Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Time is a weapon

I am not a politician, nor am I an economist. I am a scientist. But it seems appropriate to hypothesize here that a future where life-extension technology is available only to those who can afford it, or to those whom society considers useful, will look very different to a future where life-extension technology is more broadly available.
This sentiment is directly pertinent this week to two instances concerning people I know and difficulty in accessing and/or affording specialized treatment. One instance ended in suicide, as the pain without treatment was too terrible to bear; the other instance may not be ended yet, but has thus far wrought nothing but misery.

Think about it. Imagine a disease that everyone is subject to. Imagine there's a cure and it's proven, not merely theoretical or experimental. But only some people have access to it. Their privilege is not based in their genes or any other innate factor (not that that should make a difference). It's based on a social construct: money. Shouldn't everyone have a right to the cure? The same access to it?

In the case of this novella, the disease is aging.

Everything Belongs to the Future, by Laurie Penny — journalist, writer, activist, feminist — has some big things to say about big pharma. Also about aging, ageism, and gerontocracy. And time.

In 2099, the Earth is still a viable habitat, due in no small part to the fact that people expect to be around in a couple hundred years. Mother Earth is no longer a problem to be pawned off on your children; you have to deal with it yourself. But it's not all easy.

Life, and death, are now, more than ever, political. One faction chooses to redistribute the cure. Other people embrace their natural lifecycle, but almost in protest.

It's a short, easy read. The storytelling is a bit workman-like, and while the story ignores many of the implications of its premise, the food for thought is worth the price of admission.
Meanwhile: consider that time is a weapon.

Before the coming of the Time Bomb, this was true. It was true before men and women of means or special merit could purchase an extra century of youth. It has been true since the invention of the hourglass, the water clock, the wrist watch, the shift-bell, the factory floor. Ever since men could measure time, they have used it to divide each other.

Time is a weapon wielded by the rich, who have excess of it, against the rest, who must trade every breath of it against the promise of another day’s food and shelter. What kind of world have we made, where human beings can live centuries if only they can afford the fix? What kind of creatures have we become?
Excerpt.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Desperate hope for some form of contact

It was deadly quiet in the S-train care because almost all the passengers were surfing on their smartphones and iPads. Some were enthusiastic and concentrated, while others were just scrolling their thumbs over the screen in the desperate hope for some form of contact.
Who can't relate to that image?

The Scarred Woman, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, was a fantastic page-turner of a book — just what I needed!

I'm familiar with the Danish Department Q series thanks to their dramatization (watch the first three movies on Netflix). Those films were such a satisfying, if dark, binge, that I couldn't refuse the offer of a review copy of a novel when it came my way. (Also, I was thrilled to learn there are books behind these films, of course there are.)

The titular scarred woman could refer to any of several women in the novel, all of them in their way both victim and perpetrator.

The women include some unfortunates who are receiving social assistance payments but also scamming the system; their case worker, recently diagnosed with breast cancer; and Rose, a police colleague who suffered a breakdown following the last Department Q case.

All this in a book that opens with a Nazi.

There's a good deal of coincidence going on in this novel. At any other time I might've rolled my eyes, but I think the book is saved by not taking itself too seriously. It's played matter-of-factly, even for laughs in some cases, that it's completely acceptable if not wholly believable.

I found it refreshing too that this novel isn't about Detective Carl Mørck; it focuses on the crimes at hand and the people involved in them.

I'm out of practice at reading crime novels, and I had some difficulty earlier this year in following the action of some (sci-fi) thrillers, so I hesitated to commit to reading this 480-page book, but it read like a breeze. Maybe more practiced readers might find it simplistic, but I found it clear without being overly obvious, well-paced without being weighed down by action, and having moral depth without getting lost in psychological detail.

I'm glad to have discovered this series and I definitely see myself turning to other Department Q novels in the cooling months ahead.

Excerpt.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A bigger, much harder kind of pea

The first few years of Helena's life, I used to imagine her dying. All the time. It was exhausting. Not senseless, horrific deaths, exactly. Well, yes, that, but very possible senseless, horrific deaths.

In the beginning I thought they might be premonitions, but it didn't take long to realize they were warnings.

For example, pushing her stroller down the sidewalk, I'd imagine — very vividly, I might add, almost hallucinatorily, like a glimpse of an alternate parallel existence — a random car swerving up onto said sidewalk, putting us — most importantly, her — in mortal danger. I'd imagine throwing myself in front of her, or maneuvering the stroller out of the car's path. Or I'd glance away and she'd be face down in the wading pool. Or the approaching dog would turn out to be rabid and think of her as an easy meal. Or she might decide to put a pencil up her nose, all the way up her nose. I'd see blood, all over my flesh and blood, and my breath would catch in my chest, and I'd replay the instant, over and over — how could I save her?

Now, it wasn't "obsessive/compulsive" in the sense that it didn't affect how I lived my life (our lives). I still walked down the sidewalk, went to the wading pool, sat in the park, left her unattended (for seconds, minutes?) at a time. It's only effect was to make me hyper-vigilant. And that's a good thing. I was constantly rehearsing deadly scenarios and optimizing my responses. The hormones of new motherhood fed the ninja instinct. Ninja for mommies.

The older, more self-sufficient Helena got, the fewer and farther between my imaginings. But I still have them, these dark visions.

It took years to realize I wasn't alone in this experience. It's a hard thing to talk about without coming off as crazy, but I've heard other mothers talk about imagining the worst, and how they learned to use it as a tool for creating a safe environment. It's a safety mechanism regarding the child, but also, perhaps counterintuitively, a sanity mechanism for the mother self, to assure that you have considered all possibilities and are doing everything you can for a potentially endangered child. That you are a good mother.

This is the closest I come to understanding what Samanta Schweblin means by "rescue distance" — an algorithm involving the actual distance from one's child in some measure against all potential dangers in the vicinity (calculating number, distance, severity). Distancia de rescate is the original Spanish title of her first novel.
Why do mothers do that?
What?
Try to get out in front of anything that could happen — the rescue distance.
It's because sooner or later something terrible will happen.
There's not much I can say about Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin, other than wow.

It's an intense reading experience, and creepy, but blessedly short. It reminds me most of The Other, by Thomas Tryon, possibly only because of the creepy children, but maybe also the vaguely rural setting, the hint of something occult.

The pacing is exquisite. The urgency is masterful.

There's not much I can say that wouldn't be considered a spoiler; however, I'd skimmed through a discussion of the book and didn't feel my experience was diminished by it. But if that kind of thing worries you, stop reading now.

The story (but not the book) really starts about 6 years previous to the current narration. A 3-year-old (or thereabouts) boy, David, appears to have been poisoned. His mother, Carla, takes him to the woman in the green house, and agrees to her conducting a migration of his soul into a healthy body, bringing an unknown spirit into the boy's body, something of each of the souls remaining in the other's body. Spread over two bodies, the poison could be vanquished.

Six years later, Carla relates this to Amanda who is vacationing with her small daughter Nina...

The novel is billed as eco-horror: the ecological implications are hinted at early on but are only manifestly clear relatively late in the story. It's also a story of maternal bonding.

In my initial reading, the supernatural factor is primary; that is, the nature of David and of the transmigration process is top of mind, ever present with every turn of the page. Knowing the original Spanish title, however, changes the thematic emphasis.

Riffing on a fever dream...

1. What are the worms? When do the worms start? Are these worms signalling decomposition of the body? Or do they come earlier, in the poison that bring death? Or I they related to soul migration? They come toward the end of David and Amanda's conversation, but too soon for bodily decomposition, I think. The exact moment of the worms is significant.

2. Is David — the leading, questioning David — real? Does anyone else ever really see David? Is he inside Amanda's head? If so, is he a voice conjured out of her delirium, or did his soul migrate there?

If he migrated there, how long has he been there? Was it after his poisoning, or after Amanda and Nina's poisoning?

3. If the original David's soul was split, who else lives/lived in David's body? Could it have been Amanda? That might explain her obsession with him (Not exactly an obsession: attraction to? She is drawn to him and the story of him. Is that only because of her proximity to him now?). Would that imply her own soul/body was previously weakened.

4. Did he or did he not have all his fingers when he was born? What Carla would give for that first David, an imagined David.

5. Nina speaks in the royal "we." David likes that. (I like it too.) The self is plural.

6. Why is Amanda even vacationing in this godforsaken place? Why did her husband not come with her? She claims he was to join them later, but perhaps she was running from him. Why do I think this?

7. Why are the men so absent? Except for fleetingly, in a dream, and at the end. They are so external, powerless in the face of all this ... motherness.
My husband takes the can and turns it so I can see the label. It's a can of peas of a brand I don't buy, one I would never buy. They're a bigger, much harder kind of pea than what we eat, coarser and cheaper. A product I would never choose to feed my family with, and that Nina can't have found in our cupboards. On the table, at that early-morning hour, the can has an alarming presence. This is important, right?
8. Did Carla orchestrate the poisoning? Certainly she had no control over whether Amanda came to call before leaving town, but it seems like she was looking, waiting, for an opening. She's killing them.

9. Does Carla really take Amanda to the clinic? Why do I feel Carla may have taken Amanda to the green house? "The edge of the neck of her white shirt is stained a light green. It's from the grass, right?" But no, there's a nurse, with blister packs.

10. What's with the dirty hands, dirty with mud? First David's, later Nina's. How is this an effect of migration?

11. David pushes Amanda forward. Forward in time? Just like he pushed the ducks, the dog, the horses. Pushed toward death? A spirit guide? Is he even alive?

12. Carla's gone at the end, her husband says so. Not there just at that moment, or gone for good? Where did she go?

13. The ropes. Amanda feels a rope emanating from her stomach joining her to Nina, but it's metaphorical, an umbilical cord of sorts. David is tied down with ropes while migrating — to make sure the body stays, only the spirit leaves. At the end, rope ties most everything together, except bodies or souls, maybe just representations of them. The rope is for hanging. But when it's finally slack, the rope is a fuse.

14. What is the important thing? Really important? Why is David pushing her toward it? What does Amanda need to understand? Listen to David's father. What does he say that's so important? What did I miss?

Reviews
The Guardian: Terrifying but brilliant
The Mookse and the Gripes
The New Yorker: The Sick Thrill of "Fever Dream"
NPR: Brief But Creepy, 'Fever Dream' Has A Poisonous Glow
The Washington Post: A haunting story by one of the best young Spanish-language writers

The rope between Helena and me was pulled to its fullest when we lost each other on a hike in a foreign country. The summer she was 12. We survived this. The rope is there and not there.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Uneasy about the easy

Theodor W. Adorno
I am reminded of Theodor W. Adorno: "The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in your own home." Yes, to be uncomfortable with comfort, uneasy about the easy, to question the assumptions of what is usually, and happily, taken for granted, to make of oneself a challenge to what for most people is the space in which they feel free from challenges; yes! That is morality raised to a pitch at which it could almost be called heroism.
— from The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie.

I've spent years learning to be comfortable in my own home, to be in own skin. Reading this, then, was a bit of a slap in the face, not only that my behaviour is not moral, but that I have still further to go.

I'm not entirely sure what it means yet, but I'm thinking about it.

Do you feel at home in your own home? (What is your home?)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Comedy and tragedy

I enjoyed Subtly Worded, by Teffi, and more so because of book club, but probably more for its value as a historical oddity than on its literary merits. This collection is career-spanning and chronologically ordered.

The stories featuring historical figures — Tolstoy and Rasputin — were fascinating to me (more essay than story?).

However, some of the stories made me roll my eyes at the obviousness of their twist endings. They were truly less than subtle. Other bookclubbers disagreed on this point. And there is indeed a cleverness in the way Teffi uses words and makes them central to her stories. The title story, for example, is about censorship — words and meaning and double-meaning. I might argue that these stories are about subtlety more than they exercise it.

Some of this material is satirical, other bits are just plain funny. She has a comedic sense of timing — knows when to keep it short and when to go long. She is a master at capturing ordinary speech.

The introduction states that shortly before her death, Teffi wrote, "An anecdote is funny when it's being told, but when someone lives it, it's a tragedy. And my life has been sheer anecdote, that is — a tragedy."

So why did Teffi fall off the literary map? Because she was a woman? And why is she back?

I can't quite put my finger on why I don't connect with most of Teffi's stories. Some are too light, others too ponderous. Some bookclubbers posited that as a woman, she may have felt compelled to write a certain way, to play into her role as socialite and play to expectations. More style than sincerity?

That said, I favoured a few standouts I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone: "The Quiet Backwater," "Ernest with the Languages," and "The Dog (A Story from a Stranger)."

Reviews
Subtly Worded, and Other Stories by Teffi review – a traditional Russian form is given a good hiding
Compared to Chekhov, Colette and Now Sedaris: 'Subtly Worded' Brings Teffi to Non-Russian Readers

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Prufrocked

She... and here I rear back and halt myself, ashamed, prufrocked into a sudden pudeur, for, after all, how should I presume? Shall I say, I have known them all, I have seen her like a yellow fog rubbing her back against, rubbing her muzzle upon, shall I say, licking her tongue into the corners of this evening? Do I dare, and do I dare? And who am I, after all? I ma not the prince. An attendant lord, deferential, glad to be of use. Almost, at times, the Fool... But, setting aside poetry, I'm too deeply in to stop now.
— from The Golden House, by Salman Rushdie.

Source
I'd forgotten that I'd read Rushdie before and I liked it. I'm liking the current novel, too: There's a charm and wit and intelligence that I find disarming. Although, at another time, in another place, I might find this same text pretentious and tiresome.

However, I'm only a quarter of the way in, and I'm worried about where Rushdie might be going with this tale with the makings of a presidential parable. We'll see where we end up.

But. Prufrocked! I sat up and paid attention!

I wrote a response to Alfred J. when I was 17.

[I can't find the damn poem. I can't find in anywhere. It's in a puke-beige duotang (not the boring-beige one), along with a weird essay I wrote on Pythagorean dualism. This is a thing I kept for 30 years. Or thought I kept. Did I lose it in the divorce? I mean, physically. Not like that story I lost on a bet. Did I throw it away in anger, or sheer drunken stupidity? Could I have been so careless? Maybe the poem's no good. Maybe I threw it out because it was no good, and I was so horrified by the poem's horribleness, I blocked the whole episode from my memory. Have I merely misplaced it? I grow old.)

Last week I met a boy who writes poetry. He devotes himself to it. He will be a writer. A poet.

It takes guts, being a poet.

Maybe I should've been a poet.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The ultimate shiver running up the ultimate spine

Propagating at a significant fraction of the speed of light, a frisson of alarm travelled the length of the Atlantic Space Elevator, like the ultimate shiver running up the ultimate spine.
There's a lot going on in The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod. It's a police procedural. It's science fiction. It's an ecologically challenged future where religion has been eradicated from public discourse, the Faith Wars having culminated in the discharge of nuclear arms. There's a Third Covenant on the rise in Edinburgh.

And robots are attaining consciousness.
Detecting Hardcastle might or might not be difficult, but preventing that entity from accomplishing whatever it had planned was likely to be violent and, as far as Skulk2 was concerned, terminal. It had been thrown into this unenviable position by its original self, from which its sense of identity was diverging by the millisecond. Skulk2 was still Skulk, with all the original machine's emotions and loyalties, memories and reflections, but it found itself both baffled and despondent about the decision its past self had taken — that blithe disregard for a separate being that was, after all, as close to itself as it was possible to be. Some of that resentment begin to jaundice its feelings about Adam Ferguson. The man had been as casual as Skulk had been in sending his old friend on this probably suicidal mission.

Remembering their conversation just before the copying, Skulk2 made a cold assessment of how much separate existence it could experience before it drifted so far from its original that would find the switch to self-sacrifice mode painful. This projection of a future potential state of mind was an absorbing exercise, and in itself intensified its self-awareness. The time, it discovered could be reckoned in minutes.
I read this book earlier this summer while in Edinburgh. That made for spectacular reading: wandering the wynds of the Old Town by day, and settling into our hotel to read about those same paths by night. Plus I learned a little about the Covenanters along the way, which definitely added to my understanding of the issues in the novel.

About two-thirds of the way through my interest waned a bit, partly because of the distractions of vacation, but also the story gets a little chaotic — there are just so many weighty issues in this 260-page novel that they start to suffocate a little. That said, I'd like to come back to this book someday.

Reviews
Los Angeles Review of Books: Taking the Future on Faith
It's here that the capabilities of the robots and their superiority to mere humans becomes clear. It isn't just their speed and versatility, or their ability to toggle their minds from one state to another, from self-preservation to self-sacrifice. Two different characters ask two different robots whether they are saved ­— whether they have backed up their memories and mental states. On one level, it's a trite pun; on another, it's the kind of science-fictional sentence that creates a new reality by collapsing the gap between metaphor and literal act. Robots can save themselves, and can be resurrected by downloading a copy into a new body. They are, essentially, physically immortal. And it's here, too, that we begin to realize that the conspiracy Ferguson has been so doggedly unraveling cloaks the true meaning of the Third Covenant, that the real story has been happening elsewhere, and that MacLeod has ruthlessly followed the logic of his intelligent, ambitious novel to a conclusion that’s truly world-changing.
io9: Do Protestant Terrorist Robots Have Souls?
There is something brilliant in MacLeod's idea that when robots achieve human-style intelligence that they'll become as irrational as humans too.
Strange Horizons: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

See also the Complete Review for its comprehensive review round-up.