. Because of this, most modern cyberpunk feels like it takes place in this “future of the past” that is firmly rooted in misunderstandings about technology. It’s more alternate history than plausible future at this point. I could go on and on about the woeful inefficiency of wasting CPU/GPU cycles in order to render an overly complicated GUI for every user’s interaction with a system while “jacked in”. Don’t get me wrong, I love that concept, it’s such a wonderful visual way to describe digital actions, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense in a real world context. I would, however, be missing the point if I pushed this, a point which I didn’t realize until reading this novel: modern cyberpunk is no longer science fiction, but fantasy, because we’ve passed the point where it’s scientifically plausible.

This might not be an important distinction for most readers, but I think we subconsciously allow genre to inform the expectations that we have when we approach a piece of fiction, so let’s take a step back and define the differences between fantasy and science fiction in simple terms: In fantasy, the impossible happens. In science fiction, the impossible but theoretically plausible happens. Cyberpunk as a genre was theoretically plausible to the world of the eighties, mostly because we misunderstood how computer technology functioned. Today, we understand quite a bit more, and I think that some aspects of the genre may no longer be. I think it operates under the umbrella of fantasy now, and therefore allows a lot of interesting possibilities and growth.

Ren WaromWarom gets this, but I didn’t at all going into this book. Something happened about halfway through Escapology that broke my suspension of disbelief. It was something that just isn’t scientifically plausible and I had an atavistic reaction against it, initially not understanding why; it just bothered me at a deep level. It took a while to realize that I felt like it broke the genre rules I had imposed on the story. It was then that I realized I had been mistakenly approaching the novel with a narrow angle of allowances. Warom wisely approached this story from a wider angle, or rather approached it without those rigid genre rules regarding what can or can’t happen in a story. The plausibility rules of science fiction do not apply here. When I realized this, it all clicked and I was able to get out from underneath my expectations and just let the story take me along for the ride. That was when I started to enjoy it for what it could be: a much needed stretching of the boundaries that readers have imposed upon cyberpunk as a genre. Of course, it would be much better to just approach all fiction without any thought of genre expectations beforehand, but I have a very difficult time doing that. It’s something I’m working on.

Escapology has one of the more interesting representations of avatars in a shared virtual world (the “jacked-in” state) that I’ve seen in while. It seems that Warom took inspiration from underwater earth life to represent this element of the story; the world that exists below the surface. I think it’s a fitting analogy, especially considering the protagonist’s dual avatars, each representing an element of his sexual identity and/or history. I also liked the land ships and the concept of the world literally having its crust broken apart at some point in the past. I’m hoping there’s more info about that in the sequel.

Conceptually, Escapology is a breathe of fresh air for the genre, and I have a lot of respect for what it accomplished in the genre stretching/meshing department. It also had a strong weird fiction vibe going, which helped inject a heavy sense of wonder. It feels like Warom is trying to shock some new life into a genre that has long been stagnant, and I commend her for it. I thought the characters were a little thin, and the narrative got a little overly melodramatic for my taste, but all in all it was a fun story.

I guarantee you haven’t read a cyberpunk novel like this. Just remember to go into it with an open mind, as I didn’t. We all need a good mind fucking now and again. Escapology definitely filled that quota for me.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas

Finishing this magnificent novel was a bittersweet affair. Sweet because it was a powerful joy to read; experiencing what a writer that possesses such a mastery of her craft can do with words, continually in awe at the bravery of this story, and how she approached it. Bitter because I’ve lived with her character Joan Ashby these past couple weeks, judged her a little unfairly at times, learned as she did, gotten to know her well as she grew and adapted, and now we are forced to part ways because the book is done. She’s such an interesting creation, and I want to keep her around a little longer. Most especially, I want to read the rest of her stories, and novels that she wrote during her life inside of this book. I’d be 100% okay if Wolas chose to write and publish them eventually.

Cherise WolasThis is Cherise Wolas’ debut as a novelist, but it is so well formed you would never think it her first published novel. It has none of the usual shortcomings that early efforts often do. I’m thinking she has always written. She is obviously very practiced, and a remarkably skilled storyteller to have put together something this comprehensive. If this book doesn’t get shortlisted for several big awards next year, I’d be shocked at the injustice. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins more than a few of them.

Her prose is beautiful and flowing, and her characters contain multitudes, especially Ashby as we get to see her create her own characters (some of them writers as well) and bring them to life with flowing prose. Wolas’ ability to write as herself, as her characters, and as her characters’ characters is just breathtaking. The subtle shifts in style as the novel dips into and back out of Ashby’s writing, were handled with grace, and they added some postmodern flair to the whole thing. It’s like a novel that contains a short story collection, and reminds me of reading both at the same time, breaking up the main story with little miniature ones that interject here and there, never taking away from the momentum. It just works.

My favorite part of this is seeing how Ashby learns about herself, and deals with events in her own life through her fiction; through the characters that take on some of the traits of those around her; never directly putting her own life, events, and acquaintances directly into her work, but borrowing bits here and there and reconfiguring them into new dramatic events and characters. It’s refreshing to see the creative process stripped bare and represented accurately like this. Everything is a remix of our influences, and our lives, blown apart and amalgamated. In the latter half of the book, we even start to get a small glimpse into one possible future direction for Ashby, through the fiction that she creates. It’s subtly done and I love it. We see her working things out, coming to terms with traumatic events, and coming out the other side, all part of her process of creation and renewal.

Read this novel. It’s out August 29th from Flatiron Books in the US, and Sept 7th via The Borough Press in the UK.