Uncanny Valley Digest: The Windup Girl

windupgirlLast night’s The Windup Girl discussion was a real deal literary salon! Distinct opinions arose. The scope and technical skill of Windup Girl were undeniable; complex, impeccable world-building, a vast swath of ultimately interconnected characters, none seeming more important than the others. Of the half dozen people who attended the meeting last night, 3 of the 6 did not finish reading the book. Two of the 6, one who finished and one who had not, did not recommend the book. Four of us thought it was excellent, even masterful.

David said, “If a student asks, ‘What is the state of science ficiton today?’ then it is this book.” What did he mean by that? Well, we asked: This book, in contrast to Metropolis, is entirely mimetic. It has limited itself to completely believable descriptions of a material world and the mundane movements of people within it. Using that vehicle, it delivers an extraordinary vision that must be largely deduced by the reader.

“He never lets you peek behind the curtain,” said Suhail.

“Nary an infodump. Not a single one,” noted Meg. Every piece of information regarding the very masterful and complex world building is embedded in the prose and actions of the characters. Show-don’t-tell is followed to the letter, with incredible discipline. So much discipline that the reader is wondering, David observed, “Am I seeing this right? Is this what’s happening?” We must rely entirely on the slow and gradual reveal of contextual details. Chris says that this “puts the reader in the same position as every character in the book!” And there was a murmur of assent that this was a good thing. Suhail replied that “there are different philosophies about how a reader should be treated.”

Suhail was one of the people who did not finish the book, and did not recommend it to others. Nowell finished it, but also did not recommend it to others.

Screen shot 2016-06-27 at 6.57.16 PMNowell: This guy needed an editor. The book is at least 100 pages too long for what it does.

Suhail: This is technically masterful, socially innocuous, status quo-reinforcing fiction in the same ilk as Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It is written so well that it doesn’t suck, so you can get to the end, but so what? I don’t care about any of the characters, no matter how well rendered, and I’m not surprised by any of the plot developments. Some sci fi does a good job at making the present feel like the future. But this makes the future feel like the present. The calorie man is the oil baron. The kink springs are steam industry. White men in corporations are going to fuck everything over in the process of taking it for themselves, and the brown people will run off into the woods again. Too bad, folks, get used to it. The megodonts are Jurassic Park. I just couldn’t stay interested, no matter how MFA the writing was.

Screen shot 2016-06-27 at 6.57.05 PMAu contrer, say Meg and Chris: This book asks for more patience than the average one-off sci fi book. “It is a slow burn,” said Meg. [To which, Suhail responds, a slow burn leading to a meager guttering puff of expiration.] This slow burn concept came up a few times. It takes a while for all the seemingly unrelated characters to get laid out, but then when their lives start intersecting, you see how masterful and mesmerizing it is.

David was ambivalent, but still interested, as he had not finished the book yet, but wanted to see it all pulled together. Meg assured him the payoff was gratifying. Suhail was resistant, “I hypothesize that you will feel exactly the same way about it after you finish the book.” Suhail also added, to mild disapprobation, “I did not finish reading this book, and may even tell others not to read it.” “Now that’s a little harsh,” replied Chris.

Meg also admired the significantly researched hard science in this science fiction novel. Every technology Pacigalupi described was backed up by present scientific knowledge, so detailed in fact that it is a little opaque to the reader. This lead to a tangential discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson, and perhaps reading him next year.

Meg also said she could not teach this novel, because she’d have to spend so much time explaining and rationalizing to the students the literary purpose of the very “triggering” scenes and images strewn about the book. (Like the way Emiko, the Windup Girl, is treated, as well as other vivid, normalized depictions of racism and oppression; but mimetic, like David said, purely descriptive, not judgement-laden.) Suhail connected this need for filtration with the implicit status-quo whiteness of the book’s backdrop. “For people (like multicultural university students) who are less sympathetic to white privilege, I imagine this book has a lot less luster.”

Suhail admitted toward the end something about his prejudice. “Regarding David’s accurate observation that this book is entirely mimetic, it gives no symbolic trapdoor for interpretation, it is so antithetical to the storytelling style of Metropolis (which I enjoyed so much) – I think that fact motivates my prejudice against this book; because ever since I began reading books, I’ve gravitated more toward the symbolic, representational, iconographic flavor of storytelling. Also, thank you for trying to convince me to read The Windup Girl. I promise in the future I will not abuse this indulgence of skipping the reading.”

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Pizza Party!! I love this group!

Wrap up: 3 of 6 finished reading The Windup Girl. 4 of 6 recommend reading The Windup Girl. We’re taking off July 4th, but be reading LeGuin!!!

See you July 11th for Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness. [Geek trivia: One of David Gill’s cats is named Ursula.]

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

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Uncanny Valley Digest: The Fifth Head Of Cerberus

wolfecerberusLast night’s Wolfe discussion knitted and warbled! Attendance was high, dinner was stimulating, so much that we got in front of the camera a few minutes late (forgive us, Nikita!). It was a pleasure to be in the presence of some fun-loving scholars with a firm grasp of the text. (At least as firm a grasp as Wolfe allows, which is something like the grasp a Labrador retriever has of an iPad; you know it’s important, but – FLAN!) Now for the discussion notes:

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An anthropologist from Earth comes visiting the twin planetary systems of Saint Anne and Saint Croix. In a colonial civilization mired in infinitely replicating and simultaneously decaying dualism, this scientist is perusing facts to verify the legend of a race of aboriginal planetary natives reputed to be shapeshifters. Shapeshifters, it is alluded to, who may have already supplanted most of the planets’ human beings.

waitingtostart
Dinner was such fun…we were late to the camera. Sorry, Nikita! 😀

As Meg said, “The book offers so much of the ‘Clue’ mystery – so many parts, the wrench, the living room…the clones, the scientist – But never pulls it snug together.” It’s intentional, and it works! It is as though Wolfe uses blocks of unknowability, inscrutable puzzles, as matters of form; they are never meant to be fully illuminated.

Erik noted, Wolfe is Catholic-with-a-capital-C, so he is definitely portraying Fallen worlds.

Meg, who has read this book 4 or 5 times, (and taught it) observed, “Everything has meaning in this work – but what does it add up to?”

Ryan couldnt stay, but wished us well.
Ryan couldn’t stay, but wished us well.

The discussion turned to the multilayered shifting footing of the realities in the book, at least the glimpses of reality the “unreliable narrators” afford us. It is beyond just peeling through the layers of an onion, it’s as if the onion layers are braided. Erik said, “If everything is repeating, you lose dynamics.” David followed up with, “Like cancer, it reproduces so much it will kill itself.”

Erik identified this book as coming from “a zone of science fiction that is anthropologically driven.” Meg verified that it was part of the new wave in the 60s and 70s. “A departure from the hard science sci-fi, into sci-fi for the softer sciences – psychology, anthropology, linguistics, etc. – yielding writers like Le Guin, Wolfe, Dick, etc.” David called it, “A changing of the sci-fi guard at the end of the 50s.”

A visit from Laura, who plans to rejoin us for Le Guin on July 11th.
A visit from Laura, who plans to rejoin us for Le Guin on July 11th.

Meg told an excellent story about the time she met Gene Wolfe at a church service in suburban Illinois, while creating a sci-fi course curriculum (at SFSU) featuring the Wolfe-man himself! It would be a disservice to tell the story for her, so look her up.

L. Ron Hubbard’s “Fear” novella. Very good; recommended by Erik Davis.

Nikita’s description of The Anti-Psychiatry Museum in L.A., funded by Scientologists, and how some of their most effective methods are borrowed from psychiatry, so they are very against it.

He forgave us.
He forgave us.

As you can see, toward the end, the discussion took a few digressions into other forms of science fiction which we are already living, here an now. And also some exploration of the religious backgrounds of various sci-fi writers, who, though they may espouse certain dogmatic religious views (Catholic, Mormon, Scientologist, etc.) also maintain

One thing I must say for Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head Of Cerberus: it stimulated sustained and fruitful discussion and, remarkably, did it without the novel being sufficiently precise about anything. It left us discovering that there would be many insights to gain by a careful rereading, though no more certitude. (Wikipedia reports that, in a letter to Neil Gaiman, Wolfe wrote: “My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure.”) It’s a conversation-starting book, but definitely not conversation-finishing. We had to change subjects to finish the conversation. The Fifth Head Of Cerberus is most certainly worth the read, but it will behoove you to make peace with uncertainty beforehand.

Thank you and goodnight! See you next week in the sci fi lab!
A full boat to discussion island…

See you next week for Dick’s Martian Time Slip!
Thank you for reading! Reading Rules!

Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

lefthanddarknessNext Meet: July 11, 2016 (Monday, 6:30-8:30 PM, Pacific)
Have Read: The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Where: Google Hangout Online and San Francisco

Greetings science fiction aficionados! It’s your favorite time of year. Descend again with us into the Uncanny Valley! The Science Fiction Summer Reading Group is back with a new and improved lineup! Look forward to Monday nights this June and July. The series will again be moderated by editor of Pravic magazine, David Gill (the web’s illustrious Total Dick-Head!) and author Suhail Rafidi.

Members of the group who are in the San Francisco Bay Area on any given Monday are encouraged to attend live at the sci fi lab and enrich the discussion! Contact David or Suhail personally for details.

We’ve incorporated the comments of readers and participants from last year. This summer’s lineup is shorter, contains one movie, and has 2-week reading windows for the longer books. Be ready for discussion by the dates listed below. Without further ado…

Science Fiction Summer Reading Group 2016 Schedule
June 6: The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) – Gene Wolfe (San Francisco)
June 13: Martian Time-Slip (1964) – Philip K. Dick (Oakland)
June 20: MOVIE Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang (San Francisco)
Be reading Bacigalupi for next week!!!
June 27: Wind Up Girl (2009) – Paolo Bacigalupi (Oakland)
July 4: No Meeting. Be reading Le Guin for next week!!!
July 11: The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969) – Ursula K. Le Guin (San Francisco)

As usual, the group will also convene online, from 6:30 – 8:30 PM, Pacific Time
Click the link below to enter the Google Hangout:
https://plus.google.com/hangouts/_/g5stgywth5n76vwbbyicm4jkqea

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

10 Things To Do In San Francisco During Superbowl Sunday

Photo by Brad Wilson
Superb day for an Owl game.

It’s a brilliant, bright, balmy, sunshiny Sunday in San Francisco! Birds are singing, raccoon are sleeping (most of them), and the azure sky is crisp with coastal air. Oh yes, and the Super Bowl is on. (Though I’d rather pack one, and my San Franciscans feel me.)

One incidental boon of the Superb Owl is that hundreds of thousands of people who would usually be enjoying San Francisco’s public spaces, shopping chances, and civic amenities are glued to TV screens safely indoors or packed into an enormous Santa Clara arena. Here are 10 things for the savvy San Franciscan to do during this welcome reprieve.

 

10. Mattress shopping. (The price gouging sales folk will be irked, stuck missing the game on a day so slow. You’ve got the high ground to lowball. Get in there and haggle that Simmons BeautyRest down to $600!)

9. Beachcoming. (Ocean beach is beautiful this time of year, particularly when the sun shines as warm as today. The strand is long and the shallows are clear. Shells, sand dollars, and more unique beach treasures abound.)

8. BBQ in Golden Gate Park (The picnic tables are deserted. The rains have regreened the meadows, and all this sun has dried and invigorated them. Perfect for outdoor dining.)

7. An epic bicycle ride. (With so few cars on the road [except the afficionados from #2] you’re golden. All that fabulous scenery, a brilliant bright warm day with cool Pacific air. Get on the Bay Ridge, climb Hawk Hill and shoot out to the lighthouse, kick south down to the Sawyer Camp Trail regions. This is the day to ride!)

6. Feed the homeless. (Visit the security-corralled homeless shantytown under the highway and bring something nutritious to share. Spank you, Superb Owl!)

5. Dine at Zazie (Or State Bird, or Burma Superstar, or any notoriously busy San Francisco restaurant with a waitlist reputation.)

4. Trader Joe’s at Masonic and Geary. (With that needle’s eye parking lot, this is your moment!)

3. Museum time (Museums are best when the galleries are nearly deserted, so you can float through and relate intimately to the art. And yes, I mean nudity. Think of it, the ever popular and usually crowded De Young, the curiosities of The Academy of Science, the distinguished and stimulating Asian Art Museum, the picturesque Legion of Honor…all deserted. Get your culture on!)

2. Driving fast on your favorite roads. (Practically all Bay Area police are working event-related security. And those who are on the job, are not on your favorite speedways. You know what I’m talking about…and HEY! Mind the cyclists from #7!

….and the #1 thing to do in San Francisco during Super Bowl Sunday is…

  1. Costco run (Kick-off is at 3:30, time accordingly.)

 

Dolores_Park,_San_Francisco_2013-04-13_14-48
Honorable mention: Grab your drugs and enjoy Dolores Park, because it will not look like this today.

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!