Letter From The Editor - Issue 60 - December 2017

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Writing Fantasy

Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
December 2017

Title: Mandelbrot the Magnificent
Author: Liz Ziemska
Publisher: Tor.com

Mathematical science fiction and fantasy go back at least to E. A. Abbott’s dimensional divertimento Flatland (1884), possibly farther, and yet they’re not much written these days. A small cadre of writers, such as Greg Egan, Vandana Singh, Ted Chiang, and Rudy Rucker—a mathematician by training—occasionally write compelling and beautiful stories with math premises, sure, but generally speaking, these are few and far between. Powering a plot with a mathematical idea that’s interesting, yet without being so abstruse that no amount of exposition will make it shine, is difficult to do well, and even maestros in the field risk unattractive results when they venture into these waters. Case in point, Arthur C. Clarke’s infatuation with fractals led to some, ah, generous digressions in The Ghost from the Grand Banks, which would have been a thin novel struggling to stay afloat even if Clarke hadn’t packed in the additional ballast.

I mention Clarke because fractals is also the branch of mathematics on hand in Liz Ziemska’s wonderful novella Mandelbrot the Magnificent, and because the contrast with Clarke’s novel couldn’t be more stark. According to Stephen Hawking, he was once told that each equation he included in his book A Brief History of Time would halve the book’s sales. Joke or not, I’m glad Ziemska didn’t adopt a similar philosophy here, and I’m thankful that Ann VanderMeer, her editor on this project, embraced her approach. There are equations, and there are charts, and there are shapes, and they are glorious. More importantly, they are essential for illustrating Mandelbrot’s growing depth of mathematical awareness and his perceptual reinterpretation of the world through abstract thinking. The mathematics here is also germane to the plot, which would come across as impossibly hand-wavy without it.

The novella, constructed as a first-person memoir, begins in an undefined present in which Mandelbrot is an old man, and then proceeds chronologically from Mandelbrot’s birth in 1924, in the soon-to-be Warsaw Ghetto. Mandelbrot’s mathematical precociousness is evident early on. As a young teen, for example, his ability to solve a triple integral by dint of geometric intuition is well ahead of the kind of thinking his peers are capable of, probably on a par with the abilities of high school seniors or even college students. As World War II engulfs Poland, Mandelbrot and his family relocate to France for safety, albeit one that proves tragically temporary. Besides Mandelbrot’s adolescent experiences, Ziemska provides plenty of period details. She even manages the feat of integrating some of Mandelbrot’s own words, subtly reassembled, into her story. Consider, for example, Mandelbrot’s real-life observation that “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line” and compare it with Ziemska’s text: “Look at the clouds—they are not spheres. Mountains are not cones, light does not travel in a straight line, and bark is not smooth. Nature is rough and beautiful, not rigid and symmetrical, like the world of numbers in which Uncle Szolem lived.” The way she has simplified the syntax to match the youthfulness of the voice she’s evoking, extended the thought into character depiction, and earned this particular realization with the appropriate organic foreshadowing, is a master lesson in storytelling.

This is a fantasy story, so readers will expect something more than a straight-away fictionalized memoir, and Ziemska delivers on this front. All I’ll say about her speculative idea is that it combines mathematics and Jewish mysticism in a way that feels entirely plausible within the context of the narrative, and ends up illuminating Mandelbrot’s character and his place in a long family line of Talmudic ancestors.

Since the opening line of Ziemska’s novella introduces us to Aliette Kagan (Mandelbrot’s wife from 1955 until the year of his death, 2010) perhaps it behooves us to return for a moment to Aliette’s perspective. Aliette once described Mandelbrot this way:

“I remember Benoit always sitting at his desk, years of sitting for many long hours, writing, crossing out, rewriting, cutting, pasting. While writing, he would often check one of his many dictionaries. It was important for him to use words with their exact meanings.” (Benoit Mandelbrot: A Life In Many Dimensions)

Liz Ziemska’s sensitive and wonderfully wrought secret history of Mandelbrot retroactively adds an unexpected layer to the above words, for after reading her story, we see that of course Mandelbrot would be extremely cautious and precise with his use of language, for he would have known its Kabalistic power—the literalized ability of mathematics to reshape the world. Real life gave us Mandelbrot the magnificent mathematician; Ziemska gives us Mandelbrot the mage and mensch-in-the-making. Who are we to say whether the distance between the former and latter is vast or infinitesimal?

I suspect that Ziemska herself spent long hours at her desk, or perhaps computer, laboring to use words with their exact meanings when writing this story. Or perhaps I’m wrong and it arose in a fit of inspiration. Either way, this rich and vividly felt novella is a testament to her artistry. It demonstrates the truth behind one character’s insightful words: in storytelling, as in life, “beauty combines compassion with strength.”

Title: Infinity Wars
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Publisher: Solaris

The title gives away the thematic emphasis of the sixth volume in Jonathan Strahan’s editorial Infinity series: the future of war. Fifteen writers tackle manifold questions about conflict and the moral implications of war, whether one is an active participant or a remote observer. Out of the anthology’s fifteen stories, I think five are superb, and fully live up to the Introduction’s promise not only of envisioning future war scenarios but of “delivering great science fiction.” My favorite is E. J. Swift’s “Weather Girl,” an expertly, coolly told dual narrative about the titular character, a woman whose work involves classified government activities, and her ex-husband, who roams the planet quietly observing human existence and sending the “weather girl” pictures, without captions or explanations of any kind. It begins like this: “Sometimes when she closed her eyes at night she saw spirals, wheeling slowly against the backs of her eyelids, each one its own perfect fractal.” The war premise here involves weather, and how knowledge or lack thereof regarding future catastrophic events, such as typhoons, may in itself constitute an act of aggression: technology weaponizing nature without affecting its natural course. There’s a chilling logic to the way Swift threads this notion, and the character development throughout is superb. The twin narratives, linked by the shared past of their protagonists, are also thematically unified by their preoccupation with secrets and exposure, and they elegantly come together in a quietly devastating finale. As soon as I had finished this story I went back and re-read certain scenes. It’s bleak, multi-layered, and, as a commentary on human nature, feels utterly plausible.

Elizabeth Bear’s “Perfect Gun” is another superb entry. In this wicked piece Bear subverts a variety of tough-guy-mercenary story tropes by outfitting her protagonist—John Steel—with a sentient weapon that challenges him both emotionally and morally. The prose is tight and muscled, full of irony: “She had 36DD turrets and a 26-inch titanium alloy hull with carbon-ceramic plating. Double-barrel exhaust and a sleek underbelly. Her lines were magnificent. I had to stop myself from staring. I wanted to run my hand along her curves.” Short scenes build momentum effectively, and Bear manages to have her cake and eat it too, featuring plenty of testosterone and riveting action. The final few lines are extremely satisfying, and only improved by the story’s end-note, which reveals that Bear penned this on Valentine’s Day. Beyond the perverse pleasure derived from knowing that Bear was engaged in the creation of such a satirical, hard-hitting story during a time of socially-mandated romantic gestures, the end-note reinforces the notion that “Perfect Gun” may be read as a love story critiquing itself, and that war and love are closer than we think.

Nancy Kress’s “Dear Sarah” is an excellent, concise exploration of moral responsibility and loyalty in the face of economic depression and dwindling opportunities. Against the wishes of her impoverished family, MaryJo leaves her native town of Brightwater and enlists in the military, primarily motivated by her realization that “shooting good is what I got.” Her enlistment immediately gets her called a traitor by her father, who despite his regressive views and reactionary behavior has a position we can understand: MaryJo will be fighting “our home-raised anti-Likkie terrorists,” a group of humans opposed to the presence of the alien Likkies on Earth. While her family shuns her, MaryJo nevertheless manages to sneak letters in to her younger sister Sarah. Part of the story’s virtue lies in the juxtaposition of its slangy, a-grammatical locutions—which create a real sense of voice—with the story’s gut-wrenching quandary regarding MaryJo’s allegiances. When push comes to shove, which side will she be on?

Indrapramit Das’s “The Moon is Not a Battlefield” similarly does a great job constructing a believable near-future through a first-person narrator, depicting how Indian orphans are turned into soldiers, used and then discarded when no longer needed. Das’s attention to sensory detail is splendid, and his tale builds to a supreme sense of pathos, poetically and harshly rendered.

I also need to single out the anthology’s closing novelette, Peter Watts’s “ZeroS.” In this tour-de-force exploration of the meaning of consciousness, and the complex relationship between conscious and unconscious behavior, Watts introduces us to Asante, a soldier who dies in the story’s first line—or does he? His body certainly perishes, but his brain is salvaged and repurposed by the “Zombie Corps,” a name inspired by the idea of “Zero Sum” fighters. Thus reborn, Asante endures all sorts of grueling missions, and as his acts of violence bring him ever closer to children, he’s pushed to the breaking point of even his newly altered mind. This is a deep and disturbing examination not only of the technological possibilities of future humans to unleash a very real type of hell on Earth, but a meditation on the warfare that occurs within the human psyche at all times, regardless of our bodily matrix.

Other stories I quite enjoyed include Aliette de Bodard’s “In Everlasting Wisdom,” in which “appeasers” donned with symbiotic alien implants telepathically pacify the increasingly desperate and restless subjects of the Emperor, Eleanor Arnason’s “Mines,” in which a mine-sweeper becomes most effective when telepathically connected with an African Giant Pouched Rat named Whiskers, Dominica Phettaplace’s “Oracle,” a mordant and satirical look at the power—and limitations—of algorithms, Garth Nix’s funny-but-increasingly-manic “Conversations with an Armory,” featuring a testy AI trying the patience of desperate soldiers, and David D. Levine’s “Command and Control,” which grittily reveals the effects of teleportation technology on war, as experienced by Tibetan-situated ground troops led by a potentially over-ambitious sergeant.

The anthology also contains interesting work by Carrie Vaughn, An Owomoyela, Caroline M. Yoachim, Genevieve Valentine and Rich Larson, all fine writers. Some of these stories will no doubt be standouts for other readers, but they didn’t fully click with me. In a few of these cases one of my issues was length: I felt like less would have been more. In a few others, tone. Also, I’ll note that it was unfortunate that a cluster of these stories occurred right at the start of the anthology, which made for a lukewarm first impression. If this happens to you, stick with the book—or better yet, read out of order. I realized later on that I may have been judging too harshly, as well, given the very high standard of some of the previous volumes in this series (see, for example, my review of the fourth book, Meeting Infinity, in this same space). Overall, this is a solid anthology, and it contains some of the best science fiction stories I’ve read this year.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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