Category: Reviews

“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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Science fan fiction

Review: “The Hunter – A Scientific Novel” by Giancarlo Genta

Springer, 2014. 

I like community plays, home-made stuff, and b-horror films because they are all about just going for it.

In a way, “The Hunter” was similar to that. It could be called Science fan fiction. Written by aeronautical engineer Giancarlo Genta, it is published in Springer’s “Science and Fiction” series, as a “scientific novel”, as it says on the cover and while it is not particularly well-written (or copy-edited), it reflects a lot of passion for the subject: A.I. and deep space exploration.

The story-line is intriguing: a young maintenance engineer joins the crew of a hunting vessel, which cruises around in now-populated deep space, searching for Von Neumann machines (replicators) of unknown origin also cruising around seemingly seeking to destroy biological life forms (i.e., humans – it’s a “Rare Earth” one) for unknown reasons.

The novel is the first part of the book and in an appendix we find a part called “the science behind the fiction”.

It is an enjoyable read – as I said – particularly when you are honestly (i.e., not ironically) into b-horror and passionate DIY non-mainstream arts. You will get better hard SF from Kim Stanley Robinson, sure. This book – I don’t know about the series as a whole yet – could do with a quick check by a fiction editor, because a lot of what makes the prose read somewhat artificial could be very easily fixed. A part of what made the reading so enjoyable, however, was this constant awareness of “This is a person used to writing scientific papers just going for it!”

In fiction it’s ok to use contractions, especially in direct speech. Everybody always saying “I do not”, “I am…” and “let us”, and using über-proper relative clauses neatly folded into very long sentences is not a realistic representation of how people talk (or maybe they do in the far future), but it may be a reflection of always being told not to use contractions in written speech by editors. The fourth wall is constantly broken that way and it was enjoyable. All in all, the prose became more confident as the story unfolded, I thought.

One sentence that made me laugh out because it read so nerdy was “The first mate gave the orders and the starship started gaining speed. However, nobody could feel the acceleration, owing to the inertial compensators, and the captain got up from this seat” (pg. 29). On the Coode Street podcast, episode 200 (recorded at LonCon), they talked about show versus tell. “The Hunter” could have done with a great deal more “show” and somewhat less “tell”. Readers – which will bring me to “who is the audience anyway?” – are smart people, especially if for whatever reason they decide to pick up a book that has “scientific novel” on its cover. It may not always be necessary to spell out everything to the reader in narration. Sometimes, it’s sufficient to have one character say to another, “Nice inertial compensators!” or observe something in the auctorial voice along the lines of, “He braced for the paralyzing thrust of initial acceleration. The captain glanced at him and smirked, getting up from his seat, ‘Not used to top-notch inertial compensators?'” Something like that.

What I very much appreciated was to hear about intersecting issues that may not usually figure in scientific papers on A.I. or space travel, specifically gender and religion. The gender issue is addressed throughout and I can point to a few passages where the reader is trusted to understand the acid criticism on her own, where it is not spelled out redundantly. First, the space station where the young protagonist is stationed in the beginning does not seem to populated by women other than one human prostitute, several robot prostitutes and their human “Madame”. Mike, Joe, and Steve are the male protagonists (I don’t know if they are called Mike, Joe, and Steve as an ironic meta-commentary designed to make them seem like regular ole American guys… the rest of the characters are refreshingly international). However, on the hunting vessel – and this IS pointed out directly to the reader – the commanding crew is made up of roughly 50% women. Later on, however, the protagonist – now in a relationship with the human (ex-)sex worker – offers to take her with him onto the hunting vessel, to which she responds (acidly, I assume, because here it is not spelled out): “‘Yes, you can take any object with you, even a wife'” (pg. 61).

What a delight to encounter an excommunicated Jesuit in far future deep space! A “heretic”, who seeks to communicate with the A.I. instead of destroying it. The discussion that is alluded to, but sadly not taken very far is essentially the “Can a machine have a soul?”-question. The excommunicated Jesuit says yes; the answer given on the very last pages of the book is: no.

The passages that really grabbed my attention were concerned with Von Neumann machines, machine evolution, and concluding on the physicality of the designer by looking at the design. I thought these were intriguing thoughts played out in an interesting scene towards the end of the novel in which the protagonist gets close enough to one of the replicators to dismantle it. I would have liked more of that!

An interesting effect occurred when I transitioned from the fiction part to the science part. It almost felt like a sigh. The first sentence of the science part is: “The action is set in the year 2328, in the system of the double-star BD-05 1844 (or Gliese 250) at 28.4 light years (9.2 parsecs) from the Sun.” (pg. 113) and then there’s a footnote. Immediately it read more natural. How much fun would it be to write a novel using the language of a scientific paper!

I wonder who the intended audience is. The whole concept reminded me of a book series I read in fifth grade history class about a boy in ancient Rome – the books were really boring because they were too obviously teaching something about ancient Rome. This is was similar but different. It wasn’t boring. I said above that there is definitely better hard SF to be found. And somebody who is interested in such a book would probably not be scared of science either. Personally speaking, I’d probably be most interested in hearing about philosophical and ethical issues from a scientist – thoughts that might not make it into scientific papers very much. The novel alludes to those themes, but they could really be more of a focus. If I were in a sort of AMA situation with an aeronautical engineer who I knew had an interest in Von Neumann machines and the A.I./soul/human/non-human question, I would definitely steer the conversation towards things like machine evolution even more. I would ask about categories: how confident are we that theories we are so used to would work in future situations that are hard to imagine? Which current theories do we use to speculate what the future might look like and with what confidence? How can we as humans even speculate about a future of non-human intelligences? How do we reverse-engineer a hypothetical far-future deep-space Von Neumann machine to make statements about its original creator? And also: What happened to the excommunicated Jesuit priest? He was arrested, and then disappeared from the story. Maybe I should give Science fan fiction fan fiction a go. All in all: thanks for this book! I enjoyed it!

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!