THE LIGHT BRIGADE (Kameron Hurley): SF and the time-image

THE LIGHT BRIGADE by Kameron Hurley is an exciting book, and I read it over a single week end, unable to put it down.

SCRAMBLING THE STEREOTYPES

The basic frame of a war between the Earth under the sway of totalitarian corporations and its former colony on Mars is well conducted and interesting in itself. The story and the characterisation are well handled. Despite the stereotyped narrative line where the protagonist, Dietz, passes from the state of “rookie” to that of hero, the narration is non-linear as Dietz becomes “unstuck ” in time, and we have to piece together both the war and the characters from the scrambled order of presentation.

THE PLEASURE OF THE (UNTIMELY) DIALOGUE

Multiple allusions to the great novels of military SF (STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE FOREVER WAR, OLD MAN’S WAR, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE) add depth and thematic density to the narrative, and we quickly understand that we are immersed in a new contribution to a great intertextual conversation. The dialogue is also engaged with contemporary novels, for example with ANCILLARY JUSTICE (Ann Leckie) and NINEFOX GAMBIT (Yoon Ha Lee).

DE-DRAMATISING GENDER

The question, or rather the non-question, of gender is treated more satisfactorily in THE LIGHT BRIGADE than in these recent novels, much as the question of the color of the skin in STARSHIP TROOPERS is handled seemingly casually. We only learn the gender of the main character, our narrator, late in the book. This indifference of gender is no longer in the foreground, as is the case in ANCILLARY JUSTICE, but remains in the background, as a trivial given of the situation, not a foregrounded pedagogical gimmick. Just as in the eyes of the corporations we are all pawns, in Dietz’s eyes the gender of a friend or enemy is of only secondary importance.

KALEIDOSCOPIC PERCEPTION AND TRANSPOSING THE CANON

My feeling reading THE LIGHT BRIGADE was that it very successfully accomplished the task of the transposition of the canonical genre of the military science fiction novel into a more contemporary political, epistemological, and ontological context. The narrative is blurred chronologically, not arbitrarily or as a literary technique, but in the image of the main character’s “unstuck in time” experience, creating a kaleidoscopic perception of the world, the war, and other characters.

PARANOID CONSCIOUSNESS AND POST-TRUTH POLITICS

These processes (chronological scrambling, temporal ungluing, kaleidoscopic perception) are well combined with the need for the inhabitants of the Earth (divided into citizens, residents, and “ghouls”) to maintain a critical, even paranoid, consciousness in a world where censorship and fake news rule. This uncertainty and fragmentation at the level of perception and information also affect the novel’s characterization. The reader, like the narrator, reduced to a pointillist depiction, must construct their image of people through scrambled snippets of information and perception.

THE DEMOCRACY OF WAR

Despite all this dispersion, the reader succeeds in constructing a synthetic image of the main characters, such as Munoz, Andria, Tanaka, Jones, Norberg. Even if we only know the characters through fragmentary sketches (justified by the narrator’s unstuckness in time), we see mostly ordinary soldiers. Hurley avoids the structural problem of NINEFOX GAMBIT whose democratic message is contradicted by his narrative fixation on the acts of the elites.

CALENDRICAL CONTROL AND QUANTUM UNCERTAINTY

The link with NINEFOX GAMBIT can be seen in the fight for the control of the calendar (the soldiers are kept in total ignorance of the day, the date, and even the year) by the ruling power, in an attempt to control the potentially “exotic” effects of the teleportation technology and to take advantage of it in the conduct of the war. From this point of view, we go beyond the epistemological level of subjective uncertainty towards the ontological level of construction of the real.

DECONSTRUCTION MAKES ME STRONGER

The end of the novel disappointed me. The notion of a (partially) constructed reality, which is justified by a rapid allusion to quantum physics, and of a technological means for manipulating it, quickly becomes indistinguishable from magic. It finally allows the emergence of a deus ex machina to counter the seemingly absolute and inexorable power of the corporations. Here, the democratic message is contradicted by the use of a quasi-divine power.

THE NARRATIVE UN-HINGED

The defects that some reviews have attributed to the novel (insufficient characterization, confused narrative, slow pacing, explanations too late) seem to me traits required by the nature of the narrative universe, by the situation of the narrator-protagonist, and by the image of time underlying the story. It takes time to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, and reading the book is an intellectually stimulating adventure at every level.

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THE LIGHT BRIGADE (Kameron Hurley): SF et image-temps

THE LIGHT BRIGADE par Kameron Hurley est un livre passionnant, et je ne pouvais pas m’en arracher.

L’histoire de base d’une guerre entre la Terre sous l’emprise des corporations totalitaires et son ancienne colonie (maintenant affrachie) sur Mars  est bien menée et intéressante en soi, malgré la ligne narrative stéréotypée où le personnage principal, Dietz, passe de l’état de “rookie” à celui de héros.

Les allusions multiples aux grands romans de SF militaire (STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE FOREVER WAR, OLD MAN’S WAR, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE) ajoutent une profondeur et une densité thématique à la narration, et on comprend ainsi qu’on est plongé dans une nouvelle contribution à une grande conversation intertextuelle. Cette conversation se tisse aussi avec des romans contemporains, par exemple avec ANCILLARY JUSTICE (Ann Leckie) et NINEFOX GAMBIT (Yoon Ha Lee).

Je trouve que la question, ou plutôt la non-question, du genre est traitée de façon plus satisfaisante dans THE LIGHT BRIGADE, un peu comme la question de la couleur de la peau dans STARSHIP TROOPERS. On n’apprend le genre du personnage principal, notre narrateur, que tard dans le livre. Cette indifférence au genre n’est plus au premier plan, comme c’est le cas dans ANCILLARY JUSTICE, mais reste à l’arrière plan, comme donnée banale de la situation, pas un gadget. Aux yeux des corporations nous sommes tous des pions, aux yeux de Dietz le genre est d’importance sécondaire.

Mon sentiment en lisant le roman c’était qu’il accomplissait la transposition d’un roman canonique de la SF militaire dans un contexte politique, épistémologique, et ontologique plus contemporain. La narration est brouillée au niveau chronologique, non pas de façon arbitraire ou comme technique littéraire, mais à l’image de l’expérience du “décollage du temps” du personnage principal, créant ainsi une perception kaléidoscopique du monde, de la guerre, et des autres personnages.

Ces procédés (brouillage chronologique, décollage temporel, perception kaléidoscopique) se conjuguent bien avec la nécessite pour les habitants de la terre (répartis en citoyens, résidents, et “goules”) de maintenir une conscience critique, voire paranoïaque, dans un monde où règne la censure et les fake news. Cette incertitude et cette fragmentation au niveau de la perception et de l’information affectent la caractérisation des personnages. Le narrateur réduit à une dépiction pointilliste doit construire son image des personnes à travers des bribes d’information et de perception, tout comme le lecteur.

Malgré toute cette dispersion, le lecteur réussit à construire une image synthétique des caractères principaux, comme Munoz, Andria, Tanaka, Jones, Norberg. Donc, même si les personnages restent à l’état d’ébauches fragmentaires (justifié par le décollage du temps du narrateur ), on voit surtout des soldats ordinaires. Hurley évite le problème structurel de NINEFOX GAMBIT dont le message démocratique est en contradiction avec sa fixation narrative sur les élites.

Le lien avec NINEFOX GAMBIT se voit dans la lutte pour le contrôle du calendrier (les soldats sont maintenus dans l’ignorance totale du jour, de la date, et même de l’année) par le pouvoir en place, pour arriver à maîtriser les effets “exotiques” de leur technologie de téléportation et en tirer avantage dans la conduite de la guerre. De ce point de vue, on dépasse le niveau épistémologique d’incertitude subjective pour aller vers un éventuel niveau ontologique de construction du réel.

C’est la fin du roman qui m’a déçu. Cette notion de la réalité (partiellement) construite, justifiée par une allusion rapide à la physique quantique, devient vite indistinguable de la magie. Elle permet l’émergence d’un deus ex machina pour contrer le pouvoir absolu et inexorable des corporations. Ici, le message démocratique est contredit par le recours à un pouvoir quasi-divin.

Donc les défauts que certains ont attribués au roman (caractérisation insuffisante, récit confus, longueurs, explications trop tardives) me semblent des traits exigés par la nature de l’univers narratif, par la situation du narrateur-protagoniste, et par l’image du temps sous-jacente au récit.

Pour aller plus loin: https://lecultedapophis.com/2019/03/21/the-light-brigade-kameron-hurley/

COMPLEXITY, AGENCY, AND VIGILANCE: Robert Dickinson’s THE TOURIST

This is a gripping story, all the more so as one had to remain very vigilant to keep track of who was where on their own and on each other’s timeline. This is the first level of vigilance: the complexity and entanglement of timelines

It is allied with a second level of vigilance: deliberately withheld information and hyper-manipulative disinformation combine to maintain the suspense-filled intrigue despite the frequently repeated assertion that you can’t change history. Everyone seems to agree with this principle, and to take it as a guide for their actions, even to obey plans based on known future facts or to renounce any attempt to alter the known sequence of events.

Yet there are ambiguities that work to cast doubt on or to undercut this determinist plot: the all-powerful time authority in Geneva that seems to be manipulating everybody, a small number of “Anachronists”, who believe history is mutable and are actively trying to improve it, some time-travellers who never came back and disappeared without a trace, “holes” in history both small and enormous, self-generating loops where a future self puts its past self on the pre-determined track, a mysterious 25th Century that doesn’t allow visitors and doesn’t travel, a set of prohibitions and protocols for time travellers that seem useless if history really is inviolable.

There is a time war being fought, and the reader begins to think that one side may win it by changing the past in its favour. Crucial items of information crop up late in the story and we wonder whether they were withheld by the authorities until then or only became true after active interference. This is the third level of vigilance: keeping track of the possibilities.

The stated goal of the protocols is to maintain not the timeline (which is held to be fixed) but the sense of agency. The theme of the book, however, is rather the degree of vigilance required of the characters, and also of the reader.

PARALLELS EMPIRE OF SILENCE/BOOK OF THE NEW SUN

Many reviewers of EMPIRE OF SILENCE have remarked on the analogies with DUNE so I want to spell out those with BOOK OF THE NEW SUN. Intertextuality not originality is the question (and Wolfe’s saga itself borrows elements from LORD OF THE RINGS):

1) The Chantry/the torturers’ guild,

2) Hadrian kills a Sun to win the war/ Severian kills a Sun to bring the New Sun,

3) First person self-justifying narrator Hadrian/Severian,

4) Bildungsroman of protagonist fleeing a future career as a torturer

5) Highmatter sword gifted to Hadrian/the sword Terminus Est gifted to Severian,

6) Tallness of palatine ruling class/Tallness of exultant ruling class

7) Energy lances

8) Shadow of the executioner/Shadow of the torturer

The count’s shadow might as well have been that of the executioner” (EMPIRE OF SILENCE page 289)

9) Lictors

10) Hadrian’s ring heavy around his neck/Severian’s Claw heavy around his neck

11) Hadrian’s mission at the end is conciliator/Severian becomes the Conciliator

Ligeia glanced a moment at Lord Balian, who only shook his head. Her voice now carrying a fraction of its earlier forcefulness, she said, “What, then? Conciliation? Surrender?” “No one is saying anything about surrender, ma’am,” said old Sir William Crossflane from his place beside the tribune” (EMPIRE OF SILENCE, 568).

12) Both books are only approximately translated from a not yet existing future language

13) Apostrophe to the reader at the end. Compare:

If what I have done disturbs you, Reader, I do not blame you. If you would read no further, I understand. You have the luxury of foresight. You know where this ends. I shall go on alone” (EMPIRE OF SILENCE, 578).

and

Here I pause. If you wish to walk no farther with me, reader, I cannot blame you. It is no easy road” (THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, 210).

14) Meditation on symbols as our masters:

 “We think ourselves the masters of such symbols, but they are our masters” (EMPIRE OF SILENCE, 437).

and

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges” (THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, 14).

Again I must emphasise that I am talking primarily about parallels and intertextuality, not derivation and originality.

EMPIRE OF SILENCE: Memoirs of Hadrian Xenocide and Sun Killer

Christopher Ruocchio’s début science fiction epic is a very ambitious work and I have mixed feelings about it. I would give it a baseline 3,5/5 stars, upped to 4 for his handling of linguistic and cultural estrangement. I agree with many readers that the novel is very intertextual, containing many elements that parallel key features of its influences and predecessors. If in some respects it is derivative at least it is ambitiously multi-derivative, combining such great models as DUNE, THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER (and BOOK OF THE NEW SUN in general), ENDER’S GAME, and HYPERION CANTOS.

Some structural features of the world-building may seem hard to swallow, such as the realistic possibility of a coherent empire despite the decades needed to travel between stars. This “time debt” concept is equally integral to Simmons’ saga without plunging the political structure into incoherence, and Ruocchio compensates this by positing the great longevity of the palatine ruling cast.

The first part of the book may seem long-winded and our narrator Hadrian Marlowe is self-indulgent, but there is no Chekov’s Gun Syndrome, as everything that is featured in this first part is taken up again effectively in the last third of the book and contributes integrally to the unfolding of the story.

Similarly, beginning with the end, in the melodramatic depiction of himself as Xenocide and sun murderer, does not spoil the plot for me, but awakens an interest in what begins as a fairly dull family intrigue. We want to follow the Bildungsroman to see how Hadrian moves from oedipal patheticness to cosmic pathos.

The attempt to make us feel empathy for the Cielcin while underlining their alienness is original and well handled, as were the presentations of the various existential-political “cages” in which the narrator was confined.

The mystery of the alien “Quiet” (their mysterious black habitats are another callback to HYPERION) and the desire to see more of Hadrian’s interactions with the alien Cielcin are enough to make me want to read the sequels, despite my mixed feelings about the trope-filled underlying framework and the only half-likeable protagonist.

This is fusion speculative fiction, with the emphasis sometimes falling more on “fusion” than on the speculation, but often enough it is the speculative element that dominates.

Some interesting reviews:

http://www.nerds-feather.com/2018/08/microrreview-book-empire-of-silence-by.html

Empire of silence – Christopher Ruocchio

MAGIC IS SCIENCE FROM A PREVIOUS UNIVERSE: On Clifford Simak’s THE GOBLIN RESERVATION

This novel is difficult to situate within the categories of today’s science fiction and within Simak’s oeuvre. It belongs to the genre of science fantasy, in that the fantastical beings, powers, and events receive a (sort of) scientific explanation. There is also an outrageous sense of humour that we associate more with Robert Sheckley or Douglas Adams, only a little slower as befits Simak’s style.

The whole story revolves around a man commissioned to broker a deal for the purchase of a repository of knowledge both from the previous universe, prior to our Big Bang, and from our own universe’s long history up to now.The knowledge is stored on a mysterious nomad crystal planet

The antics revolve around a coarse but loveable Neanderthal (retrieved from the past by time travel), a sabre toothed tiger (produced as an experimental model and a pet by bio-mechanical engineering), teleportation, time travel, goblins versus trolls, a ghost who has forgotten who he used to be when alive, and villainous aliens taking the form of hives of insects on wheels.

The world-building is that of an off-the-cuff space opera universe as background to the action, which takes place mainly on Earth.

This is more a long novella than a novel, by today’s standards. It is a fast and enjoyable read, although perhaps a bit lacking in the intellectual depth we expect from Simak.It is also a paean to the value of knowledge and friendship in the face of the entropic running down of the universe and of its magical possibilities.

Note: I am greatly indebted to the inspiration provided by the discussion of this novel on the SFFaudio Podcast: https://www.sffaudio.com/the-sffaudio-podcast-399-readalong-the-goblin-reservation-by-clifford-d-simak/.

ROSEWATER: Xéno-Fiction Fortéenne

Je viens de terminer la lecture de ROSEWATER, un roman de science fiction passionnant écrit par Tade Thompson, publié l’année dernière (en anglais). C’est un livre captivant, et je le recommande vivement.

Dans un futur proche (2066): un mystérieux “bio-dôme”, d’origine extraterrestre, occupe le centre de la ville de Rosewater au Nigeria. Il est entouré d’une barrière que personne ne peut franchir. Une fois par an, une petite ouverture ou “pore” apparaît sur la surface et les gens aux alentours du dôme sont guéris de leurs maladies (un bon résultat) ou ils sont “reconstruits” autrement que sous forme humaine (généralement un mauvais résultat).

Contenu: mystères, espionnage, secrets, violence, sexe virtuel “alien”, amour romantique, êtres angéliques ou quasi-divins. Des humains devenus télépathes grâce à une infection fongique peuvent accéder à la noosphère composée des pensées, des affects, et des images de tous les êtres sentients (on pourrait dire de toutes les “âmes noétiques”) de l’univers.

ROSEWATER synthétise de multiples influences et tropes science-fictionnels, transformés par un style “weird” (imaginez STALKER raconté par China Miéville). Le récit concerne une invasion extraterrestre accomplie par des moyens écologiques ayant lieu dans un décor post-post-cyberpunk. Deux romans récents auquel on pourrait le comparer sont  SWEET DREAMS par Tricia Sullivan et ANNIHILATION par Jeff VanderMeer.

ROSEWATER se lit (provisiorement du moins, puisqu’il y aura une suite), comme une version “eucatastrophique” d’ANNIHILATION. Il est raconté dans un style en apparence plus simple et direct, mais qui néanmoins atteint le même niveau de complexité.

La “xenosphère” (le monde des pensées,ou monde noétique) dans ROSEWATER rappelle le monde des rêves (qu’on pourrait appeler “l’oneirosphère”) qui figure comme élément central dans SWEET DREAMS de Tricia Sullivan. Il s’agit d’un monde virtuel composé des rêves cybernétiquement assistés d’une humanité de plus en plus dépendante des réseaux et des technologies numériques.

Dans les deux cas, les humains commencent à avoir accès à un domaine virtuel noétique (xénosphère, oneirosphère) auprès duquel notre réalité virtuelle contemporaine semble une caricature  manipulatrice.

La narration fait alterner des chapitres dont le récit est situé dans le présent et d’autres racontant ses origines. On assiste à la découverte par notre protagoniste Kaaro de sa capacité à utiliser les pensées de son entourage pour trouver des objets perdus et de pouvoir voler impunément. On le voit devenir un voleur, se faire prendre, trouver un mentor, se faire attraper par une agence gouvernementale mystérieuse (S45 ou “section quarante-cinq”) qui l’embauche et le forme comme agent secret télépathique. La plus grande partie de cette histoire a lieu en 2055.

Dans le présent de l’histoire (2066) on découvre que quelqu’un ou quelque chose est en train d’assassiner tous les télépathes comme Kaaro, y compris ses anciens camarades formés comme lui par la S45. Sa lutte pour survivre et sa quête pour apprendre ce qui se passe et pourquoi occupent ce deuxième fil narratif.

Thématiquement, le roman est plus complexe qu’il ne semble à première vue. Ses grands thèmes (l’incertitude et la découverte, la duplicité et la confiance, l’identité et l’altérité, l’émerveillement et la trahison, l’égoïsme et l’empathie, l’angoisse et l’amour) donnent de la profondeur au roman. L’histoire est celle de l’individuation du protagoniste Kaaro, qui progresse du cynisme égoïste d’un voleur amoral privé d’empathie jusqu’à l’amour, à l’engagement dans une cause plus vaste que lui, et à une forme (limitée) d’altruisme.

ROSEWATER: A XENO-FORTEAN FICTION

I have just finished reading ROSEWATER, an excellent science fiction novel written by Tade Thompson, published last year. It is a compelling read, and I highly recommend it.

In a near future (2066) a mysterious “biodome” of alien origin occupies the center of the city of Rosewater in Nigeria, a space which none can enter. Once a year a small opening or “pore” appears and people in proximity around it are healed of their illnesses (good, usually) or “reconstructed” along other lines (bad, usually). Mysteries, espionage, secrets, violence, virtual alien sex and human love, angelic and god-like extraterrestrials, fungal infected human telepaths quantum accessing the noosphere composed of all sentients’ thoughts and thought forms.

ROSEWATER synthesises many different sf influences and ideas, combining a weird sff treatment of an alien ecological-based invasion with a post-post-cyberpunk near future setting. The two recent novels that I would compare ROSEWATER to are SWEET DREAMS by Tricia Sullivan, and ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer.

ROSEWATER reads like a (provisionally, as there will be a sequel) eucatastrophic version of ANNIHILATION, told in a seemingly more straightforward style that manages to attain the same degree of complexity.

The “xenosphere” (or thought-world) in ROSEWATER recalls the use that SWEET DREAMS makes of what one could call the “oneirosphere” (a term not used in the book), a virtual world composed out of the cybernetically assisted dreams of an increasingly plugged-in humanity.

In both cases humans begin to have access to a virtual realm that makes ordinary virtual reality seem like a manipulative caricature.

Narratively, the chapters alternate between the protagonist Kaaro’s nascent discovery of his abilities to draw on the thoughts of others to find objects, and to avoid detection as he launches into a life of theft, is caught, survives to be mentored, and trained to be a secret government operative. Most of the action on this thread takes place in 2055. The “now” of the narration is 2066, and someone or some force is killing the telepathic “sensitives” like Kaaros. His struggle for survival and his effort to learn what is happening and why make up the bulk of this second thread.

Thematically, the novel is more complex than it may seem at first. The themes of anxiety, uncertainty, duplicity, identity and alterity, morality and responsibility, wonder and trust are omnipresent. The story is one of individuation as the protagonist Kaaro progresses from cynicism, an amoral thief devoid of empathy, to engagement and a limited form of altruism.

SIX WAKES ON THE DORMIRE: space clone murder mystery

This is the perfect crime fiction with clones in space. Told with an economy of means at a galloping pace, it is impossible to put down. There is just enough world-building to get on with the story, and the diverse details we learn on the fly, from surprising turns of events and multiple flashbacks, all converge on the character-driven dénouement.

The novel constitutes a very interesting thought experiment concerning all the variations that cloning plus hacking (both genetic and psychic) can generate. The metaphysical theme of identity is cleverly inter-twined with the ethical theme of our responsibility for our unowned or unconscious past.

The style is flatly narrative rather than literary, but the intrigue and the suspense are very skilfully handled.

All in all not a ground-breaking work, but a quick and enjoyable read.

LADY ASTRONAUT OF MARS: A Retro-Futurist Love Story

A bitter-sweet tale focused on the conflicting demands of conjugal love and of passionate vocation. Love is not only an emotion but also a set of life choices together. To be faithful to love is to be faithful to those choices, not always to be faithful to our image of love.

Mary Robinette Kowal manages to convey a lot of emotional complexity in such a short space. Elma, an aging astronaut, in fact the first lady astronaut on Mars, lives in a human settlement on Mars with her elderly husband, pining to get back into space. Miraculously, she is offered a new mission, her last chance to live her passion.

Elma longs to accept, as she has no ties, except her husband, as they chose to have no children. Unfortunately her husband is sick and getting progressively helpless, dying slowly. She does not want to leave him.

It’s a hard thing to look at something you want and to know that the right choice is to turn it down.

These are the cold equations of life, wherever you may live. But where is the sense of wonder? For Elma it was in the voyage out, in space. The wonder of being on another planet is diminished by having to live in a dome on Mars:

The natural night sky on Mars is spectacular, because the atmosphere is so thin. But where humans live, under the dome, all you can see are the lights of the town reflecting against the dark curve.

Wonder is relative, and even migrating to another planet may come to seem a limiting experience, instead of a limit-experience.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the mission. “He knows it’s the only way I’ll get back into space.” Garrett Biggs frowned like I’d said the sky was green, instead of the pale Martian amber. “You’re in space.” “I’m on Mars. It’s still a planet.”

I found this a quite enjoyable story, but the more I think about it the richer it seems. It is about how we may devote ourselves to an absolute, despite the sometimes disappointing nitty gritty details of its effectuation. Elma gets to be an astronaut, but she is selected also as a pretty smiling face to advertise the mission. She is selected decades later for the new mission for both practical and PR reasons. Her love too is absolute, despite being mired in difficult materiality. The contradictions between the ideal and its realisations are well handled.

This story explores the impossible reconciliation of these contradictions and conflicting desires. The end provides us with a lop-sided synthesis, half motivated by the rest of the story, half tacked on.