H(A)PPY

Spoiler alert!

H(A)PPY, by Nicola Barker, is a story set in a dystopian future where people’s emotions are regulated and their access to information controlled. The protagonist, Mira A, a musician, stumbles upon the guitar music of Agustin Barrios, a (real) Paraguayan musician from the early 20th Century. His music, and his story, and other fragments of information about Paraguay (all taken by the author from The Paraguay Reader), cause or precipitate or otherwise give a theme to Mira A’s mental disintegration, which ends with her being expelled from her society into exile in the wilderness, where violence and war and disease still exist.

To begin with, this story felt very very familiar. I have, unwittingly, been training myself since childhood to read science fiction and to understand its tropes and themes; it didn’t take long for me to pick up the terminology and to understand what was going on.

All the modern sci-fi trappings are there, smart clothes, 3D-printers, Neuro-Mechanicals (think ‘Electric Sheep’), and Mira A runs on a Power Spot to capture her bio-energy (like the exercise bikes in the Black Mirror episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’).

H(A)PPY has its own technology, there is the ‘Sensor’, which provides information, but is not, according to Mira A, a ‘censor’, because the users effectively censor themselves in the information they ask for. There is also the ‘Graph’ which seems to be both monitor and interrogator, it keeps a constant record of an individual’s internal monologue, the colours of the words changing to reflect the taboo-ness of the word and the concept it represents (these colour changes are in the text of the book itself), and also interrogates the individual on behalf of society over what they are doing at any given moment. Lastly there is the ‘Stream’, which seems to be the output of the Graph, plus continuous surveillance footage, both of which are available for anyone to view (an obvious metaphor for social media).

There are also ‘clamps’, some kind of brain implant. After Mira A’s Graph becomes too erratic, risking an ‘Excess of Emotion’ event, she has her clamps adjusted, she thinks to fix a fault in her ‘Oracular Devices’ (presumably what connects her to Sensor, Graph, and Stream) that is causing her emotional instability, but, obviously from the outside, to ‘fix’ her, which belies the idea of ‘choice’ in this society.

(I find myself having to use terms like ‘seems to be’ and ‘presumably’ to describe the technology, this is not hard SF by any stretch of the imagination.)

There is, though, some ambiguity over whether it is truly a dystopia or a utopia; violence and disease and hunger have been eliminated, but the cost of this is social conformity. Barker effectively spells this all out on the first page:

This is also familiar from many other dystopias and utopias. Not all dystopias are clearly so from the inside; there are the obvious, grim dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, where the main characters know they are oppressed, but there are also dystopias like Brave New World, were everyone is doped up on soma and believes themselves to be happy.

All dystopias are metaphors in one way or another for the real world, and also cautionary tales, while utopias try to offer the possibility of change; both challenge us about what kind of future we want to create.

Utopias can, potentially, be oppressive, More’s original Utopia demanded social conformity, and, as this academic paper points out, utopias such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time may demand too much of some readers, in terms of living differently to the current status quo, and appear dystopian to them – this is not meant to be flippant; I am not sure that I, being institutionalised to my current life, would cope well in such a utopia, but I would still be able to see that it was a utopia, even if I couldn’t live happily in it.

The idea of constant, perfect, happiness is a chimera, something that can only be achieved by drugging or brainwashing the population. In H(A)PPY, the population is expected to ‘choose’ to regulate itself. Being free and being happy are not the same thing.

In The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman, personality is controlled by viruses, Milena, the protagonist, is immune to the viruses, she cannot fit in. In Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, people have machines with which to dial up their emotions. In Ian McDonald’s Out on Blue Six the ‘Compassionate Society’ decides everyone’s role from birth, and causing anyone any kind of pain is a crime. I have vague recollections of reading, as a teenager, a Star Trek: TNG spin-off novel called Gulliver’s Fugitives, which took-off Fahrenheit 451 by describing a totalitarian society that did not just ban reading, but banned any imaginative thinking at all.

Other aspects of H(A)PPY are also familiar from previous dystopias, there is ‘The Unknown’ also called ‘The Simulation of the Real’, outside of society, where war and disease still exist. In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (a book which pre-dates and influenced 1984), there is the world outside the ‘Green Wall’ that surrounds the ‘One State’; in Brave New World there is a ‘Savage Reservation’.

Also in We, the buildings are all made of glass, echoing the concept of the Panopticon, and 1984 has its ‘Telescreens’. In H(A)PPY anyone can observe anyone else’s Stream; under constant surveillance (real or imagined) nobody dares to non-conform.

Mira A can escape observation by staring into the light to disable the technology that monitors her; in 1984, Winston Smith has the chance fact that his Telescreen is placed in his home in such a way that he believes he can be unobserved.

It is, perhaps, impossible now to do anything truly original in either utopian or dystopian fiction.

H(A)PPY does differ from all the above-mentioned books, in that Mira A is a very unreliable narrator; it is impossible to work out exactly what is going on, because most of it is happening inside Mira A’s head, rather than the ‘real’ world she inhabits. Is any of it real? Are any of the other characters, or their actions real? Does she imagine/hallucinate the whole thing?

Perhaps, despite its conformation to dystopian sci-fi tropes, it is best understood not as social commentary at all, but as metaphor for creative rapture, and the social isolation and internal disintegration that can follow; or as mental illness following social isolation.

This interpretation is supported by the accusation levelled against Mira A that she wants a narrative, and the refrain ‘terrible discipline’ that appears throughout the text, with reference to her and Agustin Barrios’ practices as musicians.

On the other hand, this is something science fiction can do (see this paper on the science fiction and critical writing of Samuel R. Delany); science fiction can make literal what literary fiction does metaphorically: time slips, reality distortions, encounters with alien others. But comparing Barker to Delany does Barker no favours.

The Paraguayan texts interspersed throughout the narrative, while interesting in their own right, seem arbitrary, they are connected to the story only because they inspired the author in real life; any artist, any ‘exotic’ culture, could fill that role.

H(A)PPY lacks any real sense of threat or menace, there is no equivalent to O’Brien or ‘Room 101’ from 1984. Mira A does get her fingers broken, right at the end of the book, before she is cast out into The Unknown, but we don’t know how it happens because we only see her hallucinations of that time.

H(A)PPY won the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize which is awarded to fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the form.”

The text is very colourful – we are effectively reading Mira A’s Stream throughout, but it doesn’t seem all that inventive to me. Jeff Noon’s Cobralingus (2001) plays with text in a similar way, illuminated texts go all the way back to the Middle Ages, and many children’s picture books will do more exciting things with illustrations and text.

If I’m being completely honest, the mathematical illustrations:

Just made me think of this meme:

But the real question is, was it a good book? Was it a gripping, compelling story, did I feel emotionally invested in the fate of Mira A? In all honesty, no, not really. It felt very thin and shallow, if I wasn’t thinking about it now to write a review I probably wouldn’t be thinking about it at all (and as you can see, from the above, I was thinking just as much about every other dystopian/utopian book I’ve ever read).

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“I don’t believe that any fictional characters, no matter how memorable, how lifelike, can be talked about, even by their author, as if they were real people”

This question and the one above it both require a kind of speculation into the interiors of two fictional characters, and maybe this is a good place to state that I don’t believe that any fictional characters, no matter how memorable, how lifelike, can be talked about, even by their author, as if they were real people, with actual psychological thickness and a reality beyond the edges of the book. Fictional characters can, on occasion, seem profound, but they are almost like figures on a ground, in the sense that all anyone can know about them is what is put there to be seen. For instance, we can imagine all kinds of things about Manet’s barmaid from the context, historically, sociologically, of the scene he paints of her, and we might even try to imagine what she is thinking about, but Manet cannot, by definition, be an expert on the vicissitudes of the barmaid’s emotions, because she does not exist outside of his painting.

Rachel Kushner

RIP Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929 – 2018

You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose … That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself?

The Farthest Shore, 1972

“a semblance of meaning and a semblance of an emotion”

If this were a movie, this would be the end of the show and something would be decided. In a movie or a novel they would dramatize and build to the climax of the attack. When the attack came in the film or novel, it would be satisfying. It would decide something. It would have a semblance of meaning and a semblance of an emotion. And immediately after, it would be over. The audience could go home and think about the semblance of the meaning and feel the semblance of the emotion. Even if the hero got killed, it would still make sense. Art, Bell decided, creative art – was shit.

[…] Here there was no semblance of meaning. And the emotions were so many and so mixed up that they were indecipherable, could not be untangled. Nothing had been decided, nobody had learned anything. But most important of all, nothing had ended.

James Jones, The Thin Red Line

I Don’t Believe in Magic

A few months ago, I almost finished reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy. I gave up half-way through the final book because I realised I just didn’t care; I didn’t care about the story, the characters, or the made-up worlds, and a big part of the reason I didn’t care is due to the fact that I just don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe that any combination of words, hand gestures, potions or wands can alter reality, and if I can’t get past that I can’t invest in the story.

At least science fiction is potentially exploring the realms of the possible, building something, inventing something. Science fiction can answer the question ‘how can we live?’, which is really the only question worth asking or answering.

I was reminded of my uninterest in magic over the Christmas break, watching Bright on Netflix with my family. The problem with Bright is that its world building is completely shallow, there are elves and orcs (and fairies and centaurs and dragons), and they have always been there, out in the open, not hidden away like in True Blood or Buffy, but human society is still exactly the same (so much the same that the movie Shrek still got made in this alternate reality).

In Bright African-American culture is portrayed as being the same as it is in the real world, implying that the history of the Transatlantic slave trade and the colonisation of the Americas and the West Indies was the same; but if orcs exist as an under-class (one white cop boasts about his ancestors slaughtering orcs in Russia 200 years ago), why would Europeans have needed an industrial trade in slaves from Africa?

Surely if magic were real, and other humanoid races have been living alongside humans for all of human history, the history of Earth and the human race would being entirely different? The elves in Bright are portrayed as an elite, as ruling over humans; what were the elves doing during World War II? Were they on the axis or allied side, or were they ruling on both sides? In which case, what was it fought over? What were the elves doing during European colonialism, during the crusades, during the reign of Alexander the Great? Are they supposed to be Uber-Aryans who slot in above Europeans so that, somehow, the whole history of the world doesn’t change at all, except there are dragons and fairies flying around as well?

This is a problem I have with any fantasy story supposed to be set in a fictional version of the real world (as opposed to an entirely invented secondary world), how to reconcile magic with the long long history of human atrocities?

Do Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians not have magic, or is it just crap compared to European magic? The same with Africa, India, the Middle East, and Asia. Were there Nazi wizards? Were there no Jewish wizards? Did all the chief wizards and witches see the Holocaust (or any other atrocity) happening, but decide it wasn’t important enough a reason to interfere in the ‘mundane’ world?

The Magicians did touch on this, a little, there was a mention of Polish magic books being destroyed by German magic books, and a joke about the 2000 US election being manipulated by magicians for a bet (not such funny reading in 2017), but it’s still inadequate.

The problem with magic is the same as the problem with religion, if there are higher powers capable of manipulating things, how do you account for all the bad things that happen in the world?

The idea of magic being real in this world, is more awful than the idea of there being no magic at all.

What is fiction for?

There is an amusing review of Salman Rushdie’s Golden House, published by New Statesman in September:

“Salman Rushdie’s new novel has been billed as a return to realism, which in relative terms is true enough” … “The Golden House offers the weary, ever-hopeful Rushdie reader a Dexedrine-fuelled hotchpotch of place names, brand names, sort-of-puns […] mothballed observations […] failed phrase-making […] outmoded film theory, WTF quotations […] offhand highbrowism […] plugs for micro-memes and quasi-crazes […] cameos for Werner Herzog […] bewildering suppressions of the words “Spike Lee” […] cogitations on phenomena including satirists and sitarists, shoehorned references to King’s College, Cambridge, and, to facilitate most of the above, the rhetorical device known as amplification.” … “Aversion to choice is the governing principle. Adjectives come in twos – in the novel’s first page and a half, we read, among many other pairings, “thick and strong”, “large, dangerous”, “huge, clumsy”, “sociable and neighbourly”. And the tendency towards excess is replicated on a larger scale; for example, when the spry reference to Nero Golden’s “way of walking toward closed doors without slowing down” is spoiled by the explanatory “knowing they would open for him”.” … “As a rule, Rushdie deploys language without concision or precision. One chapter opening takes a swift dive from mock-epigram into polysyllabic sludge” … “Things that aren’t amusing on their own are rendered nonsensical into the bargain.” … “holding forth is deemed the best way of transmitting narrative information.” … “the relationship between subject and backdrop is lost amid so much verbal noise.” … “here we have Salman Rushdie – who, as the author of Midnight’s Children as much as The Satanic Verses, embodies the novel’s powers of resistance – offering a book that seems little more than an exercise in googling, an attempt to sell the listicle as literature.”

As the reviewer points out, Salman Rushdie published works of fiction that affected the real world, but can fiction ever really be ‘important’?

I keep coming back to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote: “During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

As I have said already, watching TV is not, and never will be, activism; and if I am entirely honest, I doubt reading or watching The Handmaid’s Tale has, regarding women’s bodily autonomy, changed the mind of a single adult.

And as shown by this year’s emmys, giving Sean Spicer the chance to poke fun at himself and hang out with the stars, the TV industry isn’t actually interested in challenging the status quo.

If fiction can’t change the world, what can it do? Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; – poetry = the best words in the best order.” Which is fair enough. I guess Sturgeon’s Law, “ninety percent of everything is crap”, applies across the board. If A Little Life is genuinely ‘award worthy literature’, then literature is a joke.

We use fiction to manipulate ourselves, to layer on technicolour ersatz emotions so that we know that we are really feeling something. Fiction is, at best, a lie that helps us understand the truth, it can help us articulate an idea or an emotional state we have difficulty accessing/expressing otherwise (real emotions have to be pried out of the side of a mountain with a pick-axe); fiction is putting a fake horn on a real unicorn so that we can see it. The rest of the time it is mere escapism, or voyeuristic gawping.

Human beings will always tell each other stories, it seems to be a fundamental part of our nature to do so, the thing that allowed us to make sense of the world before modern science, a way of passing on ideas and cultural norms.

Despite my cynicism, there are always glimmers of hope. Philip Pullman’s new book came out recently, teaching children to challenge blind obedience and totalitarian thinking.