Lessons learned: reading in summer 2017

Summer 2017 was a whirlwind of travel, which meant lots of time curled up in planes and automobiles with books. (I scoured my memory for a train to complete the triforce but, reader, I did not take a train.)

Complaining about things I didn’t like is a sort of gauche look. So here’s five stories I really liked this summer. (There were more, but this post was getting long.)

1) The short story that stuck with me the most was Ashok K. Banker’s “Tongue” published in August’s Lightspeed. Linguistically, this story was astonishing. I’ve played with the idea of evolving English into the near future for a project called Uncrypt that shall no longer be spoken of for at least a few years, but my attempts have fallen pretty flat. I was excited supposing that “Tongue”‘s dialect is a future Indian English, although let’s be real that my knowledge of Indian English is limited, and if it is it’s pulled off with supreme naturalness. And speculative linguistics aside, the pacing in this story is fantastic and every twist gave me a full-body wince. I’ve been thinking about female embodiment for “Splice”, and “Tongue” provokes the kind of horror and desperation and feeling of trapped-ness that I’m trying to paw at as I edit that story. (I listened to the audio version read by Pooja Batra and I’m sure her awesome narration, with just the right balance of chirpy pleasantness and warbly pathos, contributed to the impression this story made on me.) Lesson learned: Speculative linguistic prose can work.

2) Just yesterday I finished Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman on audiobook. I’ve never wanted an HBO miniseries so bad. Where it’s pulpy, it’s very juicy pulp. I caught some really nicely arranged prose and it talks about identity and the lack of identity in ways that I hadn’t seen elucidated before and that ring very true. I was thinking when I started listening to it that it would be the kind of book that uses homoeroticism rather than all-out lesbian love, and about the relative merits of both, because I do think there’s something special about sexual tension that never gets resolved and about the power of the unspoken and implied. But I was wrong and I’m glad I was wrong because honestly, codependent adolescent lesbian cultists anchors pretty deep in my id. Lesson learned: “Filthy in a good way” is a legitimate emotion to dig for when you’re trying to get good writing out of yourself.

3) I finally got around to The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. It’s been a long time since I read a really hard sci-fi and I’m so glad I did, because the absolute joy of ideas is laced into this book everywhere, and I had almost forgotten how much ideas could buoy me through a book. I had heard some people say they found it cold or boring, but understated emotion is not boring! Even though many things in this book are described plainly, I think Cixin Liu has such an eye for beauty and wonder that when I really settled in to picture what he was telling me it would wash over me all of a sudden like warm water. Lesson learned: Sometimes selecting the right detail does the work for you and you don’t have to select a scintillating word; let it breathe.

4) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer was one of the first books I read this summer. I was struggling with what was left to do with Lovecraftian creeping horror before this book, you know? I actually rarely get the full effect of horror in books for whatever reason–I’m working on it, but I read quite fast and don’t always let things sink in and percolate–but when the main character has to go back up the stairs I probably squealed. (Vaguest spoilers ever?) Lesson learned: It’s emotionally effective when the consequences of reveals are just as bad as the punch, or even worse.

5) I availed myself of Tor’s Book of the Month club to read Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. The cadence and vocabulary of this book is very particular and pleasing–I love the romance of the archaic language, the taste of the words–and I suspect we all could work on incorporating sexuality into stories as elegantly as Kushiel’s Dart. Even the masters often seem to make sex awkward in prose. When Ben Okri can end up on a “bad sex in fiction” award shortlist, you know a well-integrated sex scene is a universally difficult undertaking. Kushiel’s Dart solves the problem by being so extra all the way through. Honestly, I should be reading more well-written romance books. I enjoy writing romance, and like many people who pretend to seriousness I’ve nevertheless avoided reading romance books because they’re, oh, you know, so girly.  Lesson learned: Time to suck up my internalized misogyny and find good romance. That’s what ebooks are for.

How to avoid doing eugenics: Adam Cohen’s “Imbeciles”

I have been managing to get some reading done in the last month or so and to build up a record for myself of having actually finished things, I’m dumping some rambling thoughts on Adam Cohen’s book Imbeciles here. Warning: This post talks a lot about eugenics based on IQ.

This book is very very very effective at getting you to mistrust authority if, like me, you tend to put your faith in edifices that are supposed to trend toward justice. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the Supreme Court cases that Cohen brings up where the Court made a straight-up evil decision, and I guess I should have, but we hear a lot about cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia (evidence–these were the only two Supreme Court cases I could name off the top of my head) and less about say Lum v. Rice, 30 years prior to Brown v. Board, which the Court ruled that it was totally fine to disallow a Chinese girl from going to high school with whites, which is itself a fascinating and horrifying case in terms of horizontal relations between people of colour in early-20th-c America because apparently the defense was essentially “Okay, but she’s not Black, so what’s your problem?”

I also gather from talking to others about this book that other people had a better sense of the scale of eugenics around this time period, but I definitely was not aware that, for instance, Harvard and Stanford taught classes on eugenics, or that for a time eugenics was scientific consensus even though it seemed like the science was really really fudged. Eventually truth won out and other scientists started interrogating data more carefully, but the bad science was sufficient to convince a generation of lawmakers that America was being dragged down by “feebleminded” individuals reproducing at a disproportionate rate, even when it seems so clear in retrospect that a) it makes no sense that should have suddenly started happening in 1920 to lead to the apocalypse that the proponents envisioned and b) something is wrong with your test if you can judge as huge a population of the States as they did “feebleminded” when nobody had ever, like, noticed before that apparently a third of the population or something had the mental age of a 9-year-old. You’d think we would have noticed.

I’m a person who tends to trust in scientific consensus where I can find it, and this really concerned me! I don’t know how early the rumbles of “this is bad science though?” started coming from people who understood genetics, but Cohen writes as though there was a period of about a decade where the foremost people in the relevant discipline all thought this super unethical thing was totally necessary for the greater good. And as consequentialists we have to sort of trust in what experts tell us will be the consequences, sometimes; when it comes to large-scale decisions it’s impossible for each of us to individually make the choice that will lead to the best consequence without the input of people who have intimate knowledge of what the different options entail. But the experts can be wrong, too, especially the “experts” who write extremely popular books and prosecute court cases.

And there’s a maddening, farcical, pathetic story near the centre of this case–the prosecutor, Audrey Strode, who Cohen describes as the most infuriatingly Lawful Neutral person in the whole mess. Basically, this guy drafted the legislation to permit doctors to sterilize the “unfit”, at the request of the doctor (Priddy) who wanted this to be allowed in Virginia. But it’s really, really bad legislation, in ways that he absolutely knew would break the law if somebody really wanted it to be broken. Cohen argues that he was essentially building the exhaust port into the Death Star. Cohen thinks he didn’t really believe in eugenics. And then he prosecuted the case, because Priddy asked him to. And then they went to the Supreme Court. And then they legalized eugenics in Virginia. And then they forcibly sterilized hundreds of women. It’s just really stunning to think that somebody might have started out the case thinking “I’ll break this from the inside” or even “there’s no way this will get too far,” and ended up being a part of something so terrible, and never really dared to take a stand and divorce himself from it, maybe because It Was His Job, or he liked the doctor, or he wanted to argue in front of the Supreme Court.

What I took away from this book is that allowing yourself to believe things that don’t make sense because they suit your sense of what should be right can be really, really dangerous. Something to remember when I’m tempted to keep defending something that sounds good and right which I think in my heart may not be true, which has happened more than I am proud to admit as I poke my head outside the ethics cyberbubble I was in in my teens. I feel like if everyone in this case had looked really hard at their evidence they would have been unable to avoid seeing that it was straight-up-and-down false. The central quote of the case–“Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” from the decision in this case written by the unbelievably Lawful Evil judge Oliver Wendell Holmes–is literally based on a lie, because the “third generation” he’s talking about was like a six-month-old baby and their evidence for her being an “imbecile” was a nurse saying she seemed, like, oh, I don’t know, somehow lethargic. That’s pretty goddamn scary.