Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Phillip K. Dick

Held up as a classic of sci-fi, and part of Dick’s canon, this brief dystopian cops & killers tale inspired the film Blade Runner (and its sequel), so seemed like a must-read.   Published in 1968 it was, like all of Dick’s work, more pulp than lit, which shows in the writing; sometimes clumsy,  sometimes cliché, but occasionally quite thoughtful  An example of the latter comes about 75% of the way in, as Rachael, an android whose model-line has been carefully designed to generate sexual desire in wet-blooded males (Dick’s repeated appreciations of ‘small high breasts’ and an almost boyishly-androgenous physique are curious, but apparently appeal broadly-enough to have found their way into the movie), latches on to a bounty hunter’s qualms about terminating something so potentially loveable – and begins to use them against him.

That, it turns out, points us to Dick’s real interest here. Forget the totalitarianism and environmental destruction (though those are valid themes and forward looking for 1968, if not exactly prescient).  What he’s really chewing on are our notions of identity and what makes a life worthy of value.  How artificially-intelligent must an android be before it starts to resent being viewed as an object or tool, and how human-like can it be before the continuation of its operating ‘life’ justifies the same price as a ‘real’ (i. e., organic, non-manufactured) life.  A license to kill, in this case, soon turns into a license to doubt. 

The comparisons are greatly aided by Dick’s postulation of Earth as a dying planet, from which nearly all humans have departed except those too damaged to earn a flight out.  Denigrated as a lesser caste, the lives of these radiation-damaged ‘chickenheads’ are limited, dull and dreary; hardly more rewarding or free than those of the androids they manufacture to serve the off -world elite.  The return of several renegade androids presents a threat to the few fully-functioning humans who have remained behind to keep the remnants of industry in operating order – Rick Deckard being one of them.  Poor and depressed, with a wife addicted to artificial emotions fed out of an electronic box, he seems qualified for the detective part of his task, but quickly out of his depth with the moral issues to come. 

That these humans have turned pet-ownership into a fetish and status indicator adds another twist to their prejudice.  Decker and his neighbors will scrimp and borrow to spend a fortune on almost any animal, whether real or simulated – to salve their thirst for companionship and belonging, yet they deny any hint of those same values to androids who have been manufactured in their own image.  And speaking of values, Dick gives his humans a pseudo religion, the cult of Wilbur Mercer, apparently created by their leadership to provide the lesser populace with distracting illusions of purpose and salvation – this society which creates artificial animals, artificial humans, and artificial environments on other planets has also manufactured an artificial religion, designed to specifications.  Not a stretch at all

How much humanity can you put into a machine before it deserves the same rights as its creators, and how far can we dehumanize our fellow beings before their value drops beneath that of their creations; especially when one realizes there is no big ‘C’ Creator out there to insist the two are inherently different?  Questions we may need to begin answering quite soon, the way things are going.

This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin

Somewhat arcane, still this specialist’s tale gives ample cause for amazement at the Herculean tasks our brains must perform to allow us the pleasures of music.  Beginning with the minute timekeeping which allows us to distinguish rhythm and pitch, moving on to the filtering with differentiates one source of line from all the others, and the comparing and grouping skills which allow us to recognize instruments as similar but different – and human voices as unique individuals even when one voice is imitating another which we also still recognize  – Levitin shows how basic skills employed in music appreciation (a term permanently loaded by its application to cushy credits in schools thought the English-speaking realm) may have promoted early Hominid survival, explaining their evolution, ubiquity and dopamine-producing appeal.

The overall impression gained from reading this slender volume is one of wonder – that all this can be going on behind the veil of our self-consciousness; naturally, constantly and with so little effort.

What a piece of work is humankind!

The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel

A curious arrangement of disjointed parts and pieces, loosely clustered around participants in, and victims of, a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, tied more or less together by the character of Vincent, a young woman whose life reads like that of a vibrant seedling who’s had the bad fortune to be planted in poisoned soil.

Coincidence plays a large part here, as lives intersect, diverge and intersect again; so much coincidence one, actually, that one must assume it is intended as a theme.  The wide-ranging and unpredictable impacts of our weaknesses and moral lapses are certainly another theme, as are guilt and self-justification.  Is all this, perhaps, intended as an indictment of the American obsession with financial success and individual freedom? Unclear. 

(I first wrote that reference as ‘North American’ obsession, in deference to the author, protagonist and several settings being in Canada, but on reflection recall that all the truly serious transgressions in this tale are by those from “south of the border”, so the critique is from the outside, looking in.  An idea reinforced by the clearly-intentional pun of using “south of the border”, in reference to us – as in U.S. – rather than those predominantly brown nations to which we refer when using it.)

One suspects a great deal of research went into the writing here, from the shipping industry to prison life, geography of remote British Columbia, ultra-wealthy Manhattan real estate lifestyle, career arcs in the art world, etc., etc.  A writer searching for a worthy subject, perhaps?    One result of these multiple settings and worlds is a blizzarding roster of characters, enough so that I found myself paging back to try to differentiate them and place them where they belong in it all.  That one single scene – ‘The Office Chorus,’ recounting the day Jonathan is arrested – goes on for nearly sixty pages and feels very like a separate novel in gestation, adds to the discontinuity and confusion. 

And then there are the ghosts.  As tragic fates are sealed, several characters die off for various reasons, only to appear and reappear as ghosts to those still living.  For imprisoned con-man Jonathan they are justified as a symptom of mental illness, but others do not share that excuse.  One wonders then how the author feels toward the phenomenon: is the point to suggest ghosts are really a real thing, or is this just a literary device?  Again, unclear.  

I recently heard or read some snippet about an author who, finding themself in possession of multiple story fragments none of which were gelling into a novel, chose to assemble them all and see what might arise.  Though The Glass Hotel feels like it could well have come out of such a process, it is still fresh, intriguing and a good read, as we’ve come to expect from Mandel. 

(Too bad Vincent is not coming back, as I’d like to have spent more time with her in other adventures.)

Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake

Ostensibly a natural history of the kingdom of Fungi, this volume achieves its highest interest and greatest value when biological knowledge is extended outward like mycorrhizal hyphae to enrich other fields of thought.  It was, for example, during the study of lichens, those unbelievably prolific and durable partnerships between fungi and algae, that the word ‘synergy was coined, leading both author and reader to ruminate upon the ubiquity of synergies in human activities and the value of opportunism in finding new ones.

Fungal networks are exposed as ancient precursors to the Internet (Sheldrake devotes an entire chapter to what he has dubbed the ‘Wood Wide Webs’, and their contributions to the natural environment and its unnatural derivative – agriculture).  Darwin’s theories are subjected to reinterpretation as cooperative relationships in nature are seen to outnumber competitive ones by geometric factors. (Though Sheldrake does not specifically go there, this particular insight bodes ill for American society’s preoccupation with win/lose ball-sports as training ground and philosophical oracle – how much better off might our politics and civics be if we had chosen a cooperative paradigm, geographic explorations, perhaps, than the winner-take-all destroy-your-opponent-at all-cost strategy of pro football?)

And how many of us, among the general populace, knew that plants themselves do not actually capture water or nourishment from soil, but rather must rely on fungi both on and inside their roots in order to exist at all?  That those fungi cannot survive without feeding off products of the plants’ photosynthesis seems less striking, though Sheldrake reminds us it is so only because of our plant centric (and animal centric, mammal centric, primate centric, human-centric) way of viewing the universe. Another worthy insight.

Beyond even those, there is the chaos concept of intelligence – how organisms without brains can yet engage in problem solving and deduction  Whether finding their way through a maze or creating a web to find food and then pruning back the unproductive branches to concentrate energy and resources where they will have  most effect, fungal networks suggest ways in which many human phenomena actually operate, and in which others might be made more effective.    A fungal contribution likely even more valuable to future generations than say, penicillin (molds being a subset of fungi). 

At times reading too much like a graduate compendium of current research (the chapter on ‘Mycelial Minds,’ focusing at great length on the effects and mechanisms of psilocybin – Magic Mushrooms – and with them LSD, went on far too long, for my taste), Sheldrake at other times comes across as geekily lovable, as when relating early childhood experiences that led him to this field of  study.    Cleary capable and erudite, he is a worthy PR rep for this too-oft overlooked and underpublicized part of our natural world. (which we learn is the ‘life kingdom of fungi’, independent of the kingdoms of ‘plants’ and of ‘animals,’ all of which are within the Domain of Eukaryota – who would have guessed?),   

Truffles may be the most highly-prized variety, but this volume makes clear there’s plenty more in the fungal kingdom worth biting one’s teeth into than just those stinky delicacies.

Christine Falls, Benjamin Blck

Irish literary figure and Booker Prize winner John Banville adopts a pen name to begin a mystery series centered on Dublin pathologist Quirke. (I finished the novel unsure whether that is first name or last, nor of what is the other to go with it. Could be my lack of retention, or could be author’s intent to create one more bit of mystery which he can  choose to reveal for greater impact at some later date, ala Inspector ‘Morse’).

Black or Banville, there is still an impressive attention to framing detail; sometimes to excess.  Inventive descriptions as well, though some are less apt if you stop to picture what the words actually mean, rather than just listening to their melody in quick reading.  His characters too, are interesting enough in the moment, but not a little typecast if examined at all closely.  Still, their motivations are considered and valid, their conflicts and difficult choices are well-applied to drive dialogue if not plot, and all of it is much more real than, say, a Hammett, a King or a Fleming would do.

This is 1950’s Ireland too, and perhaps those stereotypes were more pervasive and real in that time and place. Surely Banville knows much better than I, so we roll with it.  What begins rather slowly builds a fair degree of tension and becomes, by the second half, a stay-up-late-to-finish-it experience, with little of the hangover that comes from having been manipulated or toyed with.  There’s also very little resort to gore, gunplay or car chases, though plenty of bar scenes, cigarette fondling and coffee/tea/wine drinking to give the impression of far more action than really occurs. Like most mysteries, it’s really all about distressed and disaffected people talking – and not talking – to one another about events which happened in the past or offscreen.

All in all, a very credible diversion, even if Quirke is not yet someone I’d really like to spend time with.  Worth a go at the second in the series though, to see where it all is headed, as this author is far too skilled to settle for just piling up the bodies and counting coup of capital crimes solved. 

Day of the Dead, Nicci French

This eighth volume in the Frieda Klein mystery series by husband and wife team Niccci Gerrard and Sean French is a highly satisfying wrap-up to their extended opus.   Playing with London geography as much as criminology and psychology, the novels are effective thrillers, yet give us more than enough human reality to make the journey more rewarding than disposable. 

Klein herself is astute and knowledgeable, but not unbelievably so, as with a Holmes or Poirot.  A bit more clever and self-aware than the rest of us – or the police she must often work around – but still flawed and capable of error, and clearly working very hard to maintain the equanimity which is her most notable characteristic.   Her preoccupation with the hidden rivers beneath the city is entertaining and enlightening and a very apt metaphor for all the things that lurk beneath the surface of any life or community – history, loss, violence, community. And caring and love as well. 

A rich cast of supporting characters give Klein much to live for, and the reader much reason to dread and care about the twists and turns of each mystery.  That her friend Josef, who plays a crucial role at several junctures, is an off-the-books & off-the-back-of-the-truck handyman/builder and an immigrant of questionable legality, serves as comment on the current state of relations and economics in England, and greater Europe as well.  Here and elsewhere the series takes the critique of British class prejudices which was (perhaps) implicit back in the days of Agatha Christie and became more palpable in the work of P. D. James and others, to a level appropriate to our times.  Even the trope of MI5 lurking in the background of British life is toyed with, without being given a free-pass on its morality.   Nicci French clearly feel more sympathy for the lower-middle and working-classes than peers, pliticians and captains of industry.

Seasoned plotters with at least eleven other novels behind them, Nicci French create credible crimes with enough complexity that the brutality involved need not be belabored.  From the start of this series, they established a through line – the mysterious, clever and ruthless villain Dean Reeve – to bridge from volume to volume, but were wise enough to detour into several largely-separate mysteries for some of the volumes, before tying it all back to Reeve for the ultimate resolution.

Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels come to mind, as another example of a single story played out over multiple volumes. This Klein series numbers only about than half that one’s volumes, and does not involve anything like the historic reconstruction of O’Brien’s work, but it is sufficiently substantial to be, arguably, a similar achievement within its genre.  (Or perhaps there are other mystery series out there with a similar combination of who-done-it and where is it all going and the arc of lives lived out, and I have just not yet encountered them.)

I read the series more or less as they came out, so not knowing if or how the authors would play it out.  Suspect it might be even more rewarding to read them now, knowing where each fits in the overall arc.  Someday, if I have the time…

Entirely satisfying – except in the sense that one is so very sorry to know the series has ended and there will be no more Frieda Klein novels to look forward to.  Not that Nicci French couldn’t write more – there is at least one very large red herring left in this sea on which to hook a sequel – but the reflections voiced through their characters suggest pretty clearly that they have done what they wanted to do here and have moved on. 

 Darn.

A Taste for Death, P. D. James

The so called “Queen of Crime” strikes a chord for Jennifer and I as this page-turner is set in and about London’s Paddington and Holland Park neighborhoods, locales quite familiar and ear to our own hearts.  Aside from that, it is a very capable example of the genre – full of pretentious aristocrats dragging out a lifestyle which mostly died a century ago, struggling wage-slaves navigating the drear of a stagnant British economy and bureaucracy, everyday murders with creepily daft suspects and perpetrators and nearly everyone searching for someone to hold onto, whether sexually or just emotionally.

At 500 pages in paperback, A Taste for Death allows one to escape to James’ world for a satisfyingly-long time, and generally holds the attention well.  Her Adam Dalgliesh is a comfortable mentor to both subordinates and the reader, his character established long ago in other novels, so the heat is more upon Inspector Kate Miskin and Chief Inspector John Massingham to provide somewhere to hang our sympathies.  This we can do, as Kate has satisfying vulnerabilities and baggage, while Massingham plays the cad and insensitive throwback. 

James follows formula to a degree, but throws in twists and turns.  One – a sudden fainting spell of young Darrell – seems arbitrarily concocted to avoid a brutality which might have been too much, but then another – the novel’s final death – is just the opposite; an even-greater brutality which shocks, reminding us there is a price for hanging about with murder and making clear the author’s desire to give us something more than drawing room theater.

James was 66 by this writing (1986) but shows considerable energy and enterprise in both the volume and originality of the work; sufficient to nudge the boundaries of the murder-mystery genre without any risk to her place in its top tier of practitioners.  I’ll be reading more of here when I need a comfortable escape from the truly-murderous present.

(Intriguing note, the author spent decades working in law enforcement and government positions but is also, officially, ‘Baroness James of Holland Park,’ so whether her characters are embodying or lamenting the existence of their nation’s baggage of nobility and class, it seems she is speaking from experience.)

In the Heart of the Sea, the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Nathanial Philbrick

Had my eyes on this historical account for a while, maybe as far back as when it was first published in 1999, but only now got around to it – thank you 2020 lifestyle changes.  Worth the read, as it is informative and mostly captivating, but not as weighty as I’d imagined from the reviews and PR.  The actual Essex story is not enough to fill a volume, so it’s been well-buttressed with digressions on the history of whaling and particularly the island of Nantucket, from which the Essex sailed (and which is also, not coincidentally, the author’s adopted home and professional focus).  Another interesting offshoot is the description of how details of the journey have even come to be known, a dramatic stew of journals, spoken word, interested reporters and long-lost documents re-appearing unexpectedly.   With all that background, the actual shipwreck is a minor event, over almost before it has begun – simply because that is the way it happened. The castaway’s travails take up more space and yet feel a bit mundane – not because they are not epic and dramatic, but perhaps because they and other similar escapes have been absorbed as part of our common history and have thus lost some of their impact. 

The author does a great job finding additional angles to explore, including the racial (black men were relatively welcome to become whalers not so much because their employers were colorblind as because being a whaler was a terrible occupation and few white men would sink so low; did black castaways die first because of how poorly they had been fed and treated prior to the wreck, or due more overt prejudice?), the environmental (whaling grounds became depleted by over-harvesting forcing ships farther out into the unknown sea, with sometimes deadly consequences; and a single whaling crew could devastate the ecology of a small Pacific island in days, undoing nature’s work of centuries), and the role of gender (how Nantucket women found independence and self-definition marrying men who would be away from home for years at a time, return for a couple of months between sailings, and often die while their families were still young).

Despite those points, this is, at its heart, a tale of humans eating other humans’ remains in order to survive, and even killing some of their own to do so.  Philbrick is clear about the moral dilemmas this presents, and especially the effects which surviving such a situation can have on the perpetrators’ psyches, both at the time and in the later years of those lucky enough to survive.  It is perhaps here that the book is most intriguing, as we see how Captain Pollard attempted to pursue his career despite later misfortunes, ending up a beloved failure in his hometown.  The exegeses of others are no less individual and interesting; and remind us once again of the resilience of humans when they have even small support of family, community, faith, or a combination thereof.

In the Heart of the Sea is still worth reading and ruminating upon, even if its story feels narrow and inconsequential at this moment of profound national dangers.

(Note – there is also a 2015 movie based the book, but given the gruesomeness of the castaways’ journey, I’m not sure if I want to see it on the big screen…)

These Truths, Jill Lepore

It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate book for this time (summer 2020 – the lead-up to The Trump Election) and place (anywhere, USA). Lepore employs her awesome knowledge of US history to remind us who we are and enlighten us as to who, what and where we come from. 

This she does with all the drama and detail of an excellent novel, using individuals and their words to illustrate each minute point of disagreement, argument and compromise.  And it is that last which sticks in this reader’s mind; how our constitution and form of government, rather than being the immaculate perfection suggested by those who laud them in defense of their own (usually reactionary) purposes, are and always have been the flawed result of a process that not only pressured, but actually required persons of principle to accept results which complied only partly to their principles.

Another eye -opener is the limited role which rigid principles have played in our history.  Had all the persons alive during the founding refused to compromise on their principles, there would quite simply be no USA.  Perhaps a miscellany of separate states (with some still slave-owning up to the present?), perhaps some component of a prolonged British Empire, or perhaps something even more strange to us – a continent divided horizontally somewhere near the Mason Dixon line into an  enormous Mexico and equally expansive Canada.  This thread illuminates also the role of fundamentalism in elevating disagreements to become fights and, not in- frequently, wars.  Lepore cites many different sorts of fundamentalism – religious, capitalist, democratic, constitutional, etc., considering how they often interrelate and how our current state of technical evolution has enhanced them and so lead us into the legislative paralysis we are currently experiencing.

Another oh-so timely note: without overtly linking herself to the BLM movement or 1619 project, the author’s contention on race is unmissable: that distinctions on the fallacious basis of skin color and the dominance of wealthy property owners over a more-populous slaving/working  class are as intrinsic to our background as is the love of democracy and equality, if not even more so.

No brief description can do this effort justice, just as any less-expansive book would fail to do its subject justice.  Fascinating and depressing, These Truths can also remind us that turmoil such as we are living through today is no stranger to the USA, any more than it is a stranger to all the nations, cultures and civilizations humans have spawned and discarded over the millennia.

All of which places These Truths is very high on the list of most valuable volumes I’ve read in years.

Deacon King Kong, James McBride

The author of The Good Lord Bird and other works takes us on an expedition into Walter Mosley territory – and a rewarding expedition it is. Set in 1969 Brooklyn under the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, it is also a picture of a neighborhood in transition, from the stickball, ring-a-levio and neighborly numbers-games of its elderly characters’ remembered childhoods, to the heroin-fueled entrepreneurialism of insatiably-greedy young drug-lords and mafia wanna-bes.

As in The Good Lord Bird, McBride revels in dialect and anecdote.  The language is casual and unlearned, full of nicknames, asides, put-downs and epithets that would be verboten in contemporary conversation. The characters too, emphasize what a different world it was back then – the oldsters on whom the action centers being uniformly quirky, folksy and stout of heart.  The young and rising who bedevil them are nearly as uniform in their vulgarity, thoughtlessness and despicability. It is telling too, that the one young man who redeems himself does so though the unlikely route of minor league baseball, a throwback ambition if ever there was one.  (Having grown up not too far away from this place and time, though infinitely far from its hardships, I can recall the reverence with which the ‘national pastime’ was held in those days and parts, and the phantom hope it offered, of escape from all that is unholy).

Race is, of course, a (the?) major theme here, how the ‘coloreds’ moved in after the docks died and the Italians moved on to more fertile ground; how blacks and whites existed in separate virtual civilizations veneered upon the same streets.  How Irish cops had been part of the glue holding it all together, till the stakes grew too high (thank you, drug money) and forced everyone to choose a side and hold it with their life.  How irrelevant most of the white man’s world and morality is to those kept down by them, and how, in this telling, a few resilient souls can even manage to bridge the divides and find a better life on their own terms.  (An aging cop, for example, finds happiness with the daughter of an Italian mobster, whose wife years ago ensured the family’s future by purchasing a Bronx bagel shop with the imprisoned goombah’s cash stash, allowing McBride to opine that you don’t need to be Jewish to make a kosher killing in New York.)

Deacon King Kong’s crime-scene of a plot aims for a sort of urban picaresque, with an old drunk named Sportcoat as through-line, humankind’s earliest art object (the Venus of Willendorf) as its MacGuffin and several oddball romances to give it color and warmth.  Despite frequent descents into over-long conversational riffs, there is enough mystery and eventfulness to carry it along, and the eventual resolution is plenty satisfying so long as one does not look to closely.  Goodness triumphs to a far greater degree than the undercurrents have suggested it should, and the characters for whom one has been taught to root end up – for the most part – intact and even improved in their circumstances.

All in all, a joyful love song for a lost culture (if it is to be believed; I am certainly not one who would know) and for the importance of community over easy assumptions, easy money and taking the easy way out. 

(and no, that did not start out as a reference to Mosely’s Easy Rawlins character, but may as well end there…)