Book Review

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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!

Book Review

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I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

This is possibly the best known of Asimov’s stories, but the book with this title is, in fact, a series of nine short stories, published individually between 1940 & 1950, plus a fictitious introduction, in a connected thread, and it is also one of five ‘robot’ books written by Asimov; the epithet ‘seminal’ can surely and safely be ascribed to it, in the science fiction genre. Younger readers might initially associate the title with a 2004 film of the same name, directed by Alex Proyas, and starring Will Smith; given that it is a few years since I watched this film, from what I can remember, it bears little resemblance to Asimov’s original: the Wikipedia ‘blurb’ tells us that the original screenplay, Hardwired, was “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short-story collection of the same name.” The underlying message of the film might not be too far removed from the original, however, because Asimov’s portmanteau essentially uses the technology of robotics as a vehicle for psychology, philosophy and, possibly, even morality: how much autonomy can we, should we, give to what are machines or, perhaps, cyborgs; if they have organic content in the form of a positronic brain (a term conceived by Asimov, and now very well known in science fiction); and if we do, how far would we be able to trust them, in view of their likely superiority, both mental & physical?

Of course, AI (Artificial Intelligence: “founded as an academic discipline in 1955”, according to Wikipedia, so very much springing out of, if not necessarily inspired by, Asimov’s thinking) is now a very widely known, if not necessarily understood, concept, and it is used in a plethora of applications, from internet search engines to what are now referred to as ‘smart’ devices; the worry, which some technologists are probably quite happy to dismiss as ‘conspiracy theory’, is that much of the work that AI does goes on unseen, in the background, so it is virtually impossible to monitor its activity and the repercussions for society, especially where privacy & human rights are concerned: perhaps these wider implications weren’t obvious to Asimov when he was writing the stories in the American post-war, white heat of technological development, although it is pretty clear that he was aware of the dangers that intelligent, autonomous robots could present.

These creations, initially of mankind but, before very long, self-reproducing, can be made to be beneficent (probably the best-known example of which is the android Data, from the Star Trek Next Generation series) just as easily as they can be made bellicose, as they would be when (rather than if) the military were allowed to dominate their development: the difference would be governed by the primary programming of the neural net (another name for the positronic brain), and it must be assumed that the military’s killing machines would not be given the fundamental & inescapable guidance of Asimov’s wonderfully precise & concise Three Laws of Robotics, “designed to protect humans from their robotic creations”, hence the clear & present danger which would be obvious to all, including (but expediently ignored by) the military.

The protagonists of these stories are three main characters, the primary one being, to Asimov’s credit, a female ‘robopsychologist’, Dr. Susan Calvin, the other two being engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, who have to deal ‘on the ground’ with different situations involving robots, in the chronological course of the narrative. It is structured in the form of a memoir of a series of interviews with Calvin by an unnamed future version of a journalist (he is only ever referred to by Calvin as “young man”: he is thirty-two), who is acquiring background information on her for his “feature articles for Interplanetary Press”: he already “had her professional ‘vita’ in full detail.” The year is 2062, and over the course of the interviews, Calvin gives the journo her thoughts on both her life, to that point, and sketches in the scenarios involving the main & supporting characters, which are described in the third person, including Calvin herself.

There are many interesting aspects to this series; the first is the obviously, and occasionally, in our terms comically, antiquated manifestation of the future technology as it could be conceived in the late 1940s; another is the way that everybody, across this future society, is quite comfortable with anthropomorphism of robots, primarily derived from their nomenclature: “Dave”, from DV-5; “Cutie”, for the QT series; but the first robot mentioned only has a human name, Robbie, rather prosaically, although ‘he’ cannot vocalise, being “made and sold in 1996. Those were the days before extreme specialization [sic], so he was sold as a nursemaid…” Also, and somewhat depressingly for me, it is taken for granted that capitalism will still be operating in this technological future, but it doesn’t have to be so: there is at least one highly developed ‘alternative’ system, Resource Based Economy, embodied in the work of Jacque Fresco and his collaborators in The Venus Project — it is difficult to pin down exactly when his work would have first achieved some prominence, but he was born in 1916 (died 2018!) and, according to the website, “Fresco’s lifelong project stems from his firsthand experience of the Great Depression, which instilled in him the urge to reevaluate how many of the world’s systems work.”, so it is possible that Asimov was aware of this concept, but whether he chose to ignore it is a moot point.

The impression given by Dr. Calvin’s reminiscences, for all her obvious genius professionally, is that she is distinctly ambivalent about the advisability of humanity’s inexorable & irrevocable reliance upon robots and AI, and her empathy, for all she could come across as occasionally cold & arrogant, is presumably the vehicle by which Asimov conveys his own reservations: any tool, or weapon, has no impetus other than the autonomy which is bestowed upon it, so an inert tool is subject to the use to which a human being might put it, but it appears that Asimov was wanting to warn us of the dangers of opening Pandora’s Box. Thankfully, those concerns are being addressed to some extent, but inevitably, secrecy associated with humanity’s protectionism embodied by global military forces means that it is possible that wider society will have no inkling of how far development of autonomous AI has progressed before it passes the point of no return: perhaps the best we can do is hope and work for peace wherever possible. The paperback edition of the book I read was published by HarperVoyager, London, in 2018, ISBN 978-0-00-827955-4.

Book Review

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White Silence, by Jodi Taylor

This book is described on the back cover as “a twisty supernatural thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.”; I’m not in the habit of reading fiction about the supernatural. I have a compendium of Edgar Allen Poe stories, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, though I don’t know if I would ever be in the mood to read one but, that said, this book is actually a very good read and, whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was literally on the edge of my seat (mostly recumbent, either in bed or on a settee), I did find the early part quite engaging, given that I was genuinely concerned for the main character, Elizabeth Cage. She grew up knowing that she was different: despite being able to look at someone and know things about them they don’t even know themselves, she says “I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I am.” She sees people’s auras which, because she’d never heard the term as a child, she called their colour; we are not told anything about her real parents, but she was adopted as a child, and her adoptive father is very patient with her, telling her with the benefit of age & experience that restraint is always better than just blurting out what she knows about people: “knowing things is all very well and good, but keeping them to yourself is better.” This is also brought home to her when she realises that people who might seem normal to everyone else can appear very threatening to her by the way their colour manifests itself.

After some awkward experiences at school, hence the paternal advice, she learns to become deliberately average, mediocre, so that she doesn’t attract attention. By her early twenties, when she is working for the local council in the records office, a repetitive job she relishes, she has lost both parents, but still lives in their house; after an incident with a public park ‘flasher’, who uses a cute puppy as a distraction for his targets (and she doesn’t initially see him as a threat which, apart from his aberrant behaviour, he isn’t: more of an annoyance), she meets her future husband, Ted, who is then a detective with the local police: he came to tell her that the flasher had been arrested. Ted seems very enamoured of Elizabeth, and seven months later, they marry, and move into Ted’s own house. Before too long in this new idyll, Ted surprises Elizabeth by telling her that he has been offered a job “in the private sector”: head of security at a private clinic “with a high security clearance”, run by a Doctor Sorensen, where “some pretty important people” sometimes stay.

Although Elizabeth is somewhat unsettled by this, she accepts Ted’s assertion that it will be a step up for him, so she doesn’t offer any opposition. Soon she meets the doctor at a summer open day at the clinic, but she is immediately on her guard: “his colour, a weak and weedy thing of insipid blue-white, suddenly flared up – like one of those geysers in a national park – and roared out towards me. Like a tidal wave of dirty milk.” During this first occasion, she also meets a character called Michael Jones, described by Ted as a colleague, but Elizabeth could see that he was “damaged … I suspected he’d suffered a loss, and very recently, too.”

She survives this first encounter, despite hearing a disembodied voice warning her to leave immediately and not come back, but five months later, she is unable to avoid being figuratively dragged by Ted to the clinic’s Christmas party. Despite the effect of Sorensen’s laugh being “rather like broken glass hitting a metal surface”, he behaves “impeccably”. Michael Jones is there again, this time claiming to be a patient, and he is evidently very drunk; so drunk, in fact, that with Elizabeth’s help, Ted decides to sneak him into an upstairs empty room in an area monitored by an employed nurse; this is achieved successfully. Other than that, no incidents occur to worry Elizabeth. Her domestic happiness thereafter was unfortunately short-lived, because soon an incident occurs that changes her world irrevocably. I don’t want to spoil the reader’s enjoyment by revealing any other details, other than that Michael Jones would play a large part in the rest of Elizabeth’s life as described in the book. This book is one of quite a few by this author, several of which appear to deal with the subject of time (always an incentive for me), and they are included in a series called The Chronicles of St Mary’s; some of these are short stories. This one is published in paperback by Accent Press Ltd, Cardiff, 2017, ISBN 978-1-78615-565-8, and if you like books with a supernatural element, I heartily recommend it.