The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

The Southern Reach is a weird series of novels – part science fiction, part magical realism, part classic horror. I acquired the compilation volume so thankfully I was able to read all three of them in one go. I find the older I get the less patience I have for committing myself to entire trilogies.

That said, I did enjoy the clear tonal distinction between each of these books. Annihilation, certainly, could function as a standalone novel. Authority and Acceptance less so, but they still each have a tangibly different focus.

At the center of the stories, a mystery – a bizarre stretch of landscape where some unspeakable cosmic event took place, now quarantined by a government body. A series of expeditions sent in to attempt to study the area, with results ranging from unexplained death and disappearance to expedition members in zombie-like states of Zen upon returning.

When the novel first introduced Area X I started having very strong flashbacks to Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, and naturally, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. A bizarre thing has happened, but what exactly occurred is decidedly less important than the lasting effects of the event.

Vandermeer’s decision to withhold the names of most of his characters, having the reader know them instead by their job title, is one that I found really helpful for enforcing that focus on landscape. Characters have their own human dramas, definitely, but always within the larger context of an overarching biosphere of moving parts.

So, Annihilation is incredibly creepy. I will freely confess that it kept me awake for several nights until I finally had to stop reading it before bed. I may startle easily, but it takes a lot to leave me genuinely uneasy in the way that this book did, so I have to give it major points for that alone.

I won’t tiptoe around the Lovecraftian aspects of the story. Spoiler alert: the events of Area X are not of this Earth. Possibly not of this dimension or universe. Indescribable cosmic horror unfolds in a way that’s more believable than most of the explicitly Lovecraftian fiction that I’ve come across.

The entire trilogy leans heavily into that uncertainty, that deep tension between being intensely curious about something, while understanding that you’re probably better off not knowing. There’s an unavoidable sense of despair, as well. Despair over relationships, despair over ones’ own mortality, the despair of realizing how truly powerless we all are.

I also have to say that I really enjoyed the way gender and sexuality was employed, (or, successfully ignored) by Vandermeer. Which is to say, gender dynamics are hardly a focal point, and I don’t want to reward mediocrity here, but I still feel the need to mention what a breath of fresh air it was to read a novel with so many believable, fully realized, uncompromised female characters (including the Main Character, at least in Annihilation.)

There’s a gay character, and a bisexual character, both of whose orientations are completely incidental to their roles in the story. There’s even a brief mention of the existence of non-binary individuals. It may not be much but when this kind of thing is as rare as it is, I have to take a moment to offer encouragement for what it’s worth.

For a novel about terror from beyond our galaxy, it’s a story that suffused with incredibly believable human experiences and reactions, one that manages to maintain a small scope despite the immense measure of its primary conflict. The trilogy may be about horrors of the highest magnitude, but serves to remind us that there’s horror inside every one of us, as well.

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The Ethics of Robot Sex: Our Bizarre Future Relationships with Machines

Humanity has made great innovations in the field of robotics in the past few decades. While the idea of robots that interact with us as equals has been explored for centuries in science fiction, we are now closer than ever to a reality in which humans will live alongside robots. As we move closer to creating artificial intelligence, scientists, theorists and philosophers are asking deeper questions about how we will begin to define and redefine our relationships to these machines.

Robots already fulfill numerous applications in fields such as heavy industry and space exploration – and they’re beginning to impact us closer to home. Scientist and theorist Ray Kurzweil was hired by Google in 2012 to help them design the first search engine that is more intelligent than its users. Soon, the ubiquitous webpage might be directing us to answers that we previously wouldn’t have even known to search for. It sounds amazing – but with artificial intelligence poised to integrate itself into our most intimate spaces, how will those spaces, and our experiences, change?

Kurzweil has already predicted that by 2029 or 2030, advances in technology will allow us to construct robots that are as intelligent, if not more intelligent, than the average human. According to Kurzweil, these robots will likely have the ability to understand and utilize intricate emotional strategies such as flirting and humour. A revelation, considering that we humans sometimes have trouble with the emotional complexities and subtleties of our own peers.

There are many that see these coming advancements as a way that we’ll be able to improve and build on our understanding of ourselves, but there are also those who worry about the dangers of creating artificial consciousness. With the development of sentient computers and human-like androids comes the question of what rights we grant to these machines.

A robot that understands flirting and humour, as Kurzweil predicts, has the potential to become more than a co-worker. If machines eventually become sufficiently advanced to be treated as our equals, do we invite them to take part in human social hierarchies? Will robots soon be more adept than humans in the field of dating and relationships? Is a relationship with a robot who understands your every mood and need just around the corner? If dating and sex with robots becomes commonplace, how will it impact our relationships with fellow humans?

The Turing Test

In 1951, codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing originally proposed what he called “The Imitation Game.” The “game” comprised a simple test in which a man, a woman and an impartial judge were placed in three separate rooms and provided with computer terminals through which to communicate with one another.  The man and the woman would both attempt to convince the judge that they were the man, using only what they could convey through words.

Alanturing
Alan Turing’s passport photo (Wikimedia Commons)

From this admittedly problematic origin, Turing later devised what we know today as the Turing Test, a test which aims to determine whether or not a machine is intelligent. In the current model for the Turing Test, a judge sits in one room and another entity, either human or machine, sits in another. Communicating through text on a computer terminal, the judge poses a series of questions to the other participant, who answers to the best of their (or its) abilities. If the judge is unable to determine whether the other participant is man or machine, the machine mind is considered sufficiently intelligent so as to be indistinguishable from a human mind.

Modern science is conflicted on whether the Turing Test is the most accurate method for determining artificial intelligence. Some experts point out that there are many living humans who would not pass the test, while others note that the model leaves too much room for trickery and manipulation to be considered scientifically rigorous. Relatively simplistic computer programs might be able to pass the test simply by being programmed to recognize patterns and keywords in human speech.

Nevertheless, the test has its supporters in the scientific community, and, as of this writing, it remains the only standardized test of artificial intelligence that we have. Each year, a select few advanced robots and software programs are entered into the Turing Test for a chance at winning the Loebner prize. Inaugurated in 1991, the Loebner contest is an annual competition in which entrants participate in the Turing test against a panel of judges.

The Loebner contest has its own set of problems, however. Rather than a single judge, the Loebner contest uses a panel of judges, therefore the parameters for victory are slightly different. Each judge has time to “speak” with each entrant, then each judge ranks their conversation partners in order from least to most human-like. If a computer program entered into the contest has a higher median rank than one of the humans, that program is be considered the winner, and is awarded $100,000.

The first four times the contest was held, the creators knew that the computer programs of the day were unlikely to stand a chance to win the prize, so they restricted the topic of conversation at each terminal. Under these restricted conditions, many pointed out that it would be reasonably simple to program a computer with expert knowledge on that one subject. Seeing this, the creators of the contest lifted these restrictions in 1995. In addition, the judges for the contest were no longer varied laymen, but computer experts. Predictably, the new entrants garnered universally lower rankings than those in the four years prior.

As of 2015, there has yet to be a Loebner Prize winner.

Even so, there are many scientists and theorists who are certain that at some point in the near future, a machine will be able to win the Loebner contest, or pass the Turing Test, or in some other manner prove that it is intelligent enough to be considered conscious. Once a robot “passes the test,” the door will be open for a world of new advantages – and many more legal and moral grey areas.

Humanity’s Convergence with Tech

While the term “robot,” was not coined until 1920, humans have been both fascinated and terrified by machines for many years, since we began building them for industrial and home use. One of the first movies to feature a robot as we now think of them was 1896’s L’Eve Futur, in which a scientist creates a robot in the image of a beautiful woman. A British lord ends up falling in love with this beautiful automaton. Over subsequent decades, we’ve continued to explore the idea of romance with robots –recent films such as Ex Machina, Her and Blade Runner have all explored the ethical and philosophical repercussions of humans entering into sexual relationships with robots and even falling in love with them.

Many of these stories focus on men being seduced by overtly sexualized female robots, acting as temptresses and sirens. Perhaps these stories are simply fables for a modern age, intended as a didactic message about the evils of becoming too reliant on technology, through the lens of popular media’s attachment to women as the original sinners.

Some academics, including noted feminist theorist Donna Haraway, have touched on this. Haraway herself said in her 1985 essay A Cyborg Manifesto that humans need not worry about our increasing reliance on technology and robots to fulfill even our basest desires, because we are already integrated with technology. Biological, organic, “natural” relationships no longer apply as we are already so far removed from that, and all of us exist as “theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.”

Ray Kurzweil defines the Singularity as the temporal point at which the distinction between human and machine is no longer tangible. According to Kurzweil, technological advancement is speeding up exponentially as increased computing power and wider access to information allows advancements to happen more quickly.

Eventually, the speed of technological advancement will be so fast that we will need to merge our own bodies and minds with technology in order to keep up with it. Devices such as computers and cellphones will shrink until they can be implanted inside of us, and we will all become the literal manifestation of Haraway’s cyborgs. Many of us are already so attached to our phones that losing the device is akin to losing a limb – perhaps in the future this will be even less of an exaggeration.

If we think about our cell phones as an extension of our minds, it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine plugging our minds in to supercomputers to increase their memory and processing power — similar to the way you’d plug a USB port or external hard drive into your laptop. Thanks to the advent of the internet, the layman of today has access to more information than even government officials did 15 years ago. We are all getting exponentially more intelligent, though the structure of our intelligence is shifting from millions of self-contained minds to one, much larger collective of information.

Sexbots and Technosexuality

So what are these human desires that Haraway and others feel are soon to be fulfilled by robots? The integration of our own biology with technology already comes into play in our sexuality. Some of the more elaborate sex toys on the market today might be considered “robots” by some standard. There is already a large existing market for human-shaped machines, designed specifically to fill our wants and needs.

Robot fetishism, sometimes called technosexuality or ASFR by those who identify with it, has a large enough following for its own Wikipedia page, and scores of individuals produce art and stories to share with other enthusiasts. ASFR stands for “alt.sex.fetish.robots,” taking its name from a group on Usenet, a late-20th century precursor to modern-day internet forums. Some self-identified technosexuals are physically attracted to robots that appear highly mechanical, with sci-fi details like chrome plates and exposed circuitry – while other people fantasize about intimate relations with androids and gynoids who are designed to be indistinguishable from humans. Some people even fantasize about being transformed into a robot, or watching a lover undergo a similar process.

The majority of modern technosexuals still have to live out their fantasies through role play and stories, but advancements in robotics on the horizon may very well open up new avenues for making robots a part of not only our industry, but our love lives. Companies like RealDolls, for instance, specialize in highly-realistic artificial lovers. This company prides itself on paving the way for the creation of realistic android and gynoid sex partners, a goal it has been working toward for over a decade. While at present, RealDolls offer very little in the way of functional robotics, the company is just waiting for the next big advancement in artificial intelligence to offer a whole lot more in the way of customizable lovers.

Robots as Therapists

Sex robots need not be designed for purely hedonistic pursuits, however. They also have potential in medical and mental health fields that intersect with human sexuality.

Sex surrogacy, also called surrogate partner therapy, can be a very important aspect of psychological healing for patients who have been affected by sexual traumas ranging from rape and abuse to medical conditions that affect sexual functioning. In surrogate therapy, a professional surrogate partner helps a patient become comfortable with physical intimacy by playing the role of an intimate or sexual partner for the patient, in a safe and controlled environment.

Right now, surrogate partners are humans who are qualified and specifically trained to help patients overcome mental traumas or issues related to physical intimacy. But could these human partners be replaced with robots over the coming decades? Some scientists believe so. At the very least, robotic sex surrogates could fill a missing step in the rehabilitation process for people with psychological traumas so severe that they are unable to handle the touch of a fellow human. For these patients, a humanoid robot might be provide a safe starting point, where they can simulate touching a human before moving on to the real thing.

Paro
PARO Therapeutic Robot in action

Therapy robots already exist, though they don’t necessarily take human forms. PARO is a robot designed to look like a baby seal, complete with soft white fur. This robot plays the role of an animal companion in environments where actual living animals would pose logistical or hygienic issues, such as hospitals and extended care facilities. The robot can discern a gentle touch from an aggressive one, and learns to repeat behaviours that provoke positive reactions. PARO is also able to learn and respond to its own name and respond appropriately to environmental stimuli such as light, touch, sound and temperature. This robot is currently in use in numerous facilities in Japan and Europe, and has been shown to significantly reduce patient stress and improve interactions between patients and caregivers.

A similar robot has been developed in the United States by robotics experts at MIT. Ollie the baby otter is a therapy robot that functions in a similar manner to PARO, but is far cheaper to manufacture. A single PARO robot costs roughly USD $6,000 to manufacture, while Ollie’s cost is a fraction of that — about USD $500 per unit. MIT researchers are hoping that with a higher production volume, the manufacturing cost of an Ollie model might dip as low as USD $100 per unit.

If we use robots to treat sexual dysfunction in humans, what about those humans whose sexuality drives them to harm other members of society? Child-like sex dolls have been posited as a treatment option for offenders. Essentially, the dolls would be to pedophiles what methadone is to heroin addicts. The theory is that giving pedophiles non-sentient outlets for their urges will keep real children safe from harm — but some see these theorized robot children as rewarding or legitimizing the behaviour.

The success of therapy robots hinges on our own willingness to accept the help of artificial beings, rather than rallying against them. Many of us are uncomfortable around robots made to look especially human – for an example, check out artist Jordan Wolfson’s Female Figure which unnerved audiences in galleries and on YouTube. The reason for this is a psychological phenomenon called the uncanny valley.

An increasing amount of compiled evidence shows that our reactions to human facsimiles can be graphed as on a curve, with a significant valley at the point representing facsimile that are extremely close, but still slightly off from the real thing. This valley represents an increased incidence of negative reactions to the facsimile – namely, fear and anxiety.

In the uncanny valley, we are unsure how to categorize the facsimile because we can’t be certain if it’s human or not. It’s this same effect that makes dead bodies creepy to most people – we can’t get comfortable because our brains aren’t quite sure if the stimulus is a fellow human, or a potential threat.

This is partly why robots like Ollie and PARO are designed as an otter and a seal, respectively, rather than kittens. The majority of humans have been around cats and would immediately recognize real cat behaviours. Most of us haven’t spent much time up close and personal with otters, so the effect is not as strong.

Does this mean that those on the chrome-and-circuitry side of technosexuality will get their wish? Will we deliberately make our robotic partners more robot-like, to avoid the creep factor?

The Morality of AI

Thus we arrive at the moral quandary of creating intelligent machines specifically to fill roles and desires that we are unable to fulfill for ourselves. Though a little has been written on the subject of moral law when it comes to robot rights, the idea is still not entirely clear. If a robot is unable to feel pain or fear, do we possess strong enough morals to keep ourselves from exploiting a generation of androids as our slaves?

Kantian philosophy says that our actions dictate our morality. By this logic, if a machine eventually passes the Turing test and becomes indistinguishable from a human mind, we become tyrants if we attempt to predetermine its purpose for existence. It is worth noting that Kant wrote his treatises well before the prospect of intelligent machines. Should these theories be applied to such futuristic ideas?

The difference, as we presently understand it, lies in whether a robot is a true artificial intelligence, or whether it is simply programmed to emulate certain human emotions depending on the function it is designed for. Therapy robots, for example, are programmed to seem caring and empathetic in a way that is relatable to humans – however, if you wanted PARO to beat your friends at chess, the robot wouldn’t be of much use.

A true artificial intelligence, that which would be indistinguishable from a human in every way, would be just that – indistinguishable from a human. As humans, we are inherently flawed, emotional creatures – will we feel more comfortable with robots who are programmed not only to feel love, empathy and compassion, but to feel jealousy, apathy and anger? If this is the case, our relationship with robots might end up teaching us more about ourselves.

From a scientific standpoint, love is hardly a magical spell that occurs between star-crossed lovers. There are a number of recognized factors for humans that can trigger the emotions that we interpret as love. Things like proximity, need fulfillment, reciprocal liking and a sense of mystery could all be easily programmed into a robotic brain. It’s not a stretch to imagine a human falling in love with a computer that is programmed to display these traits.

Redefining Consciousness

Ray Kurzweil predicts that robots and computer programs will eventually be millions of times more intelligent than humans. There will be no way for us to continue advancing as a species unless we integrate ourselves with this technology. As mentioned earlier, this integration is a process that has already begun. Through the advent of social media we are opening ourselves up to a constant flow of information, and increasingly feel isolation when we shut off our phones and computers. The fast flow of information and innovation is already creating a need for us to be constantly plugged in. In this way, our own consciousness is changing.

Consciousness itself is already tricky to define. Physicist Michio Kaku defines consciousness in three different levels. The first level of consciousness is a simple awareness of one’s position in space and time. Creatures with the second level of consciousness, such as monkeys, have an awareness of themselves in space and time as well as a social consciousness in relation to their peers. We humans have level three consciousness, able to define ourselves in relation to both our current positions and our projected futures. This means we can make predictions, and plan ahead in time.

Part of our current understanding of consciousness is sentience. In Western philosophies, sentience is thought of as the ability to perceive experience subjectively, or to feel emotions in relation to environment and other external stimulus. Sentience exists separately from rational thought processes.

Some Eastern philosophies have a different idea about sentience. In Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism, all beings, including plants and even inanimate objects that have been imbued with spiritual significance, are considered sentient beings. In Buddhism, sentience is a quality that is attained by all non-enlightened beings with consciousness. By this logic, a robot with the ability to beat us at chess, or to care for ailing patients, robots that have become so culturally important to us, might, in some interpretations, be considered sentient.

Given all this information, it seems almost easy to think of a highly advanced computer program as having at least some level of consciousness. Though it may not be the same “awareness” that humans perceive, a robot is constantly aware of and reacting to its environment, performing commands based on external stimuli. Maybe we don’t so much need a test to determine if a robot is intelligent, but rather, a test that determines if a robot is sentient.

Perhaps one day we will have robots that are sophisticated enough to become our social equals – but it seems unlikely that those robots will be the same androids that we currently picture in our fantasies and nightmares. Humanity itself has a lot of growing to do before we can hope to have all the answers on artificial intelligence. If Kurzweil’s predictions ring true, however, many of us should be gearing up to see these changes happen within our lifetimes.

(This article originally appeared on Wisdom Pills)

Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney

This book is 800 pages long and still manages to have an abrupt ending.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a sci-fi novel with such strong character development. If you want to nitpick, you could remind me that this isn’t technically science fiction, but magical realism. Whatever – it was in the science fiction section of the bookstore.

This is a really talk-y novel, but in a good way – I know I said that Honor of the Queen was talky, but it’s a palpably different kind of talky. Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren unearths your deepest thoughts and opinions on all aspects of humanity, putting them on a pedestal or crushing them.

I don’t know where to start with this novel. Definitively post-modern, its plot isn’t so much an arc as a straight line. Every moment is equally weighted.

So, I’ll try to explain. The novel is set in Bellona, a made-up city somewhere in the continental United States. It’s also the location of a recent but unspecified disaster of near apocalyptic proportions. This event has destroyed not only large parts of the city’s infrastructure, but its entire socioeconomic hierarchy as well.

Basically, Bellona is an anarchist’s paradise. Money and property have virtually no meaning or utility, there’s no organized justice system, no jobs, no schools. You get the idea.

Depending on who you are, this is either a dream come-true, or an absolute nightmare.

(I’m still on the nightmare side, though this has more to do with my own personality than the novel’s actual portrayal of the circumstances.)

Bellona is occupied, it seems, by drifters with nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, plus a few stragglers who didn’t immediately leave when the city was demolished. Many of the drifters have taken to travelling in roving gangs, calling themselves “Scorpions” and going by individual nicknames.

The novel follows one of the aforementioned drifters named the Kid, who is so called because he can’t remember his real name, but has a pretty intense baby face – everyone thinks he’s 17 when in reality he’s at least a decade older (though anyone’s age in Bellona is a point of some contention.) Kid hitchhikes his way to Bellona, presumably out of curiosity and a lack of anything better to do.

The citizens of Bellona are extremely easygoing and open, not only from a social standpoint but from a sexual one as well. Beginning the moment he arrives in Bellona, the Kid falls into a number sexual relationships, whether temporary or ongoing.

He falls in with the Scorpions, who, in spite of being feared by the non-Scorpion residents, are instead a loose group of people who live together and function as a sort of “gang” out of necessity. They have no one and nothing else, and take on a pack mentality, living in dens, and appointing unofficial “leaders” not by diplomatic vote, but through unconscious, animalistic shows of dominance and submission.

The Kid’s bisexuality is introduced circumstantially. His first encounter with another man happens early in the novel and doesn’t seem entirely consensual. At the time, I was unsure if I felt it was because Kid isn’t into men, or if he just wasn’t into that man and that circumstance in particular. Kid doesn’t openly discuss his own sexuality until about a third of the way into the novel, and even at that point there’s no definitive “label.” He just notes that his encounters have always oscillated between genders. I enjoyed, and I think a lot of readers will enjoy a character who could be labelled bisexual, but is never actually defined.

Dhalgren’s plot has no arc because it’s not so much a story as a case study, a hypothesis for a social experiment. Bellona is not only a fictional place, but a fictional circumstance, wherein all the arbitrary social laws and dances that we’ve built up are torn down, and humans are allowed to interact with each other as they might, without considerations for class, race, compatibility, relationship structure, or any number of other apparently false restrictions.

The result is interesting and sort of heartening. Dhalgren is definitely an exploration of a spectrum of human sexuality, not only in terms of orientation, but in terms of how much our desires are dictated and repressed by societal rules, and by that measure, the wide range of formerly deviant activities that become normal once you remove constructed stigma.

Kid almost immediately falls into a relationship with a woman, Layna. Circumstance adds a third – Denny. Despite vastly different pre-Bellona backgrounds and a wide age gap (Denny is only 15), for the rest of the novel the three are the sweetest and most ideal example of a poly triad that I’ve ever come across in any media. It was lovely.

Again, the three never strictly define themselves as anything, though there’s no strict denial of a structured relationship, either.

An aside – apparently at some point or region in the 70’s, “balling” was slang for having sex. At some point in the novel, about halfway through, Delaney starts using this word almost every time sex is mentioned by anyone in any context.

I, as a millennial, had previously ONLY heard this word as a slang term for being, basically, “cool” (wealthy, talented, lucky, well-dressed, whatever constitutes coolness) i.e. wish I was a little bit taller/wish I was a baller, etc.

This lack of context made the term jarring at first, and slightly annoying thereafter. I still don’t like it as a term. It seems kind of silly. I mean, I can see the connection, obviously balls are frequently involved in sex, but it’s clear to me why this didn’t catch on.

ANYWAY.

If someone asked me what Dhalgren was about, I’d say: human interaction, and writing. While in the city, the Kid is struck by a sudden compulsion to write poetry and by virtue of community isolation and being basically the only actual writer in the city, his book of poetry published. There are many passages that seem to come directly from the psyche of the author, meditating on the price of having your writing recognized, the reasons one writes, the constant balancing act between begrudging compulsion and actual enjoyment of the craft. As a writer myself, I was surprised that these all managed to be interesting and insightful, and only once or twice, for a brief moment, did they feel overly masturbatory.

Especially important are the moments in which Kid realizes that perhaps people are being dishonestly “nice” with their opinions on his writing. He asks for honesty, but is hurt by the response. It’s a very telling struggle between blissful ignorance and the knowledge we’re led to believe we actually want.

The last 100 (200?) pages of the novel devolve into a simulacra of a “found journal,” with different trains of thought overlapping in different fonts on the same page. In order to read each page fully, the story itself became necessarily fragmented. I found these extremely annoying to read, which I take to mean they were extremely effective.

I won’t say how it ends partly because I don’t want to give it away and partly because I still don’t really know how it ended. It’s as if Delaney was working with a set number of pages and he ran out before he was able to tie things up.

The ending of Dhalgren left me gasping and certain that I would have to read it again.

Dreams of an Unseen Planet by Teresa Plowright

Dreams of an Unseen Planet Teresa Plowright

Dreams of an Unseen Planet by Teresa Plowright was a random thrift store pick. With a cover like that I wasn’t going to pass it up, and I was delighted to find a female author sandwiched between the usual Asimov and Heinlein novels that populate my local Value Village. I had high hopes for this one from the start, and in the end I’m not disappointed! Though I have to say I think, as a novel, it takes a little bit of time to pick up steam. If you’re reading it, I’d encourage you to stick it out until you’re at least a third of the way through.

Aside from the obvious selling feature of a female sci-fi author, this book features a female protagonist and what I would call a majority of female characters. The circumstance isn’t contrived, either. When your setting is a space colony specifically designed for the propagation of the human species, you can’t really get away with focusing entirely on men. Maybe the scenario is rife with opportunity for females to be given the static “birther” role, but I might have thrown the book out the window if that had been the case. As in David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, I really get the sense that women exist as actual people in this world. There isn’t a palpable distinction in capability between men and women. They hold the same jobs, seem to have the same weird social tendencies, and are equally as worried and emotional. Fertility issues as they pertain to women are discussed as just part of a working whole, not some mysterious, foreign enchantment.

A word on what I just said about fertility – with a tagline like “When sex is not the answer…” I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a novel that toed the line and tripped into straight-up erotica or if I’d get the Stephanie Meyer asterisks-mean-sex cop-out. Surprise! The answer is neither. Sex is a central theme, because of course it is when your setting is a domed base on a distant planet populated by 2,000 colonists whose main purpose for being there is to procreate and continue the human race. Earth has gone to hell and so, on the verge of nuclear war, the Americas, China and Russia each send a bunch of colonists to a far off-planet called Gaea to preserve and rebuild the human race. From the point of view of Miera Tull, a woman living in the English-speaking colony, we learn that all efforts at procreation have been unsuccessful – no one can get pregnant, and those that do eventually miscarry or die.

Naturally, as the sex-drenched but childless years wear on, female fertility takes on something of a talismanic, mystical identity. Everyone lives for it but no one knows how to obtain it.  Eventually, the colony takes to putting on a multiple-day orgiastic festival of procreation called Estros. Which harkens to the importance of female sex hormones and is in its way reminiscent of fertility festivals associated with some pagan religions. But I never felt like the book was earnestly presenting this view as its own. The view of fertility as an evasive deity belongs to the characters, and the novel takes a documentary backseat.

It would be difficult and unnecessarily timid to take a setting where sex holds such omnipresence and remove the basic act. So Plowright doesn’t. But she also rarely veers into outright titillation. There’s not a sex scene that takes place outside of the plot or character arcs. The novel stays improbably classy for taking utter, desperate fucking as its subject matter.

So why did I take so long to come around to it? My theory is that Plowright introduces the characters so brilliantly that it’s a little too real.  As I started the novel I found Miera petty, dramatic, and largely overly concerned with her own personal issues, considering the general direness of the situation on the colony. Despite being hand-picked for the project for her looks, personality and scientific education, she doesn’t fit in, she’s jealous that her ex-lover has found a new girl, she has insecurities about her job, suffers from insomnia and nightmares, et cetera. In retrospect, of course everyone on the colony would degrade into focusing on personal anxieties, and after a while it’s clear that this is all part of the psychological set-up of the novel.

The range of characters is diverse enough that some are swallowed up in a wave of anxiety, never to return, while others, including our hero, rise above it and become stronger, more developed than I even thought possible at the outset.

Language-wise, you might find the novel a bit flowery. I definitely did. When Plowright hits her stride she does so without sacrificing her language, though these very pretty, dreamlike descriptions seem to have more utility as events progress. The descriptions of sex are at times almost too vague, with so much metaphor that you’re not sure what you’re actually reading. There were a couple passages that I ended up reading twice just to clarify what was actually going on. But it’s worth it for that occasional passage that sparkles with beauty even while it’s describing a hallway or an office.

The sense of scope expands as the story goes on, giving the reader time to get acquainted with each character individually, instead of having to meet several of them at once. Only after a few distinct personalities have been developed do we start learning about the history and inner workings of the colony itself. By the end of the novel we know more about the people in the book that we do about their world, though in a character-focused story, this is an acceptable balance.

In final summation, this book is way more than the fluffy, softcore romp that the cover and synopsis would suggest. It’s definitely a treat for those of you who are sick of reading female sci-fi characters as damsels or oversexed femme-fatales.

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Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite authors, though Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of The World is the perhaps the most sci-fi-like of his novels that I’ve yet encountered. 1Q84 could be a contender, but I never found it so overt.  Perhaps that’s why Hard Boiled Wonderland seemed slow to start – because at first it was jarringly un-Murakami. It took me a while to get into this book, is what I’m saying.

So I was delightfully surprised when it did start to grab me, even more so when it really started being hard to put down toward the end. The last few chapters felt as though they dragged slightly, again, moving toward and ending that was wholly unsatisfactory, though I believe intentionally so.

At times this seems like a classic Murakami story with some sort of bizarre fantasy novel wedged in between chapters. The chapters alternate, one then the other, between tales set in the “real” world – Murakami’s recognizable if slightly skewed depiction of early 1990’s Japan – and in an isolated village with no modern technology at all, where unicorns roam, people’s shadows are sentient beings and dream-reading is an occupation. Yet they are two halves of the same coin, as is slowly revealed when the stories begin to converge. This is one of the best justifications I’ve seen for chapters that flip perspective, and the way the separate viewpoints slowly reveal themselves to be the same is subtle and brilliant, with enough clues in each version for the reader to draw mounting parallels.

Murakami, as usual, tends to fixate in an oddly clinical fashion on sex and other bodily functions. His descriptions of food and alcohol are sumptuous, and a moment where the main character’s collection of whiskey is destroyed was one of the most heartrending things I’ve read in some time.

Women in this universe unfortunately tend to be objects of desire for the main protagonist. We never meet one without getting a detailed description of an imagined sexual encounter, and those that are more than momentary passersby never quite seem to escape the protagonist’s vague fascination. The “main” female character, who we know only as the chubby girl, falls dangerously close to manic-pixie territory, though she seems to be saved by her unaided toughness in the face of adversity where our hero balks and cowers.

What at first seems to be the central storyline, the protagonist’s mysterious, government-operative occupation, is never really explored in more detail than that. He performs a job which involves complex encryptions and decryptions carried out by a part of his subconscious while his waking mind disassociates. The revelation that his abilities are the result of modifications made to his brain, and that he is the only survivor in a series of human experiments, should smack of campy 80’s action movie science, though when it is revealed it seems almost mystical. It’s very much a psychological thriller, though the divide between reality and the imagined world is clearly delineated and unambiguous.

For all his faults, we care about the main character, if only because he tends toward being a blank slate onto whom we project our social insecurity. In line with a large percentage of Murakami’s male characters, he’s in his mid-thirties, apathetic and minimally employed, though somehow with a fair chunk of disposable income. He’s divorced and this fact is treated as more an inevitability of life than a personal tragedy. As far as I know Murakami himself has been married for the duration of his writing career so I sometimes wonder about his fascination with divorced men – though perhaps it is his way of confronting the possibility of failure, creating numerous alter-egos to assess different possible reactions and outcomes.

At any rate, Murakami’s male characters always seem to have an autobiographical possession, whereas his women are more distinct. Despite what I said earlier about the female characters in this book, I do believe that this author is more than capable of writing interesting and realistic women. I’ve seen it in later works – Sputnik Sweetheart, 1Q84 and After Dark all feature women in main roles and when Murakami places them in the spotlight it’s real and effortless. Fittingly, when he treats them as afterthoughts and sexual objects it seems a bit contrived. So perhaps the treatment of women in this novel is a necessary aspect of the protagonist’s characterization. That’s an optimistic way of looking at it, anyhow.

For a novel that has the self-awareness to admit, through reference, its reverence of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, it does have its own internal logic that never falters, even when the plot doesn’t seem certain. All in all it was a worthwhile read, even inspiring at points. The ending, while abrupt, is divisive. Some, I’m sure, will see it as the most logical conclusion, while others, like me, will read the final page in slight disbelief, certain that another outcome was within reach.

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