Old Man’s War: What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

OldMansWar(1stEd)Today I’m taking a look at John Scalzi’s 2005 novel Old Man’s War, which was nominated for a Hugo in 2006. This was my first Scalzi, though I’ve been well-aware of his Twitter activity for a while, and I was excited to jump into one of his novels. My husband and I listened to it on audio book during our summer road trip, and in this post, I’ll be recounting some of our thoughts and reactions as we were listening.

The Plot: John Perry, a widower in his seventies, signs up for the Colonial Defense Forces in order to leave Earth and discover what else the universe might have in store. After having his consciousness transferred into a new, young body, he and other elderly recruits travel the galaxy protecting human colonies from hostile alien forces. One by one, Perry’s friends perish, but he is unexpectedly reunited with his late wife… or, at least, someone wearing his late wife’s face.

The World and Tone: In Old Man’s War, humans have spread throughout the galaxy, snatching up habitable planets as quickly as possible in fierce competition with alien races. However, on Earth, folks know almost nothing about what’s going on in the stars; the Colonial Union carefully controls information about galactic colonization and primarily recruits from Earth’s Southeast Asian populations for its colonists. For Westerners like John Perry, the only hope of seeing the stars is by signing on as a soldier – a point of complaint for some of the novel’s more xenophobic characters. In fact, John has no information about exactly how the CDF will get him fighting fit when he signs himself over to them for a period of enlistment of no less than ten years; he can only assume that they will repair his aging body in some way. For readers (at least for Ben and me), this divide between Earth-paradigm and CDF-paradigm is marked by a sudden change in tone. Up until John starts bootcamp, we were reminded of some of our least favorite tropes from early hard SF (Larry Niven’s Ringworld is always the one we go back to) where men, usually experts of some kind, sit around discussing basic science things while women provide some color commentary if they say anything at all. Old Man’s War features a former medical doctor opining about the possible treatments for aging the CDF will use on them and a physicist discussing the improbabilities of the space elevator that transports recruits up to the Colonial Union’s orbiting station – both men. Our protagonist is appropriately ignorant of such things to give him a plausible reason for us to hear it.

Then, John gets to bootcamp and things take a turn for the weird, starting with John’s drill instructor, who had, at a low point in his life, adopted a talking car advertisement mascot as his personal credo – an ad that John had created. This whole section contains nods in a few different directions – including to Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote copy for an ad agency, and David Lynch’s film Wild at Heart – and marks our move into an absurdist tone that continues until John’s breakdown during an assault on the Covandu, an alien race that stands only an inch high and that is best defeated by stomping.

But we move out of this absurdist tone again when John is stranded behind enemy lines during his next skirmish and is rescued by the Ghost Brigade, the CDF’s special forces unit made up of individual’s whose genetic donors died before their enlistment deadlines. Ghost Brigade soldiers are artificially aged and given expansive physiological and mental advancements, since their personalities are created from scratch without memories of previous bodies or lives to inhibit them. One of the soldiers that rescues John, Jane Sagan, was grown from his late wife’s DNA. The Ghost Brigade, with John riding along, is given the job of capturing or destroying a piece of technology from the alien Rraey on a former human colony. John and Jane survive but are separated following the battle, and the novel ends with John hoping for a reunion once their terms of service are concluded.

I really wanted to like this book. Scalzi’s Twitter persona had won me over enough that I kept hoping things would get better… but they never did, and I think the real problem was that this novel was trying to be too many things at once. Scalzi has talked about Heinlein as an influence, but for me the clear forebear of Old Man’s War was Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, especially in terms of its construction; in both novels, we follow protagonists from skirmish to skirmish while watching them confront new realities along the way. On the other hand, the middle section of the novel fit in with the tradition of the absurdist war novel ala Vonnegut, Pynchon, and Heller (and Haldeman’s Forever War fits into this tradition as well to an extent). The problem, though, is that by switching back out of that absurdist tone into something more in line with typical action movie aren’t-special-forces-types-cool, the novel undermines a lot of the interesting things it did in its absurdist phase.

81MlgoowULLCase in point: At one point, a new recruit joins John’s unit, a man who used to be a U.S. member of congress. Even before he’s seen his first battle, the politician goes about telling anyone who will listen about how the Colonial Union deploys the CDF too frequently without first searching for diplomatic solutions. The politician has been researching the alien race his unit is slotted to meet in combat, the Whaidian, and argues that they are an artistic, communally-oriented society with whom the Colonial Union could arrange a mutually beneficial treaty if they only tried. Other members of the unit, especially the veterans, write the politician off as ignorant and idealistic (and it doesn’t help that he takes the pedantic, condescending tone of old, white, male politicians everywhere), and no one is surprised when he attempts to talk the Whaidian and is brutally killed. At the same time, John’s current superior officer notes that the politician was right – that troops are deployed too quickly and diplomatic solutions are never sought. She argues, however, that the best way to enact change is for individuals to work within the system by climbing the ranks until they are the ones giving the orders. Her ambitions are cut short with her own death.

I got really annoyed with this whole sequence. First of all, I’m frustrated by the way that the only character voicing an alternative to military intervention is so unlikable; we are clearly supposed to roll our eyes at him along with the veteran soldiers. Secondly, this politician character raises some important points: are humans just blasting their way through the galaxy? Is this just Manifest Destiny all over again? There’s a lot of talk about survival in a hostile galaxy, language that has long been used to justify violent colonialism and ethnically-based violence. But those points are just swept under the rug as we move to focus on John’s relationship with the woman made from his wife’s genes and the particular affordances and drawbacks of spec-ops troops grown in vats.

But this has become a prominent trope in the last ten years: talk a lot about peace while ultimately blowing things up. To call out a few recent examples, the film Wonder Woman showed Diana on a quest to bring peace, but she killed a lot of people to do it, and the final sequence of the movie was just destruction porn (which is my biggest complaint with the contemporary wave of super-hero movies, a genre near-and-dear to my heart). Her lasso of truth isn’t used for truth-telling in the end; it’s used for smashing things. Or consider the recent run of Star Trek films, a franchise born out the idea of peaceful, diplomatically-driven exploration of the galaxy turned into a bunch of explosions. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two acts of Wonder Woman and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of the new Star Trek movies, but I’m troubled by the fact that we seem to have such a hard time imagining something other than armed conflict.

Final Thoughts: I’m not ready to write Scalzi off entirely – Old Man’s War was, after all, his first novel – but I was too troubled by the way we’re asked to just go along with the idea that our protagonist is a grunt with no power to enact any kind of change to really enjoy this book.


Perdido Street Station – Rape, Crime, Identity, and Social Constructions

China Mieville’s 2000 novel Perdido Street Station was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula in 2002 and won several other awards, including the Arthur C. Clark Award and the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award. It also put him on the map for science fiction scholars, and since then, he’s been one of the most-often examined contemporary writers in science fiction journals.

The Plot: Isaac, a scientist studying out-of-mode theories who has a khepri artist as a lover, is approached by a garuda who has had his wings removed with an interesting commission: to make him fly again, whether by wings or some other means. In the course of his research, Isaac inadvertantly releases a brain-sucking parasite onto the city of New Crozubon, a parasite with no natural predators for thousands of miles. In the course of amending his mistake, Isaac gleans allies from several groups, including the New Crozubon criminal element, the wingless garuda, the newly sentient Construct Council, mercenaries, political activists, and a creature from another dimension. Even after Isaac and his crew manage to save the city, the oppressive regime in power and a criminal kingpin continue to hunt him as the perpetrator, and he is forced to flee the city.

I read Joan Gordon’s article “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship” before Perdido Street Station itself and, consequently, had her ideas about hybridity and social organization in my head as I was reading. It’s true that, as Gordon argues, Isaac’s plan requires many different kinds of people in order to work, but I also saw the novel as examining the many ways in which we construct difference. Much like The City and the City, we see many spaces where differences are upheld on tenuous logics, like the separation of the two khepri neighborhoods, Creekside and Kinken. The residents of Kinken, Isaac’s khepri lover Lin reflects, construct Creekside as a ghetto in order to not be living in a ghetto themselves. Likewise, there is a division between the the cactacae who live within the Glass House, supposedly keeping their traditions alive, and those who live without. But we also see several places where differences are real and not constructed, notably with the Construct Council and the Weaver (and I would like to say that I think Miéville does an excellent job of creating characters that fall outside of human ideologies, here with the Weaver and with the Arakei in Embassytown).

I’d really like to spend some time with the garuda, another place where we see real, as opposed to constructed, difference: first with Yagharek and then with the New Crozubon garuda Isaac meets in the Spatters. Before I started off my summer reading with Perdido Street Station, I did a small project on Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her philosophy that utopias in SF happen too suddenly, that humans can’t get to utopia without a great deal of hardship and resistance. Thus, the Xenogenesis Trilogy shows this resistance as well as the small steps towards a better humanity, while questioning some of the ideologies that inform our ideas of “better” (see, for instance, Zaki and Miller). I think that we see something similar with the garuda; their ideology of the individual results in something of a utopian society, but it’s a society that is completely unworkable in the space of New Crozubon, as we see with the hierarchical structure of the garuda in the Spatters, the need for someone to be in charge in order to keep the others safe. I feel like this is an important reminder of how deeply physical space affect societal construction; what seems to be the best way for the garuda to live in small tribes in the harsh desert landscape does them little good in the city where different resources are necessary for survival.

I found Kar’uchai’s meeting with Isaac deeply affecting for a number of reasons. First of all, I felt like Miéville had somehow broken our writer/reader contract by making me sympathize with a character who turned out to be a rapist. I felt like, in some ways, my choice had been stolen, my choice to reject or accept Yagharek after being given all the information. And I was upset that the closing section of the novel seem to present Yagharek as somehow redeeming himself for his crime by plucking his feathers and not being a garuda any more. At the same time, I realized that I was committing the same mistake that Isaac does, by reading the rape of Kar’uchai through my own ideological conceptions of rape. Really, murder is a much worse crime, but I wouldn’t have felt as upset by finding out that Yagharek had killed someone. More importantly, though, Kar’uchai forces Isaac (and the reader) to reconsider how our concepts of rape interpolate the “rape victim” as somehow different from victims of other crimes. She says, “I was not violated or ravaged […] I am not abused or defiled … or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was … judged […] Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims” (609-10) The one crime of choice-theft for the garuda, with its many possible manifestations, asks the reader to reflect on the underlying logic of our own criminal system and the way that system ranks the severity of crimes.

  • Gordon, Joan. “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.” Science Fiction Studies 30.3 (2003): 456–76. Print.
  • Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000. Print.
  • Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science Fiction Studies (1998): 336–360. Print.
  • Zaki, Hoda M. “Utopia, Dystpia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science Fiction Studies 17.2 (1990): 239–51. Print.

Leviathan Wakes – Knowledge is Power

James S. A. Corey, the collaborative pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, received a Hugo nomination this year for their space-opera-esque Leviathan Wakes, a sweeping novel of multiple sites and genres (for a run-down visit Strange Telemetry). The authors have described it as an attempt to explain what happens between near-future and distant-future science fiction, that is, what pushes man out into the vast reaches of space. The novel alternates between two third-person narrators: “righteous” and somewhat uptight Captain James Holden and fallen, divorced, almost alcoholic Detective Joe Miller. While the relationship between these two was a bromance that at times felt cliched, the universe in which the narrative takes place definitely redeems the strained representations of interpersonal relationships.

The Plot: As this is a detective story along with being so many other things, documenting the twists and turns of the narrative would be time-consuming, and consequently, I’ll keep myself to the bare-bones here. The solar system is populated with human colonies as far as the moons of Neptune, though humanity still remains tethered to Earth and the increasingly Earth-like Mars for some resources. When Holden’s ship carrying water to the Belt (those small colonies found in the asteroid belt and beyond) is destroyed by what seems to be the Martian Navy disguised as pirates, he broadcasts what facts he has far and wide in an attempt to get some form of justice. However, he instead starts a war between the Belt and Mars. Meanwhile, Miller tries to maintain order on asteroid Ceres while being tasked with finding runaway rich girl Julie Mao. As the war escalates, with a Martain vessel being destroyed by what appears to be Earth ships, Miller loses his job as a cop but, obsessed with finding Julie, sets out to find Holden, the last human to have contact with Julie’s former ship. Miller and Holden converge on Eros, discover Julie’s body mangled by some bioweapon of unknown origin, and almost get stuck on the station as evil corporation Protogen (who has been behind starting the war) locks it down to run large-scale testing of their new weapon, which Miller and Holden later discover to be a protomolecule of alien origin hurled at the Earth billions of years ago but waylaid by Saturn. The protomolecule remakes life according to whatever instructions it has been programmed with, but also has a sense of improvisation. Miller and Holden team up with the Outer Planets Alliance, a terrorist/freedom fighter organization, to gain control of the space station from which the Protogen experiments are being managed, then to keep Eros and the bioweapon from falling into inner planet hands. As they begin enacting a plan to knock Eros into the sun, though, Eros demonstrates that the protomolecule has managed to adapt the rock into a space ship and it takes off toward Earth with Miller on its surface. As Miller explores its inside in an attempt to disable it before it destroys Earth, he realizes that Julie, or some mutated form of Julie, is controlling the ship. He finds her, wakes her up, and tells her to direct Eros to Venus instead, allowing himself to become part of the protomolecule’s larger ecosystem (and consequently part of Julie). Eros establishes itself on Venus and begins building things there as the governments of Earth, Mars, and the OPA attempt to reach a compromise.

Authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

I found two things striking as I was reading, the first being the importance of information distribution in the narrative. Holden, who believes firmly that everyone is entitled to the same information, is constantly broadcasting everything he knows under the assumption that secrecy allows injustice to continue. However, every time he broadcasts something, he starts another round of war as people willfully misinterpret the information as justification for killing people they already wanted to kill. Miller, on the other hand, vehemently argues that you can’t release information until you know what it means and what the effects are going to be. He understands that not everyone is going to be so careful about their analysis before they start shooting. These two characters debate this issue a number of times throughout the novel, and at the end of the novel, neither one is vindicated as right. The war only ceases long enough for negotiations because everyone realizes the greater threat of Protogen and the protomolecule, showing that information is powerful. Furthermore, the fact that Protogen was allowed to work in secrecy in the first place allowed them to enact these monstrosities in the first place. At the same time, these final bursts of information and their positive effects do not outweigh the destruction caused by Holden’s first information releases; the human race is still by and large populated with idiots who will twist data to support their own opinions. What doesn’t get discussed is how the information is packaged. It’s merely a case of releasing or not releasing, as though the information itself is somehow devoid from its surrounding context.

Rhetoric is discussed much more explicitly, though, in one of the novel’s more dramatic moments. After capturing the Protogen space station, Miller, Holden, and the OPA forces interrogate Dresden, who has been in charge of planning and deploying the Eros experiment. When asked why he did it, Dresden talks about the alien race who was already god-like enough to design something like the protomolecule and send it toward Earth before humans had even begun to evolve. He describes the ways in which the protomolecule could be used to adapt humans who did not need oxygen or water or any of the resources that had tied them to Earth, putting them on somewhat more equal footing with those god-like creatures who had already attempted one epic bioattack . Miller promptly shoots the man in the head. Holden is shocked and horrified that Dresden was killed without a trial or jury, but Miller argues that Dresden would have gotten away with it because of his money and power. At the same time, it’s clear that Miller felt he had to shoot Dresden right at that moment because Dresden was  persuading them that such atrocities as those he had committed could be justified with the promise of a super-race. Dresden’s rhetoric was powerful and dangerous and the only way to ensure that it did not spread was to kill the man himself. This in combination with the question of information distribution show that in this novel, words are given a great deal of credit as powerful shapers of action. Repeatedly, Holden returns to the words of his initial broadcast, arguing that he never accused the Martians of attacking the Belters, but others point out that he’s not paying attention to how others would hear his words.

One argument that we could take away from this novel is that hiding behind what the words are as opposed to what they mean is an ineffectual way of understanding our position in the many conversations we are a part of. The novel does ask us to seriously consider the ramifications of dissemination of knowledge, and for this reason, I’m looking forward to the other novels in this series.

Startide Rising – The Politics of Dialect

After a long hiatus (the semester began, complete with ridiculous amounts of reading for seminars and 40 freshman writers), I am back with David Brin’s Startide Rising, which won both the Hugo and Nebula in 1984. For starters, 1983 Brin had a much better idea of how to use paragraph breaks than 1980 Brin, and I found myself overall less troubled by the writing. Furthermore, I found Brin’s illustrations of the high stakes of English language politics just down-right admirable.

The Plot: Startide Rising takes place quite a while after Sundiver and features two of Jacob Demwa’s students in primary roles. The novel opens as starship Streaker, crewed by 150 dolphins, seven humans, and one chimpanzee, crashes on a supposedly uninhabited planet after suffering damage from being chased all over the galaxy by hoards of alien races. The crew of the Streaker had discovered a fleet of derelict spaceships, perhaps belonging to the Progenitors, as well as one alien body, and the information that they have collected is both so precious and so dangerous seemingly everyone in the galaxy wants to either claim it as their own or destroy it. As the Streaker‘s crew tries to make repairs to their vessel, dissension breaks out among the ranks, resulting in an attack on the dolphin captain that causes severe neurological damage. Meanwhile, the crew discovers a race of natives who are prime candidates for uplift, which they seek to hide from the warring aliens in the skies above to prevent these little creatures from being unfairly exploited by malicious alien patrons. As those members of the crew who are still loyal to the now-injured captain and the human crew of the Streaker devise a plan for escaping the planet and returning home through the alien armies — a plan that does not guarantee the survival of all — the sinister nature of one crew member is fully revealed.

As I mentioned in my post on Sundiver, Brin establishes English (or Anglic as he calls it) as the official language of Earth, and those species who the humans uplift are genetically manipulated to be able to speak English with varying degrees of proficiency. By the time we get to the events of Startide Rising, uplifted species’ ability to speak English has been much improved. Previously, chimps had trouble speaking English and relied on writing, and dolphins could only manage a few English words; now, chimps are fully capable of English speech, and fins (as dolphins are called now that they have been uplifted) speak three languages with equal proficiency: Primal, or original dolphin whistles and clicks; Trinary, a whistle language that takes the forms of haiku-like poems that humans can construct as well, and Anglic, which dolphins can speak underwater as well as above. These different languages, however, are not created equal. Reverting to speaking Primal is consider a major faux pas, something equivalent to a fin losing his or her mind, completely returning to a primitive state. Trinary is primary used in situations of immediacy, when fins need to communicate quickly with each other, in moments of intimacy, and for its artistic value — that is, both humans and fins craft trinary poems for artistic pleasure. In formal situaions, though, fins are expected to speak Anglic, and very precise grammatically correct Anglic at that, and this kind of speech has a lot of social capital; humans and fins alike frequently comment on how well-spoken the Streaker‘s captain is in Anglic and how conscientious he is about his language construction, a way of reaffirming his position as the captain. Proficiency in Anglic has other, more material, consequences as well. Since humans are still in the process of uplifting and genetically modifying fins, fin reproduction is highly regulated and those fins who do not demonstrate proficiency in Anglic may not be allowed to reproduce.

Given my background in rhetoric and composition, I can’t help but draw parallels between Brin’s novel and the numerous discussions that were going on when the novel was published and continue to go on concerning what language students should be taught. While many scholars advocate recognizing and valuing students’ “home languages” and respecting their right to use it in the composition classroom (see “Students’ Rights to Their Own Language“), other of us can’t get away from the fact that different kinds of Englishes have different assigned values in our society and that it might be a disservice to tell students otherwise. Brin’s novel plays out the realities of this in a way that, to be sure, exaggerates the consequences but also demonstrates the ways in which race (or species) and class work together in language stratification.

Sundiver – Ideological State Apparatus on a Galactic Level

I read David Brin’s 1980 novel Sundiver because the two other novels of the Uplift Trilogy won Hugos in 1984 and 1988. Reading Sundiver was an interesting experience: the world was fascinating, the mystery was intriguing, but nothing I have read for this project has riled up my inner writing teacher so. David Brin in 1980 did not know how to use a paragraph break properly to save his life, and his mixed metaphors were both ridiculous and hilarious — at one point he compared the computer system in the Sundiver ship to both the heart and the bowels, which are, admittedly, both body metaphors, but very incompatible ones. However, I’m willing to forgive Brin his terrible writing since he paints such an interesting picture of Marxism and evolution.

The World: Sundiver takes place in a universe with many, many intelligent alien species (collectively called “sophonts”) which are divided into oxygen and hydrogen breathers. This two groups do not mix, and when they do meet, bloodshed generally follows. All races in this universe have been “uplifted” into intelligence via genetic manipulation and technological aid by “Patrons,” older, already established races. The oldest races in the galaxy were uplifted by the Progenitors, an ancient race that disappeared to another plan of existence. Because any world might one day be the home world of an intelligent race, the rules governing the ecological impact a race may have on a colony world are extremely strict, while the social mores governing the relationship between Patrons and their uplifted Clients are equally strict. Patrons may expect both manual labor, servitude, and social deference from their Clients for many centuries, until the Client race is determined to be mature enough to enter into Galactic matters on their own. The genealogy of ulpift is extremely important in the social structure of Galactic society, with formal introductions of individuals including the uplift genealogy of their own race along with a listing of any Client races. Furthermore, some ancient uplift ancestors count for more than others in the Galactic social structure. What we have, then, is an aristocratic class that essentially creates its own peasants as needed.

The humans on Earth have an interesting place in this structure: no one knows who uplifted them. There are two possible scenarios, each with its own extremist human adherents. The first possibility is that humans uplifted themselves, making them unique among all the races in the galaxy; proponents of this theory are frequently called “Skins” because of their frequent depiction and glorification of human cavemen. The second theory — and the one held by most sophonts — is that a Patron race began the process of uplifting human, then for some reason or another abandoned them, leaving them to make the long journey to space flight on their own. Human adherents to this theory are called “Shirts” and exhibit a marked xenophilia toward non-human sophonts. Humans are looked down upon by a large number of the Galactics as a poorly trained “wolfling” race, young and naïve as a race.

The Plot: Human Jacob Demwa works at the Center for Uplift, where humans have been working to uplift chimps and dolphins for decades before meeting the Galactics. He is asked to come work with the Sundiver project when scientists and pilots encounter beings living in the Sun. Jacob travels to Mercury with Laroque, a human journalist and Shirt convinced that these Sun Ghosts are humanity’s long-lost Patron; Fagin, a Kant and particular friend of Jacob and humanity; Bubbacub, a Pil and the representative of the Galactic Library branch on Earth as well as skeptic of humans’ ability to do research without Galactic intervention; and Culla, a Pring and Client to Bubbacub. Once at the Sundiver Base, Jacob becomes embroiled a number of mysteries: Why do some Sun Ghosts seem hostile and others merely curious? How do the hostile Sun Ghosts replicate human form and gestures without ever having met a human? Did the Sun Ghosts kill chimp scientist Jeffrey and if so, why? Laroque comes under suspicion for Jeffrey’s murder, and in an attempt to appease the Sun Ghosts, Bubbacub and Fagin, as elder sophonts, agree to accompany the human and Culla on a trip to the Sun. On this trip, Bubbacub claims to communicate with the Sun Ghosts via his superb psi helmet. According to him, the Sun Ghosts have ordered humans to never visit the Sun again, and at their next confrontation with the Sun Ghosts, Bubbacub chases them away with another Galactic artifact. Jacob appears to suffer some kind of mental breakdown and makes a suicide attempt. Upon their return to Mercury, Jacob begins to debate his own sanity against the possibility that Bubbacub engineered the whole affair to make humans look silly. Jacob’s sanity is safe though, and he proves that Bubbacub did not chase away the Sun Ghosts; rather he spread a dust through the cabin of the ship that prevented anyone from seeing out the windows, and upon their return to Mercury he stole the recordings showing that the Sun Ghosts were still present. After Bubbacub is discredited, the crew returns to the Sun, where the real perpetrator behind events is revealed.

As I mentioned earlier, this novel really redeems itself with the complex social structures that we glimpse as Jacob works his way through the mystery plot. The Patrons have in place a huge number of ideological state apparatus before Client races even become sentient, such as the Library, which was handed down by the Progenitors and is considered infallible, tradition and institutions to protect it, and those offices that determine when a Client race is sufficiently mature to begin uplifting races of their own.  This conditional evolution strikes me as being not unlike the relationship between first and third world countries, though there is the added insult of being evolved in order to be subservient for some period of time.

There are several interesting language issues that pop-up throughout the novel as well. For example, English seems to be the official language of Earth, though in recent history there was a “accent” movement in which people took up traditional ethnic accents (Jacob was opposed). Galactics who take up residence on Earth learn English, though some need technological devices to aid them (Bubbacub, for example, cannot speak within human’s hearing range and therefore uses a small device in order to be heard). Chimps and dolphins have been genetically manipulated in order to speak English, though chimps continue to find it very painful and generally use a keyboard and screen that they wear on their chests. At one point, Jacob reminisces about the difficulty the Galactics had translating the Library into English because the language is too imprecise and full of metaphors, a criticism that has been frequently leveled against English.

All in all, I’m looking forward to the other novels in the trilogy, though I am hoping that Brin’s writing improves. I don’t know if I can go through a whole other novel fighting the desire to put little red marks all over it.

The Word for World Is Forest – Military States, Translators, and Humans who Change Everything

I wasn’t planning on writing about Ursula Le Guin’s Hugo award winning novella turned novel The Word for World Is Forest, but the 5 hour audiobook fit in nicely to my 6 hour drive to Tennessee. I was struck once again by the connections I see between the work of Le Guin and that of China Mieville, as well as the way this fit into some of the thinking I’d beendoing about representations of the military state.

The Plot: Terran colonists take over the planet Athshe (which means “forest”), calling it New Tahiti, cutting down huge swathes of forest, planting farms, and forcing the indigenous people into “voluntary” labor. The health of these slaves quickly deteriorates because their natural rest cycle is completely disrupted by their human masters; Athsheans sleep rarely and frequently engaged in lucid dreaming throughout the day, which the Terrans punish as laziness. Since they don’t sleep and because they are intraspecies non-aggressive, meaning they do not attack each other and they do not attack the humans whom they recognize as men and women as well, Athsheans (or “creechies” as the Terrans call them) make ideal workers. This happy state for the humans begins to change, however, begins to change when the Athsheans learn murder. Athshean Selver, who served the humans for a time until his wife was raped to death by a particularly cruel and xenophobic human named Davidson, leads a group of Athsheans into Davidson’s camp, killing all the men and burning the buildings. At this point, the off-planet government steps in and orders the humans to have no more contact with the Athsheans unless invited and to free all of the laborers. While most humans comply, Davidson gathers a group of like-minded followers and begins systematically wiping out Athshean villages in his area. In retribution, Selver and his followers attack the main headquarters of the human colonists, killing all five hundred women and many of the men and taking the rest prisoner. Selver orders that the humans remain in the already cleared area of Central until the government spaceship returns, at which point they will leave the planet for good. After Davidson is defeated, the human comply and return to Terra on the next flight.

First of all, I want to call attention to some of the gender issues at play here. For starters, Davidson is, to me, a hilarious character, drawn straight out of the macho-man days of pulp sci-fi; he cares a great deal about being masculine and hates anyone who isn’t. One of the things I really liked about this novel was the fact that Davidson is painted as quite the psychopath, casting into doubt all those previous heroes of sci-fi. Secondly, I wish to call attention to those five hundred women, women who either can to the colony to be brides to men they had never met or to be prostitutes. Having just rewatched 28 Days Later, I was struck by the fact that in our representations of a military state, women become a commodity almost instantly, for both sexual purposes and for reproduction. Women are what allow men to think that their work has some kind of purpose. The Athsheans  quickly realized that the presence of women meant that the humans could establish a permanent settlement; not the guns, not the machines, but the women.

The second thing (and really the more important for the purposes of this project) is the title of the book itself. Raj Lyubov, a scientist studying the Athsheans and their advocate in colonial matters, explicates some of the implications of the word “Athshe.” Terrans are bound to dirt, Athsheans are bound to trees; Terrans imagine themselves as clay, Athsheans imagine themselves as branches. I really appreciate the way this novel highlights the workings of ideology at a word-by-word level. One of the most important words is “sha’ab” which, Lyubov tells us, has many meanings (he explains that many words in the Athshean language are like coins, having two meaning). The primary meaning of “sha’ab” is “god,” and thus Selver is called when he begins fighting against the Terrans. The secondary meaning is “translator,” and it is upon this meaning that Lyubov spends some time ruminating. He comes to the conclusion that the “translator” aspect of the word refers to a individuals ability to translate what they see in dreaming into reality.

After Selver “translates” murder into reality, his people are fundamentally changed, and it is this aspect of the novel that reminds me the most of Mieville’s Embassytown, though the change in the Ariekei is arguably much more extensive than that in the Athsheans. Still, I find this idea of “translating” dreams into realities very interesting, especially since this kind of translating is very much bound up in language. At several points, the narrator notes that a Athshean says, “The whole land with be like the dry beach,” because she has no word for “desert.” As Lyubov examines the word “sha’ab” his mind is immediately drawn to the fact that Selver worked with him as a translator, making Terran-Athshean dictionaries. They spent a great deal of time sharing words to refer to what happens during dreaming. All of this highlights for me the necessity of a word in order to recognize a thing. Athsheans never killed each other until the humans came and gave them both the word and practice.