Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The impossibility of forever

Incandescent bulb

Her desk had been swept bare. There is only the incandescent bulb above it, giving off light and heat.
All is still.
The blind has not been lowered, and headlights can be seen moving along the main road at sporadic intervals now that midnight has passed.

She is sitting at the desk, like someone who has never known suffering.
Not like someone who has just been crying, or is about to.
Like someone who has never shattered.
As though there has never been a time when the only comfort lay in the impossibility of forever.
— from The White Book, by Han Kang.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Emptiness is a type of existence

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, takes its name from the problem of physics to do with gravitational systems and the predictability of the movement of those bodies. Finally I'm motivated to read this book, as it's up for discussion at bookclub.

What I did not expect was the background of the Cultural Revolution, a physics professor persecuted for teaching the (reactionary!) theory of relativity (developed under "the black banner of capitalism"), and a woman traumatized by the experience of seeing this man, her father, die.

(The author claims he's not interested in social commentary; the stories of science are far more profound. Maybe it's true, or maybe it's just something he says.)

I did not expect to be confronted with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring:
It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.
Nor did I expect to be fully immersed in a virtual reality game, encountering historical personages and simulating famous mathematical conundrums (and with an homage to Flatland).

Also this sentence, which I keep rolling over, trying to make sense of it: "A woman should be like water, able to flow over and around anything."

And Buddhist teachings: "Emptiness is not nothingness. Emptiness is a type of existence. You must use this existential emptiness to fill yourself."

And bits of poetry: "This kind of experiment is akin to looking for a raindrop of a slightly different color in a summer thunderstorm."

This is a massive story, and it feels like it's barely just begun (this is, after all, just the first part of a trilogy of books). The plot proper ostensibly opens when Wang Miao, a nanotech researcher, is called in to assist in the investigation into a rash of mysterious deaths of several prominent scientists.

He has occasion to meet Ye Wenjie, astrophysicist and mother of the latest victim. Much of the novel is devoted to Wang learning about Ye's past, including how she had watched her father be executed and herself was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.

And then, wow, contact. And that first message is a warning, or maybe a threat, or maybe a cleverly laid ruse.

Much of the rest of the novel is consumed with Wang playing the VR game, trying to solve the three-body problem, which turns out be a very real problem for a very real planet with three suns. The Trisolarans have adapted to their extreme environment — their bodies can dehydrate and be stored during chaotic periods — but the end is imminent and they must find a new home.

I finished the book despairing over humanity, not so much concerned over its ultimate fate as disappointed in our actions along the way — how many betrayals against our species along the way, whether at an individual or community level or on a planetary scale.

I am torn between resistance and welcoming our alien overlords.

It was quite the humbling realization to realize we are but bugs before them, but...
Look at them, the bugs. Humans have used everything in their power to extinguish them: every kind of poison, aerial sprays, introducing and cultivating their natural predators, searching for and destroying their eggs, using genetic modification to sterilize them, burning with fire, drowning with water. Every family has bug spray, every desk has a flyswatter under it . . . this long war has been going on for the entire history of human civilization. But the outcome is still in doubt. The bugs have not been eliminated. They still proudly live between the heavens and the earth, and their numbers have not diminished from the time before the appearance of the humans.

Friday, June 01, 2018

The spawn's heartbeat

Ruta once heard the life of the mushroom spawn. It was an underground rustling that sounded like a dull sigh, and then she could hear the gentle crackle of clumps of earth as the thread of the mycelium pushed its way between them. Ruta heard the spawn's heartbeat, which happens once very eighty human years. Ever since she has been coming to this damp spot in Wodenica, and always lies down on the wet moss. If she lies there for a while, she starts to sense the mushroom spawn in another way, too — because the spawn slows down time. Ruta falls into a waking sleep, and sees everything in a completely different way. She can see individual gusts of wind, the slow and graceful flight of insects, the fluent movements of ants, and particles of light that settle on the surfaces of leaves. All the high-up noises — the warbling of birds, the squealing of animals — change into booming and rumbling, and glide along just above the ground, like mist. Ruta feels as if she has been lying like that for hours, though only a moment has passed. So the mushroom spawn takes time into its possession.
— from Primeval and Other Times, by Olga Tokarczuk.

Like a dull sigh. Takes time into its possession.

Monday, May 28, 2018

It is impossible to grasp everything at once

People think they live more intensely than animals, than plants, and especially than things. Animals sense that they live more intensely than plants and things. Plants dream that they live more intensely than things. But things last, and this lasting is more alive than anything else.
People come and go. We live, we die. We're all the same, interchangeable. The things, they live without us, take on a life of their own. (How intensely do you live?)

Primeval and Other Times, by Olga Tokarczuk, is absolutely exquisite in evoking someplace mythical, an irrelevant backwater locked in time and space that finally transcends its limitations. Primeval is the centre of the universe. There is no before or after.

The book starts and ends with a coffee-grinder. We don't know exactly where it came from (somewhere in the east) and we don't know what lies ahead (the world is opening to the west), but it's passed through three generations of one family in Primeval. Life is a grind, life grinds you down, and it just keeps grinding. Things last.
If you take a close look at an object, with your eyes closed to avoid being deceived by the appearances that things exude around themselves, if you allow yourself to be mistrustful, you can see their true faces, at least for a moment.
According to Ruta, the world outside of Primeval doesn't exist. Does she truly believe this? (One day she tries to leave.) Or is it just a story she tells gullible Izydor?
He stepped back a few paces and started running towards the spot where, according to Ruta, the boundary ran. Then he suddenly stopped. He himself did not know why. Something here wasn't right. He stretched his hands out ahead of him, and his fingertips disappeared.

Izydor felt himself split into two different boys. One of them was standing with his hands held out ahead, and they clearly lacked any fingertips. The other boy was next to him, and couldn't see the first boy, or moreover his lack of fingers. Izydor was both boys at once.
Later, Ruta once again leads Izydor into the forest:
And now he realised where his sense of lack was coming from, the sorrow that underlay everything, the sorrow that was present in every single thing, in every phenomenon, and always had been — it is impossible to grasp everything at once.
There's a thing about God being present in process, transformation, change. Maybe he does not exist here, in Primeval, where nothing changes. But things change.

This book made me tear up, more than once. Not because of the story events per se, but for how it made me reflect on my own life, the people who come and go, what we do and don't have control over. How we live. Things that are so small and so big at the same time. Every book has its time and its place, and I'm living in a primeval state just now; this is the book I needed. I love this book.

Words without Borders


Sunday, May 27, 2018

The universe was a cramped heart

Standing under the flashing dome of the night sky, Wang suddenly felt the universe shrink until it was so small that only he was imprisoned in it. The universe was a cramped heart, and the red light that suffused everything was the translucent blood that filled the organ. Suspended in the blood, he saw that the flickering of the red light was not periodic — the pulsing was irregular. He felt a strange, perverse, immense presence that could never be understood by human intellect.
— from The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Self-indulgent masturbation

"At any minute, we could find ourselves in a nontemporal state without ever having realized it. If the ego and consciousness were related but separate entities, and one absented from the other or consciousness differentiated itself to a bodily degree, that would cause the ego's perception of time to alter, like in dreams. Time is a method of organizing entropy in a manner comprehensible to consciousness as perceived by the human mind through the lens of the ego," he said between sips, as if I understood a quarter of that without stopping to think.
The Lightning Stenography Device, by MF Sullivan, is one of the most self-indulgent and pretentious books I've had the pleasure of hate-reading in ages. I read it so you don't have to.

The device in question is a thought-to-text machine, saving you the trouble of writing things down, typing things out, losing all the brilliant tangents one travels down while crafting sentences, and working at the speed of thought itself. For some select individuals, the device seems to capture dreams, too. And those dreams are sometimes of the future.

Lightning Stenography Device. LSD. Get it?
"Cassius, no! Writing about writers is self-indulgent masturbation." Though behind her lurked the shut blinds of her office window and edge of a ficus she'd somehow kept alive since I'd last seen her in person three years before, she was not deterred from snatching up her bourbon. "Nobody wants to read that. Writers write for readers, not for other writers."
No, not so MF Sullivan. She'll condescend to her readers. (Is there any other kind of masturbation?)

The first half of the book is all like this:
"No author did better than Pynchon in dancing around a depiction of that which cannot be depicted. There is a certain aspect of the unconscious which, by definition, cannot be brought fully into consciousness, and it is this from which the Word buffers us. It can, however, be experienced in one form or another, for better or for worse, and communicated with a series of symbols in context. That is what life is: a narrative we build to defend our egos based on a collection of more or less arbitrary vignettes selected to provide us with the context for our own being. When we feel ourselves becoming something we cannot or do not wish to justify, we are stricken by cognitive dissonance and find ourselves forced to face that which we never expected, never considered: that the existence our shadow is dependent entirely upon our own existence.

If we did not exist, now would our shadow; if our shadow did not exist, we would not, either."
Got that? Yeah, it just goes on and on and on. I could've done with 200 fewer pages.

Note that all this intellectual masturbation is served up in the guise of dialogue, which makes it the most boring conversation I never want to be a part of.
"These things are things that come from someplace beyond human imagining. Transmitted, somehow, from someplace beyond comprehension. But that's true of all stories, of all life. Everything that is and was and will be is all eternally present, like reality was a book in the hands of something beyond perception. But we, within the proverbial book, or reading an actual book, can only live this moment, the next moment, the moment after that, in linear order. We can only read one page — one word, truly — at a time. It's the only way to make sense of it."
Also, it's weirdly religious in places. Every writer is a god. And capital G God is the ultimate author.

The last section of the novel has a different tone entirely. A book within a book. Arguably it is the whole point of the novel, with its Jungian archetypes and high fantasy, but the pieces just don't fit together comfortably.

The narrative as a whole harps on the Matrix-like construction we live in, with the layer at the core being that Jungian dream subconscious.

One troubling aspect is how the female protagonists buy into the patriarchal clich├ęs — the farm girl rescued by her prince, that sort of thing, and in the non-fantasy "realist" section, the central woman is somehow lesser, deferring to the older men.

The author provides some background on the publisher's website (although the book appears to be self-published), but even this verbose breakdown is quite patronizing. "One of the elements most infuriating to readers who were expecting a breezy read is, no doubt, both the elements of philosophy, and the structure of the book, itself." [That's two elements, by the way.] "I have received a few low reviews from readers who were disappointed to find that this was a book which required them to think." "I will avoid connecting all the dots for you." "The God the characters of The Lightning Stenography Device address is not so much the traditional godhead, but rather me, and I, in my role as author, play to them a kind of symbol of the far greater demiurge."

Of course, we are all the writers of our own narratives, the heroes of our own stories.
Even when you and I writer and rewrite a story, when we describe events happening to a character, a fictional character is experience it and making choices as that fictional character could only ever hope to make. We as writers experience through the character in our imaginations. The same is true of the reader, who, reading a story, experiences the simulation in their brain the way they would experience the real-life event. That's why you get so sucked into the story: empathy, pathos, between you and the character, that's the key, the binding. So if you want to imagine as a model that God was a writer, or even just a reader whose conscious experience of a work brought it to life, then it makes sense that you have to experience everything you're going through. It might not be a causal thing, necessarily, but if a model is accurate enough, you can make predictive extrapolations using the model, right? This manuscript is a model for our reality; its writer is a model for God. We're pawns in a thought experiment."
But I much prefer when the story takes the form of an actual, well, story. I'm not one to shy away from philosophy, but this book has the feel of little Jungian analysis that's spiraled out of control.
What "I" was, I realized with a gasp in the arms of my lover, was naught but Consciousness. Yes, Consciousness! My one, my truest lover! Why, he had been with me all this time, my sunlight, and I had never seen it because I was his mirror; because I was that Matter upon which he cast the light by which his "I" might see!
Too bad, because I would totally read a book about a thought-to-text machine.
"Next time we talk, you had better come back with a more thorough idea than another book about writers and God and a man who loves a younger woman."