A Time for Traveling, a Time for Seeing

Brashares, Ann. The Here and Now, Random House Delacorte Press, 2014.

No longer the huge fan of science fiction I once was – at least in its traditional forms – and completely uneducated about the “YA” genre, I worried about giving this book a fair treatment. Add to that, the Random House web site classifies this book as “Juvenile Fiction – Girls & Women.”  Luckily, chick flicks generally appeal to me (e.g., “Paradise” or “Le Grand Chemin”), so I braved the waters. Easing this plunge was its setting in the NYC greater metro area, including scenes set at nearby Jones Beach and the Meadowbrook Parkway.

The Here and Now by Ann Brashares

The Here and Now by Ann Brashares

The clever title embraces a common poetic trope (living in the moment, for you neophyte Buddhists), and happily, the plot of The Here and Now had enough momentum and who’s who mystery to keep my attention through the pothole-filled roadbed of teen dialog.

Here is the flavor of the latter. Preena is the book’s teen heroine:

His eyes are serious on mine. “Listen, Prenna. Do you know how long I’ve loved you? Being with you is not going to hurt me. I refuse to believe it.”

But what if –?”

“And you know what the truth is?”

“What?”

“If I could make love to you right now, I wouldn’t mind if I died.”

My eyes are teary, but I can’t help smiling. “Well, I would mind, I really would.”

But interspersed with this forgettable dialog, which usually stops just short of hackneyed, is this:

“They just scroll through these faces again and again. But most of us have a sense of the story behind each face. We understand, without saying so, the overrepresentation of the fragile, the wayward and the incompliant members of our community up there on that screen.”

The juvenile-in-transition narration, captured in passages like these, can be downright enlightened:

“I am amazed by the lushness, the generosity of it, all the things you can eat and plant and pick, the places you can swim. People here act like the great things have already been lost, but they are wrong. They have so much still to lose” (Ch. 3).

“So many mornings I’ve woken with the burden of reassimilating sadness and loss” (Ch 16).

“Lying here like this, I can imagine happiness. Not a kicky, bright kind, but a full almost aching kind, both dark and light. I can see the whole world in this way. I can imagine extending the feeling to other places and parts of the day. I can imagine holding it in my pocket like a liens, and bringing it out so that I can look through it and remember again and again the world that has this feeling in it” (Ch 14).

The Here and Now features a few packaged anomalies and anachronisms – most notably, letter-writing, which surely a more advanced society would have fully dispensed with by, say 2070 or so. The letters are accompanied by an easily anticipated Luddite commentary: “My father loved paper, even from before. . . A paper is an object. An actual thing. It can’t be modified, overwritten, updated, refreshed, hacked or anything else. It is fragile but it’s a snapshot of history . . .”

Prenna and Ethan, the two lead characters, straightforwardly appeal to readers’ weakness for the underdog and the outsider. Both characters are strange, slightly antisocial, but not so strange as to stray far from the small universe of high school; we are not spared decisions about makeup, and the appeal of Tic Tacs and bacon cheeseburgers.

The book’s time travel premise calls for a modest splashing of futurism. Accordingly, it includes “gismos” like iMemory (a record-all device) and the usual dystopian complement of viruses, rising sea levels and food shortages. These are also delivered in predictable, but not terribly heavy-handed fashion. (The novel’s blood plague of 2087 dovetailed nicely with this review’s contemporaneous New York Times story about a virus thawed from the Siberian permafrost.)

The novel’s pleasures come as the time-twisted plot line is unwound, but also as Preena’s narrator-voice rises above the ordinary.

“I look up at the glorious pink moon gazing at herself in the dark water. It makes my heart stir again. It’s not a moon to take aim at; it’s a generous moon with light enough to bathe in.”

“No matter how our hearts break, we bend toward life, don’t we? We bend toward hope” (Ch 26).

“But the thing is, no one really believes in the future. Do they? It’s like believing in your own death. You can’t do it. Nobody can. Not even us, who have seen it all with our eyes” (Ch. 17).

As Preena notes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. So it is with The Here and Now. The discordant language and predictable scenes are present, but the novelist finds a way – here and now – to get it right. What’s right is not where the characters have traveled. It’s what they can see.

Advance complimentary copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

 

 

Two Cultures, Version 1.1

The Posthuman by Rosi Braidotti -bookcover image

The Posthuman by Rosi Braidotti

The theme introduced in C.P. Snow’s prescient The Two Cultures (Canto Classics) was a powerful one that continues to the day. The expectation that The Posthuman would reflect this ongoing process was confirmed.

As Braidotti says early in The Posthuman:

“The crisis of the human and its posthuman fallout has dire consequences for the academic field most closely associated with it — the Humanities. In the neo-liberal social climate of most advanced democracies today, Humanistic studies have been downgraded beyond the `soft’ sciences level, to something like a finishing school for the leisurely classes. Considered more of a personal hobby than a professional research field, I believe that the Humanities are in serious danger of disappearing from the twenty-first century European university curriculum (p. 10).”

This complaint, which is largely apt in this reviewer’s judgment, is repeated often. It appears again in a largely appropriate rant against the current state of university humanities curricula:

“As the professoriate and students’ representative bodies lost their powers of governance to neo-liberal economic logic, the Humanities dispersed their foundational value to become a sort of luxury intellectual consumer good (p. 178).”

The complaint is not overstated, despite the rhetorical tone Braidotti adopts here and elsewhere. The Humanities, especially as reflected in academia, have retreated inward. That retreat sometimes plays out as Luddism, sometimes as indifference to events in the broader technology- and globalization-driven culture, and sometimes as helpless bewilderment – typically manifested as a covert replay of some historical anachronism.

Braidotti is right about this, but, despite presenting scenario after scenario of how the humanities have been marginalized, especially in academia, she comes to an optimistic conclusion that some refocusing of the university community (as Clark Kerr’s “multi-versity”) will save the day (p.184-185). How did she arrive at that conclusion in the era of professional schools, credentials-driven lifelong learning and MOOCs?

As some reviewers have mentioned, the book takes a very different direction from Ray Kurzweil’s rosy view of a science- and technology-enriched future. That by itself is not troubling, though it would been interesting to know her take on Kurzweil’s optimisim — which tries to co-opt or transform humanism into something of his own making.

More problematic is that she doesn’t mention Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point or Vermadsly’s noosphere, even though she introduces the concept of “techno-transcendence” (p. 113) and tries to investigate more contemporary interpretations of subjectivity. Indeed, much of The Posthuman deals with varying threads in the subjectivity ball of yarn — but most of these are themselves “humanistic.” Perhaps Braidotti would have been inspired to kick it up a notch by listening to a few episodes of WNYC’s Radiolab Radiolab: not because there’s great depth there, but because some Radiolab expose fault lines in contemporary views of the biology of consciousness, updated views of memory, the implications of genomic knowledge — and so on.

Braidotti responded to what she has experienced with analysis well worth reading, but one wishes that her experiences had been deeper and more varied — before she began the analysis.

Her reportage on what she calls the “posthuman digital universe” contains occasional references that are difficult to integrate with her version. When she mentions artist Laurie Anderson’s work in the 80′s as identifying itself as “content-providing” rather than art or intellectualism, it’s unclear that Anderson’s work achieved any kind of synthesis (p. 181-182). In other words, Anderson may have been trying to align herself with a different, new persona, but since her work — arguably — did not achieve that synthesis, Braidotti’s point is obscured.

Happily there are 15 pages of references, but, as one often finds in this sort of traditional large form essay writing, many if not most references are to books — which makes it impossible in today’s online world to rapidly check at least more recent primary sources. Readers interested in pursuing this topic in depth could have been aided by hyperlinks and more periodical references. (In searching for additional web resources, it was learned that Wiley is distributing this Polity Press book, but their web site doesn’t offer much more than the usual summary of the book.)

Despite these — Oversights? Blind spots? Irreconcilable perspectives? — the essay did not disappoint, and it belongs in every collection which has a Two Cultures shelf. (That shelf should also contain Huxley’s Literature and Science and F.S.C. Northrop’s Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding.)

Review written for Amazon Vine.  Thanks to Amazon and the publisher for an advance copy.

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