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.

        The effect of Williams' choice, however, pays off over the course of the novel. Action sequences sizzle with energy. Tension heightens with the uncertainty of what characters will do in a specific instant. Information arrives precisely when it is needed and/or available, and its results bear immediately upon events. The story induces a palpable sense of everything teetering just on the edge of chaos.

The Phoenix Elevator
        Here is where I think the novel's "videogame feel" proves truly significant. Distinctions between SF and sci-fi aside, the science fiction to which most people have access and that most people have experienced is visual, especially since at least the 1950s: films, TV shows, and videogames. As forms of narrative, these mediums, I suggest, impart a sense of happening now, even if set in the past (or the future) -- videogames perhaps most obviously and immersively. True, narratives of these mediums are plotted, but their telling is not inherently or always clearly in the past tense. They rely, in a way, on establishing what I'll call a kind of "presentism," or "nowness."

        Mirrored Heavens constitutes an adaptation of such presentism to the medium of literary narrative. It does so not just to lend the story a cinematic feel, but, I believe, to support and underscore the character of the future Williams envisions, which itself reflects the character of our world today. Data moves quickly, almost instantaneously, both publicly and secretively. Life overall seems to be speeding up. International and environmental crises feel increasingly complex and unmanageable. Uncertainty about politicians and their decisions heightens steadily, globally and nationally and locally. Responses to events must be ever more and more immediate. The future of Mirrored Heavens intensifies all of these factors, and Williams augments that intensification with the use of the present tense. Things happen right now in the novel, relentlessly. Williams throws the reader into the story in medias res and holds the reader there until the end -- not unlike, one could say, a videogame or a film.

        For me, Williams achieves this presentism most tangibly in Part II of the novel, in which he shifts between the three main narrative lines of Marlowe/Haskell, the Operative, and Spencer with an accelerating staccato rhythm, pouncing from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger, ratcheting up the stakes for each character as well as for the disintegrating global situation. (A good parallel would be Christopher Nolan's new film Inception, particularly the second half in which the narrative cuts between the three levels of the dream in a fascinating display of editing and timing that produces incredible tension.) There is certainly the impression of the cinematic here, of a narrative sensibility attuned to how films, TV shows, and videogames move a story along: forms of SF narrative, in other words, with which many people are familiar.

        Yet Williams makes it work in The Mirrored Heavens. On one hand, he makes it work strictly on a formal level, the use of the present tense appropriate to the fast-paced progress of events in the novel. On the other hand, he makes it work on a thematic level, the disorientation caused by the present tense mirroring the disorientation experienced by the characters thrust suddenly into a global war, as well as, perhaps, the disorientation for the reader of confronting and trying to understand a new and different world (which is at the heart of SF as a genre, in any medium).

        I wonder, then, if The Mirrored Heavens can be viewed as an indication of how the visual mediums of SF and their narrative concerns might lead to formal evolution(s) in the literary medium of SF, in which the latter adapts aspects of the former to alternative ways of telling stories. I see this process as a definite strength of the novel.

Political Edginess. Many of the reviews classify The Mirrored Heavens as, in part, military SF; some also note that Williams earned a degree in History from Yale, affording him an understanding of the factors that contribute to war. For example, Andrew Liptak of Worlds in a Grain of Sand writes:
Throughout my studies, I've found that warfare is . . . a complicated and convoluted process of politics, public figures, implementation of policy and foreign relations, before any of the bullets begin to fly. Williams, with a degree in history from Yale, seems to understand this . . . .
I can't disagree with Liptak, for Williams does demonstrate an awareness of the "convoluted" interplay of social, cultural, and ideological factors that lead to and perpetuate war. However, like other reviewers, Liptak basically stops here and does not reflect upon the sociopolitical context to which The Mirrored Heavens responds.

        Works of SF, as many acknowledge, are about and refer to their historical moment. Looked at in this light, Mirrored Heavens takes on a political edginess that involves more than a plausible vision of the future of international relations and military conflict, for I am tempted to see the novel, and the world it portrays, as a comment on the consequences of the administration, policies, and actions of George W. Bush's eight-year presidency, which itself can be treated as exemplifying a longstanding strain of U.S. politics reliant upon, essentially, a "war economy."

        The future in Mirrored Heavens is decidedly dystopian. Even the four main characters function mainly as anti-heroes, or at least ambiguous heroes, though Claire Haskell most clearly reveals a willingness to question what is morally right and wrong, acting on such convictions at the end. As Nisi Shawl writes in her review for The Seattle Times, the novel thus reveals a "cynicism regarding the geopolitics of the coming century." I would argue that this "cynicism" relates to this century as well.

Belem-Macapa under attack.
        Williams offers a future in which the opportunity for true peace gets undermined by competing self-interests at play within a U.S. government pledged to economic and political détente, self-interests that seek to usurp the presidency (known as "The Throne") in order to pursue their own ideological agenda(s) for the world and humanity. Hence, the Phoenix Space Elevator, the physical incarnation of the new détente, is destroyed -- in a possible echo of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, but with the difference that the terrorism is internal. Moreover, the lives of ordinary civilians are cheap, from Brazil to the U.S. to the moon; the death toll mounts and mounts as the individuals, corporations, and nations engaged in the war myopically follow their own motives, as if the regular world is a mere game board. Rays of hope slip through the pervasive gloom by the end, with Claire Haskell and with the president retaining power and resisting the temptation of retaliation. Yet the novel's world is not a nice one, and it bears the flavour of the dissatisfaction, despair, uncertainty, and even anger of the last years of Bush's time in office.

        In this respect, Mirrored Heavens knows its cyberpunk conventions and attitudes. JP Frantz, in his review for SF Signal, observes:
Well, if you're looking for cyberpunk, you won't find it here. . . . Yes the world of this future is a dystopia, but the characters here aren't from the bottom of society, fighting against the government or corporations, they are the government, and far from fighting for the little guy, the are fighting to save the status quo.
Frantz serves up a restrictive version of cyberpunk here and so I think misses how Mirrorred Heavens quite consciously redirects cyberpunk to a different register. Many of the fundamental cyberpunk tropes are there: vast urban sprawls (Belem-Macapa, The Mountain); jacking into and out of cyberspace, called "the zone," usually wirelessly in the novel; cyborgs; a hardboiled, noirish tone and mood; a concern for literary style, and so forth. Where The Mirrored Heavens redirects cyberpunk to a different register resides in what I'll call its 21st-century sociopolitical awareness.

        Specifically, that the characters "are the government" is, in part, the point. Williams' "zone" is predominantly a political, and politicised, virtual landscape (not so wholly corporatized, as in William Gibson). His razors and mechs and handlers/envoys are predominantly government (and sometimes corporate) agents, which to me rings of plausibility and suggests a realistic (or, "cynical") rethinking of cyberpunk's proletarian utopianism as championed by Frantz. Instead of abandoning cyberpunk, Williams in fact holds onto its "punk" subversiveness by wielding the subgenre as a critique of the current sociopolitical situation, but he aims to take down a bigger target, so to speak. Mirrored Heavens, in its particular political edginess, is thus 21st-century cyberpunk.

Narrative Politics. My pocket paperback edition of The Mirrored Heavens includes a map showing the major global political entities in 2110; the full text of the Treaty of Zurich, the document that established the world of détente between the U.S.A. and Eurasian Coalition that comes under threat in the story; as well as an appendix of the timeline of world history from 2036 to 2110. These paratextual materials not only exhibit the extent of Williams' worldbuilding, but they also intimate the novel's fundamental concern: envisioning the consequences of the "convoluted" interactions of politics and economics that yield a world of seemingly perpetual conflict.

        This is where, as I wrote above, Williams' use of the present tense and the novel's political edginess mutually reinforce each other. That edginess, and its cynicism and anger, lives in the restless, always forward-moving present tense of the narrative. Williams tosses the reader right into the fire, and he holds the reader there until the smoke begins clearing, a little, at the end. He keeps the reader in the right now, without the expected comfort of the past tense. By the end, when the reader gets a chance to breathe and reflect, the implications of what has just happened can come into focus, though not completely as not even the main characters can grasp the whole picture. The picture is not pretty, for a world of détente proves distressingly fragile.

        Narrative relies upon conflict, of various kinds, to generate momentum and invest the reader in what happens. Politics similarly relies upon conflict to make and remake the world in which we live, from local to global scales. Williams, in effect, demonstrates the latter by turning the former toward a ceaseless nowness. Doing so, he challenges the reader on two levels simultaneously: one, encountering a different narrative form for literary SF that adapts the immersive presentism of videogame and film/TV narratives; the other, a critique of early 21st-century post-industrial, hypercapitalist, First World sociopolitics.

        I'm looking forward to the next two books in the trilogy.

Adventures in Reading (Joe Sherry, Aug. 2010)
Fantasy Book Critic (May 2008)
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review (May 2008)
The Mad Hatter's Bookshelf & Book Review (July 2010)
The Seattle Times (Nisi Shawl, July 2008)
SFF World (Mark Yon, July 2008)
SF Signal (JP Frantz, July 2008)
SF Site (Nathan Brazil)
Worlds in a Grain of Sand (Andrew Liptak, May 2010)

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