1Q84

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This is a flawed but riveting Murakami opus.

The references to eclectic genres of music, the loner protagonists, the ever-present sense of dislocation, of being in a world not our own – these are the hallmarks of Murakami’s distinctive style. 1Q84 ticks most of those boxes, except that this time Murakami has replaced his preferred first-person narrator with two point-of-view third person protagonists, Tengo and Aomame, whose stories start out in different places, but soon begin to converge in strange and surreal ways, as they both find themselves in a world divergent from their own, one with two moons in the sky and unknown, unfathomable forces shaping the course of their lives.

1Q84 is a ponderous, magisterial, meandering book. Its monstrous 1,000 page length contains a core narrative arc that could have been written to resolution in half the length. It’s often vague as to its intentions; often ambiguous to the point of frustration. A large number of narrative elements receive no closure The central plot thread – the romance between Tengo and Aomame – seems contrived and unconvincing, almost as if tacked on to produce narrative tension leading up to the conclusion. And after finishing the book, I was left struggling to find a point to the thousand pages of text, given that there is no neat resolution to the many hanging threads of the novel. Ultimately, however, I’m sure plot coherence is not Murakami’s goal. To use the hoary phrase, the journey is its own destination. Reading 1Q84 is a visceral experience that in some ways transcends the shortcomings of the novel. Reading 1Q84 is like watching a shaggy, lumbering beast meandering aimlessly across a primordial moonlit landscape. It is confusing, sometimes unsettling, and often opaque, but has an irresistible allure. It is a vision of a world that echoes our own but that reverberates in strange ways, skirting the bounds of our lived experience. And that kind of grounded surrealism, to pair the words in oxymoronic fashion, is the source of the pleasure we derive from this book. Murakami gets it – he writes of a book that Tengo ghostwrites – Air Chrysalis – that readers felt it strangely compelling but ultimately lacked any real message. But what was important was the evocative nature of the work, its capacity to arouse states of thought or emotion from the reader.

Murakami fills the many pages of 1Q84 with careful, detailed descriptions of the daily lives and actions of Tengo and Aomame. He goes into their routines in great detail, down to the details of their clothes, the food they cook, their thoughts, both banal and profound, their music preferences, their neuroticisms and insecurities. He repeats these details often. Such “filler” actually takes up much of the space of the book. In the hands of a lesser writer such repetition would be interminably boring and probably indicative of a failure of editing. But in Murakami’s case, that repetition has a meditative, comforting cadence, almost like a beat in a musical composition. Murakami is too accomplished in his writerly craft to allow himself to be carried away by padding without purpose, and in this case such filler serves as a distinct foil to the strangeness of the emerging plot.

As to that plot – the magical realism one – it reads almost like the plot of some far-out Noitamina anime property, with its utterly inscrutable vignettes of strange events – the mysterious air chrysalises, the unseen NHK license fee collector, the enigmatic Little People, the two moons in the sky, one our own familiar one, the other, a curious smaller one, green and shaggy, with mold growing out of it. Murakami never bothers to go into what they constitute exactly – but I get the feeling that it was deliberate. Murakami wants us to feel adrift in his world, to feel the sense of smallness in the midst of something huger and more primordial, where things don’t make sense because we lack the experiential faculties to make sense of them. Personally I think he could have done it with a little bit more exposition, but it’s probably better to err on the side of less information. That feeling that the world is older and more recondite than one can imagine is the essence of this novel.

That said, however, Murakami’s command of the narrative starts to sag in the third and final component of the novel. The extended expositions of our characters start to drag. Substantively, very little happens in the third novel, and the antagonists of the previous two novels lose their menacing quality. Many of the plot threads that are left dangling at the end all originate in the third book. All that’s left is the aftermath of the buildup in the first two parts, with the third part devolving somewhat into a very extended epilogue, in which Tengo and Aomame, their lives disrupted by the events of the first two books, start looking for each other. This is the weakest component of the book, and unfortunately, one of the third book’s main narrative struts. But it doesn’t quite work in practice, because despite everything, the love between Tengo and Aomame lacks the verisimilitude of lived experience. Worse still, this element of love causes them to behave in uncharacteristic fashion. Aomame, after getting pregnant, loses a bit of her independent streak and starts to think only about getting to be with Tengo, even though they hadn’t met for 20 years. If the message is that love can transcend time and space and arise from a single touch, and cause people in love to literally cross worlds to find each other, I’m not really buying it. The best part of the third novel is the introduction of another third-person perspective, Ushikawa, a private investigator working for the antagonists who tries to uncover the location of Aomame after she goes into hiding. Ushikawa’s grotesqueness belies another of Murakami’s tortured, perceptive lonely souls, an unscrupulous but strangely sympathetic misfit given more shrift than most of his henchmen contemporaries.

Despite everything, reading this novel was rarely a drag, even in the third book. It may have ended abruptly, with many threads unresolved, with Tengo and Aomame together in a relationship whose staying power is dubious at best, but the journey to that ambiguous destination was filled with much that was profound and darkly comic, put together and dusted with a sprinkle of the classic Murakami we all know and hunger for. 1Q84 is a flawed but engaging meditation on lonesome souls in a world beyond human ken, told with a panache that reveals Murakami in all his stylistic depth and craft. It is an experience without end, an open-ended testament to the fact that the real world is every bit as strange and unknowable as the denizens of Murakami’s imagination.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Cat Towns

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Ubik

Sorry, Inception. Ubik did it first.

Ubik is my second proper foray into the works of PKD, after Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Overall, Ubik is, in my view, the superior work – more coherently written, with more fully-realized characters, and a premise that showcases PKD’s signature thematic preoccupations without getting bogged down in weighty exposition. More than that, however, Ubik is a somewhat more visceral, emotive experience, wrapped up in a succinct narrative package.

Dick’s vision of what the world might look like in 1992 is quite amusing from a modern point of view – there are lunar cities and interplanetary travel is commonplace, but everything is coin-operated and pay-per-use, even the appliances in people’s apartments. More disquietingly, it has become somewhat commonplace to put the recently deceased into cryonic suspension, where they exist in a state of limbo, periodically taken out of storage to commune with their loved ones, with each successive visit inching them closer to true death. Psi abilities have manifested, leading to the use of precogs and telepaths in industrial and military espionage. In response, “prudence organizations” comprising teams of anti-psis have sprung up, offering counter-intelligence services to clients who fear psychic incursions.

The plot centers around one such organization, headed by one Glen Runciter, and assisted by the financially inept psi-field technician (and protagonist) Joe Chip (a name that sounds like it was carelessly and cavalierly appointed by Dick at the spur of the moment). An astoundingly lucrative contract lures them to Luna, where they are ambushed and attacked by the associates of a rival psi firm. Glen Runciter is apparently killed. The rest, led by Joe Chip, escape, but very soon, strange things begin to happen to them. Their reality warps, regressing backwards in time. Objects decay and entropy at an accelerated rate. Joe Chip’s colleagues waste away in this fashion, one by one, their bodies rapidly ageing and decaying into heaps of dry bones. And a strange decoction in a spray can – the eponymous Ubik – seems to be the only thing that can arrest this surreal tide of decay.

Ubik is a strange, riotous blend of the whimsical and the terrifying. It is a deeply unsettling book, one whose hallucinogenic narrative and reality-bending nature evokes a real, creeping sense of the uncanny. That sense arises when the reader cannot trust the surface narrative, nor the validity of the characters’ hasty rationalizations about what is happening to them. There is always an unseen malign force lurking in the next page. The feeling is underscored by the book’s central motif – Ubik –  that features at the start of every chapter as the brand name of any number of products whose miraculous functions are advertised with weird, sing-song, alliterative copy. Perk up pouting household surfaces with new miracle Ubik, the easy to apply, extra-shiny, nonstick plastic coating. Each of these little pieces of prose assure the reader that Ubik is entirely harmless when used as directed, which invites the question: what will it do to you when not used as directed? Ubik, short for ubiquitous, seems to be the one-stop promise of restoration, rejuvenation, and vitality – but its virtues are circumscribed in the strange little world in which it exists – a world dominated by jingly advertisements that, in effect, tell you to believe in Ubik’s powers on faith – without even knowing what Ubik is.

The same applies to the Ubik in the main narrative. It is a panacea for the temporal regression that takes place around Joe Chip – which is revealed to be due to the fact that Joe Chip is actually dreaming up a simulated reality while his body resides in cold-pac, fatally injured in the assassination attempt on the Moon – but it is a panacea in a spray can, a magic emblem of jingly, self-assured commercialism, one whose virtues belie a stranger purpose behind it all. The chapter headers are Dick’s way of saying to the reader: we are all living in realities where Ubik-products exist, panaceas to ills, real or imagined, that serve functions for entities other than what is advertised. I’m almost tempted to call Ubik a symbol of modern capitalism, a capitalism that sustains itself on products that generate their own demand through flowery advertising. But, as in Joe Chip’s reality, Ubik can only arrest the tide of decay only so long. The panacea, like everything else, is not immune to the ravages of time and decay.

Dick’s favorite narrative trope is also in play – the multi-layered simulated reality, one in which the reader is never quite sure what substrate of reality the narrative is currently taking place. The novel is supremely ambiguous about this, even when the characters themselves seem to be sure about their place. The novel sort of reveals that Joe Chip and his associates were the ones almost killed in the assassination – not Runciter, and therefore must live out the rest of their half-lives in their simulated, shared dream reality, while Runciter himself is actually alive and in the real world. However, the last chapter of the book casts doubt on this neat conclusion when Runciter begins fishing coins with Joe Chip’s face on them. On first blush, this appears to be a cop-out of an ending, Dick’s attempt to artificially inject some ambiguity into the ending, much like the spinning top scene in Inception. But upon closer study, the book itself doesn’t seem to support the neat conclusion that it has drawn for us. Many aspects of the narrative are questionable. While this could be the result of shoddy plotting  on Dick’s part – it was probably more deliberate. For example, how could Runciter, sole survivor of the assassination attempt, drag all the bodies of his associates away from the scene by himself and escape the Moon in time to put all their bodies into cryonic suspension? That part is never quite explained, and suggests that Runciter himself might also be in a simulated reality. But if so, who put them there?

Of special note is Dick’s notion of the sartorial habits of 1992. Which, relative to 1969, isn’t too far off in terms of changing tastes, I suppose, although the direction is somewhat different from reality. One character, the CEO of a major company is described as wearing “fuchsia pedal-pushers, pink yafur slippers, a snakeskin sleeveless blouse, and a ribbon in his waist-length dyed white hair”, on the Moon. Stylish. Other outfits of this age include tweed togas worn with loafers and a purple airplane-propeller beanie, described as a “Continental outfit” and worn by a Swiss moratorium owner. I’d like to see a movie adaptation in which everyone actually dresses like that.

In terms of characterization, this is a step up from Stigmata. It’s more gender- and race-progressive, featuring more relatable female and non-white characters. Our protagonist Joe Chip isn’t as much of a Dick-proxy exposition spouter as Barney Mayerson was. However, Dick still has the tendency to somewhat tell, rather than show, relationships between characters. When Chip grieves over Runciter’s apparent demise, the force of his reaction surprised me, as the dynamics of that relationship weren’t established beforehand, but merely displayed. But overall, characterization is much better this time round, with Dick’s range of characters a bit more fully fleshed than the typical pulp sci-fi ensemble.

Dick’s prose also lends the characters and narrative a bit of a surreal, jerky quality, almost like they are not doing things the way normal people do, or look the way normal people look. Characters are said to perambulate and cogitate rather than walk and think, and some have descriptions that edge over into caricature or the grotesque – case in point: Runciter’s “massive, sloppy head,” “built like a tomcat’s”. Dick’s liberal use of near-malapropisms to describe people and events has a kind of caustic charm to it, a wide-ranging sort of impressionistic gravitas, a – careless sloppiness, like a free-association slurry of drug-inspired metaphors. It’s quite the trip.

Ubik is a riveting, unsettling read, and one of the few books in which plotholes can be said to add to the texture of the narrative, rather than take away from it. One could call it an unreliable reality as recounted by subjectively reliable narrators. The thing about Ubik that speaks to me most, however, is that mysterious Ubik itself, whose role extends beyond the narrative to remind us readers that reality, as we know it, is stranger than we can imagine.

I give this novel: 4 out of 5 Ubiks

Seveneves

Seveneves showcases many of the best and worst aspects of Stephenson’s unique brand of ideas-driven science fiction.

Science fiction, in the words of a recent acquaintance, expands the mind’s horizons on what constitutes the possible. Seveneves embodies that ideal, but in doing so neglects some aspects of the writer’s craft – expository flow, pacing and narrative completeness. The result is a bit of a lumbering and confused jumble of otherwise interesting ideas, in which the whole is substantially less than the sum of its parts.

Stephenson approaches the premise of Seveneves as if trying to solve an extended engineering problem: how would human civilization prepare for and live out an extended doomsday scenario, and what would their descendants look like? Stephenson takes this premises and tackles it from a  problem-solving standpoint, constructing as scientifically plausible a vision of what could happen.. His doomsday scenario is somewhat arbitrary – an unknown Agent causes the Moon to shatter into fragments, whose orbits eventually decay, causing them to rain down upon the Earth – but designed to give humanity a two-year time window to prepare for the inevitable and plan for the survival of their race. Humanity’s only seemingly viable means of surviving the catastrophe is to escape into space, which clearly presents immense logistical problems – how to grow crops, reproduce, preserve the genetic diversity of Earth – and importantly – to survive the various hazards of space: the stray bolides, the cosmic radiation, and the need for fuel in order to stay in space.

Stephenson’s novel is pretty much his answer to how we could deal with those challenges, at least in the short term. He is scrupulous in his adherence to known science. He has obviously done a great deal of research, and it shows. There is a great deal of detail and information packed within these pages. Stephenson’s even done number-crunching to ascertain the kinds of figures needed to achieve some of the orbital maneuvers that he describes, and proudly features them in the text.

On one hand, scrupulous attention to scientific fidelity is a good thing. It’s not a universal requirement, nor even a necessary component of a good science fiction novel, but its inclusion can give the narrative a certain sort of authentic realism, as well as ratchet up tension as required. On the other hand, Stephenson has converted the ‘expository infodump’ style of writing into a bit of an art form. Seveneves is a classic case of “telling, not showing”, which Stephenson’s authorial voice often going into extended explanations of scientific principles and methodologies, interspersed with bits of narrative flow. This is not in itself a bad form of storytelling – but it definitely requires a bit of patience.

The first part of the book reads like the start of a B-grade doomsday movie, with world leaders being briefed by celebrity scientist Doc Dubois that they are about to be obliterated unless action is taken. There are no save-the-earth heroics, however – it is quite clear that survival will be the name of the game. This first section deals in the preparations of the world’s nations in sending up thousands of people into space to live in distributed Arks, culminating in the destruction of Earth as billions of Moon fragments encase the Earth in a searing white fire as they burn through the atmosphere.

The second part is definitely the most guilty of Stephenson’s info-dumping style of writing, as Stephenson grapples with describing in exquisite detail how the survivors of the “Hard Rain” cataclysm that has destroyed Earth must intercept and bring back a giant cometary fragment and use its mass to help slingshot the remnants of their space station into a higher lunar orbit, where they can render themselves safe from cosmic radiation and stray bolides by establishing their foothold in a large lunar fragment. The orbital mechanics and logistics required for this maneuver are intricate, and Stephenson turns the entire procedure into an extended series of crisis moments, each described in great detail. At some point the non-physicist in me started stringing sentences together into a kind of narrative mishmash, skimming the orbital mechanics to get to the part where he finally describes what happens next. Unfortunately, radiation sickness, mutiny and other mishaps reduce humanity to seven fertile women – the Seven Eves of the book’s title. The picture of seven women being the only representatives of life in the Universe is a powerful and sobering image.

Of all the three parts, Part 3 is the one I was looking forward to the most. Unfortunately, given how extended the first two parts were, Part 3 reads like a half-baked, unfinished coda, added into round up Stephenson’s stable of ideas and concluded without much of a resolution. I’d say that it read like an opener for a future sequel, if I didn’t already know that Stephenson rarely does multi-book sagas (happy to be proven wrong though). Part 3 is almost as much of an excessive infodump as Part 2 was, but at least it was more imaginative and speculative in nature, which is more inherently interesting than the extended discussion on orbital mechanics that featured in Part 2.

The premise of Part 3 is exciting – it’s 5,000 years after the Event and human society has divided into seven distinct races, descended from the seven surviving women, who essentially engineered their offspring to emphasize certain different desirable human traits, thereby creating genetically distinct and diverging races. (For the confused, they produced offspring through implantation of embryos altered through parthenogenesis). Stephenson constructs a vision of a society that has developed under the peculiar constraints of living in space, constructing outlandish but amazing space habitats, just beginning to resettle in a rehabilitating Earth. Unfortunately, it’s not something that was given the same kind of treatment as the earlier two parts, and suffers from a total lack of a compelling and satisfactory conclusion. Personally, I would have preferred – and, indeed, I expected – a book in which the description of the far-future civilization was the main feature. I would also have liked Stephenson to have fleshed out the chronology between Parts 2 and 3 – because it seems like that interlude would have been rife with opportunities to explore how seven survivors could have blossomed into an advanced civilization after five thousand years in space. I did have a problem with how much of a link the races retained with their first ancestors, though – five thousand years is a very long time. Especially given, when – SPOILER – the Diggers and Pingers are introduced later – they, too, seemed to have retained a strong historical and linguistic continuity with their pre-Event precursors, who happen to be common direct ancestors or relatives to the two main characters in Parts 1 and 2. The odd coincidence seems rather sloppy for Stephenson.

So, Seveneves – a work with a lot of stuff in it, some more suitable for a novel form than others, a novel dense with vision and speculative potential, but a novel whose density overwhelms its narrative flow, pacing and structure. It’s a Stephenson hallmark, but it’s more pronounced here because of the demands of the story, which spans thousands of years. Read it for its daring and forgive it its shortcomings.

I give this novel: 3 out of 5 Izzys