Thursday, November 8, 2018

November Reads Part One

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Exhalation and other Stories by Ted Chiang

The pleasure of reading these Fractured Europe novels is in becoming hopelessly lost, both geographically (the point) and narratively (the fun!). For much of this third of four volumes, I was wonderfully confused, adrift among seemingly unrelated plot points and characters hitherto never seen. The finale does do a bit of explaining, thankfully, but I spent much of my time with the final 40 or so pages shaking my head and smirking, impressed with Hutchinson's masterful mashup of Len Deighton and parallel world narratives. We've spoken before on Twitter, sharing our mutual admiration for Deighton's early stuff, and though Le Carre gets the explicit name drop in Europe in Winter, it's to Deighton the novel gives its heart and soul. Though I haven't finished the series, I can confidently state the Fractured Europe sequence might be one of the all-time great SFF series of the 2010s... maybe even of the 21st century. I can't think of any other series of speculative fiction which is as insightful, sharp, clever, and politically necessary. There are bigger thematic goals for the series than a unique or fresh take on the parallel universe narrative, an ambition to be applauded. I find it frustrating Hutchinson hasn't received any major award attention for these novels. It's wholly deserving.

I read Ted Chiang's first collection of stories before this blog, when I was in university the first time, and I found it a mind-blowing experience: poignant, intriguing, beautiful, delicate, thoughtful. My memory must have gilded the rough edges, because how else to explain how disappointing I found Chiang's second collection? The most cutting edge SF concepts are still present, but I don't remember the older stories being so clumsy with the execution of said concepts, or even worse, the stentorious "philosophizing" around them. Imagine, if you can, a first year philosophy seminar, run by a teacher's assistant and attended entirely by 18 year olds. That's the kind of earnest, wide-eyed navel-gazing you can expect from the stories and their rooting around in the dirt for some nugget of wisdom at the level of "having a child changes your perception."

Hold up. I sound much grumpier about these stories than I actually am. I found the exposition clumsy, the characterization clumsy, the reaches toward poignancy clumsy, but clumsy isn't necessarily a failure. That Chiang doesn't have the grace or lightness of touch other (moralizing) science fiction writers have doesn't mean these stories aren't worth your time. There are positive aspects. Firstly, they're all immediately readable. I ploughed through all nine stories in two days, never once finding myself impatient or restless. Even the less plot-focused of stories, such as the title story, about a mechanical man performing brain surgery on himself to discover the secrets of the universe, were alluring and compelling. Chiang is probably the most readable of the "hard" science fiction writers (Greg Egan I've found completely unreadable) thanks to his general storytelling skills. He spins a good yarn, overall. It's just the smaller things pricked at me, a frustration built of a thousand tiny cuts. Clumsy, as I've repeated, is the most appropriate descriptor.

The final story is about prisms which allow communication between parallel universes, and in true Heisenberg principle fashion, the act of communication itself causes the divergence. This is perhaps the best story in the entire collection, or maybe second best to the multiple award-winning "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate." Both feature Chiang at his emotional best, using the science fictional concept for emotional truth instead of whiz bang theatrics. The final story, "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom," is anchored by an emotionally complex focal character, and by grounded ethical stakes. Take away all the science fictional aspects and the story still functions as a narrative: the lead character must face her own past ethical choices and forge ahead to make new choices, in an effort to be a better person. The integration of the fantastical isn't quite as smooth as in the aforementioned "Merchant" story (presented à la Arabian Nights-style nested stories), but it's emotional genuine, which makes it all the better for it. 

"The Lifecycle of Software Objects" might be the worst story in this collection and I'm truly baffled it won so much praise and so many awards. It's a completely inert, cold, lifeless tale of raising AI as if children. It's classic hard science fiction: emotionless, suffused with technical writing, and human characters functioning only as mouthpieces for oration. Only a parent, smug with the delusion that parenthood is the only meaningful pursuit in life, could come up with something so teeth-rottingly sweet and pablum-like. I find reading about the quiet nobility of child-rearing especially difficult in the years after reading James' What Maisie Knew (here), a face-melting excoriation of the selfishness of parents. 

The collection, Exhalation, comes out in May 2019, and I'm grateful to the publisher for an advanced reading copy (especially so far in advance of publication!!)

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