Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lions (A Space Dream)

I doubt I'm as much of a stress zombie as Pete these days, but I am busy enough at work that our project there -- which is more or less at that point where it's just rolling waves of go/no-go deadlines, after which I guess either our product goes live or everybody gets fired -- is consuming most of my capacity for nontrivial brain work. Blogging, both here and on the now very slow-running Shostakovich-blog front, suffers; I'm spending some self discipline (i.e. precious brain sugar) on keeping myself fed more or less correctly and walking around a lot, in part because it's a pleasant and mind-quieting way to commute and in part because the work project is a health-'n'-wellness-related effort that, for testing purposes, involves strapping on a pedometer and walking around a lot. Sure, there's a night here and there where Kyle and I just split a liter of red wine and watch a few episodes of 30 Rock in a row, but such is the glue that holds our relationship together; highly necessary. Also there was that extremely enjoyable trip to New York and the Met Opera, where the second act of Nixon in China may have been the best unit of theatrical entertainment I've ever seen on a stage.

At any rate, one other thing I'm finding a bunch of time for is reading, since it decompresses me and (at the level I've been reading at) keeps me engaged without being overly strenuous. Currently I'm near the end of Wendy Lesser's so-far-very-fine critical survey of Shostakovich's string quartets, Music for Silenced Voices; a couple of Sundays ago, being earlier in it and having already spent enough thought on Shostakovich that day for the book to work as a change of pace, Kyle offered to find something lighter for me on her bookshelf and came up with C.J. Cherryh's sci-fi novel, The Pride of Chanur, which fit the bill perfectly and is its own kind of enjoyable read. (It maintains the women-authors pattern, too, although as Kyle pointed out the "C.J." and the superfluous "h" at the end of the surname artfully mask that fact, "Carolyn Cherry" having been deemed unworkable as a science-fiction author name in the 1970s.)

One of the book's real pleasures is its bitchin', early-'80s vintage cover painting:

The cover art is by Michael Whelan (color prints available, as of 1982!) and it may be totally appropriate to judge the book by that. Less superficially, though, the novel strikes a good balance between its lean and fast-enough-moving plot and the details of its speculative world, viewed -- as in all of the sci-fi and fantasy material I've ever liked -- indirectly and incompletely as called for by the story, rather than disgorged in huge exposition dumps.

The story focuses on the chaos-inducing appearance of a single human within a loose trading compact among several other spacefaring alien races, but the most engaging stuff is all in Cherryh's setup of the book's universe. (That's also what's stuck with Kyle; another of the pleasures of reading the book is comparing my own reaction to her impression of it from reading it when she was a teenager.) Her most detailed concept is that of the hani, the central alien race of the book -- the human himself is a side character verging on a MacGuffin -- and one based loosely on the social structure of lions, with the related females of each group doing the productive work while the males challenge each other for the limited positions as heads of a house, or else bide their time on the fringe of society. Some of this serves as a socially critical gender bend -- here it's the powerful but violently competitive males who are considered "useless, too high strung" for useful service -- but much of it just imagines an alternative sociology, in which a gender is marginalized based on perceived volatility rather than perceived weakness and sex differences divide into something other than familiar ideas of masculinity and femininity. Combined with some nice secondary details -- theirs is a relatively medieval society, accelerated into space through contact with another alien species and less unified than most of the other races -- it makes a good piece of social-science fiction.

To me, though, a grabbier element of the book is that some of the alien species are mutually intelligible and some are barely relatable at all. Cherryh's execution of this idea seems slightly preposterous -- she breaks the aliens into groups of oxygen breathers and methane breathers that are socially as well as metabolically similar to each other, an evolutionary notion that I find, unjustifiably, much harder to accept than the existence of clearly mammalian space lions piloting interstellar freighters -- but I like her hints of the more-alien intelligences, one whose thoughts run in parallel chains in a "multipartite brain", and another whose actions and communications remain inexplicable except for a recognizable concept of reciprocation and exchange. It's the high-level idea of it that I like, in part because I like thinking about Language and The Brain in any case, and in part because I've been listening to a bunch of Radiolab episodes on my iPod while doing all my walking, including a show from last summer about how language develops, or not, in the human brain and how it can be lost... It has me musing about what intelligence without language, or without conscious symbolic thought, would look like, and wondering how much science fiction there is out there that adequately works over that notion. (Wondering in that sense where I just type it out loud onto the blog, rather than perform a series of focused Google searches.) Stanislaw Lem's Solaris is the best novel I know of for mapping out the gulf between two forms of intelligence in contact, but Lem's a pessimist about the prospect of any understandable exchange at all, while I'm more interested in, and optimistic about, what could possibly be had in common, based on a largely Wikipedia-based, quasi understanding of convergent evolution and information theory. But it's gotten late since I started this post and my own matrix of distributed, parallel thoughts is threatening to fly apart completely, so I'll bring this rather digressive thing to a close.


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