Sunday, August 28, 2022

Review: Jane Austen, The Secret Radical by Helena Kelley

Some people believe you should judge and interpret the works of a writer in isolation, without consideration at all about the life, beliefs and times of the author. Helena Kelley, to her credit, is not one such person. Jane Austen, The Secret Radical is exhaustively researched, and presents a wealth of details about how Jane discussed her life and her opinions in her correspondence, what current events were shaping popular opinion at the time Austen was writing, and what literature Austen was likely reading and could expect her readers to have read. For this reason, I think the book is a worthwhile read for fans of Austen’s work, or people who teach Austen. 

But what of the thesis, that Austen was a secret radical? 

I share the author’s frustration with those who dismiss Austen as love stories. But I think it would take a fairly undiscerning reader to not interpret Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as critiques at the very least of inheritance laws, the lack of financial independence allowed to women, and other oppressive social institutions aimed at women. The depiction of the (moral and financial) decay of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie is even more palpable in Persuasion. In Mansfield Park, there is an overt, critical, if brief reference to the slave trade that funds the lives of the main characters, and frequent discussion about the role of the church and the clergy in society. The satire in Emma and Northanger Abbey is aimed more towards manners and literature and the relationships between the wealthy and the less wealthy within the gentry, but both books are far from simple romances (indeed I’ve argued Emma is instead secretly a romance story about a girl named Jane).

However, the author’s assertion that Austen was secretly a far more radical than most readings of her rest either on innuendo and/or on some rather toothless definitions of radical:

We’ve seen [Austen] criticise primogeniture and suggest that change, voluntarily undertaken, may be the only safeguard against revolution.
and

[Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet] is, fundamentally, a radical. She knows her own mind; she reserves the right to decide questions for herself. There are plenty of kinds of authority that she doesn’t recognize, or tolerates only as far as it suits her.
This isn’t the same definition of radical that I use. However, let’s work on Kelley’s frame of reference, and take ‘radical’ to mean ‘critical of the status quo.’ 

Kelley argues that many of the sharpest, most progressive of Austen’s critiques are hidden in literature references, and that these were so dated by the time Austen’s early books were published (i.e., some 20-40 years after their being written) that they went entirely unnoticed by Austen’s contemporaries. Imagine making a Harry Potter reference or a Jaws reference in 2022; no one would get it. Other examples of hidden radicalism were naming the characters in Persuasion after members of the Stuart line of succession, supposedly a critique of the royal Georges that followed them. 

I found her argument that Mansfield Park met nothing but silence in literary circles to be more persuasive evidence of radical politics; this stony quiet could very well be related to the one impertinent question Fanny asks her uncle about his business in the slave trade. It could also be related to Fanny being a bit of a limp heroine in general. However, as Kelley notes in chapter 7, by Austen’s death and for the decades after, Mansfield Park was thought of as Austen’s second or third best novel (after Pride and Prejudice, and maybe Emma). Regardless, her argument about the transgressive narrative of Mansfield Park felt diluted and not bolstered by the tenuous lines she draws between the novel and radical contemporary poetry and by the exegesis on peach tree varietals.

What of the secrecy of it all? Why not be more overt? Kelley argues Austen wrote in direct allusion to Mary Wallencroft and her 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the anti-slavery poetry of William Cowper. These works (and many others) were published, popular, and more clearly radical than Austen’s works on the same topics. Austen was writing anonymously. Was her secret radical style from concern that her brother may not act as her publishing intermediary? Or did she simply enjoy being so cryptically critical that not even her contemporaries remarked on how radical she was?

Speaking, briefly, of radicals, Kelley dislikes Marxists. Since Marxists view class based on their relationship to production, Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, both of whom survive based on the rents of their [fathers’, husbands’] lands, are members of the same class. She views the Marxist lens of critiquing Austen (e.g., Raymond Williams) to be too blunt. To truly appreciate the secret, radical Austen, you need to use the British Aristocracy’s conception of class – the one that produces a near insurmountable difference between a Baron and a Baronet. Through this lens, Kelley is able to declare that a soldier and an unmarried woman with lawyer relatives making fun of a pompous Lady is “a revolutionary moment.”

The Marxist critique of Austen has a solid case in that Austen’s class critique is limited by the perspectives she chooses to center. As Williams writes, “where only one class is seen, no classes are seen.” Austen rarely, as Kelley concedes, shows members of the working class. Northanger Abbey has not a single named servant. The most prominent servant in Pride and Prejudice exists mostly to extol the physical and moral virtues of her master, Mr Darcy. However, I was swayed by Kelley’s argument that this changed throughout Austen’s life. She provided many compelling examples of three-dimensional and compassionately sketched servant characters in Emma (although they were all minor, uncentered characters).

For all this, I think Kelley’s close read of Austen does have value (if only she could have made her point about Persuasion being about the decline of the gentry (what a hot take) without seven pages about a fossil salesman), and changed my perspective of several books. I’m excited to reread some of them, particularly Emma. Here are some of her arguments I like the most:

  1. Northanger Abbey: Jane was concerned about the lack of autonomy women had when it came to choosing when and how often to give birth. Pregnancy was particularly dangerous. The mysterious illness that took the life of Mrs Tilney could have been related to pregnancy, which would mean that in a sense, General Tilney would indeed have been (partially) responsible for the death of his wife, as Catherine fears. I also liked Kelley’s observation that the privacy of a married couple’s bedroom is a very strong western cultural practice (such that one feels trepidation at crossing the threshold of someone’s room), and that this novel alone of Austen’s featured an unusually high number of bedroom scenes. If I reread this book, I think I might skim Udolpho, the novel that so inspires Catherine, first.
  2. Sense & Sensibility: Kelley points out that many sentences that seem to praise particular individuals instead equivocate. Edward “appeared to be amiable” and “gave every indication of an open and affectionate heart” (emphasis added). Kelley notes that we shouldn’t take either Edward nor Colonel Brandon – who mathematically could be the biological father of his adopted daughter – at their words. An additional stain against Brandon: even in Austen’s time, the mention of the British Navy’s exploits in India would have been seen as violent (by the radicals in society only, presumably…).
  3. Pride & Prejudice: I usually forget that for so much of Austen’s life, England was at war. Kelley brings the violence and fear of soldiers and militias to the center. I liked also her description of 1890s fashion and how Ms Bingley was making fun not only of the mud on Elizabeth’s skirt but also of its dated style; her description of the contemporary meaning of the word “prejudice”: “tradition, ‘inbred sentiments’, unquestioned cultural assumptions”; and her historical content on the nuances of introductions. 
  4. Mansfield Park: I now feel reasonably convinced that Fanny accepting her marriage to Edmund, as his second choice, was a bit of a selling out of her own morals. This, unfortunately, doesn’t make me like her more.
  5. Emma: Kelley’s description of enclosures was fantastic background information – even for those with more of an interest in the economic trajectory of Britain in the 19th century than in Austen. Her highlighting of Austen’s portrayals of poverty (Romani people, parishioners, thieves) was also excellent.
  6. Persuasion: perhaps because it was Austen’s most overtly political book, but Kelley finds nothing particular secret to point out here other than that people fall a lot, much like the gentry is tumbling down in power and wealth and social stature.

If you have bad politics, it comes through in your writing (see Ender’s Game, Anna Karenina). If you have good politics, it also shines through. I liked that view of Jane Austen – that of a perceptive and thoughtful critic of her times – much better than one of some smug women weaving her stories with obscure peach tree varieties and gothic novel references to make a point like a petty Dungeon Master with too much time on their hands.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Review: The Little Prince / El Principito by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I read this in English and in French as a child, and now I've read it in Spanish as an adult. As a first book to read in a foreign language, I think it was a pretty good pick. There are some more unusual words and some poetic phrases, but the words and phrases often repeat themselves, which makes for good practice.

When I read it as a child, I think I hadn't quite grasped that the prince committed suicide (or, elective snake-assisted dying, I suppose). Or perhaps it is that now I am an adult, and I see drawings as hats and not as snakes that have eaten elephants.

The childlike perspective of the world and of adult concepts are pretty, as is the prose. It's a rather bleak view of the world, in the end. The world is filled with men who try to own the stars and are so busy counting them and trying to enrich themselves with them that they don't enjoy them. People are narcissistic, relish power but do nothing with in, enslave themselves to useless rules, rush around busily and without taking joy from the roses around them. Even the little drawing of a lamb, which seemed so charming in the first few pages, now seems a little dark. Why was it kept in a box? Why did it need a muzzle?

I like the parable of the fox. That, to form a bond with someone makes them special to you, and that you have a responsibility towards them. But even the bonds the prince forms with the fox and with the pilot aren't quite enough to keep him alive.

The last words of the book are, ironically, "¡no me dejen tan triste!"

It did indeed leave me sad.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Review: Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington

 I think this one is a must-read for anyone conducting biomedical research.

Some parts —
particularly the first third, dealing with the slavery and reconstruction era of US history — I'd read before in books like Angela Davis' Race, Women and Class. A few parts felt like rather long deviations that I didn't feel added all that much to the central thesis — for example, the chapter on display of Black people at zoos and freak shows, the part on apartheid South Africa's bioterrorism against its own citizens (the US, as Washington clearly demonstrated, has done plenty such terrorism and testing against its own citizens).

Some parts I thought I knew well — the Tuskegee syphilis trials, for example — but I was surprised there were still shady details to learn (for example, the time pressure on the ad hoc Tuskegee investigative committee, the shameful political maneuvering by its chair to soften the language of the report).

The book was written in 2006, and in the intervening 15 years, I think the big new issue we need to grapple with is the role Big Data plays in healthcare. Non-interventional anonymized healthcare data is sold and re-sold so companies can better target their marketing efforts or assess the potential ROI of a pharmaceutical intervention. These companies have data on some 300 million Americans (of 330 million people). This type of use of medical records has minimal benefit to the people whose records are being sold and analyzed, and I think few people know their information is used this way. I don't think it should be tolerated.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Utopias and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed

The point of dystopian science fiction is usually to take some aspect of our present society and exaggerate it to produce a terrifying but recognizable world. What if the government put extreme limits on free speech? What if we forced fertile women to give birth? What if advertising and consumerism got really out of control? It’s a tool for critiquing society, but tends to produce criticism in the form of warnings of slippery slopes. There’s an implicit acceptance of the status quo, except for this one part of it that society needs to be concerned about. Because of this, dystopian fiction stories often lack a solution to the problems in society they have identified, other than simply “don’t do the bad thing.”

Utopias start from the exact opposite premise, critiquing our current world by leaving it unchanged, foiling it against a better world. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel, The Dispossessed, we follow a physicist, Shevek, as he grows disillusioned with his isolated anarchist society. Over the seven generations since its founding, shadowy bureaucratic hurdles and fears of trespassing ingrained social norms have produced a static, sick society that no longer upholds the radical individualistic and free-choice ideals on which it was founded. To pursue his scientific work, he turns traitor to his society, and visits the liberal, capitalist planet. Through his eyes, we explore a world virtually indistinguishable from our own. Elegant and highly educated people enjoy sumptuous cocktail parties, wear fur coats that cost two years of minimum wage salary, eat chocolate that comes wrapped in far too many layers of paper, and rarely have to encounter the miserable working poor. Escaping from the clutches of his well-spoken, well-shod captors, Shevek finds working class revolutionaries and becomes a figurehead for a mass strike — one brutally repressed by the liberal government's military. The violence the government exacts on its own people, the gender and class inequality he sees, and the way money and property distort all relationships lead him to view his own society in a more positive light. He broadcasts his research findings to all civilizations in the universe so as to prevent the capitalist society using it for profit or for colonization. He then returns to his home planet as a proud anarchist, fortified with the knowledge that revolution is hard, and has no end, but is ultimately worth it.

Because utopian fiction critiques our current world undistorted and through comparison with a hopeful alternative, it lends itself well to revolutionary fiction. In What Is To Be Done?, an 1863 utopian novel that inspired many within the Russian Revolution, Chernychevsky writes:

A person who’s never seen anything except hovels would look at a picture of an ordinary house and mistake it for a luxurious palace. How can one ensure that such a person should perceive the house as a house and not a palace? In the same picture one must depict at least one corner of a palace. From this corner it will be clear that a palace is really a structure of a completely different sort than the one in the picture, and the observer will realize that the building is really nothing more than a simple, ordinary house in which all people should live (if not in better ones).
The reader of The Dispossessed is presented with a palace of a sorts, if a flawed one, in which resources are shared equally with everyone within a community, where people view each other as a brotherhood, where there is complete gender equality and no shame in sex. Shevek, in a sense, goes through the reverse journey, discovering the hovels so that he can see the promise of the palace. Le Guin’s world-building is thoughtful and deep, exploring how everything from language to education to “who does the dirty work” might be different, better, in an anarchist society. 

While dystopian movies and novels have been staples of the box office and bestseller lists, utopian fiction is rarer. Dystopian stories are lauded as smart political commentary, while utopias are impractical, unserious. Indeed, Margaret Atwood, author of the dystopian “what if we forced fertile women to give birth?” story, prides herself on not imagining anything new or better at all: “One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in (...) history” (Foreword to The Handmaid’s Tale, 2017). The Dispossessed at the very least demonstrates that utopian stories can be Serious Literature. Utopian fiction being rare and dismissed isn’t unique to our current era. Chernychevsky accused those dismissing utopian fiction as suffering from sour grapes:

And as for the fact that [the idyll] is no longer fashionable, and therefore people spurn it, that’s no real objection at all. They shun the idyll as the fox in the fable spurned the grapes. They think it inaccessible; consequently they conclude, ‘Let it no longer be fashionable.’ But it’s pure nonsense that the idyll is inaccessible. 

— What is to be Done? (1863)

Chernychevky’s writing was crafted to get through Tsarist censorship, so some of his more ambitious designs for a better world are cloaked in metaphors and codewords difficult to follow a century and a half later without an annotated edition (the Michael Katz translation is good). The difficulty in producing utopian fiction today is perhaps no less fraught. Those with decision power over producing big-budget movies might find more appeal in stories like “our world, but what if the government put draconian limits on free speech” than “our world, but without money or property.” Regardless of issues on the "supply" side, is there demand for utopian fiction, or is it too unfashionable?

Chernychevsky was writing shortly after the abolishment of the serf system in Russia. The era in which Le Guin was writing was shaped by the Cold War, protests against the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement.  Our present era, marked by pandemics and wars and increasingly evident climate change, seems similarly unstable, perilous. How can we work towards a better society if we don’t first imagine what that could be?  I wonder if we might therefore be ready for a change in fashion, a rediscovery of utopian fiction. I am, at least.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Review: "Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor" by Virginia Eubanks

Something about the digital world frightens people into believing they are facing a completely alien, Cthulian beast, as opposed to simply an online version of the usual suspects. Shoshana Zuboff makes this mistake in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, suggesting the 'behavioural surplus' extracted by Facebook and its ilk fuels an economic system fundamentally different from the wholesome, warm and fuzzy capitalism of Henry Ford and company. I wrote in my review of that book that she failed to substantiate her argument:

Is Google hiding how much data it collects from you really all that different from Apple hiding the conditions of its manufacturing facilities? Is Facebook's attempts to manipulate your emotions or your sense of self-worth really a whole new beast or just another step in the advertising industry's development? Is the desire of surveillance capitalism companies to expand vertically and horizontally into new parts of our lives and into new parts of the world, to privatize or profit off public goods any different from the same expansion drive of any other company?

Virginia Eubank's Automating Inequality sees through the Silicon Valley smoke and mirrors, and instead correctly draws a direct line from the poorhouses of the 19th century, through the scientific charity and eugenics of the 20th century to the automated and algorithmic social systems of today. She coins the term "digital poorhouse", likening the publicly-funded facilities that granted wretched living conditions in exchange for grueling work to the systems of digital tracking and automated decision-making that govern distribution of public resources today.

Like the brick-and-mortar poorhouse, the digital poorhouse diverts the poor from public resources. Like scientific charity, it investigates, classifies, and criminalizes. Like the tools birthed during the backlash against welfare rights, it uses integrated databases to target, track, and punish.

She tracks three systems in particular: IBM's "modernization" of the welfare administration system in Indiana, the social sorting algorithm implemented for sheltering the unhoused in Los Angeles, and a model implemented in Pittsburgh to predict child harm. The chapters detailing these examples are compelling, and combine stories from social workers and people affected by these systems with data and perspectives from academics. They're also infuriating and saddening to read.

The final chapter, in which she ties together these stories with the cultural practices that enable them to exist (e.g. culture of individuality, middle class anxiety, racism) is excellent. Eubanks founds her critique of these systems in historical understanding of how these systems came to be.

Just as the county poorhouse was suited to the Industrial Revolution, and scientific charity was uniquely appropriate for the Progressive Era, the digital poorhouse is adapted to the particular circumstances of our time. The county poorhouse responded to middle-class fears about growing industrial unemployment: it kept discarded workers out of sight but nearby, in case their labor was needed. Scientific charity responded to native elites' fear of immigrants, African Americans, and poor whites by creating a hierarchy of worth that controlled access to both resources and social inclusion. Today, the digital poorhouse responds to what Barbara Ehrenreich has described as a "fear of failing" in the professional middle class.

I think because she is able to see the similarities between current technological solutions and social systems of the past, she is better able to identify the unique aspects of modern automation and algorithms. She concludes that the digital poorhouse is hard to understand, massively scalable, persistent over time, and is alienating in a particularly new way:

Containment in the physical institution of a poorhouse had the unintentional result of creating class solidarity across race, gender, and national origin. When we sit at a common table, we might see similarities in our experiences, even if we are forced to eat gruel. Surveillance and digital social sorting drive us apart as smaller and smaller microgroups are targeted for different kinds of aggression and control. When we inhabit an invisible poorhouse, we become more and more isolated, cut off from those around us, even if they share our suffering.

Working in data science, I think often about the ethical obligations of the profession. Sometimes I wish books like this one (along with Cathy O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction and Caroline Criado Perez's Invisible Women) were required reading. I'm under no illusion that professional certification or licensing of data science would solve the issue. Eubanks isn't, I think, the first to suggest a Hippocratic Oath for data science. Perhaps that would help with a culture shift.

I'll end with her two questions she asks people developing technological solutions that address poverty, because I think they're great:

  1. Does the tool increase the self-determination and agency of the poor?
  2. Would the tool be tolerated if it was targeted at non-poor people?

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Review: Death's End by Cixin Liu

Death’s End is the final book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, and it makes me wonder what exactly about Earth the author considers worth remembering.

About four fifths of the way through this last installment, I remarked that a better name for the trilogy would have been The Dark Forest the title of the second book, but also the name of the kill-or-be-killed principle driving the inter-civilization conflicts of the series. The first two books of the series followed Earth learning about the Dark Forest principle, culminating in their discovery of how to leverage this principle to hold off the invading Trisolaris Force in a mutually-assured destruction gambit. In this third book, the Dark Forest is revealed to be far more populated than we originally guessed, with inter-galaxy solar system-destroying missiles and alien civilizations living in four dimensional hypercubes and two dimensional planes.

The author’s title selection becomes clearer in the final fifth of this book. With the last handful of humans chased into tiny pockets of the universe to survive, humans – and other species, it is suggested – become very focused on being remembered. They invest exorbitant resources to create a tomb or museum for some unknown future civilization to discover, and they risk the destruction of the universe just to leave an extra 5kg of memory storage. But what part of humanity deserves to be preserved?

Cixin Liu portrays two aspects of humanity as beautiful and admirable, and I find the selection of these two a little icky. The first of these is art: Trisolarans appreciate human art and during the Deterrence Era, and create their own works of human-inspired art. Humans of the 21st century reflect sadly on the forgotten poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, irrelevant in the 25th century. Humanity’s tomb/museum features the Mona Lisa (a callback to Luo Ji’s romantic meander around The Louvre in The Dark Forest), and Cheng Xin carefully rescues Van Gogh’s Starry Night on humanity’s only curve propulsion faster-than-lightspeed ship. Rather less care is invested in the rescue of other humans.

The second of these virtues is love – but the forms of love that are venerated are rather limited. We don’t see a love for humanity. Humans are portrayed as small-minded, hypocritical, and prone to worshiping individuals. They argue about investment vehicles as the end of the world approaches; they discuss the quality of the fish they bought and their electricity bills; they apply to be the human battalion of the anti-human Trisolaran army; they pray to the Trisolarans, to Chen Xin, to Luo Ji as saviors. Cheng Xin is motivated to save humanity out of a sense of responsibility, but not out of a sense of love. Reflecting on her life and the decisions she makes, she emphasizes this sense of responsibility and how it distinguishes her from the rest of humanity:

All my life has been spent climbing up a flight of stairs made of responsibility. [...] And now, I’ve climbed to the apex of responsibility: I am responsible for the fate of the universe. [...] Unfortunately I have not been able to walk the ordinary person’s path. My path is, in reality, the journey of a civilization.

Within the narrative itself, the author often describes Cheng’s feelings of duty as ones of maternal love or maternal instinct. Given how often Cheng Xin is repulsed by the culture of these humans she feels beholden to protect (particularly the androgenous gender expression of the men), how much she keeps herself apart from other humans and from society, I don’t recognize love in this emotion at all. I wonder a little at the author’s perception of maternal love; it seems rather transactional or biological:

In this family-less age, mother’s love was a rare thing. The welfare state that seemed like heaven satiated the children’s need for the love of a mother.

Other family bonds are shallow: Yun Tianming’s sister encourages him to seek euthanasia to protect her inheritance. Friendships and collaborations are de-emphasized: one of my favourite scenes was AA and Cheng discovering how curve propulsion works over a 21st century-style bubble bath. However, rather than the warmth and equality of this friendship between two women being the emotional strength Cheng needs to overcome her guilt and face the end of the universe, AA is thrown to the sidelines to introduce a new heterosexual, romantic relationship.

It is romantic love that, above all, is venerated as beautiful in this series – but again, it is a strange, martyr-like incel-y form of love. Awkward and ugly university student Yun Tianming falls in love with the beautiful and smart Cheng Xin, who barely acknowledges his existence. He buys her an entire solar system, and volunteers for euthanasia to advance her Trisolaran diplomacy strategy. She discovers his love for her only after it is too late, and cries over his dead body. Later, he is resurrected by the Trisolarans and she is excited to see him, and remarks upon how physically fit and tan he looks. The solar system being insufficient, he gifts her an entire universe – allowing her a chance at surviving the death of the main universe. “He’s quite a man to be able to give the woman he loved a star and a universe” Cheng’s end-of-the-universe boyfriend remarks.

Overall, the masses are forgettable and mostly silly. The positive aspects of humanity are grand romantic sacrifices by a few pure-hearted individuals, and art created by a few brilliant individuals, and the goal of civilization is to remember them. 

Although Cixin Liu’s perspectives on the value of humanity (and particularly masculinity) were questionable, I really enjoyed parts of this book. I liked the development of dimensional warfare, and the game theory/arms race aspects of civilizational struggle. However, while the message of this part of the book seems to be that there is no hope for any civilization to behave any way other than purely rational, some parts of the narrative belie this theme. Yun Tianming’s grand romantic gestures were surely not utilitarian or egoistic, and Trisolarans also irrationally provide humans with life-saving information out of admiration for Luo Ji. This same tension arises in other themes: technology is not only the sole way to survive the Dark Forest but must also be embraced. To revert to a non-space exploring society once space travel has been discovered is self-limiting and silly. Other technological regressions are similarly derided. On the other hand, the narrative bemoans humans losing the ability to communicate, problem-solve, or express masculinity, due to the advance of technology. (If it seems like I emphasize the role of masculinity in the book too much, then you must not have read it.) The fairy tales – coded messages from Yun Tianming to instruct Earth how they could avoid a Dark Forest attack – were a lot of fun to decode, and that I was able to piece together much of the message on my own is a testament to Cixin Liu’s worldbuilding. It’s a series worth reading for its creative exploration of astrosociology and its epic scope, but a bleak view of civilization.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Review: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles – this they named empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

First contact stories typically consider two questions: 

  1. What is the political response of humanity to a new intelligent species? 
  2. How do we define humanity/consciousness? 

Some stories focus on the first question: Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem series is one such example. Humanity has 400 years to stave off extinction at the hands of the Trisolaris alien race, how do they respond? Other stories focus on the second question: in Ursula K Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, ambassador Genly discovers the genderless Gethenians, and discovers what it means to be human without gender. However, the second strand is present in both stories. The Trisolaris aliens are unable to deceive, and this difference between humans and aliens forms an essential aspect of humanity’s political response. Genly is intentionally sent as a lone ambassador, a political decision made to encourage social integration between the ambassador and the aliens.

A Desolation Called Peace considers both questions in roughly equal parts but its answers felt rather shallow and disconnected. The political response of the sprawling Teixcalaan empire is to send a military force to face the aliens, who have been skirmishing with pilots and knocking out resource centers. At the hint of a threat, Emperor Nineteen Adze and her Minister of War send orders to nuke the alien planet. The emperor justifies her decision with rather frightening colonial language. 

“It is a terrible thing to do, and a terrible decision to make. But that’s what Emperors are for. (...) I’d rather have a pyrrhic victory—display just what Teixcalaan is capable of, smash a living beautiful planet full of people—and yes, they probably are people, but not the kind of people we can understand—smash it to dust and deathrain. I’d rather one act of horror than an endless war of attrition, losing our people and theirs, on and on and on. Like a suppurating wound at the edge of the Empire, forever. Sometimes it is better to cauterize.”

Through the plucky actions of the empire heir apparent Eight Antidote, the army general’s best friend, an ambassador and a bureaucrat, cooler heads prevail, the aliens are recognized as human, and the war ends. What becomes of those calling for genocide? Nineteen Adze shrugs and expresses eagerness to eventually hand over the heavy responsibilities of being an emperor to Eight Antidote. Nineteen Adze isn’t the hero of the narrative, her willingness to slaughter entire villages and sometimes entire planets for strategic outcomes isn’t presented as morally right, but neither is it fully presented as morally wrong. This same sort of calculus is made throughout the narrative: protagonist Nine Hibiscus slaughters rebels to maintain peace in the empire, euthanizes a soldier to prevent a painful death, and enables the assassination of a military commander to prevent the destruction of the alien planet. The message is clearly that sometimes a little devastation is required to prevent more devastation, but the story doesn’t take a clear position on when. Is the message that imperial leaders who call for genocide won’t be punished, but will continue their careers uninterrupted? Is it that whether cauterizing the wound is smart or cruel can only be determined retrospectively? Unsatisfying.

What of the second question posed by First Contact stories: what does it mean to be human? These aliens are revealed to share thoughts and memories between individuals. Accustomed to consciousness being a hivemind, they do not, at first, appreciate what the death of individuals means to humans. In the world of Teixcalaan, a few technologies have given humans the ability to form their own sorts of shared thoughts and memories. The surveillance state at the heart of the empire allows for law enforcement to behave and respond like a hive. The Stationers’ imago technology allows for inheritance of memory between individuals in the form of a brain implant. Teixclaani fighter spaceships – presciently called shards – come equipped with shared vision and proprioception. Heir apparent Eight Antidote sees similarities in how these three technologies enable communication and how the enemy behaves, sparking his realization that the aliens possess a hivemind. He leverages the hivemind of the fighter pilots to prevent the genocide of the aliens and end the war.

This was the stand-out scene of the novel for me. The reader is thrust into the perspective of the interconnected fighter pilots, who are terrified and psychologically tortured and dying. It’s a jarring contrast to the prior 400 pages of the novel, which depicted political negotiations between powerful individuals resulting in “difficult decisions” being made, all set in serene palace chambers with large windows overlooking gardens, or pristine spaceship command centers overlooking the quiet void of space. 

He died twice before he learned to talk. (...) Before he could find himself in the midst of the cacophony, he was spinning in a rictus of fear, engines cut, some other Shard-pilot’s blanked-out panic in his throat as her Shard was struck by the edge of a three-ringed, slick-grey spinning wheel of a ship and she saw the flat pockmarked side of the asteroid coming up fast and faster and faster and I love you I’ve always loved you remember me and nothing. An afterimage of fire.

Powerful writing, but I felt this thematic thread fizzled. The intervention of the pilot hivemind goes only so far as to prevent the delivery of the planet extermination order. The decision to assassinate Sixteen Moonrise to stop the extermination of the alien planet was made by Teixcalaan army general Nine Hibiscus. The assassination itself was carried out by the aliens. What if instead it was carried out by the fighter pilots – recognizing in the aliens a shared humanity, protecting this other conscious collective from an Empire that sings the songs of individual emperors but not of its pawns?

There was a poetic justice of this military technology developed by the Empire being used against the Empire’s military. I had expected this trick of using the Empire’s might against itself to come from Mahit, the ambassador to the Empire from the independent Stationer community. Early on, her imago machine tells her:

But what better way to draw a monstrous thing to its death than to use its functions against itself? Teixcalaan wants; its trust is rooted in wanting; it is in this way you and I will destroy it.

Despite this tease, it was the heir to the Empire who used the Empire’s technology to thwart the Empire, another riff on the theme of the Empire containing within itself the seeds of its own destruction. I would have liked to see this probed further – is it even possible for one lone but powerful voice within the Empire to change the trajectory of the Empire, or is it too much of a machine? However, the story ends with Eight Antidote looking a little more like prey than a cancer – kept safe within the sights of Nineteen Adze and “just dangerous enough to stay alive”.

That the alien hivemind was understood solely through fantastical technologies (imago machines, combat spacecraft) was a little disappointing. I think there was room for some fun exploration of collectivism versus individualism in this tale, and it would have been nice to see a more human element to interconnectivity. Community love, collective action, the excitement of being part of a throng – when do humans behave like a hive?

My diagnosis for the causes of the issues of this novel is the choice in point of view characters. Three Seagrass seems selected to get Mahit into the alien diplomacy mission; with that feat accomplished she spends most of the rest of the novel doing nothing but daydream about Mahit and muse about poetry. Her scenes feel a little like filler that dilute the other themes; her key moments could likely be given to Mahit. More time with Mahit could help tie together the two First Contact questions a little better, since Mahit, as ambassador and peace negotiator, shapes the political response to the alien presence, and also experiences proto-hivemind through her imago machine. 

Nine Hibiscus seems selected as a point of view character to provide a window into locations where plot happens, and to explore the theme of Difficult Decision-Making. However, her second in command, Twenty Cicada, was really the hero of the final conflict. He makes the self-sacrificing decision to consume the dead alien and through this communion become part of their shared consciousness, enabling peace negotiations.  His careful compartmentalization of his religious beliefs and personality from the tasks expected of him by the Empire provide an interesting foil to Mahit's complicated attraction to and repulsion from the Empire. Mechanically, he could have served the same role in observing events onboard the Weight for the Wheel while allowing for better exploration of the themes of collective consciousness and colonialism, at the expense of the already muddled and rather uninteresting exploration of Difficult Decision-Making.

A Desolation Called Peace is a little special among the first contact stories I’ve read in that it dwells quite a bit on the actual contact part of the story. Second to the scene of Eight Antidote becoming one with the fighter pilots, the scenes of Mahit decoding alien linguistics were my favourite. I think this is something Arkady Martine does particularly well – I loved how A Memory Of Empire examined how language and literature influence connection between people, self identity and politics. But where that novel cohesively explored that theme, and tied together these threads beautifully, A Desolation Called Peace asked too many questions across too many characters and I didn’t think they tied together quite right.