My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My love for science fiction was born on the beaches of Lake Michigan. As a kid we would get a cabin on the long white beaches of the lake’s eastern coast, and my dad always had a thick paperback in hand to read while me and my sister played in the sand. I can remember one book in particular just by its cover: Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime. I would stare at those covers and wonder at what sort of things must lurk between the covers. If I had to trace my love for science fiction to one point, that would be it: wondering at the covers of the books my dad read at the beach.
It’s a tradition I’ve continued, and one I appreciate even more now that I’m a father: taking a good paperback along to read on the shores of Lake Michigan. If you’re going to fill long days, you need a good page-turner that’s consistently compelling without requiring too much processing power. Last year the perfect beach book was The Martian. This year, because I was taken with the first few episodes of The Expanse on Syfy, it was Leviathan Wakes, the first novel of the series upon which the television show is based. And like last summer, it turned out to be the perfect choice.
James S.A. Corey is the author, but the name is actually a front for a creative team of two, one of which is George “Game of Thrones” Martin’s assistant. I haven’t read any of the Game of Thrones books (or seen the series), so I can’t say whether Leviathan Wakes brings some of the scale of Martin’s sensibilities of politics and peril into a scifi milieu, though there is certainly a good portion of both in the mix.
The authors themselves explain their goal of the novel as to situate in a specific science fiction landscape: they wanted it to function as a bridge between far-future and near-future scifi, between fiction that explores our first steps into the solar system and those that already assume humanity’s place on a much larger galactic stage.
Call this then a mid-future science fiction epic. Humans have colonized the solar system and splintered into three distinct groups: Earth/Luna, Mars, and the Belters. Corey does a good job painting the cultures and sensibilities of each group (though Earth takes a more minor role here than it does in the television series), and the considerations of humanity would develop both biologically and sociologically in the asteroid belt and outer moons of the solar system is handled deftly, adding to characterization and tensions rather than distracting from the overall plot.
Political tensions are already high between the three groups, and when a water carrier bound to the asteroid belt from Saturn’s rings is destroyed by what appears to be a Martian warship, the entire solar system tips toward war. The threat and eventual unfolding of this war is the background for the major mystery that plays out, and though the conflict is not as Machiavellian as portrayed on the TV series, the scope and implications of the war– what all out-conflict would mean in regions already as marginal and inhospitable as the outer solar system and the threat of even the simplest weapons rained down a gravity well on the inner planets– effectively keep tensions ramping up throughout the novel.
But the work isn’t a political war story. It’s more straightforward and gripping than that. It’s a mystery, and one the resolution of which has implications much wider than the solar system alone. It starts with a single missing person, and the narrative spirals out from there, following two characters with chapters alternating between their perspectives even when their trajectories eventually intertwine. Holden, the executive officer of the destroyed ice frigate, believes the solar system should know exactly what’s happening, even as that knowledge pushes political factions towards war. His character pairs well against the other main character, Miller, the world-weary detective on Ceres whose missing person case goes deeper than he could have imagined. Both soon find themselves, along with the remnant of Holden’s crew, alone in a solar system at war, trying to stop a resurrected alien threat.
Like I said, it was an ideal beach book, and I tore through it in a matter of days. The action flagged in only a few places, and there were enough major twists– and some surprisingly dark ones, as when the heroes learn the true nature of the threat they face when it’s unleashed on an inhabited asteroid– that the reveals felt significant. The characters were likable and well-rounded, and their varied idealisms or lack thereof played against each other well. My only complaint was that the support cast felt in comparison pretty one-dimensional. As competent and even badass (for lack of a better term) as Holden’s female counterpart, Naomi, and Miller’s missing girl turned out to be, both women characters in the novel felt like little more than the inspiration needed to motivate and support the heroic guy characters. In this respect, it felt a bit embarrassingly like a novel for men written by men.
Besides that wrinkle, Leviathan Wakes reminded me to a surprising extent of my own novel– surprising because I had never read anything by Corey when I wrote First Fleet. Both books have an underlying edge of horror, and both treat the science in the story accurately without being overwhelmed by detail. Both start with missing ships (though mine starts with an entire derelict fleet). I wouldn’t say this if it wasn’t true, but similarities in feel, scope, and even tone can allow me to tell people now that if they liked The Expanse, they should probably check out my work. And if they liked Leviathan Wakes but want something in that vein with strong female protagonists, they should definitely check out my work.
It might even be good on the beach.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Who is the weirdest writer? Obviously that’s a huge question, and the answer will be contingent on both your definition of the word and the scope of who you’re reading. There are probably more than a few unpleasantly strange or shockingly bizarre authors writing fiction right now, though mainstream publishing seems to do a pretty good job of shutting them out for popular audiences. But if you were looking for an author who managed to squeeze in for a while and who isn’t so much macabre or grotesque (though he is certainly that more than occasionally) and rather more like just wonderfully, rollickingly weird, you wouldn’t have to look farther than R. A. Lafferty.
Lafferty is a puzzle, and I’ve written about him on the blog several times before without getting into much deeper analysis. (If you want deeper analysis, check out Feast of Laughter.) I keep writing reviews about him as though I’m writing for an audience that’s never read him. That’s okay though, because that audience is still far too large, and Lafferty seems to bring out the evangelizing tendencies of his readers.
Lafferty’s work– which flourished in scifi and fantasy magazines at the weird height of the New Wave– doesn’t so much straddle all the borders of speculative fiction (horror to fantasy to weird western to science fiction) so much as it seems blissfully unaware that such borders exist. His stories are tall tales, whether set in outer space, the far future, or the living room. They create lumbering, larger-than-life characters with a language more akin to a Native American story-teller (which is why his work does so well read aloud) than prose satisfied with sitting quietly on the page.
The problem with Lafferty though is that you have to look for the guy. His collections are out of print and hard to find. His novels are hit and miss at least on a first read. What’s rescuing him from obscurity at the moment– besides the eloquence and enthusiasm of devotees far more well-spoken than me– is yet another obscurity: the small press. Centipede Press to be exact, which is in the process of releasing all his collected works. (I’ve reviewed volume 1 previously.)
So what does one find in this second volume? For one thing, don’t worry if it’s the only volume you can find, as the stories appear in these collections in no particular order or chronological progression. This volume (like the first) is a grab bag so that, as the editor explains, a reader new to Lafferty can experience him as readers in the sixties, seventies, and eighties did: a large, bright voice stumbled upon in stories scattered through magazines and collections of the decades in no apparent order.
The volume itself is a significant, lovely edition, polished enough to give Lafferty a worthy place on the shelf yet weird enough to fit the contents. There are, however, still some editorial mistakes (or teases). For example, in the section listing first publication info for each story, there’s story listed that doesn’t actually appear in this volume. (The first story slated for volume 3?)
What about the stories themselves? What does one stumble upon in this collection? Wide open vistas. And jokes. In fact, looking down the list of the table of contents for this volume, I’m struck that this might be a common theme here. Not that these stories aren’t serious or well-written, but rather that each of them (or at least most of them) contain a central hidden hook, something that you only catch looking at you and winking when the story has wrapped up. I can’t tell you the punchline for each story (and in at least one of them I simply didn’t get the joke) but I’ll highlight a few of my favorites.
“Land of the Great Horses” is a good place to start. It’s a mosaic tale, told from a variety of perspectives, including a fictional encyclopedia article, about the reappearance of the lost homeland of the Romany, shot through with Lafferty’s celebration of language. Then there’s “Ride a Tin Can,” which combines music with folk anthropology to give a tragic, grotesque, and hilarious first contact story against the background of economic exploitation in the worse sense possible. Another favorite in this collection is “Hog-belly Honey,” which illustrates Lafferty’s unique ability to combine aspects of hard science fiction with a homespun, raggedy narrative voice and give it all the feel of genuine folk medicine and showmanship. Finally, I loved the piece “Great Day in the Morning,” which pokes fun at some of the assumptions of the modernist paradise but doesn’t flinch to go all the way and take such assumptions to their ludicrous conclusions.
I saw a spectacularly disheartening graphic the other day that proposed to break the art of the story down to its component pieces, outlining the different types of general characters and plots and settings like you’d pick them off a menu and use to build your own narrative value meal. The graphic also reminded helpfully of the basic narrative arch: the character experiences conflict or a problem, this conflict goes through climax and resolution, and then the story ends with the character changed in important ways. This is all useful enough, but Lafferty is the sort of writer who reminds that to do really interesting things it’s better to just ignore helpful narrative flowcharts altogether. Or rather, Lafferty turns the narrative flowchart on his head, because it’s not his characters experiencing this arch– it’s his readers.
You start a Lafferty story and immediately realize something is off or strange. This isn’t the world you were expecting. The sense of uncertainty grows as you read it, but you’re drawn along by his voice. And then at some point you abruptly get it: the concept or the punchline or the up-side-down world snaps into focus and the reader (never mind the main character, who might well be dead, dismembered, or eaten at this point) leaves the page changed in important ways.
Yet even that approach is a model Lafferty can discard whenever he sees fit. Some of the stories are simply straightforward and lovely, like the pseudo-biographical piece, “Gray Ghost: A Reminiscence,” which is in the strain of the very best Bradbury. Another, the final in this volume, is a post-apocalyptic tale that may be Lafferty’s world building at the most compelling I’ve seen. In the space of a short story he spins out a tiny kingdom, characters, and ecological tangles that seem in some respects as contemporary as The Hunger Games and as haunting as Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.
I continually find when I reach the end of reviewing a book by Lafferty that I haven’t really done it justice. Well, then you read some of his stuff and try to explain it. Or rather, imagine this. Imagine a man who no longer exists, maybe your great-grandfather or maybe the person you always hoped your great-grandfather was. Someone a little strange but who has been places you never have (because most of them no longer exist either) and who tells spinning, staggering stories with the voice of an older generation. Someone who has one foot in the American West with its tall tales and the other in the technology that was sprouting like mushrooms at the height of the Space Race. And this man tells stories, and no one ever told him how he was supposed to tell them, so he tells them like he wants.
There you go. Lafferty is a little bit like that imaginary man, raised to the third power, at least.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It started with a conversation with a student, who said he had read an article explaining that the color blue never appeared in ancient Greek writings. That led to some internet searching, and I quickly found this book, which claims to be a treatment of this puzzle and turns out to be an explanation of the way language shapes the way we see the world. Do people who speak different languages actually see the world differently? Or in other words, how much does the structure of our language mirror or constrain the structure of our thought?
Deutscher– a linguist who doesn’t mind going against some of the contemporary views in the field– starts the exploration of this question with its most interesting manifestation: color. The realization that there was something strange going on in ancient accounts of color goes back to the philhellene and sometimes Prime Minister William Gladstone who noticed that blue never appears in Homer’s writings. The sea and sky are not referred to as blue, and other colors are also used in questionable ways. Other researchers into ancient texts discovered similar things: many ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue. Indeed, there seemed to be a order of appearance in which “primitive” languages (and the author offers examples of some contemporary languages as well) distinguish between dark and light and lump all colors together as reddish. Eventually words for yellows and browns appear and finally terms that distinguish between greens and blues. The differentiation of blue usually comes last, and there are still signs of this, for instance, in the fact that in old Japanese the word for blue and green is the same.
What does this mean? Early theories speculated that there was an actual physiological evolution taking place, that as humans became less primitive their eyes developed to perceive a wider spectrum of colors. Modern genetics and tests on speakers who languages currently lack certain color words has disproven this. Ancient Greek eyes were the same as ours. But did their lack of names for certain colors shape the way they perceived the world? This is the crux of the author’s question: do we really see things if we don’t have words to express them? I explored this once in a story published in Daily Science Fiction. Does naming something make it more real or at least more readily apparent?
Part of the argument for color goes something like this. In primitive civilizations color doesn’t matter a whole lot, and certain colors are rarely perceived on their own. Red is the color of blood, so a word to distinguish this comes fairly early in most cultures. But there are no large blue animals, few blue flowers, and blue dye was very difficult to make and unknown in many cultures. (Egypt was an exception, and apparently ancient Egyptian had a word for blue.) Because of this, there was no social or linguistic need to distinguish or name this hue. But what about the sea and the sky? The sea rarely looks straightforwardly blue, and the sky– when completely clear– was simply the sky. Since there was no cultural need to distinguish its color, it was simply the sky.
The first half of the book is an investigation of the history of the color question, and if you’re not quite satisfied with the answer I’ve given (and I’m not sure I am), you might not be satisfied with this portion of the book. For Deutscher though, color simply sets up the bigger question: how do we determine– and then empirically test– whether language actually shapes our perception and our thought processes? Are certain concepts (like “The sky is blue”) simply inexpressible in some languages? Does this mean speakers of those languages are unable to conceive of certain statements and concepts? Deutscher’s answer is no to these last two questions but a cautious yes to the first.
An older, stronger claim would answer the final question of the above paragraph in the affirmative: language constrains thought. Because the Hopi Indians, for instance, have no verb tense in their language or expressions of time, they cannot perceive time as linear. Because other Native American languages do not distinguish between verb and subject, speakers of these languages have a more monistic, unified of nature. Deutscher disagrees and takes obvious pleasure in demolishing these claims, maintaining instead that any concept can be expressed in any language. His alternate claim is more subtle: it’s not that some languages make it impossible to perceive or conceive certain things; rather, his claim is that certain languages obligate speakers to always be thinking of certain things.
Again, what does this mean? The author provides three examples. The first is that of a particular well-studied Australian aboriginal language that does not possess an egocentric coordinate system (i.e. behind, in front, left, right) but only an absolute system (north, east, south, west). Every positional expression voiced in this language, from things as simple as “There’s a bug beside your foot” have to be given in terms of cardinal directions. (“There’s a bug north of your foot.”) This means that speakers of the language always have a sense of these directions from a very young age, and their experiences and memories are seen through that directional lens. The author discusses a variety of experiments in which it’s shown that speakers of this language can recall details in this coordinate system, recounting orientations of experiences from years ago. (To put this in perspective, try calling up a particularly vivid memory and expressing it in terms of cardinal directions. Were you standing to the north or south of your spouse when you got married?) The language obligates its speakers to always have cardinal directions in mind and thus shapes their perceptions of the world accordingly.
Languages with no egocentric coordinate system though are comparatively rare, so the author’s second example is closer to home: languages like German or Spanish or many more with a developed gender system. In English– at least since the century or so after the Norman Conquest, as the author points out in a fascinating historical treatment– does not oblige its speakers to assign genders to inanimate objects. Yet many other modern languages do. Not much study has yet been done, according to Deutscher, on how this influences the thoughts of speakers of these languages, but he illustrates some of the implications with an example of the role this plays in translation and the subtle nuances and relations that can be lost moving from a gendered to a largely non-gendered language.
Finally, he returns to color. Does our language’s names for colors– and the fact that these names don’t exist in certain other languages– influence the way we perceive the world? Recent studies, the author argues, indicate that yes, it does. He takes the case of light blue and dark blue, which in Russian have separate names. An English speaker would perceive these as shades of the same color. For a Russian speaker they would be separate colors. If this was indeed the case, one could expect that this linguistic obligation (that of the Russian speaker to give these separate hues different names) would allow Russians to more quickly distinguish between similar shades of blue if they lay on opposite sides of this distinction, in a similar manner to how an English speaker could more readily distinguish between greenish-blue and bluish-green than a speaker of a language that does not differentiate between green and blue. The author relates in detail the set-up of experiments to determine just that, which show the language-processing region of the brain active even when actively naming the hues was not part of the experiment. Russian speakers consistently differentiated between close shades of blue more quickly than English speakers.
This all comes back to the central claim of the book, that languages, by obligating their speakers to pay attention to certain things in their structure, can function as a lens by which their speakers perceive the world.
Consider this analogy (not given in the book): if your language has several different expressions for snow, so that each time you talk about snow you’re obligated to take into consideration things like whether it’s falling or on the ground, how long it’s been on the ground, what its thickness and consistency is, then when you look at snow (or call up a memory containing snow) you’re going to have a richer perception of the object than an English speaker who encapsulates all the varieties of snow under a single word. That doesn’t mean that an English speaker can’t conceptualize or express these nuances of snow. It just means her language doesn’t habituate her to these perceptions.
In these (possibly over-simplified) terms, Deutscher’s argument seems almost self-evident, but the richness of his treatment comes in the historical and linguistic background he provides while exploring this idea and especially in his explanations of the rigor and structure of the experiments devised to verify such apparently straightforward claims about language and how it shapes our perceptions of the world.