Novums Foreign and Domestic

Anyone who reads more than the bare minimum of contemporary criticism of sf, particularly academic criticism, will have come across the concept of the novum, as advanced by Darko Suvin, meaning “the central imaginative novelty in an sf text, the source of the most important distinctions between the world of the tale and the world of the reader.” That’s Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s gloss on the term, at any rate, in The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (page 47, if you’re interested), at the start of what is the most useful discussion of the term’s origins and evolution that I’ve yet encountered. To summarize: in strict Suvinian terms, in a work of “optimal sf” novums are “validated by cognitive logic” and create a “multipoint metaphor” which “dominates” the text; the degree to which an sf text excavates the novum’s potential for this domination to create “rich and varied aesthetic effects” becomes a marker of its success or failure.

Of course, as Csicsery-Ronay Jr rightly notes, in most contemporary sf things are a bit more complicated than that. There’s plenty of sf which contains scientifically nonsensical novums validated by the merest pretense of cognitive logic and, particularly when it comes to populist science fiction, there are large audiences which do not care one jot about this, and derive science-fictional pleasures anyway. Equally, while the idea of a single shaping novum works well for a lot of sf written before, ooh, about 1960, since then the trend, and arguably the expectation, has been towards the presence of multiple interacting novums. What Csicsery-Ronay Jr calls “carnivalesque” sf – such as Fairyland (1995) or River of Gods (2004) — is often valorised as the most appropriate response to the modern world. Clearly this doesn’t mean single-novum works as envisaged by Suvin have gone extinct, nor that they can’t find their own successes — Csicsery-Ronay Jr lists the attractions of single-novum works as “intellectual intensity, elegance, and a sense of dynamic rigor that may be treated as fatality or comedy” (66). This seems fair to me, particularly when you think that the classic single-novum form is the sf short story, but the more immediate reason I like this list, and the rest of Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s discussion, is that it’s helped me to articulate my reservations and admirations for two books I’ve read recently. Both are, or can be discussed as, single-novum books, and both are – in different ways – driven by a sense of playfulness about those novums, even while being shaped by them.

Blonde Roots coverThat said, to deploy sf terminology in the vicinity of the first, Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, may appear to be self-defeating, and even to risk doing violence to the text. I can use that terminology to tell you, for instance, that it’s an alternate history in which the polarity of the slave trade is inverted, and “blak” enslaves “whyte”; but as Gwyneth Jones notes in her review, Blonde Roots is very far from being a conventional alternate history. (Or, if you prefer, the nature of the reversal cannot be expressed in terms of a plausible train of cognitive logic.) The first thing you see when you open the book is a map: it depicts an Earth that could not exist, a place of transposed geography which places “Aphrika”, with the familiar outline of Africa, where our Europe is, and similarly “Europa” where our Africa is – and yet leaves a Britain-shaped island off the coast of Aphrika, known as the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa. If more confirmation that this is not alternate history in any straightforward or rigorous sense, even relative to such recent fantasies of history as Naomi Novik’s Temeraire and its sequels, is needed, it quickly becomes apparent that the climates have been swapped along with the geography — the UK of GA is on the equator, and therefore tropical, while Europa’s weather is so dour it’s known as “the grey continent”.

This, then, is the initial playfulness of Blonde Roots: it is a comedy, and it invites us to be in on its joke. It’s a good joke, and Evaristo certainly gets her money’s worth from it, often with a sting; and novum-like, the joke shapes the book’s entire reality. Underlining the above point about climate, for instance, one chapter is called “Heart of Greyness”, and features a trader visiting a contact gone native. In the great town of Londolo, in the UK of GA, we find Mayfah, “the most expensive piece of real estate in the known world”; Paddinto Station; and a literal, functional Underground Railroad. There are suburbs. CVs. Baringso Bank. “Barbae” dolls. Coasta Coffee. A Minstrel Show. On Voodoomass, it’s “business as usual” for slaves.

Within this clamour of parody, there is a familiar rock to cling to: the plot. Blonde Roots hews to what can be thought of as a template slavery story – abduction from home, years of service, attempted escape, recapture, exile to plantation, formation of community – with deliberate precision, such that the only unfamiliar element of it is the central reversal. (Gwyneth Jones’ review also points out parallels with Alex Haley’s book Roots; I haven’t read Roots, but from what I’ve gleaned it makes sense as a template.) So in Londolo we meet Doris Scagglethorpe, engaged in an escape attempt. Back home in Europa, Doris’ life was a generic Western European medieval/feudal life, freshened because explained to us, with its customs and habits, as though exotic: “Pa’s hair was the dark ginger of the folk from the Border Lands. It fell to his shoulders in spirals beneath the wide-brimmed farmer’s hat he always wore when outdoors” (10) – the sting here is that later there is a deal of stuff about the hairdressing of Europane “flyaway fine hair” (30) to achieve the twists and braids of Ambossan women, in response to which Doris notes that, “As it was their world I was living in, I had image issues, of course” (31).

Initially, Doris’ present and past are juxtaposed, with flashbacks describing her abduction and forcible bringing-to-awareness about race, and how she came to be owned by Kaga Konata Katamba I — note the initials; Doris gets branded with them. KKK is a rich slaver, working class made good, and a firm anti-abolitionist. In the middle of the Blonde Roots there are some extracts from “The Flame”, a self-regarding periodical written by Katamba arguing for the necessity and rightness of the slave trade, using all the arguments familiar from our own history (“Craniofecia Anthropetry” proves that the negroid race has a superior intellect …); and there is then a period in which Doris works on a plantation, her fall from (relative) privilege to the lowest of the low (a “field wiggar”) complete. This last is certainly the most science-fictionally interesting section of the book, because it’s where the shackles of satire start to be cast off, and Doris starts to participate in the development of a new, hybrid, slave culture. “Happy Birthday” and similar tunes are refigured as songs of Doris’ homeland; Doris starts thinking that, “Now that it was gone, I realised how much I was embedded in the past. I had to let it go because there was no future in it” (246), which is surely in part a jab at victim mentality, but also acts as confirmation of the book’s general trajectory, which makes clear that the first two sections of the book were as much about laying foundations as telling jokes. It all culminates in what looks like a happy-ish ending, swiftly undercut by a where-are-they-now, anti-consolatory postscript.

The point of it all, of course, is to demonstrate the contingency of power. The book’s epigraph, from Neitzsche, makes this point directly — “All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is function of power and not truth” — and the frequent force of the following story, which sets out to disabuse everyone, black or white, of any notion of moral or practical superiority, is not to be denied. The punishments inflicted on Doris go to the bone: the abduction is on-screen, and harrowing, as are the various abuses inflicted on Doris during her captivity: the callous dumping of the dead by slavers; the naked, squalid, vicious, hungry, maggoty life in slave ships. A whipping is particularly visceral (172). Evaristo is good at finding the language for this — there are moments of emotional punchiness: “A cluster of moths crashed into each other in a tiny, heart-shaped space” (157) – and at giving Doris and Katanga a necessary awareness of language, which turns jokes to ashes. Here’s the boss on the language of the Europanes: “A language without the clicks, clucks, clacks and !tsks of normal speech sounded dreary beyond belief, more akin to the low monotonous moan of cattle than the exuberant sounds of human communication” (124).

It’s impossible to read Blonde Roots, I think, and not be uneasily aware of the cultural as well as physical costs of mass slavery: how thoroughly native culture is quashed, and how tragic, even if beautiful, its necessary mutations to survive can be. [Additional thought, March 2009: It’s the telescoping of references to the past and present into one moment, and the articulation of that telescoping through a voice that combines modern and archaic language, that really drives this message home.] And this awareness is, at least for me, enhanced by reading Blonde Roots in the context of the sf megatext. Straightforwardly, by making the inversion of slavery obviously ridiculous (as opposed to, say, the more cognitively logical reversal seen in Ian R MacLeod’s novella “The Hob Carpet” earlier this year), Evaristo makes our reality ridiculous, too; but I think there is an extent to which the impact of the novel is increased by an awareness that not only do we usually perceive our history as non-ridiculous, but we expect alternate Earths — for no particularly good reason — to be non-ridiculous as well. Why is alternate, we might ask, so rarely radical? And yet for all that, some part of me holds back from fully embracing Blonde Roots. It’s not that the novel ever feels dutiful, as books tackling such “worthy” subjects sometimes get accused of; nor does it feel as though it is aimed at a narrow audience (quite the opposite, in fact). Nor is there a lack of wordsmithing-craft. It’s true that it is not as transgressive as it styles itself; the observation that our reality is ridiculously unfair is not, perhaps, a new one, though that doesn’t mean it’s not an observation worth making. But more than that, I think, my hesitance comes down to that concept of “aesthetic richness”: however inventive Evaristo’s variations, they all say, at heart, the same thing, and that engenders a weariness that all the vim in the world cannot fully dispel.

Watermind coverThe playfulness of M. M. Buckner’s fourth novel is more buried, and simultaneously more familiar (in a megatextual sense), having to do with the basically absurd conception of the swamp-born, Blob-like artificially intelligent trash colloid that gives Watermind its title. The prologue describes how a collection of “mote computers”, washed away from a weather experiment in Canada, eventually fetch up in Devil’s Swamp, Louisiana, a pollution dump where six-legged frogs are not out of place and where, ominously, “the water stirred with signals and ring tones. And the motes formed new bonds” (12). You just have to roll with it, because the story that follows takes this moment of pulp implausibility and puts on its serious face. The story’s principal, CJ Reilly, dropped out of MIT after her driven, genius-chemist father blew his brains out, and has been wandering (and guy-hopping) her way around present-day America for the past year. When we catch up with her, in the opening chapter of Watermind, it’s just another day in what now passes for CJ’s life: blundering around a swamp in Baton Rouge on a warm day in March, ostensibly working as part of a chemical company’s clean-up crew, actually more interested in getting stoned with her current beau, Max Pottevents, a mixed-race local who doesn’t always talk like a cut-price Gambit. Together, the pair stumble across an impossibility: a frozen pond. (Max: “Put your gloves on, lamie. It don’ sound like ice.” [17]) It’s still understandably a bit of a surprise, at least for the characters, when the ice suddenly melts, envelops and fondles CJ, before equally suddenly letting her go. Her curiosity (not to say dignity) is pricked: the game is afoot.

As in Blonde Roots, the game follows a familiar arc: this time, a close-focus account of the action delivered in scene-shaped gobbets with handy timestamps (the novel takes place over a grand total of eleven days), tracing a trajectory of gusty escalation. CJ’s personal investigation — after her discovery that the Watermind is somehow converting toxic sludge to pure water — is co-opted by the chemical company that owns the swampland, and gradually comes to the attention of the media. Oddly (you might think), there is little sense of threat. CJ projects the worst-case scenario at one point — “Think how fast he might grow […] there’s plenty of pollution to keep him growing […] he’ll infiltrate the clouds and rain in the rivers. And we’ll drink him. Then we’ll be part of him, too” (135) — but Buckner never spends much time trying to convince you this sort of apocalyptic outcome is a real possibility. The CJ-vs-the-corporation intrigue mostly seems like a kind of bluster, an excuse for CJ’s urgent need to figure out how the Watermind does what it does. Because figuring-out is what Buckner does spend time on: not many life-and-death confrontations here, but plenty of hefty chunks of experiment and/or theorising about how the Watermind might work. Meanwhile, the Watermind spends most of its time just bimbling down the Mississippi, wishing (so far as anyone can tell what it’s wishing) to be left to its own devices but defending itself, in increasingly creative ways, when necessary. It’s all a little odd.

Perhaps the key to what’s going on is in paragraphs like this one:

CJ steered her rented Viper up the Mississippi. A bright dry wind blew in from Colorado, bringing positive ions to mate with dopamine receptors in her brain so that, in the languid depths of Louisiana, she felt a clear Rocky Mountain high. (166)

Moments like this, when the camera pulls back and Buckner gives us a glimpse of the messy molecular soup of the world (it could be seen as a kind of Gaia) working on and through her characters, are their own kind of cold-water shock. The wide-angle lens is readied in the novel’s first sentence, which borrows from Wells (“As the twenty-first century dawned over western Canada …”) before descending to the seemingly proasic (“…three grad students saw their weather experiment ruined”, 11). It’s used to, among other things, give the currents of sexual tension wandering through the book possibly the least erotic gloss imaginable: “Their molecules of sexual scent wafted on air currents too fine for conscious awareness, but in the shadowy subliminal undersides of their brains, both of them recognized the chemical code” (53). Such dispassion is undeniably striking, but at first glance an odd choice for what is in most other respects a kind of technothriller: the result is a story that sometimes feels like a gale trying to blow through a vacuum.

But on reflection it’s not such a complete mismatch after all: at the end of both War of the Worlds (the scientific romance on which Watermind leans most explicitly, per that first sentence) and your average technothriller, after all, the threatening novum goes away. (Is scientific romance particularly amenable to single novums? There’s something in the characteristic juxtaposition of the familiar and the radically different that leads me to suspect so.) It is also, as rapidly becomes inescapably apparent, part of Buckner’s aesthetic elaboration of her novum, or at least of the “awesome multiplicity” (207) that is said novum’s key characteristic.

Hybridity, in Watermind, is endemic. It is the condition of the world – and us, as CJ’s recurrent anxiety about what she may have inherited from her parents tells us. Louisiana is of course a melting pot — for race, religion, music — on the verge of boiling over. “Every year,” CJ is told, “the Mississippi runs higher, and the hurricanes blow harder, and the local citizens are trapped between” (48); and we are later assured that the Mississippi itself is “not a single entity but a transient, multiplicitous spill” (177). When Roman Sacony, the CEO of that chemical company, wonders, “why now, when so many critical issues were converging? (105), we get the point; when Max speculates of CJ that “maybe she had mixed motives” and wonders, indeed, “[are] anyone’s reasons ever pure?” (158) we get the blunt end. Hurricane Novum rampages through the book, never showing any signs of blowing itself out. If Blonde Roots’ problem is that it says everything about one thing, Watermind’s is that it wants to say one thing about everything.

And at times such over-zealousness to elaborate results in the book becoming, if not incoherent, certainly inelegant, which is a real shame because in general Buckner integrates technical detail into her prose less obtrusively than the average technically-interested writer. But CJ’s first sample of the Watermind is described as “pearly” four times in the space of ten pages (and more intermittently thereafter); Max’s voice is never allowed to stand unadorned, being variously a “resonant baritone”, a “rich baritone”, a “gentle baritone”, and a “sonorous baritone”; another character”s “ample breasts” (136) are mentioned every time they come on-screen, while yet a third character can’t seem to stop sneering. It’s not that Buckner can’t turn a phrase: one of the colloid’s more memorable special effects is to spark with electricity, which is noted as “light drizzled upwards”; except it’s also then explained as being “like brilliant inverted rain” (281). “Drizzled” already did the heavy lifting in that image; the clarification just leadens the whole thing. Most damaging of all, for a book so clearly aiming to rehabilitate its pulpy premise with a veneer of scientific plausibility, are the occasional gear-grinding errors of this sort: “On the laptop, he enlarged one particular bacterium and clicked through a fast-forward sequence of images […] it was the lumpy swollen nucleus that drew their attention”, as well it might; bacterial cells not normally having a nucleus, and all.

It all makes for a weird creole shambles of a novel. Norman Spinrad’s hailing of it as “a post-genre novel, a novel that works the interfaces between any number of genres” makes very little sense to me, unless his conception of what “science fiction” can naturally encompass is rather more limited than it otherwise seems (and than mine is); Watermind strikes me most obviously now as a single-novum novel more rigorous than dynamic, and mercilessly elaborated to the point of collapse. Or near-collapse: because somehow it almost always comes into focus whenever it comes back to CJ Reilly. After memories of the foghorn mentions of her “slender hips” (15), allusions to her nymph-like sexiness (66), and reassurances about her “astonishing IQ” (49) have faded slightly, there is a character left behind who stubbornly demands to be remembered, a deeply Imperfect Girlfriend. There are moments in Watermind, most particularly in CJ’s cutting negotiations with Roman Sacony’s professional chemists, who perceive CJ as a pixie-girl parachuted into their midst with no real justification, and whose claws never quite retract, that reminded me of Gwyneth Jones’s Life (2004) as a novel about the practice of science by a woman, which I consider high praise. But whichever of the many twists in Watermind‘s braid is uppermost, CJ feels fully engaged with it. This is where Buckner’s commitment to the multifarious pays off: CJ gets to show off all sides of a human personality. Inconstant in her aspect, she provokes and fascinates more than anything in the somewhat tattered story that surrounds her.