This Week in Books: Robot Diary
"Telling a story past its expiration date is like exhuming a body long buried. The reason for doing so is not always clear to everyone."
I’ve been reading these robot books. Martha Wells’s The Murderbot Diaries. They’re very charming. The titular murderbot (aka rogue security unit) and diarist is wending its way through a distant-future spacescape, hitching rides and making friends. It doesn’t want to make friends! It’s a murderbot! But it makes them in spite of itself because, naturally, like any narratively worthwhile wandering ronin, it has a heart of gold, Yojimbo-style. This is why all the books in the series are plastered with extreme praise, ranging from the pleasantly charmed (“I love Murderbot!” says a relatively normal Ann Leckie on the cover of book two) to the alarmingly horny (“I might have a little bit of a thing for a robot. Its name is Murderbot,” is attributed to a very thirsty Wired reviewer on the cover of book six). I’m not saying I’m not into the robot, sexually speaking (the robot is explicitly asexual, at least up to where I’m at in book three, so this is particularly sad), but I think what I’m most drawn to, if I may be so bold as to pivot away from this topic, is that the series takes place, so far, in a series of increasingly nightmarish spaces.
As in, spaces drawn specifically from my nightmares. Do you ever have that dream? The one in the Great Long Hall? In the Vast Room that extends farther than you can see? A room of steel or maybe stone; a room from the far future, or maybe the distant past; a room with more inside of it than there is outside of it; with its own rivers and waterfalls, perhaps; perhaps its own wind, its own sun; and impossible mechanisms that turn in the walls and shift the whole thing when you’re not looking; a place that is proto- or post-human, untouched by human concerns, and exists for reasons which are not at all clear to you, all-too-human as you are?
Susanna Clarke must have dreamed it, my nightmare. I’m sure it’s the place she was thinking of when she wrote Piranesi; same goes for Arthur C. Clark when he wrote Rendezvous with Rama: both of which, come to think of it, I also read with a strange devouring ardor, like these robot books. I am hypnotized by descriptions of impossibly large and seemingly eldritch spaces. (I think a lot about Clark’s description of the disorienting sensation of the un-horizon: the ancient space artifact Rama is so long—just like ʻOumuamua, as several people I think must have pointed out when that interstellar visitor dropped by—that, for the astronauts who explore it, the view down its length feels dangerous, like falling as I recall, because it does not bend where a human mind expects to see the world bend.) Or, there’s that one Lovecraft story—the only one I really remember well, but I think they’re all like this, really—where the fellow who lives alone in the castle finally decides to climb up the castle’s impossibly tall tower one day, and he climbs and climbs, and he wonders if he will finally for the first time in his life meet another person, and he then after days of climbing he bursts up through the trapdoor of some ballroom during a fancy dress party, and everyone screams because he’s hideous… That last part is the signature Lovecraft bit, he was so judgy.
The murderbot moves through exactly this kind of space. Endless corridors, sprawling complexes, cavernous zones inhabited by self-sufficient machines with little need for human input or control. So much of science fiction takes place in this kind of space that maybe it’s not notable. The shadowy gangways of the barge in Alien, the antiseptic corridors of the Death Star, the Tyrell Corporation’s ziggurat-headquarters in Blade Runner, and so on. It’s our basic idea of the future: that it will be as incomprehensible and as sinister and as monumental as the past, with its henges and pyramids. There will almost certainly be human sacrifice, and there will definitely be vengeful gods.
But I guess what I like about the murderbot is its self-deluded relationship to these spaces. It keeps telling itself it’s not human; that it doesn’t want to be human. And as the series has progressed, it’s moved farther out into these types of zones: each new adventure takes place in a space more cavernous and inhuman than the last. The humans who Murderbot encounters are clearly unsettled by these spaces, but Murderbot itself thinks that it isn’t. But it only thinks that; it’s only telling itself that. There’s an undercurrent of emotion in the machine. It is afraid that this is where it belongs. It is afraid that it is coming home. It is afraid that it will get what it wants.
1. “How Student Debt Killed the Plot” by Jennifer Wilson, The New York Times
Jennifer Wilson writes about the student loan plot.
If plot is a sequence of events, then the student loan crisis is upending the scale at which story lines, real and fiction, can progress. In novels like Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms (2021), Lee Conell’s The Party Upstairs (2020) and Camille Perri’s The Assistants (2016), we can observe characters who have gone from ambition-driven to survival-minded. For protagonists saddled with hefty student loans, a dramatic denouement is the news that a job comes with Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance (Writers & Lovers)...
This trend is not without precedent. In his book Unseasonable Youth (2011), the scholar Jed Esty wrote about how modernist writers at the turn of the 20th century revised the coming-of-age novel to account for the unequal spread of prosperity under colonialism and global capitalism. Esty notes the tropes of “frozen youth” and “uneven development” in novels like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900) and Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915).
2. “On Barbara Ehrenreich” by Gabriel Winant, n+1
Gabriel Winant writes about Barbara Ehrenreich’s legacy.
Ehrenreich argued that the self is made and remade continuously through speech and action. Each person’s choices to speak and act with authenticity and courage, or to muck about in bad faith—these sum up to the shape of our world. Ehrenreich’s specialty was to reveal her readers to themselves by showing them the other. Her humor and projection of personal vulnerability were particularly deft techniques for asking the reader to see their own position, often through identification with Ehrenreich: she invites this, beckoning you to follow her into her subject, and then suddenly wheels around on you—and you are caught out.
At the heart of her most famous book Nickel and Dimed is just this move: Ehrenreich wanted to expose the deep and persistent forms of poverty in American society, particularly in the aftermath of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform and in the context of a supposedly classless turn-of-the-century economic boom. Rather than report the book in a conventional way, she went “undercover,” working a series of poverty-wage jobs. She plays Virgil to the reader’s Dante in this way, taking you down into the underworld…
…Ehrenreich was profoundly resistant to settling too deeply into any position or identity, class or otherwise… Ehrenreich seemed to believe that there is no one person inside any of us, even biologically speaking… She maintained this resistance all through her life: in the foreword to her 2014 semi-memoir Living with a Wild God, she writes, “I will never write an autobiography, nor am I sure, after all these years, that there is even one coherent ‘self’ or ‘voice’ to serve as narrator.”
3. “Younghill Kang Is Missing” by Esther Kim, The Margins
Esther Kim writes about the career of Younghill Kang, and his forced disappearance from public life. His novels The Grass Roof (1931) and East Goes West (1937) were sensations when they were published, but the former has long been out of print.
According to poet Walter K. Lew, who interviewed Kang’s three children in the 1990s, Christopher, Kang’s elder son, accompanied Lew to the archive, pointed at a photograph, and said: “There’s that bastard at NYU who said my dad was a communist and ruined our lives.” Thousands of New York City public school teachers and professors were interrogated and dismissed from their jobs in the anti-communist purges of the 1950s. Some were actually communist, and some would desert the party. Documents from the Cold War era are still being released today. Further, careful research into the anti-communist purges impact on Asian Americans like Kang is sorely needed.
4. “Taking a Long Look: The Second Sex” by Vivian Gornick, The London Magazine
Vivian Gornick revisits The Second Sex.
The story of how The Second Sex came to be written is in itself a prototypic tale of how modern feminism has proceeded to make use – every fifty years or so over the past two hundred years – of the conversion experience of one ‘brilliant exception’ after another – starting with Mary Wollstonecraft in England, leading on to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in America, and then on to de Beauvoir herself in France. Each of these women began her thinking life as an ardent partisan of a powerful social movement connected with a great war (the Enlightenment, the antislavery movement, Existentialism), and each of them, living a heightened life inside the visionary politics that had sparked her intellectual being, came, in turn, to see that she was ‘only a woman’. The contribution each then made to feminist understanding turned, appropriately enough, on an application of the central insight of the movement to which she was devoted. Wollstonecraft urged passionately that women become rational beings; Stanton that every woman exercise governance over her own inviolate self; de Beauvoir that women cease to be ‘Other’.
…But it is interesting and important to note that the only American visionary thinker equal in intellectual stature to the Europeans – Elizabeth Cady Stanton – wrote ‘we’ not ‘they’ from the first minute she put pen to paper- it is not until ‘they’ transmutes into ‘we’ that you’ve got a movement – and that is why feminism belongs to America. Much as they burned over their second-class status, it was impossible for the European intellectuals – from Wollstonecraft to de Beauvoir – to give up their overwhelming longing for acceptance in the world of men (such was the strength of European culture internalised)…
5. “The Book of Goose” by Yiyun Li, Granta
An excerpt from Yiyun Li’s novel The Book of Goose (FSG).
This story of mine expired when I heard of Fabienne’s death. Telling a story past its expiration date is like exhuming a body long buried. The reason for doing so is not always clear to everyone.
6. “Kick the Latch” by Kathryn Scanlan, Granta
An excerpt from Kathryn Scanlan’s novel Kick the Latch (New Directions).
For a few months I was renting a room at the El Rancho Motel for $211 a week, and on Thanksgiving the creep I lived with cooked a turkey in an electric roaster in the bathroom. He propped the roaster on the sink next to the high-voltage outlet. It was the moistest turkey I’ve ever eaten.
7. “Other People’s Partings” by Peter Orner, The Paris Review
An excerpt from Peter Orner’s literary memoir-in-essays Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin (Catapult).
So many accounts of Chekhov’s death, many of them exaggerated, some outright bogus. The only indisputable thing is that he died at forty-four. That’s etched in stone in Moscow. I like to read them anyway. I’m not alone. Chekhov death fanatics abound.
…This morning I’ve been wandering through Gustaw Herling’s Journal Written at Night, a book that took thirty years to finish and that consists of essays and fragments that read like private messages. Herling was a member of the Polish resistance who was sentenced, by the Soviets, to hard labor in a prison camp near the Arctic Ocean. The reason? The Soviets didn’t like his name. Herling, in Russian, sounded too much like Göring, as in Hermann. After his release, he spent much of the rest of his life in Italy. In a brief paragraph on the death of Chekhov, Herling includes a detail I don’t remember having come across before. Herling says that in June 1904, just after Chekhov and Olga arrived in Badenweiler, Chekhov insisted they change hotels because he wanted a room with a balcony. They found another hotel. Nobody ever mentions the balcony…
8. “The Politics of Pinocchio” by Anna Momigliano, The Atlantic
Anna Momigliano dives into the history of Pinocchio in light of several new film adaptations.
“What’s your father’s name?” a character asks Pinocchio. “Geppetto,” Pinocchio responds. “And what’s his job?” “Being poor.” “Does he make a lot of money doing it?” Haunted by a “hunger so real it could be cut with a knife,” Pinocchio is reduced at various points to eating fruit cores and performing strenuous labor for a meager glass of milk. Distrust of authority is central as well. Doctors are pompous incompetents. One is said to “solemnly” intone, “When the dead cry, it means they’re on the way to recovering.” The police? Always blaming the victim. The judiciary? Literally apes. At one point, Pinocchio gets thrown behind bars for getting robbed—“This poor devil has been robbed of four gold coins. Therefore seize him and put him straight in jail”—and needs to convince the guards that he is not an innocent victim (“but I’m a crook too”) in order to be set free.
9. “Geoff Dyer: writing is an inherently inefficient thing; you can’t answer the questions in advance” by Matthew Janney, Tank
Matthew Janney interviews Geoff Dyer about The Last Days of Roger Federer (FSG).
“…I feel that in my early books, But Beautiful  and The Colour of Memory , there’s a lot of lyricism. Then almost like an actuarial fact, that lyrical capacity declines as you get older. That was no bad thing, because those early books suffer from a super-abundance of lyricism… In terms of the process, it’s increasingly just murder getting going on any piece of writing; any difficulty you have with writing a short piece is amplified with writing a book. At first, I just want to accumulate as much material as possible, often really not caring about the grammatical shape the words are in. Once I’ve got a certain amount of material, then I feel more confident and I can start thinking, “Oh, there’s a book here.” Once it’s there, in some rough form, I really enjoy crafting it. I have to tighten and tidy up the mess and then quite often I go in afterwards and loosen it to make it look more casual. That casual quality of my writing has always been arrived at quite carefully actually. I’m so happy revising, as many people are, and will get to the point where instead of having to force myself to write, to put a certain number of hours in, it gets to that blissful point where I really don’t want to do anything else – that’s every writer’s idea of bliss.”
10. “The Screw Tapes” by Adrian Nathan West, The Baffler
Adrian Nathan West reviews Lance Scott Walker’s DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution (University of Texas), a biography of the Houston-based DJ who is most closely associated with the chopped and screwed genre.
A paradox of the Screw sound is its coarseness, a sign of its reliance on analog media just as the crispness of digital sound via CDs in the consumer market and DATs and digital mixing consoles in the studio were about to kill off older media. For most of his career, Screw didn’t have his tapes produced in batches; he and his girlfriend would record them on their tape deck at home, and people who knew him speak of sighting him frequently at Sam’s Club buying hundred packs of blank cassettes. Scratches and pops from vinyl, static from tape, the muffling produced by multiple dubs, are as much Screw’s trademark as double-tapping or slurred vocals, and the popularity of his music made tape decks compulsory in Houstonians’ cars long after the six- or twelve-disk changer in the trunk had become a status symbol elsewhere.
11. “I Need to Tell You This” by Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture
Kathryn VanArendonk profiles the cartoonist Kate Beaton on the occasion of the publication of her memoir Ducks (Drawn & Quarterly).
Ducks is a fuller expression of who Beaton is and has always been. Where “Hark!” was all humor and history and sideways glances at the idea of authoritative truth, Ducks is a monumental synthesis of Beaton herself, incorporating her personal history, her sense of regional and national scope, and her insight into how people get caught inside massive systems. The webcomic’s sense of humor is still there, as is Beaton’s fascination with reframing the past for a broad audience. Her style is there too: distinctive rounded lines and her knack for choosing one moment — one expression or emotion — to elegantly condense complicated moods. But Ducks weaves Beaton’s own experiences with warm, humane portraits of the many people she met on the oil sands, revealing a more personal, deliberative side of her storytelling. “That book is a masterwork,” cartoonist Lynda Barry tells me. Over a Zoom call, as Barry grows more and more animated in her praise of the book, she eventually throws up her hands, overcome. “There’s nobody like her.”
12. “Save What You Can” by Megan Culhane Galbraith, Bomb
Megan Culhane Galbraith interviews Hugh Ryan about The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison (Bold Type Books).
Most of the time I feel like I’m assembling a giant portrait puzzle of a person as I research them, and they’ve left me traces to track them through time. We’re connected, but at a remove—nothing so intimate as a haunting. But once or twice there were such startling coincidences I did feel as though someone was reaching out to me.
There’s one person I wrote about in my first book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, whose story I couldn’t trace further than a 1913 arrest for wearing men’s clothes, in part because I could never find the name he lived under, just his dead name. At one point while working on the new book, and going through the WPA archive, I looked at a box out of sequence; one of the ones at the end of my list, which I probably wasn’t going to get to in my research (there were over 140 boxes in this collection). Suddenly, there was a file on Big Cliff Trondle—the next 30 years of his life spelled out in letters, arrest reports, and newspaper clippings. It never even occurred to me I might find more about him while writing this book, and when I read about the tragic end of his life—murdered by a john, his body abandoned by his family and social workers, then rescued by the other sex workers who took up a collection to have him buried in a proper cemetery, not a pauper’s grave. It felt like I had been directed to that box to find his story.
13. “No More Baubles” by Tom Johnson, The London Review of Books
Tom Johnson reviews Katherine L. French’s Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity after the Plague (University of Pennsylvania).
In these hard times, working women increasingly came to be seen as a threat to male wages and moral order, and they were pushed back into the home. In 1492, the civic authorities in Coventry decreed that all unmarried women under the age of fifty should go into domestic service rather than live alone. French argues that these legacies of the post-plague economy also intensified the cultural association between women and housework, and demonstrates this by tracking bequests of household goods – basins and ewers, napery, chests, candlesticks and dishware – across the later Middle Ages. In the 1380s, men and women were given these things in almost equal proportions, with men receiving marginally more. But from around 1450, women came to receive 65 per cent of such items. It is very tricky to show cultural change through the flow of objects – and even harder to relate it to underlying changes in the economy – but the figures are striking.
…Under London’s customary law, chests were classified as ‘paraphernalia’, the category of household goods wives were permitted to own themselves. They were often fitted with showy locks and braces, signalling to visitors that valuables lay within… They symbolise the vexed position of most housewives, trapped by the stuff that allowed them to live more luxurious lives than their mothers and grandmothers, but which also demanded incessant management.
14. “Simplicity of Green” by Jessica Au, The London Review of Books
Jessica Au reviews Yuko Tsushima’s Woman Running in the Mountains, translated by Geraldine Harcourt and recently reissued by NYRB.
…Takiko perseveres, with what could be described as either optimism or wilful denial. She maintains that things will work out somehow, ‘as if it was someone else’s problem’. Her decision to have a baby wasn’t wholly conscious, and she hadn’t particularly wanted to sleep with Maeda in the first place: ‘Though she couldn’t really have said why, Takiko responded to a man’s desire with sympathy. She could think of it only as pitiful, and thus not for her to violate. Maeda’s desire seemed somehow not to belong to Maeda himself.’ Takiko is surely the kind of person Tsushima had in mind when she described her preference for ‘not-thinking’ characters, who see themselves less as subjects and more ‘as an object, like a plant’. Later in the novel, after she has finally found a secure, rewarding job at a garden nursery, Takiko thinks of the potted plants in her care: ‘Green things whose very simplicity and lack of emotion struck her as harsh. Day by day, Takiko felt herself taking on the simplicity of their greenness.’
▼ ▼ ▼