26 August 2010

The Burning Skies and SF as Historical Allegory


In my post on David J. Williams' The Mirrored Heavens, the first book of his Autumn Rain trilogy, I explored the ways in which the use of the present tense in the narrative supported and expressed the political edginess of that novel's themes. The unrelenting presentism, or nowness, of the narrative, I suggested, reflected not just the nature of the novel's events as experienced by the characters, but also the nature of the characters' world -- which in turn reflects something of the nature of our early 21st-century world and its increasingly rapid pace of life and complex sociopolitical and environmental situations. Specifically, I offered the possibility that one can read The Mirrored Heavens as at least in part a science fictional envisioning of, if not commentary on, the mood of the world as created by the Bush administration in its post-9/11 years. I feel even more certain of this reading after finishing the second book of the trilogy, The Burning Skies.

        The Burning Skies, in fact, heightens the presentism and political edginess of the narrative by steering the story further into the centre(s) of power of the 22nd century, where the stakes become measurably higher and the dangers and mysteries more acute. In doing so, the novel reinforces what I take to be a fundamental goal of the trilogy as a whole: to illustrate the consequences and implications of the global sociopolitical and socioeconomic climate post-9/11 and, now, post-George W. Bush. The picture is a tenaciously dystopian one.

        What make Williams' future such a bad, undesirable place are certain elements of that climate shifted to logical, plausible outcomes. Thus, The Burning Skies offers an opportunity to delve more deeply into the relationship between narrative form and thematic content in the Autumn Rain trilogy specifically and in SF more generally. To do so, I wish to consider how the novel exhibits SF's potential to function as historical allegory -- here, an allegory of mood, atmosphere, and tone, buttressed by Williams' terse, fierce, restless dialogue.

Allegory of Mood. Traditionally, allegory relies upon two levels, or orders, of meaning: a surface or literal meaning, and an underlying or implied meaning -- together serving to refer perhaps to the current social/cultural climate (historical allegory) or to illustrate a concept, argument, or belief (allegory of ideas). Often, the relationship between these two orders of meaning can be one-to-one, with a character, situation, or setting representing an identifiable analogue. In Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590/1596), for instance, the Queene herself stands for Queen Elizabeth I and Faerieland is an analogue for the social and cultural complexion of Britain at the time, while characters such as the Redcrosse Knight, Una, or Sansfoy personify particular ideas, qualities, or values (i.e., holiness or faithlessness). Think also of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) and Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) as well known allegories (of ideas and history, respectively).*

        Also traditionally, critics and historians of literary SF observe that its narratives are about their present sociohistorical context, are about now. Whether taking place in the far future or imagining an alternate history or being set on an alien world, SF narratives reflect and respond to the time in which they are written. Ursula K. Le Guin's 1976 introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) exemplifies this understanding of SF (see here):
Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain dominants of our contemporary life -- science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another.
Le Guin's explicit linking of SF to "our contemporary life" relates both to the primary source of its ideas (or, "metaphors") and to the grounds of its basic perspective, which is distinctly modern (as in post-industrial, rational, materialist, scientific). Novelists, Le Guin writes, "can tell you [only] what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world." Thus, she claims that SF is "descriptive," in that it aims "to describe reality, the present world." Certainly, not every single SF narrative intends to function as an allegory of -- or, commentary on -- its "present world." A great deal of SF does do this, which accounts for a fair measure of its power as a form of cultural critique, or description, but I would caution against requiring all SF narratives to fulfill this goal to the same degree.

        With The Burning Skies, however, I think approaching the novel as an intentional allegory of the mood, atmosphere, and tone of the post-9/11 world created by the Bush administration's response to terrorism reveals much of the underlying, implied meanings at work in its narrative.

Battle on the Europa Platform

        For the first 257 pages of its trade paperback edition, The Burning Skies in effect constitutes a single, extended action sequence occurring over several hours and moving from end to end through the Europa Platform (an immense, very long, inhabited space station with an asteroid attached to its south pole) as Autumn Rain seeks to assassinate US President Andrew Harrison and elite US razors and mechs seek to save him and destroy the Rain. On the surface, this is a harrowing, thrilling, breathtaking sequence, as Williams whisks the characters (Carson, Sarmax, Lynx, Linehan, Spencer, and Haskell) all over the Platform, from train tunnels to cities to vacuum, displaying the complexity and magnificence of the Platform's construction. Moreover, the stakes in this specific conflict are everything: the political fate of Earth, as well as the evolutionary direction of humanity.

        When reflecting upon how Williams sets up and explores these stakes in the movements of the extended action sequence on the Platform, the allegory of mood and tone unfolds. Like with The Mirrored Heavens, Williams' choice to focus on characters who are government agents puts the action squarely in the high levels of social, political, and economic power -- of which the agents are both representatives and pawns. In this respect, the most significant connection between the agents is their nearly constant state of not knowing.

       Carson and Sarmax wake up in separate rooms on the Platform, unsure of where they are or even if they can initially trust each other; they do not know where they must go or what they must do, although such information becomes steadily available, as needed. Spencer and Linehan wake up in separate areas of a ship that is part of a group surrounding the Platform, embedded with command and combat teams respectively yet uncertain about their roles and about the developing situation. Take, for instance, Spencer's discussion with a technician as he comes out of cryo-storage:
     "Sir," she asks, "what's the name of this ship?"
     "The Larissa V," he replies.
     He has no idea where that came from. But apparently it's the right answer. He takes the jack, slots it into the back of his neck. Zone expands all around him. . . . (21)
From this point onward, Spencer and the other agents figure out their roles and the situation moment to moment, guessing and guessing again and receiving new information strictly as it becomes relevant. Having "no idea" defines their condition, to varying degrees depending on the character and on the particular point in the action. This management and parsing of data, of knowledge, and the confusions and mysteries and subterfuges it generates and permits, is crucial to the mood and tone of how Williams portrays the nature and functioning of political power in his Earth-Moon system of 2110 A.D. Information is incomplete and fragmented, protected, deferred, unreliable, vulnerable to tampering and deception -- echoing, I think, the state of affairs in the Bush administration and the ways that it engineered information to forward its agendas, resulting in an atmosphere of suspicion, tension, hubris, uncertainty, betrayal.

        Other aspects of the extended action sequence on the Europa Platform reinforce this atmosphere. Perhaps around halfway into The Burning Skies, I realised that Autumn Rain acted persistently through "proxies," hacking all kinds of drones and robots on the Platform to throw in the way of the US agents; the Rain also commandeers the Helios, a kind of weapons satellite, and begins firing it repeatedly at the Platform from a distance. As well, Williams occasionally alludes to the massive cost in human lives owing to the conflict on the Platform, the final "death toll" eventually "numbered in the millions" (261), but does so only briefly as the point-of-view characters rarely stop moving at high speeds. These millions of deaths are seen from afar, impersonally and with little remorse. In these two examples, I see terrorism and terrorists figured as enigmatic and evasive, coming from anywhere and being possibly anyone, moving in shadows, strange and remote, and I see the "war on terror" and its thousands of casualties rendered as insignificant collateral damage in the powerplays for political and cultural (and economic) dominance.

        For the final nearly 140 pages of The Burning Skies, Williams makes a striking change of pace and mood, as matters become more personal and so more intense, anxious, and disturbing. With the Europa Platform destroyed and Autumn Rain seemingly defeated, the US and Eurasian Coalition turn to re-establishing order, which includes a joint occupation of a neutral Hong Kong. This also includes the US moving against the Coalition on multiple, secret fronts, attempting to assume control of the Earth-Moon system in one, swift strike. So much for d├ętente.

        At the heart of this second movement of the novel is the imprisonment and torture of Claire Haskell, also known as the Manilishi, a super-razor prized by the US and the Rain to manipulate the zone. The imprisonment and torture constitute her reward for helping President Harrison survive the Rain's assault on the Platform. Two key elements make her torture disturbing and uncomfortable: one, the isolation and secrecy with which it occurs; two, its invasiveness, for Haskell's mind is hacked against her will. As both unpredictable threat and invaluable weapon, Haskell must be contained as well as mined for information. That mining for information is the torture:
     "What are you doing?" she asks.
     "I'm operating," he replies.
     He's not kidding. He's got her strapped back into the chair, her blood filled with painkillers so she can't feel a thing. She can see through only one eye. The other one's dangling in the zero-G beside her nose. He's plucked it out. The optic nerve is hanging there, along with tangles of circuitry that lead back inside her eye socket. He's got his razorwire extended from one hand into the circuitry. But she sees something else, too: droplets of blood floating in front of her, and she suddenly realizes that --
     "You've cut through my skull," she says.
     "Trepanation," he replies. "Of a sort." (304-305)
This "messing with her brain" (305) shifts the narrative to an intimately personal focus that, I suggest, is just as violent as the overt action of the Platform sequence. Penetrated by the torturer's "razorwire" through an open hole in her "skull," Haskell is incapacitated and unfeeling: helpless physically and mentally; utterly vulnerable. Much like the stories of rendition and torture carried out by the US government and some of its allies during the Bush administration, the treatment of Haskell by her own government speaks of the arrogance and coldness (as well as perhaps the fear) that promotes and enacts such practices in the name of "national security." The intimacy of Haskell's torture, the literal "messing" with her memories and fundamental sense of identity, suggests on one hand the inhumanity of this practice and, on the other hand, the decline or absence of the sociocultural and even legal values that should prevent it.

        Dystopian, indeed.

Military orbital drop ship

Restless Dialogue. Much like Williams' use of the present tense expresses and supports the nature of the future he envisions, his approach to dialogue reinforces the trilogy's underlying allegory of mood, atmosphere, and tone. Several reviews comment on the difficulty, at times, of keeping up with the narrative's intertwining plots and seemingly interchangeable characters. Mihir Wanchoo of Fantasy Book Critic, for instance, writes that Burning Skies' "intricate battle sequences" make it "a little hard for the reader to understand what might be actually happening," while the "constant switching of the POVs might disrupt the average reader from truly enjoying this story." I disagree with this sentiment, as Williams provides distinct cues when changing point-of-view characters and gives his characters individual voices. More importantly, those voices reflect the uncertainty, suspicion, and tension created in a world where, as discussed above, not knowing predominates.

        Throughout Burning Skies (and in The Mirrored Heavens), the dialogue illustrates, even articulates, both the management of information by those in power and the processes of confusion and realisation experienced by the characters. It is always terse, pointed, edgy, abrupt. The conversations between Spencer and Linehan epitomize these aspects of the dialogue in the novel. For example:
     "The fucking Eurasians," says Linehan. "They're here too."
     "Is that what the rumor mill's saying?"
     "That's what the officers are saying! What the hell's going on?"
     "Sounds like you already know it."
     "You were going to tell me, right?
     "I only just found out myself," says Spencer.
[. . .]
     "They're with us," says Spencer. "Not against."
     "You sure about that?"
     "Do I sound like I'm sure of fucking anything? I'm just saying what they're telling us up here."
     "Down here, too. This is a joint operation."
     "Aimed at Autumn Rain."
     "Or the Euro Magnates," says Linehan.
     "Who may be the same thing by now."
     "Who may always have been."
     "You really think they've been pulling the Rain's strings?"
     "I think you've got it backward, Spencer. What's the story with that chase you're monitoring?"
     "Getting weirder by the minute." (52-53)
From their separate parts of the ship, Spencer and Linehan must decipher the realities of the situation into which they have awakened by a combination of speculation, assessment of limited data, and what they hear second- or third-hand. Everything gets increasingly "weirder" as they begin establishing connections between their local situation and the wider context of all else happening around and inside the Europa Platform, so that "'What the hell's going on?'" becomes their basic condition of awareness -- as they progress deeper into the Platform physically as well as into the unfolding political implications of their circumstances. In fact, "only just [finding] out" and not being "sure . . . of anything" defines every point-of-view character's experience in Burning Skies, to varying degrees.

        The reader's confusions and discoveries occur simultaneously with the characters', such that the narrative works to manage information precisely as its world does. Confronted with this kind of fragmented, unreliable, and constantly shifting process of making sense of things, the reader becomes enmeshed in the dislocation, disorientation, and unpredictability of the narrative's events -- and so the mood, tone, and atmosphere of the narrative's setting and its allegorical connotations.

What is Real? In a discussion about cyberpunk on his Autumn Rain blog, Williams writes that "the essence of cyberpunk is that it's all about alienation." Alienation, I think, describes quite appropriately the temperament of the historical allegory at stake in The Burning Skies. Here, Williams furthers the updating of cyberpunk to early 21st-century concerns begun in The Mirrored Heavens, with characters alienated from their own memories and essential identity, such as Claire Haskell, and characters alienated in different ways from and by their own government, such as Spencer or Linehan or Sarmax (and, again, Claire Haskell).

        The opening discussion between Haskell and her former boss Sinclair establishes this underlying alienation crucial to the tone of the novel's historical allegory:
     "Because activating you meant restoring your true memories."
     "My true memories?" Her voice is taut.
     "Once they were restored, your loyalty would have been a wild card without the proper precautions. As the Rain found out the hard way. What's wrong?"
     Tears are running down her face. "You know what's wrong, you sick fuck. How can I tell what my real memories are?"
     "Because that's what we linked your activation to."
     "Fuck you and your sophistry! How do I know they're real?" (14)
Questions of what is "true" and what is "real" perpetually harry the characters in The Burning Skies. Haskell is the central figure, however, for these questions prove so crucial to her sense of self, a self she can never wholly trust because she can never actually stabilise the boundary between what is "real" and false in the construction of that self. Sinclair's unwillingness to see or acknowledge the frightening moral implications of Haskell's dilemma is discomfiting, distressing, "wrong." It is an obstinacy intimately wedded to Sinclair's belief in the ideological rightness of Autumn Rain -- and thus dismissive of other perspectives and so profoundly alienated and alienating.

        The Burning Skies, ultimately, relies upon the reader's awareness and even experience of the mood and atmosphere and discourse of the post-9/11 sociopolitical state of affairs. Its power, as with The Mirrored Heavens, derives from its reflection upon the implications of that state of affairs, implications that continue to unfold today.

        In this respect, the novel shows how SF can function as a description of and commentary on -- an allegory of -- what Le Guin called "our contemporary life," challenging the reader to dig below its surface of intense, exciting action and search out the deeper roots of its resonances and meanings. Herein resides the heart of Williams' impressive achievement with The Burning Skies: he lets readers have their cake and eat it too, giving them a gripping story that reveals upon reflection layers of thoughtful, provocative significance.

* On allegory, see M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 8th ed. (Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), pgs. 5-9.

Reviews/Commentaries on The Burning Skies
Fantasy Book Critic (Mihir Wanchoo, Aug. 2009)
Figures (Jess Horsley, May 2010)
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review (June 2009)
MentatJack (Apr. 2009)
MilSciFi (Mike McPhail, Apr. 2009)
Monsters and Critics (Sandy Amazeen, June 2009)
Omnivoracious (interview with Jeff VanderMeer, June 2009)
Only the Best Science Fiction & Fantasy (June 2010)
A Progressive on the Prairie (June 2009)
Rescued by Nerds (May 2009)
SFF World (Mark Yon, June 2010)
SF Signal (Andrew Liptak, July 2010)
Worlds in a Grain of Sand (Andrew Liptak, Aug. 2010)


Anonymous said...

Nice essay!

What struck me was also the complete absence of any motivations beyond the immediate or the personal (survival and dominance included) in pretty much all the characters (Sinclair and Haskell being the possible exceptions). Occasionally lip service is paid by those on top, but this as far as it goes.

This might be part of Williams extrapolating into a near future where permanent crisis management (he mentions pressures from global warming among other things) and the marginalization of civil(ian) society has become the default state of affairs.

The urgency of the present tense mode cuts both ways - it also removes any real sense of planning for the future.

Mike Johnstone said...

@Anon: Thanks! You're right about motivations: they're always very much of-the-moment. Also, motivations are very much liable to adapt and change depending on the information that becomes available at a particular time. As you say, it's an atmosphere of "permanent crisis management," and any "planning for the future" is done in increments of minutes or hours or at most days ... at least, on the surface. One thing that The Burning Skies does in Parts III and IV, though, is reveal some deeper motives that have been at work for a while, below the surface. That switch to opening up some of the hidden, more long-term motives of certain characters shifted the narrative to a new register, widened the picture, and made everything more complex. Yet that sense of immediacy remains, which for me is so key to what Williams is doing.