Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009, Pt. 17: Vandana Singh

Best Books and Movies of 2009
by Vandana Singh

For me 2009 was a year of much-hoped-for change, particularly in the area of climate politics. Although the Copenhagen summit was a dismal failure, the rise of youth and citizen climate movements around the world, and their catalytic meetings in Copenhagen, have given birth to a new hope for this beleaguered planet. Jim Hansen of NASA has pretty much come out and said it: the only hope we have left is global civil resistance. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it bluntly in an interview: the war is now between science and capitalism. We live in tumultuous times where new paradigms must be born --- or old, discarded ones find new relevance.

In my reading and viewing this year (necessarily curtailed by the demands of a full-time job and various personal responsibilities), I found much that reflected the current critical state of the world. Some of what I read only obliquely echoed these concerns, but I found insight in them nevertheless.

For intellectual highs I needed to go no further than Anathem, Neal Stephenson’s magnum opus. Although this is a flawed work (with one particular science flaw that stood out to this once-particle-physicist) it is a GREAT flawed work. I’d rather read something ambitious that doesn’t quite reach its goal than something competently mediocre. Well, Anathem was mindblowingly ambitious. What I liked best about it (and what made me weep with envy) was the conceptualization of an intellectual community where philosophy and gardening and physics and sociology were happily combined, minus the artificial barriers we raise in our educational system between subjects of study. Among the failures of the book are the poorly imagined romantic and familial relationships that felt trite and false to me. The plot was really quite interesting, especially the integration of philosophy and physics with action, but the other thing that stood out to me was the sense of place, and the lovingly lyrical and precise descriptions of different locations on the planet Arbre. It came as no surprise to me to learn later that Stephenson’s college degree is in geography. I also loved all the expositions, whether philosophical or mathematical, that littered and enriched the book. If I lived on a world like Arbre you’d know where to find me.

Another intellectual treat was the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. The opening reads like some kind of traditional fantasy, as we follow the protagonist, Steerswoman Rowan, in her search for a mysterious jewel, fragments of which have been found in disparate locations on the planet. The Steerswomen are truth-tellers and knowledge seekers, and theirs is also a community of intellectuals, with the difference that the steerswomen are wanderers who go into the world seeking knowledge. So as we follow Rowan we discover how, through careful observation and reasoning she finds the truth about the jewel fragments. A lovely fictional elucidation of the scientific process! My favorite in the series was The Lost Steersman, in which I came across the most interesting invention of an alien species and civilization that I’ve read recently, or ever. This is great science fiction indeed.

Both books, however, either ignore or only glancingly address what to me is a major concern: the issue of science and ethics. For instance, in the Steerswoman series the need to know, to learn and to understand, is elevated as a virtue --- it is in fact a criterion for being selected as a Steerswoman or Steersman. In Anathem also the yearning to know and understand distinguishes the mathic world from the Saecular one. But in neither book is the question raised as to the possible costs of wanting to know. The Nazi scientists who experimented on Jews during Hitler’s reign were presumably doing science, wanting to know and discover truths. Yet nobody in their senses would excuse them on those (or any) grounds. So why is it that when we teach science or write science fiction we don’t talk about the ethical limits that we must impose on the search for knowledge? When is it appropriate to say: my wish to know must come second to the well-being of another? Perhaps we do not ask this question because we still experiment on lab animals, even knowing from modern science that many of them are sentient, aware, intelligent beings. In fact in a terrible scene in one of the Steerswoman books, Rowan has to become a party to torture in order to extract information --- something that made me stop reading the series for many months. Later Rowan appears to redeem herself in her interaction with the alien species that I mentioned, but again there is no explicit discussion of the ethics/cost/philosophy of knowledge-gathering. And I write this as one who is as susceptible as the next person to the gosh-wow charms of scientific discovery.

Perhaps it is this divorce of science from ethical constraints that has contributed to the crisis in which we find ourselves. There is much in science fiction that warns about the dangers of technology, from nuclear war to climate collapse. Apocalyptic scenarios are very common and presumably intended as warnings that if we continue on our current course we cannot avert disaster. Yet however lofty the aims of these works their ubiquity points ultimately to a failure of imagination and of courage among us science fiction writers. If science fiction is about re-imagining the world, toppling tired old ways of being, then we have failed hopelessly. It is easy to write apocalyptic scenarios --- much harder to imagine a way of life, a movement, a historical path that would avert the apocalypse. The latter takes research, exploration, personal life changes, the guts to make mistakes, to go out on a limb, to reject consensus reality, to examine one’s most beloved assumptions. Hard work. And yet it must be done.

A book that I read this year that comes closest to such a re-imagining is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, part of his Three Californias trilogy. We are introduced to a utopic community and its struggles and human entanglements mainly through the eyes of Kevin, a fascinating, innocent and determined young man. The central plot point in the book has to do with control over water, and arguments in the town council about whether the last untouched hill in the area should be built-over. This sounds mundane and boring in the extreme, but it isn’t. It is a realistic and unpretentious evocation of relationships --- among people, and between people and the land --- in an imperfect utopia. It is also one of the most moving books I have ever read.

A counterpoint to Pacific Edge is The Gold Coast, Robinson’s imagining of a California (specifically Orange County) where runaway capitalism/consumerism has taken hold. It is a story of the struggles of a young, rich son of an arms engineer who tries to rebel against the system. Set in a backdrop of giant malls and freeways and designer drugs, the book asks the question as to whether it is possible to rebel against such a system while one’s survival depends on it. A deep and uncomfortable question.

Imagining a utopic community is one thing --- getting there is another. This is where L. Timmel Duchamp’s novel Renegade comes in. An unflinching look at the politics of power, where conventional assumptions and loyalties are overturned by the coming of the mysterious alien Marq’ssan, this second in the series continues the story of Kay Zeldin and her confrontation with the US Security forces. What power can and will do to destroy the will of the renegade is realistically and horrifically portrayed --- in fact it took me a long time to recover from the conclusion of the book, even as I had to admit (and admire) its rightness in the context of this long and rich saga. There is a lot more to this book that cannot be captured in a paragraph --- read it!

The role of power on the global scale is revealed just as unflinchingly in a remarkable play by Delhi-based writer Manjula Padmanabhan: Harvest. I’ve been wanting to read it for a long time and finally got the chance this summer, since it was one of the readings at the IIT Science Fiction Workshop in Kanpur, India. A clever, moving, devastating drama about organ transplants, featuring a lower middle class Delhi family and the affluent Americans they serve, it is a remarkable work by one of India’s best SF writers in English. I also had the chance to read Padmanabhan’s first novel (she has mostly written short stories before): Escape. The journey of a young girl through a land where women have become rare, if not extinct, where she must travel disguised in the company of a relative to the boundaries of another country, it is a great and frightening portrayal of a destroyed civilization and its wounded inhabitants. The coming-to-awareness of the protagonist, who hardly knows what it means to be female when she starts on her journey, is one of the most beautiful things about the book.

Anil Menon’s YA novel The Beast with Nine Billion Feet made its debut this year also. A complex, scary, phantasmagorical ride through a futuristic Pune (in the year 2040), a city caught in the grip of new technologies co-existing with poverty and exploitation, it is a story of a friendship between the protagonist, Tara, and two very strange children, Ria and Francis. It is full of uncomfortable things, such as the loss of love, the alienation of brother and sister, father and son, the persistence of poverty, the promise of a new age with terrifying possibilities. And yet these are the issues that young people must face in the world we are creating for them, and therefore this is a brave and necessary book. It is not perfect, having some flaws that come with first novels even from seasoned writers (Anil is an exquisite short-story writer), but its steadfast refusal of despair and its celebration of friendship are worth noting.

Science fiction writers have re-imagined our world in various ways, creating or uncovering paradigms that overturn our assumptions about how we exist in the real world. Going into a possible future is one such approach; I’m thinking of Ursula K. Le Guin’s stunning work, The Dispossessed, and its sophisticated sociological world-building (which makes similar attempts in Anathem seem quite naïve). I’ve read The Dispossessed many times, and to me it is one of the seminal works of science fiction. More recently Le Guin has done it again with her novel, Lavinia. This time she has gone into the deep past, into an imagined history. I found Lavinia to be a spare, beautiful evocation of a time long past, where humans, animals, and landscape were not separate from each other. The voice of Lavinia, given only a mention in Vergil’s Aeneid, is very moving and believable in this novel. A rare celebration of the notion of duty (in a form I recognized to be quite similar to the Hindu notion of dharma) in the context of a civilization deeply connected with the non-human world, it is a unique work, subversive in a subtle way because it tells us without actually telling us that there are other ways to be in this world. Better than my ramblings is to read the actual book and to listen to this videotape of the author reading a section aloud.

I’ll mention only two non-fiction books I read, mostly in the interests of conserving space: one is a small and elegant book by MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel: What We Know About Climate Change. Written for the Boston Press as part of a series of works explaining important ideas to the public, this tiny book is very readable and communicates with enviable clarity the science of climate change. The other book is ethologist Marc Bekoff’s The Emotional Lives of Animals, which brings the reader up to date on what science and experience have taught us about animals and their emotions. Which is, that we share with them (and mammals, certainly) quite a wide range of emotions. This is a delightful work and a necessary one in a society where animals have been considered little more than commodities. To what extent this attitude has contributed to the crisis of global warming is left as an exercise to the reader.

I don’t get to see many movies but this year was different. I saw quite a few. Two of them were Hindi movies, the first being Delhi 6. While deemed by many to be a flop, this movie from Mumbai’s great film industry is really quite enjoyable. The music is awesome and wildly eclectic (a signature of the genius of A.R. Rahman) the story --- of a young man settled in America who goes back with his dying grandmother to the ancestral home in Old Delhi and finds not only love but himself --- oscillates between realistic and surreal, and it has enough of the good old Bollywood masala while dipping into serious issues like religious conflict. The other movie I saw was the classic 1951 Bollywood movie Awara. I grew up with its songs and its story but had somehow not managed to see it, even though it is iconic, and wildly popular in and outside India (at least among earlier generations in China and Russia). It is the story of a wastrel, a wanderer whose mother was thrown out by his rich judge father after she was kidnapped and released by a man wrongly accused and imprisoned by said judge. The songs are wonderful and the movie is surprisingly daring for its time, not only in terms of clothing worn by the actors but in its characterization of Rita, a passionate, brilliant young female lawyer, wonderfully rendered by the inimitable Nargis.

The movies Up, The Battle of Terra, and Avatar all have a common theme of exploitation of natural resources by greedy humans. Of these Up is enjoyable but lightweight, The Battle for Terra has more substance and good animation, set on another world whose inhabitants have given up war and high tech for peace, but are then invaded by humans. As for Avatar, it is a stunning gem. I saw Avatar in 3-d, which enhanced the immersion into a truly other world, but the technical oomph was not the only thing to rave about. Although the story of Avatar is not uncommon in the genre, the medium and the world-building, with its astounding biological and geographical detail and complexity, made the story real. It is, to me, the story of the American Indians the way it should have happened. I am curious to find out how people of the various American Indian nations have reacted to this sad, tragic, familiar story that had the ending Black Elk and others dreamed of. Since I read Black Elk Speaks last year, I couldn’t but help think of it as I watched the movie. So while it descends to cliché at times, it is not simply a white-man-to-the-rescue kind of movie and it avoids some of the problems of the much older movie Dances with Wolves. It is a story of going native, of the unambiguous embracing of a way of life that we’ve lost with the genocide of the Indians and the homogenization of the world. I remember reading that in the old days when the Americas were being settled by Europeans, settlers kidnapped by Native Americans did not wish to return to their original white families, whereas Native Americans captured by whites tried to escape at every opportunity. This is not to romanticize or trivialize the dangers of living in the wilderness (nor am I unaware that different Native American cultures were different in their interactions with the environment, or that various indigenous peoples haven’t done great environmental harm --- the Sahara being a case in point, perhaps), but to point out that perhaps in giving in to our fear of nature we’ve lost something really important. When I think about such ideas and movements as transhumanism and so on, I see in them that alienation from the environment, and the fear of natural, biological processes, such as death. People who live more connected lives on this Earth must fear death too (who doesn’t?), but perhaps they don’t give in to this fear as readily as we, the so-called civilized, do. Perhaps being connected to something larger takes the edge off this fear. And in fact one of the great pleasures of Avatar is the invention of a humanoid people who are such an integral part of their environment --- an environment rendered in stunning and luminous detail, rich with stupendously imagined flora and fauna. (Incidentally the written work that came to mind when I watched Avatar was Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest).

A couple of other stand-out movies included 9 (the animated post-apocalyptic movie, not the more recent movie of the same name) and Steamboy. Both deal with scientists whose work unleashes the potential of evil, although the ending of Steamboy is rather ambiguous on the subject. Another movie that deserves wider distribution and reviews and publicity is the remarkable work Ink. A low-budget art film about a girl who is taken away by a mysterious, damaged soul in her dream, it is a great genre movie that transcends genre. It is about the transformation of a man’s soul, the lure of money (again, the evils of capitalism make an appearance) and the attempts by various storytellers (people who bring humans dreams) to rescue the girl. It is moody, atmospheric, rich with metaphor and general weirdness. I loved it.

We find ourselves, at the end of 2009, faced with a dying biosphere, insensate greed on the part of nations and corporations, and a growing human population content to sit in front of their giant TV screens like the mindless consumers of Fahrenheit 451 while the world burns. But we also have a growing civic movement for a sustainable world, and writers and film-makers imagining alternate endings for our great, shared story. Although I don’t believe Art has a purpose apart from the pleasure of creation (at least, on the few occasions when I’ve attempted to create something with an explicit message, my Muse has run away screaming) --- I do believe great works of art have the happy side-effect that they make us think. And thinking differently might change us enough to change our world.

Vandana Singh is the author of The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (Zubaan, 2009), some very fine short stories, and two novellas published by Aqueduct Press in the Conversation Pieces series: Of Love and Other Monsters and Distances. She lives in Boston with her family, where she teaches physics.


Josh said...

This is very bad, Vandana: if a university professor with as demanding a life as yours can come up with an essay of this calibre, how in Heaven's name will I be able credibly to argue that I, five years your junior and child-free, lack time to post on teh blog?

So many great bits to comment upon herein -- let me at least give you some hope on one front:

So why is it that when we teach science or write science fiction we don’t talk about the ethical limits that we must impose on the search for knowledge?

I've seen SF do that, in Kate Wilhelm's Vietnam War-era work; and you'll be happy to hear that Ann has lectured a few times this term on human experimentation to students in our Intellectual Heritage core course. Doesn't one have to take an exam on the history of such horrors in order to be licensed for human subject research (including the administration of questionnaires to human beings) at a university?

I'm not denying that it's a problem for such "ethical limits" to be seen as the province of philosophers and historians rather than everybody, scientists and novelists included -- just offering some assurance that it's being discussed.

Vandana Singh said...

Hello, Josh,
Thanks for the kind words. And especially for the hopeful bit. I wish it was common in the physical sciences to combine content with ethical considerations but there seems to be a strange tendency to study these sciences in a vacuum, unconnected with the effects they inevitably have on human and other beings.

Anonymous said...

Pacific Edge is the concluding book of Robinson's Three Californias series, and it is as entirely unique as each of the others. To characterize the society of each book rather broadly, I would say that The Wild Shore is post-apocalyptic, The Gold Coast hyper-urbanized, and Pacific Edge utopian -- and the power of each book comes from its transcendence of such narrow labels. Fortunately, Pacific Edge is not a static or boring story, like some utopias, and Robinson does not use the condescending or moralizing tone often associated with the utopia subgenre. Yes, he has a plan for fixing the ills of society as we know them, but he also asserts that human frailties will be with us no matter the political or economic system. Pacific Edge tells a deceptively simple story, and the implications grow and deepen upon reflection. I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of California, Santa Barbara. By the way, i came across these excellent physics flash cards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!