Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Agency


Title: Agency
Author: William Gibson
Publisher: Berkley Books

I find it hard, in this the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, to take seriously any novel in which President Hillary Rodham Clinton is painted as a hero who will avert nuclear catastrophe.

No, I didn’t like this much, which is a shame, for although I find the plots of most recent Gibson novels a bit limp, he’s always been an interesting writer at the level of word choice, sentence structure, paragraph and chapter. A master stylist, if not a masterful storyteller. But his latest effort I found just a bit drab, filed with recycled plot elements from his better books and without any of his linguistic flair, where characters do very little but go around in circles while the plot resolves itself for them. For a book titled “Agency,” pretty much nobody exerts any, which might be the point I suppose, but makes for a dull read.

“Agency” revisits the world of 2014’s “The Peripheral,” in which people in the 22nd century have discovered they can digitally contact people in the past, but only in alternate or parallel realities (since such contact didn’t occur in their own past). A group of such future-humans then begin to manipulate the course of these realities, some for shits and giggles, others to try to make them “better” by avoiding the disasters the “main” timeline endured.

While alternate reality in “The Peripheral” was a late-stage capitalist version of the USA, in which the only jobs are fighting in America’s imperialist wars or selling drugs, “Agency” is set in an alternate 2017 in which Hillary Clinton won the Presidential election and the UK voted to remain in the EU.

A woman in alternate 2017 named Verity is supposedly an “app-whisperer”, which is the kind of unspecific but cool-sounding technological super-ability we saw in “Pattern Recognition” yet which is never mentioned after the first chapter making you wonder why Gibson bothered, but anyway, this Verity is hired by a tech start-up to field test a responsive virtual agent (hence Agency, geddit), which turns out to be a stolen full-blown military intelligence AI.

What follows is pretty much just the emergent AI creating the circumstances for its own birth (giving her “agency”, geddit) plot that we saw in “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” only told with much less verve or invention.

Verity and a small cast of characters (including many from a people-following Agency, geddit) spend the entire novel driving around in circles in LA and San Francisco at the direction of the AI while being menaced rather unconvincingly by shadowy operatives whose objectives aren’t especially clear, other than to menace the main characters from time to time. As in, I’m not really sure why these people keep trying to kidnap a woman just for talking to a stolen AI—it’s not like she physically carries it around or anything. 

Anyway, in the end the AI is okay, no thanks to any of these people.

Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear annihilation looms in the background as Russia and the US come to blows over the Middle East. This plot line, as mentioned above, is also resolved without anyone doing anything, thanks to President Clinton.

Yet a third strand involves the future humans in the 22nd century, who apparently (and off-camera) instigated the plot by getting the start-up to hire Verity. In their own time, they are threatened by a Russian oligarch pissed that their meddling in past realities tends to be aimed at creating conditions where Russian oligarchs have less power. This plot line is resolved by someone going to an all-day breakfast restaurant three times for 10-minute conversations.

As I think I wrote in my review of “Zero History,” I like Gibson less the more he writes about the present-day. Back then, it was the brand name-dropping that irritated. Now, it’s the overt focus on modern US politics, especially his support for Clinton and evident disdain for Trump (though he is never mentioned by name). To be transparent, like most non-Americans I find Trump to be a patently corrupt, vain, narcissistic, sub-moronic windbag whose presidency effectively annihilates any claim Americans might ever make to moral superiority about pretty much anything. So I agree with Gibson’s assessment, just putting it into the story so baldly seems crude. As I wrote in yesterday’s braindead thinkpiece on here, it feels like part of a trend towards incredibly literal moralizing and messaging in SF. Nothing is allowed to be metaphor and interpretation, there’s only text, no subtext.

What are we to make of the characters’ odd passivity and inability to influence the plot? If this is by design, it comes across as fatalistic, suggesting there’s nothing people can do to avert nuclear war or climate catastrophe other than pray a Strong Leader like, hum, er, Clinton, or else some benevolent AI will rescue us. Which might well be true, but doesn’t really fit the triumphant and uplifting tone of the end of the novel, where the AI reveals itself to the world (yes, spoilers, go fuck yourself). That sounds like a recipe for apathy rather than activism to me.

The other sour note I found was Verity’s ex-boyfriend, a mega-rich tech maverick named Stets, whose enormous wealth is essential in arranging all the complex gadgetry required to help Verity stay one step ahead of the bad guys. This man is unfailing portrayed in a positive light, charming, intelligent, perceptive, flaunting the law to help his friends, all for the greater good!

Contrast this to the Russian oligarch subplot, in which those nasty rich Russkies try to trip up our heroes just so they can stay rich and, er, Russian. Now, to me it feels like pure American exceptionalism to suggest there’s anything different between Stets and the Russian oligarch. One happens to be using his inordinate wealth and influence to help the protagonist, the other to hinder, but in each case we’re talking about a class of people whose wealth has effectively rendered them above the law.

As with the emergent AI line, it feels like I’m being asked to celebrate something that strikes me as deeply, deeply disturbing. The only people capable of exercising agency in this world of ours are the mega-rich or artificial intelligences. Luckily ours are nice and not nasty at all. Hooray, I guess?

It’s a bit like “Waiting for Godot” if Godot showed up in Act II, announced he was actually an immortal all-seeing God, but a nice one, and all the characters went hope happy. 

“Agency” has a strangely positive ending for a book apparently about our powerlessness in the face of technological and socioeconomic change. All of that, I think, encapsulated by the bit at the end where the characters celebrate World War III being averted by that benevolent God, Hillary Clinton.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Are Science Fiction and Fantasy becoming more political?


“I wish we could go back to the days when entertainment wasn’t so political.”

Ah, this is a messy one. These days, it seems to be THE one, one I’m doubtless unequipped to talk about knowledgeably or authoritatively or even convincingly, but since nobody reads these anyways, happily that is no barrier. Why should anyone care what a white, middle-aged heterosexual man has to say about politics in entertainment these days? Well, it’s what everyone seems to talk about online these days, so it’s fun just to try to put my thoughts into writing. You don’t like it, it’s incredibly easy not to read this, confined as it is to one of our glorious world-wide webulization’s least-viewed sites, even within the narrow, forlorn and outdated category of blogs.

So to hell with it.

With everything from the latest Star War to pronouns in video games to science fiction short stories, it feels like people online—well, mainly Americans, probably helped along by Russians and their virtual minions—are constantly arguing about how this or that media is either too politicized or too problematic, either questioning the status quo too little or too much, either injecting political messages into entertainment or glossing over the messages inherent in the material.

The latest show to receive this treatment is Star Trek Picard, touted (in a positive way) by one site as “The Most Political Show on TV”.

So: ARE works of fiction currently more “political” now than in some nebulous time in the past?

First thing I think we have to do is figure out wtf people even mean by “political” works of fiction.

In its narrowest sense, politics means the study of and opinions about the system and structure of government in a society, which few of these stories, shows or games come anywhere near addressing. So that’s not it.

Instead, it seems to mean the distribution of wealth and power within society (sociology), or more specifically the representation of women, LGBT and people of color (or others Americans classify as disadvantaged groups) among the protagonists and creators of fiction (social justice). Even there though, these topics have now splayed out like a floppy octopus into fields such as mental health (the movie “Joker”), linguistics (the pronoun issue, as in the BattleTech game linked above or Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice” books) or meteorology—any mention of climate change is now seen as “political,” favoring one side or the other America’s moronically, terminally disfunctional politics.

When you define politics like that, the answer seems obvious. Are shows, games and books more “political” now? 

Well yeah, because our definition of “political” has devoured and consumed so many other fields that it is now so bloated that it encompasses pretty much every aspect of human interaction. Having a male protagonist is political and having a female protagonist is political and having a heterosexual couple is political and having a gay couple is political and having a white character is political and having a nonwhite character is political. Has it got people in it? Then it’s gonna be “political” one way or the other.

It certainly feels like that changing definition has altered the way we perceive works of fiction. You can pick any example you like—from “Tropic Thunder” to Monty Python—works that once slipped through without comment are now being exhumed, laid on a slab and dissected for traces of woke-ness or SJW-ness. In that light, “Godfather” is a political movie, with its Italian and Irish conflict, a ruling class steeped in casual criminality and corruption; “2001” is a political movie, with its male-dominated space mission and presentation of HAL 9000, its AI, as male; “Wall-E”’s environmentalism and the gender-coding of its robots is political; “The Dark Knight” with its mega-rich vigilante hero is political.

So I don’t think we can discuss the “quantity” of politics in fiction—it’s ceased to be a useful measure as it now includes everything. 

That kind of ducks the question though of whether or not the works themselves have changed. Has the “quality” of politics in fiction (meaning not goodness or badness, but character, mode, presentation, all that hip and groovy stuff) changed? Put it in other words, I’d agree that our perceptions—or at least sensitivity to the sociopolitical dimensions of narratives—have changed, but does this perception have any basis in fact, or is it all just semantics?

Certainly, we’ve had overtly political books for decades, if not centuries. George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” are nakedly political, as are Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Even H. G. Wells’s “Time Machine” painted a future in which the working class had devolved into the subterranean, cannibalistic Morlocks way back in 1895.

Still, saying that feels like missing the forest for the trees to me. I’m not sure there are many meaningful, objective stats you can bring to this conversation, but if you look at Hugo and Nebula “Best Novel” award winners, we’ve gone from 90/10 men-to-women ratio in the 70s and 80s, to a roughly 50/50 split between men and women writers winning the best novel prize in the 90s and 00s, to 70/30 in favor of women for both awards (including one trans woman for the Nebula) in the last decade.

Similarly, anecdotal evidence based on one experience doesn’t tell you shit but, uh, anyway, I recently downloaded a digital copy of the 2019 edition of Johnathan Strahan’s “The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year” and although I’m still only halfway through, I think there’s been about one white male protagonist out of 15 stories, and the one exception is in a fantasy setting where nobody’s ethnicity is stated, so I’m putting my thumb on the scales even there.

So there does seem to be a shift there particularly in the last decade, at least in terms of what gets recognized, if not in terms of what gets published (in this age of self-publication, I’m not sure that’s even a meaningful question any more).

But what’s getting recognized though, are not just stories with sociopolitical dimensions or implications, but extremely literal ones, where there’s a kind of 1:1 correspondence between a current sociopolitical issue and what’s in the narrative. Ann Leckie’s book is a good example—it feels like the “point” of the book is the invented culture in which gender differences are ignored and everyone defaults to referring to themselves using feminine pronouns. Award-winning author Annalee Newitz’s “The Future of Another Timeline” is about reactionary men trying to change the past so that women never get the vote. There’s nothing subtle about these analogies. It’s all up front and in your face.

You might like that, you might not. I’m just trying to describe what I see and to me, that’s the difference we’re seeing now. Not more or less politics, but more literal politics. Either we’re all getting dumber and more literal-minded or authors, editors and publishers have decided their audience is getting dumber and more literal-minded, or readers have demanded dumber and more literal-minded stories (perhaps as a consequence of SF/Fantasy achieving wider, more mainstream acceptance), but it feels like that’s what we’re getting: Less metaphor, more whacking your point home with all the subtlety of a battering ram.

What about TV? To stick with my example of Star Trek from above: “Star Trek Discovery” had a gay couple kiss, but then the original “Star Trek” had an interracial kiss and the episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” was very overtly about race relations in the US, featuring aliens that were literally black and white. The new “Picard” series has its captain resign from Starfleet over its treatment of immigrants and androids, both obviously pointing to modern-day American issues with immigration and racial or gender diversity. Yet the previous incarnation of the character, in “The Next Generation,” also battled Starfleet’s attempts to declare androids property rather than people and in the episode “The Outcast,” featured a planet filled with a race of androgynous aliens, one of whom decides they wish to be identified as female.

Again though, saying that these elements were always present feels like missing the point. Sure, those episodes were always there, but as one aspect, one part of the thing rather than the focus or reason for the thing. Episodes like “... Last Battlefield” and “The Outcast” were criticized for being too heavy-handed and didactic while episodes dealing with more esoteric questions—like “Inner Light” (what if you lived out 40 years of life as a virtual memory) or “Darmok” (what if aliens spoke only in metaphors)—top most of the best-ever lists.

Take that other granddaddy of SF franchises, Star Wars. There’s an implied politics in a band of freedom-fighters taking on an Empire to restore a Republic. The prequel series shifted that up a notch, with said Republic collapsing through fear-mongering and an instinct to look to a “strong man” when the going got rough. But it wasn’t until “The Last Jedi” that people (and bots, lots of Russian bots) started howling about the politics of it, ironically because it stopped being about politics, and more about men learning lessons from women.

So there again, the difference with the current crop of fiction seems to be that its moralizing is more blatant, more heavy-handed, more literal and less subtle. This might be because the messages are shifting from acceptance of the status quo to challenging it, from praising the American experience to criticizing it, I really, honestly don’t know, but that’s my experience anyway. I feel like I’m not being left to figure things out any more—I’m being told what to think and how to feel to a greater degree than before.

Side note: The qualifier “to a greater degree than before” is really the heart of it, and what always seems to get washed out in these kinds of discussions. I’m not saying there’s been a switch from one to another, like a light switch going on or off, but the dimmer switch has been adjusted, to dad’s outrage the thermostat has been touched, and the temperature has changed a little.

So I think that’s what people mean, when they talk about fiction being more political. They mean two things: (A) That we now have a heightened awareness that pretty much everything has sociopolitical dimensions, and (B) that political messaging has become more literal within the last 10 years.