29 July 2010

The Mirrored Heavens and Forms of SF Narrative


I met David J. Williams and discovered his Autumn Rain trilogy several weeks ago in June, when he did a signing and reading at BakkaPhoenix Books here in Toronto. Before that day, I had heard of neither author nor trilogy. Yet I decided to get a copy of The Mirrored Heavens, the first novel of the series -- for I like my cyberpunk, and the BakkaPhoenix staff offered very high recommendations of the book.

        The Mirrored Heavens definitely gave me a refreshing and exhilarating reading experience. The more I think about the novel, however, the more I am impressed by how challenging Williams makes the novel on several levels, weaving together breakneck pacing, significant narrative decisions, a conspiracy-theory atmosphere, and a political edginess into a whole that generates a rather plausible (and disturbing) vision of our nearish future. What interests me most are the narrative decisions and political edginess: the former, because I think they raise intriguing questions about what literary SF can do with forms of narrative; the latter, because I am surprised that reviewers of the novel seem to have shied away from addressing the historical context to which I believe it responds. Moreover, these two elements, in fact, mutually reinforce each other, revealing a novel more complex than it might appear at first blush.

The Present Tense. Every review of The Mirrored Heavens mentions that Williams chose to write it in the present tense, which takes some getting used to but ultimately suits the story Williams tells. Also, almost every review of the novel mentions how Williams' work on videogames influences the plotting and the pacing, with the implication that although this produces great action scenes, it somewhat detracts and distracts from greater depth in the setting and the characters. I want to explore what I see as the broader implications of Williams' use of the present tense, particularly by suggesting that the "videogame feel" of The Mirrored Heavens links the novel to what are arguably the most widespread and accessible forms of SF narrative today -- i.e., film/TV and videogames -- as the novel simultaneously successfully adapts those forms to the medium of literature.

        Putting the narrative of Mirrored Heavens in the present tense, Williams does confront his reader with an initial disorientation of sorts. By default, essentially, literary narratives employ the past tense, reflecting the inherent understanding that narratives come after the fact, so to speak: we tell our stories after the events have occurred; events themselves have no plot at the moment(s) they are occurring, only later when we arrange them as a story, thereby giving them a certain relationship to each other and so giving them meaning, relevance. French literary theorist and cultural critic Roland Barthes identified what he called the "predictive function of the historian," who, in constructing and plotting a history, always "knows what has not yet been told" (see here; my emphasis). In a way, all narrators are historians, telling about what has already happened, choosing what will be told and aware of what must still be told. (Several novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, purposefully cast their fictional narratives as histories: to name merely a few, see Fielding's Joseph Andrews, Scott's Waverley, and Eliot's Middlemarch.) So, when readers encounter a narrative related in the present tense, certain assumptions and expectations are disrupted, even undermined. Hence, this defamiliarizing form of narrative takes some getting used to.

12 July 2010

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy


        Three days ago, I finished Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars (1996), the final novel in his Mars trilogy. I took nearly a year to read all three books, with breaks -- for various reasons -- between the first two, Red Mars (1993) and Green Mars (1994). For me, the Mars trilogy stands not just as one of the true masterworks of 20th-century SF, but also as one of the great achievements in 20th-century fiction regardless of genre.

        What follows is not a coherent argument about why I hold such a high opinion of the trilogy, but more a collection of thoughts on the books that should comprise a fairly decent picture of that opinion.

Three Books As One. The trilogy needs to be seen as a single whole, not unlike The Lord of the Rings. It's not just the consistency of the same core characters in the three books, or the central themes that run through and evolve during the series (colonialism, science and/as politics, memory and nostalgia, the powers and perils of human ingenuity, self-interests vs. community interests, debates about terraforming and economic systems, etc.), or the progress of about 200 years of internal and alternate history that tangibly affects the characters' lives. As a single whole, the trilogy maintains a persistent, unifying vision and tone, a particular feel or atmosphere -- centred in Robinson's evocation of the landscape, colours, conditions, challenges, and alienness of Mars.
        Also, simply, the trilogy constitutes one long story/narrative, and a story/narrative that closes its circle(s) by returning to its beginning at its end, in an act of narrative nostalgia, reader nostalgia, and character nostalgia, with all three elements changed in the journey from beginning to end and reminded of that change. By the close of Blue Mars, the weight of everything experienced by the characters and the reader since Red Mars feels immense, complex, intimate, organic, inspiring, sublime. Humanity has such potential for beauty and wonder . . . it need only overcome itself.

Walkabout. Around halfway into Green Mars, I began thinking of the trilogy as a distinctly "ambulatory" narrative. Characters constantly move about Mars: John Boone's solo navigation of the new world and its burgeoning cultures, or Nadia and Arkady's flight around the planet, in Red Mars; Nirgal seeing the world for the first time with Coyote in Green Mars; Ann and Sax, separately, exploring the untouched or increasingly alive parts of the planet in Blue Mars. There are many more examples, and together they all constitute a sort of baseline plot structure for the trilogy (at micro- and macro-levels). Robinson unfolds Mars to readers by repeatedly taking them on treks and trips and travels over the planet's entirety, above and below ground, in the air and on the seas, even occasionally into orbit. Most importantly, though, he does this through the individual viewpoints of a variety of characters who see and approach Mars with their own motivations, needs, uncertainties, hopes. So, Mars remains perpetually new and surprising; it keeps changing, physically and socioculturally.
        Doing this also lets Robinson create and develop what I call the "poetry" of Mars. Whether it's John Boone marvelling at the planet's craters and chasms and chaoses (Red Mars), or Sax and Maya picking out and naming the different colours of Martian sunsets (Blue Mars), Mars becomes an utterly fascinating and plausible and concretely detailed alien landscape -- with a beauty all its own, at local and individual as well as global and communal scales. So much of the vision and tone of the trilogy reside in this "poetry" of Mars, whether Robinson spends time carefully detailing the biological/chemical make-up of Martian rock and dirt or the procedures for altering Mars' atmosphere to make the surface breathable. This is how Mars acquires substance, substantiality. This is how Robinson provides opportunities for the reader to become invested in the world, the characters, the story.