Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
April 2017

Title: New York 2140
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit

New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliantly constructed new novel, is as much about confounding expectations as it is about becoming self-aware of the assumptions that inform such expectations, regarding everything from real estate value to literary criticism to the interpretation of history and the perils of denial rooted in our very instinct to survive. By taking what could easily be construed as an automatic downer of a premise—the sea level has risen fifty feet, killing untold many, and parts of New York are now consequently underwater, literalizing the meaning of “Lower Manhattan”—and telling a vigorous, multi-modal and yes, wondrous, story of grit, adaptation, and new beginnings, Robinson refreshes tropes and reawakens us to the fascination of the future, no matter how water-logged.

When I say multi-modal, I mean that New York 2140 tells various types of stories simultaneously, and does so in various styles: we have a gently paced Wall Street romance, a surreally mordant kidnapping, a police procedural, an archaeological excavation led by two teenage “water rats,” a building supervisor uncovering a conspiracy, a reality show about relocating polar bears, and the rambunctious observations of a smartass citizen whose personal details remain deliberately murky. Robinson’s narrative strategy is to cycle through the points of views of each of these stories’ leads while simultaneously advancing the plot such that consecutive chapters intersect the above characters. This approach pays large dividends, providing a sprightly tempo welcome in a novel of this length, and inviting us to constantly reassess our perceptions of the characters. If Franklin, for example, one of the Wall Street quants, sees himself a certain way, our natural inclination is to trust this when dealing with him directly in the first person—only to then reverse our belief or at least question his self-perceptions when we see what others make of him. In this way we progressively and collectively get closer to every main character, learning not only what they see and feel, but what their blind spots are, without ever hovering above them God-like through an omniscient narrator. Robinson’s art is to relentlessly ground generalities in particulars, not only as relates to ideas, but also characters, and world-creation itself.

Not every character or story strand will rivet. In my case, the early chapters with Amanda on the dirigible failed to stimulate. And at times I found myself wondering if in the next century we wouldn’t see more radical scientific developments than those extrapolated here. Where, for instance, is genetic engineering, nanotechnology, the hybridization of humans with machines, quantum computing, or, for that matter, the space program?

The novel’s main thematic investigations concern finance and economics, and the interrelatedness of finance with everything else, including, naturally, science. Towards the end this focus becomes a bit repetitive. Readers familiar with Robinson’s previous works will note the absence of a scientist protagonist, which I applaud, as it pushes Robinson to explore psyches more out of his comfort zone. He’s clearly having fun with language too, beyond the diverse voices, as seen in the Modernist creation of new, yet immediately suggestive words like “gehryglory,” “pynchonpoetry,” or “calvinocity.” The tone of the novel, despite the often grim settings, is mostly meditative if not optimistic, something that is consistently conveyed by light-and-water imagery, as in, “Late on an autumn day, the black water sheeting over a rising tide, a bar of sunlight mirrorflaking across the middle of it right to me,” or “it was a sort of cobalt infused with turquoise, quite a bit bluer than most ocean blues, and its glitter of reflected sunlight was behind her now, to the north,” or “In the late afternoon I skimmed home by way of the East River, moving through the alternation of long shadows and lanes of silver sunlight.”

The stupendous amount of geographical, historical and scientific research Robinson has done is, without calling attention to itself, evident on every page, and particularly pops in some of the pithy chapter epigraphs. One such quote, by Gilles Deleuze, begins thus: “Maybe speech and communication have been corrupted. They’re thoroughly permeated by money—and not by accident but by their very nature. We’ve got to hijack speech.”

New York 2140 is a compelling, oftentimes visionary example of how to accomplish precisely that.

Title: All Our Wrong Todays
Author: Elan Mastai
Publisher: Dutton

“I won’t summarize Cat’s Cradle for you,” says Tom Barren, the protagonist of Elan Mastai’s ambitious, intricately assembled and poignantly amusing debut novel. “It’s short and much better written than this book, so just go read it. It’s weary, cheeky, and wise, which are my three favorite qualities in people and art.” As it happens, only one of those qualities is a favorite of mine, which may account for why throughout the course of the novel’s one hundred and thirty-seven chapters I didn’t particularly grow to like Tom.

The novel’s premise is arresting enough: what we think of as reality is in fact a pretty dreadful overwritten reality accidentally caused by Tom when he traveled back in time in his original, utopian reality. Mastai follows through on his intriguing premise with wild and colorful world-building, and plenty of verbal pizzazz. Unfortunately for me, that pizzazz is filtered through Tom’s first-person perspective, and since I didn’t care much for him, I failed to become immersed in his quest to right his time-traveling wrong and/or find meaning to his existence. Tom is full of self-deprecating yet self-pitying banter, and though his confessional narration is ultimately logically framed within the story itself, the approach failed to win me over. Considering the magnitude of his actions’ consequences, his impulsiveness and ho-hum, mostly superficial perspectives during the novel’s introductory sections didn’t grab me. Based on the acclaim that All Our Wrong Todays has been receiving, I’m likely in the minority here, and you may well find yourself enchanted. Since I’m in a sacrilegious mood, I’ll also confess that Kurt Vonnegut isn’t one of my literary sirens, which, given the reference above and others throughout Mastai’s novel, may help account for why I didn’t connect with this work aesthetically.

From a narrative perspective, I found the start-and-stop of the many chapter breaks disruptive, though I can see how it might plausibly reflect Tom’s fractured experiences and way of thinking about things. (Last year I had a similarly off-putting experience with Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, which is also a first-person account of multiple realities, although in that case my problem was with the paragraphs, which were typically only one or two lines long.) I’m not sure I was ever sold on the notion of Tom’s reality as being particularly appealing, either, despite its technological advances and apparent social sophistication. When discussing his original world, in Chapter 8, Tom declares: “In the absence of material want, the world economy transitioned almost exclusively to entertainment—entertainment is both the foundation and the fuel of modern civilization.” Later, in Chapter 34, he says that “Scientific discovery was the dominant social motivator, since even the most arcane theories could be enacted by vast resources.” Hmmm.

Mastai’s novel is certainly a thoughtful one, with much discussion of the invented sciences of teleportation and time travel, musings on psychology and fate, and even reflections on the nature of science fiction and the lulling dangers inherent in optimism. For long stretches, I found myself nodding along, occasionally smiling, and admiring the story’s cleverness. Tom himself is not a shallow guy (though he sometimes acts that way). Witness, for example, this reflection: “Every person you meet introduces the accident of that person to you. What can go right and what can go wrong. There is no intimacy without consequence.” Though we voyage with Tom through his early familial relationships, the doomed romance with which his time travel is entangled, and his new set of bonds in the reformed timeline, I never felt myself touched by any of it. Reversing Tom’s dictum, we might wonder if there’s also no meaningful consequence without intimacy.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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