Category: Literature

“Welcome to Night Vale”, Utopia, Horror

I’ve finished reading the “Welcome to Night Vale” novel (by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor). I was a little skeptical before picking it up because after 80 plus episodes of the podcast (listen/read transcripts here), I sometimes find the “weird” a little predictable. Nevertheless, I am still such a huge fan of the calm poetic realistic horror of the podcast, the way it does intersectionality, the atmosphere, the world, the characters etc etc, that of course I was going to read the novel. I loved it because it makes the fictional little town of Night Vale so three-dimensional. It gives a new perspective on the town’s inhabitants, on Cecil, on Cecil & Carlos, on the radio show, the town, its way of life. And indirectly it speaks a lot about why Night Vale is so appealing, despite being occasionally horrific. Boiled down to two lines of dialogue from the novel, the utopian gist of Night Vale is:

“‘Thank you for keeping me company in my nightmare.’ […] ‘Nah, it’s our nightmare now.'”

I started following the podcast when there were about 40 ish episodes. A friend had pointed out on Facebook how well “Welcome to Night Vale” deals with disability-related topics, so I went and checked it out. Another thing that jumped out at me after only a few episodes was that I never saw it niched or labeled as LGBT yet a romantic relationship between two men plays a central role (“central” when it’s not currently raining dead animals from a glow cloud, of course). I did see it niched/labeled/described as “horror”, though, as “Lynchian”, as “terrifying”. I have thought about genre a lot; some say, genre depends on what the reader perceives or expects. To me, Night Vale is weirdly, contemporarily utopian in terms of what it does as a piece of fiction and in terms of the world it creates. I don’t develop huge fan-crushes very often, but currently I join those who say “‘I’m packing up and moving to Night Vale'” (e.g., a reviewer of the novel, quoted on the book’s cover), because Night Vale seems like such a safe space (despite the fact that the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home leaves her knives lying around in the kitchen). Going there for a few minutes feels like a little utopian respite from real-life right-wing political extremism, backlashes, hate crime, bullying, anxiety, ableism, and so on. But it also does not feel like escapism: Night Vale seems to be tethered to reality and it evokes this feeling of relief only because it is so different from reality and much other fiction.

The creators of the podcast have said that when thinking up Night Vale (a small desert town) they imagined a place in which all conspiracy theories were true. Before I came across that statement, I also felt that Night Vale was a place where everything that hides under your bed or in the corners of your anxious thoughts during insomnia is brought out into the open. So what’s left to hide under your bed, what’s left to worry about? Nothing really, because the whole town is in the same situation – dealing with, living with, fighting whatever might be secretly terrifying in real life. In Night Vale you may be in danger if you enter the dog park, acknowledge an angel, enter the library, attend a company picnic or intern at the radio station, but at least you’re not in danger because you’re a guy dating a guy (for example). You’re not weird – you just choose to appear in different bodies, or maybe you are a disembodied hand or sentient haze. You don’t need fixing and you can count on your fellow citizens of Night Vale to just get that.

In Night Vale there don’t seem to be any token characters – or maybe all of them are. To me, when it comes to fandom, it’s mostly a mix of “I want to be them” or “I want to be friends with them”. Here, it is similar. I want to be friends with the inhabitants of Night Vale. It feels realistic to me to be friends with them, because they are not token and because they are not the featureless inhabitants of some frightening, smooth utopia. They quarrel, discuss, fight, have barbeques and encourage each other to use their wings (if they happen to have a pair) to try flying up above the roof – like normal people.

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“The Calcutta Chromosome” by Amitav Ghosh

This was a random pick from a while ago. I picked it up because its cover is yellow – not your usual Sci Fi section black – and bought it because it mentioned something about medical mystery on its back cover. (Medical mystery novel, you say?)

It is very very good, understated, collage-y, and mocks Western science and colonialism.

At first I didn’t feel like surrendering to a very gloomy atmosphere of New York in a toxic near-future, but that’s not the only story – the stories are set in many different times and surroundings which are subtly connected, and the mode of story-telling changes all the time. There are different auctorial voices, long dialogues, reported dialogue, irreverent summaries of years of one character’s research, something that almost reads like folklore or fairytale/ghost story (and what a great ghost story it was!); and my favorite: the (partial, as she points out) reconstruction of a most crucial piece in the puzzle of this novel’s mystery by an artificial intelligence, who warns her user – and the reader – that the reconstruction might not be accurate. The story might not be accurate.

I think if someone ever challenged me on Borges’ writing being Science Fiction, an argument could be made via this book: dissolving time, dissolving identities, shadowy figures or demiurges in whose imagination everyone else exists (or doesn’t).

Catholic Cyborg – Mary E. Pearson’s “The Adoration of Jenna Fox”

“Faith and science, I have learned, are two sides of the same coin, separated by an expanse so small, but wide enough that one side can’t see the other.” (from Mary E. Pearson. The Adoration of Jenna Fox, part one of The Jenna Fox Chronicles)

***Spoiler Alert***

In the story, set in an unspecified near-future, teenager Jenna Fox finds out that her parents have replaced 90% of her body with sophisticated biotech in order to save her life after an accident. Jenna doesn’t find this out until about 40% into my Kindle edition of the book. In the world of the book, it is illegal to replace such a high percentage of a human body.

I found it interesting that religion, especially a religious site, plays a small but distinctive part in this narrative, which is a classic coming-of-age story:

Jenna’s grandmother Lily, who opposed Jenna’s parents’ decision to save her life by making her into a non-consenting cyborg, is a practicing Catholic and takes Jenna with her to a Catholic monastery. Jenna, experiencing amnesia, is still unaware of her new cyborg identity when she visits the church for the first time. Christ, though, she seems to remember – almost like something eternally present – but the solemn atmosphere of the church does not evoke any feelings at her first visit, or so she reports (it is a first person narrative).

Then, though, her presence in the church evokes a sudden memory of her own baptism at two weeks old: one of her first suspicions that something oddly different is happening to her brain. She feels like she is not supposed to remember events from such early childhood.

Still unaware of her cyborg body, she sees her soon-to-be boyfriend Ethan at the Mission for the first time.

To me, the locale of the Mission in the book appeared as a sort of static place. Almost a blank space, where references to the past are made, references to traditions, Saints, cemeteries. The old Mission is  dedicated to nurturing plants with unadulterated DNA: yet another way the locale is characterised as a sanctuary, as something restorative, since the disaster that catapults this book into the “slightly postapocalytpic” sub genre is attributed in part to genetic engineering.

After Jenna learns about her new cyborg body, she confesses this (and her “illegality) to Ethan in the Mission.

At her final visit there, she feels, well, something: “Souls, if there is such a thing, are nourished and mended here.” And, indeed, at the end of the book, her skeptic grandmother Lily – who for most of the book has treated New Jenna as a “thing”, entirely different from old organic Jenna – baptises Jenna, so that the strange memory of her baptism at two weeks old arches all the way to the end of the book to her second baptism, as cyborg Jenna, with her grandmother finally acknowledging that there must be a soul that transcends the body.

In his essay “Parables for the Postmodern, Post-9/11, and Posthuman World: Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth Books, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, and Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox” (published in Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults: Brave New Teenagers (Basu, Broad, Hintz, eds.), London/NY: Routledge, 2013, pp. 189-202) Thomas J. Morrissey writes, interestingly and accurately, that YA dystopias encourage a posthuman perspective: “At this point in our history we are figurative cyborgs whether or not we know it or accept it” (Morrissey, 191). I quite agree with this statement and would therefore read Jenna Fox as essentially arguing that the very human trait of religion is passed on to what humans create.

Jenna says, “The world has changed. So have I.” So has religion.

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By way of footnote: I highly recommend Basu, Broad, and Hintz’s edited volume mentioned above. Do read!

“The Scientist as God: A Typological Study of a Literary Motif, 1818 to the Present” by Sven Wagner

It’s on my reading list, but hasn’t arrived yet. In the meantime, might I refer you to a review of this book by John Hedley Brooke in Zygon: The Journal of Religion and Science, Vol. 48.1, pp. 236-238, February 2013.