Tag Archives: review

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the PentagonHow Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks

Each year at my university’s academic commencement, there’s a portion of the ceremony that I never quite know how to respond to. At some point, once all the faculty are up on stage and we’ve sung the Alma Mater and maybe after the awarding of the degrees (everything tends to blur together after a while) the graduating class of ROTC officers are sworn in. Upon walking onto the stage, before even a word is spoken in explanation, these young men and women invariably receive a standing ovation from the audience. Then, when they have taken their oath, the crowd is again on their feet with applause. This happens every year, and every year I remain seated in the back of the faculty seating with a few other junior faculty members, unsure of what to make of this. Surprised? Dismayed? Affronted?

I’ve been trying to puzzle out my reaction to this for a few years now. Part of it, I know, is simply my reactionary nature: I don’t like going along with spontaneous acclamations, and giving a group of anyone a standing ovation when nothing in particular has happened yet seems silly. But in addition to this, there’s a feeling of wanting to resisting a creeping militarization of everything. This is an academic ceremony, I find myself arguing. We’re not giving special recognition to the class of new pastors or nurses or teachers or engineers or social workers. Churches can have jingoistic fourth of July services waving the flag over the altar and equating love for God with love of county if they like, but I would prefer the culminating academic ceremony of my university to try to keep these things separate. How can you train young thinkers to evaluate and critique the military-industrial complex when we’re all so quick to jump to our feet and cheer the brave, young, new soldiers more loudly than we cheer anything or anyone else?

I thought this book would help me understand my own reaction better and that perhaps even give me ammunition in arguing against the militarization of everything in a post-9/11 world. Of course, to the author’s credit, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything was a good deal more complicated than that and forced me to evaluate my own feelings toward the military and its role in the world.

The best way to explain this book might be to talk a bit about the author’s background. Rosa Brooks was raised by two anti-war activists. She was trained in international law, spent time working with human rights groups around the world, and has written columns and articles on public policy. She worked as a civilian in the Pentagon and so has first-hand experience both with the functioning of the military. Finally, she married a career soldier and so has even deeper insights into the strange and somewhat insular world of the military. If this sounds like a complicated background that would make it hard to pin a simple “pro-military” or “anti-war” label on her, that is exactly correct—and it’s one of the things that make this work so compelling. Despite the book’s title, this is not a polemic either for a US interventionist policy or against war and the continued growth of the military.

Brooks does two separate but related things in this work. First of all, she’s providing perspective from her time spent working in the Pentagon to offer insight into the military’s expanding role in the world today. From building infrastructure to combating pirates to conducting drone strikes of dubious legality in nations at which we are not formally at war, she makes the point that actual fighting, the classical view of what the military does, is in reality becoming a very small portion of its mandate. The role of the military is expanding into policing and nation building, often at the cost of other civilian government agencies. Underfunded civilian agencies like the State Department are often passed over and their work given to the only agency whose budget has remained constant. More and more often, the military is given broader and larger tasks.

This is symptomatic of the post-9/11 world, and Brooks gives perspective not just on the dizzying administrative military complex and the bloated and often inefficient realities it entails but also a sympathetic image of a service trying to cope with a broader and broader mission in the new grey area between peace and an enduring state of war.

This portion of the book is not a memoir, though portions of it read like one. Brooks writes about her experiences in Uganda seeing the results of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s conflict on villagers and children. She gives a fascinating view of how things function (or don’t function) in the Pentagon and the relationship between military and civilian officers in the government, a tour of Guantanamo Bay, and stories of Iraq from just after the invasion. She talks about what it’s like living on a military base and the surreality of a separate society esteemed and valued but also misunderstood by the rest of the population. All of this though, while fascinating, seems partially intended to build credibility for what she wants to argue in the second portion of the book.

In the second portion, Brooks is making a legal case that the laws governing international conflicts need to change to address the changing nature of war. Laws are created to serve a certain purpose, and the laws of war have been created to keep war “boxed off” from the rest of life. But war since globalization and 9/11 puts us in a new era, a grey zone between peace (which, she says, is arguably as artificial a construct as the idea of sovereign states) and war, and we as a global society have the responsibility to change our laws so that they make conflict against a stateless enemy possible but also protect and enshrine human rights. She doesn’t make this claim immediately though. First she has to build up to it with some history.

Along the way, for instance, Brooks spells out the origins and the implications of the international law that has been in place in the UN Charter since the conclusion of World War II. This set of laws was designed to keep atrocities like the Second World War from happening again and is built around concepts of national sovereignty with a Security Council as a check against conflicts between states. She argues that this has been, despite notable exceptions such as Rwanda and Syria, largely successful but that it is beginning to fail in light of the new realities of warfare. In particular, Brooks examines the historical development of the concept of sovereignty and points out that often this is an artificial construct, imposed upon nations that never actually had cohesive boundaries or the ability to effect policy within those boundaries. Failed states, she argues, are more often examples of states that were never truly states to begin with, proxy states propped up by external colonial powers. More problematically though, she claims there is a contradiction at the heart of the UN Charter: the enshrining of sovereignty on the one hand and the protection of human rights on the other. This, she says, gives rise to contractions when a sovereign state is violating human rights. Do you respect sovereignty or human dignity?

Even more problematically, Brooks argues that since 9/11 the United States has been continually undermining the spirit of the UN Charter by either ignoring it or justifying US actions by legally stretching the laws of war into actions that are not against sovereign states, for instance striking combatants of a stateless enemy within the territories of states at which we are not formally at war. The problem is that this continually blurs the line between warfare (during which things like execution or detention without trial are legally permissible) and policing (where such things are not). As Brooks points out, the reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was not a given. Our leaders chose to respond to it as an act of war, perpetrated by a stateless enemy but giving rise to all issues in which we find ourselves as a nation embroiled today. But it could have been responded to as a crime, in which an entirely different set of legal paradigms would have come into play.

In the end, the book doesn’t offer any easy answers about what to do about the fact that everything is becoming war and the military is becoming everything, that we’re sliding down a slope toward more intervention and further blurring of the lines between police action and military operations in the nebulous, expanding, and un-winnable war on terror. She offers no clear solutions. Rather, her pragmatic response may be off-putting to those who were hoping (like me, I admit) this book would be a call to arms to resist the creep of the military into all aspects of life.

This is the new reality, Brooks admits. The nature of warfare is changing, and for better or worse she believes the military is going to continue to expand into new roles. But Brooks argues for a more difficult solution than simply resisting this. For one thing, she argues the military needs to change to become more adept and more effective at navigating its new roles. If it’s going to be about more than soldiers carrying guns, it needs to change how it recruits and how it operates. Secondly, and more compellingly, Brooks argues that the laws governing international conflicts need to change. If we’re going to live in a new world where technology and globalization have created a spectrum between peace and all-out war that includes grey areas like the war on terror or cyber-attacks, then we need to build new laws to guide us through this, new laws that focus on accountability and protecting human rights, instead of simply bending or disregarding laws that no longer fit the realities with which we’re faced.

Some might see this as a grim account, but Brooks is a law scholar, so she puts a great deal of faith in the nature of law itself. At its best, laws are meant to define and protect what we value. Brooks feels that the thing that should ultimately be valued are globally-defined human rights.

Yet as much as I value her argument, I feel she makes a large interventionist assumption in her work. She takes it as a given that the United States will have an invasive presence around the world, that we will continue to be active to protect our own interests and to police and enforce human rights abroad. It’s not clear why this is a given though, why we couldn’t have an approach that was active in international policy and law-making but that lacked a large military force. Do we need to have a defense budget larger than that of the next seven nations combined to lead the way in transparent international law that values human rights? Or does our extremely big stick undermine any attempt to do so? As she argues herself, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when all you have is the world’s largest military, than every problem looks like one to solve with military intervention (read: war).

Which brings me back to commencement and the standing ovation for the ROTC students. I love some of these students. I respect them all. I’m sure they’ll be great officers. And if the military will have a larger and broader role in the world in which we live, don’t I want its officers trained in a liberal arts setting, given tools for cultural literacy and understanding diversity and history and critical thinking? If nothing else, Brooks’ book makes a compelling case for the diversity of situations and challenges these young men and women will face. The audience is not just applauding potential “boots on the ground,” Brooks would say. They’re applauding officers who are going to be called upon to do tasks yesterday’s military never even considered. Whether or not that’s a good thing is irrelevant, Brooks would argue. It’s the way things are now, so the best response is to make sure we’re creating effective international law that can help guide them in their work.

When the Watcher Shakes

When the Watcher ShakesWhen the Watcher Shakes by Timothy G. Huguenin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Timothy Huguenin’s book When the Watcher Shakes is a solid debut novel by a solid new writer. The story explores a cultic, isolated town hidden in an Appalachian valley and is told with an easy confidence. Huguenin has a good handle on the tools of the craft: the writing is clear and precise, and the straightforward tone and pacing kept me reading even when the characters themselves felt at times a bit unrealistic. I was still turning pages up to the very conclusion of the novel, and apart from a few very minor typos, the work was artfully done. My main disappointments, outlined below, were in the depiction of the characters and in ultimately unsettled questions.

Abestown is a walled city in a forest, governed by a council of Historians and overseen by a sinister Head Historian who keep the inhabitants in line with threats of strange creatures beyond the walls (akin to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village). The town is governed in a stranger, more metaphysical way by the clocktower dominating its center. We see the town through the perspective of John, a hapless, easy-going wanderer who sights the town from a nearby highway and decides to investigate, despite having met Jerry, an old man who grew up in the town and departed but now lives on the mountain overlooking. Once inside the town, where the inhabitants are polite but suspicious, John’s inquisitive personality influence the thinking of Isaac, the town janitor and “watcher” of the title. Eventually and inevitably, John’s destabilizing influence transforms life within the town.

Huguenin puts all of the elements in place for a darkly unsettling mystery, and his writing style and skill is enough to clinch it, which make it disappointing when the hidden nature of the town is never truly revealed and the spectacular confrontations built toward (for example, between the Head Historian and Isaac) never are quite carried through. There are plenty of hints of darker things afoot—in the nature of the clocktower itself, for instance, which seems to predate the town itself in some ways, and in the supernatural strength of Rob Kai, the Head Historian— but these mysteries are never explored. Perhaps Huguenin is setting the stage for further work in which the history of Abestown, will be further developed. But if that’s the case, there are no obvious hooks that leave the reader on the line for another installment. Instead, we’re left to drift away from the walls and their mysteries like Lisa, the only character in the work who truly finds freedom.

These things were disappointing because of their potential. If the novel had been weaker, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so troubling, but When the Watcher Shakes was rife with interesting things popping up that were never followed out. One of the first things John notices in the town, for instance, is that he clearly hears the whistle of a passing train but none of the other townsfolk hear it. We come to realize that the council somehow has such a hold over the town that whatever the council declares to exist or not exist shapes the way the rest of the town experiences reality. (This gives rise to some clever wordplay, for example when Isaac realizes that when the train whistles he hears nothing, and that he has heard nothing several times before.) Again though, besides the power of suggestion, this is never fully explored—and the mysterious train that first gave John some understanding of how strange the town really was is never addressed either (though it is where John meets his ultimate, grizzly fate).

The town’s isolation is also never fully explored, and it gave rise to a few strange paradoxes in the novel. For instance, we learn that the newcomer’s name is one “Abe would approve of,” indicating Biblical names are probably preferred. There are other Biblical names as well (Isaac and Obadiah, for instance), but there are several more modern names: Lisa, Rob, and Jerry, for starters. The inhabitants of the town don’t know what trucks or cocoa are, but there is a restaurant in the town that serves “deer burgers,” and Rob, the primary villain, on several occasions refers to other characters as “punks.” Moreover, for a town that insists to live in such isolation and believes outsiders like John pose such a threat, the ease with which John first found the town and wandered into it seemed far too convenient.

The primary weakness of When the Watcher Shakes though was the characters’ impotence in enacting any real change in their circumstances. John seemed laughably naive and oblivious to his own danger in his insistence that an easy-going nature would get everything weird about the town sorted out. Isaac was a bit more developed, and it seemed he would become the hero to actually stand up to Rob, the Head Historian. He eventually did, but this confrontation was ultimately futile, and Rob was only destroyed by an accidental fluke. There was no final confrontation in which the masks came off and truths about the town were revealed. The only real crisis overcome by a character changing and overcoming odds was when Lisa, the abused wife of the Head Historian stood up to him to defend Isaac at his trial, but even that lacked an ultimate resolution between Rob and Lisa. (As an aside: the attitude of the town/cult leader to the women in his community was an obvious generalization hit upon heavily in the work.)

For all that though, Huguenin’s writing was strong enough to make Abestown feel like a real place and the characters come to life. Though portions of the narrative seemed a bit contrived, the terseness of the prose itself kept the overall story gripping. When the Watcher Shakes is an example of a writer setting out to create, testing his narrative grasp, and finding it true. I look forward to his next offering, and I hope it rises to the challenges his own stories set forth.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you followed Potter through all the years of his Hogswarts residency and found the idea of a secret magical history of England compelling but were not quite carried away by the novels themselves because they were books for kids featuring a tedious, angsty protagonist, then Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might be the actual history of magic in England for grown-ups that you’ve been looking for. It also helps if you have some experience reading period pieces like Austin’s novels, but none of that is to say you should consider this something like Jane Austin meets Harry Potter.

What Susanna Clarke has done instead in this massive and layered tome is two independent things, both which would have been impressive on their own. Firstly, she creates a believable history of magic in England, stretching from the Middle Ages and complete with footnotes to imaginary (but believable) sources, historical figures, and anecdotes. Secondly, she uses this history as a backdrop for the novel’s actual narrative, the story of the rebirth of magic in England in the early 1800s. But even more impressively, she does these two things simultaneously. The history is woven into the story, and the story is intimately related to the history.

Clarke gives the old England you believed in as a kid (and probably the England many Americans still believe in): fairy princes, sorcerer-kings, and enchantments. But we only get glimpses of this landscape through snatches of histories or accounts of old books given in passing. When the novel opens, all of this has faded away. England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars is a place where gentlemanly societies of magicians practice “theoretical magic” (discussing the history and nature of magic but not working any actual magic). This begins to change when the two magicians of the book’s title arise independently and set about to restore “practical magic” to England, primarily by putting it to service defending the nation against Napoleon.

The characters and setting are expertly constructed, and much of the novel’s effectiveness comes through the rivalry and friendship of the two primary magicians. Strange is young, ambitious, impulsive, and comes to the practice of magic almost by accident. Norrell is overly cautious, introverted, plodding, and arrived at his power by years of careful reading and study. The central conflict of the novel arises over their different approaches to magic: Norrell wants to reinvent or formalize magic as a scientific discipline and rid it of any traces of wild, fairy magic. Strange, on the other hand, is comfortable dabbling in the less controllable aspects of magic. He uses dark magic when necessary on the battlefield beside Lord Wellington, for instance, and he eventually pursues the essence of madness itself in an effort to summon a fairy servant.

These aspects of magic horrify and disgust Norrell. The irony though is that in order to begin his own path to power, Norrell entered into a bargain with a fairy to raise a young woman from the dead. This single lapse comes to haunt Norrell’s entire career. Eventually Norrell’s attempts to deny or cover this up and to keep Strange from embarking along a similar path lead to his ultimate rift with Strange. At the same time, the door this act opened for a malicious fairy to begin working mischief in England must ultimately be closed, at great cost to both magicians. (As an aside, the way Clarke handles the absolutely alien, whimsical, and chilling nature of fairies in this book is another one of its strengths.)

It would be difficult to summarize the entire, immense work, which begins with Norrell’s attempts to make magic respectable and useful to the government and then the actions of Norrell and Strange and their magic in the Napoleonic Wars. In the background of everything though is the looming question of the history of the Raven King, a boy-king who walked out of the lands of Fairie in the Middle Ages, established a kingdom in northern England, and ruled it for three hundred years before departing and taking a good portion of English magic with him. As the results of their own actions, inactions, and misunderstandings grow, Strange and Norrell come to realize they will need to summon help from this wellspring of English magic itself.

Clarke’s book is intimidating in its size. The particular copy I was reading was a paperback advance reading copy that weighed in at exactly 777 pages. This wasn’t the first time I had attempted to get through it. On this attempt though I had a crutch of sorts (in addition to some time in bed with an illness): the recent BBC miniseries. Watching the six-episode miniseries as I read through the book spurred me along and added a layer of engagement and I tried to figure out what had been done differently in the television adaptation and picked out specific speeches or passages pulled out of the book verbatim.

The main problem of the book is its sheer volume. The plot meanders, and though many of these meanders are pleasant and interesting (even the pages-long footnotes from the history of English magic) about midway through the novel things start to get a bit old. There are dozens of characters, and Clarke can’t introduce one without giving several pages of background history of who they are and where they come from. This lends a thickness and verisimilitude to the work, which again is one of its strengths, but it also becomes at points a bit of a slog. That said, all the various plots are tied together nicely in the novel’s climax, but getting there was helped along by being able to stop every couple hundred pages and sit down and watch the next installment of the television version.

Clarke’s tone in the novel is wry. There were parts where I laughed out loud because she captures so perfectly the stuffiness of Norrell and the British ministers and has them interact in ways that seem incredibly droll and believable. Stylistically, her strongest juxtapositions are between the philosophies of Norrell and Strange. Norrell represents a kind of “scientific magic,” perfectly sanitized and reasonable. Strange, on the other hand, discovers the pathways behind mirrors and tries to learn to read the Raven King’s language, which we learn is like barren trees written on a winter sky. He represents the poetry and wonder of magic. It is this tension—between reason and wonder—that is the central engine at the novel’s core, sputtering and coughing and rifted but ultimately renewed, like magic itself.

Tangents

TangentsTangents by Greg Bear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s one simple instruction for the person who imagines she might want to be a writer: read. Marilynn Robinson said it. Steven King said it. I’m saying it too. Are there other careers like that? Probably. Do you want to be a famous composer? Listen. Do you want to be a painter? Learn to see. Do you want to be a writer? Read.

This means it’s going to be important what books are on your shelves, particularly what books are on your “to read” shelf. I know some writers collect books impulsively, simply for the love of books, and they live in wonderful houses bricked up with shelves of books they have no intention of ever reading or that they imagine they one day might get around to reading. There is a certain freedom of genius there. I’m far too rigid for something like that though. The books on my diminutive “to read” shelf I have every intention of (some day) reading. Otherwise why would they be sitting there?

It’s not a very big shelf. (My house isn’t big enough—or at least lacks the shelving—for the other sort of approach.) Which means that when I wander into a huge annual used book sale in the basement of the public library of my home town and can come home with a large bag of books for something like three dollars total, I have to be very careful. I pick. I chose. I collect a large pile of titles that catch my eye, and then I whittle it down to half that.

What do I want to read that might conceivably help me improve my craft? Someone who had donated to this particular book sale had a collection of book club editions of important science fiction authors—most interestingly, anthologies of short stories, including several authors I’ve been meaning to explore: Phillip Jose Farmer, Samuel Delany, Fritz Leiber. And this one, a slim volume of eight or nine of Greg Bear’s short fiction.

I was ill when I was reading most of it, recovering from a stomach flu. I’m glad I had already gotten through the first part of the work when the bug hit, otherwise reading the first story in the volume, “Blood Music,” might have hit too close to home: a scientist engineers super-intelligent microbes based on his own cellular structure, and then introduces him into his bloodstream. What happens when a human becomes host to trillions of intelligent beings, when he becomes a galaxy unto himself? What if the galaxy were alive, and we were spreading to fill it, learning to communicate with it? What would it mean when it was time to start colonizing others? I saw glimmers of some of the darker bits of Leviathan’s Wake and its proto-molecule here.

But Bear can also do quite excellent literary fantasy, as the second work—a novella, really—in the volume shows. I had an interesting experience sitting in my yard (this was also before the stomach bug), distracted, trying to read, when one of my older sons stopped in his bike riding abruptly to ask me about the book. What’s it about? It’s a book of stories. About what? And I remember doing the exact same thing to my dad when I was a kid and he was reading some random scifi anthology and then being fascinated with the ideas that unfolded in each summary he gave. But I wonder now how distracted he was in the telling and how many details he had to gloss over, as I did explaining “Sleepside Story,” which is about a young man who has to go live in a witch’s house.

Bear here has created a gritty, magical precursor to Mieville’s New Crobuzon in which a boy is traded as a servant into a haunted, enchanted brothel. The details and dreamlike quality of the story are in wonderful contrast to the exacting concepts of Bear’s hard science fiction (though the language remains sharp in this piece as well—focusing on certain surreal details with almost scientific exactitude). Even more haunting than the setting though are the ideas of what it means to be a prostitute, even a very good one, and what kind of love might it take to free someone of the bonds of the past.

Each piece in this collection is excellent, with the most famous being Bear’s award-winning short story about an Alan Turing-like character who fled Britain secretly instead of undergoing hormone treatment for his homosexuality and his unlikely friendship with a young boy who can see in the fourth dimension. I had read this story before, but this time (and maybe because I was ill and running on very little sleep) I wept like a baby when I finished it.

If I was more thoughtful I’d end this review by tying it back to the beginning and noting some of the things that Bear teaches about the craft of writing through this collection. I’d talk maybe about the way he plays with hard science in his piece on a surprisingly inhabited Mars, “A Martian Ricorso,” or the terrifying implications of quantum mechanics in “Schrodinger’s Plague” or something about the way he creates characters who feel true to life even in Hell in “Dead Run” or in the near-future “Sisters.” But that would be too much work, and beside the point if the point is simply to be absorbing good fiction. Because in this respect, Bear’s short stories are an ideal place to begin.

Through the Language Glass

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other LanguagesThrough the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher

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.

The Road to Little Dribbling

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in BritainThe Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson is probably the luckiest writer alive, for a few reasons.

For one thing, my wife adores him. This should give me abundant hope, as it implies that as I get older and grouchier, so as long as I remain bumbling, mildly humorous, and appropriately annoyed at the grammatical foibles of young people, she will continue to find me endearing. (She might even start reading my books.)

But he’s also lucky because the man has made a successful career of traveling about investigating interesting places and writing about what he finds. He gained all the credibility he’ll probably ever need doing this and doing this very well in his excellent articles for National Geographic. But now that he has this credibility, he can do whatever he wants with it. He can go where he pleases and season his accounts with whatever historical anecdotes strike his fancy and as much griping about litter, economic depression, or kids these days he feels inclined to include. At this point, he could conceivably return to the United States with the intention of writing a book on highway rest areas, and it would be an immediate success.

I hope it’s clear here how much I envy this guy.

Yet I also at times—and especially in this, his most recent work—find him quite frustrating. His bits of history on the places he visits, for instance, are presented without any real context. Of course, in this book he’s under no obligation as a historian or sociologist (which, to be fair, he never pretends to be) to build these observations into any thesis or use them as arguments toward anything beyond comments like “England is absurd and delightful” or “Things are getting pretty crummy here.” The Road to Little Dribbling is just Bryson ambling about Britain, sort of traveling from the far south to the far north, and also sort of retracing some of his steps from his great work, Notes from a Small Island. Really though, it’s just him being his familiar, garrulous, and somehow endearing self.

Now, Bryson has done fine work—let’s get that straight. I’m rereading his science book right now, and it’s solid. More than that, it’s written with what makes him so appealing: eyes wide with genuine wonder and delight. “This is your universe,” he says. “Pay attention.” I remember Notes from a Small Island being similar: exploring the wonder of a new and genuinely wonderful place. But a lot of that seems to be lacking in Little Dribbling. This is an older, more tired, grouchier Bryson taking us on an aimless tour with sidetracks to wait for a new baby’s arrival or attend a soccer match with the grandkids. Maybe that should make it more endearing, but instead it gives the sense that this whole thing is an afterthought, an excuse to write a book in which he can comment on whether shops have opened or closed since the last time he was in town, whether the village he’s passing through has a good high street, and how rude the clerk in the hardware store is.

In places it’s quite maddening, both for Bryson, clearly, and for the reader. It’s maddening for the reader because Bryson could do so much more. In some places, for instance his visit to Avebury, he gives wonderful and astonishing context on the standing stones. Yet in other places his comments are simply throw-away lines about certain museums being nice, pleasant, or interesting without any details. In one instance he explains the remarkable situation of the manor of a dwindling family being finally donated to the National Trust and turned into a museum and tells how some rooms hadn’t been opened for decades, but we get very little insight into what this place actually was like. (It was musty, according to Bryson.) Or where he points out the oldest public park in the world and explains that it’s a model for pretty much all other city parks, but then does nothing to actually take us there in his prose.

Maybe that’s my primary complaint. I’m used to Bryson taking me places. Here I just felt like I was getting an account of Bryson going different places and how they affected his emotional state. There’s some irony here too. Bryson apparently has become something of a patron saint for landscape conservation, walking paths, and eliminating litter in Britain. And yet in this book we spend a good deal of our time with him in the car, zipping from one sight to another, along the way getting updates about the things that annoy him about politics or culture or long expositions on the downfall of proof-reading followed by imaginary dialogue of what he’d like to tell people who are unpleasant to him.

A final complaint: we know he’s well-read, but it taxes even the most charitable reader’s patience when Bryson approaches a place like Blackpool and offers a solution to its economic and social woes in less than a page. I don’t begrudge him offering a solution, but it would be wonderful to have had some suggestions on where to dig deeper for information on Blackpool or any other interesting place Bryson finds himself. Bryson knows a thing or two about every place he visits. Where does he learn all this? He’s been my guide for the book, I’d like some guidance on where to go next to learn more. I’m not asking for footnotes or endnotes (okay, maybe I am), but at least a list of suggested reading would have been helpful.

Yes, my annoyance is probably primarily motivated by jealousy: I want to be there seeing those things and writing (or complaining) about them. In fairness, I’d likely be just as grouchy (hopefully to my wife’s delight). But I’d certainly have less credibility and undoubtably do a much poorer job than Bryson has done here.

Invaders

Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of LiteratureInvaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature by Jacob Weisman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What does it mean to write science fiction? On some level, it means writing stories that get published in magazines featuring artistically-depicted spaceships and robots on their covers. It’s creating content involving science or at least scientific ideas playing out in new and interesting directions. It remains relevant because of the ways science continues to inform who we are, what we’re doing, and where we’re going.

Who’s writing important science fiction today? Things get a bit fuzzier here, because though there are certainly people (a lot of people) doing wonderful, interesting things inside the genre universe, sometimes it seems very few of them bleed out into more mainstream or “literary” waters—by which I mean publishing works in broader magazines or winning literary prizes not named after celestial objects or science fiction editors.

It’s a bit easier to see things going the other direction: important literary or mainstream authors venturing into genre territory. That’s what makes a collection like Jacob Weisman’s Invaders possible. If you think you know science fiction, or you want to get to know science fiction, or you want a new, sophisticated take on some of the angles you’ve poured over in the pulps, here’s an anthology to note.

Invaders encompasses twenty-two short stories, only a few of which are by established genre writers or originally appeared in genre magazines but all of which explore familiar aspects of science fiction in original ways. The tropes are all here—mad scientists, alien encounters, post-apocalyptic wastelands, sex-bots—borrowed from the pages of the pulps and filtered through the imaginations of some of the top mainstream writers working today. (I started to make a list of all the different awards listed in these author bios—because a guy likes to dream, you know?—and had reached forty before the list was complete.)

These stories are better than good. They’re sharp, subtle, and unfailingly well-crafted. Sure, some lack the excitement and straightforward pizzaz you might expect from magazines in which the editors are tasked primarily to entertain. Yet even these, such as J. Robert Lennon’s “Portal,” Max Apple’s “The Yogurt of Vasirin Kefirovsky,” and Kelly Luce’s “Amorometer” are still lovely and mysterious. There are think pieces in here as well, like Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness” or Steven Millhauser’s “A Precursor of the Cinema”. There are also two stories that take what may be the most tired science fiction trope of all, the alien encounter, and make it something new without actually doing anything different but by writing with a style that makes them positively luminous. I’m thinking, of course, of “Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss and “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” by Robert Olen Butler.

This stuff is science fiction as literature. These are stories written by artists who have abducted the genre for their own designs. They’re haunting, pristine, and sometimes devastating.

And then there are the pieces that are a whole lot better than good. Even if every other story in this collection had been a dud (and none of them are), four stories in here would still make Invaders completely worth the read. I’m thinking here specifically of Julia Elliott’s “LIMBs,” which tells a smart and heart-breaking story of geriatrics and technological advance, as well as love and aging; Deji Bryce Olukotun’s “We Are the Olfanauts,” a piece about personal sacrifice and the cost of success in a bizarre but strangely believable interpretation of the internet; and “Monstro” by Junot Diaz, which is somehow Akira meets Attack on Titan set in the Caribbean and told with a linguistic flare I could never hope to emulate or capture.

Finally, there is George Saunder’s “Escape from Spiderhead,” which wherever it was published (it was the New Yorker), genre or not, embodies what makes both great science fiction and great storytelling. It’s clean, simple, and as brutally efficient as a razor. I think, from now on, my writing prayer might simply be, “God, help me write a story as good as this one.” “Spiderhead” is the story of an idea just over tomorrow’s horizon taken to its unexpected and yet in retrospect unavoidable conclusion in language spare and merciless with characters simple and agonizingly real.

If you like science fiction that makes you think, and if you like stories told by writers who are masters of their craft, who use language as both a tool and a palette, this is the anthology you’ve been looking for.

If you’re already familiar with great science fiction authors who fit this description but are looking to expand your horizons further, you’re also looking for this book.

Now, my question: would it be possible to do this trick backward? That is, could you create an anthology of “genre” authors, writers who primarily work in science fiction and are not well known beyond it, that contains works of theirs falling outside the traditional boundaries of science fiction? Invaders is an anthology of literary authors writing science fiction; could we have a similar anthology of science fiction authors writing literature? (I think we could, and I can name a few writers who would almost certainly be in it, but I’ll save that for another post.)

View all my reviews