This was a stimulating read. To a certain degree, something not unlike what I internally call The Oxford Murders Effect was at play in this review – the context of when I read this, and perhaps the unexpectedly high quality of the work (I am enthusiastic about small and indie presses but sometimes a little wary of the actual results) along with the novelty of the underlying ideas perhaps explained why this is such a rave. However, unlike The Oxford Murders review, I wouldn’t revise this much now.
Why do you read science fiction? Has it is been a lifelong affair, immersing yourself in altered worlds? Do you come for the science or for the fiction? For the adventure, for the characters, or for the ideas? If you asked me in my more sober, respectable moments, I would say my attraction is to both new and innovative ideas, but also at encountering our own world slightly altered, or with some little quirk taken to its logical conclusion. I generally tend to be a soft SF man, patrolling the waterfront between the waters of the lit world and the wharves of slipstream (clumsy metaphor or what?). However, sometimes I am more honest and less high-falutin’ with myself and admit that I’m basically a hedonistic reader, one who is into the thrill of it all. The thrill can come from ideas, from action, from character, from sheer good writing — it doesn’t really matter.
While I am as susceptible to talk of the blurring of genres as the next man, it has always struck me that there is a fundamental distinction between the lit and sci-fi worlds; one values the quality of expression as much (if not more so) than the ideas, the other values the ideas more so (much more so) than the quality of expression. A loose distinction, and there are plenty of counter examples on both sides, but a valid one I feel.
Pink Noise is one of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable books I’ve read in a while. And I’m not all that sure that I understood much, if any, of it. And I’m pretty sure that, with its great dollops of explication (and fifty pages of notes and essays after the story itself) it is squarely on the sci-fi rather than lit side of the above mentioned artificial (but not totally arbitrary) divide. Nevertheless, it is a long time since I have read something so arresting and haunting.
The post-human future, depending on your point of view, will either be a glorious time of unlimited health and creativity, or a dystopian dehumanised nightmare, or won’t happen at all because that’s the way life is. Perhaps the post-human movement, if I can call it that, is best defined as a series of attempts to go beyond the human condition. From Aubrey De Grey to Nick Bostrom to Ray Kurzweil, post-humanists refuse to accept the barriers to human life that most of us don’t even question.
Post-humanism may be best understood as a subgenre of sci-fi, although maybe that would annoy the post-humanists. Or maybe not — one of Nick Bostrom’s key papers is a (to my mind ridiculously twee and simplistic) parable in which a population stoically accepts the deaths of thousands annually at the hands of an evil dragon, and indeed develop an entire system of delivering those condemned to the dragon, until a little boy pipes up that he doesn’t want his granddad (supposed to embark on the train to the dragon’s lair) to die, and suddenly everyone realises that Death is a Bad Thing, and you understand that our health system is like the system they use to deliver people to be killed by the dragon, and we should be trying to defeat the dragon, i.e. conquer ageing. Or something like that.
Such simplicities are a world away from Leonid Korogodski’s short book, which combines the force of a parable with a sense of what Wordsworth called “something more deeply interfused,” that strange, almost mystical effect of the whole being far more than the sum of its parts. It’s the sense that we get in The Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness, like Pink Noise brief works in which a mocking critic could find much to sneer at, but filled with glimpses of worlds beyond the world of the story.
Nathi, who, five hundred years before the story begins, uploaded his mind and became a post-human, is one of the most talented brain doctors of his time. Working to save a comatose girl, he maps his mind onto her brain, only to discover that she is the carrier of a Wish Fairy. The Wish Fairy’s role is to kill the Wish, a virus implanted by the ruling Wizard Orders into all post-human brains — including Nathi’s — to enslave them, trapping them in an illusory world in which ultraviolence is disguised as gaming. Nathi’s liberation from the Wizard Orders is only the beginning of the adventure. It’s a fast paced tale, full of ideas and imagery. And action, both on Mars and in.
There are nearly fifty pages of notes — a glossary, three different chapters on the ideas that underlie the book — Ilya Prigogine’s work on complexity, Gerard Edelman and Rodolfo Llinás’ work on neuroscience and evolution, and Hannes Alfvén’s plasma cosmology. These chapters are wittily and accessibly written, and certainly the ideas explored are stimulating — Prigogine in particular has been added to my list of thinkers to explore more. The book is extensively illustrated with haunting pictures by the artist guddah (www.guddah.com), which are specific enough to relate to the action, but not so defined that they rob the imagination of its prerogative of visualising as it pleases. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever held and reviewed (the only slight quibble being that the pink bookmark ribbon frayed very quickly, and I had to cut it off)
Korogodski marries the heavy science and the exciting action with the primal motifs of defenceless children, of mothers, of patrimony — the echoes of Nathi’s Zulu ancestry, of identity, of loss, of belonging. These themes lend the story its power. It is an intoxicating story, one that demands to be read quickly, and one that draws you back into its world as soon as you have finished.