I have been reading a whole lot of science fiction and philosophy in order to avoid writing, and I’ve been doing so extremely effectively. Here are some accounts of them I just wrote up so that I can continue denying that I am procrastinating.
Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett: This is an extremely fun, brutally thrilling novel that has a surprising amount to say about capitalist imperialism and the relation between political power and technology. Four merchant houses dominate a vaguely European city as they develop their power over alphabets of magic runes that, when carved into objects in the world, allow them to change the ways those objects interpret their relation to reality. Arrows told they are falling toward the ground when they are in fact moving horizontally toward a target shoot with terrifying speed. Suits carved to believe gravity is different than the physical world maintains allow their wearers to fly above walls and through the air, but if miscalculated will shoot into the air, never to return, and if runes are intensified, the suit will crush the wearer into a pulp as a result of the pressure it has been told is the reality of the world. A thief with a mysterious history in one of the slave colonies of the merchant houses is given a job to steal an artifact from a secretive benefactor, but when her allies start turning up dead and the artifact begins to speak directly to her mind, she realizes MORE IS GOING ON. She makes contact with scientists and bureaucrats and a police officer coming to understand how implicated he is in the horrors carried on by the power structure he upholds, and the team gradually pulls back the primary secrets threatening the city in legitimately exciting action sequences and dramatically painful personal epiphanies. This book has a powerful understanding of history, economics, and the ways technological discoveries are forced into oppressive uses by the powers that control those discoveries, and it is able to apply this understanding into an absorbing and powerful story with sharp and often brutal sequences of action and intrigue and material improvisation. As the story delves into the archeological mysteries about where the runes came from and why the societies that made them disappeared, it hints at a troublingly theological ontology of the world, an alphabet of true runes which allows scientists to create new runes, and a good vs evil conflict between eternal enemies of ‘makers’ and ‘made’, an ontology that threatens to undermine a great deal of the interesting questions brought up earlier in the story. BUT these do not get in the way of the presentation of the story or the ideas engaged therein, and this novel is accomplished enough that despite these reservations I am deeply excited for the continuation in this series whenever it comes out.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson: Baru Cormorant’s small island nation of kind and free and SUPER polyamorous families is taken over by the mercantile and military power of the Masquerade, a global empire powered by an imperialist meritocratic bureaucracy and a mastery of economic warfare, and a deeply repressive heteronormative monogamous society which brutally fights any interactions it names ‘deviant’. But Baru is marked out as a mathematical genius and rapidly promoted to the chief accountant of a further region and told that if she is able to effectively enforce the empire’s policy of subjugation of this rebellious realm, she will be given a position of power within the capital of the empire, from where she can effectively achieve change in the world. We see Baru engage in skullduggery and conniving betrayals while always serving the empire’s interests, as her mind splinters into the dual consciousness necessary for any spy or any person aiming to do good within a system designed to destroy human freedom. The novel is incredibly powerful in its depiction of bureaucratic and economic domination as instances of violent governmental power on real human lives, and in passing explains how inflation functions as a part of the material world, and Baru’s journey from a mindset that believes the only place change can come from is within the biggest power structure to a mindset determined to destroy that power structure is unbearably moving, earning its cynicism and forging it into a traumatized and furious anger at the tyranny of Hobbesian state dominance. Its understanding of governmental power is perhaps simplistic in its dualism – baru is excellent at economics and the movement of large governmental structures, but is told time and again that she does not take proper consideration of individual sexuality and power relations. This is enforced at the level of plot when she allows herself to admit that she is a lesbian and acts on her desires at a late moment in the story. While the desires kept from being enacted in the world are somewhat limited (broadly limited to homosexuality and polygamy in the novel’s depiction) it ties into the repeated failures Baru makes when she forgets that other people on the board are making their own strategies for expansion and dominance and construction as well. In order to succeed, she cannot treat them them as static and mechanical entities on a map or a ledger, but rather as dynamic forces and powers just as much in the world as she is. And this push to expand game theoretical intrigue into the realm of real biological dynamism is well taken and legitimately difficult to handle, for this reader at least, as the plot moves into its final sequences of betrayals and massacres. The novel is a strange mix of alt-history and thought experiment, shelved in fantasy at the bookstore I work at and sold as such, but with a vaguely Chinese nation to the West, a vaguely Russian nation to the north, and the vaguely Western imperialist Empire of Masks at the center of the story, I wondered throughout why the author had not simply chosen to set this within an actual historical period of the world we live in. A symptom of the problem – race of skin color are quite important to the Empire’s hierarchy, but the coloration of the various characters is difficult to hold in mind at any given moment, so the vague similarities these nations have to actual nations and ethnicities in our world are often the assumptions I made as a reader throughout the text, sometimes correct and sometimes not. Now, the reification of race in our world and the Empire are horrifying instances of fascism, and it is difficult to represent an oppressive regime of racial stratification without reifying that very regime, but the author’s choice not to make this a larger factor of the Empire’s rhetoric or of the novel’s visual presentation was not a satisfactory answer. Overall, this is an excellent read that pushes into a climactic conflagration that is honestly the most Leninist take on how to change the world I’ve ever seen in fiction.
The Snail on the Slope, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: One man, Peretz, has been a low level bureaucrat in the massive administration devoted to the maintenance and observation and elimination of The Forest, the massive realm of incomprehensible trees and monsters and entities and diseases at the foot of the cliff the administration rests on. Peretz wants to go to the forest but is told he cannot. Given this information, he tries to leave and it is gradually made clear that he cannot do that either. As he fights through layer and layer of bureaucracy and administration and obfuscation and malevolent ignorance, we follow the journey of Candide, a former member of the administration who crash landed in the forest over a year ago. He is desperately trying to get back to the administration but is kept by amnesia, the lethargy of the village he lives in in the Forest, and the terrors and aporetic monsters of the Forest, monsters we gradually come to understand are the forces of progress and futurity, in all their incomprehensibility from the limited beings of the present. Both fail at their tasks, but acquire a measure of understanding of the world durable enough to keep them forever in terror at the immensity of the forces they are working to understand and act against. Fascinating, humorous, and deeply unsettling, this is absolutely worth a read.
After Finitude, by Quentin Meillassoux: The only absolute certainty we have access to, the only universal truth philosophy can maintain in the face of the resolute uncertainty and fallibility of human subjectivity, is that everything is contingent. From this certain truth, Meillassoux works to provide answers to the most fundamental challenges philosophy has avoided engaging since the critical project of Immanuel Kant, namely the contingency of all physical laws, the nature of interactions between subjectivities and the world, and what it means to speak and think about a world without any thinking being at all perceiving it. How can we think about that tree falling in the forest without anyone there to hear it fall? And if we can, then what are we to make of a philosophy which tells us reality does not meaningfully exist without the mediation of a subjective being which is taking in and interpreting that reality? This book is short and powerful and deeply challenging for anyone coming out of an analytic philosophy program in the Anglo-American university system.