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On Books: by Norman Spinrad
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Manta's Gift
by Timothy Zahn

Tor, $24.95
ISBN: 031287829X

When my first short story collection, The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde, was published in 1970, it was reviewed by Algis Budrys, then one of the two or three most influential critics in the science fiction field, and as far as I was concerned, the most interesting. In a generally favorable review, Budrys voiced one complaint, however, which was formative for not only my future stylistic angles of attack in my own fiction but for my critical stance in this essay.

Formative because I believed it at the time to be wrongheaded. Formative because although I found it wrongheaded, it called my conscious attention to something I had been doing all along without really thinking about it. Which, among other things, is an excellent argument for the value to working writers of intelligent analytical criticism, since in this case Budrys did me a world of good even though I didn’t agree with his prescriptive conclusion.

For what Budrys basically said was that while this was a collection of generally good stories and I was a writer of promise, I had yet to mature, yet to find my own literary voice. Each of these stories, he complained, is written in a different style.

Complained?

As soon as I read what Budrys had written, I realized, as I had not realized before, that this was indeed what I had been doing. But as soon as I did, I also came to the conscious belief that this was what I should be doing. As far as I was concerned, Budrys’ description of what I had been doing was entirely correct, but rather than being a flaw, it was a virtue. Everyone should be doing it.

But certainly not everyone was. And certainly even today not everyone is. Far from it.

In the SF field in those days, there was a dominant critical and editorial notion that persists and perhaps even remains dominant today, namely that science fiction and fantasy should be written in "transparent prose." That is, well-crafted but more or less standard prose that does not call attention to itself, which disappears into the woodwork, which is esthetically invisible.

The argument for transparent prose is twofold:

First, that the inherent content of speculative fiction is outré enough as it is, distanced from the readers’ reality already, so that telling the story in non-standard prose would only confuse things further and make readers’ psychological immersion in the fictional reality more problematic.

Second, that the goal of fiction, and not only speculative fiction, should be the creation in readers’ minds of the illusion that they are experiencing the story directly, rather than reading words printed on paper–hence that the prose itself should "disappear" psychologically from the process, should therefore become "transparent."

The first part of the argument seemed to me then and seems to me now to imply that speculative fiction, or, to be less high-falutin’ about it, science fiction and fantasy or "SF," is a subliterature– "littérature de la gare" as the French would have it, "trivialitatliteratur" as the Germans put it in one brutally clear noun of many syllables–pulp-descended entertainment for the unwashed masses who are not going to appreciate the pleasures of prose for its own sake. Literary television in which the story is everything and the style in which it is told adds nothing to the enjoyment of the reading experience. The champions of this point of view celebrate SF’s so-called "pulp tradition" when they are taking seriously this proposition that SF should not take itself too seriously and declare that "SF should get back in the gutter where it belongs" when they are not.

This, I would contend, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when writers, rather than critics or fans, take it to heart, for if writers believe that SF should not partake of the uniquely literary pleasures of so called "high literature" then they won’t try to engage and entertain readers on such a literary level. And their stuff will indeed retain loyalty to the stylistic limits of the pulp tradition.

The second part of the argument, however, is much more interesting, at least to those of us who would create fiction, dealing as it does with the psychic and sensorial nature of the reading experience itself and its relationship to the prose line that is the writer’s only means of creating it.

It is certainly true that much fine or even great literature has been written in what would enthusiastically be deemed transparent prose by the champions thereof. It is also true that many writers of merit have fallen into the literary trap of having what was once a unique and powerful prose-line ossify into a mode applied to everything they write and thus all-too-easily parodied, and all the more so when the work that first makes their mark is written in such an idiosyncratic style.

I came reasonably close to making that mistake after Bug Jack Barron, which was written in an extreme, and, so the critics said, effective, style not seen in speculative fiction before. I had people telling me I should continue to write in this style that I had invented, and I myself wondered what the hell I could do for an encore.

But Algis Budrys’ review of the short story collection that appeared a year after Bug Jack Barron clarified my thinking, not because I agreed with him, but because I was forced to enter into a dialectic with what he had said about the variability of my style inside my own head.

It didn’t take much thought to see that Budrys was entirely right in descriptive terms: the stories collected in The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde were indeed written in different styles and there was nothing that really emerged therein as "Norman Spinrad’s style." And then I realized that this was also true of the style of Bug Jack Barron.

This was a hard and not entirely pleasant realization. I was twenty-nine, after all. Bug Jack Barron was my major success–I had never really written prose on such a level before. I knew damned well that the style I had developed in that novel was a very powerful instrument, and if I didn’t, I had people telling me that it was and that I should keep using it.

But what Budrys’ review confronted me with was that I had not developed this style in Bug Jack Barron but for Bug Jack Barron. And this was a very, very important distinction.

Bug Jack Barron is a novel in which much of the action that the readers must experience consists of what is happening "on television." So I had to create the illusion in the sensoriums of the readers that they were "watching television," and the only medium available to do this was of course prose. The medium might not really be the message and a straightforward "message" might be conveyed by any number of media, but I was trying to induce a state of consciousness that mimicked that created by a medium other than that which I was constrained to employ. And that meant that transparent prose could not do the job, that I had to alter the prose medium to do it.

That was why the novel was written in the style it was. And, to a much less extreme degree, that was why the earlier stories in The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde were written in a variety of styles. The demands of the content determined the style of the prose.

My next SF novel was The Iron Dream, written in the invented voice of Adolf Hitler, and it would have been utterly idiotic to have written such a book in the style of Bug Jack Barron, and vice versa.

And this seeming digression into my own early literary history is my refutation of the second part of the argument for writing SF in transparent prose, the contention that transparent prose allows the readers the illusion that they are experiencing the story directly rather than reading words printed on paper, whereas idiosyncratic prose, by calling attention to itself, destroys this illusion of sensory immediacy.

Au contraire, I would contend, when it comes to speculative fiction, at least speculative fiction that tries to take itself seriously. Serious (or even not so serious) speculative fiction must be based on at least one speculative element, something–be it large or small, that is alien to the readers’ experience of their present consensus reality. That’s what makes it speculative fiction–some speculative alter- ation in the external universe of the story. But in the real world, alterations in the external surround invariably create alterations in the interior world of the entities embedded in that surround.

Altered reality creates altered consciousness.

How can it not?

Fictional characters embedded in a speculative reality will have consciousnesses different in ways large or small from that of the reader. And the only medium for portraying such altered styles of consciousness (or anything else in the story) is of course prose. So the only really effective means of conveying such a character’s altered style of consciousness is altered prose style. Which is why transparent prose seldom makes it.

Take something like Timothy Zahn’s Manta’s Gift.

Matt Rainey is a paraplegic given a chance of renewed mobility by, in effect, having his brain and spinal attachments transplanted into the embryo of a Qanska. These are huge "airborne" sentients swimming in the gaseous "ocean" of the atmosphere of Jupiter. Rainey is sent on this mission by the human powers that be because they believe that the Qanska come from elsewhere and therefore must have some kind of starship drive.

The story follows Rainey, who adopts the name Manta as a Qanska, as he grows to maturity as a Qanska with his human memories intact, pursuing the mission to find the stardrive, while gradually becoming more and more acculturated to Qanska culture, slowly changing loyalty and primary identity, until he becomes a Qanska at heart.

Zahn has done his scientific homework. Zahn has created a well-detailed Jovian ecosystem, Qanska biology, and Qanska culture. He’s got a complex and interesting political story line leading the reader through this 427 page novel, though we never really see the future human culture. He’s got some believable and interesting major and minor characters. The story moves well. It’s a rapid read full of action that carries the plot admirably. It’s good more or less hard science fiction.

But. . . .

But for those who have read it, Manta’s Gift suffers by comparison to Poul Anderson’s classic novelette, "Call Me Joe," which covers virtually the same thematic ground of a transmogrified human agent becoming a true Jovian–though in Anderson’s story, written decades ago, it all takes place on an imagined high gravity Jovian surface, rather than in an atmospheric ocean.

While Anderson’s style in "Call Me Joe" is by no means radically idiosyncratic, as with much of his fiction, it is not quite standardly transparent either. Anderson often uses "poetic" techniques like rhy-thm and cadence to convey mood and ambiance, and pays very careful attention to conveying sensory detail, not merely "painting word pictures," but "word sounds" and "word smells" and "word sensory feelings."

This enables him to take the reader deep inside the consciousness of his protagonist by rendering the style of that consciousness. Or rather the styles of that consciousness, for the thematic essence of "Call Me Joe" is the stepwise transformation of the protagonist’s consciousness from that of a human inside the body of a Jovian to that of a human become a Jovian on a psychological, moral, and even spiritual level.

Stripped of the political subplots, the essential core of Manta’s Gift is pretty much the same thing. But where Anderson conveys the psychological transformation of a human into a Jovian via subtle stylistic mutation of the prose line describing his protagonist’s perception of the Jovian environment and his mutating reaction to it, Zahn doesn’t do this.

He doesn’t seem to even try. Perhaps this is wisdom on his part. Poul Anderson might not have been a radical stylistic innovator but he certainly was a very careful and knowing stylistic craftsman, utilizing rhythm, cadence, meta-phor, image, to convey not only the phenomenological realities of outré environments, but their effects on the consciousnesses embedded therein.

In Manta’s Gift, Timothy Zahn demonstrates that he is a skilled and interesting writer of science fiction in terms of imaginative extrapolation, straightforward physical description, and even political sophistication, but he is simply not a stylist on the level of Poul Anderson. Nor are the majority of writers turning out perfectly acceptable science fiction.

But in Manta’s Gift, Zahn has chosen to tell much the same story as Anderson did in "Call Me Joe," albeit with many more characters and plot complications and at much greater length. And because this is a tale of the transformation of consciousness and identity it suffers not only by comparison to Poul Anderson’s story but by failing to convey that transformation with psychological realism.

Zahn employs the same transparent prose line throughout, a prose line that in other circumstances might be perfectly serviceable. But because he does so, his Rainey remains a human in a Qanska suit throughout. And, however interesting and well worked-out the Qanska biology and society are (and they are that), the aliens themselves just are not quite convincingly alien, and therefore the story that Zahn is telling of the deep transformation of a human into one of them just doesn’t come across on more than a surface plot level.

by Ted Chiang

Tor, $24.95
ISBN: 076530418X

Ted Chiang, on the other hand, is that current rarity, an SF writer who has made himself a significant literary reputation without publishing a novel, on short fiction alone, indeed on only seven stories, all of which are collected in Stories of Your Life and Others. There was a time when this was not only relatively common, but the traditional career trajectory to getting one’s first novel published. One thinks of writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, who not only made their reps as major short story writers before publishing any novels, but whose short fiction is considered their best work for the most part even afterward.

Chiang is no romantic prose poet like Bradbury, no master of psychological depth and illuminating story line like Sturgeon, no inferno of burning passion and modern myth-maker like Ellison. And what is more, or less, he has made his reputation with a comparative handful of stories.

How?

Well, for one thing, these seven stories are very well structured, and not just in plot terms, but in terms of form, which is not quite the same thing.

Indeed, in terms of conventional plot and story, they are in a "pulp tradition" sense rather thin. Several of them rely simply on some terminal revelation and the lead-up to it, like "Tower of Babylon," "Liking What You See: a Documentary," and "Division By Zero," a mode that really only works at all with speculative fiction. Some are in these terms little more than metaphysical speculations. But all of them are formally interesting, more complicated on this level than the stories the form is conveying, and in a Borgesian sense, as how could stories with titles like "Story of Your Life" and "Seventy-Two Letters" not be?

Then, too, and most significant for current purposes, while Chiang is no stylist in the sense of Jack Vance or Ray Bradbury, no prose poet, not a writer whose prose itself is a self-contained esthetic pleasure, he most certainly is a master of prose as a precise instrument, or rather a well-stocked toolbox of instruments, subtly choosing and coolly crafting the right style not just to convey the particular content but to suit the particular form.

Chiang’s stylistic range is already nearly as broad as that of Sturgeon. And the variations are almost as subtle, and of course far wider than, say, Bradbury or Vance, master stylists in quite another mode, who always write in the same delectable voice–indeed, writers one tends to read for their styles, which are more memorable, more enjoyable than either their speculations or whatever story they may be telling.

Though this is not radically idiosyncratic prose, it is not exactly transparent prose either, but functional prose in a kind of Bauhaus manner; prose subtly adapted to and generated by not just content but form, just as Chiang’s form follows thematic function. Thus the greatest strength of these stories in not in their plots or characterizations or even in their ideas, however interesting, but in the unity of style and form with which Ted Chiang conveys them.


Tor, $22.95
ISBN: 0312869886

The Apocalypse Door
by James D. MacDonald

Sometimes, however, a certain deliberate dissonance between content and style, content and form, can be rather delicious. A perfect example is The Apocalypse Door by James D. MacDonald.

Formwise, this is more or less a straightforward spy novel, with agencies like the CIA and others in Byzantine conflict over matters and an artifact of dire cosmic importance, Bondish gizmos, action hugger mugger, crosses and double crosses, and Peter Crossman, secret agent, fighting and conniving his way through the story, accompanied by his not entirely trustworthy sidekick and an even less trustworthy beautiful and very well-armed and lethal femme fatale hitlady.

MacDonald narrates the whole thing through the mostly first-person viewpoint of Crossman, a wise-cracking, sardonic, hard-boiled dick quite deliberately reminiscent of Raymond Chandler and generations of his imitators and acolytes.

The content, however . . .

Take a deep breath.

Crossman (name quite deliberate), though once an agent of the CIA, is now an agent of the Knights Templar–and yes, he is a priest. The hitlady in question is "Sister Mary Magdalene of the Special Action Executive of the Poor Clares. The fun nun with the gun." The major bad guy organization is the Knights of the Teutonic Order, though there are more ultimate Dark Forces behind them.

On a stylistic, plot, and action level, The Apocalypse Door is a straightforward spy versus spy thriller, with plenty of shoot ’em ups, technical descriptions of weapons, torture, and what at first at least appears to be a science fictional twist. Father Peter and Sister Mary litter the landscape with more dead bodies than I care to count.

But Peter Crossman, being a priest, labors under certain constraints that never trammeled the doings of James Bond. Under the weird rules of The Apocalypse Door, he may use all manner of weaponry and may lie and double cross and kill, but, since he is a priest, he must at least offer to hear the final confession of his enemies and grant them absolution. And, since much of what he does is a mortal sin, he must confess and receive absolution himself, lest he die with a mortal sin on his soul and go straight to Hell without passing Purgatory.

The impression that might have been given by this thumbnail description to the contrary, The Apocalypse Door is not really played for laughs, though it has a consistent sardonically humorous prose line via the wiseguy narration of Father Peter Crossman. It is not really fantasy on a literary level, since all this Catholic versus Forces of Satan stuff is played on a hard-boiled dick level. It is not quite science fiction either.

This novel is, well . . . the damnedest thing.

There are intercut third person sections dealing with Crossman’s previous identity as a CIA agent in Latin America, and these are quite realistic, not to say rather harrowing. The seeming SF elements that turn out to be more theological in the end are dealt with on a more or less credible hard SF level, and indeed even the struggle between the agents of Cosmic Good and the agents of Satan have the same sort of science fictional realism.

This novel, which deals with Satan, Catholic theology, the Apocalypse, and other matters that lack, shall we say, a certain phenomenological verisimilitude for the majority of modern readers, nevertheless does not have the feel of fantasy at all. It has the feel of an otherwise more or less conventional hard-boiled spy thriller while on a content level serving up what most of us would deem out and, out fantasy, and it is not a satire of either Catholic theology or the hard-boiled spy thriller.

For me at least, that is its unique charm.

And it is a textbook example of how a choice of style quite at variance with the conventional expectations that would be implied by the content (or vice versa) completely changes and dominates the reading experience, and, in the case of The Apocalypse Door, to powerfully entertaining effect.

by Cory Doctorow

Tor $22.95
ISBN: 0765304368

If James D. MacDonald’s use of dissonance between style and content is bizarrely unique, in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow does something more science fictionally traditional, mutating more or less standard English diction and form by inserting a judicious dose of futuristic slang into the first-person narration of his future tense protagonist. There’s nothing wrong with this, but here it doesn’t entirely succeed, not because it’s obtrusive, but because, given the content, Doctorow is too timid in pushing the edge of both the thematic and stylistic envelope.

Doctorow’s capsule bio on the galleys portrays him as a Silicon Valley cybervisionary type, and the future of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a kind of cyberutopia that calls itself the "Bitchun (Bitchin’) Society," where poverty has apparently been abolished along with money (or vice versa in this dream of abundance for all), and status is counted in something called "Whuffie," a kind of instant electronic individual karmic Nielsen rating determined by people’s opinion of you at any given moment. The citizens of the Bitchun Society have instant electronic access to all sort of data banks, virtual realities, and so forth via hardware implants, and via these instrumentalities, death has been abolished.

Well, sort of.

Cloning has advanced to the point where backup bodies are no problem, and, as long as you back up your cerebral memory banks via the implants, you can die any number of times, be downloaded into a new body, and boogie on with no harm done except the loss of the memories of whatever happened to you between your latest backup and your latest death. Some people "deadhead" into the future out of boredom. Some even do it to avoid boring airplane rides.

Now some people trying to take such a set-up seriously might wonder if such a process really conveys life extension or near immortality, which is to say whether reproducing the software running on the meatware of your old brain and downloading it into the brain of a new body really provides continuity of personality, not to mention untidy questions of the "soul," and several science fiction writers have attempted to wrestle with this deep question deeply.

But to keep it on a fairly surface level:

Given Doctorow’s premises that personality, consciousness, soul, whatever you choose to call that which runs on your cerebral meatware, can be backed up in a computer, and given that your body can be cloned, there is nothing to prevent the creation of multiple clones into which multiple copies of the "software backup" can be downloaded.

So which one is "you"?

All of them?

None of them?

Doctorow steers well clear of this one, which, after all, once brought up or at least made implicit in a novel, would seem to have to become by its very nature the central thematic concern. The closest he comes is having his first person narrator, Jules, briefly ponder the question of continuity of consciousness now and again before plunging back into the main storyline.

The main story of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom takes place in the Magic Kingdom–that is, Disneyworld–now run by "ad-hocs," syndicalist communes dedicated to running and maintaining individual attractions. Jules is a member of the Haunted Mansion ad-hoc, with a preservationist credo of running the Mansion with more or less the original audioanimatronics. The antagonists, led by Debra, are the members of the Hall of the Presidents ad-hoc, who not only have updated the works to the latest direct virtual reality technology, but seek to do likewise to the Haunted Mansion.

And that is the basic plot dynamic. Debra and her minions plot to take over the Haunted Mansion and Jules and some allies scheme to prevent her and engage in various actions to sabotage the works of the Hall of the Presidents.

If this story seems rather trivial and flimsy in the light of the society Doctorow has set up and the thematic questions it implies, well, at least by my lights it is. It’s a sort of a disney of the novel it could have and should have been, taking place in a disney of Disneyworld, and it can’t get more disney than that.

After all, here we have a post-capitalist utopia in which status is conferred by Whuffie, which is not much more than how cool how many people think you are, where people either live forever or are replaced by serial simulacrums depending on the metaphysical position from which you regard the process. Yet the main action is centered around the fates of two attractions in Disneyworld.

Then too, given all these implants, direct connection to virtual realities and data banks, serial deaths and resurrections, if one is going to take such a phenomenological set-up seriously, the denizens thereof are certainly going to have consciousnesses radically different from our own, and if a writer wants to avoid dealing with this on a stylistic level, he should not opt for a first person narration by one of the denizens in question. Jules himself is a kind of disney of what a consciousness imbedded in such a surround might really be like, and the style with which Doctorow portrays his inner reality is pretty much standard twenty-first century English tarted up with jargon.

Now don’t get me wrong, Doctorow does a good job of providing action and ambiance, and even characterization up to a point, and the novel does carry you along on that level. And when Jules gets his implants bollixed so that he hasn’t backed up during much of the exciting plot and then hesitates because he doesn’t want to lose the memories thereof, I began to both hope and fear that in the dénouement Doctorow was going to confront the real central issues.

Hope because this was where the story seemed to be taking Jules. Fear because I had the uneasy feeling that I knew where it was going to end up, as this sort of thing usually does, in the structurally neat and emotionally reassuring but essentially vacuous rejection of all this post-human stuff in favor of the affirmation of natural humanity as God intended.

Without giving too much away, wrong on both counts.

Unfortunately, Cory Doctorow never does seriously confront the deep issue he has raised, namely the continuity of consciousness in such a transhuman situation, just as his protagonist never really grapples with it either. But to his credit, he doesn’t fall into the tiresome bathetic fallacy of rejecting all transhumanity in uncritical support of good old life-as-we-know-it, either.

by Damien Broderick

Tor, $25.95
ISBN: 0765303698

In Transcension, Damien Broderick tackles all of this and much more head on. Broderick is also the author of The Spike, a non-fiction, or, if you will, non-fictional science fiction, book in turn inspired by the non-fictional science fictional speculation of the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, the basic premise of which is that sometime in the twenty-first century, advances in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and who now knows what else, will combine to produce "the Spike": a sudden near-infinite upward evolution in the technocybersphere producing not merely artificial intelligences that will transcend humanity but that will transcend humanity so utterly and so completely that not only will humans be unable to comprehend what has happened but, if such primitive meatware intelligences do survive, may not even know it has happened.

As regular readers of these essays may know, I was not particularly impressed by The Spike. But though Transcension deals thematically and centrally with the concepts I found dubious in The Spike, it is quite another matter. Primarily because Damien Broderick is, after all, a novelist, and a good one, and Transcension is a novel and not a screed. And while the concept of the Spike may be extremely questionable stuff as futurology or prophecy, it certainly is prime material for a science fiction novel, which needs to succeed as neither.

In Transcension, we have not one future utopia, if that is the word, but two: high tech, and low tech. Well, sort of.

The "high tech" society is that of the "Joyous Relinquishment," better understood as a middle tech society of isolated "Metro polises" where the highest technologies, those that it was feared would lead to the replacement of humanity by hyperadvanced Artificial Intelligences, à la the Spike, have been prohibited. Its citizens have unlimited lifespans thanks to its high technology, and so adolescence lasts until the age of thirty, in biological terms thanks to metabolic tinkering, and in legal terms that keep "penders" in thrall to their parents until that age with effectively no legal rights.

The low tech society is that of the Valley of the God of Our Choice, a forthrightly reactionary utopia in which everyone can choose their own god or goddess to worship and technology, such as it isn’t, is limited to the level more or less acceptable to the present-day Amish.

The van Gogh Metro polis has made some kind of deal to dig a tunnel for high speed supersonic trains under the Valley and then for a ventilation shaft to break its pristine surface. Amanda, daughter of the "Legal" who put together this deal, is a pender approaching thirty, a thrill seeker whose ambition is to become a major "Mall god" by virtue of doing some loony deed that will give her big league bragging rights. This turns out to be dropping onto a passing train. When this doesn’t work, she is hauled before Magistrate Mohammed Abdel-Malik, who was frozen upon his death in the twenty-first century and revived whenever this is.

Abdel-Malik places her under fairly stringent restrictions, but Amanda persists, using a "liar bee," a tiny flying speaker and microphone equipped robot, to penetrate the Valley and cozen someone into aiding her and her pal Vikram to fly into the Valley via high tech hang gliders so that they can drop down the vent shaft onto a passing train, restricted to low speed while passing under the enclave.

The someone turns out to be Mathewmark, your typical Valley boy. But when they drop down the shaft and he follows, the whole adventure ends catastrophically with Vikram dead and Mathewmark injured to the point where a major part of his brain has to be replaced by an electronic prosthesis that skirts the edge of the rules of the Joyous Relinquishment and ends up giving him unprecedented cyborg link powers with the machineries of the polis.

This is the basic set-up, and this is more or less the action of more or less the first half of a 345 page novel. It is pretty slow stuff, bordering on tedium, and Transcension doesn’t really pick up speed, drive, pace, and interest until Mathewmark exits the hospital in the van Gogh Metro polis.

On a story level, the first half of the novel is a kind of throwback to the dim distant days of Hugo Gernsback and Ralph 124C 41+, with Broderick walking the reader through the details, technological and cultural, of his future societies via the viewpoints of Amanda and Mathewmark hugger-muggering through the drop-through-the-shaft plot, her conflicts with her parents and Abdel-Malik, his unrequited love for his Valley girl sweet-heart.

But Broderick is a real novelist such as Gernsback and his vintage of SF writers never were, and what rescues the first half of Transcension from terminal tedium is what he does with style.

He narrates the first half mainly through the contrasting first person viewpoints of Amanda and Mathewmark, with a bit of Abdel-Malik, a bit of omniscient author here and there, and uses quite different prose styles to convey quite different styles of consciousness, different world-views, different realities, if you will.

At random:

Amanda:

"Was depressing, truly boring way to spend night. Amused self with compactification of n-manifold classes, fiddling as usual with Cohn-Vossen inequality. Got frustrated and nowhere. Next day in court was worse. Mr. Abdel-Malik, principal Magistrate for van Gogh Metro polis enclave, is very calm gentleman with soft sinister tone to voice. Heard society ladies find quite sexy, in right context. Plainly have never heard him speaking to miscreant who threatened freighter system by attempting to web subadult body to Maglev train ready to thunder through new Metro-to-coast tube at speed sound."

Mathewmark:

"Old Man Legrand is Sweetcharity’s grandfather. Since the dark night when her parents were carried away in the floods, beautiful Sweetcharity has lived with him. He takes his grandfatherly responsibilities very seriously, old man Legrand. There isn’t a girl in the Valley who is more closely supervised than the orphan Sweetcharity Legrand. Which makes being in love with her a bit difficult. . . . Old man Legrand is not above waving a long-handled billhook at folks he doesn’t like the look of. And it’s no good going on about the God of his Choice is meant to be a pacifist."

There’s more. The novel opens with the first person point of view of an Artificial Intelligence who will be revealed as dominant in the second half:

"I sit on a hill

I(re-entrant selfware identity operator)

sit on (instantaneous location slice on search trajectory)

a (existential pointer in exfoliating context sheaf)

hill (local optimum in restricted search space)

Call me Aleph."

And so forth. Thematically, Transcension is a novel about consciousness and its transformations. Mathewmark’s consciousness is first transformed by his contact with Amanda in his own Valley, then by forced insertion into Amanda’s external context, and then, via his augments, into something approaching the transhuman. Amanda’s consciousness is transformed by her shift from "pender" to adult; by the abrupt engineered biochemical change, but also, and most interesting in the current context, by her shift from the argot of the pender to the more formal and rhythmically different prose style of her culture’s adulthood.

Broderick not only knows that the only way to convey different styles of consciousness to the reader is by adopting different prose styles–the characters’ prose style, not "his own"–in which to render their thoughts, not only demonstrates that knowledge admirably here, but in the rather sudden alteration in the style of Amanda’s first person narration, demonstrates that the prose style of thought shapes consciousness as much as consciousness shapes linguistic style.

For me at least, this is what held my interest in the first half of Transcension, which otherwise seemed rather slow and tedious. In the second half of the novel, when various viewpoints begin to come together and sometimes even merge, when Amanda evolves and Mathewmark even more so, when Abdel-Malik begins to learn the truth behind the whole set-up via more and more intimate contact with the Aleph, when the Aleph comes more front and center, and the whole thing moves toward the transcendent "Spike" that the title hints at, these multiple prose styles and the evolving formal complexity within which Broderick employs them become critical.

Transcension is a novel that simply could not work at all if Broderick had tried to write it in a single prose style, less still if that prose style were so-called "transparent prose." Which, in the final analysis, is not really "transparent" or culturally neutral at all, but the consensus style of a specific language, a specific culture, a specific time, as a reading of Chaucer or the anonymous author of Beowulf or Shakespeare will readily enough demonstrate, the styles of all of which were "transparent" to readers embedded in the same culture at the same time.

Transcension, being a novel centrally concerned not only with consciousnesses that transcend our own, but even with realities that transcend our own, may be an extreme example, but science fiction in general is the literature that deals with transformed consciousnesses in transformed realities, and more highly evolved ones more often than not.

Were Chaucer writing Neuromancer could he have done so in the standard transparent English prose of his day? Would Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English have sufficed for The Stars My Destination?

Merely to ask such a question is to answer it.

There are more things in anyone’s future than may be dreamt of in the transparent prose of the present. And there always will be.

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"On Books" by Norman Spinrad, copyright © 2003 with premission of the author.


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