Friday, February 20, 2015

Think Galactic: 40,000 in Gehenna

Perhaps the least-bad
of the cover illustrations.

So it's no secret: C.J. Cherryh is one of my favorite authors, and I've read, re-read, and written about her work pretty extensively. Thus, I felt a little trepidation leading up to the last Think Galactic meeting-- not everyone is a fan of Cherryh's style, and as the book-suggester (and lover) I was worried about how the group would receive it. Then, I started reading "40,000 in Gehenna" (1983) for the nth time, and forgot all my fears, because it's really an excellent novel, rich in themes and ideas. We had a great discussion about it, ranging all over the place.

"Gehenna" is a great example of "future history SF". Rather than following a particular character or plot, the novel instead explores a place and situation over a good deal of time--in this case, the founding, foundering, and evolution of the Gehenna colony over about three centuries. It's set within Cherryh's large, consistent, but not very series-based "Alliance-Union" universe. Union's settlement of Gehenna, composed primarily of the cloned "azi" workers, is designed to fail--but Union doesn't account for the intrusion of the supposedly non-intelligent native life, the pseudo-reptilian calibans. When the planet is ceded to the Alliance government, they find human cultures that have developed in strange directions. That's just a rough synopsis, and there are likely to be SPOILERS BELOW:

(By the way, this novel is cursed with the Curse of Bad Covers, even more than is usual for SF in general or Cherryh in particular; I'm going to toss in all the ones I could find.)
Was DAW commissioning middle-school
art classes or something? The long-necked
caliban! The spirals! The creepy Weird!
I'm especially a fan of the blue leather

My first question to the group was how they felt about the narrative structure of the book--it uses a large number of viewpoints, over a large period of time, including a lot of documents such as ship messages, emails and excerpted reports--and which sections of the book they liked the most or found the most striking. Calling "Gehenna" up in my mind, it's always the last third or so that springs to mind--the section where Alliance anthropologists are attempting to to understand the two caliban/human societies gearing up for war, where we learn the most about calibans and their language. But, picking the novel up again, I was struck by how strong and different the initial story is.

The Gehenna colony's failure, told from the viewpoint of various administrators, the slave-like azi, and later their children, is shot through with dystopian threads, and kind of grim and fatalistic. We talked about some of the political machinations that remain off-screen--such as some of the extra info about the Gehennan azi revealed in "Cyteen" (1988), whether Conn was selected because of his incipient alcoholism and psychological weakness or not, whether Union was possibly sending its veteran warriors off on these doomed missions precisely to clear out the old guard, and whether and to what extent the calibans planned what happened.

Presumably azi?
The azi are a weird point in Cherryh; they're really central to what makes Union such a strange society. Azi are born from artificial wombs--but so are many other humans in Union. The key difference is the specific kind of "tape" education they get, which leaves them docile and focused on specific tasks. However, azi are too big an issue in Cherryh to get into too much in the discussion of "Gehenna" specifically--we meet these azi basically on the day that the whole system of control is breaking down. At group we talked a bit about how those hierarchies persist over generations--particularly the later Gehennan's insistence on being "born-men" and "having no number on them"; I've suggested before that the strongly hierarchical, sexist Styxside society doesn't so much re-invent power relations as transpose them (from a citizien/azi relation to relations between genders and class).

(I haven't read it, but others at group compared some of these dynamics to those of Carolyn Ives Gilman's 1998 novel "Halfway Human", which TG read a bit ago).
Apparently they read
the word "dome"
and stopped.

We somehow got on the subject of Zelazny's "A Night in the Lonesome October" (1993), and particular the role of the narrator, the dog Snuff. While that particular example is apparently more comedic than realistic, a recurring theme throughout our discussion of "Gehenna" was how and if we should understand non-human intelligences in fiction. This is a central theme in a lot of Cherryh's work, and we talked a lot about the tension between presenting an alien as incomprehensible--like the oceanic entity of Lem's "Solaris" (1972)--and making them too comprehensible, too human, as with most aliens in "Star Trek", for an easy example. We did bring up the Crystalline Entity as an example of real alien-ness in Trek. We also talked about successfully alien aliens in Butler's "Xenogenesis" trilogy (1987-89) and Gwyneth Jones' "Aleutian" trilogy (1991-97), and the stereotypical Bug-Eyed Monster in Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" (1959) and its complication in the anagnorisis of Card's "Ender's Game" (1985). It's intriguing to compare Card's "Hierarchy of Foreignness" in the Ender series with Cherryh's stance throughout her SF--but that's another post.

This problem--of presenting a non-human agent without reducing them to human--is something I find pretty fascinating (one of the inspirations for the upcoming Wiscon panel on cognitive diversity), and gave me cause to bring up Nagel's "What is it like to be a Bat" (1974), where he argues that we can't really know:
It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.
This one's not so bad except WAIT:
bizarre alien landscape and what's
CLEARLY a viper probe droid.
The calibans in "Gehenna" are fascinating because they're a strongly non-human intelligence that nonetheless interact with humans. Talking about their language--which is a combination of body language and symbol manipulation--led us to talk about the bee dance, as well as the visual language of the aliens in Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (1998), which Think Galactic discussed last year.

We got into narrative construction and the Weirds--a class of Gehennan humans who seem to choose (or are chosen) at a very early age to eschew verbal language, developing a closer bond with the calibans than elsewhere found. The Weirds echo some others in Cherryh--particularly the azi in "Serpent's Reach" (1980)--and are, well, weird: as McGee, the Alliance observer in the Cloudside civilization puts it, in any other society their sanity would be in question. That in turn led us to discussion of verbal ability as related to mental development, and the Radiolab Episode "Words" (2014) where some of these questions are addressed.

This shot us even further down a digression of words, narrative, and cognition--we talked about the Star Trek: TNG episode "Darmok" (1991), where the universal translators are foiled by a language relying heavily on allusion and metaphor. Lot of Trek references this Think Galactic, actually. Also: "The Knife of Never Letting Go" (2008) by Patrick Ness (which TG discussed in 2012), wherein all the male characters can only think out loud (putting me in mind of an international man of mystery) and--and this brings up Nagel's Bat again--the dog-speech in Pixar's "Up" (2009). Which brought us back around to Snuff in Zelazny's "Lonesome October". We're good like that.

How much language affects thought came up for a bit (I feel like the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis comes up with startling regularity at SF/F book clubs)--we talked about the late Suzette Haden Elgin's "Native Tongue" (1984, and another TG read), wherein a conlang is a revolutionary feminist tool, and also the trend of jargon and business-ese accruing in any speciality.

Argh what is this?

Reminded me of "Unsuck It", a dictionary of bad trendy language. I should be clear that by "bad" I mean "inauthentic, dishonestly euphemistic, bullshitty, and unlovely".

One of the most fascinating parts of the discussion, for me at least, was when we discussed the themes of boundaries, undermining, and bridges. Boundaries are vital and constantly recurring in "Gehenna"--born-man vs. azi, "The Wire" of the base's perimeter, town vs. hiller society, and the boundaries being created or enforced by calibans and the sea-folk. But at the same time, these boundaries are constantly being transgressed--literally undermined by calibans in some cases, and everywhere confused and called into question. The specifics of "bridges" seem very important, also--who, how, and where boundaries or gaps are crossed.

One moral from "Gehenna", to bring up Trek again, seems to be that "The Prime Directive is Bogus". Also, trying to understand/translate things without bringing your own preconceptions and perspectives with you is bogus.

Characters who cross cultures, often winding up alienating themselves from their origins, are a near-constant feature of Cherryh's fiction. In our discussion of "Gehenna", we took particular note of characters like Dean (neither native nor Alliance), Jin 3 (moving from the hiller society to the early Weird/caliban society), and McGee (Alliance researcher who becomes a member of the Cloud caliban/human symbiosis).

Again with the middle school. Also these
calibans are HILARIOUS.

This brought us to one of our Words of the Day: anomie, the mismatch between an individual's rulesets and those of the society they're in. I've also heard it used specifically to talk about people caught between cultures.

All Think Galactics should have Words of The Day! Another one we talked about was saying "tropes" when it ought to be topoi. Tropes being a use of language that "turns" somehow--does something figurative or otherwise new; somehow it's come to be used in exactly the opposite way, and could often be replaced with "cliché". Themes, motifs, recurring ideas, those aren't really tropes. I've seen, and like, the use of topos (plural topoi) instead, when you don't necessarily mean cliché in a negative way, but are talking about something commonplace or otherwise not-strikingly-new.

A great discussion! Apologies if this write-up is all over the place, we talked at a good clip for a long time, I'm sure I missed things, and am also resisting the urge to turn any writing-on-Cherryh into some grand philosophical treatise. After we were mostly done with the novel, we continued talking for a bit about a few things I swore to record, including:
-Somehow connected to "Gehenna" and decision making, we got into Trolley Problems, which are a favorite of mine, and the Radiolab that looked at the "monkey neuroethics" of that situation.
-Ken Burns' Prohibition documentary (2011).
-This led me to bring up the Hobo Wars of John Hodgman's "The Areas of My Expertise" (2005), which he somehow got made into a brilliant PBS documentary. You should really watch that.
-We also got into password strength and vulnerability for a long time, bringing to mind Randall Munroe on that subject:

Sorry for the delayed update. The next Think Galactic selection is the World Fantasy Award-winning "A Stranger in Olondria" (2013) by Sofia Samatar.

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