On this page you will find a series of Book Reviews I wrote this year, 2017, and below those posts, a blog I started late last year.
The about page explains what else is going on here fairly succinctly.
On this page you will find a series of Book Reviews I wrote this year, 2017, and below those posts, a blog I started late last year.
The about page explains what else is going on here fairly succinctly.
How many have read all of Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Cixin Liu in the 11 years since The Three-Body Problem was first serialized in the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World?
How many have read it only in English?
Wie viele Leute haben Gesamtheit dieser Trilogie nur auf Deutsch gelesen?
I ask because having just finished the trilogy in English as published by Tor in New York – The Three-Body Problem (2014), The Dark Forest (2015) and Death’s End (2016), translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen – I wonder if many people stuck with it all the way through. I’m eager to converse with those who have. In any language:
For full disclosure, I worked very briefly as a freelancer at TOR in 2001, but I have no relationship with them. I ordered each volume to my local branch of the public library, received hardbacks in an orderly fashion and read the three this May.
These were released in English in 2014, ’15 and ’16 but I binge-read it all as one novel. I get the feeling many people who finished the first book, didn’t read the second because it wasn’t released until a year later.
If you have not read any of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, I recommend you read those two reviews before continuing here.
Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Cixin Liu
I’m not a scientist. I’m not formally educated in computing or astrophysics or chemistry or astronomy or biology or nano-science or any of the disciplines Cixin Liu uses to sustain his startlingly creative projection of humanity hundreds of years and eventually hundreds of million of years into the future.
The consumption of this work is about the STEM level of people in China, India, Europe, and the United States of America – where STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering and Math. You have to have proper education in these disciplines to comprehend and indeed to enjoy this work.
Computer geeks, science nerds, rootless intellectuals, unite.
I struggled to put together the science, but I was continually amazed by the thought Liu put into his fantastic inventions and conceits.
In Death’s End, humanity uses hibernation and near-light-speed travel to extend human consciousness millions of light-years across space and hundreds of millions of years into the future. This extends the philosophical reach of the first two volumes exponentially.
This trilogy is intellectually complex work that starts with the highest current levels of technology, imagines liberally and then sustains a creative and technical specificity that pushes wide the willing suspension of disbelief. The technical creativity got so immense I stopped doubting the science.
It was exhausting.
During Book One I started taking one Extra-Strength Tylenol™ roughly every 150 pages to deal with headaches. This continued until I finished the trilogy this morning.
It was educational.
I learned more hard science from a work of fiction than I have in decades. I ended up re-learning the basics of astronomy and physics, of chemistry and biology that I had let fall aside. Liu’s scientific and technological detail is great for re-firing dusty synapses concerning cosmology and for grasping a view of our universe with rich scientific ideas and creative philosophies.
It was exhilarating.
Liu’s seemingly inexhaustible imagination kept providing new ways of thinking about us as human beings or about various disciplines. He takes on huge issues of science and then drills down on the tech. He takes on philosophy with a handful of characters and large masses and manages to capture so many human qualities and conundra. He then pushes these as far as he can, exploring an immense range of human responses to conditions I’ve never – and perhaps nobody’s – ever considered.
From the standpoint of strategic and military thinking these books have a freshness that seems composed not from any one culture’s way of thinking about conflict – not Chanakya’s nor Sun-Tzu’s nor that of Von Clausewitz nor Machiavelli – but rather from gathering ways all humans have acted and reacted to this point, pulling it together, and then shoving forward en masse to address how we would struggle among ourselves to deal with his imagined future contexts: extra-terrestrial invasion, mundicide, global annihilation, solar annihilation, the annihilation of the universe itself.
This is a huge reach and there are problems with it.
I noticed often that I’d think of a strategy from human history that could be applied or a way we approach a problem that Liu doesn’t include in the discourse. It made me feel like he hadn’t really covered all the bases before launching into a new direction.
The result is a feeling that Liu is continually guiding us through the narrative by what his characters thought of and how they reacted not necessarily the totality of human possibility.
This bothered me, but then it made a deeper sense. History is composed of how people act and react in a moment and what flows from their decisions. This work does read like human history told from the very distant future.
Creatively that’s astonishing. Cixin Liu is bold and dares to imagine how we’d think and act and then tries honestly to faithfully represent us in his wild future.
It’s important to note I could rationalize the many different approaches that characters took in the works and decisions they made. Liu is exceptional at projecting a wide range of human flaws and brilliance into the way the characters move this thing along.
It lead me to realize how compartmentalized my own thinking of humanity is. My biases about the Chinese were revealed many times as I read Remembrance of Earth’s Past.
I want to be clear and honest about this as a means of discussing translation of the work. I’ve read that the German translation has been considered more faithful to the original. I wonder if that’s about differences between English and German and/or Chinese.
I’m eager to write more and to discuss with anyone who has read the complete trilogy. As usual I’ll update this post here over the next day or two, so look for a final version in a couple of days, but I must stop now.
Remembrance of Earth’s Past, the trilogy, by Cixin Liu
May 31, 2017
My mind has been expanded significantly by the first two books of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. The scale and scope of the undertaking is truly on par with the greatest science fiction I’ve ever read. Hard science and theoretical ideas run deep, but remain very human and rational.
It’s a syncretic hyper-extension of the way we think and behave pushed into a highly orchestrated future that requires deep conceptualization to imagine.
Comparisons to Asimov are apt.
Cixin Liu boldly describes human culture and philosophy facing impending first contact with an alien race that has advanced technology with a richness of supposition and detail that captures a wide range of human emotion and response. He does this with very few characters and an elaborate, all-encompassing style. The details are exceptionally well thought-out.
The setup incorporates the vast distances in space and a nuanced portrayal of human society dealing with an enemy about whom little is known and who will not arrive to attack for hundreds of years.
I am continually taken aback at the breadth of this work. Liu’s narrative is centuries long. It’s on the scale of James Blish (Cities in Flight) or, as has been noted, Frank Herbert (Dune).
While humans invent cryogenic hibernation and a space armada and other standard responses of sci-fi to deal with this situation, there are unique circumstances.
The sophons, a pan-dimensional use of protons that travel across space, arriving at Earth to unfold and manipulate our reality, was a mind-blowing central concept of The Three-Body Problem. In Book Two, Liu posits Wallfacers and their companion Wallbreakers as a complex reaction to this tactic of the Trisolarans.
Since the Trisolarans can see, read and influence human behavior, the only safe space to shield anything from them is within the human mind. The Wallfacers are created and tasked with never writing anything down, never explaining what they do or why they do it to anyone. They embark on their plans to resist the Trisolarans independent of social and military planners. Wallfacers become the central pre-occupation of The Dark Forest. It is conceptually impressive and flourishes into a great plot.
The Trisolarans do not make any significant appearance until the climactic battle at the end of this volume and are peripheral players throughout. This allows Liu to explore humanity through the behavior – and responses to the behavior – of the Wallfacers in a way that is totally original.
So now Liu has to describe humanity’s initial response – filled with variety: those who give up, those who would fight, those who would defect to the enemy – and to posit the extension of all these reactions 200 years into the future.
It’s galactic in scale and all just a little hard to swallow by the time you get to the division of this book between Earth of the late-20th/early 21st century and human culture of the year 2200. But to Liu’s credit The Dark Forest is more human and relationships are deeper, more sensitive and believable.
Cixin Liu grew significantly as a writer between the two works. He takes on the psychology of humanity faced with the cosmic situation he has created and works through abstract philosophical responses to create a range of believable, if summarized, cultural changes in us.
I liked The Dark Forest better than The Three-Body Problem because Liu goes further to extrapolate his visions of how humanity behaves in the face of the complex circumstance he has created. He includes and fills-out more intimate reactions and attempts to create a broad image of us and how we react – intelligently but oh, so human.
The Wallfacer Project is the primary mechanism for this. That the story advances 200 years in a leap of human culture is the second. Without giving too much away, allow me to say that many of the characters manage to hibernate and emerge hundreds of years later which results in a fascinating conceit:
Liu convincingly describes near-future humans who have survived post-Trisolaran contact. They’ve endured The Great Ravine – an epic depression of global scale that reduced human population by billions – and an era that forced most cities underground. Their tech is smart.
But this future human society is confronted daily by waking up hibernators, characters we know and appreciate from our time, awakened on schedule to proceed with the ultimate plan of Earth’s defense. It creates a truly original relationship between us and our future selves.
In some ways Liu’s future human relationships are a near-perfect emulation of contemporary generational relationships between the Digital Generation and anybody over 40. The clunky 21st-century hibernators call them “kids” though they’re a highly advanced civilization.
The Dark Forest is considerably more about philosophy, politics and social and military strategy than The Three-Body Problem, which was more computing and science. But it’s pretty heady stuff.
All of it is headed toward first contact and when the 2000-spacecraft-strong armada of Earth finally meets the first craft from Trisolaris, the story doesn’t disappoint. So many previous steps have led to this moment in our narrative, they unfold like the petals of a blooming flower as the action explodes. The battle is a brilliant sequence.
We come now to a principle failing of this work. The conclusion of volume two is meant to bring a suspension at last to first contact, but the solution that achieves this was, to me, a disappointment. When it finally happens, I wondered why it hadn’t come sooner to us to approach the problem this way.
I’m obviously trying to critique here without giving anything away, so I’ll conclude with a metaphor from another saga.
I used to love trolling fans of The Lord of the Rings by saying, “Put the ring in a box. Give it to the Eagles. Tell them to drop it in the fires of Mordor. End of story in 20 minutes.” After all, the Eagles easily defeat the winged Fellbeasts of the Nazgul in the great war of Middle Earth, they’d have no problem getting by them to rid the world of the ring.
Sometimes a simple plot hole can take away the power of a saga, so you have to avoid it to go on, and to enjoy the ride.
I hate to say it, but when the final philosophical and cosmological play is made in the battle between Earth and Trisolaris – elaborate and complex as it is – I saw it coming.
I really, really want to elaborate with anyone who has read these two.
Off to read Book Three, Death’s End!
I embarked on The Three-Body Problem because a colleague considered it a cultural touchstone that occupies the moment between China and the Western world. I traveled in Chinese-speaking countries for many years, and know a little of the Chinese having studied there, but this is the first Chinese novel – sci-fi or otherwise – I’ve ever read, so I was curious how it would be.
The Three-Body Problem is Book One of Remembrance of Earth’s Past, a trilogy being marketed as a global phenomenon: the first major sci-fi novel out of China by “China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.” It received the Chinese Science Fiction Galaxy Award in 2006 and Three-Body Problem has been immensely popular among hundreds of millions of Chinese and a comparatively small, committed group of sci-fi readers internationally. It was originally published serially.
The English translation by Ken Liu (Tor, 2014) was nominated for a Nebula and Hugo Award for best novel – becoming the first translated novel to be nominated for a major SF award since Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in 1976. Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.
Translations of Books Two and Three were released in 2015 and ’16 and the Three-Body Problem movie is expected later this year.
The novel takes the late-1960’s, early-70’s as a launching point for a fictional narrative that bounces forward 40 years to look back upon it as history. The context for beginning requires some understanding of the temperament of China, then. I took footnotes seriously and in real-time. I kept my cell-phone or computer handy and spent a few minutes googling and reading about historical events and figures as I went along to aid the translation. It helps.
The main characters are mostly scientists – theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, a nanomaterials guy – or military strategists. This is highly intellectual hard science and military thinking. You have to know a thing or two about the state of contemporary knowledge in many disciplines or be willing to learn as you go. I think this would have been more enjoyable in the serial form. I got regular headaches trying to read and follow all this in massive novel form.
Keeping Google handy helps a lot with both the Chinese history and the science. Complex scientific theories and ideas are referenced liberally throughout. It’s apparent Cixin Liu, an engineer by trade, has an expansive and comprehensive understanding of many disciplines. His knowledge of computing, theoretical physics, astronomy and chemistry has bloomed into the books of Remembrance of Earth’s Past. I got headaches, but I learned a lot.
During the Cultural Revolution in China, a young woman, Ye Winjie, sees her father, a prominent scientist, killed before her eyes. Ye Winjie is profoundly affected by this and the brutal ignorance of the state and its ferverous minions. She grows up to be a scientist, herself, and is assigned to a remote radar telescope facility for a top secret project. She discovers scientists have revealed an alien culture in the vicinity of Earth’s next-nearest star, Alpha Centauri. A warning from the alien culture not to reveal Earth’s location for fear of invasion is unequivocal.
Ye Wenjie decides life under humanity is worse than worthless, headed for self-destruction, and, skillfully masking her intentions to gain the access necessary, she uses a massive radar dish and the power of the sun as an amplifier, to send a message across space, unilaterally inviting the aliens to come to Earth and take over. And so begins the saga between Earth and Trisolaris that will last hundreds of years.
Now two groups of people exist on Earth who know about the aliens, those who want to prevent them from coming and those who would aid them. We are are led in the narrative of those who would prevent them by a naive but inquisitive scientist and his gruff but lovable foil, an earthy cop who balances out the eggheads and help them push on.
Ye Winjie is a confined leader of those who would aid the aliens – called Trisolarans because they live on a planet with three suns. Yet she manages to connect with a disgruntled hippie who believes imperialist capitalists are carelessly destroying the world. He in turn inherits billions from his industrialist father, and together they create a small, committed force to help the aliens come to Earth to take over.
Meanwhile, the chapters concerning the Trisolarans are fast and heady. The unique structure of their system – a planet with three suns – results in rapid-fire changes described expertly in socio-philosophical and biological terms. It’s smart, interesting theoretical evolution.
The Three-Body Problem is a huge story with bold strokes, and lots of technical and philosophical ideas emerge from high concepts and hard science. A solid understanding of computing, physics, astrophysics, chemistry and theory is brilliantly at play here as the Trisolarans develop and indeed outdevelop us.
There are fascinating conceits:
While science makes this novel complex, by the time it all gets unraveled, including the complicated rationale of the humans who choose to collude with the aliens in their effort to take over the Earth, we are left with a basic story and simple characters executing a complex, tumbling plan toward Human and Trisolaran interaction. It’s a contact story that spans hundreds of years.
I was reminded of the devices of other sci-fi novels – the aliens use a video game to communicate with humans like in Ender’s Game, the rapid evolution of the Trisolarans reminded me of a story I read in the 80’s about life that forms on a pulsar.
The science and technology elevate this work more than the philosophy. There are clunky philosophical problems I associate as typically sci-fi that are exposed by the science, but it feels inhuman.
It’s sad and simplistic to accept a sane, highly educated person could give up on humanity unilaterally and gain access to the means to execute their betrayal. Isn’t it? It may sound sexist, but I couldn’t imagine a woman being the one to do it.
Once she commits the greatest universal act of betrayal in human history, Ye Winjie finds a community of supporters from cultures all over the world. Have we given up on ourselves so completely? It’s depressing.
This strikes me as a cultural question. Maybe it’s a collision of my mindset with contemporary Chinese or SF. The Chinese and the Trisolarans are foreigners to me here and Sci-Fi is my means of comprehending each, only abstrusely.
Conveniently, the Trisolarans live only four and a half light years away, so communications require just eight years between planets. Presumably in the next volume … we meet.
I finish what I start so I’ll review The Dark Forest, Volume Two of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past, next.
A glacial is thousands of years of cold temperatures and glacial advancement. The last glacial ended 15,000 years ago, and we’re told the epoch we’re living in now, the Holocene, is an inter-glacial period.
But the unprecedented speed with which the ice has disappeared over the last 100 years gives us pause.
Humans as a species are having an effect on global temperature and the ice. It is undeniable now there’s at least a chance the change is irreversible. So, some ask the academy and society at large to admit the dawn of the Anthropocene, an era in which the glaciers may never return.
The Holocene was so named for the most powerful force of the epoch, the sun. The Anthropocene declares we, humans, anthros, have surpassed the sun in our ability to affect the planet. Some conservatives and capitalists who don’t want to take responsibility for what’s happening as anything different from anything that has happened in the past, say to call it the beginning of the Anthropocene is jumping to conclusions.
The story of three generations of a family are nothing to a glacier.
But historical records exist, and the stories your great-grandma told your grandma, your mom and you about the world are passed down. The oral tradition which has guided the entirety of human advancement for generations passes information down hundreds and thousands of years.
What if you could interview generations living in the Arctic Circle over the last several decades – this critical time – about what they’ve both seen first hand, and the stories they’ve been told for centuries?
There’ve been some humans who have gone northward a little ways and made some progress, but undeniably the greatest authority in the vast glaciated north are the polar bears who have roamed the ice and seas for thousands of years.
The last 100 years has brought them into contact with us humans, which is how it is possible, Yoko Tawada informs us prosaically in Memoirs of a Polar Bear, that we come to know them just a little bit.
It’s a gorgeous expansion of that little bit that makes this a magical novel.
This slim, beautiful biography of three generations of polar bears living not at the North Pole, but among us – in Russia, Germany and Canada between the 1960’s and today – uses an ethereal, intermingling of human and bear to tell it. In Tawada’s work, exceptionally sensitive humans and very particular bears can communicate profoundly and with feeling.
It amazes me how she creates this delicate balance between what we can understand and what we cannot and what the bears can and cannot grasp. The intersection of human and bear is deliberately an imperfect and haunting space, like any introduction between species at an equal level demands. It makes this book completely inhabitable.
Yoko Tawada was born on March 23, 1960, in Tokyo and studied Russian literature at Waseda. She moved to Germany when she was 22 years old in 1982 – seven years before the fall of the wall.
In her new country, she received a Masters in contemporary German Literature at Hamburg before completing a Doctorate in German literature at Zurich. She writes in German and Japanese and in 1987, she published Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts—Anata no iru tokoro dake nani mo nai (A Void Only Where You Are), a collection of poems in a German and Japanese bilingual edition
And then the wall fell.
I have not read anything else by Tawada except this novel, which comes to me because New Directions published it and Susan Bernofsky translated it. But her wholeness of composition is staggering.
The three parts of this novel are incredibly different and yet weave together perfectly to tell not only the stories of the bears but of all of us as we have gone through what we have experienced these last 60 years.
The grandmother polar bear who begins the story has no name. She mothers Tosca, who not only has a name, but has the ability to engage and relate across continents. Tosca in turn births Knut, whom she rejects, so he is raised by us. It is an amazing idea.
The history of the Soviet Era is held in the grandmother, then the era of change – the end of the Cold War – in the telling of Tosca, and the sad withering of our culture into a global conglomeration bereft of deep and important memories of our past in Knut, a real-life polar bear, who captured the hearts of Europeans and Russians just ten years ago, in the Aughts, and whose history you should only google, read and learn about after you’ve read this novel.
The connection between us and the bears, that of our Class, mammalia, is here explored with compassion and interspecies love. I was completely enamored with Tawada’s use of what it means to be a mammal as a means of connecting us to another species as opposed to separating us from other mammalia. We don’t have kinship with bears, we have mammalian-ship with them. Genius.
But more than capturing what little exists of the understanding between us and the polar bears, Tawada has captured the predominant feeling of post-neoliberalism: the feeling of no place, of having no memory that will last, of how much history is disappearing into the sands, or melted seas, of time.
This is a visionary expression of a contemporary crisis that few have yet fully grasped: placelessness. The placelessness of those whose place is being taken away and the placelessness of those who have lost the ability to feel place – bears and humans respectively – is metaphoric for much human experience in the last 60 years: immigrants, refugees, citizenship, culture.
The bears as metaphors for a sensible understanding of what has actually been going on, remind me of the metaphors for what actually existed that reside in the works of oppressed Soviet writers. Amidst climate change deniers and global warming warriors, Tawada takes a sensitive approach to make us at least observe faithfully.
I’m a creative person who is the children of scientists. My father was one of the greatest sulfur chemists of the 20th century and my mother was a physics and pharmacology educator and researcher for decades.
Art and music and writing is my genetic code, while my environmental education and upbringing was always one of deep and proper science. The latter influenced me to be rational and theoretical and to question and wonder about our world, my life. The former, to be social and to feel the world, to dance and to get high. So perhaps I’m biased in my reading of Boyle’s particularly incisive view of the scientists who are the main characters of The Terranauts. But let me tell you, it’s great.
It takes a lot of sensitivity and prosaic power to get inside the hearts and minds of people locked up together in an intense project, a collaborative effort of scale, or a prison, and express that faithfully. You really have to go through experiences like that or understand how working together happens in a deep way to attempt something like this. You have to understand people, socially and personally. Boyle does.
In The Terranauts, T. C. Boyle has invented an immense human project, populated it with entirely believable characters and embarked on a plumbing of their emotional and physical landscape with such brilliant detail, I find myself taken aback at the effort and his skill pulling it off.
His description of the technology of the Terranauts’ sealed-glass home in the desert is so vivid in detail down to the workings of the structure itself and including the flora and fauna – in some instances even described with Latin nomenclature in such a way as to feel beautiful – that I had to remind myself this place does not exist.
The pleasure I got from the contemplation of plants, animals and weather ‘inside’ by his characters is distinctly due to Boyle’s sensitivity, rooted in research and built with great prose. His descriptions of the emotional aspects of the scientists’ relationships to their subjects as well as to their co-workers is equally nuanced but even bolder.
The comfort Boyle has developed in delving into human sexuality here reveals an honest portrayal of our superficiality more than our capacity for love. But it isn’t cold.
Science is calculating.
Yet, there is so much of that capacity for love displayed – in the love of a scientific subject, or for the idea of team, or for loyalty as a badge of love. Even the subtleties of friendship and the complicated feelings that tie people together are handled exceptionally here.
This is a faithful portrayal of the emotional landscape of men and women put together for two years separated from us all, and Boyle has created a believable continuum that speaks to everyone about how we act.
Jealousy, lust, envy, competitiveness, anger, love, longing … it’s humans under glass.
T.C. Boyle gets us. His characters over the years are always like people I know or meet along the way. Here he throws four men and four women together separated by only inches from a half dozen of their friends, colleagues and lovers for two years solely for the purpose of expressing intimacy. It’s an incredible conceit seen vividly through.
Employing the style of first-person chapters collected together to do the telling works because of Boyle’s talent for briskness of plot. Though I don’t generally love the format, here it lets Boyle expand inner monologue, the guts of people’s feelings in confession, post-facto, as scientists would … really as anyone would.
Confessing after the fact, telling the truth and letting it out feels so good. It’s a really cool way to unreveal the “True Story of the Terranauts!”
The arrangement of these chapters and points of view is beautiful construction. The first-person chapters are woven in a way of telling the tale that seems complete, unfettered, whole. And it happens progressively.
It doesn’t take long to feel a part of this ecosystem and, once you’re in, you’re equally concerned as the characters as to whether the goats are getting fed or whether there are any tilapia left. You’re equally worried about O2 levels.
The characters are genuine, believable and, confessing their relatable flaws, they’re likable. Those who seem initially like obnoxious foes or nemeses go through transitions and humanize while the flaws of protagonists are openly dissected and brought down to earth.
My emotions changed towards characters and so I felt a part of the immense human enterprise. Like I was on the team, in the dome or at Mission Control, not some dopey tourist staring through the glass on my way to the Grand Canyon. Brilliant.
In retrospect the archetypal quality of the characters is resonant. The details make Boyle’s ecosystem a deeply human environment of our typical longings, lusts, and desires met and unmet. The way we see each other in constrained circumstances relates clearly to how we behave in society and Boyle uses an incredible palette of language to achieve this. I could feel the soil of the Ecosphere between my toes. I wanted to hug Linda, hard.
And, I guess typically for me, I felt kinship with Vodge and Linda and Gretchen.
I thoroughly recommend The Terranauts to anyone with brains and a heart – or for that matter a penis or a vagina.
Way to go, T.C.
A Word on T.C. Boyle’s Utter Coolness
T. Coraghessan Boyle is truly a social writer.
I don’t mean socially-conscious. Or Socialist. Or that he seeks to influence or corral a group of readers in some direct manner.
I mean he’s a social being … and an excellent writer.
His ‘socialness’ is apparent on Twitter where I have enjoyed daily images of his routines – the morning, the egg, the paper, the rat – and of his various voyages. But recently I became one of the many readers/followers to whom he has replied. I was reading his novel Talk Talk, (Viking, 2006), and tweeted some friends about it including his handle and what? what? @tcboyle dipped in to the thread to comment. Turns out he’s totally personable on Twitter and comfortable discussing his work in detail. (More on Boyle’s tweets in my review of Talk Talk).
So last week when I picked up his latest novel, I tweeted to tell him I was starting The Terranauts … and he responded! It was crazy. You can see the exchanges @mtksf. His openness and ease daily with his readers or the public or whatever twitter followers are, strikes me as pretty unusual for a novelist of his stature. I mean, he’s just so cool.
After 15 novels and dozens of short stories and collections, a bibliography of 25+ works, numerous national awards – the guy’s a prolific American man of letters – he still takes time out to hang with his twitter followers. Blows my mind. Though I shouldn’t be surprised. The one time I met him, pre-twitter in 2004, at KPFK in Los Angeles, he was totally present and easy-going, too.
He works at his discipline, teaches it, and is un-self-conscious enough to engage with his readers as a regular person. I can only conclude T.C. Boyle is as great a guy to hang out with as his novels are.
The originality of the structure of Lincoln in the Bardo immediately sets George Saunders’ debut novel apart. It’s composed of stacked lists of quotations attributed to the souls occupying Oak Hills cemetery in the Georgetown section of our nation’s capitol in 1862; to the President at the time, Abraham Lincoln, and to his son, Willie, recently deceased; and to the night watchman and manager of the cemetery, neighbors, historical figures and eyewitnesses to the events of the time.
I plunged into this work thinking these crazy quotes would continue for a few pages and then return to a normal third or first person narrative. Not only did they not, the form became its own sort of thing with hilarity and piety. The quotations interact, finish one another’s sentiments.
Saunders’ approach from his short stories in Pastoralia, where letters and notes and faxes between characters move plot and create conflicts, is here in fuller effect. This “debut novel” thus actually resides somewhere between the novella and the norm of long-form fiction. Almost as if Saunders still isn’t ready to write one of those “novel” things.
It was initially off-putting because pretty quickly quotes from real historical sources reside in equanimity with a tumbling invention of the thoughts of the dead.
The first time several quotations are used to describe the same person and there are wide disparities implying unreliable reportage, forcing the reader to flip back-and-forth to separate quotes from actual historical texts from made-up ones, it’s a hilarious reminder that we’re in a novel, and it doesn’t matter.
Fiction and Non-fiction swim together.
In the mid-90’s, in San Francisco, it was the fashion among serious young (read: unpublished) writers like me to read the postmodern fiction of structuralists like Harry Matthews, the only American member of the Oulipo, with great love. The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle bears consideration in advance of talking about Saunders as constructionist.
There is a confidence and ease I love about George Saunders. He really is in command of his craft. With this form, within a matter of a few chapters, you are in his world. If a person were to come over to you and look over your shoulder while you’re reading this novel, it would look to them like insane gibberish.
Saunders’ effort is totally original but like Matthews and the Oulipo before him, uses structure to train you into his narrative – isolating you from being able to “tell” this book.
It was immediately apparent an audio book of this work is basically impossible without dozens of actors and a unique method for attribution, audibly. It’s another thing, a book.
I wonder how the e-versions look/read?
Once aboard, the form establishes a rhythm and momentum that sends this richly imagined exploration of death, life and loss, forward with vigor.
The historical facts surrounding the 16th President and the death of his son at the White House and the Civil War that raged with the nation’s history in the balance are the nest in which Saunders crafts a re-imagining of purgatory. He does so to examine our sense of purpose and meaning – in life and after death.
But rather than a staid, dusty exploration of our historical understanding of the deaths of the time, Saunders populates his work with real people – everyday people who lived and died normal and un-extraordinary lives, filled with sins and loves and hates and pettiness. It is part of his charm in the short form that his characters are easily believable and admirable for their flawed, utterly human qualities. They are our guides to the mind of our beloved Lincoln, and nation.
Saunders’ exceptional understanding of people and compassion for their desires, dreams and regrets is again on display as this diverse collection of souls from many walks of life reveal themselves and the stories of their lives.
The population of the cemetery includes slaves but the book fails to really plunge into the national sin. I read a review that felt the opposite, that the recrimination and oppression of the slaves in the cemetery by the whites was clearcut and evocative, giving voice to the horror, but it was disappointing to me.
As I reflect on the role the slaves do play, it is once again as from a position of rectitude, to be able to look back at slavery and racism to contain it in the national narrative.
There are some serious and violent points of intersection between the black and white population of the cemetery and one particularly poignant one never ends, an eternal struggle. But I can’t help but feel this could have been developed. Slaves and masters in the same cemetery, with only the masters in marked graves, seems a rare territory and an opportunity to explore racism more deeply.
The conceit does fruit into a tangential reference into Lincoln’s conclusions on the matter, conclusions that led to years of bloody war over ending slavery. This book isn’t about that though, nor about the civil war.
It seems to be about how we, all of us, think of ourselves and our lives more than Lincoln or anyone else in 1862 does. It seems to be about how we think of our lives in advance of, and even after, death – whether it’s the death of someone we know or ourselves. In that, Lincoln in the Bardo succeeds with sensitivity and compassion.
Saunders understands un-requite, failure, desperation and the longing we all feel. He also knows how to craft this understanding into an incredibly direct narrative. It’s amazing.
Apparently he has said about his process that the narrative tells him how long it is to be, what it is to be. In this case it became something wondrous.
I am left with so much after this novel. I find I cannot describe it very well. It’s like a magician’s deception. What you find within is worth much more than the conceit.
It is clear though, the magician knows his audience inside and out.