Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods"

My favorite speculative fiction of all time is Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days which I read back in 2012, while the very first science fiction I read was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I read these books only a few months apart and I was forever changed because of them and this change has definitely got me interested to venture on acquiring and experiencing more of what the science fiction genre has to offer as much as I could. Eleven more sci-fi books later, I remained insatiable, more so after finishing this one. The very first thing that struck me while in the middle of consuming this novel by Walter Tevis is that it was unmistakably a majestic blend of both the dystopic landscapes featured in Huxley's book, and written in the same nostalgic manner of aching, melancholic sensibility and spiritual contemplation very much alive in Cunningham's work. With that, I couldn't help but find myself deeply embedded in the pores of this haunting tale of Mockingbird.

Like most sci-fi books, it started with an off-beat promising premise that slowly developed into something personal and tragic for both the characters and a reader like myself. I think books like this one work very well for me because they lavish on the often inarticulately beautiful quality of human life and the art and terrible burden of living itself; how precious and fleeting our lives truly are, and what happens when a certain moral decay or a disintegration of long-held valuable things occur. Truth be told, Mockingbird is a tapestry of themes I mostly associate with some of my favorite sci-fi stories like Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, to name a few. There's the usual existential crisis where characters live in an age of detachment from self and/or others but suddenly and quite poignantly awaken from their stupor to contemplate and pursue the meaning of why they exist to begin with and why the world has been reduced to shambles, whether physically or metaphorically.

Mockingbird follows the same formula with its own invigorating narrative. The central theme of this book focuses on the grim possibility of humanity losing literacy, particularly their ability to read, and how that seemingly simple negligence would follow a series of other significant losses due to population control via fertility-inhibiting drugs (and other forms of recreational drug use to numb everything away), the disappearance of any creative endeavor like art and literature, and utter extinction of family, community and religious inclinations. All of these set-ups sound awfully familiar already, and rightly so because Tevis does share his dystopic characterizations of his world in the same vein as Huxley's inarguably superior novel Brave New World. However, what does elevate Mockingbird in another new level entirely is the quality it also shares with another novel I love to pieces, Specimen Days, when it comes to its character arcs and relationships.

"My upbringing, like that of all the other members of my Thinker Class, had made me into an unimaginative, self-centered and drug-addicted fool. Until learning how to read I had lived in a whole underpopulated world of self-centered, drug-addicted fools, all of us living by our Rules of Privacy in some crazy dream of Self-Fulfillment." ~ Paul 

The summary found at the back of the book was slightly misleading. I originally thought that the android character Spofforth would be the main focus of the entire novel but it turns out that this responsibility belongs to two other characters; a man and a woman named Paul Bentley and Mary Lou respectively who are instantly recognizable as the representational equivalent of their world's very own Adam and Eve, as both stumble their way into consciousness and awareness together. Paul was introduced as the only human being who has the ability to read which he picked up on by accident when he unearthed an instructional videotape on the subject. Spofforth hired him to record the written dialogues in the archives of silent films which was an activity Paul has learned to enjoy and appreciate. By learning to read and watching film from a forgotten era, certain feelings were brought forth from Paul; thoughts and emotions he never recognized which only deepened when he begins a relationship with Mary Lou who dared him to question and outright ignore the rules programmed into them as children. True to being a biblical Eve, Mary Lou dares Paul to challenge the status quo.

Paul's journey to "memorize his life" as suggested by Mary Lou was done by the very simple act of scribbling his daily grind into pages upon pages of diary entries. But the more he records his own memories and encounters, the more miserable he becomes when he realizes how dull the world has become with its people caught in a standstill, burying all their self-awareness through drugs and quick sex. His nuanced journey from imprisonment to liberation on two levels--the physical and the emotional--is, for me, the most humane aspect of this book. I eagerly discovered things alongside him as he devoured what scarce books he can find in the places he travels. One notable place is an abandoned mall outlet where small groups of Christian families reside. His collective experience with these people is one of the most ironically comical yet heartwarming moments found in the novel.

"Why don't we talk to one another? Why don't we huddle together against the cold wind that blows down the empty streets in the city? People used to read, hearing the voices of the living and the dead speaking to them in eloquence silence, in touch with a babble of human talk that must have filled the mind in a manner that said I am human. I talk and I listen and I read. Why did we stop reading? What happened?" ~ Mary Lou

Mary Lou is an engaging, clever and intelligent young woman who was inquisitive enough to figure out by herself that there is something amiss in the world she lives in. All her life she has been on the run, disobeying rules and making a mockery of the robot-police state, all for the sake of not forgetting what makes her human and unique in spite of the initial programming all children are required to undergo which diminishes personality and identity. Paul was understandably drawn to her and as he teaches her to read, she in turn opens him up to a realm of turbulent feelings and creative musings, instilling in him dismissed qualities such as imagination and intellectual curiosity. Her journey in this book is about satisfying that same curiosity as well as understanding why children have become extinct and accepting that there is a faint glimmer of hope that she may have found a way to turn things around if she's brave and resolute enough to do it.

"I would like to know, before I die, what it was like to be the human being I have tried to be all my life." ~ Robert Spofforth

Spofforth is the first character we get introduced to in this book but the role he plays is much less personal but nonetheless just as moving and sad. A robot created by implanting another living person'a brain, he suffers dreams and thoughts from that late person's life and so develops an acute sense of 'humanness'. This is troubling because what Spofforth really wants to do is to cease to exist but his programming does not allow him to die as long as humans still have a need for his kind, a robot of the Make Nine series, and probably the last one there is. For an android, Spofforth is surprisingly humane and often relatable, especially during such times he is subjected to gloom and suicidal thoughts. 

Mockingbird is an enduring work of the heart and the imagination, an enchanting tale about human resilience and creativity while also being a painful yet also humorous commentary on the qualities that we as humans value and celebrate and the awful aftermath that follows once we take these same things for granted in the long run. Much like Brave New World, this book's take on a dystopic society of drug-addled and individual-based society is unforgettable, and its prose is sparse yet can powerfully illuminate dark recesses of the soul in the same manner Specimen Days has achieved as well. The world Paul and Mary Lou live in may be underpopulated but their story will certainly proliferate strong emotions from readers who will consume it and hopefully appreciate such simple yet essential things in life we can so easily forget and destroy.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Profundities of isolation and dislocation

I've had the longest fascination about war and the military lifestyle whether in historical books or works of fiction in general. There's just something deeply stirring about men and women giving up their lives in service of country or a government system even when that kind of loyalty demands death, destruction and bitter endings. I have great respect and admiration for this kind of people even if those things are mixed with pity and sadness as well. My enjoyment for reading, watching and learning about wars throughout histories is a double-edged one; on one hand, it does break my heart to know about such fragile and empty lives being sacrificed as people in such compromising positions have to face the sharpest consequences. On the other, I often view the bloodshed and deaths during war-times (fictional or not) to be the most thrilling and exciting stories ever told. To have literature grant me access and safe passage inside the heads of the people who were part of it, and travel the dystopic landscapes of such times will always be the most fruitful of my reading experiences.

"This is really a novel about coping back to regular life after the thrills and traumas of conflict--and finding that you have become alien. If you want to tell a story about war, you need to find a way of articulating a profundity of alienation, a depth of strangeness and dislocation."
Joe Haldeman's science fiction novel The Forever War was not quite what I was expecting and definitely belongs to the scarcity of books that were able to surprise me in both enlightening and despairing of ways right after finishing them. It tackled some themes concerning sexuality in a manner that I still wasn't sure how to feel about even at this moment, and it fulfilled my earnest desire to read warfare in both its cold and exacting nature and its terrible, malicious form. I felt entirely full on these aspects of storytelling because Joe Haldeman's experiences in the Vietnam War (which was partly an inspiration for this story) truly do come alive for this grand novel, and were contextualized with such an aching retrospection and an uncannily sharp-edged clarity infused with a wicked sense of gallows humor. This was a story about war and its aftermath and earth-shattering effects on cultures and societies from someone who genuinely knows what a battlefield looks, feels and smells like firsthand which makes the physical and psychological descriptions of the intergalactic and planetary battle scenes here quite haunting. The horrors depicted are uncomfortably clinical at times too.

What was so notably interesting about The Forever War is its science jargon concerning time dilation during space travel which meant that the soldiers, who fight wars against the alien lifeforms they consider enemies named Taurans, are bound to age in a shockingly slow pace. And this is where the central conflict and existential mediation of the book delve deeply about. Told in the first-person perspective of William Mandella, The Forever War is not just a story about war and death or the dystopic concepts of harmony, progress and social change that have always been essential to any grim science fiction novel. The Forever War is foremost about isolation from humanity in the most visceral level of unfamiliarity that one tends to become alien even to himself. In his service as a war veteran and on-and-off-and-on again soldier on duty, Mandella has lived an almost immortal life where he could stay in a certain planet for five months but come back to earth a century later. This, of course, is a disconcerting transition, particularly when the world that you know changes and destroys itself in order to create a new cultural identity and status quo right before your very eyes and you have no other choice but to adjust to these abrupt changes.

As exciting and wonderfully compelling the moments of Mandella being a soldier were, it's actually the daily grind of his civilian life post-war that provides this novel with its beating, bleeding heart along with all the messy and intricate parts. One of the shift in societal values in Earth is the normalcy of homosexuality and outright abolishment of heterosexuality (which eventually softened in another decade or so where now heterosexuality can be 'reformed' or 'cured'). Procreation between man and woman is now seen as a wasteful activity and biological harvesting is the more prevalent practice so homosexual couplings are encouraged so the population is kept under control as well as the eugenics that come along with it. It's an idea and plotline that has made me shiver. I identify as a queer woman though I'm not very political about it, or at all, honestly. I wasn't offended or anything like that because I always contextualize the times a book was written in before accusing the material to be hate-mongering or promoting discriminatory propaganda.

True, I found the portrayal of homosexuality in this book as slightly offhanded and bizarre because the reversal of what was considered taboo, sexuality-wise, did not sit well with me, though I understand the point Haldeman is trying to get across by switching the roles. Now, I don't think this novel is trying to promote either sexuality but it does make an interesting argument concerning societal attitudes and how much they can be changed decades or centuries from now. Fortunately enough, I believe the generation of today is taking a more positive step forward in accepting homosexuality and other gender-specifics identifications outside what is considered 'traditional'. But The Forever War is a cautionary tale on how a wrong step does lead to a misdirection where an exclusion of one race, sexuality, etc. does in fact only reinforce damaging and harmful (if not utterly barbaric) way of thinking. Much like how the homosexual society of Haldeman's creation is now the oppressor of a minority it perceives to be sinful or unnatural.

There may be plenty of discussions to be had on that aspect of the novel (and I'm sure other people online and in GR have talked about it too), and it's certainly the one that has struck a chord in me.

In spite of that polarizing theme, this novel has a few other ways to engage anyone who enjoys science fiction in its most eye-opening, radical and unexpectedly humorous and moving of moments. William Mandella's crisis concerning the age-generation gap between him and the platoons he must handle and work alongside with had been an interesting development to watch, as well as his bittersweet relationship with Margay Potter, yet another soldier who is his only connection to a world that was lost to him for good, which provides the book with so much needed warmth and insight. 

I also loved the fact that, indirectly, this book also cautions us against the concept, if not the pursuit of some us, for 'immortality' and our rather stupid desire to acquire. Life is only precious because it is supposed to be short. We are supposed to expire. But someone of Mandella's position is not allowed to live a brief yet fulfilled life but rather just exist by default, suspended in a sort of personal limbo of repetitive cycles because he can never be released from active duty as long as humanity keeps fighting its monsters, real or imaginary. This was really well-done in the book; Haldeman has given us a harrowing depiction of Mandella's struggle to fit in in an ever-changing world that always seem to leave him behind as he's stuck in a continuous loop of soul-crushing military service with little to no hope for a normal, well-balanced life.

The Forever War is a highly sophisticated science fiction novel that happens to be only the first book of a series. Its writing is purposeful and meditative, filled with infectious moment of grief, action, philosophical dimensions, and, above all else, one man's tireless quest for a loving life against the suffocating immensity of deaths around him. Now I won't have time to read the next installment this year or the next but I am definitely going to follow up on it once I set up a new reading roster.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Not a single tear flowed or was shed by me

This .GIF image perfectly captures the range of distinct reactions that Philip K. Dick's Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said got out of me in the expanse of reading it in the last four days. There was bafflement--then disbelief--then mild disgust--and, finally, karmic relief. Don't get me wrong, it's not a badly written book. Of course fucking not, it's PHILIP K. DICK! His outstanding Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep will forever destroy me in this world and in another parallel existence because asdfghjklmalfunctionerror10101...

Anyway, that being said, something along the way went wrong as I peruse through the two hundred and four pages of this novel; I can't really pinpoint exactly where, but all I know is that I couldn't help but alternate between confusion and rage as I went on. Originally, around eighty pages or so, I was going to rate it with four stars because, right from the get-go, I was just enjoying the brisk, no-nonesense yet highly engrossing pacing and linguistic style that Dick had incorporated in his storytelling; the breadth of the entire narrative work felt so much lighter than Do Androids Dream, honestly, making it easy for me to keep up with every twist and turn as I follow the protagonist Jason Taverner, a government-experimented Six which basically means a person with enhanced physical/sexual appeal and whatever attractive aptitude there is. He's a former musician-turned celebrity talk show host and in a relationship with another icon named Heather Hart, also a Six. After a confrontation with one of the women he duped and took advantage of, promising her a career in showbiz only to sleep with her a few times, he was left physically compromised and woke up in a dingy motel room with only a wad of cash on hand but with no trace of discernible legal records of proof of identity whatsoever.

It's as if he's been literally deduced to non-existence.

Set in a fictional futuristic world of 1988 in the United States where everything seems to be under the command of a rampant police state where laws and legislation are just plain FUCKED-UP (sexual legal consent is reduced to thirteen years of age; African-American lineage is sanctioned to die out), the premise and the mystery that this book are hitched on were promising and I really did eat it all up in the first two days of reading. By the fourth day, however, as I stare blankly at the last page (right after containing myself from convulsing in laughter), I realized it had more to do with my unmistakable dislike for every goddamn character featured in the book with the exception of the police general Felix Buckman (whom I was 50/50 with) and the very brief insert of one Mary Anne Dominic (who really should have been a major character as oppose to some flimsy extra in the background).

Other than those two, I cringe my nose at the rest, more particularly in vile contempt for the overall way the female characters are portrayed, the greatest offenders of them all have to be the insecure, selfish and self-entitled paranoid bitch Heather Hart, and the clinically insane (sort of a) sexual predator who is skilled in the art of emotional blackmail, Kathy Nelson. The least offenders have to be Ruth Mae (whose speech about love and grief was actually pretty philosophical--too bad it came off completely dissonant to her general characterization), and the bisexual (pansexual?) fetish-driven drug addict Alys who had an incestuous affair with her twin brother and sired a son with him. And YES she is less offensive than Hart and Nelson because at least Alys had a personality I did enjoy reading about while the other two were so emotionally flat and perceived only in how the main male character objectifies them. They're placeholders that reflect his sexual frustration and inadequacy which make them rather one-dimensional miserable fuckers.

Normally, I could overlook gender-biased portrayals if it serves the story or a theme in the narrative. However, it didn't feel like these poorly characterized female characters ever served a purpose except to interact with the male protagonist, Jason Taverner. I don't have any kind of concern about his character since he took that mescaline drug. I suppose I eagerly wanted to know what happened to him that he lost his identity and people don't remember him at all in spite of being a popular son of a bitch. My interest in his welfare continued to decline the more he showed what a pompous chauvinist he was (although his very short interaction with Mary Anne Dominic rekindled some sympathy because that was the only sweet and humanizing moment for his character in this book).

Then again, everyone in this book is miserable--and not even in a compelling way that makes me sympathetic for them. Whatever end they got (Dick was kind enough to wrap up their fates nicely in his Epilog) is something they more than deserved, in my brutally honest opinion. It's actually great that Dick didn't leave it to chance, or his readers' imaginations, as to how these characters' fates came to an end because I personally didn't form any sort of connection with them to ponder about what happened in their lives after the novel finished. So thank Loki that Dick inquisitively wrapped it up.

I love character-driven stories; I root for characters with problems and struggles that make me sympathetic to their plights; characters who later on develop self-awareness of their bad choices instead of just going through the motions of being victims forever. None of the characters in this book ever grew or did anything that could have redeemed them, with the exception of Mary Anne (who is so slight of a character that she only appeared in six or eight pages).

I did LOVE THE ENDING though. Basically, the beautiful blue vase that was the product of love, commitment and talent that Mary Anne produced was able to be displayed in a museum (while she had a career in ceramics; how ironically bittersweet and awful was it that the shoe-in extra gets a happy ending?) AND MORE OR LESS OUTLIVED EVERY MISERABLE FUCKER IN THIS BOOK. That was poetic justice if nothing else.

In any case, I will keep reading more of Philip K. Dick's books because THERE ARE SO MANY OUT THERE and I am looking forward to acquaint myself more with his writing. Overall, Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said just didn't work for me as a sum of its parts, especially when the parts are composed of characters that I perceived to be grimy, irresponsible, disablers of human dignity and progress. The mystery plot and the answer concerning Jason Taverner's sudden lack of identity was still a pretty thrilling read, though.


Friday, June 5, 2015

A Chronodiegetic Schematic of the Elastic Present

Enter the following data:

META (search for definition)
SCIENCE FICTION (search for definition)
TIME TRAVEL (search for definition)

Trajectory locked.

To find the only way to exit a time loop, please refer to Appendix A of this manual (How To Live Safely Inside a Science Fictional Universe)

When it happens, this is what happens: By reading Charles Yu's incomparably original work of fiction, I'm realizing, have realized and will have realized that I've lived and I am still living inside a box that travels backwards in time when I'm supposed to propel myself forward into the unknown future of my own makings. We are all time machines, he claims, but most people's machines are broken that they get stuck or get looped or get trapped. Our greatest anxiety is the box we live inside of--everyone's personal TARDIS, if you may--and it's something we use to evade the present, re-create the past, and deal with the future. We are required to move ahead and yet more often than not we stay in a standstill, reliving memories and regret as if their tune is all we are and what we can only afford to look forward to.

In this inexhaustibly consistent yet still beguilingly self-referential novel is where we meet Charles Yu--a character you may or may not interchange with the author--who is a thirty-something time machine repairman working in Minor Universe 31 whose inhabitants tend to get a little loose with time traveling and get themselves in a pickle all the time. Yu only has two sustainable personal relationships with: TAMMY (his vehicle to travel in time), and Ed (a fictional space-dog of a sidekick). One day he encounters a future version of himself and shoots it dead. Literally running in a loop where all points in his timeline converse and diverse before his eyes, Charles also has to find his father, a failed time-travel theorist who might as well fell in a black hole after he just disappeared with no rhyme or reason, and only a book which Yu himself has written in the future entitled How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is the key to unravel it all.

With both unyielding clarity and stupendous lack of linear direction, this book serves more as a commentary of the science fiction genre and its conventions, particularly the literary approach to the time paradox, as well as the rudimentary themes of existential crisis, quest for autonomy, and both the illusion and victory of choice. Most critics have even compared it to Douglas Thomas' Hitchhiker series fused with Philip K. Dick's emphatic literary sensibilities, and yet Charles Yu's scintillating book stands apart and all on its own. 

"Most people I know live their lives in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward."

I will attempt to explain why this book can possibly change your life if you're willing to see past through the heavy-laden self-referential flow of the narrative because underneath that seemingly impenetrable exterior is a story so rife with meaningful insights on human connections and the pursuit of happiness all the while paying respects to what the science fiction genre as a whole contributes to our goals of self-fulfillment and progression. I would caution, though, that this is never going to be for everyone; its writing is eloquently paradoxical, and unmistakably a taste only a few might acquire; and those that would will delight in its essence.

I've recommended this book to a close friend of mine who shares my affinity with the NBC-now-Yahoo-sponsored show, Community. Created by Dan Harmon, a showrunner as equally kooky as his own creation, Community is a tremendously meta and experimental basketcase of a situational comedy series that continues to push even its own envelope and has just wrapped up its sixth season earlier this week. Its unique approach to comedy and storytelling is what made it endearing to its fans that the show acquired a cult following whose passion an outsider can never truly understand unless he joins the circle for himself. Much like said show, Charles Yu's novel operates in the same level of manic disregard for what is conventional and safe in telling a story. This two-hundred and thirty-nine paged paperback is INSANE. 

Even though it's fairly written in an understandable contemporary language and style, the conceptual narrative framework can still be alienating to a certain extent since it's mostly an open discussion on the theorems and mechanics through philosophical ramblings of the character as the author, and the author as the character. This novel essentially reads like the kind of conversation you will have with yourself if you're someone who is too self-aware for your own good. It breaks itself apart. It questions even the act of asking a question. It carves itself a special place in the universe where only it can make sense both its own state of being and non-existence. It's quite difficult to get across just how incredibly complex and frustratingly clever this book is. Whatever I type in the review will forever pale in comparison of what the novel itself actually offers the readers, and that is a chance to interrogate oneself in a manner that I can only akin to not only breaking the fourth wall of the plane of reality but hammering it into a shape both familiar and unrecognizable.

"Time isn't a placid lake, recording our ripples...we are too slight, too inconsequential, despite all of our thrashing and swimming and waving our arms about..sure, there's a little bit of splashing up the surface but that doesn't even register in the depths, in the powerful undercurrents miles below us, taking us wherever they are taking us."

As a self-referential ode to science fiction conventions, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a self-sustaining metaphor of the genre and formula of writing science fiction itself while also making snide or glib commentary upon itself while it's busy outlining the time paradox via a bittersweet personal experience of the lead character he succinctly and quite pitifully termed as the 'father-son-axis'. In a shallow surface, this is an autobiographical search for family and identity; on another level it's a pastiche of humanity's fascination for the concept of time travel; and resting on another layer of that is a symphonic composition that poignantly captures how human beings are their own time machines after all. We are  highly intelligent species with an acute sense of time and therefore we are always able to create and define what is past and future while also simultaneouslylaughably and heart-breakingly unable to LIVE IN THE PRESENT which is more elastic than we ever realize. We mourn the past; we are eager to discover the future. But we never really enjoy what we are and who we are in the present.

As Charles Yu's insightful manual claims: "Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine." What is about time travel that a lot of us are so smitten by and curious of? Isn't it the uncanny ability to be able to pass through our lives as observers, to re-live our moments of defeat and regret, hoping we can somehow change what happened so it can dictate what will happen next? Being able to time-travel means we might be able to rewrite what has already been read and discarded; worn-out stories that we've desperately clung to because we believe they're the only truths we must preserve in order to live another day. Yu's novel forces us to examine these beliefs, to really dissect why we remain stuck in our time machines, going over events as oppose to creating new ones. On the other end of the spectrum, some of us--like me--would rather SKIP AHEAD.

Right after finishing the book, I realized that I've been caught in a time loop myself. We all have been everytime we get caught somewhere between mourning of what was behind us and daydreaming about what lies ahead. And I for one have this tendency to wish I can fast-forward to my life--ten or twenty years to the future. That's why I like reading science fiction. It appeals to my wish fulfillment of envisioning a made-up future without having to do the work in the present. Hell, while midway through a good book, I would cheat and LOOK AT THE LAST PAGE. And I did the same thing with Yu's novel and you know what I got in the end?

An empty page with this note: [This page is intentionally left blank]

I didn't get its significance until I finished the entire novel itself. That's when it hit me--this self-annihilating habit of mine to try and hurry up the steady pace of my life just so I can get over both the small and the big stuff--it's how I keep getting trapped. Upon having that very epiphany now that I'm staring at that said last page of this book for the second time, I actually teared up a little bit. It seemed inconsequential at the moment but contextualizing it with the overall pattern in how I live my life, I realized what a damaged fool I have been.

So this is what Charles Yu, ultimately, wants to say to himself and to us with his book: 

"Find the book you wrote, and read it until the end, but don't turn the last page yet, keep stalling, see how long you can keep expanding the infinitely expandable moment. Enjoy the elastic present, which can accommodate as little as much as you want to put in there. Stretch it out, LIVE INSIDE IT."