The Torture of the Shadower, part 7: Reading

The torture this week comes from… the reading. Reading the rest of the Clarke list. I’ll be done this week. It hasn’t been the most pleasurable experience.

The other torture comes from summer vacay on the horizon and the utter desperation I feel to get through the reading and writing of this list, just to be done with it already. I’ve been quiet on the twitterz and that’s why. If I were to tweet anything, it would just be expletives and not very nice things, and we know how fandom prefers we only ‘promote the works we love, and not slag off the mediocrity that dominates visibility, money, and networking, thus elbowing out truly original works that might take us to the next level.’

Or something like that.

*****

The latest Shadow Clarke controversy comes to us from Gareth Beniston, who posted a provocative piece with some radical ideas about how to infuse the Clarke Award with… something different from what we’ve been getting. In the comments, there’s a lot of back-and-forth about quotas and positive action, and whether those efforts patronize writers, and the whole conversation hasn’t gone anywhere I’d like to be. My own angle is supportive, yet difficult to articulate with its socialist edge, and it seems the conversation includes enough white voices on an issue that is usually more instructive when it includes more non-white voices, so I’ve stayed out of it.

I hope it’s clear I’m pro-anything that seeks to rectify a demographic imbalance. I’m radical about most things, and this topic especially.

*****

Speaking of heavily advertised novels–which we weren’t, but we were–my review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead posted last week. We can’t ignore TUR‘s prominence in the media, but the gulf in style and substance between Whitehead’s sneaky, snakey novel and the rest of the Clarke shortlist is immense, especially between TUR and what I consider the bottom ranked novels on the list. To see intelligent, well-read SF fans nit-pick about scifi-ness is embarrassing, and I hope Whitehead isn’t watching.

My review has, for the most part (thanks, Phil, as always) encountered silence, which leads me to assume I have finally convinced everyone. Good job, me. (It might also be that the essay is too long and who has the time? That, or the stink of dead horse has finally chased off everyone.) (It’s also possible that people scrolled to the bottom first and saw my childish, mocking taunt at the end and decided to skip.) (No, I do not expect to be writing on a university blog for much longer.)

*****

The most famous, most advertised of the six novels on the 2017 Clarke shortlist, yet this 2016 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, one of Oprah’s favorite things, and a 2017 Sharke pick has been perhaps the most divisive selection in this year’s battle for the best science fiction novel—not because it’s not good enough, not because it’s not interesting enough, but because some readers believe it is not science fictional enough.

It’s a shame because discussion about this novel could focus on publishing in general: The Underground Railroad’s prominence in the media, the strategy behind its categorization as a mainstream novel, and its possibly misleading blurbs. We could talk about its potential place as literature for the future, whether it takes risks, or the general misunderstandings inherent in many (including my own) reviews… but instead, science fiction critics prefer to count the widgets.

So here we are.

There is legitimate concern that by labeling The Underground Railroad as science fiction, readers might dismiss the horrors presented in this geographically and chronologically distorted history, thus relegating it all to whimsical fiction. Yet the SFnal device is there for a reason, and Whitehead’s manipulations of time and space are critical to that purpose: as unnerving as The Handmaid’s Tale, as destabilizing as The Man in the High Castle, as cognitively demonstrative as Viriconium, and as psychologically resonant as The Dark Tower—all works that utilize alt universe devices to bring sociopolitical and literary concerns into powerful, stark relief. Whitehead’s use of this device is complex and brilliant, although I was unable to grasp just how complex and brilliant it is until this project, which has forced me into the tedious and meaningless position of having to argue for its place in science fiction.

But here we are.

The story opens with Cora, a woman held against her will, imprisoned as a slave on a plantation in Deep South, America. Her place in spacetime is specifically identified as antebellum Georgia (and is recognizably antebellum Georgia, an important distinction as we make our way through the narrative). The horrors of slave life are conveyed in crisp, mundane, and most blunted of ways, until Cora meets Caesar, who convinces her to run away with him, to find the mysterious underground railroad. They succeed in their quest—although ‘succeed’ is tenuous here: a fellow escapee dies, Cora becomes ‘Wanted’ for killing a white boy in self-defense, and they bring ruin and death to the only underground railroad connection in Georgia (which likely didn’t exist that far south. In our history, at least).

But Cora does escape, and takes a literal sub-surface train ride to freedom to… South Carolina—which, in our history, is arguably the most dangerous place for a free slave to wind up, due to its saturation of plantation life, white paranoia, and white resentment of total economic dependence on black labor for profit. (The cultural nuances of plantation slavery make this arguable in academia, but that’s beside the point.) However, the South Carolina of Whitehead’s historical US is characterized as “progressive,” and feels and behaves more like 1950s Alabama, with an urban/suburban layout, automatic elevators, shop window dresses, linguistic affectations, and benevolent racism in the form of indoctrinating uplift and sinister medical experimentation on the black body. For readers even slightly familiar with the history of the antebellum South, the sense of cognitive dissonance in this section is bewildering: the narrative chugs along, masquerading as a straightforward historical rendering, yet nothing feels remotely historical in relation to the previous chapters. Cora has jumped ahead in time. Like any captivating runaway slave story, Cora is not where (and when) she’s supposed to be.

At this point, it becomes apparent that Cora is not traveling north on a pathway to freedom, despite what the narrative tells us. She is, instead, traveling through the evolution of white America’s racism.

Contradicting the US myth that racism has gradually, naturally disappeared over time, Whitehead’s mind-bendy techniques assert that Cora’s freedom is only an illusion. White progressivism is only an illusion. Once Cora gets a sense of the horrors underlying this “progressive” southern state, she takes the underground railroad again, this time landing in North Carolina, where black bodies hang from trees like strange fruit, and she must hide in an attic under the protection of an increasingly paranoid and resentful white progressive couple. From the attic, Cora has a bird’s eye view of the literal drama of white-on-black violence via racist minstrels that escalate to murder, with white paranoia of being outnumbered so thick she senses it from her perch—except, this paranoia, while recognizable anywhere in past and present US, is specifically, historically identified as a South Carolina thing—not a North Carolina thing (although we know it existed everywhere)—and the tactics that are used: lynchings (which bring to mind Indiana, Mississippi, East Texas, and, frankly, every where and any time), witch hunts (which bring to mind colonial New England), and commentary on “the colored question” (which brings to mind the Holocaust), are, once again, anachronistic and anatopistic. Again, Cora is not where and when she’s supposed to be, but, as Whitehead is teaching us through this device of surrealist history, time and place do not matter: Violence and racism permeate the whole of American existence. To assign racist violence to specific places in time, is to distance ourselves from the legacy of those violations. Whitehead won’t let us do that.

Cora finally escapes bloody and nightmarish North Carolina (which, in our historical reality, has often been characterized as the most “benevolent” and least trigger-happy state of the Confederacy, dragging its feet a whole five months before seceding; unlike its brash, violently paranoid, and trailblazing sibling state, South Carolina, which sparked the secessionist movement), and takes the underground railroad, one more time, to Tennessee. Here, Cora finds respite amid what appears to be a healthy and secure community of free black intellectuals. As the most complex and ambiguous stop on Cora’s journey, where du Bois and Douglass-like characters populate the pages, a “Trail of Tears”-like subtext haunts the margins, and insecurity dominates relationships and politics of this pinhole community. It’s a community without an assigned place and time, a community we could easily find today, or fifty years ago, or immediately post-emancipation, where white dominance squeezes the comfort level for these communities, adding an acuteness to what can never be simple exercises in intellectual discourse. While it should be the safest of Cora’s stops, it is the pressure-cooker.

Whitehead could continue this journey even further into the racist progressive American psyche—there are, after all, plenty more progressive false narratives to overturn (why not plant Cora in a post-millennial publishing landscape where white bloggers patronizingly celebrate her novel without fully comprehending it?)—but he finally allows Cora her escape. The underground railroad is defunct in this weird Tennessee, so she burrows her way through the leftover tunnels, and eventually comes up in what appears to be Canada. Historically, we know Canada was not much more comfortable than the racist paternalism of the US North, but this is the Canada of Whitehead’s psychic geography, which is to say: it’s not America.

In many ways, The Underground Railroad’s distorted, childlike view of American history is similar to that of another recent literary crossover, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, which provides a Through the Looking Glass view of a cartoonish, over-commercialized United States through the eyes of an unimpressed Mexican migrant. While Herrera’s novel conveys a sense of unreality about the US present—an unreality most Americans embrace—Whitehead’s novel conveys the very real sense of unreality about US history, but it goes further: using the surreal to illustrate the false narrative that perpetuates the teaching of the history of progressive race politics, and to highlight the ongoing insidious nature of US liberalism toward black skin.

It’s anachronistic and anatopistic nature is useful for Whitehead’s point: these things could happen any time, any where. He forces us to stop distancing ourselves from these events, to recognize the legacies of these abuses today. The relentlessness of bounty hunters, the double standards of “reasonable suspicion,” the patronizing, unstable support of white progressivism—it is all present, stark, and frightening.

Trains and railroads are a common feature in the literary landscape, often to symbolize an endless journey, or a barreling loss of control, neither of which works for this strange novel. The Underground Railroad, instead, takes a less common psychological approach to the railroad metaphor—a psychohistory approach, if you will. A common method in trauma recovery is to advise patients to revisit their traumas as though they are on a train: the landscape of memory to be scenery that just passes by, rather than memories to relive. This distancing technique allows for rational contemplation of events, rather than retraumatization, and often brings into relief truths that might have been obscured, or unnoticed by the emotional mind. Whitehead’s work with this technique does the opposite: Cora’s stint as a museum actor in “South Carolina” is one of the most surreally real details in the novel, but it also serves to magnify the untruths that have shaped popular understanding of history. The museum scene is such a strange interlude, almost a derailing of Cora’s already strange journey, but it serves to signal the underlying structure of the entire novel: Whitehead’s use of the ‘tableau effect’ is present throughout the entire novel; his shaping of American history into a diorama of strange and creepy events, which uncloaks those untruths as propaganda of the American melting pot.

While my initial feelings after my first read were positive, but more critical, I realize now I made the mistake many readers make on their first time reading what will inevitably become an important staple of literature: focusing on details of characterization, pacing, and enjoyment, when the work as a whole serves a greater function, with such trivial ‘mistakes’ becoming critical to the novel’s greater purpose. The more I inquire into the work, the more potential I see for scholarship and future appreciation, and it is unlikely that today’s readers, including myself, will fully capture the bounty The Underground Railroad has to offer.

(I also realize this essay will not convince anyone not already in my court that The Underground Railroad is science fiction, to which I say, you’re wrong, and I don’t care, and anyway: The Handmaid’s Tale, Perdido Street Station, The Separation, Iron Council, and Station Eleven. And this year’s Clarke jury and the Locus list seems to disagree, not that I would care, but anyway, you lost, nyah nyah nyah-nyah boo boo.)

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17 thoughts on “The Torture of the Shadower, part 7: Reading

  1. I can finally imagine wanting to read this book, after reading your second round of thoughts, so thanks for that. I am not sure why it hadn’t really managed to appeal to me yet–maybe because I bounced of another one of his books in the past (Zone One), maybe because I am not big on historical fiction about very depressing things (I tend to prefer just going for the non-fiction books on very sad and emotional topics from history). But anyway, now I am finally intrigued enough to possibly buy this. Yey. Also: psshhhht, this is so SF come fucking on. I haven’t read it, obviously, but from the sounds of it the only legitimate argument against it being SF would be for it being magical realism. Which is often just the same fucking thing sheesh and hello ALL POST APOCALYPTIC FICTION, that shit is barely SF, pretty much always, and yet “we” have all decided we’re ok with shelving it there. VERY LARGE EYE ROLLS. If “we” can “all” agree that a book like Dhalgren is SF then this is fucking SF jaysus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! Readers are allowing publishing blurbs to be THE authority for defining what’s SF and what’s not. I keep thinking about how half of Philip K Dick’s stuff is just about weird shit happening in his head, and he’s SF, but Han Kang’s The Vegetarian isn’t SF, even though the woman in the story is convinced she’s turning into a plant. ???

      I can understand anyone not feeling excited to read The Underground Railroad. It’s not an enjoyable topic, and it’s hard to read regardless of the mode the author chooses to use.

      Like

      • thcyo says:

        Shouldn’t science fiction, have some science in it? Books about turning into plants can be SF if the explanation is grounded in some scientific premise, rather than a fantastical one.

        I mean the one thing that separates SF from other genres is it’s need to explain the fantastic elements using actual physics extrapolated from our own reality. It’s not the tropes that these novels employ that distinguishes something as SF or Fantasy, it’s whether the writers use Science to explain what is happening.

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        • These kinds of conversations are so tedious.

          In The Vegetarian, the woman is not actually turning into a plant, but she thinks she is. The scientific premise is that the woman is suffering from depersonalization, which is entirely based in reality, and in turn, distorts the world as we see it for anyone reading it, which is usually what I’ve come to expect from SF.

          Meanwhile, FTL, AI, aliens, flying cars, sentient gray goo, and light sabers are all fantasy. There is little basis for reality in most science fiction stories.

          Overall, I see little difference between scifi and fantasy. We can argue until the knife becomes so thin we confuse ourselves, which is why these distinctions don’t matter the way they did to adolescents seventy years ago.

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          • thcyo says:

            Thought you meant the woman was becoming a plant.

            FTL is clearly impossible, but not entirely, and that ‘not entirely’ is where SF works in. I think there is a clear distinction between Sf and fantasy, which is that SF uses science to explain its gadgets and toys.

            I mean is it possible to reasonably extrapolate an FTL drive? Maybe, it certainly doesn’t conflict with general relativity. I mean you there are a handful of ways one could go about it based on current theoretical physics. Warp drive, Krasnikov tubes, wormholes, spooky action at a distance. For a writer there is wiggle room, if they want to stick to current physics understandings.

            I mean SF writers extrapolate out from a set of known criteria and your entire list of seemingly fantastical tropes can be explained using science in one way or another.

            Verne imagined a giant cannon to send people to the moon, others before whim imagined lassoing swans to pull a chariot to the moon. Clearly there is a distinction, and one that matters since it keeps coming up, even after the new wave blew the windows out of the house.

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    • PhilRM says:

      I was somewhat put off reading TUR for the same reasons (especially post-US election), but in the end I decided that I was being unfair to Whitehead’s novel. And a good thing, too, because it’s a major SF achievement. I haven’t read any of Whitehead’s other novels, but I just picked up a copy of ‘The Intuitionist’.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Elle says:

    Hah, this is great, and very convincing. Thanks for writing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As always when I read your reviews of books I also reviewed, I feel dumb and inarticulate but, oh well.
    For me The Underground Railroad is a SF book, it’s an alternative history book that plays with time, alt history is a subgenre of SF ( nobody will say that The Man in the High Castle isn’t SF). Anyway, I also think that this debate isn’t really a debate, after all TUR is on the shortlist so…
    Very interesting review/essay, I can’t wait for your thoughts on the other books!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved your review! And I think it’s funny we wrote basically the same thing and published on the same day! And I’m also looking forward to the rest of your reviews.

      (And yes, if I remember correctly, the most scientific thing going on in The Man in the High Castle is that stupid strapless bra he goes on and on about, which I guess was hi-tech in 1962.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hestia says:

    This post! I. It almost makes me want to take up blogging again, (though I didn’t do very well in keeping up with it last time) just to gather my thoughts together.

    –Underground Railroad has been on my TBR for a while, but my list is so long, and my reading time so brief… (so has The Vegetarian, which also sounds pretty interesting.) I had wondered what was science fictional about it. It sounds uncomfortable (a point in its favor.)

    –I’m right there with you on the distinction between SF and fantasy being pretty thin. Everyone squints at that difference in their own way, I think. For instance, I realized that I tend to read China Mieville’s fantasy under a science fiction rubric because most of it has an SFnal concreteness and lacks a moral component. I have no idea if anyone else does that.

    –I don’t see any reason to exclude anything with a fantastic bent from getting nominated for or winning an award. But I understand…just a little…some of the complaints. One of fiction’s dividing lines is “for fun” vs. “important.” (Plenty of books are both, but many really aren’t.) I have a feeling that some of the complaints are based on the idea that if that door is opened, “important” (read: bleak) will always beat “fun.” On the other hand, some of it is just “I like this, so this should always win, because what I like is objectively the best.” I’ve had many discussions with my 14-yr-old on this subject.

    –Another distinction: literary fiction tends to use fantastic concepts in different ways than “straight” genre fiction does — sometimes using a concept as a metaphor, sometimes taking a concept to a more literal and realistic conclusion than happens in adventure-oriented fiction. Sometimes, you get a brilliant story, and sometimes…not so much. I’ve read some great stuff, but I’ve also read books that feel like attempts to be clever by authors who don’t realize science fiction got there three decades ago.

    –Anyway, great post! It really got me thinking. I’ve been slowly trying to read through my fiction alphabetically (sort of.) Lately, I’ve reread some Asimov that I haven’t looked at in thirty years, and am now approaching Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (timely!) with some trepidation. She’s a great example of some of these arguments: exquisitely written, unquestionably SF, grounded in reality but with some post-modern flourishes, and bleak as all hell. Should it have won awards? ALL the awards! Am I looking forward to it? Sigh. Not really.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Hestia! Wonderful to hear from you!

      -I’d love to hear your thoughts when you finally read The Underground Railroad and The Vegetarian. They are uncomfortable, although I think I’ve moved past feeling discomfort from books like these and now I find that sense of awe that I often seek (and often don’t receive) from most SF because writers like Whitehead and Kang actually push the limits of my understanding of life and humanity and all that, and in ways that genre writers often fall short.

      -My above comments probably explain why I’m reluctant to rely on those “fun” and “important” categories, because what most people call “fun,” I find dreadfully boring, and what people might call “important,” often feel closer to being, much as I hate to say, “mindblowing”… again, that feeling I used to get from SF.

      -I am no stranger to those litfic writers who attempt to employ old SFnal devices as if they’re the coolest thing in the world– I felt that way about STATION ELEVEN, which everybody seems to love, but I would have adored the novel without all of the winks to the most clichéd parts of THE STAND. So while I agree that this does happen from time to time with litfic, I am starting to discover some amazing mainstream and literary writers (and scifi writers who employ literary styles and techniques) who do things that feel wholly original and boundary-pushing AND capture the essence of human existence in the way they approach their characters and the prose.

      -Asimov to Atwood sounds like a recipe for cerebral whiplash, but my reading is often like that, too. I had more patience for Asimov a few years ago, but now that I’ve read so many modern mimics of his work, I think I’ve become resentful toward him. He was fine in the fifties, but shouldn’t be the standard in 2017. (Atwood, on the other hand, is brilliant and timely, although I prefer Oryx & Crake. I have also learned that I can’t do back-to-back Atwood. I think I was rotating Atwood, Ballard, and Butler when I was going through her work–all bleak, but different kinds of bleak!

      (Yes, you absolutely should get back into blogging again.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hestia says:

        I have a very weird grab-bag of books at home. I’ve gotten a lot of them for a dollar or less at used book stores/sales because “hey, I might want to read this someday.”

        I finally promised myself that I would start to work on that. So I put them in alphabetical order, and I read or reread them in turn, or get rid of them. Even then, I jump around a lot — I don’t want to read all the Asimovs or Atwoods back to back either. And I read a lot of other books in between: nonfiction, library books, middle grades, dumb thrillers that I regret wasting time on, other new shiny books that cross my path.

        At the rate I’m going, I’ll be finished with this project in a mere twenty years or so.

        One of the reasons I love your blog is that you bring a science fiction eye to a wide range of fantastic fiction — just what I’m looking for when I look for recommendations.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. PhilRM says:

    I forgot to mention this when I commented earlier, but I do have one very minor quibble with your review. I’m pretty sure that at the end of the novel Cora is still in the US, probably in Illinois: it is the state adjacent to Indiana, which she’s just escaped from, and the old black man she joins up with tells her he’s going to St. Louis, then on to California, so it makes geographic sense, too. (And apparently even then California was the land of dreams…)

    Like

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