Saturday, June 13, 2020

Ubik - Philip K. Dick

One of the most compelling scenes in Philip K. Dick's Ubik is a struggle simply to walk upstairs, to find a place of rest: a fight against inertia, fatigue, the pure malice of entropy. Reading this scene during the pandemic, after seeing harrowing accounts of the fever and weakness that COVID-19 inflicts, the scene gains a terrible resonance.

At other times, Ubik might seems  prescient for its distillation of routine capitalism into endless payment for trivial services, such as the coin-operated doors and coffee-makers, presaging the economy of micro-transactions and in-app payments. But this, like the plot that sets emergent “psi” powers against their natural, effect limiting counterparts or “anti-psi” operations is simply part of the scaffolding, the incidental background for a more profound and deliberate consideration of how worlds are made and unmade, and what happens when our physical, moral, and even temporal realities begin to unravel. 

It’s striking that the forces of entropy are yoked to malice and cruelty in Ubik, just at a time now when reactionary politics in the US are also heedlessly erasing or countermanding progressive reforms in an attempt to wind the clock back to an era of “greatness” that never applied. In contrast, the cure-all “Ubik” seems to come from a humanizing impulse to heal and restore, an almost spiritual impulse to resist the death urge: “watching, wise, physical ghosts from the full-life.”

And yet, as in most of Dick’s work, for every action there is a reaction, for every reality a counter-reality, and the tension between life and half-life is never wholly decided. Perhaps this is why Ubik is both fascinating and unsettling — we’ll never quite know where our world stands; the only valid choice is what we’ll fight for, what we need to resist.




Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Last Battle

Beginnings are tentative, difficult, subtle. Few parts of your work face as much revision, as much rewriting, than beginnings. 

Endings, on the other side, roar in and seem to compose themselves, inevitable, like the cresting of a wave.

This is how endings should be. Lay the ground, set the pieces in motion, the end game will play out itself. 

As I've grown older, as a reader I've found it harder and harder just to finish a book I like, not through dislike of the task, but because the pleasure of reading, discovery, is something I want to sustain. 

As a writer, the agony of ending a piece is the constant stream of distractions that break the whole into fragments of work, and the awareness that the measured end-game also requires its own patience, its own pacing. But of course, the ending is never the end of the writing task, only the point where you go back to review and revise again.

When Bilbo gets to the end of The Hobbit, he has his share of the treasure. All he has to do is get it back across the Mirkwood, the Misty Mountains, and the wilds of Eriador again. 

What have other found at the end?

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Childish Audacity - The Secret Agent

I've mentioned elsewhere Conrad's masterwork of urban terror, political agitation, anarchism and authority, The Secret Agent. His portrait of the the shabby. monstrous Professor, the essential suicide bomber, is both relevant and terrifyingly familiar to us today. But The Secret Agent is also a domestic tragedy played out as a bitter farce, with deep insights that continue to cut against contemporary conditions.

One phrase, among many, struck me as notable: "Barefaced audacity amounting to childishness of a particular sort". Anyone who has had to witness the absurd contortions about the Ukraine scandal, the unforgivable betrayal of the Kurds, or the pointless provocation of Iran, will recognize this phrase as eerily applicable. On one level it means that malice and folly are never far apart – "Oft evil will shall evil mar" as Tolkien would have it – and there is, in our current discourse, a dangerous tendency to ascribe deeper motives or at least clarity of purpose to what is in fact mere lying, blundering, and cruelty when the liars have the power to frighten and appall us.

But beyond that, every character in The Secret Agent is locked into a form of childishness. For like Stevie, the man-child and first victim of the misguided terror-attack, every character is trapped in their own perceptions, their own circle of thoughts and fears and illusions, and none of them, not even the policeman, has the clear insight to regard another human being with accuracy. This is, of course, the basis of the novel's dramatic irony — we are all secret agents, operating only to ourselves, opaque to others.


Friday, October 25, 2019

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

Where to begin with even preliminary notes on Gene Wolfe's dizzying, monumental sequence The Book of the New Sun? The death of Gene Wolfe earlier this year prompted me to return to the sequence starting with The Shadow of the Torturer to give the whole series its second (and in some volumes third) reading, but the whole remains a staggering and sometimes frustrating work, frequently brilliant and occasionally baffling.

At one point in The Sword of the Lictor, the narrator-torturer Severian climbs down a mountain cliff that is composed not only of natural materials but human-made elements, strata of artificial structures, metals, made objects: "the buildings and mechanisms of humanity," layered in geological sediment. As Tolkien created a sense of the mythic past of Middle-Earth by building ages of imaginary history, Wolfe creates a sense of an ancient world illuminated by a dying sun by generating these accumulated layers of future history. But this history is also so vast that it is mostly unknowable, at once so compressed and remote that there is little to be gleaned from it. This scene is something of a touchstone for my reading of the whole work.

You might say that Severian's eidetic memory, able to record a mass of episodic detail but rarely able to draw back far enough to show the implications of what he witnesses, enacts this kind of layering. Severian is often described as an unreliable narrator, despite the precision of his recall. In fact, the text itself is like this, layering allusions, metaphors, stories, histories, and forms of meaning. One of Wolfe's most effective conceits is to conceal high technologies behind antiquarian terminology by way of "translation", such that energy weapons are described as lances, grounded spacecraft as citadels, and often the apparent significance of an item conceals and transcends its material nature, as the Claw of the Conciliator, the healing relic of the messiah, is eventually whittled down from jewel to claw, and eventually shown to be a thorn from a wild rosebush.

This mirroring (mirrors can also transcend space and time in the New Sun) can be both dazzling and perplexing. For instance, after two or three readings I'm still at a loss as to describe precisely how the far future messiah boot-straps himself into temporal existence, or precisely how and where and for what function he comes by the Claw. It's suggested by the end of the sequence that Severian is destined to travel in the corridors of time, and thereby somehow guide his own apotheosis, but where Severian intrudes in his own story, or his precise relationship with menacing, distant figures such as the abyssal giants, is not apparent after this reading any more, I expect, than the next.

The dying earth genre, from The Night Land to Viriconium, is by implication an elegy, located at the point of entropy where the fictional world is ossified and decayed. The Book of the New Sun certainly partakes of this moment and its dizzying perspectives. But perhaps Wolfe's most profound piece of misdirection is that his work ends not on the edge of dissolution but of renewal. This theme, the movement from executioner to broader moral consciousness to redemption, is one Dickens deployed and I've used myself, most clearly in the figure of Gabriel Carver. There is always a tendency, from Tolkien to Wolfe, to chase after deliberate allegories, in this case between Catholicism and the cult of the Increate and the New Sun, but for me it is Severian's meandering journey, sometimes impressive, sometimes perplexing, in the labyrinths of the far future that hold the greatest satisfaction and interest.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Thursday, April 25, 2019

After Christchurch, March 15, 2019

One of the comforts of mystery and detective fiction is that there is an effort to discover motive and make it knowable. Greed, jealousy, fear, revenge, desire are all intelligible to the detective's eye. But we are sometimes confronted by events in which the motive is not merely lacking, but vacant, horrific.

I write this in reference to the mass murder in Christchurch on March 15, and because I was born and lived a large part of my adult life in Christchurch, and so it is the city I still regard as home, familiar ground, before all others. The Christchurch where I grew up, the city on the plain in the shadow of the sun-browned Port Hills, with its green, fragrant parks and quiet, windblown streets and patches of Neo-gothic stonework, has been altered and scarred by inevitable change and two severe earthquakes, but these are natural events as opposed to willful slaughter.

Shaun Yeo Crying Kiwi
Shaun Yeo


Faced with a crime, we seek the motive in the first instance of shock and dismay. However, I no more mean to read or reference the shooter's "manifesto" than I mean to grant him the presence of mentioning his name. It's enough to read the summaries by those familiar with acts of terrorism and hate-crimes to realize that the same tired lies and malformed justifications repeat themselves again. In any case, the slaughter of innocent persons utterly vacates even the pretence of a reason. The shooter has no just cause to defend.

So, what remains? Jordan Peterson, for one, in the context of school shootings holds that: "“They make a display of their hatred for Being by massacring the innocent. That’s what’s happening — and they write that,” but this is generalizing to the point of uselessness. Mass murderers of this sort may indeed express a hatred for Being, but the beings they murder are, by their own choice, highly specific. Indeed, as Sri Lanka shows, the hatred is always targeted, rooted in bigotry and paranoia, from whichever side. Conrad, as usual, had the better sense of it, as in the end of The Secret Agent:
And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind.  He had no future.  He disdained it.  He was a force.  His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction.  He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world.  Nobody looked at him.  He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.
The terrorist is not lost, nor does he lack purpose, but he measures his own worth by the ruin and destruction his fixed and futile ideas entail. He does not lack self-worth, but revels in his contempt for others. It is only that his self-aggrandizement is fixated on the power to negate other lives.

Conrad's concluding simile is apt. Terrorism is an infection. It is possible to identify the toxic ideologies that drive and support white nationalism. It's possible, as New Zealand shows, to restrict access to weapons that have no purpose in civil society, It's possible to call out the Internet trolls and the politicians, the pseudo-thinkers and the networks that lend tacit support to hate and bigotry. We can police the crime. And, in the long-term, we can plan to overcome the inequality and injustice in which hatred festers. But what we cannot do is lend a moment's credence to the supposed grievances and agendas of fanatics. Faced with this crime, the motive is void; only the pathology matters.