Sunday, September 6, 2015

Classic Sci-Fi: The Intuitionist

The Classic Sci-Fi Book Group tried out a new location for September: Mystic Celt, where we were able to have a bit more room. Quite nice, and it looks like we'll be returning. We met to discuss Colson Whitehead's first novel, "The Intuitionist" (1999).

"The Intuitionist" is set in a slightly-alternate America; the time isn't explicit, but it feels roughly 1950s-ish: post-war, but pre-Civil Rights Movement. The most notable alterity here is the importance and public recognition of elevators and elevator inspectors. Our protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the first woman and only second black person (the novel primarily uses "colored") to become an elevator inspector; furthermore, she is an Intuitionist, one of a small but increasingly influential faction of inspectors who "intuit" the status of elevators just by riding in them, rather than the traditionally-inspecting Empiricists. After a high-profile accident of an elevator Lila recently declared safe, she is drawn into a mystery circling around guild politics and the enigmatic founder of the Intutionists, who may have left behind plans for a radically more perfect elevator.

Possible spoilers below!

Neither Classic nor Science nor Fiction. Discuss.
So the first and biggest thing we talked about was whether or not this is science fiction. Consensus is: nope. We didn't get into a lengthy discussion of what definitions of science fiction we're individually inclined towards, unfortunately--that's a topic I never get tired of. However, "The Intuitionist" is also clearly not straight/mundane lit, and we wound up filing it within the pretty broad category of "speculative fiction".

Some of our discussion focused on the mystery aspects of the novel--bits of it feel a bit Hammett-like or Chandler-esque. Even though a few of us had gripes with the novel, we pretty much universally praised the writing, which mixes that slightly hard-boiled prose with a fairly post-modern approach to structuring, and seemed to me suffused with a subtle humor just by virtue of the high seriousness with which elevator inspection and history is treated. We brought up writers like Delillo, Pynchon, Vonnegut, and Chabon in comparison--"Kavalier & Clay" (2000) was particularly in my mind for this.

One of the more curious angles to reading this is to think of it as within a superhero universe--even specifically a Marvel one. This idea was brought up in response to the (somewhat rubbish) "superpower" of the Intuitionists, and also the inclusion of Ben Urich, journalist in the Marvel universe. An early scene where Urich is tortured is a direct echo of Frank Miller's "Born Again" Daredevil arc (1986). Like many Marvel stories, "The Intuitionist" is enamored of New York City, although it's never actually named and a few of us at group had some questions about what other cities it might be based on--I was thrown by the elevated trains, but then remembered that New York used to have those, too.
Ben Urich, played by Joe Pantoliano (2003 Daredevil film) & Vondie Curtis-Hall (2015 Daredevil series)
The biggest issue we had with the novel was its failure to effectively build its world or deliver on its most interesting premises: we never get a very good sense of how the Intuitionists work--Lila is the only one we see in action, and that briefly. There are also some deep plot holes related to worldbuilding, the most prominent of which is the notion that Intuitionism is actually a joke--but in that case, how does it work so well?

Otis's demonstration of the
safety elevator, the re-enactment
of which does not go well in
"The Intuitionist".
One thing that science fiction does very well is to raise awareness of world-building. It develops the skills--for both writers and readers--to look a little more critically at the unspoken, even unwritten assumptions about how this fictional world works, to look for contradictions, or satisfying/novel explanations and hanging-together. And, unsurprisingly, this is one of the areas that I often notice as a weakness when non-genre writers work with more speculative, less mundane settings. I'm quite willing to read the book as its own tone indicates: it doesn't all have to be hard, physics-testable SF, but it does need to stick to its own level of consistency. For "The Intutionist", Wilson has clearly done his homework on elevators: the historical and technical details, and minor points like Chuck laboring on as a constantly-belittled "escalator jockey" really made the book work, and Lila's basically obsessive knowledge/love of elevator lore & theory really makes her click as a character for me. Having heard some fairly heated/obtuse discussions about real minutiae of coffee equipment, this world, where a common-but-specialized technology is treated as one of the most central/important aspects of society, was very satisfying. And Whitehead does the city very well and absorbingly. Given all that works in this book, what doesn't work--some of the world-building and plot-hole-filling most central to its reality--sticks out all the more jarringly.

We did like Lila Mae Watson a lot as a character--besides her elevator geekiness, we wondered if she might be somewhere on the autism spectrum for a number of reasons, and really liked her straightforward, problem-solving approach to the complexity of the plot she's thrown into.

Unfortunately, since most of the discussion of race in this novel is metaphorically tied up with aspects of the elevator world that are either never fleshed out or are self-contradictory--the "black box", the Intuitionist/Empiricist split--it makes those issues a little difficult to talk about, as well. Which is a shame, because some of the best sequences in the book are really digging into themes of integration, race relations, and "elevation", like Lila's confrontation of the supposed saboteur, Pompey, and the question of what Fulton's secret--he was passing-but-colored, unbeknownst to the institution that reveres him.

A few of us also pointed out that the work feels a bit disjointed, with a number of vivid passages that could be removed completely--so the work as a whole feels a bit stitched together. I was particularly unsure of what some of the post-modern editing/chronological sequencing did, other than to let me know this book has some post-modern sensibilities.

Personally I found the ending of the book satisfying if tragic: Lila Mae continuing, and maybe also believing the hoax of Fulton's "Theoretical Elevators". It put me in mind of the coda to Card's "Xenocide" (1991)- Qing-jao's continued belief in an utterly dismantled set of gods. A very strange note to end on, and, in "The Intuitionist", a very weird, sad turn for the protagonist.

A great discussion as always. The October pick for Classic Sci-Fi is Haldeman's "Forever War" (1974), and in November we'll talk about Willis's "Doomsday Book" (1992).

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