The single best joke in Woody Allen’s canon can be found in 1980’s Stardust Memories, in which the fans coming up to his director character to say how much liked his “early, funny” movies. The joke was Allen’s way of not just jabbing at his own pretensions, but also to signal his frustration with the limitations of the creative box he had put himself into and that his appreciators seemed intent to sit heavily on the lid of. The joke was ultimately on those imagined fans because even though it was no fun to sit through Allen’s earlier Ingmar Bergman/Federico Fellini-aping work, eventually he broke out into a richer idiom that allowed him to toggle between satire, drama, and gags. There’s no Crimes and Misdemeanors without Allen getting through Interiors first.
If the end result was a similar creative chrysalis, it would be easier to take Neal Stephenson’s stiff-necked pre- and post-apocalyptic imaginarium of a novel Seveneves. It’s not that this novel doesn’t have scope or ambition. That wouldn’t be a fair assessment of a nearly 900-page work that starts with the line “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason” and ends several millennia later when the human race has been reconstituted along seven distinctly unique genetic strains battling amongst themselves while figuring out how to recolonize Earth. But what it doesn’t have is humor. This is especially disappointing when talking about a novelist like Stephenson, who unlike Allen (whose works tend to come out stamped “serious” or “funny” with no in-between) could always use comedy of a particularly deadpan vibe to grease the wheels of his data-heavy plots.
We are now over 30 years away from Stephenson’s first stab at alternate world-building, The Big U. But it seems even further. That messy splat of a sophomoric freshman novel hurled terrorist splinter cells and nuclear waste into a madcap satire on university life that included ruminations on Julian Jaynes and pitch-perfect renderings of the role-gamer mentality. Rough-hewn and self-impressed, it isn’t a book that aged well. One can see why the author was okay with it being out of print for awhile, particularly after he published novels that still showboated but were more confident about it.
In the 1990s, Stephenson looked like the best thing to happen to science fiction since William Gibson blew things open with Neuromancer the previous decade. Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) tangled with big ideas like the onset of the Web and nanotechnology years before they entered the popular nomenclature and knocked them into dramatic shape with humor and pop-culture savvy. Here’s the famous opening of Snow Crash, establishing the character of one Hiro Protagonist, a master of samurai sword usage, hacking, and near-future high-speed pizza delivery:
The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.
It’s all there, particularly Stephenson’s sinuous interweaving of technospeak (gleaned, unlike so many current-era genre writers, from actual technical know-how) into his slashing slacker-era snark patter. Sure, the book gets high on its own supply of over-oxygenated wordplay well before the conclusion.
The Diamond Age, albeit a more mature book that decanted a similarly smart-ass vintage into finer china, is much the same. Take this passages that describes what happens after the establishment of Feed, a worldwide nanotech system that can create just about anything anybody wants, anytime:
The company was thinking hard about things Chinese, trying to one-up the Nipponese, who had already figured out a way to generate passable rice (five different varieties, yet!) direct from Feed, bypassing the whole paddy/coolie rat race, enabling two billion peasants to hang up their conical hats and get into some serious leisure time — and don’t think for one moment that the Nipponese didn’t already have some suggestions for what they might do with it.
Too self-aware by half, perhaps. But damn if you don’t go back to those books again and again, paging through those high-wire riffs, laughing and awestruck by not just the humor, but Stephenson’s ability to channel the gestalt of a time and place that hasn’t even occurred yet.
That gonzo energy courses through even his lesser earlier works, like Zodiac, a goofy eco-warrior suspense novel, and the technothrillers he published under his Stephen Bury pen name. As for the Baroque Cycle — that elephantine historical trilogy set in late-17th- and early-18th-century Europe — it was punishingly dense stuff that pulled back on literary pyrotechnics and doesn’t lend itself as much to re-readings. But still, threaded as it was with fascinating sidebars on an fraught collisions of religion, politics, and science, and haunted with conspiratorial darkness, it reads almost like a less-gossipy precursor to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books.
All of this roundabout summing-up is a means of avoiding the stubborn truth about Seveneves. After a welcome semi-return to form with Stephenson’s overlong but still larkish thriller Reamde in 2011, Stephenson’s first big science fiction effort since 2008’s Anathem is a joyless heap of jargon. Its astounding leaps of imagination and eagerness to ignore most of the narrative conventions of the genres it’s toying with ultimately come to naught. There are few if any laughs, less than zero memorable characters, and not much high-altitude wordplay.
What the book has in spades is great big slabs of idea-mongering and world-building of the sort that Stephenson normally leavens with sprightly characters and wiseacre dialogue. At first, it’s actually not much of a problem. Stephenson begins things in classic time-zone-jumping disaster-novel mode. After the moon is smashed into a cloud of fragments by an unknown entity, the scientific community comes together in record time to inform its leaders that very shortly that debris will descend on the Earth in a fiery cloud. They call it “the Hard Rain” and say that it will destroy everything. So in the manner of classic, can-do hard sci-fi, everyone gets busy figuring out how to get as many humans up into a semi-sustainable orbit before the surface is turned into a Hieronymus Bosch-ian hell.
It’s a good start, somewhere between the hard sci-fi typified by Greg Bear and the grittier disaster sci-fi of Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer (without the quasi-white supremacism), tinged with the occasional hint of killer-comet narratives like Deep Impact; only there’s no Téa Leoni tearfully awaiting death by tsunami. The scientists race to figure out how to build out the already-manned space station into a kind of Earth 2 and to surround it with as many jury-rigged “arklet” capsules for fleeing humans, while the politicians try to break the bad news to the people of the Earth. The closest thing to a hero in the book is Stephenson’s Neil deGrasse Tyson stand-in, charming, popular TV scientist Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris (aka “Doob”), who muses how he would break the news:
Look, everybody dies. Of the seven billion people now living on Earth, basically all will be dead a hundred years from now — most a lot sooner. No one wants to die, but most calmly accept that it’s going to happen.
That strain of no-chaser non-emotionalism runs throughout the book, particularly once the story gets narrowed down to the astronauts and selected non-astronaut smart people busy putting together their post-Hard Rain plan in orbit. At that point, the Earth-bound action recedes quickly (as it will when seen from space) and we’re left with white-boarding and bickering amongst a bunch of engineers.
There isn’t anything wrong with all this, of course. Certain corners of sci-fi have long been reserved for those comfortable (as they must be to read Seveneves) wading through pages and pages of flat dialogue about controlled burns, orbital arcs, “bolides,” ham radio frequencies, Lagrange points, and the finer points of genetic engineering. It can feel at times like the sort of thing engineers might like to read when sitting in the break room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in between grouching about how the goobers at NASA always miscalculate their parabolas.
The sad thing here is that once Stephenson’s idea factory truly takes off in the last quarter or so of the novel, most readers will have given up. The characters, bland when not just plain unpleasant, will have long since blurred together. Even then, after Seveneves takes its bold leap millennia into the future when humanity has reformed itself along more quasi-scientific and Isaac Asimovian lines, Stephenson can’t ever kick his narrative into high gear. More critically, he never engages with the deeper philosophical entanglements of the fascinating scenarios he keeps uncorking: ringworlds, designer races, the impossibility of humanity ever leaving the near-orbit of Earth no matter how advanced our technology. Too much sci-fi has been ground down into series work these days. We need big thinkers, bold ideas, brave writers. This should have been it. A heavier editorial hand might have done the trick.
But, per Allen, maybe this is a necessary step in Stephenson’s writerly arc. Seveneves might be what had to be written before he could embark on another kind of writing. Maybe his Match Point is still to come.
I have a dark and abiding love for the electronic dance music of the nineties and aughts. If it shows up on the “Faithless” Pandora station; if it has been compiled in a collection like “I Love Ibiza” or “Ultimate Trance Vol. 18”; if it has the seductive hooting of indigenous pipes and angelic female voices over a thumping beat; chances are I like it. They have machines that pulse a beam of sound and cause you to fall down shitting; I hear this kind of music and compulsively yearn. I first heard it when I was a cooped-up teenager watching MTV Europe in a hot Athenian apartment, and it has always seemed to represent all of the sexy, free, mystical things that are expressly forbidden the adolescent. None of my experiences with this music in the wild have approached its promise when it vibrates in that apartment or in my headphones, while I vacuum the house or write this review. Of all this genre’s notes, the plaintive thumps the loudest.
I tell you this now only because something about the experience of reading J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence recreated this feeling so profoundly that I felt compelled to break out the Faithless and examine the component parts of my enthusiasm. I learned about Submergence on Twitter (never say that Twitter never gave me anything). The novel is, variously, a love story, martyrology, heresiography, science book, and spy novel. Like its Twitter supporters, who spoke in rapturous terms, I was sucked into the novel right away, from its commanding first line — “It was a bathroom in an unfinished house in Somalia in the year 2012″ — to its final epigraph from Horace: “Plunge it in deep water: it comes up more beautiful.”
The plaintive is alive in this novel. It is largely the story of a James More, a British spy who is being held by Somali Jihadists. The latter are beleaguered and ineffectual in the scheme of their own ambitions, but deadly effective for people in “a very dark and specific place” — like James More in his unfinished bathroom, like the fourteen-year-old Somali girl who is hooded with burlap before her stoning. As More is taken out and mock-executed, as he is worked over and then marginally repaired by a marginally sympathetic doctor, as he is taken to a desolate waterless part of Somalia and then to a mangrove forest, he contemplates damp England, and his forebear Thomas More, and, most importantly, a romantic week during which he met and fell in love with a dazzling scientist based in London. The scholarship of this woman, Danny Flinders, forms the leitmotif of the novel: she is interested in the patterns and mysteries of the deepest ocean, the least known part of the world. The novel follows More in his dark and specific place and Danny in hers — a submersible in a near-mythological section of the ocean called the Hadal deep. Submergence flirts both with what is called Big History, a an all-inclusive discipline of which the human experience forms a miniscule part, and with the genre of “CliFi.” As Danny tells James during their interlude:
Let’s say the Atlantic is 160 million years old…We appeared less than one million years ago. We walked in yesterday. It’s not much of a claim. Yet somewhere in the Atlantic right now and in other oceans…some man is smashing up a seamount more ancient than any greenwood on land, which he can’t see and refuses to value.
I have a weakness for bizarre analogies, but I think this novel aligns with my secretly cherished dance music, both its content and its praxis. Thematically, the novel shares many of the same elements with electronic dance music — the erotic, the foreboding, the melancholy, the mystical, the vaguely orientalist. There are reasons that electronic dance music and club culture has been cited in scholarly articles about modern forms of religious or spiritual practice. James himself thinks along these lines — one of his dreams in captivity describes:
…a Lenten carnival. A Christ-like figure on a carnival float was leading a crowd of young people in a dance. The music was techno. The street was narrow. Bodies were pressed up against old buildings…the Christ and the crowd repeated over and over with their hands a thousand years of love, a thousand year of peace.
(The bacchanal is cut short by a suicide bomber.)
Electronic dance music invokes mystical themes, with lines like “This is my church” or nonsense about the ocean: “Open my eyes/ Bigger/ Listen to us/ Swimming in Saltwater.” Its beats are structured for maximum epiphany and release. It is culturally affiliated with mind-expanding drugs that promise vast sensation and awareness that will be lost in the morning. Submergence too encourages spiritual-philosophical meditations about things you don’t really understand. The novel is full of information about the most mysterious parts of the planet and its inhabitants; never before have I heard about a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, let alone pondered the romance of its liminal existence. Ledgard concludes an unforgettable description of decomposition and reanimation at the bottom of the ocean thus: “Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.” Submergence offers up a similar, if headier and wetter, line of inquiry than the bio-mathematics of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: “We exist only as a film on the water,” Danny tells James. Whoa.
(This novel encourages you to look for the meaning of things. I learned later that “Hadal” is also the term for “word, “speech,” or “expression” in Somali. I don’t know what this means, but it just seems important. After all, the Angel Gabriel told Mohammed, “Recite”; the miracle Qu’ran was his recitation. For better or worse, this is the mode that Ledgard puts you into.)
Some of my interest in techno music is rooted in that yearning teenage place, trapped in a parental apartment and wishing to be out among the European youth, to whom everything, I erroneously believed, was permitted. The novel is finally calibrated to exploit yearning for the world. Danny and James embody the infinitely attractive versions of statelessness. She is a brilliant and great-looking woman of Australian and Martiniquan descent, with a cabin in Italy, an apartment in London, at home in Switzerland and the bottom of the ocean. James is both personally and professionally tied to his particular state, but he is still at home in the world, a speaker of Arabic. In his normal life you can find him among the Jacaranda trees, wearing linen shirts and eating breakfasts of “papaya and scrambled eggs, toast, and Kenyan tea.” These are cosmopolitans.
Americans are sensitive to the very existence of people this cosmopolitan, and they show poorly in the novel. They are the CIA guy in a food court talking over a terrorist’s errant appendage: “We think it’s an Arab hand, don’t we Bob?” They are on the boat with Danny, the un-fun ones who spend the voyage “sipping iced water,” who “purchase ugly expedition t-shirts.” The women “covered themselves in such loose-hanging cotton garbs…seldom wore high heels in their lives, and…felt [Danny] was a snob and an ice maiden.” Their hotels are “prefabricated, with piped music, airless corridors, tinted windows that would not open, circulated air that could not be shut off, a small plastic bathtub, chlorinated water…” Meanwhile, the British have “Chaucer to Dickens, the First World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and drizzle” (and lots of club hits). The American reader is left feeling a bit resentful: Just you wait, motherfucker — our uniformity is contagious. And then Ledgard has the last laugh, because he shows the very American-ness of that instinct — the blind, obliterating force of American reaction:
It glinted. It burned from its tail. It was an astonishing creation. Entirely human, wholly American…It was impossible in the final moment not to see the missile as something more.
There are several versions of statelessness. In addition to Danny and James, there is the decidedly nasty kind, the men who leave home turf of Saudi, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or the United States, to come to Somalia and build a frontier of Jihad, a sad inversion of the roving Muslim scholars of centuries past. Jihadists are often described as harboring a medieval view of things, but this is in many ways an affront to medieval Islam, when the practice of religion and the pursuit of knowledge in the sciences and humanities were often the same thing. I think Ledgard knows, although one is never sure whether James More does, that without these Muslim scholars and their translations from Greek to Arabic and back to Greek, James More’s ancestor Thomas, his beloved Francis Bacon, might never have known their Classical philosophers. (Ironically, a real-life “Thomas More Law Center” exists, in benighted America of course, to forestall those “Radical Muslims and Islamic organizations in America” who “take advantage of our legal system and are waging a ‘Stealth Jihad’ within our borders.”) I disliked how little room the novel made for the non-Jihadi varieties of Islam, but why should it, I suppose, when More’s captors make even less?
Many critics have made passing reference to John le Carré as a point of departure for Submergence, since this novel, because of all the mythical deep and so forth, is so much more than just a spy novel. But some of its success, I think, lies in the dexterous deployment of elements of genre fiction. John le Carré is himself a departure and elaboration of genre. And while he is not poetic in the Ledgard mode, like Ledgard he is so observant, so fond of characterizations, and makes them in such a way — with the dangerous seduction of erudite British public servants — that you are certain they are true. Like the novels of John le Carré, who has a conscience and is often concerned with dark matters, Submergence thrums at the level of high genre from which wonderful novels emerge. Lonesome Dove (the ne plus ultra). Neuromancer. Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels.
High genre is fiction that allows you to investigate an individual text, because it is full of its own traits and merits, whether in its characterizations, its plot, or its prose. Regular genre, I suppose, is something you can only talk about as a family — tracing the themes shared collectively among its members. High genre will always be vulnerable to the taint of its lower peers, because it shares the equipment, the same beats. This is why people are drawn to True Detective, and yet can accept assertions that it is just another dead naked lady show. I mentioned the praxis of electronic dance music. Detractors would have it that this music is derivative noise, the artless patching together of beats at just the right frequency to make the ladies tear off their cardigans in the middle of the dance hall. These are the same kinds of things that people say about genre novels. But DJs (like medieval Islamic poets, in fact), demonstrate their mastery through use of the material of their peers and predecessors. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to be really good at spinning it.
There is some less-high genre at play in Ledgard’s novel, too. Rand Richards Cooper’s New York Times review of The Constant Gardener called le Carré “the writer who rescued the spy novel from the clutches of Ian Fleming by creating an anti-James Bond — the spy as brooding skeptic, whose freedom from conventional mores conferred not playboy romance but the loneliness of exile.” This was 2001, several years before the Bond franchise was reanimated in a darker key, with all the visual pleasures of earlier Bonds but decidedly more brooding. I’m thinking of the film Casino Royale, which, like Submergence and techno music, is sexy, sad, and possessing of high production values.
Ledgard wrote a scholastic hero and turns your head with trippy descriptions of oceans and molecular life, but some of his pleasures are carnal in the Bond tradition. Consider here, when Danny and James meet over Christmas at the Hotel Atlantic, a Ritz hotel on the French coast, which, with its copper bathtubs and Turcoman rugs, its lobster bisque and suckling pig, is probably the best approximation of one version of heaven in modern fiction. (The ceiling beams have been “soaked in milk for a year to harden them.”) In rustic French country splendor, as the snow blankets the world outside and the wind howls across the Atlantic, these sexy people meet for dinner. She, who will be described as both “a Persian and an alley cat,” is looking spectacular: “Her dress shimmered purple and brown and in and out of those colors, showing off her breasts and hips.” He wore “a blue suit with suede shoes and a gray Turnbull & Asser shirt. He had only his regimental cufflinks with him. A silver parachute on maroon.” As the snow pours, they eat:
…servings of duck foie gras with a peach wine jelly, Scottish scallops, ham, deboned saddle of lamb from the Auvergne, white beans with truffles, sea bream, poached apricots, bay leaf panna cotta, cheese and chocolates. They drank champagne, a house white wine, Rothschild Bordeaux, Chateau Villefranche dessert wine…
And more. They smoke cigarettes. They go upstairs and do it on the rug. By the middle of the novel I was Googling the hotel to see if it existed and if it were possible to get a room. It is now my single greatest material aspiration to stay in a hotel like this.
The Bond element resurfaces in funny little ways, as here, when James travels to a small island to track down the family of a terrorist. A sister cooperates, and after their interview, James has another request.
“You’ve been very kind,” he said. “Might I ask one more favor?”
“But of course.”
“I need a haircut. Do you think you could cut my hair?”
“I’ve never cut gold hair!”
They took a communal taxi across the town. They were squeezed in the back with another woman. He was buttock to buttock between the two…[she] rested her head absently on his knee.”
It’s such a pointless, comparatively light-hearted, pseudo-sexual, weirdly colonialist interlude, right out of Bond. I’ll cut your hair, I murmured to myself, picturing Daniel Craig.
Some people interpret the invocation of genre as a way to temper enthusiasm, which is not my goal here. I am very enthusiastic about this novel, because I found it transporting. Those dinners, those Bondian wine lists, those Condé Nast interiors, are so materially exciting that they do not necessarily detract. If the novel’s national and civilizational categories are shallow, its ecological meditations are deep, its imagery sublime. How can I forget the ship Challenger trawling an unexplored trench, its nets bringing up “slime that covered the inside of the dredge…all that remained of the most exquisite forms of millions of sea squirts, salp, and jellies, whose diaphanous musculature — more remarkable than any alien species yet conceived — had lost its form in air”? Like the dance music of my teens, Submergence takes me to another plane. I’m so young in evolutionary terms, after all, and addicted to consciousness.
Sometimes when you’re in a new place and you’re unemployed, it feels like all you do every day is sit at the computer and copy, paste, upload, send, one thousand times, and each time you pray that the job you are applying for is not in fact a fake job, and you’re disappointed 90 percent of the time, because the Internet has officially become like the damn Yukon where everyone who missed the actual gold started a business selling crude maps to unstaked claims that don’t exist, or bought a brothel and called himself Miss Kitty. Sometimes it’s all you can do not to listen to sad songs and black out at 10 am. Sometimes you need a familiar book to be your friend and comforter. Neuromancer is such a friend, good to enliven another gray day without gainful employment.I don’t read a lot of Science Fiction. People who are serious about genre will point out that Neuromancer is actually something called Cyberpunk, but I’m going to unjustly lump all the books about computers and the future and aliens and whatnot together, into a category I don’t know a lot about. I try to hit some of the obvious ones, the authors who for whatever reason broke free of their genre-tethers and whose names drift around in the collective literary consciousness (e.g. Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Card). I know there are thousands of non-famous and under-appreciated gems out there, but there are a lot of books out there, and I am not a truffle hunter. I prefer the broad survey approach, and often must rely sleazily on the opinions of others.Neuromancer is pretty famous because it is widely accepted that William Gibson coined the word “cyberspace,” and introduced it in this novel. I read it at the recommendation of a human friend, and then in a class called Literature and Technology (which was probably the most unbridled fun I ever had in an academic setting). I pick it up whenever I feel grumpy and lazy and I want to read something action-packed. There is a lot of mind-melting stuff about computers and paradoxes and autonomous machines, which I enjoy even though I always pull a tiny muscle in my brain trying to work out what it all means, but basically this is a classic hardboiled detective story, but with cooler gadgets.The novel opens like this: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” The first sentence in The Big Sleep: “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.” Parallels abound between Gibson’s novel and any of the hardboiled greats. Neuromancer has the broken, street-smart anti-hero (his name is “Case,” for god’s sake), the sexy dangerous lady who is literally built to kill, or to do you, or both, and it’s all very dark and full of heavy themes and there’s not a lot of resolution and it’s violent and maybe a touch campy. Most importantly, like all of this sort of fiction, it can be summed up neatly by an old Turkish expression: “If it is your destiny to be fucked, what’s the use in being sad about it?” I don’t know when the Turks came up with this, but I think it’s a nice slogan for the genre.If you are not enthusiastic about this noir style and you hate the future you might not enjoy the book. But I think it’s a great read, especially now that summer is upon us and some people may be thinking about beach books. This novel is twenty-five years old, but it seems very hip to me, probably because I have no idea what’s out there now and my idea of modern is the Mitford girls talking about doing “it” after you get engaged. Out of enthusiasm for this title, I read two and a half others by Gibson – All Tomorrow’s Parties, Pattern Recognition, and The Difference Engine, but they did not do it for me like this one does. Science fiction or Cyberpunk or whatever fans, I welcome your suggestions for broadening my horizons.