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.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Review: The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Eskov

“After all, history will be written by those who will win under your banner. There are tried and true recipes for that: cast Mordor as the Evil Empire that wished to enslave the entire Middle Earth, and its inhabitants as non-human monsters that rode werewolves and ate human flesh.” 

- The Last Ringbearer, by Kiril Eskov

“History is written by the victors” is a cliche, a useful maxim, and the underlying theme behind many books I enjoyed. The Lord of the Rings, with its rather simple “united good guys vs power-hungry evil guys” themes and its dehumanization of orcs and other denizens of Mordor, seems like fertile ground for exploring the political nature of history. I was fully ready to love a fanfic constructed on this premise, or at least look past some flaws.

The novel is divided into four parts, and Part 1 starts with promise. We are introduced to a Mordor on the cusp of an industrial revolution, an age of science and technology that will, if left unchecked, cause a real threat to the extant ruling classes of magic wielders: the council of wizards and the elves. Alternative perspectives of familiar Middle Earth scenes are interspersed with asides on philosophy, farming technology, diplomacy versus military solutions, popular literacy, and the Great Man Theory (“Climate change can play a larger role in the history of a people, or even a civilization, than the deeds of great reformers or a devastating invasion.”). The highlights of this section were, I thought, the debate in Chapter 4 in which Saruman decries the genocidal brutality hidden beneath Gandalf’s measured calls to check Mondor’s growth by allying with the Elves; and Chapter 17, where a Nazgul affably chats around a campfire about the One Ring, a failed ploy to split Gandalf’s Western coalition. I rolled my eyes a little at the Chosen One plot that seemed to be materializing – Haladdin, a mathematician with the rare trait of being immune to magic, alone can save the material world from the magic of the elves.

I needn’t have worried about the triteness of the Chosen One plot, because Haladdin, along with all twentieth century geopolitical allegories, virtually disappears from the story until Part 4. Part 2 reads like an excerpt from a generic Eowyn/Faramir ship fanfic, tied to the events of Part 1 with the faintest of tendrils. Part 3 seems like a reskin of a generic 1990s spy story draft, and cheerfully shrugs off the shackles of a setting reminiscent of Middle Earth that anchored Part 2. The net plot contribution of these two parts is to get the MacGuffin into its intended hands. 

The convoluted plan to destroy the magical parallel universe comes to its fruition in Part 4, and – unbelievably, anticlimactically – goes off essentially without a hitch. In the final moments, Saruman warns Haladdin that the ramifications of destroying the magical plane aren’t entirely known and experimenting could have devastating consequences. Haladdin ponders this, gets a cramp in his leg, then decides that saving the life of his friend is worth potentially destroying the whole world. Our Chosen One mathematician drops the magical artifact into a volcano with the words:

“I’m dropping my ball into the crater! Run like hell if you can! You can figure yourself how many seconds you’ve got – I’ve never been good at figuring in my head…”

The world turns out just fine.

And even this disappointing excuse for a plot I could have borne for the sake of the neat premise, had the storytelling not been quite so rife with racism and sexism. Enslaved people are repetitively described as black, and the n-word is thrown in for good measure just in case you missed the allusion. Rape is a recurring punchline (“I wonder if this is what a woman feels like after rape” a character wonders after being stared down by an enemy). Women are silly, shallow sex objects. Haladdin’s love interest, who we never meet but serves only to motivate the actions of a man, “fulfilled her life’s destiny by becoming a loving wife and wonderful mother.” 

I'm certain Eskov rejects all criticism of this nature. Through the voice of the scholar writing this revisionist history of Middle Earth, he takes a moment to complain about the fictional dramatization of these events:

[The actress who plays] Alviss is black (excuse me – Haradi-Amengian), and the relationship between Tangorn and Grager has distinct gay overtones. The critics predicted as one man that the judges of the Silver Harbors Film Festival would protect themselves from the charges of racism, sexism and other horrible ‘isms’ by throwing every conceivable award at it, which is exactly what happened. 

I seethed my way through the rest of the book mostly out of determined spite. The author (presciently?) warded off my criticisms with the closing lines: 

“In other words, guys, live and let live. In our case it translates to this: you don’t have to listen to me spin tall tales if you don’t like them.”

I cannot urge you emphatically enough: do not read this tale.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Anna Karenina and The Woman Question

Why does Tolstoy kill Anna Karenina?

The easy answer is that Anna’s suicide is the just punishment for her adultery and lack of maternal virtues. The clearest evidence of this hypothesis is the comparison with Kitty Shtcherbatskaya, the female half of the other major romantic relationship of the book. 

We meet Kitty in the midst of a girlish infatuation with Vronsky, expressing all the excitement with dancing one would expect of Kitty Bennet. Heartbroken that Vronsky chooses Anna over her, she falls into a depression, but eventually develops a strong love for Levin. Throughout the rest of the book, her love for Levin is never shaken, not when he confesses he isn't a virgin, nor when he confesses his lack of belief in God, nor when he tries to send her away as his brother is dying, nor when he develops an interest in Anna. Instead, Kitty is described as a considerate nurse, an adoring wife, a doting mother. She enjoys her pregnancy and the tasks of housekeeping. Our last scenes with her are ones of familial bliss: her delighting with her husband over their baby recognizing familiar faces. Kitty embodies the Victorian ideal of a woman, and ends the book in happiness and financial security.

Anna is contrasted with Kitty in nearly every sense. She is uninterested in housekeeping, repulsed by her husband, and unable to bond with the daughter she births. She carries out a scandalously public affair with Vronsky, then chooses to be with him rather than mother her son, then refuses to bear Vronsky more than one child. In our last scenes with Anna, we see her unable to find security in her love for Vronsky nor joy in her life, shunned by society, turning to suicide. She transgresses against social expectations of women and because she cannot deserve a happy ending, Tolstoy sentences her to death by train, a symbol of technology’s destabilizing effect on social hierarchies and gender roles.

I find this answer unsatisfying. For starters, Stepan Arkadyevitch carries out multiple hedonistic affairs with far less remorse than his sister Anna (“one does so little harm to anyone, and gives oneself so much pleasure”) with narrative impunity. Second, Anna is written to evoke empathy. After her “fall,” we discover extenuating circumstances – she was practically forced into a marriage with a much older man as a young girl by a manipulative aunt, her marriage was cold and loveless – it really feels like the reader is being asked “you were quick to judge her, but can you blame her?” Indeed within the narrative, Dolly, a woman who works hard to maintain her marriage and who loves and cares for her children, expresses understanding of Anna’s choice: “How is she to blame? She wants to live. God has put that in our hearts. Very likely I should have done the same.” But moreover, Anna Karenina explores the oppression of women to an extent that still feels a little radical today, suggesting a different answer to the question.

Does Anna die because the oppression of women in her society left her no alternative for happiness and fulfillment?

Having left a loveless marriage, Anna – uniquely Anna, and not her male lover – is shunned from society and snubbed by her former friends. Her life is genteel, lonely, and interminably boring. Attempting to fill her days with anything other than changing her gown, she turns to reading voraciously, tutoring children, and writing children’s stories. Her efforts are largely trivialized as “unnatural” “affectations”, or curious pastimes rather than truly impressive philanthropy like running entire schools. Anna’s dissatisfaction in employment is suggested to be generalizable to all women. At a dinner party, the education and employment of women is discussed:

“Woman desires to have rights, to be independent, educated. She is oppressed, humiliated by the consciousness of her disabilities.”
Anna feels precarious, relying on her lover Vronsky for support. She believes he will only love her if she remains beautiful, but confides to her sister-in-law Dolly her certainty that Vronsky will not love her while she is pregnant, despite his repeatedly stated desire for more children. Anna’s fears are justified: during her pregnancy, Vronsky remarks that “she was utterly unlike what she had been when he first saw her. Both morally and physically she had changed for the worse. She had broadened out all over.” Dolly is shocked to learn (after seven pregnancies) that she may have a choice over whether to become pregnant – control over her own childbearing was “the very thing she had been dreaming of” – and acknowledges Anna’s wisdom in refusing to bear more children, but that even remaining beautiful is no guarantee of Vronsky’s continued support:

“I,” she thought, “did not keep my attraction for Stiva; he left me for others, and the first woman for whom he betrayed me did not keep him by being always pretty and lively. He deserted her and took another.”

Pregnancy is repeatedly associated with “hideousness” and described as “intolerable,” while motherhood is described as unrewarding, futile, imprisonment. Dolly remarks:

Why, even if we suppose the greatest good luck, that the children don’t die, and I bring them up somehow. At the very best they’ll simply be decent people. That’s all I can hope for. And to gain simply that—what agonies, what toil!... One’s whole life ruined!
Dolly asks a “handsome” young peasant woman if she has any children. The woman responds,

“I had a girl baby, but God set me free; I buried her last Lent.”
“Well, did you grieve very much for her?” asked Darya Alexandrovna.
“Why grieve? The old man has grandchildren enough as it is. It was only a trouble.”
Anna decries her lack of legal and economic independence, her social standing and her reproductive choices: “what wife, what slave can be so utterly a slave as I, in my position?"

The flaw in this interpretation – that Anna’s options in life are so miserable, so akin to slavery that her suicide is seen in some way as understandable – however, is again the veneration of Kitty’s patient maternalism that I remarked on earlier. Further, Anna’s suicidal impulses are foiled against those of Levin, the other primary protagonist of the novel. Rather than Kitty expressing anything but delight in her new motherhood, it is Levin who has an identity crisis upon the birth of their child. In his search to understand the meaning of life, he tries to rationalize his purpose, poring over philosophy texts. He finally discovers that life cannot be understood through reason, but that meaning can only be derived through faith in God. He finds peace and happiness in his life.

So is this then the answer? That Anna dies because she has no faith in God? This theory also feels lackluster: Anna doesn’t dwell on faith, and never rejects God.

Is there perhaps no answer to the question? Tolstoy (rather smugly) writes in a letter to Nikolai Strakhov:

If I were to try say in words everything that I intended to express in [Anna Karenina], I would have to write the same novel I wrote from the beginning.
Clearly, Tolstoy intended to convey some meaning. Perhaps the answer is a muddled combination of all the above: Anna, as a woman in a decaying socioeconomic class, suffers from oppression but makes choices that are understandable – not alienly evil. If a woman can simply find happiness in her husband, in motherhood, in faith, she could have an enjoyable, rewarding life, Tolstoy seems to suggest.

Indeed this status quo-affirming tangle of an answer to the Woman Question is mirrored in Tolstoy’s examination of class. A landowner, Levin is displeased that he must exploit his workers to maximize his own profit, and tries to invent a sort of profit-sharing scheme in which he may incentivize peasants to work hard while he maintains his nobility: “living in good style – that’s the proper thing for noblemen.” His communist brother points out the flaws in Levin’s scheme, that rather than truly trying to address capital’s oppression of the labourer, he is attempting something out of an egotistical desire to be original. Even Levin’s philandering brother-in-law calls Levin’s attempt to define some ethical sort of capitalism “sophistry”, and suggests that Levin give away his estate if he considers his earning a hundred times that of his peasants "unfair." After a dozen chapters devoted to the ethics of capitalism and the oppression of the peasants, Levin’s ultimate solution to the challenges at hand is to be an ethical capitalist so that he may pass on his estate to his son.

He knew he must hire laborers as cheaply as possible; but to hire men under bond, paying them in advance at less than the current rate of wages, was what he must not do, even though it was very profitable. (...) Felling timber must be punished as severely as possible, but he could not exact forfeits for cattle being driven onto his fields; and though it annoyed the keeper and made the peasants not afraid to graze their cattle on his land, he could not keep their cattle as a punishment. To Pyotr, who was paying a money-lender ten per cent. a month, he must lend a sum of money to set him free. But he could not let off peasants who did not pay their rent, nor let them fall into arrears.
Tolstoy has, I think, a sharp sense for the many problems in his society, which was rapidly undergoing change as the serf system was abolished and Russia began to industrialize. But he seems unable to look beyond his patriarchal, aristocratic perspective. The conclusion of all these fantastically written dialogues and beautiful inner workings of the characters' minds thus feels rather empty, the questions raised going unanswered.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Review: Midwives of the Revolution by Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar

I picked up Midwives of the Revolution thinking that a feminist avenue into learning more about the February Revolution and the October Revolution might be up my alley; I’ve read a lot about contemporary feminist movements, but felt like my Russian history was a little shaky. This book unfortunately serves the exact opposite goal: it could be a reasonable introduction into common goals and struggles for 19th/20th century feminist movements for someone very familiar with Russian history between 1860-1917. It spends pages and pages reiterating fairly common issues affecting women in most contemporary industrializing societies (e.g., wage discrimination, exclusion from educational institutions, difficulties combining motherhood and work, the rising importance of women workers as men were called to fight wars). In contrast, key historical developments, like the grain shortages in 1917 that played a massive role in inciting the February Revolution, are discussed assuming the reader already understands their impetus and general timelines.

I learned a lot while reading this book, but I can’t really credit the book itself. I regularly found myself seeking additional sources to fill in some of the blanks. Some of the more interesting parts of this work were the Who’s Who of female Bolsheviks and the unique factors impacting women workers and peasants in Russia in the early twentieth century. For a better and briefer discussion of both of these topics, I refer the reader to “Women Fighters in the Days of the Great October Revolution” and “The Woman Worker and Peasant in Soviet Russia”, both by Alexandra Kollontai. (I'd love to point the reader to works by her peers too, but their translations appear to be few and far between. MotR's bibliography is unfortunately not very helpful in this regard; many citations lead to works that are seemingly available only in Russian and, as far as I could tell, aren't available online.)

There were a few other good tidbits here and there. Chapter Three had some interesting discussion of how Western late-twentieth century examination of Russian history was clouded by sexism. I also was surprised to learn the February Revolution happened on International Women’s Day – somehow this never makes it into modern celebrations of the day! I also learned just how influential Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? was on revolutionaries across parties and genders. Lenin read the novel five times in a single summer and named his famous polemic after it, and it was read in political education reading groups for decades!

Puzzlingly, the book repeatedly describes the Bolsheviks as dismissive of the importance of women in the revolutionary movement, but support for this claim is largely limited to the memoirs of a handful of Bolshevik men (e.g., Shliapnikov, Kaiurov). Where the Bolsheviks did reach out to women workers to bring them into their movement, the authors minimize these actions (“To an extent, the Bolsheviks recognized that there was some potential for agitation and organization [among women workers].”), or portray them as individual actions of various Bolshevik women (Agadzhanova, Armand, Vydrina, etc). I would have liked to see support of this position sourced from party debates, or more extensively sourced from a wider array of party leaders (the few mentions of Lenin’s position on the role of women in the revolution describe him as very supportive of Kollontai’s advocacy for involving women). I wonder if this emphasis is a sign of the times. Perhaps with the dissolution of the USSR further in the rear-view mirror and with the rising interest in socialism, there’s room for a new book on the role of women in the 1917 revolutions.

In conclusion, you can probably skip this book, but read the two essays by Kollontai.