If the world ended on a Monday, would anybody notice?

I wish I’d worn a jacket today.

It got cooler unexpectedly — although unexpected only if you discount the fact it probably ought to have been cooler a whole lot sooner, that days with highs of 80 degrees (something like 25 Celsius?) maybe aren’t the norm for late September or early October. But just a week ago, I was wearing short-sleeved shirts to work, and I didn’t think I needed more than the long-sleeved shirt (plus T-shirt beneath) I decided to wear today. It was a little cool, but I figured once the sun came up, I’d be fine.

And I was, but I kind of wish I’d worn a jacket. The sun didn’t come up all that much.

Metaphorically, though, it came up pretty nicely.

Oh, sure, there was that police shooting around the corner from my office. I mean literally around the corner. It happened last night apparently, and today it was just a crime scene investigation that had the block cordoned off and blocked to traffic. But still: yikes.

Otherwise, though, things were good, even for a Monday. I discovered first thing that Kaleidotrope had again been reviewed in Locus. The review, of the past two issues, is kind a mixed bag — Rich Horton singles out a couple of stories for praise, but he’s not uncritical of them — but it was still great to see the zine reviewed in those pages. (Even if the physical pages proved exceptionally difficult to track down. I eventually purchased the PDF direct from Locus, decided to re-up my lapse subscription in the process.)

Then this evening, after work, I attended a short panel discussion ostensibly on Utopia/Dystopia at the Center for Fiction. It was the start of a month-long series on fantasy and science fiction at the Center, most of which I’m actually (right now) planning on attending, and it was interesting, if not exactly what was advertised. Though authors Anna North, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Charles Yu seemed to be, occasionally, trying to steer the conversation back towards all things utopian and dystopian, I’m not sure moderator DongWon Song was on the same page as everyone else. The discussion, for the most part, was a lot broader, about being a science fiction writer and the differences (real and market-imposed) between it and “mainstream” or “literary” fiction.

As such, it was interesting, but nothing especially new. The debate over where genre begins and ends, the benefits and drawbacks to writing within it, has been raging for years.

Still, it was interesting. Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was one of the best books I read last year, and I enjoyed Goonan’s Queen City Jazz well enough years ago. (I thoroughly gave up on the first of the sequels just this year, however, and I felt a little guilty about that sitting there. I may feel guiltier on Wednesday, when the panel on fantasy includes Lev Grossman.) I’d never heard of North before, though I thought she spoke quite knowledgeably about science fiction, and she seemed the most determined to (subtly but repeatedly) steer the conversation back towards the end of the world.

No small surprise since that’s kind of what her book is about.

Still, these seemed like good people to be talking about utopia and dystopia and the contrast between the two. That what they mostly discussed seemed closer in spirit to the topic of Margaret Atwood’s upcoming talk — one of the few Center events this month I think I won’t be attending — was amusing, especially since it was only back in March that I went to hear Atwood herself speak about utopias and dystopias. (She favors the term of her own coinage, ustopias.)

Noonan defended her most recent novel, which apparently posits an alternate history, as not a utopia, as if that in and of itself was a dirty word. Changing some things just creates new problems, she said — I think rightly — which led later into a discussion of whether utopias are even possible. The odds of something terrible happening, even if it’s not specifically another ice age (North) or nanotech gone wild (Goonan) or “time travel as a means of regret” (Yu), are a lot better than a perfect world. The real world, after all, isn’t perfect, and it’s full of fallible people.

In many stories, in fact, dystopias are the price the characters (and/or world) pay for the creation (or failed creation) of someone else’s utopia. Perhaps every dystopia is simply a failed utopia, or the nostalgia for a lost one. Specific examples cited by the authors (and by the one audience member who really asked a question about the topic) included Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Atwood’s own The Handmaid’s Tale. These are often utopias at first glance — Wells’ Eloi, for instance, who live a life of comfort and ease — with a dystopia lurking beneath — the Morlocks, literally beneath, toiling in slavery underground. Or they are stark dystopias — Atwood’s repressive Republic of Gilead — brought about when someone — in this case the leaders of Gilead — attempt to impose their brand of utopia on the world. As North pointed out, the villains in dystopias tend to think they’re creating utopias, much like supervillains in comics.

“There’s always a mad scientist,” added Goonan.

Yu’s book, by contrast, is more a “personal dystopia,” or rather “not a dystopia, but just a super-sad universe.” Still, he talked about being liberated in his writing when he actually created that universe, gave it structure, form, and rules. “I was bound by my own constraints,” he said, and that’s what was so freeing as a writer.

So, in all, it was an interesting evening, if not exactly what I’d been led to expect. I didn’t stay for the book signing or wine reception afterward, but I’m glad I went all the same.

Even if, on the walk back to my subway, I kind of wish I’d worn a jacket.

Thursday various

  • I don’t know why I find this particularly interesting, but I do:

    The post office ignores the return address for Netflix DVDs and sorts them separately for a Netflix truck to pick them up early in the morning for processing.

    Discs are shipped back to the nearest processing facility, regardless of the address on the return envelope; that address is there just for legal reasons, apparently. This seems like something I maybe sort of already knew, but it’s a reminder of the volume they (and by extension the post office) have to process.

  • John Seavey’s Open Letter to Zombie Story Writers:

    In essence, the human body is a machine, like an automobile. You are trying to describe the ways this machine can malfunction to produce a specific effect, and that’s good, but please stop explaining to me how it keeps going without wheels, gasoline, or a functioning engine.

    He raises some interesting points, although I don’t think they apply to the “zombies” in films like 28 Days Later, as he seems to. At least from my recollection — and I re-watched the movie pretty recently — the infected population there a) don’t act at all like George Romeroesque zombies (i.e., no human flesh, no brains), and b) don’t continue acting beyond physically believable limits. Beyond normal pain tolerances, sure — there’s the one guy who keeps running even though he’s literally on fire — but into the realm of sheer impossibility.

  • “What is, come with me if you want to live, Alex?” So you may have heard: a computer has won at Jeopardy. (There goes that Weird Al remix idea!) I’m still looking forward to the televised rematch next month, though perhaps not so much to the subsequent robot apocalypse.
  • It’s worth it for Goodnight Dune alone: Five Sci-Fi Children’s Books. [via]
  • And finally, Jeff VanderMeer on Everything You Need to Know to be a Fiction Writer.

Monday various

  • Caitlin R. Kiernan on coincidence:

    Coincidence is a constantly occurring phenomenon with a bad rap. Lots of people treat it’s like a dirty word, or something rationalists invoke simply to dispel so-called supernatural events. And yet, an almost infinite number of events coincide during any every nanosecond of the cosmos’ existence. We only get freaked out and belligerent over the one’s we notice, the ones we need (for whatever reason) to invest with some special significance. Co-occurrence should not be taken for correlation any more than correlation should be mistaken for causation.

  • Although you have to admit, with all the weird news of Arkansas recently, it’s tempting to look for correlations and common causes.

  • Theodora Goss raises an interesting question — namely, does fantasy writing, with its made-up languages and grammars, present unique challenges for copyeditors?
  • Peter David on why Aquaman is actually cool.
  • David Forbes re-examines Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s fascinating, not least of all for its glimpse at the original edition’s semi-ridiculous back cover copy:

    A page of medieval history? Not quite. Duke Leto Atreides is moving from a planet, which he owns, to another planet, which he has been given in exchange. The Emperor, Shaddam IV, is Emperor of the known Universe, not a country. And Duke Leto’s son, Paul, is not a normal noble heir. In fact, he is so little normal in any way that he happens to be possible key to all human rule, power and indeed knowledge! [via]

  • And finally, a fascinating look at Yogi Bear — and there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write — as District 9:

    Yogi Bear is not a kids’ movie. It is a bleak futurist parable about humanity’s inability to accept a non-human sapience. It is also about a bear who wears a hat. [via]

The Years of Rice and Salt

Last Thursday, I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. It’s a big book — nearly 800 pages in my paperback edition — but it took me even longer to read it than I expected. I think, in general, I enjoyed it, though I’m not entirely convinced it needed to be such a big book. Some spoilers may follow.

The novel is an alternate history, one that posits a deceptively simple question: what would happen if the Black Death, the plague that swept through Europe and Asia in the fourteenth century, had wiped out not just a third of Europe’s population, but a staggering 99%. How would the world that emerged, with Buddhist and Islamic cultures as the driving forces, have changed?

Robinson’s answer, detailed across centuries and continents from various on-the-ground points of view, seems to be: fundamentally? Not a whole lot. The specifics are different, of course — Chinese sailors discover America, for instance, and Christianity is an obscure and all but forgotten cult — but at heart, people are people, and Robinson’s history follows a relatively familiar trajectory. You can almost map our own history to the time line and maps that he provides.

In fact, late in the book, Robinson all but indicts the very idea of alternate history:

“It’s such a useless exercise,” Kirana reflected. “What if this had happened, what if that had happened, what if the Golden Horde had forced the Gansu Corridor at the start of the Long War, what if the Japanese had attacked China after retaking Japan, what if the Ming had kept their treasure fleet, what if we had discovered and conquered Yingzhou, what if Alexander the Great had not died young, on and on, and they all would have made enormous differences and yet it’s always entirely useless. These historians who talk about employing counterfactuals to bolster their theories, they’re ridiculous. Because no one knows why things happen, you see? Anything could follow from anything. Even real history tells us nothing at all. Because we don’t know if history is sensitive, and for want of a nail a civilization was lost, or if our mightiest acts are as petals on a flood, or something in between, or both at once. We just don’t know, and the what-ifs don’t help us figure that out.”

“Why do people like them so much, then?”

Kirana shrugged, took a drag on her cigarette. “More stories.”

And, in the end, that’s all Robinson’s book appears to be: more stories. The characters are continually being reborn — Kirana in one life, Kheim or Kokila (most likely) in others — and the sense of repetition that’s inherent in these reincarnations, even when the characters themselves are unaware of them, just further underlines the idea that we’ve seen all of this before and there is nothing new under the sun.

In the next, and final, section, Robinson writes:

“History!” he would say to them. “It’s a hard thing to get at. There is no easy way to imagine it. The Earth rolls around the sun, three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days a year, for year after year. Thousands of these years have passed. Meanwhile, a kind of monkey kept on doing more things, increasing in number, taking over the planet by means of meanings. Eventually, much of the matter and life on the planet was entrained to their use, and then they had to figure out what they wanted to do, beyond merely staying alive. Then they told each other stories of how they had gotten where they were, what had happened, and what it meant.”

In the end, it’s just more stories.

Which doesn’t mean the stories in Robinson’s book are uninteresting or poorly written. Far from it. They’re intimate portraits, as the back cover description indicates, “of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars,” and many of them are thoroughly engaging. I like that the novel is from the point-of-view of the people living this history, neither winking at the reader nor holding his or her hand. Unless you know your fourteenth through sixteenth century history considerably better than I do, the first few sections of the book read just as likely as historical fiction as they do alternate history. The back cover gives the plot away a lot more than Robinson ever does. It’s only slowly, as the more familiar elements begin to disappear, that it becomes evident that this is a very different world than our own.

But then, in the end, not so different after all.

And, in the end, that’s probably why I got a little tired of the book. Robinson paints a rich and convincing world, asking interesting and important questions along the way — about religion and culture and power — but in the end his story exists mostly just to say that history, whatever path it might have followed, would have eventually followed the same path. The details change, but the destination doesn’t.

That’s an interesting idea, and it’s one that keeps the book going for most of its run, but not quite its full 800 pages.