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.

The City and the City – The Construction of National Identity

I suddenly realized that I’ve only thus far written about books by women and decided it was time to get back to the man who started this whole project, China Mieville. His The City and the City won the Hugo in 2010 and I read it in a day. Of course, this was before I started teaching and had all day to lounge in my pajamas and read books, but in any case, The City and the City is a real page-turner, perhaps owing to its detective noir facade, which I found quite appealing considering I’m on a real detective kick lately — I can’t stop watching the Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes BBC series and I’ve rekindled my love for Commander Sam Vimes of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

The Plot: The novel begins with a murder of a young woman, and Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crimes Unit is on the case. The identity of the victim remains a mystery until Tyador gets an anonymous phone call from Ul Quoma suggesting that the victim lived in Ul Quoma rather than Beszel. This is a problem: Ul Quoma and Beszel occupy a great deal of the same physical space, but the two are strictly divided, and travel between the two is carefully regulated. Though one can see through to Ul Quoma from Beszel, one pretends not to see; though one could easily walk from one city to the other through areas of crosshatch, one does not for fear that Breach, the organization that governs the strict division, will be invoked. In fact, Tyador views this new information as a bit of a relief; he can now turn the case over to Breach and it will be out of his hands. However, after he presents his case to government officials, new evidence comes to light indicating that the body was transported in a van from Ul Quoma to Beszel via completely legal procedures, meaning that there is no justification from invoking Breach. Instead, Tyador is sent to Ul Quoma to work with Ul Quoman Detective Inspector Qussim Dhatt. There he learns that the victim, Mahalia, was an American archaeology student working at a Canadian university dig site who happened to think that she had been contacted by Orciny, the fabled third city that exists between Beszel and Ul Quoma and is actually pulling all the strings. Mahalia had confided in two people that she had been contacted by Orciny, and Tyador tries to arrange to get both of these people out of Ul Quoma with as little government interference as possible. However, as they try to cross the border into Beszel they are attacked by a gunman on the Beszel side while still being in Ul Quoma (but this isn’t breach since he saw them down a official corridor of shared space. Tyador follows the gunman on the Ul Quoma side and shoots him committing breach and finding himself in the custody of Breach. Turns out, Breach is frantically trying to figure out if Orciny is real as well. Skipping over the part where they actually solve the murder, Tyador is denied the chance to return to his life in Beszel and instead becomes an avatar of Breach.

While the plot itself is fairly straightforward, the setting is what makes this novel so interesting. The City and the City, to me, is primarily a novel about the creation and subsequent breaking down of national identity. Most aesthetic markers in the two cities are carefully regulated: certain colors may not be used in one city or the other; clothing choices are intended to immediately mark the wearer as Besz or Ul Quoman; architecture styles are designed to create contrast between the two; a widely-growing plant in both cities is consider a natural part of the landscape in Beszel but is rooted out as a weed in Ul Quoma. And all of this is carefully maintained so that you know who to see and who to unsee as you walk down the street. Visitors to either city must be carefully trained in these markers before visiting, a process that can take several weeks. Furthermore, the languages of the cities, Besz and Illitan, are also a point of contention; Tyador comments, “Illitan bears no resemblance to to Besz. Not does it sound similar. But these distinctions are not as deep as they appear. Despite careful cultural differentiation, in the shape of their grammars and the relations of phonemes (if not the base sounds themselves), the languages are closely related — they share a common ancestor, after all. It feels almost seditious to say so. Still” (42). This is a point that Tyador’s anonymous caller harps on, tipping him off that he is speaking to a unificationist, someone who wants to two cities to become one city. On the other side of the political spectrum are the nationalists groups who, occasionally militantly, defend the sovereignty of their respective cities.

Politics aside, it is actually Breach that ensures the separateness of the two cities, or at least the threat of Breach. Breach presents an excellent illustration of the Foucauldian panopticon: even something like seeing instead of unseeing a person in Ul Quoma can make a Besz worry about Breach. If  a Besz bus lost control and crashed in Ul Quoma, Ul Quomans would do nothing to help the passengers because of fear of Breach. What we learn as the novel progresses is that Breach is not nearly as all-knowing as people believe, but it maintains its power largely through mysteriousness — just because Breach isn’t watching all the time doesn’t mean that you know when Breach is watching.

One of the things I found most interesting about this novel is Tyador’s induction into Breach. His guardian/captor Ashil explains that avatars of Breach are all individuals who breached once: “If you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time… you can’t come back from that” (310). And as much as Tyador doesn’t want to, he sees the truth in what Ashil says and ends the novel living in the city and the city. This idea that there is a point of knowledge that you can’t return from comes up in Embassytown as well, when the Ariekei learn to use metaphor and mourn the passing of the world that they knew through Language, and I’ve been thinking about this idea in several ways. For me personally, it speaks to a certain kind of critical awareness that you can’t come back from: as a rhetorician, I can no longer imagine seeing the world as unrhetorical. In both instances, this permanent knowledge is also associated with a change in physical space: Tyador becomes an inhabitant of both cities instead of just one or the other and Spanish Dancer will travel through the immer with Avice to other worlds. These are spaces that were previously unimaginable, for Spanish Dancer because he didn’t have the language for it and for Tyador because of the careful regulated commonplaces of his split society. I’m curious to see if this theme continues in some of Mieville’s other works, and I’ll be on the lookout for it.