Saturday, April 4, 2015

Exorcising the Future

Looking for Jake and Other Stories (2005) by China Mieville, containing the following stories:

"Foundation" (2003); "The Ball Room" (2005); "Reports of Certain Events in London" (2004); "Familiar" (2002); "Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopedia" (2005); "Details" (2002); "Go Between" (2005); "Different Skies" (1999); "An End to Hunger" (2000); "'Tis the Season" (2004); "Jack" (2005); "On the Way to the Front" (2005); and "The Tain" (2002).

The lessons we're supposed to learn from many of these stories are so up-front, so undigested into narrative form, that Mieville sometimes seems to be earnestly auditioning for a socialist Twilight Zone TV series. "The Monsters are Due in Buckingham Palace."

Mieville is a fine writer. At novel length, the message becomes part of the narrative, for the most part, and effectively so, at least in the four novels I've read. So, too, the post-modernist tic of foregrounding the artificiality of the story throughout the telling of that story, which can be an annoyance in the longer works, but a minor one. 

Of the stories here, though, Mieville abandons both overt message and foregrounded artificiality only rarely. "Details," his much-reprinted story from an H.P. Lovecraft-themed anthology, is a brilliant piece of contemporary Cthulhu Mythos-making.  Its settings and characters are grounded in the normative and the mundane; its implications are cosmic and disturbing. I also quite like "The Ball Room," which subtly weaves questions about racial identity and immigration and corporate ethics into a sharp, smart horror story.

Of the other stories, "Jack" works best if you've had some experience with the world of New Corbuzan, that epic-steampunk city of three of Mieville's novels. "The Tain" and "Looking for Jake" are both (intentionally) attenuated, elliptical tales of existential invasion by mysterious forces from Outside. London falls, and not the one in Ontario, Canada.  

The rest are either funny and slight, grim and slight, or bleakly funny and slight. They almost remind me more of some of the more didactic short fiction of frequent Twilight Zone contributor Charles Beaumont than anyone else -- Beaumont of "The Howling Man," punching you in the face with allegory, inexplicably made more subtle for Serling's TV version of the story. Uneven but recommended.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1952): Sometimes one forgets how much social critique there was in the works of quintessentially American, quintessentially Golden-Age-of-Science-Fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov. Asimov never attempted anything resembling complex literary style and his characterizations could often be rudimentary. It really didn't matter unless one or both of those things are deal-breakers for a reader: the ideas were the thing, sometimes developed, sometimes simply spun off on the way to another idea.

The Caves of Steel is a remarkably seminal version of what we'd now call a genre mash-up -- the mystery novel and the science-fiction novel. On a crowded and somewhat dystopian Earth of about 1100 years into the future, someone murders a roboticist visiting Earth from one of the long-self-emancipated  colony worlds. 

This murder is bad for a number of reasons, not least of which being that the colony worlds are far, far, far more technologically and militarily advanced than Earth. Many -- both Terran and sympathetic Spacer -- fear retaliatory invasion, even though 'Spacers' as they're called by Terrans really hate spending time on Earth or among Earth humans, whom they seem to regard as being diseased and unclean.

So the New York City police commissioner puts Elijah 'Lije' Bailey, C-5 level detective in the New York City Police Department (though New York City now occupies pretty much all of New York State and New Jersey as well) on the case. But he'll have to work with a Spacer detective. That detective is R. Daneel Olivaw. The 'R.' stands for 'Robot.' 

Relatively primitive robots are being forced into the Earth work-force by the Spacers through pressure on the Earth's government, ostensibly to make the lives of Terrans better. Earth people tend to hate robots because they take people's jobs. But the Spacers have also refined robots over the centuries, relying on them as important parts of their relatively unpopulated worlds, making them in a wide variety of shapes and sizes -- including Olivaw's type, which can pass for human unless subjected to quite a  bit of specialized scrutiny.

The commissioner trusts Bailey's tact and his detective skills. Bailey may dislike both Spacers and robots, but he's got an open mind -- for a Terran. So off go Bailey and Olivaw, to solve a crime with no apparent physical evidence. The mystery is pretty solid. Bailey makes some mistakes along the way, and we're treated to more than one pretty good explanation of what turns out to be faulty reasoning. 

Was Asimov 'right' in his predictions? Well, probably not -- the assumptions made for why robots cannot kill human beings seem pretty ludicrous in the light of the last 60 years of computer evolution. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are an integral part of his long-lived robotic universe (by the time The Caves of Steel came out in 1953, Asimov had been writing about his Three Laws robots for more than a decade, and he'd keep writing about them until his death in 1992). They don't seem plausible now, at least in the sense that robots in Asimov's universe simply can't be programmed without the laws for reasons explained in the novel.

Asimov's hive-like, overpopulated Earth does seem a lot more plausible, especially after another 1100 years of resource usage. Asimov's future Earth lives on the constant edge of complete collapse due to resource exhaustion and an increasingly over-strained infrastructure. Earth has also undergone a sort of acculturated agoraphobia: human beings are afraid to go outside of the domed-in cities. So afraid that to Bailey, it seems reasonable to exclude the idea that a person could have walked across open land as part of the murder plot. 

It's a lot of fun to see Asimov explore the sorts of social conventions that might arise after hundreds of years living in a quasi-communal mega-city. The gender conventions of public washroom behavior become important in a world where 95% of all people only have access to public washrooms (or 'Personals' as they're called in the novel). So, too, does importance attach to some of the games played by teenagers on the massive moving sidewalks that move people around New York (and every other mega-city). Bailey's memories sketch in the peculiar, over-populated homogeneity of the future Earth throughout the novel: one such memory involves a trip to the New York City zoo to see sparrows, cats, and dogs. 

This Earth has been emptied out of almost everything that doesn't serve a purpose. The population's diet consists to a great extent of products made from a multitude of varieties of genetically engineered yeast. Petroleum has been exhausted. Uranium and other fissionable materials may soon be exhausted, as will coal. The powers that be discuss various forms of solar power, but no one has the will to build them. No one has the will to walk outside, much less the will to colonize new worlds or create and deploy new technologies.

There's a certain amount of serious thinking going on for a mystery novel -- about how civilizations fall, and about how their fall can be prevented. Both Earth and Spacer society need radical revision to survive. It's the robots that may be the key -- rational, cool-minded, and incapable of causing harm to humans. And Bailey and Olivaw would have more crime-solving to do. Highly recommended.

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